Authors: Robert Kirkman
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For Joey and Bill Bonansinga with Love
More than ever, an extra-special thanks to Mr. Robert Kirkman for bringing me along for the ride of a lifetime; additional gracias to Andy Cohen, David Alpert, Brendan Deneen, Nicole Sohl, Kemper Donovan, Shawn Kirkham, Stephanie Hargadon, Courtney Sanks, Christina MacDonald, Mort Castle, Master Sergeant Alan Baker, and Brian Kett; and the best, as always, saved for last: Deep appreciation and undying love for my beautiful woman and best friend, Jill M. Norton.
I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
âJ. Robert Oppenheimer
The fire starts on the first floor, the flames licking up the cabbage rose wallpaper, unfurling across the plaster ceiling, and spewing black, noxious smoke through the hallways and bedrooms of the Farrel Street house, blinding him, choking the breath out of him. He darts across the dining room, searching for the back stairs, finding them, hurling down the old, rickety wooden risers into the musty darkness of the basement. “Philip?!âPHILIP!?!âPHILLLLLLLLIP!!?!” He lurches across the filthy, watermarked cement floor, frantically scanning the dark cellar for his brother. Upstairs, the home blazes and crackles, the conflagration roaring through the cluttered chambers of the meager bungalow, the heat pressing down on the foundation. He whirls fecklessly in circles, scanning the shadowy reaches of the smoke-bound cellar, batting away cobwebs and choking on the acrid smoke and ammonia-rot stench of rancid canned beets, rat turds, and ancient fiberglass insulation. He can hear the creaking and thudding of wooden timbers collapsing onto the floor above him as the maelstrom rages out of controlâwhich makes no sense because his little childhood home in Waynesboro, Georgia, never burned down in any fire as far as he can remember. But here it is, going up in a terrible inferno, and he can't find his fucking brother. How did he get here? And where the fuck is Philip? He needs Philip. Goddamnit, Philip would know what to do! “PHILLLLLLLLLLIIIIP!” His hysterical cry comes out of him like a thin puff of air, a breathless chirp, a fading signal on a radio tuned to some distant station. All at once he sees a portal in one of the basement wallsâa strange, concave opening like a hatch on a submarine, a weird greenish glow emanating from within itâand he realizes that the opening is new. There was never such an opening in the basement of his childhood home on Farrel Street, but again, like black magic, here it fucking is. He stumbles toward the dim, radiant, green gash in the darkness. Pushing through the opening, he steps into an airless cinder-block garage stall. The chamber is empty. The walls bear the marks of tortureâstreaks of dark, drying blood and the frayed ends of ropes affixed to U-boltsâand the place radiates evil. Pure, unadulterated, preternatural evil. He wants out. He can't breathe. His flesh crawls. He can't make a sound other than a faint mewling noise coming from the deepest part of his lungs, an anguished moaning. He hears a noise and spins around and sees another gangrenous-green glowing portal, and he lunges toward it. He goes through the opening, and he finds himself in a pine grove outside Woodbury. He recognizes the clearing, the deadfall logs forming a natural little amphitheaterâthe ground carpeted in matted pine needles, fungus, and weeds. His heart quickens. This is an even worse placeâa death scene. A figure emerges from the forest and steps into the pale light. It's his old friend, Nick Parsons, gangly and awkward as ever, lurching into the clearing with a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, his face a sweaty mask of horror. “Dear Lord,” Nick murmurs in a strangled voice. “Cleanse us of all this unrighteousness.” Nick raises the shotgun. The muzzle looks gargantuanâlike an enormous planet eclipsing the sunâpointing directly at him. “I renounce all sins,” Nick drones in his sepulchral voice. “Forgive me, O LordÂ â¦ forgive me.” Nick pulls the trigger. The firing pin snaps. The slow-motion blast flares in a brilliant yellow coronaâthe rays of a dying sunâand he feels himself lifted out of his boots, slingshot into space, weightless, flying through darknessÂ â¦ toward a nimbus of celestial white light. This is it. This is the end of the worldâhis worldâthe end of everything. He screams. No sound comes from his lungs. This is deathâthe suffocating, magnesium-white void of nothingnessâand very suddenly, like a switch being thrown, Brian Blake ceases to exist.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
With the abruptness of a jump-cut in a motion picture, he is lying on the floor of his apartment in Woodburyâinert, frozen, pinned to the cold hardwood in paralyzing, icy painâhis breathing so labored and inhibited that his very cells seem to be gasping for life. His vision consists of a jagged, blurry, fractured view of the water-stained ceiling tilesâone eye completely blind, its orbital socket cold as if wind is blowing through it. The duct tape hanging off one side of his mouth, the tiny inhalations and exhalations through his bloody nostrils almost imperceptible to the casual listener, he tries to move but can't even turn his head. The sound of voices barely registers with his agony-gripped auditory nerves.
“What about the girl?” a voice asks from somewhere in the room.
“Fuck her, she's outside the safe zone by nowâshe ain't got a chance.”
“What about him? Is he dead?”
Then another sound registersâa watery, garbled growlâwhich draws his attention to the edge of his vision. Seeing through the bleary retina of his one good eye, he can barely make out the tiny figure in the doorway across the room, her pale face mottled with decomposition, her pupil-less eyes like sparrow eggs. She lunges until her chain-link leash clangs loudly.
“GAH!” one of the male voices yelps as the tiny monster claws at him.
Philip tries desperately to speak, but the words catch in his scalded throat. His head weighs a thousand tons, and he tries again to speak with chapped, cracked, bleeding lips, tries to form breathless words that simply won't coalesce. He hears the deep baritone voice of Bruce Cooper.
“Okayâfuck this!” The telltale click of a safety disengaging on a semiautomatic fills the silence. “This girl's getting a bullet rightâ”
Philip puts everything he has into his voice and manages another faint series of utterances.
He takes another agonizing breath. He must protect his daughter Pennyâregardless of the fact that she's already dead and has been for over a year. She is all he has left in this world. She is everything. “D-don't fucking touch herÂ â¦ DON'T DO IT!”
Both men snap their gazes toward the man on the floor, and for the briefest fraction of an instant, Philip gets a glimpse of their faces gaping down at him. Bruce, the taller man, is an African American with a shaved head, which now furrows with horror and repulsion. The other man, Gabe, is white and built like a Mack truck with his marine buzz cut and black turtleneck. From the look in their eyes, it's clear that Philip Blake should be dead.
Lying on that blood-soaked four-by-eight piece of plywood, he has no idea how bad he must lookâespecially his face, which feels as though it's been tenderized by an ice pickâand for one fleeting moment, the expressions on the faces of these crude, simple men gaping down at him set off a warning alarm in Philip's brain. The woman who worked him overâ
is her name, if memory servesâdid her job well. For his sins, she left him as close to death's door as a person can be without going through it.
The Sicilians say revenge is a dish best served cold, but this gal delivered it with a steaming plate of agony. Getting his right arm amputated and cauterized just above the elbow is now the least of Philip's problems. His left eye is currently lying on the side of his face, glued to his flesh by drying tendrils of bloody tissue. But worse than thatâfar worse for Philip Blakeâis the sticky-cold sensation spreading up through his entrails from the site where his penis was detached with a flick of the woman's fancy sword. The memory of that little flickâthe sting of a metal waspânow sends him back into the twilight of semiconsciousness. He can barely hear the voices.
“FUCK!” Bruce stares bug-eyed down at the once-fit, once-lean man with the handlebar mustache. “He's alive!”
Gabe stares. “Shit, Bruceâthe doc and Alice are fucking gone! What the hell are we going to do?”
At some point, another man has entered the apartment in a flurry of heavy breathing and the clanging of a pump-action shotgun. Philip can't see who it is, or hear the voices very well. He floats between consciousness and oblivion while the men hovering over him continue their terse, panicky exchange.
Bruce's voice: “You guys, lock this little shit up in the other room. I'm going to run downstairs and get Bob.”
Gabe's voice next: “Bob?! The fucking drunk that's always sitting downstairs by the door?”
The voices begin to fade as the dark cold shroud draws down over Philip.
“âwhat the hell can he doâ?”
“âprobably not muchâ”
“âhe can do more than either of usâ”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Contrary to public opinion and the mythology of the movies, the average combat medic is not even
as skilled as an experienced, credentialed trauma surgeon or, for that matter, even a general practitioner. Most medics receive less than three months of training during boot camp, and even the most prodigious of these individuals rarely rises above the level of a common EMT or paramedic. They know basic first aid, a little CPR, and the rudiments of trauma care, and that's about it. They are thrown into the breach with battle units and expected to simply keep wounded soldiers breathingâor keep the circulatory system intactâuntil the victim can be transported to a mobile surgical unit. They are human tugboatsâhardened by front-line conditions, calloused by witnessing a constant stream of sufferingâexpected only to Band-Aid and splint the sucking wounds of war.
Hospital Corpsman First Class Bob Stookey served a single tour with the Sixty-Eight Alpha company in Afghanistan thirteen years ago, at the tender age of thirty-six, getting deployed not long after the initial invasion. He was one of the older enlisted men at the timeâhis reasons for signing up had a lot to do with a divorce going sour at the timeâand he became somewhat of a Dutch uncle to the youngsters around him. He started as a glorified ambulance driver out of Camp Dwyer and worked his way up to battlefield medic by the following spring. He had a knack for keeping the boys entertained with lousy jokes and nonregulation sips from his ever-present flask of Jim Beam. He also had a soft heartâthe grunts loved him for thatâand he died a little bit every time he lost a marine. By the time he shipped back to the world one week after his thirty-seventh birthday, he had died one hundred and eleven times and was medicating the trauma with a half-quart of whiskey a day.