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She was running.
Sarah resisted the urge to look back, straining instead to hear any footsteps besides her own: so far, none. Her scrubs stuck to her in odd places. Things she’d rather not think about were dripping off her, and stuck to her skin uncomfortably. The hospital had been overrun. Sarah kept seeing flashes of the carnage, and a shudder slithered down her spine. If it hadn’t been for the monitor tech shoving her out of the way, she was certain she’d be dead. That man had sacrificed himself for her, unwittingly or not, and allowed her to escape the hospital uninjured.
She still had no idea what had happened. The hospital she worked at was one of a dozen hospitals in the States to implement a trial AIDS vaccine. There hadn’t been a high number of patients in the trial, but it was a way for her hospital to earn a special accreditation and a name for itself. After today, Sarah was certain they would not be forgotten.
They’d had five patients today. As one of the genetic nurses heading the trial, Sarah was trying to resuscitate patient one when a voice came over the loudspeaker. Code Gray, S.T.U. bed three. She didn’t want to stop CPR, but the staff in the Special Treatment Unit was limited, and she’d been working on patient one for almost fifteen minutes. Dr. Grey met her eyes; they reflected her own haunted look.
“I’m going to call it. Go help the others,” he said, placing his hand on hers.
She nodded, and rushed into the hall to meet the code team. She froze. Patient three had his nurse by the throat, and was bashing her head against the wall. Her face was torn open, revealing muscles weeping blood, part of her jawbone jutting out.
Sarah stood transfixed as the nurse’s skull cracked and the patient smiled, revealing bloodstained teeth. He pried her skull open further and began to feast on her brain like a man starved.
The door slamming open behind Sarah jolted her out of her stupor. Dr. Grey stumbled into the room, babbling inanely, and Sarah absurdly thought that patient one must have regained consciousness. His garbled cries were cut off before she had a chance to speak. The patient that had been dead reached around Dr. Grey’s head, tearing into his eyes. The monitor was still attached to the patient, and blipped in a slow rhythm, marking out the time of his impossibly slow heartbeat.
“Oh my god,” Sarah whispered.
“What the fuck is happening?” Sarah hadn’t noticed Sebastian the monitor tech who’d initially called the codes, enter the room. He must have come in a few moments before. He stood now, back flat against the wall, holding up his hands. Whether in defense, or surrender, Sarah couldn’t tell.
“Language,” Sarah replied, a knee-jerk response, and she shook her head with its insignificance. “We need to call the police.”
She ran to the nurses’ station and did just that while more screams started in the three other rooms. She explained where she was and what was happening, barely believing it herself. When she hung up the phone, she wasn’t all together certain that the dispatcher would actually send someone to help. Even as Sarah had been talking, she’d known it sounded like a prank call. Either way, she knew they had to contain this.
She looked up from the phone and gasped at the carnage surrounding her. Her entire team was torn apart, body parts and appendages strewn between the two patients’ rooms that started this mess. Patient one and three were limping toward Sarah, a trail of intestines falling from the mouth of one of them. They looked at her with matching expressions of joyous hunger. She backpedaled, slipping in a puddle of blood and landing hard. They stalked her like the prey she now was, and she scrambled to find something to defend herself with.
“Brai-i-ins.” Their guttural cry was the only warning she had before they lunged. For the first time in her nursing career, she cursed the rule that said she couldn’t have her gun on the premises. What she wouldn’t give to be able to defend herself now. Her hand closed on the nearest object she could reach and she hit patient three with a severed arm.
He staggered away and into the path of patient one, giving her just enough time to get up and run. Blood soaked her scrubs; the severed arm she still gripped was becoming tacky as the blood dried, congealing on the person’s skin. She was afraid to let go of the arm, afraid that she’d need it to defend herself again. In the back of her mind, she was horrified at what she was holding; the terror was only held off by the pure adrenaline rushing through her system.
A body slammed against her, its weight pinning her to the ground with her arm club held uncomfortably against her side. From her vantage point under the body, Sarah watched as the infected grew in numbers. Those who’d had their brains eaten stayed dead on the floor, but the others, the ones with severed arms or legs, torsos eaten, necks torn, and eyeballs dangling on their cheeks, they got up. There weren’t many of them at first, but as other hospital employees responded to the “Code Gray,” the bodies and the infected increased.
Sarah wiggled out from underneath the body, praying that it wouldn’t move. She inched around the hall, moving slowly so as to not draw attention to herself. When she saw the entrance to the stairs, she ran, hitting the door with her whole body, slamming it open.
Behind her, Sebastian barreled into one of the infected, slamming it against the wall and trying to bash the head with a medical chart. “Run! Get out of here!” He yelled as the door slowly shut.
The memory of what had happened at the hospital flashed through her mind as she rounded the corner to her parents’ cul-de-sac. She couldn’t be certain that she had been the first on to escape the hospital, but she hoped. She noticed the house on the end of the street with the peeling yellow paint and her pace quickened. She was sure they were still safe.
They had to be.
Her insides clenched as she approached the house and caught sight of the open door. She knew this was not necessarily a bad sign. Her foster brother often left the door ajar while he went gallivanting around town, seeking adventure. The thought of Todd made her pick up her pace.
“Mary? John? Something’s happened at the hospital. M-Mary?” The last word was said in a gasp as she rounded the corner into the living room and watched in horror as a zombie made dinner out of her mother’s brains. He was covered in gore from gorging on Mary’s innards. Her stomach cavity was peeled open, bereft of any internal organs. Her skullcap flapped against the carpet in time to the creature’s feeding. Its attention was completely focused on the task of scooping out and eating her brains with a kind of reverence.
He didn’t seem to notice—or care—that Sarah was in the room.
Tears spilled down Sarah’s cheeks. Her breath came in hiccupped gasps and she lost focus for a moment as the images blurred before her.
John’s face flashed into Sarah’s mind. If fate had even an ounce of kindness, he would still be alive. She couldn’t lose both parents this way; it would be too cruel. She snuck through the living room, avoiding the creature. There seemed to be no distracting him from his current meal. Sarah prayed that she would find John still grumbling at the dishwasher, oblivious to his surroundings.
“John?” Her tentative question reverberated through the dining room.
“S-Sarah-gh?” was John’s strangled reply. He was having difficulty forming the words without losing the brains trailing from his mouth to Todd’s head. John wasn’t being graceful like the other zombie; the boy was clutched close to his chest—in what could almost have been mistaken as a hug—as he slurped his brains out like soup.
Her entire family was destroyed. On autopilot, Sarah pivoted on her heel and ran for the only sanctuary she knew. She made it through the door of her old bedroom, turned the lock, and leapt onto the top of her old bunk bed. She sat there quivering, already wishing she’d run to a place with an escape route, when the door shook on its hinges.
“S-Sarah? Let me in.”
Sarah sat, eyes fixed on the door, praying. Praying that, as this new creature, John, wouldn’t realize that the doggie door she’d begged him to install years ago was still open. All at once, the noise stopped. The sound stopped as quickly as it had begun. Sarah could feel her heartbeat slamming through her.
This is not happening. Sarah was frozen, unable to believe that this creature would give up quite so easily. The flap to the doggie door slammed upwards, revealing the comforting face that Sarah knew so well, distorted by its foreign expression.
His shoulders got stuck in the doggie door, and she sagged in temporary relief. She took advantage of the momentary reprieve, and darted around the room, searching for an escape route that she knew wasn’t there.
She was contemplating how to break her bedroom window when she heard a sickening crunch. She looked at the door just as one of John’s arms flopped through the opening once solely used by her childhood dog. The creature held his detached arm up to the handle, and Sarah’s stomach turned when she saw the fingers scrambling around to unlock the door. Every law of physics stated that this was just not possible. His detached arm still functioned normally and the lock twisted open with an audible click. Sarah watched as he pulled the arm back through the flap.
Tremors rocked her body. All rational thought had fled, and she couldn’t even bring herself to blink. There was only terror. The knob turned slowly. John swung the door open, and
Sarah was shocked to see a smile on his face. Blood dripped down his chin and began to pool on the beige carpet. The thought of how irate he would have been at that mess—on the carpet he had so proudly installed himself—snapped her out of her stupor. He slowly walked toward her like one would approach a stray dog.
“Sarah? I’m okay. You will be too. It’s not what we thought. I’m free like this. I couldn’t help Mary, but we can still be a family. Come here, darling.” His glassy eyes never left her face as he shuffled nearer. Sarah hadn’t been expecting this: this calm, logical voice from the creature in front of her. From what she’d witnessed so far, it was apparent that eating another person’s brains increased functionality in these monsters. She was amazed at how quickly it seemed to work. This man had cared for her like a father; the same voice she was hearing now had been the voice encouraging her to join clubs, to open up to others and follow her dreams. Now here he was, trying to kill her. She noticed his arm swinging precariously from the socket that he’d shoved it back into, and was grateful that she’d missed lunch today. Careful to keep her eyes on his face, she watched for any tic that would give his movements away. Her eyes darted to the door, judging the distance between her beloved mentor and escape.
His head was only a foot from her bunk as she braced herself against the wall preparing to do something she had never contemplated before. She concentrated on the smears of body parts still congealing on his face, repeating to herself that this was no longer her father; he was now a fully functional member of the undead: a zombie. Focusing on the small hope burning in her chest that the last member of her family could still be alive, she strengthened her resolve. She had to find the courage to do this so she could get to Matt. Her husband would want to know that she was okay.
She crouched down; arms braced, and kicked out with everything she had in her. Tears streamed down her face as her sneaker met the zombie’s nose with a crunch. His head twisted around as she followed through with the kick, leaping behind him. Her adrenaline pumping, she leapt from the position she’d landed in and bolted for the door. She glanced behind her, and glimpsed the zombie attempting to turn his head. Disgusted at the sight, but unable to look away, Sarah didn’t see the hard body in front of her until she slammed into it.
She heard a familiar grunt of surprise. Behind her, John chuckled. She’d been caught. She took in a lean chest, a thin neck dripping with brain matter leading to a face she would know in her sleep. In her dreams, however, her husband had never had chunks of people tangled in his dark brown hair. Tears blurred her vision. Matt turned her in his embrace, pinning her arms at her sides.
“Do it already,” John said. Blood seeped from his nose and the entire left side of his face was covered in an angry red blotch. She tried kicking Matt behind her but found her legs rubbery, the strength ebbing away from her as the only man she’d ever loved lowered his face to her neck. She felt herself relax ever so slightly in his arms, her will to live a life without her family quickly dissipating.
“Play along Sarah, or this won’t work.” She barely heard the words murmured against her neck, but hope surged through her. Could Matt just be pretending to be a zombie? She knew he was a quick thinker, but the disease was only hours old and he hadn’t been there when it had begun. Her heartbeat quickened at his quiet words. His mouth latched onto her neck and he began growling. She could feel him worrying at her neck, but had yet to feel the teeth puncture her skin. She did feel chunks of whatever was attached to his mouth slide down her neck and into her scrubs with a sickening squelch. She forced her eyes closed, and slumped in his arms, completely trusting in the man that held her.
She slid to the floor, imagining she was boneless, and gravely injured. Sarah didn’t need to know what his plan was to trust Matt. It was second nature to her. She slowed her breathing, and her heart rate began to return to normal. She knew he’d give her clues on what he wanted from her, but she had to relax enough to listen. Turning her head to hide the non-existent wound, she waited.
“How long will this take?” John asked.
“It’s different for everyone. Her body reacts to the infection, slowing her breathing and her heart to fully accept being undead. It could take a little while. She was stronger than some of the others.” Matt had roughened his voice until Sarah barely recognized it.
Sarah inhaled slowly, held her breath for just a moment, and released it again.
“Yes, I hear it working now, her heart is slowing. It should be over soon,” John replied, satisfaction coating his words. A chill went over Sarah at the thought that John could hear her heartbeat.
She lumbered up from the ground, and clung to the wall, desperately trying to keep breaths steady. She tilted her head, making her hair fall over her neck and in her face hiding the truth from John. She uttered one word as guttural and thick as she could make her voice, just as she’d heard hours ago in the hospital.
John rewarded her with a toothy smile; he’d been fooled.
While John’s attention was on Sarah, Matt pulled his .38 Special forward and shot John. The first shot hit him in the chest; the expression of shock that graced his face might have been comical under different circumstances. The second shot severed his head completely from his neck. Matt grabbed Sarah’s hand and pulled her through the house. The noise of the gun was sure to bring the others that had recently fed. They ran hand-in-hand through the front door and into Matt’s old beat-up truck. Sarah noticed that he’d left the engine running for a quick getaway. Sarah spared a single glance back at her childhood home, and then clutched Matt’s hand as they tore out of the yard.