Eating a burger and kissing one are two entirely different things. So why did I dream about dressing Heather in ketchup and alternating between kissing her and biting her – and not in a good way?
James threw a wet washcloth at me from the bed. I glanced his way, arching my eyebrow. What the hell did he want? My brother copied my expression but gave a half-smile to taunt my infatuated stare. Yeah? So what if I wanted to watch Heather out the window? Girl is hot.
“I know you like her, but this is ridiculous.” He slumped against the pillows and picked at a stray thread on the comforter.
We hadn’t been at the house more than twelve hours and he already had cabin fever. His shoulder bandages needed changing, but I’d have to let Connie do that. Her or Grandma Jean. Yeah, Heather’s grandma made us call her Grandma Jean. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or not, but since we sought refuge at her home, our obligation to do what she wanted was a bit strong.
Heather’s curls lifted in the early May morning breeze. I don’t care what anyone says, northern Idaho is hella cold in early-summer, late-spring. Or whatever this was. Heather wore shorts outside and while I loved the view of her legs, I couldn’t hold back the shiver. I’d followed her out there and had to turn back.
James glanced at the clock on the side table. “When are you going to get some food? I’m famished.” The pale tinge to his skin confirmed his claim.
“You could at least act like you’re wounded.” I grumbled, shifting in my seat. The shower hadn’t helped last night nor had sitting in James’s room with Connie and my mom tossing around theories and what-ifs. I was bored out of my mind, starving as hell, and couldn’t get my mind out of the gutter. “I’m not going out there to hunt yet. I know you’re hungry. Me, too. But it’s freezing outside. Heather promised it would get warmer in a couple of hours. You can wait until then.” I pointed at his injured shoulder. “Hey, it might be healed even more at that point, you could go with me.” Leaving him alone with Heather, especially as the hunger built inside him, didn’t sit well with me.
We sat in silence. Our topics limited to the immediate concerns. Talking about the impending war, food, and our situation looming before us didn’t seem like the best way to spend our time. And yet, what else did we care about in the moment?
I cleared my throat. I needed meat, my tongue was drying out. “So… Do you have any ideas?” Of course I couldn’t avoid the carcass in the room. I was too damn blunt.
He shrugged, but worry added a tinge of anger to his voice. “No. Dominic didn’t share more with me than his orders and the obvious pain. I wish I could say I’d seen inside his brain and had the secret to all of his plans, but I don’t. You most likely have more insight than me, you know?”
The front door slammed, cutting off my response, not that I had one worth saying. I’d most likely just hmm at him. Hell, I don’t know what Dominic, the bastard, wanted but I do know it wasn’t to deliver roses and kiss my cheek. “If I were Dominic, I’d swarm this place to get to Heather and to get revenge on me.”
“You think you’re that important?” His solemn tone dominated the meaning behind his smart-assy question.
I folded my arms. “I wouldn’t say I’m important. I think he’s sociopathic and OCD just enough to want to get back at me for defecting and taking her and you with me.”
“Well, what do you think we should do? We don’t have many people on our side.” He adjusted in the bed with his one good arm, wincing at the effort the movement claimed. “I feel like I need a plan. I’m going crazy just sitting here.”
“Storing up on fuel and food is important. Ditches, maybe? We could fill them with tar or oil-soaked hay or something? I don’t know what the resources are like up here. We might need to ask Grandma Jean.” Planning on defending a house with just a few people had a more surreal feeling than even when I bent over an animal to feed. The heat would call me. Would I have the strength to stay away from it?
Grandma Jean called into the front room. “Paul. Are you in here?” Her voice was an older version of Heather’s, which was weird because I assumed they weren’t blood since I’d just watched Heather’s adoptive parents die not more than two days before. But Grandma Jean had the same sound as Heather. Take away the accent and they’d be hard to tell apart.
I stood and poked my head from James’s room. “In here, Grandma Jean.” I didn’t want to leave James alone for too long. Mom hadn’t risen from bed yet and Connie wasn’t back from her hunt. Travis hadn’t stopped working on the research since he got up. I couldn’t wait to hear their theories, but James couldn’t be left alone. No telling what might happen the longer he went without food.
Motioning me inside, Grandma Jean joined me in the guest room and sat gingerly on the window seat. Hands crossed in her lap, she looked more like Julie Andrews would in jeans and a flannel with the sleeves rolled to her elbows. A strand of creamy pearls peeked from behind the unbuttoned collar. Her melodic left me curious about what her singing sounded like. “I understand my arrival last night impeded your hunting trip. I apologize for that.” She inclined her head with regal inflection. Had I dropped into some realm where I sat with the queen and drooled over the princess? Hell, nothing would surprise me at this point.
Should I bow? “Thank you, ma’am, but it’s not a big deal. I’ll go when Connie gets back.” James’s color could stand to be amped up and the gray had reached my palms. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like the more access to food I had, the faster my metabolism worked between meals.
A lull fell between us. More obligated to fill the silence, I continued. “I’m sorry to impose on you like this, ma’am. We didn’t have anywhere else to go and…” I trailed off. None of us had discussed how much information Grandma Jean needed. I wasn’t one to keep the truth from anyone. I suspected no one else in my group would want to either.
“Yes, I understand. So what’s the story, sweetheart? Do you have someone after you? Heather wouldn’t go into detail. She said it’s more your tale to discuss.” The pleasant curve to her lips would certainly disappear the moment she found out I wanted to eat her granddaughter. She waited with the barest hint of patience softening the lines of her face.
Alright, I might as well get it over with. Rip off the bandage, Paul. “Well, without going into boring detail, my brother, Connie, and I have a virus that makes us, well, like zombies.” There, I said it. She had to freak out now. She was supposed to be a nurse. Maybe I’d have to give her a sedative or something.
But she didn’t react much. Just uncrossed her hands and tucked a silver curl behind her ear. Her smile hadn’t budged. “Honey, you don’t act like any zombie I’ve ever heard of. Are you sure you’re not pulling Grandma Jean’s leg?”
A small laugh escaped me. “I’m sure, ma’am.” My grin was cheeky. I liked the old lady, weird as it was. “We don’t fit the zombie definition right now, but give us a few weeks.”
She rose from her seat and crossed to James. To that point, she hadn’t acknowledged him in the least. Ignoring his piercing gaze, Grandma Jean rolled his shoulder from the sheet and pulled the towels from his wound. After probing his injury with a well-manicured hand, she looked my way. “He certainly heals faster than I would expect of a boy of his age. What are you hunting out there? You realize nothing is really in season right now, right?”
From the angle my seat put me I could just see the edges of his wound. The shoulder had a blackened, crispy appearance. My heart sped up.
I jumped from my seat and rushed to James’s side. I stared, but couldn’t make out the significance of anything. Unfortunately, I wasn’t old enough to be a doctor, or a nurse, or anyone that mattered. I was a dying teenage zombie and I had no idea what to do to help James. “His flesh looks dead?” Question? Answer? Flipping fact I wanted to deny to my very toes. If his shoulder died, no matter what kind of cure Travis and Connie came up with, it’d be dead. Done. Gone. Irreversible. I shuddered.
“No. That’s a scab. If he just got this, it’s rather premature for a scab to develop this early on, but let’s be happy with it, shall we?” She patted James head.
I couldn’t drag myself from studying the crusty plane of his shoulder. The scab covered the majority of the wound in a topographical depiction of plateaus and valleys in deep browns, reds, blacks and even a yellowish tinge in some spots.
My fingers tingled. I didn’t dare touch it. He might have withheld his reaction to Grandma Jean’s touch, but everything on the surface of my body burned and tingled with the over-exposed nerves. I couldn’t adapt. I missed being able to do that.
She backed up. “Well, let’s say you are zombies. Is the virus contagious? Do I need to be worried about Heather?”
Yes, you sure as hell should be. “Nope. She’s fine. The virus is contagious, but only if saliva crosses the skin barrier. We aren’t going to bite anyone. As long as we’re the only ones in the area, everyone here is safe.” My warning wouldn’t go unnoticed, I hoped.
James skin had paled, almost to match mine. He shouldn’t start matching my coloring for at least another week. He needed food. His injury had sped up his deterioration. I hope it hadn’t shortened his time.
“Ma’am. I’m not sure how long James can last without food and I’m getting past low, too. Is there any way you might be able to sit with him until I get back? I promise to be as fast as I can.” I needed out of there. For a second, I’d been sure James’s shoulder had died, the anatomical piece closest to his heart and lungs. Too close for comfort… for my comfort.
I’d freeze in seconds outside, but only until I found something to sink my teeth into.
“Of course. I’d love to sit with him. Do you need a gun or something? My late-husband kept a gun safe downstairs. You’re welcome to use what you can.” She pointed down the hall.
Sweet, Grandma Jean knew how to get to a man’s heart. “Thank you, but I just need my hands. We hunt anything that has meat and blood. We’re not picky. I doubt forest rangers will believe we’re hunting.” I grinned and ignored the slight widening of her eyes. I’d left it slightly vague to give her the element of fear. Grandma Jean was a little too comfortable with the idea we were different and that in no time we’d eat something raw. Maybe her.
She didn’t flinch with the revelation. Rather her expression seemed more impressed. I liked these people. It didn’t take much to strike awe. Grandma Jean inclined her head toward the window. “You should head north of here. I wish I’d known before Connie left. There’s a beautiful herd of elk that needs thinning about this time of year and they stick to the range just beyond the lake. Very big. Have you ever had elk?”
Ever had elk? Was she serious? I was from Vegas. Elk was a delicacy at the bars and grills on the Strip. You had to be twenty-one to get in those buildings. Jeesh. How old did I look? “No, ma’am. No elk.”
“Well, don’t you worry. You’ll know them when you see them. They’re huge and quiet. If you get one with a rack, I’d appreciate it if you’d bring it back. I make items from the antlers. Oh, and the ivories,” she pointed to the back of her mouth, “their molars. I need both of them, please.” The bandage on James’s shoulder removed easily under her touch. Holding the gauze from his skin, she pointed with her free hand. “See that? There, the greenish edge around the entrance? If I press here, pus will come out.” She pushed with her forefinger. James screamed.
Grandma Jean yanked her finger from his flesh. “I’m sorry, James. I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
I wiped the sweat from my upper lip. Holy hell, his scream almost curdled my brain cells. I inched away from her. Keep that damn finger away from me. “The hungrier we get, the more exposed and sensitive our nerves get. You couldn’t hurt him, if he had food in his stomach.” Nausea washed over me. James hadn’t screamed like that in years around me – he’d just been in silent pain when Dominic had been in his head.
She pushed him back against the mattress, letting the bandage hang where it fell. She pierced me with eyes a matching blue to Heather’s. “You better get him food, then, and fast. I need to lance that wound before the infection spreads and attacks his heart. It’s close to the major organs. I don’t have antibiotics or antiviral meds. I could go into town, but I don’t know how long he has.” Words delivered with a calm steadiness helped more than she would ever know. I could deal with orders. I understood orders.
“Okay, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Thank you.” I ducked out without waiting for her reply. I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t hear him make that noise again. My hands shook.
I took off out the backdoor, avoiding the side yard where Heather enjoyed the early morning sunshine. The picture of her burnished curls branded in my never-resting mind.
Elk. I’d seen pictures. They were referred to as the ghosts of the forest. Could I find one? Or better yet, two? If not, I might have to settle for domestic feline. Damn it.
Elk was hella delicious. Raw. I’d never had it cooked, but by the time I’d found the herd, I don’t think I would’ve waited to take a piss before eating. I snapped the herd bull’s neck and took down a smaller cow elk. The rest finally caught on I was out for blood and they scattered into the woods, the thunder of hooves on moss fading quickly into the shady forest.
I devoured a significant portion of the largest one. I couldn’t wrench the ivories from the bull’s jaw, so I decapitated him with a nearby rock and cradled the head under my arm and swung the smaller female on my shoulders. The going was a bit rough, but nothing stopped me. The meat filled me. Iron rustled through my blood. I could breathe again. The unbelievable relief slid along my extremities. The gray disappeared almost before my eyes. Hey, yeah, Paul is back!
Every waft of air didn’t leave my fingers freezing and the minute hairs moving on my arms didn’t itch. For the briefest moment, normal returned. I adapted. The animal weight on my back didn’t exist with the return of my invincibility. If I pumped my fist into the air, would anyone see me?
My trip hadn’t taken long. I rushed onto the lawn and dropped the elk on the porch. Her blood had marked me and I stripped off my shirt before heading inside the house, flexing my pecs because they’d returned to their full selves and didn’t resemble a pre-teens concave chest. Yeah, Heather should see me now.
And, there she was. Holy crap, she was staring at me, too. I froze. I couldn’t look away. Our eyes met and the kiss from the night before tingled on my lips. Maybe my nerves were extremely sensitive around her regardless of how well I’d been fed or how recently. She seemed to have an odd effect on my physiology – not to mention my anatomy. Her gaze strayed to my wide shoulders and lower to my stomach. I wanted to cross my arms over my chest.
Heather met my eyes again, but only after having her fill of the view. Jeesh, the girl relegated me to a specimen in moments. Should I be flattered or feel exploited? I wasn’t some Chippendale. Her lips tilted, not into a smile but the suggestion of something for later. I hoped. She angled her body toward James’s room. “Grandma Jean said we should move him outside as soon as you get back, but he’s not letting anyone touch him. Says it hurts too much.” Aw, her voice created goose bumps where I was definitely not cold. She screwed her mouth to the side. “Plus, I’m not sure we can carry him. Connie and Travis are stuck in the library working hard on theories. Grandma Jean and I can’t carry him by ourselves. Your mom refuses to touch him when he screams.” She offered a small smile, I’m sure to reassure me and maybe to offer apologies. She’d tried.
I’d have to muscle James out. He’d have a complete turnaround once he had some meat in his stomach, just like when he was shot.
“Thanks, Heather. I got this.” I passed her, brushing against her arm with my chest… okay, totally on purpose, but my physique had returned and I couldn’t help it. “Sorry.” She looked down, her cheeks pink. Yeah, I still had it. If only she knew she tore me up inside, more than a simple flush would reveal.
Inside James’s room, Connie, Grandma Jean, and Mom gathered by the window, murmuring between themselves. I sought my brother in the bed, prepared to roll my eyes and make a face at the women clucking in the corner. But I forgot my intention and couldn’t stop myself from bursting out, “Holy crap, James. What’d you do while I was gone? Hell.” He’d grayed – and I don’t mean his fingertips – I mean his face, his chest, his upper arms, hell, even his lower arms. He matched the way my fingers had been no more than an hour ago. He hadn’t had the virus long enough to make that drastic of a change.
Without asking his permission or giving him a warning, I wrapped the comforter around him and bundled him into a cradle hold. He winced, a small moan breaking free. His feverish eyes flicked from object to object. He licked his lips, a dry rasp when his tongue hit flesh.
“Let’s go, bro.” I rushed him, jostling as little as possible, to the front door and onto the deck. I settled him onto the porch swing. He sighed when I released him. His head lulled to the side, his mouth agape. The immediate lethargy freaked me out.
I looked at the elk body, two inches from his feet and a head surrounded by blood. He didn’t acknowledge their presence. I was going to have to feed him. Fine. Whatever. He wasn’t dying on me. Not yet.
Dropping beside the closest body, I tore into the tough skin and yanked out a chunk of flank muscle.. I shoved the entire handful into James’s mouth. He didn’t move. Nothing. I grasped his lower jaw in my fingers and forced him to chew, up, down, up, down. “Come on, James. You need to swallow. Just give me one good swallow and I’ll leave you alone. Promise.” Like hell I would, but in that exact moment, I’d say or do whatever the hell he needed to hear.
In the distance, a phone rang, the tinny peal loud in the silence yet subdued beneath my heavy breathing
His eyes didn’t flicker with recognition. Nothing. Damn it. I pulled his face into my hands and got as close as I could, eye to eye, without kissing him – he didn’t need that from me. I ignored the three women standing in the doorway. Mom’s sobs reached an irritating height but nothing pulled my focus from James. “Listen. You have to swallow. You’re going to die. Please. Eat.” Desperation tensed my muscles to the breaking point.
I held my breath. The waiting was worse than when I’d waited to find out if Heather would die from my bite. But… I watched close. Close. The smallest muscle twitch in his cheek rewarded me. “That’s it, James, come on.” His throat worked and he swallowed what had to be blood since the meat wasn’t macerated enough to push past his tongue. After another moment, he moved his jaw and chewed, slow, slow, but he got the job done and swallowed the load I’d shoved inside. He swallowed again.
Connie knelt beside me. I scraped another handful of the still warm meat and held it to his lips. He opened his mouth and closed his eyes. The second the meat absorbed into his body a pink flush tinged his lips and the thin skin of his eyelids. He opened his eyes, revealing a receding fever.
I blew out my breath.
James lurched forward. I moved to keep him from falling, but he threw himself on the animal, landing with his face in the exposed muscle tissue. A terrible, animalistic gnawing sound filled the air. I couldn’t move.
He was eating. In front of me, the peach coloring flooded his exposed skin like someone washed him with paint.
Heather stood behind me, her presence like the gravitational pull of the sun. A couple days and I was that strung out on a girl? I needed to get a hold of myself. Ridiculous. But I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over my shoulder to see her. I’m a loser. I know.
Her large blue eyes were trained on me. A subtle shake of her head and a jerking motion with her hand called me to her.
James hadn’t stopped eating. I wouldn’t be surprised if both elk disappeared in minutes. To Connie, I whispered, “Can you watch him? I’ll be right back.”
She nodded, studying James’s actions and coloring.
I turned to Heather, ashamed to admit I’d rather stand beside her than worry anymore about my ravenous brother. She grabbed my arm when I reached her side and pulled me into the front room. Her fingers clutched me, her touch thrilling.
“What’s wrong?” I motioned over my shoulder. “If you’re worried about James, it looks like he’s going to be fine, now that he has some food in his gut.” Although, her worry about him wasn’t something I wanted to be blasé about. In fact, jealousy bit into me and I’d rather trade my green feelings for the burning nerves I’d left behind with the bull elk.
Her face paled. “No. I… um… he’s on the phone.” And I didn’t need her to spell it out for me. Dominic.
“He’s still on? What does he want?” The threat he imposed could be immediate or delayed, but either way I’d have to deal with him. I’d prefer being prepared with some sort of a vaccine or a cure – anything to make my position worth more than a girl’s genetic contribution to the cause.
Heather gasped, like she bobbed to the surface of a deep, thick lake. “Yes. I’m not sure. He said… He said that he was going to get me and that you’re the only one he wants to talk to.”
Interesting. The asshole didn’t want James. Dominic’s mind control must not work over the phone. Unsure why I did it, but certain she needed comfort just the same, I pulled her into my arms, the side of her face pressed against my bare pec. Let the bastard wait another moment. Heather was freaking out. “I got you. It’s okay. He can’t reach you. And even if he showed up, we’ve dealt with him before.” I pushed her away to see her face. “You okay?”
Tears just breached the edge of her lids. I pulled her to my side. “Where’s the phone?”
A dainty finger pointed toward the side table. Her voice was steadier than I expected. “Grab that one and I’ll hang up the one in the kitchen.”
The phone irritated me. Damn cord connected me to Dominic. I didn’t want to deal with him. Staying in the land of elk in northern Idaho with the hottest girl I’d seen in a while and my brother and mom was like a vacation I needed. I approached the phone piece, looked over my shoulder, and rolled my head to each side. Deep breath in, out, in, out. Do it fast, Paul, just do it.
I grabbed the handset and yanked it to my head so fast I knocked the side of my scalp above my ear. Had I not eaten, the bang would have hurt a helluva lot more. “Yep.” What else did he want? I didn’t owe him any manners.
His oily voice greased the phone line. “Paul, so glad to get a hold of you. Didn’t think you’d speak with me. How are you?”
How am I? Who in the hell… “What do you want, Dominic? It sure as hell isn’t concern about me.”
“Oh, Paul, I’m hurt you would think I don’t care. Of course, I care. How’s your brother? And Heather…” His voice dripped facetiousness. The phone in the kitchen clicked. She’d hung up. I couldn’t answer. What did I have to say except f—
“Well, I’d like to discuss some options with you, Paully.” Grr, that damn nickname. “I think you and I have a vested interest in the well-being of your little girlfriend.” I wish, maybe… “I want her to solve some research issues and you don’t want anything to happen to her.”
He was right. I didn’t want anything to happen to her. But he was wrong, too. I needed her for research as well. He just didn’t know I had Travis Duncan, Ph.D. – Dominic’s previous research partner – and his wife with multiple initials after her name. I couldn’t let Heather go, even if I wanted to.
Her immunity to my virus might save my brother. Might save me.
“You know I’m right. It’s not something to think so hard about.” His smug smile rang over the line. “Come on, Paul. You’re an original. You should be with me. Reveling in what you are.”
I couldn’t help myself. I’d been raised in Vegas, that didn’t mean I knew how to bluff or wanted to learn. “Look, I need her, too. Duncan can fix your mess and maybe we can protect some people. You’re not the smartest person in the world, Dominic.” Damn. I closed my eyes and dropped my head. Never give away more than you’re willing to deal with. I think that’s how it works.
His silence screamed.
What had I done? Now he had more reason to chase us north. I roostered up. “Does that piss you off? That I have Duncan? Does it surprise you that I would go after a resolution to this mess you made? You’re the dumbass that dragged my brother into this. Now you get to deal with the consequences. Got it?”
His silence answered me. But I knew he was there. And I’d gotten under his skin. His oily, charming, super-slick lizard skin.
We sat there – him on his end doing who knows what and me on my end, staring at the wood grain of a very classy side table made of a solid hardwood stained dark and shiny. I reached out and grazed my fingers over the smooth surface. My nerves weren’t as sensitive as they’d been before the elk, but the grain made a palpable impression.
When Dominic spoke, I straightened my back and stared at the flowery wallpaper, as his meaning sank in. “I have an army. It’s growing. And I’m coming for you. I will get that little bitch you’re protecting, your brother, Duncan, and you. It’s just a matter of days, little Paul. And when I reach you, every person between Salt Lake City and the border will either be dead or following me. Because once I bite, there is no need to hypnotize – they’re mine.” The air went dead and after a moment of stunned silence, the buzz of a disconnected line startled me. I’d dealt with cell phones for so long I almost didn’t recognize the obnoxious beep-beep-beep the land lines made.
Slowly, I placed the phone in the cradle. In a few steps, I moved to stand before the shelving holding the tea sets and miniature soldiers.
I’d been right. War. He was waging war and the bastard didn’t follow rules. He’d bite and infect every person – man, woman, child, you name it – on his way to get me. Me. He might say he wanted the others, but I know deep down, he wanted me back. I don’t know why, but narcissists wouldn’t let anyone else win. And for some reason this had become a twisted game to him.
A heavy hand fell on my shoulder. Shocked, I turned my head and stared at my brother.
“Thanks for the meat, man. I haven’t felt this good in a while.” Blood laced his lips and trailed down his chin, adding a flavor of menace to his smile.
It kind of creeped me out. “Hey, what happened? Are you okay? Should you be standing?”
Connie moved up behind him. “I agree. But his wound is almost gone.” She ripped the bandage off, exposing the fresh pink flesh underneath. I stared, unable to respond. Too much information rattled around in my head.
James winced and grabbed his shoulder. “Thanks, Connie, but I don’t need you to dismember me. I’m getting better, not all better.” He turned back to me and rolled his eyes. “Anyway, thanks again for the meat. Much better than the fish or that store-bought crud we had. Didn’t we eat a cow or something, too?”
I didn’t answer, just stared at him. He’d be in Dominic’s range again and vulnerable to the man’s mind attacks when Dominic started traveling toward us.
James searched my face, the smile falling from his mouth. He grasped my upper arm. “Paul, what is it?”
I gripped his hand and squeezed. For the moment, words escaped me. For the first time, in probably forever. Hell. I always knew what to say. But I choked. I choked on the memories of what Dominic had done to James in the biology building at UNLV and in the back of the screamingly awesome Nova. I swallowed and forced it out, ignoring the obvious sentiment in my tone and words. Suck it up? Hell, I was a friggin’ mess. “I can’t watch you go through the torture again, James. I might not survive it.”
Connie’s hand found my other arm. “What are you talking about? Who was that on the phone?”
I tucked my chin. “Dominic. He’s coming. He’s building an army and headed here.”
Her fingers fell and hung at her side. I glanced into the older woman’s face, her long blonde hair twined in a sloppy braid. She didn’t show the emotions that had to be there. I was anxious as hell. She’d better not be calm. We weren’t discussing a book or something. Jeesh.
Anger built within me – at Dominic, at Connie, at Travis, James, and whoever else I could think of. I snapped. “Doesn’t that faze you? Aren’t you concerned? We need something to protect the people here, the town, people.” I pointed at my mom who had joined us and Grandma Jean who stood at the doorway. “Our people. Eat as much as you can so that you can stay on this research and tell me what the hell we can do to help. Sorry to be such a disappointment to you.” I shrugged off James’s hand. Melodramatic? Hell, I was turning into a damned drama queen. The realization just irritated me more.
Connie didn’t turn from me as I expected. A hand on each of my upper arms steadied me and she met my eyes full on. “I get it. Our people. But I don’t have enough time to test what we’ve been working on. I need a person who hasn’t been infected. Which of our people are you willing to sacrifice to the cause? If it’s not now, then it’s going to be when Dominic comes.”
I didn’t have a response, just questions. “You have something to try? Why didn’t you say anything? I don’t understand. What do you have?”
She let go, dropping her hands to her sides. “I have something. I think.” And she stopped. Why the hell did she stop? The graying hadn’t begun in her yet, she was still too new to the virus, plus she’d eaten only a short time ago. But her skin had developed luminescence and her hair seemed thicker. Feedings must make our bodies stronger, at least for a short time.
“Is Travis working on it upstairs?” Suspicious, I didn’t dare release her gaze. Something was off and I didn’t have the balls to ask outright what the hell was going on.
But apparently Heather did. “What do we need to do, Connie? Can you tell us anything more?”
“I don’t know a lot more. I created a prototype-model for how I’d manufacture the vaccine, but I only have James’s blood. I need saliva and we need to decide who we are going to test it on. We can’t use Heather, James, or Paul, right? That leaves Travis, Nancy, and Grandma Jean. But the difference here is we don’t know if age plays a part in the virus sustainability. Paul and James are young. It would seem like all of Dominic’s recruits are adolescent aged.” A sigh escaped her. “I’m not as old as Travis, nor am I as young as the boys. So, I’m not a good case to go off of.”
Picking up the thread, I pointed out, “But not all the people who’ve been infected have been teenage boys. The ten-year-old girl in the warehouse was like us and if the majority of the police force was turning sides, none of them could’ve been in my age range. So we know it can infect them. Plus, Dominic – that dick is old.” I blushed. “Sorry, language.”
The look my mom shot at me intended to strangle me – it had to, because I couldn’t swallow all of a sudden.
Connie continued as if I hadn’t added that last part. “True, but we aren’t sure how they are doing. Are they existing alive or dead? Are they having problems manifesting a mental form of stability? Plus, if I do successfully create a vaccine, there are too many variables between the correct application and the correct result.”
Grandma Jean hmm’d. “I’ve heard of that. Some recipients of vaccines don’t respond well to the strains. How many strains do we have to worry about?”
“One.” Connie paused and then tilted her head. “Unless, of course, the virus evolves and fractionates into a different strain with varied modes of transportation.”
“What? Like the bird flu?” Mom stepped forward into the enlarging circle. Somehow our conversation had engaged everyone. Concern riddled their faces. As it should. Hell, each one of us had more than one thing at stake riding on the possibility of a vaccine… or better yet a cure.
Connie nodded. “Kind of. Except this one has to evolve from fluid transfer to touch to air. The first jump is the hardest and it’s still relatively new in its design.” Essentially, we had time before the zombie virus flew around on the wind when someone sneezed.
I reduced the complexity of the situation to a single question. “Who do we use?”
Those infected eyed the clean ones in the room. Travis was lucky to be upstairs. Heather and Mom squirmed under our scrutiny. I might have lingered over Heather a bit longer than I should have, but the girl’s curves needed me. I’m sure they did. Crap, Heather wasn’t even an option. No one else studied her, just me. Add creepiness to my drama-tude.
“I’d rather not know.” Grandma Jean patted her short curls. “I have syringes in the medicine cabinet. Can you create the test vial and fill two others with saline solution and stick us all?”
Connie hesitated. “I could, but the only way to test the efficacy of the vaccine is to introduce the virus as well. I have to create a solution to inject after I vaccinate.”
Essentially, one of the humans may or may not have a shortened life span soon. “When do you think you can create the vaccine?”
The solid, unyielding look she gave me defined dead-pan. “I need your saliva and James’s to compare to mine. All I need to do is isolate the genetic trait in each of our enzymes that links them and then I will know what marker to alter and kill before vaccinating the patient.” Patient, I liked that, because if we called them what they were, we might not be able to do it.
Yells tore me from the game of chess I played against my mom. Honestly, I didn’t regret the distraction. I’d forgotten how awesome she did at strategic games. Better than the ruler I’d learned about in history class – um, short, French I think? Whatever. Better than him.
I followed the curses and thuds up the stairs to my floor. The sounds had called the rest of the house as well. Heather maneuvered herself around until she stood by me. Sweet.
Grandma Jean knocked on Travis’s door. “Is everything okay? Can we help in any way?”
The shouts stopped.
Connie’s voice ripped through the panel. “Paul! Get the girls out of here. Travis has the virus and he’s not coherent. Hurry!”
Not coherent. Hell. I grabbed Heather and Grandma Jean and left my mom in James’s hands. We thundered down the stairs, unsure where to go for safety, but knowing we had to get the hell out of there. Fast.
Heather and her grandmother matched in weight, balancing me out. At the bottom of the stairs I tucked each one under my arms and carried them to the front. Grandma Jean had the presence of mind to open the door without causing too much delay. My only thought – get to the metal shed. Hopefully, the damn thing wasn’t locked.
At the brown metal door, I slung the women to the ground and turned with my back to them, hands up and feet in a fighting stance. James thrust Mom into the huddle with the other two and joined me, creating a small but powerful shield. Over my shoulder I growled, “Get us in there, Grandma Jean. I don’t know how strong he’s going to be or how long we can keep him off you.”
Disbelief hadn’t settled in with the imminent threat. It would.
A crash and stomps down the stairs. Connie yelled at the top of her lungs to get through her husband’s haze. A bellow and the front door flew open.
A squirrel scampered up the trunk of a tree – I placed him more by smell than by sight. I couldn’t afford to move my focus from the new Dr. Duncan barreling toward us across the lawn and drive. His arms swung in perfect sync with his legs.
His eyes, although glazed, hadn’t been smoothed over by a cataract-layer. A bright red spot spread across his lower neck, down under his collar.
As he approached, I dug my feet into the soft moss covered ground, prepared for when he launched at us. I raised my hands in front of my face. “Stop.” I didn’t yell, or scream, or even whisper, just used a tone I’d use in normal conversation.
And hell, if he didn’t stop. Just inches from me, he froze. Confusion replaced the hunger etched in the slant of his eyes and the snarl of his lips. He lumbered until his feet rested parallel to each other on the ground. His eyes darted from me to the women and back. He licked his lips.
If he stopped, would he jump up and down?
And suddenly, Dr. Duncan jumped – up and down, up and down. What the hell? The man looked goofy with his untucked shirt bouncing over his trousers. He continued bouncing up and down.
He stopped. Connie’s footsteps faltered. “What is going on? Why is he acting like that?”
“I don’t know. First, he did what I said, and then what I thought.” I lowered my arms. If Travis decided to freak out again or not follow my directions, James had my back.
Connie moved beside me, facing her husband. He didn’t move, just watched the women over our shoulders, as if waiting for the go ahead – which I would like to add wasn’t going to happen. Connie spoke softer. “Travis, honey. If you come with me, I can get you something to eat.”
He grunted but didn’t acknowledge her more than that.
She crossed her arms and rubbed her upper biceps. Goose bumps spread over her skin. “I don’t know. I injected your saliva after the vaccine.”
I closed my eyes in defeat. “The vaccine didn’t work. We’re down a human to try these on.” We needed more brain power. If I had any real training in the sciences, I would have my butt up on the microscopes studying and researching until I had the answers to the world’s most basic questions. The chill wasn’t biting, just sneaky on a slight breeze taking me by surprise.
“Not necessarily.” Connie waited until I opened my eyes. She opened a hand and pointed to pen drawings on her palm. “I couldn’t figure out why the virus wanted the enzymes. Most viruses attack the white cells and the immunity before they attack the rest of the body. They infiltrate the cells – virtually join with them so that they look and act like the original cells. But this one is even more sophisticated than that. Rather than disguise itself and depend on the nature of the body’s immune system as well as the genetic dispositions of the body, the bug piggybacks on the enzymes – not just training them to do what they want, but controlling them.” Her voice rose an octave.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear she was stimulated on more than one level. Ew… thoughts like that about an older chick. I know cougars are the thing, but I don’t roll that way. I had no idea what she’d just said. An explanation would be nice.
Travis spoke, startling us both, his guttural voice scratchy and ill-used. “The vaccine needs to attack the enzymes ability to adapt.”
I twisted my head toward Connie. “Is he right?”
She nodded, slowly, and trained her gaze on him. “I’m not sure, but it would make sense. If the enzymes didn’t have the capability to adapt and evolve, even inside the original host, then it would stand to reason that the vaccines would not be successful in symbiotically allowing them into the blood stream.” She reached out a hand to Travis, but didn’t touch him. “Amazing. He’s faster than when he was human. Like me.”
Grandma Jean tapped Connie’s shoulder. “Honey, I don’t mean to argue, but saliva doesn’t have enzymes that evolve or adapt. That’s crazy Darwinism there, and blasphemous as well.”
Travis moved to the side. He crouched, hands up in a clawing position. Just as he was about to spring, I thought as hard as I could – No. Sit.
I’ll be damned – already was, but whatever – if Duncan didn’t sit his ass right there on the ground. I’d never seen anything like it.
Connie’s jaw dropped. She stammered. “Ac-actually, you’re correct. It’s a theory that many liberal science colleges have merely accepted for the time being. Saliva is actually believed to have multiple enzymes that perform more than one specific job. The protector enzymes protect good oral bacteria from the – what we like to call – warrior enzymes which tear apart anything that doesn’t look familiar. Protector enzymes point the warriors in the right direction.”
Mom hmmd. “Would it be fair to assume that UNLV is a liberal college?”
Beside me, Connie nodded, warming to her subject. “Yes, actually. And to state a bit more simply – when I say evolve I mean affect a genomic change. Adapt means exactly what it sounds like. These enzymes are evolving whenever a virus comes in or a slightly familiar bug crosses the lips. Wash your hands? You better, because these enzymes do not do the job of a white blood cell. They tear apart food, in the most basic way. And that’s it. More sicknesses get in through the oral cavity than any other. Because enzymes are more concerned with the organic compounds and not so much the little invaders bent on achieving a host.”
Rather graphic, but I got it. The enzymes act similar to Dominic’s theoretical army might. They just want to eat, and once the meat gains a flavor they no longer want, they move on, ignoring what happens after. Like when I bit Heather. I didn’t know to watch for changes or death, but had I known, would I have stopped to check if she’d changed or died? Not likely. And the previous attackers hadn’t checked either according to the uncontrollable outbreak of Dominic’s virus.
Travis shivered. He wrapped his arms around himself and rocked back and forth.
I sidestepped Travis and motioned to Connie and James to follow. The expressions on their faces confirmed my insanity. I snapped my fingers and pointed at a spot behind the shaking man.
James arched his eyebrow and Connie jutted her jaw to the side. Yeah, I was rude, but get over it. Hell.
When they reached me, I motioned to Travis. “Look, he’s not going to do anything. It didn’t take much but he’s acting like a bee I saw on the windowsill this morning. He’s cold. He can’t do much. He might be fine in the sunshine, but in the shade he’s moving toward dormant.” I acknowledged the cold with my own goose bumps. It’d been more than a few hours since my last meal. I could handle the cold for a bit longer, but Travis hadn’t eaten as a zombie and his reserves would disappear in no time.
James motioned toward Travis and kept his voice lowered. “He’s not even looking at them anymore. Paul, make him do something.”
Kneel. But Travis didn’t move. I thought harder. Kneel.
I barked the order, loud and clear. “Kneel.” But Travis didn’t respond. I widened my eyes, a plan forming.
Connie bent over her husband, her words biting from the few feet that separated us. “Are you done playing with him? I’m going to get him something to eat and then we can discuss this. Stop treating him like an experiment. He’s my husband.”
Yeah, who you experimented on, I wanted to add, but kept my comment to myself. The lady could be awesome one second and high-and-mighty the next. If I were Travis, I might have changed myself just for the chance to escape her. But Travis wasn’t going anywhere and neither was she, so his plan – if that had been it – had backfired. Now they were stuck together, no sleep required, and had a problem to figure out or they’d die in a few months.