Waking Up At the End of the World
Book 1: Desperate Against the Ravenous
Novel in progress.
Copyright 2012-current Revenant Media/The Little Zombie Who Could
By Adam Tibbott, and Amy Miller
Grant fumbled with his keys, trying his best to not spill the hot and sour soup he’d picked up from Lauren’s favorite restaurant, Mr. Kim’s Happy Family. Lauren had been sick all weekend, and Grant was sure to win the Best Boyfriend of the Year award for bringing his sweetie a bowl of what she called “the best soup in town.” Giving up on trying the graceful approach, he stopped long enough to set his briefcase next to their apartment’s door and carefully cradled the soup in his left arm while unlocking the front door with nimble fingers.
As the tumblers clicked into place, he put his ear to the door, listening for any sign that Lauren was inside. Their home was as quiet as a tomb, but he knocked softly anyway, not wanting to startle his ailing lover. There was no response. He hooked his briefcase with his foot and slid it through the threshold. He stepped inside, calling out softly.
“Hello? Lauren? Lauren, I’m home early. Are you here?”
She had left the TV on in the living room, along with nearly every light in their home. The air conditioner had been shut off and the heat of the hot summer day was slowly creeping in. Grant loosened his paisley tie, sweat already starting to form on his brow. That was when he noticed the warm, musty, acrid smell, like dirty, wet gym socks that had been left to dry in your car on a hot summer day.
“Lauren,” he softly called out again while removing his suit jacket. There was no response that Grant could hear. He hooked his jacket on the coat rack in the entryway and started walking through the apartment looking for her. Coming around the corner into the kitchen, he first saw the refrigerator door was wide open, as was the freezer. A pool of melted ice cream was dripping onto their brand new hardwood floors. Their landlord was going to burst a blood vessel.
He couldn’t be upset with her though. Lauren had just recently gotten back into the workforce after nearly a year of unemployment and the illness couldn’t have happened at a worse time. She had caught a particularly nasty bug last week, and had been nearly bedridden for the past three days. The couple’s health insurance had yet to kick in though, so seeing their doctor wasn’t financially feasible at the moment. Lauren had been living off of Nyquil and orange juice for almost a week, barely able to even make it the few steps to the bathroom. Grant set the soup on the counter, closed the freezer and refrigerator doors, and turned to continue the search for his better half.
The couple’s second bedroom, or as Lauren called it his “damn comic book room” was clear, as was the bathroom. The door to the master bedroom was pulled to, though not quite completely closed. Grant put his ear to the portal but didn’t hear any sounds coming from within so he quietly knocked while pushing it open. The musty smell hit him with the force of a baseball. It was then that he saw Lauren curled up on the bed. The shades in their bedroom had been pulled closed, blocking out all the natural light. The room was in shambles; a lamp lay broken next to the bed, dresser drawers had been pulled out, clothes strewn all over the room.
As he stepped into the room, his feet made contact with something sticky and wet. He reached behind him and turned on the hallway light, illuminating a grisly scene. Lauren had apparently vomited several times throughout the day while Grant was at work. A trail of bile led a jagged path from their bedroom door to the bed. The poor girl couldn’t even get to the bathroom, he thought to himself. He saw that Lauren’s back was to the door, her fragile form wrapped tightly around a body pillow.
“Lauren,” he called out; the form on their bed didn’t stir at the sound of his voice. “Babe? Are you ok?” Grant stepped into the room, noticing more vomit and bile covering the floor and bed. “Honey,” he again called out, now with a growing sense of urgency. Cautiously, Grant made his way to their bed, side-stepping the puddles of vomit on the floor. He reached out and put his hand on her back, gently shaking her. He started to speak when Lauren slowly stirred, turning toward him. He gingerly cradled his lover in his arms but Lauren’s body was cold and limp. “Oh God,” he lamented.
Grant had the space of a heartbeat to realize that Lauren was more than just sick. The dim light of the hallway’s bulb showed that her eyes were a dull, jaundiced yellow; bloodshot and splotchy. Her once smooth milky skin looked mottled and gray, like meat that had sat on the butcher’s counter for too long. Vomit, blood, and bile caked her once lush, curly blonde hair. Her favorite nightshirt was ruined; their sheets were soaked with sweat and gore.
“Lauren,” Grant said in a hoarse voice, now choking with fear.
Her eyes registered no hint of recognition at his words but she let out a quiet whimper in reply. “Honey, we have to get you to the hospital.”
She feebly returned his embrace and let out a quiet moan that slowly turned into a guttural growl. Grant’s look of fear for her safety quickly turned into a confused and shocked stare into her now cold, lifeless eyes. In a matter of seconds, Lauren’s well-manicured nails were raking up and down Grant’s back, her teeth chomping wildly at the space between them. He tried to push her off of him, but she had caught him by surprise and he couldn’t find the leverage to bear her dead weight. Just last night, she could barely walk to the bathroom; now she was grappling with him like a professional wrestler.
He tried to say something in protest, something to snap her back into reality, but it was too late. Lauren’s nails continued their assault on Grant’s back, shredding his neatly pressed work shirt and leaving scratch marks up and down his flesh. She sank her teeth into the nape of his neck, her fingers raking and scraping his skin as she dug into his flesh, slicing him into ragged fillets. He screamed, trying in vain to push her away; however, the damage had already been done. Lauren’s ravenous teeth and nails had torn chunks of soft flesh from his trembling body. Grant’s blood spurted out, soaking the already stained sheets and mattress beneath them.
Desperate, he kicked out as hard as he could, shoving Lauren off of the bed. She landed with a dull thud, slumping against the wall. His reprieve didn’t last very long though. Lauren was slowly rising to her feet, moving like a marionette whose strings had been tangled.
He clasped his hand over the wound in his neck and ran for the hallway, slamming the bedroom door behind him. Lauren pounded on the door, growling and moaning, but made no audible attempt to open the closed portal. Grant could hear her fingernails scraping up and down its frame.
In his haste to reach the relative safety of the hallway, Grant tripped and fell backward into the coffee table, its glass top shattering on impact. He slid across the floor on his back, a trail of blood-smeared shards marking where he’d landed. The bedroom door rattled and shook as Lauren slammed into it again and again. Grant scrambled off the floor and stumbled to the front door.
“What the fuck is happening,” he gasped, gripping the wound on his neck. Blood seeped between his fingers and soaked his shirt. His clothes clung to him, his back still bleeding from the map of carnage that Lauren had traced onto it moments before.
It took him several tries to get the door open, the blood on his hands making purchase on the knob difficult. Grant weakly stumbled into the hallway and limped to the elevator bank. He could still hear her inside the apartment, her inhuman growls making the hair on his neck stand on end. He’d never heard anything like it in his life. She sounded like a hungry, wounded animal.
He pushed the button repeatedly, as though he could make the elevator arrive faster through sheer force of will. He constantly looked over his shoulder at the door to their apartment, terrified that she’d find a way out of the bedroom and escape into the hallway after him.
He kept his hand clasped to the wound on his neck. The blood seemed to have stopped seeping between his fingers. As much as the wound hurt, it wasn’t as deep as he’d initially thought. “Got to get to a hospital,” he said, his voice weak and rough.
He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, his thumb pressed to the call button. “Please… hurry,” he whispered.
Finally, the elevator car arrived. He practically fell through the door, hitting the button for the ground floor and tapping the “door close” button until they complied and the elevator jerked back to life, beginning its descent. Grant collapsed against the wall and slid down to the floor, too weak to stand upright any longer. He closed his eyes, his breathing growing ever shallower. He couldn’t quite focus.
The elevator car reached the ground floor, the doors opening with a ding. Grant pushed weakly against the floor, trying to force himself up. Passing through the complex’s lobby, Grant had enough sense to grab a long-forgotten jacket from the waiting room’s couch and a handful of tissues from the front desk. In moments he was out the front door, barely making it a few steps before collapsing on the sidewalk. His last memory was that of his shredded flesh caught in the rabid mouth of his lover.
* * * * *
The hospital was relatively quiet today, which made Angela’s day seem to drag all the more. Today was not the day that Angela cared to have crawl by at a snail’s pace. Normally, she’d be busy with her typical daily duties, but the stress of the past few days had forced her to pass off most of her work to the other nurses, something she wasn’t very proud to do.
She had taken the opportunity to see one patient earlier in the morning, an elderly African man who was admitted to the hospital in a state of shock after being attacked. As Angela walked toward the hospital room, a police officer had stopped her in the doorway. “I’m headed back to the station. I finally got a report on the attack,” he’d said. “Good luck; he doesn’t speak much English.”
When Angela entered the room, the patient was staring off into space; he gave no sign that he’d even noticed her appearance in the room. Angela approached the man and, in a soothing voice, said, “Mr. Carter, I’m going to check your vitals.” As she moved to put the blood pressure cuff on his arm, he’d suddenly reached out and grabbed Angela’s wrist.
“Nzambi! Nzambi!” The man’s voice was high and panicked, and Angela was shocked at the strength with which he’d grabbed her.
“Mr. Carter, let go! You’re hurting me!” She tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong.
“Nazambi,” he said again, almost as if he were trying to warn her of danger. On instinct, Angela had pushed the emergency call button and orderlies rushed into the room. As the orderlies pulled his hand off of Angela’s wrist, she noticed the long scratch-marks down Mr. Carter’s neck. It looked as though he’d been attacked by a large cat. Angela staggered back into the hallway and braced herself against the nurses’ station. Normally, she enjoyed her job but the events of the past few weeks and the altercation with Mr. Carter had proven to be too much for her to handle today. Things at home had turned from bad to unbearable lately, and Angela was nearing her breaking point.
Her live-in boyfriend, Alex, was still unemployed. Her mother was recovering from a particularly nasty bout with Pneumonia, and had been moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit earlier that morning. To top it off, Angela had been fighting with her sister, Taylor, for the past week because of Taylor’s opinions on Angela’s “deadbeat boyfriend.” Taylor was four years younger than Angela but acted more like a surrogate mother. Taylor had always been the more adult acting sister, and had taken on the role of her mother’s caregiver when their father had passed away several years earlier. In fact, it was Taylor who had worked two jobs while Angela was in Nursing School and made sure the family’s bills were getting paid. Granted, after Angela had gotten her certified nursing assistant degree, she had returned the favor when Taylor went back to school. Angela had never understood why Taylor chose pathology instead of nursing, but who was she to judge?
Taylor went to night school and spent her days working in the hospital’s morgue. Not the most glamorous job but Angela had to give her baby sister some street cred for working around corpses. Personally, the sight of a dead body made Angela’s stomach turn. It had taken her months of therapy to overcome dealing with the death that was part of her first job; before she started working for the hospital, she’d worked as a hospice nurse. There was something about the sight of death that made the actual act of dying seem so final. There was something about the cold, lifeless piece of meat on a metal slab that used to be up and moving around, going to work, cutting some old lady off in traffic, or shopping for groceries that reminded Angela of the fact that everything you try so hard to save just seems to die anyway.
She shook these thoughts out of her mind as she made her was down the first floor corridor, to the service elevator that would get her to the basement, and eventually to Taylor’s office in the morgue. She wasn’t looking forward to another altercation with her sister but it was inevitable. Taylor had no issues speaking her mind, especially when it came to her thinking that those opinions were going to help protect her big sister. Angela just hated the way that Taylor always made it seem like Angela would be better off alone and living back with her and their mother. That was something Angela was trying to avoid at all costs.
Angela held her breath while pushing through the double doors that lead to the morgue’s office. She paused at the office door and softly knocked.
“Abandon all hope ye who enter,” a small voice squeaked from inside.
“Very funny, Tay-Tay,” Angela replied as she walked into the small room.
The actual morgue sat adjacent to the office and was visible through a large picture window. The rows of silver doors gleamed in the flickering florescent light.
“Why can’t you come see me on the floors,” Angela half begged, “You know this place creeps me out.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why you visit me. Because I like to see you squirm.” Taylor was grinning from ear to ear.
“You’re such an evil bitch,” Angela said.
“And you need to get over your necrophobia,” Taylor said as she stood up, put down a dog-eared copy of Gray’s Anatomy and walked around from behind her desk. “Have you kicked out that douchebag yet?”
“Are we really going to have this conversation again?”
Taylor’s tone turned from accusing to nearly venomous.”Why wouldn’t we? He’s been living with you for five months and has contributed absolutely zero to you for anything. Not food. Not rent. And I’m sure you’re still paying his phone bill too. Aren’t you?”
“Taylor, I’m not having this argument with you again. Not today.”
“When would you like to pencil me in?”
Angela’s normally passive posture turned defensive as she placed her left hand on her hip and stabbing at the air in front of Taylor with her right. “Can you just let me live my life for once? Please!”
“Not when it comes to my big sister being used and taken advantage of,” Taylor said as she dropped her hands to her sides in a non-aggressive stance.”Why do you keep getting yourself into these situations?” Taylor pleads.
Taylor was right though. For the past few years, Angela had gone from one bad relationship to the next, each abusive in their own way. Some were mentally abusive, convincing her that she’d never be able to survive without ‘him’ in her life. Another was socially abusive. After dating for nearly two years, Angela had found out that Jamie had been keeping their relationship a secret. He hadn’t told any of his friends about their relationship, and had continued to see other women behind Angela’s back.
It was Jeff who was the worst though. He’d been physically abusive: shoving her down stairs, back handing her on more than one occasion, even beating her with a soup ladle once because the dishes were still wet when she took them out of the dishwasher and put them away in the cupboard.
Angela had always blamed herself for the way that her boyfriends had treated her. If only she’d have been a better lover. If only she’d have been a better cook. If only she’d have dried the dishes before putting them away.
It had taken her years of counseling and countless prescriptions of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, and mood stabilizers to finally realize that the only thing she’d done wrong was to put her faith in men who didn’t deserve her love or attention. Then Alex had entered the picture. Taylor had long ago decided to take it upon herself to make sure that Angela never made those same mistakes ever again.
Angela really didn’t want to continue this line of conversation, so she decided to switch topics. “I really have to go see Mom before I leave. Have you been up there today?”
“Yeah, they still have her under. Her lungs are barely holding on. She looks so awful with all those tubes and hoses in her.” Taylor’s voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears.”
“Are we going to talk about preparing for the worst?”
“Are you going to kick out that loser living in your apartment?”
Obviously, Angela’s idea of distraction hadn’t worked as well as she’d hoped it would. “Fair enough. Have fun in class tonight. I’ll call you if Mom’s awake when I get upstairs.”
“And I’ll bring over the wine tomorrow to celebrate your newly single status.” Angela shot Taylor a confused look, laughed complacently and walked out of the office. She still had one more errand to run before stopping on the fourth floor to visit her mother.
* * * * *
Angela poked her head around the window of the laboratory office and called out, “Bobby, are you here?”
“Hey sugar plum.” Bobby was constantly flirting with Angela on a casual level. He liked to remind her that they could have the perfect relationship. “You could see other guys. I could see other guys. It’d be a win-win and my mother would finally get off my back about finding a nice girl and settling down,” he’d joke with her.
“Hey, yourself,” Angela replied with a grin. “You got my results back?”
“I sure do, honey bee. Tell the lucky new mommy I said congrats.”
Angela’s face went pale and her feet went numb as she felt a cold chill seeping down her spine. Her reality faded away as she felt the gravity of the test results sinking in. The next thing she knew, Bobby was standing front of her snapping his fingers as he said, “Hey, are you alright, Pookie Bear?”
“Yeah, I’m… I’m fine Wonder Bread. Thanks. Every girl should be so lucky as to have a Bobby in their life. I’ll see you tomorrow, ok?” Angela made a mental note to do something nice for Bobby tomorrow.
“Yeah, you bet. Have a good night, Queen B.”
Angela turned as she made her way back to the elevator and blew Bobby a kiss. The doors closed just in time for her to hide the tears now streaming down her face.
The test results only verified her growing anxiety. She was pregnant, and it was Alex’s baby.
* * * * *
It wasn’t until Angela was walking back to her car with an arm load of groceries that she realized she’d forgotten to see her mother. “Not like it’d do much good anyways,” she mused. “She wouldn’t be able to hear me.”
Angela packed the groceries in the back of her Nissan and made the short drive to her apartment in Hiawatha. It was nothing spectacular but it was the first place she’d ever truly felt was home since moving out of her parents’ house.
Angela gave a heavy sigh as she parked the car and walked around to the trunk to unpack her groceries. She loaded the bags in her arms and tried to keep a grip on her purse as she walked to the front doors.
“Good evening, Angela!” Mr. Roper, the building’s doorman, greeted her with a smile as he stood up from his desk in the lobby and rushed over to hold the doors open for her. “I hope you had a pleasant day.”
Angela smiled in return. She’d always liked Mr. Roper; he never failed to tell her to have a blessed day as she left in the mornings. He was like a bonus grandfather to her.
“Thank you, Mr. Roper! I hope you had a pleasant day as well!”
He gave her a slight bow, which made her smile again. “Good night, Mr. Roper! I’ll see you in the morning!” She entered the elevator and waved at him as the doors closed. At least someone is happy to see me, she thought.
The first thing she noticed as she unlocked her apartment door was the volume of the TV. Alex had a habit of turning the volume three levels past what any normal person would, and then leave the room for something that he’d forget about before taking two steps in the wrong direction.
She smelled the lingering odor of cigarette smoke, and sighed in exasperation. “Have you been smoking in here again,” she accused Alex.
“Jesus H. Christ, Ange, are you going to start in on me already?”
“Sorry, Alex, but you know I hate the smell of smoke. Can you please just crack a window or smoke on the balcony?”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Alex turned down the TV volume a few levels and lit a cigarette as he made his way to the balcony. “What’s for supper,” he asked.
“Whatever you decide to cook,” Angela replied as she unpacked the groceries and put them away.
“Great. I love playing Rachel Ray.”
Angela rolled her eyes and replied, “I’ve got an early shift tomorrow and it’s been a long day. I’m going to bed.”
Alex was either not paying attention to Angela’s words or couldn’t hear her over the channel 9 newscaster interrupting with a breaking world news announcement.
“Riots in Syria are leading to hundreds of casualties being reported and the apparent death toll continues to rise in the Middle East just days after US forces are pulled back …”
“Wow. Crazy shit. What’d you say, honey?” Alex asked.
“Nothing. Try not to wake me up when you come to bed.”
“Can do.” Alex searched through the empty grocery bags. “Babe, did you get me any smokes?”
“No, I forgot. Sorry. There’s a lot on my plate right now.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. No good deed goes unpunished anyway, right? How’s your mom?”
“She’s still in ICU.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Alex replied half-heartedly.
“Yeah, she’s still-”
Alex, obviously not paying attention, cut in. “I’m going to run across the street. Can I borrow your card?”
Angela rolled her eyes and gave up. “Yeah. Sure. Just make sure you fill my car up too.”
“Not a problem.” Alex dug in Angela’s purse and located her debit card. He waved and bounced out the door, without a care in the world, it would seem.
* * * * *
Alex waved at Mr. Roper as he got off the elevator, chuckling as he wondered if Mr. Roper even registered who was leaving; the man always had a book propped up and, to the casual observer, he never even seemed to look up from the page unless spoken to directly. As he pushed the front door open, he noticed Angela’s neighbor, Mrs. Burkett, hurrying toward the building, her arms full of groceries. He waited and held the door for her, smiling as she said, “Why, thank you! You’re such a nice young man!” Mrs. Burkett was a sweet old lady, if a bit odd. Alex always liked her, even though he was a bit wigged out by the fact that she kept rats as pets.
He walked down the steps and through the parking lot toward the street, wondering how many more times he’d walk out those doors. He’d been with Angela for almost half a year, which is about half a year longer than he’d been with any other woman he’d met. There’s something about her though, he thought to himself. Maybe it was her quiet demeanor or the way she never pushed him to get a job or asked about his life before they met. He liked to keep those details to a minimum whenever she did ask, and usually answered with a shrug or a nod. Alex had been on his own since he was fifteen, finding the casual odd job, never staying in the same place for too long, and never getting attached to any of the women he used for a place to sleep.
It’s almost time to move on, he thought to himself, knowing full well that it would break Angela’s heart.
Normally he’d just walk across the street to the gas station, but he was going to do Angela a favor and fill up her car’s tank before he bought a carton of smokes.
As he pulled on to Blair’s Ferry Road, he noticed the flashing lights of city emergency vehicles, something that he had grown accustomed to seeing over the past week. While the crime rate in Cedar Rapids had been on a decline with burglaries, and robberies, violent assaults, murders and missing persons had been on the rise. The odd thing was that the newscasters never mentioned anything about the people being robbed, just attacked, but never with a weapon of any kind.
Yesterday it was a young girl whose mutilated body was found at the Sac and Fox Trail City Park just south of the city. Last week, a man had been assaulted at Ushers Ferry Village. The assailant had actually bit the poor guy and taken a chunk of meat out of his arm. Several weeks earlier it was a city worker who was attacked by a homeless person in the sewers underneath the US Cellular Center.
Things were definitely getting weird in the City of Five Seasons, so tonight’s excitement was nothing new.
Usually Alex would avoid the city’s police at all costs, but he was growing comfortable with his current situation and saw no need to make his trip longer, especially since he was just going across the street. As he pulled into the parking lot of Scotty’s Fill & Fly, Alex saw an ambulance, a fire truck and two squad cars.
The Holy Trinity of ‘To Serve and Protect’, he chuckled to himself.
He pulled up to the pump furthest away from the congregation of city protectors and filled Angela’s car with premium. Why not, he thought. It’s not my money.
After getting his carton of Marlboro Reds from the store, he made his way back to Angela’s car. With a side glance, he saw that one of the squad cars was violently rocking back and forth.
Whoever was in the back seat was not happy to be there and seemed to be doing his best to get out.
“Might as well see what all the commotion is about,” he muttered to himself.
Alex tossed the carton in the backseat and walked several paces from the pumps before lighting a cigarette, casually walking closer to the squad car. He overheard the officers talking about the events leading to the scene spreading out before him.
“It took six of us to bring down the son of a bitch.” one officer says.
“Yeah,” replies the second, “After we tazed him.”
“Four times,” the first officer explains to the group.
“And the poor bastard in the ambulance,” the first officer remarked.
“I know,” a fourth chimed in. “I wonder what kinda drugs ole boy was on,” he said as he pointed to the violently shaking squad car.
As Alex approached the squad car, he could hear the moans echoing from inside and the sound of flesh and bone crashing into the back passenger door, the occupant’s skull thunking on the window. He casually made his way around the ambulance and saw its back doors propped open, a man being attended to by an EMT. He had a blood soaked bandage on his head and his right arm was wrapped. P a g e | 11
“He just came outta nowhere,” Alex overheard the victim explaining to the EMT.
“Well,” the EMT replied, “you’re lucky he didn’t hurt you worse. But you’ll still need a ride to St. Luke’s for a tetanus and rabies shot.”
“I hate needles.” the victim sighed. “I just can’t believe he bit me and took that much of my scalp off.”
“Like I said, you’re lucky. A few stitches in your hairline and the scars won’t even be noticeable.”
“Unless I start going bald,” the man chuckled in reply.
Weird shit was indeed happening all around Alex.
Staring off aimlessly into the nothing, Alex was shaken back into reality when he heard the sound of glass cracking. It reminded him of that time he’d been ice fishing with his Grandfather and the ice began to give way beneath their feet. He turned to look back towards the squad car to see that the man handcuffed in the back seat had smashed into the window enough that it was finally giving in to his assaults. A spider web crack began to open in the passenger window now smeared with blood. Alex nearly jumped backwards into traffic when the man’s face, now covered with shards of glass and splinters of bone, began to peek out through the cracked window.
The officers around the car were sent into a near frenzy and immediately jumped to attention. One screamed orders and several reached for their guns as the man pushed himself through the broken window.
Alex couldn’t make out one single voice as each of the cops were screaming orders at the man to “Remain where you are,” and “What the fuck are you doing.” Had the horror of the scene unfolding in front of him not been so gruesome, Alex might have laughed at that last comment.
By the time the officers’ guns were drawn, the man had already squirmed his way through the shattered window and was seething around on the ground next to the car, covered in blood and fragments of glass. Even with his hands cuffed behind his back, Alex could swear that his left shoulder hung a good six inches lower than the right. The man violently jerked his right arm, causing his left to spasm like a trout on the beach until it could no longer hold back the violent tension caused by the right arm.
Alex stared in shock as he watched the flesh slowly begin to tear away from the man’s left shoulder and upper arm and fall lifelessly to the ground with a wet thud. As the man walked slowly towards the cops, hands still cuffed and dragging his now severed limb behind him, one officer fired a single round which caught the man in the left thigh. The man fell to the ground but he didn’t let out a scream of pain; instead he began to get back to his feet as he let loose an unearthly groan that sent shivers down Alex’s spine.
“Get the fuck out of the way,” one officer shouted in Alex’s direction. That was all the motivation Alex needed. He ran full sprint for Angela’s car, slamming the door shut and peeling out of the gas station’s lot, narrowly missing oncoming traffic.
Shit was definitely getting weird in Cedar Rapids, and Alex needed a drink.
* * * * *
Alex drove down random streets, not really paying attention to where he was going. The scene back at the filling station kept playing through his mind. Jesus fuck, did that shit really just happen, he thought to himself. That guy… his arm fell off and he didn’t even notice. He didn’t even scream! He took a shot to the thigh and just kept coming.
Alex swiped his hand across his forehead, his hand still shaking. I need to get somewhere and calm down, he thought. He didn’t recognize any of the buildings he was passing, had no clue where he was. He stopped for a red light and noticed a bar on the next block, its neon lights proclaiming Bar None.
“Perfect,” Alex said as he flipped on his blinker and pulled the car into the lot. Parking in the front of the building was full so he drove around to the smaller lot in back of the bar. Alex shut the engine off and rested his forehead on the wheel for a moment, collecting himself.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of someone moving through the barely-lit lot, and he raised his head to get a better look. The man was unsteady on his feet, stumbling along the back wall of the bar with his hand outstretched as though he hoped that would help him find his balance. Alex started, and then closed his eyes tightly, ordering himself to calm the fuck down. Dude’s just drunk, afraid he’s going to fall over, that’s all. Relax, he told himself.
When his hands had finally stopped shaking, he got out of the car and walked toward the bar. He could hear strains of music pumping out as the doors opened and a couple emerged, too wrapped up in each other to pay Alex any notice. He slipped in the door before it had time to close and took a look around.
There were pool tables to the right side of the main room and, from what Alex could tell, a large dance area in the back. Even though it was a weeknight, the dance floor was teeming with gyrating bodies, couples spinning together, grinding against each other, losing themselves in the rhythm of the world’s oldest mating ritual.
The bar dominated the main room, with a slim line of tables and booths tucked against the walls. Large screen TVs were tuned to whatever sports events happened to catch the attention of those at the bars, their sound competing against the driving beat from the dance floor.
There were several open stools at the far end of the bar, and Alex slipped onto one as he signaled the bartender. When the man finally noticed and sauntered over as though he hadn’t a care in the world, Alex grunted, “Whiskey, neat, and make it a double.”
The bartender slid Alex’s drink down to him. Alex caught it and drained it in two swallows. “How about another”, he gasped.
The bartender raised his eyebrow and walked over to refill Alex’s glass. “Either you’re drinking to forget something, or you’re looking for trouble, son. Might want to take it easy there, yeah?”
Alex tossed back the second shot and grabbed the bottle from the bartender. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you just leave the bottle and mind your own business, yeah?” He slapped Angela’s card down on the bar and gave the man a glare, daring him to start something. Alex smirked when the bartender just shrugged and turned back to the other end of the bar, evidently deciding that whatever Alex’s problem was, it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to reason with him.
Alex took a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle, already starting to feel a pleasant warmth spreading through his body. He turned slightly on the stool, his attention on one of the TVs in the corner. Now that the edge was knocked off of his earlier panic, he sipped his drink and relaxed. He knew he should be getting back to Angela’s apartment, but he wasn’t ready to go just yet. She’d be asleep and going home to a quiet apartment held no appeal to him at the moment.
The game Alex had been half-heartedly watching was interrupted for a commercial break, and the advertisement for the nightly news showed a pretty reporter standing in the parking lot of Scotty’s Fill & Fly, the flashing lights of the ambulance in the background. The reporter’s words clearly cut through the din in the bar.
Tonight at ten, we’ll show you what happened here at Scotty’s Fill & Fly on Blair’s Ferry Road when officers responded to what may have began as a mugging, but soon turned to something far more dangerous. Stay tuned…
Alex’s vision began to swim and all he could hear was the roaring of his own pulse in his ears. Spots danced before his eyes and he clapped his hands over his them until the spots faded and the roaring in his ears subsided. One of the waitresses dropped a glass, and sound of it shattering brought Alex back to his senses.
When he looked up again, he found the bartender watching him, shaking his head. “Crazy thing that happened there, huh? Had a fella come in here earlier telling us about it; said he drove by and saw this man just jump on another guy and start biting on him. Took a chunk outta his skull, he said. Crazy stuff.”
Alex nodded in agreement. “Yeah, crazy stuff.” He clumsily scooped Angela’s card off the bar and stuck it in his wallet as he slid off the bar stool. He was none to steady on his feet as he made his way to the door; for some reason he couldn’t name, he felt compelled to keep checking over his shoulder as he went.
He looked back to the doorway, but he wasn’t quite steady enough on his feet to dodge the couple who were trying to squeeze between the tables and the bar. He bumped into the girl and caused her to spill her drink down the front of her dress. Alex started to apologize and move on, but the girl’s overzealous boyfriend decided that an apology wasn’t good enough.
The douchebag shoved the girl behind him and got in Alex’s face, gripping the front of Alex’s shirt as he said, “Hey buddy, what the fuck is your problem? Watch where the hell you’re going!”
Alex didn’t even think; he just let his fist fly and cold-cocked the guy, knocking him backwards into a table. Drinks spilled everywhere; dishes clattered to the floor and broke. Several bar patrons jumped up to avoid the overturned drinks; while others rushed to aid the man on the floor.
Alex realized that he’d just made a very stupid mistake. The bartender was sure to call the cops and Alex did not need to spend a night in the lockup for assault. He hauled ass for Angela’s car, knocking into people in the parking lot as he ran. He beeped the locks open and dove behind the wheel, jamming the key in the ignition and nearly breaking it off in his panic to get going.
He pulled out into the highway and headed away from the bar. He forced himself to drive carefully and obey the speed limits. He didn’t think that anyone had gotten a look at his license plate so, if he could just avoid drawing attention to himself on the road, he should make it back home without any trouble.
A police cruiser passed him in the opposite direction, possibly heading for Bar None, and Alex waited until the taillights were out of sight before he made a left turn. Follow this road that runs parallel and you should be able to find your way back home, he told himself. Just stay calm and maintain, Alex.
He drove a few blocks before he remembered that Angela’s car had a GPS navigator system. He rolled his eyes and pulled off the road into a parking space in front of a dry cleaners’ building. He plugged Angela’s address into the system and waited for it to catch up to his current location.
When the directions popped up on the screen, Alex pulled back out into traffic and followed the yellow brick road back to Angela’s place. He was surprised that he’d driven so far from home; Bar None was a good twelve miles from Angela’s apartment.
He pulled Angela’s car to a stop in front of her building, not caring how he parked. He grabbed the carton of cigarettes from the back seat and jogged up the stairs into the lobby. He kept his head down and didn’t make eye contact with Mr. Roper, who was sitting behind the lobby desk staring pointedly at Alex. Alex gave the grumpy old man no attention as he hit the button to call the lobby elevator.
The elevator finally arrived and carried him up to Angela’s floor. He tucked his carton of cigarettes under his arm and fumbled with his keys as he walked down the hall, finally locating the door key. He walked in and flipped on the lights in the living room, tossing his jacket and smokes on the chair in the corner.
The door to their bedroom was closed, so he opened it and peeked in. Angela seemed to be sleeping, so he closed the door and went back to the living room. He felt like having company but he didn’t want to wake Angela; it wouldn’t be worth it to hear her bitch him out over waking her up when she’s got an early shift in the morning.
He looked around the living room, his eyes finally lighting on the DVD tower in the corner. Ian can keep me company, he thought as he popped Jurassic Park IV: Return to the Lost World in the player. Alex kicked his boots off and left them lying under the coffee table as he made his way to the fridge to grab a beer. He popped the top, watching as it hit the edge of the coffee table and flipped into the floor. He lit a cigarette and flopped on the couch, pushing the Play button as he landed.
Gotta remember to clean up before I crash out, he thought. Soon though, he was lost in the adventures of the Lost World, thoughts of anything beyond the fictional world on his screen disappearing.
* * * * *
Angela looked over her shoulder as she ran; she knew the beast was behind her somewhere. She could feel its heavy feet shaking the earth as it chased her, hear its thunderous roar as it closed in on her. She couldn’t run fast enough to get away; her legs were beginning to tire and her breath was coming in short, painful gasps. The beast closed in on her and she tripped over a root and fell. She scrambled backward, her nails clawing in the earth as she tried to get away. It opened its giant mouth, razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the light, and bent its head to devour her. She screamed and threw up her arms in a futile attempt to protect herself.
ROAR! Angela sat bolt upright in the bed, her arms crossed over her face and her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. She looked around and realized that she must’ve been having a nightmare. She flopped back onto the pillows and turned her head to look at her alarm clock. 4:32 AM. She groaned and pulled her pillow over her face. She still had another half-hour before she had to start getting ready for work. Maybe I can drift back off for at least twenty minutes, she muttered to herself.
“What the fuck is that,” she said as she jumped out of the bed. She grabbed her robe and shrugged into it, not bothering with the belt as she threw the door open.
The sound was nearly deafening in the living room. She took in the scene before her, eyes narrowing. Alex was asleep on the couch, DVD remote in one hand and a beer bottle cradled in the crook of his arm. An ashtray sat full on the coffee table in front of him, butts spilling out onto the floor. Several more beer bottles sat empty on the floor in front of the couch, their caps strewn in various places near the table.
Angela turned her attention to the TV screen, incredulous. “Jurassic Park IV, again?!” She stalked over to Alex and pulled the remote from his hand. His only response was to snuggle his face deeper into the pillow and mumble a little bit. “What is it with you and Jeff Goldblum,” she asked, not that she expected Alex to answer. She turned the volume down to a more respectable level and turned the power off. Honestly, it’s a wonder my neighbors haven’t tried to get us evicted yet, she thought as she headed for the shower.
Forty minutes later, Angela came back into the living room, dressed for work but still exhausted. She took the beer bottle from the crook of Alex’s arm, and scooped the bottles up from the floor as well. As she dumped them in the trash, she gave passing thought to putting the bottle caps sharp side up in Alex’s boots, but decided that would be too mean. She took a container of yogurt and one of her Lean Cuisine meals from the freezer, stuffing them both in her lunch bag. She doubted she’d get much of a lunch; after her dismal performance yesterday, she was determined to do a better job.
She’d heard some of the other nurses talking about her when they thought she wasn’t listening. Bunch of catty bitches, she thought to herself. We’re nurses! We’re supposed to have compassion. She locked the front door as she exited and jogged down the stairs to the lobby.
Mr. Roper called with a smile, “Have a blessed day, young lady!” She gave the doorman, Mr. Roper, a wave as she headed out through the front doors.
She stopped on the sidewalk, her jaw dropping in shock. Alex, in his infinite wisdom, had left her car in the dead center of two parking spots and there was a parking ticket stuffed under her windshield wipers. She groaned and stuffed the ticket into her bag. God damn it, Alex, she mumbled to herself. Just one more mess for her to clean up.
Resigned that this day was going to suck, she drove to St. Luke’s.
* * * * *
Since Angela was so early for her shift, she decided to stop in to see her mother first thing. She used her employee ID to swipe in through the side entrance and took the elevator to the fourth floor. She stopped in at the nurses’ station to find out if there had been any developments during the night; her mother was still in a medically-induced coma, unable to breathe on her own thanks to the pneumonia wreaking havoc in her lungs. The nurse on duty told her that her mother had had a quiet night, though, and that the doctors were hopeful that they’d be able to bring her out of the coma soon. “Your mother is responding well to medication so far,” the nurse assured Angela, and advised her to keep the faith.
Angela thanked her and continued down the hall to her mother’s room. She let herself in and paused for a moment just inside the doorway. No matter how many times she saw it, the sight of her mother lying there, so pale and helpless and hooked up to tubes and monitors… It was enough to break Angela’s heart.
She closed the door and pulled a chair closer to the bed, taking her mother’s hand as she sat down.
“Hi Mom, it’s me. It’s Angela. I talked to the nurse on my way in and she told me that you had a good night last night and that you’re responding to the medicine that they’re giving you. The doctors are hopeful that they can bring you out of the coma in a couple of days. Isn’t that wonderful, Mom? You’ll be back at home before you know it. I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you last night. Things… Well, I got some news and it messed me up a little bit.”
Angela’s voice broke; she took a few deep breaths and squeezed her eyes shut to stave off the tears that threatened to fall. “That’s not important though, Mom. Not right now. You just need to get better, ok? I need you to get out of this place and be okay.”
She stood and pressed a kiss to her mother’s forehead. “I’ll stop in and check on you again before I head home, ok? I love you, Mom.”
Angela squeezed her mother’s hand once and then turned to leave the room. She stood just outside the doors, and leaned against the wall for a moment. If she could just make it through this day without a total breakdown, Angela would be thankful.
* * * * *
The rest of the day passed quickly for Angela. She made her rounds and, to make amends for her recent poor job performance, she took on an extra half-shift in the ER to cover for her friend Nicki. The place was hopping; there seemed to be a sharp increase in the number of assaults over the past few days. She treated quite a few bites and some pretty severe scratches.
“What the hell is wrong with people these days,” she asked one of the other nurses. “Seems like everyone’s going off the deep end. Biting, scratching…”
“Sounds like every cat fight I ever saw in high school if you want the truth,” the other girl joked.
Angela laughed and swiped her card through the time clock. “Yeah, me too. Sounds like a couple I was in, as well.” She gathered her bag and pulled her keys out as she stopped by the nurses’ station. “I’ll see you in the morning. Try to have a quiet night if you can.”
Angela waved and made her way to the lot where she’d left her car. She knew she should stop by and see Taylor before she left, but she wasn’t in the mood for the next exciting episode of the “Why Angela Is Too Good for That Douchebag Alex” show.
She pulled out her cell and pressed the speed dial for her home number. The phone rang four times before the machine picked up. “Hey, Alex, it’s me. I’m on my way home, and I’m going to grab dinner on the way. I’ll see you in a bit.”
She stopped at her favorite Chinese place, Mr. Kim’s Happy Family, on the way home. She realized too late that Alex still had her credit card from the night before. Good thing I still have some cash on me, she thought begrudgingly. Otherwise, I’d have been out of luck.
She pulled into a parking space at her building and wearily started grabbing her bags out of the back seat. She managed to get everything upstairs, but then had to put everything down to dig her key out.
The apartment was oddly silent when she walked in, the odor of cigarette smoke faint but definitely present. She sighed and dropped her packages on the table. “Alex? Are you here? I brought dinner.”
She walked into the bedroom and saw a note pinned to her pillow.
I meant to call you earlier. I’m going out with the guys tonight. Probably be late when I get in. Don’t forget to start some laundry in the morning before you leave. – A.
Angela crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash. I’ll start laundry all right. I’ll do my laundry and leave yours in the parking lot, you spoiled bastard.
Angela brought her dinner to the coffee table in the living room and flipped the television on as she sat down to eat. Alex had apparently been watching the World News Network, a surprising change from his usual Jeff Goldblum movie fetish. World New Anchor Jeannie Crocker was live on location in Syria, broadcasting from an upper balcony of the American Embassy. The view behind her was one of mass hysteria. Her voice was barely audible over the cacophony of the riots happening all around her. “The situation here in the capitol has gone from a violent display of political unrest to one of unspeakable travesties. Citizens once gathered in protest have now begun to turn on each other.” The camera panned to the right and showed a small group of women mercilessly beating a robed man with their fists, shards of concrete, and whatever other weapon they could fit in their hands. “Extreme acts of violence are erupting all around us. The Military has barred all entrance into and out of the US Embassy.”
The camera lingered on the group of women for a brief moment. Angela stared at the TV like a goose necked passerby watching a train wreck unfolding before her very eyes. The cameraman centered and focused on one of the women in the mob. From behind the woman a gnarled hand grasped the back of her head and violently drug her kicking and screaming out of frame. “Holy shit,” Jeannie gasped. The cameraman quickly turned and caught her pointing in the direction of the crowd below them. “Is he eating her,” she shrieked. The cameraman zoomed in for closer inspection but the view remained out of focus. The broadcast then abruptly cut from Syria to an obviously pre-recorded infomercial already in progress. Its hyper-active salesman pitching some banal instrument targeted at the cat lady demographic. Angela sat dumbfounded in front of the screen, flipping through the other news channels, trying to find one that was airing the rest of the news piece. It seemed as though every channel was now airing syndicated programming and infomercials. “What the fuck was that,” Angela said out loud to no one in particular.
* * * * *
Alex walked down the street toward BabyDolls, his favorite club on the strip. He’d made quite a night of it, hitting The Landing Strip, Déjà vu, and The Pink Pussycat. He showed his ID to the bouncer at the door and made his way to the bar, pleased to see that Lexxie was tending tonight.
“Lexxie, what’s shaking, baby doll?” He leaned across the bar and kissed her on the cheek.
“Axle,” Lexxie squealed, using one of Alex’s many bar aliases. “Where have you been, honey? We haven’t seen you in here in several weeks now. You shacking up at another club, cheating on your girl Lexxie?” She curled her arm around his neck and gave him a tight squeeze. “You know that’s not allowed, right darlin’?”
Alex grinned and accepted the drink Lexxie passed his way. “Aw, you know how it is, chere. Anything new going on?”
Lexxie spread her arms wide and grinned. “You see it and yeah, I definitely know how it is. You have fun tonight, ok baby? Drinks are on me.” She winked and turned back to the other customers clamoring for her attention.
Alex took a seat at the end of the bar facing the stage. He loved this club; the girls here knew how to make a man feel special whether he was a high-roller or not. He signaled for Lexxie to send him a bottle of top shelf whiskey and passed the waitress an obscene tip. He refilled his glass and raised a toast the adorable redhead jiggling on the pole in front of him, leaning back to take in the show.
* * * * *
He’d been at the club for nearly two hours when someone approached him. He felt a feminine hand slide along his back to his shoulder, the soft swell of a breast pressing against his forearm.
“Hey there, darlin’,” a sultry voice all but purred in his ear. “You look like you could use some company.”
Alex turned and looked at the woman. She was just the kind of woman that Angela would’ve referred to as a “man-eater.” She was dressed to kill: little black dress that showed all her assets to their best advantage, fuck-me heels and a killer smile. She was the sort of woman that knew exactly what she wanted and had no trouble going after it.
“Maybe,” Alex drawled, his slight Cajun accent coming through. “How do you know I’m not waiting on someone? A girlfriend? Maybe even a wife?”
She laughed, a throaty rich sound that sent shivers up Alex’s spine. “Because, darlin’, I’ve been watching you for the last hour. You’re nursing that bottle of whiskey like it’s your only friend. I hate to think that’s the case, so I thought I’d come over, offer to be your friend.”
Alex grinned and patted the stool next to him. “I’d have to be a fool to turn down making such a lovely new friend. Have a seat; I’ll buy you a drink.”
He signaled the bartender for a second glass, and poured it mostly full. He handed it to her and said, “So, what’s your name, pretty lady?”
She took a dainty sip from her glass and replied, “What do you want it to be?” Alex just tilted his head to the side and cocked a brow. She smirked and said, “All right, fine, but don’t you dare laugh, I mean it! My name is Sugar.”
Alex couldn’t quite hold back a chuckle. “Seriously? Come on, you’re putting me on, right?”
She shoved his arm. “I told you not to laugh!”
He turned to face her as he said, “You’re right, I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re my first Sugar. How on earth did you come by that name?”
Sugar shrugged. “My mother, bless her heart, was deeply enamored with all things Southern, including their propensity to call everyone “sugar”.” She pushed her lower lip out in a pretty pout. “Most men seem to like it.”
Alex nodded and raised his hands in mock surrender. “No, no, I like it, believe me.”
Sugar leaned close to his ear and whispered, “Why don’t we take this somewhere more private then?” She slid her hand suggestively up the length of his thigh. Alex took hold of Sugar’s wrist and said in a husky voice, “Don’t rev the engine unless you plan on driving it around the block, darlin’.” Sugar make a sound that was almost a purr and said, “I know a quiet little place where we can… get to know each other better, shall we say?” She put her hand on his cheek and kissed him.
For a moment, Alex responded; then thoughts of Angela invaded his mind. Guilt pricked his conscience and made Sugar’s kiss taste like whiskey and desperation instead of sex and salvation. He broke the kiss and disengaged himself from Sugar’s hands. “Not tonight, Sugar. I have to get going.”
Sugar shrugged and grabbed a book of matches and a pen. “Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me.” She tucked the matches into Alex’s back pocket and sashayed off toward the main floor, her hips swaying hypnotically.
Alex shook himself, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He headed for the door, still shaking his head at his own odd behavior.
Still, the trip hadn’t been a total waste, he thought to himself as he hailed cab. He still had a nice little buzz going on; not enough to impair his judgment but enough to take the edge off of recent events. He gave the cabbie Angela’s apartment’s address and soon enough he was headed “home”. The cab driver looked at Alex in the rear view mirror and inquired, “So, ya have a good night?”. “Yeah,” Alex replied, looking at the cab driver’s dash mounted ID, “I sure did, Bob.” “Sure is some weird shit going on,” Bob continued.
“How so,” Alex returned.
“I mean all those people getting attacked and the missing kids up at the park.”
“What kids? I didn’t hear anything about any missing kids,” Alex leaned forward giving the cabbie his undivided attention.
“You know. The school kids who were up at Camp Wapsie. Some school function or something. All those farm kids whose parents don’t think they get enough of the great outdoors.”
“Nope. Hadn’t heard about that one. How many got lost?”
“All of them.”
“What exactly happened,” Alex was about to delve deeper into the conversation but had misjudged the distance between BabyDoll’s and Angela’s apartment.
“I’d love to tell you more, but we’re here. You’ll have to check tomorrow’s paper.”
Alex nodded and passed the cabbie Angela’s card. “Thank you, Miss Dean,” the cabbie mocked.
Alex shrugged with a smirk and headed inside. The building’s night doorman was sitting behind the desk, his nose stuck in a novel.
“Dial M for Murder? Again, Mr. Roper?”
Mr. Roper didn’t even raise an eyebrow at the sound of Alex’s voice. In fact, Alex was sure could’ve danced naked across the lobby playing a tuba and he doubted the doorman would’ve even looked up. He rolled his eyes and took the stairs, knowing he could get to Angela’s apartment under his own steam before the elevator could even make it to the ground floor.
He unlocked the door to the apartment and saw that Angela hadn’t bothered to leave a light on for him. He sighed and flipped on the overhead light, wincing at the sudden flare of brightness. “Ouch, too much there, Alex,” he mumbled to himself.
Now that he was home, all he wanted to do was crawl into bed. His buzz from earlier had pretty much deserted him, leaving him wiped out. He went into the bathroom and dropped his clothes next to the hamper, not noticing when Sugar’s matchbook fell out of his pocket and landed on the floor. He killed the lights in the living room and crept into the bedroom that he shared with Angela.
She had obviously had a tough time falling asleep; the covers were all askew and pillows were tossed onto the floor. She’d finally fallen asleep lying diagonally across the bed, her arms spread out. Alex sighed and picked his pillows up off the floor. He slid under the covers and tried to pull Angela into his arms, but she started to whimper and resist his touch. He gave up and rolled over; it just wasn’t worth it to fight her on it, and he was so tired, he probably could’ve slept standing up in the corner.
He debated sleeping on the couch, but to his way of thinking, he’d already given up any chance of getting laid tonight. He’d be damned if he’d give up sleeping in a bed too. He pulled the blankets up over his head and sank into a deep sleep.
* * * * *
Angela woke up the next morning, feeling as though she was smothering. She sat bolt upright, throwing her pillows across the room as she moved. What the… Oh, of course, she muttered to herself. Alex. The man just couldn’t sleep unless he had the blankets pulled up over his head, as though he were a child hiding from the Boogeyman. Angela didn’t understand how he could sleep that way; she couldn’t stand to have her face covered like that.
She sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes, debating just saying “fuck it” and going back to sleep. She didn’t want to face the day; didn’t want another argument with Taylor, didn’t want to go to the hospital and see their mom hooked up to machines and tubes in order to stay alive. I just want things simple, she thought. Is that too much to ask?
She looked over at Alex and stuck her tongue out at him. Childish though it may be, the gesture did make her feel a little better. If he would get a job, I could take a mental health day every now and then, she groused as she stood and headed for the bathroom. She ran the water as hot as she could stand it and stood under the spray until it turned cold, willing the water to wash away all the bad feelings and leave her with a fresh attitude, a positive outlook for the day.
Angela felt marginally better after her shower. She wrapped herself in her favorite fuzzy bathrobe and bent over to wrap her hair in a towel. As she did, she noticed a pile of clothes next to the hamper. She rolled her eyes as she knelt to scoop the clothes up, knowing without even looking that they were Alex’s. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw what looked to be a discarded scrap of paper. “This better not be another goddamn parking ticket,” she said out loud, hoping that Alex would hear her in his sleep. Last time Alex had taken her car he’d left it in a no-parking zone and it had cost her just over $400 that she couldn’t afford, to spring it from the impound lot.
She picked up the paper and realized that it was a matchbook from a strip club. Her knees buckled as she read the words written there. “Call me when you decide to come out and play again, XOXO, Sugar” There was a phone number written underneath it.
Angela felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She walked into the living room and sank down on the arm of the sofa, the matchbook clenched in her fist. Five months, she thought. Five months and this is what I get from him? She thought about her past relationships, the anguish and pain, the therapy she’d endured to move past them. She knew that Alex wasn’t a perfect guy; he was lazy and a bit of an ass sometimes, but she’d thought he was at least honest.
She angrily swiped at the tears that had begun to trickle down her cheeks. She hated to admit it, but she thought that she was in love with Alex, despite his faults. He could be so charming, so funny. He made her feel so good about herself in the beginning. Lately though, things had gone downhill. She’d hoped she could salvage their relationship, make things right, especially in light of the fact that she was pregnant with his child. Now, though, all she could see in her mind was Alex and the faceless whore behind the phone number.
“Not this time,” she growled. “I will not let him do this to me.” She was never again going to allow herself to be any man’s doormat, and if Alex had any interest in being with her, he was going to have to work for it.
She steeled her spine and stalked into the bedroom, determined to see things through, one way or the other.
* * * * *
“Alexander Jefferson Machai! Get your sorry ass out of bed right now! You have some serious explaining to do!”
Angela’s shrill voice drilled into Alex’s brain with the force of a bullet. He groaned and pulled the covers over his head, hoping he could just make her disappear by sheer force of will. There was a time, not so long ago, when he loved to hear Angela say his name. Her voice was so lyrical, so lovely. Now, she just sounded like a shrew ninety percent of the time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t about to get a reprieve. Angela stormed into the bedroom and ripped the covers off the bed, throwing them onto the floor. Alex opened his eyes and squinted at her. She just stood there, one hand on her hip, the other clutching what looked like a book of matches from a bar.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Ange? I was sleeping!”
Angela crumpled the matchbook and threw it in his face. “Who the hell is Sugar?” Angela shrieked, barely able to conceal the rage in her voice. She crossed her arms over her chest, tears beginning to glisten in her eyes. “You told me you were out with some friends last night. I wasn’t aware that you had a friend named ‘Sugar’.” Angela mocked him with exaggerated air quotes. She said the name with so much venom in her voice that Alex wouldn’t have been surprised if she had sprouted a forked tongue and fangs.
Alex sat up and opened the matchbook, mentally chastising himself for not having the good sense to throw it away before he got home. He looked at the number and then pitched it in the trash can. With a sly smirk, he replied, “Honey, Sugar is just some chick that was at the bar last night. She hit on everyone who didn’t have a pair of boobs and insisted that I take her number. To tell you the truth, I felt a little sorry for her.” His voice dropped an octave, the tone soberingly mellow. “She’s just some lonely broad, desperate for attention. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t want it. I meant to throw it away before I got home – I was just so damn tired that I didn’t even think about it.”
He stood up and wrapped his arms around Angela, kissing her softly on the nape of her neck. “Come on babe, don’t be angry. I swear nothing happened!” He made the sign of an X across his chest and smiled that boyishly sweet grin he knew Angela wouldn’t be able to resist. “You know you’re the only woman for me.”
“Oh come on, Alex!” Angela took a step back, breaking the faux embrace, and rolled her eyes. “We both know better than that. You felt sorry for her? Puh-leeze! You’ve never felt sorry for a lonely woman in a bar in your life!”
Alex sat down on the bed and grabbed his pack of cigarettes off the nightstand. “You know what, Ange? That’s just really fucked up. How can you even think such a thing about me?” He lit a cigarette and threw the pack back on the table. “Have I ever, ever, given you a reason to doubt me?” He took a deep drag off the cigarette and angrily blew out the smoke, the haze partially obscuring Angela’s face. “Well? I’m waiting.” he spat back at her.
“You know I hate it when you smoke in MY apartment,” Angela hissed, as she stepped up and tore the cigarette out of Alex’s mouth. She stomped into the bathroom and threw it in the toilet, glaring at him, almost daring him to say something. “Alex, I just don’t know what to think anymore. You stay out all night. You come in whenever you feel like it. You haven’t worked a single day since I met you. I just …” she paused, trying to take a calming deep breath. ”I’m at my wits’ end. I don’t have any more room to tie any more knots at the end of this rope! I just need some help here.”
She turned her back to him and fisted her hands in her hair. Alex just stood there for a moment, completely taken aback. In all the short time they’d been together, Angela had never raised her voice to him, never questioned him. He honestly didn’t know what to say or how to react. He hesitated for a moment, reaching out to put his hand on her shoulder, and whispered, “Honey.”
Angela pulled away from him as though his touch had burned her. “I can’t do this anymore.” She turned and looked at him with blank eyes. “I have to go to work now,” she said as she stepped toward the bedroom door. “I’d really like it if you were gone by the time I got home. Pack your things, leave your key, and just go.”
“Ange, wait!” Alex leapt off the bed and crossed the short distance of the bedroom. He took her hand and said, “We can talk about this, we can fix it! Don’t leave me! Please” Alex hated the sound of desperation in his voice, but he didn’t know what else to do. He followed her to the door, bracing his hand against it, barring Angela’s retreat. “You don’t have to do this, babe. We can make it right. I can make it right. If you’ll let me.”
Angela sighed and put her hand on Alex’s chest. “No, Alex, you really can’t.” She pushed him away from the door, almost as though she were discarding yesterday’s leftovers.
Alex had reached his boiling point. “You’ll be sorry, Ange!” he began to rave behind her. “You’ll never find someone who’ll put up with your shit like I do! Just wait and see!”
Angela looked back at Alex, eyes full of disgust. “And this is why I want you gone. Screw you, Alex. I’m done.” She walked out the door, slamming it behind her.
Alex just stood there, shell-shocked. What the fuck was that, he thought to himself. He was sure that she’d come back, tell him she’d changed her mind, and everything would go back to the way that it was. But as the minutes slowly ticked by, he realized that Angela really meant what she’d said. It was over.
“Well, ain’t this a switch”, he said to the empty room. He sat down on the couch and grabbed a cigarette from the pack lying on the table in front of him. He lit one, exhaling as he leaned back. Alex, you are a fucking idiot!
He had to admit that things had been going downhill with Angela for a while, especially since she’d started to hassle him about looking for work. To be honest, he’d lost interest in hearing about that the moment the words first left her mouth. He liked the apartment and the company, but not enough to put up with her nagging. I guess it was fun while it lasted, he said to himself.
He sighed and put his cigarette out in a leftover fast food soda cup. It was time to move on. He had run this routine so many times in the past that it had become second nature to him; a new town, a new woman. No big deal, right, he tried to convince himself.
With any luck, he’d be halfway to his new life before Angela realized anything was missing. Looking around the apartment, he made a mental list of the things he needed to take. Alex grabbed his lucky backpack and stuffed it with everything he thought he’d need to start over … Again.
* * * * *
Angela trudged through the lobby, still feeling as though she’d been sucker punched in the gut. She looked up, hoping to see Mr. Roper, knowing that at least she could count on him for a cheerful smile and a few pleasant words.
Mr. Roper sat behind the desk looking anything but cheerful. His head was bandaged and Angela could see more gauze covering part of his forearm. There were dark circles around his eyes and a gray tinge to his skin, making him look as though he hadn’t slept in weeks.
“Mr. Roper,” she cried out as she rushed over to his desk. “What happened?!”
“Oh,” Mr. Roper replied, lightly touching the bandage on his forehead. “Nothing for you to worry over, miss,” he replied, as Angela patted his uninjured hand. “I was careless when I left yesterday evening. I didn’t pay close enough attention to my surroundings… And I was caught unaware by a mugger. I’ve a nasty little scratch on my arm and a bump on my head… But nothing more than that.” He tried to smile reassuringly but, to Angela’s eyes, it looked like more of a grimace.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you,” Angela said softly. “You’ve always been so kind to me.”
“Not at all… I’m certain. I just need some rest and I’ll be right as rain. Don’t you worry for me, young lady. I’ll be just fine.”
Unconvinced but unsure of what else to say, Angela leaned over and kissed Mr. Roper on the cheek. “Take it easy today, then, ok? Get as much rest as you can.” She patted his hand and walked through the front doors, thinking that the day had only started and it was already the worst day she’d had in years.
* * * * *
Angela drove the entire way to work on autopilot, trying not to think of the finality of the last conversation that she would ever have with the man who had shared the last six months of her life. She cranked the radio, hoping to find some solace in the meaningless pop drivel that poured from the speakers. “I’m just a shadow in the light you leave behind.” But as everyone knows, the radio has a tendency to exaggerate how easy it is to lose someone that you thought loved you. Frustrated, Angela changed the station. “Now I’m lost and alone, and only you can make me whole. I’m broken and alone, with just this aching hole in my soul.” “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Angela screamed at the radio.
As she skidded into a parking space at the hospital, she could no longer hold back the flood of emotions welling up inside of her. The dam burst; tears streamed down her face and she could find no solace in the knowledge that her decision was for the best. A primal scream erupted from her chest as she mercilessly beat the roof of her car, only realizing the consequences of her actions when her knuckles began to ache from the pointless assault.
Time almost stood still as she rested her head on the steering wheel, trying to catch her breath. Panic seized her chest as the implications of what she’d done sank in. I can fix this, she reasoned with herself. It’s not too late.
Her hands shook as she dug in her bag, desperately searching for her cell phone. “He’ll still be there”, she told herself. “He’s got be there.”
Frustrated, she upended her bag, spilling the contents onto the seat. Makeup, pens, Alex’s parking ticket… she shuffled through the useless crap that she once thought she couldn’t live without. Finding her cell phone grew in importance until it felt as though it was her only lifeline.
“Where is my fucking phone,” she screamed, slamming her fists into the dashboard. She looked up, her eyes widening as she realized that she was starting to draw a crowd. Two of her coworkers stood on the sidewalk, pointing in her direction, no doubt speculating that Angela had finally completely lost her mind.
A feeling of embarrassment usurped any feeling of remorse. She gave her coworkers a tiny wave and a fake smile as she mouthed the words, “Lost my phone,” by way of explanation. She watched as they shrugged and feigned understanding before rushing inside.
Angela groaned and thunked her head on the steering wheel. “Great, Angela,” she told herself. “Now they’re inside telling everyone that you had a shit fit in the parking lot. Smashing.” She bent over the seat and scooped her belongings back into her bag, except for her makeup case. She opened the mirror on the back of her visor and winced at the image she saw. Puffy red-rimmed eyes, runny nose; she looked as though she’d just been crowned Miss America.
She did the best she could to repair the damage, and debated driving back home to talk to Alex face to face. As she glanced at her watch, she gave up and went into to face the day. She was already late and couldn’t afford a disciplinary note in her file.
Angela rushed inside and slid to a halt at the nurses’ station by the ER. She saw her supervisor standing there, tapping her watch and glancing at the clock on the wall. “Sorry I’m late,” Angela said. “I had a personal emergency this morning.”
“It’s always something personal with you,” her supervisor said, giving Angela a warning look as she turned to walk away, her heels clicking against the tile.
“Bitch,” Angela muttered under her breath. She stowed her bag behind the nurses’ station and collected her patient files from the head nurse on duty. She wanted to go to the fourth floor and visit with her mother, but she didn’t want to incite her supervisor’s wrath.
* * * * *
Alex jogged down the stairs, his pack heavy against his back. He felt better about the situation, now that it was over and the decision had been made for him. He couldn’t believe it had taken him this long to leave Angela’s apartment for the last time; he should’ve done it months ago.
Stick to the plan, Alex, he thought. Don’t let things get complicated. In and out and move on, you know this drill.
Out of sheer force of habit, he looked over at Mr. Roper’s desk in the lobby, looking forward to needling him about Dial M for Murder one last time, and was disappointed to see that the steadfast bellman wasn’t there. That’s odd, Alex thought. He could hear the old man’s favored big band era music playing on the radio, but he didn’t see Mr. Roper anywhere.
Oh well, no big deal, Alex thought as he pushed the doors open and bounced down the steps. I’ve got bigger fish to fry than Mr. Roper anyway.
Alex whistled to himself as he walked down the street, Tiptoe through the tulips. Had anyone known he’d just been dumped and kicked out of his girlfriend’s apartment, they’d have cocked an eyebrow. Alex was grateful that Angela had forgotten to get her credit card back from him after he’d borrowed her car a few evenings ago. A couple of maximum cash withdrawals and a bus ticket would wipe out the card’s usefulness, but Alex would hold on to it like he had so many other trophies. Angela was also now minus some jewelry, her laptop, and her cell phone. Alex shook his head at the thought. She was such a sweet girl, so naive. She’d learn better. Of course, it was too late this time around.
As he rounded the corner to head to the bus station, he shrugged his shoulders to settle his backpack more comfortably and caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A man, arms outstretched, was walking toward him. Actually, he was stumbling. He has to be drunk, Alex thought. “Damn panhandlers,” he muttered to himself as he sped up and took a couple of steps toward the street, trying to stay away from the man. The vagrant looked sick; his skin was a mottled gray. Alex would swear that the guy had weeping sores on his hands and face. He shuddered at the thought, horrified by this man’s apparent sickness.
A few off-center sidesteps placed the bum within arm’s reach of Alex’s backpack. “Sorry, dude. Got no spare change. You need to lay off the booze and get a job though!” The panderer replied with a low moan, almost a growl.
Alex was almost halfway down the block when he felt someone grab him. Surprised, he turned and saw that it was the same panhandler that almost had a hold of him earlier. One of the sickly hands had attached itself Alex’s backpack, the other tugging at his jacket. “Dude! What the fuck?! I said I didn’t have any money!” He tugged his backpack away and gave the man a shove, knocking him to the ground. Alex brushed his jacket off in disgust, his eyes flashing angrily.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You don’t just grab somebody like that!” He kicked out at the man, catching him squarely in the ribs. The sound of bones cracking reverberated through the air. The vagrant’s only reply to the assault was a pathetic moan.
As Alex turned to walk away, he heard a woman’s voice calling to him. “Hey buddy, what’s your problem? You didn’t have to do that! Look at him! He can barely stand up now!” Alex turned and walked backward. Watching her help the man up off the ground was almost comical, like watching a child try to pick up a sack of potatoes. He flipped her the bird, saying “Whatever, bitch!” and turned back around, making a beeline for the bus station. He didn’t have time for her or some crazy old drunk; a new life was waiting for him.
Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by the woman’s voice once again. He turned with just enough time to see what her problem was. He chuckled to himself when he saw that the old drunk seemed to have a hold of her, one hand crumpling her neatly pressed blouse, his dirt-encrusted fingernails of his other hand digging into one of her arms. She cried out in pain and she shoved the man away, knocking him to the ground a second time. A small crowd had started to form around them, but Alex could clearly hear the woman cry in protest “He scratched me! I’m bleeding!” “No good deed goes unpunished, sweetheart,” Alex called to the woman, a cheeky smile on his face.
* * * * *
Angela went through the motions of her daily routine like a somnambulist. The monotony of the day seemed to suck the very soul from her. She checked blood pressure and took temperatures; she asked about sexual activity and allergies, and she swore that if she had to ask one more person if there was a family history of heart disease or diabetes, she was going to jump out the window.
At her first opportunity that afternoon, she snuck into an empty room and tried to call Alex. The phone rang and rang before going to voice mail. Angela felt her heart drop into her stomach at the sound of his voice.
Angela left a message, hoping that it wasn’t too late to undo the damage that had been inflicted. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it,” she said in a fragile tone, full of childlike innocence. “You were right. I know we can fix this. I don’t want to throw away all the time that we had together. I love you and I’m so sorry. Please, call me.”
She breathed a heavy sigh as she placed the receiver back in the cradle, exited the room, and made her way back to the emergency floor. Another patient was waiting.
* * * * *
Alex sat in one of the god-awful uncomfortable chairs in the bus station commons, sipping a cup of stale burnt coffee and waiting for his bus to be called. He was tempted to break out Angela’s laptop and make use of the station’s Wi-Fi, but he didn’t want to waste the time packing everything up when it was time to leave. He was ready to be done with this town, anxious to hit the road and begin his next adventure. Keep things exciting. Fresh and new was his motto. Well, that and make sure the adventure was on someone else’s dime. That was important.
Alex turned his attention to one of the TV screens along the wall; a local news station had interrupted one of the many banal morning talk shows with an emergency broadcast. There had been some sort of commotion going on at the hospital a couple of hours earlier, a patient wreaking havoc in the emergency room, attacking people.
For a moment, Alex thought it was the homeless guy that had approached him on the street. The patient in the hospital had the same look: gray skin, milky eyes, and a waxy appearance. His thoughts then turned to Angela; she worked at the same hospital. Which department did she work in? Was it the ER or was she over in Radiology? Did he even really care at this point? He thought she was in administration somehow but he couldn’t recall. At the moment, he had more important things to worry about. He pulled her cell phone out of his bag, brushed his thumb over the power button, and debated whether or not to risk turning it on so he could search through her contacts, see if that would give him a clue as to where she’d be in the hospital. Just then, another passenger tripped into Alex, shaking him back into reality. It doesn’t matter, he thought.
Irritated now, he shoved her phone back in his bag, and stuffed it in as far to the bottom as he could. Why the hell was he worried about where she was? She’d kicked him out. Besides, he was sure she was fine. He looked back at the screen, saw that the hospital security seemed to have the crazy patient under control. The screens flipped to show the updated list of arrivals and departures, and Alex’s bus was at the top of the list to leave. The commotion at the hospital and thoughts of Angela were soon forgotten as Alex grabbed his pack and headed for the loading platform.
As he waited to board, Alex looked around at his fellow passengers, sizing them up. He was pleased to see that the bus would only be about half-full. He didn’t like to be crowded; he didn’t want to have to climb all over anyone else to get in and out of his seat. Hmmm, except for that little cutie, he thought to himself as he noticed once of the female passengers. I wouldn’t mind climbing over her. She seemed to be travelling by herself and she was absolutely delicious. Alex gave her a smile and a little wink when she looked his way. She blushed and smiled back before ducking her head, turning back to face the bus. Alex gave a little laugh. Yeah, this is going to be a fun ride, he thought.
Alex boarded the bus, choosing a seat near the back. As he sat down, he noticed that the guy across the aisle on the other side looked really ill. He was sweating through his cheap Faded Glory polo shirt; his eyes were bright and glassy, his skin pale but his cheeks clearly flushed. Alex sat down next to the window and tucked his pack safely on the floor between his feet.
Great, just great, he thought. People shouldn’t be allowed to use public transportation when they’re obviously sick. Whatever this guy had, Alex definitely didn’t want it. He looked at the guy again, and shook his head in disgust as he turned around in his seat. Guy looks like fucking death warmed over and he’s on a damn bus. Perfect. Probably the monkey flu. Now I’m gonna get sick, thanks to this douchebag.
The driver took his seat, and, soon enough, the engine roared to life. Alex settled more comfortably in his seat and pulled his iPod out of his pocket. As he seated the ear buds in his ears and adjusted the volume, he caught the little cutie from earlier looking over the top of her seat at him. He smiled at her and gave her another wink as the bus pulled out toward the highway. Alex sighed and closed his eyes. In a few short hours, he’d be hundreds of miles away, ready to start a new life. Boone, North Carolina, he thought to himself. Sounds anonymous enough.
* * * * *
On her way to the morgue, Angela walked by an exam room. She could hear a woman inside, talking about how “no good deed goes unpunished”. For a moment, Angela had a flash of déjà vu; she was certain that she had heard that phrase before, but she couldn’t recall where.
Deciding that it wasn’t important, she shook the feeling off and walked on by. She took the elevator down to the basement level and walked quickly down the hallway to the morgue. Being on this level was always a terrifying experience for her; this time, she literally felt every hair on her body stand up. Her nerves were raw and she felt more vulnerable than she’d ever felt in her life.
She pushed the doors open and was surprised to see that Taylor wasn’t sitting at her desk. She could hear music, though, so Angela knew Taylor had to be there somewhere.
Have you ever wanted to die when you were without your friends?
“Jesus, Tay-Tay,” Angela called out. “Isn’t that a bit morbid to listen to when you work in the morgue?”
She rounded the corner and was taken aback at what she saw there. Taylor lay sprawled face-down on a gurney in the corner, one hand dangling lifelessly off the edge. The room was silent except for the next line of the song.
Haven’t you said goodbye to the one on whom your life depends?
Angela rolled her eyes and walked over to Taylor’s side. “Sleeping on the job, huh? I can fix that.” She hesitated for a moment, remembering that Taylor tended to come up swinging when she was woken up. Angela moved to the end of the gurney and tapped the bottom of Taylor’s foot. Taylor let out a soft groan, almost a purr. “Mmmmmm, Travis… Again so soon?”
Angela snorted in laughter and ran the tips of her fingers up Angela’s calf. Taylor sat up, and seeing Angela there instead of Travis, kicked out and caught Angela in the hip with her toe. “Dammit, Angela, what the hell is wrong with you? I was sleeping!”
“Yeah, on the job! What if I were your supervisor? I don’t think he’d appreciate hearing you moan about Travis while you’re supposed to be working.”
“We haven’t had a delivery all day! And besides, why not sleep and get paid for it. Like you guys don’t do that up on the fourth floor!”
Angela’s jaw dropped. “I’ll have you know I have never taken a nap on the job, thank you very much.”
“Well, we can’t all be as perfect as my big sister.” Taylor jumped off the gurney and tucked her iPod back into her pocket. She looked up and saw that Angela was on the verge of tears. “Hey, is everything ok? Is Mom ok?”
“I think Mom’s ok; I haven’t heard anything otherwise today.”
“Well have you gone up to see her yet?”
“Not yet. I’ve been a little busy today, Tay. You may not have had any deliveries, but I’ve been up to my eyeballs in tongue depressors and bedpans all damn day long. Give me a break, would ya?”
Taylor looked at Angela and balled her hands into fists. “You couldn’t get to work fifteen minutes early to go see our mother, who may be dying in a hospital bed? You’d rather come down here and scare the shit out of me than to go up and see Mom?”
At Taylor’s harsh words, Angela burst into tears. Taylor, taken aback, began to cry as well. She walked to Angela and wrapped her arms around her. “Angela, I’m so sorry. We’re both under a lot of stress, I know that. I didn’t mean to snap at you, ok? I just need you to be there for Mom. I don’t care what’s going on at home. You have to be there for our mother.”
Angela snapped her head up, her eyes flashing in anger. “You have no fucking clue what’s going on at home, and you have no right to insist that I do anything. I am there for Mom. I have things going on that you couldn’t possibly understand. So back off.”
“How can you be so selfish?”
“Selfish? You think I’m selfish?”
“If you’re going to tell me that that leech is more important than our mother, then I will put you in one of these drawers.” Taylor pointed at the morgue drawers that lined the wall.
At that moment, the girls nearly were startled by the sound of the morgue doors banging open.
Angela turned around to see a hulking man wearing a security uniform standing in the doorway. “Andre Dailey, what the hell,” Taylor said, still clutching her chest. “You scared the hell out of us!”
“Boo, bitches,” he replied with a hearty laugh. “I could hear you two hens squawking all the way down the hall. Do I need to take care of your light work, Taylor?”
“Andre, I would like you to meet my bitch of a sister. Angela, Andre. Andre, bitch.”
“Fuck you, Taylor.”
“Whoa there ladies,” Andre said as he stepped between them, his hands raised.
“No, not whoa. I’ve taken all the shit off of her that I’m going to take for one day.”
“Well whatever you two have going on …”
Andre was interrupted by the sound of heavy banging on the inside of one of the morgue drawers.
* * * * *
Alex awoke with a start when the bus jerked to a stop. He couldn’t believe he’d drifted off like that. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes but his sudden awakening left him in mental fog. So stupid. Foolish, even. Probably a little dangerous. He sat up quickly, and reached down between his feet to make sure his bag was still there, sighing in relief when his fingers brushed the familiar material of his lucky backpack. He rubbed his eyes, and then looked toward the front of the bus in an attempt to see what was happening.
There was a roadblock several hundred yards ahead on the highway’s entrance ramp, with military vehicles blocking all lanes of traffic heading into and out of the city. There were quite a few cars and trucks pulled off to the shoulder, military police speaking with the drivers of those vehicles. There were a number of State Trooper cruisers as well, lights flashing, and officers walking between the cars, leaning down to speak with drivers and showing what looked like photographs to the cars’ occupants.
Alex stood and made his way down the aisle, dropping into the seat next to the pretty girl he’d noticed earlier. “Hey,” Alex said, coyly. “Why are we stopped? What’s going on out there?”
She glanced at him, looking him up and down with a hint of sexual longing in her gaze. She then looked back out the window, watching the activity around the roadblock. “I’m not really sure, sugar. It looks like they’re looking for someone, but they haven’t been to the bus yet. Maybe there was another murder or something, do you think?”
Before Alex could speak, a police officer knocked on the door of the bus. The driver opened it for him, and the officer stepped on board. He spoke with the driver in low tones for a short moment before leaving the bus again.
Alex swallowed hard, his face going pale.
“Sugar,” the girl asked. “Are you ok?”
Shaken back to reality, Alex nodded and attempted a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just I… I fell asleep after we left the terminal. Just woke up, that’s all. Thanks for the info. I’m sure they’ll get to us soon, and then we’ll be on our way in no time.”
Alex stood and shakily made his way back to his seat, his mind racing. As he walked, he caught sight of the sick guy he’d noticed when he first got on the bus. Alex wouldn’t think it was possible, but the guy looked even worse. He was fidgeting in his seat, rocking back and forth with his hands clenched over his stomach. His face was completely pale and starting to take on a greenish-gray tint. Ugh, Alex thought as he slid into his own seat. Dude looks awful.
The other passengers were whispering loudly to each other, wondering what was going on and passing the word that the roadblock was an effort to apprehend someone. All Alex managed to catch from their conversations was that they were searching for someone but no one seemed to have a solid description.
Alex felt the strangle-hold of panic start to rise in his chest. Were they searching for him? Had Angela come home early, discovered that he’d taken her computer and jewelry? Had she tracked her phone somehow, and found his location that way? He started to sweat, to freak out a little. What if she’d come home, and called the police? No, that’s just ridiculous, he thought. They wouldn’t call out the military just to catch me. That’s absurd.
To be on the safe side, Alex grabbed his pack and dug through it. Nothing he could do about the computer, but he could stash her credit card and cell phone in the secret pocket in the bottom of his pack. They could still be found but the cops would have a helluva time managing it unless they did a full on pat down of his backpack. Even then it would be hard to notice.
Confident that he’d covered his tracks to the best of his ability, he closed the pack and settled it on the seat beside him, just in case he needed to make a swift exit. He straightened his shirt and brushed his hair back from his face, wiping his sleeve across his forehead. He was sweating like a whore during Easter Mass.
Two military police officers climbed aboard the bus, the one in front wearing a smile and projecting a somewhat friendly but still authoritative demeanor. He’s the diplomatic one, Alex thought. He’s supposed to keep us all calm and orderly until they get what they want. The second officer, though, held a large rifle and looked as though he’d love to get the chance to use it. He’s the muscle, the pit bull, Alex thought as he sized the man up.
The first officer spoke, addressing all the passengers at once. “Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the delay in your travel plans, but we have to conduct a thorough search of this bus. We’ll be around to speak with each of you individually. If you could please have your IDs and boarding passes out and ready that would expedite our investigation. We appreciate your cooperation and ask that you remain in your seats until we’re through.”
As he spoke, the second officer looked around at the passengers, his eyes catching Alex’s and holding them for a long moment. Alex began to sweat again, his hands shaking a bit. Oh shit! He knows, he knows! What the fuck?! How could he know? Alex’s thoughts whirled in his mind, fast and nonsensical. He looked around, his eyes lighting on the emergency exit at the back of the bus. He debated going for it, weighing his chances of getting the window pushed out before the officers could catch him.
“Sir,” the pit bull called out in Alex’s direction. “Are you ok?” For a minute, Alex thought the guy was talking to him. He started to answer, and then realized that the officer was speaking to the guy in the back of the bus, the one who seemed to be sick. “Sir?” the officer called out again, cautiously.
The other passengers turned to look toward the back of the bus. Just then a woman cried out, “Oh my God! He’s having a seizure! Someone help him!” Alex looked back and sure enough, the man was flailing in the seat, his legs flopping around, his hands curved into morbid talons. He was obviously choking. The passengers’ voices rose in a cacophony of fear. Several passengers left their seats in an attempt to reach the man with help. The officers tried to keep everyone back out of the way and maintain some semblance of order as they made their way up the aisle, calling for everyone to remain calm and seated. Alex figured that this was his chance; he had just hooked the straps of his backpack over his shoulders and stood up when the bus erupted into chaos.
The female passenger who’d spoken before was calling out for help, shouting that the man had stopped breathing. “He doesn’t have a pulse,” she screamed. She knelt over him in the seat, doing her best to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The military police officers had managed to reach the back of the bus and were attempting to take over when the man’s body began to violently shudder to life, his hands catching the woman’s hair and latching on. She screamed as she tried to push herself to safety, shoving desperately to get away from him. When she stood up, Alex swore that his eyes had been playing tricks on him; the woman’s lower lips had been torn completely away, a gaping wound where her mouth had been. Blood flowed without remorse down her neck, staining her shirt and leaving those close to her covered in a crimson wave of sticky red warmth.
The other passengers were screaming, shoving at each other in their confusion and terror. Alex took this opportunity and ran for it. He grabbed a hold of the handle on the emergency exit and pushed with all his strength, but nothing happened. He raised the handle and kicked the door as hard as he could, sending it flying open. He fell out of the door as it banged into the back of the bus. A loud metallic “Wham!” resounded. Was that a gunshot, he thought to himself. He didn’t waste any time scrambling to his feet and ran as fast as he could from the bus and the carnage that had erupted within. His pack was a solid steady weight against his back. He looked over his shoulder only once as he ran. The scene in the bus was horrifying. Blood spattered the glass at the back, gory handprints smeared across its windows. Alex heard a gunshot, the loud report of a rifle, and more desperate screams from the passengers trapped within.
Terrified, Alex scrambled over the guard rail at the side of the highway and slid down the bank. When he reached the bottom, he ran as fast as he could, not daring to look back again.
* * * * *
THOOM THOOM THOOM A woman’s scream pierced the eerily silent room. The thundering sound caused Angela to nearly jump through Andre as he shrieked like a school girl who’d been startled on the playground. Taylor kept some semblance of composure though, and looked in the direction of the morgue’s cold storage lockers, her head tilted inquisitively to the right.
“What the Hell,” Taylor murmured. “Jesus Jump Back Christ,” Andre proclaimed, still obviously taken aback by the sudden noise. Angela began to chuckle at the sight of Andre’s startled form, and herself crouching behind him like child who first realized their fear of clowns after being dragged to the circus. “Aren’t they supposed to be dead when you lock them in there, Taylor,” Angela inquired, straightening up and stepping from behind her reluctant protector. “Usually,” Taylor replied, continuing to stare down the door that was now obviously shuddering on its hinges from the interior assault. Andre took a cautious step toward the direction of the rows of refrigerator doors, taking a few steps, stopping to look behind him at the girls, and repeating the process until he stood in front of the inanimate culprit. Taylor’s curiosity was now boiling over like a forgotten pot of noodles left on the stove. She crossed the short distance from her desk and tentatively reached for the door’s handle. “Wait,” Angela shouted! “You don’t know what’s in there!” “It’s probably Dave,” Taylor replied dryly. She was referring to one of her co-workers who had prided himself on his ability to execute some extreme practical jokes on his fellow morgue attendees. A fifteen year veteran of the morgue, Dave had become somewhat of a legend amongst the hospital staff, always coming up with unique and morbid ways of freaking out his work family. Unfortunately for her, Taylor had been the victim of Dave’s annual Halloween prank from the previous year. Dave had decided that the usual “plastic spider hanging from the ceiling” gag had been overplayed and had been planning his ultimate practical joke for months. Taylor had come home that night earlier than usual, and as soon as she staggered through the front door, her mother knew that something must have transpired at work from the look of complete shock on her youngest daughter’s face. Taylor had helped perform an autopsy on an elderly woman earlier that day. The woman was a Jane Doe, a homeless woman found underneath one of the cities many railroad bridges, so the usual precautions to preserve the body for its family weren’t necessary. Since the woman was a Jane Doe, it was likely that the city would be paying for her burial and the body would end up cremated anyway. Taylor had made perplexing notations that the woman’s body had been partially mutilated, missing its toes and fingers, which seemed to be removed with surgical precision. The rest of the autopsy went smoothly enough, Taylor coming to the conclusion that the woman had passed peacefully in her sleep but still perplexed as to where the body’s fingers and toes had disappeared too. Taylor packed up for the end of her shift, changing out of her scrubs and work shoes as she had done countless times before. As she slipped into her street clothes, she casually stepped into her left shoe and paused when she felt squishy nubs on the bottom of her foot. Taylor upended the shoes and screamed as ten bloody toes tumbled out and spilled across the floor. Her startled scream could have been heard from the busy streets, but thankfully the lower level of the hospital that housed the morgue was relatively empty. After gingerly picking up the severed lower digits, and cursing whichever asshole had put them in her shoes, she placed them in a baggie to be stored with the body. She pulled her winter jacket over her shoulders and began to slip on her thick, wool mittens. She closed her eyes in disbelief as the progress was halted by more squishy nubs stroking her fingers. She desperately closed her eyes, her entire body shaking with rage. She didn’t even have to check her mitten’s contents to realize that someone had stuffed the homeless woman’s severed fingers into her gloves. Shocked and still swimming in disgust, Taylor placed the fingers in the same baggie she has just placed the toes. She tossed her mittens and shoes in the trash and walked out of the hospital in her sterile medical booties, seething with anger as she walked home, mentally promising to extract some form of revenge on the man who she knew had stuffed body parts in her mittens and shoes. “I saw Dave getting off the elevator when I was coming down here,” Andre noted. “Then he must have paid off one of the interns again,” Taylor snapped back, now in no mood for anyone’s funny business. Taylor forcefully inserted her key into the lock, unlocking the compartment and jerking it open with enough force to cause it to bounce off the door beside it. A metal clang resounded through the room. “Not funny,” Taylor barked in a threatening tone. “Whoever you are, get the fuck out of there.” Taylor gripped the gurney’s handle and pulled the slab out of its casing. Andre shrieked for a second time as the form trapped in the body bag sat upright, a soft moaning echoing from underneath the heavy black plastic. “What the Hell,” Angela demanded, “get him out of there!” Taylor grabbed the metal zipper, slowly releasing its teeth as she pulled down. “Oh my God,” Andre said, as an obviously naked man slowly emerged from between the layers of plastic. His skin looked grey, eyes glossed over. His mouth slowly moved to form words but no noise escaped his pale blue lips. The man craned his neck to look at Andre, the sound of thawing muscles snapping almost drowning out the sound of Andre’s shaking voice. “Sir, are you alright,” Angela chimed in. The man slowly turned his frigid upper body in Angela’s direction and the sound of crunching plastic mimicked his response. Angela’s gaze was locked into his cold grey eyes. For a brief moment, she swore she could see her own visage reflected in the man’s nearly lifeless orbs. “Sir,” Andre interrupted, “we’re so sorry. Who put you in there? How long have you been in there?”
Angela continued to stare blankly at the man in front of her, a hint of familiarity exposed in his porcelain skin. “Angela,” Taylor screamed, snapping her sister back into reality. “Call a doctor! We’ve got to get him upstairs. He’s in shock!” As Angela crossed the room and reached for Taylor’s desk phone, her sister began to pull the remaining portion of the body bag off of the man, shuddering when she touched his naked flesh. His skin was cold but not just cold; it was icy, like raw meat that you’d pull out of the refrigerator after thawing it. The man took notice of Taylor’s touch and lazily reached out, grabbing hold of her left arm. Taylor jumped back at the sudden presence of his icy grasp, causing them both to tumble to the ground. His glacial hand wrapped itself around her frail arm with a vice-like grip, unrelenting with its force to maintain its hold. The man’s rigid nails dug into her soft flesh, his mouth opening wide, an audible snap resounding from his jaw. Taylor squealed in pain and shock, trying in vain to pull away from her assailant. Andre jumped over the drawer the man had just fallen off of and landed squarely between his bare shoulders, pinning the man on top of Taylor’s small form. “Jesus Fuck,” Taylor screamed, “get him the fuck off of me!” The man’s open mouth inched closer to her exposed flesh, closing the gap between his mouth and the arm he had locked in his grip. Placing one of his massive hands on the back of the man’s neck, Andre used his free hand to take a hold of the man’s left arm, the nails of the man’s right hand still unearthing the flesh on Taylor’s wrist. Andre easily pulled the man off of Taylor and flung his naked form away from her, sending him skidding across the slick tile of the morgue’s floor. Angela dropped the receiver on Taylor’s desk and, with a quickness that she didn’t know she possessed, nearly jumped the length of the room, landing next to her wounded sister. Andre leapt on top of the naked man for a second time, pinning him to the ground. “Taylor,” Angela gasped, “are you ok?” “No! I’m so far from ok, I can’t even see ok!” Angela helped her sister up off of the cold tile, taking notice of the scratches running parallel down her forearm. It looked like Andre had done more damage than good when he pulled the man off of Taylor. Slim crimson lines had begun to appear on her pale flesh.
Andre had wrestled the man to his feet, the assailant’s hands now cuffed securely behind his back. “Is she alright,” Andre called over his shoulder as he half walked, half shoved the man out of the morgue and down the hall.
“She’ll be ok,” Angela called back. “She might need a few stitches, but she’ll live.” “No stitches,” Taylor forcefully insisted. “You know I hate needles!” The naked man turned his head, looking at Andre and back down the hallway into the morgue, letting loose an unearthly groan. “Shut the fuck up,” Andre demanded, smacking the man in the back of the head and causing him to nearly fall to the ground for a third time this day. “I don’t care who the fuck locked you in there, you’re going to be in a world of hurt if you don’t calm down.” The naked man paid no attention to Andre’s threats and made another attempt to escape from Andre’s hold. “Get him upstairs and head back down,” Taylor yelled at Andre, “and the sooner the better. I don’t feel like being here all night filling out incident reports.” Andre nodded, while opening the door to the back stairwell and disappeared around the corner with Taylor’s attacker. “What the fuck, Tay,” Angela whispered. “How long was he in there?” “Who knows? But he was cold as ice when I touched him. It’s only 36 degrees in those compartments. I’ve been here all afternoon. Even if the fucker snuck in when I nodded off, he should have had severe frostbite and hypothermia from being locked in there, even for a little while.” “I wonder if he’ll sue the hospital,” Angela asked to no one in particular. “What?” “I wonder if he’ll try to sue the hospital,” Angela repeated. “Let him! Fucker attacked me! Whether or not he was in shock, I’ll own his ass!” Angela walked Taylor to her desk and helped her sit down. Angela then retrieved the medical kit that hung from the wall, and began to sterilize her baby sister’s wounds. Taylor winced as she spilled the alcohol over the scratch marks. “Sorry,” Angela apologized. “It’s ok,” Taylor said while clenching her eyes closed. “Could be worse.” “How so?” “It looked like he was trying to bite me. Did you see how hungry he looked?”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” “And his eyes. They looked almost frozen.” “Yeah, I noticed them too.” Angela thought back to a few moments earlier when the man first sat up from the drawer. His pale blue lips were the first part of him that Angela took note of. The look of his cold, lifeless eyes were still acid-etched into her memory. She was sure those eyes would haunt her later that night as she tried to fall asleep in an empty bed. Empty bed. In all the commotion, she’d forgotten about kicking Alex out before she’d left for work that morning. “I kicked Alex out this morning,” Angela said casually, as though she were asking Taylor to pass the salt. “What,” Taylor winced again as Angela moved the alcohol pad to the next laceration. “This morning,” Angela began to fumble with the words that were now caught in her throat. “I think he was cheating on me.” “That son of a BITCH,” Taylor screamed in protest as Angela scrubbed the fresh wounds. “Sorry,” Angela said in a more soothing voice. “What happened? Did you catch him with another woman? Or another man,” Taylor smirked. Angela burst into laughter which was quickly followed by a stream of fresh tears. “Honey,” Taylor said quietly, “it’ll be ok. I promise. Do you want me to come over tonight? Sleep over like old times?” “That’d be awesome but I think I need some alone time tonight.” Taylor looked at her big sister with stern compassion in her eyes. “I’ll be ok,” Angela promised as she began to wrap Taylor’s arm in gauze. “Alright, but you’re all mine tomorrow,” Taylor said. “We need a girl’s night out.” “Fair enough,” Angela remarked as she used the dull medical scissors in an attempt to cut the gauze. “Do people actually use these damn things,” Angela said in disgust, tossing the dull scissors on the table and using her teeth to tear the section of cloth off of the roll. “Yeah,” Taylor chuckled, “Because that’s sterile.”
“Didn’t you know,” Angela replied, “That’s why God made teeth.” They both burst into a roar of laughter that neither had attempted since their mother had been admitted into the hospital. Angela stood up from Taylor’s desk. “Promise you’ll go get this looked at before you leave,” Angela said, pointing to the fresh bandages, a small red stain beginning to seep through the cloth. Taylor nodded in agreement, examining Angela’s handiwork. “Remind me to have you wrap all my Christmas presents next year.” “Who can afford Christmas presents,” Angela joked. Taylor walked her sister to the elevator and waited beside her patiently for the doors to open, Angela’s head resting softly on Taylor’s shoulder. “I’ll call you later, Tay. I’m going up to see Mom and then heading home.” “Call me if you need me,” Taylor said, raising her right hand to her ear, miming a phone. “I’ve got your number,” Angela replied with a wink. Angela waved weakly as the doors closed, wishing that her life’s drama would take a vacation every now and then. Taylor turned and walked back to her office. The adrenaline rush started to wear off and she was exhausted. She sank down on the edge of her desk, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She picked up her copy of Gray’s Anatomy and become randomly thumbing through its pages. “Dammit that really hurts,” she said, her movements causing the wound to throb. Taylor, now cradling her injured arm, got up and began to pace back and forth across the morgue. She stopped in front of the slab that the man had sat up on, and retrieved the clipboard that had slid underneath the table. “Bruce Keys,” she said aloud, reading from the apparent death certificate. Taylor glanced to her immediate left as she heard a familiar noise. THOOM THOOM THOOM
* * * * *
Angela held her breath, steeling her demeanor as she gingerly pushed on the door to her mother’s room and pensively walked across the threshold. Being a nurse, one would think that Angela would be used to seeing patients laying motionless in a hospital bed, hooked up to various machines, brightly colored tubes and wires protruding from various parts of their bodies, but this was her mother and it almost brought Angela to tears. It took all her inner strength to even look at mother. Linda, the woman who had, while in the prime of her life, held down three jobs after their father passed away just to make sure her daughters had nice clothes to wear to school.
“Hi, Mommy,” Angela whispered in a voice weak with fear. “I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to see you last night.”
Angela inched closer to her mother and pulled a chair next to the bed, taking a seat beside her. Her mother looked like one of the mannequins Angela had practiced on during her first year of nursing school. Calm. Still. She could barely see her mother’s chest rising and falling as the machines artificially breathed for her, the mask covering her mother’s face clouding with humidity during the exhales.
“I’m so sorry, Mom,” she whimpered as she cradled her mother’s lifeless hand in hers.
Linda’s visage was blurry to Angela, tears beginning to stream down her face and staining the bed sheets. Angela leaned closer to her mother, burying her face in the pillow supporting Linda’s motionless head.
“I’m so, so sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. You’re up here sick, when you should be out there giving me advice and telling me that everything is going to be alright. Telling me that I made the right choice.”
Angela gripped her mother’s hand more firmly now, alternating between lightly squeezing and calmly stroking the frail appendage. The room grew silent, except for the beeps of Linda’s heart monitor and the gentle hum of the respirator.
“I kicked Alex out this morning, Mom,” she paused briefly, “and I’m pregnant.”
Placing her right hand on her mother’s cheek, still holding Linda’s left hand with her other, she added, “and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Angela’s breaths were coming and going in fits now. She had the feeling she may be having a panic attack. “I’m so scared, Mommy,” Angela admitted, gently squeezing her mother’s left hand again.
A long moment of silence passed before her mother responded with a feeble squeeze of her own. One of the Life Support Monitors’ alarms beeped a warning but Angela barely noticed in her excitement over her mother’s response.
“Mommy,” Angela gasped, “can you hear me?”
Linda replied with a slight moan.
“Mom?” Angela’s voice was beginning to show a sign of panic. “Mom? Are you alright?” Linda’s eyes fluttered, barely opening, her lips slightly moving to form inaudible words. Angela carefully removed the mask from her mother’s mouth.
“Everything will ….. work …. work out,” Linda weakly whispered to her daughter.
The sound of her mother’s voice could barely be heard above the equipment scattered around the room.
“Mom? I can’t hear you,” Angela nearly shouted as she leaned closer to her mother’s side.
“Everything will work out …. how it’s …. supposed to,” her mother whispered again, obviously using up the remaining reserves of her own strength. Linda’s eyes closed, and the hand Angela cradled went limp. Her mother was unconscious again. Angela released her mother’s hand and slid back down into the chair, mentally exhausted from their brief conversation.
If she should leave me, Angela thought to herself, at least she knows about the baby.
Barely finding her own strength, Angela got up and kissed her mother on the forehead. Feeling defeated, she walked out of the room, faking a smile as she walked past Bobby’s reception window and left the building. She found it odd that none of her co-workers were pacing the halls, no one was seated behind the nurse’s station, and she was the sole body on the elevator as she left work for the day.
Angela wasn’t expecting to see the vans from both local news stations and the local newspaper sitting in the parking lot as she exited the building. Oh yeah, she thought, the guy who was accidentally locked in the morgue.
Angela made a beeline to her car, hoping none of the reporters would notice her bright pink scrubs and eyes puffy from crying over her mother’s bed. She wouldn’t be so lucky though. One of the news channel’s reporters, the short, frumpy looking guy that Angela recognized from the early morning news show, saw her and began sprinting across the parking lot.
“Miss,” he called out.
Angela kept walking, obviously pretending to ignore the man.
“Ma’am, I’m with News Channel 5,” he proclaimed. “May I ask you a few questions about a patient who was accidentally placed in the morgue?”
Shit, Angela thought. Thankfully she’d nearly reached her car and was already fumbling through her purse in an attempt to find her keys.
“Uhm …. First I’m hearing about that,” Angela lied. “Look for someone in green scrubs, they’ll know more.”
“Thank you, miss,” the reporter replied and turned to walk back to his cameraman.
Angela breathed a heavy sigh of relief as she slid into the driver’s seat. The hospital was going to have one helluva lawsuit on their hands, and Angela didn’t want to sully her or Taylor’s reputation by talking to any of the paparazzi reporters now flocking around anyone who looked like they worked in the hospital.
Glancing behind her one last time, Angela pulled out of the parking lot and headed home.
Angela turned the radio to the local Spanish speaking station as she pulled onto 1st Avenue. She didn’t want a silent car ride home, but knew that her regular stations would only mock her current situation with their prefabricated pop music, and she didn’t want a repeat of this morning tirade. She found a catchy beat in one of the tunes and began humming her own lyrics.
“This is me driving. Driving down the street. Going home from work. Gotta stop for ….” she paused. “Meat?” Angela giggled to herself. She never was any good at writing poems, and that little ditty reminded her of why she barely passed a required creative writing class while attending college.
Angela had called Cedar Rapids home for her entire life, and knew all the jokes about the City of Five Seasons. Her least favorite fifth season was the construction season, and today the construction signs littered the roads like so much loose trash. Sewers were being dug up and replaced, water mains were being repaired, streets repaved or widened. She couldn’t blame the workers though; after all, who’d want to do that kind of work in the middle of the winter, and today’s weather was just warm enough for her to roll her window down and enjoy the sounds of her glamorous city.
A newscaster interrupted the mariachi band currently blasting from her speakers. He sounded very agitated and his words burst forth with a sense of urgency that transcended their language barrier. Angela flipped to one of her normal channels and caught the tail end of a broadcast. “…. please remain off the main roads. Your city’s current construction projects may hinder your drive home.”
“What the hell,” Angela said to no one in particular.
“I repeat,” the announcer continued, “we urge you to remain off of all main city streets while making your way home. Once you reach the safety of your home, please remain calm and allow the local authorities to deal with any possibly infected individuals. Please remain off the main roads. Your city’s current construction projects may hinder your drive home.” The automated voice repeated in loops.
Angela flipped to one of Eastern Iowa’s other regional radio channels with the hopes of catching a more detailed announcement but it was the same voice giving the same announcement on every station. The exact same voice, Angela was sure of it. Her interest was peaked now. Infected? Stay calm? Whatever was happening wasn’t a locally isolated incident. She looked up with just enough time to notice that the pickup truck directly in front of her had screeched to a halt and, on instinct, slammed on her brakes, skidding to a stop and narrowly avoiding a rear end collision.
* * * * *
The next few hours passed in a haze of terror and confusion for Alex. He ran back into downtown, looking over his shoulder constantly as he went. He couldn’t stop shaking, couldn’t get the image of that woman out of his head. Had that guy really bitten part of her face off? She’d said he was dead; how could he just all of a sudden come back and do something like that? It was like something straight out of a horror movie and Alex couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.
I need a place to lay low, get myself together, Alex thought. He tried to blend in with the rest of the pedestrian traffic out and about in town. People shopping, on their way home from work, hanging out with friends. It was all so normal, so completely at odds with the turmoil in Alex’s mind. Several frantic hours passed before he spotted what he’d been looking for: A motel with a vacancy sign flashing. He slowed his pace as he walked through the parking lot, tried to bring his heart rate down so he wouldn’t walk in looking like a panicked rabbit.
The clerk had his attention on the television when Alex walked up to the counter; a news program was running video of the attack on the bus. The talking heads pointed out that it was a poor quality cell phone video captured by someone in traffic. Alex nearly had a heart attack when he saw himself bursting out of the back of the bus and jumping over the guard rail.
The news anchors were talking over the bus attack footage which was playing on loop.
“According to numerous eye witnesses, random acts of extreme violence are being committed by people in a trance like state. These people appear to be mute and have lost their ability to respond. They are non-responsive to any attempts of communication. Local and national forces have been mobilized to deal with those affected by this illness. You are urged to stay indoors and avoid all contact with anyone who seems to be affected by these symptoms.
Citizens facing the collapse of local police, ambulance and fire departments have taken the law into their own hands. Civil and social services have been disrupted or suspended in many areas. Most communities are without power or telephone. Some without gas or water.”
His pulse racing, Alex watched the screen, seeing what had transpired before he’d left the chaos at the highway. Blood splattered across the windows at the back of the bus, spraying the windshield of the vehicle behind. Several shots were fired. The rear glass exploded outward leaving prisms of light dancing on the highway. A bloody hand reached out through the empty space. From the size of the hand, Alex judged it to be female, likely the woman who’d gotten part of her face bitten off. Alex shuddered as the video ended, the scene turning back to the news anchors in the studio.
“The scientific community is focusing on the phenomenan as a whole. Specifically the trance like state that seems to characterize the assailants. Clearly this is a behavioral disorder, but what could have caused such a wide spread and dramatic condition as the one that we are currently facing is still unknown.
We’ve heard speculation on everything from solar flares or chemical weapons used in a terroristic act to global warming or an organism from outter space. A micro biologist at the Univeristy of Nebraska has released a statement reporting that the bodies of the recently deceased are returning to life, being driven by an as yet unknown force that continues the brain’s ability to function. Doctor’s at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reject this theory, calling it outrageous and unfounded. They feel that the only reasonable explanation is a germ, a bacteria or virus that has a mind altering affect of the victim. The CDC has yet to explain though how such a germ or virus could be spread so quickly on such a broad area.”
They said that traffic in and out of the city had been halted, and roadblocks were being placed in an attempt to staving off any potential panic. From the headlines scrolling on the bottom of the screen, similar events were taking place all over the city. The National Guard had been called up to help maintain order, and all public transportation had been suspended until further notice. Cedar Rapids’ tiny airport was overrun with stranded travelers. Cellular signals were jammed as those travelers made vain attempts to reach their families and let them know what was happening. It was confusing, too much for Alex’s mind to process. He couldn’t make sense of the images he was seeing, the words spinning in his mind like a kaleidoscope. He found himself backing away from the desk, jumping as he bumped into the door frame. He shoved the door open and stumbled out into the spring warmth, gasping as the unusually humid air slammed into him. He gripped his backpack tightly, his knuckles turning white from the strain, as he allowed himself to be swept along with the other people out and about on the street. He barely paid any attention to where he was going, bumping into people as he walked, his mind a jumble of thoughts, confusion, and fear.
* * * * *
Angela’s car had been crawling along the street with a snail’s pace, moving barely a block in the past forty minutes. Looking to her left, she noticed a side street that led into one of the city’s many residential areas and dared to exit out of the slow moving stream of vehicles.
* * * * *
More time passed and Alex found himself outside a familiar coffee shop, Higher Grounds. Angela’s apartment is only a few blocks from here, he realized. He walked inside, noticing that the usually busy hang out spot was nearly empty, ordered a coffee and grabbed a table in the back of the shop. He needed to pull himself together, catch his breath. His eyes swept the room, relief flooding over him when he saw no one that he recognized.
He pulled Angela’s phone out of his backpack and turned the power on. The screen flashed notification after notification; Missed Call, New Voicemail, New Text Message, Inbox Full. He didn’t know Angela’s password so he wasn’t able to access her voicemails, but he could read her text messages. Mostly from Taylor and her friends, all of the messages ran along the same themes.
Where are you?
Please call me back, I’m so worried!
I heard about the attack at the hospital, please call me! Sugar Bear, U left w/o saying goodbye.
“What the fuck is going on,” Alex said out loud, meriting a stern look from the barista. Alex turned the phone off, pulled Angela’s laptop from his bag, and opened an internet browser. He smiled a little when he realized that Angela had stored her passwords in the computer’s memory. FaceSpace, Chatter, Hooked-Up. Everything opened with a simple left click. He noted that Angela’s feeds and timelines contained more of the same type of messages. Notes from co-workers and friends, begging for information or even a quick response from her. Other messages were regarding the state of events rumored to be happening throughout the city or her earlier incident in the morgue.
The longer Alex sat there, the more his conscience began to eat away at him. He’d seen the footage of his own experience broadcast on television, and was now hearing about Angela’s apparent incident in the morgue. Obviously, no one had seen or heard from Angela since early that afternoon. He sat back in the chair and scrubbed his hands over his face, his eyes roaming over the computer screen. The morgue, he thought to himself. I thought she worked in Radiology. What was she doing in the morgue? It was then that he realized his phone had been vibrating indicating that he had a new voicemail. “Fuck, I forgot all about my phone,” he muttered. Alex didn’t recognize the number, but it came across as an urgent message. Accessing his voicemail, Alex held his breath as Angela’s heart wrenching voice whispered apologies in his ear. The only person he could think of was Angela. Where was she? Was she alright? Why should I even care this much? Why didn’t I leave last week like I had planned? He fully expected her to slam the door in his face but, in light of the current situation, he hoped that she’d be able to restrain herself long enough for him to say his peace. They needed to hole up somewhere safe, wait this crazy shit out. After that, they could deal with their personal stuff. His mind made up, he packed the laptop and phone away, making sure the phone was powered down. He left the coffee shop and turned down the street that would eventually bring him closer to Angela’s apartment. As he walked, he passed people watching news bulletins on televisions in store-front windows, and listened to their exclamations as they voiced their fears. He kept walking, determined to get to Angela as soon as possible.
* * * * *
What Angela saw as she drove down the narrow streets confused and bewildered her. One family was boarding up their windows. A few houses down, another family looked as though they were packing to move, duffle bags and suitcases stacked on top of the family car.
The radio’s automated recording was now being mixed with what Angela could only assume was a live voice, announcing various accidents that had occurred in the city and warning people away from areas where traffic had clogged the street, leaving motorists at a standstill. As Angela pulled up to a stop sign, one announcement in particular made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
“Remain in your vehicles,” a woman nearly screamed into the microphone. “Do not leave your vehicles for any reason. Do not attempt to aid any stranded passengers and, I repeat, DO NOT take any actions to help anyone who looks sick or appears to be wounded.”
Angela nearly jumped through the roof of her car when she was startled by the sudden pounding on her driver’s side window. Angela screamed in terror at the abrupt appearance of the violent form that continued to beat on her car’s window. Her car lurched forward, jerking her backwards into her seat before she had time to hit the brakes. Angela stared through the window with an unnerving sense of confusion; it was like looking through a shower door that was still dripping wet. Except this time, instead of crystal clear streams of water, Angela’s window was smeared with a dark, crimson liquid. Bloody handprints now painted the driver’s side window. “Help me, please! You gotta help me,” the assailant pleaded, fear welling up in his voice. Angela shook the disbelief from her head and blinked wildly at the sound of the man’s voice. He sounded truly terrified. She could see long, brutal gashes running down his face and neck. His t-shirt, stained red, clung to his body. Peering out from rips and tears in his shirt, she could see the horrific gouges that perverted the man’s torso, giving the impression he had lost a particularly nasty fight with an ice cream scoop. “What’s going on,” Angela asked, trying to verbally call the man down. “It’s my wife! She’s gone crazy,” he screamed hysterically. “Ok, sir,” Angela said as calmly as she could. “Just stay calm. I’m getting out of the car.” Foregoing her own safety, Angela shifted her car into park, turned off the ignition, and cautiously opened the driver’s side door to exit her vehicle. The man was in an obvious state of shock, trembling and babbling incoherently about “Joyce”. “She came out of nowhere! I thought she was sick! Oh my God, the look in her eyes! She bit me! Took a chunk of meat! Why would she do this,” as he pointed to one of the gashes on his chest. “What’s wrong with her? Why did she attack me?” “Sir, you need to calm down. I have to get you to the hospital.” Angela instinctively reach into her pocket, looking for her cell phone, and remembered that she’d left it back at her apartment.
Angela cautiously approached the man, taking note of the severe wounds covering his body. Her initial thought was, did he say his WIFE did that? As she inched closer, she introduced herself as a nurse, telling him that she wanted to assess the damage before she took him to the closest hospital. The man’s only reply was a blank stare in her general direction.
“I have a first aid kit in my trunk,” she confessed with a soft tone, trying to calm the man. “I need you to come with me,” Angela continued as she motioned to the trunk of her car.
Angela reached out, snapping her fingers in front of the man’s face. “What’s your name, sir?”
As quick as a python lashing out at a mouse, the man’s left arm shot out and gripped Angela’s scrubs top. “She’s gone crazy,” he screamed, “Joyce tried to kill me!”
“Sir, you need to call down. You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re only going to work yourself into exhaustion if you don’t try to calm down,” Angela told the man as soothingly as she could.
The man released his grip on Angela’s clothing. “Oh God,” he began to weep. “My kids!”
“What about your kids,” Angela called back as she inserted her key into the car’s trunk. “Are they with your wife?”
“I left them,” the man began to cry. “I left them locked in the bathroom! I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I’m sure they’ll be ok,” she called over her shoulder, “we need to get you bandaged up first.” Angela found her travel sized first aid kit next to the spare tire, wrapped in a heavy blanket.
“I was so scared,” he continued. “We’d just gotten home from school. Traffic was horrible. All that construction. All those road blocks and detours. She’d been feeling ill the past week and I was helping out with the kids. So I picked them up from school. Oh, God,” he told Angela, tears streaming down his face, washing clear tracks in the dried blood on his cheeks, “I left my babies! I left my babies and ran away to save myself!”
“I’m sure they’re going to be just fine,” Angela remarked, closing the trunk and turning to her left to face her pedestrian patient. “Where is your wife?”
The man stared blankly through Angela, paying no heed to her questions or comforting words.
“Sir,” she asked again. “Where is your wife?”
It was then Angela heard the shuffling of feet from behind her. She slowly turned, half expecting, half hoping to find a member of the neighborhood watch walking up behind her. She would find no luck with their new visitor. The woman now standing before Angela could only be the man’s crazy wife. Joyce was dressed like she should be going to the gym. Her feet were bare. Her hair was tied back in a single, loose ponytail. Her University sweatshirt, stained a dark reddish-brown in several places, hung loosely off her thin body. Her eyes were as grey as the sidewalks. The visible veins of Joyce’s body danced up and down her exposed flesh giving the impression of cracked concrete. Angela gasped in terror as Joyce continued to lazily shamble towards her own now shaking form.
The man behind her groaned in protest at the sudden appearance of his apparent wife.
Joyce appeared to find a sudden burst of energy and lunged at Angela, knocking them both backwards into her car. Flailing as she fell, Angela blindly reached out for anything that might catch her fall. Her fingers grazed the man’s blood soaked shirt and unmercifully wedged themselves between his belt and pants, dragging the man down on top of herself and Joyce.
The man screamed.
Angela’s head smacked hard against the car’s bumper. Black spots appeared in her blurry vision and flashes of white hot pain shot through her skull and down her spine.
The sudden assault against her head was too much for Angela. She slipped into unconsciousness.
* * * * *
Alex could hear the faint drone of sirens wailing in the distance as he made his way up the stairs to Angela’s building. He pushed open the front doors; the sounds of sirens were then drowned out by Mr. Roper’s Big Band Era music. The old man was still sitting behind his desk, nose buried in the same book. Alex doubted that Roper had moved at all since he had left that morning. He stopped long enough to drop his pack on one of the sofas in the lobby and dig his key to Angela’s place out of the hidden pocket in the bottom. Deciding he didn’t have time to wait for the elevator, he grabbed his pack and started up the stairs at a run.
By the time he reached Angela’s apartment, he was out of breath and in desperate need of a cigarette. He put his ear to the door, listening for any signs that she might be inside waiting for his return. He couldn’t hear anything, but knocked softly anyway, just in case he was wrong. To his chagrin, there was no response, even when he knocked louder a second time. He slid the key into the door, hoping that she hadn’t had time to change the locks, and heaved a sigh of concern when he realized the door was already partially open.
* * * * *
What the fuck, he thought. Angela never even leaves the door unlocked even when she’s home, let alone open. As he gripped the doorknob, his fingers brushed against something wet and sticky. Instinctively, he pulled his hand back as though he’d touched something hot. He stepped back and looked down, noticing that the doorknob was covered in blood and there were bloody footprints in front of the threshold. Backing against the wall, he looked back toward the end of the hall.
He’d been so hell-bent on getting to the apartment that he hadn’t even noticed the trail of bloody footprints that led to Angela’s door, or the smears of blood that trailed along the walls on both sides of the hallway, hop scotching from one side to the other. A handprint here, a smudge at shoulder height there. Fear for Angela made Alex’s chest feel tight. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Please be alright.”
Using the toe of his boot, he nudged the door open, his eyes sweeping the room as he looked for any sign of life in the apartment. The lights and TV were off and the shades were still drawn.
“Angela? Baby, are you here,” Alex called out, his voice soft. “Honey, please answer me if you’re here!”
Hearing no response, he cautiously moved from the entryway to the kitchen. He looked around, straining to hear anything that might give him a clue as to where Angela might be.
“Angela! It’s Alex, honey. Where are you,” he called out more insistently. From the back of the apartment, he heard a low moan. “Angela?” Alex started when he heard a thud. It sounded as though something heavy and soft had crashed against the wall in the bedroom.
For the first time, Alex considered that there might be someone other than Angela in the apartment. He reached out and grabbed the first thing he touched, holding the object in front of him like a weapon. He rolled his eyes at himself as he realized he’d chosen Angela’s grandmother’s antique blender. Great, he thought. Maybe I can margarita them to death. At least it’s heavy.
He made his way down the hallway, the sounds of moaning becoming clearer as he went. As he reached the bedroom door, he saw more blood on the walls, floor, and doorknob. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
Angela was standing in the middle of the room, her back to Alex. He cringed as he realized that she was covered in blood from head to toe, her hair matted and snarled with it. He gulped as she made another soft moaning sound.
“Jesus, baby, I’m sorry,” he said, raising the blender above his head.
At the sound of his voice, Angela turned and Alex got a good look at her face. He could see tears running down her cheeks, making tracks through the blood and gore that covered her. She whimpered and held her hands out to him.
“Oh my God, Angela! What happened? Are you ok?” Alex dropped the blender and took Angela’s hands, trying desperately to look for wounds. He couldn’t figure out where so much blood could be coming from.
Angela began to sob and stammer, her words running over each other in her haste to tell him what had happened.
“This man in the morgue, he was d-d-dead but he wasn’t dead! H-he tried to bite and there was so much blood and he sc-scratched Tay!. I left, I left and tri-tried to come home and they said to stay, stay in your c-c-car. All the accidents everywhere, couldn’t get th-through the traffic so I went another way and he banged on my window! Stay in the car, they said to b-b-but I didn’t, I c-c-c-couldn’t. He was hurt, so much b-blood, blood everywhere, and he had big holes in his st-tomach and he begged me to help him. Said his wife tried to, tried to eat him. W-Why would she do that? He must’ve been c-crazy but then I saw her and he wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t crazy! She attacked me and we fell and I couldn’t get getaway. She- so strong, she had me and I couldn’t get loose and he was s-screaming and crying and she growled at me! I hit my head and blacked out when we fell. I couldn’t get away from her. When I woke up, he had a hold of me and I c-couldn’t get away.”
Angela was shaking all over, her teeth chattering. “She bit him again, s-started eating him right there in front of me and he screamed and screamed and begged for help and I ran away. I got in my car and came here and I left him, Alex! I just left him there!” Her voice broke on a gasping sob, her chest heaving as she tried to breathe.
Alex was barely able to make sense of a word Angela had said. She was hysterical, probably in shock. “Angela,” he shouted, taking hold of her shoulders and giving her a shake. “I need you to focus, baby! Where the fuck did all the blood come from?!”
“IT’S HIS!” she screamed in reply. “ARE YOU FUCKING DEAF? IT’S HIS!”
Angela crumpled to the floor, harsh sobs wracking her thin body. Alex knelt beside her, cradling her head against his chest and rocking her gently as he whispered softly. “Shhh, baby, it’s going to be ok now. It’s over. You tried, that’s all you could do. You’re safe now.”
Angela’s sobs began to lessen, and Alex took her chin in his hand, gently raising her face to his. “We need to get you cleaned up, ok baby? Gotta get all this blood off of you. Come with me now.”
He scooped Angela up in his arms and carried her down the hallway to the bathroom, softly murmuring to her as he walked. Angela closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder for a moment before being set gently on her feet. “Stand here for a minute and we’ll get these clothes off of you. You’ll feel better when you get all this washed away.”
Alex gently helped Angela remove her blood-soaked scrubs and shoes, balling them up and tossing them in the sink. He looked up to see Angela staring at her clothes, her eyes glassy. “I’ll deal with these, don’t worry. You won’t have to see them again.” He reached in the shower and turned the water on, letting it reach a temperature just shy of scalding before he turned the knob to add a little bit of cold water. He reached back and took Angela’s hand in his, holding it under the spray. “Is this ok,” he asked, his voice bringing Angela’s attention back to the present.
She nodded mutely, holding Alex’s hand for support as she stepped over the edge of the bathtub.
“Do you want me to stay with you,” he asked. She looked at him and shook her head “no” before she pulled the curtain closed. “I’ll be in the living room if you need me, then.”
He took Angela’s clothes and shoes from the sink and carried them with him into the hallway, leaving the bathroom door slightly ajar. He wanted to be able to hear Angela shut the water off. As he walked into the living room, he noticed that he’d left the front door standing wide open, his keys still in the lock. Christ, Alex, he told himself. Did you leave your fucking brains at the bus station?
He jerked his keys out of the lock and slammed the door shut, locking it behind him. A quick walk-through of the apartment assured him that no one had come in while he and Angela had been otherwise occupied. It also reminded him that he had a hell of a mess to clean up before Angela came out of the shower. There was blood everywhere: doorknobs, floor, smudges of it on the walls.
He took Angela’s blood-stained clothes to the kitchen and threw them into the garbage. There was no hope of saving them, and he was pretty sure that Angela would never want to wear them again even if there was. He scrubbed the bloodstains from the walls and floors as best he could; unfortunately for Angela’s white carpet, it would never be the same again.
Alex walked back into the bedroom and stripped the sheets from the bed. There was no chance of salvaging those either, he was sure. As he walked by the bathroom, he paused. Peeking his head around the corner, he could hear Angela’s sobs over the sound of the running water. Pushing the door open, he leaned in and said, “Babe, are you ok?” P a g e | 53
From behind the curtain, Angela sniffled and replied, “Yes… No… I don’t know.”
“I’ll be right outside if you need me,” Alex reassured her.
He disposed of the ruined cleaning rags and stripped his own shirt off, throwing it in the trash as well. Standing at the kitchen sink, he washed his arms and face and then cocked his head, listening for the sound of the shower running. Satisfied that Angela was still in the bathroom, he went into the living room and took her laptop and phone from his backpack, returning them to their proper places. He doubted that Angela had realized where they’d gone, and figured that there was no sense in letting her find out that he’d taken them.
Alex pulled a t-shirt from his backpack and tugged it over his head. He flicked the TV on, settling on one of his favorite news stations. He lit a cigarette and crossed to the balcony. He opened the doors, walking onto the landing and slumped against the wall, his elbows resting on his knees. This had to be the most fucked up day in the history of fucked up days, Alex thought.
* * * * *
Angela stood under the hot spray, but she couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing. The horror of the day was too much for her to process. I left him, she thought over and over. He begged me for help and I just left him to die. What about the kids? Will they be safe or are they dead too? She bowed her head under the water and cried until she felt completely spent and utterly exhausted.
She reached out to shut the water off and heard the TV on in the living room. She could hear some sort of news report. “Alex and his news addiction,” she muttered as she wrapped herself in a towel. Although, in this case, she honestly couldn’t blame him for wanting to know what was going on. The world had gone completely insane; there had to be an explanation!
She stepped out of the bathroom, weariness evident in her movements. She looked around the living room and saw Alex leaning against the door on the balcony, a lit cigarette in one hand. Wow, what do you know, she thought. He finally listened to me.
“Babe, are you feeling any better?” His voice was soft, his eyes filled with concern. Angela noticed that he’d cleaned as much of the blood off the walls and floors as he could, and she was grateful for it. She didn’t think she could handle having to clean that up, not today. Maybe not ever. If she never saw blood again, it would be too soon.
Angela nodded as she pulled the towel tighter around her still-shaking form. “I’m going to go to bed, Alex. Maybe when I wake up this will have all just been a bad dream.”
Alex pitched his cigarette over the railing and slid the balcony door shut. “Do you want me to stay with you? At least until you fall asleep?”
Angela shook her head. “No, I need to be alone right now I think.” P a g e | 54
Alex looked at the floor, his shoulders sagging. “If that’s what you want…” He crossed the distance between them, moving carefully. Angela looked so haunted; it made Alex feel things that he’d rather not think about at the moment. He put his arms around Angela, holding her close as he said, “I changed all the sheets and everything in there. If you need me, I’ll be out here on the couch, ok?”
Angela stepped out of Alex’s embrace, her hand on his chest to hold him at bay. She honestly wasn’t sure how to deal with Alex like this. It was so… weird. In the beginning, he’d been charming and affectionate, but Angela had grown used to the stand-offish, almost abrasive Alex. “I’ll yell if I need you, I promise. Good night.”
She turned and left the room, leaving Alex standing there. She wanted to close the bedroom door, but she couldn’t stand to be shut in like that, alone in the dark. The noise from the television and the knowledge that Alex was in the other room was comforting, as much as Angela hated to admit it.
Dropping her towel on the floor, Angela dressed in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, and then pulled one of Alex’s sweatshirts over her head. She felt like she’d never be warm again; her teeth chattered and she couldn’t stop shivering.
She barely had the strength to pull the covers back and burrow under them. Please let this all just be a bad dream, she thought as she surrendered to what she hoped would be a deep and dreamless sleep.
* * * * *
Angela winced as she came awake; the sun shining through the windows was nearly blinding in its intensity. She looked at the clock and was struck by the fact that she’d been asleep for the last twelve hours. I must’ve been more out of it than I realized, she thought.
She debated going back to sleep but, decided against it when she heard the muted sounds of the television in the next room. Alex is back to the news, I guess, she thought as she shook her head and rolled out of the bed. Maybe everything is better today though. The government, the military, surely someone has gotten a grip on this by now.
She got dressed quickly and went out into the living room. Alex was sitting on the couch, his elbows propped on his knees and a cigarette clenched between the fingers of his right hand. As Angela entered the room, Alex looked up from the screen. “Babe, it’s the same goddamn thing on every goddamn channel.”
He picked up the remote and gestured to the TV with it as he changed channels so Angela could see for herself. The news reports were all the same: messages from the Centers for Disease Control. Angela sat down on the edge of the couch to listen, her heart sinking as she realized that things were definitely not under control yet. P a g e | 55
“The Director of the CDC has issued the following statement regarding the current situation. ‘Everyone is advised to please remain calm. At this point, we are confident that we can contain this outbreak and prevent it from reaching pandemic status. If you or someone you know has become infected or come into contact with someone infected, you are strongly urged to seek immediate medical assistance at your nearest hospital or clinic. Medical staff across the country have been briefed on the situation and are capable of handling the situation.’”
At that bit of news, Alex looked at Angela for confirmation. She just shrugged as she muttered, “That’s news to me.”
The newscaster continued, “Your local emergency contact information is scrolling along the bottom of your screen. If you need assistance, do not hesitate to contact the proper authorities.”
Alex turned the TV off in irritation. “They’re not telling us anything about what’s causing this or how to avoid it. I mean, is it airborne? Is it some sort of biological warfare? Is it in the fucking water? Why aren’t they telling us anything except ‘stay calm’?” He took a short drag off his cigarette, wincing as he burned his lip. He stood and pitched the butt out of the balcony doors before turning to look at Angela, his arms crossed over his chest.
“I’m telling you, babe, something very bad is happening. What I saw out there… It was awful. This guy bit some woman’s face off! Blood everywhere, people going hysterical; it was insane!”
He sat next to Angela, taking one of her hands in his. “What happened to you yesterday? You were so freaked out when I came in, I could barely understand what you were telling me.”
Angela shuddered as the memory of what had happened came flooding over her. “I was trying to get home but there was an announcement on the radio about staying off the main roads. Traffic was so slow. It took me almost 40 minutes to move one mile and I just wanted to get home. I was trying to get back here so I could talk to you.”
She looked up at Alex, accusation in her eyes. She seemed to be unaware of the tears that were slowly trickling down her cheeks. “I called you and left messages. Why didn’t you answer?”
Alex shook his head as he replied, “I just didn’t get your message, babe. My phone’s been acting up for weeks now. Remember, I told you about it. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. What happened next?”
Angela took a sip from Alex’s energy drink, making a face at the taste, before she continued. “I noticed this side street that would take me through a residential area. I thought it might be faster so I took it, and ended up in this neighborhood where people were boarding up windows and packing up to leave. It was weird. Everyone looked so panicked but there didn’t seem to be anything for them to be scared of, you know?”
Her voice began to shake. “Then this guy, he… He pounded on my window, begged me for help. There was blood all over him, all over my window where he touched it. The woman on the radio P a g e | 56
said not to get out of the cars and not to try to help anyone that looked wounded but Alex, I’m a nurse! It’s what I do!”
She looked at him as though hoping for confirmation that she’d done the right thing. Alex stroked her hand, trying to reassure her. “I understand, honey. You couldn’t just drive away.”
“I couldn’t,” she sobbed. “I got out of the car and I tried to help him, b-but… He was so strong! He had a hold of my shirt and he wouldn’t let me go. He kept saying something about his wife going crazy, trying to eat him. He said he’d locked his kids in the bathroom. Then she came… His wife, I guess. She grabbed me, took me down, but I grabbed him to try to keep from falling. I hit my head on the bumper and must’ve blacked out for a second. When I came to, she was gnawing on him and he was making this gurgling sound, like he was choking on his own blood. I ran for it, Alex. I jumped in the car and just left them.”
She buried her face in Alex’s shirt, sobbing as though her heart were breaking. “What about the kids, Alex? I just left them there! No one even knows they’re there!”
Alex wrapped his arms around Angela, stroking her hair and murmuring comforting words to her. “Babe, you can’t do that to yourself, ok? You can’t blame yourself for running away from that. You were attacked, you were scared. You had to get yourself to safety, ok? You did nothing wrong. Look at me.”
He grasped Angela’s shoulders and forced her to look him in the eye. “You did nothing wrong. Stop beating yourself up over it, honey.”
Angela nodded, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She breathed a shaky sigh and pulled away from Alex’s embrace. “I need to call my sister, check on her and on Mom. Tay got hurt yesterday in the morgue. Some guy got locked in the drawers by mistake and he was pretty freaked out when he came out of there. Tay got pretty banged up and I want to make sure she’s ok.”
Engrossed as she was in dialing her sister’s number, Angela missed Alex’s look of alarm at her words.
What the hell? How does some guy get sent to the morgue and put in a drawer by mistake, he wondered. He started to ask Angela how that had happened but she’d already stepped into the kitchen and turned her back to him. He half-listened to Angela’s side of the conversation, the rest of his attention back on the news.
Angela held her breath as one ring turned into three. She was about to give up, certain that the call was going to go to Taylor’s voicemail when she heard a static-filled, “Angela?” on the other end of the line.
Relief filled Angela’s voice as she said, “Taylor! Are you ok?”
Angela could barely hear Taylor’s words; the line was so staticky.
“Angela… Hosp… run.”
“Taylor, I can barely hear you, are you ok?
“Barely… hospital… in… with mom… fine.”
Angela said, “Taylor, how are you feeling? Did you get your arm checked?”
Taylor replied, “… hear me… mom’s room… well.”
Angela began to get frustrated with the conversation. “Taylor, I think the hospital is messing with your cell reception.” In the background, she could hear something that she swore sounded like someone being sick. “Taylor, what was that?”
“Get… soon… safe here.”
Angela said, “Taylor, if you can hear me, I’ll come down as soon as things settle down, ok?”
Taylor’s words gave way to two clicks and the sound of a dial tone.
“Taylor! Dammit!” Angela dropped her phone on the bar and leaned both elbows on the counter next to it, her head in her hands. Fucking cell phones, she thought. Can’t get decent service anywhere in this damn town.
“Babe, everything ok?” She turned around and saw that Alex had gone back to watching the news channels but had stopped watching to look up at her, concern in his eyes. She flicked a glance at the screen, but just couldn’t bear to watch or hear any more.
“Yeah, I guess. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Tay’s cell dropped out in the middle of our conversation. She said mom’s ok though, as near as I could tell through the garble.”
Angela sighed and turned her back to the screen. She couldn’t take any more of the news today, or much of anything else. She felt wretched. “Alex, I’m going back to bed. I’m not feeling well.” She tried to give him a small smile but it felt more like a grimace.
Alex stood up and walked over to Angela, concern in his eyes. “Are you sure you’re ok? I mean that you’re not getting sick, like…” He glanced at the TV screen, then back to Angela as he reached out to feel her forehead.
Angela pulled Alex’s hand away from her head and stepped back. “I’m not sick, Alex, I’m just tired and worried and tired of being worried. I’m exhausted.”
Alex nodded, even though he wasn’t entirely certain he understood. “OK, babe, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I just wanted to make sure you’re ok. Go on to bed and get some rest. I’ll be in in a little while.”
As Angela left the room, Alex went back to the couch, turning the volume on the TV back up a few levels. The current news program was running a piece on the high casualty count due to riots at a soccer game in Spain. He shook his head in disbelief. “How can anyone get that worked up over watching a bunch of guys kick a ball around a field?”
He sprawled out on the couch, the remote clenched in his hand. He surfed the news channels for a while, noting that there was still nothing new being reported on any of the stations. He’d never given much credence to the theory that the news was sanitized before it was presented to the masses, but he was now changing his mind. It’s either that or there really is no new information and everyone is clueless about whatever it is that’s causing this, he thought as he closed his eyes and gave in to sleep.
* * * * *
Angela walked down a seemingly endless hallway lined on both sides with morgue drawers. She turned and looked behind her, but could see nothing but stacks of drawers, floor to ceiling. How did I get here, she wondered? Should I go back?
She started to go back, but then turned around again. Somehow, she knew that the only way she would ever get out was to continue to move forward down the hall. As she continued to walk, she heard a banging sound coming from inside of one of the drawers.
THOOM! THOOM! THOOM!
She couldn’t tell which drawer the noise was emanating from, so she began to open the doors, pulling out the gurneys and revealing bodies in various stages of decomposition. Her heart began to hammer in her chest and she broke out in a cold sweat, but she couldn’t stop opening the drawers and pulling the gurneys out. She could still hear the banging, more insistent now.
THOOM! THOOM! THOOM!
Tears began to roll down Angela’s cheeks. She was terrified, but obsessed with her quest. She had to find the right drawer; she felt as though her very life depended on it. Her movements grew more frantic, and she had difficulty catching her breath. The banging sound grew louder as she went, her fear growing as the sound intensified.
She reached out to another drawer, her hand trembling, and opened the door, sliding the gurney out. Her heart plummeted as she realized that it was her mother on the slab, lying still and quiet, her face deathly pale. Angela began to sob, thinking that this had to be a mistake. Her mother was fine; still in the hospital and hooked to machines, but alive!
“Mom?” Angela’s voice sounded harsh and broken to her own ears. At the sound, Linda moved, rolling her head to the right and opening her eyes. Angela gasped in confusion, unable to process what was happening.
She heard the sound of footsteps, shuffling slowly, coming from behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She could feel an ever-growing presence coming upon her. As she turned to look, she was startled by the grip of a strong hand clenched around her wrist. Angela shrieked and looked back at her mother. Linda’s eyes were open, milky and sightless, but she seemed to be staring right through Angela as she said, “What do you do when you wake up and it’s the end of the world?”
Angela sat bolt upright in bed, her heart hammering in her chest and tears streaming down her face. She swore that she could still feel her mother’s ice cold grip on her arm, could still hear the sound of shuffling feet.
She shivered and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders awkwardly. I bet Alex left the AC running again, she thought. She debated just leaving it alone, but knew in her heart that she’d never get back to sleep until she could get warm.
Shrugging the blanket off, Angela slipped out of the bed and tiptoed to the door, quietly peeking out into the hallway. She could see that the rest of the apartment was dark, save for the light from the TV flickering on the walls. She walked down the hallway and into the living room, pausing for a moment as she took in the sight before her eyes.
Alex had evidently fallen asleep watching the news. He was slumped over on the couch, the remote clutched to his chest. She noticed that he was still in the same clothes he’d been wearing the day before, including his boots. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Alex was afraid they’d have to leave in a hurry; he might fall asleep in his clothes but he always made sure to take his boots off. The thought unnerved her to the point that she wondered if she needed to start sleeping fully dressed as well.
Crossing the room to the couch, she gently tugged the remote out of Alex’s grip, freezing when he shifted slightly and mumbled. She waited for a moment; then, satisfied that he was still deeply asleep, she flicked the TV off and placed the remote on the coffee table. She took the blanket off the back of the couch, a quilt her mother had made for her years ago, and draped it over Alex.
She turned the air conditioner off on her way out of the living room, and continued down the hall back to her bedroom. She pulled one of Alex’s sweatshirts out of the closet, thinking to herself as she tugged it over her head that she seemed to be sleeping in his shirts an awful lot these days but unwilling to examine that idea any further.
Angela crawled into bed and pulled the covers tight around her. She curled onto her side and laid her head on the pillow, willing herself to go back to sleep. She hoped for a dreamless slumber, but was certain that she was doomed to spend this night tossing and turning.
* * * * *
Angela was forcefully torn from unconsciousness by the piercing sound of her cell phone ringing. She flung the covers aside and stumbled out of bed, unable to remember where she’d put it. Her sleep-clumsy fingers knocked things to the floor in her mad rush as she searched over her dresser and bedside table. Frustrated by her lack of results, she stood with her hands fisted on her hips, hoping to spot it somewhere in the debris that had accumulated on the floor after days of not cleaning up after herself.
“Aha! There you are, you little fucker,” she cried triumphantly, scooping her phone up from the floor where it had been half-hidden under a pair of Alex’s jeans. As her fingers touched the smooth surface, the ringing stopped. A warning flashed on its screen: 6 MISSED CALLS.
Six, she mused to herself, I must’ve been really dead to the world! I only heard one. After several failed attempts at inputting her password, the screen flared to life, notifying her that all of the missed calls were from Taylor.
Angela’s heart sank. She could only think of one reason for Taylor to call repeatedly; something must have happened to Mom. Angela sank to her knees as she dialed Taylor’s number. Please, oh please, oh please let Mom be ok, she repeated over and over.
The phone rang once before an automated female voice came on the line. “We are sorry. All circuits are currently busy. We cannot complete your call at this time. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please hang up and try your call again. Message CR-71.”
“Oh bullshit,” Angela muttered as she immediately tried to call again, “she just called me!” On her second attempt she didn’t even get the courtesy of an automated message, just a fast busy signal.
As she disconnected the call, her phone beeped to signal an incoming text message. She held the phone up to read the screen through sleep encrusted eyes, relieved to see that it was a message from Taylor. Her relief faded, though, as she read the warning:
HSPTL ISNT SAFE GTTNG MOM OUT
Angela dropped her phone as she got dressed in a flurry of panic, cracking the fragile screen. She grabbed her keys from the mess on the floor and retrieved her damaged phone, reading the message over and over. As she ran down the hallway she could hear a cacophony of panicked voices and realized that Alex must be awake and was flipping through the news channels again.
“Babe,” Alex turned the volume down a couple of notches and turned to look at Angela, “what are you doing?” His eyes narrowed in concern and confusion as he noticed that Angela was fully dressed, car keys in one hand, cracked cell phone in the other. “What are you doing,” he repeated as he stood up from the couch.
Angela responded by flashing the cracked cell phone screen in his general direction, “I’m going to the hospital.”
“What? No! You can’t leave,” Alex said as if he was stating the obvious. “They’re still saying to stay inside.” He gestured at the TV as he spoke to exaggerate his point.
Angela looked at the screen, dumbfounded, a scowl creeping over her face as she tried listening intently to another repetitive broadcast. The newscaster, her demeanor projecting a false sense of calm, was reading yet another update from the Centers for Disease Control.
“The CDC has revised their earlier statement to the following: ‘Citizens are advised to stay in their homes. Avoid all contact with anyone who appears to be infected. If you suspect that you, a member of your family, or any of your neighbors have become infected or come in contact with someone who may be infected, notify the proper authorities immediately. Do not attempt to intervene. Again, please remain in your homes. We cannot stress the importance that you avoid contact with anyone who appears to be infected. Curfews have been placed in effect for the entire nation. The National Guard has been called out to maintain order in the larger cities and to enforce these curfews by any means necessary.’”
“What do they mean by ‘any means necessary’,” Alex said, looking at Angela with mock confusion. Alex knew perfectly well what it implied. He’d witnessed the “necessity” first hand.
“Oh fuck that,” Angela said, ignoring the newscaster’s warning and turning for the door. Shoving her phone in her pocket, she grabbed her purse from the bar counter on her way by, her keys still clenched tightly in her hand.
Alex sprang the short distance to the front door and grabbed Angela’s arm. “Whoa! Where do you think you’re going?”
“I have to go, Alex,” she said as she ripped her arm from Alex’s grip and turned the door knob. “Get out of my way now!” She pulled the front door open, but didn’t even manage to get partially through before Alex planted his palm firmly against the wooden frame, slamming it shut and nearly catching her fingers.
“No,” he said, stepping between her and the door. “You can’t leave. Didn’t you just hear the same broadcast I did? Curfews? National Guard? ANY MEANS NECESSARY?! Babe, things are getting worse, and I’m not letting you leave. It’s like fucking Black Friday out there, only with cannibalism! So forget it!” He took Angela by the shoulders and forced her to look at the TV. “Do you see that? That was at the airport earlier. Our airport! There’s no putting a lid on this now. Shit got real, babe.”
The news anchor looked visibly shaken. “It’s being called judgement day by many religious leaders. Father Kitner of Saint Mary’s of the Lamb in Des Moines is saying, and I quote, ‘Christ promised us a ressurection of the dead. This is our judgement. The meak shall claim the Earth.'”
Angela’s eyes widened in disbelief as she took in the scene before her. The video was apparently captured on a cell phone, and it was brutally graphic. As she watched, two people seemed to tackle a woman, taking her down onto the floor. Blood spurted onto the cell phone’s screen as they bit into the woman’s arm and neck. The sound was muted but Angela didn’t need to hear it to know that the woman was shrieking in terror and pain as chunks of flesh were ripped from her flailing body. Angela flashed back to what had happened to her on the road, with Joyce, and her vision began to get hazy. Spots danced before her eyes and she felt like she might pass out. She sank down onto the floor, her head lowered, as she tried to breathe calmly. She numbly felt Alex’s hand on her back, but she couldn’t make out the words he was saying through the ringing in her ears.
“Ange? Babe, you’re scaring me here.” Alex scooped Angela up and carried her to the couch.
As she was gently picked up and moved, Angela came back to herself and began to fight Alex. “Alex, you have to let me go! I got a message from Tay – she said it’s not safe at the hospital anymore. I have to get down there, help her get Mom out.”
Alex frowned as he took in her words. He looked back at the TV screen, and then down at Angela again. He lowered her feet to the floor, one hand still gripping the back of her shirt in case she tried to make a break for it again.
“Alex, please? She’s my mom. You have to let me go,” she pleaded as tears began to pool in her bloodshot eyes.
He sighed, relaxing his grip on the back of her shirt, and grabbed his jacket off of the couch. “Fine, but you’re not going out there alone. Just do me a favor first: try to call your sister back. She might have already gotten your mom out.” He picked his backpack up from the floor, shrugging into it and settling the straps onto his shoulders. “There’s no point in making the trip across town if they’re not even there.”
Angela, frustrated that they were wasting even more time, pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed Taylor’s number. After two rings, an automated voice answered, informing Angela that “all circuits are busy.” She held the phone up so that Alex could hear the message. After disconnecting, she dialed the main hospital line. She got the same automated message after the second ring. Just to prove her point, she dialed the direct line for the nurse’s station on the fourth floor, where her mother was. To no one’s surprise, she was greeted by the same recording.
“There,” she screamed at Alex, throwing her phone at him in frustration. “Are you satisfied? I can’t get through on any of the hospital’s lines.”
Alex grunted as the surprising weight of the cell phone hit him square in the chest. He then began walking around the living room. He opened the closet door, and then closed it after a cursory look inside.
“What the hell are you doing?” Angela’s voice raised an octave as she spoke, “We have to go NOW!” She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, anxious to be on the road, and scared that she would arrive at the hospital too late.
“I’m not going out there without a weapon. You saw the video. You’ve seen what’s happening out there firsthand. We have to have some way to protect ourselves.” Alex pushed past Angela and pulled the front door open, a smile lighting his face as he saw a baseball bat leaning against the wall in the hallway. He picked it up and tested its weight in his hand. “This’ll do.”
Angela rushed out the door, bumping into Alex as she went. “Come on! We’re wasting time!”
She reached the elevator bank first, punching the down button over and over impatiently, as though that would make the car arrive faster. As the elevator doors slid open, Angela gasped and backed up, bumping into Alex. She clutched his sleeve, her face suddenly drained of all color. “Alex? Is that what I think it is?”
Alex braced one hand against the door to keep it from closing as he knelt beside the pool of bloody gore that had collected on the floor of the elevator. He reached out and brushed the tip of his finger along the edge of the mess and turned to look at Angela. “It looks like someone was attacked in here, babe. Look,” He pointed to the drag trail that ended abruptly with the bumper where the doors met, “you can see where they were dragged out the door.”
Alex quickly wiped his fingers on the carpet. “Are you sure you want to do this, Ange?” For the first time that morning, he allowed an edge of genuine uncertainty to show on his face. “We know there’s going to be nothing good waiting for us down there.”
Angela trembled, but stood her ground, resolve in her gaze as she looked at Alex. “I don’t have any other choice, Alex. My family needs me.” She stepped into the elevator, nimbly side-stepping the mess which covered most of the floor.
Alex nodded and rested the baseball bat on his shoulder as he stepped through the door. “All right then. Let’s do this.” He pushed the button for the lobby and stood beside Angela. This is such a bad idea, he thought. There are just too many ways for this to go sideways.
The elevator car reached the lobby floor with a violent shudder. For a moment, the pair wondered if the doors would open to their escape or it they’d be climbing out the emergency hatch. Alex had just a moment to tighten his grip on the bat before the doors slid open, revealing the rest of the drag trail that had stopped with the elevator doors, completing the gruesome puzzle. There were obvious signs of a struggle in the lobby: chairs were overturned, broken glass littered the floor, and a wide trail of blood led directly from the elevator to the area behind Mr. Roper’s desk.
Angela began to walk out of the elevator, purposefully headed for the door. She shrieked when she found herself hauled back into the elevator. Alex, with his thumb pressed to the “Door Open” button, stood glaring at her with his hand wrapped around her upper arm. “Have you lost your fucking mind,” he hissed. “I’m the one with the weapon,” he glared at her, “I go first. You stay behind me.”
He shook his head as he released Angela’s arm and stepped through the doors. He swept his gaze around the room, taking in the destruction. He realized that he could hear the muffled sound of Mr. Roper’s radio playing, but the doorman was nowhere to be found. He could also hear another sound, this one even less pleasant to his ears than Mr. Roper’s damn big band era music. The closest thing that Alex could think of to describe the noise is the sound the neighbor’s dog used to make when it crunched on left over scraps of discarded bones when he was a kid. Kind of a wet, crunchy, smacking sound, almost like chewing soup, Alex remembered as chills began to form at the base of his spine.
Angela tugged at Alex’s sleeve as she whispered, “We have to go.”
Alex held his hand out to her to signal that it was safe enough to move through the lobby, but then he put his finger to his lips to caution her to be quiet as she went. Angela nodded and rushed toward the front doors, Alex close behind her. She stopped suddenly as she caught a reflection in the glass doors. She could see, in gruesome detail, that Mr. Roper was hunched over someone, a woman Angela didn’t recognize. The lower half of his face and mouth were stained a bright crimson red. Nearly the entire upper portion of his facial flesh was missing, leaving only the exposed skull bone and a layer of fatty tissue. His teeth were smeared with chunks of the woman’s flesh as he tore pieces from her still-twitching body. Overcome with the horror of what she was seeing, Angela screamed.
Alex stopped short as she screamed, suppressing an instinctual shriek of his own and his bat raised in a defensive position. “Wha…,” he began to say, but before he could finish his question, he saw exactly what Angela was screaming about.
Mr. Roper slowly lurched to a standing position behind the desk. Alex could see that Roper was also missing his left arm below the elbow. One eyeball was dangling haphazardly from its empty socket, bouncing against his face just above his jaw that had obviously been broken and dislocated. Drawn by the prospect of more fresh meat, he shambled out from behind the desk, moving slowly toward Angela and Alex.
Angela and Alex sprinted past the shambling mess to the front doors and began pushing on them, desperate to escape. The doors refused to open though, no matter how hard she pushed. She screamed in frustration, “Oh my God, come on!”
Alex stood at her back, swinging his bat through the air between him and Mr. Roper. “Stay back,” he warned as he swung in a horizontal arc. Mr. Roper, unimpressed with Alex’s threat, kept coming. Roper sounded like a wounded, hungry animal. All gurgling snarls and guttural groans.
Alex risked a glance at Angela out of the corner of his eye and saw that she was still struggling against the doors. “Pull, baby! Pull the damn thing!”
Angela groaned at herself as she tugged the doors open. Finally! Blessed freedom! She grabbed Alex by his shoulder and pulled him through the doors with her. Moments later, Mr. Roper banged against the glass windows, still trying to reach his next meal. They stood for a moment, watching him claw at the glass, his moans now barely audible.
“Holy shit,” Alex gasped. “Did you see his fucking eye?!”
Angela shook her head, “I don’t want to think about it.” She turned to look at their surroundings, shocked by how deserted the street was. There was no one out and about at all; no one packing their cars to make their escape, no one screaming in terror and running through the street, and none of those things wandering around. It’s oddly… serene, she thought. I guess everyone is taking those curfews seriously. As she stopped to catch her breath, she could hear the vague, almost ghostly sounds of screams and sirens in the distance. There was smoke in the air down the street on the other side, shrouding the landscape. Through the haze she could make out a few figures moving in the distance, their gaits broken and unsteady like puppets dancing from a broken marionette.
She looked at Alex and saw that he was taking in the scene as well, though his expression gave no indication of his thoughts. He looked down at Angela and saw that she had her car keys clenched in her fist. He reached out and took them from her, taking her by the arm as he did. “Come on, babe. We have to go now.”
Alex tugged Angela across the street to her car, releasing her only when they had safely reached the passenger side. He ran around to the other side of the car and jerked the door open, stopping short when he realized that Angela was staring at the driver’s seat.
“Ange, what’s the matter,” he began. Then he realized that what Angela was looking at was the remnants of her grotesque three-way with Joyce and her husband. The seat was covered in blood and small chunks of meat, much like Angela herself had been when Alex had returned to her apartment two days earlier and initially thought she’d been infected, only this mess had been sitting in the sun for two days. The stench of burning pennies seemed to waft out of the car as he stood there, causing him to nearly gag.
Sighing in resignation, he slid into the driver’s seat, a look of disgust on his face. “Fuck it, no time to worry about it now,” he muttered. Shooting a look at Angela, his expression softened. She looked wrecked and he was certain she was reliving the attack in the housing development. “Babe? I’m sorry. Let’s go get your mom, ok?”
She nodded and he started the car. He had a difficult time changing gears; the shifter was coated in blood and gore and felt sticky in his grip. The radio blared to life, still tuned to the same station Angela had been listening to as she drove home two days ago.
Alex turned the radio down to a manageable level, noting that the news channel Angela had been hearing was still running the Emergency Broadcasting announcement he’d heard on the television. “Stay in your homes. Do not attempt contact with the infected. Curfews are in effect.” Yeah, good luck with that, he thought.
As they drove down the street, the figures that they had noticed as they left the apartment building became clearer. They were obviously infected. Even at this distance Alex could see that their bodies sported bloody, gaping wounds and that their mouths were stained red with blood. As the car got closer, the infected seemed to get excited and lose their lethargic stance. They started moving toward the car in earnest, their shuffling gait bringing them out into the street.
“Oh fuck, hold on, Ange,” Alex said as he veered around them.
He watched them in the rear view mirror as they faded away into the distance. The group had turned and began to follow the car, even though they had no chance of catching it. There were numerous accidents along their route to the hospital, and Alex had to swerve to miss several of the infected as they shambled out into the road.
It’s like they know we’re in here and they could get us if they could figure a way in, he mused.
As they drew nearer to the highway, he noticed a particularly gruesome accident. A woman had run her car into the stoplight; from the way the hood of her car was crumpled around the pole, Alex figured that he she must’ve been driving pretty fast. He slowed down as he noticed that the woman had been catapulted through the windshield by the force of the impact. She was now trapped in the broken windshield, and was obviously infected. Her skin looked the same as the others he’d seen, gray and mottled. Her face had been shredded and portions of her scalp were missing, hair and skin flaps hanging in her face. She was trying to claw and pull herself through the glass and onto the hood, seemingly oblivious to the glass cutting gashes in her torso.
Fascinated by the scene, Alex slowed down even more.
“Alex, don’t,” Angela moaned. “Look at it! It’s trying to get to us!”
She’s right, he thought. The woman, noticing that Alex had slowed the car to a crawl near her, became even more agitated and finally succeeded in breaking free of the windshield. The force of her actions ripped her body in half; the top half of her body sliding down the hood and into the road in front of Angela’s car.
Even with the car moving at a crawl, Alex didn’t have time to swerve around her. There was a wet, crunching sound as the tires rolled over the upper half of the woman’s body. Angela became hysterical at the sound, her hands clutching at Alex’s arm as she sobbed. “I know, baby, I know,” he said. “There was nothing I could do. She was too close when she fell.”
Angela’s sobs subsided as they drove farther from the scene of the accident. The Emergency Broadcast announcement was cut short by an obnoxious, high-pitched signal tone. Mercifully, that only lasted a couple of seconds before the broadcast continued with an emergency Presidential address. Intrigued, Alex turned the volume up.
There was brief applause as President Patton was introduced and took her place behind the podium. The assembled reporters were calling out questions, trying to scream over each other; the din was unbelievable. President Patton seemed to take it all in stride; she called for quiet and refused to answer any questions or even speak another word until there was silence in the room. Alex grinned in spite of himself; he was no fan of the President, but he couldn’t help but be amused at how quickly the room went silent.
“My fellow Americans, I come before you today to address the current state of crisis that not only our nation, but the entire civilized world is experiencing. Indeed, it is not just our crisis, but a shared crisis. I have been in contact with Heads of State in other countries around the world in an effort to determine not only the cause of this pandemic, but to collaborate and to determine the ways that we can combat and defeat the plague that we are facing. I wish to urge you all to remain calm. There is no need to panic. We are in control of this situation and are confident in our abilities to remain in control.”
“Yeah, right,” Alex snorted. He looked around as he drove, taking in the grid-locked traffic, the abandoned cars, some of them with their doors hanging open and engines running, others still on fire. He caught Angela’s gaze and said, “Things are most definitely not under control. Does she even believe the crap that she’s spouting?”
Angela shook her head, motioning to the radio. “Be quiet, Alex. I want to hear this.” Alex rolled his eyes and turned the volume up again. He was certain that this was just another speech that someone else had written for the President. But far be it for me to deny Angela if she wants to hear it, he thought.
“… and we have been able to determine that…” Patton paused and chuckled to herself, “as impossible as it may seem, the dead do seem to be rising. We are, at this time, unable to say whether this is the result of a virus, or if this is due to a form of biological warfare …. Or ….”
President Patton paused again, clearing her throat. The sound of paper crumpling became clearly audible in the silence. “You all know what this really is, though, don’t you? It was promised by our Lord God as punishment for our wicked ways. This is His way of cleansing his flock, of bringing the true and righteous believers Home to His loving arms.”
Several gasps could be heard from the crowd.
“He has a plan for us all. You’ll see! This will leave the rest of you wretched sinners to reap the just rewards of your sinning. Your whoring and your blasphemy and your adulterous and homosexual ways! You have brought this on yourselves! This is the torment that you deserve!” Alex could hear the sound of Patton’s fists smashing into a solid, wooden surface. “THIS IS WHAT YOU DESERVE!”
The room erupted into chaos as the President’s speech devolved into a screaming rant as it sounded like the President was forcibly being removed from the room. Alex and Angela looked at each other in shock, unable to digest what they’d just heard. “I guess we know what she really believes now,” Angela said.
The Vice President attempted to take charge of the press conference, noting that President Patton would be taken to a safe bunker in a non-disclosed location and treated for hysteria. Alex chuckled and said, “Yeah, a padded room somewhere is more like it. Crazy bitch.”
As they reached the turn to go to the hospital, Alex was amazed by how different everything seemed. For all intents and purposes, it seemed to be business as usual in the district. The smokestacks at the factory were still going, even. Angela gasped as they neared the hospital itself; it was clearly in distress. Alex took in the scene, unable to speak a word. There were corpses lying in the parking lot and in the grass around the front of the hospital. People were running from the building in groups of two and three. Everyone was screaming in terror. Angela pointed out a woman, wheeling an occupied hospital bed through the front doors and into the parking lot, struggling to clear the slight incline. Alex swerved around them and Angela noticed that the figure on the gurney seemed to be very small and still. She clutched the dash as Alex drove around to the side entrance, dodging an ambulance that had crashed on the lawn, tearing up freshly laid sod. Its back doors were standing open and, from their vantage point, they could see a pair of legs beneath the open doors.
“Alex, stop the car!” Angela pushed her door open as Alex hit the brakes. “Stop now,” she screamed, the car barely stopped before she was out and running.
“Angela! Dammit, wait for me!” Alex shoved the gear shift into park and threw his door open. He shoved his backpack onto his shoulder and grabbed his baseball bat before running after Angela.
As Angela got closer to the rear of the ambulance, she could see blood dripping down onto the ground, a puddle forming underneath someone’s feet. As she made her way around the opened doors, she clapped her hands over her mouth to mask the gasping sound as yet another gruesome scene came into her view. Someone was strapped to the gurney inside the back of the ambulance. One of the infected, a thin man, was standing inside the doors, reaching into its victim’s abdomen and greedily extracting handfuls of fresh meat. It was eating the man alive. Horrified, Angela watched as the man reached out to her with shaking hands, pleading for any form of help.
She screamed as someone grabbed her shoulder from behind.
“Damn, that got his attention,” Alex muttered as the thin man abandoned his current meal and turned to look directly at Angela and Alex. As the infected man shambled toward them, groaning and gurgling, Alex pushed Angela behind him and swung his baseball bat in one fluid motion, hitting the infected man in the shoulder. It fell to the ground like a ragdoll, and Alex grabbed Angela by the hand. “Come on, we have to go now!”
“Please! You have to help me!” The man strapped to the gurney reached out to them again, begging even as his lifeblood dribbled onto the ground beneath him. “Please, don’t leave me here,” the man screamed.
Angela tugged her hand from Alex’s grasp. “Alex, we have to help him. Let me go!”
“No! We can’t!” Alex grabbed Angela’s hand again and dragged her toward the hospital, “It’s getting back up!” The bound man’s screams echoed in Angela’s ears as she was dragged away, tears streaming down her face. She looked back and saw that the infected man had managed to regain his footing, and had gone back to eating the man in the ambulance. Angela shuddered at the sound of his screams growing more distant.
“Come on, baby, we can’t help him now, ok?” Alex held tight to Angela’s hand, pulling her over to the side entrance to the hospital. He pulled the handle but the door wouldn’t budge. “Do you have your employee badge?” Alex’s voice shook as he looked over his shoulder at her.
She nodded and pulled her card out of her pocket. Her hand shook so badly that it took three tries for her to manage to get it through the access slot properly. Alex stood at her back, his baseball bat raised in case any of the wandering cannibals made their way over to the door. The light on the card reader finally turned green and Angela pulled the door open, dragging Alex inside with her.
Alex heaved a sigh of relief when the door closed and locked with a snick behind them. “What floor is your mom on?”
Angela sagged against the wall and closed her eyes. Alex walked over to her and wiped the tears off her cheeks.
“Babe, your mom. Which floor is she on?”
Angela opened her eyes and looked blankly up the stairs. “F-four. She’s on four.”
Alex looked up and nodded. “OK, the power is still on, so we can see what’s coming at us at least.” He held his hand out to Angela. “Let’s go get your mom.”
They started up the stairs, their footsteps echoing against the concrete walls of the stairwell. When they reached the second floor landing, Angela stopped and pointed at the floor. “Alex, wait. Is that what I think it is?”
Alex knelt down to get a closer look and realized that he was looking at another bloody drag trail just like the one they’d seen in the elevator at the apartment building. This trail led down the stairs, with bloody footprints leading back up the stairs. Alex’s eyes followed the trail and came to rest on the door that opened onto the second floor. It was partially ajar, blocked by something but Alex couldn’t quite tell what it was.
He put his finger to his lips, signaling Angela to be quiet, and moved to the door. He carefully pulled it open farther and looked down to see what was wedged in the door. “Oh God, Ange, don’t look.” He turned his back on the door, his eyes clenched shut as though that would help erase what he’d seen from his mind.
“What is it, Alex?” Angela moved toward the door, but Alex caught her before she could see anything.
“Ange, trust me. You don’t want to see it.”
Angela brushed past him and pulled the door open. Her eyes widened in shock and her stomach heaved as she realized that she was looking at what was left of a nurse. Not just a nurse, one of Angela’s co-workers. Had it not been for the neon purple scrubs, Angela wouldn’t have been able to tell that it was Rhonda; her face had been completely torn off. All that remained was part of her upper torso; nothing below the waist was still attached.
Angela turned her back on the grisly scene and buried her face against Alex’s chest. “Oh babe, I didn’t want you to see that,” Alex said. He cupped his hands on the sides of Angela’s neck. “Come on, we have to keep moving.”
He ushered Angela through the door, firmly pushing it closed behind them. They rushed up the stairs, stopping again when they reached the third floor landing. They could hear the guttural groans of the infected and the horrified screams of their victims coming from the other side of the door. Alex pushed the door to make sure it was closed. At Angela’s questioning look, he said, “You’ll thank me later.”
They continued up the stairs to the fourth floor, pausing to look through the window to make sure they could enter safely. Angela turned to Alex, “It looks clear and I can’t hear anything nearby.” Alex nodded and raised his baseball bat. “You open the door, and I’ll go through first. If there’s anything there, I’ll take care of it.”
Angela nodded and gripped the handle. At Alex’s nod, she pulled the door open wide, allowing him to go through the door first. Alex’s eyes swept the hallway, left to right, noting with relief that they were the only things moving in the hallway. Angela tugged Alex’s sleeve and said, “Come on, Mom’s room is this way.”
She led the way down the hall and around the corner, with Alex close at her back, his baseball bat still raised and ready. “Babe, this doesn’t feel right. The other floors are teeming with those things. There’s nothing here. Where is everyone?”
Angela just shrugged. “I’m not complaining, Alex. The sooner we can get Mom and get out of here, the happier I’ll be. It’s this one, number 423.” The shades on the door were partially open, and all Angela could see was her mother’s face. Angela nearly choked on her emotions, relieved that her mother was still asleep, blissfully unaware of the chaos going on around her. She looks so young and at peace, Angela thought.
Alex pushed the door open, intent on getting Linda out of the hospital as soon as possible. As the door swung open, Alex heard a high-pitched beep coming from one of the machines. He didn’t realize what it was until he got his first look at the room; then, a look of understanding turned to horror on his face. He turned to catch Angela as she brushed past him. “Babe, wait!”
“Mom! I’m so sorry! We’re going to…” Her words died on her lips, replaced by a horrified scream as she saw what Alex had been trying to shield her from.
Taylor was bent over Linda’s still form, gnawing into the soft flesh of Linda’s side. As Angela screamed, Taylor looked up and snarled, bloody pieces of Linda dripping from her mouth. Taylor began to move around the side of the bed, her meal forgotten as she was faced with the prospect of fresh meat. Alex grabbed Angela’s shoulder and spun her back behind him, pushing himself between Angela and the creature that used to be her sister. He raised the baseball bat above his head and swung down as hard as he could, the force of the impact cracking Taylor’s skull.
Her body crumpled to the floor in a heap as Alex muttered, “Never liked that bitch anyway.”
Even through Angela’s grief-stricken sobs and the relentless flat line beep coming from the heart monitor still attached to Linda, Alex heard a clamor begin to form in the hallway outside their room. He stepped partially through the open doorway and looked down the hall. He could hear the sounds of moans and guttural groans coming from both ends of the hallway. As he watched, groups of the infected swarmed around the corners as though called to their location.
“Shit, shit, shit!”
Alex moved back into the room and pushed the door shut, locking it even though he knew that it would do very little good if both groups converged on the door and began hammering to get in.
He grabbed Angela by the shoulder and moved her farther into the room and away from the door.
“Honey, we have a serious problem here,” he said, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t attract any more attention to them.
Angela shoved Alex away from her, tears making angry streaks down her face. “You’re damn right we have a problem, you asshole! My fucking sister just fucking ate my fucking mother! And you fucking killed her! How could you?!”
Alex grabbed Angela, putting one hand over her mouth to keep her silent. “Angela,” he hissed. “We have bigger problems than that at the moment and I need you with me! There are more of those things in the hall and they’re coming this way. We’re trapped in here and there’s only one other way out.” He cast a meaningful look at the window and then looked back at Angela. “You get me? We have to climb out onto the ledge and work our way around the side to a safe room. Okay?”
Angela took a deep breath and nodded, her sobs becoming silent against Alex’s hand, but her eyes were still wide and fearful. Alex shook her gently and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Hey, we can do this, ok? Just a little stroll outside and we’ll be on our way out of here. Don’t give up on me yet.”
He dropped his hand from Angela’s mouth and took her hand, pulling her over to the window. Outside the room’s door, the small herd of infected were shambling back and forth, bumping into the door and scratching at the surface, trying to find a way in. Alex motioned for Angela to be as quiet as possible as he helped her climb through the window and gain a secure foothold on the ledge. Angela clung to the top edge of the window pane; she was almost afraid to breathe for fear that she might fall.
“Angela, you’ve got to move. Take little steps, don’t let go of your handhold, ok? I’m right behind you.” Alex patted Angela’s thigh reassuringly before climbing out onto the ledge himself. He kept a tight hold on his baseball bat with his right hand, the other hand clinging to the top of the window pane. He could hear Angela’s panting gasps as she moved carefully along the ledge next to him and he whispered encouragement to her.
As Alex found his footing on the ledge, he heard something from inside Linda’s hospital room that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up: the flat line beep coming from the heart monitor suddenly stopped. Alex knelt down carefully so that he could see through the window. He watched in shock as Linda sat up in the bed and turned toward the window as though she knew that Alex and Angela were there. On stiff legs, Linda stood up from the bed, her movements jerky and unsure. Had the scene not been so grisly, Alex would have compared it to that of a new born giraffe trying to get used to its legs for the first time. As she moved, her intestines began to spill out from the wound in her side, dangling nearly to the ground. She began to move toward the window, driven by the same mindless desires as the rest of them; her craving for the flesh of the living.
Alex wretched and stood up, digging his fingers into the stone side of the building. “Ange, we need to move a little faster.”
Angela looked back at Alex, tears streaming down her face, her breath coming in ragged sobbing gasps. “I’m… I can’t move any faster…”
“Just don’t look down.” Alex was nearly screaming. “Keep moving. Slide your foot, then slide the next. Keep moving your hands as you go. It’s fine.” Alex wished fervently that Angela didn’t have a fear of heights.
How Angela managed to find a foothold on the narrow ledge was beyond her own comprehension. Her eyes were shut so tightly she was giving herself a headache from the strain, and she was shaking like a dog left out in the cold. She didn’t dare open her eyes though, or she’d see just exactly what was waiting for her four stories below.
A large group had amassed directly below her. Had these been normal times and Angela had been your average run of the mill suicidal jumper, the group below would be cheering their support for her to rethink the fatal choice she was about to make. These were not normal times though. The group below her did wait with outstretched arms, hoping to catch her if she did fall, but these were not the benevolent arms of good Samaritans. These were the broken, bloodied and crooked arms of the dead, waiting for the chance to rend her tender flesh from bones broken by the imminent fall.
“Angela,” Alex called out to her. “Babe, you have to move. Left foot. Right foot. You gotta go faster.” Angela had no way of knowing the danger that Alex was soon to find himself in. Alex dared to look back into Linda’s room. Her broken form was slowly inching its way to the window, and Alex was beginning to question his own reasons for choosing the ledge as an escape route.
Angela dared to open her eyes for a split second, and was relieved to see that Alex was starting to climb onto the ledge, his left hand bracing his balance on the window, baseball bat firmly gripped in his right.
“I can do this,” Angela screamed to no one in particular. The gathering of ghouls below her could smell the fear and taste the sweat that dripped off her body and replied in turn with a horrid moan, sending icy shivers down Angela’s spine and causing her to lose her feeble grip on the weather worn ledge.
Time seemed to slow down as Angela felt her feet give way and her body begin the casual decent to the outstretched arms awaiting her below. All she could think to do was scream, knowing that the final chapter of her life was already written.
“Angela,” Alex screamed, knowing there was very little he could do to save her.
Angela felt her stomach rising up to her throat and closed her eyes again, waiting for that supposed weightless feeling to take over. She prayed that her decent would be quick and painless. But that falling feeling abruptly stopped. Angela felt her body jerk to a stop, her form haphazardly dangling mid-air.
“Alex,” she cried out in shock, her eyes still shut tight as her body was slowly pulled back to the ledge.
“Hold on, babe,” Alex desperately replied.
Angela reached out with both hands, wrapping her fingers around the hand that firmly gripped the front of her shirt. She expected to feel the warm flesh of the man who had initially coaxed her onto the ledge, but this flesh felt cold and brittle. She then felt another hand grip her left arm, this one much warmer than the one she had her hands around. Angela smelled her savior’s fetid breath just as she opened her eyes. Alex had managed to drop his baseball bat just in time to latch on to Angela’s left arm, but not before the grisly occupant of their supposed safe room could also prevent her from falling, although Alex and the ghoul had two totally different reasons for saving Angela from her fall.
Angela was sure that by the end of their adventure, if she lived that long, her throat would be hoarse from screaming.
She could clearly see that the window of this hospital room had been busted out from the inside. Glass shards still clung to the torn plastic weather stripping. The infected man who had been trapped inside the room was no longer just pulling Angela towards him; instead he tightened his grip and began inching his way out the window closer to her. Jagged pieces of glass dug into his tattered patient’s gown. Angela could hear his rotting flesh begin to tear and shred as her weight, coupled with his, could no longer bear the strain against the busted window.
Alex braced himself as best as he could, looking over his shoulder at Linda, and kicked out blindly in the direction of Angela’s attacker. His foot connected limply with something soft, and Angela grunted in pain.
“What the fuck, dude,” she screamed with sore lungs. “Watch your foot!”
He kicked out again and again, all the while never loosening his grip on Angela’s arm. Again and again, he miraculously managed to connect squarely with the infected man. Angela turned her left arm just enough to get a grip on Alex’s shirt and clung for her life. She watched helplessly as Alex kicked the ghoul over and over, each kicked sending her attacker further and further away until his grip finally loosened, sending the creature flailing backwards into the room.
With more help from Alex, Angela scrambled back to the ledge, regained what little balance she had started with, and pulled herself through the broken window. Alex, not wasting any time, managed the small distance in a few steps and was soon standing in the room next to Angela. There was no time to rest though; the ghoul Alex had kicked back into the room was feebly attempting to get up on its mangled legs. If it weren’t for the cavernous wounds in its torso, it would have been able to stand. Instead it feverishly clawed at the floor with cracked and torn finger nails, trying to gain traction and close the distance between it and its meal.
“Alex, do something,” Angela begged.
Still trying in vain to catch his breath, Alex crossed the short distance to the creature and stomped down on its skull, shattering it into dozens of morbid pieces. A twisted mosaic painted the floor beneath them.
“What the fuck was all that about,” Alex stammered, still panting from the most difficult work-out he’d ever had.
“I hate you,” Angela whispered, not taking her eyes off the gory floor.
“What,” Alex asked, confusion laced in his voice.
“I hate you,” she said, her voice rising with each syllable. “I fucking hate you!”
“Ang,” Alex replied, a look of shock crossing his face.
“My … Taylor,” Angela stammered. “My sister! You killed my sister! You killed her like she was one of those….. things!”
Alex was genuinely dumbfounded at Angela’s comment, lost for words as the woman he’d just saved accused him of murder.
“She wasn’t your sister,” he managed to say. “Not anymore.”
“You selfish son of a bitch,” Angela shrieked. “How can you even say something so cruel? How can you be so casual after killing her in cold blood? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry,” Alex screamed back, “did you not see her eating your mom? Are you that fucking blind?”
Tensions had finally built to a breaking point between the two of them, and neither had any intention of backing down.
“What the Hell is your problem, you arrogant douchebag,” Angela accused through clenched teeth, her index finger stabbing at the air between them.
“What the fuck is YOUR problem, you crazy cunt?!”
That was Angela’s breaking point. Alex had just enough time to see her hands being balled into fists before they began to mercilessly beat on his chest. Alex did his best to protect himself from Angela’s assault, knowing full well that the trauma of the last fifteen minutes had finally caused her to snap. He was no longer staring at the woman he’d awoken next to each morning for the last several months. Angela’s face was streaked with deep hues of anger, her eyes were bloodshot, and Alex could see the tiny veins in her forehead pulsating with rage.
“You need to shut the fuck up,” he whispered to her through gritted teeth, “or they will hear us.” Alex gestured to the room’s window. Angela could see shadows moving just outside their room, but she didn’t care.
“I hate you,” Angela screamed over and over again. Her voice reverberated through out the tiny room. The echoes of the living were soon picked up by the infected, the lurching corpses who had begun pacing the hallway outside their room. Alex could see their morbid silhouettes slow down and come to a stop directly in front of the room’s window. Thankfully the room’s shades had been pulled.
Angela had become a hysterical mess, and Alex was certain that her tirade would lead the infected right to them. He didn’t know what else to do to snap her back into the reality of their dire situation. He slapped her. Alex had never struck a woman before; well, not without being begged to.
The shock of Alex’s action brought Angela back to their current situation. She instinctively reached up to touch the red welt that started forming, her hand gingerly caressing her cheek.
“Alex,” she whimpered, tears beginning to pool in her eyes.
“Babe,” Alex stammered, avoiding her gaze, “I’m so sorry.” He took a step back from her, his hands dropping to his side.
“No,” Angela pleaded, “I’m sorry. I’m so scared, Alex. What are we going to do?” She closed the gap between them, reaching out for Alex’s hands. “What’s going on? How are we going to get out of this,” she asked.
“I don’t know, but I need you here with me,” Alex said, finally able to look her in the eyes.
“I don’t understand, Alex. She was fine when she called yesterday. What could have happened in just a few days?”
Alex shrugged. Not his typical shrug, but one of genuine confusion.
“Taylor was just … I don’t understand. She wasn’t around anyone …” Angela stopped mid-sentence, her gaze drawn to the movement in the hallway.
Angela dared to inch closer to the window and peeked through the pulled blinds. Dozens of the infected shambled in the hallway. Each of them showcased some sort of extreme physical trauma. Some had been marked by bite and scratch marks. Many were missing large portions of their bodies. Angela noticed one crawling on the ground, its legs torn off. Others were stepping over their handicapped comrade, sniffing the air or stiffly looking from one direction to the next. Most were wearing hospital gowns, but Angela recognized a few of her co-workers. Before she could turn away in disgust, she noticed another familiar face.
“The guy in the morgue,” Angela whispered.
“What guy,” Alex replied, looking at her blankly.
“There was a guy we thought got slabbed on accident. He looked fine though, not like those freaks outside. He jumped on her when we pulled the drawer out and,” she paused for a moment. “He scratched her.”
“Honey, I don’t know what you’re saying,” Alex looked at her with more confusion building on his face.
“That has to be it,” she said, a light bulb clearly being turned on in her mind. “That’s how it spreads. Mr. Carter. Mr. Roper. Taylor. They’d all been scratched or bitten. It must be passed through fluid exchange.”
Angela could tell by the look on his face that Alex was still lost.
“Alright,” she said, looking at Alex. “It’s obviously an infection, and every infection needs some way to spread.”
Alex nodded, finally catching the clues Angela was pitching.
“So you’re telling me that if we get bit or scratched that we’ll end up like one of them,” Alex said, pointing to the motionless corpse lying on the floor.
Angela shrugged, “It’s an educated guess.”
Their conversation was interrupted by one of the infected as it passed by the window, bumping against the glass.
Alex held his breath and Angela closed her eyes, both expecting the group to burst through the door at any minute.
“Where did they all come from,” she asked no one in particular.
“I don’t know,’ Alex replied, “but we’re not sticking around long enough to ask them.”
He quickly scanned the room, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. Angela stood by silently as Alex dropped his pack onto the bed and began pulling open drawers and cabinets, playing out the possible scenario in her own mind.
“What are you doing,” Angela asked.
“Looking for a weapon.”
“What are you going to do,” she finally asked. “Lube them to death?”
“Huh,” Alex replied, shooting another confused look.
Angela nodded towards his hand. It was then that Alex noticed he’d unintentionally grabbed a tube of KY Jelly.
“Oh,” he chuckled. “This? This is for later,” he said, waggling the tube in Angela’s direction.
“Let’s worry about getting out of here first before you decide to celebrate,” Angela half giggled.
Alex dropped the KY onto the floor and resumed his search of the room. There was honestly nothing he could find that would offer any form of protection once they left the building.
Angela too had taken to searching for supplies. She grabbed Alex’s backpack and unzipped the top. She began filling it with various nursing supplies: latex gloves, masks, disinfectant wipes, anything that she thought would come in handy later. When Alex finally noticed her filling his pack, he rushed over to the bed.
“What are you doing,” he said, snatching the pack off the bed and shoving his hand in.
“I’m getting us stuff we might need,” she said, reaching for the pack again.
Alex jerked his hand back, moving the pack just out of her reach.
“Would you be more careful! You don’t know what I’ve got in there,” Alex whined, pulling his hand out and revealing a slightly creased 5×7 photograph.
Angela’s first instinct was that it was a family photo or perhaps of portrait of a young Alex and the dog she assumed he had grown up with. She reached out and snatched the photo from his hand. The picture was not of a young Alex and the family pet, unless Alex grew up with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“Jeff Goldblum,” Angela accused. “That’s what you were so protective of?”
“Yeah? What’s your point,” Alex said, reaching his hand out, waiting for Angela to return the photo.
She handed the photo back to Alex and began to quietly chuckle to herself.
“What? It’s signed,” Alex explained. “Personalized even.”
“Alex Parish,” Angela managed to say in between giggles, “I will never understand …”
The couple jumped at the sudden sound of one of the infected smacking its rotten fists into the glass of the window.
“Great,” Angela whispered.
Alex looked around the room again, his gaze stopping at the open window. Angela noticed his intent look and shook her head. “I’m not going back out there.”
“Do you have any other ideas,” he asked.
Alex rushed over to the hospital bed, and pulled off the sheets and blankets.
“Alex,” Angela asked, a solid question beginning to form on her lips.
“Don’t worry,” Alex replied as he knotted the bed sheets together. “I saw this on an episode of Hogan’s Heroes.”
“We’re not breaking out of Stalag 13, Alex, and that’s not Colonel Klink banging on the windows.”
As if to reply, another dead fist banged against the door in broken repetition.
“Do you honestly think this will work,” Angela doubted outloud.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Alex replied as he finished tying the last knot. “Help me,” he said, stepping over the corpse on the floor and leaning down over the dead man.
It was Angela’s turn to pick up the clues Alex was tossing her.
“If you’re going to touch that thing, put these on,” Angela said in disgust.
She passed Alex a set of latex gloves and together they tied the end of the bed sheet around the dead man’s mutilated torso.
“Here,” Alex said to Angela, handing her the free end. “Tie this to the bed.”
Angela worked feverishly to tie the opposite end of the sheet to the hospital bed, but the blood soaked gloves made it difficult for her to tie, what she felt, was a safe knot.
“Done,” she said, pulling the tether tight and testing her work.
Alex grabbed the dead man by the shoulders and heaved him up to the open window. “Bombs away,” he blurted, heaving the corpse out the window.
Even though Angela’s knot remained tied, the weight of the dead man caused too much tension from a forty foot drop. A sharp SNAP and the sound of fabric tearing told Alex it was a good idea he tested out his escape route on a dead man before he and Angela made their escape attempt.
Alex stared helplessly at Angela, the look on her face saying, “Well, that’s not gonna work.”
“Do we have an option number 2,” Angela asked.
“Obviously we need to get them away from the door,” Alex remarked, stating the obvious as he removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.
“Alex,” Angela said sternly. “You’re still in a hospital.”
Alex looked up, staring blankly into Angela’s eyes, and lit the cigarette dangling from his mouth. Spinning the lighter in his hand, Alex started to pace the room, inhaling the smoke deeply and pausing briefly to check his surroundings.
Shaken back to their current situation, Alex noticed the sprinkler head directly above Angela. He slid a chair across the floor, stopping in front of her. He ignited the small flame as he stepped up onto the chair, and held the fire against the heat sensor of the sprinkler head.
“Did you see this on an episode of Hogan’s Heroes,” Angela mused.
“Nope,” Alex coyly replied. “The Simpsons.”
After a few minutes, the heat of the flame began to singe Alex’s thumb, but just as he was about to give up on the idea, the hospital’s fire alarms began blaring. Gallons of water burst forth from the ceiling spigots, soaking Angela, Alex, and every piece of medical equipment in the room. Alarms burst to life. The noise drew the attention of every corpse walking the hallways of the fourth floor. Soon dozens of necrotic fists began pounding on the walls and window. Over the alarms, Angela could hear their ragged fingernails scraping against the door. Angela covered her ears and had to scream to be heard over the noise.
“Brilliant plan,” she shouted at Alex. “Now we’re trapped AND wet!” Angela stomped around the room, unplugging the monitors and machines that were screaming. It cut down on the din a little, but Angela was certain that the ringing in her ears would never stop, not to mention the raging headache she had brewing.
Alex shrugged, looking defeated. “I was so sure that would work,” he sputtered. He swiped his hair back from his face, water droplets flying everywhere as he moved. He looked at Angela and chuckled.
At Alex’s chuckle, Angela whirled around. “What’s so funny,” she demanded, hands on her hips and a scowl on her face, her wet hair dripping against her cheeks.
Alex couldn’t help himself; he laughed harder. “What?! What is it about our current situation that you find so fucking hilarious, Alex?!” Angela had to shout to make herself heard over the racket the fire alarms were making. She hit Alex in the chest with her fist. “What?!”
Alex, still laughing, grabbed Angela’s wrists in his hands, and pulled her against his chest. “I was just thinking about that weekend when we went hiking and got caught in the rainstorm. Remember?” He slid his hands up Angela’s arms and cupped them on her neck as she looked at him, confused. “I know you remember it. We were out in the middle of the trail when boom! Huge storm just blew up out of nowhere and we got soaked.”
Angela heaved a sigh and shook her head. “Alex, what good is this little trip down memory lane going to do us now?”
Alex let his hands fall to his sides as he shrugged. “Just… all the water falling made me think of that day. You were pretty pissed off then too, but it ended up being a great day. That’s all… just thinking that we are going to be ok.”
Angela shook her head again. “I’ll never understand the way your mind works, Alex.” She bent down and crawled between the bed and the stand of monitors to reach the last set of plugs. As she pulled them, the noise level in the room decreased somewhat. At least I can hear myself think, she muttered to herself.
Alex, looking defeated, walked back over to the window. “We’re going to have to go back out this way, babe. There’s just no other way. There are too many of them out there. We can’t fight our way out, especially since my bat is down there.” He leaned out the window and sighed, seeing his baseball bat lying on the ground in the middle of a large group of the infected. He turned his head from side to side, checking the ledge, before pulling back into the hospital room.
“There’s gotta be a fire escape or something out there, right? We make our way across the ledge to the fire escape and climb down that way.” Alex crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. He wasn’t looking forward to another trip out on the ledge with Angela, but he couldn’t think of another way to escape the hospital with their lives.
Angela snorted and muttered, “Not gonna happen, hero.” She looked around the room, her eyes lighting on the phone on the table next to the bed. She looked toward the door, her expression thoughtful. “I think I have a plan, Alex. It should at least get them away from the door so we can escape.”
She walked over to the phone and lifted the receiver, relieved to hear a dial tone. She quickly punched in the numbers for the nurses’ station on the fourth floor and held her breath as the call actually went through. One ring, two…
“Ange, I don’t think there’s anyone out there we can call for help here,” Alex said crossly.
“I’m not calling for help, Alex. I’m calling the nurses’ station out there,” Angela replied. “Now hush.”
Alex grunted and walked over to Angela’s side. “Do you really expect anyone to answer?”
She laughed nervously and whispered, “God, I hope not! Now quiet!”
She held the receiver loosely in her hand and cocked her head toward the door, straining to hear. Faintly, under the sound of the fire alarms and the moans of the creatures shambling through the hallway outside, she could hear the phone at the nurses’ station ringing. She was concentrating so hard on listening that she was startled when she felt Alex touch her shoulder.
“Look,” he whispered, pointing at the window. Through the shades, they could see the shadows of the infected as they began to shamble away from the room and toward the nurses’ station. “It’s working, babe. Great job!”
Alex darted over to the bed and grabbed his backpack, shrugging the straps over his shoulders. He looked around the room again, his eyes finally lighting on the IV pole next to the bed. “This should work,” he mumbled to himself as he lifted it, testing its weight.
“Dammit,” Angela muttered, slamming the receiver in the cradle and catching Alex’s attention. At his questioning look, she explained, “It stopped ringing, went to one of those automated replies. I’ll have to dial again.” She picked the receiver up again and, hearing a dial tone, redialed the number for the nurses’ station. “What are you doing with that IV pole?”
Alex lifted the IV pole, testing its weight in his hands as he twirled it in front of him. “We need a weapon of some sort since my bat is four floors below us, being trampled by those things. I figured this would work. It’s heavy enough to do some damage. Plus, I figure I can use the little leg things here to push them off of us if they get too close.” He grinned at Angela. “Brilliant, right?”
Angela rolled her eyes and turned back to the phone. “Yes, honey, brilliant.” She dialed the number for the nurses’ station again, ignoring Alex as he muttered under his breath. Angela held her breath as the rest of the infected began to move away from the door, their broken and unsteady gaits taking them toward the nurses’ station.
‘Come on, Alex,” Angela whispered. “Let’s go before they come back!” She dropped the receiver on the table and moved. Alex, gripping the IV pole tightly in his hand, peeked through the blinds toward the nurses’ station. There was a large group of the infected milling about the desk area, trying to discover the source of the noise they were hearing.
Alex turned his head to see what the sound was and saw that Angela had slipped out of the hospital room and was already at the door to the stairwell. “Dammit, Ange, wait for me,” he called out.
In that moment, two things struck him. He had heard the clicking sound of Angela opening the door to the stairwell. That meant that the phone had stopped ringing. His eyes wide, he swung his attention back to the nurses’ station.
The infected had abandoned their search of the nurses’ station at Alex’s yell. They began shambling toward him, some of them dragging broken legs as they came.
“Oh shit,” Alex said as he ran down the hall to the stairwell. By the time he came barreling through the door, Angela was already halfway down the first flight of stairs. Alex took the stairs two at a time and crashed into Angela’s back. “Why did you stop,” he yelled, grabbing Angela by the shoulder to steady her. As he looked over her shoulder, he saw a group of the infected making their way up the stairs toward them.
“Wrong way, wrong way, wrong way,” he cried. “Up, up up!” He grabbed Angela’s hand and dragged her back up the stairs. As they ran, he realized that he’d forgotten to close the door securely behind him. One of the infected had made its way through the door, its moans joining the chorus of its brethren below him.
Alex shoved Angela toward the wall and said, “Duck!” As she crouched down, Alex swung the IV pole, catching the walking corpse just under what remained of its chin and tearing a hole in the already decaying flesh of its neck. Black ichor oozed down its chest, but it barely noticed as it reached out to Alex, trying desperately to claim its next meal. Alex shoved the creature back, nearly tripping as he hooked his foot behind what remained of its calf. The infected man fell to the ground and Alex took advantage, bashing the creature’s head in with the stand of the IV pole.
He turned to Angela, grimacing in pain as he held his hand out. “Come on, we gotta move!” Angela gripped his hand tightly as they ran, her voice broken by panting gasps as she said, “What happened? Did you get bitten?”
Alex shook his head. “I think I pulled something in my shoulder earlier. Adrenaline’s wearing off…” He stopped as they reached the fifth floor landing. “What’s this floor,” he asked, bending at the waist to catch his breath.
Angela braced her hand against the door and pushed her hair out of her face. “Uh… I think it’s the psych ward.”
Alex grunted a laugh. “Well, at least they’ll be medicated.”
The moans of the infected below them grew louder; Alex looked over his shoulder and saw that the motley group had gained ground on them since they stopped. “Come on, let’s move.”
He jerked the door open and he and Angela barreled through without looking to see what was waiting for them on the other side. For once, fortune was with them; the hallway appeared deserted. Sighing in relief, Alex set the IV pole down and dug in his pockets, producing a battered pack of cigarettes and a lighter. His hands trembled as he shook one from the pack and lit it.
“Hey!” Alex looked up at the sound of Angela’s voice and saw that she was glaring at him.
“You know you can’t light that in here! It’s still a hospital!”
Alex took a drag on the cigarette and inhaled deeply before blowing the smoke in Angela’s direction, a challenging smirk on his face.
“Fine,” she muttered. “Whatever.” She looked around the dimly lit hallway. “We can cut through the patient area there,” she said, pointing toward the end of the hall. “Then we can hit the stairwell on the other side and, with luck, get out down to the ground level and back to the car.”
Alex nodded and took another drag off of his cigarette before dropping it to the ground. He crushed the butt under the heel of his boot and picked up the IV pole. “I’m right behind you.”
The lights in the hallway flickered, making their trek seem more eerie and surreal. Alex couldn’t shake the sensation that they were being watched by someone, not something, and he kept looking over his shoulder as they went. “Ange, are there people in all of these rooms,” he whispered, nodding at the darkened doorways as they passed.
Angela shook her head in response. “No, these are storage, offices, things like that. Why?”
Alex shivered. “It feels like there’s someone in here with us, hiding in the dark and watching us. It’s creepy as fuck!”
Angela snorted. “After all we’ve seen today, you’re creeped out by a dark hallway? Really? Come on, tough guy, what would Jeff Goldblum think of that?”
Alex burst into laughter, Angela joining him a moment later. She felt guilty for laughing; her sister was dead, her head cracked open by Angela’s own lover. Her mother was dead, eaten alive by her sister. It was either laugh, or sit down and cry; Angela knew she didn’t have time for another breakdown and, if she was being honest with herself, she could admit that it felt good to blow off some steam by laughing with Alex. It made the horror of the situation more manageable.
“All right, point made,” Alex finally managed to say as he draped his arm across Angela’s shoulders. “Let’s get out of this hellhole and get back home.”
They made their way down the darkened hallway, still chuckling, so focused on finding an escape route that they nearly tripped over a body sprawled across the floor of the hallway. Angela, startled out of her thoughts, jumped back and crashed into Alex. She started to shriek, but Alex clapped his hand over her mouth, causing the sound to come out as a muffled squeak.
“Shhh,” he whispered. He wrapped his arm around her waist and dragged her back from the body, stopping when they were well out of arm’s reach and removing his hand from her mouth.
“Is it dead,” she whispered.
“How am I supposed to know,” Alex replied. “You see what I see.”
“So… Go check it out.”
“Why do I have to be the one to check it out,” Alex hissed.
Angela rolled her eyes and said, “Because you have the weapon, duh!”
Alex snorted and handed Angela the IV pole. “There, now you have the weapon.”
For a moment, Angela’s jaw dropped in shock; then she recovered, narrowing her eyes and tightening her grip on the IV pole. “Fine. If you’re not man enough to do it, I will.” She bumped Alex with her shoulder as she passed, moving slowly toward the corpse with the IV pole held out in front of her body like a spear.
“If it moves, smash its head in,” Alex called out, causing Angela to jump again. She glared at him over her shoulder, then turned back to the corpse. When she got closer, she could tell that it had once been a man, likely an orderly given the uniform it was wearing. He was lying on his side, one arm resting on his hip, the other under what was left of his head. His head had obviously been cracked open; blood spatter spilled out of the top of his head and had caked in dried rivulets across the floor. Angela noticed bloody footprints tracked through the blood spatter, growing fainter as they led back toward the stairwell they’d just come from.
Angela stopped just out of arm’s reach of the corpse and reached out, poking it with the top end of the IV pole. The corpse moved, its arm falling down behind its back as it slumped over facedown onto the floor. Angela jumped back from the corpse, slamming into the wall and dropping the IV pole on the ground with a huge clatter.
Alex burst into laughter. “Babe, it’s dead,” he called out as he walked toward her. “If it was gonna get up and grab you, it would’ve done it by now.” When he got close enough, Alex reached out and scooped the IV pole up off the ground. “You did good, babe, but I’ll take this back now.” He winked at Angela and walked over to the corpse, crouching down so he could flip it over and examine it.
After a few minutes, he said, “He was definitely attacked by some of those things. See here? He’s missing bits in several different places.”
Angela walked over next to Alex and looked down at the corpse. She saw that Alex was right; the corpse had been chewed open in several places, his arms and chest taking the brunt of the assault. “Riley. His name was Riley,” she said, pointing at the bloody nametag still clipped to his chest.
Alex grunted and pushed himself up to stand next to Angela. “OK, Riley here was obviously attacked. So why isn’t he up and walking around with the rest of those things?”
Angela shook her head and shrugged. “Could be because his brains are spilling out onto the floor there. I’m no expert but that seems logical to me.”
“Hmm,” Alex replied. “Well, there’s nothing we can do for him, and he’s obviously not a threat to us, so I say we keep moving and get the hell out of here.”
“Sounds like a great plan to me,” Angela said, her arms wrapped tightly across her chest.
They hurried down the hallway, finally arriving at a set of double doors with large windows. Alex reached out and tried to open the door, but found it locked. Angela shot Alex a look and swiped her employee card through the access panel. For the first time, Angela’s card didn’t work; the light on the card reader remained red, and the door remained locked.
“What the hell,” Angela muttered, swiping her card again to no avail; the light remained red and the card reader began beeping angrily in protest.
“What’s going on, Ange? Why isn’t it working?” Alex’s voice held an edge of panic.
“I don’t know, Alex, but we’re not going to get through with it.” She stuffed the card back into her pocket and leaned her head against the glass.
“Wait a minute…” Alex started.
“…the orderly, Riley.” Angela finished.
They looked at each other as they finished each other’s thought. “Didn’t he have an employee tag for this floor,” Angela asked. “Maybe you have to have one coded for this ward.”
“Let’s find out,” Alex said. He walked back to Riley’s corpse and knelt down, unclipping the badge from the chest pocket of his shirt. He held it up for Angela to see, a victorious smile on his face as he walked back. He nudged Angela out of the way of the card reader and swiped Riley’s card through. As the light on the access panel turned green and the locks clicked open, Alex pulled the door open with an exaggerated flourish. “After you, babe.”
They passed through the door, moving slowly. The lights in the main room had been shut off, making the whole room seem strange and threatening. Angela looked to her left and spotted the nurses’ station. The lights there had been left on, making the rest of the area that much darker. Angela used her card to open the door to the station and they slipped inside.
While Angela looked for the light switches to the main room, Alex peered through the windows. “Can’t see a damn thing in there, babe. It’s spooky as fuck!” He cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned closer to the window.
“Aha! I found the right switch!” Alex heard a click as Angela flipped the switch; Angela heard Alex scream as the lights came on.
As the room was flooded with light, Alex found himself nearly nose to nose with one of the infected, its gruesome face pressed up against the glass in a macabre game of peek-a-boo. Alex shoved himself away from the glass and ended up falling on his ass as he tripped over his own feet.
“What the fuck?!” he yelled. “Holy shit…” He held his head in his shaking hands. “That thing scared the piss out of me…”
Angela, her back to the desk, looked out into the room, taking in the destruction that had occurred there. Tables and chairs were turned over, spilling food and drink onto the floor. Corpses lay across the floor in grotesque positions. Angela could see two of the infected fighting over the remains of what had once been a nurse. Fighting down the bile rising in her throat, Angela looked across to the other side of the room; there was another set of double glass doors, and a small herd of the infected gathered there, trying to get out. As they moved and writhed, Angela could just barely make out the form of someone on the other side of the doors, someone obviously alive and utterly terrified.
Angela knelt down beside Alex. He looked up at her, his hands still shaking, and said, “Plan C?”
“There’s someone alive over there, babe. Look!” She took his hand and helped him to his feet, pointing across the room with her other hand. “You can just see him when they move. He’s on the other side of that door.”
Alex peered through the glass, catching a look at the man across the way. “Babe, there are two people alive in here, and a whole bunch of those things between us and him. I’m sorry, but he’s not our problem. We are.”
“Alex, we can’t just leave him over there! He’s scared to death!”
Alex shoved his hands into his pockets, tamping down the urge to grab Angela and shake her. “Babe, I’m scared to death! He’s also a patient here, or did you miss that outfit he’s wearing? Who knows what’s going on in his head? He could be dangerous. He could already be infected. It’s just too risky.”
Angela stomped her foot in frustration. “Did you miss the fact that we can’t go back down those stairs, Alex? Our only way out is through there,” she said, pointing at the doorway across the room.
Alex turned his back to Angela, holding his head in his hands. His head was pounding, too many thoughts scrambling for attention vying with the last surges of a dying adrenaline rush. When the pounding didn’t stop, Alex realized that it wasn’t in his head at all; his argument with Angela had garnered the attention of the two infected that had been making a meal out of the nurse. They were now standing at the glass, pounding their fists on the windows, trying to get in.
He sighed and turned back to Angela. “OK. You’re right. We have to go out that way. How do we do it?”
Angela looked back at their only escape route and saw that the group gathered there had become more agitated and excited.
“Is he holding a sign?” Alex moved closer to the glass, trying to get a better look. Angela leaned in as well, finally getting a clear look. The man held up a whiteboard with only one word written on it: HELP!
Angela, her face set in a mask of grim determination, turned back to the desk and began shuffling papers and flipping switches. “What in the blue hell are you looking for, Ange?” Alex asked, his voice clearly showing his frustration with the situation.
“I’m looking for the call box to that room. I see the receiver on the wall next to the glass… It has to be here somewhere.” She moved aside a jacket that had been tossed haphazardly on the desk and found it. “Aha! Here we go!”
She switched the box to the “on” position and pressed the button to talk. “Hey, are you ok in there?” Letting go of the talk button, she listened carefully for his reply. For a moment, all they could hear were the moans of the infected and the terrified screams of the unknown survivor. Alex winced and cupped his hands over his ears as Angela scrambled for the volume dial.
With the volume at a more manageable level, Alex uncovered his ears and shook his head. “Damn, he’s screaming like a little girl in there.” He motioned Angela to the side. “Here, babe, I’ll give it a try.”
He propped his hip on the corner of the desk and pushed the talk button. “Hey numbnuts! You hear me in there? Stop screaming and give us your status.” Alex let go of the button as Angela elbowed him in the arm. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
“Numbnuts?” Angela pushed Alex off of the desk and took his place. “That’s how you get results?” She rolled her eyes and pushed the talk button on the call box. “Hey, in there! Can you hear me?”
Angela let go of the talk button and waited; at first, there was nothing but static. Then, a masculine voice came across the line. “Hello? Hello, can you hear me? You gotta get me out of here, please!!”
“Whoa, hang on. Yes, we can hear you, and we’re going to try to get you out of there! But we need your help to do it,” Angela replied. “First, what’s your name?”
Alex snorted in derision. “What is it with you and having to know peoples’ names?”
“Maybe I just want to be able to call him something besides ‘numbnuts’, is that all right with you? Now shut up, I’m trying to hear him.” Angela leaned closer to the call box. Alex threw his hands in the air in surrender, then leaned against the wall and lit another cigarette.
Now that the man across the way had someone to talk to, a glimmer of hope for escape, he was somewhat calmer. “P-Phillip. M-My name is Phillip. Please, you gotta get me out of here. I’m trapped in here and I can’t get out. Please?”
“All right, Phillip. My name is Angela, and Alex is with me. We’re going to do our best to get you out, ok? Are there any of those things in there with you?”
Phillip’s hand was shaking so badly that he kept accidentally releasing the talk button. “I’m… gotta help…”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Alex muttered as he pushed off from the wall and stalked over to the panel. “Enough already.” He pushed the talk button and said, “Hey, listen up. We’ll get you out but only if you calm the fuck down and tell us what we need to know. So you need to man up and tell us about what’s going on in that room, and how it’s laid out. Do you get me?”
There was no response from Phillip; Angela gave Alex a shove and hissed, “I told you to take it easy! Why did you have to talk to him like that?”
There was a brief crackle of static before Phillip came back on the line. “Ok, ok, look, the door’s locked from the outside. I don’t know where the keys are.”
Angela looked nervously at Alex, the strain of the day finally wearing thin on her but Alex could tell that her wheels were still turning.
“What’s on your mind, babe,” he said in a low tone.
“We’ve got to get them away from the door. Draw their attention some how,” her voice starting to crack slightly.
The sight in the common room was that of an orgy of canabalism. Angela could see the half-eaten corpse of a nurse propped up against the far wall, her ribcage exposed and abdoman hollowed out. Angela shuttered in realization of their dire situation and for a moment thought about how much of a chance they stood if they’d do the smart thing and leave Phillip in his self-made tomb. She then looked took a cautious look around the waiting area. The secured nurse’s station was empty. Their area was completely clear except for the silent corpse in the hallway.
“I have an idea,” she said, her eyes glimmering.
Angela made her way into the nurse’s station, pausing at the door leading directly into the chaos of the psyche ward’s common area. Alex made a sudden move in her direction, but Angela’s upraised hand halted his advance.
“I know what I’m doing, Alex,” she said, her hand gingerly turning the door knob.
“And what would that be,” Alex replied through gritted teath.
“Just wait by the other door,” she said, pointing to the door leading into the lobby, “and get ready to close it.”
That being said, Angela opened her door and screamed, getting the attention of every half-devoured corpse in the common area. Six shambling corpses turned their attention from Phillip and to a new prospect of food. Even the corpse that had been gnawing on the glass in front of Alex crained it’s head in her direction.
Angela held her ground until the first corpse stepped foot inside the station. She spun around on her right heel as the second and third corpse were almost within reaching distance. By the time the fourth, fifth and sixth corpses were inside the station, Angela was back in the lobby and had the door firmly shut, blocking their exit. She sprinted past Alex, shoving open the common room door and around the dim corner. Alex took this as a cue, and stepped into the common room also, his bat raised over his head. As Angela pushed the door to the common room closed, Alex closed the distance to his new rotting friend. The corpse stood up on wobbly legs, its arms out stretched, ready to embrace him. Alex brought the bat down hard on top of the corpse’s skull, a wet crack reverberating through the room as the thing slumped onto the floor.
Angela’s plan had worked without a hitch. The corpses were locked securely in the nurse’s station. Alex said a silent prayer, grateful that they had even a little luck on their side today.
“I can’t believe that worked,” Alex said, nodding his approval in Angela’s direction.
“Have a little faith,” she replied, jingling a heavy key ring. “I wonder which one it is?”
“Check the that nurse too,” Alex reminded her, pointing to the half-eaten former nurse.
Angela made her way across the rooma nd knelt down beside the nurse, reaching out for her keys.
“I wonder who she was?” Angela had no way of knowing. The nurse’s name badge was missing, as was most of her face. The things had picked her upper torso as clean as a pack of vultures would have.
Alex and Angela both jumped at the sound of metal hitting shatter-proof glass. Phillip was still locked in the library. Excited to get out, he was banging a chair against the glass wall, hoping to be set free.
“Get me out of here,” he screamed, dancing around like the madman Alex only assumed he was.
Angela, shaken back into reality, picked up the new set of keys and made her way across the room. She wasn’t sure which key unlocked Phillips door. None of them were marked, as was standard proceedure in case the keys were ever lost or stolen.
“Please,” Phillip screamed. “Please get me out of here!”
Angela had to try nearly every key on the ring before hearing the correct click of the tumblers. They keys were still in the door, Angela’s hand still on the knob, when Phillip jerked the door open, the stentch of human waste collected in the room nearly knocking her over.
Angela took in the mess with a crinkled nose. Phillip had obviously been using the trash can in the corner as a toilet during his time in the tiny room.
“Goddamn,” Alex groaned, crinkling his nose is disgust. “Shut the door! I’d rather smell them,” he said pointing to the corpses locked in the nurse’s station. “How long were you shut in there?”
“Don’t know,” Phillip shurgged. “What day is it?”
Angela took a moment to collect herself from all the excitement, ignoring Phillips question and leaned against the wall. She looked up at Alex through tired eyes. Alex looked back at her then shot a quick glance at Phillip. Alex couldn’t help but notice that the man whom they’d just rescued looked like someone he’d seen on “To Catch A Predator” and wondered if that was how Phillip had ended up in this place.
Alex looks at Angela and shrugs. They decided that today must be Thursday.
“Four days,” Phillip replies. “Look, I’m really grateful and all but can we get out of here? And what the Hell is happening?”
In all the confusion, Alex and Angela forgot to ask Phillip if he even knew what the things locked in the nurse’s station were. Alex filled Phillip in briefly about the current state of the world. Phillip went on to tell them about a few patients being brought in who looked pretty banged up but not serious enough to merit staying in the main hospital ward. Both had been attacked on the street and one had been bitten.
As Phillip recounts how one of the patients had been discovered eating another one night, the group suddenly realizes their potentially dire situation in the psyche ward as the moans of the dead inside the nurse’s sation finally grow too loud to ignore. The decayed forms of the former patients also realized their situationand had begun banging on the security windows, trying to get at the food waiting for them on the other side. This shook Alex back to reality.
“Is there anybody else in here with you,” he asked Phillip, his gaze directed to the motley crew in the next room.
“Alive or dead,” Phillip chuckles.
“Preferably alive,” Angela says
“Not that I know of,” Phillip replies.
“We should start making our way out of here,” Alex interupted, pointing to the ward’s only outside window.
Angela turns her attention away from the horde trapped in the other room and looks out the ward’s window. The sun had already started to slip below the horizon.
“We should get moving if we’re going to make it home before dark,” Angela murmured.
Phillip agreed, not caring where he ended up as long as it was out of the hospital. “I don’t feel like staying here another night.
“We really shouldn’t be on the road at night. If it’s like this in here, imagine what it’s like out there,” Alex added.
Angela walked slowly across the room and cautiously looks out the window. The chaos going on below them is almost too much for her. The streets are clogged with corpses, both moving and still, and she notices dozens of stalled cars blocking most of the intersections she could see.
“God damn it, Alex,” she sighs, “I hate it when you’re right but we can’t stay here with them.”
She points a shaking finger at the dead mob.
“Is there a better place than here,” Alex says, turning his attention to Phillip.
“I don’t know, man,” Phillip sighs. “We could head down the hall and out of sight.”
“I wonder if the glass will hold,” Angela muttered.
“What’s that, babe,” Alex asked, turning in Angela’s direction.
“The glass,” Angela elaborated, “I wonder if it’ll hold. It looks pretty sturdy and there’s only a few of them but what if they break through while we’re sleeping?”
Once again the thought of their dire situation was sinking in. Would it be more safe locked in a sleeping room or should they risk escape. The sun was setting and time was running out.
After some debate, the descision is made to lock themselves in one of the sleeping rooms and hope for the best. After checking several rooms, Alex finds a bit of confidence in the fact that they find no more wandering corpses in the ward. Finding a room that looks as though it hadn’t been used in a very long time, Alex and and Angela reluctantly agree to let Phillip stay with them and settle down for a restless night.
Even halfway down the hall and through a closed door, the moans of the dead could be heard as clear as day. After taking a quick mental inventory of their room, Alex decides it best to barricade the door but finds that the two single beds in the room are both bolted to the floor.
“Try to get some sleep,” Alex says to Angela. “I’ll take first watch.”
The trio spends a very restless night in their barely secured room. Sleep comes difficult to Angela, partially due to nerves but mostly because of the pounding and unnerving moaning that can be heard coming from the nurses’ station.
After a few hours of tossing and turning, Alex is awoken in the late morning hours to the sound of a familiar scream. Angela has another nightmare. After a brief moment of silence, the pounding and moaning start up again. Alex moves closer to Angela, comforting her as best as he can given their unfamiliar surroundings.
Also awoken by Angela’s nightmare, Phillip starts to pace the room.
“Normally I wouldn’t mind spending the night locked up with a pretty girl,” Phillip says, pausing to look at the frazzled Angela, “but this is ridiculous.”
Alex looks in Phillip’s direction. For the first time since meeting, Alex really looks at him. Phillip is gross – bad acne, unkept hair. Alex would like to think that it was Phillip’s time locked in the library that lead to his current appearence but he doubts that Phillip was the type of guy who had ever taken pride in his looks. Phillip is every word the definition of disgusting.
Alex’s body stiffens at Phillip’s comment.
Normally Angela would have taken exception to Phillip’s comment, especially after seeing Alex’s physical reaction. “Just let it go. He’s sick obviously,” she admits. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just get out of here, get back home.”
Phillip jumps to attention.
“Home, where are we going?”
Alex demeanor sours, “WE are going home.” Alex stabbs at the air between himself and Phillip with a rigid finger, “YOU are going the opposite direction.”
“Come on man,” Phillip says quietly, as though Alex just kicked his puppy. “Just a joke. I got places to be too.”
Alex says “Good, I hope you can get there all by yourself.
Angela rolls her eyes, “Come on MEN, you can measure each other’s size later.”
Angela reaches down to grab Alex’s backpack but Alex shifts towards her, still defensive from Phillip’s off colored comment and takes the pack back from her.
Out of the corner of his now bloodshot eyes, ALex sees Phillip reach for the baseball bat. Alex gives Phillip a “I will fucking kill you” look. Phillip takes a step back, waving his hands defenselessly at his side, “No harm, man, no harm.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Alex says through gritted teeth.
As the weary trio makes their way down the hall, Alex is the first to notice that the banging from inside the nurse’s station has begun once again. Seeing their potential meal trying to leave without saying good-bye has aggitated the dead group trapped inside. Angela pauses briefly, staring at the necrotic flesh behind the supposed safety glass. The group’s pace quickens as they walk in front of the station. Seeing their fleeing potential victims more clearly now, the dead creatures banging on the windows more relentlessly. Angela is the first to hear the glass crack in several places. The dead thing’s relentless barrage during the night has taken its toll on the structure and Angela can see several tiny fractures throughout the windows.
“Alex,” Angela says with a shakey voice.
There’s a brief hesitation from the group, costing them valuable escape time. Alex flashes back quickly to the night he witnessed the man bust out of the back of the police car.
“We should …” Alex begins but his voice is drown out by the sound of shattering glass.
Soon a dozen pairs of rotting hands are reaching through the broken of glass, ready to embrass their waiting guests. As the crack widens and largerer pieces begin to fall away, several of the walking corpses attempt to crawl through the busted window. Jagged shards of glass rip into necrotic flesh, leaving strips of rotting meat hanging on the window’s frame. The calls of the dead beaconing and pleading the group to stay with them.
Alex looks to Angela as if to say in realization that they don’t have time to get back out the main front door.
The glass of the security window can now no longer contain the dead weight pressing against it. Rotting bodies begin to spill out like an over turned toy box, it’s cadaverous content toppling over each other and onto the floor like tiny green army men.
“Is there another way out,” Alex starts to ask Phillip but the gross man is no where in sight.
Angela grabs Alex by the hand and drags him in the direction away from the hungry mob.
“He bolted this way,” Angela says, leading Alex to hopeful safety.
As they sprint to the furthest corner, Alex and Angela see Phillip a few yards ahead of them, moving towards the fire escape at the end of the hall. Whether or not on purpose, Phillip leads them to fire escape at the end of the hall.
“What the fuck, bro,” Alex screams, grabbing Phillip by the shoulder and twirling him around.
“I”m sorry. I’m sorry,” Phillip stutters over his words.
Angela pushes between the two men, looking through the window of the stairwell. The security lights are flickering but there is some illumination in the stairwell.
“Looks clear,” Angela starts to say, but Alex decides to take matters into his own hands and bursts through the door, barreling down the stairs with Angela in tow. Phillip is the last to hear the moans of the hungry dead as he steps through the fire door and onto the landing. Phillip looks down to see that Angela and Alex have nearly reached the thrid floor exit. Angela hot on Alex’s heels when she hears more glass shattering. Phillip pauses in the doorway and looks behind him to see the angry mod shambling down the hall.
“Hold up, guys,” Phillip says as he turns to head down the stairs. Shutting the fire door behind him, Phillip doesn’t see the dead man propped up behind the door or the corpse slumped on the landing next to the door.
Angela turns around just in time to see the shocked look on Phillip’s face as the standing corpse reaches out, grabbing Phillip by the hair and neck, and the dead thing on the floor reaching for Phillip’s leg. Rotting fingers wrap themselves around Phillip’s mouth, dampening the scream coming from Phillip’s now covered lips. Hearing the whimper, Angela hesitates for a moment, jerking Alex to a halt. Alex turns to see what’s happening behind him that Angela must be so attentive too. Hearing the moans of the dead, ALex assumes that it’s the mob they left on the fourth floor, but these moans sound much closer and echo down the stairwell. Alex sees that Angela is frozen in place.
“What are you doing?!”
“We have to help him,” Angela says through gritted teeth.
Alex turns his attention upwards sees the mob from the nurses’ station spilling through the door now. Alex grabs Angela’s wrist just as Angela sees the dead men and women falling on Phillip, their hungry mouths open and ready to devour him. Phillip’s screams are soon drown out by the sounds of his body being eaten. The wretching noises follow Alex and Angela down the stairwell to the third floor. The lights from the psychward are casting eerie shadows on the orgy of cannibalism above them, only enhancing the malevolence of what was their former safe place.
Crunching of Phillip’s bones.
Ripping of Phillip’s flesh.
Dead mouth slurping Phillip’s warm blood.
The dreadfull noise follows Alex and Angela down to the next landing.
As they reach the third floor door, without hesitation, Alex starts to pull it open. Angela bodyslams into him, slamming the door shut.
“Wrong door! Wrong door! Wrong door,” Angela screams, grabbing Alex by the back of his pants, hauling him down the stairs to the second floor.
Alex looks at the floor sign and remembers that floor from the day before. The screams of the people and the moans of the dead can still be heard faintly, remembering that the 3rd floor is not the place to be either.
“Abandon all hope,” he mutters,” ye who enter.”
Angela then takes the lead, grabbing him by the hand. They get to the second floor landing without further incident. The dead of the 4th floor too busy with Phillip to pay them any attention. Angela is still holding Alex by the hand when he thinks to himself “How the hell are we going to get out of here? How can we possibly make it back to her apartment?”
Lost in thought as they reach the main landing, Alex slams into Angela’s back, almost knocking them both over.
“Jesus Christ, Ange, warn me?”
It’s then that Alex Notices the dead woman in scrubs standing between them and their exit to the outside world. With no warning or provocation, it lunges toward Angela. With agility that Alex didn’t know he possessed, Alex grabs Angela by her shirt collar with his left hand, throwing her out of the way. He raises the baseball bat in his other hand, hitting the dead woman square in the shoulder. The former nurse thuds against the wall, crumpling to the ground like pile of wet laundry. This gives them just enough time to get to the door and outside. For a moment they’re blinded by the sun of the early morning. Shutting the fire door behind her, Angela looks around at their new surroundings. Everything seems to be ok. Alex is the first to notice that it is way too quiet.
No people noises.
No birds chirping.
No city sounds.
Relasing her vise-like grip of Alex’s hand, Angela took a cautious step twards the parking lot, ready to make their way to her vehicle.
“I think we’re in the clear,” Alex said after several steps away from the hospital.
That’s when they hear the metal door slam against the concrete wall of the hospital. Alex jerked around and saw the familiar dead spilling outside. The walking corpses noticed the prey that had elluded them moments before. Angela turned around slowly, her eyes adjusting to the daylight, only to see the dead toppling out the door like an upturned a sack of potatoes, spilling on top of each other, crawling over each other to get out.
“Spoke too soon,” Angela urged, grabbing Alex by the shoulders.
“Time to go.”
In a short time, the pair made their way through the parking lot and to Angela’s car. Alex had the keys in his pocket so he slammed himself behind the steering wheel, starting the car and hitting the gas pedal hard, barely giving Angela enough time to get the passenger door shut. They skidded out of the parking lot hard, sideswiping another car on the passenger side. Angela braced herself against the dashboard, preparing for the worst. Alex, still obviously worked up over what they just witnessed, was paying more attention to what was going on in front of him than to what was going on around them.
Alex was shaken back into reality by Angela screaming a warning.
His eyes refocused just as he was about to barrel into someone who had stumbled into the road in front of them and a group of dead directly behind the person. In the blur of the moment, Alex couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman but the motions of the victim, arms flailing, give way to the belief that this person might be alive. Alex and Angela both felt the thud of the wheels going over the body, the bump as they drove over it, and the sound of bones crunching against the floor board. Alex looked in the rear view mirror while Angela continued to scream incoherently. He saw the body lying in the middle of the road, moving helplessly, body broken, just as the horde descended upon the fallen victim. Even through the rolled up windows, they could hear the screams of whoever it was as it was being eaten alive, the grisly image growing smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror as they sped away.
Angela was still screaming like a banshee, so Alex screamed too, trying to get through to her.
“Angela! Stop screaming! I’m trying to drive here!”
This simple fact strikes her as funny and slowly her screams melt into hysterical laughter, which, to Alex, is just as bad. Angela’s uncontrolable laughter turned into tears as the gravity of the situation sinks in and she realizes that last night she saw her sister eating her mother.
Alex, completely misinterpreting the situation, says “Baby, I didn’t mean to hit ‘em. He came out of nowhere. There was no way to avoid it.”
Angela looks at him through tears streaked eyes. “What?! What the hell are you talking about?”
“We hit that guy! Isn’t that why you’re crying,” Alex says, placing a hand on Angela’s knee.
“What?! NO!” Her laughter coming in fits and bursts through sniffles and tears. “My mom… Taylor… “
“Oh yeah,” Alex says, gently patting her knee. “I’m sorry. Did you want to go back?”
Angela starts to chuckle again “Jesus Christ Alex, don’t be stupid.”
Alex looks over at her and grins a little bit. “Hey you know me…” his voice trailing off.
Angela, with Alex still looking at her, realizes that he’s let his foot off the gas. The car is just coasting now. He’s no longer staring at her, he’s staring at something out the window beside her.
Angela turns in her seat, straining against the seatbelt, to see it’s a 3-car accident covered by a horde of the dead feasting on the hapless victims trapped in the mangeld vehicles. The dead are picking clean the accident victims trapped inside. Angela throws a trambling hand over he mouth, stiffling a scream, and looking away in disgust.
Angela doesn’t recognize the location that they’re in, but Alex does. Almost on autopilot, Alex took the route back to Angela’s apartment that led him past the strip clubs. Alex recognizes some of the crowd feasting on the accident victims. One of the dead he knew all too well. Lexxie is one of the hungry dead. After seeing Lexxie’s dead, ravaged body up and moving around, it finally sinks in what’s going on around him.
Alex looks up into the rearview mirror and squints, bringing into focus the walking corpse of the once adorable redheaded girl who’s g-string a few nights ago, he had been slipping dollar bills into.
“Alex. We have to go.”
Lexxie was slowly making her way over to Alex’s side of the car, arms out stretched with a seemingly benign look on her face. Alex couldn’t help but think that it was the same look she’d given him dozens of times before when he’d walked up to the bar to order a drink from her. Alex’s attention was still focused on Lexxie and the horrific scene unfolding before him, his blank stare hiding whirling thoughts.
Angela whirled around in her seat, looking at the half dozen half-naked dead strippers moving away from the car accident and towards her side of the car. A dozen necrotic eyes blankly focusing on her. Each of them wore the badges of horrific wounds, the supposed causes of their deaths. Angela could tell that the women had been pretty in life, possibly even beautiful for trashy strippers, but she could only focus on the wounds. One poor girl was missing her left breast. The gaping wound looked as though the entire left side of her torso had been ripped off during her demise.
Alex’s attention was fully on Lexxie though. His poor Lexxie. How did this all happen, he thought to himself. How could he have let this all happen?
“Alex! Alex! ALEX!”
She snaps Alex back into real time with a half-hearted punch.
“Alex! We have to go.”
Shaking his head and clearing the thoughts away, Alex puts his foot down on the gas pedel just as Lexxie’s whithered hands reach his window.
Angela sees him jerk back into himself and slam his foot into the gas pedal. Angela had no idea her car really could go 0 to 60 in 8 seconds.
Winding their way through downtown Cedar Rapids was more difficult now than it was when they’d left for the hospital the day before. The entire city seems to have been thrown into chaos. Angela sees stalled cars littering the crowded streets. Some appear abandonned, parked and left by their owners wherever they felt the need, while other’s were clearly left after accidents. Cars flung against lamp posts. Smashed into store fronts and office buildings. One entire block of downtown was on fire, the flames spreading from building to building and following an unseen trail to the south towards the river. A twinge of pain crosses Angela’s face. It wasn’t so long ago that downtown was under water from heavy flooding and now it’s all burning to the ground. But the streets weren’t completely devoid of the living. The sounds of gunshots could be heard through the rolled up windows.
“Sounds like someone’s making a last desperate stand,” Alex noted.
Angela could only shake her head and try to stimey her disbelief.
“Alex,” she whimpered, “what’s going on? Why is this happening?”
“I don’t know, babe but we shouldn’t stick around to find out.”
Alex exaggerated his statement by pointing behind them. A group of decayed forms was stumbling out of the destroyed buildings around them. The motley crew moved with the same slow, jerking motions as the decayed forms from the hospital. Each of their dead mouths opened to whisper a hollow greeting. Their arms out stretched to welcome their new friends.
It takes some fancy driving, and Alex taking Angela’s car through several lawns and on more than one stretch of sidewalk, but the two managed to make it back to Angela’s apartment without further incident. Just as Alex thought they were in the clear, he pulled into the parking lot and saw that the horrors of the day were not contained to just downtown and the hospital. The parking lot was crawling with the dead. As soon as Alex and Angela made their way around the corner to her parking spot a dozen pairs of rotting eyes looked in their direction and a dozen hungry jaws opened wide, awaiting the tasty meal that seemed to have just been delivered unto themselves.
The path to the main lobby door of Angela’s building is blocked by the cadaverous crowd.
“We’ll never break through,” Alex tells Angela as if she’s not’ privy to the situation.
“We have to,” Angela replies. “I didn’t make it though last night just to give up and leave. We’ve got to get in.”
“I could always just drive into the lobby,” Alex says coyly.
“And I could shove you out and make a run for it when those things pounce on you,” Angela whips back, getting a slight chuckle out of Alex.
“You wouldn’t dare do that to this,” he says, pointing to himself. “Besides, I have an idea.”
By this time the dead have all started walking toward them, their broken bodies jerking and convulsing with rigor.
“Hold on,” Alex says, firmly gripping the steering wheel with both hands.
Alex barrels through the parking lot, honking the horn and stopping a few yards in front of the dead.
“What the Hell are you doing,” Angela screams, white knuckling her lap belt.
“Just hang on tight,” Alex says, “I have a plan.”
When the dead move a little closer to Angela’s car, Alex throws it in reverse, making a u-turn and slowly easing the car out of the lot. Coasting in Angela’s car allows the dead the opportunity to reach out and touch the back bumper while Alex maintains a steady forward motion, leading the congregating group away from the front doors of the apartment building. Once he pulls onto the main drag, he eases down on the gas and lets the dead chase the car for about a block.
All the while Angela is freaking out as she can hear jagged bones & ragged fingernails scraping along the back of her car. After a few hundred yards with the dead in tow, Alex pulls another u-turn and heads back to the apartment, faster this time so that the dead can’t catch up.
The parking lot was now devoid of the walking dead.
“I can’t believe that worked,” Angela admits in disbelief.
They screech to a stop a few feet fromt he front entrance, Alex curb-checking the car, jarring Angela against the door. Alex opens his door just as Angela unhooks her seatbelt. Baseball bat in one hand, he pulls Angela out the driver’s door just as she reaches for his backpack. The pair sprint up the steps to the front door only to see that Mr. Roper has invited company over for dinner.
Alex nearly throws a temper tantrum on the front steps, flailing his arms and jumping up and down while ranting “Fuck fuck fuck fuck!!”
Angela nearly collapses onto the steps. Tears had begun to well up in her eyes as she looked up at an obviously frustrated Alex. His frustration flips a switch in her mind and she starts forming a plan of her own.
“The first floor floor patios,” she whispers.
Alex pauses his childish tantrum, the same switch flicking on in his mind. They race around the back of the building, all the while glancing over their shoulders, preparing for the worse to happen. Angela can see the dead they thought they lost getting closer, the first few of the group making their way around the corner of the building. Alex picks the first patio window he sees and pauses, looking around him for something heavy. He fixes his eyes on a large yard gnome that was decorating the back patio’s small garden. Hefting it above his head, he hurls it through the glass door, shattering it on impact. They beat path through the apartment and just as Angela is closing the front door of the apartment, she can hear the sound of feet crunching on broken glass coming from the living room. The dead followed them into the apartment. They race down the hall, Alex’s lungs starting to burn, cursing himself for not quitting smoking earlier. Angela stops at the lobby elevator, pressing her floor’s button.
“Stairs,” Alex says, grabbing Angela by the hand and giving her the “have you lost your goddamn mind” look.
“Don’t you remember the stairs at the hospital,” Angela replies.
“Stairs,” Alex says firmly, tapping the baseball bat on his left boot.
They charge up the stairs, Alex in the lead and Angela hot on his heels. Their footsteps sound like thunder, reverberating against the walls as they run. They reach the landing for Angela’s floor, pausing for a moment and Alex cautiously opens the door (since there’s no window for him to look through first). He sees that the hallway is clear. In fact the entire floor seems to be deserted. There are no sounds coming from anywhere. Deciding it’s safe enough, they dash down the hall to Angela’s apartment. Angela fishes for her keys while Alex watches the hall. Angela fumbles with her keys, hands beginning to shake, as she unlocks the door. They make it inside without difficulty but Alex checks the apartment anyways to make sure that no dead have found thier way inside, even though the door was locked, exactly as they left it.
“Better safe than eaten,” he shrugs admittingly.
As Alex locks the door behind them and checks throughout the apartment for safety, Angela makes her way to the livingroom window, looking forlornly outside but not really seeing anything. In fact, she has trouble focusing on anything specific other than yesterday’s events. She can’t get the thoughts of Taylor and her mother out of her mind. She keeps replaying in her mind the images of Taylor hunched over Linda, the blood and gore dripping down her sister’s chin and Alex raising his baseball bat, then Taylor hitting the floor with a wet thud when Alex cracked her head open like an over-ripe watermellon. Her sister ate thier mother. At the memory, Angela chokes up again. She’d lost track of how many tears she’d cried in the past few days. She shutters when Alex comes up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waste.
“You have to put it out of your mind, honey. There was nothing you could’ve done.“
Angela drops her hands to her sides and says, “How am I just supposed to forget something like that. My sister ATE my mother! She just… ate her! I mean, what the hell am I supposed to do here, Alex? My family is gone! I have nothing left!”
Alex slides his pack off his shoulder and drops it on the floor. He kneels down on one knee in front of it and starts pawing through it’s contents.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Angela asks.
He says “I’m looking for something for you. Xanax, clonopin, something – didn’t you grab any meds while we were there?”
Angela just snorts and half walks, half stumbles to the bathroom. She opens the medicine cabinet and pulls out a prescription bottle. She hands the pill bottle to Alex, saying “I have these already, will that do?”
Alex spills the bottle around in his hands, noting the prescription’s label. He had no idea that Angela had been prescribed anti-psychotics. Alex just shakes his head and opens the bottle, spilling out one of the pills. He walks to the sink and comes back with a glass of water for Angela. He hands them to her and waits, watching, until Angela finally gives in and downs the pill. He takes her hand and leads her to the couch. He sits down and pulls her down with him, cradling her head against his chest. He casually flips on the TV and turns it to one of the national news channels.
Angela signs her displeasure. “Please, not tonight. I just cannot deal with the news tonight. Can we watch something else?”
In response, Alex hits the button on the remote to power on the DVD player and Jurassic Park 4 comes on.
He smiles & looks down at her, saying “Will this do?”
Angela laughs, “If your man crush makes you feel better, then I’m ok with this.”
She sinks deeper into Alex’s warm embrace. Her labored breathes and soft tears begin to slow as the safe feelings return. Alex loses himself in watching the movie until he realizes that Angela’s stopped sniffling and has fallen asleep.
He continues stroking her shoulder softly and whispers, “You didn’t lose everything.You still have me.”
Alex finally gives in to his own exhaustion and they fall asleep on the couch.
An uneasy sleep has embraced Angela’s mind though. The safety of Alex’s arms don’t carry over into the sleeping world and Angela is plagued by another nightmare. She finds herself walking down another long hallway. It’s walls lined on either side with pull drawers similiar to those from the hospital’s morgue. The lights above her flicker softly. She can feel the cold floor beneath her bare feet. A shiver slowly creeps it’s way up her spine causing her entire body to shiver. She can see her breathe as she exhales. The hair on the back of her neck stiffens as she hears the moaning echoes coming from all around her, bouncing off the walls and growing into a dire crescendo of death. The moans get louder as she continues down her path. The hallway seems to go on forever. In the near distance, she can see shadows playing across the floor. The moans of the dead growing louder from all around her. Ahead of her, one of the morgue doors swings open, smacking the wall with a loud metal cracking sound.
Angela wakes up with a start, still shivering from the dream’s cold. The moans of the dead in her dream still echoing in her ears. She still hears a banging sound that was coming from the dream’s hallway. Angela shakes the sleep from her mind, still sure that somehow she must still be trapped in the nightmare. The last slices of dusk’s dying light streak into her apartment. She can hears the distant moans of the dead calling out.
Angela jumps at the sudden noise, waking Alex in the process.
“What is it,” Alex exclaims, reaching instinctiveley for his baseball bat.
Angela stiffens and looks at the front door.
“There’s somebody out there,” she says with a shakey voice.
Alex sits up slowly, listening for the sound to repeat itself.
“Babe, you’re hearing things. There’s nobody …”
They look at each other, as though silently asking the other to investigate the noise.
Alex is the first to break free of their fear, cautiously making his way to the front door. He peaks through the peephole, craining his head to the left and then to the right, trying to gain as much view as possible from the bad angle.
“I don’t see anything,” he finally says to Angela after a few agonizing minutes.
He hesitantly reaches for the doorknob.
Angela runs up behind him, slapping his hand away from the doorknob.
“What are you doing,” she hisses through clunched teeth. “Don’t go out there!”
He puts his eye to the peephole again.”
There’s nothing out there,” he assures her.
Just then he sees something walk by, just within sight, bumping into the wall across the hallway from Angela’s apartment. The sudden sight scares him bad enough that he falls backwards, barely avoiding taking Angela with him and thuds on the floor.
Angela bends over, helping him to his feet.
“Who is it? Who’d you see?”
Alex dares another look though the peep hole.
“It’s Mrs. Burkett,” he says.
“The crazy lady with all the pet rats,” Angela asks, moving closer to the door.
Without hesitation, she reaches for the doorknob. Just as she starts to open it, Alex grabs he hands firmly in his.
“Don’t do that,” he says, pushing her away from the door.
“Knock it off, Alex. What if she needs help?”
Alex shakes his head. “I think she’s one of them.”
Angela looks through the peephole again. This time she can see that Mrs. Burkett has the same dead eyes as her sister did. Mrs Burkett is lazily chewing on something, the blood dripping all down the front of her gore soaked nightgown.
“What’s she doing,” Alex asks.
Angela swallows hard when she realizes what Mrs Burkett is chewing on. Mrs Burkett has a half eaten rat in one hand. She’s chewing on it like a kid with a candy bar. Angela’s face shifts from disgust to fascination as she watches Mrs. Burkett move up and down the hall. The crazy old woman from down the hall takes a step, sniffs the air, takes a bite of rat and repeats the process several times before stopping directly in front of Angela’s door. Mrs Burkett takes another step, moving closer to Angela’s door and sniffs the air, bits of rat dripping down her chin and onto Angela’s Welcome matt. The old woman starts feeling around on the door’s frame like she a blind woman trying to find entrance.
Angela slowly sinks down, ending up on her knees in front of the door, visibly freaked out byt the sight of Mrs Burkett. Alex hunkers down on the floor next to her. Alex notices that Angela’s complextion looks kinda green and she has her hand over her mouth. Her chest is heaving and she’s rocking back and forthe to keep herself from gagging.
“What is it,” Alex finally asks. “What did you see?”
Angela has her hands clapped over her mouth, shaking her head from side to side. She doesn’t trust herself to speak because she knows that, the moment she opens her mouth, she’ll retch and Mrs. Burkett will hear her.
Alex gets up slowly and raises his eye to the peep hole and finds that he’s eyeball to milky dead eyeball with Mrs. Burkett. The old woman is weaving side to side on her feet and, as she weaves back, Alex sees that she has the remnants of a rat in her mouth, lazily chewing on it.
Alex whips around with his hands clapped over his mouth.
“That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever seen. That’s worse than eating people, she’s eating a fucking rat!”
Angela can’t help it anymore; she turns to the side and grabs one of Alex’s baseball caps that was unlucky enough to have found itself lying next to the door and vomits in it.
Alex starts to protest in disgust but is interrupted by Mrs. Burkett bumping into the door and rattling the knob. The noise of Angela vomiting has drawn the dead woman’s attention again and she’s come back to the door eager to find out what new food waits for her on the other side.
“The door’s locked, she can’t get in here. If we’ll stay quiet, she’ll just go away. Right,” Alex says in a hushed whispered tone.
Angela looks at him, incredulous, and whispers, “How the fuck should I know? What am I, an expert on the undead?”
Alex looks down at her as she wipes the vomit from her chin and says, “Well… you’ve seen more of them than I have.”
Angela just rolls her eyes at him and propps herself up against the door, terrified that Mrs. Burkett will find a way in.
The forgotten movie that had been playing the entire time finally ends. Having set the DVD player on repeat, the start screen comes up. The dinosaur roars its introduction. Mrs. Burkett moans in response. Angela and Alex look at each other in a hurried panic. Alex dives for the remote to turn the TV off and Angela rushes back to the door to see what Mrs. Burkett’s doing now. The sudden roar of the t-rex got Mrs. Burkett’s attention and she starts pounding on the door. Burkett’s dead fists beating so violently now, the door shakes with every thump. Mrs Burkett wants in badly and Angela wonders if the door is strong enough to keep her at bay.
“What are we going to do,” Angela asks, looking in Alex’s direction.
He picks up his baseball bat, kisses it on the end & says, “Let’s let her in.”
“Fine,” Angela relents, sighing her frustrations. “I’ll open the door.”
Bracing herself for the sight of Mrs Burkett’s upright corpse, Angela grips the door knob with both hands. Alex moves into position beside Angela and raises his baseball bat above his head. Angela opens the door quickly and is immediantly greeted by Mrs. Burkett’s grim form. Alex steps between the two ladies and kicks Burkett firmly in the chest knocking her back out into the hall and then steps out so he can get a better swing. Mrs Burkett reaches out to Alex, dropping the rodent morsel to the floor in starving anticipation of a larger meal. Alex responds by arching the bat high and connecting with the side of Mrs. Burkett’s head, a solid hit that drops the old woman to the floor, her head splitting open and spraying dead grey matter across the wall behind her and all over Alex.
Covered in gore and out of breath from the excitement, Alex comes back inside and locks the door behind him.
“There we go. All taken care of.” He kinda grins at Angela, saying, “This is getting easier.”
Angela rolls her eyes at him in disgust. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”
Alex looks down at himself, afraid to touch any of the blood and brain matter covering himself, “I’ve got to shower. Now. I’m a mess.” He looks at Angela and says “Actually, so are you.”
Angela looks down at herself, not remembering the last time she showered. “Yeah, but we can’t both go at the same time. What if we get another visitor?”
Alex agrees to stand guard first and let her shower. On her way out of the room he says “Hey, make sure you leave me some hot water this time.”
Angela strips off the sweat and blood soaked clothes she’s been wearing for the past few days, letting them lay on the floor where they fall, not caring to touch them further. She stays under the steaming jets of the shower, reveling in the soothing warmth until she feels the temperature start to drop.
“Oh yeah,” she says to herself as she turns off the water. “He’s use to cold showers anyways.”
“What’s that babe,” Alex replies through the closed door.
“Nothing. Just talking to myself.”
Angela wraps herself in a towel, stepping over the pile of dirty clothes and out of the bathroom.
“All your’s,” she says as she wraps a second towel around her wet hair and walks into her bedroom.
Alex strips down next, throwing his clothes onto the pile already started on the floor. He’s not surprised by ending up taking a partially cold shower. Angela’s been through Hell the past few days and he realizes she needed the repriive more than he did.
The rest of the night ends up being relatively quiet. There are no more visitors at the door. At one point, Alex notices that the sounds of police sirens seem to be getting more frequent. He walks out onto Angela’s patio, lights a cigarette and looks out across the neighborhood. A slight undertone of the dead can be heard over the sirens, their moans echoing off the buildings around him. A few of the walking corpses can be seen by the building stumbling around, their numbers growing as they’re drawn out into the night. Having shut herself in ther bedroom, Alex decides to take the first watch through the night, which he knows will end up being the only watch through out the night. Bored with watching the dead shambling around on the lawn below him, he steps back inside and turns on the TV. The first thing he sees are news clips of a very frightened-looking local newscaster warning everyone to “Remain calm. Do not panic.” Flipping through the local channels, the news is all the same. “Stay in your homes,” one anchor announces from the supposed safety of a studio. “Do not engage anyone that you think might be infected.”
Alex sigh in frustration. “OK, are they going to tell us anything new?”
Alex ends up falling asleep leaning against the wall by the door, the news anchor’s voice becoming a soothing white noise.
Angela wakes up and to find Alex glued to the television, assuming he’s been there all night.
“They’re just playing the same thing over and over. Stay in your house. Stay calm. Stay away from the things walking around out there. Stay. Stay, stay, stay. We need to go. It’s not safe here anymore.
“No,” Angela says. “If they tell us to stay here, we need to stay here. I”m sure they’ll have this mess handled in no time.”
Alex mutes the TV and looks at her with serious eyes. “Babe, we’ve both seen what’s out there. Do you really think it’s going to be safe here? Do you really think that we’re not going to run out of food before they get things back under control?”
Angela walks over to the cupboard, seeing that they probably don’t have enough food to make it two days, let alone however much time that they think they might need to get rescued.
“Ok,” she finally agrees, “you’re right but if we’re going to leave, we need more than a backpack full of drugs and a baseball bat.”
“We need a plan of action then,” Alex says, grabbing his baseball bat.
Angela steps out of the kitchen, grabbing an umbrella leaning against the couch.
Alex looks at her questioningly, “Are you expecting rain today?”
Angela shrugs and mimes stabbing something with the pointy end of the umbrella.
Alex rolls his eyes, “Yeah, that’s not going to work.”
He takes the umbrella from her and walks back into the kitchen. He comes back into the room and hands her her grandmother’s blender.
“What am I gonna do, make them a smoothie?”
Angela can’t contain and healthy laugh as she hands the blender back to Alex.
He grabs the blender back from her and mimes smashing something over the head. He hands it back to her.
“Think you can do that?”
Feeling the weight in her hands, she shrugs.
“I guess we’ll find out but we need a plan first.”
After a heated discussion about where they’d be heading and what they’d need to take with them, they both agree that their best first course of action is to search through the other deserted apartments for anything that might be useful.
Cradling her grandmother’s blender under her arm, Angela opens the front door and they step out of the apartment. They look down the hallway. The lights in the hallway are still on. They see that Mrs. Burkett’s apartment door is open and Alex shudders at the thought that they walked by it 24 hours ago and didn’t even notice that the door was open. Alex steps into Mrs. Burkett’s apartment first. None of the lights were left on and the darkness envelopes Angela as she follows Alex’s steps. Alex takes a few cautious steps in, Angela closely shadowing him. They get about halfway into the living room and Alex notes that this apartment has the same floor plan as Angela’s.
“They should all be like this on this floor,” Angela replies.
After a few more steps, Angela feels something run across her foot and she shrieks, jumping back and raising the blender above her head. Alex turns around with the baseball bat raised, fumbling for the light switch. They hear the squeeking sound at the same moment Alex turns on the living room light. Angela looks down and is the first to notice what it is, she sees that Mrs. Burkett’s rats are running loose. There’s one sitting there at her foot looking up at her. Angela lets out a sigh of relief and Alex giggles to himself. Alex sees the rat on Angela’s foot and a few more on the kitchen counter. There are several crawling across the living room floor.
He sighs deeply, giving in to the current occupants.
“We’re not going to find anything we need in here.”
Angela sees a rat-gnawed bag of food on the kitchen floor, rat droppings covering dirty dishes let in the sink and stacks of unread newspaper piled up everywhere she looks. They can see that Mrs. Burkett was living out of clothes baskets. There are plates of half-eaten food lying throughout the apartment. The floor is littered with discarded food wrappers and empty cans of soda.
“He was just looking for something to eat,” Alex mutters out loud.
Angela bends down to pick up the rat that’s on her foot.
“Who was looking for something to eat,” she asks as she strokes the rat’s head.
“The one that she was eating,” Alex says, letting out a sigh. “I bet he thought that she was going to feed him, not that he was going to end up as food.”
Angela looks down at the rat in her hand and thinks back to the little baby bunnies she and Taylor had found one spring after their dad mowed the back lawn. Their father had stirred up a rabbit’s nest, accidently killing the mother. The girls watched the helpless bunny for days. They took care of them for as long as they could but baby bunnies don’t last that long without their mother. Angela wipes the tears from her eyes and finds a clear path through the clutter to the kitchen. She tears the bag of rat food open, spilling it’s contents on the floor, leaving it for the rats. At the sound of kibble hitting the floor, the rats come scurrying in from all over the apartment. Dozens of them follow the sound of food.
“It’s time to get the fuck out of here,” Alex says, stepping back into the hallway.
Angela looks back at him with a blank stare and nods in agreement. They take their bat and their blender and walk back into the hallway. Alex walks back across the hall and puts his ear to the door across the hall from Mrs Burkett’s apartment and looks through the peephole.
Angela steps up behind Alex and notices that he’s looking through the peephole backwards.
“You’re not going to see anything looking through the peephole that way,” Angela says, taking into question whether or not Alex has lost his sanity.
Alex motions for her to take a look, saying in a whispered tone “There’s somebody in there.”
Angela puts her eye directly up against the peephole. “I don’t see anything.”
Alex grabs her shoulders and moves her back so that her head is a few inches away from the peephole. Angela can see a blurry shadow pacing back and forth in the apartment. Angela raises her hand to knock on the door. Alex grabs her hand firmly.
“What are you doing,” he hisses.
“What if there’s somebody in there,” she asks.
“There IS something in there,” he replies, still hold her hands in his.
Alex releases his grip and steps back from the door. Angela’s hand drops to her side and she takes a step back also. Alex moves across the hall to the next door, the apartment next to Angela’s.
Angela pauses at the door and repeats Alex’s peephole trick.
“I don’t see any shadows in there,” she says, her face turned in Alex’s direction.
“Who lives in this one?”
“I don’t know,” she answers. “I never got to know any of my neighbors except for Mrs. Burkett.”
Angela points a shaky extended finger at the corpse laying on the floor.
Angela tries the doorknob. It’s unlocked. She steps off to the side and turns to face Alex. He nods at her in approval and she pushes the door in. Alex steps into the apartment first. It looks like the occupants left in a hurry. There are empty boxes strewn on the floor. Alex looks into the kitchen and sees that the cupboard doors are all hanging open. Stepping over the empty boxes and into the kitchen, he reaches in and pulls out a couple of cans of peas and cream of mushroom soup that were left behind in the rush.
Angela walks through the living room, which looks to be just as much of a disaster. The couch has been pushed out of the way and the TV is missing. She sees a bookshelf with empty spaces where books have been taken off. Naked nails hang silently on the walls where the pictures have been taken down, looking pitiful and lonely. Alex walks into the bathroom and sees that the medicine cabinet has been cleaned out. Everything of use in the bathroom seems to have been taken. He can see a spot on the sink there somebody must have squeezed the toothpaste tube from the middle, leaving a dried green glob on the sink.
Angela walks into the smallest of the three bedrooms. Dresser drawers are pulled open, clothing strewn throughout the room. Alex finds the same thing in the next bedroom, obviously a kid’s bedroom. The room has bunk beds and discarded toys and comicbooks strewn all over. Alex sees a sword hanging on the wall and instinctively reaches for it. Gripping the handle firmly, he balances the weight and feel against his trused baseball bat.
“Naw,” he says, shaking his head, “too cliche,” and lays the sword down on the bed.
Alex then walks into the master bedroom and finds Angela sitting on the edge of the bed, holding something in her hand. As Alex gets closer, he sees that she’s holding a picture frame. Angela notices his entrance and looks in his direction, holding out the picture frame for him to see. It’s a family photo. He sees a man and a woman and their two young children. Alex can see that Angela now has tears streaming down her face.
Through half-sobs Angela manages to say “What’s going on? Where did they go? I don’t even know how long I lived next to them. I didn’t even know their names.”
Alex steps into the bedroom and sits next to her, putting his arm around her shoulder.
“We can’t think about that right now. We just have to get us safe,” he says, trying his best to comfort her.
Angela sniffles and wipes her nose on his shoulder.
“What the hell Ange!?”
They both start giggling.
After the laughter turns uncomfortable for them and the sullen mood subsides, Alex says “I don’t think we’re going to find anything in here either.”
He walks back into the kids’ room and picks up a duffel bag that he saw lying on the bed. He upends it, spilling its contents on the floor. Baseball glove, couple of baseballs, a youth league baseball jersey and figures out who the previous owner of the baseball bat he’d found days earlier was.
“Thanks, kid,” he says quietly.
Alex goes back to the kitchen to retrieve the cans of peas & the mushroom soup. He shakes his head in disbelief and stuffs them into the duffel bag. He waits for Angela by the front door and together they walk across the hall to the next apartment on their list. Alex looks reverse through the peephole and decides that he doesn’t see any abnormal movement but notices an odd odor lingering through the door. Angela notices him crinkling his nose.
“What’s wrong,” she says, obviously concerned.
Alex shrugs. “Something doesn’t smell right.”
He tries the door handle but finds that it’s locked. He tells Angela to stand back and grips his baseball bat like a battering ram. He hits the door hard and busts it open after a few whacks. Alex is immediately caught in the face by the stench and moves his hand to his mouth to try to hold back his gag reflex. Angela isn’t so lucky. The smell catches her senses, catching itself deeply in her throat. She vomits all over the carpet in the hallway next to the apartment’s door. Looking back to make sure Angela is ok, Alex steps into the apartment. The shades on the balcony have been left open, letting in the midday sun. He can now hear muffled voices coming from the back of the apartment. They make their way through breezeway and into the apartment, Angela wiping her mouth and chin on her sleeve.
“What the hell is that smell,” she asks, suppressing her gags.
They can see lights flickering down the hallway coming from the back bedroom. The voices are to muffled to make out single words, but there’s an ugent tone in the voice.
“Hello,” Alex calls out. “Hello? Is anybody in here?
As he gets closer to the back bedroom, he realizes that the voice is coming from the TV.
He hands Angela the duffel bag, asking her to check the kitchen.
“Where are you going?”
Alex extends his baseball bat and silently motions to the back bedroom. Turning on his heels, Alex creeps down the apartment’s hallway. He raises the bat as he steps into the back bedroom. The shades have been drawn and the TV is casting eerie shadows over the still body of the apartment’s occupant. Alex flips the light switch on, revealing another gruesome scene that he is growing all too accustomed to. The apartment’s occupant seems to have taken his own life. The old man’s body is propped up in his bed while his brains are splattered all over the wall behind him. Alex notices a pistol in the man’s right hand. More disturbing to Alex though, is what the man must have picked as the last TV broadcast he would ever see, one of the local religious channels. Currently the broadcast is an elderly man dressed as a priest. He seems to be very agitated during his speech. Alex can see that the man on the TV’s face is flushed red, the veins in his neck and forehead popping out. He’s screaming so loud Alex can see the spit flying out of his mouth every time he opens it. As an automatic reflex, Alex reaches for the TV and turns the volume up.
“…. and the gates of Abaddon will be flung open and the dead will spill forth, devouring the living. So says the good book,” the grisled old man says, thrusting a bible in the direction of the camera. “We tried to warn you. We tried to save you. Lazarus’ children now walk the earth again, feasting on the flesh of the self-righteous and the sinners.”
“What if this is God’s punishment,” Alex wonders to himself. He shudders at that thought. Alex has never been a religious man, borderline atheist if it comes down to it, but with everything that he’s witnessed over the past week, how could he not wonder? Alex reaches out with a shakey hand, knocking over a pair of binoculars sitting on the television stand and shuts off the TV. He turns around to look at the dead man sitting upright in bed and for the first time notices that it looks like the man is dressed for Sunday church. The dead man’s neatly pressed white shirt and suite jacked are now covered with blood and brain matter. Bits and pieces of the man’s skull litter the bed and he can see their fragments stabbed into the ceiling and wall behind and above the old man. Alex also notices numerous empty pill bottles lying next to the man, one still clutched in his dead grip. Alex doesn’t bother to read what they are, he already knows. As he reaches down to grab the gun out of the man’s hand, he shakes his head saying “You were bound and determined to go one way or another, weren’t ya?”
Alex tucks the gun into his belt and slowly walks out of the room, the old man’s damnation speach still echoing in his ears. As he steps around the corner and into the kitchen, he finds Angela loading up the duffel bag with cans of food. Alex notices a couple of cans of sardines in Angela’s hand.
“Well wha’do ya know … my dad used to eat those,” he remarks.
Angela turns around and looks at him, still packing cans into her duffle bag, “Did you find anything?”
“Nothing useful,” Alex says while shrugging. “Just these,” holding the binoculars in Angela’s direction.
Angela, hearing the tone in his voice, doesn’t bother to try to drag a further explanation out of him. He’ll share whatever he really found in the bedroom when he’s ready and there’s no point in pressing the matter.
As they exit the apartment, Alex makes sure that the front door is closed tightly but not locked. They walk back into the hallway, looking in both direction for anymore of Angela’s dead neighbors. Angela is lugging around the the duffle bag full of food with a bit of exersion. Alex notices that she looks to be to the point of exhaustion.
“I think we’ve done enough looting for the day,” he says.
Angela nods in agreement and they make their way back to her apartment. They drop their findings on the floor, past the point of caring where they fall. Alex locks the door behind him and braces one of the dining room chairs under the doorknob. Even he wonders if it will really do any good if the dead coming knocking.
He then makes his way to the balcony, closing the sliding door behind him and lights a cigarette. He leans on the railing and looks down over the streets. He sees a few dead shambling around and notices that there is a few police and emergency vehicle in their neighborhood. As he watches, he sees a cop get out of his car and approach a small group of the undead. The officer’s gun is drawn but even from this distance, Alex can see the officer’s hand shaking as he approaches the group. A few of the dead turn around move toward officer. Alex can hear the cop telling them to “Stop! Don’t more or I’ll shoot.” The cop pops a couple of rounds off that knock two of the group to the ground but the rounds have no effect. The cop is quickly overtaken by the group and their moans do little to over power the officer’s pleas for help and shreiks of agony as they devour him. The noise attracts more of the dead in the area and soon the area is seething with corpses, each trying to get a handfull of the officer’s flesh before his body is completely eaten. The squad car’s engine is still running. It’s emercengy lights still flashing, casting an grisly disco light show over the scene. ALex continues to watch in morbid fascination as the dead rip handfulls of flesh from the fallen officer. Some of the group seem to be playing a twisted game of tug-o-war with the dead cop, rending the fallen officer to pieces.
“What do you know,” Alex half chuckles, “they do eat the whole thing.”
Done with the scene unfolding below him, Alex turns around to see Angela flopping down on the couch and turning on the tv. She’s numbly flipping through the news channels, pausing long enough on each to hear that most are only repeating what she already knows. The broadcasts are pretty much the same on every channel. There are a lot of the emergency screensavers with the scrolling bar that repeats: STAY IN YOUR HOME. DO NOT HAVE ANY INTERACTION WITH ANYONE YOU THINK MAY BE INFECTED. REMAIN CALM. LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE TRYING TO DEAL WITH THE SITUATION.
The only live broadcast that Angela can find is on one of the local religious channels. Instead of the old man that Alex had seen earlier, this is a young woman preaching similiar hellfire and damnation that the old man was.
Alex turns back to watch the city. As Alex is staring in bewilderment at the feast going on below him, he sees one of the undead standing directly under their balcony, digging in the dirt. Trying to understand what’s going on, sees the corpse produce something from the hole he’s just dug. A mole. The dead woman takes the mole, gripping it tight in both hands. The poor mammal is squirming and wriggling, trying to escape from the dead woman’s hand. The corpse looks at the tiny mole curiously and bites it in half. Alex has enough sense to turn away from the feast this time but not before he flicks his cigarette down on the dead woman. The cigarette hits her square in the forehead, leaving a burn on its rotting face and rolling down into it’s dirty blouse. Alex can see the faint smoke trail raise up from the thing’s chest but the dead woman pays no attention and continues to chomp of her meal. He turns in disgust and makes his way back inside Angela’s apartment curious to see what Angela is watching so intently.
He rolls his eyes. “Oh come on. Turn that crap off. I’ve had enough hell fire and damnation for one day.”
Angela, caught up in the show, doesn’t even bother to turn her attention towards him before saying, “I don’t know, maybe they’re right?”
“If you tell me that you really believe what those lunatics are claiming after everything we’re seen, I’m going to chuck you off this balcony myself.”
Angela gives him a nervous chuckle, shrugs and says, “Well, how would you explain it?”
“Obviously they’re sick, babe. This isn’t the rapture. This isn’t God’s punishment. I don’t think this is the plan of her vengeful god,” he says, thrusting a finger in the direction of the woman on TV.
Angela looks up at Alex. He can see a semblence of confusion hiding behind her eyes.
“But what if she IS right? I mean,” she stammers, “what if this really is the end and all that’s left is for us to die and become one of those things or …” Angela’s voice trails off, ending in a slight sigh.
Hearing those words coming out of Angela’s mouth nearly push Alex to his breaking point.
“You’re a woman of science and you’re believing this crap?! You know as well as I do that this is man-made and it’s probably some biological weapon the military dreamed up.” He takes the remote from her and turns the tv off. “You need to get this shit out of your head. Now. It’s not the end, we’re not going to die. We are going to get out of this fucking town and get somewhere safe. OK?”
Angela, appeasing him, shrugs and replies with a non-commital, “Ok.”
Alex accepts her response at face value and leaves it at that; an automated response to avoid an arguement. He grabs Angela by the shoulders and pulls her out onto the balcony, showing her the corpse that’s digging in the dirt underneath them.
“Look at this,” he says. “Just look at what she’s doing.”
Angela looks down, seeing the dead thing digging in the dirt with both hands. Angela stares in disgust as the decayed form eats whatever insects and worms it can pull out of the ground.
Alex then points to the corpses that are eating what’s left of the cop. “See? It’s not just us. It looks like they’ll eat anything that moves.”
Angela, horrified and disgusted by the sight, leans over the balcony, retching and throws up bile on the corpse underneath them.
Alex, thinking that he’s made his point, takes hold of Angela and pulls her back into the apartment. “Forget everything you heard on that broadcast tonight. Don’t listen to it, don’t watch it. Just put it out of your head.”
The day’s events have utterly exhausted the two of them. Alex can see that Angela’s adrenaline levels have begun to crash. His aren’t too far behind. Alex has never felt this tired before. Angela hasn’t felt her energy levels drain like this since she was in college. They’re both worn out.
Angela mumbles under her breath as she slides past Alex, back into her apartment and casually walks down the hallway and into her bedroom.
Alex still leaning over the balcony, lights another cigarette and ponders briefly about following Angela. After a few deep inhale breathes, Alex pitches the half smoked cigarette into the crowd of walking corpses who’ve amassed below him. Their dead arms flailing in a flacid attempt to reach Alex and pull him down into their hungry mouths. Alex leans over the railing, spitting down into the crowd and then makes his way back into the apartment. He doesn’t even bother to set his watch. He’s too tired. He doesn’t even bother taking off his boots. The moans of the dead make for morbid white noise as he drifts away into a restless sleep.
Angela couldn’t catch her breathe. Her legs ached with exhaustion and the pain in her side had reached a burning level. She’d never been in this part of the city before. The charred and blackened remains of the buildings around her made it impossilbe for her to get her barings. How did she end up here? Why did she leave Alex? Why couldn’t she have just listened to him?
The smell of melting plastic and burnt sheet rock lingered in the air. She tried coughing to clear her throat but the sudden nervous spasms in her gut only make breathing more difficult. She had to find a safe place soon but, for the moment, she can’t stop running. She was lost and it was still following her. Stalking her. She needed to find a place to hide before it caught up with her. She needed to find safety before it found her.
A few blocks in front of her, through the smokey haze, Angela could see what looked like the old police station. The fires seemed to have left it untouched. The windows all looked intact. Angela could see lights gleeming through several of the 6 story building’s windows, beaconing her to their safety.
Her pace slowed as she closed the distance to the station. Something didn’t feel right. A gust of wind cleared the smoke that was lingering heavy in the air. The cold bite of the chill morning shattered the facade of her supposed safe haven. She could see the blood smeared and bullet riddled windows lining the front of the building. Several vehicles were parked on the street at odd angles. Many were still ablaze with the fury of hellfire. As she got closer, Angela could see the half eaten corpses that littered the street like so much unwanted trash. Piles of shredded meat and bones were strewed all about her. Some piles were still smoldering with nearly dead flames. Angela could hear the crackles and pops of the meat baking in the heat. The air was thick with the stetch of rotting meat and burnt flesh.
Something wasn’t right. Angela almost chuckled to herself at how ridiculous that thought was. Nothing was right with this scenario. The hairs on the back of her neck each stood on end. Angela could feel the presence of unseen eyes. She lifted her left hand to wipe away the tears that had begun to stream down her cheeked. Her vision began to blur from the soot smeared air that was whirling around her.
The world had taken on a slightly crimson hue and her eyes began to burn. She wiped the ashes away and tried to focus. Angela gazed in shock as she saw the blood streaked across the back of her hands.
“Am I hurt,” she whispered quietly, looking dumbly at her hands.
Angela could see small drolets of red raining down all around her. She blinked hard, trying to clear her vision. This cant’ be right, she thought to herself. The noxious odor of burnt, rotting meat was clinging to the back of her throat. She caughed roughly, covering her mouth with her hand. Angela took a step backwards and stepped into something soft and wet. The crimson rain was now a down pour. Blood ran down her face. Angela’s hair was soaked with the gore. It clung to her face and covered her eyes.
From above her, Angela heard a soft, scratchy moan. It slowly turned into a gutteral growl.
Angela froze with fear. The thing had finally found her.
She turned cautiously and slowly crained her neck to look above her. Before her stood the stuff of enormous nightmares. The tyranosaurus-rex looked down at her with milky, blood-shot eyes. Pieces of rotting flesh clung to it’s gigantic form. Angela could see the beast’s necrotic bones and muscles peaking through shredded, scale covered flesh. Most of that rotting flesh was singed and still burning. The tyrant lizard bent closer to Angela. She could see the remnants of it’s last meal still squirming between it’s teeth. Angela tired to take a step back. The beast bellowed at her. It’s roar deafened her. Angela’s only thought was that it sounds nothing like in the movies. The shriek that erupted from her lungs, however, would have put any horror movie scream queen to shame.
The beast took another step closer to Angela, and lowered it’s gaping mouth. Angela was enveloped in the thing’s rotting breath. With the speed of a striking serpant, the monster closed it’s jaws around her.
Angela woke up shaking and out of breathe with a scream still caught in her throat and her body covered in sweat. The nightmare was so vivid, she could still smell the smoke of the burning bodies. She could also still smell the rotting flesh and hear the hollow groans of the dead thing from her nightmare. No, not from her nightmare. The moans that she was hearing were coming from the real world. Angela slung her legs over the side of her bed and sat quietly for a moment, trying to shake the thoughts from her ominous nightmare. She placed her feet on the carpeted floor of her bedroom one foot at a time, as if hesitant that this was the real world. Slowly making her way to the hall, Angela could barely hear the sound of a tornado siren off in the distance over the chorus of the dead. She notices the smell of smoke as soon as she opened her bedroom door. The hallway is slightly hazy. Angela has thoughts of how the bars use to be until the smoking ban went into effect. She didn’t miss coming home from a night out with Taylor and smelling like an ashtray.
“Taylor,” Angela whimpers quietly. Was it all just a dream, she wonders?
Reality sunk in as she came around the corner and into the living room. Alex, his back to her, was still glued to the TV. Even from this angel, he looks just beat up, like he hasn’t slept in days. He’s got a couple day’s worth of stubble on his face. He’s got a cigarette lit and hangning limply in one hand. There are several beer bottles placed in front of him. One of those bottles is full of cigarette butts. Ashes have from a full night of smoking have snowed all over her grandmother’s antique coffee table. Angela also see’s that a couple of cigarette butts have fallen onto the floor at his feet. The disarterous state of her living room shakes Angela back into the real world.
“What the holy hell,” she screamed angrily.
Alex was getting ready to put another cigarette out in the bottle but Angela’s sudden outburst startles him. He bumps the bottle, spilling it’s contents out onto the table and cascading down onto the floor.
“Jesus Christ, Angela! You scared the death out of me!”
He reaches down to try and clean up the mess. Angela has a look of disgust on her face.
Alex, seeing the tension building in Angela’s eyes, says “Babe, it’s really getting bad out there.”
Angela looks at the TV and sees that there is an actual live person broadcasting. The broadcast is cut with live shots from around the country. From the looks of the videos, it seems to be “same shit, different town” all over again.
“They’re telling people to evacuate the major cities,” Alex said, not even looking in Angela’s general direction, “and we’re on the list.”
“What about the sirens,” Angela asks, moving towards the balcony.
Alex pauses long enough to relight his cigarette before replying. “They say that the sirens are to draw them into the city so we can get out.”
“How does that even work? I mean, they’re coming into the city, how do we get out around them?”
“Apparently the city officials here think that if they can draw them into one or two or twelve different locations in the city, that’ll give everybody a chance to get out.”
“That’s a great idea but the siren,” Anegala says while pointing out the window, “is two blocks from my apartment.”
Alex walks to the balcony, cigarette dangling from his mouth and steps outside. The smell hits him first, that wet rotting flesh, mildewy clothes smell. He doesn’t even have to look down to see that they’re moving toward the apartment in droves. They’re congregating around one of the emergency towers only a few blocks away. It’s siren blaring a flacid tornado warning.
Angela then begins to notice that not even the smell of Alex’s chain smoking in her apartment can mask the smell of the walking corpses gathering outside. She steps onto the balcony and has to hold back a gag.
Alex puts a shakey hand on her shoulder as she’s looking out across the sea of the dead.
“We have to get out of here.”
The rest of their day is spent packing everything they think they’ll need for the trip into a few duffle bags. Angela stuffs a cardboard box full of canned food and a grocery bag with stuff out of her medicine cabinet.
Alex continues to monitor the news broadcasts as he’s studying a local map but it every channel has stopped running live news. Instead, a crawl has been set on repeat.
“This is an emergency broadcast. We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming at the request of local authorities. All regular broadcasts have been discontinued during this state of emergency. This station will remain on the air to broadcast news, official information and instructions for our viewers. This is not a test.”
“Where,” Angela says, cutting the hours long silence. “Where are we going to go?”
Alex shrugs and move towards the balcony. Looking out across the city, he can see a hoard of the dead wandering around Angela’s building. Their moans nearly drown out the emergency and tornado sirens blaring only a few city blocks away. The weather has been unusually warm and humid. The muggy conditions enhance the fetid stench of the rotting masses. Alex chokes back a gag as he looks out across the field of dead stretching out as far as he can see. Cedar Rapids has been over run by the dead. The city now belongs to the dead.
Stepping back into the apartment, Alex sees Angela packing up more groceries.
“Iowa City,” she says, not even looking in his direction.
“Why there,” Alex replies, shutting the balcony door behind him.
“The university hospital is there. Maybe they have a safe zone or something set up?”
Alex can’t argue with her. Maybe they do but getting there is another matter. Alex tells Angela about the view from her balcony, that the living dead are stretched out as far as he can see.
Angela makes her way across the hallway and into her neighbor’s unit. They’re not fortunate enough to have a balcony but they offer a nearly clear view of Alex and her’s exit route and the interstate. While the rotting masses have started to congregate on the other side of the building, there are very few shambling around the opposite side. Moving into one of the bedrooms, Angela stares blankly at the interstate. It seems that, in the past few days, everyone else came up with the same idea. The southbound lanes, the ones heading towards Iowa City, are packed with vehicles. Angela can see the dead wondering in between the vacant cars and trucks. There are several groups of the things clustered around cars, their living occupants still trapped inside.
Angela’s heart sank into the deepest pit of her stomach. As if being trapped in her apartment building wasn’t bad enough, what if they managed to make it to the interstate only to be trapped in her car?
She’s made her way back into the living room when Alex walks through the front door.
“How’s it look on this side,” Alex says, sounding genuinely concerned.
“Take a look for yourself,” Angela says, pointing out the window.
Alex cautiously steps through the living room, and leans with both hands on the window ledge.
“I can’t make out shit down there, babe. Can you bring me the binoculars?”
Angela tries to move but her feet seem to be cemented to the carpet. She can feel her entire body tense and the blood drain from her face.
Looking behind him, Alex seems the vacant look on her face.
“Babe? Hello?” Alex puts a hand on her shoulder. “Are you in there?”
Alex can almost hear Angela snap back into reality. With a sudden burst of energy, Angela rushes down the hallway and into the apartment’s bathroom. Angela starts gagging the moment she sees the toilet and begins to vomit the second her knees his the tile of the floor and her hands grasp at the toilet’s basin. With the stress and anxiety of the past few days, Angela had almost forgotten one important aspect of her life now; she’s carrying Alex’s baby. With each jerk of her abdoman muscles, Angela’s head swirls and twists with every emotion possible. She hates Alex for what he’s done to her body. She’s scared about making it out of this building alive. The bile builds up in the back of her throat. How is she going to raise a child in a world full of walking corpses? Her grip tightens on the basin. Can he protect her? Can he protect them? Her throat is burning from the acidic bile. Where will they go? How can they possibly survive?
Angela continues to dry heave, the contents of her stomach now long empty.
Tears are streaming down her cheeks, mixing with the bile in the toilet. Is she, are they now doomed to this wreched existence?
“Angela,” Alex says, kneeling down beside her and putting his on her back. “You’re scaring me.”
The wreching slowly turns into sobs. Alex looks around the bathroom for a towel, an old t-shirt, anything to wipe up the mess.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Angela manages to stutter between gags and sobs. “We’re no ready for this.”
“Yes we are,” Alex says, brushing Angela’s hair from her face and wiping the vomit from her chin with a discarded sock. “We have to. We’re going to be ok.”
“No, you don’t understand,” she says, moving away from the toilet and sitting cross legged on the floor. “Have you looked outside?”
“I did,” Alex says, handing her the sock. “The interstate is blocked from the south but we can still go north”
Angela looks at the sock in her hand, then up into Alex’s eyes, then back at the sock, then back at Alex. He grins softly, as if to say It’s all I could find.
“What’s north,” Alex asks, standing back up and reaching a hand down to help her up.
“I dunno. Waterloo? Nothing? Farms and cows?” A light flashes behind her eyes. “My Grandpartents farm.”
“How far,” Alex asks, helping her to her feet.
“Maybe an hour and a half? It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s a few small towns between us and there. Nothing major,” Angela says, wiping her face with the sock. “We should be able to make it before dark if we leave soon.”
“Then I suggest we finish packing,” Alex says, grabbing Angela by the hand and leading her to the door.
Alex double and tripple checked his mental list before deciding that they’ve finished packing. Angela is charged with carrying the two dufflebags full of various medical supplies they think they’ll need, the binoculars and a spare change of clothing. Alex’s backpack is full of food and more medical supplies. He’ll be carrying a box with dried goods and cans of food. He hopes that it’ll be enough to last them for a few days, anticipating that they’ll hit a snag and need to be on the road for that long.
“If it comes down to it, we can always hit up a house or store for something.”
By ‘hit up’, you mean rob,” Angela blurts out.
No, babe, not rob. We have to figure that there will be a lot of places abandonned and left. If the state that downtown is in is any indication, we’ll see lots of empty places before we hit the farm.”
Angela sets the duffle bags by the front door and stares at them blankly.
“Maybe we should stay,” she says vacantly.
“You can’t be serious!”
“You heard what they said on the news, Alex. Stay inside. Stay away from THEM!”
Alex grabs Angela by the hands and leads her back to the balcony.
“Do you see that, babe? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
Angela looks out across the rotting sea of corpses. Just corpses. No police officers. The Army is nowhere to be seen. No rescue squads are looming on the horizon.
“We’re alone in this mess now,” Alex says, lighting a cigarette and flicking the match over the railing. “The broadcast also said that they’re going to keeps those sirens blaring to draw them into a few spots so they’ll be easier to take out. We’re only a few blocks from the siren tower, you said. That means when they drop the bomb or whatever it is that they’re going to do, we’re not going to be stuck here.”
“What if they’re not serious, Alex. What if they’ve changed their minds? Did you see anything on the tv this afternoon? Did you hear anything on the radio? No? Neither did I because they’re not broadcasting anymore! For all we know, there’s no one left but us!”
BANG BANG BANG
Alex and Angela’s heads both jerk in the direction of the gunshots.
“Where’s that coming from,” Angela asks, leaning over the railing, trying to see the source of the gunshots.
“Grab your stuff, sweetheart. That’s our cue to boogy.”
Angela reluctantly heads to the front door, looking over her shoulder at Alex.
“What if they’re here to rescue us,” she asks.
“What if they’re the divertion that we need to escape,” Alex shoots back.
He grabs his baseballbat, backpack and the box of supplies Angela had finished packing up just moments earlier. Giving the apartment one last look, Alex pushes Angela out the front door and followers her down the hallway to the stairs. They side step over Mrs Burket’s body and weave through the rats scurrying in the hallway.
The stairwell is empty but Angela could clearly make out the moans and scratches coming from behind several of the fire doors and inside more than one apartment.
“This is crazy, Alex,” she says between clenched teeth, stopping by the stairwell door. “We don’t even have a plan!”
“We do have a plan,” Alex insists, grabbing her by the arm. “Our plan is to survive and not be here when shit goes down.”
Caustiously the pair make their way down to the first floor. Alex paused, motioning for Angela to stay behind him and braces himself against the main floor fire door. Peering out the tiny window, he can still see Mr Roper wondering around the lobby. Alex hands Angela his packpack so he can better wield the baseball bat.
“Roper’s still out there, babe. We’ll have to be quick about this. I need you to wait here. I’ll hollar when it’s clear.”
Alex took a deep breath, shifting his full weight from left foot to right foot, swaying to find his proper balance while firmly gripping his baeball bat.
“Alex, wait,” Angela said, grabbing him by the back of the shirt. “I can’t do this.”
Alex turned around, his face twisted into a scowl, ready to scold Angela for breaking his concentration, but stopped when he saw the tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I can’t do this,” Angela repeated, her voice cracking as the words caught in her throat.
The anger on Alex’s face melted away, replaced with a look of utter sympathy and sadness.
“Babe, I’m sorry,” he says, reaching out to Angela.
Angela took a quick step back, waving away his hand. In one fluid motion she took another step back, dropping Alex’s backpack on the floor and reaching behind herself with her right hand. Alex’s eyes, out of instinct, follow the backpack in its decent. Time seems to slow as he glances back up to Angela, Alex’s gun raised to her temple.
“I’m so sorry,” Angela whimper.
Alex doesn’t have to react. In a flash his thoughts swirl around everything that he and Angela have been through, everything that he has seen Angela lose. He sees her grip tighten on the gun’s handle, her index finger flexing on the trigger as she closes her tear stained eyes.
“Angela,” he screamed, springing to action and crossing the short distance between the two. But he was too late.
Angela opened her eyes in surprise. Alex paused suddenly in disbelief, realizing the burden of guilt that would certainly affect every aspect of his life with Angela from this moment on. How could he have not seen the signs? Angela had been suffering for weeks, but he chose to ignore them, not knowing how to fully deal with them and hoping that she would find a way to work through the scenerios on her own. Alex was never any good at expressing his emotions or dealing with the emotions of others. As soon as he heard the click of the gun, he realized that would have to change if they were going to survive.
“Angela,” Alex begged, reaching for her.
Her eyes widened in shock and disbelief as she slowly lost her grip on the gun and allowed it to drop to the floor.