First the birds disappeared. Then the insects took over. And the madness began…
They call it Wanderer’s Folly—a disease of delusions, of daydreams and nightmares. A plague threatening to wipe out the human race.
After two years of creeping decay, David Arlen woke up one morning thinking that the worst was over. By midnight, he’s bleeding and terrified, his wife is dead, and he’s on the run in a stolen car with his eight-year-old daughter, who may be the key to a cure.
Ellie is a special girl. Deep. Insightful. And she knows David is lying to her. Lying about her mother. Lying about what they're running from. And lying about what he sees when he takes his eyes off the road…
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
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David Arlen's daughter woke up ten miles outside Fredericksburg. She had begun to stir just as the lights of the city receded in the Oldsmobile's rearview mirror, intermittently whining and sobbing in her sleep from the backseat. But now she sat up, almost too abruptly, and the image of her eclipsing the distant city lights in the rearview mirror caused David's heart to jump. It was as if he'd forgotten she was back there.
"Where are we?" She sounded hoarse.
He raked a set of fingers down the left side of his face and neck, feeling the fresh stubble there. He wondered if he should grow a beard. Maybe dye his hair. "I'm not sure. Heading south right now."
"I want my mom."
He had no response for that. He wanted her, too.
"Where are we?" she insisted.
"Please," he said, shaking his head and briefly closing his eyes.
"I want to sit up front with you," she said.
"Not just yet."
"Just sit back. Please. Try to go back to sleep."
"I'm not tired anymore."
"Please, Ellie," he said.
She sat back, her silhouette sinking below the rearview mirror. The lights of Fredericksburg were gone now, obscured by black trees along the sloping road and the heavy drapery of night.
David glanced at the Oldsmobile's dashboard clock. It was just after midnight. He tried to do the math and figure out how long he'd been awake, but found even the simplest brain work next to impossible. Two days? Longer? In his exhaustion, even his vision threatened mutiny: The sodium lamps that flanked the shoulder of the highway occasionally blurred into smeary arcs of colorless light.
For what seemed like the millionth time since they'd hit the road, he took mental inventory of the items he'd managed to squirrel away in the trunk: extra clothes, some food, approximately six hundred dollars in cash, some books and board games to keep Ellie's mind off the whole thing. There was a handgun and two boxes of ammo back there, too, in a stolen pink suitcase. He'd never fired a gun in his life. When he had come across it in Burt Langstrom's bedroom, he'd felt the world tilt slightly and time seemed to freeze. The weapon had seemed unreal. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might need a weapon, a firearm. But there it had been, like a sign from God, and its mere presence was enough to drive home the gravity of their situation. He'd picked it up, surprised to find that much of it was made of plastic — he had always just assumed handguns were cast from iron or steel or something — and for some reason that made it seem all the more deadly. Quiet and unassuming, like a sleek black snake weaving through a flower bed. And for the first time he had wondered, Could I kill a person? If it comes down to it, could I do it? Could I point this thing at someone, pull the trigger, bring them down?
Now, gripping the steering wheel of the Olds with both hands, he thought of what was at stake and imagined that he could.
When he motored past a police cruiser tucked along a dirt passage between the trees just beyond the shoulder, he swore under his breath, then stared at the speedometer. He was cruising at just below seventy miles per hour. What was the speed limit on this particular stretch of highway? He racked his brain but couldn't remember the last time he'd spotted a speed limit sign. Goddamn careless. His eyes flicked back up to the rearview mirror. Holding his breath, he waited to see if the cruiser would pull out onto the highway in pursuit. Any second, those headlights would blink on, growing in size as the cruiser drew closer until the rack lights came alive and doused the world in alternating blue and red flashers.
But the cop car never slid out onto the highway.
It wasn't until a good ten minutes later that he allowed himself to relax. With any luck, they weren't even looking for him yet.
Her voice startled him. He had assumed she had fallen back asleep. But she sounded clear, lucid.
"Can't it wait?" he asked her.
"Wait for what?"
That was a good question. He had no answer for her. No plan. Not yet, anyway.
"Listen," he said. "I've got some food in the trunk. Let me pull over and I'll get some out for you."
"Food in the trunk," she said. It wasn't a question, though he could tell by her tone that she was marveling over the peculiarity of it all.
David's eyes kept skirting to the shoulder of the road. With the exception of the police car, they hadn't passed another vehicle in over fifteen minutes. Desolate. Nonetheless, he wondered if he'd draw more attention to himself parked along the shoulder rifling through his trunk than if he just went to a rest stop where they could blend in more easily. What if the cop had decided to follow him after all, and happened to drive up as he stood rifling through the Oldsmobile's trunk? A stolen Oldsmobile.
Prior to tonight, and if he'd ever given the matter any serious consideration, he would have said that there were certain things you did when you were on the run: You headed out at night, avoided large cities while sticking to secondary roads, and, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, simply kept on motorvatin' over the hill. But now that he was in the thick of it, he second-guessed each move, finding the flaws in every single decision, the weaknesses in every plan. It was all cracks in a dam. Heading out at night meant you had the cover of darkness beneath which you could travel ... but it also meant there were less people on the roads, and fewer souls among which you could hide. You attracted eyes; those eyes watched you. That held true for the secondary roads, too; it unnerved him that he hadn't seen any other vehicles for the past fifteen or twenty minutes or so. The odds that he would get pulled over out here were greatly increased. A bored cop might decide to pull him over for lack of anything better to do. For all he knew, the goddamn Olds might even have a taillight out. Had he cut through all the major cities, he could lose himself among the crowd.
"Dad," she said from the backseat. There was no pleading quality to her voice, no whining about it. She simply said it and let it hang in the air between them, as if to remind him that she was still there, and to remind him of who he was.
"I know. Gimme a sec, hon."
He noticed that, according to the gas gauge, the tank was nearly three-quarters empty. How had he not noticed this before? It was careless. But it made up his mind for him.
When they passed a sign that read REST STOP 1 MILE, David said, "We'll stop there. I'll park and get the food out of the trunk. You stay in the car."
"I gotta go pee," she said.
He glanced down and noticed a stringy dark smear on his left shirtsleeve. Even in the dark he recognized it as blood. He absently cuffed the sleeve past the elbow.
Jesus, he thought.
When they came upon the lights of the rest stop, David took the exit. His nerves vibrated; his hands shook. It wasn't a busy rest stop, probably due to the ungodly hour, with only a few scattered cars in the parking lot. Eighteen-wheelers were parked at the far end of the tarmac, their lights off, as motionless as great slumbering beasts. He and Ellie could get lost here, stay anonymous.
David parked the car but left the engine running. He popped the trunk with a button on the dash, then turned around to face Ellie in the backseat.
She was only a week shy of her ninth birthday, but at that moment, tucked into a darkened corner of the Oldsmobile's backseat, her knees pulled up to her chest, her eyes large and frightened, her clothes rumpled, she looked to David like the small child she'd once been. Helpless, with a face full of wonder and fear. The first few weeks after her birth, he'd paced the floorboards of the house in Arnold cradling her in his arms. She never slept, only stared at him with those wide, intelligent eyes, so wise and thoughtful for a thing that had been alive for such a brief time. Often, she would furrow her brow in some mimicry of contemplation, those murky seawater eyes focusing in on him like camera lenses, and David would wonder what thoughts could possibly be passing through her beautiful infant brain.
He shook the thought from his mind.
"Stay here," he told her. Then he got out of the car.
It was early September and the air was cool. He could smell gasoline and could hear the buzzing cadence of insects in the surrounding trees. A group of kids in their late teens stood huddled around a nearby trash can, smoking cigarettes and talking loudly. They had plastic dime-store Halloween masks propped on their heads, a trend that had become increasingly popular since the first reports of the outbreak. They shifted their gaze over to David and, somewhat distrustfully, pulled the masks down over their faces.
In the trunk, David popped open the plastic pink suitcase and dug through some clothes until he retrieved a handful of Nature Valley granola bars. There were a few warm cans of Coke in the suitcase, as well — the only thing he'd been able to get his hands on at the time — and so he grabbed one of those, too.
When he shut the trunk, he was startled to find Ellie standing beside the car's rear bumper. She was watching the smoking teenagers in the cheap Halloween masks, her hands limp at her sides. Her hair, sleek auburn strands that had been a carroty red when she was just a toddler, billowed gently in the breeze.
"Hey." He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. Firmly. "What'd I say? Stay in the car until I came and got you, remember?"
She turned and looked up at him. Her face was pale, her mouth drawn and nearly lipless. A spray of light brown freckles peppered the saddle of her nose. There was some strange determination in her eyes, and David suddenly felt weakened in the presence of her. It wasn't the first time she had made him feel this way.
David took a breath and caressed the side of her face with his knuckles. "Go back in the car, Little Spoon," he told her.
"But I gotta go to the bathroom, remember?"
No, he hadn't remembered. His brain felt like a rusted hamster wheel clacking around in his skull. He glanced around until he saw a brick outhouse with the word WOMEN on one door, MEN on the other.
"Okay," he said, and went back around to the driver's side of the Oldsmobile. He tossed the granola bars and the Coke on the seat, then pulled the key from the ignition. The Oldsmobile shuddered and died. Abruptly, he wondered what he would do if the car wouldn't start again. Steal another car? Would he even know how to do it? People in movies always seemed to know how to hot-wire a car — it was like tying your shoes, apparently — but he had no clue.
He placed a hand against the small of Ellie's back and ushered her forward. "Go on," he told her. "Be quick. And don't talk to anyone. I'll wait right out here for you."
He thought he heard her sob, so he stopped her, crouched down, and looked her in the eyes. They were glassy, but she still wasn't crying. She didn't even look all that frightened. In fact, it looked like she was studying him. Scrutinizing him.
"Don't cry, hon," he told her anyway. It sounded like the right thing to say, and it was certainly important. "Okay?"
"I don't understand this," she told him.
"Little Spoon," he said, squeezing her shoulder more tightly. He didn't want attention drawn to them, and an eight-year-old girl becoming upset in the parking lot of a rest stop at this hour would surely do the trick.
"I'm worried about Mom," she said. "When can I see her?"
"Hon," he said ... and he wanted to hug her, but the last thing he wanted to do was make a scene, even if it was only in front of the masked teenagers smoking by the trash can. He could risk doing nothing that would cause someone to remember them at a later date. Of course, Ellie didn't know the truth of it, so he couldn't expect her to act accordingly.
That will have to change very soon, he thought. If we're going to survive this, she'll need to know the score. If not the whole truth, she'll need to know something very close to it.
Now wasn't the time, however.
In the end, Ellie turned away from him, his hand dropping from her shoulder. She wended around the group of teenagers with her head down and vanished into the women's restroom.
I'll tell her later, he promised himself, while simultaneously wondering if there would be a later.
When he found himself gnawing at his lower lip, he realized that he craved a cigarette. He'd smoked his last one ... how many hours ago? It had still been daylight. There was a full carton of Marlboros on the top shelf of his bedroom closet, but they could have been on the moon for all their accessibility now. He glanced around, spotted a vending machine beyond the brick outhouse, but saw only columns of potato chips, chocolate bars, pretzels, and the like. Vaguely, he wondered if they still sold cigarettes in vending machines anymore.
In the quiet, his mind slipped back to earlier that evening and to the inexplicable thing that had happened in the car as they left their hometown in Maryland. He had been a rattled mess, his heart slamming in his chest, his mind spinning uncontrollably ... until Ellie had reached over to him, her hand cool against his burning flesh ...
He shook the notion from his mind. It was impossible.
After another minute passed and Ellie didn't come out of the restroom, David began to panic. His arms still crossed, he began pacing back and forth in front of the door to the women's room like a warden. The concrete walkway was covered in beetles; they crunched beneath his feet like potato chips. If she didn't come out in the next thirty seconds — and he was now counting silently to himself — he would go in after her.
But what if she's gone in there and started crying? he thought. What if some woman is already in there, and she stops her and asks her what's wrong, and Ellie tells her that her father tucked her into the backseat of a strange car and spirited her away like a thief in the night? Isn't that a possibility?
His hand was already clutching the door handle to the women's room when the door shushed open and Ellie came out. She looked up at him with an expression of consternation on her face. David glanced into the restroom and saw that the remaining stalls were empty. The single bulb at the center of the ceiling flickered.
"Come on," he said, rubbing the back of her head as he led her back to the car. He was reminded of the gas tank when he turned the ignition over, so he pulled around to the farthest set of pumps. A few tractor trailers stood like gathered cattle at the far end of the lot. David climbed out of the car, discovered that the gas tank was on the other side of the vehicle, swore under his breath, then got back in and repositioned the car. In the backseat, Ellie sat motionless and wide-eyed, staring at him and not touching any of the snacks he'd tossed back there for her. He could feel the heaviness of her eyes on him. "Go on," he told her. "Eat something. It's okay." The smile he offered her felt as false as a stick-on moustache.
At the pump, he pulled his wallet from his pants and had already slid his credit card through the slot when he realized what he had done. It seemed every muscle in his body tensed at once. Even his teeth clenched. Nearly in disbelief, he stared at the tiny digital screen as it processed his credit card, then stared down at the card itself, as if skeptical of its very existence.
"Shit, shit," he hissed through his teeth.
The screen prompted him to enter his zip code before processing the card. It also gave him the option to cancel the sale. Which he did immediately.
There was the cash in the trunk, but he also had a wad of tens and fives in his wallet. He held up one finger to Ellie, who watched him, emotionless, from the backseat, then he went to the attendant's booth, where he forked over thirty bucks to the ancient dark-skinned woman seated behind a sheet of bulletproof glass.
Three minutes later, they were back on the highway. When he saw a white van in the far right lane, David felt a cool sweat prickle his scalp. It looked identical to the one that had been parked across the street from their house on Columbus Court for the past few weeks. David couldn't decide if he should slow down or speed up. Finally, he decided to take an exit that dumped them onto a secondary roadway.
Despite her proclamation of hunger, Ellie never touched the granola bars, never cracked open the Coke. He could use the caffeine himself, but he didn't ask her to pass the soda up to him. She had been quiet since leaving the gas station, and he presumed she had fallen back asleep. So when she spoke up and asked him to turn on the radio, he nearly launched out of his skin.
And the radio was nothing but static.
Excerpted from "The Night Parade"
Copyright © 2016 Ronald Malfi.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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