I would be lying if I said that the idea of it didn't truly haunt me. I mean...Spencer was just a little boy. I mean, he wasn't much younger than I was. Or Alex. Hell, if he was only a few months short of Preston's age, I'd be surprised. But...staring at him, trapped in that moment where he stood before us with ice cold blood smeared all over his lips and smooth boyish face...it was hard to dismiss that as being anywhere even close to 'normal'. He almost looked like a pint sized version one of those monsters outside the gates...and I was seriously frightened by that.
Because, in times like these...you don't know who might be safe to be around and who might be infected. What happens if Spencer, like...changes on us? Changes into one of 'them'? Will we have to lock him up? Will we have to run from him, keep our distance, watch him sleep? Will he become one of those faceless bodies that gets tossed into the burning fires in the high school football field? I mean, his dad seriously went to bat for us during that potential break in! Something tells me that he's not going to be ok with letting his innocent little boy get brutally murdered and used as kindling for the shameless bonfire just outside of the gate.
But I remember that night when I saw Spencer's silhouette just sort of...standing in that gymnasium doorway a couple nights ago...the eerie stillness of him in my memory continuing to give me a serious chill inside...I began to wonder if there was anything else that we'd be able to do for him. You know...if it came to that.
As Spencer began to boyishly weep in front of us, getting so weak in the knees that he had to double over and nearly lay on the floor to balance himself, Alex and I rushed over to give him our support. Preston, however, stayed right where he was. He was usually such a welcoming spirit, with a warm and open heart...but this time, Preston made sure to keep his distance. And it made me wonder if he had seen something like this before.
"Spencer?" I said quietly, approaching the frail looking boy as he sobbed and sniffled helplessly to himself. "Dude...let's just...I mean...put the meat down..." I said, looking at the smooshed handfuls of ground beef in his hands. "It's ok. Put it down."
Spencer paused for a second, looking down at his hands as if he had no idea what he had actually been eating for the past five minutes or so. He began to tremble, his eyes opening wide...and then he dropped the meat and frantically shook it off of his hands as he began to cough and nearly gag at the taste of it in his mouth. I noticed Preston taking another step back away from him...and then another.
"He's not ok..." Preston whispered to himself.
"Jake? Alex?" Spencer whimpered, and wiped his hands off on his shirt as he moved closer to the rest of us. "I don't know what happened. I promise!" That's when even Alex stepped back a bit more, and Spencer suddenly rushed forward at me! I tensed up and was ready to fight for my life if I had to...but he simply snaked his arms around my hips and buried his face in my chest...quietly crying while emitting muffled apologies into my shirt.
Everyone in the room was still, caught in mid cringe as we waited for something potentially terrifying to happen. Dear God, he was soooo close. If he decided to open his jaws and bite deeply into my chest or my neck...there would be nothing that I could do but scream. Absolutely nothing. It was difficult to relax. In fact, I didn't even realize that my eyes were slammed shut and I was holding my breath until I, literally, began to run out of oxygen. I let a breath out with a heavy sigh, and Spencer brought his teary eyes up to look at me.
"Please, don't be mad at me. I didn't know, ok? I...lose myself sometimes, that's all." He said.
"It's alright, Spencer. Everything is going to be alright." I assured him. "Why don't you go back and try to get some sleep, huh? We can clean this up?"
"I can help. It's my mess..." He told us, but I stopped him from talking. Partially because I didn't want him to feel guilty...and partially because I didn't trust any situation where I would have him standing behind me for any length of time.
"It's ok. Honestly. Why don't you...go back to the cafeteria? Finish getting yourself some rest, huh?" I turned to Preston, who was still watching cautiously from a distance. "Pres? Can you take Spencer back to the others for me?"
But Preston was frozen in place. It almost looked he was struggling just to breathe. And without taking his eyes off of Spencer, even to blink...he slowly shook his head, 'no'.
Alex walked over and said, "I've got him. Don't worry." He put his hand on Spencer's back to lightly push him towards the door. "Let's go to the bathroom across the hall and get you cleaned up, ok?"
Spencer was still sniffling a bit, but complied without any resistance. Preston made sure to move quickly away from the door as they past him, and as soon as they were out in the hallway he rushed to be by my side. I grabbed some paper towels off of the counter and began to pick up the many chunks of raw meat that fell out of Spencer's mouth, wiping up whatever traces of blood that I could by smearing it back and forth across the tile.
"He's not gonna be safe, Jake. We should stay away from him." Preston whispered.
"What are you talking about? Spencer's just a little sick, that's all. You know that. He was sick when he came in."
"It doesn't matter. I know that look. I've seen it before. It's just like at Old Man Simpson's. Maybe he's not all the way done changing yet...but it's only a matter of time."
Preston seemed really freaked out by the whole thing, and I tried to put him at ease. "We don't know that, ok? He's a little under the weather, probably traumatized from all the madness that he's going through...plus, I think he sleepwalks at night. For all we know he could have been half asleep when we walked in."
"You saw him, Jake. He said he was 'hungry'..."
"We were all hungry..."
"Not like this, we weren't." Preston whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder, visibly shaken. "Remember when I told you I was at Old Man Simpson's house?"
"Who the heck is Old Man...?"
"Doesn't matter! I told you...some of those zombie thingies can talk! I KNOW they can talk, because I heard 'em do it. And Old Man Simpson just kept saying the same word, over and over again. He was like...'Eat! Eat! EAT!!!' You see? He was hungry too!" He said. "And if either one of us had been standing in this freezer when Spencer woke up...somebody would be wiping US off of the floor right now."
"Look...I know what you're saying, ok? It creeped me out too. But we can't make any super hasty judgements right now. We've gotta stick together as much as we can. Officer Logan is expecting us to look out for his son. He totally went to bat for us out there. All of us. If Spencer really had something that severely wrong with him, he'd tell us, wouldn't he? He'll be back soon, and he'll take care of it."
"I don't know, man. That kid gives me the shivers." Preston said, his brow furled up with a look of true concern in his eyes.
"The doctors checked him out. Head to toe. They had him under close watch for days. No scratches, and no bites. If he was gonna turn into one of those things, he would have turned already, right? We've got nothing to worry about. At least not for now." I said it more for Preston's sake than my own. To be honest, the idea had crossed my mind that this was definitely a bad thing. But what was I supposed to do? Grab a butcher knife when Spencer's back was turned and drive it in through the top of his skull? "Here, toss these for me, ok?" I handed Preston the meat and blood soaked paper towels I had been using, and grabbed just a few more to gloss over the floor and keep it from being so slippery. I also used one of the kitchen spoons to take out chunks of meat where Spencer had been digging his hands in. I don't know how this infection thing works, but if it could contaminate the meat we're all eating in the shelter through Spencer's saliva and possibly through small traces of blood from his bitten fingers...I certainly didn't want to find that out the hard way.
"Eww..." Preston winced as he saw me put the rest of the ground beef back on the shelf.
"We don't have enough to waste the whole thing." I told.
"I know. But still...eww..."
"Alright, I think that's everything. Let's get outta here." We walked out of the freezer and closed the door behind us, putting the little pin back in the latch. "Now remember...this is our secret. Once we can get a hold of Mr. Logan, we can get him alone and tell him what happened. But we don't want anybody to panic and do something rash."
"Like eating handfuls of raw and bloody meat with your bare hands isn't something rash?"
"I mean it, Preston. A lot of the soldiers in this place...they're not on our side. They won't understand, trust me on this." I told him. "Our secret. Right?"
With a frustrated sigh, Preston rolled his eyes slightly and gave in. "Alright. Our 'secret', I guess. I seem to be collecting a lot of those today." Then he added, "Just don't coming running to ME when he goes all 'grrr-arrrgghh' and starts biting people on the tummy! Because I'm gonna already be gone."
Hehehe, come running to Preston for what, I wonder? He's not even big enough to hide behind. "Deal." I smiled, and we started to leave the kitchen area when the sound of boots in the hallway sounded like they were approaching the door. "Shit, get down. Away from the door." I whispered. But the steps seemed to be getting closer. "Hide!"
"Where???" He gasped.
"I don't know. Over there. Under the service counter, by the cutting table!"
"I don't know what any of that stuff is!"
"Over THERE!!!" I pointed, and watched him scurry off to one of the corners in the room while I looked for some other place to dash off to. There was a rather large table just in front of the pantry, and I managed to slide underneath it just as the kitchen door was opening. I thought they would just be passing by, or perhaps grabbing a few more rations for the soldiers and walking back out again...but that didn't seem to be the case. I tried to control my breathing and sit still. I was curled up into a tight little ball, and it was uncomfortable, but I didn't want either of us to be caught in here. Especially, if they figure out what happened in that freezer and think that we were the ones chowing down on the raw meat.
We were barely able to scamper to our hiding places and hold our breath when the soldiers came in. About five or six of them from sound of it. I didn't dare peek around the corner to see. I heard Officer Logan's voice first, "Lights up. We need to get on the same page here." The fluorescent bulbs never looked so bright, as they exposed the few shadows that we had to hide in. My heart began to beat so hard that I could have sworn the other soldiers would have been able to hear it if they listened close enough. Then I heard them walking over to the service counter...right where I told Preston to hide.
However, when they got there, they simply spread out a map of the area and a few other papers that they carried in with them. They didn't seem surprised or alarmed, so I had to assume that Preston had scurried away before getting caught. Wherever he is, I hope he stays out of their sights.
"Alright, so we've got lookouts on the roof of the school and they've been keeping track of the horde as best as they can. Binoculars can only see so far. But...from what I can tell...things aren't looking good." Logan said. "According to this map, we've got a fairly random scattering of hostiles on all sides. Our visibility reaches out for ten blocks...fifteen at best on a clear day. That's just under three Kilometers." I could hear the rattling of their map, and happened to see something out of the corner of my eye. The frantic waving of Preston's hand as he peeked from the other side of the kitchen. I have absolutely NO idea how he was able to make it waaaay over there without being detected, but it's definitely one of the things that he's good at. I widened my eyes and put a hand up to tell him to stop with silent commotion, pressing my finger to my lips to keep him quiet. Logan continued, "These red dots mark where the enemy was at the time of sighting. We've got small clusters here, here...and here. Nothing major, but their grouping habits seemed to be altering from day to day."
One of the other soldiers asked, "So we're still in good standing then, right?"
"No. This map was from three days ago." Logan told him, and I heard some more paper being rattled as he laid down a second map on top of the first. "This is our current situation..." All I could hear was silence...but the tension in the room increased considerably. "The clusters are getting bigger, and much more concentrated. More organized. The patterns aren't as random as they were before. These things are hungry. They're getting hungrier by the day, and they are working their way towards their next big source of food. Like a swarm of locusts. If they find us here...they're all going to converge on this location and leave us without an escape plan. We'll be trapped on all sides."
"How are we doing on ammunition? We've got lookouts, well trained soldiers, heavy artillery...can't we hold them off?"
"Not forever." Logan told them. "I talked to Dr. Vega this morning, and going by his calculations, air toxicity is getting much much worse, and much faster than he previously predicted. By the end of next month, you won't be able to step foot outside in the open air without losing your lunch. So that means that we're going to have to get a few patrols together to run out for supplies. The problem is...if these clusters get any bigger, if these things get any smarter...then every supply run is going to end up leading them right back here to this shelter, en masse."
"Are you saying that we should be gearing up for a fight?" One of the female soldiers asked.
"No. We should avoid that for as long as humanly possible." Logan answered. "This isn't a military compound. It's a high school. It's not built to take that kind of pressure on the gates when that horde comes knocking. I need you all to tell your fellow soldiers to only fire on the zombies climbing the fences and nothing else. Conserve our ammo. I have a feeling that the smarter ones are trying to wear us down, defense wise." He folded his map back up, and he said, "Sergeant Brower wants us to make a supply run at dawn. I'll take point on this, I'll need at least six others to come with me. This is a trial run, so being alert at all times is going to be crucial. We'll be heading to the downtown suburban area of Evanston up North. Grab only what we need most. If you can find a few storages of food, great. But we're mainly looking for medical supplies, communication tech, batteries, matches, sanitizing materials...and gas for the trucks if we can grab them. Understood."
"Yes, sir." They all replied.
"Now, I know that you all aren't familiar with me. You barely know who I am. But the Sergeant wouldn't have put me in charge of this mission if he thought I lacked the ability to bring each and every last one of you home, safe and sound. So...if any of you lack faith or have any doubts at all in my leadership, it won't hurt my feelings. Get another soldier to take your place. Because I can't have anybody second guessing my orders on this." It sounded like they were getting all of their papers together again to leave the 'privacy' of the kitchen again. And that's when Officer Logan told them, "One last thing...we need someone to find a way to communicate with the incoming caravans of survivors. I don't care how you do it, but do it fast. We need to get in touch with them ASAP."
"We've tried. Hundreds of times. They're too far out to get a signal from us."
"Well, we've got to figure out something. Put your top experts on it." He said. "You saw the red dots from our current surveillance. If those dots lock in on the approaching caravans and follow the breadcrumbs back to this facility...we won't survive it. For every hostile that is already out there...they could infect two or three more. Each. Their numbers are growing...ours are shrinking. That's all there is to it. We need to make contact with those caravans and tell them turn back, or at least hold them at bay until we can find a way to get these things to scatter to other areas where we won't be put in a position where we have to fight them all at once. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" They replied.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, ladies and gentlemen...but we're not standing in a fortress right now. We're simply hiding behind a glass wall. And these things are bringing the hammers. Let's be careful out there." He said. "Get those communications up and running as soon as you can. The rest of you...get some sleep. We gear up at 05:00, no excuses. I need you wide eyed and ready to play."
As I heard the soldiers leaving the room, I began to wonder what was on that map. Where those red dots might be now, and where they might be headed. My brother, Cain, was talking about running out there to get away from this place before things went South for the rest of us. But what happens if we turn down the wrong street, or the wrong alley, and we end up running right into a giant mosh pit of those things?
Maybe I should figure that out before letting him think that the zombies are as easy to outsmart as he thinks they are...