House of the Living
"We need guns," Mike Sarver said.
"Are you out of your mind?" Adam said.
Kris thought he might be down with Sarver on this one. The power in the Glendale arena had gone out ten minutes before: all they had now were a few emergency lights and the exit signs, and the washed-out greenish light from the cellphones that all read No Service. Kris had gone out into the hallway with Anoop after the news reports had dropped off the air. There was nobody left anywhere in the whole stadium, as far as he could tell.
The CDC had brought the quarantine down around the entire Phoenix area around noon, not long after their buses had dropped them off. The third bus, with the band, the roadies, their handlers, had never shown up. Some of the promoters had kept coming in and out of the green room for a little while, always saying, stay here, sit tight, it'll all work out, show's still on.
After three, with no press rounds and no band and the television stations starting to drop off the air, Adam had said, "You know, I am the last person to say this, but this show's not going on," and they'd all kicked up a fuss together until the promoters got at least Scott and his brother on a car out of town, despite the reported ten-hour lines at the quarantine checkpoints.
An hour after that, the promoters had quit showing up. It was just the nine of them now.
"Man, I'm sorry, but staying here's not an option anymore," Mike said. "We need to get to the quarantine border and find a checkpoint."
"Baby, I'm with Mike," Lil said. "We've got to get out of here—"
"Fantastic," Adam said. "Let's go steal a car. Let's steal two! I can even get behind a minivan—"
"We've been sitting inside here the whole day because the streets are full of crazy infected people trying to kill anyone they see," Sarver said. He held up his phone: he still had a Google Maps page on the screen. "There's a gun store twelve blocks from here—"
"This is not fucking Night of the Living Dead!" Adam said. "These are people. They're sick. And you seriously want to go around shooting them?"
"There's no cure for this thing," Sarver said.
"That's what they said about AIDS," Adam said. "They only spotted this thing at all four days ago. For all you know they just need a fucking retroviral cocktail."
"Hey, come on," Anoop said. "Seriously, man, I'm not crazy about us trying to Rambo our way to the city limits, but—the news said, by the time somebody's taking to the streets, their frontal lobes are mush. Nobody's coming back from that."
Adam pressed his mouth shut and looked away.
"I don't want to start a fight on this, I swear," Mike said. "But this is pretty simple, far as I'm concerned. I'm going to get some weapons for self-defense, and then I'm getting out of this city. I can't decide for anybody else. You want to stay back, or try some other way, that's on you. But I'm going."
There was a low murmur, agreeing; Danny and Matt nodded, and even Allison went over to Adam and slid under his arm, looking up at him silently anxious. He squeezed her shoulder. "Fine," he said quietly. "We stick together."
The streets were creepily deserted. One of the good things about being stuck in a downtown wasteland, Kris figured—nobody actually lived here. He thought he saw some movement a few times, down the side streets, but on a second look he never spotted anything he couldn't chalk up to nerves. The third time around, he kicked himself into a higher gear and fell into step next to Adam.
"It's going to be okay," Kris said. "If it's like this, we won't even have to use them."
"You think you're going to be able to?" Adam said, shortly. "Kris, are you going to tell me you're going to point a gun at a human being and pull the trigger?"
"I don't know," Kris said, honestly. "But I'm pretty sure I'd rather have the choice than not."
"If you can't, it's not a choice," Adam said. "And if we're less careful because we think we do have the choice, we're a lot more likely to get screwed."
The store had its grate down and a big padlocked chain holding it shut. They started taking turns kicking the lock, putting their weight on it, then Anoop said, "Hang on," and went to the car parked halfway down the block. He wrapped his arm in his jacket and smashed in the window with a hard jab, safety glass crumbling away. The car alarm started to wail like a banshee, but the trunk popped anyway, and there was a tire jack inside along with the spare.
Inside, the store was maybe even creepier than the streets: half of it turned out to be a taxidermy. Stuffed deer heads stared at them while they broke open the glass case at the front, and Mike started loading rifles.
"Okay, somebody show me how to use one of these things," Lil said, so Kris picked up one of the unloaded ones and walked her through the basics, aim, steady, pull, while Adam watched unhappy and bleak, not saying anything.
"Hey," Allison said, coming back from one of the aisles with a box, "they got all these energy bars here—" and Adam screamed, "Alli, get down." As she threw herself flat, shiny powerbars scattering over the floor, he grabbed one of the guns Mike had left on the counter and blew a hole through the chest of the man who'd come up behind her, pink-stained froth around his mouth and bloody fingers showing tips of bone.
"Oh my God," Allison said, "Oh my God!" scrambling frantically, Megan running to grab her and pull her away from the twitching, bloody mess. Kris still had the useless unloaded gun in his own hands, clenched tight and shaking; Mike was standing behind the counter, staring. Matt and Danny and Anoop came running back towards them.
Adam dropped the gun back on the counter like it was poisonous, and opened his arms to clutch Allison and Megan tight, burying his face against their heads. His shoulders were shaking.
"We'd better get moving," Matt said, after a second. "The car alarm's still going—maybe that's—" He trailed off.
No one said anything for another moment, then Lil said, "We got everything we need? Mike, we have enough bullets and all of that?"
Mike turned his head away from Adam and looked at her. "Yeah," he said, "yeah, just about. Let's take these bags and pack everything up."
Adam shot six more people before they stopped for the night.
The next one came from around a corner, barely arm's-reach away, and there were all of them with guns in their hands and frozen. It shouldn't have been hard. Kris had shot at targets before—gone out hunting a few times with his uncle, even if he'd never actually bagged a deer.
But somehow he kept running down the checklist, trying to make it all work—arms raised, gun braced, sight down the barrel, pull—and everything got mixed up, gun slipping in his hands, his arms at different heights, his feet were suddenly off-balance and in the wrong places. And the guy was coming at them with his mouth open, one eye slung shut and leaking blood, limping because one of his feet had been crushed into a bloody stump somehow—still coming even though they were backing away, until Adam's shot took him in the head, and he fell backwards, twitched, and went still.
Kris found himself thinking about it after, dry and weirdly clinical, while they walked on; that maybe it made a kind of fucked-up sense for Adam to be good at it: he could move. When he wanted to do something, his body did it, not a lot of thought required: see, shoot, done. The problem was, the thinking happened afterwards, looking down at a corpse that still looked like a person.
Megan had been calling them zombies from the get-go; after the third one, while Adam was busy puking his guts all over the sidewalk, she went around to all of them and hissed, "Listen, they're zombies, do you get it?"
The worst part was it turned out pretty quick that Mike had been right. They had to give up on stealing a car pretty much right away—they found a big Escalade and piled in, and got attacked twice before they got to the end of the block. The zombies were fast, against the laws of all horror movies, probably because they couldn't feel tired or hurt anymore. They'd run their feet raw and jump onto a moving car and break their teeth on a windshield, leaving bloody scraps and clawing like mad, until Adam swung himself halfway out the passenger side window with the shotgun, and blew them off the hood of the car sideways.
Anoop guessed it was the noise of the engine, or maybe seeing something moving fast, that was pulling them in. "Whatever it is," he said, "we can't make it this way. It's deserted here, but soon as we get anywhere there were apartment buildings, houses? We'll get surrounded and pulled down."
"So what, we're going to have to walk?" Lil said. "How far's it going to be from here to the quarantine?"
"Twenty-seven miles on the road," Mike said.
Nobody had any brighter ideas, though, so they started; they took turns carrying the bags of ammo and powerbars and bottled water, except for the girls and Adam: without talking about it, nobody wanted him slowed down. Adam kept offering anyway, until after the fifth zombie, the one that had been a skinny sixteen-year-old kid, pretty much normal-looking except for her lip starting to be chewed to rags with her own teeth.
She stepped out of a building and stood on the sidewalk and frowned at them for a while, like there was enough left of her to try and make some sense of them. "Hey," Adam said, softly, and the kid broke into a sudden clawing run at them, making this weird low squealing noise out of her open mouth. Adam didn't move for almost half the distance before he finally shot her.
After that, Adam stopped saying much of anything. He just kept walking, his face a little blank, and when Allison tried to talk to him, he didn't answer, just said, "You should stay behind me, baby," way too calm, and lengthened his step.
She fell back to walk with Kris, and he put an arm around her shoulders. "Yeah," he said to her quietly. "Me too," and stared at Adam's back while they walked on.
Weirdly, it was Danny who cracked him, in the end. "Hey, can we take a break here, you think?" he said, a little while later; they were passing a Best Buy. "There's not going to be anything in there they'd want, and it's got to have cleared out early on."
They poked inside warily, and then they barricaded the doors with an entertainment center after checking it out. Everybody ate a powerbar and drank some water; Kris had always hated the damn things, but this one tasted like heaven. He polished off his and then took another one over to Adam. "You've got to eat something, man," he said. "Come on. We've just—got to make it through."
Adam didn't argue, which would've made Kris happier; instead he just took the bar and peeled it open, broke off bits and put them in his mouth, mechanical.
Then Danny went into the back and came out with a Flip camcorder and a pile of batteries for it. He came over to Adam and said, "I was thinking—you know, they're gone, but—their families, if they have families outside the city, I mean—I'm just thinking, it would probably be better to know. Like, if it was me, I'd rather know my loved one was at peace, is what I'm saying. So we can't—we don't know who they are, but we could—film them, I guess, and when we get out, maybe the news will run it, and people can call in, and we could talk to them. If that—"
Adam stared up at him, but after Danny trailed off, Adam said, "That—I think that would be—yes," and he looked down and swallowed hard, and his hands were shaking, holding the powerbar.
Kris thought it also helped some that Danny, being Danny, couldn't leave well enough alone, and started filming all of them, trying to get them all to say something for the video. Lil looked straight into the camera and said, "Babies, I want you to know there's nothing I'm not going to do to come home to you, and if maybe I don't get to you but this does, I want you to know you are everything in the whole world, and mommy loves you," and Megan burst into tears too hard to do more than say her son's name over and over.
Anyway, after that, while they were all trying to collect themselves up a little bit, Adam looked at Kris and said, "I should know how to reload this thing," and when they went out again, he didn't look quite so blank, just a little bit hard, determined, and he didn't offer to take the bags anymore, either.
The last one was the closest call. They were all stumbling-tired by then: it was hot, and they were walking down the middle of the road, not expecting to be surprised. The zombie came up behind them, one of the quiet ones, and got Megan by the hair. She screamed as it pulled her backwards, all of them whipping around, and Matt jumped in and grabbed the zombie by the wrists to keep its rubbed-raw fingers away from her skin, her eyes and mouth. He was so close none of them could get a clear shot, and the zombie was snapping at his face with its teeth like a dog.
"Oh my God, give me!" Allison said, while all of them stood around helplessly with their guns, and grabbed the knife Mike had put on his belt. She dived in to saw Megan's hair off, right below where the zombie was holding on to her. Megan fell to the ground, and Matt tumbled with her, the zombie falling backwards. As it staggered back up with its hands full of shiny gold hair, Adam shot it twice, a neat double-tap to the chest that put it down flat.
They were all shaking, after. Allison fluffed Megan's hair, trying, and said, "It looks cute," but then she threw her arms around Megan and clung shaking, and Anoop said, "We should probably find someplace to stop for the night."
No place felt really safe, but they went into an office building and climbed two flights of stairs, then fit themselves into the corner office of some executive with a couch and a big leather recliner and a fake Persian rug. The powerbars didn't taste that great the second time around, but they forced them down, and broke into little huddles around the room. The girls all cuddled together in one corner, Lil talking to Allison and Megan softly in a low voice, stroking her cropped hair.
"We'll cover the watch. You should get some sleep," Mike said to Adam, quietly respectful note in his voice that made Kris unreasonably want to punch him, just because this shouldn't be earning that. Adam didn't seem to take a whole lot of notice; he just nodded and curled on his side in another corner.
"I'll take first watch," Kris said, and pulled the desk over to the window, so he could sit on the corner mostly hidden behind the curtains and still get a view of the street outside as it got dark. The traffic lights were still on up and down the street, but they were blinking red and yellow, confused. Occasionally a zombie went stumbling by, and Kris rubbed his hand over the butt of the rifle, mostly for comfort; they never turned to look up, as far as he saw.
He woke Danny up for his shift after a couple of hours, and left him narrating to the camera in whispers. Kris went over to Adam's corner; Adam was still lying there with his eyes open, staring at the wall. "Hey," Kris said, softly, touching his back. "You feel like talking?"
"Not really," Adam said, but he rolled over, so Kris lay down facing him and got in close enough their legs were touching. He put a hand around Adam's waist, tugging him in a little. Adam breathed out, a little shakily, and eased closer until they were tangled up in as close as they could get to a hug and still be lying down. It was a little awkward, but Kris was so fucking tired that it wasn't going to make a lick of difference; sleep was pressing on him, heavy and thick. "Come on with me," he managed through his voice getting slurry, and rubbed Adam's back. "Sleep with me."
Adam choked a little laugh. Kris only heard it kind of distantly, but he held on long enough to feel Adam's breath start to even out with his own, before he sank under.
He woke up lying halfway on Adam, pillowed on his shoulder and their legs still tangled; the sun was coming in, and the water was running in the bathroom. Adam had his eyes shut, but he was stroking Kris's back with one hand, long and slow, and Kris pretty much didn't want to move for the rest of ever. His legs ached, long painful lines running up and down the front of his shins.
They all got up creakily, not really talking. There was still no cell service, and half their phones had died in the night, anyway. "Damn, I knew there was going to be something wrong with the iPhone," Matt said, trying for a joke, but they couldn't pull out a laugh.
The morning was pretty quiet. They passed an unlocked stationery store and scrounged some Gatorade and candy bars and bags of trail mix, better than the powerbars they were all sick of by then. They'd reached Interstate 17 and were walking north—the highway was clogged with abandoned cars, but the service road had a sidewalk and some trees poking over the concrete highway barrier for shade, and the only zombies they saw were at a distance, down side streets.
Around noon they stumbled on a handful of dead bodies on the street: wrecks of people, partly torn apart. Danny took little snapshot films of the ones whose faces were mostly intact, telling the camera what intersection they were at, and adding some bullshit about how they looked like they were at peace. To Kris, they looked like they'd been torn apart with their brains turning to sludge. The best he could say was the expressions were just—empty.
A shudder hit him hard, running all up and down his back, and he had to turn away and quit looking. Adam was standing off to one side with Matt, keeping watch. Kris went and stood with them. After a minute, he put a hand on Adam's lower back. His t-shirt was soaked-through with sweat, but it helped anyway, being connected, Adam warm and alive and present under his hand. Adam didn't relax his grip on the rifle, but his shoulders eased up some.
There were more bodies on the next block, and more after that. "You think maybe it's ending?" Lil said, her voice hushed, all of them huddling together while Danny kept on with his filming. "Like, maybe it's run its course, it's over?"
"But it wouldn't just be happening here?" Allison said.
Then Anoop said, "Oh, fuck," and pointed to the highway exit sign that said Deer Valley Hospital, and the big building complex up ahead. "I think we should get the hell out of here."
They started trying to find a way around it, except the service road went right by the hospital complex, and down below the interstate dived into a giant interchange, full of overpasses. "I think if we cut left, then we take the first right past the hospital, we'll hit whatever highway that is meeting up—we can follow that back to I-17," Mike said, and they cut through the big parking lot, empty except for the scattered corpses lying in the sun and a handful of cars.
"Danny, man, come on," Matt said, uneasily, while Danny kept stopping. "We can't get everybody in freaking Phoenix."
On the other side they turned onto another road running along the front edge of suburbia, mid-sized McMansions on their quarter-acres of land across the street, yellowing lawns dotted with playhouses and tricycles. "Oh my God," Allison said, low and shaky: there were five zombies in hospital gowns squatting on the far side of a house, pawing through a couple of big overturned trash cans. They were putting things in their mouths, anything, food scraps and used tissues and crumpled junk mail. They were staring across the street, right at them.
"Keep walking," Adam said, stepping to the side nearest the zombies. Kris checked his own rifle and fell in step with him; saw Lil getting in line up ahead, too.
"Give me that," Megan whispered to Matt, taking the bag of ammo, and Allison got the water and snacks from Mike, freeing up more of the guns. The zombies hadn't moved; they were just sitting there shoving trash in their mouths, staring, and they kept staring until the edge of the next house blocked them out of sight.
They kept going, walking a little quicker, and then Mike said, grimly, "They're coming after us." The zombies had come out from behind the house and were standing there staring again. The zombies started walking after them.
"There's more," Lil said, her voice level and tight: another knot of three had come out between a couple of other houses and were watching them, too.
"What is—" Danny started, and then stopped; one of the zombies was gnawing on something, long and bloody; Kris shoved a hand in his mouth and bit his knuckles, hard, to keep from heaving.
"Maybe we should—pick it up a little," Matt said. They were doing it anyway, without meaning to. It was hard to keep walking even and steady with the prickling in the back of their heads. There was another intersection up ahead, big palm trees overhanging, some more wide-open parking lots and one large white building on their side of the road. The sun was angling down, hitting their backs, and Kris was cold and sweating at the same time. The zombies were all coming after them, that same monotonous walking pace.
"Maybe we should, you know, take them out," Danny said, low. He still had the camera clutched hard. "If we meet any more—"
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Anoop said. "They come to noise, and there's this many we've already seen; we start shooting, we're completely fucked."
"Oh, we are completely fucked," Matt said: up ahead, there were maybe another twenty zombies in the shade of the white building, sitting around in the garbage from an overturned dumpster. They were all turning to look.
At first, Kris had never been so fucking glad to run in his entire life. Every step felt so incredibly good, hitting the asphalt as they broke across the street and past the palm trees and into the empty parking lot on the other side. A big mall was looming up ahead, Target and Gap and a giant AMC, the whole place dark and deserted.
But the zombies were running now, too, and they were coming on fast. "Leave it, leave it!" Lil screamed, making Allison drop the bag of water, and Mike caught up with Megan and grabbed back the ammo. The Arizona sun was beating on them hard, the air so fucking dry it rasped in the back of Kris's throat, and his legs already felt like lead.
"Do we—do we go inside—" Allison panted, stumbling; Kris grabbed her arm and held her up while they kept running. Adam stopped abruptly and Kris was five steps on, hearing the rifle fire, and then Adam was next to them again.
Anoop decided for them, swerving towards the Target, and he yanked open one of the glass doors and held it for the rest of them to run inside. "At least there's some cover," he panted, following them in. "We can't outrun them—"
"Block all the doors but one," Mike said, shoving over a stack of boxes of electric fans, and they set up behind a display table as the zombies started coming in. Kris got to Adam's side and lifted his rifle up while Mike and Danny were still shoving more boxes in front of the rest of the doors.
And then—he was aiming at a zombie, and it was a person. It was a guy maybe in his thirties, balding, a bleeding patch on his broad forehead where the skin had scraped away raw, long scratches up and down his arms and blood under his fingernails, like he'd clawed at himself, and a hospital restraining cuff still around one wrist. He had on a wedding ring. His mouth was hanging open, but he didn't have any other visible damage; mostly he looked like he was watching something nutty on TV.
Kris shot him. The bullet hole punched small and red through the chest and made the man jump, sort of folding in on himself, and then he fell over onto the floor, jittering while a broad pool of red spread out around him.
Kris didn't really remember a lot after that, just pulling the trigger, reloading, over and over. The zombies kept coming, and at some point Lil was grabbing his arm and yelling, "We have to move, come on, move." Kris stumbled backwards and turned, and they were all running through the store with more zombies coming at them sideways—there was another door a little way down the store; some of the zombies had come in through there instead. Allison started knocking over clothing racks and mannequins into the aisles behind them, and soon they were all shoving anything they could in the way.
The natural light faded out behind them as they ran away from the glass doors. They broke out into the cold green fluorescent emergency lighting of the mall hallways, a fountain sitting in front of the Target entrance, dead and still. The air smelled musty and sour and wrong, like on an airplane.
They took the stairs up to the second level, full of stupid little jewelry and t-shirt pushcarts sitting in the middle of the aisles, and kept going. The zombies were swarming up behind them. Kris kept turning to take another shot, taking turns with the others. It was harder to miss than to hit, with so many of the zombies in a solid pack in the narrow aisle, and something close to hysterical laughter wanted to break out of Kris's gut when he thought it was almost like homecoming, the fans running after the limo screaming.
At least some of the zombies were dropping off the chase. They were—they were going at the ones that had fallen down shot instead, ripping at them or each other. Kris tried not to look and focused on the shirts, aiming at logos and front pockets and buttons, not at faces. The zombies made different kinds of noises, some of them moaning, others almost whistling or gargling, others totally quiet.
"Dude! What the fuck way are you going!" Matt yelled over his shoulder, taking another shot; Anoop was still in the lead, weaving through the pushcarts down the aisle.
"The movie theater!" Anoop said. "We can go out an emergency exit, barricade it—"
Kris took another shot, turned around and started reloading on the run, and then just down the aisle he saw something, fluorescent lights bouncing off the green and red neon of a Chili's sign, and he said, "Wait, the food court's right—"
Anoop skidded and fell, and Megan collided and went flying right over him head-first; the floor was suddenly wet and slippery under their feet, mashed-up bits of food, bread, rotting lettuce and tomatoes and meat all over the floor, everywhere; sticky patches of spilled soda. There were more zombies, eating off the floor and the counters, others tearing apart more of the restaurants and booths to get at the rest. Anoop dragged Megan back up; she was wiping at her face, covered in the muck and bleeding from the nose. "Keep going, we've got to get past them," he panted, and they skirted as far as they could to the wall.
Kris couldn't really run over the slippery floor with the gun in his hands—it was more like a fast walk, and the only thing keeping them all alive was the zombies had come running full tilt into the food court and were sliding and falling, most of them, into each other and the ones already there. They were going into a frenzy, clawing at each other, and Kris kept backing away with Mike and Danny, all of them firing steadily. The food court was too fucking big, stretching across the width of the mall and full of the horrible weird calls, chairs and tables scraping against the floor somewhere out in the dark, while they all staggered and skidded, trying to start running again. Zombies kept looming at them unexpectedly, an adrenaline-shot surprise every time even when they could hear something moving around, Adam jerking around on reflex to take them out like he was playing House of The Dead.
They were at the edge of the food court and past it and onto clean floor again, except so were the zombies. They were all running and holding each other up not to slip in their sticky, messed-up shoes, the zombies mostly barefoot. The frozen escalator to the movie theater was a few hundred feet away, but when they started down, the zombies started fucking jumping down on them.
Kris shot two as they landed on the escalator treads in front of him, jerking his head away frantically as blood spattered on his shirt, hot and disgusting. The corpses helped block the charge for a few seconds, and Kris turned with the others, all of them jumping down now themselves, taking three or four steps at a time and slipping, half-falling. Kris scraped up his shin on a tread; Danny gave him a hand up and they jumped another five together, and turned to take some more shots as the zombies clawed over the bodies and kept coming.
Kris was out; Megan shoved another cartridge in his hands, and he swapped it in. He shot two more zombies. They were backing into the movie theater, past the empty ticket booth, a single yellow light glowing inside it, all of them firing.
"Fuck!" Mike said, hoarsely, and Kris swung his head around to look. A couple of zombies were on—were in the concession stand, glass shattered and their hands and feet sliced up, their mouths crammed full of Twizzlers and peanut M&Ms in the box, and the two of them came jumping at the same time.
Mike was facing front; they were all facing front with the wave of zombies still pouring down from the escalator, taking them out just barely as fast as they were coming. Kris saw Matt, nearest the counter, and Michael next to him—they took the shots in front of them, the ones they had to take, and started turning. Too slow. Next to him, Adam had taken his already, and he was moving, too; go, go, go, Kris thought, silently, closest he had right now to prayer.
Adam's first shot took out the one coming at Mike, bullet hitting mid-air and knocking all the momentum out, dumping it to the floor. The second one hit the other zombie just before it landed half on Matt, blowing half the brain out backwards in a red spray. Matt heaved it off him onto the floor, and then Alli—fucking genius Alli—grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and blasted all the zombies in front of them in the faces.
Together they all broke for the theater doors, into the pitch dark and towards the one glowing EXIT sign down at the front. They burst out into—an empty parking lot and sunlight, blinking and covering their eyes, and Anoop turned and jammed his gun through the handles of the exit double doors, blocking it. "Run," he panted, "just run," and they all took off across the lot towards the highway up ahead, the mall silent and dark behind them, the heavy metal doors behind them bulging and relaxing, like they were breathing.
There were a total of nine lanes in five roads to cross, broken up with dirt and gravel meridiens, stubby desert brush. The road was packed full of bumper-to-bumper abandoned cars; they climbed and stumbled over them, hands getting burned on the sizzling-hot metal, none of them caring, none of them slowing down until they were on the other side, on a curving stretch of road that bent back towards the interstate. On either side there were big broad lawns and parking lots, flat almost as far as you could see, empty.
They hit another road running north. There was a Black Angus steakhouse sitting on the corner; it looked deserted. They kept walking without a break. A couple of streets later, they passed a block of condos, with a giant For Sale sign out in front. Matt said, "Guys, I think we should stop for a while."
They broke into an apartment with a welcome mat, up on the second floor: low enough to jump from the balcony if they had to. It was empty; there was a litterbox, but no cat: whoever lived here had gotten out while the going was still good. Kris looked for a minute at the smiling photos on the mantlepiece, a bunch of blonde girls in ASU sweatshirts; they reminded him of Katy, in bits and pieces. Lil raided the fridge for still-cool water and juice and got the bucket of mostly-melted ice out of the freezer, splitting it all up into nine glasses and mugs.
"I shouldn't—" Matt said, and stopped, and then said, "I don't need one."
"Baby, we all need to keep up our strength," Lil said. "You feel sick, put your head between your knees a while and try and get it down."
"No, I mean—" he said, and then he took a deep breath and opened his button-down, and his t-shirt and his chest underneath it was sliced open, four long, bloody scratches in a row.
Megan made a horrible, strangled noise behind her hands, cupping them hard over her mouth. Kris felt weird, almost numb; like he couldn't figure out what to feel about it, until Danny took two steps and reached out towards Matt. Matt backed up fast and said, "I love you too, man, but maybe let's skip the PDA," still trying to joke, and then Kris couldn't stand anymore, just slid down the wall and rested his forehead in his hands.
"I'm just—I'm not going out that way, you know what I'm saying?" Matt said, and Kris couldn't even try and fight with him about it. Six hours from exposure before it hit the brain, the news had said. There was a battery-operated clock on the wall over the mantel, ticking down from three pm.
"We're not that far from the checkpoint," Adam said. "We're not. Matt, we can make it. We'll leave now—"
"Man, you think they're gonna let me through?" Matt said.
"They'll quarantine you, but they'll treat you," Adam said. "They're not just sitting on their asses waiting for everyone to die. They've been working on this—"
Allison was crying softly, rocking with Megan on the couch. Kris still hadn't managed to get back on his feet. He leaned his head back against the wall, trying not to listen to Adam try and make the world a different place with wanting. Nobody had cured this thing in the last two days, and they weren't going to make it to the border in six hours. The cavalry wasn't coming.
"It's okay," Matt said softly.
"It is not the fuck okay!" Adam screamed at him, and then he turned and went out onto the balcony and slammed the door behind him, glass rattling.
Lil went into the kitchen, and came out after a little while with crackers and runny-soft cheese and fruit out of the fridge and the bowl on the counter, a separate plate for Matt, and a bottle of red wine and another of vodka. "All right," she said quietly. "Everybody wash up."
The water was still running in the complex, although coming slow and sluggish. They all washed their hands and faces, peeled off blood-spattered clothes and threw them in a corner, wiped down with washclothes and fluffy clean towels that turned almost black with filth. There weren't a lot of spare clothes that worked; the girl who lived here had a few big sweatshirts, but it was too hot for those. Mike ended up in the one old XXL Hanson t-shirt; Adam just pulled on a stretchy black tank, and Kris managed to fit into one of her loose button-downs, after he cut off the sleeves.
They sat together, and ate, and drank the wine and vodka even though it was a bad idea; and then Matt said, "Okay, guys, come on and let's goddamn sing something," and they ran through a bunch of the stupid group numbers from the season. Danny picked up the camera he had somehow managed to hang on to, through all of that crazy shit, and said, "All right, man, it's your moment, give us Georgia," and Matt sang it for them; and then Danny said, "Excellent, that was truly excellent, now give us Coldplay," and they all laughed, and Matt threw one of the couch pillows at Danny's head.
It was getting dark outside: close to eight o'clock. Matt tipped back a third shot of vodka, and then he stood up and said, "I love you guys, you know that? And, uh. My mom and dad, you'll—" and Adam got up and went into the kitchen and got a plastic garbage bag. He draped it over Matt's chest and hugged him tight; and then all of them were hugging him, Matt pressing a corner of the bag over his face with one hand, shielding them from his mouth and his tears.
And then he took one of the guns, a handgun, and went out. He hesitated a second, turning to close the door, and said, "Don't come find me after. Just—remember me like this." He grinned out of one side of his mouth. "Tell everybody I killed the most zombies."
They heard the shot maybe ten minutes later, through the open balcony door, somewhere back behind the complex and out in the desert. It sounded far away and quiet, like a firecracker going off in someone's back yard a few houses down.
Lil picked up the dishes and carried them mechanically into the kitchen and started washing them, even though they were leaving in the morning. Allison was huddled between Adam, sitting on the couch arm, and Megan, her head leaning on Megan's shoulder. She wasn't crying, just staring into space. After a couple of minutes, Danny said, glancing at Michael, who had his arms braced against his legs and his eyes fixed down on the ground, "You guys think—maybe we could pray together, say a few words—"
He stopped talking when Adam laughed, high and short and sharp like a serrated knife. Adam cut himself off and said, "Sorry. You guys—do what you want." He got up and went outside onto the balcony and pulled the door shut behind him.
Danny didn't say anything. Mike said quietly, "I think maybe a prayer circle would be a good idea. We can sit together, and think about Matt, and the grace of God."
Lil came back in and reached out for Mike's hand, and for Kris's, and Kris reached out automatically for Anoop, and then they were all sitting together, with their heads bowed. Kris shut his eyes and reached for a prayer, maybe a hymn; except it wouldn't come. All he could think about was that last, scared smile on Matt's face, so fucking brave; and the zombie—the man, the guy, the one he'd shot first.
They were weirdly blurring together in his head. Suddenly he was pointing a gun at Matt, who was still smiling at him, saying, "Come on, man, it's after eight, time's getting short," and as his finger tightened on the trigger, Kris jerked himself awake hard, up out of his sweat-soaked bedsheet in the corner of the room, panting. He stayed sitting there, his hands in his lap shaking, cold all the way through. Danny was still awake in the kitchen, his face lit-up with the glow of the camera screen flickering at him. Anoop was on the couch, sleeping on his back, his head tipped over the arm; Mike was on the floor at the other end of the room. The girls had left the door to the bedroom open; he could see Megan's golden hair in the moonlight coming in the window, where she was sitting up on watch.
Adam was still out on the balcony. Kris got up and went outside, not sure what he wanted to say, until Adam was looking at him and Kris said, "What the fuck was that?"
"Excuse me?" Adam said, really low, and something in Kris's gut sparked glad and hot and angry.
"You can't—you couldn't fucking let it pass, in the middle of this?" Kris said. "Danny wasn't doing a thing to you; you tell me how that was one ounce of skin off your back to—"
"— to pretend there's some higher power taking a personal interest in this completely fucked situation and what happens to us in it?" Adam said.
"Fuck you!" Kris said. "You don't believe, you don't want to understand, that's fine, you don't have to shit on the rest of us—"
"No, Kris, honey, I'm sorry, fuck you," Adam said. "Because if you're right, your fucking higher power decided that Matt didn't deserve to make it out of here, and you want to sit around and hold hands and say thank you to that?"
"God doesn't decide," Kris snarled at him. "God didn't decide for those people to get sick, he didn't—he didn't decide for us to go that way, he didn't decide for Matt. Anybody fucking decided for Matt, it was—"
He stopped. Adam was smiling a little, hard and unfriendly. "Yeah?" he said. "Go ahead, finish it. If anybody decided for Matt to die, it was—"
"You could've shot—" Kris said, forcing it out of his throat. It didn't want to come, half of him trying to keep the ugly of it inside, the other half wanting it out of him, out and shoved hard into Adam's face, "— you could've shot his—"
"I could've shot his first," Adam said. "He was closer." He said it, and made it true, and he was still smiling, still calm.
All the ugly anger came right back down and started churning like sick in Kris's belly, and he took a step and shoved Adam back against the glass door. "Son of a bitch," Kris said, raw, "don't you—you—and you just—"
He shoved Adam by the shoulders again, hard, glass rattling in the pane behind him. Adam didn't even try to hold him off, when all Kris wanted—all Kris wanted right then was for Adam to shove him back, to go there, to give him an excuse—any fucking excuse—
But Adam just took it, let Kris shove him desperately a couple more times, and then the third time, Adam reached out and grabbed Kris by the wrists and held him, leaned in and said, soft and brutal, "Mike has two kids."
Kris stared at Adam's face in close, three-day-old eyeliner blending in with bruised hollows under his eyes, the reddish-gold stubble around his mouth, glittering and hard, and Adam half bent him backwards over and said, "Mike has two kids, and there is no fucking God to protect him, and there is no fucking God to decide, and I know, because if there was, if there was anyone else who would've decided for me, I would have given anything—anything, you little bitch—"
His hands on Kris's wrists were gripping so tight it hurt, fingers digging in against bone, and all of that sick, rotten anger was running out of Kris, running out of him like blood, and it was all that was keeping him standing. He said, cracking, "Adam—"
"Don't," Adam said, and his voice was high and urgent. "Fucking don't, Allen, don't you even think about—"
"Adam," Kris said, trying to reach for him, dragging his hands free, and Adam let go of his wrists and grabbed his face instead and kissed him, on the mouth—kissed him hard and punishing; or tried to, except Kris had his arms around Adam by then, and Adam's mouth went soft and broke gently away as his shoulders crumpled forward.
"Oh, God," Adam said, leaning in and crying; their foreheads were together, and his face was wet. Kris cupped Adam's face in his hands and kissed the salt away from his face, his cheeks, the scrape of Adam's beard rough and good on his lips. His own breath was coming in scared short gasps as he reached the corner of Adam's mouth, and then Adam's lips, warm and dry and chapped-rough with sun, parting a little as Kris brushed a half-kiss over them.
Kris felt his hands shaking like crazy, tremors running up his arms. Adam's mouth was opening to him, the tip of his tongue licking at his lips and just into Kris's mouth, tentatively, like he wasn't sure it was okay. Kris wasn't sure either, except the idea of stopping made him grip on to Adam harder, and then Adam's hands were sliding onto his back to hold him, and Kris opened his mouth and slid a hand around the back of Adam's head, and they were kissing again, for real.
Adam was wrapping him up in his arms, all around him, desperately close. He was still wearing the same fucking belt from the tour, the giant spread-eagle jabbing into Kris's belly. Kris unhooked it blindly without breaking off the kiss, metallic thunk as it hit the concrete of the balcony floor, and he put his arms around Adam's waist and pulled him in harder. He could barely get in a breath and he didn't want one, anyway; all he wanted was this, letting the whole world past Adam's mouth and hands go blurry and far away.
He wanted this, wanted Adam, which should've been scary and huge and messed-up in a world that wasn't this one, but here and now it was safe and whole and perfect. Adam was easing up now, after the first rush; he was slipping the buttons on Kris's shirt one-handed, warm broad palm sliding in, over Kris's chest. Kris just worked his hands under Adam's tank, spread wide under the thin-stretchy lycra, heartbeat and life under his fingers, and love: Adam was kissing him soft, soft, soft, lipping kisses at his mouth.
It was so quiet out here, strange-quiet with no traffic and no voices, only the cicadas singing out in the desert and the two of them, the click of Adam's boot heels on the concrete when they shifted their weight. They were even breathing quiet, kissing quiet, Adam licking into him deep now and slow, brushing the back of his knuckles up and down along Kris's cheek, other hand in the small of his back keeping them snug together.
Kris had to break off for a little, panting. Adam nosed against his temple, pressed a kiss there; dropped kisses on Kris's eyelids, tender and a little surprising in that familiar way Adam could just go soft and gentle sometimes, like he didn't ever think about whether he was acting like a guy or not, and didn't care. Kris tried not to care, too, but right now he really didn't; he leaned in unashamed and kissed Adam's cheek, brushed down along the line of his jaw. Kris went for his earlobe, too, suckled on it a little: cool smooth metal of the big studs under his tongue, with Adam's skin warm for contrast.
Adam kissed him again, then reached behind him for the handle and pushed open the balcony door. They crept back into the living room, and knelt down by Kris's nest of spare pillows and sheets. Kris shrugged his shirt the rest of the way off, and Adam peeled out of his tank; then they crawled into the sheets together.
Kris pushed his cock into Adam's warm, firm grip, silently; biting his lip against making noise. Adam's jeans were still a little damp from washing them out in the bathroom sink. Kris unzipped him carefully, his fingers brushing the head of Adam's cock, and Adam hitched a low, gulping breath and shuddered. Then he stopped and pressed his hand over Kris's, stilling him. There were tears sliding down his face again.
"Hey," Kris whispered, softly, letting go; he put his arms around Adam's back, wrapped him up close again. "Yeah," Kris said, and pressed his own wet face against Adam's shoulder, the hard painful knot in his chest coming loose.
Adam eased against him, little by little, his breath smoothing. Kris breathed in time with him. The quiet was settling into him, finally, like this could drive out everything else: just this, him and Adam together, moon washing a little faint light over them so he could see his fingers curled around Adam's shoulder, the glint of blue in Adam's hair. He pressed a kiss to Adam's bare shoulder.
Lil came out of the bedroom a little while later, walking quietly. Half-asleep, Kris vaguely noticed when she paused; they were under the sheet, at least up to their waists, but they hadn't put their shirts back on. In a moment she went on into the bathroom, and closed the door quietly. Adam's hand was stroking at the back of his head, fingers teasing a little at the lower edge of his hair. Kris closed his eyes again and settled in until morning came.
They heard the helicopter before they saw it, a speck coming at them from the north. It swung over their heads, a man in yellow and grey camo with a sniper rifle leaning out, and the loudspeaker said, "Come out into the open. Put down your weapons and show your hands."
Adam put his down so fast it could've been on fire, and tossed the rest of the ammo out of his pockets down on top of it. They'd only seen maybe a dozen zombies that morning, mostly at a distance. One had started following them, but it'd been pretty sluggish, and it had stopped and wandered off in another direction before it got into range to shoot.
Kris dumped his and raised his hands, too; Mike was a little slower than the rest of them, but then they were all standing with their hands up, squinting against the sun.
"Move onto the interstate and stay in the left lane on the barrier side. Do not try to leave the road," the chopper said, staticky and loud, and they picked their way down the slope from the service road down to the highway.
There wasn't a lot of room between the road divider and the abandoned cars: they had to walk single-file, and the sun hit like a hammer. Kris watched the back of Adam's neck and shoulders go seared red-violet, while the sweat rolled down his own face and stung in his eyes. The chopper paced them from above for a little while, then swung out to the west. In a little while, off in the distance, Kris heard a stutter of machine-gun fire.
After maybe an hour more of walking, they saw the line in the distance: a tall chain-link fence had been set up across the highway, cars cleared away from in front of it, with more of the camo-wearing soldiers patrolling, and there were maybe twenty, thirty people lined up outside the closed gate, in two separate lines. A couple of soldiers—wearing gloves and face masks—came out to meet them as they spilled limply out from between the cars.
The soldiers stopped six feet away. "Any infected with you?" they asked, and, "Any contact with the infected?"
Megan started crying again, and Michael said quietly, "A friend of ours got tagged yesterday. He's not with us anymore."
The soldiers tossed them red armbands and put them in the shorter of the two lines. Everyone had to stand separated at twice arm's length from the person in front and the person behind. "If someone starts to show symptoms," the soldiers said, "do not run. Do not move. If you move, you get in the way. We are not going to let anyone infect anybody else, so just stay calm and stay in your position."
In an hour, they opened up the gate and took the longer line of people through, then moved them over and started a new line. Another five people had shown up in the meantime and joined the end of their line.
"Come on, for Christ's sake," the man ahead of Adam said to one of the soldiers. "I've been here three fucking hours already."
"The line goes in together, sir, six hours after last arrival," the soldier said. "Stay in your position."
"This is a fucking joke," the guy said to Adam, then paused. "Hey, holy shit, you're that guy. Jeanine, check it out."
"Oh my God, Adam Lambert," the woman ahead of him said, craning her neck forward to stare at Adam. "I loved it when you sang that Motown song. What was that?"
Adam didn't say anything for a moment. "Tracks of My Tears," he said, finally, and after another moment, he added, "Thanks," a little stiffly. It was pretty fucking surreal, especially when she wanted to pass something down for an autograph.
The soldiers caught her reaching the scrap of paper out to her husband, and stopped that, but her husband started arguing with them. "It's a piece of paper, Jesus," the guy said. "She just wants him to sign it, he's that guy from Idol."
"No physical contact is allowed between people in line, sir," the soldier said, getting sharp. "If I need to speak with you again, I'm putting you at the end of the next line."
But afterwards he came down and looked at Adam, and said, "Uh, you the guy from San Diego, right?"
"Yeah," Adam said, a little shortly.
"Friend of mine heard you sing at Miramar," the soldier said. "How the fuck did you end up here?"
"We had a tour date," Adam said, and the soldier followed his look over at the rest of them and said, "Holy shit, all of you guys?"
He sounded pretty doubtful about it. Kris wasn't sure he would've recognized any of them, either. Danny and Anoop both had a healthy start on full beards, and Mike wasn't far behind; Megan with her hair ragged and hanging lank and dirty; Lil's hair tied down under a bandanna. Allison and Adam were the only ones who couldn't have passed for extras in a movie set in a refugee camp, and that was mostly the hair.
"Excuse me, is there going to be any way we can call our families?" Danny said. "We haven't been in touch since—"
"Not until you're out of quarantine, sorry," the soldier said.
"Right, but, once we're through—" Danny said.
"This isn't quarantine," the soldier said. "This is the checkpoint. Once you get through here, you go through decontamination, then you're in quarantine. After two days clear, you get released to the refugee camp. The Red Cross will be there to help you get resettled or get in touch with your families on the other side."
"Does anybody ever get sick inside?" Anoop said. "If they're not after the six hours."
"Haven't heard, but they're playing it safe," the soldier said, shrugging.
The time crawled by some more. A few of the other soldiers came by to chat to them; one of them was from Arkansas. It didn't seem real to be making small-talk about Little Rock nightclubs and the Razorbacks, but Kris didn't mind. It made another half-hour pass.
After the fifth hour, a soldier came out from the gate and started giving them the rundown. "You don't get to keep anything," he said. "Not your wallet, not your cellphone, not your wedding ring, not your underwear. Everything goes in the hazmat containers. If you make us take something off you, we will not be happy, and then you will also not be happy."
"Wait," Danny said, clutching at the video camera, and when the first soldier came back down the line the next time, he said, "Hey—hey, man, listen—I've got all this video—a lot of the people in there, and—and our friend, he—"
"Sorry, sir," the soldier said. "We can't let anything through."
"Private Treo," Adam said—Kris hadn't even noticed the guy's namebadge before then—"the camera doesn't have to go through, if you or anyone else has a laptop on this side. You can just get the video off and throw the camera out after." Treo hesitated, and Adam added, "It's footage of the American Idol top ten in the middle of this, CNN will pay you a serious amount of money for it. Please, our friend has family out there."
It was like ten different magic words all rolled into one, Kris guessed, because Treo said, "All right, hang on," and he came back with a small blue hazmat bag and had Danny toss the camera into it.
Kris hadn't realized how much he fucking cared about the video until now, watching Treo carry the bag away even while the gate was sliding open for them to go through. Danny looked a little like he wanted to cry, and all of them kept their eyes on it until it was out of sight.
The soldiers on the other side split them up guys and girls, and they went behind curtains to strip. The hazmat containers had these big funnels that fed into them. It was weird putting all his stuff into it—the bracelets, his ring, the dead iphone, his clothes, his sneakers. It wasn't that any of it really mattered; it was just stuff, and most of it was ruined anyway. But there was something about watching it all slide down the chute and disappear down, knowing it was gone forever into some incinerator.
There were big dispensers on the far wall full of some stuff like hand sanitizer that left a green stain on the skin, and over the loudspeaker the soldiers told them to use it everywhere. It stung like crazy in the raw scrape up Kris's shin, in all the little cuts he'd picked up without noticing, and on his scalp when he rubbed it through his hair. He traded off doing backs with Adam, who looked like someone had painted his arms and neck red with a stencil the shape of his tank top; he flinched from the sanitizer even where his skin wasn't broken. "Almost done," Kris said, trying to work as fast as he could.
They had to come out still naked, and got looked over by two doctors in facemasks and surgical gloves to make sure they'd gotten everywhere. Then finally they got to showers, honest-to-god showers with plain bar soap and water, lukewarm but fantastic, and Kris opened his mouth to gulp while he scrubbed through his hair. Outside there were stacks of plain white pants and shirts that looked like cheap versions of hospital scrubs, piles of black flip-flops.
The quarantine camp was just a big field, a ten-foot chain-link fence around it, lined with black tarp and topped with barbed wire, huge klieg lights every few feet. "Okay, people, pair up," bawled out a soldier with a voice that would've gotten him to Hollywood Week if the producers were looking for power. "You come up with a partner, you get a number and a tent, you go set up in the spot with your number. You set up somewhere else, you aren't getting fed and you aren't getting out when your two days are up, so don't get it wrong."
"Where's my wife?" the annoying guy from outside called.
"We aren't running a co-ed vacation camp," the soldier said. "You come in the same time, you get out at the same time, you meet outside when you leave."
They all ended up together in the same row, towards the front corner of the camp—where people who'd been in the first day had emptied out, Kris guessed. The ground was packed bare dirt, hard, and it took a lot of work to get the tent spikes planted and the thin tarp up. Then Adam crawled in and collapsed into extra-crispy unconsciousness, even though it was stifling-hot inside.
They'd gotten two big plastic cups along with the tent. Kris went down to the water dispenser at the end of the row and brought them back full, woke Adam up enough to drink them both, then got another two for himself and sat in the shade of the tent mouth, taking one swallow at a time and trying not to think.
Mike had signed on to share with the annoying guy, when nobody else had wanted to, but he came over to sit at theirs instead, and Danny and Anoop joined them; it felt strange not to have the girls around, and Kris hoped they were all okay, not freaked out. "I just wish they'd let us make a call," Danny said. "You know? Our families must be so worried right now. Everybody's must be so worried. And when we get out, you know it's going to be crazy. If they just, you know, let us get in touch, somebody could be waiting for us —"
"Danny," Anoop said, "they don't want people coming here, this is where the disease is. Anyway, if somebody got sick in here—" He shrugged and left it there, but Kris got it: if somebody had to be put down, you didn't want family waiting for them outside. Nobody had even taken their names all this time.
The sun was going down, finally. Four soldiers came down the row wheeling a trolley and handed out MREs. Kris reached into the tent and nudged Adam awake, and they all ate together, not bothering to heat up the beef ravioli.
The lights came on before it got dark, and stayed on, bright and merciless. After they finished eating, the soldiers came back with a trash trolley. "Stay in the tent unless you're going to the latrine or for water," they said, "and keep away from the fence. Anyone who's acting erratic ends up with the doctors, so don't."
They'd gotten lucky and hit another Idol fan, so Kris had asked on the way down, and it paid off with some aspirin for the sunburn; Adam was already curled up in the tent again, dead to the world. "You can go to the doctors if he gets worse," the guy said, "but if you do, his exit date resets to two days after they let him go. Your call, man, but if it was me, I'd tough it out unless he started blistering or something."
Kris took the medicine and the advice, and squirmed back into the tent. "Lifesaver," Adam murmured, when Kris woke him up to get the aspirin and some more water into him, and when Kris lay down, Adam drowsily reached out and tangled their fingers together.
Adam was doing better in the morning, but they spent most of the day in the tent anyway. It was hot, but it was hot outside, too, and the air wasn't moving. It was better to just stay inside and quiet and out of the sun, lying on his back with his shirt soaked down and draped over his head, breathing shallow and trying not to exist. That night, Adam leaned over and kissed him in the hot, dark tent.
The last day crawled. They could see people in the row one over taking down their tents, getting in line to leave; by two in the afternoon, it was the people up ahead. At five, the soldiers came and told them to start breaking down. "Just hold it over your head," Kris said, after they'd folded up the tent, and sat Adam down underneath it until they were put in line to file out the gate.
It let out into a covered walkway along the fence, dumping into a big tent, and all of a sudden Adam shot ahead and was hugging Allison and Megan and Lil, even wincing from his sunburn, and they all piled on into a heap and just stood there a while, shaking, letting other people pass them and go out. They finally broke apart and wiped their faces, and Adam said, "When we get out, we should call 19E first—let them tell us how they're getting us out of here, our families don't need that craziness, and then we can just tell them we're coming home."
"Oh my God," Allison said, "do you think—I mean, the rest of the tour—all those other cities, it's not like—they're all okay and stuff, I mean, so—"
"Jesus," Kris said, rubbing his face; he hadn't even thought about it.
"One thing at a time," Adam said. "They are not making us do anything we don't want to do right after this."
They headed for the line to go out the door—the soldiers paced it, letting people out in handfuls at a time. Even though Kris knew, with his head, that it was still going to be hours before they were actually on their way out of town, he still felt his heart pounding. He wanted to hear his dad's voice so damn bad, all of a sudden; and Katy's, Jesus—his eyes were stinging, abruptly.
The only warning he got was overhearing one of the soldiers saying, "Jesus, man, what the fuck is up with them today? You'd think they were over it by now. I had to yell at CNN three times," while they waved a hand to him and Adam and Lil, and then the three of them pushed open the doors and were out in the open facing a bunch of Red Cross volunteers waiting with clipboards, and behind them, behind only a loose, ordinary rope line, there were, no fucking lie, five hundred news cameras.
Half of them were stamped with news organizations Kris had never heard of, some of them in alphabets he didn't recognize, crowded around with lights and microphones and reporters. The second the three of them came out, the yelling started: all the lights turned up blazing into their faces, ten times worse than ever being on the Idol stage, and the reporters screaming at the top of their lungs so loud all he could make out was names: his name, Lil's, and over all of it Adam, Adam, Adam like a hysterical drumbeat.
The reporters were all craning cameras over the rope, straining to get the microphones a little closer, and the Red Cross people were all turning around staring, wide-eyed and unprepared, the soldiers on the door starting to come forward. But it was too late, because one of the stanchions was toppling over, and before the rope line even hit the ground, the horde was rushing at them like a wave coming down on the beach.
Adam reached out an arm in front of him and Lil—people were crowding close around them, microphones being hiked way up to get overhead, all the reporters ignoring the soldiers shouting distantly on the other side of the crowd. "Oh my God," Lil said, and someone from Fox News was the first person who yelled, "Adam, where did you learn how to shoot?" and Kris felt Adam flinch hard against him.
In the airport, people kept glancing sideways over at Adam. He was wearing new sunglasses, big wraparound black ones, and he'd bought an ipod and noise-cancelling headphones about fifteen feet past security, after they'd passed the first bank of televisions.
Perez Hilton pretty much nailed the worldwide lead in a sentence: Adam Lambert: Action Hero!!!!! with a freeze-frame of Adam out of the video, black tank and black sunglasses, gun braced against his hip, his hair still spiky, looking like a hotter, more fabulous version of Rambo. Kris saw a screencap of it on the inescapable televisions in the first-class lounge, part of the nonstop coverage on CNN, who were doing only a slightly better job of hiding their collective orgasm.
The networks were running a lot of clips of the rest of them, too: the nine of them walking through deserted streets and huddling together: him and Adam sitting shoulder to shoulder in the Best Buy, Allison cuddled up against Adam's other side; Lil trying to do something with Megan's hair; Danny talking into the camera; Matt singing Georgia. No other footage had come out of the city after the quarantine had come down, which made it more insane; CNN was dribbling the video out in exclusive bits and pieces, and the whole world was eating it up.
The disaster was too fucking big: a whole city wiped off the map, and no one wanted to look at it head-on. They wanted a happy ending; they wanted to see people who'd made it out, climbing out of the ashes and bringing the whole country with them, and the ten of them had almost literally been hand-picked by central casting to make America happy to live through them.
Everybody Kris had seen, from the drivers who'd gotten them away from the quarantine area, the hotel clerks, the maids and the room service waiters, the airline ticket agent—they'd all said how sorry they were, how glad he'd gotten out, how awful it had to have been. And they all wanted to hug him, even if they were too polite to try, or he managed to head them off. The others were getting the same treatment.
Nobody tried to hug Adam, though; they just stared at him instead, a little creepily. The other thing everybody wanted was a hero, and Adam had been signed up for the job whether he wanted it or not. The only person Kris had seen actually talk to Adam since they'd gotten out had been one of the security people 19E had sent to cover them, and he pretty much just shook Adam's hand and said a few words and walked away.
"He said he was in street fighting in Falluja," Adam said briefly, when Kris asked: Adam looked kind of nauseous.
One of the handlers came over to them in the lounge and said quietly, "Kris, your plane is boarding." After a moment, Kris slowly stood up. He looked back at the rest of them, at Adam, who looked up and said, "Safe trip."
"Yeah," Kris said, "you too—" and stopped there, because he felt like he had to do something, say something; except nothing was coming, and the handler was touching his arm, and finally he turned and walked away towards the door. He handed his ticket in at the door, and ignored the soft-eyed, sad looks, and sank into his first-class seat and put on his headphones and shut his eyes. It was over: he was going home. It was over.
Getting off the flight in Arkansas was a little surreal. Katy was in the airport waiting for him, and she came running so hard she nearly knocked him over; he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face against her hair and just breathed in and out, the warm summer-bright flower smell of her shampoo, her voice saying, "Kris—oh my God, Kris—" and her arms locked tight.
He wanted it, so bad, only he couldn't believe in it. He held on to her for a long while, and then he didn't let go of her hand while they went out to the car and got in: she'd hired a limo, with smoked windows, so they didn't have to drive or worry about being stared at. "You ready to go home?" she asked, "because we can drive around in circles for a few hours, otherwise."
Kris thought about it, but he didn't think this was going away in a few hours, this weird cut-off feeling, like he was visiting somebody else's life instead of his own, so he said, "No, I'm ready," and just leaned back and shut his eyes for the drive, gathering strength.
The feeling didn't go away in a few hours, or in the next two days. That made it easier, though, when Idol came tentatively calling. "It's one hundred percent up to you," they said, and "we're paying you either way," and "you could just do some press if that's what you want," but in the end, he said yes, and hung up to let them book his plane tickets to Tampa, to get back on the tour.
Megan didn't come back; everybody else did. The rest of the dates had all sold out pretty much the second word got out they were going back on the road. Security wouldn't let them go out to meet fans by the buses anymore, though: it was too fucking crazy.
Kris was okay with that. He still felt disconnected all the time, except when he was up on stage singing, ten thousand voices singing back to him and the applause rolling forward over him like a wave. He started to feel it waiting backstage during Adam's set, where it seemed like every night now somebody fainted and the screaming actually hurt, physically hurt, with Adam ripping up the stage and singing like he wanted to have angry sex with everyone in the audience.
The intensity built up in Kris's own gut and in his chest, listening, until Adam came still-blazing off the stage, hair plastered down at the back of his neck with sweat, makeup starting to smear at the corners of his eyes, and it was Kris's turn: grabbing Adam's arm, squeezing for just a second before he had to drag his eyes away from Adam's face and Adam's mouth and go on for his own set.
He felt alive for that long, the music flowing and everything working together, and part of something—part of the huge roaring crowd, the show, life, instead of somebody outside watching himself on a two-dimensional screen. He came off dripping sweat, his eyes stinging with it, panting; and at the end of the closing number he went into Adam's arms hard, wrapped him up and buried his face into Adam's chest, their hands clenched and slipping in sweat on each other's shirts and skin, and they kept an arm around each other as they waved goodnight to the crying, yelling crowd, the rest of the idols behind them all hugging and holding on to each other, too.
And then they went backstage, still holding on until they had to untangle. Kris's chest started to tighten back up again as he went into the meet-and-greet with the half-smile that was all he could manage up on his face, letting strangers touch him and putting a scribble that was supposed to be his name on their programs. Across the room, Adam stood putting his arm around sobbing girls, tall and cool and invulnerable until afterwards, and then in the dressing room he threw the giant flower vases against the walls, one after another, methodically, until the floor was a wet glittering mess of broken glass and shredded roses.
A backstage photographer sneaked in and got photos after one show: Time put one on the front cover, with their faces photoshopped onto the broken pieces of glass, and inside a picture of Adam smashing one of the vases, his face hurt and open like a book.
The press wanted all of them, desperately; there was money on the table, ridiculous numbers, but Adam waited until all of them who wanted to had picked it up, and then he gave his interview free to Rolling Stone, the same interviewer who'd done his first cover story. She met him after one show and stayed with them for three days, and when it came out it was one long fuck-you-all starting from the opening quote: "I'm not a fucking hero. I murdered people so we could get out alive. They were sick and hurt and dying, and they should have been in hospitals with their families, with people who loved them getting to say goodbye, and instead they were wandering the streets in pain, and I shot them to death, and it's not fucking glamorous."
It was brutal and unforgiving from there all the way to the end, to the last line that every media outlet was carrying all over the world before the issue even came out, where he said, "If anyone tries to fucking claim that this was natural, that this didn't come out of some laboratory, it's bullshit, because it destroyed people. It didn't just happen."
The press threw it at every politician in the country, and none of them seemed to be able to figure out how to field any part of it. The NRA hacks who'd been loving him did a 180-turn on him because he'd said it was insane he'd been able to get a gun that let him slaughter people with a ten-block walk. Government officials tried the line that Adam was traumatized, or even better, fucked up even beforehand: the right-wing hacks especially went for that one, like Adam being gay had something to do with why he was having a hard time coping with combat and other bullshit like that.
Then someone hacked the FOX News website and plastered It didn't just happen across Bill O'Reilly's face, and people started spray-painting it on public buildings, on subways and billboards. Kris saw it in red dripping letters across the exit sign for the Capitol Building on the Beltway as they came into DC for their first show since the interview.
"Kris?" Katy said, on the other end of the phone, "Kris. Kris," her voice tired instead of annoyed when he finally tuned back in and said, "Yeah," in apology. He couldn't focus on their conversations, on the little stories she kept working up and telling him—what their friends from school were doing, the breakups and the dates, how she'd gone shopping with his mom. She was trying so hard to build him a bridge back to that life, to normal; and he kept trying to walk across it, except every time he looked over at the other end, he kept getting stopped, because none of it made sense.
This was what made sense: the music, the crazy hot lights and the cameras, being able to open his mouth and speak to the whole fucked-up, miserable country; that mattered, and the people around him. That night after the show, people were yelling It didn't just happen at the stage, roaring, a crowd that wasn't the American Idol crowd, a crowd suddenly full of guys and college students, deeper and angrier and full of violent energy, like all the kids coming to the shows had grown up fast and hard overnight.
Adam was shaking as they came off, his eyes bright and wet and lost, with photographers snapping everywhere and their handlers coming to take them to a special extra VIP meet and greet, packed full of politicians—there were fucking senators in the room, and this time, Kris didn't let go; he didn't untangle. He held on, his hand locked into Adam's leather belt, even if it meant he couldn't shake hands right: Adam's arm was around him and Adam was gripping tight and desperate to his side, clinging.
"You're not going to make this go away," Kris said, flat, when some jerkoff talking head he vaguely recognized tried to hector Adam into taking back his "conspiracy theory exaggeration" in front of the reporters. "You're just not, so why don't you quit jumping on the messenger and work on getting us all some answers. What the hell, don't you want to know how this happened before it hits a city has somebody you love in it?"
That got him his own trip to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and a lot of screamed questions in his face, but he could take it. He could take it with his hand on Adam's back, the two of them pressed shoulder to shoulder in the stuffy backstage rooms, holding on: he was done with letting go. He held on even afterwards, even for the walk back to the buses, staying clasped until they were safe again and away from the glare of a million eyes.
It made things easier and harder at the same time. Kris didn't want to let go even when they were alone, safe, sheltered. He wanted to wrap his fingers around Adam's wrist and feel the pulse going quick and steady; he wanted to press his forehead to Adam's shoulder and block out all the light, just sink into him; and he wanted more than that, things he wasn't allowed to have: Adam's mouth, his own hands on Adam's skin. Things that were only allowed behind that quarantine wall that was still up, back in Arizona, even though there was only a small ragged scattering of people coming out anymore; everyone else inside was dead by now, they thought.
He couldn't ask Adam for those things. This was real life, the world they had to find a way to live in, where he was married, and pretty much straight, and belonged to someone else. He didn't have enough to give back, not for what he wanted: Adam, all of him. But this was all Kris got to have: his arms around Adam on stage, in front of ten thousand people, and for a little while after; that had to be enough.
A week after DC, Danny finally got back a copy of the full video, after 19E's PR people stepped in and took over from the lawyers, and quietly told CNN that if they didn't hand it over, a press release was going out in the morning with all nine Idols signed on, calling CNN out for exploiting them and invading their privacy. "I'm just gonna put the whole thing up," Danny said. "It's going to have to be in twenty parts or something on youtube, but I'm just going to do it. I think everybody should see all of it, all of it they want to look at. Is that okay with you guys?"
He looked at Adam while he was saying it: the one decent thing CNN had done was cut out the people on the other end of the bullets. In the clips they ran, you saw Adam pull the trigger; you didn't see somebody fall down dead or thrashing. "Yes," Adam said. "A million times yes."
Danny put it up with warnings all over it, and he filmed a new rambling introduction. "We all agreed, that we don't want to hide anything. But this isn't, it's not okay, what happened in there, it's—it was really bad, and you need to know that, before you watch this. This is not for kids to watch, although I hope that, you can maybe watch this and it can help you talk to your kids about it, and maybe with this you can find some meaning, or some way to be okay with what happened. I'm hoping people will do—will take this, and maybe cut it up and put together segments that are easier to take, that more people can look at, and their families, if you lost someone. So I—we—would like you to know that."
Kris was braced for it anyway. People liked to rip down heroes, too, and if they'd been waiting for a reason, the video was going to give them plenty. It was one thing to applaud for Adam after he talked about it in a magazine; it was another thing to actually see him kill people—to see all of them kill people. Kris hadn't looked at the tape, but the camera had been in Danny's hand all the time—there were times he'd had a handgun in one hand and the camera with another, shaking and still filming.
But somehow it was okay. The press took a cycle to figure out what they thought about it, and decided they were bigger heroes for trying to give up the mantle; or maybe it was that nobody was ready to take the risk of being called on what they would've done, instead. The biggest attack, pretty much the only one, came from The View: not about them, though: Hasselbeck just called the video a real-life snuff film, and said they shouldn't have put it out; and she got yelled down by the other four in fifteen seconds flat.
Three cycles went by, three concerts down. Kris felt like maybe he could start fitting back into his life—even if it might be like something broken getting pieced together: held together with duct tape and glue, but working. He'd take that. He was alive, at least, when so many other people weren't; he was a hero, and loved, and he had a family and a home waiting for him; it was more than anybody had a right to hope for. He was writing again, even if it wasn't coming easy, and 19E had started to schedule studio time.
He was working on his laptop on the bus, an hour from pulling into Rochester, and on the other side of the table Anoop said, "Oh, fuck," and said, "Kris, a million people are tweeting me to warn you. Some fan site did closeups of the HD video, they found some shots of you and Adam."
The clips were short and blurry, zoomed-in. Him and Adam in the office building, lying in a tangled heap where you couldn't be a hundred percent sure it was him, except his shoes matched shots from earlier in the day; they were still in their clothes. Another shot of the two of them on the balcony, through the glass door: the shove, Adam's grip on his arms, both of them sliding into a clinch and the camera jerking away in a smeared, guilty blur. One blown up freeze-frame in the apartment, Megan and Michael talking, and the corner circled where the camera had just caught him and Adam lying together, shirtless with the sheet pooled at their waists.
By the time the bus pulled in, the story had jumped to the gossip sites, padded out with photos of him and Adam from the tour, arms around each other, hugging on stage. Kris read the stories feeling blank: it seemed so small and stupid that anyone could really care about this, with everything else that had been part of it.
"We're going to put this to bed fast," his handler said, in the green room. "There's nothing inappropriate going on between you and Adam; you're close friends, you're not scared of affection, you comforted and supported each other in a difficult situation, and it's a shame people are misinterpreting a few blurry pictures taken out of context."
Then she added, "And we're getting some new choreography for the final number, so you don't end up standing together at the end."
She didn't say don't hug Adam anymore, but the message was loud and clear. In the morning they handed him a new schedule: the flights he'd been sharing with Adam—the ones going back to LA for recording sessions—had all been changed. "We just think it's better if we don't give the paps fresh material," she said. "You and Adam arriving in LAX together would land the story right back on TMZ in three seconds."
All Adam said to him about it was, "I'm sorry."
"I'm not," Kris bit out, even if he should've been.
Later that day, Katy said, on the phone, tentatively, "I know—I know it must have been really hard, in there," giving him the opening.
Kris just said flatly, "Yeah," and changed the subject, because he didn't want to share this, not with Katy and not with anyone. He wasn't going to take being forgiven for this.
It made him angry again, all of a sudden; angry every fucking night, now when Adam came out all the way at the other end of the stage, and raised his hand to the audience alone, and walked off the stage alone, and stood in the meeting rooms and faced the fans and the press alone, and walked to the bus alone—quicker if Kris happened to be near, making sure they were never in the same frame for a photographer.
Even on the bus, where it would've been safe, Adam held back: like he didn't trust himself if he wasn't careful all the time. He'd slip straight into the back and get into his bunk, pull the curtains and close himself in. It was like he was pulling further away, and there was nothing Kris could fucking do about it but watch from across the room.
Alone in the airports, Adam got surrounded almost every time, half a dozen videos popping up on youtube like clockwork just in case Kris wanted to watch and make himself sick: fans and paparazzi and legit reporters all crowding in, the three security guards fighting to get him through the screaming, the reaching hands trying to get a piece of him. They grabbed at his jacket, at his hair, at his sunglasses and his arms; one girl threw herself on the ground in front of him, eeled between the guards and wrapped her arms around his knees.
That clip ended up on CNN, Adam nearly falling over and the guards having to almost bodily pick him up to get him loose; and so did the one three days later, where a paparazzo built like a WWF star heaved himself in between the guards, shoved a Flip cam in Adam's face, and said, "Adam, man, you're fucking awesome. You killed eighteen people on the tape, how many more did you rack up besides that? Somebody from the Marines said they found a hundred bodies in the mall, you have to have blown away like half of them—"
A dozen other paps kept filming while Adam clawed his way over the security guard's arm to grab the camera and smash it into the pap's face, heaved off his own security to throw himself on the guy, taking him down to the floor, beating the shit out of him with the camera, kicking him, until the guards dragged him off and pulled him away, already sobbing, a hand over his face and staggering in their grip, their faces panicked and freaked out as they got him to the car.
Kris saw that one on the thirteen-inch tv in the lounge of the studio he was in, fifteen minutes after it happened. His hands were shaking so hard he could barely make them work enough to dial Adam's number. It went to voicemail.
They got him back in the studio after half an hour of trying; between songs, he gave it another shot. He didn't get Adam until that night, sitting on the end of the bed in his hotel room, tiredly pushing redial again, not expecting to get the soft, "Hey," on the other end.
It took him a second to react. "Hey," he said, finally, his throat tight. "You okay?"
Adam didn't say anything a moment, then he said, "Yeah. The DA isn't filing charges."
"No fucking kidding," Kris said. "Are you okay?"
"I have to be," Adam said. "So I guess I am."
He sounded so fucking quiet. Kris swallowed hard. "Where are you, man? Are you at the Omni? I'm in—"
"Don't," Adam said, raw, and then he said, "I need to get some sleep. I'll see you in Boston tomorrow."
"Adam—" Kris said, but he was already talking to dead air, and the phone was shaking in his hand as he let it fall into his lap. He just sat there without moving for a while, staring out the window at the sprawl of L.A., until the phone rang: it was Katy calling him. He let it ring in his hand until it went to voicemail and was quiet again.
Adam didn't talk to him at all in Boston, and Kris didn't try to talk to him. It felt like everything else: broken. Another big jagged piece that had fallen out of place, faster than he could shove it back in. Allison cuddled up to him after the show, sitting backstage, and said softly, "You wanna talk about it?"
"No," he said. The handlers had backed off—Adam had taken them straight to a whole fresh news cycle—but Adam had said no to changing the schedule back, or the choreography. Kris got it. He'd known it wasn't enough, what he could give; then one step wrong, and he wasn't even allowed to give that much anymore. Adam didn't want it back so it could get yanked again, at five seconds' notice. Kris got it, and that didn't make it any easier, either losing Adam or having to watch Adam lose him, and talking about it was going to make fuck-all difference.
The buses drove them to to Kalamazoo on August 27, for the memorial: Matt's family had held it back until between the Michigan and Wisconsin dates, where they could all make it. 19E had sprung for the security: there was no press, no strangers, only them and Matt's family and friends, real friends; tables covered with random potluck food that people had brought, room full of creaky folding chairs. There were pictures of Matt on the walls, and a video screen playing him singing on tour, his dueling pianos number with Scott.
Kris was sitting with a paper plate of untouched lasagne balanced on his knee when it got to the video of Matt in the apartment, his hair sweaty and stuck-down, his shirt buttoned up over his scratched-up chest, all of them sitting around him while he sang Georgia one more time. Kris put down his plate on the chair next to him and got up and went out of the rented hall and turned down the stairs, just trying to get away.
He found some stairs and went down into the deserted basement, empty metal coat racks lined up on either side, yanking his tie loose because he couldn't breathe, and stopped. Adam was sitting on the floor at the end of the room, back to the wall, his arms propped on his knees and his head hanging forward between them. There wasn't a lot of light; he was sitting just past the glow of the last fluorescent overhead bulb.
There was a burst of louder voices floating down the steps behind Kris, people talking; hurting, but ordinary; working through it, so they could put it all away and go back to their lives. He could've turned and gone back upstairs; instead he took one jerky step, away from them, away from—away from Katy, and home, and everything he should've wanted, letting go; and then he took another, and by the time he got to Adam, Adam's head coming up to look at him, he was almost running; he slid down to his knees, taking Adam's face in his hands.
"No," Adam said, jerking half away. "Kris, I can't—"
"No, I know," Kris said, and kissed him. "Adam. Adam, I'm here. I'm here—" kissing him again, kissing and kissing, too quick for breath, his hands in Adam's hair, holding him close until Adam's hands shakily came up to hold on to him.
"I'm here," Kris said again, letting go with one hand to scrub away the tears from his eyes with the back of his knuckles.
"You don't have to," Adam said, although his hands were trembling, and he was kissing Kris back now ferociously, his mouth hungry and desperate; his hands were cradling Kris's head, and he was kissing his throat, the soft skin above the jawline, mouthing along the cheekbones, pulling kisses out of his mouth. "You don't have to, I can, I'm okay," with his voice breaking even while he tried to say it, and while he was starting to work, frantic, on Kris's shirt, pulling on it until the buttons started coming loose sideways, sliding open one after another.
"I'm not," Kris said, yanking his own tie open the rest of the way, throwing it aside. "I'm not, and you're not," and he had Adam's jacket off his shoulders, tangling his arms until Adam let them go one at a time to shake it loose.
"I'm not," Adam said, and dragged in a sobbing breath. "Fuck, Kris."
They pulled a dozen coats down, old abandoned winter coats sitting at the end of the rack, some kind of lost and found, and they fell into them, Adam's body so fucking right against his, Adam's beautiful, sleek, easy body that was meant for this, not for killing. Kris tried to tell him so, said, "This—you're for this, you're for this, Adam," trying to get it out while he just wanted to bury his mouth against Adam's skin. Adam was holding him tight; they were breathing in each other's breath and Kris was kissing the last bitter taste of liquor and salt out of Adam's mouth.
"Kris," Adam said, like he was having a revelation. Kris arched up into him, pushed his hand between them and got his pants open, and then Adam's, clumsy with working the other way. His fingers went fumbling over the hard, smooth line of Adam's cock in his briefs, swelling and hot under the soft ridged cotton, pushing at the waistband. Adam moaned and rubbed up against him, and then he lifted his hips for Kris to slide everything out of the way.
Kris pulled him back down, heavy naked weight of him so unbelievably good, the huge down coats and soft scratchy wool cushioning underneath them, and Adam's hands were moving on him, getting to be sure of his ground now: Adam trailed his fingers along the line of Kris's thigh, a little bit of a tease all the way along, and then he hooked his fingers under Kris's knee and pulled him up, locking them in together, and then Adam's hips started to rock slow and devastating against him.
"Holy fuck," Kris said, the words coming out a little high and broken, and he started laughing at himself as he let his head fall back into the pile of coats and got his hands on Adam's shoulders and held on. "Adam. Adam, we're going to be okay. We're going to be amazing."
"Oh, we are," Adam said, panting, "Kris," and kissing along the line of his throat where Kris had tipped back, wet suckling kisses along his jaw. They were squirming and pushing together, a sweet, tangled mess, shirts hanging off their shoulders, pants open and halfway down their thighs, and it was the best Kris had felt in so long, so damn long, holding on to Adam, Adam holding on to him; the start of something strange and new and fucking scary in his arms, something that hadn't ever been broken.
= End =