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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8. So Says the Madman

The second nightmare started off with a single red spark, swimming in the empty black air like a drop of blood in water. The droplet split into two, then four, then eight, and eventually, at least twenty dots had materialised. They began to spin in a dizzyingly fast circle, flaring and bleeding into the air like the lights on a fairground ride. The rings of fire multiplied and converged, weaving themselves into the black canvas of his mind in a twisted vortex that sucked him downwards and upwards and sideways, turning his head upside-down and his stomach inside-out. One minute, he was stuck to the ceiling, and the next minute the ceiling no longer existed and he was falling forever into a writhing pit of flames.

Flung around like a rag doll, he could feel his breath catching and twisting in his throat, but he couldn’t force the air any further into his lungs and the lack of breath was blackening his vision. He knew he was dreaming, but he couldn’t wake up; his mouth sealed itself shut whenever he tried to scream, and his fingers melted into dust whenever he tried to pinch himself. The air was charged with a hideous chorus of sounds; sirens and alarms and screams of terror all merged together into a high-pitched screeching noise that was solid one moment, but the next, it was broken into rounds. The fucked-up soundtrack morphed sporadically between a heart monitor, beating in time to a still heart, and a rhythmic chime that reminded him of a ringing phone.

George flailed his arms, pushing at the thick darkness around him until it parted like a curtain to reveal a chink of the real world. Once he was awake again, it was light, and he still had both his hands, and gravity was keeping him firmly rooted in one place, but he could still hear the blaring beep, beep, beep of his phone. He hadn’t been imagining it after all. Someone was calling him, and as the caller’s name flashed up on the screen, he swore and dragged it off the bedside table to answer.

“Who’s calling, honey?” Leah moaned, rolling over to face him.

“Jamie.” George raised the phone to his ear before remembering he’d left it on loudspeaker.

“GEORGE!” The sound shot towards his ear at top volume and jerked a massive shock of agony through his brain.

OW! Jamie, what the hell’s going on now?”

“Um... nothing, it’s just, uh… mate, when does your shift start?”

“Shit.”

“What is it?” Leah asked him, sitting up and resting her chin on his shoulder.

“I have work today. I forgot.”

“George? You still there?” Jamie persisted.

He turned around to check the clock on the bedroom wall. “I don’t start for another hour and twenty. Why?”

“Well, um... you’re going to want to get here fast.”

“What? Why?”

“What the hell could be happening now?” Leah murmured, rubbing a hand across her face.

“Well, they found out, uh... where Robert came from.” Jamie said, and George’s blood froze again. “Last night they did, anyway. His family just got here.”

“Where? Why? I mean... why the hell are you telling me?” Leah wrapped her arms around his shoulders, her hair tickling his neck.

“Because... because, um...”

“Holy SHIT, Jamie!” George suddenly yelled, startling Leah away from him. “I’ve got a splitting headache, and some fucking zombie bullshit to wrap my head around, so just spit it out and quit stuttering!”

“Jesus, George...”

“I’m already completely positive this can’t be good news, so you’d save me a lot of bother if you just got on with it, mate. Do me a favour, won’t you? Put me out of my misery!”

“I’m trying, George...”

“Then say something!”

“I... I can’t Just hurry the fuck up.” Jamie hung up, and the soft mumbling of the dead line stirred up the burning pain behind George’s eyes.

“For fuck’s sake!” He got up and went to put the phone down, but in a fit of fury he jerked his fist and flung it against the wall. Leah took hold of his hand from behind; her grip was so tight that she was crushing his fingers together, but weirdly, her touch still soothed him. When she stood up on her toes to kiss him, her lip was trembling, but the warmth she sent down his back was enough to keep him sane for a few more seconds.

When she broke off the kiss and let go of him, her eyes were sparkling with tears.

“George, honey. Calm down.”

“I can’t, Lee. I don’t know what’s going on!”

“Well, then.” She brushed one of her hands lightly against his face and stroked his cheek. “It looks like we’re going to have to find out.”

“But...” He took her hand and gently moved it back downwards, squeezing her fingers. “I’m not meant to be there for another hour.”

Her comforting smile tightened into a smirk. “Well then, it looks like we’re both working overtime, doesn’t it?”

George smiled back. “That’s why I love you.”

Leah raised one eyebrow. “What, for my excellent work ethic? Or my total disregard for punctuality?”

“You have to ruin all the cute moments.”

“And you love me for that as well, right?”

George squeezed her hand, but his other hand was already fumbling behind the door for his coat. “Yeah, whatever. Come on, let’s go.”

* * * * * * * * * *

He drove to the hospital at five miles above the speed limit and swung into a parking space with far more energy than usual, but he couldn’t shake the sensation of someone else controlling the wheel. Every inch of his body was pulsing with furious adrenaline and the fuzzy orange rays of the rising sun were challenging him to drive faster.

“Woah, you’re on edge this morning,” Leah joked as they got out of the car, but George could tell that she was nervous too. It was Leah who spotted the police car outside the main entrance.

“George, look. The police are here.”

“Yeah, I guess that means the, um... the family are still here too. Right?”

“Right.” She looked nervously up at the fourth-floor windows, then lowered her eyes and traced her gaze back down to the pavement in front of them. “You think they’ve found him yet?”

“I’m not sure.” George shuddered. “But I hope not- I mean, I hope so. I hope he’s okay.”

“Yep.” As she stepped closer to him, George put his arm around her. He told himself it was just to keep her warm.

Leah unwound herself from George’s arm as they stepped through the front doors of the hospital, but she kept hold of his hand. They looked at each other to share an uneasy smile, but their moment of distraction almost caused them to collide with someone walking the other way. It was an older couple whom George didn’t recognise; they were holding hands and smiling, but their fingers were rigid and their eyes were glazed. The man’s brown beard was laced with grey and the woman’s blonde hair was nearly white, but the wretched expressions on their faces added years to their appearances. Leah’s gaze followed them as they walked through the double doors and left the hospital, but George was already staring past them, at the two police officers who followed them out of the consulting room. Then, of course, out came Jamie. For once, his smile had sobered.

“George! Thank God you’re— why are you here so early? I’ve still got another half-hour—“

“I came to find out what the hell you were going to tell me, Jamie, before you hung up!”

“I didn’t mean to, man; I’m sorry! They told me off, and besides...” He glanced over his shoulder before lowering his voice. “I had to go in and talk to them about it.”

George looked over to the door. “Who, the police? Wait, you were there? When he-”

“Yeah, George. I was.”

“You saw him jump-”

“Wait, what? No, course not. I was off for the night. But I was the one who took care of all his shit, y’know, while he was in the coma.” Jamie blushed. “I also had to explain why there was a chart about him on the wall of the break room.”

“And?”

“I don’t know what to tell you! He just... I don’t know! Doctor King said he jumped out the window! He apparently got up, after falling four floors, and just bloody ran off!”

Leah raised one eyebrow. “That’s what you told the police?”

“Yeah.” Jamie seemed so shaken that he couldn’t look either of them in the eye.

“They believed you?”

“Yeah, Well, I mean, not really, but they hardly had a choice. Everyone else told them exactly the same thing. I know Pavel saw him jump. Rachel, too. You know Rachel?”

“And that’s all you wanted to tell George?” Leah interjected. George knew she didn’t have much patience for people like Jamie, and she’d never been very good at hiding it.

“No,” Jamie answered her. “That wasn’t it.”

“Then what?”

“Well.” Jamie tittered. “There’s a fuckton to tell. I know Doctor King talked to you already- she say anything about the blood sample?”

“Nope.”

“Well, after he died... you know, they always take blood, to... run the tests and-”

“Jamie, I’m a nurse, remember? I know all this shit. Why’re you bringing it up? Did they discover the cause of death?”

“No.”

“Then why’s this-”

“It was black, George.”

“What?”

“His blood. After I got here, I went into one of the labs and found three of the nurses freaking out over this syringe of black watery stuff.”

“And that... that was what his blood looked like?”

“Like I said, I wasn’t there. It could have just been a prank, I guess. I mean, what they told me about it sounded pretty damn stupid.”

Part of George wanted to leave it there, but the rest of him needed to know more. “What was that? What’d they say?”

Jamie dropped his eyes as he spoke. “They told me it was still red when they took it out of him. Y’know, just after he’d died, it was normal. But then...”

“What?”

“It turned black just before he came back. From the dead.”

Leah laughed out loud. “You fell for that?”

Jamie blinked, insulted. “No, course not. But that’s not the point, is it? You haven’t heard the real big deal yet.”

“Okay, then. So what the hell’s the big deal?” George asked.

Jamie glanced over his shoulder yet again before beckoning them both into the alcove in the corner. When he spoke again, his voice was hushed almost to a whisper. Whatever he was about to say wasn’t fit to be overheard.

“George, that couple you just saw on the way in? They were his parents. And do you know who... who Robert was? Do you know who he was?”

“Who he is,” Leah corrected.

“Yeah, is. Sure.” Jamie turned his attention back to George, who stayed silent. “George, Robert’s the guy from that farm up north.”

“Jamie, there’s quite a few farms in England. You’re going to have to be more specific than-” Then, it clicked. “Oh. No way. Are you... wait, what?”

“What?” Leah repeated, but Jamie and George ignored her.

“Yeah, man. He’s the guy from the farm. He went missing... three hundred miles away...”

“Like, two hours before showing up in Nabdale,” finished George. Leah stared at him before looking back at Jamie.

“Wait... what the hell are you two talking about?” she asked.

“Lee, you remember that story in the news about those sheep that got mutilated?”

“Yeah, but what’s that got to do with Robert?”

“He’s the guy they blamed it on, Leah! They were his sheep! It was his farm! He somehow made it three hundred miles across the country in less than two hours, and in that time, or before then, something happened to him that put him into a coma!”

“Well, what the hell kind of thing are we talking about here?” Leah said.

“Like I know!” George burst out. “The point, is, nobody knows!”

“Listen, you two,” Jamie said, interrupting the argument. “There’s more.”

“Of course there is,” George sighed, rubbing his head again.

“Have you...” Jamie’s eyes flickered downwards. “Have you been seeing any, um... red lights?”

With that, George’s heart lurched and a freezing thrill of terror spread through his blood to numb his senses. When he opened his mouth to say something smart, he was rewarded only with silence. His eyes had probably widened, but his vision had darkened into a pulsing smear of grey and white and his thoughts were stirred into a typhoon.  

“What?” Leah said, narrowing her eyes.

“Lights. Like, in the sky. Like, U-F-Os?”

Yes, George’s mind was saying. Yes, a million times yes.

“No,” Leah answered for him. “Of course not.”

“None? At all?”

No, you twit.” She rolled her eyes. “What’s your point?”

“Well,” Jamie continued. “His parents had. And... get this.”

There was a long silence, but neither Jamie nor Leah seemed to notice the shocked expression on George’s face.

“Robert’s parents- I mean, Mr and Mrs Walker- said they’d been seeing red lights in the sky for, like, a month. Apparently Robert saw a ton of weird stuff in the sky, and he was really scared, but they never believed him. Then, the police asked them why... why they’d brought it up, and they said the lights were the reason why Robert disappeared.”

“What the hell?”

“I know, I know it’s stupid. But Mrs Walker started crying when her husband mentioned it. Like, full-on ugly crying. Not the delicate attention-seeking sort. She said that a few minutes after they’d sent Robert out, she saw something shiny falling out of the sky, and then there was an explosion. I don’t...” Jamie looked down, but suddenly his expression cleared and his frown became a grin. “Why am I telling you this? It’s kind of stupid, right?”

“Yeah,” Leah agreed, smiling as if she’d just been told a great joke.

George was leaning against the wall, staring straight ahead and trying to stop himself from fainting again. He’d taken the largest possible non-lethal dose of headache tablets before leaving, but pain was still leaking through the barrier of numbness.

“George?” Leah had finally taken her attention away from Jamie. “You okay?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Your headache come back?”

“Yeah.” George blinked and tried to stand up straight.

“Oh, you and everyone else!” Jamie laughed. “We’ve already had two people going home with headaches.” His expression suddenly clouded over. “Actually, they all-”

“Never mind,” George interrupted, pushing himself away from the wall and almost knocking Leah over as he stumbled. He smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand, and the shrill whining sound ricocheting through his mind finally subsided.

“Jamie, I...”

Jamie looked at him. “You what?”

They’ll think I’m crazy.

“Never mind.”

“Oh, okay.” Jamie glanced at his watch, frowned and then yawned. “I can go home now. Thank God. I’m so tired.”

George sighed. “Yeah. Poor you.”

Leah put her hand on George’s shoulder. “Your shift, honey.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you... are you sure you’re well enough to work?”

His head was burning so much that it could have been filled with fire, and his eyes were prickling with hot tears. When he shook his head to clear the pain, he was stabbed by a hurricane of needles, but he managed to smile.

“Yeah. I’m good. You go home.”

“Okay. See you later, then. Come home early if you feel sick, won’t you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he called after her, but she’d already left through the front doors.

“Well,” said Jamie, throwing his scrubs into the cupboard next to them. “See you.”

“Yeah.” George rubbed his forehead, trying to play it off by running his hand through his hair. “See you.”

Tell him. Tell someone.

“Wait!”

Jamie turned just as he was about to leave. “Yep?”

“Don’t freak out.”

“What do you mean?”

Spit it out. Now.

“Leah was wrong.”

“You what?”

I see red lights in the sky. Every night. And I saw one of those explosions a few nights ago.”

Jamie smiled with a hint of confusion as he turned back around. “Very funny, mate. Just saying, though?”

“Yeah?”

“If the worst comes to the worst, I think I have a gun somewhere.”

George frowned. “What?”

Jamie opened his mouth and then paused, looking up as if he was trying to work out what the hell he’d just said.

“Well, y’know, uh… zombie apocalypse, and all that. Removing the head.” He pointed to his head, widening his eyes slightly.

George tried not to glower. “You know, Jamie, you’re the last person I’d want as my doctor.”

“Why?”

George fumbled in his pocket for more painkillers. “Because you’re a blimming lunatic.”

“Ah.”

Jamie’s smile dropped as he turned to leave.

Once the door had closed, George was finally alone with his thoughts. He was lucky that his job was hardwired into his brain, because he spent the entire day in such a daze that it passed in the blink of an eye. He was, as his colleagues often said to tease him, on auto-pilot, but it wasn’t the same as normal. The night Robert had woken up, George had been convinced he was going mad. Now, he was fairly sure he was still sane, but that made things worse. His mind was filled with impossible questions, and this time, they couldn’t be answered with a hallucination or a nightmare.

As he changed out of his scrubs and grabbed his coat to leave the hospital, George briefly considered calling Leah to pick him up, but he decided against it. This time, the decision had nothing to do with independence. He felt so sick that he wondered whether he’d make it two blocks, but then again, it would have been far too difficult to explain to Leah why he wasn’t going home.

When he reached the end of the car park, George wondered where the time had gone. Trickles of orange from the setting sun bled through the sky and dripped onto the clouds, bringing the second day of quiet madness to an end. Part of him wanted to be at home with Leah before it got dark, but another part of him knew that home wasn’t where he was going.

Since his talk with Jamie, he’d realised he wasn’t the only one who’d seen the red lights. There was someone else.

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