Looking back at this now, four years after I first wrote it, I'm mostly just pleased that it all makes sense! It was a wild ride for me once the anthology came out and I ended up rewriting 80% of the novel before it went out to publishers. Although it didn't quite make it to publication, I remain immensely proud of it. And who knows what the future holds? After all, you can't keep a good zombie down!
Gnash. Spit. Thrash.
Ropes. Hands. Gloves.
Bite. Tear. Chew.
I’m … me and I’m … somewhere. Plus, I hurt. Jagged pains run across my shoulders. I rub my forearms - they’re crusty with something.
“You’re safe now.”
Open my eyes and try to focus. In a white room - medical room. There’s a boy sitting across from me, wiping his nose. He takes off his round glasses and peers at me, like he’s trying to see through my misty eyes. I test out my voice. “Safe from what?”
“Safe from yours…” He polishes one lens with the corner of his handkerchief. “Just safe, ok?” He’s posh, posher than me anyway.
I sit up on the bed, trying to ignore my aching back. The crusty stuff on my arms is mud - my cracked fingernails are full of it too. I make a fist and watch brown flakes spill onto the mattress. “Where is this? And who are you?”
“Well, you’re chock-full of questions.” He stands and walks over, pushing the peach-coloured hanky into his trouser pocket. He’s got perfect black jeans on, like they’ve never been washed, a white shirt with buttoned-down collar and a floppy blonde fringe that he’s combed just so. It’s hot in here, this … this white room. I can see pearly beads of sweat on his forehead as he comes closer.
“Did you say something?” My stomach is growling and twisting like a caged animal.
“Hearing voices, are we? Don’t suppose it’s uncommon.” He leans over, really close, his button nose going out of focus. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
Before I can stop it, my tongue flicks out, scooping a drop of perspiration off his face. It tastes gross, all salty and …
Crusty hands shoot forward, grabbing his hot neck, pulling him close to my teeth. I try to fight it, turn my mouth away.
I’m so hungry. I want to eat him. I want to be sick.
“Relapse, Gerda, relapse!”
Door bursts open.
There’s a voice coming into my dreams. An older man, kind sounding. I imagine he’s my uncle, come to save me from the …
A finger pokes my side, into the soft flesh above my waistband. I go rigid, blood freezing in my veins.
“Oh, definitely some response there.”
I feel tight strapping across my arms, holding me onto the bed. My head is fuzzy but somehow clearer too, a distant rumble in my stomach the only memory of that terrible hunger.
“Muscle reflex - make a note of that, would you Gerda?”
There’s pressure on my chest, and a scratching, scrabbling sound, like rats on a wooden floor. I can’t keep my eyes shut any longer. I open them, see a clipboard balanced on top of me. The curly-haired woman called Gerda makes a tick on the chart and looks upwards into my face. She makes a long, silent scream as she stumbles backwards, mouth clamped open in terror. I can’t move to look behind me, to see what’s made her so scared. Then I realise. It’s me.
“Now, now, I’m sure he’s quite harmless.” The man bumbles forwards and grabs Gerda from behind, steering her through the doorway. He turns back to me, mouth pushed to one side - wrinkling his ginger goatee beard. “Terribly sorry about all this.” And then he’s gone too, copper-coloured head wobbling out of sight.
I don’t know who or what I am. Where, seems to be some kind of laboratory. Glass bottles and jars cram the high shelves, while test tubes, microscopes and stuff cover the long bench along the white wall. A dead chill runs down my back. What if I was built here – some kind of Frankenstein experiment?
I wait for a minute. Two. I start to wriggle from side to side, testing my bonds. They’re tight, but not impossible to slip out from. I have this sudden flash of memory; being tied up for a magic trick, standing in front of an audience with all of this silken rope wrapped around my wrists and ankles. I try to hold on to the vision long enough to look at the magician - I sense he’s someone important. I stare and stare in my mind’s eye, but it’s no use - he doesn’t have a face.
“Gerda, be reasonable.”
The voice is some way away - I still have time. I squirm, pulling my right hand across my stomach, catching my fingers in a rip on my T-shirt. I free them and move the hand across my chest, up to my left shoulder. A little higher. A little bit higher. A little … and then it’s free. The hand goes to my face, searching for fangs or big stitches joining flaps of dead grey skin. My palm is rough, but my face is smooth – eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, ears – all in the normal places.
“… I’ll have to continue the tests without you.” Echoing footsteps, coming downstairs, coming this way. If I can’t fight like a monster, then I need to think like a man. I pull out my other arm - if I can only get my chest and legs out, then stand behind the door, grab the fire extinguisher.
“What’s all the rush?”
A voice - right in my ear. My body wants to jump, but most of me is still strapped down.
“We’re not here to hurt you. Quite the opposite.” A figure walks around the bed - the boy in the very black jeans. He’s been here all the time, watching from behind my head, where I couldn’t see him.
“Who are you people?” I tense, waiting for a punch, or worse. He stops, just beyond the reach of my arms, smirking. I can see a patch of dark bruising inside his button-down collar.
“I’ll call the police! You can’t keep me locked up like this.”
Another smirk. “Yes, yes, call the police. Join the waiting list.” He’s a little older than me, a little taller – but I’m quicker. I reach out and grab the strap across my chest, pulling hard at the slack where my arms were. It doesn’t budge - there must be a catch below the table, where I can’t reach. The boy watches with great amusement, arms folded.
“James, I hope you’re treating our subject with proper respect.” The older man returns, his black shoes slapping against the tiled floor.
“Yes, Father.” James looks away from him, towards me, and rolls his eyes. “It can talk, by the way. I think I forgot to mention that.”
“Talk?” The father comes nearer, careful to stay out of my range. “You can talk?”
I study the man’s unruly hair and mud-splattered clothing. He has two pens and a syringe in his shirt pocket, every inch the mad scientist.
“Come along, amaze us with your skilful conversation.” James slips two fingers beneath his collar, stroking the bruises.
I feel like a parrot in a pet shop window. “Let me go!”
The father continues to stare, but with wonder, not curiosity. His eyes are wide and I can see his chest heaving faster. James sighs and shakes his head.
“This is kidnap.” My shouts echo in the tiny room. “You can go to prison for kidnap.”
The father doesn’t seem to register this, or the kicking of my threadbare shoes as I struggle to escape. Instead, he grabs my hand and pumps it up and down. “We’re going to save the world.” He turns to his son. “We’re going. To save. The world.”
James continues to look unimpressed. “Saving the world, one boy at a time.”
The father drops my hand and steps away. Too late, I wonder if I should have grabbed the syringe from his pocket and used it as a weapon.
“James,” he slides his arm around the son’s thin shoulders, “I knew I should have bought you that bunny rabbit when you were six. How about we rescue a girl next time?”
“Oh, a girl. Even better.” They stride through the door, turning the light off as they go.
I lie alone, in a dark windowless room, ankles and chest strapped to a bed, body shaking. I imagine the endless night and then the sunless morning, when a mad scientist and his sarcastic son will restart their experiment, coming back to cut me open with a razor-sharp scalpel.
Light floods the room. “Sorry, forgot you were there. Not used to having guests.” The father slap-foots his way towards me and leans beneath the bed, loosening the straps with a flick of his wrist. “Come and have some dinner, won’t you? You must be starving.”
“So,” I take another slice of pie, “you’re telling me I was a zombie?”
“That’s about the size of it, yes.” The father, whose name turns out to be Hugo Curzon, watches me stuff my face. I’d been wary of the food to start with, in case they were trying to poison me. Hunger quickly got the upper hand.
“You don’t seem very surprised.” James arranges his knife and fork on his empty plate.
“I guess I knew something was wrong, something inside me.” The idea of a zombie is strangely comforting. I know what they are, how they work. “My memory’s really weird, still. I can tell you how to beat Resident Evil 5, but not my address.”
Hugo’s brow creases. “Resident …”
“It’s a video game, Father, about fighting zombies.” James takes a sip of his lemonade. “Rather overtaken by current events, I’m afraid.”
I savour the last rich mouthful of steak and kidney pie. “That stuff you injected me with, is it a cure?”
“An … experimental treatment.” Hugo reaches across the table, takes my plate and stacks it on top of his. He’s still wearing the latex gloves that he had on in the lab. “I call it Remedion 6.” He smiles. “One better than Reticent Evil 5, don’t you think?”
I nod, deciding not to correct his mistake.
“We had some … ah … problems with the dosage earlier.” Hugo stretches over and hitches up James’s collar, hiding the bruises. “You’re quite free of the virus now.”
The dining room has a window big enough to make up for the lack of one in the basement lab. I look out towards the harbour, summer sunlight rippling on the water. “The last time I remember, it was autumn. I was on a train coming here, to Whitby.”
“Alone?” James crunches an ice cube between his teeth - his dad flinches.
“I was with the magician.” He’s there again, in my mind’s eye, the man with no face. I look instead at his long black hair and the ring on his finger - a chunky black metal band with a gold snake on the top, its body curled like a back to front question mark.
“Oh, the magician.” James points at me, whirling his finger around. “Perhaps it’s his fault. Maybe he cursed you.”
“James!” Hugo butts in before I can get into a shouting match with the smug son. “I want to talk with …” He raises his eyebrows towards me - I think he wants to know my name. The problem is, I don’t know myself. He watches me shrug. “I’ll talk with … our friend alone.”
James makes a huffy little noise and leaves the room, his brown slip-on shoes half-buried in the deep pile of the carpet.
Hugo pushes the door shut. “Regarding the events of ten months ago, I can assure you that there was no magic involved.”
I shrug again. Shrugging seems a pretty good response to this weird situation.
Hugo squints at me, then reaches for something on top of the dresser. “I’m most surprised by how you’re coping with all of this.”
“It’s post traumatic stress disorder.”
“Well, yes.” He laughs. “It could be. Where did you learn a phrase like that?”
“I don’t know.”
He pats my arm and passes me a small pile of stories cut out from newspapers. “Here’s what we do know.”
The Times Saturday 3rd November
Teesside Water Contamination Scare
Residents of Darlington and Stockton have been advised to boil drinking water due to unspecified “contamination” of the supply. A spokesperson for Northwaterland PLC blamed new operating procedures at the Broken Scar treatment plant for the lapse and stressed that any risk to the public was “very low”.
So far, so boring. I flip to the next story.
The Guardian Tuesday 6th November
Water Link as Darlington Health Crisis Deepens
Darlington Memorial Hospital is fast becoming a public health flashpoint, as staff struggle to cope with the mystery illness that has afflicted hundreds in the Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough areas.
Symptoms of the disease include high fever, disorientation and memory loss. The condition, which affects young and old alike, is proving highly resistant to treatment; a situation not helped by the aggressive behaviour of many of the patients. Since yesterday morning, private security guards have been patrolling the hospital corridors, with builders fixing bars to the ground-floor windows.
Government scientists remain tight-lipped about the nature and cause of the outbreak, but sources link it to an incident at Broken Scar water treatment works on Friday. All of those affected are within the water plant’s supply area.
Ok, I think I see where this is going. There’s a creeping feeling in my skin as I pick up the next page, even before I read the headline.
Daily Star Thursday 8th November
ZOMBIE RAMPAGE AT HORROR HOSPITAL
Brave Staff “Forced to Fight”
Terrified doctors and nurses were sent running for their lives after victims of the zombie bug turned nasty. Shocked witnesses revealed how hundreds of drooling fiends took control of Darlington Memorial Hospital, smashing life-saving equipment worth millions of pounds.
“They was everywhere,” recounted hospital orderly Dennis Singleton. “One came up behind and I thought he was going to bite me,” continued Dennis, who fought off the monster with a bedpan. “Some of them haven’t eaten nothing for days - I reckon they’ve got a taste for human flesh.”
As the riots took hold, operations had to be cut short and desperately ill old people winched to safety. For many, escape proved impossible when they found windows had been barred from the outside.
“They’d best send in the army,” said staff nurse Bernice Todd. “What’s the point to them unarmed guards, standing around wanting to reason with them zombies, while all goes to hell in a bucket? You can’t reason with animals.” Nurse Todd had her own solution to the problem: “Shoot them, I says. There’s only freaks left inside the building - our boys should blow the whole place to kingdom come.”
I stop reading, aware of my heart pounding in my throat. “I’m very tired.” I push the stories across the table to Hugo. “Is there somewhere I could sleep?”
“Of course, of course.” He smoothes the stack of paper with his hand. “I had Gerda make up a room for you.”
My mind is popping and pulsing, trying to deal with everything. It’s like a tap just opened in my head, flooding it with toxic water. Fears and questions slosh around, shouting for my attention. Was I there? Did I hurt someone? Did I eat someone?
“Sure you wouldn’t like pudding?” Hugo holds out a plate of mini apple pies.
Bite. Tear. Chew
Gnash. Spit. Thrash.
“They’re home-made. Puff pastry.” He puts a gloved hand on mine.
“Don’t touch me!” I smack the plate from his grasp. “It isn’t safe to touch me.”
He jumps up and away from the table, massaging his fingers. The thin china plate has broken in two, the pattern of yellow tulips ending in jagged chaos. “First floor, second door on the left.” Hugo stands on the far side of the room - by the window - flinching away from me. “Your room, I mean.”
A pie smashes under my foot as I sprint away.
Morning. I can hear Mum calling me. “Griff!” she’s saying, “Your dad and I are going now.” That’s all very nice, I think, next time can you leave without waking me up? I snuggle further under the duvet, into the warm safety of darkness. “This is it, Griff,” she calls up the stairs, “you’ll never see us again.”
I’m bolt upright, panting. This isn’t my bed or my house. The sheets are too blue and the duvet has this horrid Noddy design. It’s a tiny room, just enough space for a single bed and a mouldy old wardrobe that looks like it floated in on the last high tide. I miss my stuff, even if I can’t quite remember what I had. I just miss stuff that’s mine, I guess. My pyjamas are borrowed from James, all baggy round the knees and frayed along the cuffs. At least I remembered my name.
“Griff.” It sounds a tiny bit familiar as I say it. “Griff.” Suppose I’ll get used to it.
I get out of bed and walk to the dusty window. Standing on tiptoe, I peer down the wall of the house; that was how I got to sleep last night, by managing to convince myself that zombies couldn’t climb up these sheer bricks. It looks really quiet outside.
Maybe everyone else is dead.
“Wake up sleepyhead.” It’s James, knocking at the door. What a shame the zombies haven’t got him yet. Probably he stays indoors with his carpet slippers, his brown pyjamas and a book of poetry. “It’s bacon for breakfast, though I expect you’d prefer it raw.”
He chuckles and I feel the vibrations as he walks along the landing and down the stairs. I wish I had my own clothes, maybe a pair of trackie bottoms and a big orange fleece. I pull on a pair of hand-me-down chinos and a striped shirt, deciding not to look in any mirrors.
Pulling the door open slightly, I put my ear up to the crack. No sounds. I open it wider and look out across the landing. It’s empty. Carefully - feeling like a zombie myself - I walk across it, towards the dark corner where the landing ends and the carpeted stairs turn sharply downwards. The smell of bacon swirls up from below, tickling my nose. One of the family is eating very noisily, slurping and chomping. Funny that I can hear that upstairs.
The closer I get to the end of the landing, the gloomier it becomes - there are thick curtains drawn across the high window, making the dark corner look extra menacing. I start to see shapes that aren’t there, imagining rats and worse darting in and out of the banisters. I put a hand against the nearest doorframe to steady my shaking legs. Just a little rest, I tell myself. Hang my head to cure the dizziness, study the flowery landing carpet and the white vinyl floor that meets it from the doorway. A shape on the vinyl draws my eye, a perfectly round shape.
A drop of blood.
I hear my breathing quicken, and I hear the eating noises again, very close now - just beyond the door. There’s slurping, yes, but worse are the snuffling noises. They sound like a pig rooting through a trough, or maybe rooting through a human body, searching for the tastiest morsels.
I kick open the door, unable to stand it any longer. There’s another drip of red and then another and then a table and Gerda sitting at it, a raw steak in her hands. Blood smears her nose, lips and chin - I can see light through the hole she’s bitten in the uncooked meat. We stare at each other, frozen by confusion. Her eyes are sad and empty, like a captive polar bear I once saw at the zoo.
The sudden jolt of memory spikes through me and I turn and rush down the stairs, not worrying about rats or breaking my neck. My head is full of awful images, scenes from zombie films I must have watched: Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Braindead, The Evil Dead, Resident Evil. Hardly 12A friendly, all those flying limbs and brain-munching and gore. I’ve forgotten thirteen years of my life, but those films are so vivid to me, so … bloodthirsty.
My feet hit the hall carpet and my stomach cramps and I fall on my hands and knees, ready to puke. The sick feeling passes, but there are purple spots in front of my eyes and a pulsing in my legs. I can feel panic spreading upwards from my toes, past my waist, making my heart clang against the inside of my chest. The terror wraps around me, boiling my blood and turning my skin to ice; freezing my forehead to the floor while my pulse goes bom-bom-bom-bom through the veins in my neck.
Why me? Why pick me for this? Why bring me back from the dead to this world where I know all the rules? The zombies are going to win and I’m going to die, trapped in this house with no hope and one bullet left in my pistol.
“Please do be sick on that carpet, I’ve never liked it.”
I keep staring at the blurry pattern of leaves and flowers, avoiding James’s face. “I’m not going to be sick.”
He makes a nervous little laugh. “What are you doing down there, then?”
“We’re all going to die!”
“Of course we are.” I feel his hand on my arm, trying to pull me up. “Not before breakfast, I hope.”
The bacon smell wafts up my nose and my stomach cramps again. “I’m not hungry.”
“Shall we go out then? Father’s given me some money to buy you clothes.” James loosens the grip on my arm and bends down towards me, waving four twenty-pound notes in my face.
“Tell me …” I take a breath and then push with my arms, rocking back into a sitting position. “Tell me about Gerda.”
“She was our first live test.” James folds the notes and slips them into his shirt pocket. “A partial success. She’s mostly human.”
“Apart from the eating.”
“And the speaking, yes.” He rubs the purple marks on his neck, the ones I gave him. “Shall we depart?”
My heart is still beating double-time from earlier, but it accelerates to a sprint as James grasps the front door handle. “Don’t go out there!”
“Why ever not?” He turns the key with his other hand.
“Because the zombies will get us.”
“Ha … the zombies? Ha ha ha. They’re completely harmless.” He opens the door and steps outside, into the hazy sunlight. “See?”
I wait for a zombie to lurch out of nowhere and rip James’s head off. I wait some more. Finally, James comes back in and drags me out by the hand, his grin so smug that I have to stop and throw up in the flowerbed.
This extract was first published in Undiscovered Voices 2010 and is © Nick Cross 2009. All rights reserved.