What Happened Next by Jon Colt

What Happened Next, the debut novel by Jon Colt, releases on June 1st 2024! Pre-order it here: https://amzn.eu/d/hyNlDEC

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The virus that swept America is a distant memory now. The vaccine put an end to it. The Avoidants – those who refused the vaccine – were sent away to live out the rest of their days in Distanced Living Centres; walled communities with no communication with the outside world. They stepped off the buses, were herded inside, and the gates were locked forever.

Two years on, the vaccinated population live their lives in bliss. Thirteen-year-old Milo Winters and his family live happily in the sleepy New Hampshire town of Masterson. But one hot Sunday morning, the vaccinated adults around him start dropping dead. Soon, Milo finds himself embarking on a perilous journey to the nearest Distanced Living Centre, to break free his beloved uncle.

Accompanied by his infant sister, Sally, his teen neighbour, Becca, her savant brother, Brody, and the family golden retriever, he heads down the track; unaware of the dangers and brutal truths that lay ahead.

What Happened Next releases on June 1st 2024! Pre-order it here: https://amzn.eu/d/hyNlDEC

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The day the world started to end, it was hot outside. When the sun came up over Masterson that fateful Sunday, nobody could have foreseen the carnage that was about to unfold. Before lunchtime, half the citizens of that sleepy New Hampshire town would be dead.  

It was a little after nine and it was already getting warm out. Dick Carnaby on The Weather Round-Up said it would hit a hundred degrees by midday. But nothing seemed out of place in Masterson. It looked like a typical Sunday morning. Sprinklers showered down on luscious green lawns. Songbirds fluttered from one tree to the next. The paperboy peddled through the streets, tossing the Sunday Gazette onto porches. And, perhaps most traditionally of all, Milo Winters and his dad were out on the driveway, washing the car; a chore they tackled together every weekend. 

Milo’s mom had insisted that they both wear their thick-brimmed hats; the ones they used to take fishing, back before Milo became a brooding teenager. But whilst Milo could give fishing the cold shoulder, he couldn’t say no to washing the car with his dad – it was the only condition of his weekly allowance, which he’d be saving up for the latest Goblin Avenger game.  

Besides, it wasn’t a particularly hard chore. He just had to stand out on the driveway and hold the bucket up every time his dad came over to re-dunk his sponge. Bucket-holder, as his dad called it, had been Milo’s job every Sunday morning since he was too young to remember. He was thirteen that hot, awful day, so he was well-practised by then. 

Milo was scrawny and pale and had an untidy mop of mousy-blonde hair. He wore an oversized white t-shirt with black lounge pants. 

In contrast to his son, Dallas Winters was tall and very well-built; the result of many an evening spent with the lifting bench in the garage. His hair was dark and he wore it in a crew cut. He had an all-year-round tan, even though he spent most of his time in an office and he wore ugly tinted specs that went brown in the sun. 

‘Binko, play, The Berries,’ Dallas said, as he dunked his sponge into Milo’s bucket.  

The smart speaker he’d set down on the lawn started to play. The Berries were a little-known and even-littler-appreciated barbershop band from the sixties. Dallas had become obsessed with them after hearing them on Throwback Hour on Radio Six. Now, he played them on loop: whilst driving round town in the Mamba; whilst mowing the backyard; whilst working out; even whilst washing the car on a Sunday morning. 

Milo watched his dad run the sponge over the car’s hood. The suds turned crusty-white the second they touched the Mamba’s skin, and vapour drifted softly upwards into the warm morning air. 

That car was his most treasured possession. It was a classic red sportster (Volcanic Red if Dallas was to correct you) from the late seventies. He’d gotten it five years back when it came up for auction at Riley’s Motor House, down on Benvale Street. 

He knew he shouldn’t have bought it, but when his dad died, it triggered something in him, and he felt like life was too short not to treat yourself once in a lifetime. So he went down to the bank and withdrew half his retirement pot (even though he was still a good thirty years off retiring). 

He’d have three long decades to build it back up, he told his wife, but she wasn’t the biggest fan of that reasoning. 

That was all ancient history now, though. Milo’s mom had gotten over it, in the end. She even admitted it was a nice car. She might mention the whole debacle, though, once in a while, if Dallas ever questioned some lavish online purchase of hers. ‘Remember the time you spent half your retirement fund on that fucking car?’ He’d bite his tongue pretty quickly.  

The Berries ended, abruptly, and a news reporter came over the air. ‘More casualties are being brought into emergency rooms across the states with as-yet undiagnosed symptoms. The strained services are imploring you-’ 

‘Binko, play, The Berries!’ Dallas demanded. 

The blue LED wheel on the front of the smart speaker started to spin, and then his favourite barbershop quartet rang out across the garden again. 

‘Smart speaker, my ass.’ 

A breeze tickled down the street and Milo heard something flap around in the gutter. He set the bucket down and went to take a closer look.

It was a mask, from the virus, caught in the storm drain. All beat-up and sun-faded. It’d been a long time since he’d seen one. Two years, probably. The Winters used to have a different colour for each family member, for when they went out to the mall. They hung on nails by the front door. 

His little sister, Sally, was born just before lockdown and was too young to wear one, but their mom would pull her blanket up over her mouth in the pram. 

Milo was glad to be rid of masks. They made his face hot and sticky and the elastic cut into his ears. If he ever had to wear one for more than a couple of hours, he’d be guaranteed a fresh zit or three on his chin or just above his lip. 

All the adults got their vaccinations down at the school. Milo and his classmates couldn’t use the gymnasium for months because there was a queue of adults snaking through it all day. Sheriff Callow had to set up camp on-site because protestors kept trying to burn it down. Before they were sent away, of course.  

The virus went away after that. The vaccine had done its job. No more masks. No more video-call quizzes with Grandma and Grandpa every Thursday evening. No more staying out of the playroom where the games consoles were set up, because his dad’s makeshift office had taken over. 

Things had gone back to normal. It was easy to go about your day without remembering the virus – unless you drove down Hughes Drive, of course. There’s a big memorial plinth there, next to the library, with all the names chipped into the marble. Or unless a battered old face mask blew into your life. 

‘Milo, where’s my bucket holder?’ Dallas called, over his shoulder. He was standing there open-mouthed with a bone-dry sponge. 

I daydream for a few seconds and the whole operation falls apart, Milo thought.  

He picked up the bucket again and took it over to his dad so he could sink his sponge in. 

The fire alarm started going off inside the house. The boys in the driveway weren’t too concerned. It had become a typical sound on a Sunday morning. Mrs Winters would often load up the griddle with bacon and sausages, and then get distracted by Sally. 

Milo watched as his mom threw open the window and wafted out the smoke with an oven mit. He could hear the sound of the bacon hissing in the pan. 

‘Smells good, hon,’ Dallas shouted across the lawn. He turned to Milo and whispered, ‘smells like that time we let Uncle Malc put gasoline on the barbecue.’ 

Milo smiled.  

His dad worked the sponge into the ridge along the bottom of the windscreen. When he peered back into the bucket, he saw there was nothing left but some black swill at the bottom, so he dropped the sponge inside.

‘Right, time to hose her down.’ 

Dallas went to the back of the driveway and started to unreel the hose. When he reached the Mamba, he suddenly stopped to clutch at his stomach. The hose-head clattered onto the concrete and came off. Water spewed out from the open mouth.

‘Are you ok?’ Milo set the bucket down and stepped towards him. 

His dad was hunched over, holding his belly with one hand and his knee with the other, breathing deeply. 

‘Shall I get mom?’ 

His dad didn’t reply. He just sucked in breath through clenched teeth.

‘I’ll get mom.’ 

‘No, no. Don’t worry your mother!’ He shouted. ‘It’s just gas, I think. It was hurting last night. It’ll pass in a sec.’ 

He straightened up, took a few more slow, controlled breaths, and then forced a smile. ‘All good!’ 

‘You sure?’ 

‘Yeah, yeah. Come on. Let’s get this finished up. Breakfast will be ready soon.’ 

What Happened Next releases on June 1st 2024! Pre-order it here: https://amzn.eu/d/hyNlDEC

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What Happened Next Teaser Trailer