Authors: William D. Carl
Bloody paw prints, huge and disturbing in their sheer number, tracked along the road and up private drives, meandering to and from the various corpses. Kneeling, she examined one of the prints in more detail. It contained one large pad, triangular in shape, with four smaller rectangular shapes above it. Four pinpricks of blood fanned out from these rectangles, and she knew these were made by the crimson-covered tips of claws. They appeared vaguely bearish to her, not at all like the wolf prints she had seen in books and magazines. For some reason, this alarmed her more than the dead people did, even though she was beginning to recognize some of her neighbors.
Standing, she backed away from the gates. After seven steps, she turned and ran back to the relative security of her house.
Cathy slammed the doors behind her, leaning her back against them. The heavy wood was comforting, even cool to the touch. But her living room, decorated by one of the city’s most fashionable designers, was a war zone of devastation. Beirut by way of Debbie Travis.
Cathy hadn’t worked since she married Karl. While he made a good living as a defense attorney, she preferred the life of leisure, spending time with her favorite charities and making sure the house was run as best she could. She supervised the two maids and four gardeners, chaired various committees such as Cincinnati’s AIDS Awareness Foundation and a halfway house for mentally challenged adults. Her life had been as neatly arranged as her furniture. Everything was in its place, and she didn’t cope as well when disorganization interfered.
And it had interfered. After the terrible arguments and accusations that had been flung around by Christian and her husband, she’d marveled that the walls weren’t stained with bile and vitriol.
The maids probably wouldn’t work today—she could hardly blame them—so she began to straighten the living room, keeping her mind focused on the project at hand. It had worked before, the way her numerous charities and activities masked the hurt that festered within her. It was working again. After shoving the sofa back toward the picture window, she searched for the pillows. One of them had been clawed. She simply turned it over, hiding the places where the stuffing escaped from the material. The illusion of normalcy satisfied her. For the moment, all seemed balanced and sane.
If I can concentrate on cleaning this house,
I can forget about the rest for a while … about Karl and Christian and … and all the rest of it. . . .
One room at a time, she cleaned, restoring the furniture to its original locations, sweeping glass into a dustpan, throwing anything that was unsalvageable into the garage for disposal later. She placed boards over broken windows, duct-taping them in place, and she
straightened art on the walls. She would have vacuumed if there had been any electricity.
Before long, Cathy had completed the living room, dining room, and kitchen, which had been the messiest. Silverware had been tossed around the room, and the light fixture had been yanked from its moorings. The floor was covered with bits of plaster and dust.
Looking around at her cleansing efforts, she felt a reassuring sense of accomplishment. She had twelve more rooms to clean, but her success with these three gave her a bit of hope. Maybe the world wasn’t ending. Maybe people could find a way to restore order and return to normal lives.
It had been a while since her life had been normal. If she could return to that happy time, before her boy became a teenager, before he became wild, before all the horrible lies, she knew she could be happy again. It had been such a long time since she had been happy.
She was leaning on her broom, looking out at the dining room, when she heard a sound behind her in the kitchen. It wasn’t much, and she sensed it more than she heard it.
Naked and barefoot, her husband, Karl, walked into the kitchen from the backyard. He closed the slashed screen door behind him, raising his eyes to hers. He appeared tired and wary of her, and she realized she was wielding the broomstick like a lance.
“Cathy …,” he said, and he took a few steps into the kitchen, placing his hands on the back of a chair and inclining himself against it.
“Karl, are you okay?”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think I’ll ever be okay again.”
As he sat down in the chair, she observed the specks of blood around his mouth and hands. A zigzag of crimson had dried across his chest during the night, a bizarre superhero emblem. She stepped to the sink and ran some cold water over a towel, thanking heaven that there was still running water, even if it wouldn’t get hot.
“Here,” she said, handing him the towel. “You’ve got blood on your face and chest. Please, wipe it off before we start talking.” Her formality, her manners-before-all-else attitude was downright Noel Coward–ish.
He clutched the towel in his hand as though he were uncomfortable with it, unaccustomed to the very notion of cleaning with a cloth. Slowly, he patted his face, looked down at his chest. Wiping with small, clumsy, circular motions, he eventually removed most of the blood, leaving red blotches where he had rubbed too hard. She took the filthy rag from him and tossed it into the garbage can.
“Oh Christ, Cathy …”
“What happened?” she asked.
“It was horrible. I … I did things … terrible things. …”
Taking a seat across from him, still holding the broom in case he made any sudden moves, Cathy looked at him and tried to see her husband. She kept imagining animalistic traits in his motions, his little tics. It was hard to regard him as the man who had shared her bed for nineteen years.
“What happened, Karl? Start from the beginning, and tell me everything you remember.”
“You’ll hate me for it. I hate myself. I’m … sick from what I did.”
From what you did this time?
she thought, then chased away the seditious notions. She needed to concentrate on what had happened last night, not months ago.
“Do you remember changing?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No. There was some itching. We were in bed together, and I started to feel this itch. Then there was pain and the smell of blood, all copper and sweet. That’s all I remember. Pain and blood … I think it was your blood, Cathy. But I was in a place where you didn’t matter, where nothing mattered but the smell, and the hunger, and the sheer sexuality of it.”
“The sexuality? What are you talking about?”
“Oh, Cathy, that’s what drove me. I wanted to insert my mouth into a body, to drink the blood, lap it up like a dog. It … compelled me to do it. I believe it was you I went after, but it could have been anyone. I wanted my face inside of you. . . . Can you understand that? Inside of you? I wanted the blood in my mouth, in my eyes, my face inside your rib cage, to be elbow-deep in the gore. I wanted to cover my body in it, then have it licked off by someone else—anyone else.”
He was getting aroused just speaking about it. Embarrassed, Cathy hurried upstairs, telling him to wait a minute. She returned with his robe, which had miraculously survived the night in one piece. Karl had started a pot of coffee. He smiled at her and slipped on the thick cotton robe, tying it at his waist.
“Thanks,” he said. “And I’m sorry.”
“Do you know you tried to kill me last night?”
“Yes. I suspected as much.”
“You turned into … some sort of monster. Right in front of my eyes, you became some … I don’t know, werewolf or something.”
“Apparently, there were a lot of us that changed. You should see the city. I woke up in a gutter near the Milford movie theater. Everything’s so fucked up.”
“A lot of others were the same? Changed?”
“Yeah. There are tons of dead, naked people out there, and a lot of live ones, all waking up at dawn. I think we all changed. I think people who didn’t, people like you, are really in the minority.”
“Are you going to change again?” she asked. “I need to know, Karl. When and where … I can’t just wait around for you to grow fangs and kill me.”
“I don’t know. I can still feel something … bristling inside me. Like hair that’s grown on the inside of my skin. So, yeah, I’ll probably do it again, because I can feel it just itching to release itself. I can’t tell you when or where. But I think it’s coming.”
They sat across from each other, the man in his bathrobe, the woman in jeans and a white shirt, her legs tucked beneath her. They sipped their coffee as golden sunlight streamed through the kitchen windows. It all seemed so normal and prosaic.
Just what she had always longed for.
But his words disturbed the peaceful scene, his suggestion that he was hairy on the inside of his skin, his violent actions hidden from her.
How much had he hidden in the previous months, when her world was imploding?
Had he been a monster before this transformation?
SEPTEMBER 17, 9:16 A.M.
ick placed his arm around Chesya’s shoulder, feeling it necessary to steady himself against someone. Mistaking his gesture for one of solace, she leaned into the muscular arm, his biceps solid against her face. They stood at the entrance of the bank, framed by jagged pieces of glass in the doorway, staring out at the destruction that had overwhelmed them into silence.
It was too much.
“How do people go on?” Chesya asked, her eyes adjusting to the bright sunlight. “Something like this happens. . . . How do people just go on with their lives?”
Rick shook his head. “I don’t know. But they do. Somehow.”
“Like the people in New York City after nine eleven?”
“Chesya, I think this is gonna be a lot worse than that.”
Sixth Street of downtown Cincinnati lay in ruins. A gas main had burst, blowing a wide hole in the street and blasting chunks of blacktop everywhere, through the glass of various buildings, into cars. The explosion had shattered windows for a block in every direction, and the roads sparkled with bits of glass. Several automobiles had been driven into the gaping disaster, taillights still blinking. The road had cracked in several directions, occasionally dropping into darkness, revealing sinkholes. One of these holes had opened in a parking lot near Race Street, nipping at the corner of a rather large hotel, causing the thirty-six-story building to lean, wavering dangerously in the breeze. The explosion must have ruptured a water main, as most of the street was covered in a wet sheen, and water spumed from the cracked sidewalk like oil from deep inside the Earth.
Near the end of the street, a city Metro bus had overturned,
smashing the tops of several cars, creating a blockade. Blood caked the inside of the bus, blocking the view. In the distance, someone had piled hot dog carts into a huge pile and set them on fire. The flames had spread, burning several storefronts. Far away, sirens wailed, but Rick couldn’t discern whether they belonged to the fire or police departments.
Not that it mattered. The streets were completely blocked by cars bumper-to-bumper, some crashed into each other, locked in a fatal embrace, and the overturned bus effectively closed off the end of the road. A Brink’s truck, probably headed toward the bank for a pickup, lay tumbled on its passenger side, smashed between two SUVs. Nothing was going to be going in or out of the city for quite some time. Not on these blocked streets. Not in this mess.
Then there were the bodies. They were scattered, dotting the landscape like punctuation, commas of ruined flesh. Burnt bodies, still smoking, charred to little but blackened skin and bones. Bodies with their throats torn out, the blood pooled halo-like around their heads. Crushed bodies, smashed between vehicles or trapped within cars that had been battered by traffic or squashed beneath a rolling, burning bus. Some bodies consisted of little more than a few pieces, limbs scattered, torn from sockets and tossed to the wind. Bodies bitten and chewed, half-eaten. Women and men ravaged by some new bestial creature, most of them with their clothes ripped from their bodies. Hands reached up in futile gestures from beneath rubble; an ear rested on a bus stop bench; a woman lay on her stomach, her back ripped to shreds while she had attempted to crawl away from something, her dress pulled up to her waist, exposing bloody, rounded buttocks.
The smell was overwhelming—burnt flesh, coppery blood, a faint stench of overcooked hot dogs. Chesya could smell gasoline and oil and grease, fire and sweat and something else, something raw and pungent.
Like wet dog?
Rick thought he heard a gunshot in the distance.
“Jesus Christ …” he said, stepping outside, hearing the crunch of glass beneath his heels.
“Please, don’t swear like that.”
“I just said Jesus—”
“I know what you said.” Chesya stepped away from him, and he could see the strength building in her eyes. He thought this was probably a good thing. “But please refrain from using the name of my Lord like that. It sickens me. You’ve been doing it all night, and I won’t stand for it anymore. My God’s important to me. He’s almost all I have right now.”
“That’s not quite true.”
She turned to him, and he tried to smile, witnessing the way her indignation rose. “Oh no?”
“No. You got me.”
She laughed once, putting her hands on her hips. “Huh. Hell of a lot of good that’ll do me.”
“Well, I’m just saying it could be worse. Look out there. Look at those poor bastards.”
Here and there, along the sidewalks, people were walking, stumbling like zombies in one of those cheap Italian movies Rick used to like so much. They looked dazed, insane, and they didn’t seem to move with any purpose. Rick expected them to head toward one another, to band together as survivors, but they stayed in the shadows as much as possible, avoiding contact with other people. Something about the way they moved reminded him of crabs or spiders.
“I wonder what they saw last night,” Chesya said, squinting at them. “They sure don’t trust each other, do they?”
“Doesn’t look like it. You think they had friends change in front of them? You think they saw the whole metamorphosis, or just what came after?”
“Maybe they changed, themselves. You think they’ll remember anything that happened in the night? Anything they did while they were … animals? If they can remember it all, it would easily drive them crazy. I don’t know if I could handle it.”