Sam woke up to the sound of the alarm.
His eyes snapped open. One hand flew to the halogen on the nightstand, fumbling for the switch. The other grabbed for the rifle beside him.
The shadows moved. A hand fell across his mouth, stifling his scream.
“Rise and shine, little boy. Time to go to work.”
The hand slipped away. Sam breathed again, gulping in the frigid darkness. The night was cold, filled with frost. The radiator had gone out. He flipped the lamp switch on and off, just to be sure.
They’d cut the power. They’d finally learned how.
“About God-damn time,” John muttered, reading his mind as he lit his cigarette. The flame flashed in the dark, running shadows across his chin. The alarm siren rose and fell, undulating like a hoarse, metallic voice. John exhaled, his breath a cloud of cold smoke. “I was beginning to think they were soft.”
He closed his lighter with a click, the tip of the cigarette glowing between his lips. It caught in his eyes, which were clear and sharp, untouched by sleep, like tiny red stars. John’s eyes were brown, but in Sam’s dreams, John’s eyes were always red.
In his dreams, John didn’t live very long.
Sam sat up and swung his legs off the narrow cot. This wasn’t his dream – the cold was too cutting, the night too unclear. His sweater was soaked with sweat, heavy against his skin. Gooseflesh raced along the inside of his arms, raising the fine hairs on the nape of his neck. The sopping mop of his hair, damp from his dreaming, felt doused with a bucket of ice.
It took him a moment to find his voice; to remember he had one. “How long was I dreaming?”
“An hour or so, in and out. Looked like you were having a hell of a time. Felt bad not to wake you, but you needed the rest.”
Sam wiped his forehead, his sleeve damp. He blinked sleep aside. It wasn’t rest, not lately – not even close. Every time he closed his eyes, there were only the dreams… and none of them were restful.
The alarm wailed, the throaty air-siren gouging behind his eyes like thumbs with chipped nails. “How long’s it been going?”
John stared out the window, smoke seeping from between his lips like truck exhaust, a vent for the engine that burned inside his chest. Sam knew for a fact that John’s engine ran hot. It was fuelled by its own combustion. “Started just now. They tripped something old. A trip switch, maybe. Must be off the power grid, out beyond the fence. God bless the Cold War.”
The night withdrew through the space between Sam’s fingers, his eyes ordering the room’s shadows into ordered, solid forms. The room, some old dormitory (a summer camp? Boy Scouts or Girl Guides?), stretched away from him in a line of empty beds, the night sharpened to a cool moonlit edge through the wire mesh on the windows. The black shades of his dream were replaced with alien crystal blue. The untouched sheets of the empty beds glowed incandescent white.
Sam’s fingers tightened around the stock of the rifle, its tapered weight spread evenly across his lap. It was a Winchester Wildcat, .22 calibre, and loaded; his bedtime companion for the past twelve days.
At first, the others (there’d been six of them, to start, before they’d become a solid ten) had slept with different things: hammers, drills, loved ones and strong alcohol; then later, strangers, and stronger sleeping pills. The Bibles had been useless, and so had the knives.
The others were all gone now, of course. Now there was just him and John.
They had slept with their guns.
“How long they been out there?”
“Can’t say for sure. We lost the lights around one. The gas not long after. They’ve been testing the fences for a good hour or more. I’ve been watching them. There.” John nodded to his reflection in the glass.
Sam stood, rifle in both hands. The windows, as narrow as he was wide, looked out at the lawn through thick wire mesh. Outside lay a carpet of ground mist, a foot of white oil rippling across the grass. The lawn ran, unbroken, in a swatch for twenty yards before reaching the perimeter fence: nine feet of linked chain, capped with razor wire. Beyond it stood a line of evergreens, their canopies dusted with frost.
Sam leaned close to the wire, his breath leaving a smear on the smoke-coloured glass.
John stood perfectly still, his eyes anchored on a point beyond the fence, under the cover of the trees. The full moon hung overhead in an empty sky, and turned his eyes from red to white.
Sam leaned closer, the heat on his forehead meeting the ice in the glass. He strained his eyes against the darkness, prying apart the landscape from the shadows in his own reflected face. Everything was still, frozen in place by the thin film of moonlight.
Then, outside, the intruder moved.
The alarm stopped abruptly. Silence dropped on the night like a blanket, and Sam felt his breath catch. He swallowed, feeling a lump of ice slither down his throat and land in the pit of his stomach.
“It’s not alone,” he said.
“No,” replied John, dropping his cigarette with the others and letting it smoke on the concrete floor. “There are more.”
The word didn’t surprise Sam; it might have stirred some great emotion, perhaps chilled him by some degrees… if he weren’t already so cold. Of course there would be more. They’d heard survivors out in Raceville talk of packs: groups of four or five, sometimes much larger; all working together; hunting together. None of the survivors had seen these firsthand, but that meant jack shit.
That’s why, Sam had reasoned, they were survivors.
More. No, it didn’t surprise him, not in the least. It filled him with the same cold ache that had taken the place of fear. There was only so long the rational body could fear. After a while, it simply… drifted away.
Along, he supposed, with the rest of his rational mind.
“I’ll check on the girl. See what she knows.”
John didn’t reply. He stood by the window, watching the shadow beyond the fence with the same immobile, unblinking stance. Sam walked the aisle as a flame flickered in John’s hands, flaring out in another plume of white smoke. John’s eyes glowed briefly red, and Sam shut the dormitory door behind him.
Outside, the corridor stretched in either direction with school-like precision, and Sam was once again reminded of how much that image hurt. It was too easy to imagine the rows of narrow lockers, the crush of bodies in the hall, the surge of voices filling up his ears. Instead, the walls were bare, the paint rippled black with water-stains, and the windows, set high on the wall, dropped white moonlight in long pieces. Sam slipped between them, careful not to cast a shadow, ignoring the whisper of the linoleum floor that warped under his feet.
He turned right at the end of the hall and stopped at a door with SOUTH DORM WASH ROOM stencilled on the glass. The knob turned under his hand, the broken lock rattling in the jamb like a loose tooth. He pushed it open and entered, following close behind the tip of his rifle.
At some point in the building’s long and varied career it had been a vacation summer camp as well as a weekend barracks. An endless tin urinal ran the length of one side, streaked with milky alkaline, while the block of communal showers had been replaced with a row of open-door stalls. A tiled partition screened the showers from the sinks, a gesture (inadequate, in Sam’s opinion) to adolescent privacy.
A puddle of grey water seeped to the flood drain from a broken cistern. Sam stepped around it, his footsteps throwing echoes off the sea-green tiles. His sneaker kicked a chip of porcelain; it skittered across the floor like a skipping stone, disappearing in the shadows under the wall-length mirror, his reflection pitted and acne-scarred with rust. It was a close likeness, Sam supposed, or as near as he could get this side of the apocalypse.
A soft sound murmured across the tiles behind the shower partition, metallic and small. The nose of the Winchester swung towards it like a divining rod, the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck prickling with electricity. Running his thumb across the rifle’s grip, he stepped deeper into the dark.
Two oblongs of moonlight fell through the high concave skylights, slipping between the exposed piping hanging overhead, sagging and swollen with frayed insulation. A length of thick chain snaked its way across the puddle of light, one end anchored to an ancient sink s-bend with a new steel padlock. The other skirted the door of an open shower stall, disappearing between a pair of prone red trainers to a pair of splayed legs, cut off at the knees by heavy shadow lilting off the tiled wall. Sam nudged the stall door with the end of his rifle. The shadow slipped away as the door swung inward.
A young man sat against the rear of the shower stall, his back against the wall, his feet hitched out in front of him. Around his middle was wound the length of chain, fastened in place with another padlock through the loop of his stained bluejeans. His white-striped football jersey was rolled to the elbows, one sleeve ripped just below the shoulder, the torn collar hanging round his neck like a piece of pale, tattered flesh.
The cold was all-consuming, but the skin on his forearms was smooth and opaque, untouched by the gooseflesh that bristled under Sam’s sweater. It was the skin of something both delicate and strong; mausoleum marble, or bone china porcelain. Unfeeling. Maybe… dead.
Sam held the rifle to his shoulder, one hand guiding the length of the barrel carefully down towards the boy’s head, the other resting on the clammy steel of the trigger guard. The safety was off. He knew it by touch.
“Where’s Susan?” Sam asked. His voice bounced around the cubicle, leaping between the pipes and the gurgle in the flooded drain.
Susan… Susan… Suuuuuuu-san…
The boy raised his head. His hair curled in damp, dirty snarls, and under heavy, hooded lids, his eyes glowed bright green.
“Susan’s gone,” the boy said. “I got tired of living her.”
The boy’s voice was soft, pliable; in the bathroom, tile-lined and cavernous, it produced no echo. Sam suppressed a cold shiver.
God, he hated this thing.
The butt of Sam’s rifle shifted against his collarbone, just in case. “Who are you now?”
The boy looked at him with impossible eyes. A set of straight white teeth broke his lips into a smile. “Hi I’m Marc Gillespie I’m eighteen years old and go to Granville High I’m a Varsity halfback go the Midtown Dogers I have a girlfriend her name is Jodie we’ve been to second base but I’m taking her to prom next summer and hope to get to third my father is a lawyer and my mother stays at home and I have two younger sisters their names are Gracie and Joanne but Gracie died last Tuesday but Jo she lived much longer Jo lived long enough to see the red inside her eyes ---”
“Stop.” Sam swallowed, his mouth tasteless and dry. These were things he didn’t need to hear. “Tell me what they’re doing. The ones outside.”
The green eyes seemed to glow. “How should I know?”
“Because you do.”
The boy’s head tilted sideways, the smile slanting down. “They know that I’m here. They don’t know about you. Not yet. Perhaps they won’t. But I think they will.”
He blinked his green eyes slowly, like an owl. For a moment that’s what Sam saw: a great mess of downy feathers, tarred with black blood into the shape of a sitting boy, green eyes blazing above the stump of its shattered beak. His mind bent around the image, strained at the sight he wasn’t sure was completely in his mind, but like always, refused to break.
The green eyes watched him, smiling.
Sam squared his shoulders. “What are they doing?”
“What they're always doing. Hunting.”
“More than three?”
“More than three hundred. More than three thousand.” The boy raised hid head sharply, shrugging the hair from his eyes, and for another impossible moment Sam was looking at another vision: at a girl he’d known as Susan, who had been dead for ten days. The boy smiled with her lips, her eyes emerald green. “They are legion, Sam. And they are more than you can fight.”
Sam’s finger tightened on the jack-knife curve of the rifle’s trigger. The boy’s green eyes turned up at the corners, his teeth glowing, smile aligned with orthodontic precision.
Sam dropped the rifle from his shoulder and turned away. His sneakers splashed in the grey water, treads squealing. Another chip of porcelain kicked across the tiles, striking the wall and shattering into pieces.
In the cubicle behind him, the thick chain coiled. Sam felt hot breath on the tiny hairs behind his ears, and the luminous smile form words with dead lips.
Susan… Susan… Suuuuuuu-san…
Sam slammed the door behind him, the loose lock rattling in its socket. He fell against the door and shut his eyes, the pane of frosted glass melting through his sweater to the small of his back. His pulse throbbed in the centre of his ears, each beat pressing against the inside of his skull like a lead weight, a closed fist trying to punch its way out of his mind and into the world.
They are more than you can fight.
The words glowed behind his eyes, scorched there with a psychic branding iron. His fists cling to the stock of the skinny rifle and for a delirious moment he fought the urge to open the door, go back to the stall, place the barrel in the boy’s smiling mouth and blow his smile out through the roof of his head.
Sam swallowed. Not that doing that would make a shred of difference. However good it might make him feel, it was a waste of a good bullet.
Best to save those, all things considered. Good bullets were hard to come by.
Sam pulled himself upright and started down the hall. If the monster in the bathroom wanted to die that badly, let it do its own dirty work. Sam wasn’t going to be an angel of mercy – especially not when it was still more human than… whatever else it was.
He walked back down the hall and opened the door to the dorm with the same caution applied to loaded guns: slowly. John still stood in the lee of the window, smoking. The small mound of ash at his feet had passed the time in growing, and the shotgun, previously laid flat on the floor beside his bed, was now propped on its end against the wall by his leg.
Smoke caught at the back of John’s throat as he turned towards the door. “What does she say?” he asked, his internal engine venting itself through his teeth.
Sam shut the door quietly behind him. “Nothing.” He skirted the aisle of beds, avoiding the moonlight. “She’s changed again. She’s a he now. Says he’s Marc Gillespie.”
John snorted through his nose. “Shame about Susan. I was beginning to like that body.”
Over John’s shoulder, the expanse of clear lawn leading to the fence rippled like mercury, tousled by an unfelt breeze. Sam scrutinised the shadows crouching in the tree-line, and shivered. “The longer we keep it with us, the more dangerous it’ll get. It said they know it’s here.”
“We keep it. We need it.”
“And if it changes again? If we can’t handle it?”
John was silent. He dropped the cigarette butt with the others at his feet. “Then we can’t handle it. End of story.”
End of story. How often had Sam heard that? Frequently enough to know it had no weight. Where they were now was just the after-thought of the story, the few blank pages before the book’s back cover. The real story had ended almost two weeks ago; had come, in fact, to an indelible close on a mild Friday evening before the day had fully set and the streetlights begun to burn. There were cars still turning into driveways and groceries still being bought, kids still walking home from the ballgame after school.
The story had been ending and no one had seemed to know.
Sam ran his finger down the margins in his mind, and stopped before he fell between the dust jacket. The book of the past was not a helpful place to stay; he was apt to get lost in there.
The evergreens undulated behind the chain-link fence, and the sudden burst of wind whistled through the gaps in the rafters, breaking over the building in an invisible wave. A lonely figure stood immobile at the fence as the branches whipped and tore, little more than a featureless blot of ink on the other side of the wire. From somewhere inside its edges, two points of green began to glow like emerald stars.
Two green eyes, searching from the shadows.
Sam felt the heat of them against the edge of his mind, pushing gently, sending a quiet thought out into the darkness -
It was a human thought, composed with human words and feelings. But it was just a test. It wasn’t real. The mind that made it was nowhere near human.
Not for long, John’s eyes replied, his gaze fixed against the glass.
Sam felt that, too.
Sam closed his eyes and pushed the thoughts away. When he opened them again, both feelings were gone… but the shadow was still there, green stars burning in place of its eyes.
“So what do we do, while we wait for them to come?”
John picked up the shotgun from its place by his thigh. Glaring down the levelled barrel, he thumbed back the hammer.
“Now, little boy? Now we have some fun.”