Robert Goldner bent the light around his body, making himself invisible.
No alarms went up. Better, no gang signals. The kids stayed put. They appeared to be minding nobody’s business, just waiting for the day of reckoning. Eight years after the emergence of the White Fire Virus, though, Robert damn well knew the younger the potential threat, the greater the potential danger.
It was a Friday afternoon in September, and none of the kids seemed to have anything better to do. The nine boys and two girls probably should’ve been in…junior high school, from the looks of it. But they were hanging out in front of a pizza place and a check-cashing shop. Smoking, joking around, dressed like thugs-in-training. Robert wondered if they were just truants or if they were staking out territory early, waiting for the needy folks who were done with their workweek to come by and cash their paychecks. Big kids, or little criminals?
Hard to tell what anyone was really up to these days. Easier not to trust anyone.
Six, seven, maybe even eight years their senior, Robert could probably take them. But he didn’t like fighting kids, even if they thought they were adults, even if such confrontations came with the territory of being a Watcher. Anyway, he needed to conserve his strength for the hunt.
He maneuvered through the cluster, none of the kids suspecting a thing. The parasites inside Robert may’ve been slowly killing him, but thank fortune they didn’t leave him defenseless. He stayed invisible as he ran on toward the target house, five blocks away.
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod…
Funny—lines from Hopkins’s poem about the grandeur of God often shot through his thoughts during this part of the hunt. The poet had surely seen his share of wretched scenes from the big picture of a downtrodden human family and its ravished home. Hopkins may not have witnessed as many underpass-and bus-stop-dwelling Jellyheads, the shit-and-piss-stenched fiends of no permanent residence strung out on Jelly Raptures, sprawled out amid the irrepressible scatterings of condom wrappers, broken beer bottles, 7-Eleven chili dog boxes, and all the rest of it, but life wasn’t all that wonderful one hundred and fifty years ago either. Still, Robert couldn’t bring himself to share the poet’s optimism that “nature is never spent.”
Oh, well—“Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Funny how he often recalled the lines of that dumb rhyme during these hunts as well.
What was the worry anyway? The odds were against his surviving to witness humankind’s last day. He could die within the next few seconds, stopped cold on the way to potentially winning this week’s mystery prize. He might even be successful and come out a hero, only to have the billions of parasitic microbes living in his skin and blood cells kill him shortly afterward. Generations have trod, have trod, have trod…
This one was a long shot, he’d been told. Probably a Friday afternoon wild goose chase. But he was never one to waste time. On the sidewalk and across lawns, he moved as fast as he could in jeans and a windbreaker. If he’d been wearing less, he could’ve moved even faster, gliding over the ground, skating on thin air. But, invisible or not, he wasn’t about to strip down to his drawers.
It had nothing to do with shyness. He’d never been accused of being infected with modesty. It was his actual infection that was the problem. Baring too much skin to light was equivalent to inviting the parasites within to feast—get drunk then unruly. Hopefully, though, never to the extent of what he saw when he rounded the corner.
Robert had actually heard the sound of it first, the labored breathing like the sound of a large sack of junk being dragged slowly over a gravel road. Even in silence, he would not have missed seeing the man, naked except for his underwear, socks, and one shoe, propped up against the blue postal box in front of a seemingly deserted apartment complex.
The man didn’t have much further to go. Even from forty feet away, Robert could see the patches of skin that had fallen off, patches matching the thinness, brittleness, and colors—if not exactly the size—of maple leaves in autumn. It was a clear day, and the sun shined freely. The parasites had overdosed, and the man was being eaten away, rapidly, by the frantic microbes inside him. The Virus was claiming him, overtaking him, exposing more and more of his insides to the outside world, the world empty of anyone who’d see—except invisible Robert.
The man was beyond blind at this point. But Robert remained unseen as he studied him, approaching ever more cautiously lest the leaking radiation resulting from the man’s death throes envelope him, causing the parasites within Robert’s body to go ballistic.
No more than a dozen skin patches had fallen from the dying man, and what was still hanging on was turning the hue of rice paper, or the color and texture of tree bark, dotted all over with dark silver glitter that sparkled from black to red to orange to yellow to green to blue to indigo to violet and then briefly to silver before going back to black, each piece of glitter sparking through the color-cycle at its own unique pace.
Robert had seen it all before. It wasn’t all that shocking. He did briefly wonder what Hopkins might think of this Pied Ugly; certainly not “Glory be to God for dappled things—” But Robert’s brief imagining turned back to stark reality as he stepped nearer, looked closer, and saw something unusual.
The man still had skin covering most of his abdominal area. Robert concentrated and pushed his vision down the spectrum into the range of x-rays, trying to figure why the wheezing man’s stomach appeared be getting redder than a cranberry as it swelled more and more with each breath.
Robert saw through the layers of skin and muscle. He saw the man’s intestines breaking all of their bodily connections to form one long worm.
Part of him wanted to wretch, but Robert couldn’t take his eye away.
A chunky vomit, looking like milk four weeks past its expiration date, oozed out of the left side of the man’s mouth as the intestine-worm thrashed violently in the limited space provided to it inside the self-destructing body. It didn’t take long for the thing to find pathways around rotten, mushy organs and bones that were more flexible than pipe cleaners, the head and tail of it writhing and wriggling in opposite directions as it searched for freedom.
In his time, Robert had seen a lot that was fantastic and horrific, but when one end of the intestine-worm wriggled out of man’s anus as the other end simultaneously wriggled out of his mouth, he almost lost it—his consciousness, if not his sanity.
Robert backpedaled and turned, almost tripping over his own feet, then trotted a few steps more to regain his balance. Covering his mouth and nose with the inside of his right elbow, he put three fingers on the face of his right-wristwatch. The man was dead, but it would be nice to have the authorities swing by and pick up the body before some roving hooligans found it and did who knows what with it.
After transmitting the message to his superior, Robert glanced back once more at the corpse. There but for the grace of medication goes he.
Robert shook his head to stop his full-body shudder then continued on his way.
He ran just under a sprint until he came to the quiet, middle-class neighborhood. He slowed, paying extra-special attention to his surroundings as he jogged toward the target house. It had a manicured lawn, an empty driveway, a wreathed front door, and plenty of windows—with closed blinds. Blinds Robert couldn’t see through, with or without his x-raying vision. This wasn’t another Friday-afternoon wild goose chase.
He used his right-wristwatch to contact his superior again. Robert had a hunch, a good one, and he needed backup—a few cops, some FBI agents, or something even better. The superior’s response: all official authorities were occupied elsewhere. Something about gunfire and explosions in the area of Pentagon City. Robert and his partner would have to handle this hunt, together and alone.
Sure. His partner. The partner who should’ve been by his side since daybreak. The partner Robert hadn’t seen since the day before. Just a little more than a year older than Robert, he wasn’t acting much better than the truants on the street corner, minding nobody’s business.
Robert used his left-wristwatch to send his partner a message he knew would go unanswered. He then continued his reconnaissance.
As the minutes passed, his sense of dread increased. Whatever story was hidden inside that house, it was one full of terror, and one eager to be told. Robert would have to make a decision, soon, about whether he was willing to hear it alone.