The highway was empty, as were all the cold streets of Jackson. Sarah steered the pickup away from the dull red sunrise onto the exit ramp as they made their way to Saint Joseph Church and school.
“How much farther?” Jack asked, glancing over at the gas gauge.
“It’s up this road, on the right,” Sarah said, pointing as she turned off the business route and onto a side street lined with sugar maple trees. Their red and orange leaves sparkled as if a giant had sprinkled them with sweet crystallized sugar.
Then the truck began to sputter. The engine rumbled grumpily until it could no longer sustain its life. Sarah pumped the gas pedal then gave up when the truck rolled to a dead stop.
“What happened?” Willis asked, leaning forward from the rear seat.
“We ran out of gas,” Sarah said, loosening her grip on the steering wheel and dropping her hands onto her lap. She looked around the neighborhood for any signs of life, good or bad. “We’re only a couple blocks from Saint Joe’s. We should be able to see the church steeple.”
Jack looked out the window. White well-kept homes lined the quiet street. One had a decoration with a cluster of Indian corn on the front door while another had a scarecrow with a handkerchief collar planted at an angle in a trim front yard. A white plastic ghost hung from a sugar maple branch in another.
“It looks safe,” Jack said, opening his door with the billy club in his hand. “Grab your backpacks; let’s go!”
Sarah put her large overstuffed purse across her body. A backpack would be so much easier on the shoulders, she thought.
“Our backpacks are in the back,” Willis said to Georgie as they climbed out of the truck and into the street. Willis went around to the back, climbed into the box, and tossed out his and Georgie’s backpacks.
The four walked quickly down the empty street, their pace just short of a jog. Dry fall leaves rattled down paved driveways and swirled around dead cars before being crushed beneath their feet.
“The church and school are over there,” Sarah said, pointing as they reached an intersection. The church steeple rose above the tree line like a granite guidestone.
“I sure hope this is where they’re at,” Jack said, picking up his pace.
As they passed a Polish pastry shop, the classical parish church came into view. Modern arches of beige stone seemed out of place next to the older Gothic style school standing like a castle caught in a time warp.
“Look!” Georgie yelled, pointing toward the school. “There’s a sign in that upstairs window.”
They ran through the open chain link gate and into the parking lot of the school where they would be able to get a better look at the message written on a piece of cardboard pushed against the darkened windowpane.
“It’s in the shadow, I can’t read what it says,” Jack said, standing next to a small grotto of the Blessed Virgin, tucked neatly into a little cave of field stone.
“I’ll try the back door,” Sarah said as she climbed crumbling concrete steps to the metal door. She depressed the metal latch of the handle and pulled, but it would not open. “It’s locked.”
“Let’s go to the front door,” Jack said, leading the group to the front of the school, facing the road. Several sprawling rows of steps led up to battered wooden double doors of the aged three-story school. Jack’s pace was swift as he charged up to the entrance, nimbly taking the steps to the tall arched doors two by two. “It’s locked, too.”
They pounded on the doors and yelled for someone to open them. Sarah looked up at the red sky. Dark red was giving way to brilliant sparkles, like a roaring twenties red sequined flapper dress dancing in the upper atmospheric wind with the rising sun. The view was breathtaking. “Look at the sky, Jack.”
Jack stopped pounding the door with his billy club long enough to turn and look up past the towering oak and maple trees lining the quaint city street. “Shit, that can’t be good.”
As Jack turned back to continue battering the beleaguered door, he heard movement on the other side. “Be quiet.”
A latch clicked, and the door creaked partway open to reveal two men and a woman with guns pointed directly at them. After what seemed like an eternity, a disheveled gray-haired man lowered his weapon. “They’re not infected,” he said with a gruff voice. The cigar hanging out of his mouth bounced as he spoke.
Next to the old man was a younger bull-necked man who shouldered his rifle and said, “Come in, quickly.” He pulled the door open wide enough for them to enter then closed it tight, locking the latch. “Follow my wife upstairs.” He motioned toward a woman who was holstering her revolver.
“My name’s Clare,” said the woman walking toward the stairway. “Follow me.” They followed the woman, who appeared to be Sarah’s age, up the stairs and into a long darkened corridor. Clare entered a classroom. “In here.”
The classroom was dark except for a kerosene lamp on the table in the middle of the room. Window blinds blocked the rising sun leaving only a pink glow around their slat edges. The radio was on the teacher’s wooden desk, humming with dull static. They had electricity, Sarah thought.
A teenage girl dressed in drab camouflage walked up to Willis and Georgie, holding out her hand. “Hi, I’m Dawn.”
The boys smiled for the first time since the whole thing started. For a moment, Willis forgot about Jibber and Miss Foo while Georgie forgot about his dad. They eagerly shook her soft hand and followed her to the back of the room, away from the adults.
“My name’s Professor Jerry Dillon,” said the older gray-haired man, extending his dry, scratchy hand. “And sorry for the display of guns but we had to make sure you weren’t one of those others.”
Jack shook the overweight moose of a man’s hand. “I’m Jack; this is Sarah, and it looks like Willis and Georgie already found a friend,” he said, looking at the back of the classroom where Dawn was showing the boys around. “And don’t worry about the guns, we thoroughly understand.”
“You have a nice family,” the professor said, taking the cigar from his stubble face.
Sarah noted that Jack did not correct the professor and his assumption that they were a family. After all, there was no sense in explaining every detail of how Jack came to be with them, at least not yet.
The younger man smiled as he crossed his arms across his guerrilla chest. “Professor Dillon has been doing research in the astrophysics department at Western; hopefully, he can help us figure out what’s going on.”
“So what’s going on?” Jack asked skeptically. His tone was that of a schoolboy challenging a teacher.
“What’s going on?” Professor Dillon repeated, walking to a long lunchroom table, motioning for them to sit. “It’s the end of the world, at least as we know it. Those infected people out there, through no fault of their own, mind you, are now our enemies. I don’t have it totally figured out yet, but an intelligence from space has possessed the majority of the population. I’m not sure of their intentions yet, whether it’s enslaving us or simply just a way to kill us off so that they can take over the planet.”
Jack tilted his head and chuckled. “I know there’s weird shit going on out there, but your assessment, Professor, seems a little . . .” he paused, running his fingers through his hair, “Apocalyptic.”
Sarah was not surprised at the professor’s hypothesis. The people hiding out in the school were all wearing camouflage clothing and gave the impression of being survivalists. They already had weapons, a radio, and likely food in the containers sitting next to the wall ready to use. Preparations to survive a catastrophe had previously been made.
“Why aren’t we affected?” Jack said, leaning forward, elbows on the table.
“I theorize that some of us, a small percentage obviously, are immune to whatever it is. Our immunity must run in families because family units seem to be left intact. We’re not the only ones uninfected; there’s another group over by Kalamazoo that I’ve been in contact with.”
“That’s where we’re from,” Sarah said. “Maybe we can meet up with them on our way back home.”
“They’re holed up at a hospital in Plainwell, north of Kalamazoo where there’s a good emergency generator. We’re heading to the Owl Observatory in Kalamazoo, though,” the professor said, rolling the inch-long ash from his cigar into a soup can. “I think we should all travel together because there’s safety in numbers.”
Sarah nodded in agreement. “How were you broadcasting from here?”
“The school has a generator, but we can’t keep it running long because there’s only so much fuel. We turn it on long enough to broadcast, get water, and . . .” the professor paused. “Flush toilets.”
“I heard a broadcast say something about staying out of the sun, why?” Jack asked.
The professor took a puff of his cigar. “I don’t know any of this for sure, it’s all speculation, but I’ve been watching this gaseous cloud next to Mars for the last several months at the observatory. It seemed to be intelligently controlled by the way it maneuvered. When the sun hit it, it would glow and set off red sparkles that affected the red planet by causing a reddish area where the cloud was adjacent. It was almost like something was inside or behind the cloud, but we never saw anything.”
“I didn’t hear anything about that on the news,” Sarah said.
“I reported it to NASA, but why the press didn’t pick it up, I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t want the public to panic.”
Clare placed her hand on her holstered Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum revolver. “When Dad saw the cloud come up missing he told us to get ready for the worst, so we grabbed our gear and got ready.”
“When I saw it leave Mars and head our direction I knew we were next,” the professor said. “Since we were already coming out here to celebrate Father Mitch’s birthday, we packed a lot of our gear just in case we needed it. Father let us set up on the upper floor of the recently closed school, especially since the sky had started turning red.”
“Where is Father Mitch?” Sarah asked.
“He’s hunkered down in the rectory,” the professor said. “We need to go over and check on him and convince him to come with us to the observatory.”
Jack stretched his arms above his head, easing the tension in his shoulders. “How do you know he’s not infected?”
“I don’t, but I noticed he closed the curtains in the rectory windows like I told him to do,” the professor said.
“Why didn’t he just stay here?” Sarah asked. “It would be safer.”
Clare leaned back in her creaky wooden chair. “He wanted to be available to the parishioners in case they needed him. He can be a little stubborn.”
Jack raised his eyebrows, like a student not grasping the concept of an algebraic expression. “So Professor, tell me again, what the hell is going on?”
The professor puffed his cigar. A plume of white smoke rose from the table. “What I believe is that aliens want the Earth, so they’ve infected the majority of the population with something that puts them under the aliens’ control. These zombies are programmed to kill us, uninfected people. Also, I don’t think these zombies have a long life span. I think that when they die off, the aliens will land and take over Earth.”
“So how do we stop them?” Jack asked.
“That’s the million-dollar question, Jack,” the professor said. “Right now, I don’t know.”
Sarah looked at the clock above the chalkboard; it was seven in the morning. She struggled to keep her eyes open from not having slept. The darkened room did little to prevent her from falling asleep right then and there. Willis and Georgie were still conversing with Dawn; they were off in their own little world and seemingly oblivious to what was going on outside, at least for the moment, she thought.
Sarah turned toward Professor Dillon. “How do you know that it’s dangerous for us to go out during the day, I mean for sure. Because it seems to me the zombies, for lack of a better word, are out roaming during the night.” She yawned. “Has anyone checked to see what is going on outside now? I mean, this is the first actual daylight hours since the infection began.”
“You’ve got a good point,” Professor Dillon said, standing. “I don’t know for sure; I’m just cautious. People could’ve become infected from the light, or from a virus or something else. However, they seemed to be drawn to the light like a moth to a flame.” He reached into a bag and pulled out a pair of sunglasses with side shields, handing it to Sarah. “Put these on and we’ll check.” He reached into his breast pocket, pulled out a pair of wear-over sunglasses, and placed them over his prescription glasses.
Sarah followed the professor to a classroom across the hall. The professor raised the shade enough to glance outside. The sky was beginning to lighten with the sunrise. Red sparkles floated down from the haze above like someone had taken red glitter and sprinkled it on the trees, buildings, and ground like frosting decorations on a birthday cake.
“We came inside just in time,” Sarah said. “Otherwise, we’d have that stuff all over us.”
The professor pressed his nose close to the pane of glass. “I don’t see anyone walking around. It looks dead.”
“Nice choice of words, Dad,” Clare said, walking up behind them. The shimmering blanket revealed no tracks; it did indeed look dead.
Jack tried adjusting the black plastic, one-size-fits-all, sunglasses as he walked behind Clare. “And these beauty statements are doing what? I thought we were immune to all this.”
The professor turned away from the window. “My theory is that the infection is coming from rays from the red sky and that it may be absorbed most intensely into our systems through our eyes during the day, hence the sunglasses. But fortunately, I think we’re immune, for the most part, but I don’t want to take any chances. I don’t want any of us to get a weak form of whatever strain this thing is.”
“I hate to blow a hole in your theory,” Jack said, approaching the window. “But what about the people who became infected who never looked into the sky, how’d they become zombies.”
“Again, I’m guessing. But I think the rays can penetrate objects, buildings, and the like and then be absorbed into us that way. I just don’t want us to get a high dose of this stuff through our eyes.”
Jack turned toward the professor. “So you’re thinking the red light is stronger than the blue light from the orbs that Sarah and I have been looking at all night?”
“I think so because this whole thing started with a red light, but honestly, I don’t know because the blue light is what attracted most people.” The professor walked back into the hall and took his glasses off. “But what worries me now are those red sparkles outside on the ground. I don’t think it’s wise to breathe any of them in.”
Clare closed the awkward window blind; one side lowered as the other would catch as if not wanting the room to return to darkness. “Fortunately, it’s not windy outside,” she said, watching the sparkles float down from the sky like snowflakes.
Jack followed the professor back into the classroom across the hall. “How are we going to keep from getting the red stuff back into the building? And if we drive to Kalamazoo I think there’s just no way we’re going to keep this red stuff from getting on our skin and breathing it in.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go to Kalamazoo and just stay here,” Clare said, seeming worried for the first time. “Besides, a group of Sisters borrowed our vehicles, because we had just filled them with gas, so they could check on nuns at another religious house. They have never returned, so we don’t have any transportation.” She added, somberly. “I hope they’re all right.”
“The problem with staying here,” the professor began, the cigar parked in the corner of his mouth, “Is that we’re going to run out of food and water eventually, and we’ll need to leave and search for supplies anyway. Besides, we need to get back to Owl Observatory where Max, hopefully, has been working on this problem.”
“There’s even a bigger problem,” Sarah added. “What about the aliens? If your theory is correct, Professor, they’ll be coming down to Earth and occupying it. How are we going to defend ourselves? I’m sure they’re going to want us dead like the rest of the infected.”
“That one I don’t have an answer for, I need to get back to the observatory in K-zoo so that I can examine the data,” the professor said, setting his hefty body onto a squeaky wooden chair that groaned at the same time as him. “Before we came out here I was getting some interesting data on the object that had been around Mars. I was letting the computer do its calculations while I left for a couple days, leaving Max, my assistant at the observatory, to oversee it while I was gone. I don’t think he was infected because I was able to speak with him before things went crazy.”
“So you think that there might be something in that data to help us kill those bastard aliens?” Jack asked.
“Who’s going to check on Father Mitch?” Sarah asked.
“I think it’s best if as few people as possible get exposed to the outside elements until we see what happens.” The professor twisted the butt of his cigar on the inside of the soup can. “Jack, you come with me while Tony and Clare pack things up here so we can leave quickly.”
“How are we getting to the observatory?” Jack asked. “We’re not driving there without gas; our truck ran out a couple blocks away.”
“Father has a church van and his car in the rectory garage,” the professor said as he stood up. “We’ll take them.”
Professor Dillon reached into his vest pocket and retrieved his cell phone. “I’m going to call Father and let him know that we’re coming, but I doubt I’ll have any luck because the cell phones haven’t been working.” His stubby fingers slid and pressed the glass face of the phone. “I’m not getting a signal.”
“I’ll call from the landline in the office,” Clare said as she exited the classroom.
Sarah walked to the back of the classroom where the kids were seated on top of school desks that were shoved into the corner. Their feet rested on the seats while they laughed about wiping out while snowboarding at Timber Ridge ski resort.
“Hey, Mom,” Georgie said, smiling as he tapped his foot on the desk seat. “If we get enough of those red crystals outside we can probably board on them.”
“I don’t know about that,” Sarah said as she sat next to him. She then turned her head toward Jack, who was walking toward them.
“I’m going with the professor to get Father. I’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere.”
“Yeah, right, where would I go?” She laughed.
Jack smiled and walked back to where the professor, Clare, and Tony were gathering items from boxes. He was protective of her, and it felt nice. She felt her and the boys were in good hands with Jack, even though he was in the Van Buren County Jail when she first met him. She tried to put the jail out of her mind; maybe he was telling her the truth that he was only in there for unpaid speeding tickets.
Sarah watched as Jack and Professor Dillon put their feet into large plastic bags and secured the tops with duct tape just below the knees. She assumed that this would keep the red sparkles off their clothes and be easy to remove when they returned so that they would not contaminate everyone else. She was feeling more attracted to him as she looked at his hair poking out around the ties of the blue hospital mask. For a moment, she wondered about repopulating the world with him. It would need to be done, after all, so no guilt feelings there. Even though her marriage to Larry was not annulled, God would surely understand, right? I’ll worry about that later, she thought.
“They look ridiculous,” Willis said, invoking a laugh from the small group.
Clare returned from the office. “I got a busy signal.”
Tony handed the professor an empty gas can, siphon hose and followed them out of the classroom. Clare closed the door behind them.