Prelude: Infection Countdown
My name is Elli Perry and I’m sixteen years old. Today’s the first day of school and I’m so excited. Not only is my best friend Annie riding my bus, but the cute new kid who moved two doors down is riding too. The first day of school is always chaotic at my house with mom and dad getting ready for work while trying to get two kids and a baby up and out the door in time for classes and daycare. I kinda felt bad for my mom as everyone turned to her for things they misplaced like she
was the official lost and found. “Mom, where’s my new shirt!” “Mom, where’s my other shoe!” “Jen, I can’t find my black pants!” To be honest, I don’t know how she put up with all of us. This morning, though, she seemed strangely distracted by the morning news on the small TV in the kitchen, her forehead wrinkles bunched tight with worry.
“Mike!” she called upstairs, “I think you need to see this. The news is saying there’s a dangerous virus floating around and everyone needs to take precautions.”
My dad came quickly down the stairs and stood with my mom watching the news. I saw his face crumble into worry and felt a jolt of alarm. My dad was one of those awesome people who never let the world get under his skin and always had a smile that made us kids feel like we were the smartest, coolest, most awesome kids in the whole world. I listened to the reporter instructing everyone to try and stay indoors if they could as the virus was affecting the behavior of its host.
“I don’t like the sound of this, babe,” he said, speaking in low tones, “He just said it’s happening everywhere. A pandemic? I’m going to get out early today. Maybe we should stock up on some supplies, what do you think?”
“Good idea,” my mom agreed, “I’d feel safer with you here, anyway. Maybe the kids should stay home today, Mike,” my mom suggested, “Ellie can watch Stevie and the baby.”
“No, mom!” I argued, “Ellie can’t watch Stevie and the baby! Ellie can’t miss her first day back to school! Annie will freak out if I’m not on the bus with her!”
“I understand that, sweetie,” my mom countered, “But this shouldn’t be taken lightly. You heard what the newscaster said!”
“I realize that, but I need to be on that bus today, mom! Please don’t make us stay home!”
“Can I stay home, mom?”Stevie asked, “I don’t want no virus, so can I stay home?”
“Hey,” I snapped, “If I go, you go! We’re supposed to be a team, remember?”
“Yeah, when I was like five,” he shot back, “now you’re just an annoying big sister who thinks she can boss me around all the time.”
I wondered where my cute little brother went. He was a little brat now and at eight years old, a little nerdy know-it-all. My baby brother, Joey, was my favorite. At two, he was still a cute little bean with reddish hair and freckles sprayed across his button nose. I loved tickling his round, little belly as he screeched with laughter.
Looking at the clock, I shoved my lunch in my bookbag and gave my mom puppy dog eyes.
“Pleeeease mom”? I begged, “Come on, for real. When have you ever heard me beg to go to school?”
“Alright, Ellie,” she sighed, giving in, “But if you see anyone coughing or acting sick, stay far away, got it? If you see anyone acting strangely, come home.”
“Got it, thank you mom,” I smiled, kissing her cheek and sticking my tongue out at Georgie over her shoulder. “Come on, brat, hurry up, the bus is gonna be here any minute.”
I grabbed the straps of his bookbag, steering him towards the door. Dad still looked worried, but as usual, he didn’t argue with mom. Gulping the last few sips of his coffee, he picked up Joey and put him in the car to drop him off at daycare which was right on the way to work.
I boarded the bus with Stevie following and sat him in front with the rest of the smaller kids. I spotted Annie right away as she smiled and waved excitedly, making big eyes at someone behind me. Sliding in the seat next to her, I looked up to see the new kid and blushed as he made eye contact with me. Wow, was he a hottie. His hair was a rich chestnut color shaved up the sides and the back but left super long on top which he put into a man-bun. His eyes were absolutely gorgeous. The greenest eyes I’d ever seen framed by thick, dark lashes any girl would kill for.
“Hey,” I said, smiling shyly as I plopped next to Annie, “You’re new, right?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back. Duh! Obviously he was new! God, I could be a dumb ass.
“Hey,” he answered, “Yeah, I live three doors down from you, I think. I’m Zack Pryzblo.”
“Ellie,” I told him, getting an elbow in the ribs from Annie, “and this is my friend, Annie.”
“Hi Annie,” he smiled, revealing two deep dimples in his cheeks that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, “How’s it going?”
“ So did you hear the news about the virus hitting the US?” I asked Annie, “Kinda scary. My parents didn’t want me to go to school today, but I talked them out of it., thank God.”
“My parents had the TV on, but I don’t think they were really listening,” Annie replied, “I caught the tail end of the news and just heard a little bit. What’s happening?”
Zack joined the conversation and answered before I did.
“Well, apparently there’s this virus going around that’s affecting almost all of the United States,” he told her, “First you get sick, then you literally lose your mind and start attacking people.”
“Oh my God, are you serious?” Annie gushed, “I hope it stays away from here. That sounds mad crazy.”
“I think we might be in the same homeroom class, Zack,” I told him, “Same letter of our last name and all. I can show you where it is if you want.”
“Yeah, cool, thanks,” he smiled at me and I swear I felt my face get hot.
Needless to say, the bus ride to school just got so much more interesting than last year.
I have to say, school felt very strange on the first day. Everyone seemed to be on edge or something. Not only that, but the sky was criss-crossed with weird tube-like clouds. I read that conspiracy theorists called them ‘chemtrails’; planes that spewed out poisonous chemicals to make us all sick. Our teachers kept checking their cell phones, something we didn’t see very often considering they took ours away for the very same thing. But it was in my third period math class when shit really hit the fan. Annie sat in the back of me and the new kid, Zack, across from me. As I sat there wondering if he was a jock, whom I secretly couldn’t stand, Clayton Matthews stumbled into the classroom with blood all over his shirt. Cherice Jakowski, one the cheerleaders, whom I also couldn’t stand, shrieked in horror, scaring the shit out of everyone else and stirring them to a panicked state.
“Clayton!” Mr. Brodski, our math teacher gasped, “What the hell happened to you? Is that your blood?”
“Mr. Brodski!” Clayton was actually crying, “There’s a man outside on school property! He was bending over, puking blood or something, I don’t know. I went over to see if he was okay and when he stood up, oh man, he looked like some crazy animal or something! He was freaking growling at me and then he grabbed my arm and bit me as hard as he could. I don’t feel so good, Mr. Brodski.”
We all noticed he was holding his arm, the blood dripping onto the floor and forming a puddle around his feet and some of the girls started crying.
“Jesus, Clayton!” Mr. Brodski got on the in-class phone, “Send the nurse down to classroom A-5 immediately, and call 911!”
He turned back to Clayton and carefully rolled the kid’s sleeve up, his eyes widening in horror at the vicious bite wound. A half-dollar sized chunk of meat had been ripped clean off of the kid’s arm.
Clayton took one look at his wound and fainted face down in a puddle of his own blood.
“Oh, Lord, where’s that Goddamn nurse!,” Mr. Brodski screamed as he knelt down to help him.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir,” Zack warned, “Get away from him now!”
When Mr. Brodsky turned Clayton over, we watched in horror as his eyes opened. Only, they weren’t brown anymore. Instead, they were a weird opaque blue, like he was blind or something. Quick as a flash he grabbed Mr. Brodski’s head, pulling it down to his mouth where he proceeded to rip our teacher’s throat out. Our teacher’s life ended in wet, gurgling screams. Simultaneously, more screaming could be heard outside and the class, still in shock, exploded into chaos. Suddenly, it hit me. I knew exactly what this was. I watched enough movies about it, that’s for sure. I looked over at the new kid and saw the same realization in his eyes. Blocking out the screams of my panicking classmates, I grabbed Annie’s hand and yelling at Zack to follow, led them out of the classroom to the gymnasium. There was an exit down there leading to a path which cut through the woods in the direction of my house. I knew instinctively we had to stay out of sight and off the streets.
“Come on, you guys!” I urged, “To the woods, hurry!”
We made a beeline to the door and ran for the cover of the woods as fast as we could go without falling on our faces. Once sheltered by the dense forest canopy, we dared to peek from around a grove of maples to the streets beyond, and what we saw was utter chaos. Teachers and kids running and screaming from the school, chased down by other people who didn’t seem to have control of their limbs as they staggered and moved sporadically.
“Oh, my God, Ellie, I’m so freaking scared,” Annie cried, “What’s happening? Who are those people?”
“Annie,” I said ominously, “Welcome to the zombie apocalypse.”
“You’re freaking kidding me, right? Stop joking,” she sobbed, “I just want to go home, Ellie. Let’s go, okay?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen enough,” Zack agreed, “Let’s go.”
We walked quickly but quietly through the woods, talking in soft voices. Annie was unusually silent, her upbeat personality squashed by fear. An only child, she was incredibly sheltered and I knew the gravity of our situation was playing with her head.
“Zack,” I moved closer to him, “Tell me I’m not crazy. Those were zombies, right?”
“I just don’t know, Ellie,” he admitted, “You saw what they were doing, how they looked, the bite on that kid’s arm, what do you think?”
“I know what I saw, too,” I said, “I wasn’t dreaming or watching The Walking Dead. People were biting and ripping flesh off of other people!”
“Oh, my God, Ellie,” Annie sobbed, “This isn’t real, this can’t be real!”
I put my arm around my trembling friend and made her stop walking.
“Listen,” I said, putting my forehead to hers, “Remember all the times we pretended there was a zombie apocalypse? All the movies we watched at the cinema? I believe it was for a reason! This moment right now! So we need to be calm and we need to be watchful, okay? The ones who died were the ones who panicked and didn’t keep a level head. You with me? You understand?”
She nodded, trying to smile through her tears. I winked at Zack over her shoulder and he smiled in return. We walked quickly, each of us watching in all directions till we reached the edge of the woods that led to our street. Peering out from behind the trees, we listened and watched for about ten minutes.
“Should we try it?” I asked Zack, “I really want to go home and check on my family.”
“Yeah, me too,” he agreed, “Remember, if any of your family members are acting strangely, don’t ask questions, just run. Okay? Don’t play the hero and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Where do you want to meet up?”
“Right here,” I told him, “cause you don’t know the neighborhood yet and this is close but out of sight. Annie, are you ready?”
She nodded and I saw how hard her hands shook as she wiped a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“Okay, on three; one...two...three!”
We jetted out of the woods, making a beeline to our houses and as the sound of my sneakers slapping the pavement pushed me to go faster, I quickly forgot about my friends as my family became my main concern.
Within seconds I was standing across the street from my house and my heart dropped when I noticed my front door wide open. On the alert, I crept in slowly, reminding myself that in every zombie movie I’ve ever watched; noise attracted the dead. I restrained myself from calling out to my mom and baby brother and hoped Georgie was still safe in school. Tip-toeing, I peered around the corner into the living room and spotted Tank, our Golden Retriever, hiding behind the recliner. Not a good sign. Tail tucked up tight between his legs, ears back, he whined softly at me to acknowledge my arrival and I pressed a finger against my lips, shushing him.
Our bedrooms were all upstairs with my sister and I in the first room on the left, then my brother’s room, and across from us, my parent’s. The house was unnaturally quiet, no sounds of the living such as cupboards opening and shutting or my baby brother babbling baby talk. Just dead silence. It was creepy and unsettling as hell. Walking up the stairs I cringed when I hit the third step that moaned like an old man in pain, forgetting to step over it. At the top, I looked both ways and ran to my mom’s room, calling out to her in a loud stage whisper.
“Mom!” I cried out, “Where are you?”
I heard the closet door creak open slowly and my mom peered out with wide, terrified eyes. Putting a finger to her lips, she waved me over and yanked me inside, quietly shutting the door and pulling me into her arms. I could feel her body shaking and her fear transferred itself to me.
“Did you see him?” she asked me, her voice trembling, “Did you see your father out there?”
“No mom,” I told her, “why? You saw dadWhat’s going on?”
“Oh, Ellie!” she burst into tears, “I don’t know! Your father came home after dropping your brother off at daycare and he had blood all over him. He was acting strangely. Throwing up and making these weird grunting noises. When he saw us, he looked at me like he wanted to tear me limb from limb. It made my stomach flip, Ellie! I ran upstairs and I’ve been hiding in here ever since. I haven’t heard a thing in the house, but I’ve been hearing screams from all over the neighborhood. Horrible, long screams that just go on and on. What’s happening? Why are you home?”
I told her what we saw at school and just as I was about to finish, a noise made us freeze in place. Someone was coming up the stairs….