The first 911 call was placed at eight o’clock, just after dark. Unfortunately, by then, most of Silverwood’s first responders and law enforcement officers had either succumbed to the madness induced by the pollen or were fighting for their lives—so calls to the emergency switchboard went unanswered.
At 8:52 p.m., Marty Gabriele, who had lived in Silverwood his entire life, decided to head for the sheriff’s department to find out what was going on. Marty had retired from the sawmill four years ago. Two weeks later, he’d been diagnosed with emphysema. The doctor had told him his life expectancy was five years, so Marty was prepared to die—but not the way he was seeing his neighbors and the other townspeople die.
He climbed into his battered Ford truck and drove to the sheriff’s station in a state of shock, eyes wide at the carnage and violence all around him. With each horrified gasp, he breathed deeper from the oxygen mask he wore constantly. Unbeknownst to Marty, it was the mask that nullified the SAP’s siren call.
Marty arrived at the station only to find it in flames. He approached the entrance, cringing at the heat and smoke roiling from the building. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he glimpsed the dispatcher slumped over the switchboard at the front desk. Her skin blackened and curled and sizzled as he watched. Bizarrely, it reminded him of the chicken barbecue fundraisers Silverwood’s VFW chapter hosted each summer.
He was still thinking about that when his grand-niece, twelve-year-old Michelle Gabriele, wandered by with her father’s Ruger .22 pistol, which she’d taken after killing the rest of her family. Grinning, Michelle called out a cheerful greeting to her grand-uncle. Then she shot at his oxygen tank. The girl wasn’t a trained marksman, so it took four shots. The first three hit Marty, but he was still alive when the fourth bullet punctured the tank. It didn’t explode or burst into flame, but the hot shrapnel burrowed into his thigh, causing Marty to run and stumble into the fire. Flames crawled up his legs and then the rest of him. The pain was unlike anything he’d ever felt—stronger than love, hate, or any other emotion. Unaware that he was screaming, Marty watched in fascination as his skin sloughed away in dribbling, waxen globs. In his final seconds, bleeding out and burning, Marty’s thoughts returned to the chicken barbecue. He swore he could smell it cooking, and his mouth watered as he died.
At 9:46 p.m., Theresa de Guzman, who had been taking a bubble bath when the violence started, managed to place a panicked call to her sister, Maria, in San Francisco. She had time to explain that a mob of people had broken into the house, had killed the cat, and were heading toward the closet she was now hiding in, naked and still wet from the bathtub. Her sister remained on the line, listening, as they found her. She heard screaming, and a struggle, and then unidentifiable sounds that were somehow worse.
At 9:50 p.m., Maria de Guzman contacted emergency services in San Francisco. They advised her to contact the authorities in Silverwood. When she tried, she got a recorded message saying her call could not be completed as dialed. Frustrated and panicked, she called her local authorities again, demanding action.
The slow wheels of bureaucracy started rolling at 10:00 p.m., and the first state police vehicles didn’t begin the long drive up the winding mountain road toward Silverwood until well after midnight.
By then it was too late.
The SAP held sway over all.
Lydia sneezed again as she reached for the door handle, but then paused. Had she heard a noise behind her? She cast a glance over her shoulder. Nothing moved in the shadowy trees. The dead man (although he wasn’t really a man . . . he was more of a lumpy wet smear) was still lying on the ground. Nothing seemed amiss—well . . . no more so than it already was.
“That bear is dead,” she reminded herself. “You saw it burn up. Get on with it.”
Her rear felt damp as water leaked from the plastic bottle in her back pocket. She was anxious to pour it over the Blackbox and be done with this. Ignoring the wetness, she focused on the entrance. As she forced open the door, it occurred to her that something was amiss, after all. When she’d stepped over his body, the dead man, or what was left of him, had been lying on his back.
Now he was on his side.
Guttural, gurgling laughter bubbled behind her as she started to turn again. Leaves rustled. She caught a glimpse of movement over her shoulder, and she whirled, screaming as the mangled corpse tottered upright and stumbled toward her. Now that it was standing, the horrific damage the body had suffered was more visible—its scalp and the top of its skull had been sheared off. A broken stick jutted from one eye socket. One of its...