Title: The Troop.
Author: Craig Davidson.
Genre: Fiction, horror, survival fiction, viruses and diseases, monster fiction.
Publication Date: 2014.
Summary: Once a year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder stumbles upon their campsite—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. A horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival with no escape from the elements, the infected... or one another.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ Images zipped through his head, slideshow style: his favourite foods lovingly presented, glistening and overplumped and too perfect, ripped from the glossy pages of Bon Appétit—a leering parody of food, freakishly sexual, hyperstylized, and lewd.
He saw cherries spilling from a wedge of flaky pie, each one nursed to a giddy plumpness, looking like a mess of avulsed bloodshot eyeballs dolloped with a towering cone of whipped cream...
A porterhouse thick as a dictionary, shank bone winking from fat-marbled meat charred to crackly doneness, a pat of herbed butter melting ovetop; the meat almost sighs as the knife hacks through it, cooked flesh parting with the deference of smoothly oiled doors...
What wouldn't he eat now? He yearned for that raccoon. If it were here now, he'd rip the hardened rags of sinew off its tattered fur; he'd crush its skull and sift through the splinters for its brain, which would be as delicious as the nut-meat of a walnut.
Why hadn't he just eaten the fucking thing?
♥ Mosquitoes hummed against the porch screen. Moths battered their powdery bodies against the solitary lightbulb. The night cool, the light of the moon falling through a lacework of bare branches. None of the trees were too large—the island's base was bare rock pushed up from the ocean, a sparse scrim of soil on its surface. The trees had a uniformly deformed look, like children nourished on tainted milk.
♥ He'd grown up in Ontario and moved to PEI a few years after his residence, buying a house on the cape, learning how to string a lobster trap—See? I'm making a genuine effort!—and settling into the island rhythms. Hell, this voice had even picked up a hint of the native twang. Yet he'd forever be viewed as a "come-from-away." People were unfailingly friendly and respectful of his skill, but his veins swam with mainlander blood: he bore the taint of Toronto, the Big Smoke, the snobby haves to PEI's hardscrabble have-nots. Around here, it's as much a case of who you're from as where you're from: bloodlines ran thick, and the island held close its own.
♥ He was everything they could possibly want in a leader: knowledgeable and serene, exuding confidence while bolstering their own; he'd learned the native flora and fauna, knew how to string a leg snare and light a one-match fire, but most crucially, he treated them with respect—if the boys were not quite yet his equals, Tim gave every impression that he'd welcome them as such once they'd passed the requisite boyhood rituals.
♥ And Newton... well, Newt was a nerd. A good kid, an incredibly smart kid, but let's face it, a full-blown nerd.
It wasn't simply that the boy was overweight; that was a conquerable social obstacle, no worse than a harelip or pimples or shabby clothes. No, poor Newt was simply born a nerd, as certain unfortunates are. Had Tim been in the delivery room, he'd've sensed it: an ungrippable essence, unseen but deeply felt, dumping out of the babe's body like a pheromone. Tim pictured the obstetrician handing Newton to his exhausted mother with a doleful shake of his head.
Congratulations, Ms. Thornton, he's a healthy baby nerd. He's bound to be a wonderful man, but for the conceivable future he'll be a first-rank dweeb—a dyed-in-the-wool Poindexter.
All boys gave off a scent, Tim found—although it wasn't solely an olfactory signature; in Tim's mind it was a powerful emanation that enveloped his every sense. For instance, Bully-scent: acidic and adrenal, the sharp whiff you'd get off a pile of old green-fuzzed batteries. Or Jock-scent: groomed grass, crushed chalk, and the locker room funk wafting off a stack of exercise mats. Kent Jenks pumped out Jock-scent in waves. Other boys, like Max and Ephraim, were harder to define—Ephraim often gave off a live-wire smell, a power transformer exploding in a rainstorm.
Shelley... Tim considered between sips of scotch and realized the boy gave off no smell at all—if anything the vaporous, untraceable scent of a sterilized room in a house long vacant of human life.
Newton, though, stunk to high heaven of Nerd: an astringent and unmistakable aroma, a mingling of airless basements and dank library corners and tree forts built for solitary habitation, of dust smoldering inside personal computers, the licorice tang of asthma puffer mist and the vaguely narcotic smell of model glue—the ineffable scent of isolation and lonely forbearance. Over time a boy's body changed, too: his shoulders stooped to make their owner less visible, the way defenseless animals alter their appearance to avoid predators, while their eyes took on a flinching, hunted cast.
Newton couldn't help it. A trait burdened to his DNA helix, inexcisable from his other attributes—which, Tim gloomily noted, were numerous but not calculable at his age: Newton was unfailingly kind and polite, read books and made obvious attempts at self-betterment—the equivalent of an air-raid siren blaring in a tranquil neighbourhood: NEeeeerd-AleeeRT! NEeeeerd-AleeeRT! Tim felt incredibly protective of Newton and was saddened by his inability to help... but an adult protecting a boy only opened that boy up to further torments.
♥ He slapped himself down the way a ranch-hand whaps the dust off after tumbling from a horse, relishing the soft crumple of the mosquitoes' bodies.
Tim let out a ragged exhale that ended as a mirthless laugh. His hands were sticky with pulped insects. He thought about Gulliver tied down by thousands of Little People—a scene that had never stirred fear in him until now. The prospect of being beset by thousands, millions, of tiny assailants was actually quite terrifying.
♥ Outside, the motor's burr intensified.
Tim let a Coleman lamp and sat on the porch. He clawed at the whitened bumps on his neck, wrists, and hands. A shiver rolled up his legs and through his gut, which clenched painfully as gooseflesh broke out in his arms. He laughed—a confused, gooselike whoonk!—and smoothed his hands over his skin, which was pebbled like orange rind. His bladder tightened with piss as the pleasant scotch taste soured in his mouth.
It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.
♥ The man only repeated himself: "Just one night. Food. Please."
Time debated leaving him. He could bring food out, let him feed in the woods (his word choice puzzled him, yet it felt right: this wasn't a man who wanted something to eat—this was a man who needed to feed). Tim could restrict the boys to quarters, even, eliminating all contact. Leaving the man out here went against just about every tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, but an aspect of good doctoring was triage. You couldn't save everyone. Sad fact of life. So you saved the youngest, or the ones with the best hope of survival.
♥ Kent sat on the edge of his bed, hands clasped, shoulders rounded like a wrestler, awaiting his call to the mat. Kent—even the name had a pushy, aggressive quality. An alpha-male moniker, of a piece with Tanner and Chet and Brodie, names parents bestow upon a boy they've prefigured as a defense attorney or a lacrosse coach. No parent harboring the hope for a sensitive, artistic child names that child Kent.
♥ Tim told himself—he told himself today—that the man must've fallen prey to the commonplace decays, drink and drugs and disease... but his younger eyes, his boyhood eyes, had seen something else entirely.
The man's face had been black, but that was not its birth color: it was the lumpen, withery, rotted black of a banana forgotten at the bottom of a fruit bowl. Had he touched that face, Tim was certain his fingers would've sunk into it. The man's nose looked as though it had been subjected to enormous pressures, or else eaten away by something: a caved-in pit above his lips, which were cracked and bloated and coated in unknowable glaze.
Tim's breath had locked in his lings, his upflung eyes finding his mother—who was obviously scared, too, a fact that deepened his own fear.
The man had been sick in a way that didn't seem possible—nothing on this earth, not disease nor the elements nor the tortures of mankind, could do that. He looked like a man who'd been abducted by a vengeful alien race who'd done terrible things, reduced him in some unspeakable way, then delivered him back to earth in order to examine how the rest of his species would react.
He's seen hell, was Tim's childish thought.
Worst of all were the man's eyes—always the eyes, wasn't it? A calm ongoing shade of brown, and the most awful part was that something continued to live in them—because normally there'd be nothing, right? Defeated and foggy and unthinking, to match the body. But these eyes harbored a remote intellect, a keen awareness. Which was the scariest part: this man had to confront the devastation of his body. He was cognizant of his own ruin. How could he possibly cope with that?
♥ Once the bones were in the hopper, Max's grandfather would switch the machine on. The gears made quick work of them; when the collection receptacle popped open, inside was a drift of fine white powder.
Bone meal, Max's grandpa said. It's magic, boys—nothing grows plants any better than bones.
Hearing this, Max wondered why farmers didn't plant potato fields over cemeteries... the answer had dawned on him before long.
♥ No other boy spoke against the Scoutmaster's plan. Nobody wanted to be here, in this cabin, with... that. They were all too happy to invoke that particular license of boyhood, the one that stated: Let the grown-ups handle it. Events that seemed overwhelming and terrifying to their boyish brains were dispelled like so much smoke when the adults took over. Adults were Fixers; they were Solvers. The boys still trusted Tim, even Kent. So they would depart into the crisp autumn sunshine, their lungs filling with clean air; they would wrestle and run and laugh and enjoy their freedom from this strange responsibility, whatever it entailed. And when they returned, everything would be fine. They sincerely believed this because, up until that very point in their existence, it was a fact that had always held true.
It truly had been Tim's intention to go with them. But he needed time to figure out what the hell was the matter with this man.
..Anyway, the boys were resourceful. The island was safe. There were more hazards on the mainland: pellet guns, dirt bikes, Slick Rogers. They'd hike a few hours, complete their trail-craft requirements, and be back in time for supper—by which time he'd have this mess sorted out. He, tool, believed in the power of adults.
♥ It shouldn't have worked—the differences in the boys; personalities should've repulsed one from the other, like trying to touch magnets of matching polarities—but the opposite held true.
In summer nights, Max and Ephraim would hike to the bluffs behind Max's house, through the long, dry grass frosted white with the salt spray off the sea. They'd pitch a tent on the highest peak, the lights of Max's home only a pinprick in the dark. Lying on their backs under the endless vault of sky—so much wider than in a city, where buildings hemmed in that same sky, light pollution whiting out the stars. They knew some of the constellations—Scoutmaster Tim had taught them, though only Newton bothered to earn a merit badge in astronomy. They could recognize the stars in their simplest alignments: the Big Dipper, Ursa Major and Minor.
..They talked about the stuff best friends ought to. Stupid stuff. Their favorite candy (Max: Swedish Fish, especially the rare purple ones; Eef: Cracker Jack, which Max claimed wasn't exactly candy but Eef said was sweet enough); who had bigger boobs Sarah Matheson or Triny Dunlop (both agreed Triny's were technically bigger, although Ephraim held the opinion, sadly untested, that Sarah's were softer); whether God existed (both believed in a higher power, though Eef thought churches treated their parishioners like ATMs); and who'd win in a fight: a zombie or a shark?
..Sometimes their conversation meandered quite accidentally into topics of greater importance.
..In such ways are friendships built. in tiny moments, in secrets shared. The boys truly believed they would be best friends forever—in fact, as the boat had ferried them to Falstaff Island, Max had looked at the back of Ephraim's head and thought exactly that:
Forever friends, man. Until the very end of time.
♥ Kent was old enough, fourteen years and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood. You could see now that he might make a good linebacker, as far as width and bulkiness of shoulders went. The boys followed him for the simple reason that he was the biggest and strongest and harbored every expectation that he should be followed. It wasn't that he had the best ideas—those were often traceable to Newt. It wasn't that he was particularly charismatic, like Ephraim. It was that the boys were at an age where physical strength was the surest marker of leadership.
Kent had learned what little he knew of leadership from his father, who'd counseled: It's all how you present yourself, son. Draw yourself up to your full height. Stick your chest out. If you look like you've got all the answers, people will naturally assume that you do.
♥ There's no fate worse than being a cuckold, his father said. You can't let some woman go stomping on your balls—you just may acquire a taste for it.
♥ Those ride-alongs, his father enumerating the secrets and shames of their town, made Kent realize something: adults were fucked. Totally, utterly fucked. They did all the things they told kids not to do: cheated and stole and lied, nursed grudges and failed to turn the other cheek, fought like weasels, and worst of all they tried to worm out of their sins—they passed the buck, refused to take responsibility. It was always someone else's fault. Blame the man on the grassy knoll, as his dad said, although Kent didn't really know what that meant. Kent's respect had trickled away by degrees. Why should he respect adults—because they were older? Why, if that age hadn't come with wisdom?
♥ Max regretted speaking so harshly, but there was something so... exasperating about Newt. His hidebound determination to stick to "The Rules." Like this thing with the walkie-talkie. Who gave a shit? It didn't matter if Scoutmaster Tim had given it to Max—they were away from the adults now. Different rules applied. Boys rules, which clearly stated: the big and strong take from the small and weak, period.
..He glanced at Newt—his wide ass hogging the trail, each cheek flexing inside tight dungarees. He reminded Max of a Weeble, those old kiddie toys.
Weebles wobble but they don't fall down...
Newt never did fall down. He withstood the boy's torments with stoic determination, which made it easier—Newt could take it, right? Picking on Newt uncoiled the tension in Max's chest. It was awfully selfish, yet awfully true.
♥ Shelley smiled fleetingly, nothing but a slight upturn of his lips—not that anybody noticed. Shelley had this way of hiding in a permanent pocket of shadow, that spot at the edge of your vision where your eyes never quite focused.
♥ He thought about the mantra of his counselor, Dr. Harley: Don't be a slave to your anger, Ephraim.
It was so hard. It bubbled inside him like that stupid geyser at Yellowstone Park, Old Faithful—except the geyser was, like, faithful: at least you could time it. Ephraim's anger rose out of nowhere, this giddy charge zitzing through his bones and electrifying the marrow. His rage was a dark cloud passing over the sun where just moments before the sky had been clear blue.
..Lips skinning from his teeth, a feral growl rising in his throat, Ephraim sprinted up the pile to tangle with Kent. He saw it in Kent's eyes: this desperate, crawling fear. Fear of losing partially, but also fear of how far Ephraim might take it. And Ephraim saw how easily it could happen. His fist coming up over Kent's clumsy arms, his fist hammering Kent in the mush, flattening his thick drool-flecked lips against the barbed braces, cutting the flesh open as the big boy toppled like a sack of laundry, Ephraim following him down, fists pumping like pistons to destroy the crude symmetry of Kent Jenks's fuck-o face...
Ephraim saw all this in the elastic instant they were perched atop the pile—a silly prize, really; a mossy heap of rocks—and the possibility of violence, his easy capacity for it, drained the strength from his limbs. Kent took advantage, flinging the smaller boy down. He copped a bodybuilding pose, the flexed double crab, face set in a caricature of a despotic monarch.
"I... am... invincible!"
♥ "You can spot it in the water, too. See?" Newt pointed to the sea. "The water always turns red before a storm. Not quite bloodred, but close. The electricity in the air as a storm brews, right, it causes plankton protozoans to lift up off the seabed; these tiny little creatures—like, the tiniest living things on earth—inflate with oxygen and turn deep red, covering the whole sea and making it red, too."
♥ So... a confession, huh? You think I keep things bottled up, and confession's good for the soul. Right? I'd talk more if people—I mean the other kids at school—gave two cruds what I have to say. Most times they'll just laugh, call me a nerd, a geek, call me fat, call me a nerdy fatty-fat geek (which is overkill, right? Nerds and geeks are pretty much the same...). So I don't talk much, except to my teachers and my mom. And now you.
Thing thing is, you can be a different person in letters. On the Internet, too. Because there, you're not YOU. Okay so yes, you are, but not the physical you. So not fat (it's glandular), sweaty (it's also glandular), weird (for North Point, anyway. I don't like bow hunting or spearfishing or killing things, I'm too clumsy for stickball and I actually LIKE Anne of Green Gables... so yeah, weird!) and awkward and gawky and according to Ephraim Elliot sometimes I smell like rotten corn, like when you shuck an ear and it's all black inside? (By the way, I hear you're counseling Eef, too; you're doing a good job—he hasn't given me a Wet Willy, a Rooster Peck, or a Titty Twister in like a month.)
But online I'm not that person. I can be my very best self. According to Mom I'm a sensitive boy. Also, I'm a polymath, which means I know a little bit about everything (which, okay, IS nerdy). Online I can be my brain without my body.
..I scanned the photos, put them in a file on my computer. But instead of a memorial wall I... well, I created a person. I guess that's what I did, yeah.
Alex Markson. The boy's name. I don't know where I got it from, but it seemed a strong name—it fit well with the photos. Alex Markson had Sherwood's face and body. Alex Markson had my words, my interests. Alex was me and Sherwood, combined.
..I started posting stuff. Nothing much at first. Just things that interested me—the stuff kids around here pick on me for. My words pasted to Sher's body.
The super-weird thing is... Alex started to get friend requests. I mean, a LOT. People neither of us had met. Not weirdos either. Normal, cool people. Boys (and girls!) my age.
..So then—and this is really embarrassing—I sent some requests. To Max Kirkwoord and Ephraim Elliot and Kent Jenks. I even sent one to Trudy Dennison, who sits in front of me in homeroom and is the most beautiful, funniest, and just all-around best girl in the whole entire world. Not that I've ever really talked to her, except for that time she borrowed a pencil in social studies... which she never gave back, come to think of it. Maybe she thinks "borrow" means "keep," same as Kent does... probably she just forgot.
Anyway, guess what? They accepted, even though they never met Alex. How could they, right? They just thought he was handsome, and loose, and cool.
I thought: This is how it COULD be. If it wasn't ME. If I existed in a different body, a body everyone loved. If I didn't live in North Point, where I'm like this train on rails: I know where I'm going, hate it, but can't change course. This was who I could've been if the ball had bounced just a bit differently, you know?
My own Facebook page has ten friends. My mom, a few uncles and aunts, my grandmother—"I bought you a new pair of jeans from the Husky department at Simpson's Seats in Charlottetown, Newtie!"—and a few pen pals... my pal from Dubuque de-friended me.
Now here's the big confession, Dr. Harley, the solid gold bonanza, the secret that says just about everything, I guess:
Aklex Markson isn't friends with Newton Thornton. Not on Facebook. Not anywhere on earth or in this life.
♥ Jeff Jenks showed up to say he was sorry but not really—some men are incapable of offering a sincere apology, Max realized; something in their nature refuses it, so instead they frame it as an accident, a misunderstanding, or a "sorry you're so upset" sort of thing that placed subtle blame on the other person for making such a big deal. Kent was there, too, and told Max he was sorry about what'd happened—which wasn't an apology, either. Max would always remember that glint of pride in Kent's eye.
♥ Can you drop the transmission into drive, son? I can't manage it. They drove through streets wrapped in darkness, his father palm-guiding the wheel. Getting old, kiddo. His father smiled. And I'm barely hanging on to the "getting" part. A sudden fear had stolen over the crown of Max's skull—fear and sadness intermingled, so powerful he wanted to cry. Up until that night, he'd sincerely believed that his father was invincible. He was mammothly strong, capable of reshingling a house or chopping down trees with a sharp axe. But that night he'd looked frail, tired, and vaguely spooked. Vulnerable—something Max had never seen. All bodies fail, he realized. They fall to pieces in pieces, bit by torturous bit, and a man had to watch it fall apart around him.
♥ Tim positioned the scalpel over the man's flesh, which was stretched so tight that he could see the individual pores: a million tiny mouths stretched into silent screams.
♥ "Soldering iron, Max."
Tom cauterized the severed veins. Medical instruments were often just precision variations of the same tools handymen used.
♥ His fear was whetted to such a fine edge that he could actually feel it now: a disembodied ball of baby fingers inside his stomach, tickling him from the inside. That's what mortal terror felt like, he realized. Tiny fingers tickling you from the inside.
♥ The loop became a pale ribbed tube roughly seven inches long. Thicker than a garden hose. Tapered slightly at its tip. It seemed to be made of millimeter-thick rings stacked atop one another. Each ring was gently rounded at its edge. Pearlescent beads squeezed from its surface, clinging to the tube like strains of sand to wet skin.
..The tube paused. Max got the weirdest sense that it was presenting itself. The gaudiest belle at the debutantes' ball. Appendages began to unglue themselves from its trunk. It reminded Max of the time he'd come upon a half-hatched bird struggling out of its egg, its wings pulling free of its body all stuck with webby strands of mucus... this looked much the same—or like a Swiss Army knife unfolding its many blades and attachments. These smaller appendages unkinked with the slow, showy grace of a contortionist; they unfurled tortuously in the cabin's dim light, making gluey lip-smack noises. They looked like the fleshy leaves of desert plans—succulents, those plants were called. Max learned that in science class, too. The very tips of these appendages split in half, lolling open. Max saw tiny fishbone teeth studding each mouth—it was sickeningly beautiful.
♥ There is an emotion that operates on a register above sheer terror. It lives on a mindless dog-whistle frequency. Its existence is in itself a horrifying discovery: like scanning a shortwave radio in the dead of night and running in to an alien wavelength—a heavy whisper barely climbing above the static, voices muttering in a brutal language that human tongues could never speak.
♥ The stranger's body rocked side to side. His feet slipped off the chesterfield and hit the floor with a brittle rattle.
The tube now shot straight up out of the wound, rising in a monstrous ripple. A foot. Two feet. Three feet of oily tube weaved out of the man—the dead man, Tim prayed, the dead man who please God feels none of this—like a headless albino cobra out of an Indian fakir's basket. It threshed like some obscene bullwhip, leaking brownish fluid. It stood quivering for a long instant, flicking back and forth: it looked as if it was tasting the air, or hunting for smaller and weaker creatures within striking distance.
Which was when the stranger woke up.
His eyelids fluttered, then his eyes went wide—wider than ever should be possible. It was as if the man had awoken from a terrible dream only to find that those terrors were dwarfed by those in the waking world. He loosed a volley of piercing screams—they almost sounded like the snarls of a terrified dog.
..The stranger reached instinctively for the thing coming out of him—his hand died before reaching it, his fingers softening into a caress. His eyes were miserably bright and aware, bulging with pure shock and horror: the eyes of a little boy who'd come face-to-face with the nameless horror lurking under his bed.
♥ Next they were upon him. Shelley went first. Kent followed. They surged down upon their Scoutmaster, leapt on him, screaming and grabbing. Ephraim next. Then Max, with a low, agonized moan. They were filled with a giddy exuberance. All of them felt it—even Newton, who came last, regretfully, mumbling "No, no, no," even as he fell into the fray, unable to right the queasy momentum. They were carried away on a wave of thick, urgent, blind desire.
It happened so swiftly. The pressure that'd been building since last night, collecting in drips and drabs: in the crunch of the radio shattering in a squeal of feedback; in the black helicopter hovering high above them; in the snake ball squirming in the wet rocks; in the sounds emanating from the cabin as Tim and Max operated on the man; and most of all in the horrifying decline of their Scoutmaster, a man they'd known nearly all their lives reduced to a human anatomy chart, a herky-jerky skeleton. It brewed within them, a throbbing tension in their chests that requires release—somehow, by any means necessary—and now, like a dark cloud splitting with rain, it vented. The boys couldn't fight it; they weren't properly themselves. They were a mob, and the mob ruled.
It's just a game, a few of the boys thought. It was a game as long as they could ignore the look of sick terror in the Scoutmaster's eyes. The helpless fear of an adult—which ultimately looked not much different than the helpless fear of an infant. It was a game as long as they could ignore the dead man on the chesterfield leaking brown muck.
A game, a game, a game...
They dragged Tim to the closet. He unleashed a series of shrill yipping shrieks. He was terrified of forfeiting control—of how fast it had happened. Terrified of that closet. But mostly he was terrified of whatever might very well be inside him.
♥ Tim's thoughts returned to his Scouts. They were running wild, a quintet of lost boys. Did they have any inkling of the peril they were in? How could they, really? Boys didn't process fear the same way as adults, especially when it came to sickness. Their scabs healed like magic, their coughs dried up overnight. But Tim knew the frailty of human bodies; he'd seen how even the stoutest ones could collapse into a sucking pit of disease and death.
♥ Eat, said this funny little voice. It wasn't HAL or the Undervoice. This one was different—sly and insistent, like baby rats clawing the inside of his head,
But there's nothing to eat in here, he told the voice.
Sure there is. There's always things to eat, silly.
The rats kept clawing, clawing; before long they'd claw through the soft meat of his brains and scratch through the bone of his skull. Tim pictured it: his skull bulging, his scalp and hair stirring with antic life, the skin splitting with the sound of rotten upholstery as a tide of hairless pink ratlings spilled from the slit, slick with blood and grayish brain-curds, squealing shrilly as they sheeted clumsily down his face, past his unblinking eyes, bumping and squealing over his lips spread in a vacant smile.
♥ But Shelley had an innate sense of leverage, a sixth sense he must've been born with; he understood that people in compromised positions were less believable. And even if the boys did believe Tim, or only a few of them—Max might; Newt definitely would—well, Shelley wasn't sure that mattered now. He felt the pull of the island in his bones, a strong current anchoring him to it. The sun crawled over the water, and Shelley felt this day, which had only begun, might go on forever.
♥ Are you angry, Eef? came his mother's voice. Or are you scared?
Ephraim realized that those emotions existed on two sides of a razor-thin line. One bled into the other so easily.
Anger. Keep Out.
Fear... Keep Out?
It's always good to have a little fear, son, especially at your age, he heard his mom say. Fear keeps you honest. Fear keeps you safe.
♥ "It's a tough thing to describe. Now that I'm away from it, the answers are so simple. Men like Edgerton are obsessive. Notions of right or wrong have this awful way of draining away to irrelevance with me like that. The only things that matter to them are answers. Progress. Unlocking doors. And if you can't unlock them, you just kick at them until they give. I guess I was sucked up in it, too."
♥ Ephraim's fist sheared off Kent's jaw. Blood leapt through the electrified air. Ephraim's knuckles had split open. It went on forever, and then it stopped. Ephraim's eyes remained wild, his nostrils dilated.
"You can stay out here with him," he told Newton. "Your choice. But he's not coming down."
The hardest-hearted part of the boys realized that Kent had earned this. If you call the tune, you also have to pay the piper when he begs his due.
♥ The two boys stood face-to-face, shirts rainstuck to their chests, heartbeats shivering their skin. Something passed between them—a subtle split, an inelegant falling away. Maybe it was necessary, maybe not, but it happened. Both boys felt it.
♥ How long had it been? Less than twelve hours. Half a day ago, Kent Jenks had been one of them. The biggest and strongest of them all. The boy everyone in North Point forecasted great things for. Now here he was, curled in a cellar, insects gummed in his teeth, gnawing mindlessly on a tarp. Reduced and squandered in some nasty, terrifying, unquantifiable way. Whatever was wrong with him, this sickness, it was rampaging. Barnstorming through his body, devouring him. Newton sensed this: that Kent was being eaten from the inside out, his flesh loosening by degrees, the meat flensed from his bones as his body shrunk inside his skin until... until what? This sickness cared nothing for Kent—for then man he could've become, for the bright future that seemed so assured. It was coring him out, ruining him in uinfixable ways.
♥ His own survival instincts told him this was the wisest plan. When the world was crumbling around your ears, your best bet was to set yourself a few simple tasks to focus your attention on. While you were working on those tasks, your mind had a chance to cope with the situation. If you could just get past the initial shock—the shock of death and of sudden isolation—then maybe a better plan would come to you later.
♥ Newton realized that he could just get the hell out—it was one of the perks of being a kid, wasn't it? Kids could abandon anything at any time with no real repercussions.
♥ The sun slanted through a bank of silvery knife-blade clouds, hitting his skin and buzzing unpleasantly—Shelley didn't care for the sun. His favorite time of day was twilight, that gray interregnum where the shadows drew long.
♥ Shelley had been killing things for a while by then—although he didn't think of it as killing, per se. Other creatures, even people, were empty vessels. Of course, not physically empty, all living things were packed full of guts and bones and blood that leapt giddily into the air when it was released from a vein. But none of them had an essential... well, essence. They were just ambulatory sacks of skin. That was really it. Shelley honestly felt no more remorse tearing another living thing apart than he would ripping the limbs off a wooden marionette.
♥ A real heartbreaker, she said. Shelley just nodded as if he felt the same way, too. He found that if you nodded—slowly, deeply, your chin almost touching your chest to indicate sincerity—people would think you shared their feelings. It was one of the many tricks he'd learned in order to blend in; hiding in plain sight was a beneficial skill.
♥ Every so often he'd catch his mother looking at him—not accusingly, exactly, but... questioningly. As if the son she'd given birth to had been pr ached in the night, replaced with an exact psychical duplicate. This duplicate spoke in her son's voice and aped his intellect and abilities, but there was something worrisome about this new one. He—it?—was a step outside of humankind, looking in. Did it like what it saw?
But if his mother indeed felt this, she'd never given voice to it. Parents held an intrinsic need to believe in the essential goodness of their offspring—their kids were a direct reflection of themselves, after all.
♥ Shelley couldn't believe his good fortune. This island, the isolation, this distracting illness—it was the ultimate playground.
..Earlier, back in the cellar, Shelley spotted Eef staring at his hands. His knuckles had broken open when he'd punched Kent—an incident Shelley had enjoyed immensely because it meant group dynamics were shifting. Changes made people unsure, especially boys his age, because routines were important. When you took away routines, things went haywire. And Shelley liked haywire, because then anything could happen.
♥ That's what made it so scary. This wasn't a bear or a shark or a psycho axe murderer; those things were bad, sure, but you could get away from them. Hide.
How could you hide from a murderer who lived under your skin?
♥ The odds were very sharply aligned against them, weren't they? But he remembered something his mother once said: The only way you'll ever really know people is to see them in a crisis. People do the worst things to each other, Newton. Just the worst. Friendships, family, love and brotherhood—toss it all out of the window...
♥ That was the biggest part of survival, Newton realized: maintaining a belief in the best-case scenario. It was when you started to believe the worst-case on that you were doomed.
♥ With one trembling finger, he flicked open the largest blade of his Swiss Army knife. Moonlight lay trapped along its honed edge. His anger and fear helixed into each other. Things were speeding up and yet everything was held in a bubble of crystalline clarity: the tide swelling over the rain-putted sand and smoothing everything with a layer of silver; the shriek of gulls overhead that seemed to urge him toward an act of savagery he'd already settled his mind around.
..Its will to live was terrifying, as it rejected the notion of an easy death.
Why had he done this—why? Jesus, oh Jesus.
On TV it was always so quick and easy, almost bloodless: the detective shot the murderer and he collapsed, clutching his heart. Or the knife slid in soundlessly and some guy went down clutching his stomach, venting a sad sighing note—"Eeoooogh..."—before he died. But it didn't work that way in real life. Suddenly Max understood those awful stories he'd seen on the national news, the ones where a reporter grimly intoned some poor person had been stabbed forty times or whatever. Maybe the stabber would have stopped after a single stab if that was all it took. But most living things don't want to die. It took a lot to kill them. Events take on a vicious momentum. All of a sudden you're stabbing as a matter of necessity. You're hoping that if you just put enough holes into a body, the life will drain out and death will rapidly flow in...
..Max was shaking and sobbing. He could never, ever be hungry enough to kill something if this was what it meant.
..The boys knelt with their shoulders bowed as the turtle bled to death. It took so, so long.
At one point, its head poked out of its shell. Its blood-slicked eyes stated around as if in hopes that its tormentors had grown bored of their sport and left it alone. Maybe it thought it could still return to the tide pool and be carried back into the ocean. Animals never gave up hope, did they? But its glazed eyes found them, blinked once, and resignedly returned to the darkness of its shell.
.."I'm not huh-huh-hungry anymore," Newton said.
"My muh-muh... my muh-muh... my mother says you can't really love yourself if you hurt animals."
"I didn't mean to. Not like this. If I'd known—"
"I know. It's over now anyway."
The water lapped at their feet with a dreadful languidness. The gulls hurled down shrill shrieks from high above. The wind whispered in a language they could not name.
The buried the turtle in the forgetting sand of the beach.
♥ "It was the toughest thing I ever had to do," he says distantly. "Just sit on my hands and wait. That's not me, right? When something needs doing I'd always stepped up to get it done. Around here my word is law. But now here were these MPs and high army muckety-mucks saying I couldn't go get my own damn kid." He lapses into silence before saying: "My love can't save him. I remember thinking that. I think all of us—the parents, y'know?—were thinking the same. All the love in your body, every ounce of will you possess... matters nothing at all. ..They never found him. Never could bring my son's body home for us to bury. Just to give me and my wife some closure, right? Kent's still technicality considered "missing"—that's how it is in the books. And I'll tell you, man, missing can be worse than dead. Missing is like a book with the last few pages torn out or a movie missing its final reel. Missing means you'll never really know how it ends."
♥ Either Kent had been fooled or he'd fooled himself. He gazed at the airless vault of the heavens stretching above the ocean. The stars were white-hot, encircled by gauzy coronas. So lovely. The unfairness of it all came crashing down. He'd never tell a girl he loved her. Never see his parents' faces again. Never sprint across the outfield at the Lions Club Park tracking a long fly ball. This fact leapt straight out at him. The world was not a fair place. His father had lied—or he'd just been plain ignorant. He'd never see his father again to tell him just how wrong he was. Never never never...
♥ The night's silence stretched over the immensity of the ocean—an impossibly quiet vista that stirred fear in Max's heart. Would death be like that: endless liquid silence?
♥ "Do you know anything about Asian killer wasps?" he asks abruptly. "The Asian killer wasp is the only insect on earth that kills for fun. They're just gigantic. A full two inches long. They love killing honeybees. They'll destroy entire colonies. Only takes a few minutes. They grab a bee and lop its head off with their giant mandibles, like popping the head off a dandelion. It would be like a giant mutant running loosely in a nursery, stomping babies to death. No reason. They just enjoy doing it."
I ask if wasps are as fascinating to him as worms.
"Oh no," he says. "Worms are much more interesting. Worms are indiscriminate, you see. They will eat anything from a hippopotamus to an aphid. They are the ultimate piggybackers: invite one inside and it's there for good. They're nightmare houseguests: once they're in, you'll never get rid of them. They're one of the oldest species on earth. Right after the crust cooled there were worms swimming in the primordial soup. The first creature to flop out of a tide pool onto land had a worm inside of it, I guarantee you.
He smiled vacantly. "They say cockroaches will be the last things left on earth after a nuclear holocaust. Don't believe it. The last thing on earth will be a worm in the guts of those cockroaches, sucking them dry.
.."They say dolphins and pigs are the only animals that fuck for fun," he tells me. "Other than us, of course. Worms fuck themselves. They lay eggs in their own skin. Once a worm gets long enough, a segment detaches to become its own worm. They really are motherfuckers, pardon the pun. There's no joy in it for them at all. No satisfaction of creation, only endless self-creation."
♥ Ultimately the question of whether or not Edgerton is insane becomes a moot point. He is a sociopath. It doesn't take a clinical degree to understand that. He is as remorseless and unthinking as his beloved worms.
"Do you want to know the best, most effective transmitter of contagion known to man?"
Edgerton asks me this with a pinprick of mad light dancing in each iris.
"It's love. Love is the absolute killer. Care. The milk of human kindness. People try so hard to save the people they love that they end up catching the contagion themselves. They give comfort, deliver aid, and in doing so they acquire the infection. Then those people are cared for by others and they get infected. On and on it goes." He shrugs. "But that's people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price."
♥ Things had turned out very bad for Shelley.
More than the other boys, Shelley was a realist. He understood how the world worked—bad things happened to good people, bad people died happy in their beds. It happened every day. So why bother being good? The word itself was attached to a series of behaviors that was, at best, an abstraction.
A person profited nothing from being good.
It wasn't as if Shelley had a choice. Ever since he could remember, he'd seen the world this way. People were things to be used, peeled back, opened up, roughly dissected and dismissed. All creatures on earth fell under the same cold scrutiny.
♥ And two, the boys avoided picking on Shelley out of the sense, inexpressible yet tangible, that he might do something very wrong in retaliation. The worst they'd ever called Shelley was dumb. A real dumb bunny, as Eef would say... well, used to say, anyway.
Shelley was happy as a person such as himself could be with this perception. Let everyone think he was dull. Let their eyes fall on his beanpole body and sluggish limbs and feel nothing but a vague revulsion that they were unable to properly account for. Revulsion mixed with an odd sense of disquiet.
♥ But everyone's built to different tolerances, and you didn't know your breaking point until the instant you hit it.
♥ There's no 12-step or self-help group for dealing with those fears.
Or maybe there is: you just grow up.
And when you do, you surrender the nimbleness of mind required to believe in such things—but also to cope with them. And so when adults find themselves in a situation where that nimbleness is needed... well, they can't summon it. So they fall to pieces: go insane, panic, suffer heart attacks and aneurysms brought on by fright. Why? They simply don't believe it could be happening.
That's what's different about kids: they believe everything can happen, and fully expect it to.
Max knew he was at that age where disbelief began to set in. The erosion was constant. Santa Claus had gone first, then the monster in the closet. Soon he'd believe the way his folks did. Rationally.
But for now he still believed enough, and maybe that had kept him sane.
♥ Pressure turned fear into rage as surely as pressure turns coal into a diamond. Fear was an internal emotion: it got trapped inside of you. You had to let it out. For that you turned to rage, the ultimate external emotion.
All rage ever needed was something to focus on—was this how Eef had gone through life, fighting this rage that was a kissing cousin to pure madness?
♥ Max and Ephraim would never hike to the bluffs behind his house, staring up at the stars as the shearwaters called from the cliffs; they'd never talk about girls and candy and their dreams and who'd win in a fight, Batman or James Bond. They'd made a pact to be friends forever, but forever could be so, so brief.
♥ He didn't tell Newton everything was going to be okay because it wasn't—it would never be as it had been. The past had a perfection that the future could never hold.
♥ A pall of hopelessness fell over them. The universe was aligned against them. Why? It struck Max that the universe ought to find better targets. Had to be plenty pf psychopaths and deadbeats out there, right? Why pick on a couple of kids? The universe could be a stone-cold asshole sometimes.
♥ Newton held Max's gaze when he said it. Max glimpsed—not for the first time in the past few days—that seam of stoniness running through Newton. It was unexpected coming from someone who usually rolled over and showed his soft belly. If anyone had asked Max who'd still be standing after all this, he would have said Kent, maybe Eef. But Newton had that survivalist's outlook. It wasn't about the badges he'd earned or the fact he was best at starting a fire. Newton had inner resources that the rest of the boys simply didn't possess—even Max himself. Getting teased your whole life must force you to grow some pretty hard bark.
♥ "I really tired to take good care of that flour," Newton said. "I drew a face on the sack and everything. But the thing is, I've got sweaty hands. It's a condition. Sweaty armpits and feet, too. Can't help it. Every time I touched it, the sack got wet. It started to come apart. I told myself to stop fussing with it, but I couldn't help it. I kept touching it just to know it was there and safe. It ripped a little and then a little more until it finally ripped right open. My flour baby... well, died. I guess I killed it."
"It was just a stupid sack of flour, Newt."
Newton made a face that said: You don't get it, man.
"I'm just saying that sometimes the more you care for something, the more damage you do. Not on purpose, right? You end up hurting the things you love just because you're trying so hard. That's what Mom does with me sometimes. She wants me to be so safe that it ends up hurting me in a weird way. But I get it, y'know? It must be the hardest thing in the world, caring for someone. Trying to make sure that person doesn't come to harm."
♥ The boys' collective breath came hot in their ears. Their boots sent little avalanches of shade skittering down the cavern slope. Water trickled over the rocks somewhere below—a sea-seeking tributary. The air was laden with the smell of sweet corruption.
♥ Its voice was the lonely squeal of a hermit. It scrabbled toward them with a leer of hideous glee, hideous hunger, hideous need. Its left eye was completely white: something had sucked the pigment out of the eyeball the way a child sucks the red stripped off a peppermint candy. its right eye was as shriveled as a dehydrated pea; white threads licked and lashed in the wide raw socket, making a whish sound, sort of like wind-swayed grain in a farmer's field.
Max noticed clearly in its nakedness that its stomach was an obscenely pendulous appendage. The size of a beach ball, it swayed between its legs with a quivering expectant weight. Its rib cage jutted in monstrous fingers. Huge knobs of flesh seeped filth all over his shoulders; a belt of ulcerated boils encircled its hips. Max's mind reeled—scant days and hours ago this thing had been a boy, not much different from him.
♥ A: If You'll check the record of our conversation here today, you'll recall that I said: Nothing comes, nothing goes.
Q: But does that apply to information, Admiral? A virus cannot be borne on information.
A: But hysteria can. Information isn't always power. Information can do harm just as easily as ignorance. Say we'd told those boys what they were up against, okay? They may have gone—pardon my French—batshit.
Q: Would you concur, Admiral, that based on the evidence of the events as we now know them, that some of those boys went batshit anyway?
A: Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all, yes, I surely can. Listen, tribunals like this get held because of men like me.
Q: Define for our purposes "men like you," Admiral.
A: I'm talking about men who take a line and hold to it. Some people think that makes men like me inflexible. Hard-assed. At worst, inhuman. It's true that the decisions men like me make can seem, from an outward perspective, to be that: inhuman. People will always second-guess you. Why did those people have to die? Why those forty-four in the SARS outbreak? Why those kids on the island? Well, that's fine and I accept all that—the second-guessing, I mean, not the fact that every epidemic is going to have its fair share of deaths. It's my hope and goal to have zero fatalities. But the fact is that unless men like me make those decisions, the questions asked in the aftermath might be a whole lot different. Instead of why did those forty-four have to die, it's why we did five million have to die? Why did the whole eastern seaboard have to die? At that point, nobody has the luxury of a tribunal. At that point, everyone's just trying like hell not to get sick.
Q: So you're saying—
A: I'm saying that the decisive actions of men like me make second-guessing possible. We're the first-guessers. And sometimes that's all it is: educated guesswork. We don't know how bad it might get. We assess the risk, gauge what the collateral damage might be, try to minimize it, and then hold that course. I'm not saying it doesn't make for some uneasy nights. But it's what you have to do.
♥ Q: Admiral, what are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the mutated hydatid as it applies to warfare?
A: I think it's monstrous. It's a monstrous question.
Q: Yes, I'm afraid it is, but such questions need to be posed. You say it's monstrous.
A: I do indeed.
Q: That's not the question I asked you.
A: I suppose it would be effective as a weapon. In certain, very prescribed situations.
Q: Like an island?
A: What;' your name?
Q: [name redacted]
A: Well, [name redacted], if you are suggesting that I dragged my feet and somehow used those kids as—as what? Test subjects? If you're suggesting that—
Q: Admiral, does the name Claude Lafleur ring a bell?
A: No, why should it?
Q: Master Seaman Claude Lafleur was one of your men.
A: The entire navy is my men.
Q: Master Seaman Claude Lafleur was stationed at the same base you operated out of. Lafleur's daughter often babysat your children. You're saying you don't know Claude Lafleur?
A: That's right.
Q: Claude Lafleur was a locksmith before entering the navy.
A: You want to hurry this up?
Q: As you already noted, this is my circus, Admiral. I'll choose the pace. Some time ago, Claude Lafleur was given a four-day executive leave. That leave started the day before Tom Padgett escaped from Dr. Edgerton's facility.
A: Yes? So?
Q: Are you aware that you signed Claude Lafleur's leave papers, Admiral?
A: I sign plenty of leave papers. I spend half the day signing papers.
Q: Are you aware, Admiral, that Claude Lafleur's fingerprints were found on the rear access door of Dr. Edgerton's lab?
A: You'll have to speak to someone else about that.
Q: Are you aware that we presently have Clause Lafleur in custody? Are you also aware that Lafleur has some fairly damning things to say?
A: You'll have to talk to my superiors about that.
Q: Admiral, who are you superiors?Q: Are you saying that even admirals take orders from someone?
A: [Witness maintains silence]
Q: Admiral, just earlier you used a term I'd like to revisit. Monstrous. Perhaps you'd agree, Admiral Brewer, that purposefully releasing a contagion would be monstrous? And if Tom Padgett were that contagion, Admiral, then wouldn't it stand to reason that Falstaff Island could be seen as no less than a giant petri dish, and the events that occurred there no less than an unsanctioned experiment—on children?
A: [Witness maintains silence]
Q: Wouldn't that just be absolutely monstrous, Admiral? Wouldn't that be then most inhuman thing you could ever imagine?
A: [Witness maintains silence]
♥ "I wonder who built them," Newton murmured.
Max wiped his eyes. "Built that?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"I mean," Newton said, "they seem too perfect."
"They don't seem perfect at all, Newt. They're like the worst things on earth."
"That's what I mean, I guess. Maybe they are the worst things on earth. But what would make them perfect, wouldn't it? Perfect at being what they are and doing what they do. Perfect killers."
♥ The last thing Max saw in the glow of the sputtering flare before racing up the incline was the skin cracking and splitting down the Shelley-thing's back. A huge white tube, just like the one that ripped out of the stranger a lifetime ago, was twisted round the gleaming spine bone: it looked like a flag that had gotten blown round a pole in a high wind.
Max watched it unfurl with slow elegance and rise into the dark air. It stood stiff as a bloodhound's tail with the hunt running hot in its blood.
♥ "I'm scared, Max," Newton said softly.
"So am I, Newt."
Max was afraid that if he left without Newt, they—whoever they were—wouldn't allow him to come back. Which meant Newton would die here. Curled up inside the cabin, perhaps, or in the cellar, like an animal that sought the darkness to die. He would die in pain, but more important and much worse, he would die alone. Newt didn't deserve that. Newt was a good person. He should live a long time. Marry and have kids. Teach them all the nerdy things he knew. Be happy. That was the only fair outcome.
But if Max left without Newt, he was positive he'd never see him again.
This feat of abandoning Newt was more profound, if less visceral, than that which he'd experienced back in the cavern: if Newton died, it meant all the terror and frustration and rage they'd both experienced had been for nothing.
If they couldn't leave together, what had they done any of it for?
♥ A: ..I'll tell you this: I never trained as a combat sniper thinking one day I'd shoot a young boy on a boat. That's not why men join up. We're supposed to be doing it for God and country and... Jesus. It haunts me. I heard people use that phrase and I never quite understood. Honestly, I thought it was a bit histrionic. But I get it now. I know what it is to be haunted. That boy's face haunts me, sir, and it will until the day I depart this world for whatever's waiting for me.
♥ He grows silent. Then the words pour out in a shocking flood.
"Do you know how hard it is to kill something? Nothing wants to die. Things cling to their lives against all hope, even when it's hopeless. It's like the end is always there, you can't escape it, but things try so, so hard not to cross that finish line. So when they finally do, everything's been stripped away. Their bodies and happiness and hope. Things just don't know when to die. I wish they did. I wish my friends had known that. Sort of, anyway. But I'm glad they tried. That's part of being human, right? Part of being any living thing. You hold on to life until it gets ripped away from you. Even if it gets ripped away in pieces. You just hold on."
♥ I try to put myself in Max's shoes on that island. I picture being confronted with a faceless hungering threat that he never truly understood. And it amazes me that he—that all the boys—hung tough together. They didn't abandon each other—maybe it never entered their minds that they could. Those ideas come with the dawn of adulthood, and all the cruelties implicit in that stage of life.
♥ Nothing against Max personally. He was a good kid. A survivor.
But the things Max had encountered on the island were survivors, too. The parents had read the newspapers. One of Dr. Edgerton's videotaped experiments had leaked online. Everyone knew what those things could do—objectively they did, anyhow. Everyone had seen things, clinically, but those things hadn't touched them. Not in any tangible way. So people knew in their brains but not inside their skin, and there was a difference.
Everybody thought they knew what had happened on that island. Everyone was an experiment. But they didn't really know. What they thought was bad. What really happened was a lot worse.
Max studies at home. The teachers sent assignments to him in paper envelopes. He had to send his answers back via e-mail, as the teachers expressed concern over actually handling things he touched.
One morning he found a poster tacked to his front door. It was supposed to look like a carnival poster—like, for the Freak Tent.
The Amazing Worm Boy, read the blood-dripping type underneath.
♥ He's give anything to have one more day with them. Even one of those piss-away ones they used to have in Scouts: roaming the woods on a fall day with the smoky smell of dead leaves crunching under their boots. Playing King of the Mountain and Would You Rather? while nerdy Newt collected samples for some dumb merit badge or another. Stealing away with Ephraim to state at the stars and dream their crazy dreams. And they would all be just like they were before. Not skinny or hungry or trying to hurt one another.
There was nothing Max wouldn't give to have that again. Just one more day.
..If there was one thing he wanted to tell his lost friends, it was that lots of adults didn't have a goddamn clue. It was one of the sadder facts he'd had to come to grips with. Adults could be just as stupid as kids. Stupider even, because often they didn't have to answer to anybody.