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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13. Fever Pitch

George still had bigger things to worry about than a headache, but now the pain was virtually impossible to ignore. Now, more than ever before, he just wanted to lie down on the floor and fall asleep. That was, if the headache even let him sleep.

“Why are you staring at me?”

Dylan blinked in confusion and hung his head. George suddenly realised that he was still staring at Dylan, but the thought he was acting weird didn’t hit him until he felt Leah’s hand in his.

“George.”

When George didn’t respond, Dylan glanced up from his toy to stare quizzically at Leah. “Why’s he staring at me?”

“Don’t worry, he’s just tired,” Leah assured Dylan, tightening her grip on George’s fingers. “George!”

George blinked, and eventually the red sparks spiking the corners of his vision retreated.

“Y… Yeah?”

Leah raised both eyebrows. “Stop staring at him.”

“Oh!” George planted both hands on the wall and pushed himself away; the blood suddenly rushed out of his head and he stumbled. “Sorry.”

Once he’d steadied himself again, he felt his rapid breathing returning to normal. Everything was fine. He was in agony, but he was fine.

Leah narrowed her eyes at him. “Geez, are you okay?”

He shook his head, holding a hand to his forehead. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

“Are you sure? You don’t look okay,” Dylan piped up from somewhere below them before turning to Leah. “He doesn’t look okay, does he?”

“No,” said Leah. “He doesn’t. You know what, George? Don’t worry about this.”

George swallowed. “About what?”

“You know…” Leah gestured to Dylan. “This. I’ll take care of it. You need to go lie down.”

He opened his mouth to insist he was fine, but when he licked his lips to speak, he tasted blood. His mouth was drier than sandpaper and every breath of air dragged raggedly across his tongue, making him shudder. Eventually, George shrugged and walked out of the living-room, leaving Leah to deal with Dylan. After all, she was stronger than him, more patient, and a better liar. George was in such a delirious state that he’d probably have confessed to stabbing Harriet in the chest if he’d stayed with Dylan much longer. He’d always been crap at dealing with kids.

Taking a moment to lean against the wall and compose himself, George finally managed to stumble back into the bathroom without passing out. He gripped the sides of the sink with both hands and raised his head to lock eyes with his reflection in the mirror, as if he was reaffirming his guilt after the murder. Instead of seeing a guilty man caked in black blood and grey bits of flesh, he saw a sick man with skin the colour of porcelain and sunken eyes shaded with the purple of fresh bruises. Somehow, he looked even sicker than Harriet the night before he’d killed her.

George sighed raggedly, shrugged at his reflection and turned towards the cupboard. He rubbed his face with one hand as he scrabbled for his razor with the other, expecting to feel the rough scratching of two-day-old stubble on his jaw but instead feeling nothing but smooth skin. On a whim, he turned to look in the mirror again, spinning with enough ferocity to suck the blood out of his head, and immediately wished he hadn’t. As he struggled against his own consciousness and attempted to steady himself, the edges of his vision began to darken and the yellow walls of the bathroom flashed red. In the momentary hallucination, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, and this time, his eyes blazed white and his lips dripped with black. When he blinked, his reflection was normal again, but it gradually twisted sideways as his vision started to blur. His head exploded with agony and everything went black.

His fourth nightmare was feverish and brief, but once or twice the darkness parted to show him glimpses of an immaculate white ceiling. After waking up on the floor, he was staring right up at the grey sagging ceiling of the bathroom. He lay there for a moment, comforting himself with the searing chill of the tiles under his back and trying to suppress the stabbing pain in his head. Then, he sat up, gripped the corner of the sink, and dragged himself back to his feet.

Instead of saying anything to Leah, who was keeping Dylan occupied in the living-room, George decided to go back into the kitchen. The clock on the counter was clearly showing the numbers seventeen and twelve, but whether it was seventeen minutes past twelve or twelve minutes past five didn’t seem to matter at all to his brain. The dryness in his throat reminded him he hadn’t eaten anything that day, or the day before, so, in a daze, he went to the cupboard. One of the packets of crisps on the shelf was open; the salt stung his eyes and the acrid tang of the vinegar clogged his nose and mouth, making him decide that he wasn’t hungry anyway. Once his vision had swung back to normal and he’d tossed the full packet into the bin to rid himself of the smell, George noticed that his ears were now buzzing. It was like his head was full of flies. The sound of Leah talking to Dylan in the next room had been replaced by a high-pitched squealing sound that seemed to burrow deep into his head, cutting clumsy holes out of his thoughts and making his head suddenly feel a thousand times heavier. Then, all weight disappeared and he felt as if he was floating again. George realised he’d been holding his breath, but now he felt so disorientated that even forcing air into his lungs was a chore. His insomnia had made him ill before; in fact, he was used to feeling confused and tired almost constantly, but he’d never been this ill before. He’d never been so tired that he’d passed out on the bathroom floor, he’d never been so sick that the idea of eating stuck him through with nausea, and he’d never been in so much pain that he could barely breathe.

Suddenly, as he gripped the counter to wait for the dizziness to pass, a clammy chill rippled through his body, flooding his skin first with goosebumps and then with boiling heat. He gripped the corner of the cupboard with all his might until his knuckles turned beige, then white, then purple, bracing himself against the countertop and attempting to steady his raucous breathing. His throat prickled and he felt the urge to cough, but he swallowed spit and sucked air, managing to keep it down. The whining sound boring down between his ears heightened to a new pitch, so loud now that it should have shattered glass, and the sick feeling churning away in the pit of his stomach started to rise. When the sickness reached his chest, the muscles burned as if they’d been drenched in acid, and once it extended past his throat he shivered, arched his back, and threw up a stream of black into the sink.

George gasped with a combination of exertion and horror at the sight of the black liquid trailing down the plughole; he turned on the tap and let the icy water blister his hands as he scrubbed the last remnants from the sides of the basin. He blinked, and all traces of blackness were gone. He blinked again, and he was sure he’d been imagining it. He blinked a final time, and all thoughts of his illness evaporated into dust as the wall arched sideways and spun away from him. He didn’t remember closing his eyes, but by the time his head hit the floor for the second time that day, everything was black.

He was only drowning in shadows for a split-second before they began to vanish; thick dribbles of darkness melted and poured away in solid sheets. Behind the blackness, or so his head was telling him, was an immaculate white ceiling and a single light-bulb swinging from a wire. The bulb was burning so brightly that the light stood out in defined creamy rays against the painted ceiling, and the filament was a clean yellow twist of fire whose glow bored into his aching head like a knife. In his dream, every pulse of agony only made the light burn harder.

He couldn’t move, but his eyes suddenly darted sideways to meet with the corner of the ceiling. Bright silver strands of cobweb draping away from the white room’s ceiling looked almost beautiful in his fifth dream, and the black velvet sky outside the window was unbroken and immaculately clear.

Then, he realised he wasn’t alone.

There was someone else standing next to the window, glaring out at the night sky with his face pressed so close to the glass he was practically kissing it. The stranger was tall and thin, with neat dark hair, and he was wearing nurse’s scrubs in a shade of blue so unnaturally bright it was painful to look at. George realised that he was lying in a bed, and he was momentarily distracted by his own arm, which was lying on the blanket with a dozen plasters and wires jabbing their way in and out of his veins. Then, to the right of the bed, the other man suddenly started in shock and spun to face him, a look of surprise etched temporarily on his face. It was then that George realised the man at the window was him. George was looking at himself, and that could only mean that the body the dream had dumped him into was somebody else’s. He turned the head he was borrowing towards the other side of the room, fixing the eyes he was borrowing on the open door. It seemed a million miles away in a feverish dream-world with no depth or dimension, but even from his seemingly immobile position in the bed, he could pick out the scarlet number 5 on the brown wood.

In the dream, George was in ward five.

In the dream, he was in a hospital bed.

In the dream, there were two versions of him, and the eyes he was borrowing were Robert Walker’s.

George watched through Robert’s eyes as the nurse at the window, who was also him, took a few steps towards the bed. Some subconscious aspect of his mind, some instinct buried deep down inside him, wanted to scream, and he wasn’t sure why.

Run.

Run, you idiot.

That idiot’s me, and I can’t even tell myself to run.

With passive curiosity, George watched from Robert’s bed as the walls and ceiling suddenly flashed into an electric blur. Then, he was sitting bolt upright, and his left hand was furiously gripping a fistful of the blanket while the other flailed towards the nurse- towards him. A cold, thin sensation seeped downwards from Robert’s fingers into George’s chest, and this time, he wasn’t just feeling it in the dream.

In George’s mind, the hospital room suddenly tilted sideways and bled itself red, filling every inch of his vision with streaks of crimson and flashes of scarlet millions of times brighter than the ones he’d seen in the sky. Freezing waves of nausea gripped his heart and squeezed it hard to squirt out every last dreg of warm blood; all of a sudden, as his chest clenched even harder, George realised that the sensation was transcending the nightmare and reaching him in real life as he lay in the kitchen. He blinked, and he was in the hospital ward. He blinked again, and he was on the kitchen floor, but fists of ice were still pounding his chest with a furious pressure that only got worse and worse as he got sucked further away from the fifth nightmare. Ward five may have been part of a dream, but what he was feeling now was anything but.

An explosion of bitter agony shattered George’s heartbeat into a million pieces, forcing him to gasp desperately for air that didn’t seem to exist any more. Tendrils of pain punched their way into his veins, wracking his muscles with fits and shivers that contorted his spine and slammed his head down onto the floor of the kitchen with every cycle. Even as, in the dream, Robert slowly lowered his hand and fell backwards onto the pillow, George could feel his own hand throbbing as his fingernails raked the tiles of the kitchen floor. The ward finally vanished into nothing, and the searing freeze of the tiles against his skin yanked his mind back into his body, but the convulsions didn’t stop for another ten seconds or ten minutes or ten hours. His head struck the floor again and again, jerking his neck this way and that with inhuman ferocity, and in his final moments of clarity he twisted onto his side, pinning his arm at a painful angle against the cupboard. He couldn’t breathe, but it didn’t matter any more; the pain was so massive that he just wanted to black out again. No matter how long he held his breath or how many times he banged his head, though, it was no use. Every cycle of agony just made the light burn harder.

Then, when the convulsions suddenly ended, George felt his muscles burning as every last scrap of strength evaporated. When his eyes snapped open, all he could see was a grey ceiling punctuated by pulses of red and black light, so he kept them closed. Focusing harder, he could feel something wet on the back of his head in the exact spot he’d hit it against the floor. His hand was shaking as he raised it up to touch the scratch, and he cried out in pain as a tremor in his elbow thrust two fingertips directly into the wound. The back of his hand became coated in sticky liquid from a pool on the floor, and it was then that he finally realised he was bleeding. His face felt damp, too, and George dragged the back of his hand lazily across his chin , even though raising his arm away from the floor shot agony through his neck and shoulder. It took him a few moments to comprehend the smears of black curdled vomit on his fingers, but he couldn’t have said he was surprised.

The last ounce of strength left his body as his hand and head slumped back to the ground, and he let his eyes fall shut as the stinging pain reached a feverish pitch and burned his vision with blazes of red and white. When he tried to move his arm, or even just lift one finger, his muscles refused to respond to him. George struggled to think straight as, one by one, his thoughts froze solid and smashed into dust.

He’d been too late to save Robert.

He and Leah had been too late to save Harriet.

And even as she ran into the room, Leah was too late to save him.

The four sides of the door split into eight as she flung it open, but the crash of the door hitting the wall and the sound of her voice were muffled into nothing. George assumed he must have been screaming, but he hadn’t heard a thing. He couldn’t feel his headache any more, nor did he feel sick; he wasn’t frustrated or terrified or exhausted or miserable either. In fact, he wasn’t conscious of any emotions at all. All George was conscious of, as another wave of black droplets trickled onto his chin and his heartbeat stopped in its tracks, was an ear-splitting whining sound and a blinding sensation of dizziness that turned all his thoughts bright white.

And then, nothing.

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