The grunts are thick and guttural. They vibrate across my skin, raising goosebumps along with fear so strong I think I’ll pee on myself. It’s been four days since the first corpse reanimated and bit my mom. The virus spread through the research lab like cream cheese on a hot bagel. Okay, so this isn’t the time for jokes or crazy thoughts about food, but my stomach roars. My last meal was dry Cheerios yesterday morning. I think it’s been a whole day. Time has escaped us.
My younger sister, Chloe, and I are the only ones uninfected. Our goal is to make it to the front gates and into the world where we’ll find help and salvation. But getting there has been crazy hard and now Chloe and I are hiding in a metal cubby. I think the creatures’ sense of smell is masked by the steel. I cross my fingers. At least I hope.
Chloe fidgets beside me. It’s pitch black in here. I reach out and lay my hand on her…knee. It reminds her to be still. She’s probably remembering the dead look in Mom’s eyes when they reopened and no longer saw her daughters but food.
I haven’t had time to mourn. I’ve been part kid, part adult. It’s just as well. I’ve a feeling that once I start crying I’ll never stop. Besides making it out of here alive, my thoughts and instincts are solely on keeping Chloe safe. I’m all she has now.
Something thumps against the cabinet door. Grunts are loud and way to close.
I shut my eyes and pray, although I’ve been doing that for four days and nothing’s gone our way yet. One more time. What can it hurt?
They shuffle pass us.
Chloe squeaks like a damn mouse.
I squeeze her knee.
The moans grow closer again.
Shoot, they heard her.
She whimpers, pushing into me.
Anger swells up in my chest. I know she’s only eleven, but she’s not two. Can’t she just sit still and shut up for ten minutes? It was because of her whining that Mom didn’t notice the beast behind her. The reason Mom’s dead.
Banging resonates around us. This section of the lab is just a few feet from the front door. Only inches away from freedom and we’re trapped.
I kick the steel. What does it matter now? They already know we’re here.
Chloe’s sobs grow louder.
Despite my feelings of helplessness and blame, I wrap an arm around her shoulders and draw her closer.
“It’s okay,” I whisper against her hair but don’t believe my words.
Metal screeches and rips like paper right in front of us. Light seeps in and I can make out their mangled faces. They reach for us.
Chloe screams over and over until my ears want to bleed.
I want to punch her hard to make her stop. But she’s not the enemy, or so I keep reminding myself. I kick at them, the scientists, Mom and Dad’s colleagues, like a wild, caged animal. It’s what I’ve become.
It’s a blur as I react. I mentally pull back, trying to figure a way out of this death sentence. If only we could have five minutes to scramble outside.
I slide open the door to my side less than an inch. They’re surrounding us for sure, but they’re slow and stupid. If I could cause a distraction…
Chloe grabs my arm; her fingernails dig into my flesh.
I turn to swat her away and realize a woman in a red dress has her fingers wrapped around Chloe’s ankle, pulling her closer to her ravenous mouth.
The red dress freezes me.
My breath catches in my chest until spots blind me and everything spins.
“Emma,” Chloe screams.
I snap out of it and realize they have both her legs now. I grab her arms and pull her toward me. As long as none of them bite her or scratch too deeply, she’ll be fine. Mom called it a virus, but all the viruses I’ve had included a stuffy nose and scratchy throat. They never turned me into a monster.
We struggle back and forth with Chloe as the rope in our tug of war game. Then in a flash, she slips from my grip and stares at me. Tears fill her eyes. We both know the inevitable.
I squirm back into the corner. Numb.
Her screams curdle the air.
Then I realize she’s my distraction. I glance at her and whisper, “I’m sorry.”
I slide open the door more and jump out amidst their bulk. On hands and knees I crawl through their open legs and around their denseness. When I reach some free space, I spring to my feet and race toward the door.
“Chloe,” I whisper again, hoping she knows I love her, that she understands there was nothing I could do to help.
There it is. I lunge for the door, turn the locks and push it open. Rancid air greets me and it takes me a moment to adjust to the blazing sunlight. Then I see it. Not salvation but the end of our world. The front of the building is crawling with the same creatures I just lost my family to.
How can this be?
All hope seeps from me and I know what I must do.
I pull the door shut, turn the locks and make my way to the room Chloe and I shared this weekend, while Mom and Dad worked on their miracle cure.
Inside, I grab my iPod and sit at the desk, my back to the door. I take the photo of the four of us from just last month, all smiling and happy, and place it at the top of my desk. I crank up the music’s volume until I can barely stand it, open my book…and wait.
It won’t take long for them to find me. I’m the last one for them to feast on.
Please don’t let it hurt too much. But even as I ask my last prayer, I know it’s useless. The gut-wrenching screams from the past four days are embedded in my skull. This won’t end pretty. I just hope it doesn’t take long.
Someone brushes up against my left arm.
From the corner of my eye, I spot a red skirt.
© 2010, Jennifer Fischetto