"I wasn't about to let those two buttholes take all of my free candy! It's mine!" Preston groaned, digging through his backpack as he kept walking so close behind Donovan that he was practically stepping on the heels of his shoes. "You guys can have some, though. If you want. Do you want some? What do you like? Super sweet stuff? Or super sour stuff? I'm kind of in between, but I think I like the sour stuff more. Oooh! You know what you might like? The sour gummies that I got in my pencil and pen pouch! I've only got two bags of those, but you guys can have a whole one to yourselves if you want. You'll have to split it though."
Alex and I could see Donovan crushing his eyes closed, as if he were trying to block out Preston's boyish, high pitched, chatter in order to grab a few seconds of peace and quiet without screaming at him to shut up. But I don't think he found any peace at all. And yet...it was kind of funny to see Donovan using some level of restraint anyway to keep from hurting anyone's feelings.
There may just be a beating heart in that chest of his after all.
I wasn't paying attention when Alex leaned over to lightly bump me with his shoulder. Hehehe, he blushed slightly. Almost as if he felt bashful about demanding that my focus land back on the beauty of his pouty grin. The urge to reach for his hand was almost involuntary. An automatic response to the endorphins flowing through my system, forcing me to crave more of his physical contact.
Then I heard more of Preston's babbling at Donovan's side and was reminded that we weren't alone. The strange thing is...I was beginning to wonder if it really mattered if they knew that Alex and I were...'together'. Looking at what's going on outside of these walls...the chaos and the death and the trauma...a little thing like two boys holding hands in a high school hallway seems like such an insignificant thing to be afraid of. What would it matter if I leaned in and just started kissing him right now? Did it ever matter at all?
Like Donovan said...'Try to think about what really matters.' You know? Makes so much sense now that I can put it into context.
As we were traveling down the darker hallways of the school, all four of us instinctively gathering in a strange brat pack formation, Preston started practically skipping circles around Donovan with the biggest grin ever on his face. Alex could see him getting frustrated with the younger boy's infinite energy and tried to interrupt the parade of infectious, childlike, vibes Preston was thrusting upon him at the moment.
"Say, Donovan? Did you have any luck with finding your friend?" Alex asked.
"Friend? What friend?" He replied.
"The one you were looking for earlier. Remember? When we saw you in the stairwell?"
Thinking about it a bit more, I asked, "Oh yeah! His name wouldn't happen to be Eddie, would it? I think that other boy was looking for him too."
Donovan paused for a moment, and said, "No. His name was Stephen." Then his expression hardened a bit, as if to block out the building emotion. "It's no big deal. I doubt he's even here."
Preston asked, "Is he a new friend, like us? Or, like, an old friend that you knew from before?" He was SO certain that Donovan was his new best buddy that he never stuttered once while asking such a question.
"This really isn't anybody's business, so let's drop it, ok? He's not here. I'll deal with it." Donovan grunted. "For all I know, he's probably dead..."
Both Alex and I frowned up at the sound of his grim statement, Preston blurting out, "Dude...that's totally 'DARK', bro!" But Donovan didn't respond.
Trying to add a bit of levity to the situation, I said, "He might still be alive. Maybe he came in with the newest convoy of survivors, right? They're still rescuing people. A lot of folks found safe spots to board themselves up until help arrived, so I'm sure he was one of the lucky ones." Donovan didn't seem to be buying it. "Well, I mean...me and Alex overheard some people talking, and I guess everybody that's our age is going to get re-evaluated tomorrow morning. Maybe you'll see him there?"
Donovan turned to look at me. "Re-evaluated? What's that supposed to mean?"
Alex told him, "They're starting to wonder if maybe teenagers are the carriers of the virus that caused all this. That it might not just come from a bite, but may be something triggered just from being a certain age. Or at least, that's what I think they were talking about."
Donovan looked back at us over his shoulder. "Well, that explains a lot then."
"Explains what?" I asked.
"The whole atmosphere of this place...it's starting to change. Air's getting a little 'thick' around here, don't you think?"
"Thick?" Alex asked.
"Can't you guys feel it? The reality of what's really happening out there is starting to settle in. At first, people were just happy to be alive. Safe. They figured the ordeal was over, they survived it, and once things were cleaned up, they'd be able to go back to normal." Donovan said. "Then, people got comfortable for a while. Folks are literally being devoured in the streets, and we've still got people charging their cell phones so they can update their fuckin' Facebook pages. They huddled around in this shelter and figured 'better them than me', making the best of things until the world went back to normal. But attitudes are changing. I feel it more and more every day. The majority of the people in this school aren't going to be able to shut out the truth for much longer."
"What truth is that?" I said.
Donovan stopped walking to look directly into our eyes. "The truth that the game society has been playing for so very long...is over. Nothing is ever going to go back to normal. Not ever again."
With a trembling voice, Preston whimpered, "But...but the soldiers on the convoy. And the sergeant...they said..."
"I know what they said, but it just isn't true. There's no 'cleaning this up'. There's no 'regaining control'. They may tell us fairy tales to avoid a panic, but there's no normal for us to go back to. Not as a city. Maybe not even as a species. If every brain dead cannibal in the street were to suddenly drop dead tomorrow and bring an end to the threat, we still wouldn't be able to get right with the world again. Life as we know it is over. Done. I'm starting to think the worst thing we could possibly do is survive this tragedy...and be forced to live in the world that the powers that be decide to rebuild from the ashes."
"There's got to be something they can do. Once we give the military time to straighten things out..." Alex said, hopefully.
"They're not looking to straighten things out." Donovan said. "They're looking to maintain an illusion of security. Step number one in doing that? Find a scapegoat. Guess what? Sounds like we're the scapegoats. When in doubt, lay blame on the young." He turned the corner to walk down a dark hallway leading up to the school's upstairs theater. This particularly long stretch had some kind of a faulty wiring blackout in the middle, with a few flickering ceiling lights around the corner at the end. Dancing glimpses of light pounding the far wall like some sort of malfunctioning strobelight. I would have been wary of walking down this hall by myself, but...strength in numbers, I suppose.
"Why would anybody want to make us a scapegoat?" Preston asked. "We didn't do anything wrong."
Donovan told him, "That's not the point. People around here are starting to get itchy. When the pressure comes, the military is going to need to create a problem they can easily fix. If for no other reason than to make our refugees feel like they're on top of things and doing their job to keep us safe. They need someone to point at and say, 'There's the problem! It's those damn teenagers!' Next thing you know, it'll be us versus them. They'll round us up and lock us away somewhere. Or even worse...they'll cast us out. Believe me, I know what it's like to have certain adults get something in their heads and refuse to let it go."
My ears perked up a little when he said that. Thinking back to what Dr. Vega and Sergeant Brower said before, they did seem to hesitate when it came to taking that option off the table. Casting us out. Turning new survivors away. But they wouldn't really do that, would they?
"I'm not going back out there with those creepy things!" Preston demanded. "And I DON'T like needles either! If they come anywhere NEAR my booty with one of things I'm just gonna start kicking everybody in the nuts! Women too!"
Alex said, "It's because they just look at teenagers as if we were all the same. If just one of us is a bad apple, they figure we're all cursed with the same stupid defect."
"Exactly." Donovan said. "The more frightened they get, the more they try to predict the actions of everyone around them ahead of time by throwing a big blanket label on us and assuming the worst. I like this place, but I'm thinking that we should maybe start thinking about a plan to get out of here before that happens."
Alex smiled at Donovan. "We?"
I don't think he realized that he had slipped up, and just mumbled, "Whatever." As he continued down the hallway. Alex smiled at me, and we heard the crackle of plastic as Preston opened a piece of candy and popped it into his mouth. Donovan continued, "Speaking of everybody being the 'same', I don't think it works for those things out there either. In fact, the more I look out that window, the more I start seeing differences in how each one of them acts. I don't like that at all."
"I see them constantly climbing the fences. Some try to sneak around to the back." I said. "It's so creepy! It's like...they're figuring things out, you know? Like they're thinking."
Alex added, "Do you think any of them are smart enough to find their way inside?"
"God, I hope not." I replied.
"I've seen one of the 'others' in action..." Donovan said. "I was...looking right at it. And it was looking right back at me. All of the other zombies were just shuffling around, aimlessly. I probably could have jogged right past them with no problem if I wanted to. But not this guy. Just one look and I knew that he...he had something going on in his head. His wheels were spinning, sure enough."
"Ooh! What happened?" Preston asked, wide eyed.
Donovan clapped his hands together loudly, causing all of us to jump! "BOOM!!! It started running right at me! Top speed! I didn't even know they could move that fast. I was already tired, but I ran my fucking ass off trying to keep away from this thing. If I hadn't been close enough to reach one the rescue trucks in time, it would have been a wrap for me." He said. "You never know what one of these things is going to do. The second you try to claim them as all being the same...you're likely to get your ass handed to you. You've got to keep your eyes open."
"Jesus..." Alex whispered.
"I heard one of them talk once!" Preston said, proudly.
Donovan rolled his eyes. "Well, I don't think they can do all that. What would they say?"
"Uh huh! I heard him! It was Old Man Simpson! I was at this party, right? I got invited and there was beer and stuff there, and this one girl was, like, 'Omigod, Preston, you're so cute'..."
"Hehehe, what?" I giggled.
Donovan leaned closer to Preston, exposing his tall tale. "Is that right?" Then he asked, "Did you kiss her?"
Preston was a bit nervous, but after a brief hesitation, he said, "Uh huh. Totally. We made out for, like...52 minutes. It was really hot..."
Donovan shook his head and turned around to walk further down the hall. "Whatever. Fake news..."
"He DID talk though! I heard him and he chased me!" Preston demanded, almost breathless as he tried to keep up. "He just kept saying, 'EAT'! That's the only thing he had on his brain, I s'pose. But that's what he kept saying. 'Eat! Eat! Eat!' And he chased me and I saw him...umm...I think he ate somebody..." Suddenly, Preston got quiet. His eyes glazed over as he seemed to remember the incident in his head. From his expression, I had to wonder if maybe he was telling the truth.
About the talking zombie, I mean. Not him making out with a girl at a party for 52 minutes. Or even getting much more than a peck on the cheek from an older relative for his birthday. He'll have to do a hell of a lot more to sell us on that one.
"I'm telling the truth." Preston insisted, soon turning to me to add, "It really happened. You believe me right?"
"Shhh!" Donovan spread out both of his arms to keep us from walking any further. "What is that?"
"What is what?" Alex asked. We had almost reached the end of the hallway, most of the darkness was behind us...and yet, it was the flickering light around the corner that seemed to stop us in our tracks.
"What's the matter?" Preston asked, quickly getting Donovan to shut him up again by putting a hand over his mouth.
"Do you guys hear that?" He asked, and as I looked at the blinking lights on the wall, I noticed three or four shadows being cast against the illuminated bricks. Then...the irregular shuffle of feet on the linoleum. More than one person, or even two. A creeper's pace, slide and step, and some low level groans and grunts accompanying them.
At first, we were frozen in our tracks.
Once I heard the sound of slow motion footsteps coming from around that blind corner...my body seemed to weaken from the inside out. I felt this deadly pressure sink down into my stomach, and then further into my bladder...squeezing it in a death grip as the thought of having some zombie creature's teeth bite into me as hard as they possibly could, with the deliberate intent of ripping the meat from my bones and tearing the flesh open while I screamed and bled from the open wounds...nearly drove me to tears. What if it was 'them'? How did they get inside?
We all took a step or two backwards as we saw the silhouettes of a few boys, our age...or maybe a bit older, like Donovan...come creeping around the corner. Their heads were cocked to the side. Almost as if they needed their own shoulder for support. One leg was dragging behind them as the other one stepped forward, and their arms were twisted at an odd angle. All the while...with breathy moans and rolled back eyes. They rounded that corner, and the four of us found ourselves temporarily paralyzed by the very sight of them! Holy SHIT!!! What the fuck was this?
All of us took a few more steps backward as the bodies came limping around the corner. We couldn't see their faces, but their mannerisms were way off from what we would expect from a normal human being. Nothing about their movements seemed natural. Nothing at all. There were three of them, and as they turned to look at us and start dragging themselves in our direction, this unbelievable sense of dread and utter PANIC washed over us, all at once.
Preston's heavy breathing was so erratic that I had to look over to make sure he wasn't hyperventilating. His bright eyes were wide as silver dollars as he gawked at the awkward sway of the bodies lurching ungracefully in our direction.
My heart began to pound in my chest. My 'fight or flight' instinct was definitely swinging all the way into 'flight' mode...but my legs felt cold and stiff. I couldn't run. I could barely move outside of the few steps that the four of us took backwards in unison.
Donovan spoke up. "Hello?" But he got no answer from the shadowy figures in front of us. "HELLO???" He said again, louder this time. Still...no answer.
The lopsided bodies just kept doddering towards us while scraping their tattered sneakers along the tiled floor beneath their feet.
Closer, they came. Faces hidden in the blackest of shadows.
I felt Alex's hand reach over and take a hold of my sleeve. Even through immobilizing fear, he was able to get a grip on me and let me know that, if he was going to run away from this potential threat, he had every intention of taking me with him. Which was slightly comforting, but not as much of a relief as I wanted it to be, considering the situation.
"Are you fucking around with us, or what?" Donovan called out to them as they stepped closer. I don't think I've ever heard a moment of fear or doubt in Donovan's voice before. But I did now. "This isn't funny! You'd better fucking say something, if you know what's good for you!" He shouted, even louder than before.
No answer. Just slobbering and shuffling...and then a long, red, stream of thick, soupy, liquid pouring out of their clenched teeth.
We weren't getting through to them, and once our fear had truly gotten the best of us...we didn't see any reason to try anymore!
As the silhouetted figures slowly approached us, Alex suddenly looked at me and said, "Dude, I think we should just...RUN..."
But before he could even get the words out of his mouth, we all looked behind us, and saw that Preston was already halfway down the hall, chestnut brown hair flowing behind him, running so fast that we could barely keep track of him in the dark!
Stunned by his sudden departure, and the candy wrapper that was just now falling to the floor from where he was standing, Donovan's eyes widened and he said, "FUCK IT! GO!!!"
Suddenly, my legs were given strength, and Alex and I turned around and went charging back down the hallway as fast as we could, with Donovan running right behind us!