Tammy Gleason was exhausted. Having twin athletic scholarships was helping her to get through college without any debt, but it was always hard this time of year. Basketball and softball overlapped just a little as basketball was winding down and softball was getting started. The games didn’t clash, but they were close together.
Having just finished a marathon of practice for both, she was anxious for a hot shower and some sack time. She ignored her phone, and didn’t even glance at her dorm room’s answering machine, instead grabbing towel and toiletries and heading for the bathroom she shared with three other girls.
Twenty minutes later she was feeling almost human again. Wearing only her towel, she plopped heavily into her chair, and listened to her messages. Coach’s announcements, skip. Friend Wendy wanting to get a pizza, skip. Dad warning her to get out of the city while she could, ski. . . .Wait. What? She replayed the message.
“Tammy, for God’s sake where are you? I’ve been calling for over an hour! Listen to me, I don’t have much time. Things are about to get really bad. I mean really bad. You need to pack up whatever you can’t live without and get back to the base right now! Don’t stop for anything but gas, and make that quick. Bring everything you can carry, but don’t hesitate to leave it all behind if you have to. I’ve got to go, baby girl, we’re being deployed right now. Sweetheart, please be careful, and trust no one. Understand? Trust no one. The wheels are coming off, Tammy. I love yo. . . .”
Tammy sat back in her chair, releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.
Holy shit. They were deploying her father’s Army unit here at home? What the hell? She checked her cell phone, and realized it had been a call from him she had ignored. She hastily listened to a similar message, noting the fear in her father’s voice. She had never heard him sound like that before.
Her father was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Reese Gleason was a battalion Sergeant Major, one of the highest ranking NCOs on the base.
Almost as long as she could remember, it had just been her, and her father. Tammy’s mother had died when Tammy was just four years old. Her parents had been only children and her grandparents had passed before she was even born. Reese had managed to put off deployments until she was of school age, but it had cost him later with extra deployment in the way of TDY assignments.
The wife of one of his best friends had agreed to take Tammy in when Reese was off base, leaving her with Mrs. Steele for months at a time. With Sergeant Steele also gone, and the Steele’s unable to have children of their own, it was a good arrangement for both of them. Lucinda Steele became a surrogate mother for Tammy, and Tammy became the same kind of daughter. The two were as close as any mother and daughter might have been, save that Lucinda had not given life to Tammy.
She tried her father’s cell phone, but got no answer. She left him a voice mail acknowledging his message, and informing him she was on her way in the next hour. It was all she could do. She turned the television on, and switched it to a news channel, wondering if there was anything being said. Not yet.
She dressed quickly, and started throwing her things into a duffle bag. She ignored her stereo, television, uniforms, and other less than useless things. She grabbed the small emergency kit that her father had prepared for her, and placed it in the top of the duffle. She didn’t even know what all was in it, since it was sealed. But Reese had always told her to grab it if nothing else, and she did. She’d open it later if she had time, or had need.
She was almost finished when the television gave an alert sound, indicating breaking news. She stopped work, and waited.
“Ladies and gentlemen we interrupt our regular news cast to bring you breaking news from Atlanta, where the CDC is about to hold a press conference. We go live, now, to our reporter in the field, Gretchen Danner. Gretchen, what can you tell us?”
“Thanks, Dave. The first thing is that this announcement literally comes out of left field. The CDC rarely makes the time to hold an actual
press conference, and almost never actually asks for television time when doing so. Their only response so far to our questions has been that this announcement is, quote ‘Of vital importance to the entire county’ end quote. That’s all they’ve shared with us at this time, but we are trying to get at least some word from. . .Dave, hold on, something. . .Okay, someone’s on their way to the podium. . .my colleague is telling me this is Dr. Meredith Baxter, the actual head of the CDC, and that is Ilesa Bokalu, the press agent for the CDC coming to the microphone. Let’s listen in.”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I ask you for order, please,” the dark skinned woman rapped lightly on the podium. “We have very little time, so please listen carefully. Dr. Baxter is about to make a statement that is vital to everyone in this entire nation, and to people around the world. What she is about to tell you is all the information we have at the moment, so please, do not interrupt her with questions. Aides are circulating among you with written information as well, so there’s no need to ask her to repeat herself. Dr. Baxter.” Bokalu gave way to the graying blonde woman behind her. Baxter looked frazzled. As if she hadn’t slept in a while. She wasted no time with pleasantries.
“One week ago, World Health Organization field agents reported a strange sickness in the Montanbue region of Greater Africa. This sickness showed similar symptoms of a certain type of rabies usually found in primates across the continent. It has always been held that this particular strain of rabies was not transferable to humans. This strain of rabies isn’t something that can simply be ‘caught’, to use a phrase we’re all familiar with, but rather must be transmitted by bite, or exchange of bodily fluids, say the blood or saliva of an infected creature entering an open wound.”
“We have since learned however that this strain can in fact be transferred to humans, and from human to human. The first cases detected were monitored closely. Those infected began to show signs of dementia, paranoia, and exhibited aggressive hostility toward everyone around them, usually in no more than twenty-four to thirty-six hours,.” She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath.
“Approximately six hours after these additional symptoms presented, the hospital’s quarantine was broken. Those infected escaped into the city and went on a rampage the likes of which have seldom been seen. Military and police units were called in to stop the resulting riots, but were unsuccessful.”
“Worse, many people who were infected and were not yet aware of it managed to board international flights. These flights landed in France, England, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and,” she looked up, “the United States.”
An immediate uproar went through the press but Baxter held up her hands, and continued to talk.
“Please, I remind you that time is precious, here!” she bellowed. The reporters calmed somewhat, but looked rattled.
“We had no idea that any of this had been allowed to escape containment until a few hours ago. By then, it was too late. Those who were infected had reached their destinations and disappeared into the populations. Using the time line for the original subjects, these newly infected are almost certainly past the initial infection and are now themselves capable of infecting others.”
“We have no idea how this has happened. Blood samples from the point of origin will be arriving soon, and we will start at once on a way to counteract this virus. Until we can do that, however, the risk of infection remains high. We are already hearing of other cases in Europe and South America. It is unlikely we will be spared.”
“I am making this announcement without the permission of the White House because it is vital that Emergency Responders as well as civilians
be aware of this threat. We will bring you. . . .” The screen went black. Tammy almost jumped.
“Well,” ‘Dave’ came back on the screen, “it appears we’ve had some kind of technical trouble on Gretchen’s end, but we’ll try and get her back for you as soon as possible. In the meantime, this announcement from the CDC director is more than a little scary, if you ask me. Joining me now is our in house medical expert Doctor Jamie. . . .” Again, the screen went black.
“Oh, this is bad,” Tammy muttered to herself. She turned off the now useless television, and grabbed her bags. Taking one last look around, she walked to the door, and turned the knob to open it. The door opened against her suddenly, and pushed her back toward her bed.
“What the hel. . .oh, Gina! You scared me half to. . .Gina?”
Tammy’s roommate, Gina Terrio, staggered into the room. Her only response was an eerie moan that made the hair on Tammy’s neck stand up straight.
“Gina, what is wrong with you?” Tammy demanded. Looking up at the sound, Gina gave Tammy her first full look at her. Her eyes had a glazed, unfocused look, and her mouth was covered in blood that had leaked down onto her shirt.
“Oh, no,” Tammy breathed. And Gina attacked.
Faster than she would have thought possible, Gina crossed the distance between them, reaching for Tammy with blood stained hands. With that small part of her brain that wasn’t in total panic mode, Tammy realized that Gina was missing three fingers on her left hand.
She must have been bitten, that small part of her brain informed her.
Meanwhile, the rest of her brain, the part that was screaming ‘oh shit’ very loudly in her inner ear, was backpedaling, hands grasping for anything that would help hold her former roommate off. He right hand fell, almost of it’s own volition, on her softball bat.
Tammy Gleason was not a waif. She was strong and athletic. And she had been swinging a bat for a long time. Her hands were on autopilot as the bat came up and that tiny, non-panicked part of her brain yelled ‘swing’.
So she did.
The aluminum bat collided with Gina’s onrushing head with a sickening crunch, and the girl fell to the floor instantly.
“Oh my. . .my God!” Tammy just looked on in shock at what had been her roommate, and friend. She had acted on instinct, defending herself, but the fact remained that Gina was. . . .
“I can’t worry about that now, I can’t worry about that now,” Tammy repeated over and over again. Slinging her bag again, she stepped carefully over Gina’s body, pausing to wipe the blood off her bat on Gina’s bedding, and stepped into the hallway. Looking both ways, she was relieved to see it was empty.
She locked the door and walked away.
She walked as calmly as possible to her car, a newer model Honda Accord. Her father had bought it for her when she had announced her intention to attend the University of Memphis. Her decision had been based on the Ranger Training Program the school operated, one of very few such programs in the nation. Such a program would help her gain useful summer work experience which she hoped would give her a leg up when it came time to apply for a position in the Department of Interior.
Throwing her duffle in the back seat, she crawled behind the wheel. As she started the car, she was immensely grateful she had filled the tank earlier in the week before parking. She rarely used the car during the week so the tank was topped off. It wouldn’t get her all the way home, but it would take her a long way.
As she put the car into reverse she saw students running through the quad. She could make out a few shouts, but not what was being said. She watched a moment longer and saw a male student staggering after those running. His condition was much like that of Gina Terrio, with blood seeping from a wound on his upper left arm and blood around his mouth. She couldn’t see his eyes from where she sat, but suspected they were glazed over.
Did that plane from Manu. . .Mabo. . .Africa, land in Memphis? She shook her head. She didn’t have time for that right now. Once she was home she could think on things like that all she wanted to. Right now she had to concentrate on getting home.
She put the car in drive and hit the road. Automatically she pulled down University Lane and out onto Poplar Avenue. If she followed this road it would take her all the way out of town and eventually to Pickwick Dam. From there she could go to Savannah and get on Highway 64, which would carry her most of the way across Tennessee toward home.
There was also the interstate. I40 would carry her well into North Carolina. In her mind’s eye she considered both routes. Which was better? The route down 64 would take her through dozens of small towns, stretches of two lane highway, and any number of possible places for trouble.
The interstate, on the other hand, would take many more miles, which would mean she would need gas sooner. But the interstate was two lane all the way, and more around places like Nashville. There were numerous places along the way to get fuel, food, and use the restroom safely as well. Yes, I40 was the way to go. Decision made, she changed lanes and left Poplar at I240, heading for the I40 East. For home.
She had expected traffic to be worse and was pleasantly surprised to find it light, and moving without difficulty. She sped down the three lane highway, careful to keep her speed at the limit. The last thing she needed was to get a ticket. She turned on the radio and tuned in to a local all news channel to see if there was more information available.
They were talking about how good the Grizzlies were looking in the last few regular season games. Sighing, she turned the volume down, but left the radio on in case they had information later. Seeing her exit coming, she changed lanes and hit the off ramp smoothly.
And ran smack into a traffic jam.
“Seriously?” she muttered, wondering what the hold up was. She could hear horns blaring, but didn’t add her own to the mix. It wouldn’t help and it might make things worse. She strained to see around the SUV in front of her, but to no avail.
She placed her car in park and tried to make use of the time by planning her trip. The fuel in the car would take her to Knoxville or thereabouts, but she would be very low by then. She decided to fill the car up at every opportunity during the drive. She glanced at the radio which was displaying the time. Two forty-five in the afternoon. Sunset was usually around seven this time of year. Call it four hours max of sunlight to travel in. No, that wasn’t accurate because she’d be driving away from the sun.
Three hours then, just to be sure. She would stop right at sunset and fill the car up again. Hopefully she would be close enough to home that the fuel would see her through.
Her string of thoughts was broken when someone ran past her car. Then two more people. What the hell?
She opened the door just enough to stand outside and look down the road. Her mouth dropped open at the sight before her.
In the middle of the interstate was a young man, maybe a teenager, surrounded by other people. No, wait. Not just people, she realized. They were infected. The teen held a sword, one of those Japanese one’s she could never remember the name of, in both hands. Several bodies lay around him already.
Without any real thought she reached inside cutting of her car and taking the keys, grabbing her bat at the same time. She did not have time for this shit! Running the three car lengths that separated her from the battle she struck without warning, slamming the largest target in front of her in the side of the head with the bat.
The. . .thing, to her right turned at the noise, glaring at her with glassy eyes. She hesitated for a second, then recovered, taking that one with a reverse swing. Without pause this time she swung back to her left, and hit a woman. . .thing, that was turning to attack her. She turned at once looking for more, but. . . .
There were no more. In the time she had taken to kill three, the kid in the middle of the road had killed seven. She looked at him, mouth agape, as he swung his sword to clean the blade off and knelt to wipe the rest off on the clothes of the nearest body.
Seeing her looking at him, he nodded. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she said without thinking. “What the hell, kid? You always fight in the middle of the interstate?” He shrugged, but made no other reply.
“Where are you headed?” she asked, conscious of the still blaring horns and of the traffic that was trying to get around stalled and abandoned cars.
“Nowhere, really,” he shrugged again.
“Want a ride?” Tammy asked.
Now why in the hell did I just do that? she wondered.
“Sure,” the teen replied. He walked to the edge of the road and picked up a backpack along with another bag and started toward her.
“You got a name?” she asked. “Mine’s Tammy. Tammy Gleason.”
“Ringo,” the boy replied.
“Just Ringo?” she asked, already walking back to her car. She stopped long enough to mimic his action and wipe her bat clean.
“Yes,” Ringo nodded again.
“Well, c’mon, Just Ringo, before we get run over.” She led him quickly to the car, where he deposited his gear in the back, and joined her up front.
“I’m not going to regret this, am I?” she asked, starting the car. She steered carefully through the vehicles, and bodies, trying to get back on track.
“I hope not,” was all Ringo said.