Jasper stared indignantly at Charles and Donovan felt his partner’s distrust of the old man as it hung in the air between them.
“Actually, I’d like to sit with my friends,” Donovan finally said, “you know, to catch up.”
“Nonsense!” Charles waved off the notion with his hand and stood to pull the empty chair out from the table. “There will be plenty of time for you to chat with your friends, I’m sure. Please. I insist.”
Donovan looked at Jasper, then down at Cynthia. The young girl stared up at him, clearly anxious to sit and eat. Vicky pulled her close and said, “don’t worry, I’ll sit with her.”
“Well now, don’t leave us all waiting,” Charles said through his bogus smile and Donovan finally agreed to take the empty chair.
“We’re gonna have a talk later,” Donovan whispered to Vicky as he passed her to sit at the head of the table.
“I feel like dining in a group always raises morale, don’t you?” Charles asked as Donovan inspected the mystery meal with his fork.
“Yeah, sure.” Donovan looked around at the group of people who were ‘lucky’ enough to sit closest to Charles.
“I suppose I should introduce you.” Charles smiled as he settled in his own chair. “Of course you know Lila, Brian and Joshua already. Have I apologized yet about that particularly rude meeting? It’s just protocol you see. With the world in its current state, it will quickly become difficult to trust strangers.”
“You don’t say,” Donovan muttered but Charles continued as if he hadn’t said a thing.
“And over here we’ve got Romie,” Charles gestured to the woman on Donovan’s left.
Romie, decked in soiled overalls, reached a dirty hand towards him with a friendly nod. “Don’t worry, I’m not nearly as stuffy as old Chuck,” she said as she shook his hand. “I’m in charge up top. Carpenter by trade, gardener by hobby. I’m teaching some of these fine people how to build planters and grow their own food.”
“Yes, Romie is an integral cog in our survival machine!” Charles seemed to take a more sombre tone as he nodded his head towards the man on Romie’s other side. “And this gentleman is known as Aleksi.”
“Nice to meet you, Aleksi.” Donovan held a hand across Romie for the man to shake but he simply stared at it for a moment and went back to eating. Donovan couldn’t help but feel like he’d seen Aleksi before but didn’t know from where. “Uh... what do you do here?” Donovan asked, pulling his hand away slowly.
Aleksi exhaled slowly as he looked at Donovan, his mouth moving in an almost exaggerated way as he chewed. When he finally swallowed he said, “I... translate messages.” His voice was thick with some strange Eastern European accent.
Donovan’s brows knitted together. “What does that mean?”
“I hear!” Charles’ voice was louder than usual as he spoke out to interrupt the exchange. “That you’ve already got some friends here in the tower?”
Donovan turned down the table. Cynthia instantly made eye contact and waved, she was already looking healthier now that she was fed and safe. Sitting on either side of her were Vicky and Noah. Charles raised his glass towards the two of them and they looked like they were overflowing with joy. Each of them waved at Charles and as they did their posture seemed to straighten. “Vicky is quickly becoming something of a protégé of Lila’s, no offense to Joshua.”
“Joshua knows everything I can teach him for now,” Lila said as she looked at the strong man beside her. Donovan thought he noticed pride in her eyes--the first trace of emotion he’d seen in the hard woman. “He mostly just helps me teach the newbies now.”
“But Vicky,” Charles said to Lila, “is she not an excellent student?”
Donovan was overwhelmed by the expression that took hold of Lila’s face. She stared down the table at Vicky and actually smiled. “Such a fast learner,” she said.
“Really?” Donovan couldn’t help but laugh. “She’s always been a terrible student.”
Lila’s smile faltered as she turned to Donovan and her tone returned to it’s naturally cold state. “Maybe she just needed the right teacher.”
“Yes, yes, she’s quite the little spit fire though. Keeps us all on our toes.” Charles interrupted and Lila submissively lowered her challenging gaze from Donovan. “Noah, on the other hand, has been such a great help for Tiberius. The poor old doctor barely remembered Noah from their time together at Grace Memorial, but he was more than happy to have such a well-trained nurse. They sure do work well together.”
“Noah’s always been a hard worker.” Donovan was suddenly proud of his friends, seeing them for who they were with his host’s help.
“Enough talk of others! How long have you and Jasper known each other?”
“We just met online,” Donovan lied, “not long before all this happened.”
“I don’t like liars.” Could the man really tell that easily when he was being lied to? “Dishonesty is not a good quality in a leader.”
“I was under the impression you thought Jasper was our leader.”
“My point exactly.” Charles took a sip from his water glass and placed it gently back on the table, turning it so that the light from the closest candle glinted off the glass.
“Jasper’s not dishonest,” Donovan said, however he couldn’t help but remember Jasper’s lies in the attic. He was so convincing about the bite that Donovan almost believed it himself. Although, in the end he hadn’t lied at all had he? He said that Donovan wouldn’t turn into a zombie and, well...
“It’s your virtue that I’m most concerned about,” Charles said. “Sometimes, leaders are faced with tough choices. It’s always best to look at a situation from every possible angle and come to an honest conclusion before making such decisions. Otherwise, you could wind up haunted by your mistakes.”
“There you go again, implying that I’m a leader.” Donovan grew confused as the old man spoke in circles. “What are you getting at?”
“Tell me about Cynthia.” The old man grinned even wider now and Donovan couldn’t help but notice that every person in this place avoided answering his questions. “Where did you ever meet such a wonderful little girl? She can’t possibly be yours, you’re so young!”
“We fell through my neighbour’s roof and she was the only one left alive in the house. The others--” Donovan trailed off as he glanced down the table at Cynthia. “It just... it felt like I was meant to find her, you know? When I saw her I knew we had to take her with us.”
“Oh,” Charles said as he put a hand on his chest. Donovan noticed his creepy grin slip into a genuine frown for the first time. “What a lucky girl to have you stumble into her house when you did. She surely wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
“Yeah. I can only imagine what she’s been through--wait! Stop changing the subject! Why doesn’t anyone answer any of my questions around here? Who are you people?”
Just as Donovan leapt to his feet, the door to the dining hall burst open. Dr. Kent rushed to Charles’ side, his stained, white lab coat billowing in his wake. He seemed even more jittery than before and there was a splatter of blood across his face. “Sir, we have a, a... we have an issue downstairs.” Dr. Kent lowered his head as he spoke.
Charles didn’t look at the doctor, but still his face twitched with what looked like anger. “What sort of an issue?”
“Well... um... I believe it would be best if you saw it for yourself.”
Charles looked up at the doctor for the first time and noticed the blood splattered on him. The color drained from the old man’s face and he quickly stood up.
“I’m afraid this conversation will have to wait until morning,” Charles said. As if on cue both Noah and Lila got to their feet and followed Charles and the doctor out of the room.
“What? Where are you going?” Donovan tried to go too but a firm hand grabbed hold of his elbow and pulled him back.
“Stay out of it, son,” Aleksi said. Donovan made eye contact with him, then looked down at the tingling spot where the man was touching him. He thought he could feel more than just a cold hand on his flesh, there was something oddly electric. There was a sudden jolt that shot up through his arm, over his shoulder and deep into his brain. He yanked his arm free and Aleksi took off after Charles.
“That asshole!” Jasper rushed to Donovan’s side and grabbed hold of him as Aleksi disappeared. “Are you okay?”
Donovan rubbed the spot where Aleksi had shocked him. The electric buzz that had passed between them was still firing through his body. He could see a wooden chair in his memory, sitting by a window. He felt himself sit in the chair and pull back the thick curtains to peer across the street at his own house.
“He was watching my house,” Donovan said, confused by the images.
Jasper bent his neck to look into his boyfriend’s eyes and said, “What do you mean? How do you know that?”
“I saw it. I mean, I felt it. It was like this giant static shock and then... I knew what he knew.” Donovan’s memories of the chair were already subsiding into nothing. He couldn’t even remember the color of the curtain anymore.
Jasper stared hard into Donovan’s eyes. Then he appeared to arrive at some internal conclusion and said, “Let’s go.” He tried pulling Donovan out the door but Joshua and Brian promptly blocked their path.
“We’re sorry, but we can’t let you leave.” Joshua said.
Donovan thought about arguing but he decided he’d just ask Noah what happened later. He returned to the table, dragged his chair to the other end to sit down with his friends.
“You feel a little better now?” Donovan asked Cynthia as he forced a smile across the table at the girl. He was beginning to regret taking her to this mysterious place.
The girl nodded and returned his smile, though it seemed more genuine on a child who didn’t know any better.
“And Vicky’s playing nice?” He asked her, continuing his happy game.
Cynthia scrunched her brows together, putting her finger on her chin as she thought about the question. “Yup!” she said with another excited nod.
“Great,” Donovan turned to the window and the dark city beyond. He was hoping to see the stars brightened by the lack of electric light, but instead the still present cloud of black smoke blotted them out. He stood and stepped towards the glass, placing his hand against the hard chilled surface. After a few moments, he turned to look at Jasper.
“Donovan? What’s going on?” Jasper said. “You look pale.”
“I don’t know.” He couldn’t help but feel like something was going to happen, something that would make the last three days seem like a back page news story.
They picked at their food, appetites gone, until Brian escorted them back to their apartment. Jasper picked a bed and fell onto the mattress, passing out instantly. Donovan and Vicky tucked Cynthia under some blankets on a rolling cot and then sat down in the living room together.
“Donovan, what the heck happened to you? You were getting so sick when I saw you last I just thought... I mean I know you said you weren’t bitten but--” Vicky trailed off and he stared blankly at her.
“Well, I wish you’d just believed me,” he said, trying to keep his ‘I told you so’ in check. “We could have stayed together. What are you doing here anyway? What about Jessica? Your mother?”
“I dunno. When we first got here, all I wanted was to get out and be with Jessica. But then I talked to Charles and he’s so brilliant! It was like all my worries melted away! Just give it a chance! I mean, there’s a doctor here, they have food and they teach you how to defend yourself.” Vicky’s excitement mounted as she spoke. In fact, she seemed too excited. “I mean, you should see the shooting range on the ninth floor. And it’s not just guns either! Lila is teaching me hand-to-hand combat. I picked up this shovel, it’s a pretty unassuming weapon I guess, but Lila has just taught me so much already! She’s such a good teacher, Donovan, you have no idea--”
“My God,” Donovan interrupted Vicky as her joy was reaching a crescendo. “What happened to you? Can’t you see the people here are messed up? It’s been three days and there’s a dining hall? An infirmary? A shooting range? Not to mention the fact that they changed you. What about Jessica? Your shining star! That’s what you called her and now you’re just ignoring the fact that she exists?”
“I’m not ignoring her!” Vicky scoffed. “I’m learning how to protect her!”
“Are you? Or is that what they’re telling you to keep you around? You’re being lied to! The only way you can protect your daughter is to actually be with her!”
Before he could scold her any further, Donovan felt a sudden twisting in his belly. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead but he assumed it was the result of the not-so-fresh meat working through his digestion system.
“Ever since Noah and I--”
“And what’s going on with you and Noah anyway?” Donovan felt a sudden moment of clarity as he remembered the scene in the apartment when he’d first walked in.
“Are you okay?” Vicky asked, “You don’t look so hot.”
“Yeah I... I just need to get some sleep I think, but don’t avoid the question! I’ve had too many people avoid answering my questions lately and I won’t take it from you!”
“It’s nothing.” Vicky shook her head again after a pause to reflect. “I just... I’m lonely you know? We found comfort in each other, that’s all.”
“Okay,” Donovan said, remembering the awkwardness at his place the other night. There was something more to the story behind those two but he wasn’t ready to push the subject just yet. “So now the more pressing question? Jessica?”
Vicky suddenly detached and her gaze became less focused. “I don’t wanna talk about that.”
He sighed and the gesture forced a few weak coughs from his trembling mouth. What was that mystery meat? Or, perhaps, it was the lingering effect of what ever happened when Aleksi touched him? That electric shock of the other man’s memories.
“Seriously, you don’t look well. Maybe you should see the doctor?”
Donovan quickly perked up, seeing this as an opportunity to check out the mysterious infirmary.
“Yeah,” he said, “maybe.” After flashing a weak smile at his friend, he moved to the door and opened it. Brian, one of Lila’s flunkies, was still standing guard in the dark hallway.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“I’m not feeling well. I was hoping I could go see the doctor.”
“Dr. Kent is busy at the moment. You’ll have to wait until morning.”
“But I’m really sick. I need to talk to him.”
“And you will. In the morning. Get some sleep and you might feel better.”
Donovan knew he wouldn’t get anywhere with the stubborn man and slammed the door in frustration. “I’m going to bed,” he said and made his way into the room where Jasper was already sleeping. After quickly stripping, he climbed into bed and snuggled up to his boyfriend’s back, wrapping an arm around him.
“I don’t like liars,” Donovan heard Charles’ voice from before and he thought again about Jasper’s lies in the attic. He felt the pain in his gut and thought about how it resembled the pain he’d felt after being bitten. Something was happening, he knew that for sure, but there was nothing to do about it now.
Eventually sleep came for Donovan and in his dreams he was leaping from tree to tree, following a red truck that barrelled down an empty highway. He saw the truck stop and kept his distance, watching as four people climbed out and hopped onto bicycles. He felt a surge of seething anger as one particularly familiar looking man stopped to pet a dog.
Everything shifted suddenly and he was propelled through time. The sun was high and he saw a flashing red beacon. Zombies were everywhere. Then a terrible shriek, like some sort of steam-powered machine, rippled through the area. Donovan shot straight up in bed, drenched in sweat and struggling for breath. His stomach was twisting with an angry and frightened pain.
“What’s wrong?” Jasper asked.
Ignoring his partner, Donovan stood and pulled back the curtains, which revealed the encompassing darkness of the city. He knew his dream wasn’t simply a fabrication of his subconscious. Something unexplainable deep within his heart told him he had seen events to come.
“I need to see Charles,” Donovan said.
“Donovan, what are you doing? Is everything okay?”
“No! I can’t explain it, Jasper. First there was that knife and I knew I would see Vicky again! Then that guy in the dining hall somehow gave me his memories!” He stared into Jasper’s eyes and shook his head. “You’re probably going to think I’m crazy for saying this but something is happening to me! I’m starting to just know things and I’m telling you I know something is going to happen, something bad!”
Jasper stared at Donovan and in the dim light Donovan couldn’t decipher the man’s expression. Something like a mixture between pride and fear. “I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“Of course you do!” Donovan was wiggling into his shirt now and he cast a disdainful look at Jasper. “Even I think I’m kinda crazy, but I mean, I was bitten. People who are bitten are supposed to change! Maybe... maybe I did too.”
For half a second Donovan thought he saw a grin pull at Jasper’s mouth but it was difficult to tell in the darkness. When he spoke, it was just one word, devoid of any emotion.