Infected

 

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"Wake up! Damn it!"

With a jerk I feel my body being dragged out of bed. I struggle to open my eyes with a thin layer of crust having been developed to seal them shut. One of the arms holding me up disappears and there's a sharp pain from my inner elbow. With the help of a few tears I use my free hand to wipe the crust away from my eyelids. Through blurry vision I make out his form in front of me as he tosses the needle aside. It hits the floor with a clatter.

"Sadie, look at me. Can you see me? Can you move?" His words rush out.

"Mattie, what is going on? Did I sleep through my alarm?" I ask.

"I'll explain later. Can you walk?" He repeats.

"Why wouldn't I be able to walk?" I ask.

He helps me down off the bed, my feet hit the floor. Instead of holding me up they have the support of Jell-O. My brow furrows as I slip. What is wrong with me? Within an instant he's sweeping me off my feet, though he's fumbling on his.

"That answers my question." He mumbles to himself.

His arms shake around me and my body jostles as he runs out of the room. The front of his t-shirt is soaked through and sticky. It smells like metal and rotting meat. Why? I look up at him, wishing I could pull the explanation right out of his expression. But all I see is a locked jaw and fixed eyes, not so much as a hint to understand the giant red stain covering a white shirt I've never seen him wear.

Through blurred eyes I try to look around us. I expect to see the hallway of our apartment building, tan walls and splotchy red carpet. The walls I'm looking at are white, albeit they're off-white but at one point they were as bleached white as a hospital. A hospital . . . I narrow my eyes at the tiles, stained and spotted with blood, sitting in an open doorway is a spilled over bed pan. Holy shit, when did we go to the hospital? My memory flashes back to the needle that was ripped out of my arm, an IV. I was the one in the hospital. I don't remember anything.

"What happened to this place?" I ask.

"Shhh, keep your voice low or they'll hear us." Matt says.

Hear us? Who would we be running from in the hospital? Maybe it's the people who trashed the place, maybe that's who we would be hiding from. If they could do this to the building, imagine what they could do to the people inside.

"Matt, how did I end up in here?" I ask.

"We all did." He pants. "But please . . . wait for us to get outside . . . I promise I'll explain."

I try to strain my mind, to remember how we all ended up in the hospital. Maybe we were in an accident, that would explain why my legs down work. But I don't remember it happening. My head throbs with each push into the past.

We round a corner and I feel us begin to drop as Matt trips. I'm too much weight on him. We should've waited until I could walk by myself. Hopefully we won't have to go much farther, I think I can see a light ahead. It could be the waiting room, the local hospital's waiting room has plenty of natural light. Even with my sensitive eyes, I'd like to see some light. These hallways seem so ominous with the power out. It serves to make the stains on the floor drastic and dark, almost as if someone dropped us in the middle of one of Bekk's video games.

There's a sound from behind, something thudding against the floor or wall. I can see a slight panic in Matt's eyes as he picks up the speed. We're going faster but he's fumbling more. Each trip sends a shock to my heart, and with each jolt I worry I'll have an attack. Or the worse option that we'll be attacked.

"EKG . . . clamps . . . doctor . . . EKG . . . Doctor, clamps. Doctor? Doctor . . . EKG . . . doc-"

I'm no doctor, but from the sound of her there has to be something wrong with her throat. Her voice is raspy, as if she's talking through a bad case of strep. Over and over again she repeats those three words. The only thing that changes is their order and her tone.

"DOCTOR? DOCTOR! EKG, clamps? Clamps? Doctor? Clamps? . . . DOCTOR." With no response she grows angrier.

But I don't see a doctor in sight.

Peering over Matt's shoulder, I catch a glimpse of the confused nurse chasing after us. Something is wrong. One of her legs is broken, slowing down her pace as she stumbles on it and drags it along. With each step the pressure on the bone causes it to push up on her flesh, ready to pop out and present itself. Although her skin isn't doing much to hold it in there, as it can barely stay attached to her flesh itself. On her leg it's there but it hangs off as if she's wearing baggy brown sweatpants. On her arms it hangs off in ribbons, blood seeping out and drenching her clothes.

Bile rises in my throat, yet I can't convince myself to look away. The curiosity is too much as my eyes reach her face, the worst of all. There's a scalpel hanging out of her cheek, dangling from a cut it gorged down from a starting point at the eye. That same eye is soaked through with blood that leaks out across the white. The other is barely better, bloodless but glazed over with the effect of a cats-eye marble. It's a wonder she can see at all.

I tuck my ahead against Matt's chest, squeezing my eyes tighter and tighter until it hurts.

"Hold on." Matt whispers.

The ride gets bumpier as we travel down a half flight of steps. One of his feet catches on the stairs. My eyes widen as we plummet again. I think he'll regain his balance, but not this time. I swallow hard, curling into a ball. My shoulder hits first, then the rest. His body crashes on top of mine, covering me like a blanket with one arm still wrapped around me.

From only a couple yards away, I see her stumbling feet as she moves towards us. Her voice grows louder, more excited.

"Clamps! Doc-tor! Doc-TOR! DOCTOR! EKG! DOCTOR, EKG!" She bellows.

She drops down on all fours and crawls towards us, her shouting simmers down as her jaw drops open. Oh fuck, what is she going to do? With the sight of her already bloodstained teeth I have a good idea of what this sick woman is going to do.

Matt is trying to roll off of me, but from the looks of it he's as achy and in pain as I am. I try to push him off but it's like trying to push a boulder with two strands of spaghetti.

There's a sound crack that rings out. I look over in time to see the nurse's head crushed open on the floor underneath a bed pan. Pieces of fragmented skull swim in the juice that leaks out of a flattened head. The scalpel has sunken in further and through open lips I see metal piercing through the side of her tongue. I can only imagine what kind of monster it took to take her out.

Bloodied fingers dig into Matt's shoulders and rip him off of me. In a rush I try to push myself up, watching helplessly as he's dragged away. I look into the monster's eyes, only to see familiarity.

"Bekk?" I ask.

She looks almost as sickly as the nurse. Almost. The glaze in her eyes is from sleep, I can see it as she wipes at them, leaving red fingerprints across her eyelids and cheeks. Eye boogers still cling to the corners. Her hospital gown is soaked through and torn. It's a wonder how she's managed to keep it on with one whole breast and most of her abdomen exposed.

"Get off the floor. More of them are coming." She hisses.

Matt scrambles towards me with an extended hand, helping me to my feet. The doors ahead connect the filthy waiting room to the outside world. I start to move in the direction of the light but with one tug on my arm he has my newborn-calf legs reeling backwards.

My heart drops when I see the obstacle stuck between us and freedom. All the waiting room chairs have been artfully stacked on top of each other in a sturdy barricade. Three computers - monitors and all - are thrown into the mix with chords being used to tie everything soundly together. I try to make out what's on the other side of the browned and ugly glass only to make out little more than the empty road. If it's so clear out there, why would someone create the barricade in here?

Why would someone need to create the barricade at all?

I don't bother to ask questions. Every time I've tried I get shut down. I follow blindly as Matt drags me down the opposite hallway. Our pace is slowed by myself, something that's not hard to catch on to when Bekk is shooting nasty looks at me over her shoulder. Of the three of us she's the best on her feet, jogging down the hallway with her gown billowing around her.

We're so exposed in these, we might as well be naked. The wide open doors that leak out the smell of rotting meat and animalistic growls don't help the overgrowing feeling of vulnerability. I want to stop in the middle of all this and hide in one of the empty rooms. I want to crawl back into a bed, pull the thin blanket over my eyes, and block it all out with sleep.

Every corner is rounded with caution. Every growl is listened to with careful analyzation to determine how best to avoid it.

The grime on the floor clamps itself onto my feet. I ignore thinking about what it might be for fear that I'll break down in tears. My stomach churns with the mere feel of it, gunk clasped to the back of my heel with the texture of jelly. Sticky fluid slides between my toes with each fresh puddle I step in, clumping my toes together in a discomforting fashion. I breath in deeply, wishing I focused more on those breathing technics Matt tried to help me with. Even if they didn't work for the panic attacks, I'd try anything now. I try to keep it steady. In for six seconds, out for six, then pause.

Something hard crunches beneath the sole of my foot. All the soft goop that was surrounding it clings to the pads of my feet, holding onto its new host. My breath hitches in my throat and won't slow down after it catches this time. I smell it. The rancid smell of rot reaches my nostrils and doesn't go away. All because it is attached to me.

It takes everything I have not to scream.

Another one of those growls rings out, like someone's trying to burp and cough simultaneously. It's followed by another, and another, and another. Bekk halts at the corner, holding a hand out for us to stop. She presses the side of her head against the edge of the wall and listens. She doesn't move, she doesn't appear to breath. She only listens.

I lean all of my weight against Matt, trying to catch my breath and get my heart to calm down inside my chest. It's beating erratically. It is no longer capable of maintaining a steady beat, almost as if it's trying to break loose of my rib cage. His hand tightens on my waist. He's bracing himself against the wall, sweat leaking down his temple. The weight of having to carry me around as well as his own weight is taking its toll on him physically.

After a long minute she turns around to face us, leaning in so close that her nose bumps against one of ours.

"There are only a few of them. I'll clear the path, you follow. I can't protect you from behind, got it? If they follow it's your problem." She says.

Matt nods so I mimic the motion. In reality I have no clue what's going on. This hospital looks like a battle field with dirt and blood splatter across every surface and bodies strewn across the floor. Now we have to fight our way through what? A crowd? Why won't someone take one minute to tell me what the hell is going on?

Yet I can't make myself feel frustrated at them, not through the fear that has taken over headquarters inside my brain. The best  I can do is feel desperate. Desperate for an answer. Desperate to get out of this place. Desperate to go home.

She charges ahead around the corner, bed pan in hand. Matt and I follow after; he keeps us close to her but not close enough to get caught in the fire. The dents in the metal don't stop the bed pan from doing damage as she smashing it into the faces of the sick. They don't have time to react, only mumbling growls or soft meaningless words before they're knocked to the floor. I'm not sure they were going to attack in the first place. But we don't wait to find out. If any of them are left standing or even breathing, we leave them far behind in a mad dash forward to get the hell out of here.

I try to glance back but Matt uses his free hand to point my head facing forward again. It's less of a push and more of a gentle nudge forward. Without it I'd probably be sent tripping mere seconds later and fall straight into our friend.

"There's no time. Not worth it anyway." He says.

There's something hard about his voice, something wrong even for a situation where we running through a fucked up hospital to get away from the sick inside. This hospital isn't far from our apartment, was one of the sick someone that we know? Did Bekk kill someone that we know?

Hospital rooms are few and far between down this hallway. Instead they're replaced with one large room to make up the Emergency Room. Straight ahead there's a metal set of double doors taking up the wall. The sides of the hallway are lined with gerneys. Not one of them is clean. Some of them are still occupied. I look away too late from one and catch the sight of flies buzzing around inside the mouth of a corpse who died with an expression of screaming in pain. Rigor mortis froze the pained expression into skin that has gone leathery and sagging on top of meat that's little more than food for insects.

I push an empty gerney away from my side as we reach the door. There's barely enough space for the three of us. Bekk sets to work on prying the heavy metal door open. The hinges are so thick with rust I keep an eye on them while she pushes to make sure they're not giving out. It takes more than a little man power and scrapping that's much too loud to prop it open wide enough for one person.

One at a time we squeeze through, Matt coming in last and - naturally - Bekk going through first. Once inside the garage I can see the ambulance that is backed up far too near to the exit doors. The other is blocked completely by an ambulance that smashed into it nose first.

It's empty out here. The whole garage is quiet enough to give me chills. Though through the slightly open door I still hear the distant moans and groans of the diseased.

"Where the hell is he?" Bekk marches out of the entryway towards the parking lot.

Outside is as ugly and obscene as the hospital. Dark stains cover the parking lot beneath bones that are stained and picked clean. Car doors are thrown open with insects buzzing in and out to collect their meals. In the middle of the road there are vehicles that have smashed together an other than have burnt up, leaving nothing more than blackened and crushed frames respectively. The only difference is that out here there isn't a single one of the infected in sight. Instead they're replaced by numerous more corpses.

Without the slightest hesitation Bekk marches out. Her head swivels this way and that in search of something, or someone. Anger contorts her features into the friend I know so well, always so angry and harsh. But not cruel. She stops her foot and whips the bed pan into the road. It skids across the asphalt and dings against a crushed van with rust where metal used to be.

The buildings across the road, what are left of them, are barely left standing on their feet. Entire walls or floor are missing. Some of them are burnt to a crisp, only a blackened rectangle left on the concrete where they stood.

"Where we he have needed to go while he waited on us? It took us less time than he thought, the fucker. If he left us here I'm going to hunt him down and feed him to those things inside." She storms back and forth along the edge of the road while the rage pours from her like a fountain.

"Who is she talking about?" I ask Matt.

He glances at her, to our left and to our right. He gestures to the right where an ugly white van is crawling down the street.

"Him."

With the way he says that one word, I expect the worst. The worst being Bekk's on-again off-again boyfriend. But as it gets closer there's a clear view into the window. That man is not Scottish enough to be Jack.

The van pulls into the entrance of the parking lot and halts. The door swings open and a muscle man of average height drops out of it. A dark pair of sunglasses cover his eyes, other than that very little of him is covered. His naked torso is open for the world to see while his lower half is covered only by a pair of cargo shorts. Somehow he makes all the scars on his toned skin work. Although I'm not sure why he thought of his shirt as optional. In this thin hospital gown I'm shaking.

Seething, angry Bekk slugs him in the arm before hopping into the passenger seat of the van. He shows no reaction, his eyes seeming to focus on me through the sunglasses. He raises one eyebrow.

"I thought you were going back for three." He says.

"We were." Matt's jaw locks.

"Sorry about your luck." The man shrugs and hops back into the vehicle.

I furrow my brow as I look up at Matt, trying to figure out the meaning behind their exchange. Three? Who else would be in . . .

"Gabe and Timmothy were in there too?" I ask.

Matt nods, eyes locked on the ground as he leads me towards the van. I don't have to ask anything else. The expression on his face and my ability to put two and two together answers it all. I swallow a lump in my throat and follow him into the back of the vehicle.

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T WO

The ride is tense and awkward and frankly it feels uncomfortable to be in a van that looks like it should have "Free Candy" painted on the side. According the clock on the dashboard, we've only been in the car for about ten minutes. With everyone refusing to say a word it feels a hundred times as long.

Matt's hand squeezes mine. He's been doing that every few minutes since we got in the car. The two of us look so roughed up I'm unsure which one of us he's trying to comfort.

Of everything, the least comforting part of this is the fact that they have yet to explain what happened back there. Back in the hospital. What was wrong with those people? Why was the hospital trashed? I'd ask why we were in there in the first place, but slowly and surely the fuzzy memories have been returning to me. News reporters, violent videos on the ten o'clock news,  the university's program, and images of quarantines flash through my head. I'm putting the puzzle together in the front of my mind, all I need is their confirmation to lock the last few pieces into place.

Some of the pieces only serve to confuse me further. Including the ground which is bare of snow but the grass is browning and ugly. The day we walked into the hospital with the rest of Group D for the Medical Association Study of Brain Activity there was snow so thick on the ground you couldn't drive through half the city. I pushed Matt into a big pile of it after he launched a snowball at my face. Our hair was full of snow so we were soaking wet as we warmed up inside the waiting room.

The study, we all new what it really was when they put us in there. For the examination they attached cords with stickers on the ends to our heads and watched a screen as we answered questions. Afterwards they gave us a whole bunch of jargon which basically summed up meant we were being put into medically induced comas to compare the normal and healthy to whoever they had in the tiny quarantine on the other side of the hospital. They told us there were two little rooms for the infected, but we knew something was wrong with that statement if they brought us in, the fourth group for testing.

I could lie and say it was a patriotic thing. I wanted to help out my country by undergoing the testing and helping the doctors find the cause and cure to what us normal citizens were told so little about. But the truth of the matter is I was curious, as long as they weren't going to stick the disease itself into me I wanted to find out some of the dirt.

But one look outside the window it's been more than a few weeks since that February morning.

My partner in crime squeezes my hand again. A couple minutes more have gone by. The only thing to pass the time are the run-on thoughts that loop around in circles inside my head. A whole chain of the same thoughts formed with different words.

"Mattie, what happened back there? Were those people . . . Do they have the disease that was all over the news?" I ask, keeping my voice low.

He looks hesitant somehow, those it's not a strange question. "Sadie, they were-"

"Damned, all of them. Damned to hell. They're good as dead, except death would have been more merciful." The man from the front seat chimes.

"Pierce." Bekk sends him a warning glare.

"What? You know it's true just as well as I do. The disease is irreversible, incurable. As soon as you contract it you might as well die. It'd be a better option for anyone who gets it, as well as the rest of us who are still healthy, for the infected to kill themselves before they lose their control." Pierce says.

"How did the infected take over the hospital? It was supposed to be a safe spot." I say.

This time Matt and Bekk are also looking at Pierce for the answer. Apparently he hadn't bother to tell them this either. Not so good at communication, is he?

"That would be the fault of the doctor who was supervising your program. It was supposed to be a safe spot, but with the experiments they were running on the damned it never could have been. The numbers of them were steadily growing and all it took was one slip up allowing the whole lot of them run wild. They took over the building, the staff trapping themselves inside so their deadly patients wouldn't get out." He says. "They locked whatever doors they could which is the reason why some patients, such as yourselves, managed to survive."

"How do you know that much? Were you in the hospital?" Bekk snarls.

"No, I happen to be buddy-buddy with none other than another survivor from the staff. In fact, she disappeared not long before I came back here looking for more survivors." He says.

Other survivors? I hope she didn't have to spend as long as we did in there . . . wait, how long were we in there exactly? I look at Matt, eyes wide with fear. There's no snow outside but it's still ugly and brown. But the world around us has collapsed into chaos. As horrible as our species is, they wouldn't have let it fall to shit in the month it would take for winter to end.

"What is it?" Matt asks.

"How long were we in there? I know it was February when we were admitted into the hospital's program, and now it's . . . I have no clue. It's been months at least." I say.

"Actually, about 204 days to be exact. Today is September eighteenth." Pierce says. "Congratulations, you were in a coma for almost seven months!"

There's no expression on his face. There hasn't been a single one on his face during this entire car ride. I expected something with the sarcasm, a cheeky grin or a smirk. Nothing. Always serious, always expressionless. Kind of an asshole too.

But the sinking realization of how long we were under makes me sick. A million questions run through my head at the impossibility of it.

How did we survive? How did we get food? Our IVs were still in which may have provided nourishment but how long would that last? Why didn't we wake up from our comas sooner? How did we wake up from them? All I remember is Matt hauling me out of the hospital bed. Who woke him and Bekk up? Pierce? How were we lucky enough to have our doors locked by the staff? How are we not dead? Without so many little things that had to have been done to us we should be long past the beginnings of rigor mortis now.

I try to judge what's going on in Matt's head right now. Upset and confusion dance across his face in a battle for territory. But for Bekk, there's no need to guess what goes on her head.

"What the fucking hell? That's a loud of bull!" She bellows.

"Why would I lie?" Pierce asks.

He couldn't possibly have anything to gain by lying to us would he? For fuck's sakes, it looks like a war went on through these streets, you wouldn't want more mouths to feed. Unless you were going to have them for dinner rather have them for dinner. If he even thinks about it . . .

"Why did you help us out anyway?" I narrow my eyes at his reflection in the mirror.

"With my buddy from the staff gone there was no one left to take care of the patients. Her last request before she disappeared was for me to get as many people out of there as I could." He shrugs.

"So it wasn't from the kindness of your heart." I say.

"Of course not."

Despite having had our questions answered, I feel no better. The world around us appears to have crumbled apart, and all I can think about is our little apartment at the edge of campus. Is it as screwed up as the rest of the city? Are the walls burned and crumbled in? Have some of the infected turned it into their new home?

"Take us home." I demand.

"Home? I have no clue where that is." Pierce says.

"We do. Drive us there and you can go on your merry way." I say.

"Too bad there's not enough gas for that. Fuel is hard to come by these days and I'm not wasting any of it taking you guys home. It's from point A to point B." He states.

"Let us walk then." I say.

He laughs at the suggestion as if I'd told a good joke. "You might as well ask me to send you to your deaths. You saw the inside of the hospital right? The rest of the city is ten times as bad. Thankfully they don't like the sound of the van.  But don't worry, I've got an extra room at the cabin and food to last for years."

"And if we'd rather risk it heading back to our place?" I snarl.

"Wait, Sadie." Matt squeezes my hand. "He says there's food at his cabin. Everything we had would have gone bad by now. The ramen, cereal, crackers, and coffee wouldn't be good anymore. If it's still there."

The gentle tone of his voice is more convincing than Pierce's snarky tone. Besides, he's right. We were poor college students, complete with the poor college student diet. Nonperishables will be a necessity what with the grocery stores trashed.

I can see far into the building with the store front windows smashed up and sunlight streaming in through holes in the roof. The place has been ransacked, any items left behind have been crushed and broken beyond recognition. Canned goods, sweets, vegetables, and meats are all gone. Anything at all that could be masticated and digested has been replaced by dust on the metal shelving units.

"What about personal items? Pictures? Journals? Pads?" I ask.

"You're not the first women to stay at chez Pierce, there are plenty of pads and tampons if you need them. Just don't go bleeding on my backseat, the scent of blood draws those damned things like the sick to water." He says.

I look up at Matt, pleading with my lower lip sticking out. "All our pictures together are there."

"It would be nice to have my own clothes, instead of this awkward hospital gown." Bekk admits.

The sunglasses may be able to hide his eyes, but they don't hide the annoyance on Pierce's face. His eyebrows are drawn together, one of them twitching at the corner, and his lips are flattened into a line. As we go on and on about the things we'll miss from home his annoyance only grows, worsening the facial tick so near to his eye.

"Fine! We can't stop by your god damn apartment, but I'm not doing it for free. I want something in return." He says.

"We don't have much money, I'm so poor I was temporarily crashing on their couch." Bekk says.

"I don't want money, it's no good to anyone now. Give me something worth my while, snacks, anything chickens can eat, a video game console, or hell, I'd even take porn if you have any." He says.

Begrudgingly, he drives us back through the city a-ways at Bekk's instructions, all the way back to our crappy little apartment that's barely big enough for the three of us. It's cramped and it's crappy, but it's home. The van is parked on the level of our floor. For once it's not just the aspect of being close to the vehicle that makes me so glad to have an apartment right next to a parking level.

Pierce waits in the front seat while the three of us head towards the door. None of us have our keys, but there's no need with the door busted open. We can see straight into the building with the rows of doors along one side of the wall. There's a gasping noise from the other end of the hall, not too different from the sound of an asthma attack, otherwise there's nothing else in this hallway.

It's a straight shot to our door, the only problem is getting to the spare key.

"Is it still in there anymore?" I ask.

"No clue, one way to find out though." Matt says.

He kneels down to drag his fingernails between the floor boards. The back of his gown falls open and I'm reminded that there is no finer ass in the world than the one I get to sleep with every night. If it were another place or another time you know I'd cop me a feel of that.

He stops, tapping his fingernail against something tucked between two of the boards, and with a smile tries to dig it out from its crack. Bekk keeps an eye down one of the hallway while I watch the other end. The asthmatic gasping doesn't sound any quieter, but at least it's not growing louder either. With the minutes ticking by, I can only imagine that whatever is meandering down the hall knows the three of us are here, it's waiting to catch us by surprise.

With a click and a clatter the silver key, now rusted from time, pops out of the crack and falls flat on top of the boards. Before the wheezing can get any louder, Matt snatches the key up and unlocks the apartment door. I shut it behind us and make sure its bolted before heading any further inside.

All of it is as I remember it. There's the battered couch in the living room across from an ancient TV with two consoles hooked up to it. My laptop with its neon blue cover is sitting on the kitchen counter where I left it next to a stack of biology and chemistry textbooks. The bathroom door is propped open with a book to show the world's most disgusting bathroom. Bekk's dirty laundry is still covering the floor and the sink is still smeared with toothpaste that dried long ago. Except for more dirty laundry than I remember pouring out of the hamper, every stain and speck of dirt is the same.

I head straight for the bedroom. Pictures line the walls and some of the shelf space in front of the books. There are pictures of everything, from my and Matt's second date, to Gabe's wedding where I was the best man, to a big Christmas with both our families, to a photo of our dream house, and every other memory you could possible imagine. The ticket stubs from our first date are even framed on the wall.

"I don't want to lose all these memories." I whisper.

"Sadie, you're not going to lose them. The pictures may be gone but the memories will always be right here." He taps my forehead and gives the same spot a kiss.

"Thank you." I say.

I turn away before he can see the mist settling over my eyes. I pull an old backpack out of the closet and start putting everything I need in there. Sure I could only take the bare minimum, but these pictures are light anyways. The picture from Gabe's wedding, our first photograph together as teenagers, our big family Christmas, my mom and I at her auto shop, our post-graduation road trip, and a picture of Matt, Timmothy, Gabe, and I all together. That's only the start of it. Never before did I realize how many pictures we have.

"Sadie, babe, I got your pads from the bathroom. Oh and your toothbrush. But are there more in the room?" Matt hollers.

"Thank you, Matt, I think that's all of them." I say.

That dork warms my heart. It doesn't help the dams in my eyes that are ready to burst. But I wipe away the drops that leak through and throw in anything else we might need.

It's a pain in the ass to leave so much behind but somehow I manage to make it work with the size of the duffel bag.

I walk out to the living room with the bag packed and my greasy hair thrown up into a bun.

"What happened to the hospital gown? I was starting to like it." Matt winks.

"Too bad, I threw it out the window so I'll never have to see it again. This outfit makes me feel more like me." I give a little spin. "Oh actually, I got some clothes for you too."

 I take the bundle of an outfit and hand it over to him and he disappears into the bathroom.

Sure the gown was freeing, but as I stretch my still aching arms and legs my regular clothes feel comforting. The worn out university hoodie with old jeans couldn't feel more right. Plus, I won't feel like I'm stepping into a freezer when I go back outside.

Wrapping my arms around myself in a hug, I walk over the laptop sitting on the counter. My curiosity can't help itself. I wipe the dust off the top and open it. A bright screen flashes up at me with a quarter of its battery left. Maybe it'll work. I open up the internet and see if I can get a search engine to work. Soon I learn both Google and Yahoo are down, but that Bing one still seems to work. It doesn't take long to fine the most recent news; there isn't much left available on here anymore. My eyes dart across the screen as I take in the information and pictures.

"Wow." Bekk breathes.

"The government shut down back in June. Not so much that they shut down, more like they died off and the whole system fell apart." I say.

"At least some of it still works. You'd think it'd be all gone by now." Matt says.

"The satellites keeping whatever is left of the internet running aren't going to have much longer with no one maintaining them." Bekk says.

There isn't much, but there's enough to know what happened while we've been out for the count. At the least the beginning of it, now it's more or less of an anarchy, which isn't hard to figure out without help.

My thoughts are broken, and all three heads whip around at the sound of wheezing broken only by gasps. I shut the laptop and we creep towards the door. Bekk is all to happy to lead to way. She holds up her fingers, starting at five, and counts down one by one until she's holding up a fist. Charging out the door, she bulldozing into the infected and slams him into the wall. There's a crack and a crunch of bones from the impact. There's rusted old baseball bat in her hand, the one we keep for burglars.

"Inhaler . . . Inhaler." Wheezes the infected.

I'm not sure he even knows what he's saying. He repeats it as he lunges forward and snaps his teeth at her. He repeats it as she knocks him to the floor. He repeats it until she takes the end of the bat and drives it through his head. It's probably the only word he remembered.

I look at everything other than the crumpled body until we're back outside and crawling into the back of the van. Pierce is emotionless as he drives us out and back onto the road.

"My payment?" He asks.

Matt reaches into our duffel bag and pulls out a slightly crumpled magazine. On the front cover is dark haired woman wearing little other than some pasties. I gasp, absolutely shocked that Matt has that. I feel the hurt spread through my chest.

"Mattie . . ." I say.

"I'm sorry, Sadie. It works out, he wants it for payment anyways." He says.

"Couldn't you have given him some of Bekk's porn? What if I get bored and I need it again?" I pout.

"Sadie, you've still got me. Who needs the magazine?" He says.

"You make a good argument, you stud." I give him a peck on the cheek and toss the magazine onto Pierce's lap.

I let out a slow breath, happy for the light banter. Inside my chest there's still a steady thudding at a rate that's anything other than normal. I try to make it slow down but when I try to pretend it didn't happen I remember Bekk smashing his head in, only leading me to remember everything else. Curling against Matt's side, I bury my face against his chest as I try to block it all out.

 

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T H R E E

Would I say Pierce is a good driver? No. Would I say he's a decent driver? Still not really. But would I say he's a bad driver? Yes, that does sound like something I would say. I may add my own embellishment and say he is such a terrible driver that you could throw a rabid badger into this car and put it in charge of the wheel and we would be in the same amount of danger as before. So yes, someone could say I think Pierce is a bad driver and be so damn correct.

The number of the infected grows towards the end of the city and more so as we head through the countryside. The amount of available food must be getting low in the cities.

Another one of them wanders into the road. There's no sign of slowing from our inadequate driver. The van bulldozes through despite the slow steps of the woman. I know what's coming and as much as I want to hide my face the curiosity gets the better of me. Bone crushes and blood rains. Red coats the windshield, thick rightand wet. There's a catch in my throat, but nothing to come up. As he is with everything, Pierce is unfazed as he flips on the windshield wipers. He doesn't stop or bother to slow down, and it takes nearly a minute to see through the glass.

At the end of this road I can make out a three way intersection, meaning we're going to go one of two ways. If we turn right we'll drive through a small town, which means we still have further to go until we get to the cabin. Or if we go left we'll drive up into the woods where I can only hope the cabin isn't too far off.

My stomach growls, bellowing loud for all to hear.

I place my hands on my belly, it's gone flat from the lack of food. Inside it feels so empty, it's as if all that's left in there is my shriveled, empty stomach. Too bad Pierce doesn't keep snacks in his car.

The aching in my arms and legs is finally beginning to ebb away. They no longer shake and are gradually becoming sturdier. The more I use them, the better they feel. Soon I'll be able to stand for periods longer then five minutes without becoming dizzy.

The van reaches the end of the road and turns in the direction of the woods. It's a steep incline at first but flattens out more once we've broken through the tree line. It's a bumpy ride, the kind that you don't have to see a map to know you're in Appalachia. Except for the flattened road on the side of the hill everything drops down into a steep slope. If the van weren't going down the middle of the road, I'd worry we'd tip over the edge.

Aside from the terrifying steepness, the view is beautiful. The trees still have their leaves which have been filled with color. Yellow, orange, red, and brown paint the treetops and speckle the earth. Some float down and stick the red tinted windshield. There's still some green splashed in there too, as all of the trees have color but most of them haven't entirely turned for Autumn.

The road slopes upward before coming to a fork in the road. Pierce blows through the red octagonal sign with a right turn. Down this road the trees begin to thin out a bit.

I see it. Breaking through the trees to a little clearing, there's a two story cabin. The roof is covered in metallic panels that glimmer in the sunlight, a sharp contrast to a building whose only aspects that aren't wood are the windows and door. The perimeter is bordered by a tall barbed fence that's better fit for a prison, but it only takes a glance to see its purpose.

The infected crowd around the fence, peeking inside at the few living things they can see. They reach for the chickens that scurry about their coop only to smash their hands against the mesh. Others are gnashing their teeth at a goat grazing by the other side of the cabin. It looks at them lazily before walking around the back of the house, the loose rope tied around its neck is slack on the ground even after she disappears behind the building.

The nice set-up is shock after the carnage of the hospital and the outskirts of the city. In its own way it's quaint.

Some of the infected scurry away from the gate as the van barrels forward. They all manage to look hateful and hungry, eyes flowing with the two feelings simultaneously. Pierce pulls the vehicle to a sharp halt only inches away from the gate.

"Bekk, I want you to get out and open the gate. Wide enough so that I can get the van through but no wider. Once through, I want you to shut it. Okay?" He says.

There's not a moment of hesitation on her face, her feet are firmly planted in her opinion. "Okay."

As soon as she hops out of the truck they swarm like vultures. Teeth gnashing at the air, they jerk forward with fingers outstretched towards her. Her fingers twirl around the lock and chains with ease until they pop open. The infected with their drooling mouths are forced aside yet again by the van. As soon as the back bumper pulls through Bekk slams it shut with a ringing, metallic clang. Yanking the chains around and through, she clicks the lock into place as she falls away from the view of the mirror.

Matt gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. Then is when I realize my hands are starting to shake, my own nerves becoming clear on the outside as well as inside.

With the gate shut there's the combined feeling of being in a bubble of safety and being trapped in a zoo. The infected are staring in on us with eyes that are glazed over far above their sunken in guts. Inside the fortified fence it feels, in a away, as if they could never touch us. But the constant staring, the gnashing teeth with red leaking through onto their lips, they have nothing better to do than wait until we're vulnerable. So in fact, the feeling is less like being in a zoo and more like being inside a can of food. And we're the food.

There's the sinking of dread in my gut accompanied by a thought composed of a childish whim. I want to go home. Only problem is that there is no home anymore. Is there?

As soon as the van jerks to a stop Pierce throws his door open. His feet are hitting the gravel in front of the porch before I've got my seatbelt unbuckled. By the time the tips of my toes have touched the ground he has disappeared inside, leaving the door wide open behind him.

I hold onto Matt's hand with a death grip for the whole walk to the homey, wooden cabin. When I step across the threshold I see a view that rises above my own personalized visualization of "chez Pierce". Bekk shuts the door behind us and locks me into a world separated from outside. What I see is the homey interior of a cabin. In fact, it is so gorgeous it could've come out of an Ikea magazine with the words "Home Sweet Home" printed above the picture. Everything down to the slight messes showing that it is lived in fill me with a new kind of warmth. It's a haven I hadn't been expecting during a ride with the lord and savior of assholes.

I stop dead in my tracks and take it all in.

The honey colored floors and walls are finely decorated with warm colored rugs and pictures of smiling faces in the woods. The plush chocolate couch has a thick quilt of red and grays draped over the back and adorning pillows.

One glance into the attached kitchen shows a similar image of comfort and living that calms my racing heartbeat and brings me to stop crushing my poor boyfriend's hand.

"Pierce . . ." I start, eyes still wide with awe.

"I know, I know. It's beautiful! It's gorgeous! It's so homey! Oh my, goodness gracious sakes alive, it's so welcoming compared to the rest of the world! I've heard it all before Sadie, lady." He runs his fingers through his hair. "I don't have the time to deal with your surpise and shock, I've done it all before and why should I bother with it again? I'll give you the tour tomorrow, but right now soak in my whack-job of a grandmother's cabin from the comfort of your room. I need some time to rest."

I'm a little taken back by his sharp tone, though I know I shouldn't be surprised. He hasn't been anything other than kind and friendly from the moment we met him.

He motions for us to follow before marching up the stairs to the second floor. At the top there are two doors, he opens one and it leads to a miniscule bedroom with one queen size bed. The three of us cram into it and squeeze our bags into the closet.

Bekk takes one disgusted look at the bed before curling up in a plush chair located at the corner of the room. It looks like a comfy place to read, but for a more prolonged period of time it would have the back aching and the neck would be left stiff and cramped.

There's the ache coming from my stomach that I can't deny, but more so persistent is the drowsiness that has settled over me in the last half an hour. I'll rest my eyes for a few minutes, then I'll soothe my stomach.

I slide out of everything other than my underwear and shirt before crawling under the covers.

Light still shines outside, enough to shine a few rays through the window so that they land on my eyes. According to the clock on the wall it's almost eight o'clock. Resting my head against the pillow, I feel the real weight of my limbs. I feel the bruise in the crook of my elbow. I feel the sensation of having overworked myself on a day when I should have taken it easy.

"Mattie? Would you mind closing the curtains?" I ask.

He stops midway through crawling into bed and backs out. All the while he shines me with a smile. "Anything for you, m'dear."

The curtains are only letting the thinnest line of light through once he has them closed. He pulls the covers all the way up to his neck and presses a gentle kiss against my temple. It's so warm and familiar, and even though he has kissed me hundreds of thousands of times before, it feels like a special comfort in a place so unfamiliar. It reminds me that in a way I do still have a home. Sometimes home doesn't have four walls and a roof. Sometimes, instead, a home has two arms that are there to catch you and a heart that thunders against your back with each beat while you rest side by side.

"What are we . . ." I take a shaky breath. "What are we going to do?"

"That depends. What do you want to do?" He asks me.

I flip over so I can get a look at his face through the dim. The color has disappeared into black but his irises still sparkle.

"I want to get away from the infected. Not just on the other side of a fence where we can see them staring back at us, I want a safe place where they can't touch us or even see us." I whisper.

"Then I'll tell you what we're going to do. You and I will build a place to those requirements. We'll build a place so safe that you and I will never have to see their ugly, blistered faces again. And this placewill be so safeit'll have three walls protecting us." He says.

"Three whole walls?" I giggle.

"Three whole walls, you heard me right. One of thick iron with so much electricity running through it. A second will be built of titanium that is so strong and high. But just in case, there's the third wall, a wall of an iron core with concrete coating the outside. That third layer will be six feet thick and stretch so high that it'll touch the clouds, but its guard towards will stretch so high you can see the whole world." His eyes are larger than ever and filled with so much life I can see it in his eyes as he imagines it.

"That sounds like one hell of a place." I say.

"Oh it will be, and it's going to be the safest place in the whole world. It'll be everything you want and more." He says.

"What about what you want?" I ask. "It could be anything. Necessary, crazy, or somewhere in between."

"I want hot wings." He says.

"So naturally we will have chickens. We'll have eggs until they get old and turn those chickens into dinner with an appetizer of hot wings." I say.

"But there's something else I want too." He says firmly, nodding his head with a kind of certainty.

"And what would that be, oh darling of mine?" I inquire.

He grabs my hand and fiddles with my fingers as he speaks. "I also want that house we use to dream about back when we were teenagers. Remember? We used to talk about it for hours and hours until your mom yelled at me for keeping you up so late on the porch."

"I haven't thought about that place in a few years. In my head it was always the most beautiful place in the world. Although anything sounds that way when you're describing it. I do remember it would rather awkwardly fit in with the mold of the American dream." I say.

"But it was the Sadie and Matt dream. Which is why it was perfect." He says.

"Remind me of all the details." I scoot closer to him. "Tell me a story."

"Ah yes, the Sadie and Matt dream house. Let me take you on a mental tour, m'dear. Close your eyes. Picture a street that's caught somewhere in the middle of rural and suburban. In the front yard there's a little garden frowing, entirely separate from the gorgeous landscaping which is filled solely with daisies, petunias, lilac bushes, and peppermint. The scents fill your nose as soon as you step foot on the driveway and it is simply intoxicating.

"The backyard is twice as spacious as the front yard. The huge apple tree is the most noticeable sight with its gleaming red apples. Red, not green, not yellow. Anything other than red would be simply distasteful. But it's not the best part of the yard. The best part is the back porch with a wooden porch swing for two. It has the perfect view of the stars at the dead of night and of a magnificent summer storm with nature's strobe lights. And the sandb-"

"What about the hummingbird feeder? It hands from the porch, close enough to be viewed from the swing but far enough away for the comfort of the birds and bees." I add.

He chuckles, his rumbling chest vibrating against mine. "Of course, how could I forget the hummingbird feeder? Hey, you! Close your eyes, you can picture it better that way. Okay, back on track. In the backyard there'sa sandbox. Naturally, it is shaped like a turtle, and of course it's for the future kids, but for now we can bring out our inner child and play in it . . ."

His words, so warm and soft, begin to fade out after a while. My own thoughts fade out, but there's still a feeling that keeps me warm. Home.

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T W E L V E

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T H I R T E E N

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F O U R T E E N

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F I F T E E N

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S I X T E E N

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S E V E N T E E N

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E I G H T E E N

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N I N E T E E N

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T W E N T Y

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~

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