Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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12. Just as Breakable

The mystery story turned into a tragedy.

Leah clapped both hands over her mouth, watching that mutilated badly-stitched puppet as it swung to its feet. She knew it wasn’t George. There was no humanity in that waxy complexion; that face was black-crusted and those eyes were shining electric white. She couldn’t understand why the people in the zombie movies couldn’t bring themselves to kill their zombified loved ones. She felt no affection, no lost love, for this thing in front of her; her husband was gone, and this monster was the one who’d stolen him. The lighting was probably helping- smoothing his skin into plastic and painting his highlights white and his shadows black, turning a human into a crude caricature. This wasn’t her husband. This was a monster. This was a machine.

With that realisation, the dizzying throb of Leah’s heartbeat in her ears vanished, and the cold sickness in her throat sharpened into the hot taste of metal. The whining in her ears stopped, drowned by silence, but real, tangible silence. Silence that tingled on her fingertips and set her nerves on fire. Her senses had gone from completely numbed to electrically heightened in a fraction of a second. She licked her lips, feeling the air all around her and the acid tang of the adrenaline in her veins. And then she grabbed her phone from the bedside table behind her, shoved it into her pocket, and broke into a sprint.

The tragedy turned into an action movie.

Without so much as a yelp, she shoved past that muck-crusted freezing-flaming-eyed voodoo doll of her husband, hurled the door open, shoved it shut behind her, and then ran across the landing and down the stairs. She didn’t realise until after she’d made it downstairs that she’d never heard the door closing fully, and she looked up to watch bright white light splashing onto the upstairs wall. As much as she would’ve enjoyed watching one of those stupid flimsy creatures trying to turn a corner and make it down a flight of stairs, and as much as she wanted to let her body freeze up, she forced herself to keep running as she yanked her phone out of her pocket and dialled 9-9-9. She wasn’t thinking. She didn’t know what else to do. She needed help.

The phone was on loudspeaker, and the loud crackle of the operator’s voice erupting from her hand jarred her out of her silently panicked stupor as she kept running. She could hear the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of the monster running down the stairs; each rapid burst of noise bled into the last, and she wondered for a second whether it was falling. She tried not to smirk. She paused for a second at the corner between the lockable bathroom and the locked front door.

“Hello?” The operator was saying. “Hello?”

“Yeah, hi!” Leah yelled, her voice so high it squeaked. “I-I-I’m being chased!” She made her decision and took a left towards the front door, pausing in the kitchen as the monster thumped into a wall behind her. Her wildly darting eyes fell on the basin, so she stuck her hand out and fumbled around in the water, grabbing the dirty knife from that night’s dinner and shoving it down into her pocket without a second thought. She didn’t know why. She just ran. She tore down the hallway, making it into the porch and feeling her breaths eroding her throat as she started to fumble with her keys. She was glad she had the knife; she had a horrible feeling she was about to end up cornered. Then, a black shadow with white glowing eyes appeared at the end of the corridor and she yelped, running forwards to kick the porch door shut. The monster ran into the door with a satisfying crack, leaving behind a grey-black smudge like a squashed bug. Leah opened her mouth and let a huge sob jump out, whimpering and tweaking pain from her ribs as she tried to catch her breath.

“Hello? Miss? Are you still there?”

“Uh- uh- Yes! Yes!”

“Who’s chasing you? Are you being attacked?”

“M-m-my husband-”

“Your husband’s chasing you?”

“Not anymore!” She screamed, tears pouring down her face.

“What does that mean, you-”

“He- He-”

“He’s not chasing you anymore?”

“He’s not my HUSBAND anymore!” Leah shouted, snapping her mouth shut and listening to the silence. The monster was on the other side of the door.

She watched the handle.

“Stupid bastard,” she breathed, tasting blood, as the thing wearing George’s face got to George’s feet and its shadow grew huge in the glass of the door. These fucking machines could put themselves back together after their bodies smashed to shreds, but they didn’t know how to open a fucking door.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Like FUCK it matters!” Leah said. “I’ll handle it.”

“But-”

“God damn, just send a fu-fucking ambulance or some shit!” Leah sobbed. “We’re number nine, Hunter Avenue. At least, we were.” Leah hung up and shoved the phone back into her pocket, then fumbled and dropped the keys. She leaned down to grab them, feeling the blade of the kitchen knife digging into her thigh and drawing a hot stinging line of blood. She flung her head back up as the monster drove George’s fist into the glass window with a sharp CRACK. A hairline fracture appeared, a tiny white sprig on the glass.

“Bollocks.”

George’s fist hit the glass again, smearing fresh black onto the mess his face had left. The crack widened. Leah turned back and fussed the bunch of keys, yanking the right one upwards and shoving it into the lock. She yelped in terror as the crack grew bigger with a crunch, then screamed as the window smashed, sending hailstones of glass shooting outwards in all directions before they showered down to the ground. Opening the front door, she flung herself through, then slammed it shut and shoved the key back into the lock with trembling fingers. With the last of her strength, she turned it and yanked it out, then stood on the patio, in the pressing cold and freezing silence of the night, in her pyjamas, watching the hulking shadows rippling like water behind the rainbow stained glass. She wasn’t out of breath, and she didn’t lean against the door and pant, and she didn’t slide to the ground; she just stood and watched, in something of a shocked daze, wondering if the police would ever show up. 999 operators were useless pieces of shit; they had to know what they had to know, but what was the difference between a woman being attacked by her husband and a woman being attacked by a fucking superhuman killing machine that’d grown on her husband’s psyche like a parasite and turned him into a puppet? No fucking difference. If someone needs the police, you send the fucking police. If someone needs the medics, you send the fucking medics as soon as you can get the words out. Leah knew from experience how even a ten-second delay could cost a life, and she wished she could wrangle those operators herself and give them a piece of her mind. Hang on- why was she thinking about this shit now? Her husband had just died and come back from the dead and tried to… to… murder her? Maybe. Yeah, probably murder her. And how had she reacted? Why wasn’t she still crying? Why wasn’t she at least in shock? Maybe she was so deep in shock she couldn’t feel it. Maybe her mind was still trying to paint golden sunlight over the dirty brown night sky and convince her everything was fine, even though she could hear the crashing and smashing of the son of a bitch who’d stolen her husband breaking the inner porch door into smithereens and starting to crunch over the glass on the ground. Its hollow footsteps rang out from the floorboards.

After a few more moments of stunned silence, Leah opened her mouth, gaping it wide as she tried to choke out a few of the sobs building up in her throat. She screwed her eyes shut, her cheeks aching, her eyelids red and raw, and turned her back to the door. Slowly, slowly, she started to slide down the wall as the strength leaked out of her legs, suddenly falling with a curse and a thump before she’d gotten halfway down. Pain shot up her spine from her tailbone and the cut on her thigh stung; it wasn’t that fucking bad, but it was enough. It was enough to push her over the edge and force the tears to start falling, hotly, freely, as she hugged her bare arms to her chest and stared up at the golden sky.

She sat there for two, three, four minutes, too shocked to start letting her emotions drip out with those empty tears. Then, she realised the stumbling and crashing on the other side of the door had stopped. She bolted to her feet, then stumbled all the way over to the garden gate, pushing it open with a stuttering creak and tugging on the side door. Locked. She ran around to the back door, which was also locked, and felt her heart slowly starting to sink back into her ribcage where it belonged as she turned to plod back to the driveway. Her heartbeat throbbed at that stitch, and she was still panting and wheezing, the taste of blood and bile rising into her throat from the run. She cursed the extra weight, but it was fine. She was fine.

She wasn’t going to bother pretending Eric hadn’t triggered her mind to start going mental with theories, or that the hysteria and lingering parade of what-ifs hadn’t intensified when she’d seen Robert Walker running past her car. It was just human nature to blow every little ‘Huh, that’s weird’ moment way too far out of proportion. Anyone who’d watched someone come back from the dead, whether explainable or not, and then claimed the word zombie hadn’t flashed through their head at least once, followed by a whole scroll of still images from their world’s devolvement into the zombie apocalypse, was a liar. There was a difference between letting your mind go crazy and genuinely, genuinely believing something was going to happen. Leah’s job was to save lives, but she’d watched a myriad different people die, seen dead bodies every other day for nearly a decade, been forced to comfort devastated family members even though there was nearly no point whatsoever. She spent every paid second of her life surrounded by death. And she’d imagined herself dying in countless ways- crushed by lorries, gored by dogs, drowned in rivers, shot by muggers, slit open by razors, decapitated by machinery, seized by heart attacks- nearly idly. But never, in all her life and all her time as a medic, had she ever dreamed she’d one day lose George.

It was too much.

She hadn’t lost him yet, anyway. It’d been five, ten, twenty minutes since his heart had stopped. That wasn’t long enough to feel like she’d lost him forever. Having been gone that amount of time, he could’ve just popped off to the petrol station. In an hour, he could’ve just gone to work. In a day, he could’ve been driving to visit his parents, who lived on the opposite end of the country. In a week, maybe he was on holiday. She knew he was dead. He’d coughed up the last of his soul twenty minute ago. But the moment she started to feel the empty space in the air around her, the silence that should’ve been comfortingly broken, the aching, dried-up chunk of her heart that’d blackened and died without him, would be the first day she started to miss him.

Not yet, anyway.

The sound of a blaring siren had broken through the night lull several minutes ago, but Leah only started paying attention as it grew louder. The flashing blue lights painted themselves in bursts into the solid orange mass of the sky, and she got wearily to her feet, standing up on the pavement to watch the ambulance parking on the other side of the road. She’d never been on the receiving end before. The realisation that this time, she was going to be the victim instead of the hero- the hysterical sop who needed calming down rather than the headstrong uniformed professional doing the calming, made her break down into another wave of delirious tears. This was really happening, wasn’t it? Yeah. And now the sky was blue instead of orange, instead of brown, instead of gold. Leah sighed and curled her hands into fists as the back of the ambulance slid open and three medics- two men and a woman- got out. She recognised them all. Of course she fucking did. They were her team. The looks on all their faces as they recognised her in return made her even more viciously angry with herself for falling apart.

“Leah!”

“Ross.”

“Leah!”

“Hi, Isaac.” She sighed and nodded at the last medic, a trainee whose name she only vaguely knew was Ruth. “Hi.”

“What… what’s going on?” Ross asked her. “Were you… the one who called? Y-you called us about- about-”

“Mm-hm.” Leah nodded, her eyes screwing up again. “Yeah.” She burst into a fresh wave of tears, and Ross, who knew her the best, put his hand on her shoulder.

“L-Leah. About the- your- your husband attacking you? You- you mean George?”

Leah nodded again, weeping into her hands as she covered her face with them. She glanced nervously behind her, but the house was just as dead as if nobody was home. Nobody was home, technically.

“Are you… are you hurt?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Well then why-”

“You’re bleeding, Leah.” Ruth said softly, pointing down. Leah looked down at her thigh, spotting the drying stripes of blood running down past her knee and finally feeling the sting of the cut from the knife in her pocket.

“It’s him!” She choked out between tears. “It- it’s George! He- he wasn’t the one attacking me. It- it…” She swallowed. “It got him!”

“What?” Ross looked wildly back at the house as the two other medics exchanged glances. “What got him?”

“The- The- what got Robert!” Leah wept. “And what got Eric, and H- and Harriet. The- the black blood bullshit. You know? He- he- he…” Oh God, they’re going to make you say it. Aren’t they? “He’s dead!”

She started crying again. And even then, she cursed herself. She wanted to be brave. She wasn’t weak, but in the end, she was just as breakable as everyone else, even though she’d spent her entire career swearing to herself she was made of stronger stuff.

“Oh. Oh… Leah.” Ross wrapped her into a hug and she sobbed into his shoulder like the pathetic dishrag she was. “I- I’m so sorry.” She pulled away, and he looked at her, clearing his throat as he remembered he was just supposed to be a medic on duty. “Right, right. Okay. Ruth, stay with Leah. We need to go-”

“No!” Leah said. “George- he- he… Don’t go in there. You can’t.”

Ross looked at her. “Leah-”

“No. I’m not… I’m not delirious.” Leah said. “Look at me. Look at me. Look. This isn’t me being a crazy hysterical wife. Listen to me. This is just me, being normal, and rational and shit. George is dead, but it hasn’t…” She gulped, holding her hands out to indicate the wall of numbness around her. “It hasn’t hit me yet.”

“Okay, but we-”

“No. Trust me.” Leah said. “You can’t go in there.”

Ross sighed, planting his hands on his hips. At least he was going to let her explain. “Why not?”

“Because…” She sighed. “Like all those others the sickness- the sickness got… He came back.”

“He came back?”

“Mm.” The image of his face flashed through her head as she blinked. She sucked breath in shock, jerking her hands from her sides.

“So he’s not d… Excuse me. He’s not dead?”

“No!” She sobbed. “He’s… He’s fucking dead all right. I’m a goddamned medic.” She bit her lip and lied. “I made sure.”

“He’s…” Ross swallowed. He wasn’t even trying to object, or argue. The vast majority of hospital workers knew something was going on, and had, as a result, seemingly given up on trying to deny it. “He’s still, uh, in there?”

Leah and the three medics stared up at the house.

Leah nodded. “Yeah.”

“And he…”

“I locked all the doors.”

Ross looked at her. “Leah, you… I’m so sorry to, uh… to say this to you. But you’re so calm.”

“I know.” Leah licked her lips and swallowed salt. “Like I said, I’m not quite getting it yet.”

Suddenly, there was an immense CRASH from the upstairs window of the house and a formless grey bundle, with loose corners that flapped in the wind, shot out sideways in a shower of glass. It hit the ground with a dull THUMP, edged with whispers of a crunch, and the three medics gasped in shock and stepped back on instinct. Leah bit her lip harder, bracing herself.

“What the h-hell’s that?” Isaac said from behind her.

Leah sighed. “Our bedroom curtains.”

“And why- why-”

“Shut the fuck up, Isaac.”

Leah watched as the monster in George’s body stood up on the patio, letting the fragments of curtain it’d taken out of the window with it fall down to the ground to expose the rest of the grey black-crusted carcass. It was standing on one smashed leg, but that knee popped back into place as the ankle turned to point forwards. One arm was broken in two places, the other in three; they stuck garishly outwards like a scarecrow’s as they snapped back into place. George’s head had been lolling forwards on a broken neck like a stuffed toy’s until it was forced back upright, those eyes fixing themselves forward. Those eyes. Those eyes were fucking floodlights in the darkness, outgrowing the tiny pinpricks of George’s eye-sockets and blurring into one huge cold dead smear on the grey background. The tears in Leah’s eyes created a thinly sketched halo of white around the figure as its composure broke and it forced both its arms forwards, starting to sprint down the driveway towards them.

“In the ambulance!” Leah screamed. “Shut the door. Now. NOW!”

Ruth, who’d been standing stock-still with her mouth agape, finally shook her head and turned to run into the white-flooded back of the ambulance. Isaac turned to follow, but when Leah grabbed Ross’ arm, she realised he’d frozen solid.

“Ross!” She shouted as the zombie- no, it wasn’t a fucking zombie. It could run- cleared the garden wall and flung itself at them. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, not this! Not now!”

The monster reached out for Leah as she jumped between it and Ross, kicking it backwards with all her might. She could hear Isaac and Ruth yelling at them to get into the ambulance. “Close the door!” She yelled. “Close the fucking door! Ross, get in, you dipshit!”

Ross was still frozen; she could feel him watching her as she grabbed the front of her husband’s shirt and kicked the monster in his stomach, weeping with the exertion and the agony. The kick did nothing. She jumped back as it lunged for her, painfully aware of touching either of George’s arms, or his face. She touched them, she died. She knew it.

The monster flung himself past Leah and lunged for Ross. And Ross wasn’t quick enough, because he was still frozen, and he was a medic, not a fucking martial artist. And Leah finally found out, as she stood there with furious tears running down her face and the fight leaking out of her limbs, bit by tiny bit, what actually happened if you let one of those monsters reach you.

Ross covered his face with his arm as he tripped over the kerb and fell backwards towards the pavement. The monster grabbed Ross’s arm and stopped the fall dead, dragging him back upwards again as he struggled. Leah screamed a name, her breath catching; she’d meant to yell “Ross”, but instead, out fell “George”. Ross struggled against the monster’s grip, his thrashing only halted when the monster grabbed his shoulder with the other hand.

With one straight, impossibly smooth movement, the monster tore Ross’ arm clean out of its socket.

Leah screamed, her throat burning itself raw and her hands clamping themselves over both sides of her head as she dropped to her knees. She closed her eyes, listening to a chorus of screams tangling themselves into a solid bloody curdled sheet that wrapped around her. When she dared to look again, her shock crumpling her vision at the corners, George’s hand was fisted through Ross’ hair and the other was wrapped around his throat. She got up, not even knowing how she was still moving- because Ross sure as shit wasn’t- and charged over to the monster just as it tore Ross’ head off and dropped it to the ground like it’d already lost interest.

Blood. There was blood everywhere, spewing in all directions and peppering the tarmac like a bad movie effect. It looked black instead of red in the darkness of night. Wet pools shone silver like the puddles in the gutters. The two morons in the ambulance were still screaming, but they were screaming for her, and when she got up to walk towards the mess and away from them, she heard the ambulance doors sliding shut. Fair enough, one half of her said. Fucking wank pheasants, said the other half.

She forced her mouth shut. She forced her eyes open. She forced her hand to scrabble down into the pocket of her pyjama shorts, the bloody fabric sticking to her hand as she pulled out the knife. She ran up behind the creature that’d used to be George and screamed in blind mad fury, driving her blade into George’s back and twisting it to curdle the heart of the creature that’d taken him away from her. She loosened her grip, leaving the knife embedded between his shoulders, and watched him drop to the ground, trying to stay strong but feeling her knees going weak as more blood dripped down her leg. She fell with him, wondering if she should clamp her hands over her face, or scream again, or start to hyperventilate. Instead, she felt nothing but raw, quenched anger as she got back to her feet, watching that disgusting imitation of the man she loved curling up like a dead leaf on the gleaming red-and-orange tarmac of the road. 

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