Outside, under the red sky, Jack and Professor Dillon closed the main outer door of Saint Joseph School behind them. Jack could hear the click as Tony turned a lock on the other side of the solid oak barrier.
“Here,” the professor said, his voice muffled through the surgical mask. He handed Jack a Kimber Custom pistol from his camouflage jacket. “Do you know how to use it?”
Jack looked at the hand-checkered, double diamond rosewood grip, the full chamber and the .45 caliber stamp on top of the five-inch barrel. “Yeah, not a problem,” he said, moving the billy club to his other hand. “I’m pretty accurate with ‘em. Never shot a Kimber Custom but if the LAPD SWAT team uses them, it’s good enough for me.”
“Special Ops uses ‘em, too,” the professor added. “Let’s go.”
Jack looked around at the surreal landscape. There were no people, no zombies, no birds, no dogs, not even a mosquito. Jack would never admit it, but he was a little unnerved by this whole situation. The sky had stopped dropping its red sugar particles to the ground. Nonetheless, it was like he was in a dream or sucked into a game of Half-Life. Halloween pumpkins on the steps of a home across the street were covered with a couple inches of the red sparkles as if a volcano had erupted and left red ash over the city.
“There are plenty of vehicles to get gas from,” Jack said, pointing toward numerous cars parked along the street and in the local driveways.
“That’s good, but we’re going to get Father first.”
“Sure, not a problem.”
“Ya know, Jack,” the professor said, looking through the bifocals of his glasses. He bent over to get a closer look at the glittering substance piled on the branches of a yew bush. The pale crimson particles clashed with the shrub’s bright red berries. “These sparkles look like piles of spores. If they are, they may be able to reproduce.”
Jack kicked at a pile of the red sparkles; they dispersed through the air as if he had just stepped on a puffball mushroom. “I’m no scientist,” Jack said, watching as the cloud of spore-like substances floated through the air until finally resting back on the ground. “But I once heard about a fungus that turns ants into zombies.”
The professor raised his eyebrows and looked at Jack. “I think you may be on to something. There is a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis that infects a particular kind of ant and then takes control of the ant by having it wander away from its group and go to a particular leaf at an appropriate height off the ground. That height, the infected ant goes to, has the perfect heat, humidity and light conditions for the fungus to grow. Then the fungus makes the ant clamp its jaw into a vein on the leaf and then die while the fungus grows inside it. It then sprouts fungal threads on the dead ant, especially the back of the head.”
Jack ran his hand around his mask, making sure the fit was secure. “You mean that stuff’s really true?”
“It’s true all right.”
“So are you saying that the fungus may be guiding these zombies to an ideal growing condition and then start sprouting from the back of their heads?”
“I don’t know,” the professor said as he backed away from the bush.
Jack and the professor stared at each other for a few seconds before walking toward the rectory. Was the professor going to say something more or was he just thinking? Jack was sure he saw fear in the professor’s wide-open eyes. Either way, the situation seemed grave.
The rectory was on the other side of the church, a short distance away. When they approached the two-story brick house, they noticed the front door slightly ajar. Broken glass from the front window lay scattered around the sill.
“That’s not a good sign,” Jack said, slowly pushing the door open while the professor tried to look in through the broken window.
Jack’s fingers tightened on the pistol as he slowly pushed the door the rest of the way open and walked into the quiet shadows. “Anyone here?”
The professor was right behind Jack. “Father, it’s Professor Dillon. Are you all right?”
They both paused to see if they could hear anything, but only silence filled the air. Some fiddleback chairs lay on their side as if there had been a struggle. The rectory office desk was at an odd angle and papers lay scattered on the floor.
“The door to the upstairs is closed,” the professor said, walking slowly to a faded wooden door, another architectural object refusing to give up the past. “Look at the gashes on that door, Jack.” The professor pointed to the large gouges as if someone had taken a knife and was trying to stab their way inside. The professor walked up to it and attempted to turn the brass doorknob, it would not move. “It’s locked.” He knocked on the door. “Father, it’s Professor Dillon. Jack and I are here to help you. Are you okay? Can you let us in?”
“Shh, I heard something coming from upstairs,” Jack said, pausing for a moment. Then he said with a voice loud enough to penetrate the door, “Father, we gotta get out of here; we want you to come with us.” Jack turned toward the professor. “Shouldn’t he have something over his face, so he doesn’t breathe that stuff in?”
The professor nodded. “I brought an extra mask.”
They heard a stumbling coming down the stairs.
“Father, put a scarf over your face. You can’t breathe in these red particles. Can you hear me?” the professor said in a raised voice.
A muffled gruff to the affirmative was heard approaching the door. They stood back as the sound of the door being unbolted and then creak open made them a little skittish.
“Father, are you all right?” the professor asked as a frail-looking gray-haired man opened the door, whiskey bottle in hand. “For God’s sake, Father, are you drinking?”
“Only a little,” Father joked, raising the caramel colored bottle above his head as if he were going to swing it at them. “It’s also a good weapon, if needed.” He lowered the bottle and smiled. “Good to see you, Professor.”
“Likewise,” the professor said as he moved into the stairwell. “We’d better get upstairs.”
“Do you have more of that?” Jack laughed, following Father and the professor up the narrow stairway. The swish of the plastic bags on their feet echoed as they climbed the narrow passage. Jack run his fingers along the peeling floral wallpaper, feeling the texture. It reminded him of Saturday morning cartoons, chocolate milk, and swimming in his grandparents’ pond near Posey Lake.
“Follow me,” Father Mitch said when he reached the top step. He walked through the kitchen and into the dimly lit study. A French wing chair held a crumpled lap blanket. On top of the end table, next to the chair was a bible, rosary, and an empty glass. Father got a bottle of whiskey from a nearly depleted liquor cabinet. “Here, guard it, we may need it later.” He smiled.
“I like you.” Jack laughed, reaching for the Scotch. He stuffed the Kimber into the back waistband of his blue jeans.
The professor sat down the gas can and siphon hose, and walked next to Father. Towering over the priest’s small frame, he asked, “Have you heard from the Sisters, are they okay?”
“I haven’t heard a word,” Father said, putting his hands in the pockets of his black trousers. “All I’ve seen are people following that blue light and then coming back here, acting like they want to rip my head off. What’s going on?”
“We’re not sure yet, Father. But, we do know that we got to get out of here. We need your vehicles and gas.” The professor cleared his throat sheepishly. “If that’s okay?”
“Take whatever you need, Professor. The church van is in the garage,” Father said as he retrieved a couple rosaries from a decorative birch rosary box. “You boys may need these.”
Jack was raised Catholic but had not seen the inside of a church in years. “Thank you, Father,” Jack said as he slid the olive wood beaded rosary into his pants pocket.
“Father, I hate to take your stuff, but we’ll need food, water, garbage bags and duct tape if you have it,” the professor said as he walked into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator; an odor of spoiled food puffed out at his face. “I guess we don’t need anything in there.”
Jack found the garbage bags under the sink, began filling them with food, and bottled water from the sparse cupboards while the professor approached Father with a couple garbage bags and duct tape.
“Put these on to cover your feet and legs, as we have them,” the professor said, handing the bags and tape to Father.
“How could I possibly walk with those on my feet?” Father asked, reluctantly taking the items. “And besides, what’s the point?”
“They’re to keep those sparkles, spores, or whatever they are, off our clothes so that we don’t traipse them inside buildings and cars.” The professor paused and looked at Father’s questioning face. “Because we’ll take them off before we get in.”
“I think you’re fighting a losing battle in trying to keep that red stuff off of us,” Father said, sitting down and slipping a foot into a bag.
“You’ll need this mask and sunglasses, too.” The professor handed Father the rest of the required garb.
“Is all this really necessary?” Father asked, putting on the mask and sunglasses.
“The professor thinks so.” Jack laughed, looking at Father’s excessive tape job and crooked glasses and mask.
“Let’s go,” the professor said, grabbing the gas can that he had sat next to the door.
Jack and Father Mitch each took a garbage bag of food as the three went out the back door and descended through the stairwell to the landing by the exit. The professor fumbled for the deadbolt lock in the darkness and turned the thumb knob; the bolt clicked back into the cylinder. There was just enough room to pull the door open past the professor’s pudgy body.
“The coast is clear,” the professor said, stepping out into the pink snow. He walked across the driveway to the garage, puffs of particles bellowed out from his steps. Reaching down, the professor grabbed the handle, and the garage door rolled up and into the ceiling. Like a lifeboat, the full-size conversion van sat facing out; Saint Joseph Catholic School painted in dark blue letters on the white side signaled safe harbor.
Jack opened the van’s rear cargo doors and placed the bags of food in the back, and then he walked around and got into the driver’s seat. “Do you have the keys, Father?”
“Oh, sorry.” Father reached into the pocket of his black clerical jacket and brought out an empty hand. “I left them in the rectory, I’ll be right back.”
The professor nodded and walked around to the driver’s door. “Shit, Jack, you forgot to take the bags off your feet before you got in.”
Jack looked down at his legs; he was surprised he had grown so accustomed to them that he had forgotten about them. “At least it doesn’t seem like the spores stuck to them.” He got out, ripped the bags from his legs and tossed them into the corner of the garage, next to a trashcan.
“I think Father’s right about fighting a losing battle with these particles because now your hands are contaminated,” the professor said, pointing to Jack’s ungloved hands.
Jack lifted his hands and turned them back and forth. “You didn’t give me any gloves, and you didn’t wear gloves when you opened the garage door,” Jack teased.
“Touché,” the professor said, shaking his head. “This may be more difficult than I think. But don’t worry about it because since we’ve been exposed, if something is going to happen, it will happen soon.”
“Is that supposed to be encouraging?” Jack said with a sideways grin.
The professor shrugged and walked over to a five-gallon gas can that Father had underneath the workbench. He lifted it with one hand and gave it a jiggle, causing the petrol to slosh inside. “It’s about half full.”
Just then, they heard Father running back to the garage, nearly falling from the loose, bulky garbage bags around his feet. He held the keys firmly in his trembling hand. “There’s someone out there; they might have seen me,” Father said, catching his breath.