Dark Stories: George and Jason, Part 1
I had written quite a long introduction to George and Jason in my original manuscript for Comes The Dark. It was for the best that it didn’t make the final cut, because it ended up being a story that would have taken away from the flow and tempo of the book. But much like the story that I had written for Megan, it gave the reader a more in depth understanding of what these characters had gone through before they were introduced in the book.
I am not sure how many parts George and Jason’s story will have, but as I edit them, I will post them here, on my blog. Forgive me for any editing errors-I tried to catch them before posting this, but I am sure some have slipped through.
So here it is:
George and Jason, Part 1
The sandy haired man took a swig from the bottle of lukewarm water. He glanced briefly at the image of ice capped mountains on the label and grimaced at the taste. At least it wasn’t hot, although he wouldn’t gripe if it was. But a visual of a mountain stream filled with pure, icy cold water was a stretch. His world was not filled with breath taking vistas and bracing winds. Instead, there were dark, confining walls and thick, muggy air.
The sound was exaggerated and the marketers of Mountain Ice would have appreciated it … if they weren’t all dead. In fact, just about everyone they’d pitched their product to were dead too. So the sarcastic sound of satisfaction was pointless. George didn’t care, because just about everything was pointless these days.
He stood in the dark backroom and tried to push away the depressing thought. It was damned hard, but he had to believe it was still worth the effort. He was in one piece after everything he’d been through. Be grateful for the little things. It was his mantra these days.
George cut an impressive form. At six two and slightly over two hundred and forty pounds he was thickly built and muscular. The graying at the temples and creases in the skin around his eyes might convince some that he was past his competitive prime, but when they saw him move they would likely backtrack on such an assessment. George was naturally athletic, but as he’d hit middle age he discovered he had to work twice as hard to keep up with the kids half his age.
George wondered why he still bothered. Exercise seemed rather pointless anymore. Old habits die hard. He knew it was true enough, but that wasn’t all of it. So he went through the stomach crunches, push ups, sit ups, and anything else he could do in the silence of the dark and dusty rooms of the church he was stuck in knowing that as he tried so hard to exhaust his body, he was trying even harder to keep his mind occupied.
George surveyed the crowded back room. It was a storage closet in the place he’d called home for over a month now. Cardboard crates and cartons were stacked up against the far wall; corrugated sentinels guarding the abandoned building against the onslaught of dust bunnies and silverfish. Several boxes had been torn into and emptied of their content. George sighed as he did a count of what remained. He was sick and tired of the sticky sweet juice boxes and stale cheese and peanut butter crackers stored for the daycare and kindergarten programs the church ran. He relished the occasional water bottle, but soon the case of Mountain Ice that they’d been rationing at one bottle a day would be gone.
For what might have been the thousandth time, he sighed and shook his head. How did it come to this? He nudged one of the half filled boxes with his big toe and resisted the urge to kick it against the wall. This was all they had left.
George walked out into the gymnasium. The daylight shining down through the skylights was a Godsend. All the doors and windows on the first floor were blocked up or covered with plywood and cafeteria tables. The light felt good, but didn’t cheer him up. Whether George was in the gym or one of the few other areas he could roam freely in the building, he felt as if he were in perpetual darkness.
George mouthed a silent prayer for the strength to get through another day as he walked across the hardwood floor. It was one of dozens of little prayers he uttered these days. He hadn’t been a devout Christian before the plague-sure, he believed in God, but attending church was something he did on autopilot. It could salve a guilty conscience, demonstrate devotion, or set a good example for his daughters, but it had mostly been a façade, a convenient cover-up for someone who couldn’t be bothered to care anymore.
It shocked him when Helen decided to convert to his religion years ago. George was not gung ho about the idea, but she insisted. When Roxanne was born, religion all the sudden became that much more vital to Helen and she pressed George to become more active in the church. In his mind it felt as if he wife was steamrolling him, but he loved her too much not to cave to the pressure. He had to admit that without Helen’s religious zeal his children might have grown up clueless about God and faith in general. She made sure they were baptized, went to Sunday school, and took communion … the whole nine yards. George sat back and watched, content in knowing that his wife had taken on that mantle of responsibility and was doing a bang up job of it.
Now, in the aftermath of the hell the world had become, he’d been “reborn”. The pillars of the world had crumbled and that’s when the praying started. It came in a rush-there was no gradual transformation. George comprehended the error of his ways and that changed him irrevocably. He would recite prayers on an almost hourly basis, and they had an element of gratitude in them—he thanked God for tolerating a last second convert. Perhaps that was why he was still alive: he’d been given the chance to repent his sins and to rectify for his past mistakes.
George’s mind switched gears as he thought about the boy for a moment. They were trapped in this place together, but the pre-teen was so distant it felt as if he were somewhere else entirely. George had tried to get Jason to warm up to him, tried to get him to talk or even pray, but the kid cared little about God or anything else for that matter. That was no surprise, but was still frustrating. All they had was each other, but Jason acted as if even that was too much to deal with.
The boy had been that way ever since Jennifer had given up on him. That was when George had assumed the mantle of responsibility for Jason, but it was clear the damage caused by her decision had been profound. Those cannibal bastards roaming around outside couldn’t have ripped him apart any more thoroughly. Jason had been gutted, just not in a physical sense.
So George prayed alone.
George prayed for the boy, he prayed for both their souls, and he prayed for guidance. He prayed for strength and the ability to avoiding going insane. He also prayed for mercy and forgiveness. But mostly, he prayed for his wife and two daughters waiting for him back home.
George basked in the bright sunlight and tried to appreciate the warmth it gave off. His footsteps echoed as he walked across the gym. There was no rush to get to the door. These days there was little need to rush anywhere.
George resisted the urge to open the closet housing the basketballs so he could take a few shots with one. Working up a sweat would be great—it might even take his mind off of everything for a bit. Unfortunately, the dead were right outside. If they heard him, his struggles over the past month would be all for naught.
It was luck that had gotten him this far. All sorts of it: bad luck that the world had gone Looney Tunes, good luck that he had made it to the church with Jason alive and dumb luck that they had survived this long.
He would have run long ago. To hell with the walking corpses outside, he would have risked them and all the dangers they posed. They were frightening, those rotting mockeries of life, but more so, they were sad. When George looked into their eyes they seemed lost. They no longer knew who or what they once had been. They weren’t too sharp and he was certain he could slip past them if he was careful. The volume of abandoned vehicles on the road was staggering: he could have his pick of ones with the keys still in the ignition and enough gas to get him all the way home.
He would have done it already, had it not been for Jason.
There had been four of them originally: Jennifer, Al, George, and Jason. They had escaped the shelter together when things had gone bad. The high school was filled with refugees just like them, all crammed in the gym—a thousand or more at least. So many, in fact, the soldiers had to funnel newcomers over to the elementary school across the street. At first the refugees were mainly locals; residents of Gallatin and the surrounding area urged to head to the local shelter and wait out the chaos there.
Things had been easy for the early arrivals. There was plenty of room and a belief that the troubles outside would be resolved quickly. It was when people started pouring in from all over the region that the sense of optimism faltered. They brought with them stories of the city’s doom.
The Guardsmen did a good job of getting everyone settled and even squelching rumors of how things had gone from bad to unbelievably worse in the space of just a few days. Not just in Cincinnati but everywhere. But despite their best efforts, every new group brought with them horrific stories that spread like wildfire. Tales would spread from cot to cot, group to group. There was little else to do in the cramped gymnasium except to gossip and the only topic to gossip about was how bad things were out there.
George had been tossed unceremoniously into the shelter and knew no one there. With no family or neighbors to powwow with, he gathered what information he could by spying on other’s conversations. The city was burning; it was dying before their very eyes. The dead were coming back to life, attacking the living and transforming them into similar monstrosities.
The undead were everywhere. At first, reports were that they’d been contained. But outbreaks which started in some of the more blighted neighborhoods around the city spread rapidly. The National Guard would cordon off one area and an outbreak would be reported elsewhere. There appeared to be no way to pinpoint a source contaminant in the city at all. Someone would be bitten and then flee to another part of town. They would die, reanimate, and start the cycle all over again.
Nothing the military did seemed to make any headway and despite the best efforts to house refugees and protect them, everyone stuck in the Gallatin High School was getting the sense that there was nothing anyone, including the military, could do to stop this plague from engulfing everything.
The stories that came in were hard for George to swallow at first, but the volume of them wore him down as they did everyone else, until it was hard to deny what was happening. There were comparisons to Auschwitz and the battlefields of Vietnam. Dump trucks filled with corpses stacked like cordwood were driven through the city’s neighborhoods as soldiers in hazmat outfits dragged dead bodies out of houses and loaded them up. Crematoriums were set up around the city to euthanize or dispose of those who had been infected. ‘Emergency Virus Centers,’ were also set up—people could take those who were sick there to be treated. But treatment had a tendency to make a person disappear. Families and even churches had taken to hiding those who had been bitten, despite the government’s rather rapid enactment of laws calling for the execution of those offering safe harbor for the infected. Promises of a cure, or of genuine treatments, saturated the airwaves at first then tapered off as everyone stopped believing them.
Newer refugees arriving at the high school made it clear that shelters and the small areas surrounding their locations were the only places the government had control of anymore. Everywhere else, rioters and looters made it impossible for the military to differentiate between the undead and those who were just angry and desperate. There were still pockets of resistance against the inexorable march of the dead—citizen militias banding together and barricading themselves in apartment complexes, office buildings, and other makeshift fortresses. Others chose to lock their front doors and turn off their lights with the hope that death would pass them by. But even the most optimistic newcomers to the shelter admitted that most of those people had fared even worse than the National Guard troops committed to defending them.
The shelters were supposed to be beacons of hope. That’s essentially what the soldiers with the bullhorns said as they drove up and down the streets. It was what the government had claimed on television and radio. They were places citizens should go to insure their safety. George did not want to be here, separated from his family, but he did believe he was safe there, at first. Until he saw how some seeking sanctuary were treated. Those who had been bitten were forcefully separated from family members who naively believed all were welcome. Those who were docile or already in a state of shock would accept this, believing that the best possible treatments were being made available to those that had been bitten and they would be reunited with their family members once they had been vaccinated, or whatever it was the government doctors were doing to them. Others weren’t so understanding. In those cases, things tended to get ugly, fast. Fights would erupt in the hall where newcomers were processed and inspected for wounds and infections. Family members would scream and attack soldiers tasked with the responsibility of loading the infected onto the trucks to be sent away … to where, no one was ever told.
It was clear that most of the soldiers were losing the battle to stay impartial and focused on their duties. George knew that as National Guard troops, most of them were locals. They had grown up in the area and knew a lot of the people they were sending off for ‘treatment’. He could not imagine how hard these assigned duties were on them.
The shelter became something akin to a small city; people were jammed in shoulder to shoulder, attempting to live whatever lives they could under such horrid circumstances. George witnessed transactions for drugs and sex, theft, and acts far more foul. He felt helpless and that all hope for the human race was lost.
That was when George began to pray.
It wasn’t hard to surmise that it was like this the entire world over. The virus had first hit overseas, in several different areas of the globe, seemingly overnight. No one could figure out where it had started. It then hit North American with cases reported in Toronto, Canada and Monterrey, Mexico. Before the borders could be sealed, there were cases reported in Baltimore and Denver. The National Guard moved in quickly, imposing rules and taking over from the civil authorities. The army was next: men and women returning from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and U.S. military bases all over the world. The President recalled all troops to the Homeland in one fell swoop. But by then, the country was already in the grasping fist of the plague. Martial Law or it equivalent had been enacted in every corner of the globe, but there was nothing but complete and utter anarchy to show for it.
It was not the fondest of memories, thinking back to those days in the shelter, but as George remained stuck inside the church he and Jason were hiding out in, his mind kept reliving everything that had led up to his arrival there.
The sad part, the truly saddest part of it all, was that it could have been avoided. He had been staying at a local hotel and knew he should have left the moment he realized that the plague that had been sweeping the globe had arrived in his little corner of Ohio. Even later, when the hotel manager had come knocking at his door telling him he had five minutes to pack his belongings and get out in front of the hotel where a squad of National Guard soldiers were waiting, he should have ran.
Wildwood, where George lived, was less than an hour away. Even the traffic clogging the highways wouldn’t have been an issue. He knew plenty of back roads. Sure, it would have been dangerous, but he would have been with his family instead of stuck here in this dusty old church.
George opened the door leading to the stairwell, being careful not to let the door slam behind him. He began the short climb that would take him to the second floor.
George remembered when Jennifer and Al came to the shelter. Befriending the newlyweds had been the only good thing that had happened to him since he had gotten there. They had moved to Ohio only weeks before and knew no one in the city except for a few new coworkers of Al’s.
They had tried to leave Cincinnati, but the airport had been closed to non-military transport. Buses and train lines were shut down as well. Highways and most main roads became and remained jammed or blockaded by the military. So Al and Jennifer decided to leave their modest apartment in Gallatin and made their way to the closest shelter.
George was a naturally friendly person and when he smiled at the young couple they latched onto him immediately. They took comfort in his assurances that this would all blow over and they would all be back to their homes leading normal lives in no time.
A day later Jason showed up. He was terrified and alone, a twelve year old boy that had lost his mother. He had been put in with the other orphans and there were a shockingly high number of them. George didn’t pay him any attention at first, but Jennifer befriended him. She’d spent time teaching daycare and volunteered to tend to the children in the shelter. Perhaps it was her gentle nature, or the fact that she was quite attractive-whatever it was, Jason took to her immediately. Within a single day she had “adopted” him, convincing the soldiers to allow his cot to be moved next to her and Al’s. Al didn’t mind at all and welcomed the boy into their little clique.
It wasn’t long after when George had his last phone conversation with Helen. She begged him to come home as soon as possible and he promised her over and over that he would. She talked about the attacks in Dayton, but how Wildwood was still safe, for the most part. She would hold up in their house with the girls until he managed to find a way to leave the shelter. He told her to put boards up over the windows and doors and that everything would be fine until he returned home. If they stayed out of sight, no one would bother them.
That had been six weeks ago.
After that, the cellular network broke down completely. That last call would be burned onto George’s mind forever and was part of the reason why he was obsessed with getting home, no matter how impossible that goal might be. But until he figured out what to do with the young boy he was responsible for, his journey would have to wait. George had made a promise to Jennifer and to God above, and he intended to keep it. Taking Jason out into the hell the world had become was not a part of that promise.
George dragged up the stairs and reached the second floor. He opened the door leading to the narrow hallway and the rooms he and Jason spent most of their time in these days. The first floor was less closed in and had all their food and water, but the second floor felt safer. There was a much smaller chance of being discovered up here, in this little hideaway. If the time came when they were forced to evacuate the building, the second floor was not the best place to be since there was only one set of stairs, but knowing that the ghouls outside couldn’t break through their meager barricades and be on top of them right away help them to fall asleep at night.
The shelter turned into a madhouse a week after George got there. He guessed that it was getting almost as bad inside as it was outside, with the tension increasing tenfold every day. At first, when there was plenty of room and assurances that everything would be okay, it felt almost festive in the gymnasium. There were jokes and laughter and even sing-alongs. But after a few days, everyone was realizing they were trapped and might be for a very long time. That was when many of the refugees came unglued.
Various factions and even several gangs cropped up. Younger men began banding together for the purpose of intimidating the other residents. Whether for money or cheap thrills, it served as a distraction for them. The soldiers clamped down at first, responding to complaints and separating the troublemakers. But life was wearing on them as much as the people they were protecting, and after a while they left the refugees to their own devices, for the most part. As long as there wasn’t any obvious violence or disturbances, the Guardsmen didn’t interfere.
George became the protector over his little clan. He used his size to intimidate predators, who typically chose to seek out less daunting prey. The key was looking them in the eye and not backing off. A few well placed and meaningful looks at the leaders of the gangs was enough to convince them to stay away from him and his “family.”
They were confined to the gym and cafeteria in the high school for the most part. The National Guard had taken over the classrooms in the building for their living quarters. Refugees had been given limited access to the library at first, but the privilege was revoked when more and more fights broke out there. George knew things had moved over to the realm of complete insanity when soldiers decided to lock everyone in the gym one night instead of trying to break up a battle between two newly formed rival gangs. He and Al followed the lead of several other people and flipped over their cots to create a makeshift barricade to hide behind. It worked fairly well and kept George and his small troop out of the way of the fists and knives being thrown around. Weapons had been confiscated as everyone had entered the shelter, but it was no surprise that smaller pocket knifes and even a few hunting knives had gotten through. Those without weapons improvised, with wooden posts broken off cots and even several shivs appearing. That made it clear to George that the shelter had become a prison in virtually every way possible.
Thirty minutes after the brawl broke out, tear gas was tossed into the gym and almost everyone lost their desire to fight. No official count was made after the soldiers moved in to deal with those who were still interested in fighting, but at least a handful of people died in the chaos and a much larger number were injured. The bodies were hauled out and the soldiers thrust first aid kits into the hands of anyone still standing, forcing them to tend to the injured.
Perceived trouble makers were rounded up and dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the shelter. George wasn’t sure what happened to them, but as he lay awake in the middle of that night, he heard muffled shots being fired from automatic weapons outside the high school. After that, previously loud complaints turned into whispered grumblings and most of the refugees steered clear of the soldiers patrolling the gym.
That was when George and his new found friends decided it was time to plan their escape.