I didn’t want to die.
The hours were passing, but I couldn’t see the sky to know what time of day it was. I was running through the Oglala grasslands. The grasses towered over my head, my feet pounded against the flat hard plain. But it was the beating of my heart I worried would give me away, thundering in my chest. That and the ragged sound of my breath filling my ears.
I could smell him now, I was that close. Was he scared, and that was why he ran? Or was he just leading me deep into the grasses, so deep no one would be able to find me when he ripped the flesh from my bones.
No, I was not going to think like that. I was going to kill him. I was going to finish the hunt the way I intended – I win, he loses. That was all I had to focus on.
I saw what he did to my family.
His sickening scent came and went on the wind.
I stopped for a moment to get my bearings.
That same wind moved the grasses, rippling through them the way I imagined ocean waves would look, even though I’d never been to the sea. I always thought I’d get there before I died.
As the wind parted the grasses, I finally caught a look at the sky. It was late afternoon. The sun was making the dark green grasses shimmer emerald and gold for a moment. Then the wind stilled, clouds fell, and the grasses swallowed me up again, swallowed up the sky.
Now all I could smell was the grassy scent of the reeds, the rich wet fragrance of the earth, the pungent bite of wild mustard.
Where was he? I lifted my head, inhaling deeply, like a dog on a trail. There it was again. His sickly sweet aroma, like burnt sugar, only with a sour edge to it. I fought down a wave of nausea. I held onto the cold, clear remedy – how good it would feel when I killed him.
There was a painful cramp in my side, but nothing would stop me. I wasn’t the same girl I was just a few weeks ago – then I was just seventeen year old Lily Mackenzie, with a boyfriend, a family I loved, and an after-school job at the mall.
Part of me ached for that life. Part of me felt sick that I was ever so weak. But I had loved my life. I really did. And now it’s gone.
The curfews, the boarded up businesses, everyone terrified of something they don’t understand. Towns, like my own, destroyed. Bodies lying in the streets. Families devoured. Every time you see a living person, you wonder. Are they infected, too? So you run.
But I’m not afraid, not anymore. I can’t be. I understand these bitter lands, where creatures from a nightmare live. I understand there’s no way out.
The day of the tornado was when it began. I can still see the dark clouds, the look of the funnel. Feel the kind of fear that seemed manageable, the kind I could handle, before the bigger fear came, before the chaos took over, lifted my life up and broke it into a million pieces.
It was a Friday. Just another gym class on a hot June day. Perspiration and the plastic smell of the sticky blue padded mats made it hard to breathe. Beads of sweat ran down Coach Stone’s craggy cheeks. The A/C hummed and strained, but had little effect in the humid gymnasium. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I hated gym class. I usually didn’t pay much attention to anything Coach Stone said. All I wanted to do was stay in the background.
“Lily Mackenzie you’re up against Tom Molloy.”
I exchanged a glance with Tom. Normally, I’d do anything I could to get out of shooting hoops one on one against a guy. But today, I thought I’d actually participate for a change.
“Sure thing, Coach.” I could see the surprise on the coach’s face. I wasn’t blowing him off for once. I wanted to take advantage of this situation. Tom and I had been a couple for months now, the coach didn’t realize that, but everybody else did.
We faced off against each other at the hoop, and Tom grinned.
Laughter started up behind me as I guarded him. Our bodies so close. I could feel his heat, his breath rising and falling in his strong, muscular chest. I wanted to kiss him, in fact I was almost involuntarily reaching for him, but I knew I couldn’t get away with that, not with everybody watching.
Instead I blocked his move and stole the ball.
“Tough girl, huh,” Tom flashed his adorably crooked smile.
“Thanks,” I shot the basket.
I heard applause as the ball went in.
“For letting me win,” I laughed.
He was still smiling and I hated to let the moment go. If I’d known what was about to happen, I might have stood there forever, just watching his smile, not caring at all what anyone else thought.
“I didn’t let you do anything. You’re stronger than you think, babe.”
“No. You’re just in love,” I smiled.
“Maybe I am,” he said.
Coach Stone stepped in. “All right, next pair…”
I could feel my cheeks flushing hot. I guess I liked feeling his body next to me a little bit too much. I heard our friends still snickering.
I was going to make a joke, but the afternoon sunlight had grown dim, and suddenly, no one was watching us anymore, everyone was staring out the gym window. My stomach lurched. Growing up in Nebraska, I knew right away there was a twister coming.
The wail of the tornado siren confirmed it and made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
“Line up, people, we’re going in the shelter. Now. Move it,” Coach Stone threw open the gym doors.
The humid gym sock smell disappeared instantly in a gust of wind. Trash and leaves were blowing all around; tree branches bending like they were ready to snap. The cops had already shown up to help out. I knew one of them - Dave Miller was my dad’s best friend. He gave me a quick wave as Tom grabbed my hand.
The shelter’s huge reinforced doors were already propped open, rocking in the wind. Tom and I ran across the blacktop. Off in the distance, I could see a tip of sooty black. The sight stopped me cold, but Tom pulled me forward.
I turned my head for one last glimpse of the funnel. It made me gasp. The thing was both terrifying and awesome; it was so huge and moving so fast, like some kind of wind animal, a beast ready to attack. I’d never seen one come on so quickly.
We were the last group inside, and Dave slammed the heavy doors shut behind us. It was pitch black for a second and then the emergency lights clicked on, with a low hum.
In the dim greenish glow, Tom was crouched down next to me on the floor. We were squeezed in tight, body to body, and once again I felt his warmth, and breathed in the faint, pleasant orange scent of his shampoo.
I glanced at Tom, and he tossed me another of his smiles. “You doing okay, Lily?”
In spite of the circumstances, I felt a little tinge of pleasure. “Yeah. Yeah, fine – it’s not like we’ve never been through tornados before.”
“Right,” he said, and he put his arm tight around my shoulder. “We always come out of these things okay.”
Just being close to Tom made me feel better. There were worse things than being trapped in that storm shelter so close next to him. I think he felt that way, too. He didn’t say anything else and neither did I.
In fact, it seemed like nobody was saying a word inside the shelter. The sirens stopped, and there was just that wind, howling, pummeling the doors. There was nothing that could make that sound less frightening.
I couldn’t stop myself from thinking - what if this was the last moment I had with Tom, what would I say to him? That I was in love with him? That it was his blue eyes I thought about before I drifted off to sleep at night, his smile, and that I dreamed we’d always be together? Of course, I didn’t say anything like that. I just sat there, foolishly thinking that there’d be a better time and place than this.
The howling rose to an almost unbearable pitch. We were packed in too tight for me to even lift my arms and cover my ears. Outside, things crashed, glass shattered. I held my breath to keep from jumping at every sound. It went on forever until I wanted to scream. I squeezed Tom’s hand tighter. I heard some girls sobbing in a corner of the shelter. At least I wasn’t doing that.
Out here in the grasslands, I let the memory of that day recede. I didn’t cry then and I wasn’t going to cry now. I had to stay focused on the chase, keep on racing through the endless fields of grass. The rough blades stung as they scratched against my arms and shoulders. And although his smell was strong and foul, I still couldn’t see him or hear him.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had something to eat. My legs trembled. The growing tension of waiting him out, and the hunger gnawing at my stomach, were making me weak. The smell of him was overpowering. I knew he must be near, behind the next curtain of grass or the next one.
And then as I inched forward, the grass itself was gone. I blinked at the brightness. I found myself standing open and exposed in a small ravine ringed by dusky dunes. The chalky white rocks were streaked with blue clay. It was like I had walked out on the surface of the moon.
Anxiety surged through me. I was twitching with anticipation, exhaustion, and nerves. I could smell him but I still couldn’t see him.
A hummingbird buzzed out of the grasses behind me. I jumped, at first I didn’t even know what it was. It was so beautiful and fragile and so frightening, too, the unexpected sound and presence. I’d shut out the rest of the world. It was just me and him out here, and yet it wasn’t. Life still went on somehow.
And so did the hunt. Where was he? The hummingbird flashed away. Did he double back behind me like that bird? He was a cop after all, and just because he was also a brutal killer, didn’t mean he had forgotten his training. I was as much his prey as he was mine.
The grass stretched on endlessly behind me. I’d come a long way from his cabin to this point.
I stopped for a moment and held my breath, hoping to hear him. But even the wind was still. His scent though. Stronger still. He couldn’t have doubled back - he had to be down in the ravine in front of me. I looked more closely, the sun was lower in the sky and in the growing shadows, I saw something darker behind an outcropping of rock just ahead, a cave. That would be the place I’d choose to lie low.
Of course he didn’t know I could smell him, I had that advantage. He would think he could spend the night there and I’d be lost in the grasslands. Then in the morning, he could be the one to track me.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
Fresh adrenaline coursed through me. I told myself I just had to wait for a few moments, and figure out my next move. Time went so slowly when I stopped running. It gave me the space to remember, and that wasn’t a good thing.
I was back in the storm shelter with Tom. Outside the storm raged, and my mind whirled. We were safe, but my mom was at home in bed. She’d had a miscarriage, and she was supposed to rest. It broke my heart that I wouldn’t have a little brother or sister. Not even Tom knew about that. What if the twister had hit the house and she was hurt, or worse?
Everything outside was quiet now. Maybe it was over. For a moment the fluorescent lights blinked out, and it was solidly black. Then they threw open the shelter doors with a loud bang, and the sunlight streamed in, almost too bright.
I walked out into the fresh air and breathed a deep sigh of relief. The school was still standing, a few broken windows, that was about it. But there were trees on top of cars in the parking lots, branches and trash were strewn all across the black top.
My heart skipped a beat. Across the street, Sal’s Pizza, 7-11, untouched, but the dry cleaner was gone, and the coffee shop was just – rubble. Mounds of brick and wood. Like pick-up sticks from a child’s game.
Everybody went for their cell phones, but there was no signal. I had to reach my mom. I glanced over at Tom.
He shot me a rueful smile. “You okay?”
I nodded, but I really wasn’t sure.
He tried to joke me out of it. “Gym’s still standing. Don’t suppose you want a rematch?”
I shook my head. “I have to go home.”
“Lily, be smart. They’ll want us to stay here, it isn’t safe.”
“Cover for me,” I brushed off his concern, even though I was scared of what I might find just down the street. “My mom’s not feeling well. I have to check on her.”
“Want me to come with you, then?”
I could think of nothing I’d like better, but I knew my mom wouldn’t want anyone else around right now.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, and I gave him a quick kiss. “Besides, someone has to cover for me, right?”
“Don’t be too long.”
I nodded, trying not to see the worry on his face.
Then I ran for home. I passed blocks that were perfectly normal, white picket fences, swing sets all in place. Others looked like a bomb had exploded, there were people wandering dazed and bloodied in the streets, electric wires down, jumping like snakes from the current.
I braced myself before I turned onto my block – my throat was tight. I wanted to go back and get Tom after all. I wasn’t sure I could handle what I might find. But as I went on, it looked like I was lucky. My street was one of those untouched blocks. Not even a tree down. I was weak with relief. Heart pounding, I ran into my house.
My mom was fine. Tears ran down my cheeks. “I’m so sorry mom,” I said and we both knew I was talking about the baby.
She kissed the top of my head, like when I was a little girl. “It’ll be all right.”
“Have you heard from Dad?” He was a reporter for the local newspaper, and I knew he’d be in the thick of things.
“He’s okay. You know him. He’ll be working late of course.”
My mom had our old transistor radio on, and we heard that about half of Chadron, Nebraska was gone. Now I was scared for Tom’s family, and my friends. I chewed my finger, I didn’t want to leave my mom again but I had to know that Tom was all right.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it any more, the cell started working, calls and texts started trickling in, Tom was fine, and so was everyone else. I didn’t know how we all got away unscathed. I felt like I could finally breathe, and I was truly grateful.
I’d never been through a tornado quite as bad as this. But it wasn’t until the next day that the governor declared our town a national disaster. Emergency workers showed up, medical staff and triage teams.
We had half days at school; in the afternoons we volunteered at shelters set up for the people who’d lost their homes. Every time I saw a hole in the ground where a family had lived, I ached for them. There were craters in the ground where houses had been, piles of rubble.
I had just settled into this new routine, when I found out about the sickness.
It was late at night, about a week after the storm, and I was making a half-hearted attempt at doing my homework. My dad came home, looking more exhausted than I’d seen him since the tornado hit.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“The government released some information today. It’ll be all over the news tomorrow.” His brow furrowed.
“The twister churned up some kind of air-born contamination from the chemical plant outside of town. Once you’re exposed, it causes an infection of some kind that appears to be contagious. I’m hearing that you get ill, can’t eat.”
I was frightened. “What kind of chemicals were they?”
My father shook his head. “We don’t know yet. But they’ve set up a hospital over in Lincoln to treat the people who’ve caught it. The National Guard will be out tomorrow, going door to door testing people.”
He touched my cheek. “You be careful, sweetheart.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
My dad smiled, but it seemed like it took a lot of effort. “Sorry. I always worry about you.”
I watched him head upstairs, I could tell by how slowly he moved just how tired he was.
The next day the National Guard came around and handed out paper masks. My dad thought they were pretty ineffectual but we all wore them whenever we went outside, anyway. What good could they really do? If the particulates were out there, we’d probably already breathed them in. It scared me.
A few days after we learned about the illness, I was heading to Tom’s house so we could walk to school together like usual.
I was half-way to his door when it slammed open, and a man in a Hazmat suit burst out. Before I could say anything, a second one followed, holding Tom by the arm, half-dragging him.
“Hey,” I shouted, “what are you doing? Stop it.”
I could barely hear their voices through their suits. “Step away, miss. He may be contagious.”
“What are you talking about? He was fine yesterday. There was nothing wrong with him then.” And if Tom was sick, why were they handling him like this, so rough.
He glanced up at me, and then I couldn’t say another word. He looked terrible. His skin was pale, almost translucent, and there were dark circles under his eyes. How could he look so different, just overnight?
“What happened? Are you all right?”
He still didn’t say anything. He just shook his head. The men kept walking.
“Where are you taking him? Are you going to the hospital?” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice.
I kept pace with them. Why wouldn’t Tom look at me? Why was no one answering me?
I reached out trying to grab his arm, but the government men blocked me. “Are your mom and dad already in the hospital? Tom. What happened? Do you want me to call somebody? Talk to me.”
Then he did look right at me, and my heart stopped. There was something really horribly wrong.
I knew immediately that we’d never be together again. How did I know that? I can’t say exactly, but it was like I was watching the boy I loved leave me. It was like I was seeing his death, and it was appalling, seeing him standing there. His eyes, those blue eyes - they were gray, almost, leaden, already dead. What kind of sickness was this?
“Lily Mackenzie,” and there was anguish in his voice as he said my name.
I couldn’t bear it. “Tom. I love you,” I told him.
“Stay away from me.”
His voice, like his eyes, sounded dead now.
I froze. One of the men pushed past me and the other shoved Tom into the van.
“The town’s quarantined,” the one in the van said. “Go home. You can get the sickness anywhere.”
But I couldn’t go home. I stood there and watched the van pull away. I’d finally told Tom I loved him and all he could tell me was to stay away. I think he said that because he loved me, too.
Finally, I forced myself to do what those men said. I turned around and flat out ran for home.
“Mom, Dad? School’s closed. I’m back.” My voice shook.
I’d only been gone half an hour, yet I almost felt lightheaded with fear. Maybe I could smell them already, without knowing exactly what I was smelling.
Maybe I heard something, and I just couldn’t place the sound.
Maybe fear, like the sickness itself, was contagious, and I’d caught the fear from those men. I knew despite the cocoons of their Hazmat suits, they were afraid.
No one answered me, and I called again. There were eggs burning on the stove. I turned the heat off. My mother never left a frying pan unattended.
I could picture my mom suddenly looking just like Tom.
“Hey – anyone?” The fear constricted my chest.
Still no answer. I rushed from the kitchen into the dining room. And that’s when I saw it.
Blood. The color. The smell of it. A lot of it, under the dining room table, spreading across the carpet. Along with the metallic scent of the blood there was something else, something sickeningly sweet that made my stomach knot. I couldn’t place it then. I pressed my fist to my mouth.
I tore open the cabinet behind the table. My dad kept his hunting rifles in a rack there. I took one down and loaded it, fighting down a growing wave of nausea. My fingers were shaking. I clutched the gun tightly, and it was only then that I actually heard the noise coming from the living room.
A groan, then a crunch.
I forced my arms to stay steady, and cocked the trigger. Slowly, quietly, I pressed through the swinging doors between the dining and living room.
And there, lying on the floor by the sofa were my dad and my mom, drenched with blood. This was far, far worse than what I’d imagined. Worse than Tom.
It was like I was watching a scene in a horror movie, not something real. And there was that smell again, mixed with the blood. Sweet and bitter.
At first, I was so terrified that it didn’t register - there were two men kneeling over my parents. One of them in a blood splattered police uniform.
“What happened?” I screamed.
They looked up and I saw that the one in uniform was my dad’s friend Dave Miller. There was blood all around his mouth, his lips were dripping with it. His leaden grey eyes just stared, like he didn’t even recognize me for a moment. His eyes were the same color as Tom’s had been.
Then I realized what was happening. It was my dad’s blood on his lips. He was eating my father.
The other man looked down again, like I didn’t even exist. He dipped his face back toward my father’s chest, teeth ripping at his flesh, tearing it.
The people I loved were being torn to bits like pieces of raw meat.
I raised the gun and I fired. Even though I used to go deer hunting with my dad as a kid, my hands were shaking so much I missed. The guy stood up and headed right for me. I shot again, once, twice. I hit him.
He jerked back from the impact. But he was still coming at me. Why wouldn’t he go down? I shot a third time, and finally his body slammed back against the wall, and he fell.
For just a moment I felt relieved. And then I remembered Dave. He was just standing there, staring at me. Our eyes locked.
So this was it. This was the sickness. It wasn’t just that you weren’t hungry, you couldn’t eat. What the government wasn’t saying was that you developed another kind of appetite.
I gripped the rifle more tightly.
I had a picture of me as a toddler, wearing Dave’s uniform hat. He brought me licorice when I was in the hospital with a broken arm. And now, I thought, I’m going to kill him.
He hadn’t moved, and I felt like he was trying not to come after me, not to hurt me. I could sense the struggle, it was almost palpable.
His lips twisted. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
Sorry? Part of me wanted to believe him.
But then he growled. Hardly a human sound.
I raised the gun yet again. I no longer cared about anything except shooting him. But once more, my hands were shaking, and I missed.
Then he ran. Right past me. I tore after him, through the dining room and kitchen and into the garage. I shot again and again but he ducked my bullets, heading out to the street.
Sick with sorrow and anger, I raised the gun and braced myself against the trunk of my dad’s car. I took a deep breath, calmed myself enough to get him in the sites, and aimed carefully. I released the trigger. But there was only an empty click.
My heart dropped. I felt empty, too. I watched him race away. I’d lost my chance. He was already gone, running down the street. My anger slipped away and I was left with only sadness and fear. I felt lost and like a little kid again.
No, I wasn’t going to feel like that. I couldn’t feel like that. Or it would be as if those men tore my heart out, too. I knew I had to hang on to my anger, embrace it, and never let it go.
Today at the edge of the grasslands, where I’d finally tracked Dave, I was still hanging on to that anger. It was my life line. Sometimes I couldn’t believe that weeks had gone by since that terrible moment. I promised myself I would never blow a chance like that again. And I hadn’t.
Dave Miller, or whatever it was that Dave had become, was hiding from me, all I had to do was find him. I was making my way carefully down the ravine to that cave. I kept myself close to the rocks, low to the ground.
As I inched my way around the mouth of the cave, I suddenly knew exactly where he was. His smell was coming from the left, behind a rock there at the lip.
It was solid dark inside that cave, and I was outside back-lit by the fading daylight. I couldn’t see him, and I knew I was now the target. Maybe I should’ve waited until night fell, to make it a more equal playing field, but I just couldn’t stand the waiting any longer.
Blind or not, I stepped inside the cave.
His scent warned me just in time, and before he could grab me, I had his arm in my hand and I used the weight of his forward motion to pull him out into the waning daylight.
Now we were on an equal playing field.
I noticed that his eyes were not that heavy grey. He must’ve eaten recently. I’d learned that their eye color reverted to normal after they fed, and then it was harder to spot them, which made them so much more deadly.
Looking at him for a moment, I could almost see him as Dave Miller, not the monster I knew he’d become.
“I wish you hadn’t found me, Lily.”
“I bet you do.” He had no idea what was going to happen now. But I wasn’t going to make this easy on him.
“I’ve done everything I could to stay away from you.” He shook his head, like he was sad, but then he lunged. And I was ready. Everything I’d learned about fighting in the last few weeks came into play.
I knocked Dave flat, pinning his arms with my knees. I saw the surprise on his face. Using my palm, I pressed hard against his solar plexus. Knock him out first; then finish him off. As painfully as possible.
I watched his eyes slowly drooping shut. Relief suffused me. But then his hand shot up and punched me, hard. I flew off him; I was flat on my back now. I knew they got stronger after they ate, but I’d underestimated just how strong.
He came at me hard, lifted me up and threw me down again, like I was nothing but a rag doll. I tried to roll away, but he was right on top of me. His moves were lightening quick.
I could not get away from him. His fists felt like stone, hitting me. Something cracked in my chest. I wished I still had a gun.
There was a rock lying loose in the gravel, and I rolled toward it, grabbed it. But as I raised it, Dave tossed it away like a pebble. And he snapped my wrist at the same time.
I reared up with my legs and kicked at him, trying to turn him over. I wanted to flip him and squash him like an insect. But apparently I didn’t have the strength.
Then his hands were around my throat, and I saw his face looming close to mine, his teeth, and his saliva glistening. The sick sweet smell hit my nostrils. I think I worked up his appetite. I tried to push against him, but he was too strong, I could feel myself getting weaker.
Deep regret washed over me, I’d gotten too sure of myself, and now I wasn’t going to be able to avenge them after all, my mom and dad, and Tom, who must also be dead by now. That was the only thing that had kept me going. It almost didn’t matter, then, that I was about to die.
At that moment, I caught something out of the corner of my eye in the fading light. It was a person, maybe, someone wearing something white and swollen – something that reminded me of the Hazmat suits the government workers wore when they took Tom. It had to be an illusion, a trick my mind was playing before things went dark.
Stay away, Tom had said, stay away.
I realized now that took more strength and meant a lot more than if he’d said he loved me.
That was my last conscious thought, and then I was out.
I was floating somewhere. Not in the fields anymore, not lying on the hard sandstone, not smelling the grasses or the horrible scent of my prey.
The smell was more antiseptic, and the air was colder, and what I lay on was soft under me. I couldn’t figure out where I was.
So instead my mind took me back again into the nightmare, back to the day when I was in my parent’s garage, watching Dave escape down the street.
I was shaking as I reloaded my father’s rifle. I had to go after Dave, it was the only thing I could think to do. But then there was another groan from inside my parent’s house.
My mother. For a moment I’d forgotten. I ran back inside, past all the blood, the carnage that was my father.
Another moan. My mother was still alive. A tiny spark of hope rose in my heart. Maybe it wasn’t too late. I dropped the gun and rushed to her, falling down on my knees beside her.
Just like my father, she had terrible wounds to her chest. It looked as though those men had been trying to eat her heart. Like demons were preying on her flesh. I was terrified and shaking, and my mom was bleeding so much. I had to staunch the blood somehow, until I could get help.
But before I could even move, I saw blood was also gushing from her lips. And I knew she wasn’t going to make it.“Mom,” I said, taking her in my arms, sobbing.
She tried to talk, but nothing came out, just another groan.
“Mom,” I repeated. There were so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her I loved her, not to leave me.
But my mind and my voice froze. I couldn’t say or do anything. All I could do was sit there, hold her, and weep.
Then she managed to speak. “Lily.”
Her voice was so low I could hardly hear her. “Mom, please, don’t die, please, hang on, please,” I begged.
I realized how futile that was, but I couldn’t stop myself from saying the words anyway.
“Listen to me,” she managed, an awful gurgle rising in her throat.
“What, what?” I was desperate.
“Get out. You… have to get out, now.”
“No, I’m not leaving. I’m staying with you.”
“You have to go,” she squeezed my arm with her hand. Her touch was so weak I could barely even feel it, yet it seemed to take all the strength she had. Her words reminded me of Tom, how he told me to stay away. It was all so unbearable, so insane.
My tears were running down my cheeks, falling on her, mixing with her blood.