The shit hit the fan on our fourth day of vacation in L.A. We were somewhere downtown surrounded by a tour group when the sirens went off. Wild-eyed, pudgy middle-aged Canadians stood shaking, gripping their Canons and Nikons as hundreds fled past the Chinese Theater, down Hollywood boulevard. My pregnant wife, our three year old son and our dumb-ass dog which I’d expressly told them to leave at home but been overruled (once again) I held close to me. Said tiny dog barked madly and pulled at his leash, jumping like a yoyo at the fleeing people, eyes wide and fangs flashing.
Tour guide waving a little red flag, urging us all to keep calm, craning his neck in the direction everyone else was running away from. Trying to herd his bovines back onto the bus as calmly as he could, wiping sweat off his forehead, the siren getting louder as shrieks approached. I pulled my wife and son (who held the stupid freaking mutt’s leash) as fast as I could, in the same direction as those leaving the scene were. Hot June sun beating down on the Walk of Fame. Pushed and jostled, horns blaring on the road where cars ran over people who got in their way. Chaos. Canadian tourists sobbing behind us, shuffling their feet to get back to the big blue “Canada, Eh!” tour bus with the tinted windows.
Whatever caused the panic, I didn’t want to be on a bus when it hit. Would you want to be stuck on a stationary object on the side of the road during a terrorist attack, or an invasion? I trusted the mob on this one: move with it, and quick. I got fed up with the damn dog’s pulling and picked it up, as well as my crying son, and ran as fast as my pregnant wife’s legs could carry her. I hoped the baby was okay. I hoped we would all be okay.
We ran, my son’s hair getting in my mouth, but never mind that. Shit-for-brains dog straining over my shoulder to bark and snarl and spit at whatever came toward us. I pushed my wife into a 7 Eleven and rushed her to the back door. Whatever road we took, the main one was probably not the best. Overturned milk crates, waterfalls of white slowly leaking out of torn cartons, cashier looking over the edge of the counter, cowering. Brenda slipped, and if I hadn’t been holding her above her elbow, she’s have fallen in the puddle of lactose. Through the store-room, bang into the brown emergency door.
“Hold on… hold on…” she pants, leaning against the brick wall of the adjacent building. Dog and son in my arms, I look around the back alley. Mostly deserted, with a few people running at the far end. The screaming and yelling from the other side of the building almost dreamlike. Car turns down the far end of the alley, tires kicking up smoke. Dirty blue beater. Dodge something. Belches fumes. Driver and passenger gripping the wheel and dashboard respectively. I stand in the middle of the alley, and I hope. Car is coming. Fast. Woman driving sees me and hits the brakes, loud enough that the sound reverberates along the walls of the buildings on both sides.
I lean in to pick up Brenda, and we go to the car.
Woman looks like she wants to bolt, just leave us there. She throws a glance at Brenda, then at Miguel, who’s gripping my neck tight.
“Please,” I beg, and she nods her head to the back. The man in the passenger seat keeps looking back at where they came from. Down at the end of the alley, runners. Angry, mouths O’s of hate. I help Brenda into the back, and before I have my other leg into the car, the woman hits the gas. The runners are coming. Sprinting as fast as they can, mouths agape. There is another woman on the back seat next to Brenda. She’s older. She’s trying desperately not to look scared.
“What’s going on?” I ask the driver, the sound of the sirens a background wail that breaks up intermittently.
“Infection. Viral,” she says, her voice shaking. She turns on the radio, and a man is warning everyone to stay inside and lock their doors. We veer a left down La Brea, the woman skidding around people dashing across the streets. Behind us, no more angry runners. The throngs are staying on the sidewalk, here, heading south, toward Santa Monica Boulevard. “Until the sun comes down over Santa Monica Boulevard”. Words to a song. I feel stupid for thinking about songs in the middle of whatever all this is.
The woman is Simone. She’s a dental assistant. The man is Ludvig. He just arrived in the States. They got married in Sweden a month ago. Simone studied there. The older woman is Ludvig’s mother, Linnea. She came to see how nice the US was. Us too, Brenda says, trying to force a smile. I giggle nervously and Linnea makes funny faces at Miguel, who still clutches me for dear life. Some people are looting. They should be running. I feel guilty for being in a vehicle. Traffic is light. Most of it is heading West, not South, so we just have to careen around cars at intersections.
Simone’s got a house on Citrus Ave. It isn’t big, but being L.A., I’m sure it’s expensive enough. “Inheritance,” she says, by way of explanation. The windows and doors all around have big, thick, decorative metal grates covering them. Neighbors are packing their cars as fast as they can. Two doors down, a blond crew cut is yelling: “Hurry up! Come on!” from the driver’s seat of his SUV, punctuating his words with honks of the horn.
We hole up inside the house after Simone locks all the doors and gates. Her cat runs away to the basement when it sees our idiot dog, but we are past caring at this point. Inside, the hum of the air conditioning and the coverage from the TV are the only sounds. Map of Los Angeles County, with a spreading red splotch, like a movie blood stain spreading on the linoleum. Infected. Viral. By what? By whom? No one has the answers. Everyone has to hide. No one knows what else to do. Helicopters circle areas where the infected are running. They run at people. They jump on them. Tear them apart. Bite them. I turn my head away. Miguel is in the corner with Ulrich’s iPad, playing video games.
Outside, the sun is painting the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in a long time: pinks and purples, then long shadows and burnt orange. Then the first runners appear. Ludvig owns a gun. One. It’s loaded and ready. I found some extra bits of metal the craftsmen who made the outside defenses must have left when they built it. Two metal bars with pointed ends. Simone gave me a wooden broom handle, and I almost laughed. “Sharpen it,” she said.
We turned out the lights. Kept quiet. I had my eye on the door’s magic peephole. All other windows had the curtains drawn and blinds turned. We kept still and held out breaths. I saw a runner go past, hissing and frothing at the mouth. It jumped on a speeding car further down the street and began hitting the windshield, and the car veered into the curb, turning on its side. The runner jumped up from the ground and onto the side driver’s window, which had shattered. Screams. Horrible, horrible screams. My eye bolted to the peephole. Runner gets its head out the window, mouth full of blood, and takes off.
Runners. Infected, whatever you want to call them. By the hundreds. Pouring down the street, like they’re on the marathon from Hell, and nothing can stop them. Fucking dog begins to bark, from the basement where we locked it up. I should have killed it. I swear if I’d known, I’d have put hot lead between its ears a long time ago. Runners veer off toward the noise. Toward us. They’re at the door, bashing, scratching and scraping, their nails and fists making a racket that set my hair on end. The metal grating is holding, all around the house.
I go downstairs and threaten the dog, which finally relents. We keep still. The runners surround the house, testing it for holes in the security. They find none. Brenda holds Miguel, and I hold them both. Simone and Ludvig are holding onto their respective weapons, staying far away from the walls and doors that they can’t be detected. Linnea is lying on the sofa, not looking so well. I don’t want to go look outside.
Eventually the noises outside stop, as if the house were no longer interesting enough for them. Maybe I’m looking for their logic, maybe they have none. They move away. No more scratching or bashing or anything. It’s quiet again.
Later that night, I bring the goddamned dog back up from downstairs. It spots the cat which has come out of hiding. This time the cat goes running out the pet door. The dog follows. Before I know what’s going on, Miguel is running after the mutt. He crawls through the pet door before I can stop him, and I poke my head through the flap, wanting to scream at him, but knowing that’s the stupidest thing I could do. What if sound brought them back?
I whispered harshly at Simone to unlock the fucking door. Brenda pulled at her wrist, trying to get the key. Ludvig raised the gun to my head, telling me to stop threatening his wife, that if I didn’t calm down, he’d shoot me. I walked up to the gun, which he pointed at my chest. Before I could stop her, Brenda had stolen the keys and unlocked the door. I tried to run after her, but Simone hit me over the head with one of the metal bars.
I woke in a puddle of my own drool. Face stuck to the ground. I peeled myself off and found Ulrich and Simone, staring at me, guilty looks plastered over their smarmy faces. “Where are they?” I yell at them, making their guilt accentuate. “Let me out of here”, I scream at them, the energy coming back.
Simone unlocks the front door, and they come with me. The sun is coming up. Dewdrops cover the fresh green grass of theirs and the neighbors’ lawns. My heart beats asynchronously. I feel hung over, like every thought that comes back makes me sicker. Linnea closes the door behind us. Ludvig passes me a steel bar, and I think of attacking them with it. His grip on his gun changes my mind.
We wander onto South La Brea, and there are steaming heaps as high as a car strewn every here and there. Charred. My heart beats faster. Businesses with smashed windows gape at us. People with baseball bats and pump-action rifles are walking down the street, red-eyed. Red gas canisters are strewn about, empty.
I poke at every pile. Afraid to find them. Afraid not to find them. Not knowing which is worse. Ash flies into the air, uncovering bones. After half an hour, we come to another of these endless piles, and I see a tiny form lying on it. Covered in ashes. I go to touch it, and pull back. What if he falls apart at my touch? I feel dust in my eyes. I lean over and pick up Miguel. He wakes up, and I see Brenda’s shape under where he lay. I put him down, and he just wander in place, his face slack, eyes empty, sucking in all the horrors he must have seen the previous night.
I go to pull her up, and her eyes flutter open. I touch her stomach and it feels slack, unlike before. She looks at me, putting her arms around my neck.
“Where’s the baby?” she whispers.
“I don’t— ”
“Where’s the baby?” she screams, and I want to hold her, but she is shaking me, gripping my shirt at the shoulders, while our son stares at nothing through his empty eyes.
“I don’t know.”