New World Epidemic - Chapter One

I can’t remember a time when Adam and I weren’t friends.

Our mothers met in hospital shortly after giving birth. They swapped numbers and babysat for each other; because of them Adam and I shared the same milestones, whether it was swimming lessons, birthdays, or joining the scouts. We spent so much time together that growing close was inevitable.

From pre-k to high school we were joined at the hip, and always watching each other’s back. Even when Adam started getting in trouble, smoking weed and getting into fights, we were there for each other.

My Mom worried, but didn’t say anything. She knew better than to tamper with fate.

On most nights you’d find one of us at the other’s home, raiding the fridge or sitting in front of the TV, or even taking up a reserved seat at the dinner table amidst the other siblings. It had long been assumed on the nights that I was home Adam would be with me.

Things changed in senior year. His Mom, Cathy, had recently divorced and was working a second job as well as going to night school. That meant that Adam was home a lot, by himself. Knowing that he was prone to trouble I made a point of being there as much as I could.

That made things difficult at home; mostly arguments with my Dad.

“I’m staying at a friend’s house,” I said over the phone. “Yeah, Adam. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”

There were the usual concerns, that it was a school night, and that he was worried about my grades. It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that he made his actual thoughts known, not that they would sway me.

When all was said and done I’d have my way on the sole condition my schoolwork didn’t suffer. Maybe he hoped my diligence would rub off, and that Adam could avoid flunking.

I slumped into the sofa and watched over Adam’s shoulder as he played his game with alien bodies exploding in succession.

“So you’re cool?” he said.

I folded one foot under my leg. “Yeah.”

Adam scoffed. “He still doesn’t trust me, huh.”

“The words ‘stoned’ and ‘loser’ may have come up,” I said.

Entrails of a xeno-arachnid exploded across the television screen.

Adam shrugged. “Whatever. You’re too good for me to be a bad influence.”

He played the game, and I did homework; I read about the Gettysburg address, and he earned the Universal Combat Commendation, the highest honour awarded to a space dragoon.

At night he slept in the bed and I slept beside him on a mattress. He’d give me a pillow without a cover that smelled like sweat, but not so heavily that it couldn’t be ignored. Across the room were piles of clothing, with no distinction between clean and dirty; typical chaos in Adam’s world.

Whenever I lay there I always thought the same thing, whether I should be there at all. Was Adam a lost cause, or was he better than all this?

That was the way of things until the following April, just two months before graduation.

It was rare that Cathy wasn’t home on a Saturday night, and rarer still that she had a date; both of which meant Adam had free reign at a time people were available. As soon as he found out he made plans, inviting me to spend the night watching horror flicks along with two other friends, Nick and Sasha.

They weren’t close, not like Adam and I, but Nick and Sasha were cool. They were the sort of friends you have because they’re there, because you’re stuck in the same halls for seven hours a day, and suffering together is better than suffering alone. Chances were we wouldn’t see much of them come summer.

Halfway through ‘Undead Massacre III’ Adam pulled out a bong, the kind crafted from a soda bottle and garden hose, and offered us a hit. We all partook, though Nick was the most enthusiastic.

His eyes were pointed at Sasha the whole time, even as he coughed his lungs out, not that she noticed. She was quiet, and nursed a handful of popcorn for the better part of the night.

Nick swayed in the seat and kept looking around the room. Every so often he’d stop and stare, probably waiting for our attention to pry from the screen. Eventually he turned to me.

“Hey, Jonah. What are your plans after graduation?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe go backpacking for a year, then apply for college.”

He leaned into a grin. “Do you know where you’ll go?”

I shrugged, again.

Nick furrowed and turned to the other end of the sofa. “What about you, Adam?”

My friend shone his teeth and laughed. “Masturbate. I’m going to masturbate.”

“Fucker, you already masturbate,” I said, “more than anyone I know.”

“Then I’m going to masturbate until my hands are calloused, and my dick is bloody and raw!”

Sasha snatched the remote to click pause, then whipped around. “Hey, you know what I’m going to do after graduation? I’m going to finish watching this movie!”

Nick looked down, deflated. “Sorry.”

“Come on, Sash. You really expect us to sit quietly for six hours?” Adam said.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I don’t know. Maybe you can talk at a normal volume so some of us can follow the plot.”

Adam laughed. “What plot? Zombies rise up, people scream, fight back, and win, but-” He rose from the chair and leered. “-For how long?”

Our supply of chips and soda were starting to dwindle; in other words a good time to get out of the room. I stepped into the kitchen and opened the fridge where a gallon of pop was waiting to be consumed, along with some chicken wings that had my name on them.

Just as I reached for the bucket the fridge moaned and rattled. The light inside went out, followed by the light in the kitchen, and the TV. Everything was dark, inside and out, save for the screen on Nick’s cell phone.

Sasha huffed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

We filed into the garden. It wasn’t just the house, but the entire neighborhood. Darkness stretching for miles. From the rise where the home sat you could usually see the town, but without power there was nothing but void.

Even in the dark Adam’s grin shone. “Let’s go exploring,” he said.

I grabbed his arm. “You sure that’s a good idea?”

“Why not? It’ll be fun.”

“It is kind of cool,” Nick said.

Sasha tisked. “No, not cool. Stupid, and dangerous.”

“What danger?” Adam said. “I know these streets like the back of my hand.”

I pulled his arm back. “Sasha’s right, man. Let’s go inside and wait for the power to come back on.”

He wrenched away and skipped onto the street. “Look, I’m going whether you want me to or not. You’re free to join!”

All the paternal lectures struck like a hammer; all those arguments with my Dad about Adam being trouble and how I was being ‘roped in roped into his doom spiral’ rang through my thoughts, but I couldn’t just leave him.

I sprinted as cautiously as I could in the pitch black and followed the silhouette. “Alright! I’m coming with.”

The neighborhood took on a new life. Weird that I’d lived there forever but never seen it that way, with not even a street light to give it shape. Houses, trash cans, mailboxes were little more than cut outs highlighted by the moon, cast in deepest blue.

Every block or so we found a group of kids with the same idea, who couldn’t resist the lure of the night. Some of them hid behind bushes and tried to fake us out with ghost sounds, not that they were very convincing.

After a while we passed the houses and drew near the pines on the edge of the estate. They may not have been wilds in the traditional sense, but most people knew to stay away at night, especially without a flashlight.

“Let’s go back,” I said.

Adam shook me off. “No, there’s something I need to see.”

“See what? It’s fucking pitch black, man!”

He didn’t listen, but then he never listened. Adam stepped into the foliage and followed the incline between the trees. Nick and Sasha had dropped behind several blocks back; maybe if they were still around I wouldn’t have gone after him.

Every step was like adding another weight to my legs until the ground sat at forty five degrees. The leaves and twigs under foot didn’t offer much as far as security, and solid roots are more dangerous when they’re invisible.

Adam stopped atop the hill.

“You done?”

We waved me to his side. “Dude, look.”

I trudged to the top of the hill and inhaled. “What’s that smell?”

The air was heavy with ash drifting from the valley. From above you could make out a trail of embers following the upturned earth. I don’t know what it was Adam was looking for, but I doubt it was that.

“Oh my god.”

“We have to check it out,” Adam said.

“Are you crazy?”

He was already one foot in the dirt, searching out his next steps. Did he even know what he was getting himself into?

Did I?

“Adam,” I said. “For fuck’s sake-”

He’d scaled ten feet before I could reach out. With every step he grew more bold until he was falling into a run and letting gravity guide him. Even as he kicked smoking clumps he laughed and picked up pace, until one false move took him off his feet.

“Adam!”

One second he was making progress, the next he was tumbling. In the dark I could make out a human ball following the curve of the hillside, until he was swallowed by shadow.

He didn’t cry, he didn’t yell; he didn’t make a sound when he hit bottom, however far that was.

“Adam! Adam, come on, man!” I was screaming.

Suddenly there were lights shining between the trees, bright and getting closer. They scoured back and forth, at least a dozen in all, followed by the sound of voices. A search party, maybe?

They called out, “who’s there? Show yourself!”

I don’t know why I ran. Adam was probably hurt. Shouldn’t I have stayed? Fight or flight made the decision for me; there would be time for regret later. Meanwhile there were people scouring the trees where we shouldn’t have been in the first place.

The street lit up once I made it to the road, and from there I kept running, fast as I could, strangling every ounce of breath in me. I didn’t look back until I was halfway to Adam’s house, and though I was alone it didn’t seem safe.

Nick and Sasha were lounging on each other when I burst in the door. They didn’t move, not even to pause the movie.

“You get it out of your system?” Sasha asked, still married to the screen.

I grabbed the remote and killed the TV. Nick and Sasha darted up to snatch it back.

“What the hell, man?”

“We need to get out of here,” I said.

Nick made a grab for the remote. “No, screw you. Where’s Adam?”

“Adam is...”

The room was silent.

Sasha combed her fingers through her hair. “Is he in trouble?”

“I... don’t know.”

She rolled her eyes. “Are you going to tell us what happened?”

My mouth hung open, but what was I supposed to say? Images of Adam, hurt or worse, circled my thoughts and there I was, the friend who ran.

“Just go home,” I said.

They hounded me with questions for ten minutes, and agreed to leave when I wouldn’t give way.

On the walk home I composed at least a dozen texts, most of which I was too gutless to send. ‘R U OK’ seemed simple enough, and after a couple of minutes I hit send.

Adam didn’t reply.

I stopped and turned to where I imagined him, bloody in a ditch, and wondered, should I go after him? Maybe, maybe not. What if they found him, the people I’d been running from?

It was just shy of midnight as I made it home, but not my own bed or clean linens could get me to rest. Every worst case scenario filtered through my mind so clearly that I could see them.

When he didn’t text after an hour I thought about calling 911. I didn’t.

For the whole night I lay in bed and waited.

* * * *

The following day was a grind, like nails on a chalk board. Every five minutes I checked my phone. The silence was agony.

I texted Adam, again and again. No response.

The image of my friend, broken and battered, was enough to drive me onto the street. I walked for hours, even returning to the estate we’d gone exploring the night before. The houses and fences weren’t as daunting in the day, and were quiet enough that kids were playing in the street.

Their eyes followed as I passed them by. They’d been warned by their parents about older kids; guys like Adam, and I guess me as well.

It was a sudden divide between the road and the pine trees. There was only the framework of houses around the stretch of asphalt before trailing off into a mound of dirt. Following that the ground had yet to be tamed and opened into a labyrinth of woods that led to private property, owned by who knows.

I took a hard gulp and steeled my reserve. It was luck that I’d found my way home in the dark, and not even the light of day promised I’d get to the same place a second time.

My journey was cut short when a car turned the corner. It was a luxury car, navy paint job, and sparkled like it was fresh off the lot. What struck me most were the government plates, and the three men inside wearing suits.

The car rolled to a stop on the gravel, right beside me. The passenger side window rolled down to reveal a man, thinning hair, probably in his forties, wearing a smirk.

“Something we can do for you, son?”

Private security, I thought.

I shook my head. “No, sir.”

He lowered his shades to glance me up and down. What he saw didn’t seem to impress.

“Well, you’ve got no business here,” he said. “Go find a girl, or a boy, or whatever kids are doing these days.”

I nodded and started the journey home, feeling official eyes boring into my back the whole way.

Adam had told stories about the woods; mostly about the secret stash a friend had planted, or the times he was busted by a deputy, but nothing like this. He would have told if the men in black were on his tail; it was just too good a story.

Since Adam’s house was on the way I decided to stop by, not that I even had the nerve to knock on the door. Cathy’s car was parked in the driveway. Her being there just made it harder.

What if something really had happened? How could I face her?

Instead I sent another text: “dud whr R U caL me”

He didn’t answer that night either.

* * * *

At school on Monday there was still no sign of Adam.

Sasha, Nick and I gathered around the dumpsters where we smoked before first period, and tried putting our heads together. Should we swallow our pride and call the cops? Nobody had to say it, but it was the last thing we were going to do.

“We stopped by, but nobody was home,” Sasha said.

I tilted my head. “What about Cathy? I saw her car.”

“Car was there, but she wasn’t answering,” Nick said.

“Shit.”

There were no bright ideas. Then the bell rang for first period.

It was a zombie march between classes. My mind was somewhere else, and time was not my friend. Being trapped at school made me helpless; it didn’t matter that I had nothing else to do with the time.

In sixth period I got a text. My chest nearly exploded when I saw who it was from.

“Oh, thank god.”

Adam wrote: “hay sup cum c me l8er i got sumtin 2 show u lmao”

Usually I’d chew him out for his phrasing, but seeing how I thought he was dead I didn’t make it a thing.

“dud i thawt U wer ded,” I wrote.

He wrote back: “nah jst cum 2 my hows aftR skul”

I wasn’t going to argue.

The moment the bell rang I was out the door, sprinting through the exit and to the first bus. My pulse was racing to the point of bursting, as though it were my chance to make up what I couldn’t do the first time around.

Adam was okay. God above, he was okay.

I ran from the bus stop and to his front porch, rang the bell and bounced on my heels. After all the waiting I needed to see him in one piece just to remember what it looked like.

Cathy’s car was still in the driveway, which was weird; she definitely had work on Mondays.

The door opened. It wasn’t Adam come to greet me, but his Mom. She pushed open the screen to reveal her lazy smile, and some other things. I averted my gaze avoid her nipples jutting out through her shirt with a low, scooping neckline. There was no question she was aware of this, and beamed.

“Hey there, sugar.”

I took a step back onto the garden path and coughed. “Uh, hey, Cathy. Is… is Adam home?”

“Sure. Why don’t you come inside?”

Anyone who knew Cathy might not have recognized her in this way. ‘Carefree’ was what she was selling, though it wasn’t her brand; usually it was ‘self conscious’ with the dial turned to ‘painful.’ Instead I came face to face with this other person who wore gold lipstick with her hair down, and a short skirt in place of leggings.

She fluttered her lashes and beckoned me inside. I followed, but not for her.

“Sweetheart! Jonah’s here!”

“Coming,” said a voice. It wasn’t Adam’s.

A girl stepped out from the hallway wearing a green skater dress and not much else. She danced on the balls of her feet before leaning against the wall, and purring like a tiger. She looked like a relative with the same auburn hair Adam had, as well as his spatter of freckles. Her mane was long and curled, hanging around the cleavage I was determined not to leer at.

“Hey,” she said.

The girl pressed against the wall and hummed.

“Hey,” I said back.

Was I supposed to know her?

“So, what do you think?”

Cathy poked her head in as she passed between rooms, and giggled.

“What do I think of what?” I said.

The girl laughed and pressed toward me. She reached to stroke my face and I pulled back.

“Dude, you really have no idea, do you?”

The more I looked the more familiar she became. It wasn’t just the hair or the freckles; there were the little things, like the shape of her cheekbones, the way her nose ended in a round nub, and the color of her eyes. There was no mistaking the blue fading into mist.

I collected myself.

“...Adam?”

“Actually, it’s Angela,” she said.

I stepped back to absorb the full picture. Standing before me with hands on hips, shifting from one foot to another was a girl my age making kissy faces; a girl I’d never seen in my life, now telling me she was my best friend.

“You’re not…”

Same pale skin, same piercing on her eyebrow; even the same scar Adam had from a bike accident when we were kids.

I shook my head. “How?”

Adam… Angela, turned back down the hall, and I followed.

Her bedroom had changed along with everything else. She’d let some air in to start with, and the carpet was clear. Everything had been stripped; the bed, the furniture, some even replaced with new items. A lamp, a dresser; it was a long way to go for a practical joke.

Angela sat, folded her legs and patted the bed beside her.

“Everything’s changed, in ways I can’t even describe.”

I lingered in the doorway.

“Does this have something to do with the woods?”

She sprawled and leaned on her elbow. “Yeah, it does. Thanks for letting me fend for myself, by the way.”

I said nothing.

Angela just scoffed. “Relax. I would have done the same thing, and I’m alive, aren’t I? Everything’s fine.”

“Is it?”

She propped herself up, smiled, and looked down to her chest. I’d fought not to look, but as she rolled handfuls of flesh under her dress it was hard not to notice. God, they were actually a part of her.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “Everything’s perfect.”

Angela shuffled over, beckoning me again. This time I did was I was told.

“Once upon a time the thought of turning into a chick might have grossed me out,” she said, “but now that it’s actually happened…” Angela arched back and continued to massage her breasts, like I wasn’t even there. “Dude, this feels so fucking good. You have no idea.”

I licked my lips. She really was beautiful.

“This is real, isn’t it?”

Sultry eyes fell on me. “Yes,” she said.

I was like jelly when Angela reached to caress my wrist. When I offered no resistance she took my hand and guided to her breast, and encouraged me to inspect it with a heavy gasp. Maybe I should have refused, but I didn’t.

“Oh my god…”

She bit her lip. “Have you ever done this before?”

I shook my head.

“It’s okay with me,” she whispered. “We’ve been friends forever.”

“Yeah, but… guy friends.”

Angela drew closer and threw one leg over my lap. Slowly, sensually, she straddled on top and brushed a wisp of hair from my eyes. She leaned in until all I could smell was her; cream, skin, fruit, and so many things that weren’t the boy I knew.

“It’s not gay if you have tits,” Angela said with a grin.

Gay, straight, whatever; this was something else.

Soon I was tasting the condensation on her breath, and burned with the heat of her. Falling into her kiss was the easiest thing in the world.

Next thing I was on my back, underneath Angela as she ran her hands up my arms. Our mouths lapped one over the other, tongues stealing licks, while she ground her hips against me. Fuck, I’d never been so hard in my life.

Her nails raked my sides as she moved to take off my shirt. Next she was hiking her skirt. Our bodies pressed together and bucked in rhythm with her flesh searing into mine. She was so soft, so smooth, like nothing I’d ever felt before.

Suddenly I felt her press into my abdomen. It was only when Angela arched up that I saw the bulge in her panties, that her transformation was not absolute. She thrust her crotch against me, grinding her arousal against my own.

Her whimpers were like music, mine were gasps that I held in my chest. It was all so much.

I pushed her away and fumbled before standing. My heart beat out of my chest like bombs going off.

Angela arched a brow. “Not into it?”

“I…”

My erection surged in my shorts, though I did my best to hide it.

Angela laughed. “Sorry. I’ve been crazy horny. We can slow down if you want.”

She lay back, cock straining against her panties, with a wet patch accumulating at the tip. Through the swimming in my head I knew I wanted to touch her again, but couldn’t.

“Is it the whole ‘chick with a dick’ thing?” she asked. “Because I thought you were cooler than that.”

I shook my head.

“No, I don’t care. I just… I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Angela rolled to her belly and kicked up her feet. “Now’s the perfect time, don’t you think? I’m practically throwing myself at you, dude.”

I fought to keep with my breathing. When she neared I inched away.

“Yesterday I thought you were dead.”

“No, just got hotter,” she said.

I reached for my shirt and stepped into the hallway. No sense in dragging out goodbyes. I told Angela I needed to think, and that I was glad she was okay, and that I’d be back again soon. Just because she was a girl didn’t mean I stopped being a friend.

There was still the question of what happened to Adam. Spontaneous sex changes didn’t just happen, did they? The more I thought about it the more confusing it became. What happened in those woods?

Three blocks from her house and my crotch was still ready to explode. Maybe some time alone would help to calm it down.

Just then I heard the rumbling, and then I saw what you don’t see in the suburbs; it was a convoy of vehicles, jeeps, trucks, vans, and busses, some khaki like you see in the army, but most crisp and white. All of them had government plates and ran without abandon. Anyone who got in their way received a roar from their horns and jumped out of the way.

I stood there and watched dozens of them plow through the neighborhood, their uniformed drivers married to their destination. Who were these guys? The big wheels were like rolling thunder shaking the earth.

When they finally passed I looked back to Angela’s house. Maybe I should have said something, but I didn’t.

Something strange was happening, and I didn’t know what.



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