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Nobody knew when, or how, they came to inhabit this world. It could have been a solar wind or a meteor shower but I won’t drone on any further with possible permutations, my time is limited, and one thing is certain, they were already here. Patient Zero was one of two cases reported merely a week ago, somewhere north of Osage county in Pawhuska, near the prairie. It was a place that had already seen its fair share of history and blood soaked into the earth. The perfect breeding ground, if they bred at all. The tall grass was damp and moist near the roots which were sheltered from the searing heat that burnt the tip of the blades. I had no cause for alarm. Did I? Besides, I was some seven-hundred miles away, in Chicago. It transpired that a young couple had been fooling around near the nature reserve. The grass was long enough to sneak through, flatten a private patch and lay staring up at the stars. It is only in hindsight, however brief that was, that we now know the cause of their demise and the tragedy that followed.
It began with an itch. These two kids began scratching at a small patch of reddened skin that burned the back of their necks. It spread, of course, until their bodies where covered in tiny red blisters and the urge to scrape the skin raw was unbearable. They were admitted to Pawhuska Hospital and soon quarantined. Death was not swift. The corpses that remained, a mere twelve hours later, were skeletal. Whether or not they were eaten from the outside in, or inside out, is irrelevant. They were already dead. What is relevant is the way that this mysterious contagion spread but that, yet again, is unknown. Did they crawl out from the motionless mandibles or filter silently into the air, how many were already afflicted, inhabited by these organisms that seemed to consume nothing but the flesh that hung from our bones? Nobody knew, and in truth no one should have stuck around to find out. Suffice to say, the hospital did not survive the admission of these two young patients. The infection, if we should call it that, spread unmanageably. It wasn’t long before there were no doctors or medical professionals at all, in the whole state of Oklahoma, as the wave of terror spilled quietly into the surrounding states breathing slowly in all four directions. It danced and drifted through towns and cities on a breeze, leaving behind the bones it had no desire to consume.
It had already reached St. Louis and I was still nearly three-hundred miles away, but I was growing a little concerned. I had every reason to be. I did not know the voracity with which the epidemic grew but I knew it was coming for me and everyone I’d ever loved, though only one of them mattered now. News reporters were more of a hindrance than a help in identifying the cause of the outbreak, the invasion. Speculation arose that it was some mutated form of Ebola or H5N1. Religious enthusiasts described it as a plague, wiping out the evil that had inherited the earth, though I don’t recall seeing that typified dishevelled homeless man sporting a billboard adorned with the words ‘The end is nigh’. Scientists at the Pentagon had tried to reassure the public that it was containable and that there was no need for panic. All of the resources in the world at our disposal and still, there was no conclusive analysis of a threat that we were too human to comprehend.
Both of my parents had already passed and I, in some way, thanked god that they would not be able to fall victim to what was coming. The thing I had left that mattered in this world was in Milwaukee, Sarah. I had met her last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, not that I was cultured, and made an ass of myself trying to describe the wrong painting to her. I don’t remember which one, but I do remember her eyes; blue and piercing. The kind of eyes that filtered through your soul, the kind that peered through the shadows of darkness and light that reflected within your heart and accepted you just the same. It could have been then that I fell in love with her or the weeks that followed as I clasped her tightly to my chest and felt her blonde hair, flayed gently across my neck liked feathered grass. I had called her earlier that morning. Something was coming and I had no plan, except venturing as far north as possible. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t bothered by heat and I wish I was apprehensive enough to say that venturing north to a more extreme climate was my aim but it was a possibility that some had already considered, at least judging by the traffic. I followed. I jumped in my car, grabbing only my phone and my wallet and set off for Sarah as a haunting dusk hue began to fill the sky.
It is amazing to me that, as a flesh-eating plague swept the nation, there are those whose first instinct is to loot and riot. As I made my way slowly north out of the City I saw people fighting, killing, burning, abandoning and down a small back street a man and a woman carrying a sixty-inch flat screen television. I didn’t understand, nor did I have the time to sit and ponder their actions as I reached Pleasant Prairie, where my journey halted and the roads jammed. I flicked on the radio and sat tapping the side of my car door impatiently. The news reported the continued spread of the virus and highlighted a reality that hadn’t entered my mind, the countless networks in the sky. It was already in Milwaukee. It was already everywhere else for that matter, in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, the list was endless. I slumped in my seat as the consciousness of humanity’s situation pulled sharply into focus. They advised the public to stay in their homes and intimated the lack of capacity for the emergency services to act, the hospitals were full. That meant only one thing. Help wasn’t coming. There was no escape, no venturing north towards safety. I was already surrounded. I wondered if it had already entered my lungs, clung to my clothes or made its way into my hair. I didn’t feel different. Well, I don’t suppose you do at first. I abandoned the car that had become more use as a coffin, in which to sit and pass the time, waiting for death. Nothing was moving and the roads were motionless, with the exception of people standing by their cars leaning in only to smash another hard fist on the horn. Darkness was coming and I was no closer to Sarah.
I began to walk along the interstate as I went through the calculations in my head. Thirty miles to Milwaukee and an average walking pace of fifteen minutes a mile, seven if I run… I was cut off before I could reach a conclusion as my phone bleeped that I had received a voicemail, it was Sarah. It was muffled but I could hear some semblance of a message between the crackling. ‘Don’t come, I have already started…’ the message was shifting in and out of clarity. ‘I wish we had more time… I’ve got to go… don’t come for me… I love you’. I tried calling back, over and over, pacing up and down reaching her voicemail again and again. I loosened my tie, unclipped my top button, pulled up my sleeves and began to run. People looked panicked as I ran past, as if I was being chased by an invisible entity or perhaps they were scared that I knew something they didn’t. In truth it was the thing I was running towards that I was most scared of. I needed Sarah. I needed her to be alive.
I spotted a minivan down the road, with four bikes strapped to the roof. I hopped a few cars and ripped one out of the roof rack as I became more desperate and more determined. I clambered the bike clumsily and pedalled hard towards Milwaukee. A couple of gunshots rang out across the sky as I looked back and saw the driver stood pistol in hand as I made my way into the night. I’d never been shot at before, and the adrenaline felt a little good. The bike wasn’t as fast as I had hoped but it was quicker than walking. I meandered through the cars and I could see men, women and children, as I cycled past, scratching frantically at their necks with a deep concern for one another. It made me feel itchy, but I brushed it off and told myself it was all psychological and besides, I had no rash or signs of infection.
It had taken almost three hours but I had reached the University of Wisconsin, where Sarah was studying. I jumped from the bike that continued its momentum after I had alighted and slammed firmly into the steps of her dormitory. I ran up. There were bones everywhere. Full bodied skeletons stripped of all muscle and sinew. They were stooped in the hallways, on the beds and in the bathrooms. I could hear the screams of others as they writhed in agony, tearing at their skin. I reached Sarah’s dorm and opened the door. On her roommate’s bed lay a seamless skeleton stretched out, arms in perfect symmetry beside her. It wasn’t Sarah, but how could I tell? I began to wonder if I had already passed her lifeless bones in the hallway, or clambered over her on the stairs. There was no way I could or would ever know. It was nearly two in the morning and I was tired.
I wandered the campus, devoid of hope, and saw a light flickering from inside one of the classrooms. I made my way in. There was a middle aged man with long brown hair, muttering to himself as he threw textbooks onto a fire and fiddled with his glasses. I startled him as I entered. He fidgeted with his glasses once more and brushed his hands on his corduroy trousers as he reached out to welcome me. ‘It’s not of this world’, he confirmed as he invited me to sit beside the fire.
‘What’s not?’ I asked as I hunched down with a cup of coffee that he had passed me.
‘It’s not a virus…they are living things’. He continued muttering and passed me some photographs of scientists and some images from a microscope. I put my coffee down beside my feet and began thumbing through the pictures politely. I didn’t know how he had managed to come by such documents and I didn’t ask. They were something else. There was an image of an infected arm with a microscopic insert showing tiny grey creatures. No eyes, just teeth. They were the size of a flea or a tick, with its skin dull and fish like. There was a chart beside the image, highlighting the creature’s bodily composition, with the words unknown paired with each subject heading.
‘Do you work here?’ I probed hopefully, my only concern being Sarah.
‘I’m afraid not’, he sighed. ‘You can spend the night here if you wish’. He continued gathering textbooks.
‘Paul’, I affirmed as I reached again towards him.
‘Elliott’, he replied with a limp wristed hand shake and carried on with his unusual bustling.
He wasn’t very forthcoming with his answers and wouldn’t know who Sarah was. I doubt he knew who he was. He wanted silence and I let him have it. I couldn’t tell if it was his eccentricities, trauma or some other psychological affliction that dominated his personality. There was no way to determine if he was a conspiracy theorist or some scientist journeying north but, like I said, I was tired and I didn’t mind the company. Perhaps he had a plan. No. It seemed his only plan was keeping the fire burning, at least it was warm. He seemed harmless enough and I was safe enough, for now. I grabbed one of the blankets hanging over the desk and sat leaning against the wall as I watched this strange man gathering those damned text books, twitching and wittering to himself. I kept thinking about Sarah. I still didn’t know if she was alive or dead. I checked my phone, no messages. I tried calling again and reached her voicemail. The last thing I saw was Elliott’s unnerving shadow as he busied himself in the classroom, behind the flickering flames, as I fell into a deep and troubled sleep.
I was jolted awake in the early hours to the smell of burning flesh and muffled screams. I stared across at Elliott, who had his belt gripped firmly between his teeth and his trouser leg rolled up. He had a piece of glowing metal in his hand as he attempted to seal a large gaping wound in his leg. He was infected. Contaminated by the strange extra-terrestrial life he had shown me in his pictures. Who was he?
‘This’ll get rid of the bastards’ he beamed like a mad man through his teeth as he glanced towards me. The introvert man I had met a few hours earlier now seemed to have finally snapped, causing the white in his eyes to widen.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted as I leapt to my feet.
‘They won’t survive the fire… let them burn’ he said, removing the belt from his mouth.
It didn’t work, I watched perturbed as the heat encouraged the multiplication of the invisible creatures inhabiting his body. The gaping wound stretched upwards towards his thigh and past his waist. His eyes glanced down in horror at his dissolving body as it overcame his torso. He clawed frantically at his skin as he tried to prevent the spread as it fizzed through his lungs until one remaining crackle of air left his lips. I watched as his skull began to protrude while the skin surrounding his face began to liquefy. There was nothing left of him. It took merely minutes, he was gone. Now, whatever this was, it was in this room with me.
I turned to run and caught my reflection in the window on the door. It was too late. I stared at the tiny red blisters that began at my neck and arched towards my jaw. I rubbed my fingers along my neck and lifted the fringe of my black hair, probing and examining. I didn’t feel it and had no idea how long I had been infected with this unfamiliar endemic. I studied myself carefully, removed my shirt and checked the rest of my body. It was all over my shoulders and my back. I slumped to the floor, once more against the wall. The fire was still burning, it was still dark. It must have been maybe three or four in the morning. It wasn’t a laughing matter, but I would be lying if I didn’t chuckle to myself as I thought back to Chicago and pictured two corpses side by side in front of a television, getting only static. I’d like to meet the guy whose one final wish on this earth was to go out watching a sixty-inch TV. I coughed as I spluttered blood into the shirt in my hands. I doubt it would be long now.
I reached inside my wallet for a picture of Sarah and sat gazing into those piercing blue eyes. If her message was anything to go by, I guess she was already gone. Perhaps her bones lay in the courtyard gathering dust, I’ll never know. I could see my reflection in her picture as I sat and watched as the bones in my face began to appear through my flesh. I guess in the end, her piercing blue eyes really did see into my soul. In some morose way, it was comforting and I felt something in my heart at least, even though what was left of my humanity was being eaten alive. It wasn’t how I had pictured it, the end. A classroom, a madman’s bones lying in the corner, a fire popping in the dark and a photograph. Nobody knew where they had come from. Maybe they arrived on a solar wind, a meteor or a cloud but it was irrelevant, my time was limited. It was eerily tranquil and I couldn’t hear engines or horns. There were no gunshots, no bustling commuters and no telephone ringing in the night. Complete silence. Just the flickering flames, my reflection and Sarah. The world was getting smaller as the walls closed in and my focus narrowed.
So, as I sat waiting to die, I wondered how many people were left or if there were any survivors at all? Perhaps someone will survive somewhere and escape this carnivorous alien swarm. It might have been too late. Maybe they too have already felt cobwebs dancing on their necks, like a centipede’s legs wriggling upwards through their hair. Could they feel those tiny flea-like creatures dancing over their shoulders? I wondered if anyone else was sat scratching and pulling at their skin as it overtook their brow, their cheeks or their face. Did they have an itch? If I could have left one piece of advice, not that it’s much, it would have been to go north, I knew that heat accelerated the process. Maybe the cool air or an arctic breeze could stop the spread. I doubt it. It might slow it down a little though. Failing that, you could search for that one thing that might make you content before the end. Whether it’s the arms of the woman you love or burying your thoughts in a photograph, it doesn’t matter. Find that one last piece of humanity to hold onto. Hold it tightly. Clutch it firmly in your hands, and don’t let go.
Because… whatever these things are, whether you breathe them in or they crawl through the dirt, they are coming.
Credit To – Ashley J. M. Rushin