Michael James McFarland


Part One



“We strongly caution viewers that the footage about to be broadcast is of a highly graphic and unsettling nature. Viewer discretion is advised.”

The blonde anchor in the blue tie and somber jacket glanced nervously off-camera, swallowed as if there were a gun pointed at his head, then gazed back into the lens.

“I’d like to take a moment to remind our audience that it has never been the policy of this station, or its parent network, to panic or unduly alarm our viewership in bringing such events to public attention, or in any way exploit or sensationalize any such footage we may receive. That said, the videotape we’re about to present is uncensored and unedited in hopes that viewers might better prepare themselves for what is happening in the eastern portion of the country and which, by all reliable indicators, may spread our way in the coming days and weeks.

“This footage comes to us from our affiliate station in Chicago and was shot by W.N.C. cameraman Dennis Kabrich in the neighboring community of Elmhurst. Once again, what you are about to witness is real and is attributed to the so-called ‘Wormwood’ or ‘Yellowseed’ virus, first reported near the town of Willard, Pennsylvania, just two short months ago. This footage is of an extremely graphic nature and viewer discretion is strongly advised.”

With that, the cautions ceased and the videotape rolled.

Through the safety and insulation of the television screen, Larry Hanna and Rudy Cheng were transported from the quiet comfort of the Cheng’s rec room and thrust into an alley in Elmhurst, Illinois, where the Wormwood epidemic was running riot all around them. The two men leaned forward, anxious to make sense of what they were seeing, then shrank back, stunned and sickened, as the horrors contained within the tape became increasingly clear.

The footage began with a pitch and a sprawl, as if Dennis Kabrich, W.N.C.’s unfortunate cameraman, had fallen at a dead run. The sky flashed briefly, overcast and gray, and then two men toting automatic rifles hauled him to his feet. They fled after a group of four or five other men, all in gray-green fatigues, all running down the alley in a loose arrowhead formation, rifles at the ready.

The alley was closing up, coming to an end as a tall chain-link fence crowned with barbed-wire became apparent. On the other side lay a cross street, a scorched elm tree and a broad field of sodden grass. A two-story brick building stood at a distance in the field, looking for all the world like a bank vault or a castle keep, a place of unquestioning safety.

There was a wide gate in the fence, the post wrapped in steel chain and secured with a padlock, and as the group came to a halt, one man pointing his rifle at the lock, something shuffled at them from a dark garage to their immediate left. It looked like a scarecrow, its stuffing bursting from its gray skin in raw patches, and the noise it made was like a man drowning in syrup.

The squad turned.

“Shit! Look out

One of the men screamed as the horror clamped onto him, its head dipping toward his neck and then jerking savagely away. A bright jet of arterial blood painted a fatal slash on the dingy white face of the garage.

The rest of the squad opened fire and pieces of flesh began to explode like wet sandbags. The soldier and the scarecrow fell to the gravel together and, as one of the remaining men turned back to the gate and made shrapnel out of the padlock, another unholstered his sidearm and stepped over the bodies they’d just put down.

Dennis Kabrich, his hands far from steady, brought the man and the pistol into focus as the soldier extended his arm and fired four shots into the writhing mass.

The dead soldier and the scarecrow sighed and grew still, tangled in a final embrace.

The squad moved through the gate and the camera followed, sparing only the briefest glance at the ground in passing. Spreading back into an arrowhead, they paused to kneel and fire at the occasional target while crossing the wide strip of asphalt. Dimly, at a distance, there were ragged screams and frantic bursts of automatic gunfire.

The camera halted in the street to pan left and then right, taking in the entire scope of the chaos. What appeared in the frame looked like the cooling remains of a five-day riot. Houses and apartment buildings were blackened and smoking, cars were smashed into one another, tipped on their sides or accordianed into power poles. Glass and debris littered the sidewalk and bodies lay like heaps of rags in the streets.

The destruction stretched on as far as the eye could see. Shadows stepped in and out of view, ragged figures inevitably drawn toward the heat or the smell or the focused movement of the squad, and as they appeared they were cut down, their mouths making the same drowning scream again and again — more frustration than any sense of pain or dying.

But then, they were already dead.

It was Wormwood that was making them walk again.

“My God.” Larry Hanna shook his head against the grim reality of the scene. “My God!” he whispered again, his complexion pale and nauseated.

Rudy Cheng’s hooded eyes glanced at his neighbor and then went back to the TV screen, one hand raised to his chin, stroking it as the squad of soldiers ran full-out across the grounds of an elementary school, chopping down anything that got in their way.

The camera picked out random morsels to broadcast:

A pile of burned bodies, as tall as a haystack…

A dead woman who’d wandered out in her nightgown…

A black dog feeding on the blanched corpse of a preschooler.

“I don’t think I can deal with this,” Larry moaned, stepping over the coffee table in his haste to reach the bathroom.

Rudy watched him go, wondering if any of them would have much choice.


Rudy’s wife Aimee awoke groggily as he slipped into bed several hours later. Her head turned automatically toward the clock. “It’s almost two o’clock!” she said, surprised. “Are you just coming to bed?”

He nodded then switched off the reading lamp on his side of the bed, letting darkness retake the room. Gradually, the moonlight in the curtains cast enough of a glow for him to see by. The dresser and the chair to the left side of the bed, the dark halo of his wife’s hair against the pillow, the vague smiles of his three children gazing out of oak frames on the far wall. Sarah, Denise and John, arranged in a diagonal line, oldest to youngest. He found his eyes kept returning to them, wondering if there would be new portraits to take their place the coming fall, each of them a year older. He wondered if any of them would be alive to have their pictures taken, never mind the school or the photographer.

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