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The Loop

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“Unputdownable…Fans of The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Stranger Things will be especially thrilled.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A satisfyingly dark satire of, well, everything…Imagine Blake Crouch and Mira Grant re-writing Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers—fans of all three authors are part of the wide audience who will flock to this heart-pounding and deeply unsettling tale.” —Booklist

Stranger Things meets World War Z in this heart-racing conspiracy thriller as a lonely young woman teams up with a group of fellow outcasts to survive the night in a town overcome by a science experiment gone wrong.

Turner Falls is a small tourist town nestled in the hills of western Oregon, the kind of town you escape to for a vacation. When an inexplicable outbreak rapidly develops, this idyllic town becomes the epicenter of an epidemic of violence as the teenaged children of several executives from the local biotech firm become ill and aggressively murderous. Suddenly the town is on edge, and Lucy and her friends must do everything it takes just to fight through the night.

Chapter One: A Reportable Incident chapter one A REPORTABLE INCIDENT
Lucy wrote “Fucking animals!” on a piece of notebook paper, and around those words she drew arrows pointing in every direction.

She wanted to rip the page from her binder and slide it to Bucket, but he was stuck two rows over, separated from her ever since Mr. Chambers caught them giggling at the absurd photoshopped pics on Bucket’s phone.

Lucy missed sitting next to Bucket, and more with each passing week. He was the only other brown kid in class—hell, one of only four at the whole school—and it was calming when he was with her. She didn’t feel so… examined. Bucket would never dare to touch her hair, or say he was “jealous of her tan,” or worse yet, call her “exotic” and make her feel like a creature at the goddamn zoo.

But now he was across the room, face buried in his textbook, and she was alone, and she wished she’d never laughed at that picture of Wilford Brimley riding a manatee into an old-timey western sunset, yelling something about “diabeetus.” If there was a dumber way to lose access to her best friend, she couldn’t think of it.

Honestly, they could have been in worse trouble with the phone event. If Mr. Chambers had swiped deeper into Bucket’s image files instead of turning the phone off and placing it on his desk, then he might have found the dozens of pictures where Bucket had pasted shots of himself into screencaps from lesbian porn: in some he gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up; in others he sipped on a cup of tea, pinkie out, or casually sat between two women who were about to, according to the film, “try kissing a little, just to see what it’s like.”

Bucket claimed his obsession with the videos came from his “model girlfriend back in Cali who totally went both ways,” but Lucy had her doubts. Still, she wanted to understand Bucket’s fascination. She even tried watching a clip from his favorite site—notjustroommates.com—but found the footage did little for her. She spent the day in a funk after that, hoping some switch would flip in her head and allow her to like girls. Seemed like that would be easier, somehow, especially once she went to college and left the uppity bitches at Spring Meadow High far, far behind.

But no—it was still Nate Carver’s big hands and wide back and perfect smile she thought of when she rubbed against her pillow at night. Even worse, Nate was one of them: he lived on Brower Butte in a house so big it gave her vertigo if she looked up to its peak, and like most of the other rich kids in town his parents were both employed at St. Andrews—the hospital and IMTECH were the only two places in Turner Falls for making serious money, at least until the data centers opened. That hospital money meant Nate got a brand-new car for his sixteenth birthday. When he posted up on the basketball court, he wore custom shoes, which he bragged had to be insured before they could even ship. His brother was at Harvard, and Nate claimed he was headed there himself. Said his grandpa’s name was on a plaque at the library. “I’m a slam dunk.”

Lucy knew at least twenty kids smarter than Nate, but none came from money, and zero percent of them would ever feel comfortable describing themselves as “a slam dunk.” So when Lucy thought about Nate, she wished for two very different things at the same time: his beautiful body on top of hers, and his beautiful body utterly destroyed in a fiery accident involving his fancy new car and a telephone pole.

Lucy tried to focus on Mr. Chambers at the front of the room, but the dull hum of something about partial derivatives was interrupted when Ben Brumke unleashed a bone-rattler of a belch and the kids around him in the back corner moaned and raised their sleeves to their faces, anticipating the gut-rot stink of Ben’s homemade protein shakes. Bucket, who often made the mistake of expressing his feelings aloud, said, “Brumke’s eating roadkill again,” and a few in the class laughed. But then Ben threw his pen at Bucket and said, “Shut your face, Sandy,” and Mr. Chambers cleared his throat in a way that let everyone know they needed to calm down or face a lecture.

Half the kids at school called Bucket “Sandy,” ever since they found out he came to the States from Pakistan, and all the kids knew what was really being said. Lucy got her share of nasty bullshit too—plenty of “Loogie” and “Go back to Mexico” and “taco bitch” and “donkey fucker,” and after a while she didn’t even care enough to tell them she was actually from Peru. She didn’t feel like they deserved to know any true things about her, and she could imagine all the Paddington jokes at her expense. More than that, she didn’t want them being able to research why she had been adopted by the Hendersons in the first place. Lucy Henderson had it bad enough—god only knew how they’d treat Lucia Alvarez, especially if they knew what her birth parents had done…

Lucy looked back at Bucket, the way he was holding in his anger. Their sophomore year had been so bad that they both ended up needing bite guards at night to save their teeth from grinding. Bucket’s jaw was clenched now, his hands white-knuckled around the edges of his desk. Bucket made eye contact with her and Lucy did her best to send a message with her face.

This is temporary. One more year, and we both leave this podunk hillbilly bullshit town forever.

Turner Falls, Oregon, in the rearview mirror. Middle fingers up as we drive.

We leave these fucking animals behind.

Bucket took a breath. He released his death grip on the desktop.

Mr. Chambers sensed the tension and turned toward the class. “I know it can be tough to focus this close to the end of the school year, but we’ve got one more chapter to cover before the final on Thursday, and then we’re done for the year. Can we keep the insults to a minimum, Mr. Brumke?”

“Sure.”

“And Mr. Marwani?”

“Ben’s the one who’s belching right in—”

“Mr. Marwani?”

Bucket huffed. “Sure.”

The class fell into a lull then. The too-brief excitement had drifted to nothing, and Mr. Chambers’s monotone continued to recite the magic terms all the students would need to memorize before their next shot at the SAT’s, and the school’s meager, outdated cooling system did what it could to battle the desert heat, which transformed their big beige brick of a school into a low-key oven. For a moment the room drifted into a kind of soporific peace.

It was so surprisingly calm that it took a few minutes before anyone in the room even noticed the way that Chris Carmichael was twitching at his desk.

Jake Bernhardt sat right behind Chris, a few desks back from the front of the room.

Chris’s family lived way out in Cascade Woods, a ramshackle assemblage of manufactured homes and trailers notorious for their meth lab explosions. You did your best to not take a wrong turn in Cascade Woods, lest you end up with some ganked-out tweeker shotgunning your ass with rock salt (or worse—rumors said there were bodies buried in the deep boonies).

Jake’s family hailed from Brower Butte, and their property was so sprawling that they’d devoted a huge chunk of their backyard to an elaborate racetrack for Jake’s remote control cars. At Jake’s house, you did your best to jump from the roof outside Jake’s window to precisely the right deep spot in the pool, lest you end up with a busted ankle like the one that cost Bradley England his senior football season.

So of course Jake always took an interest in Chris—he’d never scored such easy laughs before.

Chris doesn’t shower for a week. Jake holds his nose, pretends to pass out. “Somebody forgot to take out the trash!”

Comic gold.

Chris wears the same shirt until a hole tears in the back. Jake flicks pennies into the hole and makes the field goal symbol with his arms.

Are you guys seeing this?

Chris’s dad ends up in county jail on petty theft charges. A week later, Jake asks him if he has any big plans for Father’s Day.

Classic!

Lucy never laughed, but she didn’t always say something either. Jake’s cruelty was a spotlight you didn’t want swung your way—last time she told Jake to leave Chris alone, he ended up binder-checking her after class and sent her history notes flying across the hall. When she was on her hands and knees gathering her papers he said, “Clean it up, Loogie. Practice for my house.”

What a crack-up!

High fives were had at her expense. Did Lucy notice Nate Carver laughing at her? She pretended she didn’t.

Now Jake was back at it, holding up limp-wristed hands and mimicking the way Chris’s body was shaking in his seat. His cronies chuckled. Jake bent his head to his desk and pretended to snort a line, then sat back up with exaggerated tremors. The laughter got louder.

Mr. Chambers rotated toward the class, and the laughs cut short. Lucy read Mr. Chambers’s expression: Please—I’m so close to being done with all of you. Be decent for once. Just finish this class so I can start my summer and I’ll only have to see a handful of you at driver’s ed training.

Something in the back corner caught Chambers’s eye. “Ms. Dufrene, can you turn off your phone or does it need to spend the rest of class on my desk?”

Patty Dufrene’s thumbs were a blur, a concerned look on her face.

Chambers walked closer and spoke louder. “Ms. Dufrene, can I have your attention?”

No response.

Chambers walked over and placed an open palm directly between Patty’s eyes and the phone. “Hand it over. You get it back at the bell.”

Patty held her phone long enough to power it all the way down, then handed it to Mr. Chambers with an aggrieved whine. Her eyes followed the device to its resting spot on Mr. Chambers’s desk.

Chambers scrawled more sample problems on the blackboard, his chalk tapping out a robotic rhythm. Loud and persistent as that sound was, Lucy was distracted by a new noise—Chris Carmichael’s desk was squeaking. It reminded her of the time she drove to San Diego with the Hendersons to visit her “aunt” Molly. They’d checked in to a Super 8 at the halfway point down I-5 only to discover that their motel neighbors were having an epic screw session. Lucy remembered how embarrassed her adoptive guardians, Bill and Carol, had been, but mostly she remembered how steady and fast the springs were squeaking and how the woman’s moans sounded more like something she was doing to pass the time until the man finally stopped thrusting.

Honestly, Lucy had thought the whole event was kind of funny, and the sound of Chris Carmichael’s squeaking desk brought that all back.

She was about to laugh until she saw the way Chris’s body was moving.

Something was wrong with him. Very, very wrong.

His narrow frame was slumped, pinning his weight against the metal support tube running from chair to desk. Lucy leaned forward and noticed a thin string of drool hanging from the corner of Chris’s mouth. Sweat was beading on his forehead and soaking through his greasy black locks. His left leg was jerking back and forth at the knee while his foot pressed against the tile flooring so hard the sole was scuffing.

He’s… fighting something. Like he’s trying to force himself to stay at that desk.

Mr. Chambers finally caught on and turned to look at Chris.

“Mr. Carmichael, what’s…”

And then Chris’s neck bent back and he was staring at the ceiling and he yelled, “You promised you’d delete the picture, Ginny. Stop being such a bitch!”

Patty Dufrene stood bolt upright. “Shut your mouth, Chris. How do you…”

Chris kept yelling. “Why am I seeing this? Where am I? I don’t want this!” and then he fell quiet, but the spasms in his body amplified, causing his desk to rock and lift and clatter against the floor. His head swiveled, eyes wide and panicked as if he were trying to see in the dark.

Have his eyes always been so blue?

Lucy swore that Chris had hazel eyes, but now they appeared blue and rheumy. Lucy wondered how that could be, but the thought was interrupted when his back and knees popped so loudly the sound echoed against the ceiling tiles. Lucy recoiled, imagining how that must feel inside Chris’s body—his joints grinding and locking, unable to stop all that shaking.

Mr. Chambers was at Chris’s side then. “We need to give him room until this passes. The key, is to, uh, to keep him from hurting himself. Megan, run down to the office and tell them to call 911.” Then Chambers bent over Chris’s thrumming body and rattling desk. “We need to get him as flat and stabilized as we can. Jake and Michael, you get his legs, and I’ll lift under his shoulders.” The teacher said, “Chris, can you hear me? I need to move you,” and he laced his hands behind the boy’s neck, and that’s when Lucy realized she must have fallen asleep in class, because she swore that at that moment she heard something under Chris’s hair squeal and then Mr. Chambers was backing away with a bloody hand, screaming, “What the fuck?”

And then Jake, forever dull and cruel and incapable of reading the goddamn room, tried to get in one more joke. He leaned toward the back of the class and said, “Chris is shaking harder than his mom’s vibrator!”

But no one laughed. Even Jake’s victory chuckle was cut short because within seconds Chris had erupted from his desk and was on top of Jake, had him trapped in his seat, and in a series of spasms Chris managed to raise one hand and plunge his right thumb directly into Jake’s left eye.

Then in Lucy’s nightmare she saw Mr. Chambers afraid to move forward but yelling, “Chris, get off him now or I’ll have to report this,” as if they were still in a situation where something like the rules of a high school might apply, and Jake began to bleed from the corner of his eye as he unleashed a slaughterhouse squeal and tried to bat Chris away with his arms, and then Chris’s eyes rolled back in his head and a flat, even voice fell from his mouth saying, “Override protocol failed. Ops dispatched.”

Mr. Chambers didn’t seem to understand where the voice was coming from because he turned toward the door of the classroom, looking for the people who might be coming to restore order. After a few seconds ticked by, he must have realized that task fell to him, because he rushed over to his desk and pulled out a small black canister of pepper spray and said, “You have to stop that now, Chris! Stop or I’ll spray you!”

If Chris heard, he paid it no mind. His thumb pressed farther into Jake’s skull. Jake made noises that no one in that room would escape dreaming about.

Mr. Chambers stepped toward the boys and sprayed Chris’s eyes and then aimed the stream directly into the mouth of the young man.

Mr. Chambers gained Chris’s attention.

Chris untethered from Jake’s coiled, screaming body and stood. Blood dripped from his thumb to the tile. The class sat paralyzed, coughing and gagging and trying to breathe fresh air through folded hoodies or sleeves. A crowd had gathered at the door to the classroom, some filming with their phones, some running when they saw Jake’s body shaking its way into deep shock.

Chris straightened and looked at Mr. Chambers, then at his red, slick hand. “This fixes it. What I did. What you did to me. The signal…” His voice started to fade, airway tightening against the pepper spray assault. Chris shook his head from side to side and coughed. He blinked through hideously swollen eyelids. “It’s not so bad, Mr. Chambers. They said I would be smarter, but they lied to me. They lied to my mom. But you—you really helped me. After all this time.”

Then Chris bent forward, his movements finally smooth, and he picked up his precalculus book from the floor. He lifted the thick, sharp-cornered book up in the air with one bright red hand.

“This is the answer. You gave us the answer.”

Then Chris Carmichael took two swift strides toward the front of the room and swung the textbook down into Mr. Chambers’s face.

Mr. Chambers lost his legs and rag-dolled to the floor and then Chris was on top of him with the book raised high and he turned toward the class to speak.

“This makes it stop. This is real.”

He brought the textbook down, using both arms this time. Something crunched.

“I could see it all before, too much, but now I’m here.

Another swing down. This time the arc of the book splattered the white tile ceiling with tiny red drops. Lucy could swear she saw something pulsing on the back of Chris’s neck as his hair flopped forward.

“We are going to be okay, you guys.”

Another swing. Mr. Chambers’s hands fish-flopped on the floor, his wedding ring ticking against tile, his moaning buried beneath the sound of gargled blood.

“We are all going to be okay.”

And then Lucy leaned forward in her desk because her vision had filled with tiny blinking stars, and she fought to stay conscious because there was a murderer in the room and she could barely breathe from the pepper spray and it was far too late for “Locks, lights, out of sight.” She didn’t know what the hell she was supposed to do. Part of her wanted to jump from her desk and restrain Chris or knock him off Mr. Chambers, but everything was moving too fast.

She heard men yelling in the hallway. Something rolled into the classroom next to Mr. Chambers’s awfully quiet, immobile body, and Chris didn’t even stop to acknowledge the purple smoke coming from the object because he was still swinging his book.

How can he hold on to the book with so much blood on his hands?

Lucy felt oddly guilty for thinking such a thing, but then her thoughts were wiped clear by the smell of the noxious purple smoke and the sudden, thunderous sound of close gunfire and then the sight of Chris’s face slumping loose from his head and slapping against his chest.

The air was toxic with pepper spray and gunpowder and atomized blood.

Screams ran through the room at full surround.

Chris’s body gave one last tremor and collapsed onto Mr. Chambers.

Then the school bell rang.

It was the final shock Lucy could bear. Some distant part of her mind thought, School’s out, and she slid into static, then nothing.
Photograph © Christopher Cleary 2017

Jeremy Robert Johnson is the author of the critically acclaimed collection Entropy in Bloom as well as the breakthrough cult novel Skullcrack City. His fiction has been praised by The Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, authors such as David Wong, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jack Ketchum, and has appeared internationally in numerous anthologies and magazines. In 2008, he worked with The Mars Volta to tell the story behind their Grammy Award–winning album, The Bedlam in Goliath. In 2010 he spoke about weirdness and metaphor as a survival tool at the Fractal 10 conference in Medellin, Colombia. In 2017, his short story “When Susurrus Stirs” was adapted for film and won numerous awards including the Final Frame Grand Prize and Best Short Film at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Jeremy is intermittently social over at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @JRL_Is_Probable.

The Loop is a heart-racing thriller with a lens towards outsiders in small-town America.” —Joe M., Editorial Director, on The Loop

“A wickedly entertaining but also grotesque teen nightmare that’s pretty much Stranger Things meets Rogue One.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"Unputdownable…Fans of The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Stranger Things will be especially thrilled."

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A satisfyingly dark satire of, well, everything…Imagine Blake Crouch and Mira Grant re-writing Chuck Wendig's Wanderers (2019)—fans of all three authors are part of the wide audience who will flock to this heart-pounding and deeply unsettling tale.”

– Booklist

"The Loop is the Cronenberg film we never got. It's a volcano of a book: violent, compassionate, relentless, and opulently strange."—Nathan Ballingrud, author of North American Lake Monster and Wounds

"I've seen the future and it's bizarre, it's beautifully berserk, it's Jeremy Robert Johnson."—Stephen Graham Jones

“Jeremy writes like his brain is on fire and he’s in no rush to put it out.” —Paul Tremblay, author of Survivor Song

"The Loop is hilarious and horrifying."—Brian Keene, author of The Rising

"The Loop is a wild and wonderfully scary novel—a genuine thrill ride stuffed with conspiracy theories, science gone wrong, and brutal terror."—Richard Chizmar, author of Gwendy’s Magic Feather

"A shitload of fun."—David Wong on Skullcrack City

"A dazzling writer."—Chuck Palahniuk, bestselling author of Fight Club.

"Genre-bending... Haunting and humorous."—The Washington Post on Skullcrack City