PLANET OF THE DEAD
By: Thomas S. Flowers
Washington D.C., West Wing.
Walter Friendly already knew what was waiting for him on the other side of the press room door. Even before he had heard the buzz of nervous excitement, anxiety, and worst of all, dissent coming from the eagerly waiting reporters wanting nothing more than to take a giant-sized bite out of his ass. At this point, he wasn’t even sure why they were holding a live press briefing. The message could have been sent via phone call or email or Tweet for crying out loud. But it had been pressed upon him by the President’s Chief of Staff to send a clear and concise message.
“Wouldn’t that message sound better if it came from the President himself, or Press Secretary Godward?” Friendly had asked.
“Just read what we gave you.”
“What’s going on, Mike?”
“Jesus, is he sick.”
“This is real, isn’t it? It’s an epidemic?”
And with that, Walter had his answer.
He glared at the press room door, feeling that pinch behind his eyes again. Reaching into his blazer coat pocket, Walter pulled out two Meclizine tablets and chewed them. He swallowed hard, wishing he had a glass of water to wash down the sour taste. It was strange standing in the small cramped room by himself. Normally there were aides running memos back and forth and cosmetic ladies readied to give aged politicians a light dusting. There’d be none of that today. The entire West Wing seemed damn near deserted. Countless out sick calls, and countless more unreported.
Jesus…what is going on?
In all our years that we’ve known each other, I’ve never seen Mike so cold.
There was more going on.
More to this he wasn’t, or couldn’t, say.
But what exactly that was, Deputy Press Secretary Walter Friendly, just as every other American waking up to hear rumor upon rumor and broadcast upon broadcast stretching from South Korea, through Europe, and the United States of some “Super Flu,” had only the media news to go on. And now he was about to go in there and tell them they are all wrong. That rumors that the President was sick was a lie. That the epidemic, not that they were confirming it, was under control. That the CDC has everything under control.
He hoped so.
Walter took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. He stepped toward the press room door and stopped. He turned to the door behind him, the one that led to the West Wing offices.
What was that?
He angled his head slightly, listening.
Sounded like a gun report…
No. No. Look at you, Walt. You’re getting yourself all worked up.
You have a job to do. Just go out there and get it over with.
He stepped through the press room door in a flood and furry of camera flashes and rolling conversations about the end of the world. Most of those ceased when he came out, but he’d caught enough to gauge that he probably shouldn’t take any questions. Unless he was prepared to give them answers. Which he wasn’t.
At the podium, he exhaled, trying to avoid the glare of the spot lights.
“Good morning,” he started. “I have a statement the Executive Office would like to address. There will be no questions taken after the conclusion.”
Eye rolls and smirks among the press corps.
He rumpled the papers in his hand, already damping with sweat from his fingers, smudging the ink.
“To answer rumors going around, the President and his administration have been working very closely with CDC and Health service officials and State Governors.” Walter cleared his throat. “I’m only going to say this once, so listen up people. There is no epidemic. There is what we understand to be nothing more than a flu, and it is treatable. The Department of Homeland Security will be providing information on where you can go to be treated if you or your loved one is sick. These clinics are being outfitted by the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, with vaccines. The Secretary of Health and the President urge their fellow Americans not to panic. Help will be provided.”
Walter exhaled and turned to leave. “Thank you,” he said, wanting nothing more than to be away from the bright lights and flashes of cameras and dozens of steely- eyed dissenters.
Shouts from the pit erupted.
Walter stopped, more out of reflex against the sudden surge of shouting than wanting to answer the barrage of questions being fired at him. He noticed Sarah Evan from Fox News and gestured toward her. At least she ought to have some common sense. Some loyalty for the President and his administration.
“Yes? Go ahead.”
“Deputy Press Secretary Friendly, Sarah Evan reporting for Fox News. These so-called rumors, as you called them, seem to be more than just rumors. There are reports coming in from across the nation, especially those having to do with looting and riots. What does the President plan to do regarding the reported violence that has occurred near or around these medical stations set up by the CDC?”
Walter took a step back to the podium. “The rumors I mentioned were about wide spread panic, which is simply not the case. Unfortunately, there are those who are willing to take advantage. As I have been briefed, the President is working closely with Homeland Security and local state officials to control the spread of looting and acts of wanton violence.”
Another body stood up in the crowd of jeering, eager reporters.
“Deputy Friendly, Joe Peters reporting for NBC World News. According to our sources, this isn’t just a national epidemic. Reports are coming in from London and Paris and even far away as Seoul. What are the administration’s plans on dealing with our allies?” Joe, a short-squared man dressed in a smart- looking tweed jacket and olive colored slacks, held his pen at the ready, with a somewhat smug grin Walter noted, waiting for him to answer his question.
Walter glanced around. Dozens of reporters stared at him, waiting. He cleared his throat. “At this time, such reports have not been verified with—”
“Have not been verified? What are you—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Peters, perhaps you should let me finish.”
“Is there no comment regarding aiding American allies?”
“Perhaps at this time it would be best for America to worry about American interests.”
“And just what are American interests, Deputy? And if this is not an epidemic, why is the President unwilling to collaborate with foreign nations to figure out what exactly is causing these global and widespread riots?”
Walter bit his tongue. This was exactly why he didn’t want to field questions. This constant dissent and banter from the news media. “I believe I have answered your question. Next?” He refused to let things end with the likes of Joe Peters.
“Deputy Friendly, Jason Kelly with CNN.” A man in a pinstriped suit stood up in front of Joe Peters, his black hair slicked back. Thick framed glasses precariously teetered on the edge of his nose. “You mentioned a moment ago that the President was working closely with local authorities. Some of these reports or rumors as you called them are reporting that some of these medical centers set up by the CDC and Health Department are being overrun.”
Walter rolled his eyes very obviously. “I’m not hearing a question, Mr. CNN.”
“Is the President considering the use of the National Guard?”
Walter pushed back from the podium. “What?”
“Has Martial Law been declared?”
More clicks and whorls of camera flashes. Yet, oddly silent otherwise.
“As I said before,” Walter started. “There is no epidemic. This has been trumped up by the liberal media and nothing more than—”
Sneers and grumbling erupted from the crowd of reporters.
Jason Kelly pressed on, “Sir, there has to be more going on, why hasn’t the President—”
“FAKE NEWS!” Deputy Press Secretary Walter Friendly shouted. “That’s all you are. Fake news.” He could feel the veins on his temple and forehead bulge. There was little doubt his face was beet red. His image on screen wouldn’t look good. The President’s Chief of Staff would be disappointed. He was blowing it after all. Rule number one was to never give in, never be baited, never overreact. But he couldn’t help it. He didn’t have all the answers, hell he didn’t even have one answer to give. Still, he’d be damned if he was going to let these tabloid junkies have a free run at the candy store and bully him into saying something he or someone else in the administration would have to deny later.
Camera flashes and smirks and even mocked expressions of shock surrounded him.
“Sir,” Joe continued undeterred, “is there some sort of cover up going on? Is there more the President isn’t telling the citizens of the United States? And why haven’t we heard from him? According to our sources, his Twitter feed has gone quiet for the past twelve hours. Is it true that the President is sick with whatever this epidemic is? Has the Executive Office been compromised?”
Get out now, he told himself. End this before things gets out of control.
Walter turned to leave, head downcast, feeling as if all he’d done was made things worse.
A wave of shouts and more questions and more flashes followed him to the press room door. Reaching for the handle, he stopped as the door flung open.
“What is this…? Floyd?” Walter took a step back, staring at Floyd Bennet, one of the secret service agents on the President’s detail. His black suit was wrinkled. A white button up underneath his black blazer partially untucked, as if he had gotten into a struggle with someone. His usually perfectly combed and parted brown hair a mess. With reddened yellow eyes, he glared back at Walter.
“Agent Bennet, is everything okay?” Walter offered, the dozens of dissenting reporters behind him momentarily forgotten.
The sickly-looking agent stepped toward him.
Walter held up his arms. “Floyd, what’s going on?” he whispered hotly, wanting to direct the agent back out the door, remembering they were not alone by a sudden flash of a camera behind him. “Did something happen to the President?”
Floyd Bennet opened his mouth as if to say something. Salvia drooled out in strings on his chin, drooping down and touching his suit.
The agent lunged and speared Walter, knocking him down to the floor. Around him, shouting erupted, now filled with actual visual terror. Screams and yelling. Pleading with someone on the security detail to come and help.
Jason Kelly and Joe Peters and Sarah Evan stared, frozen with their mouths agape.
Walter wondered, just for a moment as he held Agent Floyd Bennet back, trying to push him off him, trying to keep those gnashing teeth that stunk of gaseous spoiled milk from his throat, which was the greater sin, inaction or misinformation?
With that, Floyd batted away Walter’s arms and thrust his sour smelling teeth, biting down on his throat, sinking in and chewing, pulling away flesh and sinew in a jet of crimson blood.
Walter screamed, hitching his pelvis, clamping a bloodied hand over his gushing wound.
The reporters around him pushed back more frantically now, knocking into each other, fighting over who got to the exit first.
Deputy Press Secretary Walter Friendly reached out with a numbing hand for help, but found none.
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