Megan Carter turned the engine off and rested her head on the steering wheel. Home at last. She felt terrible. It had hit her suddenly, soon after all those sick people started coming in. Right after that man had coughed up blood on her. Some of it had gotten into her eyes. The sick feeling had grown worse on the drive home. She was taking deep, rapid breaths and her skin felt clammy. Her hair was wet with sweat. A pounding headache was making it hard to think. The pain came in wide, sweeping arcs like the warning beacon from a lighthouse. She knew she should have told Dr. Menard but he would have insisted that she stay and get checked out. That would have taken too long. Ben and Amy were waiting.
“Slow down.” Megan thought to herself. She didn’t know if the presence of all the police cars on the roads had anything to do with what was going on at Willard General but they sure as hell were making her paranoid. The throbbing pain in her temples made her head fuzzy and she had little doubt that her driving skills were a little off. Fortunately they’d paid her no attention though she’d peed herself just a little when a sheriff’s deputy decided to hit his siren as he blew past her on Ross Way. Dumbass cop. What was his hurry?
“I’m sorry but I really can’t stay. I have to get my babies.” she’d said. Megan felt guilty over leaving the hospital. They’d asked her to stay longer because of all the emergency cases flooding in but she’d already been there more than an hour past the end of her seven-to-four shift. The daycare closed at six and her husband Randy hadn’t answered his phone. Since there was no way she’d be able to fetch the kids in time her mother had grudgingly agreed to pick them up. She’d only watch them until Megan could get home because she had an art class at eight and didn’t want to miss it. Megan knew why she wanted to be there. Her mother was seeing the instructor. He’d already taken her to Lucio’s, that new Italian restaurant on Rollin Avenue. Spaghetti sounded good. Spaghetti with extra meat and sauce.
She knew her mother was pissed at her. Mom liked Randy and hadn’t been too thrilled when Megan insisted on a separation. Randy was nice but he’d never really grown up. He took nothing seriously and spent too much money on frivolous things like those ignorant Resident Evil video games. That’s probably why he hadn’t answered her call: he would be off work by now so he was no doubt killing virtual zombies with his roommate and best friend Shaun. Still, he could have answered the phone. Guess he figured his child support payments were enough of a contribution to her life. She sighed. Immature jerk that Randy was, Megan had to admit that she really could use him now. Fucking zombies.
Lifting her head Megan saw her mother frowning at her from the picture window of the house she’d once shared with Randy. The kids were jumping up and down trying to get a glimpse of their mommy. She smiled through the pain. Little Ben and Amy. “Almost six” and four and a half years old respectively! Megan got out of her car and cursed as the sun stabbed her in the eyes. She should have kept her sunglasses on. Taking a wobbly step forward she put her hand on the door to brace herself. What the hell was wrong with her? She couldn’t afford to get sick.
“You okay, Megan?” It was her neighbor Herbert. He stood in his driveway, a sheaf of papers and a laptop computer clutched under one arm. The worry in his voice made her feel guilty for all the times she’d snickered over his name. But who wouldn’t make fun of a guy named Herbert who wore glasses? She focused her drifting thoughts. “I’m okay,” she replied, “just feeling a little gnarly.” She was sure he didn’t know what gnarly meant. He was a total science nerd.
“There seems to be a lot of that going around today,” Herbert said, intuiting the meaning of the word. He pushed up his glasses up with a finger. “Some kind of bug in the air. New strain of influenza is what they’re saying.” He opened the door of his truck and stood there for a moment. “Hey, I have to run. They want me at the school. You take care of those kiddies okay?” Herbert seemed as if he wanted to say something else. Something more important. Instead he offered her a wan smile and a timid “See you later.”
Megan dismissed Herbert with a wave of her hand. It was cute that he had a crush on her. She heard her front door open as he took off. Her mother was standing in the doorway now, radiating anxiousness. The pounding in Megan’s head had lessened a little and she wasn’t breathing as quickly as she had been. She still felt pretty sick but maybe the worst of it was over. Maybe it was nothing. “Oh well, into the breach.” Megan steeled herself as she turned to face her mother.
“I’m sorry sweetie, but I really love this class and don’t want to miss it.” Her mother didn’t waste any time. Megan grabbed Ben and Amy and pressed their faces against her hips, playfully stifling their excited cries. “It’s cool,” she replied, “Randy actually returned my call. He’s going to come over later so I can go back to work.” That was a little white lie. Megan didn’t want to lay a guilt trip on her mom. After all, her kids were her responsibility and her mom had already done her a big favor. Her mom had her own problems. She was trying to put her life back in order after the death of her husband.
The thought of her dead father nearly brought Megan to tears. She hadn’t had time to think of him lately. “Mom,” she said, “I miss…” She let her words trail off as a razor-edged current of pain ran up and down her body. She grunted from the shock of it and then shivered as a wave of chills followed suit. So much for feeling better. Her mother cocked her head. “You okay?” she asked with annoyed concern, hoping Megan wasn’t sick enough that she’d be delayed longer.
“Fine. Just a headache. Hectic day.” Megan grumbled tersely as she massaged her scalp. “Well, alright then,” replied her mother, “but I was watching the news and they said there’s a virus going around. A hospital is the worst place you could be right now.” She paused. “They’ll get along without you.” Megan shooed Ben and Amy away by motioning them towards the flickering old television that squatted dejectedly in a corner of the living room. Randy had taken the good one with him. Bastard. “Mom, it’s my job. I need to be there. They wouldn’t have asked me to come back if it wasn’t important.” Her mother shrugged. “It’s not more important than your family.”
Megan collapsed into a dilapidated old recliner that had belonged to her father. Its reassuring confines took the edge off. “Really, it’s fine. Jerkface will be here soon. I’ll rest until then.” Megan lowered her head backwards and laid it on the recliner’s soft headrest. A gray film drifted over her eyes. Staring at the gauzy ceiling she missed her mother’s irritated stare. Mom didn’t like it when she made fun of Randy.
“Well, I’m going to go.” her mother stated flatly. Then, changing to a slightly mocking tone she said “I hope Randy gets here soon. Sheriff Buckner was interviewed on the news and he said there’s been a rash of muggings. People are doing crazy stuff to each other. Why, some man went into O’Bannon’s and bit a cashier. Can you believe that?” She jingled her keys impatiently. “What else is new?” groaned Megan, thinking how shocked her mother would be if she ever saw some of the people who came into the emergency room at the hospital. Talk about crazy.
Megan rubbed her eyes clear and pulled herself out of the recliner. She walked her mother to the door. The pain wracking her head had receded to a dull roar. “Love you.” she murmured, pulling the door open. “Love you too, sweetie.” returned her mother with a wink. She reached out and pinched her daughter’s arm. Megan flinched. She hated this motherly quirk. Pushing the door closed behind her mother she noticed the tweak didn’t hurt like it usually did. There was just a cool spot of numbness where her mother had grabbed her. A numbness that was spreading.
“Mom…” whispered Megan, pressing her forehead against the window. Her scalp slid on the glass. She’d forgotten how sweaty she was. She felt a tinge of sadness as she watched her mother get into her car. Where it came from she didn’t know. Her mom was backing out when a harried-looking man in a green SUV came roaring up the street. Megan’s mother hit her brakes hard, barely avoiding a nasty accident. Glancing at her daughter, she threw her hands up as if to emphasize her earlier proclamation about people acting nuts. Then she shook her head and drove off, one hand on the wheel, one hand up and waving goodbye.
Megan exhaled slowly, trying to steady herself. Then she noticed Mr. Garth. “Dog Man” Garth who lived in the house across the street. He was stumbling around his front yard trying to corral one of his yappy terriers. From the looks of it he was drunk but Megan didn’t know enough about him to know if he had a drinking problem. The mutt easily avoided him and ran off, disappearing around a corner of the house. Garth shambled after it. “Crazy people.” thought Megan.
Her entire body was numb now and her thoughts were becoming more and more abstract. She had so little energy. It seemed as if she were retreating from the world. Floating away on a cold, gray sea.
“Mommy we’re hungry!” clamored the kids. “Okay, okay.” grumbled Megan, forcing the words out. “You sound funny!” giggled Ben. Amy laughed too, but her attention quickly drifted back to the television as a cartoon explosion lit up the screen. “Well, you LOOK funny.” cracked Megan, though it sounded as if someone else was making the joke. Her voice sounded hollow and raspy. “Come on, I’ll make you guys something to eat.” Ben followed her into the kitchen while Amy stayed glued to the television. His stomach always trumped Spongebob Squarepants.
Megan was spent now and didn’t even feel like cooking up something as easy as Ramen noodles. She rummaged around in a cupboard and handed Ben several granola bars and a bag of pretzels. His face lit up. “Share those with your sister and get some Juicy Juices out of the fridge.” she told him. “I’m right here!” chimed Amy. She was standing by the kitchen table looking unhappy. “They took Spongebob off and put on a talky man.” she said with childish exasperation. “I wanna watch tv!”
“I’m sorry baby. Why don’t you ask Ben to put on that new Scooby Doo movie?” Megan replied slowly, studying her strange, new vocal inflection. Weird. “Now get back in there and watch the Scoobster kick monster butt, okay? Mommy doesn’t feel good. She’s going to take a nap.” The kids cheered at the thought of autonomy and scuttled off to the living room. Megan trudged after them on her way to what she hoped would be a peaceful nap. She caught a glimpse of a stern news commentator on the television right before Ben changed the channel. But she had no interest in what the man could possibly be saying, she just wanted to lie down and sleep. It was all she could do to walk up the stairs to her bedroom. She was so tired.
Megan sat on the edge of her bed, exhausted. Her cellphone was vibrating in her shirt pocket. She hoped it was Randy but it was a text message from Alice, one of the other nurses at Willard General: “NEED U 2 COM BAK NOW THNGS R CRAZY” Megan puzzled over the words. They no longer had any meaning. The phone itself, her lifeline to the world she had often joked, meant nothing to her. The earth seemed to shift under her.
She dropped her phone on a bedside table next to a photograph of her father. She missed him and wished he hadn’t died. A moment later Megan couldn’t even remember who he was. Only a vague feeling of melancholy remained to indicate an emotional connection to the picture. Then that too was gone. Her brain was shutting down. Her eyes glazed over and she flopped back on the bed. Her body spasmed several times as she slipped into a coma. Black bile ran from her mouth and nose. She lost control of her bowels. Five minutes later her heart stopped beating. Twelve minutes later she sat up.
“I’m telling mommy about the noise.” cried Amy. “You big chicken.” sneered Ben, though he was secretly as scared of the tornado siren as his sister. He didn’t know why it was going off. The sky was clear so no tornados right? Maybe some other bad thing was happening. Or maybe it was just a test. Mommy said they did that sometimes. Yeah, just a test. He turned his attention back to the movie. Shaggy and Scooby Doo were running away from monsters. Ben knew the monsters were really just people so he wasn’t frightened of them. Shaggy and Scooby were dumb. The monsters were always people.
“Mommy, there’s a loud noise outside,” pleaded Amy, “can you make it go away?” She stood at her mother’s bedroom door. The thing that had once been Megan Carter sat, head down, on the edge of the bed. Amy walked over to her dead mother. Her cellphone was making a noise but Amy knew not to touch it. She wasn’t allowed. She stared instead at the black stains on her mother’s shirt. It looked like the time she’d spilled grape juice on her sleeper. Her mother smelled of poop. “Mommy, you made a mess on your clothes!” she laughed. “And you farted!” Her mother just sat there saying nothing. Then she slowly reached out and grabbed Amy’s arm, gripping it tightly. Her hand was very cold.
“Ow! You’re making it hurt!” cried Amy. Dead Megan raised her head. Amy could see her face clearly now. Damp hair clung to skin blanched white in death. A rotten odor was coming out of her mouth. Feral eyes studied Amy with primal intensity. Dead Megan grunted, leaned over and bit a chunk of flesh from her daughter’s cheek.
Downstairs Ben heard the shriek. It hadn’t come from the movie. Shaggy and Scooby had finally figured out the monsters chasing them were people. But he knew they would forget that by the next movie. He heard another shriek. It came from upstairs. It sounded like Amy. She and mommy were probably playing tickle games. Tickle games were retarded. He wished his dad were here so they could play hide and seek. The movie was over so he changed the channel but the news guy was still on, chattering away. Ben hated the news. It was boring. Might as well go upstairs and play the stupid tickle game too.
“I’m coming to get you, Amy!” shouted Ben as he clambered up the stairs, sliding his hand along the railing as his father had taught him. He saw a red stain dribbling down the steps. “And I’m telling mommy you spilled your juice!” Reaching the top of the stairs he froze in place. Amy lay there in front of him. Her dead eyes gaped at him through her half-eaten face. There was a ragged hole where her throat had once been. The red stuff was blood and it was coming out of Amy.
Ben couldn’t breath he was so scared. Hearing a slurping noise he turned his head. His mommy was eating Amy’s leg. She stopped chewing when she saw him. Amy twitched and Mommy let go of her. Ben looked back at his sister. Her eyes were moving now and she reached out for him with a bloody hand. Turning to flee, he slipped on the wet stairs and fell backwards, landing hard on the steps. He banged his head and saw white lights.
When Ben’s vision cleared he could see his mother hovering over him. Amy’s blood dripped from her mouth and spattered his face. A piece of flesh fell out and landed on his cheek. Dead Amy pulled herself forward and latched onto his arm. She weakly bit at his shoulder through his Transformers shirt. It stung and he cried out. His mother bent down as if to kiss him. Ben started screaming then, because he knew her kiss was what was really going to hurt.
“Come on, let’s get to it!” mused Randy Carter as he pulled up to the house he’d once called home. His real name was Randolph but he hated it. Told everyone to call him Randy. His wife Megan said Randolph was as nerdy a name as Herbert. “Nerdy neighbor Herbert.” That made him grin. Take the stick out of Megan’s butt and she actually had a sense of humor. He was relieved to see she was home. She may have kicked him out but he still loved her and couldn’t wait to see her. Couldn’t wait to see Ben and Amy. He loved his children.
He took a final drag off his cigarette, mulling over the bad turn his life had taken recently. It was all his fault and he figured it was time to man up. Take today for instance. He’d been busy playing a video game with Shaun and hadn’t noticed that Megan had called. He finally listened to her message two hours after she’d left it. He’d called her back right away but she hadn’t answered. She was probably pissed and had every right to be. Especially with the way things were going.
The world had gone insane. Tornado sirens were blaring. He’d passed at least five accidents on the way home. Lewton’s Pharmacy had burned down. The news said people everywhere were getting really sick and attacking others. Someone even said those people were dead. Zombies? Were they serious? And Megan said HE played Resident Evil too much!
Randy didn’t believe the zombie theory but he’d seen two bloody, drunken men fighting in front of Boyle’s Pub. They had all of a sudden taken their struggle out into the street and he’d clipped one of them. A police cruiser was behind him and he slowed down, thinking he’d have to pull over. But the cop had yelled at him to keep going. Yelled at him to go HOME. That was really odd. He was a block away when he heard the shots. He didn’t look back.
Now, sitting in his car in his old driveway he took a deep breath and tried to think. This was going to be tough. Why don’t they shut that damn siren off? The noise was deafening. Glancing in his rearview mirror he saw Mr. Garth standing to the side of his house across the street. He looked confused. Maybe he was sick too. Randy decided not to find out.
He ate a couple of breath mints. Megan hated his smoking. He got out of his car and walked to the house. Standing on the porch Randy tucked in his t-shirt. He would look more serious that way. What was he going to say to Megan? First he’d apologize for missing her call. Then he’d tell her he’d been helping Shaun work on his motorcycle. Tell her he was ready to be a responsible adult now. Especially now. Then he’d ask her if he could come back.
“Man up, old chap!” Randy laughed to himself as he opened the door and went inside. His body coursed electricity. The chaos of the world no longer mattered, only his insular concerns did. “I’m home!” he announced breathlessly, his heart pounding like it had when he’d asked Megan out for the first time. He was getting a little ahead of himself but he didn’t care. “And I think it’s time for us to be a family again!”
Outside the siren keened. The final storm had come.