My Name Is Jackson Birch
A novel by Jabril Faraj, Draft 1
I think all men, at some point in their lives, wonder if they’re destined for greatness. As for me, it was something I’d thought about a lot in the last two years. I can’t really explain what it’s like to be thrust into a position such as I was but I can tell you it isn’t a responsibility I would wish on anyone. Deep down, it’s true, I’ve always been a natural leader. But having men place their belief in you and their lives in your hands is a heavy burden to bear.
It has been a hard couple of years. Our little band has had to make our share of sacrifices and we’ve had our share of loss, as well. The victories have been few and far between but when you’re fighting for your very dignity it is those victories, however small, that you cling to with every ounce of the strength you have left.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how it all started…
Most of us who were infected never really had a chance. By the time the government went large-scale with their containment effort, most of the general public still had no idea about what the Agency had termed “The Infestation”. Only a few were able to get away – the rest were rounded up and taken to the containment camps.
As for myself, I was lucky. Well, lucky might not be the right word. You see, about two weeks before it happened, I started getting phone calls from a line I didn’t recognize. At first, as I always do, I simply ignored it. But they kept calling. Even the debt collectors aren’t this persistent, I thought. So, I searched the number. What I found surprised me – nothing.
Then, they called again; this time I picked up.
The male voice was crisp and commanding. “You are infected,” It said. “When it happens, leave immediately, take the West Highway to the house exactly thirty miles outside of town – you’ll know which one it is. There, you will be safe.”
The voice sounded so assured, yet a tinge of fear and foreboding was palpable in its tone.
“Who are you?” I said, “What are you talking about?”
Only silence answered.
I couldn’t help thinking about what he had said. I was infected. Infected with what? The words gnawed at me incessantly. I made a visit to the doctor a couple days later but nothing wrong could be found and I was sent away with assurances of my regular, above-average bill of health. However, instead of belaying my fear, the doctor’s promises only intensified it. What did the strange voice know about me that no one else, even I, did? It was this curiosity; this wondering that caused me to be on edge, day in and day out. When the time came, I was ready…well, as ready as I could be.
I remember that morning like it was yesterday. I woke to the sound of my phone ringing. I groggily reached at my bedside table for the sound that had interrupted my sleep. I pulled it towards me and looked down at the screen. It was my brother’s wife. Sam worked for the local police department and I knew that she worried about him constantly but she had never gone so far as to call me this early. Something must be wrong. I reluctantly picked up the phone and before I could even get it to my ear I heard her spastic appeals.
“Jackson, Jackson, are you there?” she blurted out, desperation coursing through her voice.
“Yes,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”
“Sam’s not here, Jackson – he’s not here! He was working a late shift last night but he didn’t come home…and I didn’t get a call, either; something’s wrong.”
I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I believed her. She spoke with the unwavering assuredness women possess when someone they love is in danger. It’s not always rational but, though I never could quite feel it myself, it was an instinct I had learned to trust.
I stumbled out of bed and across my room to the window. It was still early enough that no one was on the streets and I could still barely see anything outside of the many illuminated streetlight-islands. I scanned the street and couldn’t make out anything except for what looked vaguely like the silhouette of two vehicles and two or three people in the middle of the road a couple blocks down, closer to the square (the center of the city), but I wasn’t sure. I was still groggy and my eyes very well could have been playing tricks. But something didn’t feel quite right – it was too quiet. Even in the dead of night, the city didn’t sleep – the sound of sirens, a lone vehicle cruising the streets or the cries of a stray animal could be heard every once in a while. Tonight, there was nothing. The voice from that haunting call echoed in my head: “When it happens, leave immediately…” I heard again.
I was instantly awake, snapped out of the haziness by that sudden impulse of danger, that feeling you get when you know – you’re not sure how you know, but you know – deep inside that your survival is at stake. What is it? Is it conscious voice? An action of instinct? I’m inclined to say the latter but the clarity with which the voice in my head spoke was so manifest I couldn’t really say. Either way, I knew we wouldn’t be safe if we stayed where we were.
“Julia, pack only necessities. Do it quickly. Get in your car, drive fifteen minutes out-of-town, directly west, pull to the side of the road and wait – I’ll meet you there. Tell no one.”
“But, Sam…” she pleaded.
“We can’t do anything for him right now. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening but it’s not good. We have to leave now. Once we’re safe, we’ll figure out how to help him. I promise. You have to trust me.”
“Alright,” she answered.
“I’ll meet you in an hour,” I commanded. “Hurry.”
I also gathered a pack I had kept prepared after receiving that warning phone call, quickly dressed myself and stepped out into my hallway. Still, to this day two years later I have not set foot back in the place I used to call home. Had I known as much, I might have lingered for a moment, but the circumstance left no room for such a thought. I walked quickly and quietly to the stairs, bounded down the three flights and slipped silently into the empty parking lot. My eyes darted as I slowly crossed the divide towards my forest green jeep. No quicker was I next to the car as the key was in the ignition and I was on my way to meet Julia.
As I left the underground lot, I shot a glance to my right where I had seen the silhouettes. In that instant, I couldn’t make out the outlined figures I’d witnessed before but, still trusting the foreboding feeling in my gut, remained vigilant in my escape. Turning the opposite way of the blockade, I stayed to the middle of the street and out of the light cast on the sidewalks; the fortuitously dark shade of my vehicle took care of the rest.
I kept to the side streets as much as I could until I got to the edge of the city. At that point, my speed matched my urgency and I raced to meet Julia – the quicker I could get to her, the quicker we would be safe. Thankfully, she had followed my directions to the letter and I found her silver sedan parked to the side of the road, lights and engine off. I pulled up directly beside the vehicle; the road was empty except for a family of ducks making the perilous journey across some distance ahead. I leaned across the dash to get the door – Julia was there the instant it swung open. I could smell the faint odor of bacon and sausage cooking but the sky was still dark enough to mask the final leg of our flight.
With my missing brother’s wife in the passenger seat and only slightly more than an hour removed from my downtown apartment, we headed even farther to the west and north, directed by the mysterious voice’s instructions. I wondered what it was we were running from. Why was this happening? What was happening? In that moment, I had the distinct feeling that things would be very different from then on. I couldn’t have been more right.
From where we’d met, the drive didn’t take long but the endless stretch of country road and nervous silence, of which we were both guilty, multiplied the minutes. We had questions – who wouldn’t? But we both also knew that we couldn’t hope to find any answers until we reached our destination. So, we quietly agonized, stiff in our seats, eyes trained forward, focused on our goal. When we had reached the end of our journey, though, we weren’t sure exactly what to do. The place was unmistakable, though not unlike many of the surrounding homesteads. A metal fence lined the front of the property and opened only for the gravel drive leading off of the main road. Set about a hundred yards back in the middle of a large field and against a backdrop of woods was the farmhouse. A large front porch led up the to a battered blue screen door and effectively framed the three stories that rose from its sturdy foundation. The chipped white paint told a story of perseverance – this building had obviously stood for some time and would stand for some time longer.
We pulled into the drive. As we approached the house I could feel the tension built up over the journey here begin to subside. The place looked almost abandoned; there were no vehicles in front and the only signs of life we could see were the half-dozen goats and couple cows grazing in the field to our left. I pulled off the thin gravel path and brought the car to a stop. As I turned the key back, silence enveloped us – a silence so complete that neither of us dared breathe. For an instant, we sat there, still. I started to move for the door handle and instantly felt Julia’s hand on my arm.
“Wait,” she said.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
I grabbed the handle and opened the door. “I don’t know but we don’t really have a choice, do we?” I offered, stepping out of the car. She followed.
We closed our doors and came together directly in front of the hood. Walking side-by-side we covered the last twenty-five feet or so to the stairs. After pausing for a moment, I stepped up, feeling out each step as if they might betray my presence. Julia followed and soon we were at the threshold, the screen door the only thing between us and the unlit interior. I leaned forward and peered through the mesh, searching for any sign of activity. I didn’t see or hear anything that satisfied our uneasiness until I began to slowly reach for the doorknob. As I clutched it, I heard a familiar voice echo from the recesses inside.
“Come in. There is nothing to fear – you’re safe.”
I opened the door and stepped inside; Julia slipped in after me, just as the screen crashed shut behind us.