Baltimore Zombies 005
The Tech House
By Melisa Lewis
I wake up still gripping the book bag on my chest, though the knife has been taken from me. The room is lit with morning sun coming from the windows outside of the room. Without the window facing the hallway this cave-like office would not have any natural light. Jason is at the desk again, or still — I’m not sure which.
“Did you take my knife?” I ask, snarkier than I intended.
“I didn’t want to wake up with a knife in my chest,” he doesn’t look up from his papers.
“I wouldn’t have…”
“Save it. You’re not the first person I’ve bunked with.”
“All new people stay with you? That sounds exhausting,” I cannot imagine having a revolving door of strangers coming through my bedroom. I wonder how much this bothers him.
“No, not everyone. Just people that have something we need.”
“Got it. You need my sister.”
He looks up from what he’s doing to make eye contact, “That’s not what I meant.”
“Whatever. I don’t care. I need you to help me get her, and I want a place for us to come back to. A safe place. So it’s a win for both of us.” I sound convincing — I would believe myself, but really I’m chum used to draw in the bigger fish and I can feel my face flood crimson.
Jason starts towards the door and without looking at me says, “Food? Let’s do breakfast.”
Gracious for a change in subject and one I am always interested in, food, we move out. After a dark stairwell, we come to an auditorium with scratched wooden floors, plastic folding tables, and chairs. There are several groups of people eating and talking, the scent of coffee and powdered creamer fill the air. Someone hands out rations near the front door. Lindsay, the girl I recognize on the consul, walks towards us. She doesn’t look at me and I can feel the coldness emanate from her.
“So, Jason. Is this your new flavor of the week?”
Jason stands taller, “Lindsay. Good morning to you too.”
Invisibility would be helpful. I try to sidestep away from Jason, but he gives me a quick look. Like a dog I stay by his side, trying to shrink.
I see a friendly face and April waves for me to come over. My escape is quick; I don’t look for approval. She whispers with a smile, telling me Lindsay and Jason had a thing until recently. The strikes against me seem to be mounting. When I ask April if I could stay with her, she laughs and rubs my shoulder.
“Awe honey, you’re too important. They would never let an old bat like me watch after you.”
The idea of staying with Jason any longer stirs things inside of me again. I can feel the branches of anxiety start to reach inward, and set off alarms to “Run!” and I want to listen. I need a plan. Food, supplies, a place to go. I want to stop running though. Isn’t that why I’m here? I don’t want to sleep in abandoned cars and in the bottom of closets. Being on the run is draining; I’m tired of the constant rush of adrenaline. I’m starting to feel stuck under Jason’s thumb and unwillingly dragged into the battle of strangers. This was a mistake.
“Shelby, did you hear me?” April asks.
“I’m important. I get it.”
“No. Jason is waving at you. He’s at the Runner’s table. Here’s your breakfast. We’ll have to catch up later. Godspeed my friend and stay out of trouble.”
Jason looks irritated as I walk up, or that could be his standard look, I haven’t really seen his face any other way yet. I scout for exits and slip a portion of my rations in my pocket to start saving up.
“Shelby, this is Emmanuel, Geronimo, and Angela. Our top runners. They will be with us when we go to Pimlico to retrieve your sister. Today we need to charge your phone, make contact with your sister, and come up with our route. I want you in the meetings.”
“Okay. I have my phone with me.”
“Eat up. I’ll take you,” Emmanuel says. Just like that, I’m passed over to someone else. My new thumb for the day.
* * *
I didn’t realize we would have to leave the Rec Pier. Walking outside I see everyone bundled up, some are walking their bikes because of the cobblestone under-toe. Reaching for Emmanuel’s arm, I squeeze hard. “Oh my god, I’m so stupid. My bike! I left it tied up overnight!” My feet pound the uneven stones as I hit a full sprint. Elbowing a woman, I yell an apology into the crowd. How could I be so careless? The bike is more than transportation, it symbolizes what I had to give up to survive. Emmanuel yells at me to slow down, it urges me to run faster. Jump, duck, swerve. My bike!
“You’re still here,” I realize my bike can’t talk, but it’s a piece of my home. The locks have been tampered with, the front tire is bent and a bird pooped on the seat. I can fix these things.
“Hey! I told you to slow down!” Emmanuel catches up to me, looking more concerned than pissed off.
“Sorry. I traded my wedding ring for this bike. I can’t lose it.”
“That sucks. We’ve all had to do things since the wall went up and it’s not something to be proud of. As for your bike, I think we can fix it, let’s take it with us. We don’t have far to go.”
He helps me put the locks and chains in my book bag, and then he walks the bike upright so that only the back tire is touching the ground. The front is too bent to roll. I think I’m going to hold off on being a jerk to this guy. Even if he is part of the thumb squishing down on me.
“So, how did you end up at the Rec Pier?” I ask. Looking for a way to connect with this guy and in all honesty, I’m curious how the Rec Pier drew such a big following so quickly.
“I used to work with Mona at BGE, the electric company. This was years ago when she was a big-time CEO. I’m a tech guy and would fix her computer. I’ve always liked Mona, she’s nice. You know, she has a lot of pull? She almost ran for mayor a few years ago.”
“How did the Rec Pier get up and running?”
“It was Mona, she organized a group of us in a fallout shelter a few blocks from here. A group of thugs started to run the shelter and take our rations. Mona devised a plan to get us out and over to the abandoned Rec Pier. People began calling her go-to crew the counsel, and it just stuck. We didn’t vote or anything, it happened on its own.” He stopped in front of a row home and looked up, “We’re here. This is where we bring all the technical equipment. It’s powered by solar panels on the roof.”
The three-story row home was painted gray and veins of cracked stucco crawled up the walls. Several security cameras swivel to face us. Emmanuel waves his hand, and I hear a buzz unlocking the door. I hear the familiar sound of a newscaster coming from upstairs. The smell of metal and batteries leads me to realize how hot it is inside. Emmanuel brings my bike directly into the house with us, leaving it in the empty living room area. We go upstairs, and Emmanuel gives the door at the top of the steps four knocks and says, “Wizards of the coast” with each drum. A slender guy with a five o’clock shadow and bottle thick glasses opens the door. The smell of pot immediately hits me in the face.
“Dude, crack a window or something,” Emmanuel waves his hands around. The dimly lit room and the smell of marijuana trick my brain. It smells like a college party, and the thought spreads a smile on my face that I try to conceal.
“Who’s this?” He stands with his arms across his chest and leans into the doorway. His head cocks to the right, and he raises his eyebrows. He’s not unattractive, but he’s definitely strange by my standards.
“This is Shelby. She needs a phone scan and a charge. Shelby, this is Kory.”
“That’s Kory with a K. Nice to meet you.” With a Chester grin, he gives his head a flick, throwing his long bangs back and reaches out his hand. He’s young, maybe a freshman in college, if he’s even college age yet.
I hand him my phone, and he plugs it in and starts to tool around with it. “Hey, what are you doing? I thought we just needed to plug it in?” I step into the room and notice several televisions.
“He’s scanning it for tracking devices and viruses. Standard stuff,” Emmanuel says. I nod, unable to look away from the television that was on. I see a morning crew talking about the weather and having cheerful banter. Their faces are polished and clothes clean and ironed.
“Okay folks. So we have a problem. There is not only a tracking device on your phone, which is pretty common with some of the apps you have, but it also has a virus; I’m going to have to clean it up. It also only has 4% battery life. Come back in about an hour.”
I shake my head, “What do you mean a tracking device?”
Kory looks at me like I’m the dumbest person he’s seen in a long time, “Someone put an app on your phone to monitor your location. I see this more often with parents who give their kids a phone. Didn’t you know it was on there?”
“No. I didn’t know. It must have been my husband.”
“Do you want me to leave it on there? We like to take these off because we don’t want the Man having an eye on us. Dig me?”
Making a split decision like this is challenging my rational thinking. Why would Drew have a tracking application on my phone and why would he not tell me? What does it even matter now, I haven’t seen him in months?
In case I change my mind I give my answer quickly, “I’m not leaving my phone, but you can take the tracking app off. I can wait downstairs while you work.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Kory says with that same grin. It’s hard to tell if I do or don’t. I want to trust him, but this is my lifeline to the normal world beyond the prison I live in.
“Shelby, let’s go for a walk outside. Let the man do his work.”
After several minutes of questioning Kory’s abilities, I agree to leave. Emmanuel and I walk towards the harbor and sit on a bench. Eyeing him up and down I come to the conclusion that he is not a scary person. I wonder if we could be friends, allies.
“I guess you haven’t seen a working television in a while?”
“Ha! What gave you that idea? Was I staring too hard? I saw the weather for the next ten days! The weather? It’s crazy that I am this excited to know there is a 50% chance of rain in three days.”
“You have no idea what’s going on out there do you?”
“My parents send me a weekly text; I have some clue.”
“You know; they plan to keep us in here for at least a year? Something about being unsure how long to quarantine anyone who’s been in contact with the infection,” Emmanuel grimaces. I decide to change the subject. The news was depressing before we were stuck behind a wall, now it’s almost unbearable to understand there are those still trotting around with jobs and getting coffee and hair appointments just a few miles away from us.
“So, what’s the deal with Jason? He’s kind of – intense, like all the time.”
Emmanuel laughs, “Yeah he can be that way. It sucks how he has to scream his orders all the time. He’s always trying to tell everyone the right way to do stuff. He could chill out a little, you know. He’s cool though. He puts on this act because he has to. He has a lot of responsibility.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Keep us alive; get the Rec Pier connected with other organized groups of survivors; help us build our VIP list.”
“Ah. That’s where my sister comes in, she’s a vet. I’ve heard people talk about a war. What’s that all about?”
Emmanuel looks at the ground, “The outside rules don’t apply in here. We need a foothold in this city with the right groups before the wrong groups take over. There’s a lot to it, but I confidentially…” he looks at me to be sure I understand he’s about to say something he shouldn’t.
“Of course. I used to work in Human Resources. Confidential issues are a skill set of mine.”
“Okay, well. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. There is a conspiracy theory about why we are walled in this hell hole. A few groups want to force the government to remove the wall and send in a…”
We are interrupted by a loudspeaker and the sound of vehicles rolling down the cobblestone. It’s unusual to hear something gas powered these days. We stand back as an audience gathers around a husky blonde haired man rising through the sunroof of a black Hummer. His voice booms even without a microphone, “Dwellers of Fells Point. Leave this territory and follow me to the Broom Factory on Boston Street. I have a plan to free us from the wall. You could be free! ”
Some stay and hear him, but others walk away. Emmanuel is ignoring the entire scene.
“Who is that guy?” I feel compelled to ask. The Broom Factory is not far.
“He comes around sometimes. Always talking about the same thing. I think we are all tired of hearing it. He’s got guns though, lots of guns. We’ve been trying to convince him to join us, but he’s got another agenda. Let’s go check on Kory. Jason might be pissed we’re taking so long.”
Sucking in a deep breath, I hesitate to stand. The mention of Jason’s name again reminds me I am due for another night in the same room with this strange angry man. It feels claustrophobic and impossible. I’ll grab my phone and my bike, then find a way to slip off. Emmanuel is pretty fit, but I think I can outwit him in the crowd between the Rec Pier and the tech house. I start to pump myself up, but my nerves tell me I will be caught. That voice inside my head tells me the vinyl couch is still better than a dumpster with a lid, which has been my sleeping spot more than once.
Emmanuel stands and waits for me. My legs won’t hold, jelly replaces my bones and my will. He looks down at me still sitting on the bench and says, “Hey. You okay? This is a lot to take in, right? Jason can seem aggressive, but give him time. He helped me through a hard time. I lost my wife and son early in the outbreak. If it weren’t for Jason, I’d still be mourning them on the street instead of surviving and honoring their struggle. You may feel like you can’t trust anyone and that’s smart, but we need each other. Know what I mean?”
“Okay, thanks, Emmanuel. I’m sorry about your wife and son? That can’t be easy.”
As we walk to the Tech House, I think about the long days before this one. Does the act of surviving count towards self-care? I haven’t been wasting time away, but caring about my personal well-being is dwindling. My sister is twenty miles from me, she might as well be on the moon. The rest of my family is on the outside, mowing their lawns and working their nine to five’s. It’s Fall now, power is limited; if we do not find a way out of here soon we will freeze this winter. What do I have to keep me going? Drew? He seems to have disappeared. I feel it sometimes – that he’s gone. My feet hit the uneven cobblestone and follow the man in front of me. I want to check out. What if that blonde haired guy can really get me out?
Kory is in the same smoke-filled room with a few others sitting side by side with computers lit up and headphones on. A joint is clearly burning on a tea dish next to where Kory is seated. He stands and extends my phone towards me, “Shelby, right? You got a text message while you were gone. Renee –?”
I snatch the phone from his hand. The text says:
Renee: Shells, it’s getting worse. 7 days we got to run. Meet us at Starbucks in Mt. Washington.
“She’s going to run!” The entire story that was just swirling in my head comes to an abrupt halt. The role of sisterhood is reversed; my big sister needs me. I can’t let her down. I spin on my heels and look at Emmanuel, “Where is Jason. We need to map this out right now.”