It was cold… why was I so cold? I rolled over onto my side and curled into a ball.
“What?” I mumbled in a sleepy stupor.
“Let me see your leg--”
“My leg? What? My leg is fine--”
“Cay,” the voice said once again, “wake up. You’re out of it.”
I rolled over onto my back. Then after wiping my face, I opened my eyes and focused on the vague figure in front of me.
I tried to sit up and get a better look at him, but he placed a firm hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me back down.
“Lie still,” he said, rolling up my pants leg.
“What--what are you doing?”
“I need to see what happened to your leg,” he said.
I reclined and allowed my body to relax on the cold, dusty ground. And after a short while, that’s when I noticed that I was back at the rodeo arena.
The tiny rips speckled across the ceiling were filled with dying rays of the setting sun. And Nero, poor Nero, was lying deathly still in the pen next to me.
“Is he gonna live?”
James sighed deeply.
“On whether your leg can tell me what this infection really is…”
James unwrapped my leg and sat on his knees, staring.
“Is it bad?” I asked, nervously fidgeting at his cold touch.
“Does this hurt?” he asked, pressing his hand down onto the unmoving parasite.
“No… It just feels weird,” I said. “It’s dead, I think.”
With that, James reached into his jacket pocket and took out a flask. After taking a sip, he pulled a knife out of his back pocket and poured some of the alcohol on the blade.
“I asked Bootsie if I could borrow it,” he said, holding it up in the air.
“What are you gonna do with that?”
“I’m cutting that bastard out.”
He placed the blade to my skin, and as soon as he pierced a fairly small portion of my skin, I felt the thing move.
I became faint… And, it was getting warm--no. It was hot, and I was burning up. Then, I felt it move again.
“Shit--where’d it go?”
“It’s moving up my leg--” I mumbled. Then, slowly coming out of my dizzy stupor, I began to yell. “Get it out… Get it out!”
“I’m trying!” he shouted. “Hold still!”
He tried to unbuckle my pants, but before he could get the zipper down, it moved again.
“My stomach!” I yelled, “Get it out!”
“Press down on it!”
I pressed both hands down upon my abdomen and in a frantic rage, James pressed the knife down and began to cut.
* * *
I opened my eyes. The morning sun poured through the tattered ceiling in thin, golden rivulets of brilliant light.
I rolled over onto my side and looked into the pen beside me. Nero was gone.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. After looking around the room, I stood up and walked towards the locked gate.
Before I could reach it, something snagged at my leg; I tripped and fell into the dust. My leg was chained to the railing.
“Damn it…” I hissed, grabbing at my stomach.
I sat upright and opened my jacket. A portion of my stomach was covered in gauze and cloth.
“James… what did you do?” I whispered to myself.
“I cut it out,” he said, opening the gate.
“Where’d you even come from?”
“Doesn’t matter. You were right,” he said, sitting on the ground next to me. “They aren’t zombies…”
I was becoming more tolerable of the word. But, I still couldn’t help but wince at the mentioning of it.
“It works like this,” he said. “It’s a parasite. It burrows into the skin and it travels to the brain; once it gets there, it takes over each of your actions--little by little. And after a certain
point, depending on how fast the parasite progresses, it renders the brain completely inoperative.”
“So… that means they lose their motor skills?”
“Motor-skills, speaking ability, ability to make coherent decisions--”
“But, that is a zombie--”
“Yes, but it’s a different understanding of the word. Once the body’s dead, it’s dead. It doesn’t reanimate. If you kill the body before the parasite makes it to the brain, then it can’t control
“And if the parasite has made it to the brain,” I began, “then you have to--”
“Yes… You have to damage the brain.”
“I see… So, what really happened with Aaron?”
“Well--once the parasite made it to his brain, he couldn’t speak or think rationally. It fed off of him until his body wore away--until he couldn’t support the parasite anymore. See, it kills the
body’s senses one by one.”
“So, what happens when it has taken all that it could from the host?”
“The host… dies,” he said, looking over at Nero’s empty pen.
“No… I put him down.”
“It had already made it to his brain.”
“I’m so sorry--”
“Don’t be…” he replied. “That wasn’t Nero for a few days now.”
I lowered my head then looked up at James.
“Am I… gonna be okay?”
“Yea, of course you are.”
“Then, one question,” I said with a smile. “Why am I chained to the railing?”
James covered his face minutely then leaned across me to unfasten the chain.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did it last night and just forgot that it was there.”
“It’s okay,” I tittered, looking up at the side of his face.
He continued to hover over me; and for just a moment, we stared into each other’s eyes. Then, slowly, James leaned towards me.
“What are you doing,” I said softly, sitting perfectly still.
“I’m… trying to kiss you,” he said, a wry smile creeping across his pallid face.
“Okay--Just making sure,” I responded, returning a nervous smile.
“What are you doing?” Jessica said, walking up to the pen.
“Shit… I was--I dropped something,” James said, leaning back into his seat.
I pulled down my jacket to cover my bandages, but it was too late. She had already seen them. Jessica angrily squinted her eyes.
“We’re about to try getting food again,” she said, opening the gate. “Come on. We need you.”
“I’m gonna stay here with Cay--”
“She looks like she can take care of herself,” Jessica retorted.
“I’ll be fine, James,” I said. “You go on--”
“No, I’m not leaving you behind. Who knows what could happen while we’re out.”
I glanced over at him. He was thinking pensively of what to do.
“She’s coming with us.”
“But nothing,” he interjected. “I said she’s coming.”
* * *
Jessica wasn’t pleased. She went into the gun closet and pulled out her pistol. She reloaded it and walked angrily to the car.
“Do I have to get a gun this time?” I teased, grabbing at my stomach.
“No--no, you don‘t have to,” he said, brushing a fallen strand of hair out of my eye.
“Do you want me to wait for you?”
“Just sit in the car,” he said. “I’m coming after I get Bootsie out of the back.”
I left the gun closet and walked out of the arena. The car sat afar off in the distance. Arthur, unbeknownst to Booksie, was behind the wheel. And Jessica was leaning against the car.
“Stop it right there,” she shouted.
I slowed to a halt and answered.
“I know what you are--” she began. “I know what’s happened to you.”
“It’s not what you think,” I said, walking towards her.
“Don’t you move,” she shouted. “If you take one more step, I’m shooting your damn brains out.”
I raised a nervous hand, “Jessica, wait--”
“The hell are you doing?” Arthur asked, hanging out of the window.
“She was bitten!” Jessica yelled. “Ask her to open her jacket!”
“Jessica!” James yelled, bursting out of the building.
It startled her, and she fired. I fell to my knees.
“You missed--” I mouthed stupidly and pointed at my head. “My brains are up here.”
James ran over and grabbed the gun out of Jessica’s hand. Then he knelt down slowly and pulled me into his lap. He held me close and rocked back and forth.
I could feel the warm life spilling from my body and dripping down my stomach and side.
Then slowly, gently, I let go. ---
“What did you do?!” James screamed, cradling Cayleigh in his arms.
“I didn’t--She was--”
Bootsie and Arthur stared at Jessica, poignant looks of disappointment branded on their solemn faces.
James laid Cayleigh down on the cold asphalt and stood up slowly.
“She was--she was--bitten--”
“Like hell, she was--” James spat out angrily. Then he pointed the gun at Jessica’s face.
“But I saw--” Jessica stammered, backing up slowly. “She had bandages on her stomach--and I heard you say--”
“You heard me say what? That she was bitten?”
“No… you said she was infected--”
“There was nothing wrong with her!” James yelled, eyes tearing up. “I saved her!”
Bootsie shook her head somberly.
“It’s true,” she said. “He told me last night--”
“But--but I don’t understand--”
“Then ask questions! That’s what people do when they don’t understand, damnit! They don’t go shooting like idiots!”
James’ squeezed the butt of the gun tightly; and, his hand shook violently.
“I’m sorry,” she said repeatedly. “I didn’t know--I’m sorry.”
Slowly, James lowered his gun and stormed off.
* * *
James, irrevocably enraged, wandered off into the night. He moved towards the city line, alone now. And now that he knew what he was really up against, he moved confidently through the darkness.
He knew, too, that he’d obtain that sleek motorcycle one day… He’d name it Cay and live the hardest, most fearsome life he’d ever known before society was fully restored again.
He turned his back to the sunset which engulfed the massive rodeo arena in the foreground, and to a bright, green car leering at the bloodstained asphalt in the distance.
© Copyright 2016 Jennifer Brighton. All rights reserved.