THOMAS SANG CRASHED HEADLONG into a garbage can and cried out in pain as he hit the ground amid the flying trash. He felt a twinge of pain in his right knee, but rolled to his side and jumped up anyway—somehow managing to hold onto his briefcase. He cast a quick look over his shoulder before fleeing deeper down the trash-filled alley. A distant shout pierced the unnatural silence of the afternoon.
“There! Down that alley!”
Fear coursed through Thomas’ veins and made his legs feel like rubber. He had to keep moving, keep running. He tripped over a 2×4 laying in the small clear path amid piles of uncollected garbage bags. His arms swung out for balance and the briefcase hit something. It was just enough force to spring the locks on the leather case, which dutifully popped open and sent a shower documents flying through the air.
The noise from the mob behind him grew louder. Thomas wouldn’t have been surprised if they had torches and pitchforks. As he regained his balance and turned around, he could see shadows out in the street. The mob was getting closer.
“The hell with this.” He let the briefcase fall into the trash at his feet. Thomas sprinted straight down the throat of the alley, hoping to cut across the block and emerge on the next side street. He honestly had no idea where the alley would let him out—as long as it was away from the mob of insane locals. Everything hinged on him escaping.
The stench of the alley was nearly overpowering, but the fear that propelled him forward still had the upper hand. As he raced to the far end of the alley and came closer to the next street, he saw an all-too-familiar sign plastered haphazardly to the brick side of a building in the distance:
WEAR YOUR MASK—
IT’S THE LAW!
Thomas frowned. He would have liked nothing better than to put on a flu mask—if nothing else, it would help with the awful smells assaulting his nose.
A shout behind him provided the unnecessary reminder that he needed to keep moving. He barreled into the sunlight and veered left on instinct. To the right was south—that would take him closer to the center of town. That would mean closer to the repair shop where his rental car languished untouched, but it would also take him closer to the police station—and that was the last place he wanted to be at the moment.
He squinted in the sudden light and found his stride on the eerily-deserted street. Now all the forced exercise sessions his company insisted on for its employees were finally showing a tangible benefit. He appreciated the feeling of his legs fully stretching in a ground-eating stride. He tore at his shirt, ripping at the buttons in order to pull the restrictive fabric free of his pants.
The pounding of his loafers on the sidewalk and the pain in his shins brought home the fact that he was not in his running shoes. He mentally shrugged and ignored the blisters beginning to form on his heels. A glance over his shoulder as he neared an intersection was all the motivation he needed. A wiry-looking teenager scrambled out of the alley and raised a skinny arm in the sun.
“There he is!”
A single car slowly approached the blinking red light at the intersection. Thomas veered towards it on instinct.
“Help!” he screamed, waving his arms. “Help me, please!”
The driver, a woman wearing a white mask over her mouth and nose, paused to look at him. That was a good sign. He tried to smile as he ran towards her car, hands out in a supplicant’s pose. Then he noticed her eyes shift to focus on the mob as it appeared out of the alley behind him. He saw her eyes widen, then the car’s engine roared and the tires squealed as the car bolted through the intersection.
“No!” Thomas screamed in frustration. He turned left and raced down the street, trying to put as many corners between him and his pursuers as possible.
Not like that matters, he told himself.. They’re locals, remember? They know this town better than you ever will. Just keep running…gotta find a good place to hide…
He reached another intersection going full speed and turned right. As he vanished around the corner of an antique shop, he stole a quick glance back and saw the teenager—pulling up his baggy pants as he ran—and two men approach the intersection. Thomas was pulling ahead of them—that was the first good news he’d had all day.
Just a little further, he thought as raced into the shade of the buildings along yet another deserted street. Maybe I can lose them around here… He just had to find a place where he could hide for a second and catch his breath. Maybe find a little water.
Thomas ran past a boarded-up barber shop and a bicycle shop with a hastily made, large plywood sign across its door that read “CLOSED because of Flu” written in spray paint. He noticed a beauty parlor across the street that was dark, but the front door stood ajar. Up ahead, he saw a sign next to the sidewalk that lifted his spirits. St. Stephen’s Catholic Church.
Hoping that the people chasing him would assume he’d gone into the beauty parlor, Thomas made for the church and opened the outer door and stepped in to the vestibule. He threw his back against the near wall and tried to stop his panting as he sucked down air in great gulps. The cool darkness helped calm his nerves but he couldn’t help but peer out the closest window to watch the street. His heart was racing, sweat trickled down his back, and the adrenaline coursing through his body urged him to keep moving. Through sheer force of will, he held off the fear and compelled himself to wait and watch for just a few more seconds.
“Over there!” the teenager’s voice called out. The sound echoed off the buildings across the street.
“C’mon, we got ‘im now!” shouted one of the adults. Thomas winced as he watched the man in a baseball hat wave encouragement on to others still out of sight.
Thomas watched through the window as the teenager and the man in the baseball cap ran into the beauty parlor. Shouts and more noise down the street announced the imminent arrival of the main body of the mob. Thomas frowned and panic seized his heart.
What if the inner door’s locked? I’ll be trapped… He hadn’t bothered to check yet. A few steps brought him before the massive inner doors to the church.
He glanced down at the antique bronze handle guarding the entrance to the sanctuary and swallowed. He slowly reached out. Please, please be unlocked. I have to have something go my way…
He pushed open the heavy wooden door and closed his eyes in relief as he felt the cool air whoosh past his face. He released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and slipped inside the empty, shadow-filled nave of the church. He quickly scanned the orderly rows of pews stretching before him toward the altar. Toward the front of the church, he saw four or five people with their heads bowed in prayer. No one paid him any attention.
At last, the tension that knotted his stomach eased and he felt his shoulders loosen just a bit as he leaned back against the door. He closed his eyes and sighed, somewhat surprised at the shuddering sound of his own breath.
Thank you, Jesus. Thankyouthankyouthankyou—
A hand on his right shoulder made him jump. He turned, shaking loose the offending touch. He was trapped for sure now. The time for running was over. He raised his fists, ready to defend himself.
“My son, there’s no need to fear. This is the House of the Lord,” said an old priest in that universal quiet tone reserved for libraries and churches. He stepped back with his hands up.
Thomas relaxed and swallowed, trying to force moisture into his dry throat. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried once more to slow his heart rate. “Father,” he said and winced at his raspy voice. He coughed slightly and tried again. “Father, is there another way out of here?”
The priest tilted his head. “Why do you need to run?” He gestured at the scattered handful of parishioners in the candlelit distance, put on a grandfatherly smile, and said: “All are welcome here—”
“They’re after me—”
A muffled shout from outside caused Thomas to look toward the door in panic. “Please, Father,” he hissed as he heard the outer doors open. “Where’s the back door!?”
The heavy inner door opened, throwing light into the church, momentarily blinding Thomas. As candles flickered in the sudden draft, his mind screamed: Run! He backpedaled and stumbled further into the dark, cavernous interior of the church.
“There he is!” a voice shouted from the light. “Get ‘im Dad!”
Thomas found himself next to a smooth wooden pew. He cast about for a door—a place to run to—any way to escape from the relentless crowd that rushed over the deep blue carpet through the open doorway. It looked like a wave of people surging forward to wash him away.
Suddenly the priest stepped before Thomas like a towering cliff at the edge of the ocean. His hands were on his hips—gone was the grandfatherly demeanor. Instead, the stern disciplinarian of Rome faced the locals. “What is the meaning of this?” he thundered, as his stentorian voice shattered the tranquility of the church.
The rowdy crowd stopped and hushed to an uneasy silence as if they had run into a brick wall. The priest stared them all down, completely unafraid. Thomas felt hope glimmer in his chest. His eyes sought a back door again while the crowd was occupied.
The man wearing a dirty baseball hat and holding a bat stumbled forward like a he had been shoved. Thomas noted he wore a flu mask like most of the others in the crowd.
“Uh,” he said with a look over his shoulder. He turned back to the priest: “Father, we mean no disrespect to the Church—” His voice was slightly muffled behind the mask. Several of the others nodded solemnly. “But…y’see that man there behind you is in a lot of trouble and—”
“Oh, is he, now?” asked the priest, his voice clear and strong. Thomas noticed for the first time the old priest wore no mask.
The reluctant spokesman turned and looked to the crowd for support. He received a handful of nods and gestures of encouragement. He cleared his throat loudly and color crept up his thick neck. “Yes, sir—er, Father. He is.” The bat pointed towards Thomas. “He’s a North Korean spy and he’s brought this damn—uh, I mean this dang mystery flu to Brikston.”
“My wife took sick because of him!” someone called out. “She’s in the hospital right now. Can barely breathe!” Murmurs of agreement rippled through the crowd.
“It’s true! Robbie Johnson was fine yesterday, now he’s at the hospital, too!” More and more voices added to the list of accusations. It sounded like half the town was already sick. Thomas felt a little grim satisfaction.
Serves you right…
The priest turned and looked over his shoulder at Thomas. “Tell, me, when did you come to our fair city, my son?”
“Three…three days ago,” Thomas answered.
The priest nodded and turned back to the mob. “This man doesn’t look very dangerous to me. In fact, he looks exhausted and completely terrified. How exactly did this poor man inflict this contagion on Brikston, if I may ask? He seems healthy enough to me—hard to imagine a healthy person infecting so many people in such a short amount of time.”
“Well…ah…” stammered the spokesman. The bat slowly took aim at the floor.
“It’s not the normal flu…” someone offered.
“That’s right, it moves faster…”
“It’s more like the Blue Flu. From ten years ago…?”
The priest nodded. “I fell sick along with many of the people around here, but with God’s Grace, I recovered.” He paused to cross himself. “But even that foul scourge did not strike people down as fast as you’re claiming with this young man, here,” continued the priest.
“I heard that when—” began the man with the bat.
“Do you mean to tell me that you are persecuting this man because of something you heard?”
Color crept up the man’s neck which made the white mask on his face stand out in stark contrast. “No! It’s just…” He looked around at the people in the church. “Father, we all know what he is.”
“He’s a spy!” someone in the back shouted. There was a slight commotion as people moved—or were shoved—aside. Someone was making their way to the front of the group. Thomas held his breath.
“Clifford Mosby! I haven’t seen you since you were Confirmed,” the priest said in a softer tone.
Thomas could see the man the priest named as Mosby step forward through the sea of masked faces. The man was about average height with short, dark hair and piercing blue eyes. His face was thin, but not pinched or chiseled. He wore jeans and a white t-shirt under a red plaid long-sleeve shirt that hung loose about him. His body looked poised as he moved—not graceful like an athlete, but more refined, more restrained. His movements were brief and efficient. The man looked, in a word, dangerous.
Mosby spoke, showing no fear at all in a voice filled with confidence: “Father, please step aside. No one wants anyone to get hurt.”
“I doubt that young man behind me would believe your Christian sentiments, Clifford,” the priest said. “You have been away from town for a good number of years my son, but just because I am happy to see your face again does not excuse you for being a part of this…gathering.”
Mosby proved bolder than the bat-wielding spokesman. He stepped forward into the no-man’s-land between the crowd and the priest and made to move the stubborn old clergyman out of the way by force.
“I don’t know why you’re acting like this Clifford,” the priest said quickly, putting up his hands to stop Mosby’s advance. “If you dare lay a hand on me, you will place your eternal soul in jeopardy,” warned the priest in a quiet voice. “The man behind me is under my protection now, and as such is untouchable by the likes of you or this illegal posse you’ve gathered.”
“Is that so?” asked Mosby. His words were full of bravado, but the tone of his voice held a note of caution.
“It is,” said the priest firmly. He continued in a louder voice common to preachers and drill sergeants: “The rest of you will be better served if you go home. Am I mistaken, or didn’t Mayor Williams declare large groups of people to be unlawful in these dangerous times? Have you all no fear of catching this terrible flu?”
More than one of the men in the mob glanced around and took a step away from his nearest companion. Someone coughed nervously, causing a ripple of movement. Someone in the back turned and left without a word, followed quickly by two more. Thomas felt hope surge once more in his chest.
The old priest might actually pull this off…
Thomas closed his eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks. The mob was beginning to disperse at the back. Only the ringleaders up front held their ground in defiance of the law and the priest. Thomas figured if he could just wait it out, maybe the others would give up and he could get a breather.
Maybe if the cops show up…
“Told you this was a bad idea, Cliff,” said the man with the bat, his words slightly muffled behind his mask.
“Shut up,” replied Mosby without taking his stern gaze from the priest.
“I think it’s time for you all to leave. Now,” said the priest, his tone softening.
“Not without him,” said Mosby, leaning around the priest to glare at Thomas. The man’s eyes held no mercy. Thomas felt a shiver of fear trickle down his back.
“Yeah, I see you…” said Mosby quietly.
“I didn’t do anything!” pleaded Thomas, as he took a step backwards, inching his way towards the altar at the east end of the church. There had to be another way out of this place. “I work in product development for my company. I was at a conference in Lexington a couple days ago—I wasn’t even supposed to come to this—” he almost said ‘hick town’ but caught himself. “This place.”
“Product development,” said the priest,“doesn’t sound too dangerous to me.”
“That’s a lie!”
“It is not!” shouted Thomas. Anger flared inside him and he began releasing the pent up frustration: “I’m just trying to get home to my wife and kids in Cincinnati! You think I want to be stuck here in this hellhole during this flu outbreak or bio-weapon attack…or whatever the hell they’re calling it?” Thomas took two more steps backward. “You people are insane!”
“You’re a liar and a spy!” shouted Mosby, an accusatory finger pointing at Thomas.
“Damn Korean—” muttered the the man with the bat.
“I’m Filipino you asshole! But no one bothered to stop and ask me that, did they? You just said, ‘Oh, there’s a guy that looks Asian’—”
“Screw it—let’s get him,” said Mosby. The man with the bat moved up next to him and the they advanced as a pair.
The priest raised his arms and blocked them again. “Do not dare attempt to use violence in this church you heathens, or by God’s wrath, you will be sorry!”
The two men paused again, watched by their remaining handful of supporters. Mosby glanced over his shoulder, as if seeking support. The priest jumped on the ringleader’s hesitation.
“You barge into this sanctuary—this House of the Lord—like a pack of Visigoths at the gates of Rome itself, then blaspheme in my presence and threaten harm to a man under my protection—”
Mosby frowned, his face darkening. “Outta the way, Father,” he said through clenched teeth. He shouldered past the priest and reached for Thomas. The old priest stumbled into a pew on Thomas’ left. The onlookers gasped and Thomas used the distraction to run toward the altar.
“Come on, boys,” Mosby called out. “Let’s finish this.”