There was no gasp, and no lurch upright. Instead, he awoke the way he always did, thoughts condensing like morning dew on glass.
The first thing that hit him was the smell, sharp and harsh as the germs it was meant to kill, that tang of sweat mixed with latex and soap. There was the hiss of machinery, the beeps of a monitor, the murmur of distant conversation… hospital. He was in a hospital.
Without his glasses, things were far away, the world existing beyond a blurry shower door, but he could see that the TV was on, tuned to a 24 hour news network, the assembly of chyrons, talking heads and graphics unmistakable even when out of focus. He looked around for a button to call a nurse, and that’s when he noticed the restraints.
He tugged at them. They were on tight. He frowned, then fumbled for the button mounted on the side of the bed. He pressed one that moved the bed up slightly, and then found the one for the nurse.
He rolled his head to the right to look at what he thought was the nurse’s station, and he saw a shape moving around, wearing mostly blue. Had to be the nurse. They went to the station, and then a voice – a man’s voice – came over the loudspeaker.
“Hello, how’re you feeling?”
He coughed a little. “I’m fine. I’m thirsty.”
“Okay, we’ll get someone in there right away. Just need to make sure they’ll be safe first.”
He frowned, not understanding, but didn’t have the strength to argue. Then he frowned, even further, as he saw the shape at the nurse’s station conversing with someone who was donning a yellow suit. It made the other person look like a school bus.
There was a hiss from somewhere, and then a door opened and shut, and then another door opened and shut. Someone walked towards him through the fog, and waved at him, her features partially obscured by a head-to-toe rubber suit.
“Hi there. How are you feeling?”
“Why are you wearing the, uh…”
The woman had a disarming manner around her. Soothing tone of voice, no sudden movements. Practiced. But a little nervous. “Just to make sure.”
“Well, I’ll answer that question with a question.” Her accent was a little unexpected – Minnesotan, maybe? The suit muffled it. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Think I was eating at McDonald’s.”
“Okay. Do you remember what you had?”
“I had the Happy Meal,” he said, unhappily. “Look, I – what happened to me – “
He reached up, his wrists tugging at the restraints, and she took half a step back. There was a hiss noise. There was a beeping noise. He licked his lips, and before, his mouth was dry, but now, it was barren.
“I had a Mountain Dew. The patty was soggy. I’m sorry. What happened to me?”
“It’s okay. You just got a little sick, is all.”
“Was it E. coli?”
“No, no, it wasn’t flesh eating bacteria. Not really bacteria at all, to be honest.”
“I’m getting a little – ” He tugged, frustrated, at the restraints. “I’m getting a little freaked out. Just – what was it? Am I okay?”
“You’re fine. You’ve recovered. You’re safe now. We’re just taking a few precautions, but you aren’t showing any of the, er, the symptoms anymore.”
“Okay. Okay. Can I – please, can I get some water. Please.”
“Of course. Just a minute.” She withdrew into the fog, and there was the hiss noise, and there was the beep noise, and there was the sound of a sink. There was the whisk-whisk-whisk of a screw cap being tightened, and then she returned, with what looked like a human-sized hamster bottle.
He took a sip from the hamster bottle. It was like tasting gold. He relaxed. He looked up at her, through the visor of her sealed suit and the fog of his poor eyesight. “What was it?”
“We don’t have a name for it yet.”
He nodded, and he sipped some more water. There was the hiss noise. There was the beeping noise. There were questions about his diet, questions about his mental health. Something about people he’d been in contact with, and then, eventually, she left.
He exhaled, confused and alone, and wishing that he had his glasses, or his phone, or someone to talk to, and then he got the latter, as another person in another rubber suit came in to clean the floor. This one was wearing a face mask underneath his visor. He was a black man, his eyes old. He mopped for a few minutes, and then, not breaking stride, he spoke.
“They tell you what you got?”
“No,” he replied.
“Well, I guess that’s my job.”
“What is it?”
He put the mop aside, and stood up straight, eyes looking over the mask and through the visor, down at him. There was the hiss noise. There was the beep noise.
“They don’t have a name just yet, but they have a nickname. You caught, and have recovered from, the zombie virus.”
he heard the groans, and the grunts
everything was a red blur
there were gunshots
there was fear
and he snarled
and thought of nothing, but the kill
He squeezed the trigger slightly, and the head exploded.
It wasn’t a human head; it wasn’t a zombie head. It was the head of a pig they’d gotten from the slaughterhouse, mounted on the firing range in one of their backyards. They’d gotten tired of watermelons and cans and paper targets and wanted to get ready with something a little more real.
Porky Pig, they’d called it, and he was the first one to land a burst directly on it. A trio of hollow point bullets flew forth from the carbine in his hands, the weight and the kick familiar and compensated for. The air was a crisp spring morning, the weekend having arrived and the cares of work absent and yet to return.
Hoots and cheers rose from the others as he smiled, flipping the safety back on and ejecting the magazine, then double-checking to see if the safety was on and the chamber was empty. He turned to them, taking one high five, and then another.
They all had names, but those names were for work; out here they had their other names. There was Raven, who owned this ranch, which made him the de facto money man. There was Corsair, whose gun he’d just fired, and he had a lot more just like it. There was Bishop, who had caught a squirrel the other day, who was going to be the one to keep their stomachs full if it came down to it, and there was skinny little Buzz, who was a crummy shot and not much fun to be around but he mopped the floors at the slaughterhouse so he was the reason Porky Pig had died twice.
Corsair was the last in line. He smiled, and said “ebuluhebuluhebuluh-that’s all, folks,” and everyone laughed.
Buzz went out on the range, to replace the head, because right now he was the only one who could stomach it. The rest of them sat around and talked about everything they always talked about; girls, money, the state of the world (no politics or religion though.)
Raven popped open a diet cola – no booze on the range, and his range, his rules – and looked right at the triggerman who had just gone HAM on Porky Pig. He waved his drink and called him by his name.
“Hawk, when it happens, if it happens?”
He took a swig of cola, and set the can down, and smiled.
“I am gonna be so happy you’re on our side.”
“It was Buzz who ruined it for everyone,” he said, as they took a sample of his blood.
The aides in the rubber suits were impassive, and rarely responded, but he liked to talk to them, and the custodian, the only one who really talked back, was nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t pass the days in silence, and so: he talked.
“By then we were calling him Buzzkill. He was just – he was a real downer. I think it was because his mom was in the hospital and I guess that changes you a little. Anyways, he brought up mosquitoes.” He paused, and winced, as the needle slid into his skin. There was the beep noise. There was the hiss noise.
“He said that if it was transmitted in the blood then all it’d take is one mosquito to drink the blood of one and we’d have a whole bunch of zombie mosquitoes and then we’d all be dead. Said he read about malaria and mosquito nets in Uganda and it really opened his eyes. I mean, we still went out there, but…”
There were some grunts of acknowledgement. He looked down at his arm, and he saw the needle fill with blood. “Ha,” he laughed, at his perfectly timed anecdote.
“Why’d you still go out there?” said the one in the orange suit. There was condensation on her visor, her voice muffled by rubber and plastic.
“Well, you know: it’s fun. That’s what they don’t tell you. Shooting guns is fun. And we figured, even if we weren’t gonna be getting ready for an actual zombie apocalypse, we were learning how to survive on our own. How to make our own clothes, how to chop wood, how to fix a car, how to clean a gun or treat a wound… just, you know. Just in case.”
“Huh.” The aide nodded, her expression unreadable behind the fog, and she went and read one of the machines.
“But I guess that didn’t happen if we got the power for this building, huh.” There was the beep noise. There was the hiss noise. One of the lights overhead flickered, fluorescent tubes that buzzed a little.
None of the other aides responded, and soon, they had their sample. One of them held a cotton pad over the hole in his arm, waiting for a long moment.
“But yeah, that’s why we called him Buzzkill. I didn’t hate him, you know. He had the stomach for shit that I couldn’t even stand, I just wish he…”
He paused; the unspoken words I wish he hadn’t ruined it for the rest of us crouched in the back of his throat. But he thought better of it and said instead, “I wish his mom had done better.”
The one with the gauze over the needle mark nodded, and then lifted the pad and started to wrap a bandage around it. “Just hold it still and it should be closed in a few. We’ll be back to change the dressing.”
“Thanks.” He nodded, as much as he could.
They filed out towards the door, and then, impulsively, he spoke. “I went through all that and I became a zombie anyways. So lucky that I didn’t get shot.”
One of the ones in the rubber suits seemed to pause, for just a second. His glasses were far away, and he could make out little else.
There was the beep noise. There was the hiss noise.
Then a different aide put their hand on the aide’s shoulder, and they filed out.
He watched them go. They shut the door. It was transparent glass, though, and he could still see. He saw them file off to disinfect their suits and climb out of them, and he looked over to the RN station, and…
There was no way to tell. They were wearing a suit, too.
But even with an inch of glass between the two of them, and with security staff and hospital staff everywhere: suddenly, he did not feel safe.
he saw the motion of bodies through the red haze
he heard the groans
he heard the roar of gunfire
and he thought of nothing except the need to kill
“Dude, just pick her.”
He grimaced in annoyance at the character on the screen, who smiled in that way that video game characters smiled, that never looked right. He thumbed the stick, which was a little greasy from the chips, and thought.
“I’m better on damage – “
“You aren’t as good as Bishop and we need a healer. You know how it is; with the new patch, defense is back on top. We need good heals and shields.” Buzzkill was a few feet away, on a different couch, staring at a different screen, a different controller wired to a different console in his hands.
Four of them were in the room, the shades in the cabin drawn, the only light coming from the soft glow of the monitors, that illuminated the ad hoc network that they’d concocted. The consoles were connected in turn to the router, which in turn was talking to a satellite that was ensuring the best possible connection humanly possible.
It was Raven’s idea. I mean, they wanted to get away from it all, but there was getting away and there was being completely cut off, you know? The apocalypse hadn’t happened yet and Raven had satellite internet. And so they’d organized the LAN, and now…
“C’mon. I wanna play McCree.”
“We need Mercy. This is ranked play. Do you wanna win?”
“It’s – “
“Dude, are you seriously waffling because she’s a girl?”
He stared at Buzzkill, and there was a little obtrusive thought. He pictured a gun in his hand – not a video game gun, a real one – and just for a moment, he imagined the look on Buzzkill’s face as he aimed down sights.
Then he looked back at Mercy, at her fake video game smile and her fake video game hair, and he thumbed the X button. “Fine.”
They played for a while. They did okay. They got a little, gave a little. He ran around the others, tethered to them by a healing beam, and he thought about throwing the match – but no, Buzzkill would do what Buzzkill was gonna do whenever he lost, and so, he buckled down and remembered to stay out of sight while they racked up kills and moved the objective.
He got Play of the Game for healing three at once, which made his mood sour even more.
He tapped the B button twice and then stood from the couch. “I’m gonna get something to eat.”
“We got food in the fridge – “
“I’m in the mood for a shitty McDonald’s burger.”
Buzzkill thought for a moment, and then stood up as well. “Yeah, so am I. I’ll go with.”
He grabbed his keys and his jacket from the door and emerged into the summer air. It was muggy from fresh rainfall, condensation on the glass of the truck as he walked towards it, the gun rack on the back, the bumper stickers on the rear pane and the tailgate.
He popped the door open and hopped in, and so did Buzzkill. He turned over the engine, and then…
“Ah, shit.” He smacked the side of his neck.
Then he looked down at the mangled mosquito in his palm, fingers slightly smeared with blood.
“Hey,” he said, and Buzzkill looked at him.
He smirked, showing his palm to Buzzkill, a thin trickle of blood running down the side of his neck.
“It’s your worst enemy.”
they were everywhere
he saw their eyes
he heard the roar of gunfire
and he knew that they had to die
It was the middle of the night, and there was the beep noise, and there was the hiss noise. The lights were down low, and he tried to sleep, but couldn’t.
He thought back to the ranch.
He wondered if they were all still there. If anyone had survived, it would be them, otherwise what was the point of all that preparation? He thought of Buzzkill, who was annoying and wormy but he wasn’t so bad. He’d made up the cards that they carried that denoted their right to carry openly in the state, even at McDonald’s. He remembered the weight on his back as they’d walked in, rifle strap digging into his shoulder, and then…
He frowned, in the dark. What came next?
He dreamed of it, surrounded by a horde of other infected, guns firing, and for the first time he was thankful that Buzzkill was such a bad shot. Otherwise, he’d be dead, instead of…
He didn’t know what came next.
Not just in the memory; he didn’t know what they were going to do. The zombies had come, they had finally come, and life had just gone on. The virus or whatever it was ran its course, and then you went back to normal. No wandering the wasteland, depending on your wits to survive, shooting the walking dead…
Which weren’t even dead. He didn’t feel dead.
He thought of the gun range, so many slugs flung down field by their rifles, and he closed his eyes and imagined them dug in, defending against ravenous infectious zombies, people who’d recover given… well, however long it had taken him. They wouldn’t know. They couldn’t know.
Well, they had to do what it took to survive. Right?
There was the beep noise, and there was the hiss noise, and there were no answers in his thoughts. So he closed his eyes again, trying to drift off, and let his thoughts settle and rest.
“Wake the fuck up.”
He stirred, slowly, as he always did, and he was back in the room. He looked up, and there was someone in a rubber suit, and for a moment, he wondered who it was. But that voice – he knew that voice. It was the custodian.
“What time is it – “
“Late. Real late. Graveyard shift. They say you’re stable so they aren’t watching you 24/7. RN went to get food. So it’s just you and me, ‘Hawk.'”
He moved his arms, and remembered the restraints, and suddenly felt very, very nervous. There was the beep noise. There was the hiss noise.
“Heard what you said. Those folks, they were nurses, they have a duty of care. So, when you said what you said, they bit down and got on with their jobs. But me, I have a duty to making sure that the floors are clean and disinfected, and I just finished doing that, so I’m on break. So I don’t have to bite down on shit.”
He began to inhale, to scream, to shout for help, and then the custodian held up a needle. “This is bleach.”
He froze, and then he followed the custodian’s gaze over to the intravenous solution that was keeping him fed, and then he looked back to the custodian, who held up a finger to his visor, where his lips would be.
“Look, they – if I have to stay until they’re sure I won’t infect anyone I’ll do it. I don’t want to hurt anyone – “
The custodian spat the words out like they were a lump of dogshit in his mouth. They stopped him mid-sentence.
“Fuck you,” he repeated himself. “Yeah, you didn’t want to hurt anybody, that’s why you learned how to shoot the kind of gun that kills people instead of deer. And you had this fantasy about shooting it at people who didn’t have a gun or a rocket launcher or anything more dangerous than teeth. They’re ‘zombies’ though. Guess that’s all right.”
He didn’t say a thing. He had decided that men with needles full of bleach could say whatever they wanted to say.
“Tell me how the zombie virus works,” said the custodian, after a long moment.
“Uh, you – you get bitten by a zombie, you turn into one, and then if you bite another – “
“Oh, God.” The custodian chuckled, and shook his head, and lowered the needle. He looked at the man strapped to the bed and then laughed even harder.
In the midst of the laughter, there was the beep noise, and there was the hiss noise, and then, the custodian turned his attention back to the man strapped to the bed. “They were not kidding. They really kept you completely in the dark.”
He didn’t say a word, as the custodian looked up and down the man’s body.
“You were not a zombie.”
He blinked, and he felt his throat go dry.
“But then – why – “
“The zombie virus doesn’t make you a zombie.” The custodian put a hand on the railing on the side of the bed, and through a foggy visor, locked eyes with him.
“The zombie virus makes you think everyone else is a zombie.”
They were everywhere. They surrounded him.
He saw them groan, and grunt, and snarl at him through the red haze.
He raised his gun, and looked at Buzzkill, his humanity lost forever, dead milky eyes staring at him widely, his voice reduced to the moan of the dead.
And he thought, as he thumbed off the safety, as he gave the trigger a gentle hug, as he felt the thump-thump-thump of the stock punching into his shoulder, as he swung the rifle around and fired off practiced three-round bursts into every zombie head he could see, he thought:
“I have to survive.”
“I have to kill them to survive.”
The custodian nodded, as the patient wriggled, the red haze lifting from his memories, as he remembered exactly how Buzzkill had looked – how he’d really looked – when he saw his friend raise the gun.
“How… how many people did I…”
And the custodian, who had no duty of care, who had no obligation to see to the well-being of a patient, did the worst thing humanly possible: he told him.
There was the beep noise.
There was the hiss noise.
And there was his scream, so loud he felt his throat crack.
The custodian was long gone by the time they found the body.
No one had a clue how he’d managed to get a syringe, or how he’d gotten his hands free, or why he, using the sharp tip of the needle, dragged a ragged red trail down his wrist. No one knew why there was about a needle’s worth of tap water in a puddle next to the bed, either.
But there were no signs of a struggle, and so, they concluded that it was just like how it looked: a case of suicide brought on by the guilt. Faulty restraints not carefully checked. RNs were reprimanded, but not too harshly; one of them had a son who’d worked at McDonald’s.
The good news is that his antibodies were preserved, so they could work on a vaccine or a counter-agent. But it was mosquito season, and cases were doubling every ten days. Repellent was sold out everywhere. Some were up to $150 on eBay.
The registered nurses and the doctors and the rest of the hospital staff – less one custodian – saw no course but to dig in and ride it out as best as they could. Public health officials issued statements of what to do with an infected person. How long they needed to wait; how to safely restrain and feed them; what areas of the country were best avoided since they were deep into mosquito season.
And due to how one of the most infamous cases had played out, one such public health official had suggested that it might be a good idea to lock up all firearms, knives and other lethal weapons for the time being.
The public health official who suggested that was fired the next day.