It was a little after sunset when I actually finished my report. Not the best thing I had ever done, but I always did like history, and the settlement teacher, Mr. Munroe, had requested five pages from everyone on the topic of their choice. While most people would use their computers or even typewriters for the project, I always like writing things out by hand. It improved my penmanship, I thought. My mother had the most beautiful writing, and it would take me years and hundreds of pages to catch up to her.
I clicked my pen to sheathe the nib (I was running low on ink for this one and should probably get a new pen soon), and stretched my arms above my head to hear the cracks of unhappy joints. My small room was fairly dark, with only the desk light on and aimed at the pile of papers on my desk.
My stomach grumbled now that I was moving again, and snacks sounded like a great idea. A meal would be even better. Liv was the best baker in the settlement (or of a three street radius, with two of those streets being for farming and quarantine), and I hoped she brought her cookies. We recently got a large shipment of powdered milk and flax seeds, and Casey and I tended to get a good share of baked goods for living with and tending to Aunt Andy.
“Casey?” I called out, my stomach urging me to hurry down the stairs even as I hummed in agreement. It was cookies. Definitely. I could smell them from here! “Did you start dinner yet?”
In that moment, Aunt Andy screamed.
It was a shrill sound, thin and old and almost cracked, but a startlingly loud noise nevertheless with a sort of inhuman quality to it. I froze immediately on the stairs in mid-step, eyes turned to where the sound came from.
As if sensing my thoughts, a decrepit figure of an old woman burst out from the kitchen, moving faster than she had any right to, and locked onto my form with bloodshot eyes. I was frozen in place, muscles refusing to so much as twitch as I watched her, the woman who used to be Aunt Andy, the old woman who would bark orders and me and Casey all day long and then smile at us at the end of the night and tell she we were a blessing to her, I watched as she dropped down slowly to all fours, her arms thin and brittle-looking and her skin a waxy grey colour with the imprint of dark veins. I watched as she snarled at me, and then pushed off from her legs on all fours in my direction.
And finally I could move again. I turned without another thought, heart pounding in my chest, and raced back up the stairs. Back into my room. Locked the door, and then pulled my chair to shove the wooden back under the doorknob before running to open my window.
My hands were shaking, barely holding it together enough to open the latch.
That wasn’t Aunt Andy. That was just a monster in Aunt Andy’s form. Where was Casey? Where was Liv? Where were everyone else?
A howl at my door and pounding, the pounding of a body being slammed against the door rather than a fist knocking. The doorknob jiggled, and there was another inhuman howl. I cursed my clumsy fingers, cursed the weak wetness of my eyes that made me briefly wipe away tears, pushing my palm so hard against my eyes that I saw spots for a moment, before I finally got the window open.
I could imagine Aunt Andy, old and frail, breaking her own bones in attempts to get to me as I climbed out the window into the early twilight. All was still outside, and I gasped for air silently, thankfully, as I carefully slid slippered feet onto the branch of the young tree that grew right outside my window. Where was Casey? He had been downstairs. He would have warned me if anything strange went down. He would have said something.
Where was my brother?
I whimpered slightly as I rested my weight onto my discoloured ankle, and then bit down on my tongue hard before I could let loose any other noise that might reveal my position. I had to find Casey. I needed to warn everyone else that Aunt Andy was infected, had turned.
But how? How? Aunt Andy never left the settlement. There were no more mosquitoes carrying the disease, and our quarantine should have caught any signs of illness. The rooms were made of stone and latched from the outside, after all. It wasn’t possible for anyone inside to get out. She barely ever even left the house.
“Casey.” I mouthed silently as I slid my way down the tree trunk. Even from here, I could hear Aunt Andy’s fury. My hands were still shaking. I had dropped my pen on the floor before I climbed out the window. I wasn’t even wearing a jacket, and was wearing my inside slippers out of the house. Aunt Andy would be so mad. “Casey!”
There was a responding scream from the house next door. Liv’s house. Her voice held the same inhuman quality as Aunt Andy, and flinched away as if physically struck. This wasn’t a singular incident, and I didn’t have the time to ponder how and why anymore.
“If something really bad happens,” My brother said to my numerous times. “Remember the hill.”
Of course there was a contingency plan just case the infection hit our settlement. Everyone had their own contingency plans, but Casey remembered best having to run through the woods in the middle of the night carrying his injured sister. He had hobbled together an old dirt bike, just big enough to take two, and spent an hour a week making sure it had enough oil, that the engines were working, that the wheels would hold, and that it could be used in any moment. Any emergency.
I raced for the small mound at the edge of our tiny farmlands, slippers heavy as it soaked in the mud under my feet. If he had to leave the house without me, if he was still safe, he’d be—
There was a figure leaning against the prepared dirt bike, and I nearly sobbed in relief as the screaming and howling from the houses finally faded away to a manageable level and I took in my brother’s familiar haircut and coat. He was here. He was waiting for me.
“Max! You made it!”
I stopped so abruptly that I my slippers skid in the mud and I almost fell over. It was dark enough out that I couldn’t see from a distance, but…
Casey was smiling at me. He didn’t look worried at all. He was smiling and his skin was waxy and he was leaning casually over the dirt bike as if nothing was amiss and I wasn’t in my slippers and splattered with mud from the fields. He was smiling like nothing was wrong, and Casey never smiled like nothing was wrong. He laughed and he joked and he grinned, but there had always been that undertone of worry and that pinched between his eyebrows.
Casey smiled like nothing was wrong and I knew in that moment that I would never see my brother again because he was already gone gonegone and I didn’t have the time to cry.
Three years after the spread and some of the infected were more deceptive than Alyssa McAllen had ever been.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the creature who was not my brother said in my brother’s voice. There was blood dripping down his arm, slow like a leaky faucet, from under a sleeve that no doubt covered a bite wound. He smiled all the while. “We need to leave this place.”
I took a step back, the mud under my slippers squelching loudly, trying to suction me back down to the ground.
“Where are we going?” I asked, torn between tears and anger and grief and fear.
“Home.” He, it, told me. “Our new home.”
The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, and his smile was gentler than anything I could remember. Unburdened. Blood continued to drip down his arm.
He didn’t look like he was very injured. He didn’t look crazed or touched by illness. He looked strong, and fast, and I didn’t think I would be able to outrun him. And his smile, the more I stared, seemed wrong. I didn’t know what it was about it— closed mouth and lips quirking up, eyes creased gently around the edges as cheeks more prominent, emphasising the splatter of freckles and that single angry red pimple he despaired about for the past day.
It looked just like him, but it wasn’t him. It was his face, and his body, and his smile, but it wasn’t.
It was a monster hiding in my brother’s skin.
My hands were shaking.
“C’mon, Max,” He called, still smiling with waxy skin and red eyes and blood smeared over an arm. “You know I’d never hurt you, right? Let me get you somewhere safe.”
I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that even infected, my brother was strong enough to fight off the effects and that maybe he loved me enough, me as the only family he had left, that he would never hurt me. That those words were real. I wanted to believe that.
His smile said otherwise.
“Liar.” I accused, voice small. I didn’t dare take another step back. I didn’t dare to bolt, to run, because I understood that he could catch me. Any sudden movement and he might change to reveal the monster that snuck underneath his skin. No sudden movements. No loud noises. I was trapped by the one person I trusted most in the world, and my throat felt thick with despair. “You’d kill me.”
“Oh, sister,” it said with Casey’s voice. “I would never kill you. You don’t die, you know. You just come home. Why would I hurt you? You’re my favourite sister.”
Only sister, I didn’t reply.
“Here,” it told me, and raised a hand to spit on it. “Remember when we were little kids and we’d watch all those shows where they cut their hands up to make blood pacts, and that’s how we wanted to make promises? Dad taught us that spit-shakes were just as important, to make sure we never cut up our hands. Mom hated it, though. Said it was disgusting. And we had to stop when the infection broke out. Remember? But it’s as important as a blood pact. And I promise I wouldn’t hurt you.”
It was all true. Even after the infection, we would spit in our palms and hold it up as a promise that was unbreakable. We wouldn’t shake hands any more, but a part of the tradition continued.
I stepped forward hesitantly, tentatively reaching for that charming smile and that childhood promise. If anyone could do it, if anyone at all could beat the virus, my brother could. If there was any chance, Casey would find it.
In a heartbeat, he reached out for me, grabbed me by the hand. His expression changed then, and that gentle smile fell away into a feral snarl as he pulled me the rest of the way to him and opened his mouth wide.
I shoved him with all my might with my free hand, right against the soft flesh of his neck. He stumbled back in shock then, letting go even as I used my forward momentum to slip my other hand away and push away from him even as his jaw snapped shut mere inches away from my collarbone.
He fell backward into the mud and I didn’t waste a moment swinging a leg over the dirt bike and fingers finding the on switch before going to the fuel and choke. The engine revved up, and the creature in my brother’s skin was just starting to push himself back up again when I cursed and pushed my entire weight down on the kick start peg, nearly toppling the bike over to one side before it took off roughly, heavy down the mud.
I could hear him shouting behind me. Could feel the night air blowing my tears to the edge of my hair. I could feel the phantom warmth of his mouth near my collar, hear the snap of teeth echo around my skull. That wasn’t my brother. Casey was gone. He was gone and he would never come back for me and I could hardly breathe as I listened to the roar of the engine under me, as I sobbed for the loss of Aunt Andy, for Mr. Monroe, for Liv and her newborn baby, for Lizzy and Tony down the street, for Kana and Mickey and Taylor and Sam and Miguel.
Because if Casey couldn’t beat the virus, couldn’t push past the symptoms of the infected, then there was no hope for any of us.
“She got away from you.” The old, raspy voice of one once known as Cassandra Nguyen sounded disappointed as the being hobbled its way into the farming fields. Red eyes watched the other’s every movement.
The creature once known as Casey just shrugged its shoulders, unconcerned even as it continued to sit in the mud. Without others to infect, it felt lethargic and heavy.
“You could have stopped her. Sentiment is a defect.”
“If I did, we will all die here.” The creature responded. “Like this, she will find another settlement. Another town.”
“She will reach safety.”
“Don’t worry,” said the being who was once known as Casey. “I grabbed her hand. I know her. She will rub her eyes and infect herself before she thinks better of it.” It waved its fingers around in a lazy circle. “And we will evolve.”