“Why are the dead doing that, Rachael?”
A dozen bodies crowded the front lot and nearby street, arms splayed and flailing. They lay in deep drifts, sliding last night’s accumulation into pink-tinged snow angels.
“They’re hot. Decaying things generate heat.” The reenactment of this innocent childhood pastime made me feel sick, so I turned away to stare into the cold dawn.
“It looks like they’re having fun.” Jake Marshall gazed at the floundering bodies, a confused smile on his ruggedly handsome face as he joined me on the porch.
Gary Wilson, my self-appointed protector, grumbled and shuffled aside. The two men had been vying for my attention since Gary and I had stumbled into Jake at the local gym early the previous day. Gary, being true to his nature, already felt like the loser.
Several blocks to the east, a plume of green smoke billowed over the town square. According to a voice on the radio, it meant salvation. The National Guard had finally arrived to extract survivors.
We’d spent a restless night hopping from building to building, working our way towards the safe zone one sad empty home at a time. The gruff military voice on the radio had warned us. We had twenty-four hours before they gave the town up as hopeless, abandoning us to the creeping mercy of the infected.
I closed the door behind me, locking up for residents who’d never return home.
“I can’t go any further, Rachael.” Beside me, Gary appeared bloated and waxy inside his red nylon parka, his troubled expression lost on the pale expanse of his face. Sweat trickled along the edges of his thinning brown hair, freezing to his face in long icy teardrops.
“Rest a little. We only have a few more blocks to go.” I tugged my fur collar higher, rubbing my frozen fingers together as I tried to cheer him up. “The army’s in the park. They’re here to rescue us, and I’m sure they’ve got an antidote by now.”
Gary and I had been friends before the catastrophe. He’d asked me out a couple of times, but I’d always declined. He was a pale dumpy guy, the kind you complained to about your no good boyfriend after a bad Saturday night. He was far from the hero type, but he meant well. He’d come looking for me after the world went crazy.
I’d tried my best to keep him alive in spite of his clumsiness. He’d been more of a liability than an asset, but I felt I owed him since he’d gotten infected because of me.
“It’s no use.” He wiped his forehead with a trembling hand, drawing back a moist snowball of sweat. “I’m getting too warm.”
One of the prone figures rose at the sound of his voice. It staggered to its feet like a drunk at an ice skating rink, and headed in our direction. I thought I recognized the face, but I’d trained myself to glance at an imaginary spot above and to the left when lurchers attacked. Knowing who they’d once been was just too painful.
“Leave him.” Jake leaned against the front porch like a Greek statue, his breath hissing like cigarette smoke in the frigid air.
Jake was exactly the kind of guy I’d have complained about to Gary. Misogynistic, selfish, and self-centered, Jake had the chiseled body and sculpted good looks that made you wonder if you could change all the other stuff. I didn’t want to admit it, but my heart beat a little faster when he stared at me with those big blue eyes.
“Jake, don’t…” I let my arms fall, the heavy rifle dropping onto the straps of the duffle at my feet. My body ached, unaccustomed to climbing, and running, and fighting for my life. I’d give anything to go back to my normal world. I’d gladly settle for juggling things like work and school again, instead of dodging the sluggish corpses of people I used to know.
“What?” Jake’s rough tone held tension. He nodded at the larger man. “It’s what he wants, right?”
Then he struck his best pose, one boot up on the railing, and his big hands clinging to the open hem of his leather bomber jacket. Jake had been preening like one of those shirtless catalog models since we’d run into him the morning before. He casually stroked his chest, making sure I noticed the ripple of his six-pack through his tight tee shirt. He must be freezing to look that cool.
We’d met before, of course. Everyone knew everybody in a small town like this. Jake was the jock type, all flash and no substance. I tended to be bookish, a little on the socially awkward side, so I never really fell within his radar. All that had changed with the rising dead. Suddenly, I’d become hot enough to be his girlfriend, whether I was interested or not. Who knows, I might even be the last woman on Earth. I could have my pick of Jakes.
“He’s right. Leave me, Rachael.” Gary hugged his ample middle, his parka squelching like a rotten orange. A trickle of blood slid along his left cuff as he pulled on his fur-lined hood. His bloodshot eyes held an accusing look, like a beaten puppy. He’d tried so hard to impress me, but it’d all been for nothing. “It’s so hot.”
“See, he knows he’s only holding us back. He knows what he’s turning into.” Jake moved a little closer, draping his arm protectively around my shoulders like I was a helpless girl. I wanted to point out I’d done as much to keep us alive as he had, but he’d just give me that smug look of his and wink like it was our little joke. If I could only put Gary’s brain in Jake’s body…
I couldn’t believe I was falling for him. He wasn’t anything like the type of man I ended up with, but I’d been lonely since before the world ended. The rules were different now. Why shouldn’t I be different as well?
“Don’t listen to him, Gary.” We were near. Just a few more blocks and we’d make it to the safe zone. Then Gary could get treatment. Jake could do whatever it was frat boys did after the end of the world, and I could get out of these frozen bloody clothes, have some food, and take a nap.
Jake slammed his boot down. The shotgun at his feet flipped up, and he leveled and fired with one smooth motion. I covered my ears against the roar. The nearest of the moving dead jerked back, collapsing like a marionette cut from its strings before the acrid scent of gunpowder had even reached my nostrils.
“He’s a liability, Rachael. When will you see it? He’s as good as dead already.”
“Not dead, dying. Always at the edge without ever going over… flesh rotting, but still not dead.” Gary’s voice dribbled from his lips in a mumble. His face started to sag, gummy features sliding to the left and bunching up around his ear.
“You’re going to be fine.” My reassuring laugh came out as a nervous chuckle. He looked as bad as Jake looked good. “We’ll get you the help you need.”
Gary unzipped his parka. He shed his thick woolen shirt, staggering bare-chested across the porch. Where Jake was trim and muscular, Gary’s physique appeared blocky and gelatinous. Thick reddish veins traced spiky patterns across his moist skin, throbbing with a hideous pulsation.
“It’s so hot.” His fingers slid over his belly, sinking into his thick flesh. “And it hurts all over. You can’t believe how it burns, the heat of decay. The dead are cold. I wish I were dead.”
Jake swung his gun around.
“No!” I pushed the barrel away and stepped between them.
Gary whimpered. His eyes rolled back, and he grasped his head with both hands. “I’d always wanted you, hoped that we’d…”
Gary’s hands were around my neck, pulling me into his sultry grip. I screamed. He tugged me closer. His hot breath washed over me like steam. I could smell the cloying stench of death as his fevered lips burned across my neck.
“She’s mine!” Jake tore me from Gary’s grip, slamming the shotgun into the fat man’s face. He fired.
The recoil knocked us off balance. I fell on top of Jake, landing against his solid chest, his strong arms around me. My whole body tingled. Mt heart hammered, beating as fast as my frenzied breathing.
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Jake’s breath, so near to me, smelled faintly of liquorish. Comforting warmth surrounded me as he hugged me closer.
“No… I don’t think so.” My skin itched. I couldn’t tell if I’d been infected.
“Good.” He smiled. His bright blue eyes seemed so deep I felt I could fall into them. His soft lips brushed mine as he spoke, and a hot blush oozed through my body. It grew, curling my toes.
A chill ran down my spine as I realized the warmth continued to spread. It did nothing to quell the blossoming fire, and I prayed it was just the heat of passion.
My writing credits include:
Daily Science Fiction
L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future, Volume 27
Member: SFWA, HWA