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Degradation (Work in Progress)

By Jacob Harris All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Horror

Chapter 1

Staring blankly out the window at the endless forest around him, James couldn’t help but feel like the last person on Earth. For the most part he felt safe, but James knew eventually he would have to leave his safe-haven and venture back into the world, a world he feared might not have a place left in it for someone like him.

But James could have been wrong. Perhaps the worst was already over. For the past few months he had lost all contact with the outside world. He had no means of communication nor the ability to keep up with the bleak situation that had suddenly arisen. So there was a chance the world had returned to normal after only momentary chaos.

Having wasted enough of his time, James returned to his chair and continued scribbling down his thoughts in a tattered, old journal. When he found it, several pages had been ripped out, making James believe that at some other time another poor soul running from their own unspeakable horror had written their story. He wondered if their act of cowardice was too much to bear, leaving the author to take the story with him. Regardless of what he thought, James was going to leave his story behind intact.

In a worst case scenario, what James was writing very well could turn out to be one of the final written histories of the late great planet Earth.

                                                         * * *

It had begun a few months earlier, but to those who remained it felt more like years had passed. James awoke one day, feeling as if he had just been wrestled away from some perpetual dream. He found himself lying in a pile of refuse in some back alley of the city and left with nary a trace of his memories. James had no knowledge of who he was nor from where he had come. He didn’t even know his name.

After wandering aimlessly around the bustling streets of the sprawling metropolis, James made his way to a sight he never could have imagined.

Times Square was overflowing with activity. From countless cars jockeying for position to thousands of people from around the world, there was nary an inch of space to collect one’s thoughts. All the different languages that were being spoken only added to James’ confusion, making him believe he was stuck inside some sort of dream.

With no clear destination, James continued to wander. But time moved quickly and James soon found himself caught in the dark.

Shelter was presented to James when he stumbled upon a homeless shelter. A man was just about to close the door for the night, but when he saw James he stopped. “You looking for a place to spend the night?” he asked.

“I . . . guess I am,” answered James.

“Well, we don’t have any beds left. But if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor, we can accommodate you. It’s not the most appealing option, but it’s the best we got.”

“I don’t mind,” said James.

As he was making his way inside, James’ stomach began growling so loudly that it was impossible for the man not to hear.

“Sounds like you could use something to eat, too.”

Though he lived the life of a homeless man from that day on, James had no reason to complain. He was surrounded by new friends and the worries that bogged down so many people were only tiny specks in the furthest reaches of his mind.

Early in his residency someone asked James for his name. A quick glance at a newspaper headline about the unearthing of James Dean memorabilia gave him his answer. The name felt right from the start, as if it was always his.

James quickly became the model citizen of the little ragamuffin society. He did all that he could, and more, to earn his keep. He cleaned the shelter everyday as if he was taking pride in his own home. And when the kitchen staff needed a helping hand, James offered two.

One day James was pulled aside by one of the staff. “Listen, James,” said the man, his voice little more than a whisper. “I know you haven’t been here for very long, so I don’t want word of this getting out. You know, hard feelings and all. But I have this friend that runs a little store on the east side. Well, his son is leaving for college next week, so that’s gonna leave them a little shorthanded. And a few days ago he asked me if I knew anyone hardworking who would like to make a little money. So I mentioned your name. What do you say?”

“I say yes,” replied James.

A few days after the offer was made, James had begun working and already endeared himself to his new boss Manny. Just as he had done at the homeless shelter, James worked as hard as he could. And with the store having a backroom with a functioning bathroom, James no longer needed to call himself homeless, as he now had a place to call his own.

And the job came with perks not available at other occupations. There was a television in the store on which Manny watched every Yankee game possible. And when there wasn’t a game on, James chose the programming. And from time to time, Manny would let James help himself to as much candy as he wanted.

Not much along the lines of exciting ever happened on the job, and that sat just well with James, who was more than happy with the life he was now living.

On one uneventful day James was afforded the opportunity to watch the news. There was usually a story or two that could keep his interest, but most of the broadcast felt just as mundane as the rest of James’ day.

“Officials have confirmed a string of mysterious deaths occurring over the past several days at St. Mary’s Hospital,” said a reporter, the aforementioned hospital placed strategically over her shoulder. “And early indications are that the worst may not be over.”

“Hey, I know that place,” said Manny. “My sister in law got her foot operated on over there. They should have given her an attitude replacement instead. I swear I’ve never met a woman with a mouth like the one she’s got on her.”

A doctor was then interviewed. “The affected all claimed to have experienced only minor symptoms before the illness became full blown,” he said. “And by the time they were admitted, it was already too late.”

The walls of the doctor’s office were lined with diplomas and other symbols of accomplishment, but little could anyone have known that the problem that had risen would be far beyond even the most brilliant minds that would set out to solve it.

“What symptoms were they experiencing?” asked the reporter.

“Typical signs of the flu, mostly. Nausea, vomiting, high fever. And in some cases the affected reported experiencing bloody noses or coughing up blood.”

“What happened to these people?”

“We’re not sure how they contracted this illness, but we’re confident we’ll find the root of this problem. It could be something in their family history, perhaps consumption of a tainted food product. But whatever it is, we’re sure to find it in tests we’re running.”

“What did this illness do to these people?” asked the reporter.

“Well, basically, their bodies just told them that it was time for them to die. Their organs gradually began shutting down until total cardiac arrest.”

“Can you believe going out like that?” asked Manny. “Knowing that there’s nothing you can do to stop it? Not for me. I want it to be quick. Don’t let me know it’s coming. I’ve done my time. And when God comes calling, I’m gonna be ready.”

“Authorities want to assure the public that there is no threat of an outbreak,” said the reporter. “And stress that these are all isolated incidents. But not everyone is so sure that the situation is under control.”

The reporter was then replaced on screen by a man as unkempt as those James knew from the homeless shelter. “This is all a government cover up,” he said. “They weren’t going to say anything until someone from the hospital leaked this information to the media. They had no choice but to make it public. They don’t want us to know that this could all be the work of a terrorist network. For all we know, they put something in the food or something in the water, and even more people are gonna get sick. More people are gonna die.”

“Everything’s the terrorists,” said Manny. “You lose your shoes, it’s the terrorists. A fly lands in your soup, it’s the terrorists. People get sick and die all the time. It’s just a fact of life. People are getting all worked up for nothing.”

The reporter then sat down with a professor from a nearby university. “As with what we’ve seen with recent technologies, everything is becoming more advanced,” he explained. “So it should go without saying that biological warfare will follow suit. What at one time was easy to find could now be impossible to detect. The speed at which our society is evolving is beyond comprehension. So why would our enemies not do the same? At this very moment we could all be infected and not even know it.”

Over the next few days reports from around the globe flooded in about people coming down with the same mysterious illness. England, Japan, France and Australia all had confirmed cases, and dozens of other countries were investigating the possibility that some of their citizens had also contracted the deadly disease.

The cases from around the world were the same as the ones seen at home. The affected faded away without the slightest trace of a toxin in their bodies. Doctors and scientists from every corner of the globe worked tirelessly to find out what was happening but were powerless to figure it out. The theory that terrorists could be behind the epidemic was quickly put to rest as it was believed that no such sickness could be man made.

But regardless of any kind of sickness, life had to go on. James and Manny were forced to work extra hours just to keep the store afloat. For the threat of losing the store to the bank far outweighed the threat of any illness.

“Hey, James, how about this summer me and you go to a Yankee game?” said Manny. “You weren’t lying when you said you were a fan, were you? Don’t go telling me you’re a Sox fan. ’Cause if you are, we’re gonna have some problems.”

“Let’s do it,” replied James.

“That’s my boy.”

A man in a trench coat entered. His collar was up and he was slightly hunched over, making it difficult to see his face. But the coat was a familiar one to James and Manny. It was the coat of one of their regular customers.

“Hey, Charlie, how’s it going?” asked Manny.

Charlie paid Manny no attention and made his way to the back of the store.

“I bet he got into another fight with his old lady,” said Manny. “He doesn’t like to show his face after she gets through with him. The last time he had one of those fights they had to take him to St. Mary’s. I bet that’s what happened this time.”

Manny’s wife arrived shortly after Charlie did. As usual, she skipped the greetings and dove right into business. “I just paid Junior’s tuition,” she said. “I can’t believe how much they charge for school. I thought getting him out of the house was going to save us money. But he’s even more expensive now that he’s gone.”

“How much is it gonna cost us?” asked Manny.

“I’ll tell you later. I can’t talk about this on an empty stomach.” And with that, Mrs. Maldonado made her way to the office.

“Look,” James whispered to Manny.

At the far end of the store Charlie had picked up a bottle of whiskey and had it held up around his face. After holding it up for a while, Charlie let it slip from his grasp and to the floor, where it shattered into pieces.

“Hey, Charlie, what’s going on?” asked Manny.

When a reply wasn’t given, James and Manny made their way to the back. “Hey, Charlie, you’re a good customer and all,” said Manny, “but you still gotta pay for that bottle you broke. So how ’bout you come with me so we can ring it up?”

With Charlie’s back turned, neither James nor Manny could tell what kind of state he was in. He had suddenly become as still as a portrait.

“Hey, Charlie, you okay?” asked James.

Charlie turned around. The man’s complexion was extremely pale, making his skin look like that of a dead man. But what was far more troubling than pale skin was the twisted look of rage upon his face. Charlie looked to have been possessed by incredible anger.

“Charlie, you don’t look so good,” said Manny.

It took less than the blink of an eye for Charlie to take Manny to the floor. And once he had him down, Charlie bit Manny on the neck with the unrestrained ferocity of a wild animal, forcing a horrible scream to burst from the store owner.

Using all of his strength James was able to pull Charlie off Manny. But in the process James lost his balance and crashed to the ground, leaving him at the mercy of what was more monster than man. Charlie stared down James for a moment before making a move toward him. But he was stopped dead in his tracks when Manny’s wife fired a shot that struck Charlie in the head, sending him to the floor in a motionless heap.

The paramedics arrived only minutes later, but their quick arrival was all for naught as Manny succumbed to his injuries before they could get to him. Charlie had bitten so deep into his neck that Manny bled to death mere moments after the attack.

With no one else to run the store, James held down the fort until Manny’s wife could decide what she was going to do. The store had been in the family for over twenty years and it had served the Maldonado family well, but it had now become nothing more than a constant reminder of just how cruel a place the world could be.

Business slowed substantially in the days following Manny’s death. The community was extremely fond of the Maldonados, and they too were reminded of just how brutal a crime it was every time they entered the store, so most stayed away.

On one especially slow day James had to do something to block out the silence or run the risk of going mad. Turning on the television did little to give the store a feeling of life, but watching it at least gave James something to do.

As he fought a losing battle with his weariness James was jolted back to his senses when a breaking news flash lit up the screen.

A reporter was standing outside of St. Mary’s hospital. Surrounding the building were dozens of police cars all with their lights flashing. People wearing looks of terror were fleeing from the hospital, while officers made their way inside.

“I’m standing outside St. Mary’s hospital, where reports are flooding in of patients being brutally attacked,” said the reporter. “Witnesses claim that the attackers are the same people who were affected by the disease that has baffled experts from around the world. People are claiming that the dead are coming back to life.”

“What the hell?” whispered James.

The reporter then began looking over notes in his hand. But before he could utter another word, he received a message on his earpiece. “Reports are coming in from around the city that riots have begun breaking out. We don’t know yet if these incidents are connected . . .” The sound of gunshots prompted the reporter to throw himself to the ground. When the camera hit the ground, the screen went black.

James began scanning channels but every one had gone black.

As James tried to fully take in what he had seen, the sound of a car crashing just outside the store shattered the silence.

James rushed outside and was stunned to find the walking dead in every direction. They were slow moving but that did little to lessen how horrifying they were.

The car James had heard crash only moments earlier was a taxi that had slammed into a lamppost only a few yards away. From the backseat emerged a woman who had been badly hurt in the accident. She had stumbled a few feet from the car when the driver emerged. He looked to have been afflicted with the same illness that had turned so many other people into walking abominations. With her limited mobility, the woman was unable to escape her pursuer, who took her to the ground and savagely began feasting on her.

Screams filled the air as people ran for their lives. The undead were seemingly appearing from out of nowhere and devouring those unfortunate enough to be less than fleet of foot.

“What the hell is this?” gasped James.

The notion that waking up without his memories being outside of the norm now seemed utterly nonsensical to James when compared to what was happening.

Acting purely on instinct and thinking only of self preservation, James ran as fast as his legs could take him to the taxi.

“Help me, please!” screamed the woman.

Giving the woman only a glance, James rushed past her and into the taxi. Before he knew it, James had succeeded in fleeing from the scene.

Having begun his escape early, James was able to navigate through the city before total chaos could spill into the roads and block all exits. He sped the taxi for all it was worth until it ran out of gas, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere.

With no desire to find another city that could also be under siege, James hiked into the woods and hoped that he could find safety there.

Just as had happened when he stumbled upon the homeless shelter, fortune shined upon James again as his hike led him to a cabin that would serve as his shelter.

                                                         * * *

The refuge had worked well to keep James safe from any outside threats. But the rations he had found weren’t going to last forever. And that left him with no choice but to leave the safety of the cabin and venture back into the world.

As he finished writing, James began reading aloud.

“With my rations about to run out, I’ve come to the grim reality that I have to leave this place,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll find out there, but if those things are still around, then I might not be long for this world. But still. Even with those things roaming the streets, I fear there’s something else out there. Something worse . . . something far worse.”

A blanket of white was covering the ground for as far as the eye could see. And the wind swirled with snow, making it nearly impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. So fierce was the blizzard that no mortal man could withstand such force.

Within the storm stood a woman whose calm demeanor made her seem an even more formidable presence than what Mother Nature had unleashed. As the woman burned her glare into the distance there was only one thought on her mind. And that thought was to find her target and wipe him completely off the face of the Earth.

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