Virulent: The Release, page 1
Copyright © 2013 Shelbi Wescott
All rights reserved.
My love, my support, my voice of reason and strength
To Elliott and Isaac:
Everything is for you
365 days before The Release
Two thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth, two men stood on the edge of a dirt walkway. The generators around them hummed with vibrant energy, and the lights flickered in a syncopated beat. The rich smell of mineral-fresh dirt, mixed with the softer and foreign smells of clean plastic and cut lumber, filled their hearts with equal parts longing and anticipation. They exchanged a fleeting look before venturing further into their creation, stopping to peer over the handrails and the expanse of a white domed ceiling where sporadic ‘sun’roofs let the men sneak a peek at the hard-hatted workers below.
“Our face-time conference is in five,” the younger man said to the older man, checking the time on the tablet he kept tucked under his arm. He swiped a finger across the screen activating the device and typed in his password. “Ready to ascend?”
The older man took a long scan of the dome and nodded. Then he cupped his hand around the younger man’s shoulder and gave it three small congratulatory pats. “This is good, son,” he said. “This is very good.”
“It’s coming along,” the younger man answered and slid out from under the touch. “But my concern is not with the shelter. Come on, the call. We can’t miss the call,” he turned to the vertical lift, a metal box with exposed sides, and climbed aboard. He entered a secondary code, pushed a bright yellow button, and they rose—foot-by-foot—back up to the bright morning sunlight, which was spilling over the yellow grass and porous dunes of the Sand Hills.
The two men stood together—not speaking. Beneath their feet, the younger man thought he felt the rumble of their generators, but he assumed he was imagining phantom vibrations. Everything was secured underground, meticulously hidden away from all detection and threats of discovery.
The tablet beeped with a chipper ding ding ding, and the young man answered without delay. “Hello, good morning,” he said to the man whose face materialized on the screen.
“Good morning,” the clean-shaven man with gray on his temples replied, delivering a perfunctory smile before reaching down to adjust his screen—his hand looming large in front of the camera, springing out at them then retreating. He sat at a desk, his white lab coat opened to expose a blue and green plaid shirt, a red Pilot pen stuck in the front pocket. “Calling in for
confirmation meeting at an undisclosed location, employee code on your command.”
“Go ahead,” the younger man repeated with a glance backward.
“Seven Two Four Eight Three Zero.”
“Validated. Hello, Scott, hello. Sorry if you tried to catch us a second ago. We were touring the system and the service underground is lacking. By the time we reach the release date, however, we should be wired for all communication needs. Our best men are on it. The dome is coming along nicely. It's an impressive work of art.”
“Sorry, art is not my area of expertise,” Scott replied, putting his hands up in mock surrender, then dropping them to the desk, a nervous laugh covering his failed joke. “No, no; I caught you on the first try.” Scott paused and then cleared his throat. “Well, I have good news this morning. We’ve made significant progress. I can brief you again at our next scheduled conference...to confirm...but as of this morning, control group six has responded successfully to the release.”
“That is wonderful news,” the older man answered.
“We’ve been pleased, yes. It appears that our initial projections were not far from reality.”
Scott nodded and consulted a yellow legal pad in front of him. “Our observations seem to put it anywhere between twenty-four hours and six days. The average around thirty-six hours after exposure.”
“None in the first six control studies, but it will be impossible to know for sure until we graduate to a more representative sampling.”
The younger man turned and stole a look before focusing back at the screen. “Does that mean we are ready to begin the next phase?”
Scott scratched at the corner of his eye. He blinked and nodded. “Yes. On your word, my team will begin to test the subjects your company has procured for our next stage.” Scott closed his eyes and sighed—the deep exhale of breath rushed against the microphone and was audible to the gentlemen. The younger man bristled and glanced backward to the older.
“Scott,” he said, his voice tight and terse, “I hope that sigh does not indicate that you are having second-thoughts about our work? Because you guaranteed me…” the man’s voice rose, but then he paused. Stopped. “Your work with us is invaluable. We never said this would be an easy road…but—”
Leaning closer to the screen, Scott waved his hand to silence the impending speech. “May I talk to your father please?”
The younger passed the tablet off, his arms crossing over his chest, his dark eyes storming.
“Hello, Scotty,” the older said.
“Huck. Good morning.”
“Are you for our cause?” Huck asked. “This is what I asked you when we met the first time and this is what I ask you now. Every other question is of no consequence to me. Are you for the cause?” He waited and the wind rustled the grass.
“I am,” was the reply.
“Then we are united in good. We are bound in blessing,” Huck said with a grandfatherly smile. “Now, do you have a concern to address?”
“None with my work...our work, I mean. I am only making sure that our agreement—as you move to the final stages—is still good. You see, as my job here becomes more,” Scott paused and searched for the appropriate word, “trying...I need validation that when the time comes we will be protected.”
Huck knit his brows. “I will ignore this question of my integrity, Scott. The worry that I would betray our agreement is alarming. I am a man of my word. Our agreement stands,” the man said with swift decision and handed the tablet back to his son without a formal goodbye.
“So, then. All set?” the younger asked to the man in the lab coat, his jaw tight.
“Yes, we will begin tomorrow morning with control group seven,” Scott said. “Conference in one week to go over results. Same time?”
The screen faded to black and the man tucked it under his arm. He turned to his father who faced the horizon with his eyes closed. “You are too generous, Dad,” he said. “It would be easy to dispose of him after his work with us is complete. Especially considering his tenuous grasp on the importance of our next few stages. You know he’s only concerned for himself. What good
“He has earned his freedom.”
The younger snorted. “Freedom? Don’t be foolish.”
“If I thought you didn’t believe in our cause, I wouldn’t hesitate to end our partnership either,” Huck drew out every syllable. “But I know that is just my paranoia, right? ”
“Please, Dad, I’m your biggest fan,” the son said without missing a beat and turned toward their waiting car, a sardonic smile spreading across his thin lips.
Lucy King leaned her right hip against the side of Mrs. Johnston’s metal desk. She held her black and white composition notebook with both hands and re-read the signs and posters taped to the wall for the sixtieth time since September: Shakespeare’s ubiquitous portrait with scripted letters underneath proclaiming, “Lord, what fools these mortals be who don’t turn in their homework!” and a picture in the shape of a dachshund, Groucho Marx’s famous inside-of-a-dog quote twisted along its insides.
If you write a poem about a light bulb, you make the whole thing look like a light bulb.
Lucy might not have remembered the definition except Mrs. Johnston had crafted a giant red arrow pointing toward the dog and written “Concrete Poetry!!!” with three exclamation marks. Loose-leaf notebook paper hung precariously next to the Marx quote; it was a gathering of student samples with poems about cats that in no way resembled cats and a horrible poem about rainbows written in alternating gel-pens. The names on the papers were from students who had graduated years ago. Whether Mrs. Johnston failed to take them down from laziness or admiration was anyone’s guess.
A redheaded boy in a baseball hat and athletic shorts sat with Mrs. Johnston as she mumbled superlatives and then passed him back a notebook.
“So, let’s rewrite that topic sentence, AJ,” Mrs. Johnston said as he rose, stretched, and shuffled away. Then Lucy sank into the available chair and passed her own notebook to her teacher. Her English teacher didn’t even glance up at her as she poured over the pages, scratching them with red marks that looked like a star-circle crossbreed of a shape.
“Good, good,” Mrs. Johnston mumbled. A flourish. A star. A circle. A plus-sign. An ink blot where she had rested her pen while reading a passage. “Okay. Good. Thank you. Nice comments,” she said and then handed the notebook back with a smile.
“Thank you,” Lucy replied, but she stayed seated. “Um, Mrs. Johnston...I was wondering if I could grab my work from you?”
For a moment, Mrs. Johnston looked confused and then she grimaced and clicked her tongue. “That’s right, that’s right. Mexico? No, wait...it was more obscure. Tahiti? Fiji?”
A flame crept up Lucy’s cheeks and she lowered her head. “Seychelles.”
Mrs. Johnson put up a single finger and pointed at Lucy as she pivoted on her ergonomic office chair; leaning over a pile of paper, she brought up a search engine on her computer. When the results materialized, she whistled low and loud, shaking her head. “Wouldn’t Fiji have been closer?” her teacher asked attempting a joke, but the result just made her sound bitter.
“My dad won it,” Lucy answered.
“How?” Mrs. Johnston asked, curious and hopeful.
She wrinkled her nose and waved a hand around the classroom without comment then turned back to Lucy. “Two full weeks? Jeez. Maybe this job would be better if they sent us all away for tropical vacations during the winter break!” Mrs. Johnston said with a boisterous laugh and the students raised their lazy heads to glance at her before huddling down over their notebooks again.
Lucy nodded and picked a piece of lint off her jeans; she rolled it into a tight little ball and then tossed it to the ground.
“We’re starting this,” Mrs. Johnston said and procured a tattered paperback from a stack by her desk. Its spine was reinforced with yellow tape and Lucy took the book from her and idly flipped through the pages. Someone had left a series of lipstick kisses across the title page in various shades next to the declaration: Derrick Chan Forever.
“Fahrenheit 451.” Lucy ran her hand across the cover. The image was bizarre; a man made of pages from a book buried his head while flames licked at his limbs. The title sounded vaguely familiar and she wondered if the novel sat among her family’s bookshelves in her father’s study, tucked between his science textbooks and National Geographic magazines and her mother’s beloved hardback editions of stuffy 19th century British authors: Dickens, Austen, the tragic Brontes.
“A classic,” Mrs. Johnston launched, her trademarked pout spreading across her plump lips. The bottom lip made an appearance when a student demonstrated an act of disrespect or before her lectures about their poor performances on tests. Like a moody second-grader, she would jut her lip out in protest. Lucy prepared herself for a lecture by taking a deep breath and dropping her eyes to piles of paper on the desk. “And, frankly, while our lessons will be no contest with Seychelles...I really wish you could be there for them. It wouldn’t be fair to extend the amount of time you have on this unit because you’re leaving on vacation. I hope you understand.” She pulled two papers out from a pile by her desk and handed them to Lucy. “An essay. Due when you return.”
“Not a problem,” Lucy replied in a faux-chipper tone, a rote and mandatory response to each of her teachers who handled the news of her vacation with a mixture of jealousy and anger. Those who opted for straight admonition usually said something along the lines of, “Don’t your parents value education? There is a lot of learning that takes place in two weeks.” At which point, Lucy would feel the heat rise to her cheeks, her unavoidable blush making its embarrassing appearance, and she would say, without a hint of impertinence, “If you’re upset about the trip, please call my father. I understand that my absence is a hardship.” All teachers, with that line, would mumble surrender, handing her legitimate or bogus work, waving her away, wishing her well, encouraging her to have fun—despite their clear desire that she have as little fun as possible.
Lucy held Fahrenheit 451, the essay assignment tucked into the center pages, and rose from her seat. Another student slithered behind her to present his notebook for grading and Lucy scooted out of the way; she walked back to her seat in relative silence.
The bell was minutes away, but her classmates were actively shoving papers and pencils into backpacks and messenger bags and lining up outside the door decorated with a “What are you reading?” sign and a pocket-chart where students were supposed to write the names of books they would recommend to other classmates. Someone had recommended “your mom written by me” and another had just drawn a crude picture of a penis, but two students took the task seriously with favorable endorsements for Harry Potter and some book about teen pregnancy.
Lucy’s cell vibrated in her pocket and she glanced at the screen. Salem. Like clockwork. She answered it and held it to her ear, unafraid of reprimand.
Salem’s voice carried on mid-argument with someone in the hallway. “I said just put it in my locker! Lula? Lula? You there?”
“I’m here, I’m here,” Lucy replied, answering to Salem’s nickname for her—an endearing take on the alliterative hell her parents saddled upon her at birth: Lucy Larkspur King. The Larkspur was generously hidden between two normal names, but she shivered to recall that the obscure moniker had almost been her first name. That was before her parents came to their senses and settled for something cute, simple, and normal.
“Meet me at our locker now,” Salem instructed and then ended the conversation. Lucy rolled her eyes at her own blind allegiance to Salem’s orders and elbowed her way to the front of Mrs. Johnston’s door, stopping long enough to remove the two offending reading suggestions and stuff them into her back pocket. It was a small gesture, but it was the right thing to do. Jealousy over the Seychelles notwithstanding, Mrs. Johnston was one of the good guys.
Salem opened and shut her locker in an a
She remembered that:
Haylee Hij peed her pants in the third grade during that field trip to the Aviation Museum and that was why Jordan Warner didn’t ask her to prom: Because when he thought about asking, all he could remember was sitting next to her on the way home and she was wearing athletic shorts that were three times too big and holding a freezer bag filled with her wet and pee-ripe clothes.
Or that Tristin James bought his then-girlfriend, Jackie, a golden bracelet that had “together forever” engraved on the inside. Then, post break-up it was Salem who noticed Cassidy Blaga wearing the same bracelet—jangling it with pride to her girlfriends during physics and swooning over Tristin’s unbridled commitment. And while she could’ve let it go, turned a blind-eye, and let teenage love run its course, it was Salem who tore a picture of Jackie and Tristin out of the yearbook, Jackie clad in her telltale bracelet, and sent it to Cassidy.
Salem knew about Craig Moss, all-American water polo player, and his secret Internet boyfriend, Pedro, for months before the rest of the school even began to whisper about the scandal.
If something bad happened to you, Salem Aguilar would find out.
If something good happened, she would know too. But she might not tell as many people about it.
SHELBI WESCOTT SERIES:
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