Oliver was already awake when the alarm went off that morning. This was his favorite part of the day; just before sunrise, the shadows from the pre-dawn light created ghosts in every corner, just out of his line of sight.
He sat up on the edge of the bed, his muscles protesting slightly from his workout the night before. Since the accident three months ago, Oliver had been in physical therapy twice a week. It was painful. It was grueling. It was the worst thing he had ever felt in his life. But according to Chuck – his trainer – it was his best chance at regaining some semblance of a normal life.
He shifted himself over to his chair and rolled to the bathroom, his spirit drooping a tiny bit as the daylight gained force. He heaved himself over into his makeshift tub chair and showered – again, as usual – in the dark.
Oliver could no longer stand the sight of himself. His legs, once muscular and toned, now hung nearly useless from his hips; hips which, when looked at in the light, showed themselves to be at an odd angle.
He toweled himself off, then dressed in his uniform. He could no longer do his normal patrols, but they’d at least allowed him to work a desk job. It was better than nothing; between the regular bills and the co-pay on his crappy insurance he would take all the work he could get.
And today, work was a presentation at the primary school.
By now the sun had been up for a good 15 minutes. Four months ago he would have already been on the road, but not now. That Dukes of Hazard wannabe had seen to that when he had led Officer Harper on a high speed chase through the twisting back roads of the county, ending in a spectacular crash worthy of a Hollywood movie. The drunk walked away with a bruise on his head and a sprained wrist; Oliver had already been through four surgeries.
But he wasn’t bitter. He’d never been one to blame anything that happened on bad luck, karma or religion. He wasn’t a religious man; he never had been. He just chalked it up to something that happened. Pointing fingers wasn’t going to help anything, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to help him walk any sooner.
The town force was small, but they’d had enough money from donations to get a used SUV outfitted with handicapped controls on the steering wheel. Ben Stevens down at the body shop had even painted it in the traditional black and white, “to make him feel more official-like”.
As he hoisted himself and his chair up into the off-road police cruiser and started the engine, the radio blared to life.
“6-24, we have a 10-10 at the IGA, multiple PI reported.” “10-4, 6-24 will be 10-8 to the IGA.” “Roger that 6-24. 6-19, we have a 10-53 out on Route 42 in front of the nursing home.” “6-19…um, dispatch, what’s a 10-53?” “6-19, the caller stated that there are a large number of people from the nursing home who are wandering around the grounds and in the road. Caller also stated that there may be an altercation taking place, stated that some of them seem to be bleeding.” “10-4 dispatch, 6-19 will be 10-8.”
Hoping he could be of some use, Oliver grabbed the microphone that lay on the center console. “Dispatch, this is 6-13. Do you require assistance?”
“Negative, 6-13. It’s a little crazy today, but I believe we can handle it. Besides, I’d hate for you to miss your appointment.”
“Roger that dispatch. 6-13 10-8 to the school.”
Dammit. He was hoping to get out of giving the D.A.R.E. speech again. Sure, the town had a few potheads and teenage drunks, but they weren’t much of a problem. Talking to those kids about using cocaine and meth was about as useful as…well, as a cop who couldn’t walk.
Dammit, Oliver thought again.
As he pulled out of his driveway and headed into town, Oliver broke the speed limit for the first time in four months.
His walkie-talkie screeched static all throughout the presentation, and Oliver turned the volume most of the way down so it wouldn’t distract the students. It didn’t seem to work though, as the students – as always – fidgeted, whispered, twisted and turned in their seats.
They weren’t the only ones, though. The principal, the vice-principal, and even the maintenance man who was standing just offstage were speaking to each other in hushed tones, constantly checking their cell phones as if they were a pack of high schoolers at the mall three towns over.
This, in turn, distracted Oliver. He more than once had to stop in the middle of a sentence and begin again. This wasn’t his favorite part of the job, but he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss anything. He glanced over his shoulder at the principal who blushed and nodded, giving him the go-ahead to continue.
“So kids, that’s the kind of life you can end up living if you get hooked on drugs. Methamphetamines, marijuana – you name it, and it can ruin your life. So say it with me. When someone offers you drugs, you just say n…”
“OH MY GOD!!!” Oliver looked to the back of the room and saw a woman – one of the teachers, he thought – holding her arm and leaning against the door as if she was trying to hold it closed. From this distance he couldn’t be sure, but it also looked like she was bleeding. She was whimpering and crying hysterically.
Another man – another teacher, from the looks of his tie – was trying to push his way through the door. He was also bleeding, although it looked to be much worse than the lady who was trying to keep him out. His face was pale and he had dark circles under his eyes, but the blood – there was so much blood coming from his scalp. A person with injuries like that shouldn’t be up and walking around, much less trying to muscle his way through a door.
There was only one answer.
This man was on drugs. PCP. Angel Dust. Maybe even crack.
In Oliver’s town.
“Not on my watch, you son of a bitch,” Oliver muttered. He began to roll his way down the ramp, but he found it blocked by the people who were trying to get off the stage. Dirty bastards, always using the handicapped ramp instead of the stairs provided for them.
By the time he had worked his way to the back of the room, he realized he was too late. The man had finally made it through the door and had the other teacher on the floor; he seemed to be biting her neck, and she didn’t seem to be enjoying it.
“Stop in the name of the law!” Oliver shouted. The man didn’t even look up – he just kept trying to give the lady teacher a hicky. Admittedly, she was attractive, but Oliver knew that 83% of all office romances ended badly.
“Sir, please step away from the lady. While I am wheelchair-bound, I am still an officer of the law and am within my rights to use less-than-lethal force if you do not.”
“Very well then.”
Oliver drew his taser and pointed it at the man.
“Sir, this is your last chance.”
“Alrighty then.” Oliver pulled the trigger. There was a sudden smell of ozone and the crackle and pop of the electricity as the voltage carried along the wires and into the barbs that had buried themselves into the man’s back.
What Oliver hadn’t realized was that he was also shocking the woman. She was convulsing on the floor while the man seemed to be completely unfazed by the electricity. Oliver released the trigger as soon as he saw what was happening.
And then he realized that it didn’t matter – the woman had stopped fighting. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t moving at all. Her eyes were open, but they stared at a spot on the ceiling as if she were seeing something that was meant for her alone. Hoping for a glimpse of whatever it was that created that beatific expression on her face Oliver looked up, but he saw nothing.
The man stood up, leaving the female teacher to drop to the ground; she did so with a sickening thud, blood and gore oozing from her neck and pooling on the floor beneath her. In what seemed to Oliver to be slow motion, it started to run in a little rivulet toward the front of the room. The auditorium floor sloped downward toward the stage providing what the local newspaper referred to as ‘stadium seating’.
In the second or two it took Oliver to process this information the teacher with the bad tie had taken a couple of steps forward. By now he was close enough that Oliver could see his eyes; there was something wrong with them.
In all the training he’d had, Oliver had never seen eyes like these on a drug user. They were slightly sunken, bloodshot and jaundiced. A milky white film seemed to cover each pupil, looking somewhat like cataracts, but not quite. The teacher, however, seemed to have no problem in seeing through these eyes, as his locked onto those of the man in the wheelchair.
He kept his eyes trained on Oliver as he took a step forward; more of a stumble, as if he couldn’t support himself. He stopped just out of arm’s reach, and the man in the tie let out a sound like nothing anyone in the entire auditorium had ever heard, at least not while they were awake.
As the howl reverberated through the auditorium the crowd drew still and silent. Everyone was staring at the man with the crazy eyes. No one moved. For a few seconds, no one even dared to breathe. Even Oliver was transfixed, his mind racing through procedure after procedure on what to do.
Then a scream brought the scene back to life. Belinda Kerry, the special ed teacher, was covering her mouth with one hand, the other pointing at the teacher who had been taken down by Mr. Tie. Oliver knew her from the town’s one Methodist church; she made the best baked beans around.
“Shh, Belinda. I know she’s gone. It’ll be okay.” Oliver didn’t dare look away from the man who shouldn’t be standing in front of him.
Belinda muttered something, but with her hand over her mouth he couldn’t make out what she’d said. The one of the students said, “Um…Officer Harper? I don’t think she’s gone. She’s getting up.”
No way, Oliver thought to himself. He’d seen her life draining out onto the floor of the auditorium. No amount of Clorox and sawdust would get that stain out.
From his peripheral vision he saw someone struggling to stand. This couldn’t be happening.
Belinda leaned over and offered the lady the hand that wasn’t over her mouth.
But it was too late. Belinda began screaming as the woman tore into her throat, mimicking that which was done to her mere minutes ago. The screams soon turned to gurgles, then stopped completely.
As the pain in Belinda’s voice died away Mr. Tie seemed to remember where he was and that he had something to do. And that something seemed to involve Oliver.
He reached for his sidearm and realized that he’d left his weapon in the SUV; the law stated that firearms weren’t allowed in a school unless it was an emergency. This was definitely an emergency, but he didn’t think he’d have time to make it to the parking lot and back before anyone else was hurt.
Or changed, his mind said.
He chided himself mentally. He’d seen his fair share of horror flicks at the twin cinemas downtown and knew that they were all the product of Hollywood special effects. The dead didn’t get up and walk, and they sure as shit didn’t attack people.
Until now, said the voice in his head.
Bullshit, he thought back at it.
Oliver had to shout to be heard over the rising voices. Some people couldn’t see what was going on; apparently, ‘stadium seating’ only worked when viewing downhill.
“Everyone, move away from them. Get as far away as you can without going out into the hallway. Mr. Gibson, would you please check the doors to see if there is anyone outside?”
Mr. Gibson, the school’s principal, looked around nervously then stepped to the doors of the auditorium and peered through the small square window.
“I see…yes, there are three people out there. Mr. Carpenter, Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Stillwater. It looks like they’re tending to someone who’s injured.”
“Okay, good. I want you to line everyone up on the far side of the auditorium. Keep it orderly and keep everyone away from this side of the room. Got that?”
“Right, Officer Harper.”
The teacher who had been accosted by Mr. Tie now stood right beside him; apparently she didn’t hold grudges. She was also now staring at Oliver, and her eyes had taken on the appearance of those of the man who had taken her down.
Procedure, procedure, procedure; Oliver’s mind flipped mentally through the pages of the handbook he’d so often re-read. He went through the index, trying to figure out what to do.
C: Cataracts. No. C: Cannibalism. Maybe. But it wasn’t in the book. His subconscious riffled the pages, stopping on the last page of the little blue book.
Officer Harper, man of sound mind and formerly sound body, just couldn’t wrap his head around what it was trying to tell him. He couldn’t make himself believe it.
What he did believe was that if he didn’t do something soon they’d all be in a world of hurt.
He backed himself away from the gruesome couple. They stopped and looked at him with those eyes as if they weren’t sure what he was doing. To be honest, he wasn’t too sure himself.
Oliver let himself roll a bit farther back to give himself some breathing room. As soon as he stopped, the duo started toward him again, one stuttering step after another. He backed away again, and again the pair stopped to watch, then started their march once more.
Oliver shouted, “Mr. Gibson – Code C!”
Mr. Gibson again looked around nervously. In truth, he hoped that his father was there and they were referring to the elder of the Gibson clan.
“Mr. Gibson – Code C now! You do the drill at least three times per year – everyone knows the process. Get those kids out of here. Now!”
Mr. Gibson only nodded in response. He looked at the teachers who had managed to gather their students into two lines against the wall, shrugged, and started out the auditorium door.
As soon as the door was opened, someone – or something, Oliver’s mind said – grabbed Mr. Gibson and pulled him through. If this had been a cartoon, there would have been a little trail of dust that whipped into circles behind him.
The teacher closest to the doors screamed, as did most of the children. The herd immediately started back toward the stage, in what looked to soon be a stampede.
“Everybody to the stage. Teachers, pack the children in as tight as you can then circle around them. I want eyes in every direction.”
The teachers, perhaps more used to taking orders than the young Mr. Gibson, immediately fell into professional mode. With hands waving and a chorus of, “line up”s, the group started toward the stage in a more orderly fashion.
Oliver too turned and rolled as fast as he could toward the stage. He didn’t look back to see if Mr. Tie and Mrs. Bad Hickey were coming his way, but he knew the answer to that.
As he reached the stage, he smelled cigarette smoke and heard a muttering coming from behind the curtain. Oliver took a quick visual inventory of the people he could see versus who was around when this all started.
The janitor. The maintenance man. Mr. Simms, the old man who lived by himself out on Route 42, about a half mile from the nursing home. Oliver wondered why Old Man Simms wasn’t there himself – this man had been the janitor when he went to school here. There were rumors that he was a vampire of some sort and that’s why he didn’t seem to age.
Oliver’s mind immediately popped up with, “Well, if these guys are real, then maybe…”
“Shut it!” he thought back to himself.
“Mr. Simms! What kind of supplies do you keep in here? Anything in the auditorium?”
Old Man Simms continued to mutter. As Oliver made his way up the wheelchair ramp he could hear some of what the geezer was saying.
“…goddam gub’mint, always experimentin’ on people. Roosevelt, you didn’ see this kinda stuff. No sir. Just good people. No dead people walkin’ around, rippin’ other good people’s throats out with their teeth. This is what happens when you put one o’ them in the White House.”
Oliver’s mental Roloex filed Mr. Simms under “R”.
“Mr. Simms – do you have a janitorial closet here in the auditorium? Hopefully one somewhere backstage?”
Mr. Simms dropped his cigarette onto the stage and crushed it with his heel. “Ayep, I got one right back here. Nothing in there though. I keep the good stuff out in my building where I can lock it up.”
The old man started off stage right at a pace only slightly faster than that of the two people who… Oliver nearly did a double take. At the back of the room stood Belinda, whose white sweater and flower-print shirt was now stained red all the way down to her trousers. He couldn’t see her eyes clearly, but he had a guess as to what they looked like. She seemed torn between going out into the hallway and coming toward the stage.
Oliver sped over to where Mr. Simms was fumbling through a giant keychain, trying to find the one that would open the door marked with ‘Supplies’. Oliver’s mind, apparently trying to make up for earlier, immediately thought of a joke, but he shoved it back down. He was pretty sure Old Man Simms wouldn’t get it.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, the old man finally found the key and opened the door. He stepped back as he held the door open. “See, nothin’ in here but some mops and a couple push brooms. Couple bottles of bleach, maybe a flagpole or two.”
Oliver looked around at the teachers, who now had their students circled like wagons on the stage. He saw two women who seemed to be young, in their late 20s or early 30s, but the rest were older and looked as if they would move at about the same pace as the janitor here.
He motioned for the two young ones to come over. Reluctantly leaving their assigned wheel spoke, they came forward.
Oliver reached into the closet and grabbed two mops. “Take these and go block the doors. Put them through the handles. It won’t be secure, but it’s better than nothing. Mr. Simms, follow me.”
Judy Milner, the older looking of the two, said, “Why us?”
Oliver simply looked at her, then at the other teachers, then back at her.
“Oh. But…what about Belinda?”
“I don’t know” said Oliver. “I honestly don’t know. If she gets close to you, just crack her over the head with it before you put it in the door. Or something. I don’t know.”
Judy looked at her partner, who only shrugged. They spoke with each other for a moment, then headed down the ramp on the side of the stage opposite the pair of newlyweds gone wrong.
“Mr. Simms, if you will please. Come with me.”
Oliver rolled himself back to the top of the wheelchair ramp. Mr. Tie and Mrs. Bad Hickey were closing distance to the stage; another couple of minutes and they’d be there.
“Mr. Simms, if you’ll stand right here please,” Oliver said, pointing to a spot on the stage just beside the top of the ramp.
Mr. Simms took his spot and lit a cigarette. This was a violation of the law, but under the circumstances Oliver thought it best to let it slide.
He rolled back to the closet and looked inside; two flagpoles, just as Old Man Simms had said. One of them had a nice point on it.
He grabbed it and rolled to the far side of the stage. He looked to the back of the room to see how his runners were doing. The first door was already blocked, but the second was being guarded by Belinda, who finally seemed to have made up her mind. She wasn’t going into the hallway or to the stage – she was going after those two.
She made a noise somewhat like the one that had come from Mr. Tie before and lunged toward the teacher who wasn’t holding a broom. Just before she made contact she caught the stick end of a mop across her forehead. She went down, but she growled as she did so.
The teacher raised the mop and whacked Belinda across the head again. And again. And again. Oliver began to wonder if she was going to stop, but finally the other teacher put her arm on Judy’s shoulder. This seemed to break the spell. Belinda wasn’t moving, and Judy started crying softly. She turned, put the mop through the door handles, then crossed to the other side of the auditorium.
As Oliver had been watching this, he’d lost track of Suspect One and Suspect Two. He turned – they were almost at the stage. Another few shambling steps and they’d be there.
The teachers at the back of the room stepped in front of the doors that had been barred first; as they did so, the doors began to rattle as if someone was trying to get in. Mr. Gibson’s face – or what was left of it – pressed up against the glass, glaring in at the two. They immediately took off in a run for the stage.
One of the teachers who was still with the children said, “Officer Harper, what are we going to do? We’ve heard that this is happening all over town.” The vice-principal agreed. “My daughter called from the bank – they’ve locked themselves in behind the counter.”
Oliver hoisted the flagpole in one hand; with the other, he looked at the teachers and put a finger to his lips. “Shhh.” He then circled his finger, telling the teachers to turn the students around.
All of them immediately started doing what he said. “Children, everyone turn around. Look at the back wall of the stage. No Thomas, not that way, this way. That’s good Cindy. Just look back this way.”
Mr. Simms still stood there smoking, leaning on his push broom, looking for all the world as if he were on break.
Oliver knew he had to time this just right. He’d never done it before, but he’d seen it. Two years ago, the town had raised enough money to send the “Officer of the Year” on a vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with tickets to see some of the shows. One of the dinner shows had really made an impression on him; he’d actually spent his own money to go back the next night. He was glad now that he had gotten a second look at their technique.
Oliver rolled himself to stage left, pinned the flagpole between his left arm and his chest, and put both hands on the wheels of his chair. He had only been in the chair for three months, but he had already gained an amazing amount of upper-body strength. For the first time, being in this damn thing paid off.
From this angle he could see the top of Mr. Tie’s head; a combover. His mind said, “Well, at least you hope it’s Mr. Tie. If that’s Mrs. Bad Hickey, she needs to stop going to that salon.”
In spite of himself, Oliver chuckled. Thankfully, nobody noticed.
The pair started up the ramp, just as he thought they would. Another step…another…right there.
Oliver rolled himself as fast as he could toward stage right. He didn’t have as much time as he’d hoped to build up speed, but it would have to do. He let go of the wheels, relying on momentum to carry him. He raised the flagpole into his hand and pointed it directly at the head of the first of the two stage crashers, hoping his speed would carry him through.
The impact threw Oliver clear out of his chair; his chair bumped up against the legs of Mr. Simms, and he himself landed on the other side of the old man.
He looked up hopefully, and was rewarded with the sight of the flagpole going through the face of Mr. Tie; as it came out the back of his head it buried itself into Mrs. Bad Hickey’s nose. They were teetering, looking as if they were trying to catch their balance.
Just as it seemed they might gain steady footing, Mr. Simms reached out with his push broom and nudged them both off the ramp and onto the auditorium floor below, where both remained motionless.
“I’ll clean that up later,” said Mr. Simms. He reached into his pocket and drew out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Oliver noticed he still hadn’t moved from his spot.
The two young teachers came over and helped Oliver back into his chair; the older one gave him a halfhearted smile as she made sure he was situated. “Where’d you learn to joust like that?”
“Medieval Times” Oliver said. He felt a flush rise in his cheeks; it’d been years since a woman had looked at him like that.
“Well, I think your team won this round.” She turned and went back to her students, throwing him a smile over her shoulder.
Well that’s nice, his mind said. The apocalypse happens and you finally meet a girl who likes crips.
You shut up, Oliver thought back.
A quick check revealed no backstage door, and he was assured by the teachers that there were no other entrances to the auditorium other than the ones that had been blocked by brooms. As long as those held he should be okay.
One of the kids asked, ‘Officer Harper, when will help be here?”
“Yeah, didn’t you call for help on your walkie-talkie?”
The walkie-talkie; he’d completely forgotten about it in all the confusion. He turned the volume knob back up and was met with overlapping voices; apparently the teachers were right – this was happening all over town.
He listened as one by one the other units from town called in from wherever they were. The nursing home, the IGA, the fairgrounds, the park downtown – the whole town had gone to hell.
And from the racket that was being created by Mr. Gibson et al trying to get through the doors at the back of the auditorium, this place was going to hell as well.
More chatter, but no reply.
Sheila didn’t respond.