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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19. How to Stay Human

Before he’d found out about Dylan, George had sworn to her that they didn’t deserve to feel guilty, and yet here she was, at her front door, staring at the police tape fluttering from the house across the road, feeling guilty. George had promised her, repeatedly, that they were in this together, and that he’d never leave her. She knew it wasn’t his fault, but he’d still broken his promise. For some reason, even though he was dead and gone forever, she still felt betrayed. Other than that, though, she just felt ridiculously, horribly empty.

Surely, now that she was alone again, some kind of emotion should have rushed in to fill the void. Denial, anger, grief, acceptance, misery, shock, fear. Happiness? Confusion? Exhaustion? Whichever emotion decided to show up first, Leah would welcome it with open arms. No matter how hard she tried, though, she couldn’t feel anything, for George or Harriet or Dylan or even herself. Her head was tingling and spinning, but her heart didn’t feel broken or even bent. It just felt empty.

Her hand hovered uselessly over the doorhandle.

What are you doing here?

She’d run away with Dylan because it wasn’t safe, but now, after finally forcing Dylan away from her, she was back. She’d only bothered to run away in the first place to save him, after all. Now, with a double helping of guilt on her shoulders, any sense of grief missing in action, George dead, and her professional life in tatters, she had nothing left to lose.

Plus, she was curious.

As she sucked in air, gathering every scrap of composure, her eyes wandered back across the street, towards the blue-and-white striped police tape fluttering uselessly from the door of what used to be Harriet’s house. Harriet was gone, so Leah supposed it was nobody’s house now, just as Dylan was nobody’s son. Just as Mr and Mrs Walker were nobody’s parents.

Just as she was nobody’s girl.

Suddenly, it occurred to her that only a few hours had passed since the body had been discovered. The house shouldn’t have been empty yet. The ambulance and the two police cars that had been parked on the kerb when she and Dylan climbed out of the window were gone now, and there wasn’t a trace of movement anywhere. The investigation couldn’t be over yet. They couldn’t have scraped up what was left of Harriet and left yet, especially with Dylan still missing. Leah doubted the forensics team would even have had time to take a sponge to the blood-encrusted sofa yet. This was Nabdale. The police couldn’t have been needed elsewhere. Could they?

Leah turned back to her house, trying to distract herself from what might be happening elsewhere in the town by focusing her energy on what might be happening on the other side of the door. Her keys weren’t in her pocket. Of course they weren’t; she’d left the house through the side window.

The lights in the kitchen were still on, just as she’d left them. She couldn’t have watched George die if they’d been off. The window was still open, just as she’d left it. She couldn’t have escaped from George’s reprogrammed corpse if it had been closed.

She’d left George standing at the door between the kitchen and the living-room. Would he still be there?

If he was, would she run? She didn’t think she had the energy. Would she let herself be infected? No. She was miserable, but she hadn’t resigned herself to death just yet.

Would she kill him?

No, she wouldn’t. Leah had done enough killing to break her heart and crush her soul for life, and she never wanted to do it again. Harriet may have stopped thinking and feeling once she’d screamed and fallen off the sofa, but she hadn’t stopped wriggling until Leah and George had smashed her heart and blown everything that once made her human out of her head. The image of Harriet’s arms and legs suddenly going limp would never leave Leah’s mind; the memory was as impossible to clean away now as the black stain their fight had left behind on the sofa. Leah knew that, no matter how many people ended up like Robert and Harriet and George and how much danger her life was in, she’d never be able to do to another person what she’d done to Harriet. George had broken all his promises to her and left her alone. Now, as Leah stood and stared at the open window, wondering whether she’d ever leave the house alive again, she renewed the promise she’d made to herself before her first day as a paramedic.

Die before you kill.

Leah pressed her lips together, took her hand out of her pocket, and heaved herself back through the window.

The first thing that hit her, surprisingly enough, wasn’t George. It was the smell. The stench wasn’t new to her, but the last time she’d noticed it, she’d been too busy scrubbing blood off herself in the bath to pay much attention. The time before that, she’d been staring at a headless corpse, rubbing blood and gore all over George’s shirt as she buried her head in his shoulder. Now, she had time to focus on it properly, and holy hell, it smelt dreadful. It was hot and thick and sweet and salty and metallic and rotten all at once; it could have been blood, but something wasn’t quite right about it. Just as something wasn’t quite right about the blood all over her kitchen.

George’s body was gone, but it had left behind plenty of traces. Black muck was everywhere: streaking in parallel finger-marks across the walls, pooling in sticky puddles on the ground, smeared in glistening piles on the work surfaces. Leah wrinkled her nose as she scoured the kitchen for any sign of the monster, grabbing a bottle of kitchen cleaner from the cupboard as she passed it.

Leah rounded the corner, trying not to look at the stringy red-and-black puddle on the ground where George had died. She walked at a snail’s pace down the corridor, trying desperately not to make a single sound, and then, at long last, she spotted where the blood had come from.

The door to the living-room, which she and Dylan had slammed shut to keep George out, was still closed. The glass window, however, was spiked and zig-zagged with white cracks and jagged holes, each one ringed with thin lines of black that dripped down onto the wood. Instead of negotiating the simple task of learning to operate a doorhandle, the monster wearing George’s face had apparently tried to punch its way through to the living-room. Upon realising Leah and Dylan had gone, it had obviously given up and tried something more rational. Punching its way through the back door into the garden.

When Leah had first been to George’s house, she’d fallen in love with the beautiful set of glass French windows leading out from the west side of the kitchen. In life, George had always joked that she loved the French windows more than she loved him, and in death, he’d managed to finally act on his jealousy. Now, the only glass not lying in dark piles of glittery dust on the lawn was clinging to the window-frames, dripping lazy lumps of congealing black blood onto the kitchen tiles.

Whether Leah liked it or not, George was gone for good. It had been, for want of a better phrase, an extremely messy breakup.

Even now, as she stood in the ruins of the home they’d shared for three years, wrinkling her nose against the stench of the blood he’d left behind, Leah didn’t feel even an inkling of grief for George. Instead she filled her empty head with a deep sigh, picked up the kitchen cleaner and a rag she found in the drawer, and started to clean up. Every time the cloth got too dirty, she rinsed it in the sink, trying to forget that the dregs disappearing down the plughole were lumps of her boyfriend’s blood. Every time the smell made her feel too sick, she stepped through the hole in the window to get a breath of fresh air, ignoring the pang of shock that smacked her harder than the smell when she stepped back inside. Every time a sad thought entered her head, she squashed it down, even harder than she’d squashed down the bag of blood-soaked clothes in the compost bin.

She used up an entire bottle of disinfectant and an entire packet of air-fresheners trying to make the room look and smell normal, but even after all that, the odd, sickly stench of contaminated blood still lingered. Leah wished she had the time, space, tools, skills or willpower to board up the two broken windows, but she didn’t. Instead, she spent another hour wrenching pieces of glass free of the windowframes and chucking them into plastic bags, barely noticing sharp corners and edges biting into her palms and fingers. Red crusts were staring to form over the cuts Harriet’s bowl and vase had given her, and her fingertip still ached from the pinprick, so by the time she was finished, her hands were completely covered with scarlet and crimson. At least it wasn’t black. At least she was still alive.

Suddenly, a chill gripped Leah’s heart.

How do you KNOW you’re not infected?

She couldn’t have been infected by Harriet; she was sure of that. There’d been fighting and screaming and shoving and a lot of gore spilling everywhere, but barely any physical contact. Harriet had been holding her hand out, and that hand had never even come close to hitting its target; George had made sure of that.

George.

George hadn’t even come close to her after he’d woken up; then again, he’d never really tried until Dylan came into the kitchen. George hadn’t ever touched Dylan, and he hadn’t ever touched her. She’d never even met Robert, and those were the only three monsters she knew anything about.

Leah was sure she wasn’t infected yet. Now, if she decided she cared enough, all she had to do was keep it that way.

A lilac gloom was starting to coat the horizon, and the trees and the church where George had seen the lights were black shadows against the setting sun. This day had been the worst of her entire life, but now it was over. Maybe, when she woke up the next morning, she’d find out it had all been a dream.

Leah had come home because it was the only place she felt safe. That had been stupid, because she knew she wasn’t safe anywhere. Even though she’d spent hours washing away all the physical evidence, no amount of scrubbing could dissolve the haunting memory of George’s death in this room, nor could it evaporate every last bit of the persistent stench. On a whim, Leah decided to throw caution to the wind again and go into the garden. This time, now that she had nobody left to look out for, maybe she’d let it blow away for good.

Since Leah had fallen in love with George’s garden, the grass had died, the plants had wilted, and the glass of the French windows had grown grimy and green. Then, of course, it had been smashed into dust by her dead boyfriend. With an entire wall missing from the kitchen, Leah couldn’t have been any more exposed, but she didn’t care. Now that the glass was gone, cold wind was gradually carrying away the stench of dead blood and the voices in her head were drowned out by the bizarrely naïve sounds of nature.

She’d watched two people die that day, one of whom she’d murdered and another of whom she’d loved with all her heart, but even after all that, she was still comforted by the singing of the birds.

Slowly, but surely, the empty chasm in her mind was starting to dwindle. Any second now, the tidal wave of grief would hit her and she’d dissolve into tears and start tearing her hair out like every other grieving widow. Sure, her blood may have still been red, and her eyes were still blue, but only when she finally had a reaction to losing George would she know she was still human.

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When nothing came, she turned and walked, more robotically than the emotionless thing George had become, back into the kitchen.

An hour passed, and she hadn’t eaten. Two hours passed, and it was almost completely dark, but she didn’t want to sleep. She felt as though turning on the TV or a computer was just, well… too normal, and she didn’t deserve normality.

Now, she understood how insomniacs like George felt.

For all four of the years they’d shared a bed, Leah had never once known George to sleep soundly. He’d always been so, so careful not to wake her up, but she’d woken up anyway, because if he couldn’t sleep, neither could she. He’d even been so stupid as to think she’d slept through him playing poker on his laptop in the corner of the bedroom, or leaving the house to go for a walk at midnight. She knew. She always knew. But it was only now, after they’d both lost the chance to make it all better, that she wished she’d tried to help him. Perhaps she should have just spoken up; maybe, in a world left dark and lonely by countless hours of sleeplessness, all he’d wanted was some company.

Now, it was too late.

When was the last time I told him I loved him?

The back of her eyelid stung for a second and Leah blinked determinedly, drying to dredge up a hint of emotion. Then, just like that, the need to cry vanished. She screwed up her eyes and dragged her mouth open, pulling her lips thin and trying to force her shoulders to shake, but not a single tear crested her eyelid.

Leah grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, immediately regretting it when the news flashed up on the screen with the headline ‘MURDER IN NABDALE’. If it hadn’t been one of those grey, fuzzy days when nothing she said or did seemed to matter, she might have done something about it, like changing the channel or switching the TV off. Not tonight. She’d been reduced to such a passive state by her part in Harriet’s death that she didn’t even flinch at the possibility of being forced to relive it.

Wait a second.

That’s not the right headline.

Leah blinked. ‘NINE MURDERS IN NABDALE’ said the headline.

Nine.

NINE.

What the fuck happened?

The first murder probably was still Harriet’s, but unless she’d experienced some kind of memory lapse, Leah had absolutely no part in the other eight.

In the time it took her to snatch randomly at the remote until the screen went black again, the background had changed to a still image of the hospital, front entrance striped with blue and white tape, and the name ‘Jamie Cloverfield’ had been mentioned at least twice. Leah barely needed to hear any of it. She knew what must have happened. She remembered the phone call. She remembered Doctor King telling her they’d all been hit on the chest by Robert. How many had been infected? Eight. How many had Jamie killed? Eight.

Maybe she ought to be thanking him.

In less than three days, everything had changed. Parents had become childless. A boy had become motherless. Leah had become an accessory to murder, and when George died, she’d become the sole suspect. Then, the news had dropped the case like it was hot to focus on an even hotter story. Jamie Cloverfield, a mildly annoying man Leah vaguely recognised from work, had become the most wanted man in Britain, and it was all because of those bloody inconvenient motherfucking lights in the sky.

Laws. Morals. Duty. Responsibility. Safety. Life. Death. They used to mean so much.

Once Leah had watched a woman getting up with half a head and then jammed two pieces of pottery into her heart, those values, which once made up the foundations of her life, had started to crack. Once she’d lost George and then watched him pick himself up from a puddle of his own ruined blood, they’d crumbled into dust in her mind. Once she’d taken a child that didn’t belong to her and dragged him up the hospital car park to blab about aliens to the most impressionable man on the face of the planet, they’d stopped mattering to Jamie, too.

How long before it all became meaningless? Three more days? Two? One?

Or had it already happened?

Now, Leah thought, as she got up from the sofa and walked back into the stinking kitchen, would be an excellent time for that tidal wave of grief to hit.

But, as she crumpled into a chair at the kitchen table and buried her head in her arms, the only thing that came was sleep.

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