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By Shannon Higdon
Garren was lost. He’d sworn to remember the route, if only to keep his family safe, but the series of darkened and convoluted corridors they’d been led down all looked the same. The silent sobs of dirty masses lined the hallways, several times needing to be literally stepped over. A shared look with Alice told him that she was just as confused about the route they had just taken. Their fear and desperation must have been palpable by the time they reached their destination. Their four armed escorts separated; two taking sentry positions outside the office door they had just entered while one sat Alice and the kids on a bench against the far wall. Heavy-handed, the final guard placed Garren into a chair before a large metal desk where eye contact was made with the apparent leader of the group.
“Welcome,” the large man extended his hand across the desk. His eyes were sharp but not without kindness. The smile on his face seemed sincere but with trust being the rare commodity that it was now the expression felt…wrong. In no position to anger their new hosts, Garren took his hand and shook it. Caution would have to be the business of order for now.
“Why…” Garren’s voice conveyed none of the authority he had intended. “Why did you bring us here? We did nothing to your people.” The smile did not recede with the man’s hand. Garren stole a quick glance around the room. In addition to Alice, their two children and the two guards who stayed inside the room, there were four other men standing about the well-spaced office. Large, dingy windows lined the walls and looked out into a larger warehouse of some type which held another forty or fifty people.
“I brought you…” He motioned towards Alice and the eight and twelve year old children, “and your family here…well…if I’m being perfectly truthful, I brought you here for a couple of reasons. The first and most important would be to thank you. I’ve been told that were it not for your efforts Mister…” With a questioning tone the man paused with the customary expectation.
“Daniels.” Garren reciprocated, “We’re the Daniels’.”
“Thank you Mr. Daniels. My name is Charlie but if you can find anyone that doesn’t call me ‘Chuck’ instead I’d like to meet them.” The chuckle seemed sincere. “Anyway, Mr. Daniels…”
“Garren is fine.” Garren cut him off.
“Okay…great, Mr. Daniels…Garren…I’ve been told that because of you my little brother, Richard, is going to live to see another day. From the telling, your actions were really quit heroic.” Garren shifted uncomfortably in his seat, stealing another glimpse at his family. “We…I…am indebted to you.”
“It was nothing.” Garren cleared his throat. “I just did what anyone would’ve done.” Charlie laughed again and it still seemed genuine.
“You mean what anyone with medical training would’ve done.” Charlie looked at the other men in the room before reconnecting with Garren. “But even then…well, I think we all know that’s not true; not anymore. We don’t live in a world of…heroes…anymore. The world’s changed and the nature of humanity has changed with it.” There was a pause and Garren wasn’t sure if Charlie was waiting for him to speak.
“Um…you’re welcome?” Garren looked at Alice. She looked terrified. “So…if that’s it then. We can go…right?”
“Well” Charlie continued, “Like I said, I have a couple reasons. The second of which is the fact that our ‘family’ could use the help of someone with your medical expertise.” He let that set in for second. “At the moment with have two people with nursing skills trying to maintain the health of more people than they can. We need a doctor.” The stress in Garren’s shoulders eased…just a bit. This might not turn out as badly as he had been anticipating.
“What makes you think I’m a doctor?” Charlie kept smiling; determined to not turn the exchange into a chess match.
“If you’re not, Garren, then you’ve got one hell of a hobby. If Richard had been brought back here with those injuries…he’d be dead. But…I think you already know that.”
“Look…” Garren wanted to reason. “I just want to go with my family. We don’t want any trouble. We tried to help your people.” Charlie shook his head.
“And we don’t want to give you any. I don’t want you to misunderstand. I know this might seem intimidating, what with the armed escort and all.” He motioned towards the guards’ now standing, backs against the wall, beside his family. “But you know as well as I do that precautions have to be taken now. To not do so is tantamount to suicide. Please, Garren, if you’ll indulge me for a moment. What do you see when you look at those people?” Charlie motioned towards Alice, Tim and Mary.
“I see my family. What is this?”
“Of course they’re you family. But do you see when you look at them? What emotions are invoked?” Garren found himself becoming irritated.
“I see…” He stopped for a moment to truly see them. “I see the people that I love. I see people that I would die for.”
“Kill for even?” Charlie prompted.
“Yea…” Garren nodded. “Kill for even. What’s the point?”
“Now please…look at the people out there.” He pointed at the small crowd that was gathering outside the windows. “What do you see when you look at those people?” Garren was starting to hate not knowing where this was going.
“I don’t know…I see people.”
“That’s fine, Garren. There’s no wrong answer and this isn’t a psych eval-. I just want you to know that when I see those people I feel the same about my family as you do about yours. That’s what family means here: we will kill or die to protect each other. My proposal is this: I’d like you to consider seeing my family the same way you see your own. Right now you want to take your family, leave here, and go out there…where there is only you to protect them from…those things. If you were to stay here you would be in a safe place with more than a hundred people to protect them…more than a hundred people that would put their lives on the line and even die for them.
I would even go as far as to say that you might be the most valuable person in our family and they,” he looked at Alice, “would be the wife and children of the most valuable person in our family. The type of people that we would all want to keep safe…at all costs. You would have your own private quarters for you and your family and we are well supplied with food and water for the time being.” Garren wasn’t sure what to think but he had to be honest with himself that this wasn’t the first time he had thought they would be better with a larger group. It had just been too hard to find one they could trust.
“Listen,” Charlie continued, “I don’t expect you to decide right this second. I would ask you to stay the night, if for no other reason than gratuity for what you’ve done for Richard. Stay the night and look around; decide for yourself. You and your family can rest safely, eat…even bathe. Come morning, if you decide you still want to leave, no one here will stop you. We will send you with supplies and can probably even rustle up a car for you.”
From across the room Alice blurted out, “thank you. We’ll stay the night.”
Charlie laughed and smacked his hands against the desk. “I guess it’s decided then. Let Simon take you to the rooms that could be yours and I’ll come by in a few hours to show you around. I’ll have some rations sent down. I’m sure you guys are hungry.”
Simon turned out to be one of the men who had led them to Charlie and upon leaving was found to be much chattier than before. So much so that no one else got a word in and the kids began to giggle. Alice and Garren had to wonder if large young man had been struggling to not talk on the way in.
“You guys are probably gonna love it here. I mean, I know no place is great anymore, all things considered, but for what there is left in the world this place is great. The people are super nice, although it can get kind of cramped…and stinky sometimes, but that’s probably to be expected. So much is different anymore, but you guys already knew that. I guess you probably know more than most, what with having been out there by yourselves for so long. Frankly, I don’t know how you’ve done it. How have you done it? I guess it’s none of my business. Chuck always tells me I ask inappropriate questions sometimes but it’s hard for me to tell because my mind is always asking questions and it doesn’t always tell me which ones are okay to ask.” Without pausing for a breath Simon would point at various things along the way.
“That hall there leads to the dining area. Sometimes we all eat together but usually we don’t. Mostly we just eat when we’re hungry because since we all work different jobs we sleep different hours and so aren’t always hungry at the same time. But I’m always hungry. Chuck also tells me I talk too much sometimes but I don’t think that’s probably true because Chuck likes to tease me a lot too. That way goes to gymnasium; there’s a basketball court. Chuck like to say that I’m ‘artistic’ but I think he’s probably just getting mixed up. He probably is trying to say ‘autistic’ but I don’t correct him because Chuck is in charge and he’s a good boss. No one can know all the right words all the time which is probably a good thing.
The showers are down here. This place is fortified really well and we have a lot of guards; probably more than anyone. Those things from outside have never gotten in here and probably never will. This last wing is all for bedrooms and for people to sleep and stuff. It can be tight sometimes but I actually like it because it makes me feel safer with everybody being close together like that. Plus, because I’m pretty strong, I feel better knowing that I can probably wake up and protect everybody else. I can fight real well and can shoot real well too but sometimes I have bad dreams so I’ll just stay awake and watch everyone else sleep. Little Jerry say it’s creepy but Chuck tells him it’s okay because I’m probably like a guardian angel. When Little Jerry askes me the same question I tell him Chuck is probably right.
These rooms have mostly the people that speak the Mexican language. They probably sleep together because they can understand each other. Chuck can understand them and Jorge is my friend but I don’t know what many of their words mean. I think ‘see’ probably means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ probably means ‘no’. Jorge tries to teach me some of the words but I have a hard time remembering. He calls me ‘Grand-day Neen-yo’ but I keep forgetting what it means. Chuck says I’m just a big kid sometimes but he’s probably just kidding. Maria say Chuck is the funniest guy around but, if I’m being honest, I probably don’t get most of his jokes. These two room here is where you guys can sleep. After I leave I’m gonna get some food for you so I will probably be coming back.”
Once they were finally alone in re-tooled living space the kids unleashed the laughter they had been holding back.
“What was wrong with him mommy?” Tim, the eight-year-old asked. Mary, the twelve-year-old, was a little more seasoned and smacked her brother’s head.
“There’s nothing wrong with him dummy.” Tim retaliated with his outstretched tongue.
“You’re only saying that because he talks as fast as you do.”
“Do not!” The children began to wrestle on the bed as Mary and Garren held each other in a tight embrace. They weren’t worried about the kids getting out of control. In the last month they had been forced to grow up at an accelerated, if unfair, pace. It was obvious they had grown to cherish each other more than they ever did before the world went to hell. By the time Simon returned with the packaged entrees and grape sodas they were out cold on the bed. Even as Simon came in and prattled for another ten minutes they remained asleep together, exhausted from the constant running.
When Simon finally left they were thankful for the silence although it was hard not to really like the ‘special’ young man. They ate, tried momentarily to wake the unresponsive little ones and then decided to crawl into the bed with them; they could always eat when they woke up. Obviously, sleep was what they all needed the most right now. Before unconsciousness took him, Garren looked over his family and thanked God that he still had them; knowing full well that wasn’t the norm anymore. It was a rare moment of peace for which he was grateful.
If only he had known how rare it was. In striking difference to the way Garren had fallen asleep, he awakened to blaring sirens and the screams of his children. With the room no longer lit by overhead light but by flashing emergency lights instead, he had only a moment to try to assess the situation. What was happening? How long had they been asleep? The door came crashing open; it was Simon.
“C’mon Daniels’ family! You need to get up; we probably need to go now!”
“Simon, what the hell’s going on?” Garren screamed above the blaring alarm.
“Probably means, if I’m being honest, that…they…have gotten in somewhere. It’s never happened before.” The Daniels had survived this long by large part due to Alice having kept them prepared for movement at a moment’s notice. The family was dressed with their possessions in their hands’ in thirty seconds and following behind the young man in the flashing hallways. The alarms went silent a few minutes into their hurried journey to reveal that Simon had been chattering on the entire way.
“-probably, but that isn’t anything I can say for sure. Chuck doesn’t think we’ll need to evacuate. It’s probably the east gate that was penetrated and so it shouldn’t be too hard. They really shouldn’t be anywhere close to this wing…” Simon’s seemingly endless stream was interrupted by screams from ahead of them…the direction they were going. Simon threw his arms out before the family in a defensive position. “…probably. I think we should definitely, probably, go the other way.”
“Go…go.” Alice urged. Garren scooped up Tim and Mary into his arms. Fueled by adrenaline, they were light as feathers. Simon pulled out his Colt .45 and they began, cautiously, back the way they came. Simon pulled out a flashlight and held it parallel to his gun sight as they progressed. The screams behind them were getting louder. When they reached an intersection they stopped.
“Which way?” Garren asked.
“Right.” Simon called out. They took a few steps in that direction when they were met with more screams of terror. There was nothing visible in the flashlight’s beam but the cries seemed to come from right next to them; the old building holding unique echo lanes, and they stopped again.
“Left,” Simon offered, “Probably left then.” The group started the other way, Simon now on point. Eventually they found themselves in a locker-room with no other ways out; it was a dead end. Alice, who never panicked, kept Tim and Mary calm while Garren pulled Simon back into the hall.
“Simon, we’re trapped here. What are we going to do?”
“It’s okay,” Simon reassured. “There’s a vent in the back. It just pops off easily, if I’m being honest, and it goes to parking garage. There’s some cars there; we keep the keys in them. They will work…”
“Probably?” Garren asked. Simon didn’t get to answer. There was a noise coming down the hall: shuffling of feet; the shuffling of many, many feet. Simon raised the, now flickering, beam towards the sound. The flashlight, in perfectly predictable fashion, began to die. The beam stayed alive just long enough to see the shining black shoes and black pants taking slow, deliberate steps in their direction. They were here.
Simon shoved Garren back into the locker-room thrusting the handgun into his hands at the same time.
“The vent! Get your family through the vent.” Garren looked at the younger man’s face in disbelief; he didn’t want to leave him. “Your family…your kids! Go!” Garren turned and headed to his family hearing Simon screaming bloody murder in the hall as he charged forward to battle.
The vent was smaller than Garren anticipated and it was hard to imagine Simon ever squeezing through it in the first place. It was enough of a challenge for Alice and him. As they made their way through Garren, who was in the rear, could hear the voices filtering in from behind him. It was them.
“Can I…would you…talk…do you…moment…life…will you…change…just a moment…may we…don’t you…” The disembodied voices of various timbres drained the marrow from his bones chilling him from the inside out and he hoped his body was blocking the soundwaves from reaching the children. After what seemed an interminable distance, Alice found herself kicking out a wall grate which deposited them in the third floor of a parking garage. There were no cars immediately available; nothing drivable at least.
“Up or down?” Alice urged. Before any time to consider the question was answered for them.
The ringing bells came from the levels beneath them. The last four weeks had conditioned the family, in very Pavlovian fashion, to fear that noise and the all dropped lower to the ground.
“There’s several of them down there.” Alice whispered. The kids were perfectly silent; they knew the stakes well enough by now.
“Up it is then. If we can get to the top then maybe when can at least get some idea of what it looks like out there…how many there are.” Alice nodded her approval and the group began the slow procession to the roof, crouching and ducking whenever cover provided itself. Garren was overwhelmed by the sense of sadness at seeing his wife and children navigate the environment like a military unit rather than a family. Was this what he world had reduced them to?
Despite Simon’s assurances that a car would “probably” be available for them the pickings were pretty slim on the way up. There was hardly any with four wheels let alone any type of working engine. The city had been picked clean and they were living among the bones now. The roof proved to be a partial bust without any vehicles at all but it did provide the one thing they were looking for at that moment: a view. Staying low, the four of them shimmied up to a far wall and sat with their backs to it.
To Tim Garren said, “Sit here and do not move.” Then to Mary, “watch your brother no matter what and stay put.”
“We know dad,” she hissed back. Of course she was right. They did know the drill.
“I’m going to take a peek.” Alice nodded and very slowly Garren lifted his head above the concrete barrier. Inch by painful inch, the ground began to come into view and as it did it stole his breath away. It was so much worse than he had ever dreamed it to be. They were everywhere; everywhere…like ants. Their black shoes glistened in the sunlight giving them separation from the creased black slacks. Black ties stood out against starched white shirts and the lines they created across the landscape was dizzying.
Alice’s face joined his at the top of the wall and he could hear her stop breathing as well. There were hundreds…maybe thousands of them down there milling about like cattle. Some weaving through and about the others on bicycles with little bells that went ‘ring-ring’.
“Garren…is this the end of the world?” He had never heard that kind of fear in her voice before and, even more frightening to him, he didn’t know how to answer her. They were both caught off guard by Tim’s voice, which was suddenly next to their own and definitely way too loud. “Daddy, what do they want?” That was all it took to shatter their illusion of safety and any concealment they might have thought they had. There was only time for a mother and father to process the reality of what had just happened and what was about to happen. Immediately a group on the sidewalk next to the parking structure made eye contact and pointed at them. Within seconds they would all know.
“Excuse me…”one of them screamed at the top of his lungs, “may I have a moment of your time?” Then another, “Pardon me, but would you like to talk about the most important thing in the world?” and finally another, “Sir and Madam, We’d like to talk to you today about the Latter-Day Saints…do you have the time?” With tears in her eyes, Alice threw her hands to her shaking head and screamed “NO!” Garren scooped up his children in an embrace; knowing in his heart that this was, in fact, the end of the world. Pulling the .45 from his belt he counted the last four bullets and knew that it was to be. At least they would all be together in the end.