Authors: William D. Carl
Too much to bear
A breeze blew his papers across the room, and he was struck by an urge to pick them up and organize them again. He laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea.
Closing his eyes, he pulled softly on the trigger. In the moment that he died, he heard someone calling from a distant room, calling his name, and he knew that he had made a mistake.
What if the serum had worked?
My God, what have I done?
The bullet tore through his tortured mind, and his brains and bits of skull spattered on the white wall behind him.
All over the country, the killing shot echoed, as others faced what they had done during the night.
As others were overcome with the guilt of their actions.
As others lost control.
SEPTEMBER 17, 8:20 A.M.
ick had started his therapeutic pacing in the bank vault again, moving faster as the timed opening approached.
Just need to get through a few more minutes. Just a few more minutes,
Chesya listened to his footfalls, trying not to watch him. If she met his eyes, he only grew more agitated, and she wanted to keep him cool and calm until they could safely evacuate the vault. Plus, he was beginning to really aggravate her.
The man simply had no morals. She listened with growing incredulity to the way he described his “exciting” life of danger, his tales of robberies that he had executed while never hurting anyone. He had repeated, throughout the night, that nobody had been seriously injured during one of his holdups, a self-deluding mantra.
Chesya knew differently. She could still see the eyes of her fellow employees, people who weren’t as strong as she was, simply because they hadn’t experienced the streets as she had. Witnessing the terror in their subdued movements, she knew they had been injured, even if they had never been struck. Rick wasn’t accounting for the torture he inflicted upon his hostages, what that did to them. She had no doubt that somewhere, therapists were raking in the dough alleviating the mental agony Rick and his comrades had caused other people to endure.
“When can we get out of here?” he asked.
“About fifteen minutes,” she said. “Ten minutes less than the last time you asked me. And why don’t you have a watch? Big, successful man like you?”
“Don’t like them,” he said. “They get in the way sometimes.”
“Sit down. You’re making me nervous.”
“I don’t think I can sit now. It’s so close. We’re almost free of this damn thing. What do you think’s going to be on the other side of that door when it opens? You think we’ll get out, just go on with our lives?”
“You can head back to Florida, and I’ll go back home, just like you suggested. I’m not gonna stand in your way.”
“What if it’s bad outside? It could be really bad.”
She answered, “I imagine it’ll be pretty ugly, but that doesn’t mean I’m sticking around with you. If those things are everywhere, we’re screwed no matter what we do. I think I’d rather be alone, take my chances by depending on just me, myself, and I.”
“You would, huh?”
“Rick, you’re a criminal. You have the scruples of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, and even that may be giving you too much credit. You rob banks, and you don’t care about little people like me. You’re egotistical.”
That stopped him from pacing. She continued, “You are. Everything is about you. Is it safe for you outside? How will you get to Florida? How long will you be locked up in here? You’re a conceited, selfish punk who doesn’t have any qualms about pistol-whipping an innocent man and leaving him for those things to eat.”
He turned away from her, crossing his arms in a childish pose. He knew she was right, but he felt some inscrutable need to defend himself. “Hey, I said I was sorry for that. I wasn’t thinking like I usually do. But you’re forgetting something.”
He smiled. “I may be a selfish, conceited punk, just like you say, but I’m also a human being. Not like those monsters out there. I think any humans left should stick together. We’re probably gonna need each other, especially if those things are still running around the city. And what if they’ve changed back? How are you gonna know which ones you can be around when they decide to turn into monsters again? I may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but at least you know what you’re getting. No surprises.”
She hadn’t accepted that the world had spun so far out of control,
even though the idea had been poking at her persistently through the night like a renegade bedspring. Rick had a point. It might be better to band together, but the state of the world would have to be pretty insane for her to remain by his side. She had to draw the line somewhere.
“You think about what I’m suggesting,” he said. “You and I know we aren’t infected with whatever caused this shit in the first place. We can trust each other, trust each other as humans.”
He prayed she would stick with him. Although he hated to admit it, Rick was afraid of what he’d seen. He was even more frightened of what might be waiting for them on the other side of the vault door.
Despite herself, Chesya knew he was right. It would be hard to stay near anyone after she had witnessed the other bank employees changing into animals and tearing each other apart. From what she had seen, anybody could turn into one of those creatures. Anyone, that is, except for this morally reprehensible thief and herself.
“I still think you’ll toss me to the wolves if I get in the way,” she said. She paused a moment, almost grinned. “No pun intended.”
“Well, I think I’d rather have you by my side if worse comes to worst.”
She shrugged. The silence inside the metal walls made the air heavier, pressed itself down upon her shoulders. The longer the quietude lasted, the heavier it all seemed. She felt as though she would break beneath its burden.
Trailing his fingers along the side of the vault, Rick began to pace again. He stopped for a moment to look inside the plastic bags crammed full to bursting with cash, and he smiled. The sight of all that money just waiting to be spent relieved him a bit.
“This is a damned good haul,” he said.
“For all the good it’s going to do you.”
of air and a clicking of pins dropping into place, the vault door popped open an inch, startling the two prisoners. They had grown so accustomed to the silence that even the soft wheeze of the time locks being released seemed deafening. They listened for other noises through the crack, and, hearing nothing, crept close to the breach. Rick motioned for Chesya to stand behind him, which
surprised her, and he put a protective arm out to shield her. It was an unconscious impulse, a gentlemanly action, and it gave her another glimpse into the man obscured behind the bank robber.
“Do you see anything?” she asked.
“No. Don’t hear anything either.”
“You think it’s safe?”
He shook his head and turned toward her. “No, but what the hell. Is
gonna be safe anymore?”
He motioned with his head toward the loot stashed in the corner. “Grab a bag and help me carry it to the car. Then you can head home if you want. Take that bubble bath. I won’t stop you.”
Nodding, she picked up one of the Hefty bags, surprised by the weight of the bills. She would help him get the money to his car, since he still had the gun. Then she hoped he would drive away, leaving her with only a memory of this awful night. She clutched the bag with both hands as Rick grabbed two more. He cradled them in one bulging arm and nudged the door open with the barrel of his gun. The steel portal opened easily, swinging wide, exposing the rest of the bank.
“Oh, my sweet Lord …,” Chesya muttered.
The wrecked car that had slammed through the glass front of the building had been turned over onto its back. The gas tank had blown. There were no flames left, only the charred chassis and the twisted, blackened bodies inside. Two naked men had been ripped in half by the blast, their body parts scattered around the lobby in twisted Picasso angles. There was no sign of Jones’s bisected body near the front of the automobile. It had probably been blown to hell with the explosion. The marble counter the car had hit had cracked down the middle, collapsing into rubble on one side, charred down the left. Smoke still wafted up from it, although the fire had been extinguished.
Money and papers were strewn all over the room, drifting with a gentle wind that blew through what remained of the front of the bank. All the windows were smashed; the desks were overturned, and the drawers were pulled out and thrown across the area. One
drawer was lodged in the chandelier that had stubbornly remained intact twenty feet above them, swaying in the wind.
Roughly a dozen ravaged bodies lay on the floor, naked and bloody, so torn apart it was difficult to assign an actual number to the corpses.
“Rick,” Chesya said. She had dropped her bag of money on the floor and was pointing at the vault. “Look at the doors.”
He set his bags down, too. Something had scratched the burnished steel. He put one finger on each of the claw marks, feeling the roughness of the edges, following their path downward with his hand.
“They were trying to get in,” he said. “And we couldn’t even hear them. We didn’t even know.”
“What kind of a demon can scratch steel? I mean, that would break anyone’s fingernails, right?”
“Those things are a hell of a lot stronger than we thought.”
“I don’t recall werewolves doing that in movies, but I guess this isn’t the movies, huh?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m not sure if I want to go out there,” she said, and he saw real fear in her eyes for the first time. Through the night, Chesya had remained the strong one, the glue that had held him together during his bout of claustrophobia; now she was being confronted with a world turned on its head and she wasn’t coping as well. Back on the outside, where he could see what he was dealing with, even if he didn’t understand it, Rick became even more energized and emboldened.
And after seeing the state of the bank lobby, he really, really didn’t want to lose his connection to what could turn out to be the only other human being left on Earth.
“I think we have to,” he said, touching her shoulder. “Where else do we go? Back in the vault?”
She seemed to grow more solid beneath his fingers, sapping strength from him as if through osmosis. “I know you’re right. We need to see what else is happening, but it’s safe in there. We’re certain of that after last night. I’ll hold on to the keys, in case we need a fortress again.”
Rick nodded. He looked around the bank again, took a step forward. “Hello?” he called, the word echoing slightly in the burnt-out chamber. The chandelier creaked above them. “Anyone out there?”
In the distance, a car alarm blared, its notes flat, distorting along with the death of the car’s battery. Other than that, the city was appallingly silent.
“Listen,” Rick said. “Do you hear anything? Any cars or buses? Any people talking?”
“No. Just that alarm, and it sounds exhausted.”
They took another few steps forward, then Rick exclaimed, “The money! Shit, we almost forgot the money.”
“Forget it, Rick. It isn’t going to help us now.”
“It sure as hell won’t hurt us, either.”
“But it will weigh us down. I don’t think I want to go out there lugging around all that heavy cash.”
“Well, at least take a few rolls of hundreds. I don’t know how much this’ll be worth out there”—he motioned toward the streets—“but we should be prepared.”
After some debate, she stuffed six rolls of money in her pockets; Rick managed to fill his with nine rolls, all one-hundred-dollar bills.
Chesya held more than she made in six months, and the thought awed her. She knew she should leave the money, that it wasn’t hers to take. She knew she was becoming an accomplice to Rick’s crime, and she loathed herself for it, but as she looked around at what remained of her old workplace, she could see the reason in stealing. The world and its laws no longer applied, and they might need the money to get out of town. Besides, he still had the gun, even if it wasn’t pointing at her now.
A pistol gleamed on the floor. Rick picked it up, checked the chamber, and found four bullets left. He handed it to Chesya. She abhorred guns, blamed them for much of the violence in her old neighborhood, the violence that had claimed her brothers.
Times had changed, though. She wanted to be ready in case she saw those things again. She took the gun.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You know how to use that?”
“Yeah. I’ve seen my brothers use them.”
“Okay,” he said. “Come on. Let’s see what’s out there.”
They weaved through the smoldering corpses and wound around the wreckage until they reached the hole where the police cruiser had crashed through. Looking out at the streets of Cincinnati, they found themselves dealing with roiling, conflicting emotions. Tears streamed down Chesya’s face, and Rick’s gun hand shook uncontrollably.
It was far worse than they had imagined.
SEPTEMBER 17, 9:00 A.M.
athy Wright didn’t spend more than a few minutes outside. Her Indian Hill neighborhood seemed to be burning around her. She’d walked all the way to the front gates, and she’d watched through the meager security that the wrought-iron bars offered. Two houses that she could see were on fire—one of them belonged to a halfback for the Cincinnati Bengals—and a third house had been hit by a semitruck and had collapsed on the vehicle.
None of the local hired security patrolled the streets.
Naked bodies, bloody and torn, dotted the manicured lawns. Cathy couldn’t make out their faces, which were either turned away or torn to shreds. One corpse hung upside down from a topiary, its guts spilling out of its chest, and another floated facedown in a swimming pool. She spotted a Lexus overturned in a fountain on another neighbor’s lawn, blood smearing the windshield. More bodies lined the otherwise clean ditches.
Those could be my neighbors,
People I’ve known for years