This is a piece of the first chapter of my unpublished novel, Dead Winter. Hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think. -T.J.
Do you remember where you were on Z-Day? It’s a common question now. It’s usually asked in the quiet of the night, with only the cold glare of stars and mind-numbing fear to keep you company. Sometimes, it’s a question you ask yourself on a wide-open road, on a bright cheerless day. Z-day. The day the world went mad. The fact is, no one saw it coming. The jokes were all there, everyone speculating over the Mayan calendar. The end of the world, the end times, Armageddon, choose your poison; someone was spouting off about it. No one took it seriously. It was too far fetched to really fathom. The gaming nuts, obsessed with a world overrun with the vicious and ever hungry undead, hoped and prayed that this was it; their time. The militant types, you know who they are, the NRA nut-bags with more guns than sense, were holed up in their shelters and prepared to go out in a blaze of glory. All just jokes to pass the time. None of it was real, it was all in fun.
Until it all ended.
It started with Trans-Atlantic flight 186 out of Israel. The plane had a bare handful of people aboard, mostly those that had gone on pilgrimage to the holy land. Filled with the joy of holy fire and a bright future. Trans-Atlantic flight 186 turned into a fiery ball of death on it’s approach to O’hare airport, in Chicago, on a cold December morning. It was a horrible tragedy, twenty-two families woke up on the twenty-first of December with a hole in their hearts and an absence in their home. In typical windy city fashion, the wreckage was quickly removed and business returned to normal within an hour. Six million people boarded planes or taxis and headed back to their homes or home countries.
None of them knew they carried a deadly bio-toxin within them, a ticking time-bomb set to explode after fifteen hours.
Do you remember where you were on Z-Day? No? I do.
Friday. December 21, 2012
I waited on the corner of Michigan and Chicago streets, my coat pulled tight around me, a futile effort to keep the cold at bay. Large puffs of white vapor clouded my vision and the chill burned my lungs. I hated the frigid wind that ravaged the city off Lake Michigan. The pedestrians dashed up and down the street, huddled against the razor edged weather. The never-ending stream of cars passed by like a multi-colored river, their tail pipes leaking smelly exhaust.
My friend, Madeline, was fifteen minutes late, as per usual. If she wasn’t here in the next five minutes, we would be late. Millbury Academy closed and locked their gates promptly at eight-fifteen. If you weren’t there, well, you would have to stand outside until one of the staff noticed you out there. Meanwhile, every kid at the Academy could point and laugh at you from the safety of the main building. It sucked and thanks to Maddy, it had happened more times than I would like to count.
“Hallo, Winter,” said Max. He waved and swerved around the stopped traffic like a lunatic. I rolled my eyes and waved back. He smiled and hustled to the corner. The sun caught his glasses, replacing his muddy brown eyes with twin glares. He wore a black jeans jacket, a poor choice for a day like this. “How’s it? Still waiting on Maddy?”
“Of course,” I huffed. “When aren’t I?” I flicked a lock of stubborn pale hair from my face and wrapped my arms around my torso. It helped a little, but if she took much longer I was going to freeze in place. Max looked like he was having the same problem. He was kind of doing this hopping from foot to foot thing. We had been friends forever and he never wore appropriate clothes for the season. Boys.
“Damn. She better hurry up before we freeze in place.”
I looked at him and grinned.
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
“See, we’re on the same wave length,” he said with a smile. He pulled me into a friendly hug and I nuzzled up into his warm arms.
“Am I interrupting?”
I jumped from Max like he was on fire. He shot a glare at Maddy, who had impeccable timing, if no sense for punctuality. She wore an expensive long coat that looked far more fashionable than warm. She would never be caught dead with a hat or gloves, but a nice, colorful scarf was not beyond her sensibilities. She was always the one to wear her uniform too tight and way too short. She had long dark hair with a glorious tan. I looked like a bleached out vampire next to her.
“Maddy,” Max said by way of greeting, so much venom dripped from that one word that I thought Maddy might drop dead in that moment.
“Hello, nerdly. Get the high score in World of Warcraft yet?”
I chuckled. He looked like he no longer needed his coat, steam practically exploded from his ears.
“I’ll have you know, little missy, WoW doesn’t have a top score.”
“Good one. Can we go? We’re going to be late if we dawdle.” She turned to head up Michigan street. Max and I shared a look and followed along behind her.
“Did you hear about that plane this morning?”
Max’s question took me by surprise. Normally, the block and a half to Millbury was qualified as “silent time,” mostly because we had to save oxygen to chase after Maddy.
“What plane?” I replied, breathing heavily. I wasn’t out of shape or anything, it was the damn cold. It stole what little breath I had and froze my nose. That, and Maddy had such long legs it took everything in my power just to keep a few paces behind her.
“Trans-Atlantic 186. My dad was on shift this morning and told me about it before school. The plane blew up over O’hare.”
“Yeah. My dad said it was like a huge fireball in the sky. Barely any wreckage, though. They’re blaming it on terrorists.”
“Of course it was terrorists,” Maddy threw over her shoulder. “How else could something like that happen? Honestly, as our token nerd, even you should know that.”
Max bristled at the insult, but lightened up when I touched his arm and smiled. Max’s dad was a baggage handler at O’hare. He worked all sorts of crazy hours to send Max to Millbury. Max was smart, maybe not nerd smart, but he did have a good head on his shoulders. Unfortunately, some of his hobbies and complete disinterest in sports, earned him the “nerd” label.
We fell back into our routine. Maddy gliding down the street with Max and I in tow and silence in our wake. We reached the gate just as Mr. Jordan, the custodian and keeper of the keys, was preparing to close up.
“Mornin’, kids,” he said, weariness coloring his speech. His uniform was rumpled and his hair hung in an untidy mess. I tried to ignore the smell of alcohol wafting off of him.
“Good morning, Mr. Jordan,” we said, in unison.
“How was your trip?” Max asked, smiling and sticking his hands in his pockets.
Mr. Jordan smiled down at Max. Only Max would have remembered the custodian was on vacation, it made me love him a little more.
“Iz alright. Got back this mornin’. Planned on takin’ the day off, but Mr. Hernandez called in sick.” He ran his hand through his graying hair and shook his head. Maddy was beginning to fidget, impatiently. I shot her a look that said, “cut it out.” She rolled her eyes and snorted.
“Ouch. Man, that sucks, but we’re glad to have you back,” Max said.
Mr. Jordan’s smile returned. “Thanks, Max. You kids better hurry now, or you’ll miss first bell.”
“All right, later,” Max said with a wave. Maddy had already swiveled around, mumbling “old drunk” and speeding to the entrance. I smiled at Mr. Jordan and gave him a small wave of my own. He dropped me a quick wink and I started to back away. He was messing with the gate, when a loud coughing fit overtook him. I was going to see if he was alright, but Maddy and Max were already half-way to the main building. I hurried to catch up, throwing one last worried look back at Mr. Jordan.
The Millbury Academy was built by the same architectural firm that engineered 333 Wacker Drive. It was opened in 1985 and featured a very sterile, modern look. The campus was surrounded by a fifteen foot wall with a single gate as an entry point. The academy had four outer buildings and one “main building.” A large multi-purpose sports field dominated the northern end of campus. I think the architect must have had a great love for concrete, because the whole area was primarily cold stone and asphalt with a few recreational gardens sprinkled throughout. The main building, a structure built to look like downtown’s skyscrapers, were all impersonal glass and metal. The hallways and classrooms, reminiscent of a hospital, were cold, clean, and smelled of bleach.
Millbury was in the top three most prestigious schools in Illinois. I don’t know if that meant anything, but parents were willing to throw ridiculous amounts of money at the place to keep it going. This is where Max, Maddy, and I spent nine hours of our day, a part of the community but, apart from the community.
“So, we’ll meet in the cafeteria for lunch, Winter,” Maddy said. It wasn’t a request. “You too, Schulz. I’m going to need your geometry notes from yesterday. Okay? Okay.”
“Why do we put up with her, again?” Max asked, leaning against a locker.
I smiled without looking at him. I knew he was watching Maddy disappear into the flowing crowd of students. The hallway was noisy, like only a place filled with teenagers could be. Locker doors banging shut fought over the tide of voices, laughter, and shuffling feet.
I hung up my coat, stuffing my hat, gloves, and scarf into the sleeves. After retrieving my books and slamming the locker shut, I looked up at him.
“She buys us lattes after school.”
“Ooooh yeah,” he said, slapping his forehead with his palm.
I giggled and straightened his tie. He never got it right.
“Thanks,” he said, pushing his glasses higher on his nose. He flattened his tie against his chest and looked at the sea of warm bodies.
“See you at lunch?” I asked.
“Yup. The Lady Madeline hath ordered us there, did she not?”
I groaned. “Max, please stop talking like that or I’m going to toss you off the roof.”
He gave me a dramatic gulp before heading to class.
I watched him move along the hall, like a rock skipping across the water, always outside of the crush, just barely touching, before being dragged in.
I sighed. It wasn’t like I was in love with him or anything, but I did love him. As I said before, we had been friends forever and bathing together at an early age engendered a sort of familial closeness. Hell, my mom even let him stay the night. To her, he was just harmless ole’ Max.
If I knew then, what I know now, I might have kissed him, told him I loved him and just held on to him.
But, I didn’t.
Instead, I turned from him and went to first period English.
The first four periods of school were massively boring. Every student and teacher was obsessed with the ramifications of the supposed terrorist attack this morning. Mr. Felhorn, my English teacher and closet conspiracy nut, went on about it at length. He wasted the whole period with his bullshit theories. In hindsight, I would pilfer away a million wasted mornings if any of his crack-pot ideas were close to the truth.
All of their questions were generally the same. Why O’hare? Why not LaGuardia, LAX, or JFK? What do they want? Why? Why? Why? No one was thinking of the lives lost or the senselessness of it, just the why and what it meant for them. After surviving Felhorn’s crap, I was sick of the topic, and more than a little disgusted with my classmate’s and teacher’s ghoulish need to gossip.
By the time lunch came around, I was about ready to punch-out the next person who attempted to bring it up.
The cafeteria smelled of bleach and overcooked food, absolutely conducive to a healthy appetite. It was tightly packed and vaguely institutional. The noise level was tolerable, but even the roaming presence of our teacher babysitters could only keep it down to a dull roar.
After taking my food laden tray from the sluggish lunch line, I searched out our table. I thought I had been the first to arrive, an oddity considering Max and Maddy had Art in the room next to the cafeteria. One table seemed to be overflowing with people. Some of the crowd stood, lunch trays forgotten, trying to get through to the sieged table.
I made my way over, curiosity getting the better of me. At my approach, the crowd parted and sitting on the table top, with Maddy draped over him like a cheap blanket, was Max. I stood there for a moment, wondering which alternate dimension I had stumbled into.
It must have been a full minute that I stared, frozen in place. A full minute before he looked up and noticed me. That had to be a record. He waved me over, patting the bench next to him. I walked over mechanically and sat, too dazed for words.
“So, anyway, like I was saying. My dad comes home…”
His voice faded as my attention spun away. Of course. This morning’s tragedy. Max. His father. It all made sense. He was “in the know, Johnny-on-the-spot.” Anger bubbled up inside me. Just as quickly, I slammed it down. Who was I to begrudge Max his fifteen minutes? Still, it hurt to know even he wasn’t beyond the vicious rumor-mongering. And what the hell was Maddy doing? She didn’t even really like Max, but there she was in her too tight uniform, rubbing her breasts all over him. The anger I repressed earlier, began to slip its leash, my face burned with it.
There was a loud crash as my lunch tray bounced off the floor. Everyone was quietly staring at me.
I jumped to my feet. “Sorry. Excuse me,” I mumbled and pushed my way through the crowd to flee from the cafeteria. Tears of anger, frustration, and jealousy burned my eyes and throat. I was ramming through the door and into the hall before I heard Max shout for me to wait. I ran until I was out of breath and my legs shook from the strain. Collapsing against the wall, I began to choke on my sobs.
Thinking back, I really can’t remember why it all hurt so much. Teenage hormones? Too many energy drinks? Whatever it was, it hurt like hell.