Saturday, March 06, 2010

"Sick Day"

This story was published on "Tales of the Zombie War" in April of 2008. Sorry for the formatting.

My name’s Lucas Gallagher, and if you’re listening to this, you’ve probably done a whole lot better than I did. It probably means that I failed myself and everyone I love miserably. But I want you to know that I tried. God, I tried.

I’d just dropped Nathan, my four-year-old son, off at daycare. It was my last day at work before taking a vacation for Christmas. I wouldn’t be back until the 2nd…unless, I often joked with my coworkers, you believed the “end of the world” kooks. On the way to work, the grumbling in my stomach reminded me that I’d skipped breakfast, and it was time to rectify that. It was a crisp but clear December day, so I figured I’d park in the garage and take a quick walk to the café a few blocks down the road. Whether or not they had breakfast burritos seemed like the most important thing in the world at that moment.
I walked through the door; the tinkling of the bell added a nice touch to the café atmosphere. The owner’s daughter was behind the counter, as she was every morning before her classes began. “Hey, Mr. G!”
“Hi, Aubrey. How’s school going?”
“Ugh. But the good news is that we have burritos today!”
“You read my mind. Make it a double order, pretty please.”
She winked at me. “Ten minutes.”
I took the newspaper from the counter and flipped through the sports page. I was checking up on my fantasy football team when I heard a car crash outside. It was followed by a commotion that grew louder by the second. I thought I heard a few people screaming, and a few seconds later I was sure that it was more than a few.
I looked at Aubrey, who was, coincidentally, looking right back at me. We both turned to the front of the café, then back to each other. I assumed that her look of confusion was echoed in my own face. There was no logical reason for it. Collisions, sirens, angry yelling…all of these were commonplace in this town.
But this just felt different.
I took seven steps towards the door (seven steps exactly…it’s odd the kind of details that stick with you) where I could see that a car had veered off the road and crashed into a convenience store. I saw two figures wrestling around on the ground while several other people seemed absolutely panicked. I had no idea why; it was just a car crash. Still, the behavior of the other people is what bothered me. I opened the door to give whatever help I could, even if it was just breaking up the fight. I’m not a small guy, and people tend to listen to me when I use my outdoor voice. I looked back at Aubrey and said, “Call the cops.”
Aubrey didn’t respond right away, and I didn’t notice. I was focused on the task at hand when a man stumbled into the café, nearly bowling me over. He was covered in blood, and I was horrified to see that his left arm was missing below the elbow.
Then I got a good look at what used to be his face…
“Jesus Christ!” I was already removing my belt to form a makeshift tourniquet, and I just hoped to keep the poor bastard alive until real help arrived. I moved to help the mangled stranger, but he wandered right past me. He had to be in shock. I yelled, “Buddy, stop! You need help!” He didn’t pay me any attention whatsoever, so I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, determined to help this man whether or not he wanted it.
What I first saw in that face was the torn, bloody skin. It looked like someone had bitten off most of his left cheek, and a bit of his eye with it. There was a look of hopeless terror in his good eye, but that lasted for only a few more seconds, until it was replaced by something else.
With a terrible shriek, the man lunged at me, his jaws opening impossibly wide. Reflex took over, I dodged, and the man went sprawling well past me. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?!?” was all I could think to say. It seemed appropriate.
He struggled to stand. His movements were clumsy and slow, but determined. I was rooted to the spot.
So was Aubrey. I already said that I’d forgotten all about her, right? I remember that she was standing with the phone pressed to her ear, mouth frozen in mid-syllable. She was terrified, and I wanted nothing more than to hustle her out of there and get her someplace safe.
I noticed too late where she was standing. The man shot his remaining arm out and pulled her to him, burying his face in her neck. He tore at her throat with his teeth like a wild animal, and Aubrey was only able to scream for a few seconds before a wet, gurgling sound took over. Her helpless eyes were locked on me.
I screamed, “Get off her!” and moved to help, though I knew she was already dead. I had been slow, far too slow. Still, I managed to kick the man aside. I heard a sickening crack as he landed awkwardly on his right arm. He was missing one arm and the other was broken, and that’s the only reason I had time to tend to Aubrey. I tried to stop the spurting blood with nothing more than my hands, but the jets quickly diminished by degrees until the glint left her eyes and she was completely still. “Oh, I’m sorry, kid. I’m sorry.”
As if on cue, her eyes snapped open. The ice blue eyes that had winked at me innocently countless times now held the same look as the crazy guy who’d just killed her. She leaned forward, her teeth gnashing. I started backing away, careful not to trip over anything, especially the lunatic who’d almost regained his feet, because I knew that would be the last mistake I’d ever make.
They seemed to be of a single mind as they came after me. Their movements were totally uncoordinated, and that was the only reason I made it out of the café alive. While they bumped into the counter and tables, I just ran.
Outside was total chaos. I thought the scene inside the café was bad, but it was multiplied tenfold out there, and it grew worse by the second. The already-narrow street was blocked off by a pile-up of smoking cars. Screams filled the air, and people were running everywhere. The ones who weren’t currently running were either attacking or being attacked.
Hell had arrived.
I didn’t care for these people right now. I couldn’t help them. I had to get to Nathan. And Kate. That was all that mattered. That was everything.
So I ran. I dodged all manner of obstacle: wreckage, fire, corpses, and the arms of those who wanted me as their next meal. To be honest, I was scared shitless, but the fear worked for me. I didn’t think, I couldn’t think. I could only move. I had to get to my truck. If I couldn’t, I was dead. It was that simple.
My pickup was only a block away now, and the coast looked, if not clear, at least passable. My adrenaline was pumping hard, and my senses were sharp enough to help me avoid the stray, well, I guess I finally realized that they were zombies, with relative ease. I had to avoid a few who’d either strayed to the second level of the garage or had turned there. I jumped into my truck and got into motion immediately. I had one purpose right now, and that was to get to my son. I had no idea how fast or how far this had spread already. All I knew is that the downtown buses had a stop at the daycare center. If someone had gotten infected on that bus…
I drove fast, slipping my seat belt on as I did. I flipped open my cell phone and dialed my wife’s. She worked on the other side of town, so I’d have to get her second. Right now, my son needed me, and I knew that my wife would agree.
“C’mon, pick up, pick up!”
She did, on the second ring. “Hey, baby. What’s up?” She didn’t know.
“I’m on my way to Nathan. Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay? Is Nathan all right?”
“Listen to me. Are you inside your building?”
“Yes. What’s going on?”
“Stay inside. Get behind every locked door you can.” I paused, and decided to just come out with it. “Zombies.”
“What? Are you drunk?”
“I’m not fucking around, Kate! Just listen to me! Tell everyone…” I heard several popping noises over the phone. “What was that?”
“I’m headed to the window,” Kate said. I heard movement, and then I heard my wife gasp. “Oh, my God.”
There was nothing.
“There are…crazy people…out there. The police are shooting them, but they’re not dropping.” She paused as the reality sank in. “Nathan.”
“I’m taking care of him, don’t worry about him. Tell everyone to stay there. Lock every door. Barricade them. Find weapons. Wait for me. Do. Not. Leave. I can’t do what I have to do if I’m worrying about you. Do you hear me, Kate?”
“Yeah, I just don’t know how I…”
“Don’t think about it. I’m trying not to.”
“Lucas…please keep Nathan safe. I love you.”
“I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
I hung up, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
*   *   *
My worst fears were realized when I saw the overturned bus less than three hundred feet short of its stop at the Fun Time Daycare Center. The bus was smeared with what could only be blood, and there were a dozen dead bodies lying around, all of them at least partially eaten. I actually felt a slight sense of relief, because the more dead people there were, the less undead I’d have to contend with to get my son. I was ashamed of myself at that moment, but nothing else meant a goddamn thing to me. I’d deal with the guilt later, provided there was a later.
I pulled into the parking lot, reached under the rear seat, and pulled out the tire iron. It felt good in my hand. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it, but those hopes were dashed when I saw the wide open front door.
Panic set in, I had no hope of controlling it. I yelled, “Nathan!” I kept repeating my son’s name, hoping it would act as a talisman, protecting him until rescue arrived. My rational mind knew that I should be silent and move slowly, but I just couldn’t stop screaming. “Nathan!”
I ran straight to the preschool room. I encountered only one zombie there, wandering around the office. I knew her by name.
Her name was Miranda, and I spoke to her less than an hour before when I dropped him off.
Now, she was one of them. She came at me with a horrifying groan, arms outstretched and hands clenching at air. I gripped the tire iron with two hands and reared back like I was swinging a baseball bat. I wanted to hesitate, to give her a chance to be human, I really did, but there was no thought but removing whatever stood between me and my boy. I felt soulless, but I swung with everything I had. It connected fully with her chest, and I heard ribs crack. The Miranda-thing staggered backwards, but soon resumed her course as if nothing had happened. I swung once more and connected with her face. Her cheekbone shattered and I knocked her back again. This time she tripped over a toy and fell down. I pressed my attack and brought the tire iron down in wide arcs until her head was a misshapen lump and she finally, mercifully, stopped moving.
I wiped her blood spatters from my face and looked around the room.
Five seconds later I had to fight the urge to vomit. There were several bloody, child-sized forms strewn about, forms that used to be children I’d seen five mornings a week for a couple of years now. It was…unimaginable.
Any one of them could have been Nathan.
I told myself he wasn’t dead, that he couldn’t be dead. I forced myself to look more closely. I tricked my brain into adopting a more clinical attitude, but that façade fell away almost as quickly as it appeared.
I couldn’t tell. They were unrecognizable. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to tell if Nathan was there.
I leaned against the wall, crying and feeling defeated. I heard groaning and the shuffling feet of more zombies. I assumed it was the rest of the staff. I wanted them to come and finish me.
Then my eyes fell upon the area where the children kept their shoes.
Nathan’s weren’t there.
I looked at the feet of the dead children.
My little boy’s Spider-Man shoes weren’t on any of them.
My heart lifted, my focus returned. It was only a glimmer of hope, but it was enough. I wasn’t going to give up on my son until he was in my arms or I was dead. Not one second earlier. I threw a bunch of toys near the doorway, making a minefield of sorts. I’d seen the things in action, and coordination wasn’t their strong suit.
Four of the beasts entered the room and groaned in concert as soon as they saw me. They tripped and fell repeatedly over the toys, which enabled me to dance around and pick them off one by one. My plan was perfect, though I can’t say the same about my execution. I had a scary moment when the last zombie actually tripped into me and bit down on my forearm. I hollered and kicked it away before bashing its head in. I checked my arm, wondering how long I had before I turned.
Luckily, my leather jacket had held, though I could see teeth imprints in the material. Good thing this is December and not June, or else I’d be one of them by now.
When I finished the last one, I started searching room by room. I considered it a perverse mercy that the staff had killed the children instead of turning them; I didn’t know if I could kill a child, even an undead one.
I heard a muffled cry from behind a closet door in the room for one- and two-year-olds. It sounded too young to come from my son, but I had to check. I crept to the door, keenly aware that there was more than just the five staff members that I’d managed to dispatch. I put my head to the door and whispered, “Nathan? Is that you?”
I heard another stifled noise, so I raised my weapon in my right hand as I turned the handle with my left. I opened it slowly.
I scooped my son up in my arms and gave him a bear hug, breathing him in. I detected the faint scent of dried-up tears. Nothing had ever smelled so good to me. “Good soldier, good soldier…” I didn’t want to let him go, but now we needed to get to Kate. I put Nathan down and took his hand. “Let’s go pal.”
“Wait, Daddy. What about Carly?”
“Carly?” I remembered the child’s cry that I’d heard. I walked back to the closet and moved aside several boxes. A little girl sat there, pacifier and all. I knew that I had just been presented a giant problem, but I didn’t entertain the thought, even for a split-second, of leaving the girl behind. I grabbed a diaper bag and filled it with diapers and formula. I had no idea when we might see those again, if ever.
“She was scared, so we hid in here. Mommy always told me that if I got scared to hide and be quiet and you’d find me.”
I felt a surge of pride in my boy. “See? Mommy was right.” My thoughts were almost fully on Kate now. I had to get to her. I picked up Carly, who nestled into my arms immediately. “We have to go now, Nathan. Stay right behind me.”
The trip back to the parking lot was uneventful, but once we got there, I discovered where the rest of the staff was. I peeked around a corner into the parking lot; they (and what had to the remaining bus passengers) were congregated around my truck, fascinated by the sound of the idling engine. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to leave it running, but it was a good thing that I did. Now they had to be dealt with before we could go anywhere.
I knelt down with the girl still in my arms. “I have to do something so we can leave. Can you be a good soldier and take care of Carly for a minute?”
“Take a seat, buddy.” Nathan sat down, and accepted Carly into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her in a protective gesture.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
I closed the door behind me and whistled. I got their attention.
*   *   *
Nathan sat in the passenger seat, Carly on his lap. The seatbelt was fastened across both of them. It definitely wasn’t something the parenting groups would approve of, but I had no baby seat. I wasn’t all that worried about getting a ticket.
Father and son hadn’t said much since their escape from Fun Time. I thought that my son was blessed in that he had been shielded from most of the horrors while he had been stashed in his hiding place, and what he did see he couldn’t fully comprehend.
I comprehended all of it, which is why I drove facing away from my passengers. I didn’t want them to see my tears. I had to keep it together, even though I’d power-dialed Kate’s phone ever since we left and had gotten no answer.
I wasn’t going to give up on her. I always believed she was stronger than me, so if I was alive…
The ten-minute drive seemed to take forever, but we finally pulled into the lot of her office building.
Fifty yards away were the dozens, even hundreds, of zombies who had beaten us there. They surrounded the first-floor parking garage, and some were pounding the steel door that led to the stairwell. I had no idea if any had gotten inside, but I couldn’t worry about that now.
My wife was in there somewhere. I looked at her office window, hoping to catch a glimpse, but there was no movement in her office.
I’d been noticed, but I had a little time before the shambling nightmares were a threat. I grabbed the tire iron…I felt vulnerable without it…and climbed on the roof to get a better view. After a minute or two, a plan popped into my head. I thought there was a pretty good chance that it might work. I hopped off the roof and used the iron to smash the passenger side view mirror to the ground, knowing that every inch would count. Nathan smiled at me through the window. The noise got the attention of some of the crowd, and they began to shuffle en masse in my direction. That actually worked to my advantage, because the less I had to deal with in the garage itself, the better the chance of success. I moved back to the driver’s side, when something…a feeling that made the hairs on my neck rigid…made me look up to my wife’s office. She was standing in the window, waving with both arms.
“Yes. Yes!” I yelled, not caring who, or what, heard me. More heads turned in my direction. I hopped into the cab, put my seat belt on, and honked the horn. Still more came at me; there couldn’t be more than a handful left in the garage itself. I took one last look upwards, and saw a large silhouette appear behind my wife.
“Oh, no. Nonononono! KATE!!!”
I watched in horror as Kate was yanked out of sight. I felt lifeless. I went through all of this, and she was taken from me less than two hundred feet from where I now sat. My eyes were glued to the window. I barely noticed when the first zombie reached the truck and began to claw at the window.
I screamed and pounded on the steering wheel. I knew I was scaring Nathan, and I think he begged me to stop. I didn’t, I couldn’t, and he started crying, which made Carly start crying, too. I didn’t care. It was over. I was through. There was no point. I began to have insane thoughts that seemed saner by the second. I thought that smothering the two children would be the right thing to do. It was more merciful than letting them be eaten, or worse, get turned. I spared a thought that Carly’s parents would someday understand and forgive me, if they were still alive. We were surrounded, and the noise was deafening. Nathan was screaming now, and the only intelligent thought I had, even when surrounded by a horde of flesh-eating creatures, was that I was a complete failure as a father.
I jumped as my cell phone beeped once.
A little envelope flashed on the screen. I opened it and actually began to laugh. My wife, who absolutely hates texting in general and text-speak in particular, had sent: “im ok…strwll clr…luv u bth.”
I looked up to the window once more and saw her familiar form waving at me; she seemed to have an idea what I was planning, judging by her message. If you don’t know, that’s one of the most annoying parts of being married: the inability to have an original thought. You finish each other’s sentences, you step on each other’s jokes, you even know how they’re going to argue a point before the other does.
It was anything but annoying then.
She was okay, and my needle went into the red.
I reached over and double-checked the kids’ seatbelt. I hated that they had to be here for this, but there was no other option. I engaged the four-wheel drive and threw the truck into reverse. The zombies that were unfortunate enough to be directly behind me got crushed under the tires, and we got bounced around pretty good as we rolled over them. Sick as it sounds, I was flying so high at that moment that I was actually having fun. I got a little separation from the undead then slowed to a crawl, drawing as many of those bastards away from the building as I could, Pied Piper-style. That’s when I grabbed my MP3 player and started this narrative.
Just in case.
I apologized to my son for scaring him, and I swear he sounded indignant when he said, “I wasn’t scared, Daddy.”
He really is a good soldier.
He’s got this hopeful look in his eyes. I know what’s on his mind.
I’d love to tell you more, but I’m out of time.
Someone else is waiting for us.

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