Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Contagion


They bustled through the halls, around corners and out of classrooms. With both eager anticipation and relenting irritation they trafficked through the school and filed into the gym. Many hung around the doors to meet up with their friends and have meaningless discussions about who was going out with whom or the Godzilla movie marathon that had run the night before. Others, the more anti-social and studious members of the Junior class, quietly found their spot amongst the makeshift testing areas and took a seat at one of the tables.

Billy Arkin was one of those anti-social misfits who was sitting at a table long before the rest of the horde had decided to participate in the standardized testing. The five minutes he’d been sitting felt to him like hours, though he had managed to kill some time by tracing the cracks and grooves in the peeling paint of the decrepit table. An uncomfortable claustrophobia twisted his gut as the seats around him began to fill with not-unfamiliar but not-entirely-welcome faces. With an unusual anxiety and an irrational impatience he twirled his number-two pencil over and through his fingers as the spokesman teacher he’d never seen before began to speak.

“I hope you all enjoyed your breakfast,” the spokesman said with a false enthusiasm.

Billy glanced around to see how many “you all” was. To his astonished horror the majority of the Junior class had been jammed into the small gymnasium. Students cluttered the gym, covering the Beachpalm Dolphins basketball logo on the floor, blocking the bleacher seats from folding out if need be, but worst of all showing an utter disregard for personal space. Billy thought it was absurd to have a standardized test in this manner, it would be more than easy to cheat off somebody when people were so clustered together that you could see the papers beside yours with not even a flick of the eye. Besides that, Mr. Patcholin, an elderly math teacher with a bald and shining head, was sniffling and coughing so loud and furiously that his grotesque, sickly noises echoed off the walls. Thoughts of disease, specifically the swine flu which had reclaimed its position as the largest clinical scare of the century since the school year resumed, crossed through his mind. An illness such as that, or even the common cold, would spread like wild fire in this environment.

“So we don’t waste any unnecessary time, I would like the teachers to hand out the test booklets before they check attendance,” the spokesman continued, though Billy had missed any previous statements that had been made.

The test book was thick, too thick for Billy’s liking even though he know most of the questions would be multiple choice. He squinted his eyes and weaved his orange hair through his fingers as he flipped through the pages in the booklet. Writing was never one of his strongest subjects, and the test seemed intent on making him write pages about an utterly obscure subject that really only required a sentence or two to accurately explain.

This would have been merely an annoying task for Billy on most days, but with the constant hum, dim and flicker of the cheap fluorescent lights overhead it was a task he felt wasn’t worth the patience. His focus cracked completely when the buzz of a mosquito zipped through his ears. He snapped his head upward and hunted for the bug with his eyes, hoping it would be close enough for him to eradicate without much effort. But when he finally spotted it all desire he had to be near the insect was chased away by a feeling of unease, like he was somehow in danger.

He reasoned that his unease came from the odd behavior of the mosquito. There was something not quite right about the way the bug spun and swerved chaotically from one spot to the next. The greenish tint that colored the bug’s flesh made his skin crawl.. The way its buzz was loud and long, almost like a groan of pain.

It landed on the arm of Thomas Taylor, a large boy whom Billy knew to be quiet and fairly reserved. Taylor slapped the mosquito, though Billy suspected that the bug had been there long enough to have drained at least a little blood, but he thought little more of it and returned his attention to the test. Suddenly Taylor started coughing. Terrible, hoarse coughs that sounded as though someone had shoved razors down his throat. Billy glanced over and watched with wide eyes as Taylor bent forward and coughed loudly, spewing phlegm and blood across the table. His eyes rolled back in his head and with an enormous crash he collapsed to the floor, convulsing wildly.

“He’s having a seizure!” a girl shouted from across the room. Foam had bubbled around Taylor’s lips, smothering them like oozing, dripping pillows. A teacher, Mr. Fieldman, knelt down and asked Taylor if he was all right. The boy didn’t answer. He continued his spazmatic flail, like a fish on a deck, while Mr. Fieldman shouted for somebody to call an ambulance. Panic and excitement jolted through the air, and Billy felt the hairs on his neck raise up. Then it stopped. Taylor fell still and lay unmoving as the energy dissolved out of the air.

Nobody drew a breath. Not a sound defiled the momentary silence. Everyone had turned their attention to Taylor’s limp, colorless body on the floor. Even Mr. Fieldman had silenced his frantic cries of “911!” He remained motionless, hunched over the body and staring into its face as though he could stare the very life back into it.

Suddenly, and without warning, Taylor rose upward, grabbed Mr. Fieldman by the throat and clamped onto his shoulder with his foam veiled mouth. Blood darkened Mr. Fieldman’s suit as Taylor’s teeth dug deeper. The sound of ripping fabric and flesh tore through the air as the seams of Mr. Fieldman’s suit surrendered. Taylor gulped down his mouthful of meat before he dove forward for another as Mr. Fieldman’s eyes rolled back in his head and he began to convulse.

Billy stood too quickly and winced at the dizzying pain that swam through him. He didn’t know why he had stood, only that he had. It was as though Taylor’s bite had pressed some kind of button for Billy, and two dozen others, to leap from their seats. Mr. Patcholin and the spokesman were trying to pry Taylor off of Mr. Fieldman, but he spun quickly and slammed his jaws shut over Patcholin’s arm. The bald man screamed loudly, but not as loudly as the spokesman did as he tried to evade when Mr. Fieldman rose and lunged at him.

Watching this it all made sudden and perfect sense to Billy, who had enjoyed his fair share of horror movies, what was going on. He didn’t want to believe it, logic told him not to, but the truth was undeniable and staring him in the face. Several others had apparently risen to a similar conclusion, as they made a mad dash for the doors while Taylor and the three teachers flung themselves at anybody unfortunate enough to be nearby. Running for the doors with a hundred other students at his side had seemed like a grand solution at first, but the mass of students and teachers trying to worm and wriggle their way through the two pairs of small doors had soon created an enormous blockade of human and flesh.

It wasn’t long before others began to fall to the ground, twisting and turning as though their insides were burning and half devoured by the mindless savages who had once been their friends and mentors. After their few moments of painful rising, those students also rose to their feet and joined the consumption of their peers.

Stuck at the buck of the cluster that clogged any and all escape routes from the gym, Billy knew that it would only be a few moments before he was turned into one of the flesh guzzling monsters that hunted him. Or worse. At the rate their numbers were increasing he might be completely consumed before he would ever be given the opportunity to reanimate. In desperation he spun full circle and found what might have been his only chance. The bleachers were still folded against the wall, the seats creating a sort of ladder that could be easily climbed by those who could squeeze their fingers and toes between the cracks. Figuring that the zombies (he had forced logic away and finally accepted this fact) would be too clumsy to pursue him Billy flung himself against the wall and jammed his fingers into the small grooves between the seats. He scurried up the bleacher wall quickly while a few zombies grabbed for his heels, surprising even himself with his own agility.

The top of the bleachers were cluttered with the poles and stakes used to hold the volleyball nets in place in the spring. Deciding it would be a good idea to have those for defense, he grabbed one and poised himself like a fisherman with a spear waiting for his first victim to swim by. But when he saw another classmate falling to the horde Billy found an offensive use for the poles. He thrust down and forward at once, launching the pole through the air like a torpedo. It fell with the elegance of a dancer who happened to have two left feet, but it bit into its target’s flesh regardless.

He realized that he had trapped himself on top of the bleachers. By climbing up there he had doomed himself to sitting around until either the horde left or a rescue team broke through. Either way helping the survivors below could only increase the chances that he himself could survive. And he could help them, he reasoned, by arming them. Poles and stakes flew through the air as he tossed them towards anybody who responded to his calls of “who’s alive?” Though several people had successfully received his gift they were often quickly overwhelmed. Mr. Harris, the gym teacher, had made the most of the poles. Even then, only three zombies had fallen before Harris himself had become infected. Billy thought twice about relinquishing his last weapon to someone who would likely die in the next twenty seconds. It made him feel selfish, but he had never intended to sacrifice his chances of survival for anyone else’s.

To his horror the zombies weren’t as clumsy as their staggering, sporadic movements made them appear. Several hands, most missing fingers or chunks of flesh and muscle, reached over the top of the bleachers before he had noticed them climbing towards him. He thrust his last sake over the edge, felt the impact and the resistance pushing against him, then yanked it back and repeated. Several times he performed these actions, not having the courage to look at his enemies until he was used to the sound of cracking skulls, the feeling of piercing flesh and the sight of the long strings of dripping entrails that dangled from the end of his improvised spear. He knew that if he saw those faces, recognized those faces, he could never bring himself to skewer them.

That’s why he was disturbingly relieved when he saw that most of them had been so horribly mangled that their features, if there were any, could not be distinguished by any means. Back and forth went his spear, up and down until it seemed as though he was gaining ground. His arm was growing tired and numb, but he continued the fight, forcing them away from his defensive nest atop the bleachers. Then he saw her. She must have been one of the early infected; her features had been, for the most part, untouched. Only a small scratch on her cheek, that bled to her chin, obstructed her face. Her brown hair was slightly mangled, probably from when she had the seizure. If her eyes were not soulless voids, if her mouth was not soaked red he may have thought she was still human.

It wasn’t just her undistorted face that made him hesitate as she flopped herself over the edge of the bleachers, it was who she was. Liz Timber was one of the few people in the school that he not only tolerated, but appreciated. The first person to show him any kind of compassion, the first person to welcome him when he had transferred into the district his Freshman year. Now he was faced with the decision to destroy her, destroy the first glimpse of happiness he’d seen in this mournful facility, or surrender himself to a more than grisly fate.

He could not bring himself to lunge through her, to kill her even though she was no longer alive. The shell that resembled her was enough, and even when her hand choked the life out of him he couldn’t find it in himself to tear into her. He tried half-heartedly to pull away, but as he saw the last of the flailing on the ground he knew it was useless, and that he’d be alone again if he survived. And he would have to killer her, he still couldn’t. They cascaded down, falling from the top of the bleachers until they both disappeared into the horde.

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