Authors: Jeremy Dyson
Rise of the Dead
©2016 by Jeremy Dyson
My phone says it’s three minutes after eight on a dewy spring morning. Beneath the cloudless sky, I squint at the glare on my screen. I'm sitting at a crowded train station, but I might as well be alone. Commuters around me listen to their headphones, read their magazines, or tap mindlessly at their phones. We spend our whole lives learning ways to block each other out. It’s safe to stay locked away in the dark bunkers of our minds.
To kill a few minutes, I read a news story on my phone about a plane that went down in the Hudson River. I follow a link to another story about protesters rioting on Wall Street. Reporters witnessed explosions, looting, and civil unrest. Another story covers a similar incident in the capital. I notice another article about a CDC quarantine on a hospital in Atlanta. Another report speculates the events are all related though the circumstances don't suggest a coordinated attack. All that means is they really don't have a clue why so many incidents are happening at the same time.
I almost feel like asking the guy next to me if he has seen the news, but I don’t. I figured out a long time ago that the quickest way to make a stranger dislike you is to interrupt them while they are checking their social media feed. Everyone would probably be happy as hell if the only way we ever interacted with each other were through an electronic device. I know that's how I feel. Ask me for the time, and I'll tell you, just so that you will hopefully shut up and let me get back to texting someone that isn't here. Everyone feels the same way, whether they want to admit it or not. If you think I'm lying, just look around sometime.
This is the last train I will ever ride in my life. I swear. I'm never taking the train again. It’s not just that I don’t like riding the train and that I like waiting for it even less, it’s the crowded, dreary feeling of everyone on it that makes me crazy. I'm only here because I forgot to change the clocks an hour ahead last night. I don't even notice stuff like that unless someone nags me about it. So I had to hurry to catch the express this morning to get down to the city on time. I'd rather be in my car, even if that means sitting in gridlock, watching the minutes pass as I slowly die. But if I did that today, I'd be late for sure.
A bell rings, signaling the approaching train. Since I only have two hands, I have to put my phone away before I finish reading the last article. I grab up my cup of coffee and portfolio full of papers. We shuffle aboard the passenger cars like a horde of mindless zombies. I find my seat among the mix of office workers in their buttoned-down shirts with collars and ties and students with backpacks heading into downtown Chicago.
I decide I had better review the notes for my lecture though it will likely put me to sleep again. This hour of the morning is way too early for me, especially since it's an hour earlier than it should be. I sip my coffee and wait for it to kick in, so things make sense again. For a couple of minutes, I rifle through my papers and look them over. My eyelids start to close. I yawn, which draws a yawn from the guy in a flannel shirt across from me. He pulls some headphones out of a backpack and puts them over his ears. He stares out the window, listening to some depressing song. I shove my stack of papers back in the folder. I know what the notes say anyway. It's the same talk I've done for years.
When the train pulls to a stop at the Arlington station, the doors slide open, but no one at the station boards the train. From my seat, I stare absentmindedly at the racetrack where we had watched Independence Day fireworks last year. The horse racing facility is deserted this early in the morning. The parking lot it shares with the train station is the size of several football fields, and is already filling with cars from the morning rush hour. By noon, the lot will be packed for the afternoon races, with thousands of people cheering in the grandstands. Whenever I pass this stop, I am tempted to cancel my plans and spend the day at the track. I never do it anymore, though. Even though I know life is too short, I never do anything about it. Besides, I made promises. When my daughter was born, I quit placing bets. Amanda insisted on it. Said she wouldn't have our child growing up around degenerate gamblers.
"I have never gambled in my life," I swore.
She just rolled her eyes at me. Women. They can kill you with the smallest of gestures when they want to. Especially if you really love them.
The doors of the train remain open for several minutes too long. I look out the windows on the other side of the train and see the frustrated people in a line of cars on the four-lane highway. A bald guy with a long goatee has his finger up his nose. I watch him, amused because he doesn't know I'm watching him. We all live in our own little world, or so we think when we think we're alone. After a few minutes of staring at him, I realize I have yet to see a single car heading in the other direction on the street, and the doors of the train are still open.
At that moment, the conductor clicks on the intercom and informs us that a traffic accident ahead is the cause of the delay. Service is suspended until the tracks can be cleared. He goes on to explain that passengers can either wait until the train is ready to resume service, or take one of the buses Metra has provided to pick us up. Judging by the growing traffic jam on the roads, a bus is not likely to get me anywhere, so I decide to get off the train and make a phone call while I look around to see if I can discern the cause of the accident. From the station platform, I see a handful of squad cars, a firetruck, and an ambulance. Several smashed vehicles block the tracks, and there’s a line of gridlocked cars piling up around the nearby intersection.
Maybe, I think, being stranded at the track this morning is a sign that today is my lucky day. Maybe it’s fate that brought me here. I entertain these ideas even though I don’t believe in signs or fate. I leave nothing to chance. Like I said, I won’t even gamble. I used to spend a lot of time at the track, but what I did here could hardly be called gambling. Using a system of comprehensive statistical analysis, I evaluated probable outcomes for each race. It's the same methods statisticians use to put together baseball teams and predict elections. I created formulas to bet on the most probable horses. I wrote a book about the whole "experiment." You might have heard about it. It's called The Horse Experiment. That was almost ten years ago, so it’s old news by now. Nobody remembers it anymore, except the college students that have to hear me talk about it every year.
I check the time on my phone. It’s now eight-twenty, and I am supposed to be downtown in forty minutes. I call the college to let someone know about the delay, but I can't get through. I call a professor I know on her cell phone, but I only get an automated message about high call volume. I hang up and see other train riders around me all on their phones as well. So that explains the problems with the phone.
I feel the briefest flicker of unexplainable fear. Nothing more than a vague sense that something terrible is about to happen. Not like a premonition or any bullshit like that. Just this weird feeling, like I'm imagining a spider crawling over my skin. It freaks me out because the last time I felt that way was about two minutes before I lost control of my car on the highway and hit a truck. I look around. In the midst of all these other people, the feeling goes away. The idea of safety in numbers is a powerful illusion.
I try the mathematics office at the college again, get the same result, then call my wife. At this time in the morning, Amanda has probably just dropped off our daughter at elementary school and is driving to the high school where she teaches. If it weren't for this lecture today, I would be driving Abby to school. After several failed calls, I finally hear a ring.
“Blake?” Amanda says. “I was just trying to call you.”
“I’m stuck in Arlington Heights,” I tell her. “There’s a car accident at the railroad crossing or something.”
“I just heard about that on the radio during the traffic report.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “I don’t think I am going anywhere very soon. I can’t get a hold of anyone at the office. The phone lines are messed up.”
“I know. I tried to call you, like ten times, but it wouldn’t go through.”
It is pretty clear to me that something is not right. The news reports I read earlier have me paranoid, maybe. But, there’s no sense in taking any chances.
“I think I am just going to head back to the house as soon as I can figure out a way back there,” I say. “You should too. Call out today. Pick up Abby and meet me back at the house.”
“I’m sitting in a ton of traffic right now. I can see the light is out up at the intersection. Maybe it’ll clear up after that.”
“No,” I say. “Go home.” Her slow response makes me think she is probably rolling her eyes.
“I have to get to the school," she says. "Especially if something goes wrong today while all the kids are there.”
I want to tell her to turn around anyway, but I know she won’t ignore the obligation she feels. Amanda always feels responsible for everyone and everything. We couldn't be more different that way. I typically don't give a damn about anyone but my family. Amanda tells me all the time that I don't act like I even care about them. I really do, even if I get distracted and don't notice when she gets her hair done. Instead of debating with her more, I tell her I will head towards Abby as soon as I can.
“What?” she interrupts me. “Blake, I’m losing you, the phone—”
The rest of her sentence sounds like it has been transmitted through a paper shredder, and then the call drops. I hit redial, but the call won’t go through. I want to smash my phone on the ground in frustration, but I don’t. I'm not typically a violent person, even when all I want to do is hit someone in the face.
Hundreds of passengers have left the train and are milling around the station platform. Most of the people are trying to get through to someone on their phones. Others just gape at the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles in the distance. We stand there, hundreds of us packed together on a train station platform, but we all might as well be alone. Sure, we are all sending text messages, or trying to call someone, but for the most part, we just want to block out the background noise of everyone around us.
Then the sound of gunfire explodes through the morning air. The crowd on the platform goes silent. It's like someone paused the movie we're all pretending to live in. Every head turns to follow the sound, which seems to originate from the smashed vehicles. It’s too far for any of us at the station to see what is happening.
After several seconds of frozen silence, the sound of more rounds of gunfire slash through the air. I hear screams in the distance, the blaring of car horns and the squeal of tires against the pavement. Near the intersection, several motorists are trying to turn around. Drivers are pulling off the road, tearing through the grass embankment, or attempting to jump their vehicles over the concrete median and into the empty lanes going the other direction. Even though I can’t see them, I hear the revving engines and skidding tires from the cars on the other side of the train now, too.
A red pickup veers off the highway and tries to jump the tracks at the front of the train. It lands at high speed, hits the easement sidelong, then rolls towards the platform. People scatter as the empty pickup bounds onward through the grass, bounces alongside the train and careens towards the crowded platform. The driver is flung from the vehicle and his limp body seems to swim through the air until it clips the side of the train engine, leaving a smear of blood across the windows on its way towards the gravel.
A few people are able to scramble through the closing doors of the train. I get caught in a rush of people heading for the parking lot. Some people run along the platform towards the rear of the train. I have never heard so many people screaming. The sound is like the wailing gulls that flock to the beaches to kill each other over some measly crumbs. I keep moving for fear of being crushed by the hundreds of people behind me running in terror from the out-of-control truck which is still plummeting down the station platform, plastering the bodies of people to the brick surface.
A young woman beside me gets shoved and knocked to the ground. I grab her arm to keep her from getting trampled and pull her along with me. No one else is stopping to help anyone. I run along with the throngs of terrified people, just as clueless as to what ignited all this. There seems to be even more gunshots now, and not just from the intersection.
The crowd I’m in keeps moving forward through the parking lot. Some people are already getting in their cars. I catch a glance of a thick, bearded guy who, from the steel blue jumpsuit he's wearing, looks like he's a mechanic. He shoves his elbow through the window of a Cadillac and gets in. Cars begin racing through the parking lot toward the exit to the street. A young kid in a green backpack running in front of us gets swept away by a Hummer that passes inches from my face. I flinch, and when I open my eyes again there is just an empty patch of pavement in front of me and one of his sneakers on the ground.
I want to stop running for half a fucking second and figure out what the hell is causing all this panic. I don't even have a clue as to where I'm running to. I keep hold of the girl, as much to hang on to something tangible in this confusion as to help her. We keep moving forward in the direction of the racetrack. I chance a look back over my shoulder towards the station. There is a trail of bodies left by the careening truck, which has smashed into the ticket window and caught fire.
The train engineer is trying to get the train headed back the way it came. Several people run alongside and struggle to grab hold of the train and get on. Some of them lose their grip and are ground under the wheels of the train as it moves along the tracks. As the train pulls away, I can see the highway behind it. Many motorists abandon their automobiles, but some drivers remain locked in their cars, staring at the terrified people running by them. Cars and trucks slam into each other while attempting to turn around their vehicles. The drivers don’t even bother to slow down or swerve to avoid the many pedestrians now fleeing on foot.