Once we’d killed the new guy — slit his throat and burned the body — we walked down I-90, away from Northfield. The highway wasn’t littered with cars like in the movies. It was mostly empty, with a few crashes here and there, or, more frequently, cars driven by people who stopped of their own accord. Good Samaritans helping someone with a flat, only to never get back in their cars.
Tucker led us with his phone, clunky head hanging down on a long neck. His was the only phone still working, because he had a set-up: a solar charger that plugged right into the case. Even so, it wasn’t much help. The map software still worked, and a few other independent satellite-based apps, but who knew how long those would last?
Then there were the distress signals. Some were pleas for help: food, water, medicine. Others were promises of shelter, of community, of little bastions of virus-free life. We figured these were traps. Why shouldn’t they be? Anyone who wasn’t sick was already dead. All the good ones were gone a long time ago.
Dannie walked next to me, holding the kid. The kid was maybe six, seven years old. So far, we hadn’t gotten a word out of her. She’d been in Northfield when we stopped through, curled up outside the supermarket, eyes wide. We had to assume her shell shock was genuine, seeing that she was one of the only people in Northfield left alive.
“New Orleans,” Dannie said, “I want a beignet. And to see the French Quarter.”
“Too many people,” I said, even though I knew I was being cruel. She wanted a dream, not a lecture. “We should stick to the Alabama coast. Then down into Florida.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere near Florida. It was psychotic even before the virus. What about Texas?” Dannie said this through her mask, and the sound was muffled, distant. I looked at the blank stare of the girl in Dannie’s arms, thinking about how close they were. Nearly face to face; easier for a bug to spread that way.
I considered. “Warm enough for the winter. But too many guns,” I said.
She nodded silently. From the stand of pine trees to our right, a fall wind blew. It would be a cold night again. Wolves — which had come down from the north, like us — would hurl their solitary cries into the starlit woods. We’d sleep in separate tents, not wanting to share air, and wonder if that would be the night that we’d be picked off, like Jemma and Ricky. By wolves or worse.
After another few hours, we came to a gas station. There was a pile of bodies with bullet wounds placed neatly in their foreheads, all lined up and wrapped in linen. We debated burning them and decided against it, instead fanning out into the gas station with guns drawn. It was empty, hardly even looted. We filled sacks with whatever we wanted — candy, cigarettes, booze, Twinkie’s, pork rinds — then ditched.
I stayed behind and raided the cash register. Not that money was any good anymore, but it felt nice to hold. To have. A little token to remind myself that perhaps the world could return to normal. An investment in the future.
That’s when I saw the body behind the counter: middle aged guy, wispy blonde hair, three chins and one huge gut. He stared lifelessly at the ceiling, a gaping wound between his eyes. I covered my mouth with a cloth; you could get sick from corpses, everyone still alive knew that. But the corpse itself wasn’t as troubling. Instead, it was the flyer taped to the man’s chest. A calling card.
Towards the end, that bright blue flyer had been ubiquitous. It read:
KNOW THE SIGNS OF P27.
WHITES SHOWING AROUND THE EYES
AGGRESSION AND LACK OF EMPATHY
TORTURING SMALL ANIMALS
VOYEURISM OR VACANT STARES
SUDDEN INCREASE IN INTELLIGENCE
I didn’t doubt that whoever killed the cashier had left that there as a cruel joke. Whoever it was, they were probably responsible for the corpses outside, too. Maybe they were already dead – maybe they weren’t — but either way, it was a good reason to leave fast. I grabbed a few packs of American Spirits and ran out the door, bell jingling behind me.
Tucker was holding the kid’s hand now, so I ran up behind Dannie and kissed her on her neck, pulling my mask down as I did. She flinched a little, then laughed, crinkling her neck. I could take my mask off around her, at least. We were each other’s person. If one of us was sick, we both were. That was that.
“I’m worried about the kid,” Dannie said, going serious.
“You think she saw?” I asked.
“How could she not? She’s traumatized, not catatonic. The smoke would have shown for miles.”
“Then it’s a good thing we got out of there,” I said. I grabbed her hand. “Look, Dannie. We had to get him. It was him or us.”
Dannie frowned. “Him or us,” she said, “but how do we even know it was him? That he killed Jemma and Ricky?”
“Who else could it have been?” I said, “it can’t be one of us, or we’d both have it. I think we’d know if one of us turned into a serial killer.”
Dannie flicked her head forward, whispered. “What about Tucker?”
I looked up to Tucker, head craned over his phone. “I don’t think Tucker could have taken Rick, even if he was sleeping. And then dragged his body off so that we never found it? Look at his arms. He’s not that strong.”
Dannie frowned again. “Maybe it really was wolves. And then we killed the new guy for nothing.”
“It wasn’t for nothing. He was twisted. Did you see his eyes when we killed him? Whites all the way around. That’s a sign. And that’s not me talking, it’s the CDC. If we hadn’t burned him, we’d have gotten twisted too. And look — two nights without the new guy, and two nights with no new deaths.”
Dannie dropped my hand and tucked her arms to her chest. Her backpack – stuffed with gear — rustled with each uneven step.
“Yeah,” she said, “yeah, I guess. I just wish the kid hadn’t seen it. I can’t imagine what she must think of us.”
“From the look in her eyes, we’re not the worst thing she’s seen. Not at all.”
We continued down the highway until it got dark. Somehow, electricity still lit up the distant billboards, advertising shit that nobody would never need again. Hair plugs and personal injury lawyers and vodka held by smirking models. All parts of a past world. The worst one was a billboard of a happy family, vacationing by a lake, all smiles. Show Them You Love Them — Try Wisconsin Dells.
I wondered how many of those models were still alive. I wondered who killed them, or who they had killed.
Finally, we came to a small roadside motel. I broke the lock with a kick, and we treated ourselves to snack bars and beer in the lobby. The pool was already slicked over with filth, so we didn’t swim, but the showers worked. Dannie and I rubbed the grime off of each other, then made love on the starchy sheets. It felt blank, routine. Like I was going through the motions. I tried to remember when making love to her had started to feel like a chore.
Afterwards, she slept. I couldn’t, so I wandered the motel. I stared at the pool, peeked in empty bedrooms. Finally, I came back to the lobby. Tucker was there, charging his phone. I pulled two bottles of beer from the fridge, cracked them open. Almost without thinking, I dumped a spoonful of white powder into Tucker’s drink. I handed it to him, sat. He drank deeply.
“Anything new?” I said, genially. He didn’t take his eyes from the phone.
“A few signals not far from here. Remember that big meetup they set up in the chatroom? How people wanted everyone to go to the city and try to re-establish a government?”
I nodded, sipped my beer. I watched Tucker drink again from his bottle, satisfied. “Yeah? Did people go?”
“A few,” Tucker said, “all dead. Two separate sickos with semi-automatics blasted the crowd apart.”
“Yeesh,” I said. I wasn’t surprised. Who would be? As much as I hated to say it, anyone stupid enough to be in a crowd deserved it. They weren’t playing the game right.
Tucker finished his beer. He didn’t make a face when the rat poison went down. Only grimaced slightly, but Tucker had never been able to hold his liquor. His eyes batted, and he excused himself to bed. He told me he’d see me in the morning. I knew he was wrong, of course. Part of me wondered if he did, too. If he’d already figured me out and had drank the poisoned beer anyway. I knew Tucker was tired of playing the game. Sometimes it was easier to fold.
Next was Dannie. She was still asleep in the same position, legs splayed, naked. I let a hand caress the curve of her stomach, waiting for something — remorse, regret, fear — to show its face. Nothing did. There was only… boredom. A memory, like the pull of a drug, of holding the power of life and death. I’d felt it with Jemma and Ricky. I’d felt it again when I tricked Tucker and Dannie into killing the new guy, but that was a different sort of fun.
With Jemma and Ricky, it had been the rat poison first, then strangulation. I wanted them weak enough to submit, but strong enough to struggle. I liked the feeling of their necks wriggling under my hands. Jemma, who never looked at me twice, who only had eyes for Ricky. Ricky, hedge fund manager before the virus, handsome and fit and charming. But none of that mattered, now. None of that mattered when I snuffed the life out of him like a match into water.
I didn’t need to poison Dannie. She was too exhausted from a day of carrying the little girl to fight back. The pillow closed over her face in a tight seal. She kicked against me for a while, but she was small. I was not. The fight in her made the kill even better, and when it was done, I lay on the bed next to her corpse, panting.
I had decided, earlier in the day, that I would leave the kid. She was six, after all. Not much of a fight. Not very fun at all, like those cats and dogs I’d started with. But after the thrill of Dannie and Tucker — I’d gone into his room and checked, just to make sure there’d be the thick ooze of bloody vomit on his lips — I wanted more. The little girl wasn’t the first drink of the evening, or second. She was the one you knew you shouldn’t have but wanted anyway.
Dannie — sweet, motherly Dannie — had set her up in the room next to ours. I listened at the door for a while, breathing slowly, trying to hear her gentle, perfect snoring. Nothing. When my breath was calm enough that I felt I could enter undetected, I slipped into the shadowy room. Moonlight branched over the bed, where a small lump lay, sleeping soundly.
I stepped forward, my breath speeding again, growing faster with anticipation. I still held the pillow I’d used on Dannie, and thought it was fitting to use it again. Perhaps the girl would smell Dannie’s hair and it would comfort her, in her last moments of fear and panic.
I saw a tuft of her hair peeking beneath the comforter and smiled, drawing back the sheet.
But it was not the girl. Instead, it was a cat: mangled, neck twisted, paws cut off and tossed on the bloody sheets like toys. I stared stupidly. Then I realized, too late.
The slice roared up through me, from my ankles. Sharp steel severed the tendons there and I collapsed, unable to support my weight. That’s when the girl came from under the bed, scuttling like an insect, and drove the knife into my stomach. Once, twice, three times. I grabbed at her, but she was fast, and her clever hands moved to my throat. My windpipe severed, and a spray of arterial blood covered the girl’s emotionless face.
I sank to the floor, looking up at her. The whites showed all the way around her eyes, making her look like a doll, all porcelain and crystal. More than shell-shocked, I now realized. Twisted.
The girl looked at me. I didn’t expect her to say anything. There was nothing to say. We’d been playing the same game, and I’d lost. It was good to know, at least, that the game would go on. I smiled, taking a bloody hand away from my throat.
She knelt, knife in hand. And, saying nothing, she began to cut.
This story previously appeared in The Other Stories podcast under the pseudonym Thomas X. Teller.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Thomas Kent West is an American speculative fiction writer and the winner of the Rue Morgue “Artifacts of Horror” Contest, the Content Flash Fiction Contest, and the Black Hole Entertainment Short Fiction Prize. His work has been featured on The Other Stories, in the Michigan Daily, and elsewhere. You can read more of his work by visiting him on Twitter @ThomasKentWest,
@Instagram or at ThomasKentWest.com.