Let's Just Call Them Monsters

They’re all human to begin with, but when does their humanity run out? Do they stop being human when their hearts stop beating, or when their minds stop thinking? Is it when their eyes turn white, or when their blood turns black, or when their brains rot in their skulls? He’s asked himself this question countless times, and he still doesn’t know the answer.
All he knows is that he sacrificed his own humanity to get here, and he’s not going to let theirs get in his way.

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7. Nightmare Fuel

In the first nightmare, all the colours were brighter; even the shadows were augmented to the point where he reckoned they could drown him if he just stared long enough. The blackness dissolved into bright blue above his head, but then, the pool of the sky swelled with blood-red and he found himself in a field shaded scarlet by the overhanging clouds. The sky was only visible in dregs among the enormous stalks of grass; they towered miles above him, taller than the trees in the distance, striping the ground with black shadows and scraping the heavens with claw-like talons.

The grass swung fluidly in the breeze, but instead of rustling, it hissed like a ravenous predator. The sound sliced the air in half and chilled his blood into ice, even though he knew it wasn’t real. It was all a figment of his mind. And maybe that was what made it so terrifying.

Suddenly, a high-pitched whining sound cut into the very back of his mind, and George glanced down to see something lying at his feet. It was a sheep, and the part of him that knew he was dreaming cursed all those livestock mutilation articles he’d been reading. The sky folded, plummeting downwards to envelop the dead animal in a shroud. When it was released, the carcass hung in the air like a grotesque puppet, its blank eyeless skull dripping with an oil-like sheen of blood.

BOOM. Hiss.

A blazing explosion of light rippled the red sky with swathes of orange and a million shards of undergrowth whipped downwards towards him. They tore at his clothes, lashing themselves around his ankles to yank him off his feet, around his wrists to stop him fighting back, and around his neck to strangle him into submission. Then, his body was torn in half, and that was the point at which he realised he must be dreaming, because even though his head had been ripped off and flung into the air he was still alive to see the stars rushing down to meet him. The sky fell away yet again, letting him plummet back towards the earth, but this time, he didn’t stop when he reached the ground. Shredded ribbons of darkness laced themselves through his vision until he was smothered, and his head was really spinning, even after a rush of adrenaline woke him up and his eyes shot open. The nauseating tug of motion sickness wouldn’t go away, even after the dark cavern of oblivion was torn away from his bedroom, and dizziness still hammered into his aching head long after the red field had melted away. The room was filled with a foggy cloud of evening light and the sky outside the window was burnished gold by the setting sun, but the pathetic amount of light still pierced his thoughts and made his brain pulse inside his skull.

He’d just woken up from his longest sleep in recent memory, but he couldn’t have felt less refreshed if he tried. His sweat was cold, his throat and mouth were so dry that he could barely breathe, and the agonising pressure of his headache could have been trying to force him downwards. In fact, if anything, he was in even more pain than yesterday. At least, now that he was awake, everything made sense again. The sky wasn’t red, he wasn’t being attacked by grass or sheep, the ground stayed put beneath his feet, and nobody had come back from the dead.

It was just another normal day.

A chorus of clatters and the faint sound of humming told him that Leah was in the kitchen, but he decided to use the bathroom before facing her. He didn’t actually need to use the bathroom, which was strange, because he’d been asleep for the whole night and most of the day. His razor stayed in the cupboard- one look in the mirror told him he didn’t need it- and the cold water he smeared onto his face evaporated into boiling sweat the moment it touched his skin. He was about to reach for his contact lenses before remembering that he’d slept in them.

That’ll be why my eyes feel like they’ve been rubbed with soap.

Leah was at the kitchen counter, with a cloth in one hand and a bottle of disinfectant in the other, when George walked up to wrap his arms around her shoulders. She gave a slight yelp and whipped around at his touch, but when she saw him she laughed and hugged him back.

“God, you scared me half to death!” she said, kissing him and lowering the hand holding the spray bottle.

“What were you planning to do with that?” he teased, nodding at it.

“If you’d been a random intruder, I’d have sprayed you right in the eyes and knocked you out cold.”

“Charming.”

“How long have you been awake?”

“About...” Another pang of pain made him screw his eyes shut. “Ten minutes, I guess. We got any painkillers?”

“They should be over there in the cupboard.” She nodded towards the corner and George opened the cupboard, rummaging through dozens of tiny boxes and bottles until he found the right one.

“You’re aware it’s seven at night, right? You were asleep for, like, twenty hours.”

He glanced at the digital clock on the shelf; his mind took a moment to process the numbers nineteen and thirty-seven, but she was right. He had been asleep for twenty hours.

“You still got a headache, honey?”

“Yeah.” He thought about getting a glass of water, but decided not to bother and swallowed the pills dry. They grated on his dry throat, but something told him the water would have done the same.

“I’m insulted. I did an awesome job of catching you before you cracked your head on the bedpost.”

“What? Catching… me? But...” George frowned, but then he remembered fainting. “Oh.”

“You don’t remember you passed out?” A flicker of concern passed over Leah’s face.

“No, no. I remember now. I’m just-OW! I’m just tired.”

“Okay, if you say so. Who was that on the phone?”

The phone?

“It wasn’t a death threat, was it? Don’t worry, I’ll spray all the ninja assassins with kitchen cleaner if they come near you.” Leah grinned, but her smile disappeared when she saw the expression on George’s face.

I thought that was a dream.

“It was... it was the hospital.”

“Oh? What did they want?”

“They... I don’t remember.”

She raised one eyebrow. “You sure?”

“Yep. Lee, would you—“

“Maybe you have a concussion, then. I’d better take you back to the hospital. I bet they—“

“No way.”

Her triumphant smirk became tainted with concern. “What’s wrong, babe? Why don’t you want to go to the hospital?”

She closed the gap between them and took hold of both his hands, raising her head to stare right into his eyes.

“Tell me the truth. I know you. And you know that I know you. And-” She smiled. “I know that you know that I know you. Babe, I know you’re not telling me something.”

George sighed. “I know.”

Tell her.

“So what’s wrong? Was the fainting... just because you felt ill?”

Tell her.

“Don’t— don’t call it fainting.”

“I’m sorry. Why did you dramatically fall to the ground and knock yourself out in such a manly fashion, then?”

“Because I’m just manly.” His smile became so strained that it almost hurt.

“Robert... Robert-”

“He died. And-”

“Let me SPEAK!” His dry throat had rendered him incapable of yelling, but he hissed through his teeth with enough anger to make Leah flinch and let go of his hands.

“Robert...”

Robert came back to life.

“He...”

He’s a fucking zombie.

“I...”

Just say it.

“Give me a minute.”

George turned his back on Leah, letting the truth leap from the tip of his tongue and perish in the dead air between them.

“George!“

His legs burned as he ran through the kitchen to reach the stairs, and every pulse of exhaustion in his joints turned into a stab of agony in his head, but he didn’t care. His phone wasn’t still on the bedroom floor, where it must have fallen after he fainted, but as he picked it up from where it now lay on the dressing-table he cursed at the sight of a long crack on the screen. Luckily, it still worked.

Leah appeared at the bedroom door as he dialled the hospital and lifted the phone to his ear, but he silenced her inevitable retort with a wave of his hand just as the receptionist’s voice answered.

“Good morning, Nabdale general hospital, how can I help you?”

“Yeah, hi!” The urgency in his voice made Leah’s eyes widen slightly, but he barely noticed. “It’s George. George Angel. I’m calling about one of the patients. Robert... Robert Walker.”

The name had been buzzing in his head for the last five minutes, but he still had to search his mind before he was able to spit it out.

“Ah...” the woman at the other end paused. “Yes.”

It could have been his overactive imagination, but George heard a shred of fear in her voice.

“Could- Could I speak to Doctor King, please? If... if she’s come in yet. Obviously.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll just see if she’s available. Give me one second.”

George lowered the phone and turned to face Leah, who strode forwards to put her hand on his arm.

“George, what’s happening? I’ve never seen you like this before. What-”

“Lee, I promise I’ll tell you as soon as I can be sure, but right now I don’t even know what’s going on. Just give me a minute, please. I’m sorry.”

“Would you... Would you put it on loudspeaker?”

“What? Why?”

“I just...” Leah looked up at him, then back down at the phone in his hand. “Never mind.”

George paused before pressing the loudspeaker button. Doctor King’s voice crackled out of the microphone when he let go, making them both jump.

“Hello? Hello?

“Yeah, hi!” George glanced briefly down at Leah. “Listen, did you... did you call me last night? Right after I left?”

“Yes, George, of course I did. What are you on about?”

“Well... look, it’s complicated, but I actually passed out right after the call. I-”

“I don’t blame you. It was pretty messed up.”

“Well, um… listen, what the hell’s going on with Robert? What happened after I left?”

“Jesus, Angel, how hard did you hit your head?”

“Pretty hard.”

“Wait.” Leah leaned closer to the phone. “What on earth do you guys mean, what’s going on with Robert? He passed away, didn’t he? Now what could have possibly happened to him since death that made George faint from shock?” She glanced at George before redirecting her voice at the phone. “Please will someone tell me? I’m so confused.”

To George’s surprise, Doctor King replied almost instantly.

“Okay, okay. Look, I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I will. You might want to sit down; this gets pretty weird pretty fast. And I’ve seen some weird stuff in my time.”

What?”  Leah said. “Just tell him, please! Before he faints again!

George elbowed her. “Ssh. Let me hear.”

“Robert Walker was pronounced dead at eleven- fifteen at night. We checked all the vitals, everything. There was no way we could’ve made a mistake. And then, ten minutes later, just after we’d taken the blood sample, he...”

George braced himself for Leah’s reaction.

“He got back up again.”

Silence.

“Right,” Leah said. “Are you sure?

George stared at her, but she stared right back.

“Um... yes. We are sure. The heart monitor didn’t start up again, but he suddenly sat straight up and got out of bed. I’m no expert, but that’d be the most extreme case of post-mortem spasm I’d ever seen.”

Leah sighed in frustration. “Not are you sure he’s alive, I mean, are you sure he was dead?”

“He was,” George said. “I was there.”

“Okay. No, I believe you, I swear. It’s just weird.” Leah turned her attention back to the phone. “And then what happened?”

“Yeah,” George added. “What happened after you left me on a goddamn cliffhanger?”

“You were unconscious,” Leah whispered.

“Yeah, but she rung off first.”

“Well, after that...” Doctor King continued. “He... he sort of went into a bit of a frenzy.”

“What the flip do you mean, a frenzy?”

“Well, if you... if you’ll allow me time to speak, Mrs Angel—“

“Miss Ness.”

“Right. Anyway, he just seemed to sort of... wake up. He pulled out all his life support tubes, got out of the bed, and I called you right after that. I had to hang up because, uh, well... he sort of started attacking everyone. But not in a normal way. He kept grabbing hold of people by the front of their shirts and then immediately letting them go and walking straight to the next person. He wasn’t doing anything dangerous, so we had no idea what the hell to do with him. People kept trying to ask him questions, but he didn’t answer- In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think he said anything at all to anyone. I don’t know how to explain it, really. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been dealing with mental health patients for years.”

“Wait... so-” George paused to look down at Leah, but she was stunned into silence. “So… how many people did he, um... attack?”

“All the doctors in the ward. There were five in there to start with, but a whole bunch more people ran in to see what the fuss was about. So, upwards of about eight or nine people, maybe? Then... Oh, then he ran into the next room, but when a couple of us followed him in there, they apparently just had time to see him, um...”

“What? Where is he now? What did you do with him?”

“He, um, jumped out of the window.”

What?!” Leah and George said in unison. Leah held a hand to her mouth.

“But... but he was on the fourth floor.” George added.

“It’s so horrible,” Leah said. “He killed himself. After all that, he—“

“No, not exactly, Mrs Angel.”

Leah didn’t bother correcting her this time.

“Actually, he didn’t die.”

How?”

Well, we don’t know. We went down to, well… you know. He was nowhere to be seen. You’re lucky you slept through the whole thing, George, it was bloody hard work. Now, there was something else.”

“You called the police, I’m assuming?” Leah said.

“Obviously. We’d actually already called them in to try and figure out where the hell Robert even came from, and I think they’d come up with an answer, actually, but now apparently where he is now is slightly more important. That’s especially true considering he’s obviously really sick and confused. We never even got a chance to tell him which ruddy town he was in. I’ve got to go now, I’m on duty.”

“Wait—“

“George, I’ve told you everything I know. If you want an explanation, I haven’t got one for you. Now, I’ve got a splitting headache and I got no sleep last night, so please let me go and get on with my work. I wasn’t lucky enough to pass out as quickly as you, but maybe that was a good thing. I can’t imagine the nightmares this kind of stuff throws at you.”

“You have no idea.”

George looked at Leah, who paused before taking hold of his hand and squeezing it.

She hung up without even saying goodbye.

“Well,” George said, turning to Leah and wincing. “Now you know.”

Leah shook her head in disbelief and turned to leave, shutting the door behind her.

“No, I bloody don’t!” she called from the landing.

George yawned and rubbed his eyes. Suddenly, his eyelids felt heavy, and even though he’d only been awake for about half an hour, all the energy seemed utterly drained from his muscles again. The whirlwind of information in his head made the prospect of giving in to nightmares even more terrifying than usual, but for once, he was struggling to care.

“Screw this,” he muttered to himself. “I’m going back to bed.”

It was a sentence he wasn’t used to hearing.

Silence swallowed him again almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, and the bedroom went black. For ten blissful seconds before the darkness started pricking itself with red sparks, George’s world was quiet.

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