Jim took the phone away from his ear and exhaled a long, loud sigh. He fixed his gaze on me and slowly shook his head with disapproval. Then we just stood there for long, uncomfortable moments while Holly scrabbled around in the garage and growled at the ringtone like a vicious dog trying to warn the postal worker not to come any closer.
When Jim finally spoke, it was in a low, calm voice. “Do you know Frank Jenkins, the old fella that lives next door to me?”
I had no idea who Frank Jenkins was, but nodded my head affirmatively anyway.
“I went to see how he was coping,” Jim breathed in deeply. “Must be hard on the old folk, this. What chance do they have of surviving it?”
It was a fair comment, I couldn’t imagine an elderly person outrunning or fighting off my beautiful but infected Holly.
“Especially ones like Frank, with no family to look after them,” he switched his gaze from me to the phone in his hand.
Holly’s phone continued singing its cheerful tune. Jim tapped a finger on the screen of his phone and the tune stopped.
“So I knocked on his door this morning and it swung open. I thought that he’d forgotten to lock up,” he rubbed at his temples with his huge, ham hock of a hand. “I walked in, shouted his name a couple of times and almost fell on my arse.”
I was curious to hear what had happened, but something about this conversation was scaring me. He had heard the phone just as I had. We’d also heard Holly, so why the hell was he talking about Frank Jenkins?
“The hallway was covered in blood, absolutely plastered with it,” he moved his hand down from his temples and stroked his moustache with thumb and forefinger. “I walked into the front room and found a fucking hoodie crouched over Frank’s body,” he looked right at me. I looked at the floor. “It was eating one of his lungs. There were bits everywhere,” his lips curled with disgust. “Half a leg was up on the fireplace, Frank’s intestines were hanging from the light like fucking Christmas decorations,” he slowly wagged his index finger in my direction. “And this little hoodie shit was eating the rest,” he took a step toward me. I took a step back. “Only it wasn’t a hoodie,” he leaned over until his face was so close to mine that I could smell the bacon on his breath. “It was a fucking monster!” He spat the words at me through gritted teeth.
“So I took this knife,” he opened up his coat to reveal a huge knife tucked into his belt, the blade was at least 12 inches long and the blade edge glinted menacingly in the morning light. “And I stuck it right in the fucking head of that monster,” he tapped the crown of his head with his middle finger. “Right there, mate.”
Then, Jim reached over and used the same finger to stab at my head.
I felt so helpless. I wish that I had the courage to snatch the knife from his belt and cut his thick, bullying throat with it, but the ant colony of fear paralysed me. It always has, you know that. So instead of retaliating, I held my breath.
He slowly moved his face away from mine and returned to his original stance. I released the air from my lungs in a short gasp. Jim finally got to the point of his Frank Jenkins story.
“So tell me, William,” he spoke in a low, eerily calm tone. “Is that Holly in there,” he inclined his head and stared toward the garage door. “Or is it a monster?”
“I, I, It’s…” I so desperately wanted the words to come out clearly, but they flat out refused. My stomach tied itself in knots, and I felt like I was about to throw up on Jim’s big black boots. I was so nervous that I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. A fly buzzed its way between us, oblivious of the tension that its wings had just scythed through.
“Spit it out, man. Don’t be a stuttering Nancy-boy!” Jim shook his head and laughed.
Anger gradually burned its way through the fear in my stomach, and gave me the strength to look Jim in the eye, “it’s Holly.”
“Are you sure, William?” Jim scratched at his moustache and lowered his head until his mouth was level with my left ear. “Because it sounds like one of them monsters. Is that what it really is?”
“Yes. No,” I blurted the words out guiltily. “I mean, yes, it’s Holly. She was bitten and she’s infected,” I clenched and unclenched my fists trying to expel the negative energy from my body.
It didn’t work.
“I’m sorry, William. I really am,” the words seemed genuine. “But that’s not Holly now though, is it?”
“It is her!” I backed away from him and held my hands out, palms up. “It is.”
“No. No, no, no,” Jim shook his head slowly. “That’s a monster in there now. Holly is dead and gone.”
“No,” I couldn’t accept it. The sting of a tear trailed its way down my cheek.
Jim placed his huge hand on my shoulder.
“Let me go take care of it,” he pulled his coat back and pulled the knife from his belt. I was so busy feeling sorry for myself that it took me a moment to realise he was walking toward the garage door.
Something inside me urged my body to act. I don’t even know how it happened. I was standing by the kitchen one minute and the next; I was standing with my back to the garage door waving a frying pan full of bacon and eggs menacingly at Jim, the titan from across the road.
“Come on, William. You’re not thinking straight,” he said calmly. “That’s not your Holly. She’s dead.”
“No she isn’t! She didn’t die!” I glared at him stubbornly. “She was bitten but she didn’t die, she just…” I tried to find the right words; I needed to convince him before he stuck the frying pan, bacon, eggs and that big knife of his, right up my stupid backside. “She changed, she got really hot, like a fever, and then she was … well… you know,” of course he knew, he’d stabbed one in the head before coming over to eat my breakfast.
“Dead, William?” He shouted. “Then she was like a dead thing that eats people?” He waved the knife in an unspoken threat.
“She. Is. Not. Dead. Jim,” I spoke slowly and deliberately. My stomach was performing back-flips, but I must have seemed serious enough to Jim. He lowered the knife to his side and stepped away.
“You know what?” He said. “Fine, have it your way.”
He pointed at the door behind me and tapped the flat of the knife on his thigh.
“But if she manages to get out of there,” he nodded his head toward the door. “Then we will revisit this conversation,” eyebrows furrowed and nostrils flared angrily. “Got it?”
“Got it,” I lowered the frying pan and the bacon and eggs spilled out, splattering down onto the marble floor. “Shit.”
“Well, there goes breakfast,” Jim said mournfully. “Let’s me and you go have a chat in the front room.”
I followed him through and sat down on the couch, sinking into the soft brown leather. Jim sat on the armchair beside me, “what about your girl? Is Gemma in there with her mother?”
“No,” I answered bluntly. “She’s with,” I shrugged my shoulders and sighed. “I don’t know where she is,” it actually felt good to tell him the truth. “I was going to try and find her but the news and the hospital said to stay home.”
Jim sat back in the chair and laughed. “Fuck them!” He said. Holly groaned and banged her hands against the garage door in response to the noise. “Fuck them,” Jim leaned closer to me and spoke in a hushed tone. “That’s your little girl.”
I nodded my head and felt more tears stinging my cheek.
“Listen to me, William. We need to stick together; we have to get through this thing alive,” he prodded his index finger down onto his knee to emphasise the importance of the statement. “I can help you, William. We can help each other.”
I don’t what help he thought I could be to him, but I knew that he was definitely worth sticking with, so I just kept nodding in agreement.
“First, we’ll go look for Gemma. Then we go find somewhere safe,” he absently stroked his moustache. “You still got that lovely SUV?”
“Yes but,” so that’s what he wanted from me. “Holly.”
“Obviously we’ll need to get past her first,” he said impassively. “Tie her up or something.”
“I don’t want her to get hurt,” I told him.
“I know, William. I don’t want that wrapped round my head, either,” he pointed at the frying pan that I was still clinging on to.
I laughed nervously and laid the pan onto the floor.
“Get me a couple of pillowcases, will you?” Jim jerked his thumb in the direction of the stairs.
I went upstairs and took two pillowcases from the linen cupboard in the bedroom. Then I grabbed another two, just to play it safe. Jim was waiting for me at the garage door with a broom in his hands. I passed him the pillowcases and he shoved the broom handle flat against my chest until I grabbed hold of it.
“Right then,” he exhaled with a slight whistle. “I want you to push at her with the sweeping brush, yes?”
“Okay,” My voice cracked with nerves.
He placed each pillowcase inside the next until he had a four-ply pillowcase, “while you’re doing that, I’ll put this,” he lifted the pillowcase for effect, “over her head.”
“That’s it?” My eyes widened with disbelief. “Don’t we need to tie her up? The news said scratches can also cause infection.”
Jim nodded, “you’re right. Take off your belt.”
I wanted to argue but knew that it wouldn’t get me anywhere, so I dutifully unbuckled my belt, slipped it from my jeans and handed it to Jim.
“When I’ve got her head covered, I want you to help me get her arms,” he demonstrated by putting his arms behind his back.
“Okay,” I was not looking forward to this. “I think she broke one of her arms.”
“Even better,” Jim nodded his approval. “Right then, so we’re all clear? Push with brush, pillowcase over head, restrain and secure with belt.”
“All clear,” the words barely came out, I was so scared.
Jim turned the key.
He looked at me and gesticulated that he was going to open the door and wanted me to enter first with the broom. I closed my eyes and nodded my agreement.
I ran in screaming at the top of my lungs. Holly lunged at me almost instantly, snapping her teeth and hungrily eyeing me. I slammed the broom head against her stomach and just about managed to keep her at bay while I looked back at Jim, expecting him to rush in and cover up her head.
Instead of performing his part of the plan, he smiled humourlessly, threw the four-ply pillowcase and belt onto the garage floor, then he closed the door, locking me in to deal with my infected wife alone.
Holly clawed at me with her good arm, the broken one hung limply at her side. I had the broom head firmly under her breasts, keeping her out of reach.
“Jim!” Shock and fear swept across me like ice-cold water.
“Your wife, your fucking problem,” he shouted from behind the door.
“Help me!” I looked at the door and then back at Holly. She growled and glared at me through milky, uncaring eyes.
“You want her alive? You do it yourself,” he said coldly.
I looked into Holly’s colourless eyes and screamed. Putting all my weight behind the broom, I pushed her past the car and into the wooden tool rack bolted onto the wall. She smashed into the rack heavily and a hammer thunked down onto her head, quickly followed by a variety of screwdrivers that clattered down around her, confusing her but thankfully not hurting her.
While she was concentrating on the tools, I dropped the broom and ran back across the garage, grabbed the pillowcase and hid out of view behind my Ford Explorer.
Holly soon lost interest in the tools and started to look for me. She ran up to the Ford and slapped her hands against the windows, growling and snapping at the air as though it had whispered some taboo insult into her ear.
I knew what I had to do, I needed to move slowly around the car, sneak up behind her and get the pillowcases over her head. I willed myself to do it, begged my body to work with me, to do this one thing, but it refused and I was frozen to the spot. I had never been so full of fear. Tears ran down my face and snot poured out of my nose. There was so much snot that I sniffled. I tried to be quiet but it had a mind of its own and instead of a barely heard sniff, it sounded more like the grunt of a pig as amplified through a nightclub sound system.
Holly came for me quickly and with deadly intent. She raced around the Ford and leapt at me. Instinct and adrenaline kicked in and I rolled out of the way. Holly sailed through the air and landed hard on the concrete floor. There was an awful crunch followed by an explosion of teeth that rattled across the floor like dice on a craps table.
She was about to get up, but I rolled over and onto her back, holding her down with my weight, her good arm flailed around wildly, trying to hit me but missing each time.
Carefully but quickly, I pulled the four-ply pillowcase over her head, then I scrabbled around, desperately searching for the belt.
It was half an arm’s length out of reach.
“Jim!” Panic threatened to overtake me. Holly tried to squirm and thrash her way to freedom, but my weight held her in check. “JIM!”
Jim opened the door and poked his head through the gap. He looked down at me laying on top of my wife with a pillowcase over her head, and he laughed. Not just a chuckle, oh no, this was a big, hearty belly laugh that sounded like a hippopotamus choking on gravel.
“Do you two need some more alone time?” He asked between laughs.
“The belt!” I was all out of patience with the huge man.
He stepped into the garage and carefully nudged the belt over to me with his foot, “there you go, Billy-boy. Don’t say I never do anything for you.”
I ignored his mockery and grabbed each of Holly’s arms at the elbow. I pushed myself up until I was sitting on the small of her back, secured her arms with my knees and grabbed the belt. After that, it was easy to finish the job.
I lifted her to her feet, opened the back of the Ford, pushed her inside and slammed the hatchback door closed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jim said. “What if she gets loose and dives across the back seat?”
I doubled over, trying to catch my breath and pointed at the inside of the car. Jim stepped forward and looked through the window. There were metal bars between the storage area and the back seat. The bars were to keep dogs from jumping all over the car; they’d hold Holly well enough. She wouldn’t be diving anywhere.
“I didn’t know you had a dog,” he said.
“We don’t,” my jaw muscles bunched up and I felt a vein throbbing in my forehead. “Holly’s Dad has a Labrador that goes everywhere with him, so we had them fitted.”
Jim smiled and patted me on the back, “I’ll tell you what, Billy-boy, I didn’t think you had it in you, but fuck me sideways if you haven’t.” He walked around to the passenger side of the SUV, “seriously, good for you.”
“William,” if looks really could kill, mine would have been ripping Jim’s chest open and eating his heart. “My name is William.”
“As you say, William,” Jim opened the car door. “Are you ready to go?”
“I have to get something first,” I rushed back into the house and grabbed my thick, leather bound notebook and a handful of pens from the table by the front window. After a few seconds of wondering how I would carry the unwieldy book around, I noticed my messenger bag hanging from the coat hooks beside the front door. I pulled the bag down, put the long strap over my shoulder and stashed the notebook inside.
“What’s in there?” Jim asked when I returned.
“I’m going to write a diary of events,” I told him. “It might be useful in the future.”
“A fucking gun would be useful,” Jim shook his head. “Well, come on then, let’s go find that pretty little girl of yours, shall we?”