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The fire starts on the first floor, the flames licking up the cabbage rose wallpaper, unfurling across the plaster ceiling, and spewing black, noxious smoke through the hallways and bedrooms of the Farrel Street house, blinding him, choking the breath out of him. He darts across the dining room, searching for the back stairs, finding them, hurling down the old, rickety wooden risers into the musty darkness of the basement. "Philip?!—PHILIP!?!—PHILLLLLLLLIP!!?!" He lurches across the filthy, watermarked cement floor, frantically scanning the dark cellar for his brother. Upstairs, the home blazes and crackles, the conflagration roaring through the cluttered chambers of the meager bungalow, the heat pressing down on the foundation. He whirls fecklessly in circles, scanning the shadowy reaches of the smoke-bound cellar, batting away cobwebs and choking on the acrid smoke and ammonia-rot stench of rancid canned beets, rat turds, and ancient fiberglass insulation. He can hear the creaking and thudding of wooden timbers collapsing onto the floor above him as the maelstrom rages out of control—which makes no sense because his little childhood home in Waynesboro, Georgia, never burned down in any fire as far as he can remember. But here it is, going up in a terrible inferno, and he can't find his fucking brother. How did he get here? And where the fuck is Philip? He needs Philip. Goddamnit, Philip would know what to do! "PHILLLLLLLLLLIIIIP!" His hysterical cry comes out of him like a thin puff of air, a breathless chirp, a fading signal on a radio tuned to some distant station. All at once he sees a portal in one of the basement walls—a strange, concave opening like a hatch on a submarine, a weird greenish glow emanating from within it—and he realizes that the opening is new. There was never such an opening in the basement of his childhood home on Farrel Street, but again, like black magic, here it fucking is. He stumbles toward the dim, radiant, green gash in the darkness. Pushing through the opening, he steps into an airless cinder-block garage stall. The chamber is empty. The walls bear the marks of torture—streaks of dark, drying blood and the frayed ends of ropes affixed to U-bolts—and the place radiates evil. Pure, unadulterated, preternatural evil. He wants out. He can't breathe. His flesh crawls. He can't make a sound other than a faint mewling noise coming from the deepest part of his lungs, an anguished moaning. He hears a noise and spins around and sees another gangrenous-green glowing portal, and he lunges toward it. He goes through the opening, and he finds himself in a pine grove outside Woodbury. He recognizes the clearing, the deadfall logs forming a natural little amphitheater—the ground carpeted in matted pine needles, fungus, and weeds. His heart quickens. This is an even worse place—a death scene. A figure emerges from the forest and steps into the pale light. It's his old friend, Nick Parsons, gangly and awkward as ever, lurching into the clearing with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, his face a sweaty mask of horror. "Dear Lord," Nick murmurs in a strangled voice. "Cleanse us of all this unrighteousness." Nick raises the shotgun. The muzzle looks gargantuan—like an enormous planet eclipsing the sun—pointing directly at him. "I renounce all sins," Nick drones in his sepulchral voice. "Forgive me, O Lord … forgive me." Nick pulls the trigger. The firing pin snaps. The slow-motion blast flares in a brilliant yellow corona—the rays of a dying sun—and he feels himself lifted out of his boots, slingshot into space, weightless, flying through darkness … toward a nimbus of celestial white light. This is it. This is the end of the world—his world—the end of everything. He screams. No sound comes from his lungs. This is death—the suffocating, magnesium-white void of nothingness—and very suddenly, like a switch being thrown, Brian Blake ceases to exist.
* * *
With the abruptness of a jump-cut in a motion picture, he is lying on the floor of his apartment in Woodbury—inert, frozen, pinned to the cold hardwood in paralyzing, icy pain—his breathing so labored and inhibited that his very cells seem to be gasping for life. His vision consists of a jagged, blurry, fractured view of the water-stained ceiling tiles—one eye completely blind, its orbital socket cold as if wind is blowing through it. The duct tape hanging off one side of his mouth, the tiny inhalations and exhalations through his bloody nostrils almost imperceptible to the casual listener, he tries to move but can't even turn his head. The sound of voices barely registers with his agony-gripped auditory nerves.
"What about the girl?" a voice asks from somewhere in the room.
"Fuck her, she's outside the safe zone by now—she ain't got a chance."
"What about him? Is he dead?"
Then another sound registers—a watery, garbled growl—which draws his attention to the edge of his vision. Seeing through the bleary retina of his one good eye, he can barely make out the tiny figure in the doorway across the room, her pale face mottled with decomposition, her pupil-less eyes like sparrow eggs. She lunges until her chain-link leash clangs loudly.
"GAH!" one of the male voices yelps as the tiny monster claws at him.
Philip tries desperately to speak, but the words catch in his scalded throat. His head weighs a thousand tons, and he tries again to speak with chapped, cracked, bleeding lips, tries to form breathless words that simply won't coalesce. He hears the deep baritone voice of Bruce Cooper.
"Okay—fuck this!" The telltale click of a safety disengaging on a semiautomatic fills the silence. "This girl's getting a bullet right—"
"N-nnggh!" Philip puts everything he has into his voice and manages another faint series of utterances. "D-duh—d-don't!" He takes another agonizing breath. He must protect his daughter Penny—regardless of the fact that she's already dead and has been for over a year. She is all he has left in this world. She is everything. "D-don't fucking touch her … DON'T DO IT!"
Both men snap their gazes toward the man on the floor, and for the briefest fraction of an instant, Philip gets a glimpse of their faces gaping down at him. Bruce, the taller man, is an African American with a shaved head, which now furrows with horror and repulsion. The other man, Gabe, is white and built like a Mack truck with his marine buzz cut and black turtleneck. From the look in their eyes, it's clear that Philip Blake should be dead.
Lying on that blood-soaked four-by-eight piece of plywood, he has no idea how bad he must look—especially his face, which feels as though it's been tenderized by an ice pick—and for one fleeting moment, the expressions on the faces of these crude, simple men gaping down at him set off a warning alarm in Philip's brain. The woman who worked him over—Michonne is her name, if memory serves—did her job well. For his sins, she left him as close to death's door as a person can be without going through it.
The Sicilians say revenge is a dish best served cold, but this gal delivered it with a steaming plate of agony. Getting his right arm amputated and cauterized just above the elbow is now the least of Philip's problems. His left eye is currently lying on the side of his face, glued to his flesh by drying tendrils of bloody tissue. But worse than that—far worse for Philip Blake—is the sticky-cold sensation spreading up through his entrails from the site where his penis was detached with a flick of the woman's fancy sword. The memory of that little flick—the sting of a metal wasp—now sends him back into the twilight of semiconsciousness. He can barely hear the voices.
"FUCK!" Bruce stares bug-eyed down at the once-fit, once-lean man with the handlebar mustache. "He's alive!"
Gabe stares. "Shit, Bruce—the doc and Alice are fucking gone! What the hell are we going to do?"
At some point, another man has entered the apartment in a flurry of heavy breathing and the clanging of a pump-action shotgun. Philip can't see who it is, or hear the voices very well. He floats between consciousness and oblivion while the men hovering over him continue their terse, panicky exchange.
Bruce's voice: "You guys, lock this little shit up in the other room. I'm going to run downstairs and get Bob."
Gabe's voice next: "Bob?! The fucking drunk that's always sitting downstairs by the door?"
The voices begin to fade as the dark cold shroud draws down over Philip.
"—what the hell can he do—?"
"—probably not much—"
"—he can do more than either of us—"
* * *
Contrary to public opinion and the mythology of the movies, the average combat medic is not even remotely as skilled as an experienced, credentialed trauma surgeon or, for that matter, even a general practitioner. Most medics receive less than three months of training during boot camp, and even the most prodigious of these individuals rarely rises above the level of a common EMT or paramedic. They know basic first aid, a little CPR, and the rudiments of trauma care, and that's about it. They are thrown into the breach with battle units and expected to simply keep wounded soldiers breathing—or keep the circulatory system intact—until the victim can be transported to a mobile surgical unit. They are human tugboats—hardened by front-line conditions, calloused by witnessing a constant stream of suffering—expected only to Band-Aid and splint the sucking wounds of war.
Hospital Corpsman First Class Bob Stookey served a single tour with the Sixty-Eight Alpha company in Afghanistan thirteen years ago, at the tender age of thirty-six, getting deployed not long after the initial invasion. He was one of the older enlisted men at the time—his reasons for signing up had a lot to do with a divorce going sour at the time—and he became somewhat of a Dutch uncle to the youngsters around him. He started as a glorified ambulance driver out of Camp Dwyer and worked his way up to battlefield medic by the following spring. He had a knack for keeping the boys entertained with lousy jokes and nonregulation sips from his ever-present flask of Jim Beam. He also had a soft heart—the grunts loved him for that—and he died a little bit every time he lost a marine. By the time he shipped back to the world one week after his thirty-seventh birthday, he had died one hundred and eleven times and was medicating the trauma with a half-quart of whiskey a day.
All of this Sturm und Drang of his past had long been drowned by the horror and clamor of the plague, as well as the excoriating loss of his secret love, Megan Lafferty, and the pain has grown so malignant within him that now—tonight—this instant—he is completely oblivious to the fact that he is about to be wrenched back onto the battlefield.
Slumped against the bricks in front of the Governor's place, half-conscious, dried spittle and ash across the front of his drab olive jacket, Bob stirs at the booming voice of Bruce Cooper. The darkness of night is slowly burning off with the dawn, and Bob has already started shaking from the chill winds and a restless night of fever dreams.
"Get up!" the big man orders as he lurches out of the building and comes over to Bob's nest of soggy newspapers, ratty blankets, and empty bottles. "We need your help—upstairs! NOW!"
"W-what?" Bob rubs his grizzled face and belches stomach acids. "Why?"
"It's the Governor!" Bruce reaches down and grabs hold of Bob's limp arm. "You were an army medic, right?!"
"Marines … H-hospital Corps," he stammers, feeling as though he's being levered to his feet by a block and tackle. His head spins. "For about fifteen minutes … about a million years ago. I can't do shit."
Bruce stands him up like a mannequin, clutching him roughly by the shoulders. "Well, you're going to fucking try!" He shakes him. "The Governor's been taking care of you—making sure you're fed, that you don't drink yourself to death—and now you're going to return the favor."
Bob swallows back his nausea, wipes his face, and gives a queasy nod. "Okay, take me to him."
* * *
On their way through the foyer, up the staircase, and down the back hall, Bob is thinking it's probably no big deal, the Governor's got the flu or something, fucking stubbed his toe and now they're overreacting like they always do. And as they hasten toward the last door on the left, Bruce practically pulling Bob's arm out of its socket, just for an instant, Bob catches a whiff of something coppery and musky wafting out of the half-ajar door, and the odor sets off warning bells in Bob Stookey's head. Right before Bruce yanks him inside the apartment—in that horrible instant before Bob clears the jamb and sees what's waiting for him inside—he flashes back to the war.
The sudden and unbidden memory that streaks through his mind's eye at that moment makes him flinch—the smell, that protein-rich stew that hung over the slapdash surgical unit in Parwan Province; the pile of pus-ridden bandages earmarked for incineration; the drain swirling with bile; those gurneys washed with blood cooking in the Afghan sun—all of this flickers through Bob's brain in that split second before he sees the body on the floor of the apartment. The odor raises his hackles and makes him hold on to the jamb for purchase as Bruce shoves him into the vestibule, and Bob, at last, gets a good look at the Governor—or what remains of the man—on the desecrated plywood platform.
"I locked the girl away and untied his arm," Gabe is saying, but Bob can hardly hear the man or see the other guy—another goon named Jameson, now crouched across the room, hands clasped awkwardly, eyes hot with panic—and the dizziness threatens to drag Bob to the floor. He gapes. Gabe's voice warbles as if coming from underwater. "He's passed out—but he's still breathing."
"Holy sh—!" Bob barely makes a noise, his voice squeezed and colorless. He falls to his knees. He stares and stares and stares at the contorted, scorched, blood-soaked, scourged remains of a man who once prowled the streets of the little kingdom of Woodbury like an Arthurian knight. Now the mangled body of Philip Blake begins to metamorphose in Bob Stookey's mind into that poor young man from Alabama—Master Sergeant Bobby McCullam, the kid who haunts Bob's dreams—the one who got half his body torn off by an IED outside Kandahar. Overlaying the Governor's face, in a grotesque double image, Bob now sees the marine, that death mask of a face under a helmet—parboiled eyes and bloody grimace tucked into a chin strap—the terrible gaze fixing itself on Bob the Ambulance Driver. Kill me, the kid had muttered to Bob, who couldn't do anything for the young man but load him into a sweltering cargo bay already crammed with dead marines. Kill me, the kid had said, and Bob was helpless and stricken mute, and the young marine had died with his eyes locked onto Bob's. All this passes through Bob's imagination in an instant, pulling the gorge up into his esophagus, filling his mouth with stomach acids, burning in the back of his throat, erupting in his nasal passages like liquid fire.
Bob twists around and roars vomit across the room's filthy carpet.
The entire contents of his stomach—a twenty-four-hour liquid diet of cheap whiskey and occasional sips of Sterno—come frothing out, splattering the rug. On his hands and knees now, Bob heaves and heaves, his back arching, his body convulsing. He tries to speak between watery gasps. "I—I can't—can't even look at him." He sucks air. A spastic shudder rocks through him. "I can't—I can't do anything f-for him!"
Bob feels a hand as strong as a vise tighten on the nape of his neck and a portion of his army fatigue jacket. The hand jerks him to his feet so violently, he's practically yanked out of his boots.
"The doc and Alice are gone!" Bruce barks at him, their faces so close now, a fine mist of spittle sprays Bob as Bruce tightens his grip on the back of Bob's neck. "If you don't do anything, he's going to FUCKING DIE!!" Bruce shakes the man. "DO YOU WANT HIM TO DIE?!"
Sagging in Bruce's grasp, Bob lets out a moan: "I—I—I don't—no."
"THEN FUCKING DO SOMETHING!!"
With a woozy nod, Bob turns back to the broken body on the floor. He feels the vise grip on his neck loosen. He crouches down and sees only the Governor now.
Bob sees all the blood running down the nude torso, forming sticky, maplike stains already drying and darkening in the dim light of the living room. He looks at the scorched stump of a right arm, and then surveys the breached eye socket all welled up with blood, the eyeball, as shiny and gelatinous as a soft-boiled egg, dangling off the side of the man's face on tendrils of tissue. He makes note of the swamp of rich arterial blood gathered down around the man's privates. And finally Bob notices the shallow, labored breathing—the man's chest barely rising and falling.
Something snaps inside Bob Stookey—sobering him with the speed and intensity of smelling salts. Maybe it's the old war footing coming back. There's no time for hesitation on the battlefield—no room for repulsion or fear or paralysis—one just has to move. Fast. Imperfectly. Just move. Triage is everything. Stop the bleeding first, keep the air passages clear, maintain a pulse, and then figure out how to move the victim. But more than that, Bob seizes up right then with a wave of emotion.
He never had kids, but the surge of empathy he suddenly feels for this man recalls the adrenaline that flows through a parent at the scene of a car wreck, the ability to lift a thousand pounds of Detroit steel off a child pinned beneath the wreckage. This man cared about Bob. The Governor treated Bob with kindness, even tenderness—always making a point to check in with Bob, make sure Bob had enough food and water and blankets and a place to stay. The revelation steadies Bob, girds him, clears his vision and focuses his thoughts. His heart stops racing, and he reaches down to depress a fingertip against the Governor's blood-soaked jugular. The pulse is so weak it could be mistaken for a fluttering pupa inside a fleshy cocoon.
Bob's voice comes out of him in a low, steady, authoritative tone. "I'm going to need clean bandages, tape—and some peroxide." Nobody sees Bob's face changing. He wipes strands of his greasy, pomaded hair back over his pate. His eyes narrow, nested in deep crow's-feet and wrinkles. His brow furrows with the intensity of a master gambler getting ready to play his hand. "Then, we'll need to get him to the infirmary." At last he looks up at the other men, his voice taking on an even deeper gravity. "I'll do what I can."
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Kirkman LLC.