A lifetime and a half of trending topics had ripped through Victor Wake’s Twitter feed, but never this, never #help.
There it sat, brief but alarming — as if it should have pulsed red every second or two, like a lighthouse broadcasting its repetitive warning — on the left side of Victor’s Twitter page. #help was sandwiched between #terriblepickuplines and #middleschoolmemories, with #hatedcelebs and #bitemarks joining the list of hashtags tweeters were using to discuss very specific and largely irrelevant topics at the rate of nine hundred tweets per second.
That last hashtag, #bitemarks, was peculiar too. There were no sexy teenage vampire movies coming out soon, so it wasn’t some mega-corporation’s pricey digital promotion of its shitty flick meant to manufacture interest.
And the #help — that was strange in its almost total absence of specificity. It was so broad, so incredibly general. Even for a social network that, according to people whose job it is to know these things, had forty percent of its content labeled “pointless babble,” this seemed odd, at best.
How could such a catch-all word be among the most hashtagged items on Twitter, the Internet’s jumbled black void of one-hundred-and-forty character comments, screeds, jokes, threats, jabs, declarations, and statistics, all abbreviated beyond recognition and dripping with cynicism? Twitter was where trends were born and died before they could live — #help seemed like it would have a very short life.
Maybe it had something to do with the apocalyptic snow coming down all the way from upstate New York to downstate Virginia. People were calling it Snowmageddon — even the president had used the term. During the day, the sky was an ugly grey blanket. The frozen piles of white stuff wreaked untold havoc on the suburbs of Maryland, a region unprepared for five-foot snowstorms. The snow swirled in great gusts of wind.
Victor felt a tinge of panic, lost in the horror of Snowmageddon from the long window at the front of the Gate’s newsroom while the last vestiges of sunlight were snuffed out behind the trees across the street. He could be here for a while. His blue Ford Focus had been reduced to a hump in the rich white blanket covering the Gate’s parking lot, and the county didn’t plow local roads until the major throughways were salted and wiped clean of slush and ice.
Lola. Victor thought of his girlfriend, who he had left at home that morning, sleeping like a rock in their one-room apartment two miles from the Gate’s office. The owner of the coffee shop where Lola worked had called her before dawn to report that they were closed for the day on account of the epic snow. Victor often thought of the counter at that coffee place – Mocha Bean Café – where he had met Lola three years earlier. They were both students and Victor had been visiting his aunt and uncle in D.C. He met Lola on a Monday morning.
It had been cold and sleeting and somehow, the girl behind the counter smiled like it was seventy-five and cloudless. Victor had tried to impress her with his coffee order that morning, ordering a “mocha fropo” until he took a closer look at the chalkboard menu and saw the drink was called a mocha loco. Victor could only sustain embarrassment for a half a second; Lola’s silky laugh – uninhibited and proud – left him transfixed. They had chatted when her Mocha Bean shift ended at noon.
They stayed in touch when Victor left for campus a day later. They texted and emailed and chatted on Facebook and Gchat. And they tweeted a lot — sometimes twenty tweets a day passing between their digital identities. When Victor graduated, he applied only to jobs in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Nine applications later, he nabbed a staff writer job at The Prince George’s Gate. Victor moved into Lola’s apartment among a row of pawn shops and liquor stores, and was sure he couldn’t be happier. Their online relationship had translated beautifully to real life.
Victor had texted Lola twice in the past hour to tell her how torturous it had been to watch her soft little face sleep soundly as Victor got ready for work. For a girl known for responding to text messages within seconds of their dispatch, it was more than odd that Lola had not responded. Downright off-putting, Victor thought.
He needed a distraction.
Victor hovered his mouse over the #help topic, and just before his index finger could depress the left side of the mouse, his office phone rang.
Victor sighed and picked up.
“Call MSP again, see what they say about 95,” the whining voice on the other end said, sounding like the words were spoken directly through nostrils. “It’s been an hour and a fucking half since our last update. We’ve got to do better.”
There was a click. A dial tone sung in monotone.
Set to autopilot, Victor punched in the number to the Maryland State Police local barracks and waited for Deidra, the station’s public information officer, to pick up. It rang, and rang, and just when Victor was going to hang up, he let it ring three more times. Nothing. Once again.
Victor set the phone in its cradle, fantasizing about the day he’d lose it completely and hammer the phone into his desk until it was broken in half and left nothing but shards of plastic above his squeezing white knuckles. The nasal voice had come from Aaron Dickens, the CEO of The Prince George’s Gate, a weekly paper on the somewhat-rural outskirts of Laurel, Maryland, where cow farms and crowded strip malls were equidistant.
Trapped in weekend duty, Victor was alone in the spacious one-floor Gate headquarters with its head honcho, Dickens, the man who had staged a coup of sorts six months earlier, crowing himself Leader for Life at The Prince George’s Gate. It had been Dickens’ first change that reporters alternate weekends in the newsroom so the paper’s website was updated for the throngs who rush to the Internet for breaking local news like a nine-car pileup on Interstate-95 near the Route 212 exit in Beltsville. Victor had written a blurb about the highway catastrophe ninety minutes earlier, when local TV news had a breaking segment on what the anchor called “highway carnage.” Nothing since from the TV people, nor the state cops. They all fled to their homes while they still could, Victor figured.
Aaron Dickens — Dicks, as the Gate staff so naturally nicknamed him — had taken over the company from his mother, Kyle Dickens, who had started the paper with her own money three decades earlier. Old Mrs. Dickens wasn’t around the newsroom much during her last years as CEO. There had been some sort of accident – Mrs. Dickens had fallen down a mean flight of stairs, Gate staffers whispered around the lunch table. Victor had started at the paper eighteen months earlier, so he had only seen the Gate’s founder a few times, rolling past longtime editors in her wheelchair and introducing herself to twenty-two-year-old journalists who had just graduated from college a week — in some cases — before their first day at the paper Victor was among the crowd willing to work now and work for cheap, a central requirement at The Prince George’s Gate. He had turned twenty-three four days ago.
People loved Mrs. Dickens as much as they loathed her son, Aaron. She was sweet and cordial, and demanded respect. He was sniveling and petty, and bullied feigned others. Mrs. Dickens let her son write a weekly column called “Life Lessons,” in which Dicks chronicled the observations of a white man born into privilege. As Hugh Gross, the Gate’s sports editor, had once said during a lunchtime gripe session, “The guy was born on third and thinks he hit a triple.” Maria Schultz, the head of the photo department, had said, with a mouthful of tuna melt, that Dicks was a “fortunate son.” Kim Jancovich, a longtime copy editor, said of Kyle Dickens’ son, “He’s a dues-paying member of the high-fidelity first class traveling set.”
Probably those were all lyrics from old songs that old people loved, but Victor thought they fit Aaron Dickens perfectly.
Dicks had been given the reins to the Gate six months earlier, on a lovely early July morning that turned ugly in a hurry. People’s coffee hadn’t cooled before Dicks called all thirty-one staff members into the conference room and introduced himself as the Gate’s new CEO. There he stood, wearing a too-big black suit with pinstripes, his sparse hair combed desperately across his balding dome, having missed a few spots on his chalky cheeks with his razor blade, and he looked at the Gate staff with an upturned nose. Aaron Dickens was an asshole. You didn’t need to hear him speak to know that.
“My mother has been deemed unable to carry out her role here at the Gate,” Dicks said with robotic clarity. “I am the paper’s CEO, effective immediately. And I want to welcome you to a new era at The Prince George’s Gate.” Dicks had smiled then — to Victor, it looked so forced, so unnatural, like a pig walking on its hind legs. And that voice — it was the opposite of authoritative. It was weak and strained. But in that weakness lay anger and paranoia, and a warning that insubordination would not be tolerated.
“This new era,” Dicks had said, “will require sacrifice from every one of us. This is certainly not news in the news business. Things are changing rapidly, and I refuse to be left behind. To survive is to adapt, and to struggle against those who would eliminate us. We are going to learn how to cope. We’re going to adjust like so many businesses have done in this difficult economy. Trimming resources doesn’t mean we can’t produce a quality product for our readership. We’re going to do more with less.”
Silence greeted this rally cry. Aaron Dickens’ soldiers were tired from the prospect of extinction – an ever-present guillotine in the 21st Century newsroom.
Hugh Gross, a rosy-cheeked bear of a man whose beer gut almost prohibited him from reaching his keyboard when he edited sports stories from his desk, stood up then and said, “You don’t do more with less.” Hugh’s eyes didn’t waver when they met Dicks’ furious stare. “You do less with less.”
Without flinching, without hardly moving a facial muscle, Dicks said, “You may leave, Mr. Gross. That was my next bit of news. Your position here at the Gate has been eliminated.”
Hugh’s goateed face dropped. He stammered, then stood up as straight as his gigantic belly would allow, and marched out of the Gate’s front door, feigning pride, masking devastation. One of Hugh’s sports reporters had tears shimmering in his eyes.
Hugh Gross was the only Gate employee to be fired face to face. The rest, including two of the paper’s best reporters — Patricia Heddinger and Kevin Webb — entered the rearranged Gate newsroom the next day to find that their desks had been removed, along with their jobs. Fifteen of the paper’s thirty-one positions had been axed by the company’s new CEO. What remained were the lowest-paid, least experienced kids pretending to be adults at Prince George’s County’s paper of record.
Victor had never felt so uncomfortable. He watched as Patricia, Kim Jancovich, and Maria Schultz stood at Aaron Dickens’ office door and pounded and demanded a meeting with Dicks. “Your mother didn’t want this!” Kim screamed as she wiped a streaking tear from her cheek. “You’re a disgrace!”
Aaron Dickens never opened his door. The women hugged each other and left together. Their shoulders slumped in unison. Kevin Webb sat against the wall next to the men’s room. Poor guy looked out of it, like he had just woken from surgery and couldn’t figure out where he was, or how he got there.
Victor had walked to where Kevin Webb sat on the floor and placed a comforting hand on the ex-coworker’s shoulder. Wracking his memory for what people on TV say in times like these, Victor said, “You’re gonna land on your feet. Don’t worry.”
Kevin looked up at Victor like he’d just noticed him there and offered a quizzical look, as if Victor had just spoken Swahili. “No, I’m not,” Kevin said, as if the statement was the most obvious answer to the dumbest question ever asked. “No, I’m not.”
When Dicks had a security guard escort the fired masses from The Prince George’s Gate for the last time, like empty cans tossed after a house party, he had the paper’s two remaining photographers hang a long black case holding a wooden baseball bat on the wall near Dicks’ office door. “This bat was signed by Lou Gehrig,” he told the fifteen remaining staff members. “It’s here for everyone to see – to remind you to swing for the fences,” he said, motioning to the encased bat and smiling at a room of emotionless faces. Again, like a pig on two legs.
“It’s here to remind you that today, you are the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Dicks said, quoting Gehrig’s immortal goodbye to baseball while simultaneously ignoring and offending the five remaining women in the newsroom.
Sleep hadn’t come easily to Victor the night of the newsroom massacre. Lola made no secret of her friskiness that night, and Victor made no secret that he wanted none of it. “But you made it,” Lola had said, playfully grabbing at the band of Victor’s boxer-briefs. With a polite smirk, Victor removed Lola’s hand, rolled over, and pretended to sleep.
He had stared at the ticking digital minutes of the clock on his bedside table and found the name for what nagged at him: Survivor’s Guilt. Making it through the whizzing bullets of Aaron Dickens’ firing squad was pure luck. He had done nothing to survive, and the victims had done nothing to suffer professional execution except for excel at their jobs, value stability, and make a little too much money for Dicks’ liking.
Survivor’s Guilt – it ate away at Victor that long night. He never approached sleep.
Dicks poured gasoline upon and dropped a match on whatever good will he may have had with the Gate leftovers who lived through the company cost-cutting purge when he used his weekly column, “Life Lessons,” to detail the wonders of his new seventy-four foot sailing yacht, which rested on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Gate staff members heard later that Dicks’ boat was named FITFO. It stood for Figure It The Fuck Out.
The bay, Dicks wrote, had been quite choppy lately. The risks of owning a yacht, I’ve been told, Dicks wrote. Working with his brother and cousin to cover the monstrous boat with protective canvas was a true lesson in teamwork. We forget how we’re all in this together sometimes, every one of us every day; my time with family reminded me of this important truth.
The remaining fifteen Gate employees were filled with a fine mixture of murderous rage and amusement. Victor couldn’t blame Dicks: like anyone unburdened by worries of money, he didn’t know the first thing about everyday life. He was unplugged – completely out of touch, like all but the most saintly of bourgeois who feed off the misery of people in the trenches.
An email chain titled, “I hope Aaron Dickens gets cancer and dies” made its way through the office the day Dicks’ yacht column went to print.
It was a dark time.
Victor had felt like half a human during the workday, going through the motions in the fog of sadness for his former colleagues. He bought a mini-bottle of Smirnoff vodka for his desk drawer. Every few weeks, Victor noticed an uptick in the frequency of sips from that tiny bottle of burning clear. When he had told Lola about the anytime happy hour in a tiny bottle, she fretted and said it wasn’t normal. Backpedaling with great haste, Victor had said he was kidding – the thought of alcohol in the middle of the day churned his stomach. Lola smiled, and that was that.
Victor wrote it off as a coping mechanism for a rough stretch.
Trapped in the Gates’ newsroom — deathly silent except for the droning buzz of overhead fluorescents — on a January day that mercilessly vomited snow, Victor hoped Kevin had found a writing gig somewhere. Probably he had. Guy had skills.
The phone rang again.
“I’m looking at our site and I’m seeing nothing new,” Dicks said from behind his office door, which had stayed shut since he came into the office four hours earlier.
“MSP isn’t answering. I emailed too, and Deidra’s usually good about email,” Victor said, withdrawing his phone from his pants pocket again and seeing no message from Lola. “TV hasn’t had anything lately either. And The Washington Post hasn’t said a word about it.”
That was strange.
“Well, this is our chance to finally beat the Post on a goddamn story,” Dicks said. “Keep on it and please call me when you have something worth posting.”
“Will do,” Victor said, hung up the phone and reached for the Smirnoff bottle. He twisted off its cap and drank greedily. He clicked his phone and watched the screen light up to reveal absolutely nothing. Thoughts of Lola produced a mild panic, so Victor sipped again from the Smirnoff.
“Shit,” he said, wincing as the liquid heat moved down his throat.
The only interaction Victor had had with Aaron Dickens before today was on the morning of the first day of the Dicks era. Kyle Dickens’ son went around to every one of his remaining fifteen subjects and shook hands; glad handed, they called it in politics. When he got to Victor, he asked with a friendly smile, “Where are you from?” Because he had skin slightly darker than a white guy with a nice tan, Victor figured Dicks had meant to ask where his parents were from.
“My dad’s from Buffalo,” Victor said, “and my mom was born in Venezuela. She moved here when she was seven.” Victor skipped the part about his mother dying when he was eight, or his subsequent estrangement from his father, an addict of several kinds.
Dicks laughed and mentioned that his sister-in-law was from Chile. “We’ll share a couple Coronas one day after work. Whaddaya say?” Dicks had said of the Mexican beer, play punching Victor’s shoulder.
Victor called Deidra at MSP barracks again. This time, a busy signal. That was a first.
The window across the newsroom, stretching almost the entire length of the front wall, looked suddenly inviting to Victor. He stood up, stretched in dramatic fashion – feeling a touch of the vodka as he did so – and made his way to the window. Snow seemed to be coming down sideways and vertically – both from sky to ground and ground to sky. In Minneapolis or Montreal or Anchorage, Victor figured this would be called Saturday. Here, in the D.C. suburbs, it was the end of the world.
Victor pressed his nose against the partially iced-over window and looked to the one-lane road, Maryland Manor Road, that ran past the Gate’s headquarters, tucked away in the last part of Laurel that hadn’t been seized by condo builders and chain restaurants. The road was invisible thanks to the uniformity of the snow cover. It wasn’t quite full dark, so Victor could see just beyond the unseen road. There sat a black pickup truck, two of its wheels on the snow-covered pavement and two wheels on the dirt and leaves of the wilderness that bordered the roadway. The pickup, with both doors wide open, looked as if it had been parked by someone in a hurry. Its front end stuck out into the road. Footsteps led away from the pickup, but not in the direction of the shopping center a half-mile away. The imprints made a path to the woods.
Victor walked back to his desk and flopped into his chair. The TV, muted near the newsroom’s tiny kitchen, had been playing a movie of the week on the local CBS affiliate. Now the screen was blacker than the sky outside the Gate. Victor didn’t care all that much – he just hoped the Gate’s power stayed on, since the likelihood of a workplace sleepover increased with every falling snowflake.
Back to Twitter, where three hundred million people dispatched three hundred million messages and submitted a billion and a half searches every day: Victor moved his cursor to the curious #help trending topic and clicked it. The page loaded. Tweeps – as Twitter faithful are known – weren’t asking for help with cheese casserole recipes or how to change a tire. They weren’t asking for help with their homework or taxes or their home renovations.
People were begging for help. Their urgency was expressed in hurried misspellings and all caps. The bar across the top, signifying incoming tweets, told Victor that these pleas for #help were hitting the microblogging site at an extraordinary rate: Every five seconds, another twenty #help messages would appear. One update had fifty-five new messages.
But it was the similarities in these tweets that made Victor’s throat too dry to swallow.
MissMallwalker tweeted, Girls have been in bed since bout noon & now they look awake BUT AREN’T QUITE! THEIR EYES WON’T FOCUS THEY JUST BOUNCE BACK & FORTH #help
JBarker999, using the popular Twitter parlance for girlfriend, wrote, Hoping whatever the GF has isn’t catching!! Not feeling so hot…and she sure as shit don’t look any better than she was in the morning! #HELP
A man probably dressed in footie pajamas, probably residing in his mother’s basement, and posing as someone named SexyLexy222, tweeted, the whole fam damily is comin down w/something nasty. Be a miracle from the good lord himself if I avoid it but I’m tryin! Someone #help! Lol.
A tweep named Lax Sarjo wrote, Strangers just wandering around our yard. Won’t respond. Hide ur kids, hide ur wife. #Help
A few tweets below that, someone named Lima, with a bowl of ice cream as their profile picture, wrote, PLEASE ANYONE #HELP. Can’t go anywhere in this SNOW and my mom is pale as a ghost. Been in bed for 24 hrs. Breathing not so great. Tips?
Someone named DeAndre Wyche responded to Lima’s digital plea: @SexyLexy Ur not alone girl. Lunatic bit my cuz when she was shoveling the drive. Need #help 2 get her 2 hospital. Cars can’t go in snow.
Biting. Bite marks. #Bitemarks.
Victor remembered the Twitter trending topic and scanned the left side of his webpage. And there it was, still there among the most discussed goings-on in Twitterland. He scrolled to it, and the click of his mouse was drowned out by the crunch of metal, an explosion of glass, and the screech of rubber on pavement. Before Victor could even look at the new screen with #bitemarks all over it, Aaron Dickens had swung his door open and glared at the office window. Dicks pointed and ran to where the sound had boomed.
“My God,” Dicks whispered before placing a hand over his gaping mouth.
#Bitemarks could wait. Victor sprung from his chair and hustled to the window. An early-nineties minivan with wood-panel sides had smoke pouring out of what used to be its front end after smashing headlong into the cockeyed black pickup truck pulled over halfway on Maryland Manor Road. The pickup’s tires were smashed into the its body. Victor, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder with his boss, squinted through the darkness and saw a round gap on the driver’s side of the minivan, illuminated by the streetlamps lining the northbound lanes of Maryland Manor Road. The smoke obscured most of the van and some of the truck, but behind the truck lay a man who, from Victor’s view, looked to be very large and very still; motionless, in fact. He had been launched clear over the pickup and skidded until his upper body was buried in snow. The man looked to be wearing jeans and no shoes or socks.
“No seatbelt in the hoopty, I guess,” Dicks said through a scoff. He turned to his employee, and it took a physical effort for Victor not to stare at Dicks’ rapidly balding head covered by a comb over of his remaining dyed-black locks. Victor managed a close-mouthed smile and said nothing.
“Truly remarkable though,” Dicks said. “The man flew an unbelievable length. Cleared that entire truck, by a healthy margin too.”
Victor’s throat felt like sandpaper again. The only dead bodies he had ever seen were heavily made up and dressed in their Sunday best lying peacefully in an ornate wooden box, like his mother’s. Staring at the man’s legs sticking out of the otherwise-virgin snow like two shovels made him regret the couple swigs of vodka. Victor’s stomach flopped over. He felt his nostrils take in more air by the second.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” Dicks said, playing managing editor like a child since he had axed the Gates’ rightful managing editor, Jeffrey Jennings. “I’ll report this little situation to the police and you go ahead and report on it. We can finally beat the
Post on something, and get good detail too. This was dumped right on our laps. Let’s take advantage of it.”
“If I’m gonna write a story, I’m gonna have to call the cops anyway, so don’t worry about it,” Victor said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“No,” Dicks said. “You won’t.”
Victor tried to speak, but was no match for Aaron Dickens’ indignation.
“We do enough of that around here,” Dicks said. “We’re going to do some real on-the-scene stuff right here – real war-like coverage. Don’t spare the details. Let’s get this online with all the gory tidbits and see if we can go viral tonight. With any luck, we can.”
Victor looked at the snow barreling down from the sky, covered with clouds even in the dark. His gaze stopped at the man in the snow.
“You want me,” Victor said, meeting his boss’s eyes, which contained the answer to his question, “to go out there?”
Dicks scanned his employee up and down. “I do,” he said.
With the fluorescent lights gleaming off his polished black wingtips, Dicks strode back to his office and left Victor at the window, his gaze alternating between the column of smoke sprouting from the mangled minivan and his Adidas tennis shoes, which he’d unwisely worn to the office that afternoon because his old snow boots had finally bit the bullet and torn at the toes.
Victor donned his black coat, zipped it to his chin and slipped on his fingerless gloves conducive to taking notes and recording conversations in the cold. Victor grabbed his notebook and his miniature electronic recorder and turned for the front door. He stopped and laughed, and felt bad for finding hilarity in morbidity.
Victor placed the recording device on the corner of his desk. The only person to interview was half buried and probably very dead.
Two steps into the thick, wet snow and Victor knew precisely what he’d wish for if there so happened to be a genie’s lamp sitting atop the pile of precipitation: for snow boots, and for one more little chug from the tiny vodka bottle tucked away in his desk drawer. Maybe all he needed was the latter. On an empty stomach, the Smirnoff would go straight to his head and make him forget about the numb tips of his toes on this twelve-degree January night, and about the unmoving man ejected from his minivan like a fighter pilot in a tailspin.
Cities and regions accustomed to the mean left hook of winter’s wrath could be counted lucky for the fluffy dryness of their snowstorms. Here, in Maryland, moisture was a part of most winter blasts, whether in the form of wet snowflakes that fell fast and clumsily from the sky – no grace like their lighter, floating cousins to the north – or sleet or frozen rain. Victor had spent three quarters of his college career at Syracuse University, so he knew what that upstate snow was like. He thought about those god awful but wonderfully fluffy drifts as he trudged through the soaking mounds across The Prince George’s Gate’s parking lot toward a smoking minivan, a twisted pickup truck and a man who left his home barefoot during a record breaking snowstorm and managed to traverse unplowed roads until jamming the front end of his van into the front end of a black truck with its doors open.
There was only one reason to go through with this: after the on-the-spot story of a grisly road death drew a hundred thousand clicks from death-obsessed readers across the metro region, Dicks, in a rare moment of generosity, would give his dedicated peon a raise from the paltry twenty-eight thousand dollars Victor had made since entering the workforce eighteen months ago. Victor’s sister, a server at Great Star Steak Sizzlery, made more annually. Joanna Wake was a junior in high school, and seventeen years old. She wore a cowboy hat to work.
Yes, Victor thought as he crossed Maryland Manor Road, the man who just trimmed seventy percent of the paper’s payroll has pay raises on his mind.
The smoke flowing out of the minivan’s crushed engine block hadn’t relented, and even the little bit that wafted to the other side of Maryland Manor Road stung Victor’s eyes. He tasted the smoke in the back of his throat too. It all seemed tolerable until he was upon the accident and the storm’s wind shifted from east to west down Maryland Manor to north and south, toward the Gate building. Turning away from the smoke racing for his face, Victor saw the dark outline of Aaron Dickens at the Gate’s front window. His hands were nestled in his pockets. Dicks looked warm and cozy, and it was clear to Victor that his boss was enjoying the scene.
The sight of Dicks sparked something in Victor. He would’ve walked away, out of this end-of-days wintertime battering, but now he was determined. Write down a few details and get this piece of shit story online, he thought. Victor turned and shielded his eyes from the smoke, which hadn’t relented. He spotted two trickles of blood from the gash in the minivan’s windshield. A fuzzy brown teddy bear dangled from the rearview mirror. There was a shattered GPS lying on the dashboard. Keys hung from the ignition of both vehicle.
From the pickup came soft classical music, what sounded to Victor like violin.
These details would be the backbone of the story that was sure to catch fire once made digital.
Now for the body.
Victor high stepped through the knee-high slushy snow with more ease now because feeling from his heels to his toes were gone. That shift in the wind was now blowing the smoke toward the half-buried body. Approaching the deceased from the minivan’s front end, Victor couldn’t see much beyond the pickup truck. He stepped and stepped and stepped again until he was past the truck and its melodic classical tones.
And there sat a hole in the snow.
Victor swung around and faced more smoke. He took his arm away from his eyes, scanning the road for whoever it was who survived a twenty-foot slingshot out of his van’s driver’s seat. Hot smoke covered Victor’s eyes and seeped into his throat again and he coughed heavily. His eyes flushed out the smoke with a gush of tears and he stumbled into the snow, face first. The cold stung his cheeks. Victor reached for his notebook, which was now soaked and smeared with blue ink. His eyes still watered after two swipes with his coat sleeve. Victor found his footing and turned toward the Gate building just in time to see Dicks waving frantically and pointing at something in the smoke.
The fat man stood there. His forehead and left cheek were sliced wide open and gushing pumps of blood, presumably from his high-speed meeting with the van’s windshield, and his left arm hung limp, appearing to be dislocated and very much broken in at least one place, just below the elbow. A river of deep red blood ran down his neck and soaked his T-shirt. Blood that was almost black ran from the corners of his mouth – a mouth twisted into a perverse smile.
Victor made fleeting contact with the one eye the man had in his head; it was a nauseating green, almost glowing in the dark. Where his right eye had been was now stuffed with wet snow. The man was gigantic – at least six foot four with a water tower of an upper body teetering on chicken legs. His breathing was steady but seething.
What was probably ten seconds felt like six hours as Victor stared at the big, fat miracle before him. In the quiet night, Victor heard the Gate’s door open. He turned to see Aaron Dickens poke his head out of the front door and scream, “Talk to him!”
The words echoed in the night.
Snow crunched from behind Victor, and he whipped around to see the fat man’s one green eye tell him everything he needed to know. Victor was up and high stepping through the snow before the reaction even registered.
Running like I stole something, Victor thought. The green-eyed giant’s footsteps tracked closer with every lunge through the Gate’s parking lot. Running like my life depended on it. The look on Dicks’ face at the glass front door said that it did.
The big man grunted with every step through the blizzard’s moist remnants. Victor thought he felt the hot breath of the uncannily speedy fat man. He braced for what was next. Then he heard a thud. Victor glanced back and saw the man face down in the snow. He hoped the leviathan had dropped dead. Maybe his body had reacted like the lower half of a chicken once it’s been decapitated. Possibly his outburst had been nothing but shocked and reeling nerve ending firing their last impulses to his concussed-and-caved-in brain. The sparks had fizzled out and the disfigured man with a single mud-green eye was finally dead.
Gasping for breath in the frozen air, Victor made his last steps to the Gate’s front door and fell inside, on his back. He was exhausted. His legs were numb. His hands tingled. His throat burned, his cheeks stung, and his eyes were still watering. A look of absolute fear faded from Aaron Dickens’ slack face and his eyes lit up. He bent down on one knee and grabbed the sides of Victor’s face.
“C’mon,” he said with an excited voice crack, vintage puberty. “Let’s get this online. We’re gonna blow the fucking doors off this!”
Victor vaulted to his feet when a bang echoed from the front door. The tiny sounds of slowly but steadily cracking glass were next. The fat man was alive. And he wanted in.
The door exploded into ten million pieces on the man’s third attempt. He fell into the shattered glass as a gust of bitter air swept over Victor and Dicks. Glass shards stuck to the sticky rivulets of half-dried blood on the man’s face.
Victor couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. It’d been the smoke, maybe. Or the horrific injuries. The missing eye, the blood-covered face – something had thrown him off. But now it was clear. It was terribly, terribly clear: The big fat man who had died but not really died in a car crash on Maryland Manor Road, chased Victor through the parking lot, and smashed the office’s front door was Hugh Gross.
It was Hugh Gross.
Victor and Dicks scrambled into the newsroom while the beached bloody whale of a dead man rolled around in the shattered glass of the broken door in a scene that would have been side-splittingly hilarious if it wasn’t the most grotesque thing Victor had ever seen.
Victor made a run for it on his numb feet and followed Dicks, who, in his sheer terror, displayed impressive speed. Boss and employee sprinted to Dicks’ private office until Victor was met with the business side of Aaron Dickens’ door. The sound of the door slamming startled Victor as much as the act itself.
A click came next. Dicks had locked his door.
Victor thumped the door with a closed fist. Then he twisted the handle despite the pain in his frozen digits. The stinging in his fingertips hardly registered. He felt panic overrunning him and screamed, “Mr. Dickens! Open the fucking door!”
“Sorry,” Dicks said, and actually sounded apologetic. “I am a man who does not exist for others.” He sounded quiet, withdrawn and muffled through the closed door, like he didn’t want to say it, but he had to.
No answer. “Please!” Victor cried. The horror in his voice scared him. It sounded like someone else had yelled. “I’m begging you, please. There’s nowhere else to go!”
It was true. Dicks’ was the lone private office. There was the doorless kitchen, the doorless photographers’ office, and the doorless supply closet.
The bathrooms. They had doors.
Victor turned and ran as fast as his trembling legs would take him. His shoes fell lightly on the newsroom’s carpet, and he made sure to run on his toes so the thing that was once Hugh Gross, Gate sports editor, didn’t hear him flee. Three steps from the bathroom, Victor heard the unmistakable crunch of feet on broken glass.
Hugh Gross had teetered and tottered until he was upright. Victor dove behind the nearest desk and got into the fetal position. His hands slapped over his mouth so Hugh Gross’s walking corpse wouldn’t hear his heaving breaths. Victor’s heart beat like a drum roll.
From under the desk and behind a rolling office chair, Victor peeked to the front of the newsroom to see Hugh Gross scan the place for his prey. Hugh grunted with seeming frustration and began his awkward gate into the silent room, which got colder with every passing minute. The January wind blew in on a steady stream through where the front door once was.
Victor’s pocket buzzed. He jammed his hand into his pocket and clicked the side volume button that silenced the vibration and slowly slid the phone out of his jeans, treating the device like a volatile homemade bomb buried in a Middle Eastern battlefield. Finally, it was Lola. She was safe – she had to be. Probably she had dropped her phone in the snow. It was finally fixed and she was checking her glut of missed texts.
The phone screen read, “Grab a laptop and get this story up NOW,” and someone with a 301 area code had sent it. That someone could only have one name: Dicks. With a maniac whose reanimated body had pulled itself out of death – and out of a healthy pile of snow – roaming the newsroom and meaning harm to anyone he could get his hands on, with this very thing happening in God-knows-how-many living rooms and hotels and shopping malls and city streets across the county, state, country, or world, Aaron Dickens was primarily focused on getting a Prince George’s Gate news blurb to go viral on the Internet.
Victor wanted to write back something succinct – something like “Fuck you” or “Go fuck yourself.” Something to the point. Instead, he gently slid the laptop off the desk in front of him, brought it to the floor, and turned it on.
Just then, as the old PC clicked and buzzed while it booted up, Hugh tilted his head back and let go a gurgled scream that sent a spatter of thick red globs of blood out of his mouth and onto the carpet. He looked from wall to wall again, then did something so heartbreaking it momentarily tempered Victor’s terror: Hugh limped to where his sports desk had been, next to his two faithful sports reporters, Jalen and Taren, and the south county copy editor, Kim Jancovich. The desks had been rearranged, but there Hugh stood, right next to where he had spent unknown thousands of hours, and reached out his broken left arm and held his hand over what used to be his. His arm hung there limply, split under the elbow and looking unlike any arm Victor had ever seen.
Hugh’s arm flopped to his side and without warning, he galloped to Aaron Dickens’ closed office door and slammed into it shoulder first like a linebacker looking to behead an unsuspecting receiver braving the middle of the field. The door sounded like it buckled, but didn’t give. Hugh hit it again. Victor was mesmerized by the sound of the bending and breaking wood and the pitiful whining screams emanating from inside Dicks’ office. Hugh grunted with effort.
Victor heard himself whisper, “C’mon Hugh.”
He covered his mouth again, not believing the words that had come so naturally.
Hugh, after a dozen lunges into the wooden door, slumped to his knees and fell over. His back rose and fell with deep breaths. Hugh Gross was out of gas.
Victor looked out of the Gate’s front window and saw more footsteps dotting the lily white parking lot than he and Hugh Gross could have made. There were so many, some blending into each other, making some semblance of a line toward the Gate office building. How had Victor not heard anyone?
The question was interrupted by that all-too-familiar sound of crunching glass underfoot. Not just a few steps this time – many. Victor craned his neck around the chair that provided his cover and saw eight, maybe ten people filing through the gap where Hugh had made his clumsy entrance into The Prince George’s Gate.
These people walked steadily, without Hugh’s limp, and without his monstrous injuries. The group walked until they saw Hugh Gross lying on the floor, seemingly near death for the third time in twenty minutes.
He couldn’t believe it, but the proof was forty feet away, and it was scanning the office with cold efficiency. There stood Maria Schultz in a pale pink nightie that barely covered her ass cheeks, Patricia Heddinger, wearing workout clothes – black spandex pants and a dark blue sports bra – and Kim Jancovich, wearing a bathrobe with her blond bob haircut dripping wet. They were among six others who Victor couldn’t place. There was a naked old man and two young guys wearing overalls and straw hats. Next to them were two little girls wearing black shorts and yellow basketball uniforms, standing side by side with a uniformed Prince George’s County police officer.
Victor wanted to jump to his feet and scream hello and thank you and thank God, to offer a hug and a how-ya-doin’ to his former coworkers who had left this place broken and crying. But their eyes told him not to, they were the same sick green as Hugh Gross’s eyes. Whatever made Hugh live and want to kill also made his one remaining eye green. Victor figured that was a safe assumption.
The motley group of green-eyed visitors meandered around the front of the newsroom. The old man stepped on poor Hugh Gross and fell down. Victor heard the crack of a bone, but the nude octogenarian was back on his feet a few seconds later, wandering with the rest of his crew. Broken hip or not, the geezer wasn’t showing signs of pain, or even discomfort.
Victor turned to the laptop lying next to him on the floor, launched the machine’s Internet browser, logged onto Twitter and saw that #help needed no subsection. Everyone wanted #help – from the national wire services he followed on Twitter to the myriad fantasy sports experts to the foul-mouthed comedians he loved to see in his feed. #Help seemed a universal truth on this public miniature diary.
#Bitemarks was everywhere too. So was a new one: #virus.
The Centers for Disease Control, like companies that paid to be atop some Twitter searches – flower companies appearing in Valentine’s Day searches came to mind – had the first tweet on Victor’s page. Victor hadn’t willingly followed the CDC on Twitter (who would?), but there it was, using more than a hundred and forty characters, as the president had done a year earlier when he answered tweeps from the Oval Office.
CDCgov Fast acting #virus spreading thru MD/VA/DC. Leave those who are sick. Don’t touch victims. Virus produces extreme aggression, victims immune to pain/injury, will try to bite others if close enough. Victims stop attack if identified by name in most cases. Call name clearly and loudly. Do not linger. Proceed with caution.
Twenty or thirty people on Victor Wake’s Twitter feed had retweeted the federal government’s warning. This meant there were thousands of people like Victor – uninfected and petrified – screaming the names of one-time people like Hugh Gross. It was a nice thought, stunning these people-monsters with a single word over and over, but if the feds were wrong – if saying their names only grabbed the wanderers’ attention and didn’t “stop attack,” as the CDC said – Victor would be cornered by Kim Jancovich, Patricia Heddinger, Maria Schultz, and gang. Victor sat contentedly behind the desk and watched the former Gates employees examine the framed newspapers from news days that would live immemorial, like the day three Prince George’s County council members were sent to prison for money laundering, the election of a Maryland governor from Prince George’s, and 9/11. Kim, Maria, and Patricia touched the framed papers clumsily. They appeared to have little control over their fine motor skills.
Victor looked back to his computer screen and scrolled down, passing a handful of tweets with indeterminable letters, numbers, and punctuations, as if someone had just slammed their hands on a keyboard until a hundred and forty characters were punched in.
He stopped at a tweet from a guy named Jacob Rapuano, who Victor had played with on intramural basketball teams at Syracuse.
Jacob wrote, God hasn’t condemned the sick. He’s damned those w/o the virus, who r in this cursed world w/ loved ones turned 2 beasts & brutes & fiends.
Victor thought of Lola, felt his stomach tighten, and went to her Twitter page. No updates since the night before, just before midnight. The thought of sweet Lola, with her freshly cut jet-black hair and her mocha skin, a smooth light brown, sleeping soundly in bed that morning while Victor admired her from the doorway, gave him ten thousand reasons to stay put, stay quiet, stay alive. Hopelessness was wearing on Victor, more and more every minute as he scanned tweet after tweet filled with dread and fear, some even begging for death’s embrace. Victor understood in this moment. Wrapping his lips around the oily end of a gun and pulling the trigger would’ve been easy right now, with death roaming around the Gate newsroom and the prospect of Lola’s light brown eyes having turned the green of sewer muck. If eating a bullet and becoming what Hugh Gross had become were the last remaining options for the uninfected, Victor had no doubt he could get used to the taste of lead.
He’d do anything if it meant never seeing Lola in this ungodly state.
Hopelessness, thankfully, was still subject to interruption. Victor’s attention was ripped away from the laptop screen when the body once called Hugh Gross grunted and sat up. The others seemed startled, and the old man fell over again, this time cracking his head against the corner of a desk. Again, he got to his feet. Blood seeped out of a deep cut near the nape of his neck.
Hugh’s gigantic stomach convulsed and he vomited a stream of green chunks the same color as his eyes. It dripped off of him onto the carpet, splattering with a sick squishing sound. Even from across the office, Victor smelled the rot and had to cover his mouth and shut his eyes to summon the concentration it took not to follow Hugh’s lead and yak all over the place.
Hugh’s former coworkers, Kim and Maria and Patricia, stood away from the big man. They were crouched in a ready position, their hands open and facing Hugh as he lifted himself off the floor. They were wary of Hugh.
Until he started banging on Aaron Dickens’ door again. He didn’t throw himself into the door this time – he reared back and smashed his pudgy right fist into the same spot once, and again, and over and over until the wood split. Another fist smash broke the piece and Hugh’s arm was inside of Dicks’ office. Victor half expected Hugh to poke his head through the splintered door and shout in lunatic theatrics,
But he didn’t. Hugh Gross probably had seen that movie and known that line. But Hugh Gross no longer inhabited the broken body waling on the office door of Aaron Dickens.
Victor could hear the fat man gasping for air as he pounded the door. Even dead, Hugh Gross was out of shape. But he hit and hit until he broke another piece of the door. The rest of the green-eyed wonders got a whiff of whatever Hugh Gross smelled, because as soon as that second part of the door fell off, they were upon the defaced door, tearing at it, banging on it, trying to crawl through the openings. Maria Schultz let out a scream as she ripped a piece of the door from near the knob. She raised the piece to her mouth and chomped on it. The wood wasn’t as scrumptious as it appeared, however; Maria spat it to the floor and rejoined the melee at Dicks’ door.
That’s when the door swung open and the scrawny man in the business suit threw himself through the clamoring crowd. Dicks’ shrill scream sent the group scattering, except for Hugh Gross, who stood there, seemingly stunned by the results of his hunt. It was clear Dicks had a plan. Men like Dicks always had a plan.
In two strides, he was at the wall where Maria and Kim had admired the framed Gates copies from yesteryear. Dicks had no interest in reminiscing, however. His interest was the wooden bat with Lou Gehrig’s signature scrawled across the barrel. In an instant, the case was smashed against the floor and Dicks ripped the bat from its home.
Victor heard the rubbing sound of Dicks’ clenching, shaking hands on the bat as he spun around to face the old naked man and the Prince George’s cop, and turned to confront the little girls whose basketball game had been interrupted by an End Times virus. Finally, he raised the baseball collector’s Holy Grail over his shoulder and looked at Kim, Maria, Patricia, and Hugh Gross, all together at the entrance of Dicks’ office. Hugh snarled. The rest seemed confused by the man in the suit with murderous intentions.
With a jab at the ice-cold air that had filled the newsroom, Dicks sent three of the four fired Gates staffers into a tizzy. They moaned and crept backward in a semi-crouched position that struck Victor as animalistic. Dicks swung the bat again. “Back!” he bellowed.
Victor thought he heard Kim Jancovich hiss. A moment later, Patricia, with dried blood on her chin, confirmed it. The women hissed almost in unison, and their eyes seemed to brighten the more Dicks threatened them with his souvenir weapon.
“Fuck you people,” Dicks said, now backing away from the crouched group. “Don’t think I won’t kill you.”
It seemed an empty threat, or at least a meaningless one.
Victor thought of the CDC’s Twitter post – the one encouraging those still in their right minds to simply identify the infected, to call them by name. Probably it reminded them of who they were – or are – and forced them to, just for a second or two, abandon their bloodlust. Victor continued to tell himself that taking the federal government’s advice would expose him and make him the newest target of the nine undead people across the room. But if it had been Lola – and not Aaron Dickens – wielding a baseball bat and looking for an escape route, Victor would’ve happily screamed the names of Hugh and Patricia and Maria and Kim. Hell, he would’ve created a diversion even if eggheads at the CDC hadn’t sent their tweet to the terrified crumbling world. But for Dicks, no way.
Hugh Gross wasn’t crouched like the women were. He looked unafraid while Dicks backed away one step at a time, never peeling his eyes from the blood-drenched obese man who used to double and triple check high school baseball box scores for a living. It took a couple strides, but before Victor could even register what was happening, Hugh Gross was running at his former boss. A screeching siren came from the fat man’s gaping mouth as he charged. The women’s hissing grew louder.
Hugh threw himself at Dicks, and in an unexpected display of agility and reflexes surely brought on by a full tank of adrenaline, Dicks sidestepped with a jump. In the same fluid motion, he swung the Lou Gehrig bat in a smooth arch, from shoulder to shoulder. In the middle of that silky, violent swing, the bat connected with Hugh Gross’s forehead, and the screech was silenced like a mute button had been pressed.
Hugh’s limp body skidded to a stop on the carpeted floor. It left a long, thick stream of blood – that blackish blood that had seeped from his gashes when he towered over Victor at the scene of his first death. Victor gagged and looked away when Hugh’s body twitched.
“Fucker,” Dicks said through deep breaths, barely audible. The others had stopped hissing. They moaned now, deep and full of melancholy. Whatever inclination Victor had for calling out the names of the infected and creating an escape route for him and Dicks had vanished. Victor sympathized for the vanquished monster lying at Dicks’ feet.
And he found himself more excited than frightened when Hugh’s body stopped twitching, and a big chubby hand clenched Dicks’ ankle and pulled. Dicks, his legs taken out from under him, fell to the floor. Hugh, in one motion, raised his head – which no longer resembled a traditional human head with one half of his forehead caved in, the grayish pink of his brain exposed – and chomped into Dicks’ lower leg.
Aaron Dickens howled. His mouth opened unnaturally wide. The gush of Hugh’s bite into Dicks’ leg made Victor gag again. And again, he turned away and hoped he didn’t vomit and draw the others to the back of the newsroom.
When he dared look at the carnage again, Dicks was hopping on one foot. Blood dripped onto his wingtip shoe. He had the baseball bat raised above his head, the wood no longer pure and unused – a splotch of red stained its barrel. With a grunt, Dicks brought the bat down on Hugh Gross’s face. The sound of crunching and splattering echoed in the newsroom.
Hugh Gross twitched no more, but Dicks wasn’t done. Still on one foot, he raised the bat again and drove it into what was left of Hugh’s face. Blood – that dark blood – sprayed in a fine mist onto Dicks’ face. He wiped it away from his eyes, seemingly undeterred, and whacked again at the remains of Hugh’s head. Another swing proceeded. And another. And another, for good measure. There was red and pink and black muck where Hugh Gross’s plump face had once been. Hugh’s cranium had been reduced to a fine paste.
When there was nothing more to obliterate, Dicks turned to the little girls in basketball uniforms, who stood next to the cop and the naked geezer.
“I am a man,” Dicks cried in a desperate, cracking voice, “who does not exist for others!”
His battle cry declared, the others seemed unmoved. Victor could see it in Dicks’ face: He had waited to unleash that mantra on his invaders, cocksure that it would send them reeling. When put into practice though, this oft-rehearsed phrase was useless. It did nothing to help. He had said he was a man who didn’t exist for other men, but when the words had left his mouth and his visitors proved impervious to their sting, Aaron Dickens was just a rich man with a bat and a belly full of fear.
The green-eyed group of strangers backed away in that animal-like crouch. The action at a momentary standstill, Victor looked to his left, out of the lengthy window at the front of the Gates’ office, and saw a shadow of a man gliding across the parking lot with speed that seemed – like that crouching – utterly unnatural. The black figure looked to be moving across the snow without ever stepping into the deep slush. The speeding thing jumped from the edge of the parking lot and exploded through the window, tumbling into the newsroom and leaping to its haunches when its momentum finally tapered off.
Again, it sounded like someone else had spoken when Victor whispered, “Kevin.”
Kevin Webb, who, along with Patricia Heddinger, had been the gem of The Prince George’s Gate’s staff writers, had come back to work. Kevin, the man who had said he would never recover from being axed, look at the headless remains of Hugh Gross’s body. That was all it took.
With the same speed that could hardly made sense to anyone who’s ever seen a human run, Kevin made a beeline for Aaron Dickens. Kevin barreled into him and the two men slid across the floor. Grabbing the collar of Dicks’ suit jacket, Kevin tilted back his head and produced that ear-splitting screech. The others, jumping and moaning and yelping like rapt fans at a ballgame, joined in the howling. Maria Schultz, in her little nightie, raised her arms to the sky, as if thanking whoever was up there for this sweet moment.
The sight was as monstrous and hellish as it was joyous.
Kevin’s head plunged into Aaron Dickens’ neck. Victor heard the tearing of flesh. With each rip, the others – the fans – were more electrified. Kevin screamed again and dislodged from his bloody trough. Red leaked from his mouth, down the bulging veins in his neck and onto his bare chest. Victor watched with amazement
: Kevin Webb’s teeth were sharper than the canines of a rabid dog, and they were stained in the blood gushing from Aaron Dickens’ jugular. A journalist, a guy who wrote eloquently about property tax increases and school funding and zoning controversies, had become a demon perched atop the suit that ruined him.
Dicks was still breathing. As shocking as Kevin’s speedy gallop had been, Victor was more stunned by Dicks’ resilience. The man’s will to live was suddenly the most unbelievable thing in the room.
The Gate’s CEO sat up and covered the hole in his neck with one hand. He was reaching for the baseball bat – which was almost entirely red now – when a foot came down on his fingers, producing a crunch louder than when Dicks had annihilated Hugh Gross’s face. The foot belonged to Kim Jancovich. Dicks looked up at the woman who had copyedited ten thousand stories during her eleven years at The Prince George’s Gate and opened his mouth to speak. Before words emerged, they had descended upon Aaron Dickens.
All of them. They swarmed like a hive.
Victor felt sweat bead along his hairline in the frigid office as he watched. Maria Schultz dove for Dicks’ right arm and chewed at the shoulder like a rat burrowing through trash until the arm detached from its owner. She scurried away with the arm and tore pink meat off its bone until there was nothing left. Victor watched Patricia Heddinger take Dicks’ foot and eat the bloody stump. Kim Jancovich had pried loose Dicks’ left hand and devoured it like someone taken directly from a concentration camp to the deli meat counter at Cosco.
The nude old man had his face buried in Dicks’ midsection; by the up and down motion of his Adam’s apple, he looked to be drinking from it. Blood gushed out of the gaping wound in even beats. The county police officer and the little girls ripped at Dicks’ neck – the side that Kevin Webb hadn’t taken for himself.
Kevin Webb stood at a distance and watched the group feed. He still stood like an animal ready for combat, but something in his expression told Victor he was happy. And Victor was glad Kevin had found some contentment. The guy had had a tough stretch. He deserved it. Victor questioned his sympathy for the savage beast, but didn’t think on it long. Maybe it meant he had gone mad. That, of course, would be understandable – even expected – but Victor suspected otherwise. These feelings felt genuine, if not unchained from societal expectation and general decency.
When they were done with Aaron Dickens, he resembled the mannequin brought in a while back to the Gate’s office to demonstrate CPR. The hard plastic doll had been faceless, armless, and legless, just as Dicks
’ was near the entrance of his private office. The group’s incessant chewing at Dicks’ neck had severed it from his neck. Someone had plucked both eyes from Dicks’ head. It appeared one of the eaters had had a taste of his tongue too – it hung slack out of his mouth with a jagged chunk missing.
The empty eye sockets stared across the room at Victor Wake, still covert under a desk with a laptop nearby, and asked why he hadn’t called their names and saved them both.
Victor considered the lack of limbs and appendages on Dicks’ desecrated body, and thought of the speech he had given on the first day of his hostile takeover of The Prince George’s Gate.
We’ve got to do more with less, Victor thought as he looked into Dicks’ blank, eyeless thousand-yard stare, locked in fearful reproach. You understand.
8:56 p.m. @CDCgov Does calling the infected by name really work? I’m trapped & they’re everywhere #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:00 p.m. @VWakeJourno Calling victims’ names proven to work if virus is not too far along. Track virus progression by eye color. The brighter green, the further along. #help
9:01 p.m. @CDCgov Eyes around here are pretty green. They ate my boss, if that makes any difference. #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:03 p.m. @VWakeJourno DO NOT approach the victims. Once they’ve ingested another’s blood, the virus accelerates. Stay put and please give current location.
9:04 p.m. @CDCgov I’m at 4288 Maryland Manor Road in Laurel, MD. Snow’s bad, roads blocked. #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:07 p.m. @VWakeJourno Govt choppers being used to respond to calls for #help. Can’t land in snow but can toss a net. Crawl in and we’ll airlift. Stand by.
9:08 p.m. @CDCgov THANK YOU but some virus victims very fast. I can’t outrun them. They’re still here. Could put chopper in danger. #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:14 p.m. @VWakeJourno Govt directive is to save anyone who requests it. Sending #help. Do your best.
9:15 p.m. @CDCgov Will do.
9:19 p.m. Whether you ever see it or not, I’m thinking of you @LolaP55. Please answer if ur out there. #help
9:29 p.m. I know you’re alive, @LolaP55. I won’t believe otherwise. Just hide away and we’ll find you. I’ll find you. #help
9:33 p.m. @LolaP55 Weird scene in newsroom (besides decapitated CEO
): The infected roam around, now seated at desks. One even jabbed at keyboard.
9:36 p.m. @LolaP55 Kim, Maria, Kevin, Patricia still seated at desks. Looks like work day. Funny in a way. Sad in another.
9:38 p.m. @LolaP55 Kevin just had some sort of temper tantrum. Threw laptop against wall & cried out like they do. Seemed to scare the others. Me too.
9:39 p.m. @LolaP55 You wouldn’t believe the noises in here. Horrific.
9:42 p.m. @LolaP55 Office scene is over. They all lost it. Went back to CEO’s remains for another bite. I hear rustling from trees across the street.
9:43 p.m. Hey @LolaP55, can I please have a mocha fropo? #memories #stillembarrassed
9:45 p.m. @LolaP55 More rustling from trees. Can’t look b/c I’m behind desk, but this can’t be good. It just can’t. #help
9:46 p.m. @CDCgov Please tell your people to be careful. Any ETA on the chopper? #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:53 p.m. @VWakeJourno 10 minutes max. We proceed with utmost caution. Be ready.
9:55 p.m. I was so jealous of @LolaP55 for being able to sleep in this morning. You looked beautiful. #asalways
9:56 p.m. Even with glowing green eyes, @LolaP55 would be hot. #EndTimesFacts
9:57 p.m. Twitter is slowing down folks. You all still there? Starting to think green eyes might be the new normal. #help
Centers for Disease Control
9:59 p.m. @VWakeJourno You’re right
10:01 p.m. Coworkers are back at desks. They look sad this time, like they’re remembering. Grunting and growling, but remembering. #help
10:01 p.m. @LolaP55 I hear the helicopter coming down. Gonna peek and check for escape route. Thru the hole in window is best.
10:02 p.m. @CDCgov Copter coming down, I see net but the entire wooded area beyond is lit up green. They’re everywhere. #help
10:03 p.m. @CDCgov HELLO????? #help
10:04 p.m. @CDCgov HOW LONG WILL THE CHOPPER WAIT?? No way I can make it without them noticing. #HELP
10:06 p.m. Chopper still there. @LolaP55 I have to go now. Last chance. They seem distracted. Gonna make a run. I’ll find you. I promise.
10:06 p.m. @LolaP55 #ILoveYou
Centers for Disease Control
10:07 p.m. @VWakeJourno Please report when you’ve boarded the chopper. #help
10:08 p.m. @VWakeJourno Please respond. Urgent. #help
10:12 p.m. Just got to a computer, @VWakeJourno…I’m @CDC in Bethesda…Can’t believe they found you!!! Be safe and get here soon! Check ur texts!
10:14 p.m. Wake up, @VWakeJourno……check your phone!!!!!!!!!
10:15 p.m. @VWakeJourno #ILoveYou2
Between his full-time job as an education reporter in Washington, D.C., and his freelance gigs for local magazines, C.D. Carter has written tales of the macabre for a host of publications, including Dark Moon Digest, Horrorbound Magazine, Flashes in the Dark, SNM Horror, Static Movement, Lost Souls Magazine, and Death Head Grin. Much of Carter’s short story horror is based on the life of a journalist. Carter credits his wife, Melissa, and his friends, Pat and Mariel, for green-lighting his best ideas, and telling him which stories should be buried and left for dead.