by Chris Castle
He awoke to find a white place; white ceilings, white sheets, white walls. It looked as if he had been contained inside a blizzard. Slowly, he drew up from the bed, wrapped in sheets, feeling immersed in the blankness all around. Slow, slow, slow, he drew the confines of the sheet back and turned sideways to let his legs drop over the sides. He noticed his skin was almost as pale as the white all around him. If not for the hair on his calves, he could have lost himself amongst the white. Carefully, he unhooked the tubes that were feeding into his arms. A bandage was wrapped around his forearm but he kept it in place-the area still felt tender, as if freshly damaged. He took a deep breath, fully awake and thinking how he no longer lived, but was alive.
Name: Clint Easter. He held the board pinned to the end of the bed and read his own life back in a quiet muttering voice. The details were all written clearly; blood type, age, details, details but not what he needed to know. His identity seeped back into his mind as it un-fogged; memories of childhood, family, friends. Bits and pieces of his history assimilated and filed back into his brain, from a fall aged seven, to a kiss, as recent as a year ago. All the small moments that made up a life. It took him a moment to realise that was his own saying, a motto and philosophy he had lived by as an adult. All the bits and pieces neatly collating inside his head, save for one thing: what was he doing here and what was wrong with him?
Dressed in clothes that no longer sat right on his body, Clint walked over to the door and braced himself for it to be locked. The idea of being trapped was so inevitable that when the door swung open with his weight, he fell forward, creating something of a pratfall as he lurched out into the corridor. He squinted against the light and blinked until his eyes no longer snapped shut. No horrible scenario lay in front of him; there were no stacks of bodies, no rivers of flesh. The corridor was sterile, yet flecked with something harsher; dust, or perhaps ash, that made it seem unclean for all its hospital orderliness. Clint walked down the corridor, his shoes making crunching noises against the scuffed floors and the feeling of something bad having happened here and then being removed, erased, would not leave his mind.
The rest of the hospital was in a similar state; giving an impression of respectability while not quite masking the damage done underneath the surface. He scavenged what sealed food he could find and used the nearest bathroom. The toilet did not flush although the tap water ran and he wondered if that was a quirk or something of more significance. The water felt good against his skin and he stared at the reflection in the mirror with a mixture of fear and confusion; nothing was damaged or cored out from the surface, though there was no denying how hollow and scooped out he appeared; something like a corpse kept presentable through puppeteer’s strings.
As he reached the main reception of the hospital, Clint felt the nothingness of being alone in a large building for the first time. It was not so much a wave of panic as low, thrumming fear. Twice he looked round anxiously, imagining phantom footsteps and finding only vast space. Without people, the building’s accessories, chairs, desks, even the fire extinguishers, looked warped and somehow garish, sending a burst of shivers across the width of his collar bone, his shoulders. He squatted and studied the floor, looking for the slightest hint of human existence, a dropped penny, an ear piece from a phone. Nothing, save for the skim of ash/dust, almost thick enough collect with a trowel. A thought occurred to him, his first original, pure notion since waking, and he turned to run up the steps to the second tier, the third. He kept on running, unsatisfied with his viewpoint until he reached the fifth floor concourse. As he peered over, Clint gripped the steel railings for balance and looked down to the reception. His footsteps had left a trail around the word spelled out from the dust, so instead of simply reading the word on its own, it now had grammar added:
Clint stepped out onto the street, a thin paper medical mask over his mouth and nose, feeling simultaneously comforting and ridiculous. His body coiled, braced for Armageddon and finding great swathes of more nothingness. A single car had been over turned but except for that one anomaly it felt much like any other pre-dawn moment in the city. The windows of each building were smashed and the contents of each shop emptied but again rather than conjuring up despair, it instead created areas of space. Rather than look bereft, the city looked more expansive, as if all the junk and that had been eliminated and only the shell itself remained. It took him a few seconds to realize how faintly beautiful the streets looked stripped back. It reminded him of the day after the riots, when he had wandered through the simmering back streets; in amongst the carnage of the burnt out cars and broken windows. Then too, he had been stricken by how beautiful the chaos was in its aftermath.
After checking for newspapers and wandering around for anything of use, a coat or perhaps more food, Clint saw something appear on the horizon. As it veered closer, he realized it was a person on a bike, a push bike, who seemed to be peddling incredibly fast and wobbling from left to right with a studied madness that suggested a plan. Clint raised his arms and tried to flag the cyclist down. As it drew nearer, he was surprised by how loud even a small noise, such as tires on concrete, could be elevated in an empty street.
“Hey!” the girl said, abruptly coming to a stop a few from Clint. “Pleased to meet you! I’m Annabel Craig. You look like you’ve just woken up.” Her voice was crisp and clear, even though her eyes were wild and roaming. She had a coherency and speed that suggested drugs, even though her face was model-beautiful and clear of any blemishes of telltale signs. Slung over her back was a crossbow, which she made no allusions to having, as if it just happened to be there by accident.
“I have,” he replied and waited for a surprised reaction that never came. Instead, she nodded, as if that was not much of a surprise at all. She squinted, as if trying to place him and then dismissed the idea.
“I have a rule. It’s called sixty seconds friendships. It’s the time I allow to make and break friendships. It’s on account of the chance of infection and then either being turned or death and all the rest of it.” She shrugged and offered up a beatific smile to Clint. Before he could reply, she drew up a finger and wagged it from side to side, like a metronome on a grandfather clock.
“It was nice meeting you but I have to move on now. If you don’t find high ground or cover in the next few minutes, they’re going to get you. Even though we’ve only just met, I wouldn’t want you to die. Bye!” She waved once with a flourish and then pushed back off the side of the road, veering unevenly, accumulating speed until she at last ducked around a corner.
Before he had time to process what had just happened, a big sticky patch of shadow appeared on the horizon, following the same path as the cyclist. He guessed it was a tank by the steady thumping grind and sway of the movement but then saw a part of the dark shadow splinter away and then re-attach itself to the main form. It was a group of people, he realized, as they moved closer into his sight line. Clint instinctively stepped into the cover of a broken kiosk to stay out of sight, believing the cyclist without really knowing why, and stared harder at the mass coming down the street.
He didn’t feel the wave of absolute fear he imagined must come attached to understanding what was in front of him was not a reel from a horror movie but real life. No, instead, he felt a low, keen sense of dread that came from the fact that a part of his brain, buried amongst the un-spooled mess of the temporary amnesia, had known something like this had to be the truth, the reason, for the city, the world, being in this state all along. He wondered how everyone else must have reacted when this had begun - his sister, his best friend Coley, even the people he had worked with - and felt a ripple of guilt for not being there to protect the people he loved at the time when the crisis broke. They were all dead now, another, harsher, cooler part of him cooed. Somehow, he knew all the people in his life, the few precious souls he had taken into his heart and been loved in return, had not allowed themselves to enter into the same state as the mob bunched and shambling towards him now. An inner confidence in his soul told him they had chosen to not become a mockery, but had instead fought.
After running into a nearby building and getting out onto the roof, Clint looked back out to watch them shuffle down the road. At a distance they did not look so much terrifying as farcical, like a bunch of late night revelers staggering back from the inner parts of the city. One even fell to the floor and the others did nothing, not waiting or offering help instead, it simply crawled on its belly after the crowd, losing pace but not straying off course at all, determined to follow the aimless herd of cattle.
He followed them.
After the adrenaline buzz of the first few minutes, Clint calmed down, moving steadily, careful not to get caught but strangely confident that there was little risk from the pack. As he glided down the back alleys, there was no sense of threat from anything jumping out or a surprise attack. The deeper he got to the center of the city, the denser the destruction; more vehicles were strewn in the roads, the more intense the damage to the shops, the houses. The slow burning remains violence escalated.
Other packs converged in the square and one or two seemed to mingle, rubbing foreheads in a way to suggest communication. Clint studied them, the leaders, to see if they were in some way more advanced, but nothing suggested a difference; the rate of decay was the same, the fumbling movement a mirror image of the rest of them. He wondered how such a lump of bodies could seemingly be in control of a major city until a new, startling thought hit home; it was not that they were in control, as much as they were what was left. As they dragged along, Clint imagined helicopters and private jets, limos and armor plated cars, taking some to safety and leaving everyone else in the slipstream. A fresh wave of rage plumed over him, making his skin itch and something else, too; frustration at not being able to recall any of it, his memory smeared when it came to anything relating the current, crippling events. Lost in his thoughts, Clint kicked over a bottle, shattering it, and the nearby mob, already gazing halfway in his direction, caught sight of him.
If it had not been for the sudden burst of noise, he would have run. His feet rocking, Clint had readied to sprint when a sudden, low murmur seemed to spread through the air like a roar, stopping him mid-flight. Each of them, rather than attempt to hunt, seemed to lollop backwards, as if hit by a gale and it took him a moment to register that they appeared to be in shock. The moan that followed was nothing like a clarion call or a ravenous call to arms, but something lower, almost soft, gentle and appreciative. The noise carried, chiming through the square, settling all around, like a new-world version of the constant traffic noise of old. Clint stared at them and saw each eye flicker with some sort of dull recognition, as if they knew something about him, identified with him somehow…
It sounded like a prayer.
At first Clint flinched, bracing himself for some form of attack. Although he was a good few hundred feet away, he had no idea how they hunted; but this was something else entirely. One by one, they shifted awkwardly, almost as if they were trying on some invisible smock, wrenching their shoulders and rotating their arms in the fetid air. It looked obscene at first, part suggestive, part crippled, until he understood: they were bowing in-front of him. Once one had succeeded, the rest followed its jerky movements, worshipping him in unison. Almost subliminally, Clint dragged the medical mask from his face and a fresh wave of moans filled the air. Somewhere buried in the distance, a brief scream punctured the noise and somehow, he tallied it with the perky chaos sounds of the cycling girl, Annabel, that he had met briefly. Not knowing what to do, Clint turned and ducked back into the darkness of the alleyways. He wondered why Annabel screamed; she must have been aware of the mob well before this point. A chill ran through him as a voice in him suggested something else, something somehow even more troubling: the scream came because she's realized why she recognized your face.
He found his sister’s home. At first, Clint had trouble placing it; without the hubbub of traffic and people, the row of houses looked unreal, quaint to the point of parody. As he jogged closer, something else jibed in him, increasing the sense of unreality that this was, indeed, his sister’s house. The front of it was daubed in every kind of graffiti imaginable and the bricks themselves were splashed in everything from red paint to feces. The rational part of his brain understood that the only reason the place was left standing and not turned to the ground was because it was serving as some sort of dark statement. His heart throbbed as he stepped up to the front door, the low, dumb chorus of chanting still present in the air and clinging to his ears.
The messages written on the walls were the type of things reserved for murderers and boogiemen. Instinctively, he knew none of it was aimed at his sister, that she was merely guilty through association. His name flashed in bright luminous letters on the kitchen wall, his favorite place to spend time with his sister, followed by filthy epitaphs and a very small, very clear message that he was responsible for death. Not specifically one person; instead, he was simply Death personified. As he took the stairs and reached the bedroom, he already knew what he would find, but forced himself to locate her body, out of some sort of warped sense of duty. The body remained untouched, a warning, or perhaps an example for those left.
He walked back out and headed back to the humming chant of the square. The shock of finding his sister brought the first seeds of truth of his repressed memories, as they began to drip-drip back into his mind. It was almost as if they were filtering themselves in small doses to stop his mind from breaking in one long horrific snap. Instead, he was feeding himself insanity through incremental stages. As he turned back into the square, he saw more of them had amassed now, the square filling with the ripe and the unclean, none of them capable of breath or thought but each of them assembling in his honor. He found a place, elevated enough to almost be on a stage and stood before them all. It was a platform that made him available to them and, as if on cue, the moan rose up another notch; a long un-dead sound as dense as a plane’s engine in full flight.
The truth, in snapshots: the hospital room that was in fact, a quarantine bay. The dust of the hospital floor; ashes of those eradicated once they had come into contact with him; the scream of sixty-second Annabel after she had identified him. His sister, sacrificed for being of the same family as the modern day monster. The mob, not attacking but praising him, all eyes drawn to the bandage which barely masked fleshy scar that had given birth to each and every one of them. Clint accepting, now, how his own bloodstream pulsed with recognition, with solidarity, when they bowed before him. He was the father to them all and his tainted, damaged blood ran through each accursed son and every twisted daughter.
Patient Zero, Clint Easter: The Man Who Killed the World.
He slowly unraveled the bandage and as it tumbled away, the wild gash marks of the wound, the bites were still fresh and as clear as the day he became infected. Infected but not turned. The first and only man to survive the initial wave of attacks but condemn the rest of the world to the fate laid out before him now. He was a walking antidote that had, in fact, triggered the slaughter and conversion of untold millions, through some, unknown glitch in his genes. He drew up his hand and offered up the sight of the wound to the gathered and the wail increased tenfold, to swell into something ear-shattering.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at email@example.com. Chris’s has become a regular contributor to our journal. story, his story Grid, appears in the January 2013 issue of HelloHorror, his story, Slumber, appears in the April 2013 issue of HelloHorror and his story Last House on Vector Street appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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