"Government sources say that a known jihadist may have already entered California with a so-called radioactive 'dirty bomb.' Tom Ridge, National Director of Homeland Security, has raised the terror threat level to its highest status of red, and has ordered troops mobilized locally in an effort to protect the Homeland."

-AP News Wire; September 10th, 2008; 9 AM PST.


"Hey hey little wifey."

"Hey hey hubby."

"Wifey!" Chaz hollers, goosing Hazel in the ribs. She jumps back with a little shriek but doesn't take her thin brown arms from around his neck. The light at Flamingo finally turns green and they make a left off the strip, headed back for the interstate. It's a hot, clear Vegas morning. The heavy flapjacks from the Luxor buffet are still riding high up Chaz's windpipe, but it doesn't bother him. They'll settle down on the long drive ahead.

"So where do you wanna go?" Hazel asks.

"I don't know. I think we should just go out into the desert, right? See what happens from there."

"Maybe we should turn on the radio."

"Totally," Chaz agrees, hitting the red LED face with a couple of nimble fingers. Static comes blasting in through the speakers. "Yo, roll up your window?"

Hazel complies. There are bits of punk-rock fading in and out of the static.

"Here," Chaz hits AM and SCAN. A woman's voice fills the car.

"...still developing in Los Angeles, according to the Homeland Security spokesman. For the time being, the entire country remains on the highest security alert. With Osama Bin Laden threatening an even greater terrorist attack ahead of this year's elections, we'll all be on our toes for some time here. Now here's Chick with the Pepsi traffic report."

Chuck's voice comes on accompanied by brief, intense bulletin-music and the canned sound of beating helicopter blades.

"Thanks Judy," Chuck monotones, "now a check of traffic on the nines, and we've got a heck of a pile-up on the fifteen north and south of the Vegas Valley, it looks like state troopers are turning people back to the city in both directions, due to what's being described right now as a homeland security issue. We'll be monitoring this story as it develops and...we'll bring you all you need to know, right here on...News 960."

Music wells up in the car, orchestral, emotional, hallmark-movie music. "Are you paying too much for life insurance?" a friendly, elderly-sounding man asks.


"Let's go back," Hazel implores, "we can get a room in town and wait it out."

"Fu-uck," Chaz smacks the steering wheel, looking for an offramp. "What the hell is going on, you think?"

Chaz's phone starts playing "What is Love," bumping and grinding gaily in his pocket. He pulls it out.

"Hey mom!" he says, "Guess what!"


"Me and Hazel got married!"

"You -- you did?" Deborah sounds pretty taken aback. "That's great honey. Where are you, did you go to Las Vegas?"

"Yeah, we're in Vegas now. We were trying to leave but the roads are all blocked off both ways."
"Alright honey, stay there. I was worried about you."
"Really? Why?" Chaz isn't used to being checked up on.

"Because! Don't you know what's going on?"

"No, what's up?"

"I was told not to come into Saint Joe's today," Deborah says, "the FEMA people have taken it over. They asked whether I was vaccinated for smallpox. And I was vaccinated, in the seventies, but you never were. I volunteered to come in and help but they told me to stay home."

"Jesus Christ. Smallpox?" Chaz repeats. Hazel is looking at him, like, wha?

"Look," Deborah tells him, "the important thing is you're alright. Check into a hotel there and just stay put. These things don't spread very fast. Y'know the only thing that's weird," she continues, almost to herself, "is that you'd think they'd want all the nurses they could get. I even told them I'd be vaccinated again..."

"What are you gonna do?" Chaz asks.

"I don't know. I'm staying home for now, I guess."


At about two o'clock, back in Los Angeles, Nick is waking up in a groggy haze. He smacks his freckled white belly, trying to determine how much beer he put in there last night. His brown leather wallet is lying open on the edge of the bed. He examines it.

"Two hundred and eighty," he mumbles to himself, "how the fuck did I spend that much?" He wonders whether the answer has anything to do with a small red rash that's developed on his stomach; hopefully not.

Nick scratches the irritation absent-mindedly, thinks about going back to sleep. Suddenly, he remembers he's got a Capoeira meeting at 5. He's got to get up and stretch.

Capoeira is an obscure stew of martial arts and dance which grew out of the slave culture of colonial Brazil. Typically, Capoeira groups grow up and compete with each other under the banner of a Master, who's sort of the psychophysical guru for the team. Before Nick found his Master, he'd spent all his free time smoking weed and playing the fretless bass; when he was even younger, he'd been on his high school cross-country team. There was a phase where he'd gone around wrecking himself on a skateboard for hours each day. But no outlet had ever satisfied him half as much as the gracefully violent thrashings he gave and received in Capoeira. The first time his bulk had crashed to the mat by a flick of his Master's wrist, he knew he'd fallen in love.

Nick stumbles out of bed and into the living room, navigating through the stacks of books and papers on the floor. He turns on the TV. Weird, it's on Comedy Central but it looks like it's showing CSPAN. Bunch of microphones, Tom Ridge standing at a podium in front of a blue curtain.

"...to reassure people that this is no time to panic," Ridge is saying. Ho-ly shit. Nick is all ears. He's got this sudden horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, like it's 9/11 all over again. "If you're at home," Ridge continues, "stay in your home. If you're at work, and you're a non-essential, non-government employee, we would advise you to drive calmly back to your place of residence and remain there until we've assessed the threat level and determined how to tackle it. Smallpox is a lethal disease and it's easily spread, so the best thing you can do is avoid contact with other people until we're sure we've isolated the source of the outbreak. Again, please do not panic."

Nick looks down at the little series of red bumps on his stomach; his mouth hangs open, wet; he feels like he's about to cry. Don't Panic, he thinks, Tom Ridge said Don't Panic. Then Nick fucking panics alright, practically jumps headfirst into his bedroom drawer for a t-shirt and pants... the local broadcaster has come on, listing the hospitals that will be treating smallpox patients... very few of them... Nick forgets to turn off the TV, runs across the buzzing fresh-cut lawn to his Volvo and blasts off toward St. Joseph's Hospital in the Valley.


Next Chapter --->