Sneak Peek of WITHER

COMING Sunday, OCT 26th

ONE

The lights flicker overhead.

I stare up at them, listening to the intermittent hum of the dying fluorescent bulbs.  The dim lighting provided by the backup generator casts an eerie glow on the room.  Shadows multiply in the corners.  My head twitches at every sound, sure that I hear someone creeping down the hall.

A chill has fallen on the room.  The fever that arrived earlier this morning has left me flushed and weakened.  I didn’t tell the nurses.  Part of me didn’t want to bother them.  Another feared that they might throw me out onto the streets like the rest of them.

Condensation from my breath hangs before my mouth and a slight tremor has begun in my lips.  My fingers cramp as I tighten my grip on the pistol in my lap and try to ignore the aches in my legs.

The gun, though small and easily managed, feels foreign in my grasp.  It’s not mine.  I took it off a man on the street early this morning.  He had four rounds in his pocket and several lay scattered around his body in the gutter. A single hole in his right temple, and the splatter of crimson on the brick behind, told me that it wasn’t stealing.  Not really.

Halos of light dot the window before me, fires set long before the sun fell behind a blanket of heavy cloud.  Intermittent gunfire to the east sounds muffled through the panes of glass.  That is the direction I saw the men coming from.

Dark shapes converged on the frozen hospital lawn less than half an hour ago.  Twenty of them in total.  Some appeared slighter in stature.  Others large enough to wrestle with a grizzly.  All seemed focused on the fortified front doors of the building.

It was only a matter of time before the survivors came for us.

Unease settles heavily in the pit of my stomach as I glance toward my mother lying in the bed beside me.  No expression.  No movement, apart from the slow rise of her chest.  Her lips hold a tint of blue, but that is nothing unusual.

I draw my legs up into the chair, crossing them before me.  What are they waiting for?  They must have found a way inside by now.

The scraping of chairs and rapid staccato of voices from down the hall faded away a few minutes ago.  I watched from the door of my mother’s room as those few remaining nurses and doctors emptied the waiting room in an attempt to barricade the doors.  It won’t last long, but maybe someone can get away.

I should have left the city when the turmoil first began.  The news anchors tried to spin their pretty little lies about how the military had everything under control, but all you have to do is look out a window to know that things are falling apart faster than anyone could have predicted.  Anarchy rules the streets.

Little more than a week ago, the world sank right into hell.  I just stood by and watched it. What else could I do?

People started disappearing.  Tanks and armored military trucks rumbled through the streets at all hours of the night.  Quarantines were established and martial law was enforced for a time.

I could have escaped before the rioting really began, before the gangs formed and innocent blood painted the streets of St. Louis.  It would have been easy to slip by unnoticed, clinging to the shadows.  One person can hide well enough. But I didn’t leave; I stayed…because of her.

I remember the last words my mother ever said to me: “I love you.” But it didn’t matter.  Those words could never be enough to wipe away years of bitterness and resentment, to heal neglected wounds left to fester, to right a thousand wrongs.  Too little.  Too late.

A part of me will always wish that I could have said I love you back to her just that once and actually meant it.  That my final words were not spoken with animosity.  We never had that sort of relationship though.  Never hugged.  Never flopped down on the couch just to chat.  We were co-habitants in an empty home, and even then I hardly ever saw her. Not until the accident that left her void of speech, thought or any other basic human activity.

I don’t really know why I came each day to visit or even why I stayed.  It’s certainly not out of loyalty.  Maybe some twisted part of me just wanted her to wake up so I could get some closure.  Maybe I’m just that messed up. Or maybe I was scared. Scared of being truly alone for the first time in my life.

A loud crash from beyond the door wrenches me from my thoughts.  My messy curls tumble from their ponytail as I whip around.  Several more crashes follow in rapid succession, each one making me jump.

“We need to turn out the lights,” a nurse says from down the hall.

“No.”  Another speaks up.  Her words pinch with fear.  “They already know we’re here.”

The sound of shoes pounding against the floor reaches me as someone hurries past my room.  I hear the stairwell door burst open.

“Wait!  What about the patients?” A lengthy pause, interspersed with loud bangs against the double glass doors that have sealed us in, makes my pulse race.  I cling to my gun as I wait for the answer.

“It’s too late for them.”

I close my eyes as a single tear curls down my cheek.  I don’t want to die.  Not like this.

A scream echoes down the darkened corridor as a rain of glass pings against the tile floor. My palms feel sweaty.  I draw the gun into my chest and lift prayers heavenward, though I find myself unsure of how any god could allow such horrors to happen.

Pushing up from my chair, I cast a glance back at my prostrate mother and then slowly draw open the door to her private room.  Through the narrow crack I spy men scrambling to climb over a pile of chairs, tables and couches stacked chest high at the far end of the hall.  Their clothing is wrinkled and smeared with dirt.  Their beards and hair unkempt.

Blood slickens the floor as the men rise to their feet among the shards.  The  large glass doors behind them stand open with a gaping hole smashed through.  A chained padlock swings useless near the floor.

I shudder as the men survey the hall.   Dark circles shadow their eyes. Their gaze is wide, crazed.  I know that look.  The look of desperation.

My heart hammers against my ribs as two men break off from the pack and leap onto a middle-aged nurse fleeing into a patient’s room.  Her scream is shrill as she slams against the wall. Fragments of drywall fall to the ground as the unconscious nurse slumps toward the floor.

The men begin tearing at her. I’m paralyzed with fright as I watch them raise bloodied hands to their lips.  They lick their fingers, ingesting the warm, sticky fluid. Its bright red stains their beards.

They have gone mad!

Closing the door, I lean against it and cover my ears as new screams replace the nurse’s.  A fog settles over my mind, combating the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I shake my head, fighting to remain focused.

Sweat clings to my brow and upper lip.  My head feels light and airy as I scold myself.  Keep it together!

Two doctors remained behind to care for the patients too ill to evacuate or those left behind by family members too afraid to enter the city to collect them.  Four nurses stayed as well, though I’m sure more than one has fled.

The screams grow louder.  I hear grunting down the hall as men try to break through a door.  The wood creaks and groans, finally giving way.

“Grab the supplies,” a man yells.  The sound of hurried footsteps quickly follows.  By pressing my ear against the door I can tell they are getting closer.

Doors bang open and patients’ rasping pleas echo in my ears.  A tremor works its way through me as I scan the room.  My mother lies on the bed before me in a catatonic state.  The bathroom is to my left, but it’s too small to hide in.  The window to my mother’s right is made of thick glass.  Even if I could break through it, I would never survive the five-story fall.

I rush toward a supply cabinet and tear open the doors, rummaging through bandages, cleaning supplies and bedding.  The handful of bullets I scavenged this morning won’t last long. I will need a backup weapon if I have any chance of surviving the night.

Nothing!  I bite my lower lip as I realize there is nothing of use.  Not a scalpel.  Not a pair of scissors.  Not even a needle.

The lights flicker again overhead and then fade for the last time, plunging the room into darkness.  I clasp my hands over my mouth to suppress my scream as something large slams into the door of the room.  I hold my breath and wait for someone to enter, but the door remains closed.  I clutch my gun to my chest.

Think, Avery!  I pound my fist against my head.  I can’t shoot them all.  

My lips quake as I sink down the wall, covering my ears to muffle the horrific clamor of death that fill the once peaceful ward.  The sounds of butchering diminish, but the hammering of my heart in my ears only increases.

Another loud bang against the door sends me scuttling on my hands and feet toward my mother’s bed.  The steady droning hiss of her breathing machine catches my attention.  The battery pack must have kicked in when the generator failed. They will hear it!

It is inevitable.  This hospital wing is easy pickings.

The fifth floor is for long term care patients like my mother.  Some are recovering from strokes or heart attacks.  Others, like my mother, are trapped in a coma with a slim chance of ever waking again.  None will put up much of a fight.

I should have left when I had the chance.

“Check that one,” a man commands.  It sounds as if he’s only a couple of feet from my door. I stifle a squeal and dive head first under my mother’s bed.  The mechanics of the lift tear at my sweater.  I suck in and squeeze.  Sharp metal jabs at my back, nicking my flesh.

“You been in here yet?”

My breath catches at the nearness of a feminine voice.  Please don’t come in here.  There’s nothing for you.

“What are you waiting for?  Check it out!” the man yells back.

The back of my jeans rips as I thrust my leg under the bed just before the door swings open, spilling the dim glow of a dying flashlight through the entrance of the room.  The feet that approach are small, definitely those of a woman.  She walks with a hint of a limp as she approaches the bed.

I bury my face in my arms, focusing on small half breaths.  They will see me.  They’ll know I’m here!

“I found another live one!” she shouts.  I can tell by the way her soles screech on the tile that she calls over her shoulder.

I stare through thick strands of ginger hair as two people arrive in the doorway.  The sounds of screaming have died off, replaced by an eerie silence.

“She one of them?” The work boots on the right pause as they reach the end of the bed.

I don’t want to die, shuffles on repeat like a skipping song in my mind.  I reaffirm my grip on the gun, pointing it at the feet before me, but I don’t pull the trigger.  Not yet.  I wait for a good shot.

“Does it matter? She’s still breathing,” the woman responds.

“Ignorant cow!”  A wad of phlegm lands on the floor near her feet.  “You put any of their blood in you and you’re as good as gone too.  Ain’t you learned nothin’ yet?”

The woman pauses less than six inches from my head.  The tips of her shoes tread on the hem of my sweater.  “Fine.  Then who’s gonna check her?”

A gravelly laugh from the doorway sends chills down my spine.  “Why do you think I sent you in here?”

“Aw, come on Rhett.  You know I had to check the last one.  I still have nightmares over that.  I swear that thing looked at me!”

The man at the end of the bed steps forward.  I hear gargled cries as the woman’s heels lift off the floor.  “You know the rules.  Bring back the goods or don’t come back.  If I tell ‘em you ain’t done your part, whatcha think they’re gonna do to ya?  Hmm?”

I hold my breath as she drops to the ground and stumbles back a few paces.  I imagine her rubbing her throat as she takes several rasping breaths.  “Haven’t we got enough yet?”

I long to reach out and draw my sweater back but I dare not move.  Even in the dim glow of the flashlight they might see my hand.

“No.”  The clipped response from the doorway sends my heart plummeting into my stomach.  “There ain’t never gonna be enough.”

Enough of what? What is it they want?

“Get it done,” Rhett commands and turns.  “And don’t ya forget that tubing when you’re done.”

The door swings closed, leaving me trapped with the remaining man and the shaken woman.

“I can’t do it, Pete. I don’t have it in me tonight.” There’s a few seconds of silence then a grunt of displeasure.  “If you don’t do it, it’ll be both our hides on the line.  You heard what Rhett said.  I’m not sleeping outside camp again. No way.  The streets are no place to be after dark,” the woman says, inching backward.

The waiver in her voice doesn’t surprise me.  I’ve seen what’s on those streets.  Murders, rapists, and things far worse…the Withered Ones are out there.

“I know how you like it,” she lowers her voice as she coaxes him.  Sounds to me like she’s done this before.  “That feeling of power you get. I’ve seen it in your eyes.”

I hear the sound of scratching from above and wonder if this man has a beard as well.  “Yup.”

“So you’ll do it for me?” The man approaches the bed.  His silence unnerves me.  Why doesn’t he answer? “Take her out, Pete.”

For as long as I live, I will remember those words and the sounds that follow.  Pete moves faster than I could have imagined.  He plants his feet and lunges forward.  I hear a deep thud, followed by tearing.

I cover my mouth and clamp my eyes closed as the man growls overhead, pounding his fists.  Bile rises in my throat as a sharp metallic scent fills the air.  Tears roll involuntarily down my cheeks.  I’m sorry!

There is nothing I can do to stop my mother’s brutal slaughter.  We may not have seen eye to eye, but no one deserves this.

Pete shakes out his hands at his sides, sending blood splattering against his pant leg and floor.  Moist warmth flicks against my arm and I bite down hard enough on my lip to draw blood of my own.

My silent scream is guttural, soul shaking at the sound of splintering bone.  It echoes off the walls, ringing in my ears. I feel faint as I imagine Pete snapping my mother as easily as a child cracking a dried twig.

I wait for the blood to begin pouring down from the bed above but it never comes.  The man and woman fall still on either side of me. I hear the sound of pattering, like water against a bathroom sink.

What is happening?  What are they doing to her?

Though a tremor seizes me, I clamp down and force myself not to move, terrified of making a sound.  Of being discovered.  Of listening to my mother’s heinous death.

Do something!  

Summoning a courage that I don’t feel, I kick out at my mother’s IV pole. It crashes to the ground, making the skittish woman jump back. Her flashlight clatters to the ground.  “What was that?”

“Ain’t nothin’ but you, woman.”

One glance at the far wall reveals my illuminated shadow.  Shit!

I grab the man by the ankle and yank with all my might.  He cries out as his footing shifts and topples to the ground.  A waterfall of blood rains against the white tile floor and splatters my face.  I gag at the feel of its warmth trailing down the ridge of my nose. I crawl out from under the opposite side of bed, spitting my mother’s blood to the side as I head for the woman.

The walls look like a scene from a horror movie.  Blood splatters trail down the once cheerful yellow walls.  The floor is slick as I rise.  The back of my sweater dampens with blood as I press back against the bed.

My hand shakes as I lift my pistol.  The woman glances toward the door, her frizzy auburn hair a sweaty web around her forehead.  I tighten my grip on the trigger and aim, noticing a split second before I pull the trigger that there is an angry rash on her left cheek that trails into the neckline of her coat.

The shot is deafening.  My hand recoils and I almost lose my grip on the gun.  The woman’s eyes widen with disbelief as she slides down the wall, clutching the crimson stain blooming along her abdomen.

A swell of pride floods through me but is lost as I am slammed from behind. I watch the tile rise up to meet me in slow motion as a crushing weight settles over me.  I turn my head, narrowly avoiding crushing my skull against the floor.  My gun clatters out of my hand as my breath is stolen away. Dark spots encroach the perimeter of my vision as pain nestles into my ribs.

The man’s breath is hot and rancid, puffing against my ear.  His long, beefy fingers curl around my arm, pinning me to the floor.  “Get Rhett,” he yells toward the woman.  “This one’s coming with us.”

I listen to her moan behind me but don’t hear any footsteps of retreat.  My cheek mashes into the cold porcelain, grinding bone and flesh.  I kick and flail, useless against his weight.

“Get off me!” I screech, trying to claw free, but the blood coating his arms makes it impossible to get a firm grip.

Panic floods through me as I’m reminded that I’m not some super badass chick with ninja skills.  I’m just a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who wishes she could be.

“I’m gonna cut you nice and slow,” he breathes into my face.  The scent of cheap alcohol on his breath is nauseating. From the corner of my eye I notice black spots dotting his lips.  “Gonna make you beg as I gut you.”

I fall still, terrified of the glee I hear in his voice.

The sound of gunfire from down the hall startles both of us.  I take my one shot and slam my head back, grateful to hear a sickening crunch.  His grip eases slightly.

“Bitch!”

An elbow to his side and a swift kick once I wriggle forward leaves the man enraged.  He cups his nose as blood pours from it, trailing into his matted beard.  My nails crack and splinter as I claw along the slick floor, fighting to dig into the grout lines for leverage.

The door stands open wide before me.  The wounded girl must have escaped.  A blood trail leads into the hall, illuminated by the fallen flashlight.  I look around in search of my gun, but it is lost to shadow.  Clambering to my feet, I use the sheets on my mother’s bed to rise.

My stomach falls away when I find my feet and discover the horror this man bestowed on her.  Blood no longer pumps through the wide gash in her neck.  It pools in the dip of her collarbone.  Streams of crimson trail down what little is left of her arm to soak into the sheets.  Her chest is concaved, shredded as if by a rabid animal instead of a human.  Much of her flesh lies in ribbons.  The muscles in her neck have been flayed open by a knife.  Her eyes are open, unseeing but looking right at me.

“Oh, God!” I press my hand to her neck.  The warmth of her blood between my fingers and the reality of her brutal end makes the room spin.

One thought slowly surfaces as Pete lumbers to his feet behind me.  He has a knife.

Looking back over my shoulder in the fading light, I see him wavering on his feet, searching the floor.  A glint of silver near his feet makes my heart stop. Please don’t see it.

He raises his gaze toward me as he grabs his nose and realigns it. A look of unadulterated fury stares back at me and I realize he won’t need the knife to hurt me.

I leap to the side a second before he strikes, pushing off from the wall and spinning just out of reach.  My cheek smacks into the supply cabinet when I misjudge my escape.  I steady myself and fling open the doors, desperately tossing the contents at the man as he turns on me.

Pete bats them away and closes the gap between us.  I bring a bed pan down over his head when he takes a swipe at me, but it doesn’t faze him.  “Got you, girlie!”

His hand wraps around my arms as I try to run and yanks me toward him.  I shriek and rake my hands down his arms, feeling his flesh curl under my nails.  His arm snakes around my neck, choking off my air.

Gunfire pings against tile and metal in the hall but my attacker is lost to the disturbance.  I hear screams in the distance as I fight against his grip, kicking and landing punches that seem useless.  I’m going to die!  Oh God, please don’t let this happen!

My screams become strangled gasps as he shoves me to the ground.  His legs wind around my waist, stilling my fight.  He slams my temple against the floor and stars light up the room. Blood trails down from my eyebrow, stinging my eyes.  I feel the impact again and again but am helpless to stop him.

“Pretty girl gonna die,” he crows in my ear as he reaches over my head. My eyes bulge as the cold steel of his blade presses to my cheek.  His free hand squeezes my throat.

The light in the room fades and lethargy seeps through my body as oxygen is withheld.  My hands fall to my sides.  I can feel myself slipping away.

“Please.” I stretch out my hand for help as a pair of boots pauses in the doorway and turns toward me.

A gunshot at close range makes my ears ring.  The grip on my neck releases.  Warm matter sprays my face.  A foul sludge slips between my lips as I fight for breath.  The approach of footsteps sounds like the march of a giant in my wounded ear drums.

Large hands roll me onto my side, pushed away from my motionless attacker.  I claw at the floor as my lungs expand, gasping in air.  A distorted voice calls to me but I can’t make out the muffled words.  The only thing I can think of as I stare bleary eyed up at my savior is that their face looks wrong, elongated and grotesque. Then the darkness takes me.

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