Mercedes clocked out on her lunch break and went to her locker to check her phone. She had eight missed calls, and most of them were from Hector. He picked back up instantly.
“I’m at work,” she explained. “What’s going on?”
“How IS everything at work?”
She paused, crossing her brow. “Um, as normal and boring as selling paint cans is. Why?”
“Anybody call out sick?”
“No. Nothing here.”
“Well….” Hector’s voice trailed. “We’ve had a few more call-outs.”
Mercedes waited for more.
“It could just be a bug going around, but you know…I don’t think so…”
She sighed and tried to be encouraging.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s…the other thing.”
“No, but, in the restaurant business, it is a little more serious. Some people have brought it up and everyone else immediately hushed them up to keep it quiet. If it is that virus…well…contaminating food is one problem but just the rumors of food being contaminated is even worse.”
There was a beat, and Mercedes could still feel the tension from Hector through the phone.
“Ruff bought a rifle.”
“He…you know how he is. He is really starting to get into this and take it seriously. He really thinks that this is going to turn into a zombie apocalypse. He snapped. Remember the day we left him and he ran off?”
“Yeah, that was when he said he saw a zombie kid or something.”
“Well, he did, and get this: He chased that zombie kid to a car dealership where he met the kid’s dad and he told the dad that he was going to get infected from her and he needed to watch out.”
“Oh, God. It’s a good thing he did run into the dad, otherwise…
“I don’t want to think about that.”
“Do you think he would..?”
“No! I mean, I hope not. I mean…that was a little kid.”
“What else has happened lately?”
“Well…what did he say he was going to do with it?”
“He said he just wanted to have it, just in case,” Hector continued. “I could just picture him sitting in his living room with it propped against the wall, all ready and the minute he sees one bad news report he’s gonna jump up and grab it and fly out the door.”
Mercedes wanted to laugh a little as there was so much ridiculousness to that, but only a little, as there was much more truth to that.
“Yeah, that’s totally what he would do.”
“And we both know that’s not good.”
Cassandra stepped out of the car, noticing the sign on the door. No one could miss it, as it was bright pink and smack dab in the middle of the door, but there was enough wording on it to almost fill the sheet. It only made her slam the car door and rush up to it quicker. She already had an inkling as to what it said.
There were not that many cars in the parking lot, sans the employee side. That side was full. Very full. She ran up to the set of entrance doors and that pink sign loud enough to get its point across:
Due to overwhelming activity, we have reached maximum capacity and cannot admit any more patients at this time. We apologize very much as we understand how dire the situation might be for you, but please understand that it is worse for us. We are working very hard with treatment but we DO NOT HAVE A CURE as of yet. We appreciate your understanding and patience.
Cassandra noticed that the phrase “do not have a cure” was in bold, but someone also took a pen and underlined it. She instantly though of all the people that stood in the very spot she did, reading those very words and feeling their only hope shatter before them. Diseased people. Desperate people. She wondered how many there had been up until that point.
She tried the door, not to shocked to find it locked. She shielded her hands above her eyes to peer through the glass. There had to be signs of activity if the place was so busy, but it felt like a ghost town. When she stepped away she noticed the part of the sign she did not read:
If you have any other needs, please ring personnel.
The intercom was on the right, not even hidden by a few strings of cobwebs. Cassandra pressed the button. What followed was a beep and a hurried voice.
“Um,” Cassandra fought with herself on what to say. “I need to speak to someone.”
The curt reply threw Cassandra off.
“I’m a doctor, and I wanted to stop by and touch base and…check on your progress.”
“It’s no good here,” the voice continued. “Why? Are you making progress?”
“I mean, kind of. I’d like to–
“Come in and wait in the lobby!”
The intercom buzzed the door and Cassandra pulled on it. The smell of astringent and antibiotics immediately flew up her nose, along with something else. Something familiar. Something rotten.
She braced herself when she heard the clack-clacking of heels on the floor. They were quick and hard steps and they sounded like they were coming from the elevators. It did not take long for the owner of the heels to appear. She was younger than Cassandra, possibly fresh out of school, as well as thinner,but she had no time for envy. The look on the girl’s face alone said she was not in a good place.
“You’re a doctor, too?” she asked Cassandra. “Where?”
Cassandra stepped away from the doors. “Not practicing, really. I–we–myself and my team have been working on some new formulas–
“You found something?” The girl’s voice increased in pitch, and it was the pitch of hope that Cassandra did not want to disappoint but was about to.
“Not… quite yet,” she answered. “I’m Cassandra. My team and I operate a private lab right now where we have been doing research and conducting experiments, but it’s all behind closed doors and nothing is being talked about. We are also dealing with the …disease.”
“Do you know where it came from?” The girl’s arms were crossed as though she were cold, or protective. In hype of talking to Cassandra she did not introduce herself, but Cassandra saw her name tag read “Kristen.” She noticed Kristen was also clutching the sleeves of her jacket.
“No,” Cassandra said. “But…we’re trying very hard. Tell me, how are your patients? What sort of symptoms do they have? Are they….feral? Docile?”
Kristen scratched part of her arm with her thumb. “Some if not most can be aggressive. They would attack us as we try to give them something and many had to be strapped down to their beds. Some got worse than others.”
Cassandra nodded. “Ours too. We have just a few. Some can be treated and some can’t. We have a little girl that was found by the beach who isn’t really aggressive anymore, but we still don’t know what to do.”
“What are you giving her?”
Cassandra paused. “One of our formulas.”
She saw the hunger in the girl’s eyes and knew what question would come after her response.
“Can you bring us some?”
“I…I don’t know,” Cassandra forced those words out as she felt that desperation linger between them. “I can try. We don’t have that much and we don’t know what works–
“It doesn’t matter, it sounds like it’s better than what our doctors have! Please…..please bring some. Whatever it is they can probably replicate it!”
Cassandra exhaled. “I’ll see what I can do.We’re trying our best too…”
Kristen smiled weakly. “Thank you so much.”
Cassandra willed herself not to look back when she left, pushing on the door and letting it shut behind her, almost knowing that Kristen did not leave the lobby just yet. She knew that she stepped up to the door and watched Cassandra walk all the way to her car. What she didn’t see was Kristen pushing up her jacket sleeve…and rubbing at the growing red sores on her arm.
Meanwhile, back in Florida…
“On the count of three!”
Karen and Cassandra held their positions against the door, Karen’s feet slipping a little, watching Bruce out of the corner of their eyes. He held the long piece of wood in between the door handles.
They backed away and watched the doors throb in place, held together with that piece of wood they found they hoped would last. At least, for the time being. The three of them side stepped and watched the sea of heads at the door windows push and push and push on them.
“This is…I don’t know,” Cassandra started.
“Getting out of hand?” Karen finished.
“It got out of hand a long time ago!”
Bruce just stared at the hands pawing on the door windows and leaving clouded fingerprints.
“But it’s only getting worse,” he said, mostly to himself.
“We’ve got to go to the other hospitals now,” Cassandra urged.
“And do what?” Karen asked.
“Someone somewhere has to have something! Someone has to be able to have something…better than what we’ve got.”
“And what makes you think they do?” Bruce countered, turning around to look at Cassandra. “What makes you think anyone has any idea of what is happening and how to stop it?”
They avoided looking at all those on the other side of the doors. Co-workers, people they knew, people they thought they knew. They were not…themselves. They had to be kept in.
“What you gave them now,” Karen said addressing Bruce, “it’s supposed to get worse before it gets better.”
The three of them saw some of the desperate, howling faces press against the window, open-mouthed on the glass in an attempt to bite through.
“Do you see any of that getting better?”
“We have to try,” Cassandra stated. “Look at them. They’re animals now. All of them.”
“Not all of them…”
Karen and Cassandra looked in the direction Bruce was to see Guppy coming into the room drinking a McDonald’s milkshake.
“She’s drinking the milkshake.”
“She’s not attacking anyone and she’s not ravenous.”
“Right, so if she can be subdued, others can too. Even David.”
A beat passed as the pushing on the doors carried on.
“What should we do now? Wait until they get bored?”
“We need to get away from them first,” Karen said. “Our presence is only agitating them more.”
Guppy approached them, still clutching her milkshake like an ordinary child, but looking around with the beady eyes that were unlike an ordinary child. Her lips wrinkled at the straw. It was cold, chocolately, and good. She could at least maintain an ordinary appetite…from time to time. She went from watching the grown-ups to the people pushing on the other sides of the barricaded double doors. They turned to leave the room and she followed. They did not look back and she did not, either.
“Well,” Cassandra said once they were out in a hallway. “I say we check on that walk-in clinic that was mentioned on the news.”
“The one with the full capacity already?” Karen asked.
“Yes. That one.”
“And what do you want to do once you get there?” Bruce asked.
“See if they know anything.”
No one said a word for a minute. Bruce petted Guppy on the head.
“We shouldn’t all leave while things are the way that they are,” he stated. “We need to get them all back to their rooms once that serum kicks in and monitor their progress.”
“Then I’ll go,” Cassandra declared before Bruce even finished his sentence. She folded her arms and stared at Bruce and Karen, daring them to oppose. “I’ll reach out to them there and–
“Don’t tell them anything,” Karen interrupted.
“Anything” was a broad description. Cassandra ran through dialogue in her head, the means of getting other personnel to tell her what was really going on with the patients in the clinic. What they were not telling people on the news. She could find something out for them. She could. There had to be something.
She left the building with an air of confidence, a determined eye, but her co-workers did not share the same countenance.
Bruce shook his head once Cassandra was out of the room.
“This falls on our shoulders and no one else’s.”
Dr. Ann took the most satisfying sip of coffee she’d had in a while, still dripping hot from the Keurig, which made it its freshest. She almost chugged it despite the heat, desperate to attach herself to a different kind of craving right then and there. When she brought the mug away, there were clear signs of leftover blood smeared around the rim, sealed with a kiss, running red tears down the porcelain. She reached over to grab from the stack of napkins on the counter and clean it off. Clean off the mug, clean off herself. She took another gulp while tossing the waded up napkin in the trash can. She was about to leave the break room when she saw how noticeable it was: red and moist and looking like a human organ. She took a newspaper sheet and smashed the garbage down, covering it up.
She walked out with her coffee, tasting nothing else but the french vanilla with cream and sugar. She passed one of the other doctor’s offices and stopped before going completely past it. There was a small ensemble of co-workers crowded around the computer monitor, and it was the expressions on their faces that stopped her. They were not insightful, they were not curious, they were not concentrated. They were disturbed. She hung back a bit, hoping to catch the eye of one of them or some of them, or anyone. A few noticed her and she stayed still, waiting for the invite.
“Doctor?” someone acknowledged her.
She leaned over the doorway.
“What’s everyone looking at?”
They pulled away from the computer, shifting eyes, each hoping someone else would provide the answer.
Dr. Ann recognized the alarm and went in, circling around the desk as her fellow doctor scrolled up the webpage in question. She saw the words “mass,” “spread,” and “disease” in the paragraph and even the word “zombie.”
“Looks like there is a mass infection of something that spread in Orlando,” he stated.
“Orlando?” Dr. Ann asked peering at the monitor.
“Yeah. We’ve all been reading this and noticed how familiar it is.”
The doctor stood up and motioned for her to sit in his seat, and then he stood behind her. They all waited while she read the article, watching her scroll the mouse and lean closer to the screen.
“They are all the same signs, Doctor. Same symptoms.”
She reread a few paragraphs. “How did you find this?”
“We were doing research based on other similar symptoms and this came up in the news feed. It looks like it was somewhat recent, and it has been ongoing.”
She read the beginning again, how the story and the outbreak started, almost similar to how her own had started. It took one or more infected persons to be around others for it to spread, and once it did, it did not stop. She read that the infection started at a beach when some swimmers came back on shore not looking so good…and it carried from there. But, who could that have happened? Was there something in the water?
“It does not make sense,” Dr. Ann said. “People just came up from the ocean covered in sores? Were they attacked by some sort of poisonous sea life? There is little to no information here.”
“Whatever it is it is easily spread to others, one doctor said.”
“And whatever it is, it didn’t come from the ocean. Someone or something must have brought it there first,” said another.
Dr. Ann frowned.
The man was found in the street in a pile of his own filth: sick, waste, and blood…and maybe even the sick, waste, and blood that was not his own. Whatever–and whomever–he had his encounter with had taken off and left behind nothing but traces of DNA. At least she had that much to work with.
Dr. Ann had this man sitting upright in one of the examination rooms seeming to be calm and cooperative, but also unresponsive. Most importantly, he was clean. They had washed away all of the coats of grime so there was nothing left but him, and nothing left to see but what he was really made of. And what he was really made of was his own layers of grime. The skin was opaque and milky with patches of green here and there, subtle and scattered as birthmarks. They shaved the briar patch from his face where Dr. Ann could see the green continued.His eyes were blank and tired, and his mouth was mostly closed, but open enough to allow a pendulum of drool to swing by his chin.
Dr. Ann sat on a stood across from him at eye level.
“Now, I want you to think about my question again and give me an answer: Were you attacked, or did you do the attacking?”
The man said nothing, his line of drool growing heavier in mass and descending further past his chin. He emitted a low growl and it fell to the floor. He had his hands cupped over his knees and periodically squeezed them, but she could still see the dried blood that stuck underneath his fingernails.
She leaned in. “Did you attack someone, or did someone attack you?”
The man’s nostrils flared, picking up her scent, recognizing it for what it was and for what she was. The specific, familiar smell, but also the one that was still human. Partly human.
Dr. Ann smirked at him and took something out of her pocket, still vacuum sealed in its plastic bag, but with a small notch made at the top. She peeled at that notch and watched his reaction as vapors of the contents released in the air, and no doubt he could already pick them up. She looked for the signs of the dilated pupils and flared nostrils, which happened almost instantly. She dangled that carrot…and pulled away when he lunged.
“You like that, don’t you? You know exactly what you have an appetite for and you have no problem going after it. You have gone after it…by any means necessary.”
The man still wanted to grab that bag, and for a moment he looked like he was carefully thinking about it, like he was calculating his moves and hers. He might not have been as far infected as she thought and possessed some intelligence…but only some. She believed this man was still in the early phase and still might be able to be saved. Dr. Ann held the bag by her side and held eye contact.
“You’re still in there somewhere, and I will get you out again.”
The man made a low growl once he looked at the bag again and kept her eye contact for only a minute, but only for a minute before he jumped out of his seat.
He tackled Dr. Ann to the ground and pushed against her shoulders. She scrambled under him and then he squeezed her arms, nails digging into her skin for one purpose and one purpose only. They were still sharp enough. She pushed him off with her knees and kicked him in the stomach, his low growls turning to aggressive roars. She got to a sitting position and almost stood up until the man lunged at her again and pinned her to the ground. Within seconds he stretched his jaw open the widest it could go, and wasted no time driving his teeth into her shoulder.
Dr. Ann cried out at the impact of the bite and at the fingernails, but it was mostly the bite, especially when it clamped down tighter through her lab coat and into her flesh. With both hands she grabbed a hold of his ears and pulled back hard enough for that bite to loosen and release. Once his face was out in the open she gave him a strike to the nose with the heel of her hand, sending him off balance and stumbling about the room. It gave her time to inspect her wounds. The blood seeped from the perfectly circular gash on her shoulder, the bite of a beast and not a human. It throbbed as she moved it, but she had little attention to give it as the man regained his balanced and faced her again. His own blood poured from his nose, flesh crooked in the break and already bruising up to his eyes, mixing with her blood he had around his lips. He swiped his tongue around, tasting them both.
Dr. Ann’s shoulders heaved up and down with heavy breath and heavy pain. The blood soaked her coat and she winced with each breath, but it was her move and she had to make it count. She had to show him her own bite.
While the man stumbled, she she timed it for when he was closer to her, then she put her good shoulder into him, and her own set of jaws on his arm.
The man screamed and began clawing at her back, but his grip loosened the more hers tightened. She bit down and easily tore through his shirt to his flesh and tasted his blood. She bit harder and got more blood. He screamed again and fought to get her off of him ,but that only made the flesh tear easier. The man weakened with each loss of blood and she was finally able to push him down to the ground.
She stood over his withering body, her shoulders still pumping up and down with pain and adrenaline. He would need medical care very soon…but she knew that she needed it sooner. The man was starting to become hazy in her view. Before she did anything else, she needed to take her pill.
Dr. Ann exited the exam room straddling her arm. She was not surprised to see a few curious–and concerned–faces peer around the corner. She walked out and was faced with more: Co-workers unable to hide their shock at what they heard and what they saw. She walked along with as much authority and confidence as she could muster.
“Patient is subdued,” she said simply.
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin…
Dr. Ann Ty-Byotik opened the fridge and leaned in, pushing aside labeled bottles and tupperware containers that were not hers until she found the one that was, all the way in the back and wrapped in double, triple, and quadruple layers of aluminum foil. Everyone knew that one was saved specifically for her, and they all knew the reason, but never said so. They just accepted it for what it was. She brought it out and shut the door, leaving that part of the lab and heading back to her office quickly.
She stopped abruptly at the co-worker who stepped in front of her, addressing her timidly. He noticed what she held and acted even more timidly, backing up a little like he just encountered a tiger.
“Ma’am, sorry, bad time?”
“No,” she answered. “No, it’s all right. I am just about to take lunch.”
“Okay, all right,” the man said, backing up even further. “Then I’ll talk to you later. Sorry. Not important. Have a…nice lunch.”
The man disappeared down the hallway before she could say anything. Dr. Ann sighed. Some days were better than others. Sometimes there wasn’t anything she could say or do to make others feel comfortable around her.
She continued down the hallway where her private office was. She told herself it was her experience and hard work that got her her perks and nothing else. She put her lunch down at her desk and was just about to sit when her phone rang. She pressed the speaker button.
“There is a package for you.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Not quite lunch break yet, she went back out towards the reception area. The girl at the desk smiled at her as a young man in a brown uniform stood holding a small box and clipboard.
“Dr. Ann Ty-Byotik?”
“If you’ll just sign here…”
The man’s voice trailed off as he got a better look at her, and did a double-take at her face. She was used to it by now. Most of the staff was too, but whenever someone new came around it was a shock all over again. Dr. Ann smoothed her hair down on that side of her face and avoided eye contact while she signed for the package.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the box and pretending to be immensely reading the labels while she walked away. She shut herself in her office again, leaning over her desk phone and pressing the “do not disturb” button. She placed the box on her desk next to her tupperware container and made it her priority over eating. She grabbed her scissors stuck in a mug full of pens and worked on opening the box. She tore a perfect line down the clear tape holding the box flaps together and pulled them apart. Inside was a pair of plastic air pillows cushioning two bottles. She brought them out right away and examined them, weighing one in each hand in decision. She decided on the one in her right hand and popped the top off. The contents were brown pellets that could have been rabbit food…or rabbit droppings. They were gritty-looking and gritty-feeling. She put one in her mouth, taking a sip from the water bottle next to the phone. She felt it slide roughly down her throat and took more gulps of water to help it move downstream.
Dr. Ann took one breath and already felt her heartbeat relax; the smile on her face could have been involuntary. Her door was shut. Her phone was on mute. She could now have her “me” time. She pushed her box aside and put her attention on her lunch, crinkling the foil as she unwrapped it from the container. With one hand she reached out to her top desk drawer and pulled out a fork and a steak knife, stainless steel, waiting to be used and still slightly stained from their last use.
She held the fork and knife in each hand and looked down at her meal as an exaggerated cartoon would, the only thing she did not do was lick her lips. She stared down at those squiggles of meat, the gelatinous pound of the cerebrum made up of tons of curly rows. She stuck her fork and knife in to pull apart those squiggles, even attempting to break them up enough to twirl around her fork like spaghetti. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it, remembering that spaghetti represented brains in ghost stories. Children would pass around a cold pound of spaghetti to each other in the dark and laugh whenever someone screamed.
Dr. Ann cut off a section of the medulla sticking out and took her time chewing it. She scooped up forkful after forkful into her mouth, enjoying the taste immensely, but almost wishing she had some sort of sauce to go with it.
But what would go good with it?
Bruce asked her once they got in the car. She moved her head like a nod and made small noises, which was the best affirmative answer he would get. She seemed okay. She was, but he was not so much.
He could not get the image of that man out of his head…and the audio track of his words kept playing on repeat. He knew about the disease. He knew more than he should, which meant that it had spread quicker. How? What happened? The reports on the news talked about it. They talked about mass infection and schools closing, but it could just be a coincidence. It was not the same thing. It couldn’t be. There was no way it was connected.
Bruce stole another glance at Guppy once he came to a stop light, mostly because the pungent smell of her roadkill roast filled his car. She munched away at it like it was a cheeseburger, like she was the kid who liked to get the head start on the drive-thru food.
“Easy, will ya?” Bruce said fanning his nose. He cracked open both windows front windows and stifled a gag.
Guppy chewed away while Bruce went ahead at the green light, the breeze roaring in the opened driver and passenger side windows. He rested his cheek on his left fist and didn’t even notice Guppy avert her attention to something on the passenger seat floor, right next to his umbrella. She bent over and picked it up…and a moment later Bruce jumped in his seat and nearly swerved the car. The fingers were long and the nails were cracked and sharp enough to snag on his shirt sleeve…which almost happened the way it touched him.
Guppy extended the arm and tapped him on the shoulder once more.
“I forgot about that,” he said calmly and looked at the child holding the dismembered arm.
“Did you find that?”
She kept eye contact and made a slight nod.
Bruce wasn’t sure how to word the question bothering him the most. From the way she held the arm and touched him with it, she was treating it like a prop or plaything, a backscratcher, just an arm. It was the animal carcuss she treated as food. Bruce bypassed this thought knowing the child did not have the strength. She just found it, that was all.
They turned into the lab parking lot, Bruce anxious to get both Guppy and the speciman under everyone else’s eye…and to see how other things were going. He brought her inside…but not before disposing of the roadkill leftovers.
“You’re finished, right?”
She looked up at him and tilted her head, and he didn’t hesitate to toss it away.
Bruce hastily made his way to the labs, spotting Karen and Cassandra in a break room silently drinking coffee. They jumped out of their chairs.
“You found her!”
“She didn’t get far. She became cooperative when she saw me again. I also found…this.”
Karen and Cassandra froze with cups in midair at the sight of the arm.
“And when I found this, and her, I found someone else. I bumped into this man while I was chasing Guppy and he was…trying to warn me about her. He thought that she was my kid and was telling me about the disease that spread and he could tell she had it and that I was next!”
” ‘The disease,’ ” Karen emphasized.
“I know. We need this time more than ever to create this antidote.”
“It is still circulating the news,” Cassandra said. “From what I’ve heard there are other teams of doctors and scientists trying to do the same thing we are.”
“But they aren’t the ones that started it,” Bruce said in a low voice.
Karen shook her head. “Stop that.”
“I just have this bad feeling that the test solutions we had did the exact opposite of healing and must have gotten out somehow…”
Karen and Cassandra drank from their cups and looked at Guppy. She acknowledged them with familiarity, holding Bruce’s hand and behaving.
“We’re glad you found her safe.”
“Yeah. How is everything and everyone else?”
“Resting,” Cassandra said. “Those injured are all resting… including David.”
“How is he?”
“He was still sleeping, and hasn’t stirred at all. That’s it. They are all minor injuries that can be taken care of. It isn’t his fault. It’s David, after all. It’s just a side effect. He isn’t going to just turn into a monster.”
Guppy gave Bruce a little squeeze and he squeezed back, assuring her he did not think she was a monster, even though he knew she was responsible for some of the attacks. He did not want to bring it up.
“What do they mean by other teams of doctors and scientists?” Bruce asked them.
“They’re doing testing on the victims in the hospitals,” Cassandra stated.”They are going to be just as baffled as us, but even worse.”
Karen snickered a little. “It’s not like there is a scientist out there who specializes in the zombie virus.”
At first, Bruce was filled with fluttering relief as Guppy herself crawled out from that last car in the lot, but his fluttering rose to anxiety as he saw the man that stood on the other side of her: large and woodsy, like someone used to being out on a hunt. It seemed like Guppy was his target by the way he looked at her.
She reached the gutters in the street, crawling through the two-inch rain pond. She was drawn to the sound of the water rushing down the sewer, but there was something else that drew her more…her sense of smell dominated her sense of hearing. The waters ran red on the pavement and swam to her outstretched fingers. The sky above her growled and rumbled, reminding her of the call of a hungry stomach. She advanced on the pool of red in the gutter as the smell of the fresh kill became stronger. The mangled body was tiny and furry, the naked rope tail and forked teeth of a rat, but too large in size, so it might have been a possum. It used to be a possum, but now it was just a crushed mass of bone and fur left over from the tire marks. It lay discarded on the side of the street as another piece of waste, another piece of meal for select carnivores. Guppy cupped her hands in the water to enjoy the Kool-Aid mixed just for her, drinking handful after handful until she wanted to go straight to the source. She pounced upon her prize and wasted no time enjoying the main course. She was preoccupied enough not to notice the two men.
They at once ran toward her, and at once noticed the other in a sheer state of panic.
“Stay away from her!” They both yelled. At once.
Guppy recoiled back, roadkill roast in her grasp.
Bruce stepped in front of her protectively as Ruff advanced. They sized each other up and down as they tried to figure the other out. As Guppy backed up towards Bruce, the animal blood and meat bits washed down her face to be rid of the evidence, but it was still there.
Ruff’s tone was out of terror, or warning, or both.
He waited for Bruce to respond, but he did not.
“Haven’t you been paying attention to the news?” Ruff demanded. “It’s contagious! You and anyone else who makes contact with the infected will catch it too and it will keep spreading!”
“I’m taking care of it,” Bruce stated. He scrutinized Ruff carefully, from his attitude to the way he was looking at him and Guppy…and the baseball bat he carried. “I’m taking care of her and we’re…we’re doing our best.”
“They’re everywhere now!” Ruff explained. “They’re everywhere and they’re brutal. They’re not even human anymore. The disease takes them…takes them completely. It turns them into something nasty. Something not even human anymore.” Ruff shuffled backwards a little bit and pointed the end of his bat at Bruce. “And it looks like you’re going to be next, buddy.”
Bruce was beside himself. Just how far had this gone? He blinked raindrops from his eyelashes that fell just as fast as tears would.
“Everywhere?” He repeated.
“Yeah, everywhere! And we have to do whatever it takes to stop it. This could be the beginning of the apocalypse, man. I’m sorry…but your kid’s not your kid anymore. Sooner or later she is going to attack someone and turn them, and it might be you.”
Ruff still held the bat, still maintained distance from Bruce and the girl, still looking at them like he was almost expecting to be attacked by either of them at any moment. Bruce did not know what to say.
“We’re…we’re going to take care of it,” he said again, shielding Guppy. “Come on sweetheart, let’s go.”
He hastily took the girl under his arm and walked with her through the flooded lot. Ruff watched them leave, and still watched them as they got in Bruce’s car and drove away, fording the water-filled streets.
“Damn straight we’re going to take care of it.”
Bruce knocked balloons out of his way as he trailed that one lone balloon, and across the way, Ruff did the same. It didn’t help that the wind started to pick up as the afternoon matured to evening. Every which way they turned they had to pummel the flying balloons aside. Their target moved down another aisle and they were both more convinced it was what they wanted it to be. Only, it was the wrong one.
Bruce circled one corner and Ruff the other, two men with two different purposes and eye on the goal, not noticing the other until they were out in the open. And then, they both hastily backed up as the toddler waddling in the too-big diaper ran down the lane towards his parents. They cried out in relief when they saw him, and he ran faster to them, bouncing his very own balloon tied to his little wrist. They scooped him up and left together, sorry they lost him for even a second, and grateful the little prize floating above his head helped them out.
Bruce backed off first, barely noticing Ruff, and Ruff left the scene barely noticing Bruce. Bruce became crestfallen, his hopes had died down believing he would leave the parking lot the same way the family did. He had to find the child…not just for her sake, but the lab’s…the world’s. The carrier of the unknown disease was lost.
The child, of course, had not gone far. She maneuvered her way in and out of car aisles to avoid the people there… especially those pursuing her. She lost the one woman and man who looked like they carried tools with them. The other man, the large scary one with a beard to hide his angry mouth, was still around there. He was still searching for her, and so was the scientist man who was kind to her. She had run away from the lab, but deep inside, she knew that going back was the right thing to do. The scientists would take care of her…even if she was a monster. She was now in back of the dealership lot, facing an empty parking lot. Going out there would put her out in the open, which was a risk she was not sure she could take just yet. She lost track of the scary man and the scientist and knew she had to find one before the other found her. He knew she was a monster…and he wanted to hurt her. She lay on her stomach to look at the strips of ground underneath the cars, watching carefully for the feet walking across them. Above her head, she heard the sky rumble.
The raindrops were few at first, but fat, and they hit various places on her body and on the pavement…and then they came down faster.
Bruce scowled as drops smeared across his glasses and soaked spots through his shirt. The only satisfying thing they did was create a tiny drumline of sounds each time they hit the balloons, starting a never-ending percussion thumping all around him. He cleared his glasses off and refocused, at once noticing the sky light around him to be a warning shade of yellow. Too bright for evening. The rains drummed down harder on the balloons as Bruce sloshed in freshly made puddles, promising himself he would not leave without Guppy. He knew she was there because he saw her. He saw the way she crawled on all fours behind cars. He would get her back. He advanced down the last aisle of cars, just as not too far away, the scary man did the same.
She recognized both pairs of shoes: the worn work boots and the simple black ones not meant for outdoor use. She had a hard time keeping track of one or the other, especially at the same time,and when she spotted one pair she lost the other. She looked for those black ones and saw the points facing her: they saw her too. They walked towards her the same time she crawled toward them, willing to risk her position to get out into the open. All around her the rain splattered and the thunder crashed. She felt the torrents downpour all over her, recognizing the coolness from her time in the sea, washing off the day’s dirt and grime. She saw the shoes move toward her and finally meet her halfway out of the dealership lot and into the adjacent parking lot. The rain showered down her face as she looked up at the man who saved her once and would save her again. She also looked up at the man who wanted to do the opposite of saving.
He almost missed that stop sign, but paused long enough for it to count. The driver always thought they were the best judge of that, right? It was not like he would get into an accident the way he was darting his eyes across every and any direction, alert as a hawk circling for mice. Bruce drove down the next street desperately trying to single out the one mouse out of the rest, but those hawk eyes found a different kind of clue.
Bruce slowed down on the side of the street, pulling into the first parking lot he saw. It fit snuggly under the street curb so well that he almost didn’t see it, but there was no mistaking the torn flesh and bone. It was either torn off, or fell off, it did not matter. All that mattered was that it was a human arm.
He found a place to park in a very full lot and got out. The arm lay palm up as though it were reaching out to him. He walked over it to crouch down and stare, not quite sure what to do with it. The skin was falling off in weakened bacon strips and he could tell by the way it frayed that it was the work of teeth. He prayed no one was watching as he lifted the arm and carried it with him to his car. The others would also need to see it. They would need the skin and bone samples. They had to run tests. This of course also meant Guppy could be around. He put that arm speciman on top of his umbrella on the passenger side floor. It looked like it was holding it and ready to open it up for rain. He shut the door and finally looked around his surrounding, realizing why the lot was so full. It was a dealership.
It was a dealership, and they were having a grand opening sale. He noted the bouquets of red balloons tied to just about every other car, and the way they blew in the wind like they did not want to be there. Everywhere he looked he saw the flash of red, until he saw the flash of something else red.
It was a child’s bloody handprint smeared across a car window, that no doubt now went down in value. The way it glistened in the sun made him think it was recent, so he dashed out in the direction of that car. Along the way, he got pelted by the balloon bunches that dove out in his path. One balloon string tangled his glasses and nearly took them off. Another rubbed against his head enough to electrically charge his hair, making him the rod of attraction to all the other balloons. They took to him easily. Bruce brushed more balloons out of the way as he walked up and down the aisles. He saw nothing but the red in front of his face, as well as the red that was imprinted at the back of his eyes.
He ducked behind cars, searching for the child that would be scuttling on all fours to remain unseen. He wondered if she were hurt. He also wondered if she did the hurting. He continued up and down the rows while the child herself still remained unseen on the other side of the lot…hidden behind a Jeep wheel…hidden from the other one pursuing her.
Ruff went down another row, followed by his two friends.
“I saw it,” he said. “Seriously, we have to do something about it.”
“You need to take it easy, no need to smash a kid’s skull in,” Hector said, trying to keep his voice low. The three of them did not look good, not by any means, walking around sprinkled in blood splatters and carrying weapons. “Seriously.”
Right on cue a man in a blue suit jacket approached them, first confidently, then hesitantly.
“How may I help…you?” The man asked the three, instantly noticing Ruff’s baseball bat.
“We’re…” Ruff started, hiding it behind his leg. “We’re hunting down a…rabid animal. Could…be kind of dangerous. It went past here. Might not even be here.”
“I see,” the man said, backing up. “Er, I will…alert my supervisor.”
“We’ll be on our way,” Hector asserted, pulling Ruff and Mercedes back. They watched the man leave and then approach another. He said something to him, and then they both turned to look at the three.
“Great. Calling attention, just what we need,” Mercedes said. “Look, this has gone far enough. We only followed you to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.”
They went down another row to throw off the sight of the employees, finding themselves distracted by the obnoxious amount of balloons tied to the cars. There were far too many of them, and made their search all the more difficult each time the wind blew them in their faces. Ruff grumbled something about a circus while not too far away, Bruce fought off these similar annoyances. He pushed a grouping of them out of his way as he scanned the lot, only to have them float back in his view and make him see everything through rose-colored lenses. He turned around and saw something that made him stop in his tracks and give him a glimmer of hope. Across the lot, Ruff noticed the same thing.
One lone balloon danced by itself down the aisles. It traveled from car to car as though it were attached to something…something small enough to be hidden by the cars…something small enough to want the company of a balloon.