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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8. Wrongful Diagnosis

Whenever George left work, his mind heavy with the day’s dreadful memories as well as the good ones, he used his wife to console himself. It wasn’t just because he loved her more than he could ever let her know, or needed her more than she could ever have possibly needed him, or worried about her from the moment he left her to the moment he saw her again, although those were probably all contributing factors. Leah was a source of comfort to him because she was a paramedic, and whatever horrendous shit George had had to endure on any given day, she’d probably had ten times worse. Generally.

He wondered if she’d be able to top him today.

“Hiya, Lee.”

“Hi, honey!” Leah pushed her blue-striped hair behind her ears and smirked up at him. They’d been married for three goddamned years, and he still forced himself to restrain himself from hugging her too tight whenever he saw her. They were the oddest pair in the world; she was tiny and bubbly and bright blue and blonde, loud and sweet and childish, and he was gangly and austere, grey and black. Plain. Leah was the most beautiful woman in the world, and it was a damned cliché, but that was what he thought every time he saw her.

George pulled away from her, holding her at arm’s length and noticing the nervous flash in her eyes as she turned away from him. The sight of it added to the cold thin misery trickling through his bones.

“What’s wrong?” He asked her.

Leah looked away, then met his eyes again and smiled quickly. “What? Nothing. I’m fine.”

He paused, worried. “You can tell me later if you like.”

“Okay. I will if you do.”

“What?” George said.

Leah smirked and wiggled her eyebrows at him. “Don’t think I missed that look on your face, honey.”

He tried to wipe his face clean. He was surprised anything had managed to sneak past the blankness in the first place. Leah rolled her eyes and laughed softly at his embarrassment. He loved her laugh. He couldn’t let her know.

He smiled and squeezed her hand. “What look?”

“The nervous one.”

“Don’t I always look nervous?”

Leah laughed, hitting his shoulder. “Ah, don’t make me say it, George!”

He didn’t miss how the laugh caught in her throat, or the smile flickered on her face. He didn’t bother asking her what was wrong, because there was nearly always something on Leah’s mind after she finished work, just as there was always something on his. That was just a product of the work they did. There were plenty of good memories to be made from saving lives, but no shortage of horrible ones either. George and Leah dealt with death all the time; blood and gore, sure, but heartache, heartbreak, devastation too. He knew Leah loved her job, but he didn’t envy her; from what he’d heard, family members could be ten times worse than the patients themselves. They told each other everything eventually; God, the things they’d seen. A couple of stories still hung heavy in the air in their house, and that, he reckoned, was why they’d never gotten around to having children. Children liked the world sugar-coated, and George didn’t reckon he and Leah would be able to manage that.

“Aw, don’t look like that,” Leah said, leaning her head on his shoulder as they turned to leave for the car park. “I’m sorry. Today wasn’t that bad.”

George raised one eyebrow at her. “Look like what? I don’t-  don’t look like anything.”

Leah studied his face for a second, pursing her lips and screwing her eyes shut in a mock expression of confusion. “Hm.” She said. “Maybe you don’t. Maybe you look like nothing at all, and I’m actually holding hands with the Invisible Man.”

He laughed. Feebly, sure, but it was a goddamned feeble joke. George had once overheard Jamie arranging a betting-pool in the break room over which of the trainees would be able to make him laugh first. He, apparently, was so emotionless within the walls of that hospital that dragging a reaction out of his mouth was a feat worthy of twenty-five quid. But outside of work, all he needed was Leah. In a way, he sort of hated her for sweetening him. Weakening him.

“Yeah. Maybe. But seriously, I’m fine.”

“Yeah. And so am I. Shotgun.” Leah jumped into the passenger’s seat of the car as soon as George had unlocked it, and George sighed and got in behind the wheel. “Do you really want to know what happened?”

Leah’s mouth was wryly twisted to one side, in an expression of amusement rather than misery. Okay. Okay. So maybe her day hadn’t been so bad after all. Not a patch on his, anyway.

“Yeah.” George said.

“If I tell you mine, you tell me yours.”

George didn’t know if he was ready to tell Leah about Robert. She didn’t even know he existed, unless rumours had reached her through some other route, and George had never even dared to bring up his condition in the three days he’d been in his care. He didn’t even know how he was going to start, or how he was going to explain it all to her. And how was he supposed to explain the way the whole thing had made him feel? He was guilty. Crushed by guilt over letting that man die, over not being able to do anything to help him. But not only that. Now that Robert was dead, he couldn’t help feeling… relieved. The whole crazy story was over now; in a week, Robert Walker and his impossible illness would be just another bad memory. It was over. And he was glad about it. And how was he supposed to put that into words without sounding like the most disgusting human being alive? It was simple- he couldn’t.

“We picked up a bloke who came back from the dead today.” Leah said.

George frowned and turned to face her. “Wh- what?”

“Yeah.” Leah grinned, draping one arm over her head as the golden sunset electrocuted her hair. “Back from the dead.”

George grinned. “Really?”

“Yeah. It happens all the time, obviously, but this one was especially mental. Wanna hear?”

“Tell me more.”

“We were called in by his wife; poor woman was in screaming hysterics, bless her heart. Thought he was dead. Probably was, to be fair; at least for a while. Or maybe she didn’t check his vitals properly. Whatever. Anyway, we get there, and he’s out cold on the floor. We check his heartbeat, and he’s dead, but he got up again before we could start resuscitation.”

“What? And did you- did you see him? Was he okay?”

“No.” Leah sighed and sat up, her eyes sparkling. She was a stone-cold sceptic, but she loved a good story. “I was out in the ambulance unloading when it happened. Next thing I know, this guy, Eric, has jumped up from the ground and apparently- at least, this is what Ross told me- without saying a word, he bolts to his feet and runs out the front door. They all tried to stop him, sure, but he was gone before they reached him. Can you believe that?” Leah smiled, pushing her hair behind her ears.

“Wow.” George didn’t quite know what to say. That he was expecting more probably wasn’t the most tactful option.

“Yeah. I know. It’s not the first case of random revival from the dead I’ve seen in my time, but the first one where we didn’t have a chance to let him know he was still alive!” Leah laughed, but she sounded nervous.

“Mm.”

“His wife was still in hysterics when we left, poor thing.” Leah added offhandedly. “They got someone to sit with her, but she was still repeating the same stuff she’d been screaming down the phone- ‘the black veins!’ she was saying. Over and over again. ‘the black veins!’”

George jerked his head around, feeling his heart freezing. “Wh-What?”

“They’ve got two kids, but they were still at school, thankfully.”

“No. No. What did you say about- about the black veins?” George’s stomach was churning as he tried to force himself to stay calm. It wasn’t working.

“Just hysteria, love.” Leah paused, then looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “What? What’s wrong?”

“It- it’s nothing.” George’s mind was going into overdrive as those three words ran circles around his brain. The black veins. The black veins.

“What was this woman’s n-name?” He said. “The wife. What was her name?”

“Uh…” Leah had to stop and think for a second. “Billie.”

“Did she say anything else about her husband? About a fever? Or a crazy heartbeat?” George’s own heartbeat was going crazy.

“Uh, yeah, actually. Why?”

“Okay. Okay.” He made his snap decision. “Look, I have to go back inside for a second. Wait here.”

“Okay, honey.” Leah said. “Don’t take too long; I’m starving!” She shouted after him as he opened the door of the car and started to sprint back towards the hospital, faster than he’d run in a long, long time.

This car park was huge. Infinitely huge. And never empty. The taste of metal rose into the back of his throat and a stitch started tweaking at his ribs; he cursed himself for starving himself all day. Bloody idiot. Black veins. Dead in seconds. Back up again. Robert, Eric. And Harriet. This was happening in more places than one. More than two. Oh, God; how could he have forgotten about Harriet? He’d been left stunned after Robert had been declared dead, sure, but that was no excuse. No bloody excuse whatsoever. You’re a disgrace, George. A disgrace for relaxing and a disgrace for leaving. A disgrace for letting that woman leave your office without help. Disgusting. Don’t you even THINK about letting yourself eat tonight unless you can get to her before letting HER die too.

He knew how to find Harriet’s address. It was on his copy of the bullshitted prescription he’d given her. George hurried along the grey corridor and into his darker grey office, flooding it white with light before running over to his desk and starting to pick through the meticulously organised rows of filing. Yes- there it was. Grab it. And run. Don’t stop for shit. Run like it’s YOUR life on the line. Don’t stop-

There was a scream from upstairs, the sound of metal clattering against metal, and a loud shrieking CRASH that could only mean a broken window. George skidded to a halt halfway down the corridor, turning to stare up the stairs as the half-dozen patients in the waiting room did the same.

There was more screaming, bolts of noise shooting down the staircase, but more disturbing were the tiny little whimpers that undercut them. Nora King was the first person whose voice he heard properly.

“Everyone get up! Now!”

From the sounds of groaning and clattering that followed, softer after the earth-shattering volume of what had come before, ‘everyone’- whoever that might have meant- did as they were ordered.

“Oh my god!” Someone yelled from directly behind George. He turned, and saw several of the patients huddled by the small waiting-room window, staring out. One mother took a look, yelped, and then pushed her daughter back to stop her from seeing.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Get out of the way!” George ran over to the window and looked out. And in the car park, he saw… Robert Walker. And his heart turned to ice and fell out of his chest and smashed on the ugly plaster floor.

No. No. No. That wasn’t right. Robert Walker’s ward was on the third fucking floor. The third floor! The broken window. Yeah. He’d fallen. Jumped. Whatever. But, wait- no. Make sense of this. Now.

Robert Walker had been staying on the third floor of the hospital. And Robert Walker had died ten minutes ago.

But now, Robert was in the carpark. And Robert was on his feet. And Robert was running.

In nothing but his blue hospital gown, and with every trace of black gone from his white skin, Robert was tearing away from the hospital with more speed than George had ever seen a man run with in his life. The blue flash vanished into the scuff of trees on the horizon, and George blinked.

“What’s going on?” Someone asked from behind him. The people in the waiting-room were nervously murmuring amongst themselves, an occasional excited wail pulling itself from the little girl whose mother had tugged her back.

“What’s going on?” The little girl echoed. “Mummy? Mummy! What’s going on?”

Everyone was looking at him.

George blinked again. Robert was gone. No, he hadn’t just fucking imagined that. No. He hadn’t. Maybe you did- No. No, he knew what he’d just seen. And the clattering sounds still shattering the air from upstairs were all the proof he needed.

Three or four sets of footsteps flung themselves down the stairs, and the murmuring amongst the patients grew louder. George turned and ran into the corridor, grabbing Nora in front of the reception desk as the trainees who’d been with her ran out of the front door.

“The- the…” George trailed off, his voice wavering loudly. “The- the hell?”

Nora shrugged. Her eyes were full of tears- angry tears- and there was a red fluffy graze on her cheek which was leaking crimson dots onto her pale skin. “I-I-I-I have no idea. It- it- it’ll hit me in a minute.”

“But- but Robert-”

“I know. I- I know. I know; I KNOW!” Nora fussed her hair with her fingers. “I know he died, but he got back up, didn’t he? And I know he jumped out the window, but he fu… he got back up, didn’t he? Did you see?”

George swallowed. The lump in his throat hardened till he could barely breathe. A minute. It’d hit him in a minute. “Yes. I-I saw.”

“Is he gone?”

“Yes. Nora?”

“Yeah.”

“What the hell happened? Tell me. Now. I want to know everything. How long after I left did it happen?”

“Did what happen? Did he get back up?”

“Did his heart start back up again.”

Nora shrugged, a sarcastic smile stretching her face. “It… Didn’t.”

“What?”

“His heart.” Nora laughed, bitterly, scratchily, desperately. “His heart didn’t start back up, George, if you want the truth, right here, right now, in front of all the patients. He didn’t say a word. First he knew he was alive he was on his feet, tearing all those needles out of his arms like he’d never seen one before. He got up, but he was still… he was still dead. No breathing.”

“And the veins?”

“They vanished.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“Uh… nah.” Nora said, dropping her arms back to her sides. “You want more? You really want more? We’ve got a zombie. What else do you bloody want?”

“Nothing.” George said, tightening his grip on the piece of paper in his hand. The piece of paper that held Harriet’s address, so he could find her and spend the drive fooling himself he was going to make it in time to save her life. He didn’t need any more. Nora was right; it’d hit him in a minute. He had a minute.

So he turned and ran.

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