Disclaimer: Gordon Korman never wrote a zombie story. (But if he did, I like to think it might have gone a bit like this.)
Notes: This was written for the Yuletide 2008 challenge. My recipient didn't give me much to go on, so this is what we ended up with. The lesson is that if I'm left to my own devices, you get slash and zombies. Who knew?
Slight hints of Bruno/Boots. Very subtexty. It's there if you want it to be.
Gordon Korman Never Wrote a Zombie Story (And Now We Know Why)
Boots O'Neal, MacDonald Hall, 11:36 PM
Boots got out of the city ahead of the chaos only because Elmer Drimsdale broke national security.
His cell phone rang late at night and Boots ignored it in favor of rolling over and going back to sleep. But it rang a second time and a third, and by then Boots thought it was probably an emergency. Someone was hurt or sick or dead. Or Bruno was very, very drunk.
He staggered to the dresser, still mostly asleep, and answered the phone a second before it went to voice mail. "Hello?"
"Elmer?" Boots scrubbed a hand across his face and glanced at the clock. Almost midnight. "What's up?"
"You need to get out of the city," Elmer told him. "Pack light and go. Don't stop for anything, no matter how bad it looks. The city's going to be a deathtrap soon. Get to the Hall. I've arranged for supplies to be sent there, as much as I could without being caught."
Boots shook his head. "Okay, what?"
"Boots, go." With that somewhat cryptic, if forceful, declaration, Elmer hung up.
He stood in the dark for a minute, staring at his phone. Elmer was definitely the smartest guy in Boots' life, and one of the most stable, though he did occasionally get carried away. If he said something was happening, he could usually be trusted - except for the time with the hot air balloon and the aliens but that had mostly been a one-time thing. But a midnight call to flee the city? Deathtraps?
"I have exams this week," he said out loud, the first thing that came to mind. But exams, when stacked up against deathtraps, suddenly became far less pressing.
Boots scrubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed. "If I flunk out of med school for you, Elmer," he said through his teeth.
He turned on the television, flipping through late night talk shows until he hit a 24 hour American news network. No one seemed unduly upset, from what he could see. There was plenty going wrong in the world, but none of it seemed to be going wrong near him. At least, nothing that would get Elmer worked up like that.
He flipped his cellphone open, intending to call Elmer back and find out what, exactly, he thought he was on about, when one of the cameras cut suddenly to a female reporter standing on a highway full of cars. "The Canadian government has just closed the border," the reporter announced, brushing her bangs out of her eyes, "with no explanation. The longest undefended border in the world is now closed to all traffic, and as you can see behind me-" the camera cut away to zoom in on a line of uniformed soldiers some distance behind her, "-Canadian military forces are positioned to defend the border with force if necessary. Attempts to contact the Canadian government for comment have been unsuccessful so far, and the US border guards here have no idea what has prompted our allies to take this drastic step."
Boots hit the mute button and dialed Elmer. The phone rang twice, each time with the little upward chime at the end that meant the line was already in use and he was going to be sent to voice mail. He swore and was about to hang up when Elmer picked up. "I can't talk," his friend said. His voice was tight and he sounded out of breath. "Have you left the city yet?"
"The border," Boots said. "Are they keeping them out, or keeping us in?"
A heartbeat's hesitation was enough to let him know that Elmer wasn't overreacting, or pulling a Bruno-esque prank. "It doesn't matter anymore," Elmer finally said, his breath whooshing out of him like a leaking balloon. "The chance to contain it is past, assuming there ever was one. Boots, get out of the city. I'll try to join you at the Hall as soon as I can. Call the others if you can, but go."
He hung up.
Boots turned up the volume on the television so he could hear it from the bedroom - the neighbors could complain all they wanted in the morning, assuming Elmer was wrong - and dressed. Jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved t-shirt. He grabbed his backpack and dumped his books and notebooks out on the bed. Be practical, he told himself. Think. You're going away for a few days. What do you need? He packed a change of clothes, an extra pair of sneakers. They had a half-assed first aid kit under the bathroom sink; he grabbed that and the two police-issue LED flashlights Cathy had given them as a housewarming gift. Neither of them owned anything like a weapon, but Bruno had a high-end pocketknife. Boots hesitated for a second before he shoved it into his pocket where he could reach it easily enough. He jammed his cellphone in his other pocket and grabbed his wallet from the dresser before shrugging on his coat.
He paused in the living room, looking at the television, where the same reporter was now shouting into her microphone and hundreds of people were rushing the border from both sides. Gunshots sounded, and Boots flinched in his dark living room, even as the reporter and her cameraman threw themselves to the ground.
Deathtrap, he thought with a sudden and cold kind of clarity. You've got thirty seconds, O'Neal. Move it.
They didn't have a car, but Bruno did have a motorcycle. He'd taught Boots how to ride it, much to Cathy's amusement and Boots' vague horror, and he'd made sure Boots had a set of keys. Boots stowed the food in the leather saddlebags Bruno had bought to carry his schoolbooks around in, made sure the backpack was sitting easily on his shoulders, and fastened the helmet he'd bought when it became apparent Bruno wasn't going to cave in to common sense and trade the damn thing for a sedan.
He stopped at the edge of the city at an all-night gas station. He watched the other customers warily watching him, and called his brother. Edward, who was a night owl and an internet addict, answered the phone sounding relieved, and when Boots told him to get out of the city, he didn't argue.
When he tried to call his parents, all he got was a recording telling him all circuits were busy. He got Bruno's voicemail, but Bruno was in New York, celebrating Chris Talbot's first gallery opening, and was probably still out partying. "Call me," he said as he replaced the fuel nozzle and started the engine. "Get somewhere safe."
There were a half dozen ways to get to the Hall from where he was, Highway 48 being the fastest and easiest. Mac Hall was a straight shot along the highway, and there were a dozen little towns along the way. There were less direct routes, ones that didn't rely on a major road, but Boots wasn't as sure of them. He weighed the risks of a crowded highway against getting lost in the middle of whatever it was that was happening, and turned the bike onto the onramp for Highway 48 East.
He tried to get his parents again, once he was out of the city and felt safer stopping for a moment. He tried Bruno and Cathy and Diane, Chris and Mark and Pete Anderson. All circuits were busy. He flipped the phone shut and pressed it against his lips for a minute. He needed to get to a landline and try that way. There was a rest stop, not far down the highway, with rows of payphones. He could stop there, try again to get a hold of everyone. Try to get a hold of someone.
Someone started screaming, high-pitched, panicked yelps, like a frantic dog or a gasping child. There was a divider separating the Highway from a residential community just a few meters away and the cries were coming from almost directly opposite Boots. He remembered what Elmer had told him, about not stopping no matter how bad it seemed
Something else screamed then, hoarse and animal-like, a sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and his heartbeat triple. Not a person, he thought. An animal of some kind. A mountain lion or a wild dog. No way that was a person.
Other voices carried over the divider from the houses he couldn't see; some yelling for help, others calling out for someone to run. He heard crying and shrieks and startled yells, the sound of car engines gunning, doors slamming.
He didn't hear the car approaching until the headlights caught him and he shoved his phone in his pocket as a truck screeched to a stop next to him. A woman was driving, with another in the passenger seat, both of them wearing winter coats over their pajamas. The back of the truck was packed with camping gear and boxes and Boots saw that the woman in the passenger seat was holding a hunting rifle across her lap.
"Are you out of gas?" she called out the window.
"No," he said, surprised at the normalcy of the question while people were screaming for help not five feet away. "No, I heard-"
"Son," the woman said. "You get right back on your bike and you keep going." She started to roll her window back up as her friend started to pull away. "Don't stop!" she called as they pulled away.
More of the animal-like screams were coming over the divider and the cries were becoming more panicked, louder. He could hear it spreading, cries coming from farther and farther away as whatever was happening over there started to spread. He wasn't a cop and all he had was a pocket knife he didn't think he could actually use. There wasn't a damn thing he could do for anyone, even if he could get over the divider.
His stomach turned over and his conscience was screaming at him to do something to help. "God," he said as he hit the gas and tore off.
He reached MacDonald Hall in half the time it should have taken him, mostly because he went as fast as he thought he could without losing control of the bike. There were few cars on the road this far out of the city and the little towns he drove through were mostly dark and silent. Whatever was happening was still spreading. Still only happening in certain places. And in the middle of the night, how many people would be watching the news to know that something was wrong?
It would spread fast enough. By morning, he thought, the whole country would be going crazy.
MacDonald Hall was in a rural area, but Boots thought of the screaming he'd heard over the divider and wished for a fence.
He took the bike past the visitor's building and the faculty building, pulling into the driveway of the Headmaster's house. Mr. Sturgeon drove a silver Cadillac these days. There was a bobble-headed doll in the back window that had to have been Mrs. Sturgeon's idea.
Lights came on in the house and a minute later Mr. Sturgeon was standing on the porch in his bathrobe, staring at Boots through his wire-rimmed glasses.
It was just after one in the morning. Somewhere across the street, Miss Scrimmage started shooting and the girls started screaming.
Cathy Burton, Somewhere in Ontario, 01:14 AM
Thanks to the combined forces of evil that were Mapquest and road construction, Cathy was thoroughly lost.
She was supposed to have picked Susie up at Miss Scrimmage's School hours ago (and even that was several hours later than originally planned thanks to a late start out of the city) but the highway had been under construction and the detour signs had left her completely lost.
Now it was almost one in the morning and she was in a gas station in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, desperately trying to figure out where she was using computer directions and one of the foldout maps that the station sold.
Technically she wasn't even supposed to be there since the station closed at midnight. But the night attendant had taken pity on her when she'd banged her head against the door in frustration at 12:01. "Just stay away from the register area," he'd said cheerfully. "If you get too close I'll have to set off the silent alarm and that means filling out a ten page incident report. Don't do that to me."
GPS, she told herself. From now on she wasn't leaving the house without the damned GPS in the car. She was a federal agent, after all. She had an image to maintain.
Cathy balled the directions up and tossed them toward the trash. "I'm doing this backwards," she said. "I just need to get back to Highway 48. Where the hell am I?"
"Chutney," the attendant guy said. "It's not on that map."
"Chutney! I know where that is." Cathy bent back over the map.
"You do?" The guy sounded surprised. "There are people who live here who don't know where we are. I'm impressed."
"We're not far from the boarding school," Cathy said. "Highway 48 runs right through town." She frowned at the map. "How the heck did I get all the way here without realizing it? That was a hell of a detour."
Someone banged on the door and the attendant waved a hand in their direction. "Closed!" he shouted.
Whoever it was banged again and Cathy glanced up. A man was standing outside, splattered with blood, a huge gash marring the side of his face. "Oh, my god," Cathy said. "Call an ambulance."
"Miss," the attendant said.
Cathy looked up, over the injured man's shoulder and saw dozens of people, injured and bloody, staggering toward them. "Oh, God."
"There must have been a pile up on the highway," the attendant said. "Or, or a fire maybe or-"
"That one doesn't have any arms," Cathy said. "I think they're zombies."
"Really?" the attendant said. "That's your first assumption?"
Cathy pointed at a woman staggering past the gas pumps. Half her face was ripped away.
"Okay," the attendant said. "We're going to say those are zombies."
"You got a back door to this place?" Cathy eyed the parking lot. "We can probably outrun them."
"And get where?" the attendant said. "We're in Chutney. It's not like we can run to the Army or something. Hell, they don't even have a real police station here."
"I'm going to the boarding school," Cathy said. "My sister is there. And a bunch of kids who need to be protected." She carried a Glock in her shoulder holster, but no extra ammunition. She hadn't expected having to fight off an army of the undead. "But first, we need a plan."
"I liked the running plan," the attendant told her. "That plan has really spoken to me."
"Grab some bags," Cathy told him.
An hour later they pulled up in front of Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Young Ladies with a backseat and trunk full of everything the gas station had to offer that could be of practical use. The school itself was in a state of tightly contained pandemonium, which was pretty much how she'd left it the last time she was there. Lights blazed in every window. And Miss Scrimmage could be heard shrieking from the porch.
"Stay here with the girls," Cathy said. "Unpack our supplies. I'm going across the street to warn the boys."
A shotgun blast sent the attendant guy to the floor of the car while a chorus of girly shrieks rang out from the house. "Don't worry about Miss Scrimmage. Her aim's terrible. And my sister replaced all her shells with blanks weeks ago."
She jogged across the street and crossed the soccer field. The dorms were mostly dark, but lights were starting to appear as the yelling and shooting woke the students. Cathy bypassed the dorms and went straight to the headmaster's house.
The house was well-lit and Boots was waiting for her on the porch. He was pale and grim and the most beautiful thing Cathy had ever seen.
He caught her in a bear hug before she could say anything and they stood like that for a long minute.
"Bruno?" she asked.
"He's in New York," Boots told her. "And I can't get him on the phone."
She kissed his cheek. "All right. We need a plan."
A horn sounded, deep and long, startling them both. They looked up as a long train of trucks came down Highway 48. Only the lead truck had headlights on and several of them had men with guns hanging off the sides.
"What the hell?" Cathy asked.
"Elmer Drimsdale," Boots said with a relieved laugh. "And, apparently, half the Canadian army."
Bruno Walton, New York City, 05:00AM
Bruno Walton slept through the end of the world, a statement that would come as no surprise at all to anyone who had known him well.
He was more than a little drunk, which didn't hurt matters any. When he first heard the sirens and the gunshots, he'd sat straight up in bed and glanced around frantically for Miss Scrimmage. He'd been a little disoriented by the unfamiliar hotel room at first, but the complete absence of an older lady with a bouffant hair-do had registered and he'd flopped back down and passed out again.
His cell phone woke him a few hours later. He glared at it viciously with one eye, his face still buried in his pillow. At some point his ringtone had been changed to the Mr. Zucchini jingle and he was trying to remember which of the guys might have had the chance to change it while he wasn't looking last night. Probably any of them, he admitted reluctantly, and reached for the phone.
It was barely five in the morning, according to his phone, and Boots was calling him.
"Do you know what time it is?" he demanded, not bothering to pull his face out of the pillow. "And don't give me anything about the timezones, because I'm pretty sure we're in the same one."
There was noise wherever Boots was, people yelling and talking over one another and Bruno was still half-asleep so it took him a minute to process that the sounds he was hearing weren't the sounds of people on their way to work, or even people on the long end of an awesome party. People were scared where Boots was and there were sirens shrieking in the distance.
"Are you safe?" Boots asked him, out of breath.
"I'm in the hotel," Bruno answered, because that was the only answer he could think of. Was he safe?
Boots never got the chance to say anything else because the line went dead. Bruno sat up in bed and dialed Boots but all he got was the recording that told him all circuits were busy.
He called Boots a dozen more times that day, after Mark and Chris nearly beat down the door of his hotel room and made him watch the news. They listened to the gunshots out in the streets. Then Bruno went to have a word with the hotel manager.
They barricaded themselves in. And they waited.
Bruno kept calling as long as he could keep the cell phone charged. Eventually they lost power and the battery went dead.
Boots never answered.
Diane Grant, Vancouver, Three Days Later
"Mom!" Linnet called. Her oldest daughter was standing on the far side of the attic, peering out through the small round window that provided their only source of daylight. "Mom, I see helicopters!"
Diane set the baby down on the pile of blankets that was serving as a bed for all four of them and joined Linnet and her sister at the window. It was late evening, the sky just going dusky and dark, and she could see the helicopter mostly by the lights. She swept the horizon as much as she could through the tiny window but didn't see any others. Still, even one helicopter was more sign of life than they had seen in days. "Looks like someone out there is still trying to fix things," she said for the girls' benefit. "Maybe soon we'll see some soldiers come, too."
"They can shoot the monsters," Lea said in a quavering voice. Lea had been in the sunroom when the violence erupted in their neighborhood. The infected people had pressed themselves against the glass and tried to claw their way through to her and Lea had hidden under the couch and screamed herself hoarse until Diane had dragged her out of the room and slammed the door shut behind them.
She'd sent the twins up to the attic with their brother, grabbed bags of food and water and the baby's diaper bag, and they'd shut themselves up there only minutes before the floor-to-ceiling windows in the sunroom that had made Diane fall in love with the house finally shattered and the sick swarmed in.
Diane had brought up the twins' little CD player and they'd listened to Hannah Montana and sing-along songs while people screamed outside.
She didn't think about Harold, who had left on a business trip only a couple of hours before Diane realized how bad things were. She'd gotten up to see him off in the taxi and then puttered around making breakfast and doing the laundry while listening to the early morning talk shows. She hadn't paid much attention until the news cut in with a sweating anchor and footage of riots in Toronto and New York.
"I hope they do," Diane finally said to Lea. She didn't think any of the people outside, swarming around the house moaning and screeching up toward them, could be saved. And if Harold was out there somewhere, bloody and crazed... She could hate herself for hoping someone put him out of his suffering.
She moved away from the window, wishing briefly that they had some way to signal the helicopter if it came closer. They had a flashlight, she could try flashing an old fashioned SOS out the window. She very much doubted they would stop, but it would make her feel better just to make sure someone out there knew they were alive. She grabbed the flashlight and Linnet called "Mommy! It's coming!"
She could hear it - the rotating sound of the blades. She hurried back to the window and turned the flashlight on. It was definitely coming their way. If she could signal them somehow... "Move away from the window," she said. "Let me in." She pointed the flashlight out the window and froze as the helicopter slowed to a halt directly over the house.
"Mom," Linnet said. She and Lea clutched at each other.
There was a heavy thud as something hit the roof. And another. A third.
"Get back," Diane said. "Go. Go sit with your brother." She could hear them moving around above her, then a voice called through the wood and shingles.
She jumped back, scooping Danny up and pushing the girls behind her. A motor sounded above them. A chainsaw, she realized. They're cutting through the roof.
"Mooooooom," Lea cried. "Mom the monsters are on the roof."
"Not monsters," Diane said as Danny started to whimper and gulp his protest to the sudden noise. He wasn't crying yet, but he was getting there. "Monsters can't climb. Those are people."
A round section of roof collapsed inward with a thump and a cloud of sawdust. "Stand back," a man's voice called. "Lower any weapons. We are here to evacuate you."
"What does evacuate mean?" Linnet demanded.
"It means rescue," Diane told her as two men in military uniforms dropped through her roof.
"Diane Grant?" One of them, a younger man with shaggy blond hair gestured her to come forward. "Is there anyone else in the house?"
"Just us," Diane told him.
He waved her over and offered a reassuring smile. "Then let's get you out of here."
They fit her into a harness and attached a cable to a hook on her back. They tied Danny to her chest and slowly raised her through the roof.
It wasn't far, from the roof of her house, to the helicopter, but in the time it took them to pull her up, she could see what was left of her neighborhood, and the swarm, meters thick, of infected that surrounded her house. There were other, similar packs, she saw. Surrounding other survivors. Then she was at the helicopter and Cathy Burton, dressed in fatigues with a gun strapped to her hip, reached out to take Danny from her.
"Miss me?" she yelled over the sound of the blades and Diane shrieked and threw her arms around her. "How?" she demanded and Cathy planted a kiss on her forehead and pulled her away from the door.
"GPS," Cathy told her. "In your cell phone. We just followed it here."
One of the other soldiers stepped forward as Linnet was carried up and Diane stared at Boots O'Neal in uniform as he unstrapped her daughter. "I thought you were in Toronto! The whole city burned! I was so afraid you were dead!"
"Elmer Drimsdale," Boots and Cathy chorused.
Diane shook her head and stared at her friends, her children, the soldiers. "What now?" she asked.
"You are going to Miss Scrimmage's," Cathy told her. "We are going to New York."
"We need a plan," Boots said. "And I know a guy who always has one."
Bruno Walton, New York City, Five Days Later
"What do you mean 'Boots and Cathy are on the roof and they want to know if I have a plan'?"
c&c always appreciated