My name is Kennedy Shaw. I am eighteen years old. I live in Hazelbrook, IL, just outside of Chicago. I was a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School. This is my personal account of what happened. I don't ever plan to share it with anyone, so if you are reading it, do not come looking for me. I'm probably dead, or one of them.
Its panting was hot on the back of my neck and reeked like metal, that sharp tangy scent of blood that lingers in your memory from the first time your nose gets a good whiff of it. This odor was a strong one, and I knew the Infected behind me had fed recently. It wasn't satiated, though. That's why the damn thing had been following me for the last twenty minutes, keeping me at a good clip until I could barely catch my breath.
Think, Kennedy, think.
I needed an escape route, fast, or at least an obstacle to separate the two of us until I could find a way out of this mess.
As if in answer to my desperation, a gaping hole appeared in the floor ahead, one I missed earlier being too concerned with what was behind me to pay attention to what was in front of me. If I can hurdle it, make it across…
In a testament to the human mind, one not infected with the T1L2 virus, I managed to believe the rutted floor made of loose wooden beams below my feet had disappeared and that a rubberized runway had taken its place, one that would spring me to the other side. What I'm about to do is nothing more than another long jump, I told myself, like I've done hundreds of times; and on the other end will be the sand pit, like it always is.
The Infected growled behind me and the hair shifted on my scalp, moving against the wind. Vaguely, I registered that It took a swipe at me.
I had an urge to laugh at it, to taunt it, to make it feel some amount of desperation. But it wouldn't care what I yelled. It no longer understood words. Just blood, meat…food.
We'll see if you understand what it means to splatter into pieces on the first floor. Just a few more feet now.
I paced myself perfectly, my toes curling around the rough edge of the hole as I launched into the air, straight up, just as my coach had drilled into me. But the landing was anything but a soft pit of sand. The concrete on the opposite side seemed to have risen to stop me, full force. That interim moment which makes the world pause every time I leap and until I land, came again and for a split second I felt safe, secure, in control. This time, however, when it subsided, I felt the uncompromising impact of my body against an immoveable surface. This time, my wrists screamed at me, pain shot up both forearms and into each shoulder. But it was my right ankle that made me stiffen, because there was no mistaking its splintering. And if it was broken, there would be no more running for me today.
A crash sounded from below, loud enough to be a falling body. I snapped my head around to find no sign of the Infected.
“Finally,” I sighed through heavy breathing.
My chest was still rising and falling rapidly as I assessed my ankle. It was pulsating heat as if someone had stuck a molten rock beneath my skin. But the most telling sign of its internal destruction was the odd angle in which it lay twisted.
A few months ago, back during a normal way of life, it would have been a moderate inconvenience that kept me out of competitions until it healed. Now, it subjected me to the strong potential of becoming a meal for the Infected.
Gently, I picked up my knee and prepared to move it. Sudden, excruciating pain seized my body.
I groaned, a sound that merged with a grunt from somewhere else in the building. My breathing stopped altogether then.
It couldn’t have survived the fall. The Infected aren't impermeable. Fast, sure. Hungry, definitely. Obsessed with human flesh, that was without question. But the psychosis that made them what they are is still housed in a human body. If blood can no longer reach the brain, they die.
I tilted my chin up for a better vantage point through the open floor; just enough to see a pool of blood had begun to collect in cracks crisscrossing the concrete.
The grunting came again. Louder.
It approached from my right, from the metal stairs a few feet away. I watched the handrail jostle slightly, just enough to reignite my alarm. The grunting was now accompanied by slithering and the rattle of loose bolts.
I glanced back across the gaping hole, the one I had no chance of traversing with an injured ankle, and noticed the body of the Infected had rolled into my view. Its joints lay at odd angles. My focus returned to the stairs where the heads of the first few Infected were coming into view. And I sighed.
Intentional or not, that damn thing corralled me right to the rest of them.
I woke up with my sheets soaked. My heart was pounding. My breath came in short, hoarse intakes, rattling down my windpipe. My eyes snapped open and swept the room for any sign of movement or anyone nearby; my hands ready and forming small, but powerful, arcs in front of me.
I made another slow evaluation of the room and finding no indication of an intruder, I released the tension in my limbs and slumped back against the headboard.
The sheets were wet, adhering to me like a film, so I peeled them off. They made a strange slapping sound as they flopped onto my lap.
A knock on the door told me that my nightmare hadn’t been a quiet one.
“You all right, Kennedy?” a thick, rumbling voice asked from the other side.
“They’re…,” I began and paused. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
It really wouldn’t help anyone to mention the nightmares were becoming more frequent. He could notice that on his own.
“Hmmm,” he grumbled in a way that confirmed he didn’t believe me. "I'm heading for school. Are you coming?"
"No, not today." I paused and realized how my answer might have come across. "I mean…I'll take the Mustang."
He muttered something, an affirmation maybe, which didn't make its way clearly through the door and then continued down the hall.
I lived in Mr. Packard’s office, one that had been donned with a bed just under a year ago when I moved in. Being the kind man he was, he had suggested I make the room my own. Hang posters, he recommended. Paint it pink, put up drapes, lay out a rug. I had done none of these things. The walls remained pale blue and my personal possessions were still stacked in a corner near the closet, taking up a tenth of the space available to me. If you peeked inside fast enough you might even miss that I existed here at all. And I suppose, some small part of me knew, even though I hadn’t acknowledged it yet, that was actually the case. I hadn’t felt alive for a year now, to the very day to be exact.
Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed, I knelt at my compacted belongings and rifled through them, past the flowery dresses and lacy tops, to pull out a black, short-sleeved tee-shirt, cargo pants, and combat boots. I didn’t bother with my hair. My strands of auburn red could hang where they found themselves when I woke up, like they had done for the last twelve months.
I found Mr. Packard in his 1970’s kitchen quickly downing black coffee and dry toast while leaning against the green metallic stove. He evaluated me keenly as I strolled across the muted brown linoleum to drop my backpack on the plastic cushion of the nearest dining chair. I wanted to tell him “Don't worry, I didn't scratch my eyes out during my nightmare.” Again, he could figure this out for himself.
When he was sufficiently at ease, he remarked, "I'm gonna hit the head and then I'm out the door."
Mr. Packard was an ex-Navy SEAL turned high school principal. Even though he'd traded his military fatigues for a suit and tie, old habits die hard. So when he mentioned hitting the head in reference to using the bathroom, I knew what he meant. My dad had used the same phrase. The two of them were cut from the same cloth, which was probably why my dad had made Mr. Packard my legal guardian.
He popped his head around the corner of the kitchen door a few minutes later, and I noted that his tightly trimmed, albeit graying, mustache and closely cropped ashen hair were freshly cut, as if he had a sense that today was important.
The small TV in the corner of the sparse countertop was set to a news channel, so he spoke over it as the morning anchor launched into her top-of-the-hour stories.
"I'll see you there," he said, though we both knew he wouldn't, not unless I was called to his office.
"And in local news…"
"See you there."
He nodded and seconds later, the front door slammed shut and I heard his car engine roar to life. It faded away as the broadcaster's voice picked up.
And this was where I heard it first. It was a blip, a passing segment on the morning news, an anomaly that was ignored in favor of rising gas prices and government partisan squabbling. "…ate through the neck of his victim. No suspects have been apprehended. Reports of the occurrence have been-"
I, like so many others, didn't give it much attention. In our media-driven society, we'd become complacent, numbly digesting what news journalists determined was important, or would bring in higher ratings. If they spent less than five seconds of airtime on the subject, why should we break from our daily routine for it? Those who did hear it were probably inhaling cherry Pop Tarts and downing their coffee or running for their car before rush hour started. They had no idea that traffic would soon be the least of their problems.
Even I hit the power button, choosing serenity over headless fatalities. I picked up my backpack, checked the clock on the wall, and headed out, locking the door behind me. My dad's blue Ford Mustang, which now could be legally considered mine even if my heart wouldn't accept it, was parked on the other side of the driveway.
"Good morning, Old Boy. You're looking shiny today."
As an ode to my dad's immaculate ways, I kept him waxed to a pristine sheen, so my image reflected back impeccably as I opened the door and slid inside. When I turned the key, he rumbled without hesitation, telling me that he was ready, and I took him down the driveway and out into the neighborhood.
I drove across the main part of town and stopped at the border to the poverty-stricken area beyond it. Here, businesses were marked in neon with bars mounted over their store windows. New graffiti had been added since I'd visited last, which I passed while noting the artist had misspelled the word 'kunt.'
To be less visible, I parked in the back, next to the heavily dented and rusting dumpster and the homeless man who was sleeping next to it. He didn't move, but the wrinkled cardboard sign he had propped against his hip shifted slightly. I read it as I put Old Boy into park.
The end is near. Redeam yourself. Give to the needee.
I scrounged some change from Old Boy's console and dropped it in the empty paper cup next to the sign just as the squeak of a screen door made me turn around. There, Mr. Chow stood in the shadows, his short frame in competition for notoriety with the white moustache that stretched clear down to his hips. His weathered hand held the door open for me as I entered.
"You have good sleep?" he asked, and I knew he'd noticed the bags under my eyes.
"Not really," I admitted.
"Today…not a good one," he muttered, stopping beside me, his eyes downcast, contemplating something.
He remembers what today is, I thought, and I shouldn't have been surprised. My dad had been Mr. Chow's regular customer for years. His vanishing wouldn't have gone unnoticed, and neither would the fact that I now come in alone. Then, of course, there were the news reports that pretty much anyone in our small town over the age of five and with a pulse had heard.
He took my hands and lifted his eyes to me. His skin was tough, warm, and dry, like the surface of a crumpled paper bag, but there was something dire in his expression that made me forget about his touch. No, he wasn't thinking about my father. He wouldn't have that fear in his eyes if he were.
"Today no good," he said, and then shook my hands roughly, almost in a spasm. "You take refuge. You understand? You take refuge."
I nodded slowly, certain my face was telling him what I was thinking: What in the hell…?
Obviously, I didn't verbalize that thought. Instead, I placated him. "I'll take it wherever I can find it, Mr. Chow."
"You good girl, Kennedy," he said, more as an opinion than a compliment. "You take refuge."
He waited until he was certain I was being truthful and released my hand. He then scuffled down the hallway as if our conversation hadn't taken place, his body angling to skirt the boxes stacked unsteadily to the ceiling. I followed him, doing the same, until I'd cleared the obstacle course and made it to the front of the store.
Mr. Chow runs an army surplus, where you can find the usual fatigues, duffel bags, camouflaged bivouac equipment, and other genuine military items. But for those few customers who knew that he offered more than what was visible, he sourced other deliveries. Mine was waiting for me at the counter, unboxed, lined side by side. The flat, steel stars had been sharpened until their edges glinted back at us. They were beautiful, perfect. My dad would have loved them.
"Thank you," I said, unable to pull my eyes away until Mr. Chow delicately placed them into their box.
"This…," he said, sliding the box across the counter toward me, "you no pay for." He tapped the lid softly in a way that meant he'd made up his mind.
"Thank you," I replied, unable to get my words above a whisper.
He nodded, once, and said, "You know how to use?"
"Yes, my…." I paused, the name unable to come out for a second, "dad taught me, but-" I began to shake my head in rejection. I was preparing to mention that I wouldn't ever use them, that they weren't for me, they were for a man six feet under, when Mr. Chow cut me off.
"No!" he snapped. "No 'but'! You use if need to."
Again, with the dire warning. Mr. Chow was ordinarily a reserved guy and I wasn't sure what was with him today, but I didn't ask…which is something that I'll always regret. It might have shed some light on what he foresaw, might have told us our future, how civilization ends up. But at the time, I wasn't thinking about life or death, or the future, at least not beyond dusk when I'd leave the throwing stars at my father's grave in place of the traditional flowers. No, I had what I came for. Besides I was going to be late for school.
"Yes, I'll use them if I need to," I agreed, never considering it would ever happen.
Only then did he remove his hands from the box and I was able to take it.
Silence settled over the store as I left, which told me that he was watching me go. I wish I had turned around and said goodbye, thanked him, said something to show how much I appreciated knowing him. And if I knew what was about to happen, I would have. In fact, I wouldn't have left, because I knew something few others didn't…that a cache of weapons was kept behind the wall in his back office.
Hindsight is never an easy thing to swallow.
I drove to school, and parked Old Boy in his usual spot - in the back corner of the lot - where he'd be protected from dings and scratches. Mr. Chow's warning was lingering in the back of my mind the entire time, but it began to fade as I noticed the thin but steady flow of students funneling through the security gates and up the steps to our school's main entrance. It was early, so only a handful of the students had arrived. Most of them wouldn't be coming through the gates until five minutes before homeroom started.
I was at the beginning of my senior year, just one week into the semester. My pace should have been quicker and my eyes should have been sweeping the crowd for familiar faces to talk about college acceptances and where everyone would be meeting up on Friday night. But a lot had changed over the last year, and the faces staring back were more distant and indifferent. They said…there's the girl who went from Homecoming Queen and track star to the school's most dejected outcast in under twelve months. I didn't think they gave me due credit. That's a feat, unsurpassed by any other high school student. Guaranteed.
The few who did actually give me credit were my true friends. They had tried to help, organizing sleepovers, working to bring me into their conversations. But when you face death, subjects like who is dating who and the latest fashion don't seem all that appealing. I wanted something real, true, honest. I craved an awakening. And because they couldn’t deliver it, or didn't even know I needed it, they slowly faded away. I didn't blame them. Anyone who went from talkative and sweet to sullen and serious must have a few screws loose, right?
It was just before 7:15am as I reached my assigned locker, located in the main hallway, midway down.
Someone had written a not-so-nice word at the end of the B, which maintenance had tried to wash off. Still, I could make out the faded remnants of it staring me in the face. A year ago this might have bothered me. I might have made a bee-line for the janitor's office or found one of my friends in the halls to work on figuring out who the offender might be. Regardless, at the moment I wasn't insulted.
What a fun game, I thought. I'd like to play, too. There were definitely better words out there to describe me.
Okay, that last one was a derivative of the root word, but who says I had to play by any rules? Especially when the game only existed in my head.
I was so preoccupied with my little game that I made the mistake of allowing the edge of my book bag to slip from my fingers, and the contents flew out across the tiled floor, where several items were clipped by passing shoes and were sent spiraling down the hallway. I lost a pen, a Tootsie Roll, a few pennies, some dimes. But I was most concerned about the box that Mr. Chow had given me and another word popped into my mind, running through it sarcastically.
I began frantically searching for it, my eyes darting back and forth across the ground. It would mean a haranguing from Mr. Packard, definitely detention, and possibly suspension if I were caught with these kinds of weapons on school grounds, but it would be completely devastating if I lost them altogether. Still, as I searched, all I found was a lipstick tube tucked beneath the lockers, gum wrappers, and wads of dust. There were no steel stars.
Then my eyes swept to the right, stopping as a pair of boots came into view, and my lungs ceased up as yet another word raced through my mind. This one didn't start with B, wasn't part of the game, and made me feel alive, actually part of the living, for the first time in months.
It came screaming through my consciousness, freezing me in place for a few very long seconds.
Before I could decide if I truly wanted to look at him, my eyes made the decision for me. Slowly, I took in the sight of him as my gaze ran the entire length of his body. He stood on the opposite side of the hallway, leaning leisurely against the lockers, his jeans resting snugly around his well-built thighs, his boots crossed at the ankles, his blue eyes locked on me. He didn't move, evaluating me with curious, sincere interest, as was always the case when we crossed paths.
He had been in the sun and was tanner now, which deeply contrasted with the white t-shirt draped over the contours of his chest muscles. His shaggy, dark blonde hair was tousled, which made him hardy and more striking. As always, he looked like he'd just walked off the field and into the city.
We'd been exchanging glances for over a year after he transferred from a high school in Texas, both of us keeping our distance while always seeming to sense when the other was around. Since the first time our eyes met, I'd snuck glances of him and caught him staring back in the cafeteria, the library, in the hallways. It was divine fate that we didn't share any classes or I wouldn't have heard a single word the teacher said…and I have fairly strong willpower when it comes to that kind of thing.
My focus right now, however, was on the steel stars he held inconspicuously in his hands, as if he knew I didn't want anyone to see them. But he had, and it instantly put me on edge.
His inquisitive expression firmly in place, staring intently, he crossed the hall. When he stopped a foot from me I realized that with the exception of our first encounter, the two of us had never been so close. Since that first meeting, we'd kept a wary, intrigued space between us, which he had now breached.
I struggled to remember to breath, and when the inhale finally came, it carried his scent… an inviting mixture of earth and fresh air, completely out of place in the sprawling landscape of suburban Chicago, and so incredibly intoxicating. I was acutely aware of it, equally as much as his hands, which held the stars, and hadn't shifted from his sides.
"What kind of a girl," he said in a deep, resonating voice that sent a flutter through my stomach, "owns Japanese throwing stars?"
These were the first words he'd said to me. Ever. And they were as daunting as if he'd just peered directly into my soul.
I stiffened, feeling completely exposed, vulnerable. I had to remind myself it was just a question, a legitimate one considering he held the stars and it was justifiably odd to see them spilling from a girl's bag and sliding across the school hallway.
His eyebrows dipped just enough to indicate that he realized he'd hit a nerve, and then he made the wise decision not to pursue his questioning. Extending his hands, he presented me with the stars. It seemed almost like a peace offering. I reached up and took the edges of both, my fingers unintentionally running along the inside of his palms in order to get under the thin pieces of metal. Our touch sent a current of excitement surging through me, and I wasn't the only one rattled by it. His fingers, which were curled up to enclose the stars, contracted. It was an almost insignificant twitch, but I'd caught it. He'd felt the jolt too.
My excitement flared, and had I thought about it beforehand, had it not been for my automatic reaction, I might not have done it. But I did. I looked up, directly into his blue eyes, the same ones that had been staring at me from a distance for so many months. My heartbeat sputtered and then began to accelerate.
"You're welcome," he stated before I could conjure a thanks. It was arrogant…and charming, and it made my heart leap against my rib cage.
"Thanks," I replied, and then clarified, "for not saying anything about them."
"What makes you think I won't?" he asked, without any hint of challenge. It was an honest question.
I shrugged, having come to that conclusion about him involuntarily and without much thought. "You don't strike me as someone who cares much for following the rules."
He snickered, appearing to hesitate, and then thoughtfully added, "Even if I was, your secret would be safe with me."
I blinked to clear my head, stunned. Was he…hitting on me?
Overcoming my surprise, I asked, "Now what kind of a guy breaks the rules for a girl he barely knows?"
His lips turned up in a sideways grin. "The kind that's interested in the-"
That's as far as he got. He never finished his sentence, although I heard it well enough in my head.
The kind that's interested in the girl.
I stared into those blue eyes, realizing that he'd done it. He'd come right out and, without reservation, without insecurity, admitted to being interested in me. He'd broken through the barrier we'd established and laid it all out on the line. Well, almost.
If things had turned out differently, he might have walked me to class, keeping the conversation going. He might have met me at lunch where we'd have sat in the library, talking below the quiet hum that always persisted there. He might have met me at my locker the next day and, eventually, maybe, just maybe, he might have asked me out on a date. But that wasn't in our future. There was something far darker and unsettling waiting for us, and it cut short Harrison's confession.
He and I swung our heads around to find a school security guard sprinting down the hall with only the toes of his black-soled shoes hitting the tile, a radio held out in front of him.
"Code Red! Code Red!" he screamed into it. "Lock all exterior doors! Close the rear and main gates!" There was no mistaking the sheer terror this man was feeling. His nostrils were flared; his eyes were wide, vacant. There was trill to his voice. He didn't see anyone around him, not Harrison, me, or the guy down the hall scoffing at the guard's distress. His entire world in that moment consisted of whatever was happening outside the main entrance, which was exactly where he was headed.
There was a handful of us who'd made it to school early, and we watched as he continued his race toward the main entrance, slamming the bar handle hard enough to make the glass doors shudder when he finally reached them. Once outside, he came to an abrupt halt, his legs positioned to take that next sprinting step, his arms raised as if he was instructed to keep them visible, his hand still clutching the radio a few inches from his mouth. It was that pause, and the position of his body, that made me realize he was witnessing something catastrophic, life-altering. The radio slipped from his fingers and crashed to the ground, jarring him back into a sprint. He launched himself down the steps, his head bobbing as he took several at a time.
We all headed for the doors, Harrison next to me the entire way. His pace and the fact he was so close made me think his intentions were about my protection. While I didn't need it, I understood. The air around us suddenly felt thick with tension as the first sounds of what was happening beyond the entrance reached our ears. Car alarms were beginning to sound; screams, some muffled and others loud and clear, echoed across the parking lot; tires screeched and metal crunched. We made it to the glass doors and stopped just as fast as the guard had done seconds ago. Then we were stunned at the scene before us, which surpassed all of my most terrifying nightmares.
People were scattering, tripping over curbs, shrubs, and each other in unexplainable frenzy. Others were chasing them, arms outstretched, swiping at them, grabbing for them. Not a single person was without blood on their body. Some had already fallen victim and were struggling to shove aside their attackers. One kid, who looked no older than a tenth grader, tried to make it across the lot, his eyes locked on the doors where we stood. He made it four steps before Mrs. Richard's car rammed him during her attempt to flee. He disappeared under the hood. She skidded to a stop and opened her door only to find a man coming through it, pushing her back inside kicking and screaming.
When I saw a girl, who normally sits three rows in front of me in Spanish class, taking a bite out of the school counselor, who was trying to get into her car, I finally understood this wasn't an ordinary mob. No, the victims were helpless animals trying to evade predators, only there was no safe place for them to go. The school had been fitted with steel bars around the perimeter with gates small enough to fit two, three people total, through them at once. The parking lot beyond it was cordoned off with a thinner chain link fence, forming a secure little cage.
By pure instinct, I started to shove open the door, only to find that Harrison had beaten me to it. He stepped through before me, unaware that I was behind him, and raced down the steps. By the time I got to the bottom, he was just inside the parking lot, pulling an attacker off an unconscious girl. She was small-framed so her attacker covered nearly every inch of her. I recognized him instantly as Harrison peeled him off his victim and flung him across the pavement. His name was Todd Beckholt and he was famous for the size of his belly and the aggression he showed on the football field. His body rolled like a wide barrel several feet away but he didn't stay down, propelling himself back to his feet and charging Harrison. He moved like he had a vengeance to settle, but that didn't seem to intimidate Harrison, who met the guy with equal force.
I grabbed the unconscious girl's hands and dragged her up the curb, through the steel bar fencing, back to the steps, while keeping my eye on Harrison's fight. It was immediately clear that he was strong, effortlessly maneuvering Todd's body and his snapping jaws away from his face to fling him back across the parking lot.
The problem was Todd kept coming back.
Instinctively, I remembered the stars still clutched in my hands, and the cutting of their edges into my skin reminded me of their potential benefit. I didn't hesitate. Shifting clear of the girl's limp body, I slid my right foot forward and generated the momentum needed to launch the star at Todd. It landed right where I'd intended, in his right knee.
Harrison's head swung around, his eyes wide in disbelief, the beginnings of a shocked grin forming on his lips. He hadn't expected me to intervene. But Todd took a step with that leg and I knew he wasn’t fazed at all. I immediately transferred the second star to my throwing hand and sent it directly into his other knee. His movement was noticeably impaired now, the stars preventing his kneecaps from working properly, but it still didn't deter him.
"I got him," Harrison called back before adding a command that surprised me. "Get inside, Kennedy."
He was concerned. About me.
I should have listened to him. If I had any logic in me at all, I would have been tearing for the building. But as the chaos raged around us, I took the unconscious girl's wrists again to continue to pull her out of danger, hauling her up the first step. As I did this, I didn't take my eyes off Harrison - and wouldn't - until I knew he was safe too. In fact, if it hadn't been for the growl, I'm fairly sure I would have ended up being a meal.
It came from my left, outside the fence, where Tammie Fleming, a girl I knew from gym class, was sprinting toward me, her upper lip curled back, spit flying from her mouth. She was a big girl, so her belly wobbled from side to side, slowing her a bit and allowing me to get a good look at her. This was my first encounter with one of them, right up close and personal. As she bore down on me, her snarling mouth was wide open and I could see phlegm strung between her teeth. Her blonde hair, which I'd always seen pulled back into a ponytail, was loose, flying around her face. Some of it clung to the wet parts where saliva had landed. Her eyes were vacant, unaware of anything but me. She didn't even seem to notice the tear in her peach-colored shirt along the shoulder line, or the fact that a chunk of skin was missing below it.
"Tammie?" I called out, though deep, down I already knew she wouldn't hear.
She kept coming in that crazy, dazed homicidal kind of way. I dropped the unconscious girl's hands, twisting my body perpendicular to Tammie, and launched my foot directly into her stomach. It was a perfect side kick, landing exactly where I'd calculated, and it should have knocked the air from her lungs. If it did, she didn't pay any attention to it. After a brief stumble backwards, she regained her balance and came at me again. This time, I swung at her. I'm of an average build, not too short, fat, tall, or thick, but I pack some force when it's needed. As my fist made contact with her soft, spongy cheek, it sent her staggering to the side and she slipped off the edge of the street curb, landing oddly on her right foot. The sickening crack of her ankle was cut short as another victim's scream rose above the quieting chaos and I realized that the shrieks were beginning to subside. Tammie's broken ankle didn't inhibit her, or even seem to register through her obsession to get to me, but it did buy me some time. I stepped backward, putting distance between us, and stumbled over the guard who had run shouting down the hallway a few minutes earlier. He was facedown, the contents of his neck smattered across the white concrete sidewalk. His weapon was drawn, his finger still on the trigger. I bent down, pulled it from his grip and stood back up, my hands automatically wrapping around it, pressing with isometric tension just like my dad had trained me. With my trigger finger in place before I was fully standing I aimed it at Tammie, but she kept coming, the void in her eyes not allowing her to see the danger pointed in her direction.
"Stop or I'll shoot!" I screamed. God, stop…please stop. Don't make me do this.
As a body came in between us, I was barely able to make out the blur of Harrison's form as he seized Tammie's arms and flung her through the gate, into the parking lot, with dizzying speed. He slammed the gate shut, and I heard the automatic locking mechanism fall into place.
It was the stupidest, boldest move I'd ever seen anyone make.
"I could have shot you!" I shouted.
Harrison turned around, completely ignoring me and taking hold of one of my arms as he raced by. He seemed intent on dragging me up the steps, back into the building. But there were others who needed help. The girl, the unconscious girl… My eyes shot back to where I'd left her, on the first step a few feet away from us. It was empty. But there were others…in the parking lot.
"No!" I grumbled, doing my best to pull away, back in their direction.
"They're gone, Kennedy," he said, firmly. "Gone."
In disbelief, I snapped my head around and peered across the parking lot. There was very little movement now, a complete reversal from only a few minutes ago. It all happened so fast. Instead of fleeing bodies, there was a crooked group of cars, some still with their engines running, jamming the exit. Pieces of clothing, lone shoes, backpacks, and purses were strewn around them, abandoned by their owners. The screams so prominent before had been silenced, replaced now with the hollow, unrelenting ringing of cell phones and car alarms. It was a battlefield, and the victors were heads down, consuming the defeated.
Harrison continued to drag me up the steps, but when I wasn't moving fast enough, he stopped, turned, and wrapped his arms around my waist. He hauled me up and over his shoulder and began running in one continuous motion toward the school's main entrance. Fortunately, I managed to secure myself on his well-formed muscles.
He only paused after we were inside and he had locked the door with keys that I figured he must have taken from the security guard. Then he stood very still, and I knew exactly what he was doing…evaluating the scene from above. His arms were crossed over to stabilize my legs, and they felt warm and unyielding, as if he wasn't ready to let me go. I lifted my head to ensure there wasn't any danger coming down the hall and my breath seized in my chest.
"We're not alone," I said quietly, in an inane effort not to disturb the peace that had settled over the school now.
"I know." In what seemed to be an attempt to make me comfortable, he mentioned, "They're not dangerous."
No, they weren't, but they might need help.
"You can put me down now."
He snickered to himself, apparently realizing that he hadn't yet, and slid me off his shoulder, carefully setting me on my feet. Our eyes met and his were reflecting a serious darkness. "Are you okay?"
Briefly assessing myself, I noticed my body shaking, but I nodded anyways. "You?"
He ignored my question, concentrating his concern on me. "If you feel sick, you'll tell me, right?"
"I'm not going into shock."
He seemed surprised I'd figured out his line of questioning. After recovering, he replied, "Good. Now wouldn't be the best time for it." Drawing in a deep breath, he took a second to evaluate me. "You're efficient with the throwing stars, so I'm figuring you probably know how to use that, too." He tipped his head at the gun in my hand.
"I'm an expert marksman," I replied, checking the chamber for a round. I found one, but was disturbed thinking that the guard never had the chance to fire it. Letting the slide slam back into place, I dropped it to my side, my finger safely out of the trigger guard, as I'd been taught. Despite all that, I realized how inadequate I must appear considering the training my dad had put me through. Harrison, however, seemed to be fine with it and dipped his head in a single nod of concession.
"So…you know how to use throwing stars and guns," he muttered, alluding to my secret other life for the second time this morning.
I went rigid even though there was no reason for it. I had no grounds to keep up my façade, not with what was happening now. Yet I still couldn't bring myself to divulge what I'd kept hidden for so long…That my dad, a military man and an expert in self-defense, had trained me to protect myself, had made me into his own version of G.I. Jane, in case I found myself in a situation where he couldn't help me and I'd need to do it myself, like the one I was in right now.
After watching me reflect on all this, Harrison turned toward the others, and stated with unwavering certainty, "I'll figure it out sometime, Kennedy."
I should have been unnerved by his resolve but something more disturbing, an awareness about my surroundings, gradually took precedence.
It was 7:35 a.m., and the hallway should have been packed with students still trying to get to class. Book bags should have been bumping into each other. Locker doors should have been slamming shut. Voices and rushed footsteps should have been echoing off the walls. But it was absolutely silent. Not even the three people huddled midway down the hall just beyond my locker, the only ones present other than Harrison and me, were making a sound. No sobbing, no discussion… It felt like the school was shocked into silence as we headed toward them.
Since I'd left my locker open, I stowed the weapon on my stack of textbooks and continued on.
The first survivor we reached sat crouched, arms encircling her knees, a cell phone in one hand, her head down. She looked up long enough for us to recognize each other.
"Kennedy," she said as more of a statement than in relief, even though we'd been friends a year ago.
"Beverly," I replied.
I'd never seen her this way. Usually, she was sporting the latest fashions and pairing them with exquisite jewelry, the real kind, with rocks that cut glass. Her hair was always sleek and shiny, with every strand where it was meant to be. Her makeup was impeccable, freshly reapplied with immaculate precision after eating and after gym class. When she introduced herself, she would always add primly, "…like the Hills", because that was who she emulated. Right now, she seemed…messy.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
"Do I look it?" she replied snidely and then tipped her head back against the locker to stare at the ceiling.
I took that as a no.
Standing next to her, dividing his time between pacing and stopping to think if he actually wanted to pace, was Nick Roster. I was only partly amazed to find him still alive. Being the largest, most beefy football player to ever step onto Woodrow Wilson High's field, he had size and raw strength going for him. He'd made a reputation for himself as a freshman by playing off his last name, telling opposing teams that he had them each listed on a roster and would be checking them off as he incapacitated them on the field. After he proved he wasn't just talk, someone gave him the name Doc, which was an acronym for Department of Corrections, implying that he was 'correcting' players on the field and checking them off his list.. Right now, he was nibbling on his thumbnail and scanning the floor as if it might stand up and attack him.
Doc and Todd Beckholt were good friends, but I didn't think he was aware of what had happened to Todd. Right now, he seemed unhinged because he'd witnessed the broader issue…that a lot of people outside had met the same fate as Todd.
Next to Doc lay the third and final person who'd made it safely inside. Clearly, she didn't do it on her own because she was unconscious. My jaw dropped at the sight of her, because she was the one I was trying to help earlier. I hadn't taken the time to notice before, but I knew her, or more accurately knew of her. We didn't have the same friends, but someone that smart didn't go without some kind of social standing.
I bent down to her. "Mei?"
She didn't respond.
"Is she…injured?" I asked, assuming they'd understand who I meant, and had already checked for signs of life.
Doc answered, which impressed me, even if he didn't stop his pacing or look up when he did it. "She's not bleeding anywhere."
"Did you carry her-"
"Yeah, yeah, that was me," he mumbled, still pacing.
Harrison spoke for the first time, commenting, "Nice job."
That seemed to break through Doc's stupor. He came to a halt, his head swiveled up at Harrison, and he replied bluntly, "Thanks." His pacing resumed, although he did stop chewing his thumbnail.
"We need an ambulance for her," I said.
Beverly snickered. "We need a lot of them."
I looked at her and noticed the cell phone again. "Did you call for any, Beverly?"
"Yeah…," she uttered, bleakly. It was unnerving.
"They didn't answer."
I fell silent, processing this news, but she led me to the conclusion I was getting to anyway. "It just kept ringing…like no one was there to pick up."
Immediately, I was on my feet.
"Where are you going?"
"Mr. Packard's office. He has medical training."
Beverly sighed. "Well, good luck with that."
"Why?" Harrison asked, cautiously.
"Because he's dead," she stated bluntly.
And I came to a staggering standstill.
"He was locking the back gate, you know, the ones designed to protect us," she sneered, "and one of those…things…caught his arm. It pulled him through the bars while the others...chowed down."
Chowed down. That was something my dad used to say when he set my dinner plate in front of me. Chow down, Kennedy. Chow down on that tube steak and moo juice. That phrase was now being applied to his best friend's cause of death, and suddenly everything felt surreal.
I only dimly registered Doc's loud exhale. "If Mr. Packard didn't survive, how are we supposed to?"
"Kennedy?" Harrison said, startling me.
He was right next to me now. How'd he get there without me noticing?
Get a grip, Kennedy.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
I nodded, even though I wasn't quite sure.
He didn't respond, but I felt him watching me, waiting for me to collapse. No such luck there. No one in my family had ever fainted and I wasn't going to embarrass them by doing it now.
Spinning around, I found Doc had ended his rambling walk across the hallway and was now staring at the main entrance.
"Where is everyone? Where are the teachers? The paramedics? The police? What's happening out there?" he asked, justifiably perplexed, his gaze on the glass doors even though we were too far away to see anything but blue sky.
"Whatever it is, it's happening fast," Beverly replied.
"How do you know?" Doc asked, sincerely hoping for an answer or some profound insight on the cause of all that we'd just seen.
"Because," she replied sarcastically, "when Jesse Metcalf was sitting next to me in Calculus yesterday he wasn't trying to eat me."
"Right," Doc mumbled, nodding slowly. "Right…"
"Those glass doors better hold," Beverly warned, defiantly. "And those things better not get inside."
I wondered what she would do if they did.
"They'll need to come through the steel fence wrapped around the school," Harrison explained before adding for reassurance, "and those should hold."
What he said was true. Mr. Packard was a veteran who'd left the military with a chest full of accolades, and when he'd taken over as principal one of his first actions was to surround our school's building with a galvanized steel fence, made to meet minimum yield strength of 45,000 psi. I knew this because he'd told me.
I believed him and still I headed back to my locker.
"Where are you going now?" Beverly asked, more to fill in the void of broken conversation than out of real concern.
"I'm going to check for others who made it inside."
"Hopefully they aren't the eating kind," she muttered.
"Can you keep trying to reach someone?"
When she didn't answer, I pressed, "Beverly?"
"Yeah…yeah. I'll keep calling. At least until my dad shows up."
"He's coming for you?"
She laughed through her nose. "Well, he's not going to leave me here…."
That made me feel incredibly alone. It wasn't her fault. She didn't realize the reference.
Refusing to sit there and dwell on it, I took the guard's weapon, turned and headed into the heart of the school. Footsteps followed behind me and I peered over my shoulder to find Harrison stepping up alongside me, meeting my pace.
"You're not going by yourself," he declared, his tone leaving no room for debate.
I was oddly conflicted. I wanted him to come with me, and not just because it would be safer to walk in pairs, not just because what Beverly said had opened up a void. I just didn’t want my first walk with Harrison to be through a vacant, eerily quiet school where we might find things that would give us nightmares, worse ones than we were already sure to have. We turned the corner and found another empty hallway, and I felt the blatant unfairness that our walk couldn't have been yesterday. Just one simple day before this mess broke out…
Now that we were out of sight, his hand came into view, breaking through my thoughts. "You left these back there," he said. And I looked down at his palm to find both of my steel stars. "They seemed important to you."
"They are," I said, taking the stars and slipping them into my back pocket. "Thank you." We walked a few more feet before I asked, "How did you get them? No, no…Don't tell me. I don't want to know."
He nodded. "Smart choice."
"I want to thank you, too, for…for helping me with Tammie."
"The girl at the gate?"
"Yeah, I…I didn't want to…" The rest of that sentence stuck in my throat, but he inferred what I meant anyways.
"You're welcome," he said, saving me from having to explain further. "So that's her name? Tammie?" he asked, and I noticed how he didn't refer to her in the past tense, which I appreciated.
"You don't know too many people here yet, do you?"
His lips turned up, forming a crooked grin, and he laughed to himself before remarking candidly, "I know the ones who matter to me, Kennedy."
Despite the situation we were in, and all that we'd just endured, something pleasant stirred my stomach. It seemed muted, but it was there, because I had a hunch he was including me in that group.
Our tour of the school grounds was quiet from that point on. The silence was only interrupted when we shouted hello into the empty rooms, and once when he pointed out one of the classrooms before remarking that he should have been taking a test in there right about then. We kept a cautious distance from each other, close but not enough to touch, and I was always acutely aware of every movement he made. We checked the administration offices, the gym, the library, the cafeteria, every large area we thought might be a place someone would go for help. There was no one.
As we turned the last corner back into the main hallway and saw Doc, Beverly, and Mei there, still alone, he muttered the number three. "That makes five total."
I knew exactly what he meant. Our high school started with over 2100 students and 320 people on staff that morning. Only five of us made it inside.
And even though I barely knew him, and hadn't said more than a hundred words to him, I was incredibly thankful that Harrison was one of them.
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