Dirt

Chapter 1

October 1, 2013 – 8:01am

The screeching static of the radio felt oddly calming. It was something that Tommy had never been able to stand before. He'd have been scrolling through channels by now, looking for something clearer, something with less talking and more music. But now, the squelching voice of the announcer felt like a ragged reminder that the world had not yet ended. Not yet.

The number of confirmed deaths has passed two hundred. The Governor has called a state of emergency and mobilized the National Guard to evacuate stranded residents and secure areas overrun by the sick.

There was a ripple of responses from the group of people huddled around the old battery-powered radio. Some sounded disbelieving, others afraid. Someone snorted. Tommy had to catch himself from doing the same as disappointment fell. The message was a recording – playing now for the third day in a row.

Reports of bodies lying in the streets have fueled widespread panic, especially as city centers struggle—

The recorded report was suddenly drowned out by a scream behind Tommy. Those gathered around the radio looked up and towards a middle-aged woman who sat huddled on the ground, cradling the head of a man who lay very still. Two teenage boys stood beside her, mouths open in stunned silence. Their mother's anguished cries cut through the humdrum of moans and quiet sobbing that formed the background noise of the large triage, but those gathered around the radio quickly looked away with expressions of mixed guilt and pain.

Tommy watched the woman a second longer than the rest, but he too dropped his gaze. He could hear the woman pleading for help – with a nearby doctor, with her sons, with the dead man in her lap. Instinct still gnawed at him, pushed at him to go to the poor woman and comfort her, but it was an instinct that was already dying a swift death. This woman's cries for help would eventually fade to anguished sobs and then soon another wretched person would cry out the same as she had. And others would follow.

…warn that it may be some time before vaccination tests yield any results. Citizens are urged instead to undertake their own precautions to avoid infection, including avoiding major population centers…

Tommy felt a mix of anger and desolation roil in the pit of his stomach and he turned away from the group crowded around the radio. The triage unit spread away from him in three directions, a huge series of white canvas tents, portable floodlights, and generators. The grind and whirr of the generators went some way to drowning out the human noise in the place, but the air still thrummed with the sounds of people dying, or wanting to die, or of their loved ones begging them not to. Tommy felt a shiver run down the length of his spine and suppressed the urge to cover his ears.

He weaved around plastic tables stacked with medical bins and stepped out of the path of a pair of orderlies carrying a stretcher covered in a white sheet. People lay on the ground and on cots set up under the open sky. Others leaned against cement barriers and the sides of dusty Honeybuckets. These were the uninjured and uninfected. Many had come with sick or hurt loved ones, but many others simply had nowhere else to go.

Tommy passed them all and entered one of the medical tents. He made his way to the back, where a thin partition separated off four beds set close together. The nearest was occupied by the bulky figure of a man, but thick bandages around his shoulder and torso made him look oddly misshapen.

The lack of color in Joel's face was thrown into sharp relief by his dark hair and beard and by the angry red cuts across his face and the bridge of his nose. Yet when his eyes flicked open at the sound of Tommy's approach, his expression was clear. Haunted, yes, but lucid. He had not been sleeping.

"Well?" he said simply as Tommy drew up a folding metal chair and sat down.

Tommy shook his head. "Same recording. If they're doing anything, they either don't wanna announce it or aren't able to anymore."

Joel closed his eyes again and breathed deep and slow. He lay on his side with his arms crossed, looking like a man determined to shut out the world merely by closing his eyes and clenching his jaw. Tommy glanced down at his hands and swallowed.

"Joel, listen," he said, leaning forward and lowering his voice. "We gotta think about what we're gonna do here." Joel did not reply, nor did he open his eyes. Tommy continued. "This…I mean, more'n more people are comin' in every day. I'm just thinkin' it might be better to clear out to somewhere quieter 'til they get things under control again. Joel?"

Still Joel did not reply. He had been like this since his fever had broken the morning before. Distraught had been Tommy's first thought, but it wasn't even anything so passionate. Disconnected. That was the better word for it. It was as if his brother had checked out and might never return.

Tommy sighed and crossed his arms. He glanced up as several nurses pulled back the partition and wheeled in a woman on a gurney, transferring her to the bed beside Joel's. The woman's breath came in ragged gasps and her eyes were open, wide and sightless as she stared up at the canvas roof above her. It was the same despondency that shown in Joel's eyes.

Outside, someone else cried for help. And once again, no one could give it.


Joel had cried. Tommy had never heard his brother cry before, but Joel had cried as he rocked back and forth holding Sarah. Eventually, his tears had hushed to stifled gasps and his rocking had stilled to a rhythmic nodding, as if he could not bring himself to stop the perpetual motion. And yet he held Sarah until the first light of a new and horrific world crept over the horizon.

He had not even been able to bury her, though he had tried. When they laid her into a small grave dug with only a knife taken from the dead soldier's belt, Joel had gathered up a handful of dirt. He had stood on the edge, looking down. Loose grit trickled out from between his fingers. It bounced across her bloodied shirt and checkered pajama bottoms. I…can't. I'm sorry, Tommy, you gotta…I can't.

So Tommy had buried her and Joel's tears had dried up, replaced by emptiness.


October 1, 2013 – 1:37pm

"I'm just sayin'. Whoever got it first wasn't bit themselves. Couldna been, since then they wouldn't be the first one sick. So how'd they get it, huh?"

Tommy awoke with the words halfway engulfed in a dream. He had been dozing on and off, still sat uncomfortably in the folding metal chair. Joel did not appear to have moved, but Tommy could see the bandages on his chest and shoulder rise and fall slowly. Blinking and yawning, Tommy straightened, looking for the source of the words that had wakened him.

"Mr. Wendell, I've told you already, the government has scientists already working to answer that question."

It was a nurse and an elderly man. The man did not appear to be injured, for he was following the middle-aged woman as she checked the clipboards of several of the beds near to Joel's.

"But y'need to know now, don't you? You're corallin' off those who've been bit, but what if there's folks in here who've got it and ain't been bit? You just got us all in here like cattle. We could be spreadin' it to each other and not even realize!"

The man's voice was rising and the nurse appeared increasingly uncomfortable. She left off inspecting a clipboard to face the man. Her voice lowered to a gentle soothing tone. "Mr. Wendell, please calm down. The secure zone is safe. The army is conducting full medical examinations of everyone who comes in."

The elderly man's eyes widened and his face scrunched angrily. "Y'don't even know what it is! What are you examining? What're you lookin' for? Someone sick could be sittin' right there!" He gestured angrily towards Tommy as an example, whom he had caught watching the exchange. The nurse paled at the man's increasingly loud hysteria, clearly concerned about the number of worried faces now turning to look their way.

Tommy started to rise, but as he did so the partition was jerked back to reveal two soldiers in full body armor. One of them held up a hand towards the elderly man. "Sir, you need t'calm down. There's no need for all this fuss."

"Don't patronize me, son," the man replied, pointing an accusatory finger. "I ain't stupid. Now I'm askin' the lady a question that you army boys didn't wanna answer. And it's a good question that everyone here oughta be askin'. How'd this whole damn thing start, anyway? Huh? Somebody had it first and they didn't get it by bein' bit, so who's t'say there ain't someone in here right now who ain't been bit, but who's sick anyway?"

"Sir, this ain't the place, all right? People are shook up enough as it is. Why don't you just come on outside with us?" The soldiers positioned themselves on either side of the man.

"No, this is important!"

The elderly man shoved at one of the soldiers in a fit of frenzy, but they moved quickly to restrain him. Each soldier took one of his flailing arms and placed a hand on his shoulder, maneuvering him as quickly as they could to exit the crowded tent. They were gone in a matter of seconds, but his hysterical shouting was still audible outside as a nervous silence settled over those still within. The nurse drew a shaky breath and raised her voice so all those within the medical tent could hear.

"Y'all don't worry now. He's just feelin' a little overwhelmed. Everything's fine."

Then she too left.

Tommy sat down again, feeling fairly rattled himself. He leaned forward onto his knees and ran a hand through his hair. Now more than ever, he could feel the weight and strain of the past few days. This place was beginning to feel toxic, like the hopelessness was seeping into his bones.

When he looked up, he saw Joel watching him in silence.

"Hey," Tommy said in surprise, sitting up.

Joel didn't immediately reply, but he looked at Tommy and then out through the pulled back partition to the rest of the medical tent. Finally, he mumbled quietly, "It's a good question."

"What?" Tommy asked, confused.

Joel shifted, grunting as he moved. He looked back at Tommy. "What he said," he answered after a moment, voice rough from disuse.

"Oh," Tommy nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. I'm sure everybody's tryin' to figure out how it started though, the scientists'n all."

Joel shook his head. "No. What he said about how people are gettin' sick. About not bein' bit."

Tommy gave a nod of recognition, but only shrugged after. He wasn't sure what to say, but he also half feared that offering some sort of explanation might cause Joel to stop talking again. This was the most liveliness that Joel had shown since they had arrived at the triage. He had said barely two words together for the past three days.

Joel shifted again, rolling onto his back and rubbing a hand across his eyes as someone began crying outside. "I don't know," he sighed. "Maybe it's somethin' in the food or water. Maybe it's somethin' we're breathin'."

Outside the crying grew louder, but Joel lapsed again into silence. He looked tired. Part of it was the dark shadows under his eyes, but more than that, it was that the skin of his face was slack, like someone too weary to arrange the muscles of his face into any definable expression. Tommy swallowed and leaned forward, eager to keep Joel animated. "So how you feelin'?"

"Fine," he answered abruptly. Yet the tone of his voice reassured Tommy. That quick sort of brush off was terribly reminiscent of the Joel Tommy knew. When his brother turned back to look at him, Tommy noted too how his brows drew together in the way they always did before he sat down to talk business.

"We should go," Joel said quietly. At Tommy's questioning look, he added, "Get outta this place."

To that Tommy nodded, pulling his chair closer to Joel and likewise lowering his voice. "Kinda what I was thinkin'. You that spooked by what that guy said?"

Joel shrugged. "Just…everything. Cause of what he said, cause there'll be others like him. Folks gettin' hysterical." He paused, lowering his voice further and fixing Tommy with a serious look. "And cause eventually someone's gonna ask why they pulled a military-grade slug outta me."

"I explained when we got here," Tommy said, shaking his head. "Told 'em some guy with an assault rifle shot at us, thinkin' we were sick. It's Texas," he added with a snort. "Half the goddamn state's probably got assault rifles."

Joel did not seem reassured. "Maybe. But once things calm down and they start pickin' up the pieces again, someone's gonna start askin' questions. Or someone's gonna find that soldier and wonder who put a bullet in his head."

Tommy felt himself involuntarily suck in a quick breath at Joel's mention of that night. It was only five days ago, but within the safe confines of the triage, Tommy had almost successfully buried the memory. Now the images raced back to him. A gas mask jerking suddenly from the force of a bullet. The smell of gunpowder. Blood strewn across the gravel. All flashed before him in a heartbeat. The memory of Sarah dying left Tommy empty with grief, but those were not the images of that night that most haunted him.

It had happened so quickly and felt so necessary at the time, but what Joel said made sense. As bad as things seemed now, eventually the government would regain some measure of control over this epidemic. And when that happened, there was no guarantee the law would be forgiving of individual actions taken under extraordinary circumstances.

"Okay then," Tommy said. "What do we do?"

"Do you still have my gun?"

Tommy shook his head. "They wouldn't let me into the place with it. Confiscated it at the fence."

Joel made an irritated face and rolled his eyes. With emotions already pricked by memories, Tommy felt his temper abruptly flare at his brother's annoyed expression. "Well what the hell was I supposed to do, Joel? You had a goddamn bullet in you. You were burnin' up with fever. And I'd probably have killed you if I'd tried to take it out."

Joel waved a hand dismissively. "Nevermind. Probably better anyway. They can't tie it back to us now if anyone ever finds that soldier. But Tommy, if we're goin' back out there, we gotta have a gun. Both of us."

"Well what do you want me to do? Steal one?" Tommy asked the question as if it weren't truly an option, but Joel's face was dead serious as he gave a single nod. Tommy sat up in surprise, his brows knitting together.

"If that's what it takes," Joel muttered quietly.

Tommy opened his mouth to reply, but found no words. He made a disbelieving noise and shook his head, his voice sinking to a whisper. "Are you serious?"

"Yes."

"Then are you hearin' yourself? You're talkin' about stealin' from the military."

"Tommy, listen," Joel snapped back. He too was whispering, but there was no mistaking the terse older brother tone in his voice. It usually either ignited their arguments or put an end to them before they could begin. "Look around you. Things are gonna be different for awhile. Right now, we gotta look after ourselves."

Tommy sat back, his shoulders slumping as he sank against the metal back of his chair. He shook his head in continuing disbelief. "Fine," he said finally, with resignation. "Fine. I'll find us somethin'."

At least stealing a few guns was less likely to leave him with nightmares.


October 1, 2013 – 7:12pm

The military transport truck was not being watched. It had pulled into a side street just outside the main triage area and unloaded several crates of food that the soldiers were now distributing to a line of people at the center of the triage. Floodlights lit the area, but outside the triage itself, night had fallen.

Tommy cast a final glance back at the soldiers handing out sandwiches and MREs, then ducked out of the glare of the floodlights. He made straight for the truck, glancing around him to make sure he was not seen. In the darkness outside the triage, no one was watching.

The truck was unlocked, though it made more noise than Tommy was comfortable with when he opened the driver-side door. Inside was dark, no helpful dome light to illuminate the cab. Instead, Tommy had to wait for a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the murky interior. He could make out the battered seats and steering column. Crawling into the cab, he began to feel his way around, checking under and on top of the seats, around the gear stick, and even up on the ceiling.

He found what he was looking for under the passenger seat. There were two handguns: a 9 mm pistol that looked military-issue and a .357 revolver that Tommy suspected had been confiscated or found on the street at some point because a chunk of the handle was missing. Both were loaded, but he found no spare ammunition. These would have to do for now.

Tommy climbed down from the cab and shut the door as quietly as he could manage. No one appeared to have noticed him. As for the two guns, he tucked them into an old gym bag that he had found abandoned behind a line of Honeybuckets. Also inside the bag were a few rolls of gauze, alcohol swabs, medical tape, and a small bottle of antibiotics – all that he had been able to quietly pocket in preparation for Joel's medical needs once they left the triage. Their plan was to leave before dawn the next day. Tommy was uncertain if the military was actually letting anyone leave the safe zone, but they did not intend to find out. They would slip away on their own to avoid the risk of prying questions.

As Tommy neared the floodlights again, however, a cry shattered the evening air. No, not even a cry, for it was not a sound of grief. It was one of panic. Someone was screaming.

He could see those waiting in the food line begin to look around in alarm and the soldiers distributing rations were suddenly grabbing guns and running in the direction of one of the medical tents. Joel's tent. His pulse quickening, Tommy began running after them, boots crunching gravel as he reentered the floodlit triage. Joel's tent felt painfully far away and Tommy found himself pushing and shoving his way through the crowd of people assembled at the center of the triage.

"Move! C'mon people, outta my way!" he yelled as he weaved around bewildered onlookers. There were shouts of panic from some as they tried to get farther away from the commotion. Others were running towards the tent in question, either out of curiosity or hoping to help.

The gunshots rang out just as Tommy reached the mouth of the tent. A quick smattering of automatic rifle fire echoed loudly across the triage, bringing screams of terror from those both within and outside the tent. Tommy fought against a sudden wave of people attempting to flee the tent's interior.

"Joel! Joel!" Tommy's cries were lost amidst the screaming crowd, but he moved to the side of the tent, buffeted by people pushing past him.

The crowd parted for a moment and Tommy caught a glimpse of the scene at the center of the makeshift facility. The body of a woman lay face up, bloody gunshot wounds staining her chest and stomach. Half a dozen soldiers surrounded the dead woman, but several others – a doctor and two people who looked like patients – sat trembling on the ground not far from the corpse. Each appeared to be nursing bloody limbs.

The crowd was thinning some and Tommy could make out pieces of what the soldiers were saying.

"—checked for bites? Who examined her?"

"—said she was unresponsive. If she was infected—"

"—you the only ones she got a hold of?"

"Any family? Anyone she came in with?"

"—wasn't bitten, then how'd she turn?"

"Anyone else who's been unresponsive?"

"—cause a fuckin' panic out there—"

"—additional resources to check everyone else—"

They all seemed to be talking over and across each other, simultaneously grilling the witnesses to the incident and barking orders and information into their radios.

Tommy made a beeline for the back of the tent where Joel's bed was. As he did so, he got a better look at the dead woman and realized with a jolt that he recognized her. It was the woman who had been set up in the bed beside Joel's that very morning. Tommy drew a quick breath and looked away, desperate now to find his brother.

The partition at the rear of the large medical tent had been torn back, presumably by the infected woman or her victims as they fled. Tommy's breath caught in his throat as he saw Joel's bed thrown on its side, but a ripple of relief spread through him just a second later as he caught sight of Joel beneath it, struggling to lift the heavy medical bed off of himself with his unbandaged arm.

"Joel!" Tommy sighed gratefully, immediately bending down to pull the bed off of his brother.

"Tommy," Joel grunted with equal relief. "They shot her?"

Tommy nodded as he took Joel's good hand and started to pull his brother to his feet. "You were right, Joel," he explained quickly but quietly. "She was sick. She wasn't bitten, but she had it."

"I know, goddammit," Joel growled in response. He roughly jerked his bandaged shoulder and Tommy saw where the thick swath of gauze and cloth had been messily torn apart, as if savaged by a wild animal.

"Holy shit," Tommy breathed, eyes widening. "Did she get you? Did she actually bite you?"

"No!"

Tommy shook his head, breathing fast. "We gotta go, Joel. We gotta go. They got others corralled out there who got bit. If they don't believe you, they're gonna put you into the quarantine with the rest of 'em and once they start turnin'—"

"I know!" Joel cut off Tommy's unnerved rambling with a sharp whisper. "You got the guns?" Tommy nodded. "Then c'mon."

Joel dropped to the ground again, kneeling on one knee and pulling up the edge of the canvas tent. Tommy reached out and pulled up more of the tent to allow Joel to awkwardly maneuver under the canvas using only his good arm for support. Then Tommy too dropped to his knees and crawled under.

It was dark on the backside of the tent. It had been set up against the side of one of several brick office buildings that surrounded the square where the triage was located. Tommy could hear a mix of screaming and shouting in the direction of the floodlights. A litany of diesel engines punctuated the sounds of the crowd and Tommy guessed the military was bringing in reinforcements to control the sudden wave of panic spreading through the already tense triage. Joel started moving to find a way around the brick building they were fenced in by.

"Joel, wait," Tommy whispered, swinging the old gym bag off his shoulder. He pulled out the pistol and tossed it to his brother, who caught it with his good hand. "It's loaded. Couldn't see how many rounds."

"You got a flashlight?" Joel said tersely. Tommy could hear him checking the safety on the gun.

"No, I didn't expect to leave 'til mornin'."

"Nevermind. It don't matter." Joel did not shove the gun into his belt, but held it out as if ready to use it. He paused and looked back at Tommy. Even in the darkness, Tommy could feel the intensity of his brother's expression. He was stealing himself for a return to the world outside the safety of the military-guarded triage, a world that had now had three more days to fall apart since last they had seen it. "Are you good?"

Tommy took a breath and nodded. "I'm good."

"Alright. Let's go then."


Hope you enjoyed. :) I anticipate this running in the neighborhood of 10 chapters, but we'll see. Life is pretty busy for me right now, so updates will not be as frequent as I like - please follow the story if you want to be alerted when the next chapter is up. As always, reviews are appreciated!