Blood trickled down her neck, and the thick walls echoed her shrieks as Jack snatched his daughter up. She put her arms around his neck, sobbing.
He picked his way, holding her tightly in his arms as he moved through the mass of bodies and the blood-slimed floor. Everyone understood what had just taken place—she been infected by a zombie bite. So far, Jared, her young boyfriend, was the only one who dared to go to her side.
As soon as he got his daughter past the massacre, Anna wriggled out of his grasp. She looked at no one. Jack understood why. She’d just been infected, and she was clearly terrified. So was he.
Jack put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Anna, let me see the wound.”
“No!” she shrugged free of his grasp, sprinted into the bathroom, her footsteps contrasting their silence. He heard the click of the lock. Locked in darkness. After all, there was no electricity.
All of them stood in the great hall of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, speechless. As usual, Carla had her gun drawn. Mike and Joe had their blood-soaked rubber gloves on.
Jack’s dark thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Anna sobbing in the dark bathroom. They all listened in silence.
“Maybe we can stop the infection from spreading, somehow stop her from....” Carla’s voice trailed off. Jack didn’t blame her. He couldn’t have finished the sentence either. Not at the moment.
“How do you propose we do that?” Jack asked. His voice sounded angrier than he’d intended. Then again, he had just watched a zombie bite his daughter. Infect his daughter. “Cut off her ear?”
“Well... sort of. We’d have to cut off the blood flow somehow. The ear is mostly cartilage, so....”
Standing there now, as they waited, felt like hours had passed since battling the walking plague, the walking dead. Or, as good as dead, since the infection destroyed what was human in its victims. Turned them into zombies. Literally. Forced to relive his daughter’s attack—her surprised look as the hand of an infected grabbed her leg and pulled her down. Jack watched himself running to her in super slo-mo, as if from outside his body. He almost reached her in time... but almost never counts, except in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Now, Jared was at the restroom door, trying to talk Anna into coming out. If anyone could do it, he could. They were young, and in love. The events over the last ten days or so had convinced Jack of this fact. After all that had happened, he was over worrying about them getting too close.
Anna has been bitten. Those words resounded loudly in Jack’s head, and his heart ached at the thought of her going through what he’d experienced.
The cure, after all, was terrifying.
But at least there was a cure.
Jack repeated that knowledge over and over in his head.
Indeed, experience had shown the group one sure-fire way to reverse the infection. Still, Jack pushed the horrible cure to the back of his mind, to deal with it later.
Jack’s brother, Joe, now threw his gloves aside and slid down the wall next to the office. He drew his knees up and held his head in his hands. His Army buddy, Mike, followed suit. Carla looked up at Jack sympathetically. She loved Anna, he knew. But for now, she crossed the great hall and joined the guys.
Jack’s body felt numb as he walked over to Jared.
“Let me try to talk to Anna,” he said. Only then did Jack see that the boy’s cheeks were streaked with tears. He stepped aside for Jack, who knocked softly. “Anna?”
“Angel? Honey, it’s Dad.”
“Go away,” she answered, weeping.
Jack fought back a parental instinct to order her out of there. Reason, he told himself. She might respond to reason. As if there was anything reasonable about this. As if there was anything reasonable about the world turning upside down within the last ten days. A zombie outbreak had swept the world, along with all the chaos that came with such an event. Lives halted. Torn apart, literally. Yes, normal was a thing of the past.
“Anna, Carla says we might be able to stop the blood flow and....”
“Why don’t you tell Carla to come back after she’s been bitten!”
“Anna, you can’t stay in there. Come out and let me have a look at the wound.”
“No! I’m not coming out. Lock me in here. I don’t want you to see... see me... not like this.”
“Sir,” Jared was back to ‘Sir’ now. He’d just gotten used to calling him Jack.
He didn’t need to say any more. In thanks, or maybe in apology, Jack put his hand on Jared’s shoulder briefly, and walked back to the others.
“Let’s give them a little time. Just a little,” Jack said to Carla.
* * *
The four of them sat behind a podium near the main entrance of Griffith Observatory. It had become our refuge from the insane outside world. Or so they had thought. Last night’s attack from dozens of crazies obviously had proved otherwise. If they were going to find sanctuary here, they would have to sweep the building first. To secure every entryway and take care of those who had succumbed to the infection. Until then, and only then, there would be no respite for the weary.
Jack spoke of this and waited for a reply. Everyone was still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that Anna had been the latest bitten. Doomed to become a zombie!
Mike replied first, changing the subject, as he often did when things became too emotional. “We’ve got radios, right? Walkie-talkies?” He glanced at Carla, the cop. She had been close to being Carla, Jack’s girlfriend. But this ain’t the optimum time for romance.
That can wait, Jack thought. Maybe permanently.
“Yeah.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’ve got some. They’re in the office.”
“Three. There’s another one in my patrol car.”
“We can do with three for now, I think,” Mike said. None of them wanted to go outside, despite the daylight. “How about if Joe and I start a security sweep? We can start from the roof and work our way down. We can share a radio, if we stay together.”
“We’d better stay together. Two by two is a lot safer,” Joe said.
“Carla, can you cover them?” Jack asked.
“Of course, but—”
“Good. Use one of the radios and I’ll stay behind with Anna and Jared.” Jack paused. “I can’t leave Anna alone for a minute. Not now—”
Carla shook her head. “No, Jack. Let me stay behind with her.”
“But I want to be near her in case....”
“I know,” she said softly “But you’re too close to this right now, Jack. Let me stay. You need to find something to take your mind off Anna.”
“I need what? Take my mind off my daughter?!” Jack couldn’t help the icy tone that frosted his words.
Carla raised her hand in peace. “Facing you is probably going to be the most difficult thing for her. I know you’re heartbroken. We all are. But right now, we need to take care of business. And our first priority, for the entire group, is security.”
Jack couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Especially when his brother said, “She’s right, Jack. Let Jared work his magic on Anna. She’ll come out eventually. And those two couldn’t be in better hands than Carla’s right now.”
“I’m her father, goddammit!”
“I know,” said Joe, lowering his tone. “And, I’m her uncle. I’m in no hurry to lose her either. You and I taking care of Anna will be next on the list once we secure the premises.”
* * *
The security sweep took longer than anticipated.
They began on the roof, armed with loaded weapons and padlocks. The roof held more crazies than they’d expected. But the infected were sitting ducks. Shooting them and getting their bodies out of the way took a while. The group was relieved to find the huge telescope escaped damage. Internationally famous, perhaps there would be a use for it again some day. They hoped so.
They closed and padlocked the telescope’s door to keep the smarter zombies from vandalizing it. Then they made their way down through three levels that had once hosted hundreds of visitors daily. Before the outbreak, of course. Now, the only visitors to Griffith Observatory were the undead kind. Jack hated killing, even in the military, but this... this was so alien and absurd. The emotions involved in taking another’s life felt completely different.
The worst aspect of killing zombies was that there was no real chain of command, or support, or anything but flying by the seats of their pants, knowing they could join them at any moment. Completely on their own and reliant on one another. In considering every dire scenario, though, Jack was glad Carla had his back. God, if she became infected, what in the hell would he do?
Drown her, maybe? Or, cure her?... Well, no way in hell I’m losing her. Or Anna. Or anyone else I give a damn about.
During the security sweep, they found a few open windows and doors. Hard to understand how this monumental facility had been left unsecured. Then again, the last security shift was likely frightened away without locking up. Perhaps infected. Jack hated to think they were killing people like them. But, the law of the moment was ‘Kill or be killed’.
And they weren’t people. Not any more.
The world had gone to hell in a hand basket and they were its riders. But while they took down the infected here at the observatory, were they also destroying the brightest minds?
A hand grasped Jack’s shoulder and he whirled around, ready to shoot.
“Whoa, cowboy.” Mike stepped back. “It’s just me.”
Jack lowered his gun. “Sorry.”
“We’re all a little spooked.”
Jack nodded. “I think we’re pretty much done with the sweep.”
They had reached the basement, below the lowest public level. It was pretty dark. The only light shone from the opened doors atop the stairs. They had Carla’s flashlight, but used it sparingly to preserve the batteries.
Mike was soaked with sweat. So was Jack. Joe walked up to them, radio in hand.
“That’s about it,” he said, “Unless you know of any other rooms to check?”
Jack fought to dampen his worried thoughts about Anna, searching his tired brain for any place they hadn’t searched and locked up. “No, I think we secured everything.”
As his brother, Joe could read Jack like a book. He held his eyes for a moment. Jack appreciated his empathy, glad he was with him...and alive.
Joe raised the radio and pressed a button. “Carla?”
“Ten-four.” Her voice was breaking up. The building had thick stone walls, and iron strengthening it throughout. Not conducive to decent conversations by radio.
“Perimeters searched and cleared.” Joe maintained official military lingo.
“All clear here, too,” she answered.
Jack grabbed the radio. “How’s Anna?”
A pause. What did he expect her to say?
“She finally came out of the restroom,” said Carla, sounding hopeful. “Anna is in the office with Jared. Your girl’s a real trooper.”
Joe and Mike trailed behind Jack as he burst into the office.
Jack hadn’t wasted a second, sprinting up the stairs, through the lobby and hallway to get to his daughter. He pictured holding her and telling her everything would be all right.
He stopped short.
Anna was lying on a table, Her eyes were closed and she was covered with jackets for warmth. Jared leaned in next to Jack’s daughter, holding her hand. Seated in the only chair, Carla put a finger to her lips as the men entered the room. Anna shielded her eyes from the daylight brought with them, since up until that moment the door had been slightly ajar.
Not fully sick yet, Jack’s daughter’s brows were knitted together, and her lips parted as she breathed softly. Her eyes, no longer swollen from tears, appeared sunken. Worst of all, Jack couldn’t sense any of Anna’s normal joy of spirit.
Jared didn’t look up. His worried gaze was fixed only on Anna and her misery.
Carla rose from the chair, motioning for the three men to follow her out of the room, again leaving the door ajar. They moved down the hall, to where they could speak freely.
“She’s okay for now,” said Carla. “Jared... he’s great. He won’t give up. And it’s working. He just kept talking, and finally coaxed her out. Of all of us, I think she trusts him the most. So let’s allow him to continue unhindered, if possible. He’s a great caretaker for her.”
Jack was at a loss for words, and he looked back at the room, unable to tear his eyes away from the door still ajar. Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to say something. When Jack didn’t, Joe gave Carla the details of the sweep they had made. She took it all in, likely memorizing details like the good cop she once was. Afterward, dead silence flattened them once again... until Jack couldn’t take it anymore.
“I’ll be back,” he announced, and returned to the office.
He opened the door slowly, softly. Jared looked up at him. “Thank you, son,” Jack said simply. “I’d like to sit with her. Alone. For a few minutes.”
Jared gently loosened his hand from hers and replaced it with Jack’s. Anna didn’t open her eyes as Jared quietly left the room. He was a good kid, understanding a lot at his age, or so it seemed. Although never mentioning a word about his background, parents, etc., seemed downright weird.
Jack leaned closer and stroked his daughter’s hair like he used to when she’d skinned her knee or had a bad dream—those little girl moments seemed so long ago. She turned to him with a wan smile and opened her eyes.