Nothing was as terrible as the sound of a man crying. It was like the sound of a lost child wailing in a park. It was the whimper of a wounded animal dying in the street. A man crying was an unpracticed and foreign sound that once heard could not be forgotten, even though all you wanted was for it to end. Especially when it came from one of these men. The sheepdogs who were meant to protect the sheep.
Officer Derrick Hart laid on his back in the dark roll call room, his fingers curled around the chain that held a pair of worn dog tags around his neck. He had never served in the military. The two pieces of metal were not to identify him as a soldier but instead were what tied him to his best friend. They were a cheap toy made of thin metal and meant to be snapped free from the chain and be lost days after a child received them for their birthday or a weekend trip to the toy store. The chain on Derrick’s set had snapped on more than one occasion during his teenaged years, but he had the wherewithal to slip the tags down a stronger chain that would stand the test of time. He did the same for Brandon’s matching set.
Derrick admired the drawings of two Viking warriors on one tag. Their tattooed, muscle-bound bodies strapped with heavy axes and broadswords looked nothing like his best friend nor himself, but Derrick had always pretended they did as a kid. Two brothers clasping arms before battle.
The second of the two tags read a quote Derrick had read and repeated with his friend a thousand times. ‘Valhalla waits for no one…’ Of all the times he had read that, today was the first time Derrick’s stomach had dropped as he weighed the meaning of those words. It was today he would see Valhalla.
Today is the day I die.
Dozens of police officers laid around him on the musky carpet and pretended to sleep; pretended not to hear the whimpering in the front of the room. It had been nine days since the outbreak in Miami, and Derrick questioned how many hours he had slept since then.
How much sleep has anyone gotten? How do you sleep when horror movies become a reality?
Sleep wasn’t measured in days and nights for police officers anymore but in clumps of hours here or thirty minutes there, which made these precious minutes of peace all the more important.
The infected were coming. Thousands of them, millions, perhaps. The Army National Guard that was now in charge, refused to give estimates, but everyone knew the infected were running to Birmingham this very moment. They were coming to tear Derrick apart along with all those who remained in the city. The first of them were arriving today.
He twisted the bulky metallic Redband bracelet that had been fastened on his right wrist for days now. His thumb rubbed across the barcode etchings along the side of the bracelet– the government imposed tether that he and all present in this room had agreed to wear for the sake of their loved ones.
Derrick felt the layer of dried sweat and grease coating his skin every time he moved. His auburn hair was the only thing greasier than his skin. He couldn’t say when the last time he’d taken a shower was. The closest thing he had was pouring cold water over his neck from a hose behind the precinct yesterday.
At least I think it was yesterday.
He had stopped noticing his body odor last week and was getting better at not noticing others either. Derrick had an unassuming way about him. At twenty-nine years old, he was of an average height with plain looks and soft features. Few would guess he was a senior member of the Birmingham SWAT team.
The muffled cries that jabbed at the quiet room came from a young man who stood by himself near the whiteboard. The board behind him was covered in old messages from supervisors– ‘OT Mandates,’ ‘found pair of handcuffs in sergeant’s office,’ along with an officer’s hastily scribbled comment, ‘also make sure all of the suspects cocaine is out of their pockets before booking them (Alex!).’ Long gray tables and black wobbly chairs were shoved to the edge of the dim room and stacked on top of each other to make floor space.
Shrouded in the shadow of a stack of chairs taller than him, the young man held his face in the palms of his hands as he cried. Derrick could sense the old-timers beside him growing perturbed with these audible emotions.
Derrick did his best to ignore the messy sobs and focused on the other officers around him. Most tried to sleep but, like Derrick, they were too restless as they rolled about on the thin carpet that felt more like they laid on concrete slabs. Leaving on just their black work pants and black undershirts, officers had stacked their uniform shirts, body armor, and gun belts beside them.
Everyone dealt with the tense moments during downtime differently. Some men mumbled prayers to themselves–barely audible whispers filled with pleas for God’s protection. Others stared at pictures of their loved ones under the glow of their cellphone screens. They twisted the Redband bracelets on their wrists. At some point, every police officer had doubts about signing the suicide contract so their loved ones could escape the city. Even Derrick.
No one talked to one another. He couldn’t blame them. Just like he didn’t blame the young patrol officer for crying. At some point today, every man and woman in this room would allow their tears to consume them in the privacy of a bathroom stall or patrol car. It was inevitable. There was only one thing on everyone's mind, and no one wanted to say it out loud. As if staying silent might keep death at bay.
Derrick took his phone out of his breast pocket hoping to see a green notification from her. A missed call or text message, some sign that Alyssa was alive. That she was safe.
That Alyssa is thinking of me, Derrick thought. He immediately hated himself for thinking it. But alas, the top of the screen showed the same symbol it always did. No signal. The only reason Derrick still charged the damn thing was for the few times it connected to a Wi-Fi signal, he’d receive sporadic data dumps of news updates, text messages, and voicemails that had been suspended in limbo for hours or days. But as ‘America’s Last Stand,’ a term coined by news channels, approached, even the Wi-Fi seemed sluggish.
Instead, Derrick just stared at the photo on his home screen. It was a year-old picture of Alyssa on her tippy toes kissing a blurry-eyed Derrick on the cheek after a long night of drinking. The picture always made him smile, not just because of the moment, but what had occurred just after. His best friend, Brandon, had snapped the picture as they waited for their rideshare from downtown Birmingham back to Derrick’s house. Not two seconds after taking it had Brandon vomited the pitcher of strawberry margarita he had inhaled an hour prior. The mess had covered the front of Brandon’s cowboy boots that his wife had insisted he wear. Karen and Alyssa had spent the rest of the night chastising him for splattering on them, and Derrick couldn’t stop himself from laughing. He was sure he still had a video of Brandon passed out in a bush in the backyard later that night.
Derrick’s smile soured as the sobs of the patrolman grew louder. He was more than background noise at this point. The base in his voice rumbled, making officers who slept stir.
“Please god… Please…” The young officer’s voice broke as he cried his prayer.
“Jesus Christ…” A heavyset officer to Derrick’s right grumbled as he turned on his side. To be honest, Derrick didn’t want to listen to this kid’s tears, either. Deep down, he wanted this boy to man up and give everyone some much needed peace before they died. That was Derrick’s exhaustion talking.
But how else should this patrolman act? The military that now fortified Birmingham with hardened defenses fit for a Russian invasion, gave the Birmingham Police updates on how far the infected swarms were from them. Three days. Two days. One… This rookie officer was tormented by videos of infected civilians tackling Florida police officers in fits of violence. Men and women stripped of their humanity as they growled and screamed like animals. An entire state lost in days.
Now, Birmingham was all that stood in the way of the infection spreading to the rest of the country. And the ETA of the amassing hordes of infected wasn’t days anymore, but hours.
“Ah, for fuck’s sake,” Tommy spat. “Shut the fuck up!” Derrick couldn’t see Tommy in the darkroom but knew his grating, Jersey-accented voice anywhere. It was ironic he was the one silencing another since Tommy had spent his whole career being told to shut his overactive mouth.
“Oh god…” The crying officer’s voice broke. “I don’t want to die…”
“Are you kidding me…” a deep voice groaned from the back of the room.
“Shut up!” another officer echoed as exasperated gripes joined in. Derrick felt a knot in his throat and another forming in his gut. He tried to ignore the heavy and obligatory pull he felt from within when duty called. It wasn’t something Derrick could just turn off, no matter how much he wished he could. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he couldn’t just sit back and listen to this rookie officer being berated.
“I’m sorry, I just– I can’t,” the young man tucked his arms into his chest. His hands covered his face as his cries turned to hysterical sobbing. The kind of crying he probably hadn’t done in twenty years, since he was a little boy tucked in the safety of his mother’s embrace.
“Look you fucking pussy,” Tommy’s voice boomed, again. This time he was up and lumbering toward the front of the room with heavy steps. Tommy was a giant to most. His six foot four, two-hundred and fifty-pound frame only amplified his broad shoulders and gaunt jaw. “I’ll fuckn’ kill you myself if you don’t shut up.” Tommy snatched the smaller officer up by his lapel making the boy’s metal pins on his uniform clang against each other.
Tommy’s voice was erratic and strained– a testament to the amount of stress they were all under after days of sleeplessness and nights of violent rioting. The infection might not have reached Birmingham yet, but the riots, looting, and surge in crime had plagued every major city in the United States for over a week now.
“In fact,” Tommy pointed down to the young man’s duty pistol in his holster, “why don’t you take that gun into the men’s room and fucking eat the muzzle like the rest of the pussy suicides, huh?”
“I-I’m, I just–” the boy stuttered.
Derrick scrambled to his feet, but his aching body didn’t move nearly as fast as he thought it would. His feet were covered in blisters and sores from being on his feet for twenty hours a day for over a week, while his chest and arms were covered in undiscovered bruises from working the riot lines at night.
“Here, I’ll fuckn’ help you pull the trigger,” Tommy spat, reaching for the boy’s weapon. A small figure appeared behind Tommy before Derrick intervened. She was shorter than both of the men. When she came between Tommy and the crying officer, she looked like a child trying to hold back her dad from a fight. Both her hands propped against Tommy’s chest, failing to hold him at bay. That’s why it was to everyone’s surprise when Tommy collapsed to the carpet like a chopped tree.
“I said, back the fuck off!” the woman shouted pointing her finger down at Tommy. Derrick recognized the voice and in the gray hue he was able to see Perry’s familiar face.
Tommy writhed on the carpet. His hands clutched his groin, his knees pinched together like a cartoon character.
“You– bitch!” Tommy fumed through gritted teeth. Like an angry bear, he clamored to his feet marching towards Perry until he saw her Glock 19 half drawn out of the drop holster on her thigh. “Oh, you gonna shoot me now? Do it! Do me the favor, bitch!” Tommy held his arms wide open in a challenge as he stepped closer to her.
The room became icy cold as the two stared each other down. In that hair of a second, the room wasn’t full of police officers, but just a group of people at their wits end. The anarchy that had spread through the country had finally found its way into the police precinct. Derrick broke from his trance long enough to muster as much of a commanding voice as he could despite his exhaustion. “Back off, Tommy!”
Tommy’s eyes jolted over to Derrick, and he drew to a halt barely a yard from Perry. Tommy gave a measured snarl in Derrick’s direction. Then, as if realizing where he was, did a brief survey of the dozens of officers staring at him.
With a final grunt Tommy relented, turning away from Perry and the cowering patrolman “Whatever… fucking cunt.”
Perry’s eyes didn’t leave Tommy until he fell back to his spot on the floor. His hand rubbed his wounded crotch. Her hand seated her Glock back in the holster and she gave a brief nod to Derrick, which he returned. Derrick hadn’t realized Perry was in the room until then. She was one of the few who still had her gear and uniform on, but unlike the patrolmen whose shirts and pants were black, Perry wore a baggy, forest green uniform that matched Derrick’s. She also wore a heavy vest similar to the one Derrick had laid beside him. It was covered with filled magazine pouches across the chest and white lettering across the upper back panel that read, ‘SWAT.’
“I’m sorry– I just, I need–” the young patrolman stuttered. His face was a mess of tears, snot, and shock from what had just happened.
“It’s okay… it’s okay… what’s your name?” Officer Perry asked.
“Miles,” he answered, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“Miles, my name is Perry,” she said.
The barrel-chested patrolman beside Derrick rolled to his side with a labored sigh, “would you get that coward out of–”
Before Derrick could even speak Perry snapped at him, “Shut up you fat fuck and go back to sleep.”
The man growled something to himself but did as he was told.
Perry turned back to Miles and pulled him down into an embrace, petting his hair as his mother might have. “It’ll be alright, take a deep breath. In and out, come on.”
The officer followed her instructions through wet sniffles. After a moment she pulled away but held Miles’ shoulders as she looked at him.
“Listen Miles. I need you to suck it the fuck up, okay?” she said, pulling his six-foot frame down to her shorter self. “You’re a fuckin’ police officer. You’re built for this shit, otherwise, you wouldn’t have that badge on your chest. The rules are the same out there. Bad guys chase civilians, and we chase bad guys, okay? There’s people out there who aren’t as strong as you, who are counting on you right now. And more importantly, everyone in this room is counting on you, and I’m one of them. It’s easy to be a cop when nothing bad is happening, but it’s what you do now that matters most, okay?”
Miles nodded, taking a deep breath. He wiped his eyes on the back of his forearm.
“Okay. Now go outside, get some water on your face, and come back. Get some rest, alright?” Perry gave him a nod. Miles left the room quickly with his head tucked low. Derrick saw a brief glare of Miles’ wedding band catching the light as he passed.
It's falling apart. Everything is about to fall apart.
Derrick laid back down beside his gear and rubbed his greasy forehead. If the police were barely holding it together, the military couldn’t be far behind.
And the virus isn’t even in Birmingham, yet.
Derrick rolled to his side and tried to quiet his mind. With a deep breath, he allowed his body to release the tension and begin his fast descent into sleep. His fingers touched the rifle that laid beside him as the world faded into darkness as his muscles unclenched for the first time in days.
Before the warm embrace of sleep could envelop him, the hallway door smacked open against the wall, rattling the room to life. The cut of the bright setting sunlight from the summer day shone painfully across their eyes. The open door let the roar of thumping helicopter rotary blades fill the room.
“It’s time. Everybody up!” Captain Elwood ordered. “They’re here.”