When she opened her eyes, her view had been reduced to two tantalising, far-off pinpricks surrounded by a blur of red-black, as though they had been disconnected – not only from each other, but from her brain as well. The noise in her head was a roar of silent heat, receding. She was hollow.
She appeared to be moving but had no notion of her arms and legs. She could neither tell where she was nor who might be there with her; a rumbling sort of vibration both was and wasn’t – sensed but not heard, nor even felt. She sensed that perhaps she ought to panic, but somehow could not.
Groping for her fever dreams she tried to position herself within this new state of being, and felt part of herself – her physical self – lurch as though trying to emulate this mental seeking in the real world, if that was what this was. She tried to identify herself but, unable to pinpoint why it would matter, reverted instead to instinct – fuzzy proprioception, a feeling not quite felt, movement, hunger – although she could no more name the feelings than she could herself, just now. She felt incomplete, like some vital part was missing; she was a passenger to impulse with no inkling how long she had been travelling. Awareness came and went, unattached to linear time.
A montage of disordered tableaux whose common thread was marked by the sounds of building chaos played a disjointed show reel through what was left of her mind. The sharp reek of blood, piss and shit was an immovable bolus lodged in her sinuses, highlighted by a bass note of cloying sweetness, burned rubber and fuel.
Her ravaged memory clasped onto the mayhem and rewound in a morbid attempt to replay some sense of being, but all it found were sensations – hot, wet hands, and an acid reek burning and bubbling the tender skin at the edges of her mouth; the taste of new decay; the echoes of screams, men’s, women’s and children’s. The rusted haze of the fever that had enveloped her, scorching first through her skin, then down through adipose, flesh, organ and bone until only her autonomic nervous system remained intact. Sort of. A cursor, blinking; waiting for instruction.
The nauseating show reel of her senses ended not by fading to black but in the manner of an old super8 home movie – flipping the same final image over and over and over, the effect enhanced by the rusty vignette fadeout of her blood-washed peripheral vision. The two small and crumpled forms that lay next to the bicycles on her front lawn were discarded marionettes and not her children. Someone was tearing their stuffing out. A broken and twisted wreck, wearing her clothes. A voice she intuited as hers filtered into the scene from the outside, keening tortured anguish.
What was she?
Her now-body responded to comprehension with revulsion; she gagged and felt a thick, hot ooze rise up her gorge and flow down over her chin and neck, onto her chest. It burned. She could not locate her hands to wipe it away. She tried to scream but the sound that escaped was a thin and watery gurgle, made sinister as it bubbled through the viscid morass leaching from somewhere inside her.
It was a sunny summer Saturday, and Jenny stood washing dishes at the sink, watching through the open window as her children – shaggy-haired boys of nine and six – played out on the grass in the early evening light. Her husband, complaining about a deep scratch he had sustained while clearing the garden, had gone to shower, saying something about the risk of infection.
He snaked his arms around her now from behind, made an animal noise in his throat, and she reached up over her shoulder to touch her fingers to his lips. She smiled as he took the middle and ring fingers of her right hand into his mouth, began to say “later, honey,” but her words were cut off as his molars and 150lbs of pressure crushed her finger bones, and morphed into a strangled cry as she whirled to face him and tried to extricate her hand from his jaws in shock. Her bones cracked and splintered, and she withdrew instead two ragged stalks of grisly pulp.
Her husband’s skin was mottled green and grey and bore the oiled foam-rubber look of a cadaver, and she choked back vomit and a groan of horror as she backed away. He was naked, and the scratch across his forearm a livid purple oozing blackened blood and yellow pus. When she caught sight of her children, still playing on the lawn, she couldn’t choke it back a second time and turned, and ran, their names a strangled croak on her lips as she rushed to scoop them up and get them away.
Whatever the infection was it acted fast.
By the time she reached the door the mottling had radiated from the remains of her fingers and was reaching out tendrils of rot up her neck and jaw, and girdling her torso as her blood coagulated in her veins in a thick magma wave of searing heat and pain.
As her brain began to die she tried a final time to call out to her children, but her voice box was gone already. Her pace had slowed, and as she neared them she came to a juddering halt and stood convulsing for an interminable half-minute. She barely registered when her paroxysms broke her own neck as her boys looked on in horror, unable to move or cry.
They ran to her when the seizure slowed to an occasional hiccup, grabbing her arms with cries of “Mama!” and “What’s wrong?” They started to panic and sob when they saw her blank eyes, every capillary in the corneas haemorrhaged when the blood inside them coalesced and expanded. She cocked her head at a hideous angle as though hearing their cries, and her hands clenched reflexively as she appeared to notice them anew – those two trusting boys who couldn’t find it in themselves to believe it was true when their mother reached out and started to remove their stuffing.