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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22. Malworth's Ghosts

He’d never had a nightmare in his life, and killing ten people in one day hadn’t changed a thing.

As Jamie sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes, blobs of light and slivers of his surroundings started to show themselves. The bed underneath him had a mattress that sagged soggily downwards, limp grey pillows, and a blanket the texture of sandpaper and colour of raw meat. The white walls were smeared with watermarks and dirt, and the textured plaster of the ceiling was chipped and crumbling in flakes like dead skin. Icy sunlight fell through the crack in the curtains, speckled with flecks of dust and pooling on the stale carpet.

As soon as he’d blinked, memories of the previous night started trickling back to him in reverse. Falling, fully-clothed, onto the top of the bed, so exhausted he hadn’t even pulled back the covers. Rubbing the last stringy traces of black blood from his hands in the sink. Stumbling through the doors of the motel and asking for a room. Tripping twice on the dusty road. Swinging out of the bus. Stabbing Mabel. Stabbing the driver. Running. Running. Running. The monster with no hand. The monster with red hair. The monster with no throat. Rachel’s friend. Rachel. The monster who hadn’t even had time to get up. Pavel. Doctor King.

How the hell had he slept so soundly?

As he swung his legs sideways, he almost fell off the bed and forced himself to grip the wall as his head started spinning faster. Then, he dragged his feet into the bathroom, raising his head to stare at himself in the cracked mirror.

If he’d been expecting to see the reflection of a cold-blooded killer, or an expression wrought with guilt, or perhaps even a wall of demonic hellfire rising from the seventh circle to drag him down to eternal torment, he was disappointed. The person he saw in the mirror, killer or not, had his tufty red hair, his impatient amber eyes, and his annoyingly cheerful face. He was still alive. He was still himself. He was still Jamie.

No amount of bloodshed could change the way he looked, but how many kills would it take to change the way he saw himself?

Obviously more than ten.

Jamie rummaged in his backpack, letting his fingers freeze against the silky steel of his unwrapped knives. The sensation wasn’t nearly as comforting as it had been yesterday. Yesterday, the weapons had meant protection. They’d meant safety and security. Now, all they meant was that he was a killer.

He fumbled his hands as they started to shake with what could have been fear, tossing the torn spare shirts over the top of the blades and crushing everything further to the bottom of the bag. Fastening the zip to protect his guilt was an afterthought as he tugged open the door and left.

The town was a lot smaller than it had seemed when he’d come upon it just after sunset. At night, the old-fashioned buildings and the spire of the church had loomed huge above him, casting shadows blacker than black velvet on the silver-streaked violet sky. Now, though, it was just a normal town, and a tiny one at that. Malworth, which is what Mabel had called it before the red lights had stolen her voice and Jamie had stolen her life, was about a tenth of the size of Nabdale and seemed to start and finish at opposite ends of the same street.

Good. Less ground to cover. Less people to question.

More importantly, less people who might question ME.

“’Scuse me,” Jamie said, stopping a middle-aged couple who’d been walking down the road towards him.

“Yes?” said the woman. She was even shorter than him and plump, with a bright pink cardigan and grey-blonde hair tied back in a ponytail.

“I’m sorry to, um… bother you,” Jamie began, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “But, uh… I’m looking for someone, and I was wondering if you might’ve seen him these past couple of days.”

“Okay,” she said, smiling kindly. “Well, what does he look like?”

“A guy, about my height, couple of years younger. Brown hair, brown beard.”

The woman was furrowing her eyebrows. “No, I don’t-”

 “Barefoot. Wearing a hospital gown.” Jamie bit his lip. “White eyes. Smacking people on the chest with his hand. Black blood.”

The blonde woman’s eyes went dark and her husband, who was wearing a navy-blue raincoat despite it not having rained for days, seemed to grip her hand tighter.

“You wouldn’t’ve missed him if he came through,” Jamie added. “And he wouldn’t’ve missed you.”

“He didn’t,” the husband said, scratching the bald spot in his dark hair.

Jamie’s heart quickened. “Wait. He didn’t come through?” He paused and lowered his voice. “Or he didn’t miss you?”

“We saw him all right,” said the blonde woman, her voice shaking slightly. “We called the police. Are you with the police?”

Ha. What a thought.

“No,” Jamie said. “I’m not. I’m just a, uh… a friend. Could you tell me which way he went, please?”

The couple paused and glanced at each other, then stared off down the single straight bit of road leading right through the middle of the town.

“Ah,” Jamie said. “Right. And, uh… one more thing.”

“Morning, Jim, Karen!” yelled a younger woman with elaborately braided dark hair and even darker brown eyes. She pulled to a stop alongside the group of three.

“Hi, Lisa,” the blonde woman said slowly, glancing sideways without turning away from Jamie. “We were just, uh…”

Jamie opened his mouth again. “One more-”

“Hiya,” the dark-haired woman said brightly, turning to Jamie. “I’m Lisa. Haven’t seen you around before.”

“No,” said Jamie. “I’m just, um…”

“Lisa, this guy’s looking for that strange man who got out of the hospital a few days ago.” Karen muttered. “What did you say his name was?”

“Oh, I didn’t,” Jamie started. “Um…” Shit. Should I lie?

“Harry. His name’s Harry.”

“Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend, someone REALLY needs to give Harry his crazy pills back.” Lisa laughed shakily. “He was going absolutely mental.”

“You don’t say.” Jamie trailed off and jumped as someone behind him coughed. “What was he doing?”

“Well, what do you think he was doing?” The blonde woman’s husband interrupted again. “You said it yourself! Foaming at the mouth, legging it like he was being chased, smacking people on the back and then carrying on. He whacked me, Karen, my mate Carl, and a whole bunch of people in the post office. Lisa included. What kind of mental, uh… condition does he have exactly?”

Jamie stuttered. “I- uh… I’m not sure. Social anxiety for sure. Listen, um… how long ago was this?”

Lisa, Karen and Jim exchanged glances.

“Two days ago.” Karen said.

Jamie sighed in relief.

“No, three days ago,” Lisa protested. “I’m sure it was three, wasn’t it?”

Jamie froze.

“Yeah, it was three,” Jim said, but his wife cut him off.

“No, guys, I swear it was two.”

“That’s because you were passed-out with a hangover for most of yesterday!” Jim told her. Karen opened her mouth, but then she laughed.

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Anyway, uh…” She turned back to Jamie.

Jamie panicked, and the name he chose was the first one that jumped into his head. “Oh, uh… George.”

Fuck.

“Anyway, George, if you’re looking for your mate Harry, you really ought to follow the road down that way, but he’ll be long gone by now. Unless the police’ve got hold of him. We called them, and they sent a couple of officers down a few days ago, but they said they’ve been busy since.”

Jamie blushed. “Yeah. There’s, uh… quite a lot going on in Nabdale right now. Anyway, thanks for your help, guys.”

“No problem!” Karen said, taking Jim’s hand and dragging him back down the road.

Don’t bring up my gin habits in front of random strangers,” she was hissing to her husband before walking out of earshot. Lisa laughed, turning back to Jamie.

“Sorry about them.” She grinned. “Those two are a bit mental.”

“Oh, uh… no problem.” Jamie cleared his throat. “I’ve seen some pretty mad things in my time, to be honest. Especially this week.”

Lisa chuckled again as her eyes darted towards Jamie’s backpack.

Then, the laughter dissolved in her throat and started to choke her.

Lisa coughed delicately into her hand, but then wrapped her face in her arm, starting to hack harder and harder into the crook of her elbow. When she pulled her arm away, a few smears of something dark had stained the red fabric of her hoodie.

“Sorry,” she said to Jamie, grinning with clenched teeth as she pushed two fingers into her temple. “I’ve got a bit of a cold.” She started coughing again.

“Yeah, you could say that.” Jamie shivered and winced as the sound from her throat turned damper, darker, louder, angrier. He struggled to hold back his gag reflex as the black strings started falling through her fingers onto the ground, but then he realised it was getting easier to watch.

If he stuck around, he’d find out if the killing was getting easier as well.

Jamie took a step back as a couple of shouts sounded from behind him; a few people had started to hurry down the road towards them, calling Lisa’s name. Then, he looked back to see that Lisa had crumpled to the ground, still coughing. For one unexplainable second, Jamie blinked, and he suddenly forgot he’d seen this a million times before. All he saw, for a split-second, was a woman who needed help. He knew he couldn’t help, unless the knives hidden in his backpack counted as help, but for the first time, he didn’t see a monster. He saw a human being. And he was about to kill her.

When Jamie’s heart turned to lead and plummeted, so did the contents of his backpack.

A thin man with brown hair, whose beard was tied into a ponytail for some unexplainable reason, reached them first.

“What the hell’s happening?” The man paused. “Is she okay? Who are you?”

Jamie sighed and shuddered thinly as a younger woman in the crowd collapsed in a fit of coughing, drawing in trickles of people from all sides who immediately started kneeling and rummaging for their phones. The man with the ironic beard flicked his head over his shoulder before turning back, eyes wide.

“In answer to your question,” Jamie started, feeling his voice beginning to tremble with fear and apprehension. “She’s not okay. Lisa, Karen, Jim, that guy over there, and several others, are seconds away from their deaths.”

Jamie watched, silent, as the bearded man’s steel-grey eyes began to rust; the smartass retort caught in his throat as the coughing started. Jamie wasn’t the one who was dying, but his head and stomach were doing flips all the same as his hand reached slowly behind his back.

“I’m sorry.”

“Like- shit- you’re- sorry!” the bearded man wheezed, smearing away the black vomit when it came as if it meant nothing. “Who the hell even are you?”

Jamie’s arm cramped, protesting, as he slung his backpack off his shoulder, and he shook away the pain as if it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing, no more than the bearded man’s wiped-away black death sentence was nothing. Jamie knew what he was about to do, but now, he also knew how wrong it was. It was amazing how a good night’s sleep had fucked up his perspective on what he thought was a simple task.

“I’m, uh… George,” Jamie started, realising he still had to give a response.

“That’s- a- f’ckin- stu- pid- name!”

“Nah, fuck it,” Jamie said, grabbing a fistful of torn fabric as he yanked the zip of his bag open. “My name’s Jamie.”

“O- kay- what- ever- you- still- suck-” The man gasped with one final cough and one final expulsion of black stuff, then dropped his arm to his side and crumpled right next to Lisa.

Jamie ran his hand over the knife’s handle as he ran his eyes over the crowd and his ears over the sounds of panicking and choking. Then, he felt his eyes starting to grow hot.

Not again. I don’t want to do this again.

Six or seven people were on the ground. Ten or fifteen more were coughing, starting to drop like skittles at a bowling alley. A few more people were screaming and crying, and even more were just starting to cough and retch. Some of the people still standing were yelling the names of the people they knew, but others were just yelling because they were innocent and petrified and they didn’t understand what was happening.

For a second, Jamie envied their naivety, but then, he started to feel grateful that he was already numb to the horror.

He ran his index finger listlessly along a blade, scanning the crowd to count the dead.

How many? Twenty?

Jamie knew he could take down twenty if he needed to. He could hit them while they were still down- now, even- or wait till they were standing still and… What the fuck should he call it? Loading? Calibrating? Installing updates from the alien mothership? Whatever.

Could he take twenty? Yes.

Did he want to take down twenty? No. He never wanted to see another drop of blood again.

The steel seared on his fingers as he stood in the silent street.

Suddenly, a metallic lurch of breath yanked his eyes down to the ground. Lisa had woken up for her final seconds of consciousness. Her cheeks were splattered with black and her eyes were tarnished with white, but Jamie didn’t see her in the same way he’d seen those ten people yesterday.

Yesterday he’d been panicking, and exhausted. Almost as if he was in a trance. Almost as if he’d been programmed to kill.

Today, he was human again.

Lisa didn’t say anything as she dropped back down. Her arms and legs jerked in one final strum, and then, she lay silent.

The metal was cold. Too cold.

Will I? Won’t I? Should I? Why?

How much bloodshed before I can’t turn back?

Now, Jamie thought as he slipped his fingers under the plastic handle of the knife and lifted it free, is not a good time for an existential crisis.

He was going to do it.

Lisa swung herself upwards from the kerb, sitting, standing, swaying, staring.

The few remaining members of the crowd screamed as Jamie raised his knife towards Lisa’s chest with a trembling arm. Then, her shoulders shattered, her arms flung out, and she ran forwards to impale herself right on the blade. The screaming reached a feverish pitch, and Jamie staggered under a monster’s weight for the first time since he’d killed Doctor King.

The killing was anything but easy now.

Yesterday had been easy. He’d seen a threat, stabbed it, and moved on. Killing people wasn’t supposed to be that simple. Leah should have taught him that much when she’d confessed to killing Harriet, but he hadn’t listened. Now, it had all caught up with him at once, and he could finally feel the weight of his kills on both shoulders.

All ten- no, eleven- of them at once. It was agonising.

Jamie winced and swallowed, hard. Lisa’s blackened blood was flowing out of her chest and her mouth, curdling on her red jacket, slipping into the grooves of the knife’s wooden handle. Her eyes were open, but then, they closed.

And when she fell, Jamie felt his eyes dampening.

People were screaming in the distance, but the noise was getting closer. Someone furious ran forwards and grabbed him, just as he felt his shoulder going weak and dropped his arm and the knife back to his side. There was yelling, right next to his ear, but Jamie barely noticed. All he saw was the dead woman, and he wasn’t sure what it was about her that was crushing him so suddenly. She was the person he’d known the least about when he killed her. Maybe that was it.

Yeah, that was probably it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jamie could see the dead people starting to get up. His head was wavering and spinning and burning and freezing.

Panic. Exhaustion. Trance. Programmed. Kill.

The grip on his arm was constricting, but his ears were numbing the sound and his eyes were leaving him blind to the man standing next to him. He didn’t hear the voice. He didn’t feel the breath on his face. He didn’t sense the heartbeat.

See a threat. Stab it. Move on.

In the aftermath of his heart-rending, soul crushing attack of conscience, Jamie only saw the monsters, and felt a hand on his arm.

You’ve killed. You’re a killer. What separates you from them?

When the monsters snapped their arms out to kill, Jamie did the same.

The screams in the air tangled themselves into a chorus of terror as bright scarlet blood ran in rivulets down Jamie’s arm. He watched with wide eyes and a hysterical heart as a man with ginger hair and blue eyes staggered backwards from his knife, clutching at the air with fingers that were still pink. Then, the man collapsed onto the ground. Spitting out a gob of scarlet onto the dusty cobblestones, he closed his eyes and slumped against the kerb like a discarded doll. Dead. For real.

Jamie looked down. His hands were full of red.

The gasp tied his throat in knots and choked him once he realised what he’d done. He clapped a slick hand to his mouth and felt his knees weakening into water, crumpling against the wall before his twelfth victim had even finished dying.  Nausea crawled into his throat and clawed at his chest. He’d killed a living person. He’d killed a human. He’d murdered.

“Shit.” Jamie’s eyes were stinging and his voice was hoarse.

There was no going back now.

He was staring, panting, crying, gasping, staggering around like he’d just been stabbed in the chest, as the rest of the monsters finished infecting the crowd. His head snapped upwards, his eyes darkened, and he dropped the reddened knife into his bag, feeling his heartbeat flicking cold agony into his veins.

The monsters stood at one end of the town. Jamie stood at the other.

Could I take twenty? Yes.

His hands were stained with red and black, but it was mingling into burgundy and the colour was draining from his vision. All blood looked the same. Dead. Alive. Undead. What was the fucking difference?

Do I want to take twenty? No.

Jamie ducked and grabbed both knives, holding the black-stained one in his right and the red-stained one in his left. He stepped back.

Will I take twenty?

He looked down at his hands.

I’ve got nothing left to lose, so I guess so.

The monsters broke into a sprint. Jamie ran forwards, shoving his way straight through the line of monsters and managing to stumble out the other side unscathed. The first operating system to realise it had been outsmarted was, ironically, Karen’s; she lurched around with her hand extended and her necklace catching on the threads of her bright pink cardigan. Jamie swallowed and, only after seeing her white eyes and outstretched hand, drove the black knife into her heart.

Thirteen.

Jim, in his navy raincoat, who’d never left his wife’s side, fell next.  Fourteen. Then, a man with straggling blonde hair that shone yellow and glistened black with vomit in the growing sunlight. Fifteen. Jamie swore and dropped, slashing a throat, rolling as it fell, stabbing down into the chest before it got back up. Slash. Roll. Stab. Kill. Roll. Kill again.

Twenty.

As it turned out, Jamie was really, really bad at rolling. The cobblestones hurt his shoulder blades and tweaked at the stitch in his ribs. He got back up, batted away a hand, and stabbed. Then, he grabbed a hand and yanked the entire monster’s body onto his knife, rather than the other way around.

“Fuck this alien bullshit!” Jamie screamed, kicking one monster into another and throwing himself forwards as they both fell. Two knives found two hearts.

Twenty-five.

The killing was getting easier.

Jamie recoiled as something cold brushed the back of his neck. Then, a finger dragged uselessly downwards to glance off one of his shoulder blades.

He didn’t hesitate as he turned and stabbed the monster in the chest, but more were coming. Hands snatched at his shirt. He managed to bat them away before dispatching their owners, but did it matter? Was he infected? Did he care? No. He was dead inside anyway.

Kill. Kill. Keep killing. Never stop.

Keep telling yourself you’re the hero.

He’d love to have said that when he was done, he wiped the black blood off his knives, dropped them into his bag, and strode way from the pile of bodies like a ruthless badass. Instead, Jamie crumpled against the wall, stared at the red smears on his blade for over half an hour, and wiped away tears whenever they fell with a bloodstained hand. He couldn’t have looked guiltier, but that was okay, because he was guilty.

His eyes fell on an unlocked car sitting in the driveway of a house. He dumped himself and his bag into the front seat, but he couldn’t decide whether he felt lucky or unlucky at the sight of the keys in the ignition. The people of Malworth obviously all trusted one another.

It was the outsiders they needed to be wary of.

Giving up on his innocence, Jamie let the engine roar to life, wiped the remnants of red and black blood onto his trousers, and pressed his hands onto the steering-wheel without doing up his seatbelt. The guilt was crushing him so utterly it could have been shoving him downwards.

Then, like the bloody insensitive lunatic and heartless bastard and disgusting psycho and killer and murderer he was, Jamie drove.

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