Matt stood in the clearing, shivering with cold, though the night was warm. The air was thick with the smell of pine needles and fresh grass. He wondered what things he’d miss most of Earth, once he was gone. Would it be friends and family, or simple things: fresh air, blue sky, beaches?
He took out the knife and started cutting one of the unmarked trees, praying he only had to do it once or twice. There had been so many close calls with Steph. I’m so sorry, Steph. Please forgive me.
A leaf crackled, somewhere from back the way he came. What was that? Paranoia. You’re losing it, man. Just get out of here, someplace you can’t get infected, you’ll be alright. He finished the carving of the door and started on the key hole, and then heard a twig snap. He froze, edged his head around the trunk of the tree and stared into the darkness. There was someone there, a large person picking his way through the undergrowth, trying to be quiet. Jordan.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Jordan himself stepped forward into the moonlight. His skin was a network of black veins. He wasn’t smiling but his eyes were alight with excitement. The same kind you might see in a cat’s eyes as it crouched, tail slowing flicking one way and the other, watching a mouse.
There was no time to finish the door and jump through, and Matt had no keys for any of the other doors. He stood up. He felt cold as ice.
‘You can run, if you want,’ Jordan said.
He didn’t run; there was nowhere to go – or at least, nowhere he could get to quickly enough. Jordan barely looked like himself any more. Gone was the thick Greek boy with dark circles under his eyes. This was an animal with the mind of a demon, lean muscles, black scarred skin, all seeing eyes and teeth sharp enough to crush stone.
‘You’re a monster,’ Matt said.
Jordan came a little closer and then raked his claws idly down one of the trees. It was the same one Brian and Elyse were inside now, if that world still existed at all. ‘Yeah? I wonder who did that to me?’
‘It’s not our fault. It’s a parasite. Brian had it too. My family have it.’
‘I wonder who gave it to them?’ Jordan said in the same flat voice.
‘No one. It just… came through. You wouldn’t hate us if we gave you a cold or something, would you?’ Why was it so hard to talk, to formulate thoughts? A frantic voice screamed over and over: Think of something! Think of something now!
Jordan’s mouth twitched a little, as if he was about to smile. He stepped over a thick tree root. ‘This,’ he took another step. ‘Is not. A fucking COLD!’
He lunged with the last word, but Matt had known from the first that this was it – that the fight for his life had begun – and he was already rolling over uneven ground, scrambling to get balance, screaming as loud as he could. The neighbourhood was filled with the infected – surely they wouldn’t miss a chance for some pain. He knew, of course, that it was a fifty fifty toss up whether it would be he or Jordan they’d tear to pieces, but they were the best odds he could get.
Six steps, dodging through the trees, hardly able to believe he’d got this far, and two heavy hands came down on his shoulders and wrenched him backwards. His feet flew out in front of him and he hit the ground hard on his back. Jordan’s claws had dug all the way down to his collarbone and there was warmth as blood flowed from the wounds, but no pain yet.
Jordan’s face hovered over Matt’s for a second, his mouth opening wider, wider, the skin stretching around the sides, eyes vanishing in folds of skin along with all the other features as the mouth went on growing. It was the size of his whole face now, just a round black hole with small sharp teeth sticking unevenly out of the gums around the sides. He’s going to bite my whole fucking head off.
Matt’s left arm was numb and immovable, but his right was just fine and he brought it up and gripped Jordan’s throat with everything he had – throwing a punch at that hole was hopeless. Jordan raised his claws, on the point of severing Matt’s arm at the elbow, when there was a scream – one that Matt was sure was familiar – and a flash of spinning light. A dull impact, and Matt lost hold of Jordan’s throat. A torch lay on the ground nearby, it’s light throwing long shadows all over the place, obscuring everything.
Matt got to his feet, disoriented, and tried to see what was going on. Someone was still screaming, and he followed the sound to a thicket of bushes. He saw Jordan there, his back to him, and he was hunched over, holding something, his whole body shifting and moving as if he were struggling with it, his back heaving as though he were vomiting. It’s not what’s coming out, it’s what’s going in.
It was that thought, and the final placement of that familiar scream, that sent Matt over the edge. He threw himself at the great heaving thing, a real monster now, nothing human left in it, and pounded it, bit it, tore at its throat with his hands until he felt his own fingernails snapping back from the force of his scratches.
Jordan twisted round and elbowed him in the chest. Ribs broke, and Matt found himself flying through the air and into a tree. He dropped onto his knees, unable to breathe. He put his right hand up to his chest as though it could ease the pressure there, somehow.
Amidst the pain, he heard Steph speak. He hadn’t even known she was there, but the sound of her voice sent his heart plummeting into the pit of his stomach. Oh, please, not her. Why did you come Steph? But he had not yet processed the words she’d spoken – had barely heard them at all – or just as importantly, where she’d spoken them from.
‘Pick on someone your own size, Shit Hole,’ she said, her voice shaky and afraid, but somehow also triumphant.
Matt stared through the bars of light and shadow, trying to see, the pain like a veil over his eyes. Jordan was standing straight up, unhurt, staring at Steph. She was partially illuminated in some of the torch’s errant light. She was holding a long knife in her left hand and the ring of keys Matt had left at Dale’s door in the other. Her dark hair hung over her scared eyes.
None of it made sense until Matt saw a dark, slender hand with nails like razors reach out of the pool of darkness beside her and take the knife gently from her grasp. Elyse stepped into the light, and Brian came up beside her, but if it weren’t for their eyes Matt would never have recognized them at all.
Brian glanced at him, briefly, though Matt couldn’t be sure he knew who he was. His dark eyes fixed on Jordan a second later, and then he was gone. Perhaps it was Matt’s concussion slowing his perception, but to him it seemed that one second Brian and Elyse were there, side by side like a pair of murderous rotted corpses, and then they had vanished. They moved so quickly it was like the shadows ate them up in one place and spat them out, instantly, in another.
Jordan let out a wild roar, a sound of pure fury that froze Matt’s bones and made him pull in his first deep breath. He turned in time to see Brian and Elyse dragging his great form to the ground, Brian crouching on his shoulders and wrenching his mouth wide open with both hands; Elyse hugging him from behind, pulling him downhill.
They fell in a mess, but it was over from the beginning. Brian was letting out strange, frantic yelps that it took Matt a few seconds to realise were a kind of laughter. Elyse was screeching with something that sounded almost like ecstasy, and Jordan was still shouting, but his cries were taking on a high, frantic quality.
The fight went on, and Matt stayed on his knees and stared into the darkness out of range of the torchlight and listened to it with growing horror. Jordan’s roars became howls, and then screams of pure agony: the screams of a boy now, not a man or a monster.
It went on and on, and Steph stepped up beside Matt and stared with him, and together they heard skin ripping away from muscle. They heard bones crack and ligaments snap. They heard pleading and begging and then whimpers, and then they heard nothing but the smack of raw meat between eager lips. All the while, the smell of blood wafted up to them and settled in the back of their throats. Steph’s hand was tight on his shoulder.
She knows they’re not going to stop. They’re going to come for us next.
‘Do you have the keys?’
‘Let’s go. We have to hide in a world. We have to hide until they’re dead or gone. They’re going to kill us, Steph.’
‘What about Dale?’ she said in a small voice.
Matt looked over at the dense patch of bushes. He saw Dale’s blue jeans protruding into the light, and they were soaked in blood. One foot twitched, then was still. ‘He’s dead.’
Steph got an arm under him and helped him to his feet.
‘Hey, wait.’ Brian was standing there on the slope. He looked almost like himself, except for the black veins knotting his face and the skin visible under his tattered clothes like ropes. He was panting, covered in head to toe in blood. It dripped from his fingertips. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I won’t hurt you.’
Elyse came up beside him. She looked as bad as he did, if not worse. One of her eyes was closed, a gash across it. Something leaked from below her lid. Like Brian, she was covered in blood. She was chewing something, the corner of her mouth turned up in a satisfied half smile.
‘Steph.’ Matt nudged her. They could still make it to one of the doors. Maybe, if they were lucky, one of them could get through. He’d already made up his mind to make sure it was her. He had nothing, after all. There was nothing for him, anymore. She didn’t move.
Brian came forward, one step, two, and all of a sudden it was too late and there was no getting away. ‘It’s okay, now,’ he said. Steph was shaking, and Matt was on the point of throwing himself on Brian – take out his eyes and there might be a chance after all – when he’d closed the distance completely and pulled her into a hug. Before he knew what was happening, Elyse was in front of him, tears in her eyes, and she hugged him too, and he knew, somehow, that it was over.
Dale was still alive, barely. They picked up the torch and Brian and Elyse picked him up out of the bushes and laid him down on his back. Matt saw the gaping wound Jordan had made in Dale’s abdomen. His whole stomach was a mess of organs, some burst and torn, pulled out of place. His intestines almost spilled out of him as they set him down, and Matt could see the bite marks in the pink flesh. His eyes were half closed but bright with reflected moonlight, and he was breathing fast, two or three breaths a second.
‘It’s okay,’ he told them, eyes flicking, from one to the other, blinking. ‘I’ve done this before. It’s not so bad.’ He didn’t say anything after that, and Elyse held him until he died, his eyes fixed on the moon.
They stayed there for a long time afterward, huddled against the cold in a tight circle around their friend, no one speaking, crying in silence. They felt more than ever as though they were in another world. No one had answered their screams during the fight, and the sirens and shouts on the streets were far away. They were alone with their horror and their dead friend, the victors of a battle no one else knew had been fought.
‘The door’s closed now,’ Steph said eventually, looking down at Dale’s horribly slack face. There was no peace in that expression, no relief or grace; only an absence of everything. Death.
Matt almost didn’t dare to speak. He didn’t know what made her say that, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She sounded certain, and that was enough. He put an arm around her and one around Elyse, and the four of them huddled closer.
‘You think we’ll go back to normal?’ Brian asked. ‘Will the burn come back?’
‘I don’t know,’ Steph said. ‘We’ll just have to wait.’
And so they did. Hugging each other in the blue dark, crying often and talking in low voices occasionally, they waited for the sun.