Chapter 23

I felt bad for the guy. I really did. But there wasn't a thing we, or anyone else, could do for him. He was on a slow train out. Mack almost refused to stop but our humanity kicked in just in time, and a good thing too. We brought him back to base while he was unconscious but not into the house. We used the caretaker's cottage and kept the curtains drawn on the windows so he wouldn't be able to figure out where he was, not that he asked; he was beyond caring by that point. Better start someplace or things will make even less sense to me than they do right now.

#####

When Mack finally climbed out of the tub of hot water I'd heated for him to clean up in he was finally completely sober.

"Thanks Sunshine."

"No prob. Feel like eating yet?"

It took a moment, but he nodded and I dipped some chili out of the pot I had been keeping warm on the big kitchen stove. I have to be careful to only cook at night so no one sees the smoke.

He ate and I worked on The List and The Inventory between taking things down to the basement to store them. About my fourth trip back up Mack reaches out and stops me with a hand on my arm. I look at him and he says, "Thanks." He meant for more than the bath water.

I shrugged. "Sure. You did it for me. Um …"

Before I could finish my reply he said, "Next time I grab a bottle and don't stop on my own … you stop me. With a hammer if you have to."

No way would I do that. "Sounds crazy but maybe you needed to um … cut loose some. You finally got some sleep anyway."

Looking away and sounding shamed like only a guy can he said, "Sunshine … Winx … I'm a not a good drunk. I … didn't hurt you did I?"

"No. I didn't know what was going on until I got a load of your breath. I thought you just wanted … comfort or something … like you did for me after … you know."

He was silent for a moment then said, "What I want and what is common sense aren't the same thing this time. You might not be a kid, but you aren't … I shouldn't be … dammit I screwed all of this up. I always screw things up."

Self-loathing was in the air and it was thick. And since I'd been trying to clean up my act I wasn't going to let him take all the blame he was feeling. "Hey, going a little far there. So maybe we almost did something that wasn't smart. But you … um … weren't forcing me. And drunk or not you still found some brain cells and moved off. Just don't …" Then I said the thing that I'd been worried about. "Don't leave Mack. I know you are feeling like that … but don't. If I'm not running away because I figured out it's not me you want … and I'm okay with figuring it out … then you don't have any reason to run off either. I get it okay? You're an adult male, you don't see me the same way, so something needs to give. I agree not to use you for a scratching post. Can't we at least still be a team?"

He was quiet so long that I thought I was the one that had screwed things up. "Winx, let's assume I could get passed the fact that you aren't much more than a kid. Let's assume I could even get passed some crap I'm still carrying around and how shitty it would be to use you to help me feel better about it. Right now we got too much going on. You heard Dylan the same as I did. We got some serious shit to figure out and come to terms with. And we got some serious as hell decisions to make. What … what I might want just isn't good for either one of us right now."

"Okay."

I'd surprised him. "Can you live with that?"

"I've been living with it," I told him.

"Yeah well it came at me from my blind side. Hey Sunshine, look at me. I … don't want to leave. No way in hell. But … but I can't play at it. Never have been good at that. So, it is either something that is on or off … and right now it needs to be off. Too many things that can go wrong."

I looked at him and I swear something hit me like those stupid women in those romance books I used to read. He said for right now. But I also saw he meant it about needing to have that particular switch toggled in the off position. I decided I could live with it. "I can do that. Maybe I need it off right now too. Just … I've gotten use to being part of a team. Just … promise me … if you need to leave, for whatever reason, just give me some warning so I can … I don't know … prepare myself or something. Don't do to me what … what I did to my family."

He patted me arm but it felt like it was a hard thing for him to do. "Don't want to break up the team either. Just can't add the other. Lots of reasons but mostly … shit … this mess is a lot bigger than we've been thinking, even in our worst-case."

And that's when we both started thinking about what we'd learned.

It was the middle of November and after that first snow we hadn't had anymore. It was almost like an Indian Summer and Mack and I really put it to use. Add to that we found someone's cache and it was nearly as good as what we'd found at the church, and we were flying high and feeling six feet tall and bullet proof, or as good as. Then all in a day things crashed.

We came back from bringing the last of the cache back to Base and since it was my turn to guard, Mack laid down to get some sleep. He'd gotten to where he trusted me enough that he didn't even lay the ground rules out anymore. I took the rifle and went up to the tower. What we didn't have were the little handheld radios because for some reason the base station wasn't working. It was on our to do list to repair or replace.

I was tired but was also a little wired. There were packages of freeze-dried meatballs in the cache and all I could think about was making some baked ziti. I was craving it. With homemade garlic biscuits. I was planning the entire meal out when I spotted something that looked way out of place.

We'd never had a goon squad come near Base. Don't know why, we just hadn't. Sure the place looked like a haunted house with rabies but I still would have at least given it a sniff had I been the boss of Them. Whoever was the boss of Them sure didn't think much of our side of Old Town. I'm more than glad that I never told Mace and Carol where I was flopping, especially now. The thing is I wasn't seeing just one goon squad, I counted five. They were coming up all the main drags and they were obviously looking for something … or as it turned out someone. I kept telling myself if they crossed Main Street I'd go wake Mack. But it wasn't that that caused me to wake him up. About fifteen minutes after I noticed the goon squads I noticed it was getting colder. Twenty minutes after that I see some guy tear out of a building right before a goon squad went in it and he started hauling butt … sorta. He wasn't in great shape. Using the binoculars, I could see he was holding his side and limping. He was still moving fast enough however that he avoided the squads … almost. The last group furthest away from Base spotted him and I nearly freaked when someone took a shot at the guy … and hit him but not bad enough to stop his forward motion.

Out of the blue there was this blast of icy wind. It was bad enough that it stole my breath, bad enough that when it reached the street the goon squads were on that it knocked a couple of them down. It was blowing trash and crap all over the place. Crap I hadn't felt anything that cold for a long time. And it was wet, and I knew what that meant. So did whoever was in charge of the goon squads because they started pulling back, giving up on the guy they'd been after. Good thing they did too as it started to sleet even before they'd made it back to the big truck they climbed into.

As soon as I was sure the truck was heading back toward what we'd labeled the Them Base, I tore off downstairs to get Mack. He was hacked I hadn't woken him earlier but I told him I couldn't leave until I made sure no one was going to climb the garden walls. By the time Mack and I got back up the tower it was sleeting for real and not just kinda sorta. Visibility was disappearing fast. The brief Indian Summer was over; winter had arrived like a bat outta hell. It was so cold we couldn't stay in the tower. It got so cold we had to light a fire even though it was daylight. We stayed huddled around it for two days before the ice storm finally stopped. Things got interesting a couple of times while we huddled but I don't want to think about that right now.

The night after the ice storm was not what you would call optimal but both Mack and I needed to get out of the house and clear our brains. For obvious reasons. But also because we needed to check and see if the storm had caused any property damage or damage around town.

No damage to the wall. One pipe to our back up water storage did crack but the pipe was frozen clean through and acted like a cork so we didn't lose any water. The water in the tank was complete slush despite the tank being wrapped in a buttload of black, thermal insulation tape inside the shed it was hidden in. We got lucky this time, might not next time. As a result Mack wanted to go back to the automotive store and get all of that fancy insulation and stuff we'd left behind. And we couldn't do it with the carts because the cold weather was discharging the batteries too fast. Instead we took the biggest packs we had and a collapsible game cart.

It was miserable work but we made it to the shop and started stripping the shelves of all the junk we'd come for. We work silent. I used to talk too much to fill the space between my ears. I don't do that anymore. It's just better that way. So when we heard this hissing whisper it brought us to alert fast.

"Mmmmaaaackkk."

I looked at Mack and he at me and we both dropped to the frosty-cold concrete floor fast.

"Mmmmmmaaaaaacckkk. Hhhhhelp mmmmmeee."

After hesitating, Mack started making his way towards the voice. He soundlessly ordered me to stay hidden. Not five seconds later I hear him snap, "Shit! Winx, need an assist."

I was still cautious as I hurried over just in case, and because it was so dark it took me a moment to make sense of what I was seeing.

"Is that … ?"

"Yeah. He's a mess. Looks to be shot twice. Lost a lot of blood."

It was Dylan. I looked at Mack to see what he wanted to do. I could see the war going on behind his eyes and I was right there with him. Then something changed. Without even talking about it we loaded him onto the game cart and got him back to our Base. But when I would have taken him into the Loudon house, Mack nixed that and pulled him over to the Caretaker's cottage. He did let me go get a cot for him and a couple of blankets. We took all that stuff away afterwards, over near where it looked like someone had tried to cut the QZ fence. We'd noticed there weren't as many guards on the fence but didn't know why. Something about the fence repair had always bothered us too and now we know why.

I'm not going to record the next 48 hours. Suffice it to say that between frost bite, exposure, and what we think might have been the beginning of gangrene Dylan already had a punched ticket on an outbound train when we found him. We found out that before being shot the second time he'd already been on the run from the Brigade for over a week. He'd escaped from their holding pen when he came out of his fugue of self-medication to find they weren't doing anything to help prisoners survive the cold. He got beat on twice, but it didn't stop him. What stopped him was when he got beat on by the others in the pen with him. Doesn't make sense but if we are going to believe Dylan about some things, we have to believe him about that part too.

That was a hard two days. The man was in a lot of pain and we didn't have anything that could touch it. Whether the pain was more physical than mental was debatable. We did what we could for him but it wasn't much. Towards the last couple of hours he did a lot of screaming, or tried to. We had to cover his mouth to keep the sound from rolling out. Had to tie him down to keep him from bowing up and throwing himself off the cot. I don't think any of that will ever leave me even if I find the holy grail of brain bleach. What we learned before he completely went off his rocker was worth a scream or two in my nightmares.

The QZ is a lot bigger than we knew. And we aren't the only QZ in the US. We aren't even the only QZ in the world. They've lost "containment" several times, but it looks like they expanded all of the QZs big enough this time to catch a break and give the people working on a vaccine some breathing room.

QZs are like targets. There's the original bullseye in the center and a no man's land buffer zone as an outer ring. How many rings between the bullseye and the buffer zone on the outside depends on how many times it was expanded since the original outbreak. All actively infected people are dumped into the "bullseye" in a compound run by an organization known as the Brigade. The Brigade is made up of immunes that have volunteered to sacrifice themselves for the good of country to control what goes on inside the QZ since it is too risky for people outside the QZ to really handle that stuff. The Brigade may be set up quasi-military style but it isn't military at all. There may be a few military in there because once infected you lose your "active" status, are involuntarily removed from duty, and unless you want your family to lose the benefits they are used to, you cooperate and hope that you fit in with the Brigade that is running the particular QZ you are dumped into. Assuming you survive your initial quarantine period that is.

The Brigade controls what goes on in the QZs but they don't exactly get a lot of help from people outside the QZs. What they've been given permission to do is salvage what is inside the QZs, or make money off of the "quarantined assets" somehow. And from the sound of it that sounds like the quarantined people too. Mack and I were right, they have started making a business of "ransoming" the contents of the houses that are inside the QZ. There's a lot more red-tape to it than that, but essentially the Brigade as an organization is to prevent rioting and they are to control Infecteds and the quarantined people stuck in the QZ with them. They are NOT allowed to control them by killing them … you can still be convicted of murder unless it was a clear and recorded case of self-defense, and not self-defense that was instigated.

How some of it works is the Brigade feeds people in the QZ on a point system … work points, trade points for salvage, extra points based on skills, etc. The food itself comes from what can be salvaged and/or grown in the QZs. Some QZs are more organized than others. The QZ we live in is more organized than most but has a smaller land mass than most to salvage so isn't as powerful as it could be.

That's the other thing. The QZs are – in their own way – becoming more powerful than the uninfected populations around them. It's starting to freak some people in the free zones out more than just a little. Part of that is that to be a survivor you have to be tough, ruthless, or both. You also need skills to work your way up the hierarchy or you'll never be anything but a worker drone, assuming you survive the initial quarantine phase.

I've mentioned the quarantine phase twice now so I guess it is time to explain it. The original flight of CH54s occurred right after they realized that the original quarantine and evacuation orders had failed; pretty much just like Mack had thought. What I hadn't thought was just how far they would go from that point forward to control the number of Infected. It is now a death-by-firing-squad offense to get caught not reporting infections and potential infections. Those firing squads used to be televised but there are so few of them they no longer bother. People are scared spitless and follow the rules whether they like them or not. A second reason why they no longer have to use the firing squads so much is that all trials for such incidences occur in one of the QZ levels. So even if you are found innocent or given a reprieve of sentence you'll still never be going home because of your infection exposure. Most people are reportedly grateful to get shot dead because by then most of them are already feeling the infection set in.

That is what it is and I can't do anything about it. It's a nightmare, but it isn't my nightmare. What is my nightmare is that Uncle Beryl's place is now part of a QZ buffer. I don't know what that means for my family. I could get through the day not worrying that I was going to one day run into them as Infecteds because I thought they were safe and well outside the QZ. As much as this stuff has spread I can't say that anymore. And neither can Mack. His step-parents' place is caught tight between two buffer zones in an area that is only still open because it is a high-priority, east/west travel corridor. If their area is absorbed the distance people are going to have to travel would quadruple at the very least … that is how large the QZs have grown.

Some people might say then just move or fly or something like that. Forget it. Now that the entire world is involved there are a lot of grounded flights and even if they weren't grounded, a lot of fuel pipes, oil fields, and oil processing plants are smack in the middle of QZs. You beginning to see why the Brigade is so important? And growing so powerful?

Dylan's condition made him too incoherent for some questions Mack had but we got enough that we can assume some things. Dylan also swiped some pretty important computer files that I was able to break into … yay me … that gave the bigger picture. For now though we are mostly concerned for us. See one of the things that Dylan said was that the Brigade is complaining that the Outside is shipping in too many Infecteds. They've run out of room in those holding pins. Get too many infecteds together in one spot and too many brawlers develop. Too many brawlers and you wind up with a dangerous mess. They've tried to control some of that by pumping Fluoxetine through the water and food the Infecteds receive. That has its own dangers including that the Infecteds eventually become immune to its therapeutic effects and it kills some of those that already have health problems. Of course the infection does too. And just because you become Infected doesn't mean your other health problems go away. People with high blood pressure – from kids to old folks – are usually the first ones to die once they are full blown Infected. Not always but usually. It's the nature of the disease.

What tore Dylan up the most and caused him to self-medicate in the first place was when kids would get infected. It turns out that if a kid survives the initial infection they usually all wind up immune, not always but most of the time. The ratio slowly diminishes until by about twenty-five if you get infected you can nearly guarantee you'll go over all the way. But most kids don't survive the initial infection phase. The younger they are the most likely they are to die before even getting to the violent stage. That balances out mid-teens when they wind up having about the same chance as an adult of surviving the initial infection, but if they do survive they are more likely to be immune than crazy.

Here's where Dylan asked if we wanted the good news first or the bad news. Essentially the infection is getting worse and moving faster in the human body so all of the other things he told us were relative.

"What the hell does that mean?" Mack snarled impatiently.

"Means that the infection is getting worse. Once you get it, it moves faster. Hardly any inbetweeners these days. You're infected and within 24 hours you are raging and insane … or you are immune or a carrier but physically weak … like you need to be in the hospital with lots of care but hardly anyone gets that these days. So if the infection doesn't get you, you can be so weak you can't take care of yourself yet. Doesn't matter, they still throw you in the holding pens until they see which way you are going to go. And if you do survive the original infection, and you do survive through recovery in the pens, there's more carriers than straight immunes. Most of the original carriers have already lost it and gone all the way over."

"The doc?"

"Yeah. He didn't even have to do for himself. He OD'd on the meds. But the other first tier carriers, none of them are left in this QZ. Most carriers now last for three to four months and then they are put into the Infected holding pens because the meds don't work no more. Around here there's a lottery for the Carriers."

"Lottery?"

"Yeah. You survive but get typed as a Carrier and there's a good chance that you get tossed in the Infected holding pens immediately. Only some carriers get out; depends on what kind of skills and stuff they had pre-infection. Or maybe how much their family can pay to keep them out of the pens."

"Sounds like this Brigade or whatever they are called is full of unmedicated carriers themselves."

Dylan wheezed and said, "You might want to keep those kind of statements to yourself. The ones that I've heard say it tend to disappear for questioning and never get seen again."

After that is when Dylan started really rolling downhill. Every hour that passed he went faster. We did what we could, but it was brutal for everyone. When he finally flatlined blood was coming from his nose, eyes, ears, and mouth. We figure something blew in his head. It was a mess to clean up. Before we were finished I saw some really evil looking meece slinking around, trying to get through the sheets we'd wound around the body. There was no way to put it off, no way to give ourselves time, we had to bury the body and fast. Mack wouldn't do it on Base.

"A couple of reasons Sunshine," Mack muttered, as exhausted as I was. "First some animal might come looking and that's a nightmare I don't want in my memory banks. Burying Dylan once is going to be enough. Two, a grave might show up on an overhead drone pass … even a satellite pass."

Trying to have a sensitive bone since I knew that at one point Mack had really respected Dylan I suggested, "Then how about a … a playground or something like that. There were a couple behind the daycare centers we salvaged. The one I'm thinking about had all that tire mulch. We rake it back, dig the hole to put him in, and then when we're done we rake the mulch back over. It'll hide we've been digging. Nothing grows in that stuff so we don't have to worry that the grass or whatever suddenly gets super green from the extra fertilizer."

Mack just raised his head and looked at me. I nearly got up and walked away but he pulled me back down and then surprised me by pulling me closer. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Not giving me a lot of drama to deal with. You sure you're up for this?"

I shrugged. "He may have been crazy but that didn't make him a bad guy. He cared enough for whatever his reasons were that he sent you to check on me. So … in a way … without him there wouldn't be an us … I mean a team. So yeah … for that I'll give him what I can. And if it is going to happen tonight, we better start soon or it will be daylight before we can get back. The ground … you know …"

So that's what we did and we got lucky that the tire mulch kept the ground from freezing. It still wasn't an easy job and the rats … we were fighting them off even as we were trying to fill the hole back up. Mack threw in some poison … to try and keep them from doing you can guess what. The sheets and cot he put in the building and let the rats take care of that evidence. If anyone does find them, hopefully they'll assume the rats … never mind. I have enough nightmares without dreaming up new ones.

Mack was quiet but I figured he had cause. When we got back to Base I was needing to change clothes so bad that I didn't notice that his quiet had changed. It was too cold for a bath unless I wanted to get sick, but I did scrub myself pretty hard. Mack did too but then he went off and I thought it was to work in the basement to deal with some heebies.

The weather was getting bad again and my rotation up in the tour was up. No Mack. I came down and found him in the kitchen with a glass and bottle. When he saw me he screw the cap back on and put the glass in the dish pan. I've seen Mack take a drink. It doesn't shock me or anything else. I've tried the wine he offers me if we've cooked something fancy like stroganoff or rehydrated steak medallions. Meh. Some of the red stuff isn't bad but some of it tastes like llama spit so I'm cautious. I also didn't realize the bottle he'd had a glass of wasn't the first bottle. After I told him that I was gonna crash and burn because the weather was getting bad again he said, "You do that." He reopened the bottle after I went upstairs.

I shouldn't have left him alone. The metaphorical signs he was holding said "I need space." But the way he was acting I should have cornered him and got him to talk, the way he's done me. Being exhausted is no excuse. If I'd been a better friend maybe the rest of it wouldn't have happened. But … I don't really regret what happened either. Not sure that makes me a better friend, or worse.

It was so cold that I lit a fire in the fireplace and fell asleep where we'd huddled during the ice storm. Maybe in the back of my mind I was hoping for more of the same. I've finally admitted that I liked Mack and that's as far as I had taken it. I liked Mack. I'd liked the attention he'd paid me. I'd liked that he'd liked what I tried to do in return. And I liked the idea that maybe we could do more of that. And that's all I'd been thinking and that's pretty much why people get in trouble. They only think up to a point and don't think about what comes after that point.

I'm not going to embarrass myself by writing what happened because really, in the grand scheme of things nothing had. Mack sobered up before anything happened. But if it had been summer instead of winter, and there'd been fewer clothes between us, something might have happened because it wasn't until he couldn't operate the buttons on my shirt that his brain kicked in enough that he climbed out of the blankets and let the cold air hit his head and clear it.

Yeah, it hurt to realize he'd only gone where we'd gone because he was drunk. And some of the things he said while he was trying to be not-drunk hurt too. But I could tell they hurt him more, so I made him stop before we both hurt too much and got him to go to sleep. Then I went off to lick my wounds.

I was mad for about an hour but then I realized he wasn't Tad. That he was going to feel bad about "leading me on" or whatever he wound up thinking. Then I thought about running away for the hour after that only I decided not to do the stupid because just like with Aunt Trudy and the rest of them it was only going to make Mack hurt worse and I wasn't going to feel all that great either. For a long while I worried that it was going to be Mack who ran off. Towards the end of him trying to be not-drunk he seemed to seriously be leaning in that direction. So, I tried to think about what to do to keep him from running off.

I had water heated when he stumbled down the stairs looking for me but not really wanting to find me. I pointed to the screen and the buckets and he nodded like he didn't know if what was going on was real or not. After he washed off the drunk and dried off and dressed in the clean clothes I got for him things got a little easier. It still hurts but its better than losing a friend. And that's what Mack is and what he's gonna have to stay. For his sake more than mine. How I feel is just going to have to stay hidden … camouflaged. I've got lots of practice with that. The more I think about it the more convinced I am that the "for now" is just Mack trying to be nice and he really means "for ever." I can live with it. I can. I just need to figure out how.