“Contamination. Chaos. Cannibalism.”
If I had to describe in just three words what my life had become, those would be the ones. But it wasn’t me who just spoke them. It was Carla the Cop, my almost-girlfriend.
“It’s turning into a plague,” she added.
Just a few days ago, my life had been normal.
I had been fairly happy just working as a park ranger, parenting my fourteen-year-old daughter, and enjoying the relative simplicity of my routine existence.
Then all hell had broken loose. Literally.
“The infected. The crazed. The abominable,” said my brother’s friend, Mike, his words reaching me as if from a great distance. Also, I realized he was talking about me, too.
It was true. Because I was one of them.
The wretched course of my infection was the most horrifying thing I’d ever experienced. God, I was so sick that I was starting to not care if I kept my sanity—or even my life. Yes, if not for my daughter—who was the center of my universe—I would have had much darker thoughts than the ones that currently plagued me.
A plague. Yes. That’s what this was turning into. One thing the infection did for me was jolt me out of my own small and perhaps selfish existence to consider the big picture.
“It’s a global threat to humanity,” Carla continued.
I nodded, but felt unable to vocalize actual words. And that very much scared me.
My brother and his friend—both lieutenant commanders in the United States Navy—had unwittingly brought the infection to my house. They were two of just a handful of people who had come in contact with mysterious meteors that had crashed from the heavens. They’d become so sick and irrational that I’d had to imprison them in my cellar—for their own safety, as well as mine and my daughter’s.
I still didn’t know if their forced captivity was right or wrong, but I’d justified my own actions as drastic steps that I had taken to protect my brother from those who were looking for him, and to stop the infection from spreading.
“Apparently, we will all get our turns to play judge, jury and executioner,” Mike said. He looked at me for a moment, as if he wondered if what he was saying was registering with me.
I nodded. Above all, I had to protect my daughter, Anna. She was my life, and my reason for living. She was what I was fighting for, even now, in my sickness.
I tried to say my daughter’s name and it came out as, “Ah-ah.” I tried again, and gave up. I was so sick. So very sick.
Anna wiped my brow. She was acting so brave. But I saw the tears shimmering in her eyes.
Mike continued, “Accounts of these same symptoms appearing in people exposed to the meteors were followed by actual cannibalism—this was reported at international locations where these meteors landed. People who came in contact with the rocks developed symptoms. Like mine and now, his.” Mike gave me a sharp look.
“It’s like a freaking monster movie exploded in Los Angeles,” Jared said.
“You mean the world,” said Anna.
Sadly, I knew it was just a matter of time before I, too, became a monster.
“I may be a bit of a science geek,” Anna continued, “but has anyone noticed that no women have been reported to be infected?”
Her comment caused a lot of eyebrows to be raised. Not mine, of course, as I was doing all I could to remain sane. Carla was the first to respond, “Wow,” said Carla. “Nice catch. What are your thoughts about this, Anna?”
“Well, what if—because of the differences in our physiology or emotional makeup from men—women might be immune to the infection?”
“Interesting speculation,” Mike said. “We have discreetly found out that people all over the world are becoming infected, but you’re right, every victim, that we know of, has been male. At least the ones that we know of who are eating other humans and infecting others, and who are, we assume, multiplying this unprecedented catastrophe.”
I was now having some trouble following the conversation. During this period of my sickness, I had no idea to what extent I would lose my ability to discern right from wrong. Truth was, no one knew what to expect from this outbreak. Perhaps the military knew more, perhaps the Agents in Black. Perhaps no one would ever completely comprehend the far-reaching consequences of what had happened...or was about to happen.
“You’re being very quiet, Jack. How are you doing?” I heard Carla say, an edge of concern in her voice.
I still knew that I was Jack, only I didn’t want her to know just how sick I felt. So I didn’t reply.
As I agonized over what had happened and worried about what was to come, I sat with them at the kitchen table in the Los Feliz house where I sometimes lived, a place that was usually full of warmth and memories of good times for Anna and me.
“Jack?” I heard my name again as if from far away, like an echo, and recognized where I was. But I felt feverish, drugged.
I tried to focus on my hazy surroundings, to not let familiar recede from my recognition. We were in a beautiful, old Spanish-style house, set back from the street and overlooking Los Angeles. The faint creamy-pink color stucco home had been lovingly crafted with arched wooden doors and Mexican-tiled halls throughout and a terracotta tile roof where doves nested under the eaves and cooed in the mornings. The house wasn’t mine, not in my name, and that was a good thing. Otherwise, I would most certainly have been found by now, and perhaps wiped off the face of the earth by the Agents in Black.
“Earth to Jack,” Mike said. “Come in, please.”
“Snap out of it, Jack!” Carla said.
I sat with my elbows on the table, my head buried in my hands, and tried to concentrate on the conversation unfolding around me. My daughter, Anna, sat next to me, along with her boyfriend, Jared, my good friend Carla the cop across from me, and finally, Mike to my right.
Mike had been infected along with my brother Joe and I had ended up drowning him. Yes, drowning him. Mike, of course, had survived that drowning and for the first time since he was infected, he seemed normal, hopefully cured. He now showed no symptoms of the illness. So the general consensus was that I would have to be drowned, too, if I wanted to save my sanity. And my life.
Jesus, what an option. A horrible, shitty option.
I moaned and held up my hand for them to see.
“Look at that! It’s getting worse,” Anna said and got a package of frozen peas from the freezer and laid it on my hand. “Maybe this will help.”
The pain in my hand was excruciating, but I didn’t really care. I contemplated the bluish veins creeping up from my hand to my arm, probably toward my heart. I didn’t care. My head ached, my body ached, and I was hungry. I was very, very angry. Mostly, I strove for emotional control.
“We’re losing him,” Jared said from seemingly afar.
“No, he’ll be okay,” Anna replied, equally far away.
As far as I knew, my brother Joe, who had been infected along with Mike, was still out there somewhere, getting sicker, but gaining the enormous physical strength the infection presented after a period of severe illness, all while slowly going insane. Before Mike was “cured,” he had actually been obsessed with feeding on human flesh.
All of these thoughts went through my feverish mind in a haze. I tried to keep focused, to keep caring. I cared, but I didn’t care, too.
I wanted so desperately to keep my daughter safe. And I cared for Carla, too. Who else? Jared, and even Mike, although just hours ago, he’d wanted to kill Anna. And, of course, I cared for my little brother, Joey.
I didn’t know what to do and I was so sick that I almost didn’t give a damn. Almost. But I had to give a damn. God, I wanted to live, but at the same time, I was losing...interest.
“Dad, I’m counting on you to keep it together,” Anna said. “We all are.”
I tried to hang onto that more than anything else.
“Jack, are you hungry?” Carla asked.
I nodded. The growing fatigue, I knew, could only be cured by feeding. Feeding on...human flesh. To be more specific, gray matter. Brains.
Lord help me.
“Want an ice cream sandwich?” Anna asked me. “We have lots.”
I shook my head, gathered my thoughts. Or tried to. Mostly, my thoughts were on the gray stuff. I looked absently down at my hand. It had been cut a couple of days ago by a punch I’d delivered to my own brother. I was guessing this infection, or disease, was spread through blood contact. I didn’t even want to risk touching anyone.
Mike was absolutely convinced he was cured. That meant...what? I couldn’t remember.
“Hey, bro, come back to us,” Mike said. His voice came from so far away.
“You got better,” I heard Anna say to Mike. “Does he have to get better the same way?”
“I’m fresh out of alternate ideas,” Mike replied and Anna gave a little cry. She could have been weeping from atop one of the distant hills behind us, she sounded so far away.
The voices continued, all sounding distant, hollow, empty. At least, to my ears.
“Let’s weigh our options,” said Carla, “and be very cautious with our actions.”
“I can’t bear this,” my daughter said. Jared, her boyfriend, held her hand tightly.
I could barely pay attention to the conversation. My head ached so viciously that I couldn’t think of much else but the thump-thump of it all.
I’m fucked, I thought.
I was also thirsty as hell but could no longer drink any form of liquid. I vaguely realized that I should be seriously dehydrated by now. Most of all, my hand hurt like someone was driving a railroad spike through it, although the cold pack had alleviated some of the pain.
I looked at Carla and reason left my mind. I wanted her. Not sexually. I wanted to taste her. Taste her skin, her blood...her brain...I shook my head again. I decisively glanced the other way, out the window and into the night, but only saw my reflection in the kitchen window. My own face looked desperate, haunted, and a shadow of my former self. I might have even had drool at the corners of my mouth.
“Dad, are you even listening to us?” Anna’s voice brought me back.
I forced my mind back into the conversation and turned my face her way.
Daddy, she called me Daddy, I thought to myself. Like when she was little.
“What?” I asked blankly, forcing myself to cough up a one-word answer. Except it came out like a growl. I’m a monster.
“Mike says we should contact Uncle Joe,” she said. Her eyes fell on mine with growing concern.
“Okay,” I said simply. Was that the right word? My mind was wandering again, leaving logic behind. All I could think of was the smell of humans, and the hunger that raged within me.
Anna was sitting next to me. I could smell my daughter’s scent, and in a perverse way, I wanted it. Can’t be right, I told myself. She’s your daughter, for Christ’s sake. But my hand, my good hand, reached out and pawed her. She shrank back, startled.
Jared jumped up and pulled her back. Carla took no chances. She switched into cop mode, jumped up and twisted my arm behind my back. I cried out in pain. It was my infected arm! But she didn’t release me.
“What are you doing?” she barked, not backing down, not one bit.
I tried to apologize but my throat and lips couldn’t form the words. I could still think but I was unable to articulate. It was maddening and more frightening than the pain in my arm. I had lost the ability to communicate with words, a basic human function.
Once again, I desperately tried to gather my thoughts. I loved my daughter with all my heart, more than anything or anyone in the world. How could I have wanted to hurt her?
God, I am going insane.
Carla squinted at me, clear intent in her eyes that I had crossed some line. She knew, damn her. She knew.
In the next instant, I felt rage for Carla, who had been nothing but good to me through all of this. I lunged at her. I didn’t care about the pain in my twisted arm. I wanted her to leave me alone, and at the same time, I wanted to taste her flesh. I turned and lunged at her, my mouth wide open.
Carla immediately cold-cocked me with her handgun.
I slowly came back into consciousness.
My eyes were still closed, but I could feel that I was lying on hard, cold cement that did cool the back of my head a little. I turned on my side. I didn’t care where I was. I just wanted my face to feel the same cool relief. It felt good, the only part of my body or mind that was soothed.
The smell of the cellar and the darkness came to me slowly. My right hand hurt like hell, and I realized my left hand was chained to one of the beams.
I was hazy but I managed to sit up and look around. Where was I? You’re locked in the cellar. Why? I tried to concentrate but my mind wasn’t cooperating. Think, Jack.
The last thing I remembered was sitting with everyone at the table, listening to them all trying to figure something out. A cure. Because I was sick. I wasn’t sick, I was just hungry. I tugged at my cuffed hand. Carla must have done it.
God, my head was on fire. What was going on? My hand hurt, too. I tried to rub it, but my other hand was chained, too. So I settled with rubbing the inflamed hand on my jeans.
Struggling now to concentrate, I recalled something about Mike. He had been cured, apparently. How? By drowning? Sweet Jesus. Anna had come up with this idea. I remembered looking at her with an insane lust for feeding. I remembered Carla restraining me. Damn Carla.
No, I tried to reason, Carla was good. Wasn’t she? She’d saved me from hurting Anna, who was the center of my existence. I was in the wrong. But my rage at being confined overtook me and I pitched forward to get free. I felt a sharp pain in my shackled hand, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. I was hungry.