My eyes slowly focus on Ross's ceiling, lit by the diffused late-morning light coming through the curtains. When you wake up like this, after a long night, your mind doesn't adjust right away. You lie there thinking about your fears, hopes, and dreams. Your mind is unfocused, and you simply exist.
The springs of the mattress creak as I climb out of it. Ross is still snoozing, his face parallel with the couch legs, hugging an invisible person where I used to be. I rub my arm, still feeling the chafe of stiff springs. Maybe we can go out and get him a new mattress today. I'm getting tired of sleeping on that one.
Ross actually has a real bed, but it's in the tiny bedroom of this apartment. I'm over almost every day now, so he just leaves the spare out in the living room so we can sleep together. The single mattress in his real bed isn't big enough for that. Heh.
I walk into the kitchen automatically, my brain still in standby mode. Ross and I didn't get to do anything last night, but he'd kept me up anyway, watching the news. He always insists on watching it before bed, and there was an extended report last night about some kind of new virus that was going around. I was tired and not really paying attention, but it seemed to really shake Ross. He just... wasn't in the mood at all. That's weird for a guy.
"Good morning," Ross says. He stumbles up to me, eyes still half-closed. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for your oatmeal," I say. He wraps his arms around me from behind.
"Sorry about last night," he whispers into my hair. "You know this whole quarantine situation has me worried. I can't help it."
"It's okay." I turn around to give him a proper hug before returning to the cupboards. He points me in the right direction. As I start making a pot of oatmeal, he goes quiet. From the crease of his thick eyebrows, I can tell that he's still thinking about it.
"When did you go to sleep last night?"
He runs his hand through his hair. "Sometime past two, I think. I couldn't sleep."
"What's got you so worried?" I ask. "I know it's something like a big deal, but we'll be fine. You should stop watching the news for a while. It's all they talk about and you're scaring yourself for no reason."
"It can't be a media circus," he says. "We haven't had internet access in this city for the past week, so I need to watch TV. Even if it's garbage, I need to have some idea of what's going on."
"I know, I know," I assure him. Sometimes he gets worked up over things like this and I have to calm him down. "Here, your oatmeal will be done in a second."
Soon we're eating together at the small kitchen table. Ross's spoon clatters against his bowl as he eats slowly, his mind elsewhere.
"Why don't we go buy you a new bed today?" I say, trying to sound cheerful. "We're going to need tetanus shots if we keep sleeping on that mattress."
Ross cracks a smile. "Yeah. That'd work."
"Someone has to get you to stop worrying about this," I say, winking.
Ross starts to laugh, but he's cut off by a crashing sound downstairs. He jumps to his feet immediately, staring at the apartment front door.
"What was that?"
He lives in a decent neighbourhood, but stuff like this is still bound to happen at times. I'm the voice of reason when I answer:
"Sounded like glass."
"It's none of our business, Ross."
He ignores me and walks to the door. He looks through the peephole. After a moment, he opens the door to look up and down the hallway.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Look, I... I don't know," he says, still looking. I can see cold sweat on his forehead as he looks back at me. "I heard reports that there were some... killers on the loose. That's why we're under quarantine."
"What? That wasn't on the news."
"Not until last night, no."
He looks deathly serious. A shiver runs down my spine despite myself. This isn't adding up. I start to get up from the table, my legs shaking.
"Why would we be quarantined over that? What happened?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know!" he shouts. "I think something's going on that the government isn't telling us about. Just trust me, okay?"
Trust college media classes to put that idea in his head. I shake my head, trying to calm myself. Ross gets into a panic over every "epidemic" and "security issue" that pops up, but I can't help my quickening breaths -- passion of all kinds is contagious.
"I'm going downstairs to check it out, just in case," he says. "Stay here until I get back."
"This is stupid. I'm coming down with you."
"No!" I back away from him, insulted. "Stay up here. I don't want you to get hurt."
I roll my eyes, saying, "Alright, Ross, be my knight in shining armour. See if I care." But I don't really mean it.
Ross gives me a kiss before leaving the room. I shut the door behind him, then turn around to face the room, fidgeting with the trim of my shirt. It's a nervous habit. I go over to the window and pull the curtains.
At first everything seems fine, and I relax a bit. It looks like a typical busy day, cars driving through throngs of people who don't know how to use the crosswalks. But when I look a little closer, I see that the cars are moving quickly -- far more quickly than they should be, given the traffic congestion. One elderly man is crossing the road at the same time as a truck speeding through. He turns around to face it like a deer caught in headlights, but the truck doesn't stop. It plows right into him and just keeps driving, mangling the man's body as the tires peel off from the bloody mess.
And just at that moment, I hear a thumping out in the hall. I whip around and let the curtains fall behind me. Those are footsteps.
I try to keep a cool head as I lock the door and grab a knife from the kitchen, silently cursing myself for not carrying a gun, or a baton, or anything else that those damn self-defence classes told me to invest in. Damn it Ross, I told you those were a waste of time! Even when something does happen, I'm too stupid to prepare myself anyway! This will have to do.
Footsteps. The badly-oiled door at the end of the hall creaks and slams closed. My hands are already sweaty enough to risk my grip on this knife and--
KRRSH! Another obnoxiously loud crash from downstairs, this time unmistakable as the sound of glass. The whole front of the ground floor is made of the stuff.
Ross, please come back. What's taking so long?
"Kaitlyn! Let me in!"
He reaches the door before I have a chance to unlock it, pounding against the wood with his fists. "You have to let me in, Kaitlyn! Come on!" He's panicked. I throw the knife to the side and fumble with the lock.
He bursts into the room, nearly hitting me with the door in his haste. As soon as he's in, he slams and locks the entrance behind him. He runs to the kitchen, panting heavily. This apartment is on the ninth floor, and he must have run up every one of those steps from the way he's breathing.
"What's going on?" I ask as calmly as possible. Ross just shakes his head at me, looking through cupboards. He grabs a large frying pan -- cast iron and heavier than some people -- before turning back to me.
"They aren't killers," he says.
"I saw someone get hit by a truck outside! How aren't these killers?"
He pauses for a moment. "They are killers, I guess. But they aren't human."
"There's no other explanation for it," he says. "As soon as they saw me, they tried to attack. Some of them were running, some of them were dragging themselves, some were just... groaning and not doing anything else... I don't know, Kait. They're all torn up and violent, and their eyes..."
"This is stupid!" I yell angrily. "How can they be zombies?"
"Just trust me," he says. "Whatever they are, they aren't the good guys. That's for damn sure."
He sets his pan down and starts pushing the couch.
"Help me set up some barricades. They have a hard time with stairs, but they'll be up here soon."
I stand still for several long moments as Ross pushes the couch across the door. This is too much. He doesn't look like he's joking, but this can't be true. It doesn't make sense. Stop watching so many fucking zombie movies, Ross! I'm not laughing!
"Stop standing around!" he yells at me.
"I don't-- I don't know what to do!" I say, and it's true. I don't know where to start. I'm overwhelmed. This is too much.
"You need to help me, Kait! Come on!" Ross yells. With a final grunt, the couch is in place. I can hear more thumping from outside. Ross looks at me seriously.
In some ways, I still think this might be a joke. But the old man outside getting hit by a truck? Something is going on here. I help Ross throw the mattress against the couch, just as the footsteps approach the door.
They stop just outside, for a brief moment. Then we hear a loud, piercing screech. The blood runs from my face; I look like I just lost a fight with a bag of flour.
"It's calling for others," Ross says. He runs into the kitchen before I can respond.
He braces himself and kicks a leg out from under the table with all his strength. It collapses on one corner, and it barely has time to land before he's kicking down the other side. Within moments, Ross has the entire table in pieces, bracing the door closed. I run for nails and a hammer so we can block the door with them.
Maybe I watch too many zombie movies too.
I don't know what else to do right now.
"How long is this gonna hold?" I ask Ross when he finishes nailing the table into place. I can hear once-human nails scratching themselves raw on the other side of the door. None of the... zombies can open it. My stomach lurches when my brain automatically says, "Not yet."
Am I awake? Have I slept?
"I doubt it'll be around for long. Just long enough for us to get out of here."
"How are we going to do that?" I say, my mind blank, autonomous.
Ross looks around the room.
"We'll have to use the window."
He tears the curtains right off the frame and pulls up the glass. A cool early-autumn breeze enters the room and makes me shiver reflexively. Now that I know what's going on, I can see what's happening outside.
All the people wandering the streets, getting hit by the occasional vehicle as it drives through at top speed... these are the monsters. These are zombies. I shiver again, and it has nothing to do with the cold.
The city is infested.
* * *
I can barely remember anything after that point. Ross threw two hundred feet of nylon rope out the window and we started the climb. I couldn't process anything; my mind was numb and I didn't know what to think except that the rope hurt my hand. But keep going. Keep climbing. Escape.
Eventually, Ross fell. I'm not really sure how it happened, but it was close enough to the street that he's still alive now.
Every time I draw back my arm to hit another nail, the hammer slips from my hands a little more. Another handle that's coated in sweat -- my cold sweat of fear, panic, and whatever other emotions I'm feeling right now. I don't have time to name them all. Hundreds of walking corpses are right outside this window. I have to nail things over it. Whatever I can find.
We're in the bottom floor of someone's house; I don't know whose. Ross is lying behind me, barely alive. At some point while I was dragging him to the first house I could find, he went unconscious. There were already people here when I broke in.
I hear broken bits of a table fall to the floor behind me. Sam dusts off her hands.
"My arms hurt," she says. "Whatever happened to collapsible card tables?"
"I think that's enough wood," I tell her. I back away from the window, rubbing my biceps. "Can you finish this window?"
"Finish?" Sam raises an eyebrow, inspecting my work. "Those are service-sector workers out there, not zombie lumberjacks. How great do the barricades have to be?"
"I don't know!" I yell. "I just don't want them inside, Sam. Please..."
I lay down on the floor next to Ross, trying to calm myself down. After so many hours in this house, the moaning really gets to you. I rest my head against Ross, trying to hear his heart instead of the zombies.
Life. I close my eyes, focusing on this sound like a lullaby. But I can still hear the moaning and scratching around me, relentlessly. I know that Sam isn't doing any work; she's sitting in the corner, resting, smoking a cigarette. I can hardly blame her from my position.
Another body enters the room from the stairwell. He doesn't speak a word, so I know it's Arthur Scott. With his perpetual stoic, uncaring expression and insultingly clean, expensive clothes, it's tempting to think of him as an action hero like James Bond. Except this is real life.
Sam slowly breathes smoke out through her nose, asking, "Is everything okay up there?"
Scott's eyes dart around the room, carefully examining every detail. He nods slowly, not looking her in the eye. From most people that would be unusual, but for him it's just par for the course. He's always watching, never talking. Sam tells me that he was in this house when she got here, and she has no idea how or why he's around. When she asked him his name, he just told her and hasn't spoken a word since. He seems harmless enough to her.
Real life doesn't have action heroes, and I don't trust him. But then again, real life doesn't have zombies. He's sketchy. But we need all the help we can get.
"How's Ross?" Sam asks me.
"He's alright," I say. "Still bleeding."
"At least there aren't any vampires out there."
I ignore her.
We sit in silence for long minutes, just trying to keep ourselves calm. I guess that's an effort in futility, though, since the silence only ever emphasizes the sounds from outside. The wood covering the windows and doors remains firmly in place, but that's not as much reassurance as I'd like.
As soon as Ross gets better, I'm getting out of here. We're both covered in his blood, so I'll find a place with running water first. Then we'll make a break for it. This city can't be totally quarantined -- there's going to be a hole somewhere that we can scurry out of. We just need to find it. As soon as Ross gets better, everything will be okay.
One of the windows that I boarded over shatters from the outside. Without it, the zombies sound like they're already inside. I'm trying and failing to keep tears out of my eyes. They burn in the grit that's building on my skin. They hurt. My chest tightens as a sob wrenches its way out of me, ripping through my lungs. I choke on it harshly and lean against Ross for support.
He's sleeping, if unconsciousness counts, but I've never felt more awake.
"I think these 'cades will last us another hour or two," Sam says, standing up. "Let's go back upstairs. There's still a few chairs up there."
"We need to stay with Ross," I tell her.
"Just let me and Arthur carry him up," she says.
"We don't know what's wrong with him. He could have broken his back and now the slightest movement will kill him."
Never mind the fact that I dragged him to this house already. But he's getting worse by the minute and I can't risk it. Why did this have to happen?
Before Sam can say anything, we hear a loud crash from upstairs. I freeze in position on the floor, my heart stopping. Sam and the well-dressed action hero take steps towards the stairs, listening. There's another crash, and what sounds like boots stomping around. Something is definitely up there.
Sam scowls and runs up the stairs. I just lie there, passively listening. I don't care anymore. I'm broken. Her footsteps stop at the top of the stairs. I can hear her voice demanding something, then an indistinct reply from a male voice. My mind pulls itself back together with one thought:
Zombies can't talk.
I jump to my feet and look at Scott, but he won't meet my eyes. He's still watching the ceiling intently, ignoring me. After a moment, he turns his head to look at me. His eyes are widened in terror. I'm about to ask what's wrong when he grabs me by the arm and starts pulling me towards the stairs.
"Hey!" I yell. "Let go! I need to stay here!" What if the zombies break in while I'm gone? Ross can't defend himself.
He doesn't listen. He seems panicked, like some sort of animal, unlike anything I've seen him do all day, putting all his adrenaline-fueled strength into pulling me. He practically drags me up the stairs. I'm watching my boyfriend disappear around the corner of the stairwell, tears of fury welling in my eyes as I scream at this attacker to stop.
By the time we reach Sam on the next floor, I've rendered myself silent. My throat and eyes are burning. Arthur Scott sets me down gently next to Sam, then stands behind the both of us. I roughly climb to my feet, holding onto her. She wraps an arm around me.
The people who must have entered through the windows are two men in plain black uniforms, flanking a woman in a lab coat. All of them are soaked with blood.
"Is this everyone?" the woman asks.
Sam nods curtly.
"Good," she says. Addressing me, she adds, "I'm Dr. Euel. I work for the Necrotech division of the federal government."
Bile rises in my throat.
"We are doing a systematic sweep of the city after a recent accident. We received a report from our agent here, Mr. Scott, that there were infected individuals in this building."
"Only one," Scott says. This is the first time I've heard his voice; it's gruff and manly, the way you would expect the voice of an action hero to be. He's a fictional character in my real world full of zombies.
"There's only one infected here, on the bottom floor," he says. For some reason this seems to be directed to the guard at Euel's left side instead of the doctor herself. "I'm not lying. Take him and leave the rest of us alone."
I want to scream at them, "He's not infected! He's mine and he's just sick!" But I can't bring myself to speak a word. My throat is too raw and there are too many emotions running through me. Too many for me to name.
"Arthur," Sam says, watching her feet. "You betrayed us."
Scott's eyes narrow darkly, but he doesn't answer. Dr. Euel laughs.
"You're quick, girl," she says. "I wish you weren't infected."
"Leave these women alone and do the job you're paid to do," Scott growls.
"This is the job I'm paid to do," she responds. She gestures to the man on her left side when she adds, "Mr. Richard here has informed me of your past. You're the traitor. How do you think this whole virus is spreading? This area is under quarantine; if we let people free, they'll only infect more people."
"You don't know that!" he yells.
"That's why we need to do this," Euel responds. She keeps her calm throughout, smiling falsely. Her men start to make a move for the stairs, and I fall to the floor as Scott pushes through me to stand in their way.
There's tense silence for a moment as he stands there, blocking the two guards. Mr. Richard's hand inches towards the holster at his hip. Sam hasn't moved an inch. I can't draw the strength to pick myself off the floor. I feel like I'm melting through it, watching the world underneath.
Through the floorboards I hear wood begin to crack. I hear glass shattering. I hear nails being ripped from the walls as hundreds of wretched cadavers push and shove their way into the bottom floor. But I'm the only one that hears this, my head pressed against the floor.
In a moment of clarity, my mind says, "We had a good run, Ross. Nine storeys isn't too bad, right?"
Sam jumps out of the way and throws her cigarette to the floor as she runs to the stairs. One of Euel's men makes a move towards her, but Scott punches him square in the jaw. The other guard, Mr. Richard, takes a step backwards and pulls his gun on Scott as the two brawl.
"Leave it, Arthur!" Richard yells. He fires a shot past them. Scott turns his head for a split instant to look at Richard, a scorching look in his eye, but it's too late -- the extra instant gives the other guard the upper hand, and he twists Scott's arm around. With the leverage he pushes Scott to the floor and roughly shoves a foot to his back.
His face is right in mine and I can taste his breath as he shouts.
"This isn't what you want to do, Richard!"
"Get rid of them," Euel says coldly. "We have enough people who won't cooperate."
She walks towards the staircase. The other guard lifts his weight off Scott's back to follow her, drawing his gun. Scott doesn't move from the floor. I don't know what to do. He looks at me with an unreadable expression as he speaks to Mr. Richard.
"Please, Don," he says, his voice cracking. "Please just let them go. They haven't done anything. You can take the man downstairs. I'm not stopping you."
"Shut up!" Richard yells. He continues to point his gun at Scott.
"This isn't what you want to do..."
"I'm just doing my job, Arthur."
The side of Arthur Scott's head explodes into bits, blood spraying into my eyes. I close them tightly. My heart beats faster and faster. I'm hyperventilating. This isn't real. This isn't what's supposed to happen.
Beneath the floorboards I can hear gunshots mixed with yells. Are they shooting at Ross or are they shooting at the zombies? Sam screams horribly, a long string of curses gurgling into nothingness as she chokes on her insides. I'm broken. I'm awake. I'm dead.
"I'm sorry," Richard says.
He shoots me.
My emotions start fading away one by one. My mind becomes unfocused, and I simply exist for a brief moment. Autonomous. Not me, just an empty body, the shell of a person who didn't get it.
Goodbye fears, hopes, and dreams. Goodbye Ross.
I hope the zombies kill you before the government can.