J. A. Fisher
“A virus can be spread in a number of ways, including through blood, airborne pathogens, and..?” Mr. Cherkof let his voice trail off, hoping one of his intro to biology students would at least attempt to finish his sentence. None did. His eyes slowly moved across the room, looking for any spark, any hint of a sign of interest or knowledge. Of his sixteen students, four were asleep, two were texting, and the rest stared mindlessly forward, their eyes droopy and glazed over, head in hands, awaiting the bell for lunch. He’d spent the entire week lecturing on the spreading and replication of viruses, and felt certain that not one of his students knew a bacteriophage from an icosahedron. He let out a long and weary sigh, as he contemplated the upcoming quiz, and hoped that the scores might increase from the ‘C’s and ‘D’s of last week’s exhibition in the art of just-not-giving-a-shit on the part of his students. He just continued on rambling about oral transmission and incubation times and epidemics, essentially to no one but the walls.
Bing! Bing! Bing! At the sound of the bell, it was as though the students had each enjoyed an intravenous injection of espresso and cocaine, as they sprung out of their chairs and bounded off to lunch. Cherkof didn’t share their energy, however, and as he slowly plopped himself down behind his desk and leaned back in his chair, his heavy eyelids slowly began to fall. He hadn’t heard the door open.
“Hi, Mr. C!”, brightly chirped the student who had walked in. Cherkof lazily opened one eye, and quickly let it close again.
“Hello, Anthony,” he said, a twinge of annoyance in his voice. “What can I do for you this time?” He knew what Anthony wanted. To use his lab equipment, as he did every day, during his lunch, all of his free periods, and often before and after school. At first, Mr. Cherkof had found the 5.0 student’s attitude refreshing. He was genuinely interested in learning: he had doubled up on AP Science courses, taking both biology and chemistry, and was even taking physics independently. He spent all of his free time either with his teachers or in the library, and was easily the topped rank student in his class. Most of his teachers loved him. Mr. Cherkof thought he was a pizza faced, sycophantic know-it-all who should find some friends his own age. Still, he conceded, it was nice to see a young person with an interest in science. He certainly beat the neanderthals and burn-outs who made up the rest of the student body at Warren G. Harding High School.
“Well I was just wondering if I could-”
“Yes, just don’t make a mess.”
“Thank you!”, Anthony called back, as he scurried into the lab connected to the class room. Cherkof waited till he heard the door close to let himself try to fall back asleep. School protocol was to not let students use labs or equipment by themselves, but most teachers were willing to make an exception in Anthony’s case. He spent enough time in his personal lab at home to know what he was doing.
Anthony busily danced across the lab, mixing, stirring, separating, heating, and cooling an impressive array of mixtures and solutions. The rainbow of chemicals, sorted out into test tubes and beakers of all shapes and sizes, bubbling over Bunsen burners and emitting plumes of strong smelling gases, would have been overwhelming to all but the most competent scientists. To Anthony, however, it was merely another Tuesday afternoon. Anthony, you see, was something of a prodigy: he’d worn out his first chemistry set before his second birthday, won his first science fair in kindergarten, and was first published in The American Journal of Biochemistry in middle school. He’d never been involved in sports, the arts, or any kind of social life, and never cared to. His one love always was, and always would be, science. He didn’t care about helping his fellow man, and he cared even less about making money. Anthony was a man of science for the sake of science. This was what drove him in all of his endeavors, including this one. He’d spent months in the lab, both at home in his garage and at school, literally leaving only to go to class and use the bathroom. He’d even set up a cot on the floor, so he could be near his equipment should any bursts of late night inspiration rouse him from his sleep. And now, over a year in to his project, he finally had something resembling what he’d set out for: a synthetic strain of the mysterious Solanum virus, a virulent bug native to West Africa. Very little was known about the disease. Only that it had begun to appear in remote forest villages about two years ago, and that it was spreading at a rapidly increasing rate. Even the symptoms were disagreed upon, with some claiming it was simply an exaggerated flu causing intense vomiting and a fever, while others claimed that it was more deadly then that, nearly always ending fatally. Still other reports had claimed that the effects were all psychological,and the disease drove its victims to a cannibalistic madness.
Anthony held the glass beaker up to the light. His eyes grew wide as he stared in awe at his creation. Inside his beaker was a bubbling purple Solanum solution, with clouds of thick, sweet smelling purple smoke billowing out. The substance held limitless potential for Anthony. It was potentially worth millions of dollars, and with its publishing would come unsurpassed fame and recognition within the scientific community. But these thoughts didn’t even cross his mind. He simply stared at what his hard work had wrought, and enjoyed the pride that was swelling up in his chest.
Now, Anthony wasn’t stupid. He’d spent his entire life in the lab. He knew the laws of lab safety like he knew the periodic table. He always wore his safety goggles, was careful with sharp instruments and, obviously, never ate anything in the lab, especially not an experiment. But as he inhaled the potent fumes, something strange began to happen. The vapors filled his head, making it feel light, and he began to reel with dizziness. Before he knew how, he was sitting on the floor, still staring saucer-eyed at his prize. The smell was absolutely intoxicating, and Anthony found himself incredibly thirsty, and he could swear he could hear his potion calling out to him. He could see his name being spelled out by the plumes of smoke wafting towards the ceiling. As they drifted up, tickling his nose as they passed, he breathed deeply, filling himself with the intoxicating scent. It was as if all the potential, all the power and accolades that this discovery would bring him were manifested in the experiment itself. ‘Drink,’ it seemed to suggest, ‘and all I am will become part of you.’ He knew, consciously, what he was doing, but he was literally unable to help himself. His hand, despite his best efforts, slowly crept towards his mouth. He tried to release his tightly clenched fist, but his fingers had a death grip on the glass. As the bottle moved closer and closer, Anthony’s will grew weaker and weaker. By the time the beaker reached Anthony’s lips, he needed no encouragement. Compelled by the noxious fumes of his creation, Anthony tipped back the beaker, and let the warm, thick, syrupy, sweet concoction slide down his throat. And that’s when it began.
Cherkof snapped forward in his chair at the sound. A glass shattered, and he heard a scream. “Dammit, Anthony,” he thought. What could that stupid kid have done? The spaz probably dropped a beaker of acid on himself or something.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he called, as he slowly pulled himself away from the comfort of his chair and walked towards the lab. He turned the knob and began to push open open the door. “What’d you do Anth-” He stopped and stared, and all of the color drained from his face as he saw Anthony, crumpled, unmoving on the floor. His mind stopped working. His heart was pounding through his chest, and his stomach was in his throat. After what seemed like hours, he kneeled down to the floor and placed two fingers on Anthony’s neck. His skin was sticky with sweat, yet already icy cold to the touch. The boy had always been pale and sickly looking, but now he was even more so, as though his skeleton was wrapped in nothing more than a thin sheet of paper. He waited to feel the boy’s pulse. He waited, and waited, until after about 10 seconds, he felt the faintest pumping of blood. Was he alive? Cherkof couldn’t tell, and as his mind went blank, his stomach dropped a mile. He was still clutching a test tube, half full of a sweet smelling purple liquid. Without asking himself why, Cherkof pried the tube out from Anthony’s fingers, and put a stopper into the tube before hiding it away in his pocket. His eyes grew, as they took in the rich, dark, purple substance. Just the feeling of looking at the bottle was indescribable. He couldn’t believe himself. He understood the urgency of the situation, but he had just been overcome by Anthony’s creation. He simply needed to take it. Resolving to decide what to do with it later, he did the only thing he could think of: he went to find the nurse. He took off running, out of the lab and through the halls. He left just in time to miss hearing Anthony let out a faint moan as his cloudy, vacant eyes began to twitch.
“Right, so they’re in the dean’s office, with this horse, right? And the one guy, he gives the fat one-”
“Yo, bro, what’s Tony doing?” The pair looked down the long, tiled highway, and saw Anthony staggering towards them. His head was cocked to the side, and his jaw hung open, his tongue dangling out like a worm sticking his head out a hole. He walked stiffly, and slowly, barely lifting his feet up off the ground, and his arms flopped around uselessly at his sides. The strangest thing, however, was the boy’s eyes. Despite being at their lockers, 50 yards away, neither Ricky nor Wes could help but notice the boy’s eyes: They were empty. They stared forward, unmoving, unblinking, and completely shallow and colorless.
“I dunno, man, that kid’s weird. Probably some performance art thing. So anyway, they’ve got the horse, and the gun-” Ricky stopped. An long, low groan had crept out of Anthony’s throat and was echoing down the halls.
“Ruuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”, he moaned, as he shambled towards the oblivious pair.
“Man,” Wes began, concern in his voice, “there’s definitely something up with Tony. Yo, Ton!” he shouted. Anthony shuffled forward at his same slow, steady pace.
“It’s fine, man” said Ricky. “He’s just geeking out or whatever.” He was growing impatient. “So, like I was saying, Flounder and the guys, they’re in there, and-”
“Dude. We should take him to the nurse.”
“Fine. If you don’t want to hear about the horse, whatever.” So the pair stood and watched, waiting for Anthony to shuffle closer. “Hey, man, are you okay?”
“See, Wes? He says he’s fine.”
Anthony lurched forward clumsily, swinging his arms at both his peers, gnashing his teeth and letting out another dreadful moan. Ricky and Wes both nimbly backed away, dodging Anthony’s strike. Anthony crashed to the ground, and in his dazed state, made no attempt to brace his fall, and landed squarely on his face. With no pause, he pulled himself back up off the ground and started moving again towards Ricky and Wes. If there was any doubt he needed medical attention before, it was removed. Blood, a strange, sickly purple in color, was gushing from his nose, which had broken with a sickening Crunch!, and was splattered in brilliant grape soda colored splotches across his pale-as-a-ghost face. His face retained the same blank, emotionless expression, betraying no sign of pain. In fact, he seemed to have taken no notice of his fall at all. The gore from his nose dripped down his face, staining his cheeks, his neck, and his shirt. He let out another of his ghastly moans, and once again lurched towards Ricky and Wes.
“Jesus!” yelled Wes. “Are you all right, man?”
“Wes, what the hell is that!?”
“Rick, quit being a dick and help me take him to the nurse! He can’t even stand up!”
And with that, they were off, Anthony shuffling along in tow. They stayed two steps ahead of him the entire journey, not noticing that as they walked, he would occasionally find himself within arm’s reach and throw himself forward in a misguided attempt at an attack. They moved down the hallway as quickly as they could without leaving Anthony behind, which wasn’t very quickly. They passed no one, save a lost freshman girl, who squealed in fear at the bloody parody of the former Science Club president.
They arrived at the nurses office, only to find it empty.
“Ms. Hopkins?” called out Wes.
“She’s not here, man, let’s go to the office.” Ricky turned around, only to find himself face to face with Anthony. As he stared into the bottomless white voids which had once been Anthony’s eyes, a chill shot down his spine. Anthony’s eyes were void of anything remotely human. It was as if his very soul had been sucked out, leaving only a hungry, monstrous shell.. “RUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” Anthony let out a ghastly howl as he lunged forward, knocking Ricky to the ground. He fell on top of him, and ripped into the boy’s unprotected neck, tearing open his jugular, releasing an eruption of hot, crimson fluid that doused them both and splattered against the walls. Ricky’s cries for help were drowned out by the gurgling sounds that emanated from his throat as he quickly bled out. But Anthony wasn’t done; he continued to gnaw at Ricky’s soft, chewy flesh. As Anthony’s saliva mixed with Ricky’s blood, what was left of it quickly turned the same shade of purple as Anthony’s. Wes could only watch in horror. His mouth hung open, and he felt a warm trickle run down his leg. His silently stared wide eyed at the carnage before him. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to close his eyes. He could only stand and witness as the class valedictorian cannibalized his best friend on the floor of the school nurse’s office.
It was too much for him to take, and he collapsed on the floor, huddling himself into the fetal position in a corner. He watched as Anthony effortlessly tore Ricky’s arm from its socket, gulping down enormous chunks of flesh, barely stopping to chew. The sound of Wes’s helpless crying was enough to distract Anthony from his feast. He looked up, as if just remembering that Ricky was merely an appetizer. With the same unchanging, unfeeling, cold, anemic countenance, the purple stained monster staggered towards Wes, his mandibles opened wide with hunger.
“He’s in here, Ms. Hopkins!” Cherkof ran into the lab, followed by the lovely young school nurse, her petite figure and blond curls a stark contrast to his heavy frame and shiny, bald head.
“Where?” She asked, looking around the room. Where Cherkof remembered the corpse of a student, there was now only still-flaming Bunson burners and dirty lab equipment.
“He was just here! I swear, Anthony Sprucelli was collapsed on the floor of my lab, not ten minutes ago!”
“Uh huh.” This had to have been Cherkof’s weakest attempt yet. She’d only been working at the school for a few months, but this guy had already made more lame attempts to get into her scrubs then she could count. But lying about an injured student to get her alone in the lab? That was a new low. “Well, he seems to have gotten up, so I’m going to go back to my office. If he needs help, I’m sure he’ll come find me.” She turned on one heel and walked away, leaving the science teacher baffled and speechless.
She returned to her office to find that Anthony had, indeed, sought her out, along with Wes and Ricky, and upon entering her office, the first thing she noticed was the sickly smell of death she thought she had left behind her after her field medic days. The second thing she noticed was the viscuous purple goop coating the tiled floor. The third thing she noticed was that the bleary eyed, stinking students, from whom the goop was emanating out of enormous purple gashes, were on top of her and gnawing off her arms.
Her transformation was quickest of all, and before the three musketeers had managed to polish off her intestines, she had turned. She stood slowly, and the four began their march forward, Hopkins’s forearm hinged at the elbow, her digestive tract trailing out of the gaping cavity in her torso. They moved slowly and purposelessly, their eyes unfocused, intermittently trading horrifying howls. The still lost freshman, scurrying through the halls, nearly in tears at her predicament, was the first unfortunate soul to cross the fearsome foursome’s path. They found her in a seldom traveled corridor, helplessly looking for the cafeteria. She looked up from the map she had been uselessly trying to decipher, to find herself surrounded by the four nightmarish creatures, each of which towered over her. Her ear piercing scream echoed against the lockers and through the halls, but was quickly silenced as zombie Rick tackled her with an animalistic snarl. The hungry foursome made short work of her, and by the time she had completed her transformation, she was little more than a skeleton, strips of flesh limply dangling from her exposed bones, a mish-mosh of organs, some partially chewed, proudly displayed behind her rib cage. Globs of dark bile leaked out of her intestine, splashing onto the floor as she stood. The ever growing squadron continued on their rampage.
They next came across the bumbling school principal, Mr. Huxley.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded of the gang, momentarily pulling himself away from his ubiquitous cell phone. “I thought I told the theater club that stage makeup was to be used strictly in performances and dress rehearsals! Don’t you know how expesGAAHHH!”
From there, the virus began spread exponentially. Huxley stumbled back into his office, to his secretary, Mrs. Jennings, busily clacking away at her computer. She heard him approach, but didn’t turn. He crept closer and closer, and still Mrs. Jennings didn’t turn. She could feel him approaching behind her, and she stopped typing as her shoulders began to tense. His mouth brushed against her neck.
“Oh, Gerald, at work? So nAUGGH!” She shrieked, as her boss sunk his teeth into her. The vice principal soon followed, then a hall monitor, and shortly thereafter any soul unfortunate enough to wander into the office.
Meanwhile, down the hall, Anthony had staggered into a stairwell, and, in his uncoordinated state, tumbled to the bottom, shattering his clavicle.
“You okay, kid?” asked Frank, the janitor, who had just finished mopping the floors, now stained violet. Anthony, taking no notice, rose, and stared at Frank. “You...you got your...um...goop on, my, uh...” He was at a loss for words. There was a brief silence, followed by the ghastly war cry of the undead, and with a fatal chomp driven deep into Frank’s shoulder, the horde grew larger still.
The trend continued throughout the day, and by lunch time, one could have mistaken WGH High for the set of the Thriller video. Some students attempted to call the police, but were dismissed as pranksters, part of an elaborate joke. But the “zombie calls” kept coming, and soon the dispatcher relented, sending a car to the school. The officer noticed hollow eyed, empty-looking students, shambling back and forth with no sense of direction, under the supervision of disinterested and tired looking teachers, and returned to his car, noting business as usual at Warren G. Harding.
Meanwhile, Cherkof sat in his lab, not oblivious to, but simply ignoring the carnage occurring in the halls. Of course, it was now obvious what had become of poor Anthony. Cherkof sighed as he gazed at the purple vile in his hands. He’d been staring at it for hours, submerged in guilt. After all, this whole incident was, technically, his fault. How could Anthony have known what he was doing? All the accolades and awards couldn’t make up for the fact that he was still, legally and psychologically, a child. He was a confused and reckless teenager, overcome with hormones. Cherkof couldn’t deny it. He should have been watching Anthony. He should have been supervising, he should have taken his job more seriously.
He looked out of the window next to the door. What had been a single one of those...things before, absent mindedly bumping into his locked door in the hopes that it would budge, had grown into a mob, clawing and beating at his locked door. They were all emitting those horrible howls. Cherkof sat and listened. What were they saying? Cherkof could swear it was his name. They were beckoning him, inviting him to join their hellish ranks. As they pushed against the door, an endless wave, he could see the wood straining, and he knew it was about to buckle under the pressure. Was anyone left? It didn’t seem likely. The entire school seemed to have gathered ‘round, drawn to the scent of the one piece of living flesh still among them, not willing to let a single morsel go undevoured. He looked out the window, and there, at the front of the crowd, was patient zero: Anthony. His eyes were as blank as any of the other students’, his face nearly indistinguishable in its purple glory, a bloody mess in a sea of bloody messes. Next to him stood Beatrice Hopkins, her golden curls, once the color of the sun, washed in the blood of the students she had come to heal. She pounded against the window, moaning for Cherkof, hungry for his flesh. He locked eyes with her through the window, and slowly placed a palm against the glass.
Out of the door stood a slow and painful death, clawed and bitten to shreds at the hands of the feral living dead. Out the window, Cherkof would face a four story fall onto the cold, hard pavement. Fighting his way out was not an option: there were simply too many of the beasts, and regardless, Cherkof couldn’t imagine a life after this horrible day, forever crushed under the weight of his own guilt and terror. There was no escape but one. The temptation he had felt since he first picked up the little purple bottle overcame him, and, resigned to his fate, lifted it in a toast to his soon-to-be comrades, and downed the sweet, syrupy solution in a single gulp.