Sep 28 2011 6:00pm
Presenting an excerpt from Vacation, a new novel from Matthew Costello. In the near future after a global crisis causes crops to fail and species to disappear... something even more deadly happens. Groups of humans around the world suddenly become predators, feeding off their own kind. These “Can Heads” grow to such a threat that fences, gated compounds, and SWAT-style police protection become absolutely necessary in order to live.
After one Can Head attack leaves NYPD cop Jack Murphy wounded, Jack takes his wife and kids on a much-needed vacation. Far up north, to a camp where families can still swim and take boats out on a lake, and pretend that the world isn’t going to hell. But the Can Heads are never far away, and nothing is quite what it seems in Paterville....
Christie turned to him.
“What is it?”
It took only seconds for Jack to recognize the debris on the road: a large, curled piece of black tire tread. He slid over into the left lane.
He looked at the chewed-up tire as he drove by.
“Someone blew a tire.”
Nobody said anything for a minute.
“Someone blew a tire?” Christie said. “You make it sound like it’s an everyday occurrence.”
Jack looked into the backseat to make sure the kids were otherwise engaged.
Which they were.
“Tires blow. Happens.”
“Used to happen. I did the paperwork for this trip. You’re not even allowed on this highway unless you have those new reinforced treads.
Want to tell me how you blow one of those?”
Jack looked down at the gas gauge, hoping for a distraction, and said, “Going to need a stop soon. Gas is getting low. There’s a rest stop in about ten more miles.”
Christie leaned close and at the same time lowered her voice.
“You didn’t answer me.”
He looked at her.
“Okay. There are reinforced tires, and some . . . not so reinforced. We see them in Red Hook. Trucks that have bought them as retreads.
They’re listed with all the stats that supposedly make them safe. But now and then. . . something happens.”
“On its own or with a little help?”
“So, which do you think this was?”
Jack laughed. “What do I look like— a cop?”
That made Christie laugh.
“Just relax, Christie. Some trucker with inferior tires. He throws on a spare and he’s out of here. Leaving that back chunk for us to dodge.”
A sign flew by.
NEXT REST STOP 7 MILES
Then the symbol for gas, and a knife and fork for food.
“Going to stop up here. Fill up before we hit the Northway.” Jack wondered if she was still thinking about the tire. Everything had gone so smoothly, almost as if they were some family from the twentieth century enjoying a simple summer trip up north.
It’s true enough, Jack thought. There were cheap “certified” reinforced tires, with the “approved” additional steel and nylon belts.
Normally, even the reinforced tires didn’t just blow.
And a trucker doing a long haul on this road . . . why, that would be the last thing he’d want.
Jack took a breath.
He could worry. Or he could let it go. Th ings happen. And if he didn’t get out of his paranoid state of mind—
—if it could even be called paranoia—
—it wouldn’t be much of a vacation.
The kids didn’t deserve that.
REST STOP AHEAD.
Jack pulled up to a row of gas pumps. He stopped the car but left the engine running.
“Aren’t you going to get some gas?” Christie asked.
“Can we get some stuff?” Simon said, eyeing the garish sign that announced a QuikMart inside.
“Hold on,” Jack said.
Jack looked at his hands locked on the steering wheel. What am I doing? he wondered. Looking around for what?
No other cars here getting gas. That wasn’t so strange; after all, the highway had been pretty deserted.
And in the parking areas . . .
A sixteen-wheeler way in the back, maybe the driver catching some Z’s. Two cars parked on the side, the patrons probably inside the QuikMart. Maybe hitting the restrooms.
“Jack? What is it?”
He killed the ignition.
He smiled. “Nothing.” He pulled the key out and turned toward Christie and the kids. “Look, I’m going to lock the doors when I get out, okay?”
“Jack, do you really—”
Simon turned again to the QuikMart. “You mean, we can’t go in there, Dad? Why not? Looks like—”
Kate leaned close to her brother. “ ’Cause there are Can Heads inside and they’ll eat you right up!”
“Kate—” Christie said.
Jack popped open his door. “Locked. Windows up tight. Got it?”
Steady, Jack told himself.
What the hell kind of vacation would this be if he drove his family crazy? He held the nozzle tight in the tank opening as it guzzled the ever-more-expensive fuel. Amazing, that with fewer people going anywhere, still the OPEC nations could tighten supply and make the once prosperous nations of the West pay and pay.
Just as they would squeeze every last drop of oil out of the deserts, so they would squeeze every devalued dollar and pound and yen from the countries that still desperately depended on their oil.
And while the gas chugged into the tank, Jack kept looking at the rest stop station.
He saw someone sitting at the checkout counter.
But no customers came by to pay for what ever pretend-food items the place sold.
No movement at all.
And the cars remained there.
Funny, he thought. Shouldn’t someone have come out by now?
The gas stopped. Jack looked down at the tank opening and squeezed in a few more bursts. Should be enough to get us the rest of the way, he thought. No more stops.
He pulled out the nozzle and placed it back in the tank. He heard
Christie’s window whirr as she lowered it.
“Jack, Simon’s gotta pee.”
“He always has to pee,” Kate said.
The window open, Jack looked around quickly. The whole place was like a still life.
“Okay. Right. You sure he doesn’t just want to see what goodies they have for sale?”
“I got to go, Dad.”
“All right, all right. Listen, I’ll go check out the restrooms. I’ll give you a wave and then everyone”— he leaned down so he could see
Kate—“and I do mean everyone can come in. This will be our only stop before the Paterville Camp. So, make use of it.”
Then back to Christie.
“But not until I give you a wave.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. We’ll wait for the official wave.” Christie said.
Jack grinned at her. She had every right to be pissed at him, scaring the kids; instead, she cut the atmosphere with humor.
“Okay. I’m off to take a look.”
Jack made a signal with his finger— rolling his finger to indicate that the window should be rolled up.
When Christie had done that, he turned and walked to the QuikMart.
Jack pushed the door open.
Couple of cars outside. Got to be some people in here, he thought.
But the aisles were absolutely empty.
Can’t all be in the john.
He saw someone manning the cubicle where people could pay for their sodas, the gas, some smokes.
The man had his head down, as if staring at a newspaper.
Jack spotted the way to the restrooms to the right, a corridor with the universal male/female sign hanging above it.
Jack started walking down an aisle of snacks.
What the hell do they make this stuff out of?
Salt was still plentiful. There were new sweeteners that replaced the suddenly, improbably rare high fructose corn syrup. The packages all in screaming colors, as if promising insanely good taste.
As Jack moved down the aisle, he kept looking at the cashier. Not even a look up.
Not like the place was exactly swarming with customers. Not like the guy didn’t hear Jack, see Jack.
Once again, he reminded himself to maybe— just maybe— stop being a cop. He was just here to scope out the restrooms for the kids. No need to engage the guy.
No need to ask him how things have been.
Quiet on the highway?
Business kinda slow these days?
These weeks . . . months . . . years . . .
Feet away. Still, the guy didn’t look up.
“Hey. Um, the bathrooms. I mean, do I—” Jack pointed to the corridor to the right “—need a key or something?”
And that’s when a different tumbler clicked in Jack’s brain.
Guy didn’t move. Didn’t fucking move.
Jack didn’t bother with another greeting.
In a reflex, he bent over, his hand sliding down to unholster the revolver strapped to his left ankle.
No more words as Jack moved around to get a good side view of the cashier so engrossed in his daily news. So engrossed that he couldn’t move his head from the paper. Or flip to a new page.
Until Jack got a good side view of the grizzly-bearded man sitting on a stool. Perched on it.
More like placed on it.
Because now Jack could see that a good portion of the man’s lower body had been chewed down to the bone. A pool of blood, dry and crusty, gathered below the man.
No two-way radio with police backup waiting, this time.
Jack was on his own.
He looked right. No movement. But he could see an open door, leading to a back area— storerooms, maybe— behind the counter.
Jack took a few steps in that direction.
An open door in the back, only a quarter-way open, but enough so that he could see the outside. The brightness of the day, the sun, and even— beyond the tufts of grass overdue for a mow— the fence that girded the rest stop. The tall electric fence topped with curlicues of razor ribbon.
Except he could see that the fence had been cut, a triangle of wire pulled back.
So much for the electricity.
He didn’t give that view another look. Not when he imagined that what ever came through that hole could still be here.
He spun around, his eyes darting, looking at the silent aisles, over to the restrooms, and then— as if catching on to the game way too late— to the tinted glass windows facing outside.
“Shit,” he said, moving quickly now.
Something smacked into him from the side, sending him flying against a rack of newspapers and magazines. He tumbled awkwardly, falling, and despite his grip— so tight— a metal spoke of the rack jabbed his hand, forcing his fingers to loosen.
His gun slipped away as he fell backward.
Unarmed, as something— and he knew, of course, what it was— jumped on top of him.
He wished time slowed, the way they said it did.
But after so many raids, so many times fighting Can Heads, he knew that was all a bunch of bullshit.
“Mom, I really have to go!”
“You really want to buy some of that junk they sell,” Kate said.
“I do not. I—”
“Simon, Kate— can you guys just cool it a minute? Dad will be right back. And we can go in.” Christie turned to the QuikMart. She had seen Jack in there a minute ago, but now he wasn’t there. Maybe checking out the restrooms? “He’ll be right back. Just . . .”
Come on. What are you doing in there?
Jack felt the body on him, then smelled the breath, the mouth close to his head. Classic Can Head strategy. Go for the neck. Like any feral creature, any trained predator.
Immobilize your prey. Bite down.
The attack in Red Hook all over again.
Jack’s head turned to the side, meshed in the wire newspaper rack.
He could see his gun, so close, but it lay feet away, an impossible distance with this thing on him.
Normal human-body vulnerabilities supposedly didn’t apply to them. Too amped up on what ever drove them to feed off their own kind, it was hard to cause any distracting pain when they were attacking.
Hard. But maybe not impossible.
Jack shot his right hand up to grab under the chin of the Can Head trying to chomp its way up to his neck.
That served to pin the thing’s jaw back a bit, and— for the moment— keep the teeth closed.
Now Jack risked a quick glance to his left.
Has to be something.
The Can Head wriggled its head violently left and right to free itself from Jack’s jaw-closing grasp.
A few more twists and it would be free.
Jack’s left hand reached out and began to search the area around his pinned body.
He only felt more metal spokes of the rack— but then one piece jiggled a bit. Loose. A bit of the metal frame sprung loose.
Maybe it could be detached.
Jack closed his left hand on it even as he kept his other hand locked on the creature’s head, squeezing so tight that his fingers dug into the skin of the Can Head’s throat.
He yanked on the metal strut. It moved back and forth, but it still wouldn’t come free.
Then, again, now making the piece wriggle, jerk up and down fast until—
It came off.
Jack felt a surge of hope. Now he let the other thoughts in— what might be happening outside. With his family. His kids.
He didn’t let himself imagine other possibilities. Th at there might be more Can Heads in here. Th at this one was only the fi rst. Th at the trap was indeed hopeless.
Hand tight on the metal strut, he looked at the Can Head, now rearing back to free itself of Jack’s grip.
Jack letting that happen.
’Cause then it would come nice and close.
And as the Can Head reared back, it opened its foul hole of a mouth and dived forward. Jack was ready.
Though the thing’s head moved fast, Jack’s left hand seemed to match its speed, and his eyes were on its eyes, those filmy dull sockets, as he jammed the metal strut straight into one eye. As hard and as deep as he could.
At first, it didn’t seem to make any difference.
The Can Head kept coming on its downward, open-mouthed arc.
But when that plunge was completed, the Can Head turned lifeless, falling onto Jack.
He quickly twisted to dump the body off, then pried himself out of the mesh of struts that had helped pin him.
He dived for his gun, grabbing it like it was life itself.
Kneeling then, turning, scanning the room for more of them.
No more here.
Everything peaceful by the car. Christie, the kids, oblivious.
Christie looked back to the QuikMart.
Where is he? Just supposed to be checking it out.
At least the kids had stopped complaining about not getting out.
Then she saw Jack. Walking slowly toward the car.
Too slowly, too apparently casual, she immediately thought.
Then . . .
As Jack got closer he felt Christie’s eyes on him. She couldn’t have seen anything, all buttoned up in the locked car.
But her eyes . . .
No question, she thought something had happened.
When Jack got to the car, Christie opened the window.
“Bathrooms okay, Officer?”
He forced a smile. He stuck his head in the car window.
“You guys all right?”
Simon nodded. “I still have to go!”
Kate spoke. “We’re fi ne, Dad.”
Then, to Christie. “Can I have a word?”
That seemed to spur Simon. “Can’t we go in, Dad?”
Jack smiled at Simon. “Your mom and I . . . we have to talk, okay? Can you hang a bit?”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Sure, we’ll hang.”
Christie walked a few steps away from the car.
“What happened?” she sad.
Jack looked away. A breath. “Ran into one of them in there. Broke through the so-called electric fence somehow.”
She moved so her eyes were locked on his. “You okay?”
“Yeah. No problem. One less Can Head.”
The joke fell flat.
Funny, kids and peeing. Used to be no big fucking deal.
Christie spoke: “So how’d it get in?”
“How the hell do they always get in? Look— I think this . . . vacation is a bad idea. We should just—” He stood there, her eyes locked on his.
She had wanted this so badly. “We should go home now.”
Christie didn’t take her eyes off him. And she didn’t say anything.
Until she glanced at the car. A quick look, but one meant to tell
Jack tilted his head. A habit of his when he didn’t grasp some edict about life in the house. Like rinsing dishes before they went in the dishwasher.
He watched Christie take a breath.
“I don’t want to go back. And . . . I don’t want them to go back.
You said . . . you’re okay.”
Jack’s head tilt turned into a full shake now.
“Right. Sure. But this place is not safe. This goddamn highway.”
He spoke quietly, aware that the kids had a window open.
“And I didn’t know that before? There’s still some TV, Jack. Where do we go that’s safe? Can you tell me where the hell that is?”
He had no answer.
She turned away from him and looked at the sky. The wispy morning clouds had all burned off. The sky a clear robin’s egg blue now. A few puff y clouds. Beautiful, if you took the time to look up.
Then back to Jack.
“That’s the world we live in.” She gestured at the deserted rest stop. “This is the world we live in.”
“Which is why we live in a safe complex that—”
“Safe complex? More gates. Bigger fences. People like you protecting us. Trying to stop them, kill them. Only difference between here and there, Jack, is that maybe we might have better fences. They work— for now. Same world, same fears.”
“And what’s down there? Down the road? You think the camp will be safe?”
“Could be the same as anywhere else. And this, here . . . we ended up here on the wrong day.”
“You can say that again.”
“It could have happened at home.”
Jack shook his head but the core truth of what she was saying stuck. This was the world.
And the unanswered question.
Is anywhere safe?
“The kids, you . . . will be safer back home. Mark it off as an adventure.”
Christie forced a derisive laugh.
“An adventure? We just go back home? And what— we live behind our fence? Sealed in our house, terrified. Is that our life?”
“We don’t have to—”
“And the kids? Kate will be an adult before you even know it. Will your fences go with her? Your guns? You want her to huddle in some goddamned—”
For the first time, her voice raised.
Jack realized this must have been simmering for a long time.
“—complex? Hiding. Scared.”
“There are things to be scared of.”
Only now did she stop. Was she close to tears? Was this about fear, but more than just fear of the Can Heads?
Fear of life transformed forever. And would the silences between them only grow?
She pushed stray hairs off her forehead. With the morning haze gone, a cool breeze blew off the highway.
Coming from the north.
“Yes. There are things to be scared of. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
And I’m scared. For me. For them. You, too.”
He shook his head at what Christie was saying. Maybe if she had seen how close the attack had been . . .
Would she still think that they should continue with this trip?
This goddamn vacation . . .
She didn’t move her eyes from his.
One idea became even more clear to him: what Christie feared for them all— about their life— was as great as her fear of the Can Heads.
“So, we go on?” he said.
Does she know what that might mean? Jack thought.
Could be, he thought . . . no other incidents ahead. The road north safe and secure. The camp the safest place on earth.
Or maybe not.
Either way, he saw that Christie felt strong enough that she would brave the unknown.
It was that important.
“Okay. We’ll go on.” He laughed. “Have to find someplace up the road for them to pee. They don’t go in there.”
“An adventure, you said, right?”
Jack didn’t say he agreed with Christie. Because he didn’t. But he understood.
Now he reached out and took her hand.
“Let’s go, then. Simon’s gotta pee.”
Together they walked back to the car.
For more in the Vacation universe, read Matthew Costello’s original prequel story on Tor.com: “Day One”
Vacation copyright © 2011 Matthew Costello