This novella, written in 2010, was inspired by a suggestion of three words – bacon, shortage, and blockade – from Mike Broadwater (@Funslayer on Twitter):
By Wes Platt
The man had died with his face planted in a white plastic bowl of chili, his curly black hair glimmering in the white-blue ghost light of flatscreen TVs mounted on the walls of the darkened employee cafeteria.
Undignified way to go, Lloyd Porter thought. Of course, the Skitters didn’t offer much in the way of dignity for any of its victims.
He grasped curls in a gloved hand, pulling the man’s face clear of the moldy brownish-black goop, which buzzed with flies and squirmed with maggots. An oval name tag on the left breast of the vomit-stained white button-down shirt identified the victim as RANDY. A small decorative globe above the name signified that the late, lamented RANDY had worked at the happiest place on Earth for a good long time. Maybe five years. Ten? Twenty? Hard to tell in this light.
Details used to matter much more to Lloyd, a few weeks ago in another life. Now, all he knew was that RANDY put a lot of his time and energy into a dream factory that ultimately killed him. He wondered what RANDY had been thinking in those last desperate seconds as the plague consumed him. Sorrow? Regrets? Surprise, almost certainly.
Lloyd gave the corpse a nudge so that it slumped sideways to lean against the wall of the orange-cushioned booth. Then he gave a little hallelujah-amen to the makers of the filtration mask he wore under a sweat-soaked green paisley kerchief to mute the miasma of nasty odors that punched through the shadows from the dead and the rotting. It was awful down here in the tunnels, where the theme park workers used to hustle about. Up above, though, was much, much worse. Down here, at least, it seemed the Skitters had killed more than it reanimated. RANDY wasn’t going anywhere. No frothing. No growling. No trying to chew on the tasty, well-bundled flesh morsel that used to be a journalist, husband, and father of two.
Something clanged in the kitchen. Sounded like an aluminum kettle toppled off a counter and onto the tiled floor. He turned to peer through the scuffed lenses of his amber safety goggles. He supposed it shouldn’t surprise him at all. Come this far, beat the odds, only to find one last obstacle standing between him and the treasure he so wanted to claim.
The flashlight didn’t have much juice left in it, but Lloyd took the chance, anyway. He flicked it on, aiming the beam toward an array of cash registers between the main dining hall and the serving buffet tables on the way to the kitchen double doors. He counted six Skitter shamblers – mutie humans who succumbed to the plague only to endure the misery of reanimation to make certain that the disease continued to spread. Their eyes glowed a familiar sulfurous yellow-green. The kitchen doors swung open beyond the shamblers to reveal one of the beasts Lloyd had dubbed “animatrogs,” which were seemingly more self-aware than their foot-dragging counterparts and had taken it upon themselves to augment their bodies with bits and pieces of audioanimatronic hardware scavenged from throughout the park. This one had replaced its left arm with a fake crocodile leg, complete with clawed foot, and wore the mechanical head of George W. Bush as a hat.
“Well, fuck a duck,” Lloyd muttered, tucking the flashlight back into the pocket of his blood-stained cargo pants. He pulled up the hood of his gray University of Central Florida sweatshirt so that it covered his shaggy brown hair, then reached over his right shoulder to take hold of the Mile Marker 74 sign he had picked up from the weeds along Interstate 4.
He hadn’t come all this way to turn back now.
Lloyd Porter gripped the post in both hands and charged for the cluster of cafeteria freaks, wailing a battle cry that was only barely muffled by his mask and kerchief: “BACON!”
“We need to talk, Lloyd.”
Two hours before deadline in the Kissimmee bureau of the Orlando Press. Lloyd had sunk into his swivel chair in a cubicle in the middle of the boiler room that he shared with six other reporters. For the moment, he stared at the flatscreen monitor. He had just filed an article about a zoning change for a halfway house in a small subdivision off Highway 192. Now he needed to wrap up a quick collection of news briefs about a fatal motorcycle accident, traffic construction work on Interstate 4, and the curious death of twenty-three cows on a farm near the Silver Spurs Rodeo arena. That wouldn’t take more than a half hour, but Lloyd really just wanted to get it done and go home.
“Almost finished here,” he told his boss, a squat and officious little groundhog of a man named Patrick Betts.
The bureau chief crossed his arms. “Now, Lloyd. Please.”
The reporter bristled at the tone of voice. “Jesus, Pat, what’s the fucking rush? The monster never sleeps. The monster’s always hungry.”
“We need to talk,” Patrick repeated.
“And I’m sure it’ll be fabulous when we do. Right now, though, I’ve got to polish off those briefs so I can call it a night.”
“Let Amy handle them.”
Lloyd swiveled his chair around so he could stare at Patrick, brow knitting. “Why the hell would I do that?”
“My office, Lloyd.”
“Pat, I know how this scene ends: Pesci’s shot in the head.” Lloyd stood in his cubicle so that he could loom a bit over his boss. “I’m not going to your office. If I was in trouble, I’d know it. If I was up for a promotion, you wouldn’t interrupt me on deadline to tell me and you sure as hell wouldn’t shovel my work onto someone else. So that doesn’t leave a whole lot of possibilities.”
Patrick frowned. “I wanted to talk about this privately.” Other reporters popped their heads up like prairie dogs sensing danger near their holes.
“How hard did you fight to keep me?”
“It wasn’t an easy decision.”
“The monster’s always hungry,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes it eats its own, right?”
Patrick fidgeted, tangling his fingers together. “I hope we can still be friends.”
“We were never friends.”
The next day, Sandra Wald stood beside a slab bearing the corpse of a mottled brown and white cow that had been among the herd killed by some unidentified pathogen in Kissimmee. A veterinary pathologist from the University of Florida, Wald wore a bright yellow-orange hazmat suit and helmet as she recorded her findings of the autopsy.
“Subject is a 416-kilogram Guernsey cow from the Monmont Dairy Farm, identified for record-keeping purposes as Monmont No. 3,” she said, tracing a gloved finger along the dairy cow’s flank. “Belly manifests unusual distension, which could be evidence of prolonged starvation if not for the fact that the cow appears otherwise well fed and engorged with milk.” She tugged the cow’s ear upward, leaning close to examine. “Dark brown splotches along the inner ear suggest burst capillaries. Note: Remove brain in more advanced study to seek potential aneurysmal evidence.” She lifted the upper lip to review the gums. “Curious blue-purple coloration of the tissue indicates -”
Sandra Wald screamed as the cow suddenly lurched to life, snapping at her hand with nubby green teeth that still managed to penetrate the fabric of the glove and broke three fingers while piercing the pathologist’s skin. She dropped the cell phone that she was using to record the report and stumbled back, clutching the wounded hand as she moved clear of the beast’s thrashing hooves. The creature tumbled off the slab, bellowing hideously with eyes that now glowed a sickly yellow-green.
Sandra panicked. She didn’t want to remain in the chamber with this reanimated monstrosity. She quickly opened the airlock hatch, jumped through, and slammed it shut behind her to prevent the cow from following. The Guernsey slammed into the hatch with a willful intensity that she never would’ve expected from the normally docile creatures. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! More furious bellowing, followed by further repeated impacts. Sandra’s broken hand throbbed as she watched blood spatter on the viewport. The cow shattered its own skull and finally collapsed on the floor.
The outer door to the lab hallway cycled open and her freshman assistant, a red-haired basketball scholarship student named Toby Beauchamp, rushed into the airlock to check on Sandra. He wore his orange and blue UF jersey, blue jeans, and high-top sneakers.
“What are you doing, Toby?” Sandra shouted. “You’re violating quarantine protocol! Where’s your suit?”
The young man frowned. “You’re hurt, Dr. Wald. That cow…what the hell?”
“Apparently, it wasn’t completely dead.” She held up the savaged hand in the tattered yellow-orange glove. “And I’ve been to exposed to whatever it had. Contact the CDC and the FDA while you’re at it. They need to recall that farm’s milk, just to be safe.”
Angeline Porter opened a fresh bottle of Monmont Farms milk and poured it into bowls of corn flakes for her sons, Evan and Lloyd Jr.
In the living room, Lloyd sat at the computer, surfing the web for job possibilities while he waited for responses to his email attempts to call in old favors for a new career. The severance package from the Orlando Press would hold the Porter family over for about six months. He could draw unemployment for a while after that, but Lloyd really didn’t think he could stomach it. He would just as soon go back to selling souvenirs near the whale stadium.
His wife put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the head. “Don’t worry too much about it, Lloyd. We knew this might be coming. We’ll be okay.”
He heard the gentle tinking of spoons against ceramic bowls in the dining room. “They don’t know yet, right?”
“Not yet,” she said.
“Good. We’ll tell them when there’s something to tell.”
“Have some breakfast,” Angeline said. “No arguments. Scrambled eggs? I’ll whip them up before I run the boys to school.”
Lloyd chuckled. “Fine. Bacon, too.”
“I’d never forget the bacon, dear. Milk or juice?”
“Juice,” he answered.
Jimmy Webster stood across the counter in the commissary of the Orange County courthouse, staring with his one good eye at Lloyd Porter. “You’re kidding, right? No offense, Lloyd, but if you’re serious, you’ve got some seriously fucked up priorities.”
“C’mon, Jimmy. Talk like that won’t put me in a sharing mood when I get back.”
They’d known each other before the Skitters, in an age when the food chain worked a little differently. Jimmy used to be a bailiff working in Circuit Judge Blake’s courtroom. Before they ever talked, Lloyd assumed the big lummox was just a thick-necked yokel with a gun and a badge – a glorified bouncer with some real authority. Lloyd had become friends with Jimmy while covering criminal court cases. They’d sit in the hall during recess and shoot the breeze, discussing their shared affinity for video games and classic Star Trek.
“I know what this is all about,” Jimmy said, resting his left arm on the counter. He still wore the long-sleeved brown uniform shirt and trousers, although they had been patched here and there with mismatched bits of colored cloth and augmented with strips of reinforced leather and metal where prudent. The ruined socket, a souvenir from a wild shot fired at an incoming mutie during the early weeks of the apocalypse, was concealed by a patch to which he had affixed a silver and black Harley belt buckle.
Lloyd shrugged. “I’m a simple guy. No real complications. I’ve finished the last of the Bac-Os. Time to find something more substantial. Something worth living for.”
The one-eyed bailiff shook his head. “Ain’t about your snack preferences.”
The former reporter withheld further comment, choosing instead to gulp beer from a chipped Shamu stein.
“Excuse me,” said a lanky, red-haired young man who had been a Gators basketball hopeful before the Skitters overshadowed the promise of March Madness. He poked his head through the commissary door, looking toward Jimmy, who had become the de facto “lord” of the courthouse fortress now that the city of Orlando had lost its mayor, the state of Florida had lost its governor, and the United States of America had lost everyone in the federal chain of command. “New batch of refugees just come in. They all seem clean so far.”
“So far,” Jimmy said, nodding at the boy. “Thanks, Toby.” He asked Lloyd, “You up to giving them their entrance interviews?”
“Well,” Lloyd grunted, “I was going into Bithlo to pick up some power converters, but I guess that can wait.”
“Just like Han’s shot,” Jimmy replied.
“Fucking sacrilege! Greedo did not shoot first!” Lloyd insisted. He rolled his eyes in mock disgust, slid the stein across the counter toward his friend, and then walked to the door leading out of the commissary.
He followed Toby down the hall to the rotunda, where ten well-armed and armored guards kept watch on four ramshackle-looking refugees – one middle-aged black woman, a pre-adolescent Asian girl, an old Hispanic man, and a squat fifty-something white man who reminded Lloyd an awful lot of a pudgy rodent.
“The monster’s always hungry,” he growled, stopping to stare down at Patrick Betts.
Just after lunch, with the kids safely off at school and Angeline taking a comp day from her job at the clinic, Lloyd sat in the lobby of Clement Marketing. He tugged awkwardly at the conservative blue necktie dangling from his collar and thought, Better get used to this.
He preferred the more casual wardrobe he’d enjoyed in the previous career: Khakis, button-ups, and Nunn Bush were about as formal as he got. But here he was, less than 24 hours since he walked out on Patrick Betts, just an interview away from landing a new job.
Lloyd hadn’t wanted to become a commercial hack. Didn’t want to sell out. But Amy Dennison made a good point when she passed on the tip in her email: “When you’re drowning at sea, it doesn’t make much sense to flick off a whaler who’s willing to toss you a life preserver.”
He was especially grateful that the human resources agent, a woman named Diana Petrofsky, was willing to meet with him on such short notice.
“She’ll see you now,” the well-trimmed male receptionist said.
“Thanks,” Lloyd replied, standing and tugging once more at the tie, hoping it was straight. His cell trilled in the pocket of his shirt. He tapped the button on the plastic bud tucked into his right ear. “Lloyd Porter here.”
He heard Angeline on the other end: “The school just called. The boys are sick.”
“Sick? What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I’m not sure. It sounds like quite a few kids are falling ill. Early flu bug, maybe. Sick building syndrome? I don’t know, but I’m going to pick them up. I’ll take them to Dr. Stowers.”
“All right,” Lloyd said. “I’ve got that interview now. See you at home.” He tapped the earbud once more, cutting off the call. He had no reason to suspect that those were the last words they’d ever share.
The boys sat in the back of Angeline’s minivan, sluggish and pale, as she pulled into the parking lot of the pediatric clinic where she worked part-time as a records clerk.
Angeline boggled at the sign hanging crookedly in the door: CLOSED. With a handwritten addendum on a pink Post-It: OFFICE ILLNESS. She speed-dialed the number for her boss, Dr. Luther Stowers, but it went to voice mail.
She looked at the boys in the back seat and understood there’d be no alternative. She’d have to take them to the hospital emergency room.
Angeline slid back into the driver’s seat and closed the door.
Evan asked weakly, “Can I have my Robo?”
She frowned. “You’re sick, Evan. Robo’s at home. I need to take you and little Lloyd to the doctors at the hospital.”
“I want Robo,” he insisted.
Well, she thought, home’s on the way.
“Deadline experience goes a long way, Mr. Porter,” Diana Petrofsky said, “but your clips from the Press are excellent too. That’s either a testament to your skills or those of your copy editors.”
Lloyd chuckled, shaking his head. “I’m fast and clean. I know what I’m doing.”
She plucked an empty container of Monmont Farms coffee creamer off her desk and dropped it into a small black trash can, then took another sip of her coffee. Then, a smile before she asked, “Are you sure you won’t have a cup?”
“No, no, but thanks,” he said. “Never been big on coffee. Gives me the shakes.”
Diana shrugged. “I try to quit, but it never sticks. I made a break with smoking. That’s good enough, right?”
Lloyd smiled. “Good for you.”
She nodded agreement, then stood from her desk and carried a manila folder – Lloyd’s resume and other pertinent information, he expected – to the door. Yanking the door open, she proffered the folder to her assistant outside. “Leopold, take Mr. Porter’s file to Danny in the writing department. Tell him that he’s recommended for final approval.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Leopold said.
Thank God for life’s little blessings and the occasional quick turnaround of luck, Lloyd thought. He stood, extending a hand to Diana. “Thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.”
“Danny’s going to be lucky to have you on his team,” she said, clasping his hand. Her grip was cold, clammy. The smile she wore was taut, like a rictus. He noticed sweat beading on her forehead.
“You okay?” he asked.
Diana Petrofsky raised her other hand, ready to give a dismissive wave. Then it flopped to her side, just before she collapsed on the tasteful mauve carpet.
It took Angeline about five minutes to hunt through the chaos of the room Evan and Lloyd Jr. shared before she finally plucked the silver and red transforming Robo from under the bunk bed.
She walked back downstairs, reclaimed her purse from the table next to the door, and then carried the toy to the minivan. She slid open the side door of the van, saying, “You boys really need to get your room straight…” Her voice trailed off. The back seat was empty.
“What happened?” Leopold asked. He crouched next to Lloyd, who was cradling Diana’s head in his lap. Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing raggedly.
“We shook hands and then she fainted,” Lloyd replied. “Has this ever happened before?”
Leopold put two fingers against the side of her throat. “No. She’s healthy.”
Her eyes flashed open. They glowed a queer yellow-green that Lloyd immediately associated with glowsticks at a rave. Her breathing had gone rapidly from a ragged rasp to a rumbling growl. Diana Petrofsky grabbed Leopold’s wrist with her hands and pulled it toward her gaping mouth.
“Fuck a duck!” Lloyd screamed as she sank her teeth into her assistant’s pale flesh. Blood spurted from the wound, spilling between the gaps in her teeth. Leopold howled in horror and agony.
Amy Dennison turned her pale blue PT Cruiser onto the rough limestone road under an azure late spring sky streaked with faint high-altitude clouds. Just after lunchtime, but she took hers on the road today. She slurped the last of the Coke from the styrofoam fast food cup and belched in time to the chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama” as it played on her car’s MP3 player.
It wasn’t ladylike, no. But, then, she wasn’t feeling particularly ladylike today. She had known Lloyd Porter for about two years. He’d been a mentor to her when she joined the bureau as a general assignment reporter, fresh off an internship at the Raleigh News and Observer. The man had a wife and two kids to support. If times were so bad that the Orlando Press would toss him to the wolves, then what hope did a single girl have of surviving cutbacks? Oh, sure, she might last longer than some of the other senior reporters, people who sucked away bigger chunks of payroll. But she had no doubt: Eventually, her number would come up.
Amy didn’t believe much in God, but she put a lot of faith in karma. Do good, she reasoned, and good comes back to you. So, she’d happily recommended Lloyd to her old college roommate. She didn’t think Lloyd’s first choice would ever be a new career as a marketing hack, but she knew he was realistic enough to accept that print newspapers were an endangered species. Besides, marketing would pay so much better than he could ever hope to make crusading for the dwindling readership.
The PT Cruiser rumbled past an orange-trimmed blue sign that read: UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA VETERINARY PATHOLOGY ANNEX. The sign perched at a slight angle on the grassy shoulder of the road, under a moss-draped oak branch.
Moments later, she parked in a gravel lot outside an oversized blue aluminum shed with a sloping roof next to a Ford truck that belonged to the university. She plucked her spiral-topped reporter’s notebook and pen from the passenger seat, then got out of the car and started walking through the sun-dappled shade.
Her cellphone, nestled in the door compartment on the driver’s side of her car, buzzed in silent mode. Had she known to look, she might have seen PATRICK BETTS calling. She might have answered. And she might have lived, at least a little longer.
His nice shirt splattered with crimson, Lloyd Porter slammed his green Prius into reverse and tried to put the freakish chaos of Clement Marketing as far back in his rearview as possible.
Not very charitable of him, he knew, but someone else was handling the 911 call.
Another office worker, very apologetic, had said they’d be happy to reschedule an interview.
But that was right before a beefy security thug swung a black baton upside Diana Petrofsky’s head. He had tried wrestling her off Leopold’s mangled arm, but had discovered it was about as difficult as pulling pork from congressional legislation. The first swing connected but failed to jar her loose. In fact, she growled and dug in deeper. The second thwack got her attention, though. She let go of Leopold, who clutched his arm in close and allowed another co-worker to drag him away, and then she roared at the security man. Gooey strings of blood and flesh stretched between her teeth. She lunged for him. He swung a third time. That turned out the lights for her, ending the savagery in a crunch of bone and a splurt of blood and gray matter before she toppled lifeless onto the mauve carpet.
No, Lloyd appreciated the offer, but no. He didn’t know what was happening in Clement Marketing, but he knew it wasn’t normal, it wasn’t good, and it might be catching.
Go home, he thought. See to the family.
Angeline found Evan in the back yard, rocking slowly back and forth as he sat on the edge of the sandbox. She carried the Robo toy in her right hand. The left pressed against her chest, which had tightened with fear upon finding the empty minivan.
“Evan,” she said, kneeling beside him and offering the toy. “I found your Robo. Now where’s your brother? And why did you leave the car? You scared Mommy!”
A small hand clutched her left shoulder. Angeline turned to see Lloyd Jr. gazing at her with sulfurous yellow-green eyes.
“Play time, Evan,” he said.
She didn’t understand. It didn’t make sense. She looked back toward Evan, who was on his feet now, regarding his mother with his own glowing eyes. “Play time,” the little boy rasped in agreement.
She dropped the toy, releasing a horrified yelp, and tried to run.
Angeline Porter made it about three steps before her oldest latched a hand on her right ankle, bringing her down. Then the youngest sank his teeth into her leg.
The fluorescent light flickered above the gray metal desk in the jail’s former booking room. A poster on the board next to the fingerprint station declared that a big orange police dog couldn’t wait to take a bite out of crime.
Patrick Betts fidgeted in a brown folding chair on one side of the desk while Lloyd Porter just stared, quiet but fierce, from a battered leather swivel chair on the other side. Past the inert metal detector and in the hallway, Toby Beauchamp stood with the remaining three newcomers as they awaited their turn for an entrance interview.
“I have to admit, I’m impressed,” Lloyd said, flipping to a fresh sheet on the yellow legal pad so that he could start scribbling notes with a cheap blue ballpoint pen. “I wouldn’t have bet on you making it through July, let alone all the way to now.” He tapped the pen briefly on the desk. “Then again, you always knew how to cover your own ass pretty well, didn’t you?”
His former editor might have survived the Skitters outbreak so far, but not without a cost. Lloyd could see that clearly enough. Once a fastidious, clean-shaven man with impeccably groomed hair and an almost fanatical devotion to pink button-down shirts and blue neckties, Patrick Betts sat before him now with shaggy, shoulder-length black hair and an unruly clump of hair framing his chin, clad in a baggy Jacksonville Jaguars jersey and blood-stained blue swim trunks with white and green wave designs around the legs.
“You’re in charge?” Betts grumbled.
Lloyd shrugged. He jotted a few words on the pad, mostly just for the sake of keeping Patrick Betts off balance.
“What are you writing?” asked the haggard rat-faced man. He leaned forward, trying to get a look.
Lloyd jerked the pad toward his chest, brow furrowing. If Patrick Betts had caught a glimpse, he would’ve seen the words: “BIG SALE TUESDAY.” With a tsk-ing admonishment, Lloyd said, “I make recommendations to the boss about who stays and who goes.” A dark smile crept over his lips. “Hey, sorta like your old job, isn’t it?”
Patrick cringed, but then clenched his jaw and hissed angrily: “Is that what this is about, then? You’re going to condemn me to die for it?”
“I could try,” Lloyd said, but then he sighed. “Jimmy wouldn’t stand for it, though. He plays fair. If you can earn your keep, he’ll let you stay.” He tapped the pen against his chin. “Got any useful skills, Pat? Something other than wordsmithing. I’ve got that covered. Plus, I can fix the generator when it breaks.”
The rodent-man relaxed a little now that he thought Lloyd couldn’t just unilaterally kick him out of the jail complex now that he’d made it safely here. He laced his fingers together. “Is there a garden here?”
Lloyd shook his head.
“I could plant and tend a garden,” Patrick said.
That got the former reporter’s eyebrows twitching. Some lettuce and tomato to go on that special sandwich he planned to have in the very near future wouldn’t go unappreciated.
“Can you use a garden trowel to poke a shambler in the brain?” Lloyd asked.
Patrick gave a weak shrug. “I’ve killed my share.” He jerked his head toward the trio waiting in the hall with the basketball player. “They can vouch.”
The monster’s always hungry, Lloyd thought. Sometimes, it eats its own. But tonight, the inhabitants of the jail fortress needed allies a lot more than they needed enemies. Patrick Betts might have been a conniving douchebag in that other life, but it was a new world now. Even assuming they survived the coming months, and assuming those months translated into years, they’d need all the friends they could get when it came time to rebuild.
“Let the monster starve a little,” Lloyd said.
Toby Beauchamp graduated in 2010 from Winter Park High School and got a free ride to the University of Florida thanks to his talents as a center who managed a better than average free-throw percentage at the line.
He wasn’t all that much of a jock at heart, though. He knew he might make a brief but decent living as a basketball player, injuries permitting. However, he loved animals. Always had. He’d grown up on his family’s estate, with frequent access to the horses in the stables. He’d mucked the stalls, kept the wood chips fresh, and made sure the horses always had plenty of water.
So, before taking the scholarship, he had decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in veterinary medicine. Now in his second year, Toby became an intern for his professor, Dr. Sandra Wald. His medical knowledge, although still rather limited, would serve him well in a few months when he became the closest thing Fort Orlando had to an actual doctor in residence.
He watched Dr. Wald now, though, before the Skitters tore civilization apart, through the porthole in the sealed airlock door. He had tried talking to her for a while after calling the authorities. She had seemed alert and lucid for about fifteen minutes after the zombie cow chomped on her hand. Now, she sat slumped on the floor, her back to the wall, leaning her head against the blood-splattered hatch to the autopsy chamber. Her eyes were closed, but he could see the gentle rising and falling of her chest in the big biohazard suit. She wasn’t dead, but she wasn’t talking.
“I’m here to see Dr. Wald.”
Toby jumped, startled to see a lanky red-haired woman in her late twenties with a notepad and pen. He frowned. “Are you with the FDA?”
“No. I’m Amy Dennison, a reporter with the Orlando Press. I talked to Sandra this morning. She’s expecting me.”
“Oh,” Toby replied. He pocketed the doctor’s cell phone. It thunked next to the keys to the university’s truck. Then he shook his head. “I’m sorry. She…” How do you explain that a dead cow came to life on an autopsy slab? That it chewed through her biohazard suit and probably infected her with the same hideous disease that killed the beast and then reanimated it? How do you say that to a reporter who’s going to put your name and picture in the newspaper, and probably on the Internet, where it will remain for the rest of your natural life – and maybe beyond? He opted to say very little – he just nodded toward the porthole and backed away, making room for the reporter. His only advice: “Don’t open the door. She insisted.”
That prompted Amy to furrow her brow. She moved to look through the small window and her eyes widened at the sight. “Dr. Wald? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”
The doctor didn’t open her eyes, but she spoke loud enough to be heard – a rasping sound, like her tongue was scraping over a cheese grater. “Let me…out.”
Amy shot Toby an angry look. “What’s going on here?” She moved to grab the hatch lock’s handle. He intercepted her wrist, then blocked her way. “Move! She needs help! What did you do to her?”
“Look, you don’t understand,” Toby said hurriedly. “She’s infected! If she gets out –” He didn’t get to finish his warning before she drove her left knee into his crotch and drove a right jab into his jaw as he doubled over. He tumbled over sideways, moaning in pain as he covered his agonized groin with his hands. The coppery tang of blood mingled with saliva in his mouth.
He couldn’t say anything, couldn’t do anything, to stop Amy Dennison from breaking containment. The Warehouse, as Dr. Wald called it, wasn’t a technological powerhouse of biohazard management. The state university system didn’t have a lot of money to throw into the veterinary medicine program. Big grants came for cancer and Alzheimer’s research, instead.
The reporter swung the door open. “Dr. Wald, what did he do to you?” She tucked the slim spiral notebook into the back pocket of her beige slacks and stepped inside to kneel next to the doctor. “Do you need an ambulance?”
“No,” Sandra Wald said, turning her head toward Amy Dennison. The doctor’s eyes slowly opened to reveal sulfurous yellow-green orbs. “Need…food.” She lunged for the well-intentioned reporter with gnarled fingers.
Amy turned in a panic, making a dive for the door, but only managed to slam it shut ahead of her before the infected veterinarian tackled her.
Toby heard the woman’s screams, but couldn’t bring himself to look through the window to watch – especially when the awful cries changed as she gargled on her own blood. He slammed the lock back into position, then decided that the son of Leonard and Delores Beauchamp had spent more than enough time playing watchdog in the Warehouse.
He ran for the truck. He didn’t look back.
The day Lloyd Porter lost his job had seemed like the end of the world to him. Less than twenty-four hours later, he had a better sense of perspective.
Traffic snarled on Interstate 4. Plumes of greasy black smoke billowed from the skyline of “The City Beautiful.” Mottled green helicopters whup-whupped from the east.
He made his way toward home using side streets and by traversing sidewalks on the main arteries that linked up to the interstate. He tapped the scan button on the factory-issue stereo in the Prius, searching for news. Mostly, he found static and high-pitched Emergency Broadcast System signals.
Lloyd picked up his phone from the passenger seat, tried speed-dialing Angeline again. Still no answer. He thought of calling the Orlando Press bureau in Kissimmee – surely, they’d know something. But he didn’t want to talk to Patrick. Lloyd dialed Amy Dennison’s phone. She might have information, and she also deserved to know that her good friend Diana had turned a hapless assistant into a buffet table. But Amy didn’t answer.
Salvation rode shotgun aboard a commandeered tourist helicopter from International Drive.
Her name was Cassie Thayer, and she had worked for the past fifteen years as a research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control. About the time the Monmont Farms cows had been delivered to the University of Florida, Dr. Thayer had been on the ranch with a squad of National Security Agency troopers and Homeland Security investigators.
They found the empty vials and the open metal biohazard briefcase next to the body of a radical militant from Idaho. Records identified him as Morgan Hunt, 36, of Boise. He’d shot himself in the head with a 9mm Beretta after releasing the weaponized virus that his co-conspirators had stolen from a lab outside Las Vegas.
Once Cassie knew what they were dealing with, she could return to the CDC satellite facility in Altamonte Springs and begin processing the antidote. No, they couldn’t save everyone, but they could limit the spread. Control the damage.
She almost hadn’t made it this far. George Monmont, owner of the ranch, was among the dozens of reanimated dead who swarmed the barn while Cassie was inside with her protective detail. The NSA soldiers and Homeland folks died buying her time so that she could sneak away through the woods.
She sank hip deep in a marsh along the way, realizing too late that she had kept her cell phone in the pocket of her pants.
The helicopter belonged to a retired Delta Airlines pilot, Ferdinand Marino, who found himself fending off zombies in garish flowery shirts and Bermuda shorts, wearing black socks with sandals. He used a nine iron to thwack them upside the head while Cassie climbed aboard and followed his shouted instructions to rev up the chopper.
One of the attackers, a wiry little kid in lopsided black mouse ears, bit a hunk out of Marino’s left leg as the pilot scrambled aboard. He winced and gave an anguished grunt, but the whine of the growing rotor noise drowned it out. He said nothing about the injury to his passenger. He just slammed the door shut, watching as the zombie kid pounded on the glass, and lifted off.
Minutes later, salvation slammed through the window of an office on the 31st floor of the SunTrust Bank building in downtown Orlando. It blossomed into a fiery flower that rained twisted metal and glass on the street below.
The Prius idled silently in the driveway. Tears streamed down Lloyd’s face. His hands gripped the steering wheel. He had parked in the cul-de-sac, facing the house.
Six pairs of ghastly yellow-green eyes stared at him through the picture window in the living room. Angeline, flanked on either side by the boys, Earl and Lloyd, Jr. Her hands rested gently on their shoulders, but there was nothing gentle about their demeanor. All three bared their teeth as they slowly, softly thumped their foreheads against the glass.
Too late, he thought. They’d been lost to whatever was spreading throughout the city – maybe throughout the world, for all he knew.
The monster’s always hungry. Sometimes, it eats its own.
“I’m sorry!” he shouted.
And then he slid the transmission into drive and slammed on the gas. Tires chewed up turf. Glass shattered. They shrieked as the car plowed into them, gnarled fingers scrabbling at the hood and bumper. But then the Prius pinned them to the entertainment center, which toppled over to finish the job.
“I’m sorry,” he wept.
The lights went out in Angeline’s eyes.
Before the Skitters, Regina Todd worked as a secretary for the Orange County School District.
Now, she took a shift each night, manning the wall of the repurposed 33rd Street jailhouse clutching a Winchester rifle to fend off the monstrosities. Regina – Gin to her friends – had enjoyed occasional hunting trips with her late husband, Anthony, and their dogs, Ghostlight and Fergus. She didn’t enjoy this duty much at all. Gin had shot more than a few muties. Always, in the back of her mind, she wondered if they’d once been faculty, administrators, or students that she’d known.
She supposed it was a mercy that Tony had died of a heart attack in 2010. That nice man who used to be in the White House talked about change you could believe in. Tony had liked that, even if he didn’t always think that the actions kept up with the promise of the rhetoric. He had tried to be optimistic, even when the space center started cutting programs and the jobs that went with them. He had wanted to believe people would go back to the moon or even to Mars.
Best that he hadn’t lived to see what became of the world, Gin thought. Would’ve broken his pure, sweet heart.
It was closing on dawn, the gray sky to the east starting to grow pinkish blue. Downtown’s broken towers still smoldered, with oily black wisps trailing into the sky. The only vehicles on I-4 were the battered and burned hulks that had choked the highway in the days after the plague spread. She’d only had to snipe three Skitter-fiends during the night. One of them had been a child, no more than six, clutching a moldy brown teddy bear. She didn’t think she’d sleep easily today.
“Relief’s here.” The one-eyed fort commander, Jimmy Webster, smiled wanly at Gin as he reached the top of the ladder and joined her on the platform overlooking the street. “Toby’s cooking up breakfast. Creamed corn and hummus.”
“My favorite,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I really miss my morning Starbucks.” A soft chuckle, then she offered the Winchester to Jimmy. She was about to say “All yours” when she caught a movement in the corner of her eye, coming from the west. Gin frowned.
“What is it?” Jimmy asked.
“Refugee, maybe.” Gin shrugged. She hefted the rifle so she could peer through the scope, which zoomed on the target: A shaggy-haired man in a blood-splattered gray University of Central Florida hooded sweatshirt and cargo pants. He shuffled, one foot bare and filthy while the other inhabited the remains of a white and blue New Balance sneaker. He dragged what appeared to be a battered highway mile marker sign in his right hand. His eyes glowed yellow-green. “Oh, no,” she said.
“What?” Jimmy pressed. He followed her gaze. From this distance, all he could make out was an indistinct gray and brown blur, although the glowing eyes certainly called attention to themselves.
“Lloyd Porter,” Gin said.
She wrapped a finger around the rifle’s trigger, but Jimmy put a hand on her arm. She gave him a puzzled look. He beckoned for her to hand the gun over. “It’s gotta be done,” Jimmy said. “I gotta do it. This shouldn’t be on you.”
Gin shook her head. “Sun’s not full up yet,” she said. “Still my shift. Not something I want to do, boss man, but it’s no worse than anything else I’ve had to do since I got here. You let me carry it. You remember your friend the way you saw him last.”
She could tell the ex-bailiff wanted to argue, but ultimately he held his tongue. Jimmy’s eyes rimmed with tears that she almost couldn’t see in the pale morning light as he looked east. She aimed west.
He’d almost lost the nerve.
In the end, though, Lloyd Porter summoned up the willpower to do what he needed.
After fighting his way through the parking toll booths, along the monorail track, and down those horrible streets where the undead horses dragged overturned trolleys ahead of muties hauling honeybuckets, he had bashed in the fevered brains of the last guardians in the employee cafeteria and secured the last frozen bacon he’d ever fry up and eat.
When he had finished, he had fought his way back to a souvenir shop – the magic store – and found what he’d really come for.
The phosphorescent contact lenses came with a warning to CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE PROLONGED USE.
He didn’t bother consulting anyone. It wouldn’t take that long.
“The monster’s always hungry,” he said as he dragged the sign beside him, shuffling east toward oblivion.