M. Rose Flores © 2021
All Rights Reserved
Everything will be okay.
I repeat the words in my head, over and over, though I don’t believe them. The rain bears down on the boats, an unrelenting torrent soaking every strand of hair and fiber of clothing. Not one person seems to notice. Everyone looks ahead, to San Francisco. We’re almost there.
My jacket hangs heavy and dripping on my body. Is that the reason my shoulders are rounded, as if I’m collapsing in on myself? Or is it the fear, inching toward desperation with every stroke of the oars? Their rhythmic splashing is nearly drowned out by the rain, the distant thunder, and my own heartbeat as we close in on the city. Toward Samantha.
Our boat bumps the end of Pier 33, followed by the other one. I grip my sister’s hand. Mel squeezes back and turns up the corner of her mouth for a fraction of a second before letting go to adjust her jacket, her hammer, her glasses. She’s fidgety; I get it. I can’t imagine how nervous she must be, and she has far more cause than the rest of us.
But it will all be over soon. Because somewhere close by, Sam is waiting for us. All we have to do is find her. Soon, we’ll be on our way back to Alcatraz. Safe. Together.
If she wants to come with us. If she has magically forgiven me for breaking up with her. Damn it. Ever since I saw the SOS a few hours ago, I have been so intent on bringing her back—so set on getting to her before something terrible happens—I let myself forget why she left in the first place. Or maybe I never let it sink in. Maybe the idea of Sam choosing to live and die alone in the city rather than spend another second on Alcatraz with me was too painful. Her face appears in my mind, the expression the same as when I told her we were done. Hurt, disappointed, angry. Maybe, the face I find will be that one.
Or worse, the face we come upon will be emotionless and vacant, not from shutting herself off, but from something far worse. Something irreversible. The image morphs, turning bloody, black-veined, and white-eyed. Sam, but not Sam. Something one of us will have to deal with. It doesn’t have to be me. Does it? Should it? I glance down at my axe. I’m dizzy for a minute even though I’m still sitting. My body sways on the little boat bench. Mel nudges my shoulder, I think.
“Cate?” Her mouth stretches a little more this time, an approximation of a reassuring smile. “Ready?”
“Hey, we’re going to be okay.” She wraps an arm around me. “No matter what.”
I know she means “whether Sam is alive or not, whether she comes back with us or not.” My insides harden and twist. When I lock eyes with her again and she’s still trying to smile, guilt seeps into me. It should be me reassuring her. Mel hasn’t left the island since we got there. She hasn’t seen a single ambulatory zombie since the day we escaped the city; she’s been safe with her babies and her garden for more than three months. She should never have come.
It will be fine. It will be okay.
I try like hell to believe it.
Murray gets out of our boat to tie it up. Though he hasn’t operated the ferry since we found the rowboats, he takes his inherited role as captain seriously. He moves to help Jax with the second boat. Behind them, silent shadows bustle around on the pier. They’re tough to distinguish in the gray morning light, but they look about the size and shape of adult humans.
“Did Sam find people?” asks Mel, taking hold of my hand again as I help her off the boat.
“When’s the last time you met anyone alive out here?” Joaquin’s hand automatically moves to his gun.
“Never.” Mel’s voice sounds small in this big space. She surveys the area. The last time she was here, it was the dead of night, and we were fighting our way off the mainland.
Debris litters the area. Shattered glass, garbage, pieces of rope and chains. It has always been this way, but it feels more dangerous now for some reason. One single black suitcase sits off to one side. Has it always been there? Surely, one of us would have checked it out. We use Pier 33 as our point of entry every time we go into the city for supplies, and Joaquin and I never miss anything of use. Surely, someone would have noticed such a thing sitting there, so out of place, so conspicuous.
Up ahead, the shadows continue to shift.
Who are these people? If they were with Sam, she would have told them we’d be coming. I can count at least ten of them, far outnumbering our seven. So why are they hiding?
“Hello,” says Marco as we all inch farther up the pier. He sounds nervous, too, which is disconcerting in itself. In the almost three years I’ve known him, I can only remember seeing him uneasy a handful of times.
“Sam?” calls Calvin. “We saw your signal.” He brushes Mel’s knuckles on his way past us, glancing at her, wordlessly checking on his partner. She dips her head.
“We came to bring you home, Sam.” Even as I’m saying the words, a blooming, viscous certainty spreads through me, coating my insides in cold dread: whoever this is, it isn’t Sam.
They emerge from all around and gather. One of them holds a flashlight, but their hands are otherwise empty. No bags, no weapons, nothing. Their bodies are varying shades of gray; their eyes are clear and unclouded. Black veins peek out from under their clean, untattered clothes.
Mel sucks in a breath and holds my hand tighter. It isn’t a reassuring sisterly squeeze; it’s fear. These are not people.
Thankfully, as I already guessed, Sam is not with them.
“Shit,” mutters Jax behind me. “I’ve never seen this many together at once.”
Why are they all together this way, just standing there? We know by now not all zombies are equal, but I don’t think any of us knew they could organize. This many can’t possibly be here by chance. It’s as if they were waiting for us.
“No,” I whisper. That can’t be right.
“What is this?” Mel asks, glancing at me, at Cal, at the squad of Abnormal zombies staring us down. “What’s happening?”
“It’s a goddamned trap,” Calvin says, pulling his bowie knives out of the sheaths on his legs and taking one giant step forward. “Melody, get behind me.”
They must have seen Murray bring Sam here yesterday. Maybe the Abnormals followed them and waited for the right moment to call us over, knowing we’d come for one of our own. Sam might have been dead this whole time. She might not have survived her first night alone.
Seagulls circle over our heads—at least fifty of them—all screaming, undaunted by the rain. What are they doing? Waiting for corpses to scavenge, probably. Not ours though. Let them feast on zombie flesh after we drop every last rotten one. I grind my teeth and take hold of my axe, fighting the urge to unleash a feral scream, ready to demolish these killers, these soulless monsters. They have taken nearly everything dear to me over the last two years. They are everything wrong with the world.
Mel has to let go of my hand to take up her hammer. She wipes her hands on her jeans, takes a deep, shaky breath, and pushes her glasses up her nose. I want to hold on to her, to protect her. She has never been a fighter. She shouldn’t be here.
Joaquin and Marco square off on either side of us and take up their weapons, making no secret of it. Why would they? These zombie assholes must know we won’t go down without a fight. And if they didn’t before, they will now.
The black-haired Abnormal zombie in the front extends one of its grayish-tan hands toward us and opens its mouth unearthly wide. I wouldn’t be surprised if a thousand black flies poured out. It’s hard to tell what the zombie is saying, but it sounds a lot like “Go!”
We rush at them before they have a chance to run us off the pier. To my right, Murray and Marco collide with a pair of them. Mel raises her hammer with a yell. To her left, Joaquin starts shooting, despite Marco and Calvin’s protests. Guns are almost never necessary, yet they are Joaquin’s default weapon. One body drops with a satisfying thud, but his gun is useless against the next one as the zombie shoves Joaquin to the pavement with a growl. He fumbles for his knife, but I don’t have the chance to see what happens next.
I swing my axe at the one sprinting toward me, but it ducks and comes back up fighting. What the hell kind of Abnormal is this? I dodge the punch and move into the formation Calvin taught me last year designed for efficient zombie fighting: Duck, Roll, Crouch, Swing. The zombie watches me. As soon as I start to roll, it shoves me to the ground, and my axe flies out of my hands. I scramble to my feet and reflexively continue the formation, swinging my leg out in a sweep-kick designed to take it out at the knees. The kick lands well enough; the zombie stumbles. As it recovers, I snatch up my axe. The Abnormal blocks my first blow with its forearm. I nick its head, but the blow draws enough blood to incapacitate it for a quick moment. As it frantically tries to clear the blood from its eyes, I drive my axe into its forehead. This time, my aim is true. The body drops.
I give myself three seconds to catch my breath. Many more surround us, and my people need me. To my left comes the sound of a gunshot and a body hitting the ground.
“Joaquin, no guns!” shouts Calvin. “Do you want to bring in more?”
Behind Joaquin, Marco is dealing with a six-foot-something Abnormal. When it claws at his face, he employs Calvin’s form as well. Marco manages to duck and roll successfully, somehow keeping hold of his axe. But before he can come into a crouch, the Abnormal trips him in a move I can only describe as calculated; in essence, it’s the swinging kick in Calvin’s formation. Marco goes down hard. I run toward them. The Abnormal reaches for Marco, but I cave in the back of its head with my axe. The zombie falls, and I hold out a hand and help Marco up. His face is red, his breathing rough. That was too close. He dips his chin in thanks and steps on the zombie’s head so I can wrench my axe free.
“You good?” he asks.
I nod. “Yeah.”
A sudden panic tightens my chest. Where’s Mel? I haven’t seen her since the fighting began. I search the melee for her, my heart hammering. I find her landing a solid whack with her hammer to the temple of an Abnormal about my size, half a head shorter than Mel. The blow doesn’t kill the thing, but she ducks as it tries to claw her, and as soon as she can, she swings again.
I sag with relief. She’s got this. She’s fine.
An Abnormal I don’t see until it’s too late sends me sprawling with a single, solid punch to my chest. I fall to the ground, coughing. The zombie, which used to be a pretty brunette human, advances the way a living person would, with sure steps and its stare locked onto me. It lunges.
I duck faster this time, dipping just as it’s about to get me and ramming my shoulder into its midsection, knocking it down. It keeps its wild, defiant eyes on me as I put my boot on its black-veined neck and get a good clean kill. But the weirdest thing happens as I pull my axe free: a voice I don’t know shouts a name I don’t recognize.
Another Abnormal charges at me, arms pumping, with what appears to be rage on its face. If zombies could feel rage. It drops to grab a piece of glass, hardly breaking stride, and throws itself toward me. I duck out of the way, but it clips my shoulder, sending me sprawling. It doesn’t hesitate, just starts slicing aimlessly, screaming and screaming. I curl into a ball.
My clothes can’t do much to protect me; my skin shreds as the glass drags through it. My arms, my hands, my face. The searing pain of so many shallow cuts mingles with fury and terror, the kind which, in general, might make someone stronger. But I’m frozen in place, pathetic and small. I cry out with each new wound, but I can’t make myself move.
This is it.
I am going to die.
With a different kind of shout, the zombie’s body is wrenched off me. I open my eyes. Marco and Calvin have teamed up to drag the Abnormal away. It struggles, its glare burning into me as though all it wants in this world is to come back and inflict more damage. Calvin embeds his knife into the base of its head. The monster falls. The offending shard clatters to the cement, my blood already being washed away by the rain.
The black-haired Abnormal zombie has taken one of our people hostage. She sobs, peering through crooked glasses, silently begging us to do something—anything. Her father’s hat has fallen off, and her blonde hair clings to her face, her hands preoccupied with trying to pry the thing’s claws from her neck.
Calvin takes three fumbling steps toward them.
“Melody?” His voice sounds like a boy’s. Unsure, helpless.
The Abnormal presses its fingers into her skin, a warning.
“No! Stop!” calls a voice from behind us. A man rows toward the dock in a boat much smaller than ours. “Please, they’re my patients!”
He clambers out of the rowboat without bothering to tie it up. Clutching a black case to his chest, he takes in the scene with a quick glance around. “Gabriel, what’s going on?”
The black-haired Abnormal shifts its weight. “These people ambushed us. You said they wouldn’t be a problem if we kept to ourselves, and look what they’ve done!”
The emotion coloring its words sounds human. It reminds me of the little zombie Marco and I found on the rooftop three months ago. The one that gave me four new scars and escaped before we could kill it.
The man continues to approach; the zombies don’t seem to mind.
“I should have come sooner; I’m sorry. I was so close this time.”
The Abnormal this mousy little man called Gabriel—the zombie holding my sister hostage—relaxes noticeably when another zombie, pasty-white with a tattooed face, picks up the black suitcase I’d seen before and trades it for the identical one the man is carrying.
What the hell is in those bags? What’s happening here?
“How is she?” the zombie asks, its long fingers curled against my sister’s throat.
“She’s fine. Same as ever. She says hello.”
The Abnormal’s gaze drops; its face softens for a second before going stony again. “Where have you been? It’s almost too late for some of us.”
“How long have you been signaling for me?”
“I am so sorry, Gabriel. I hope I made it in time for the others. I’m getting somewhere; I know I am. Please don’t do anything you can’t come back from.”
“You know it’s too late. These are just more in a long line of people who should have left us alone. Perhaps, this way, they might learn.”
“She’s a mother!” I blurt out, forgetting for a millisecond what I’m talking to. Pleading with one. “She has t-two babies a-and three kids. Please.”
For several heartbeats, the zombie called Gabriel glances first at me and then at all of us, its eyes narrowed as it appears to consider my words. It then tosses Mel over its shoulder as if she weighs nothing and bolts up the street. Calvin shouts her name; he and Joaquin run after them a few paces, but the remaining zombies close ranks, not attacking, but blocking their way.
“He won’t hurt her, will he, Abel?” the man asks the zombie he handed the black bag to.
“You should go, Doctor,” answers the zombie with the suitcase. It’s as if real emotion—sadness, longing?—is etched into its face. “We’re three days overdue. It’s a long time to go without.”
As his gaze travels over us humans, his pupils dilate, and I wonder: Does he mean three days without whatever’s in the bag? Or something more insidious?
As one, all of the Abnormals in front of us turn and sprint away in the same direction as the one who took my sister.
At first, nobody moves. Marco’s mouth hangs open. He stands motionless; he’s not alone. Calvin is frozen as well. His hands, still clutching his bowie knives, hang by his sides. The pier is silent except for the seagulls squawking overhead.
Something warm drips down my face. I touch my temple.
Something breaks within me. I rush at the man—this new person who appeared out of nowhere, spoke with the zombies as though they were people, and kept us occupied long enough for them to get away—and knock him to the ground.
“Cate!” someone calls behind me.
“What did you do?” I scream at the helpless creature beneath me. With one hand, I yank his head back by his long black hair. With the other, I reach for my knife. “What the hell did you let them do? They took my sister!”
“P-p-please—” he sputters.
A pair of strong arms surround me, and in the same instant, I’m plucked off the man. I scream as if I were an animal as Calvin sets me down. I push past him, but he catches me again.
“No! Cal, he did this!” I shout, wiping blood from my eyes. “We have to go after them, and he knows where!”
“I know, Cate,” Calvin says, holding me in place. “We won’t get to ask him if you kill him. Cool it!”
My breaths are ragged, and my eyes sting with unshed tears. Seething, biting my bottom lip until it hurts, I nod. Calvin keeps a firm grip on my knife-wielding hand for a few long moments after I stop struggling.
He rounds on the doctor. “You. You know where they went?”
“I…” The guy seems frightened. He should be. Any one of us could kill him where he stands.
“Speak,” growls Calvin.
“I know where they went. But please, believe me, they will not hurt your friend. I think it would be best if you come with me now.”
He steps toward the rowboats. His has already drifted off into the bay, but he gestures to ours as though he expects we’ll let him on.
“What in the world makes you think we’re going to follow you?” asks Calvin. “That zombie asshole took the mother of my children!”
“I understand; you have no reason to listen to me. It’s just…” The man’s eyes dart back and forth, assessing each of our faces. His broad shoulders shrink the tiniest bit as if he knows there’s no way in hell we’ll trust him.
“Please,” he finally whispers. “There are things you should know before you confront them.”
Calvin, Marco, and I stare at one another for a long few seconds. Realizing we have no other real options, we get back into the boats. The man climbs in and sits next to me, where Mel sat on the way here. The whole thing happened so fast. No Sam. It seems she was never there to begin with, and now Mel is gone, too, taken by a zombie.
At the front of the boat, Calvin sits facing landward. He massages the prosthetic implant site on his right knee discreetly with one hand, letting the other rest impotent on his bowie knife. Zombie blood splatters his brown skin all the way up his arm; he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He doesn’t stare at the doctor the way everyone else does; his gaze is distant, stuck on the last place he saw my sister.
What was in the black suitcase? Why is this man so sure the leader—Gabriel—won’t hurt Mel? Who the hell is this guy? He knew them. Knows them. He calls them his patients. As if they’re people.
He’s clean too. He must have a setup somewhere nearby. Maybe the little spot near the bridge—Treasure Island? We went there once, and not for long; he could very well be hiding out there somewhere. He has a first aid kit open on his lap, hands poised over the supplies. He’s watching me.
“Your name is Cate, isn’t it?” he asks me, breaking the silence. “May I help you with your wounds?”
I raise my uninjured eyebrow. “So, you just happen to have a first aid kit? You carry it around all the time?”
“Whenever I come to the city, yes.”
I eye him; we all do. The oars splash in and out of the water. The seagulls have stopped screaming.
After a beat, he asks, “Your wounds?”
I shrug, and he begins dabbing my forehead with gauze, soaking up the blood. I don’t move, but glare at him the whole time. Of course I would rather not be bleeding from my face, but my most recent injuries are about the twentieth thing on my mind. I’m trying to grasp the fact that Abnormals, or at least the ones who have my sister, are way smarter—and, therefore, more dangerous—than we ever thought.
When he finishes with the cut on my forehead, the doctor moves on to the ones on my arms. “The cuts aren’t deep,” he comments. “But I have to ask. These scars?” He’s pointing to the zombie scars all over my forearm.
“What about them?” I challenge him to continue, to ask the question he so clearly wants to ask.
His brown eyes flit down and back up. “The veins, they’re black. Forgive me, are they from…”
He flinches at the word, or maybe at my tone, but he nods.
“They are. I’m immune.” I say it with authority, staring him in the eyes. I’m not afraid of my immunity anymore. In fact, I’m counting on it to help me save Mel.
A series of expressions move across his face, but he goes back to bandaging. His gaze comes back to mine every so often.
“You’re not the first I’ve met,” he says, putting his supplies away and folding his tan hands over his knees. “Only, it appears you’re maybe not quite…Or perhaps you’re at a different…Anyway, you’ll see soon enough.”
“Okay, I’ve had more than enough with the cryptic bullshit.” Calvin is locked onto the doctor, his face contorted in anger. “I want to know, before we dock, who exactly you are and what you’re trying so hard not to say. Speak up, now, or so help me, I will throw you to the sharks.”
The doctor swallows hard. Sighs deeply. “Yes. All right. My name is Josue Torres. I’m a doctor. I’ve been living on Alcatraz Island since long before your people arrived. In fact, I witnessed the arrival and failure of two survivor groups. One—the first group—fled. The other died. Then, your people arrived.”
“You’ve been living on the island?” I ask.
“I’m sorry—witnessed?” asks Marco from the boat next to ours. “You didn’t help them? What the hell kind of doctor are you?”
“I couldn’t. I was under strict no-contact orders. It’s the reason we haven’t crossed paths yet. I’ve had to be incredibly careful.”
“Orders from who?” I ask.
The doctor shakes his head. “I’m sorry; I can’t tell you.”
His answer reminds me of what Calvin used to say when we asked what he used to do before the world ended. “I’m not at liberty to say.” Back then, it was funny and a bit frustrating. Now, lives are at risk.
“I can tell you one thing, however,” the doctor continues before I can press for more. “They’re our best chance of turning the world around again. They have unlimited resources as far as I’ve seen, and more control than you would think.”
“Sounds like military to me,” says Joaquin.
“So you were hired and sent to Alcatraz”—Marco stares the doctor down, incredulity written all over his face—“to watch people die? Run tests on their corpses?”
“No, nothing so sinister. Alcatraz is one of six outposts established to find a vaccine for the virus. I couldn’t risk helping individual people because I’m trying to save humanity.”
“What self-important garbage,” says Murray. He spits into the water.
“And?” I ask because obviously he has thus far failed.
“I’m still trying. But pretty early on, I found instead of a vaccine to prevent the virus, I can make more of a difference with a cure or, more accurately, a treatment. The people who are afflicted, they’re people. They deserve compassion and a fighting chance.”
We’re halfway to the island. Soon, we’ll have to tell everyone what happened. I’m trying to make sense of what I’ve seen today, trying to reconcile what happened in the city with what he’s saying. The fight, Mel getting kidnapped, this random man rowing up with a suitcase, the zombie calling him “doctor,” the doctor saying he’s trying to find a cure or a treatment…
Then it clicks, and I feel ill.
Marco must get it, too, because as I open my mouth to articulate this impossible thing, he speaks up with the exact same thought.
“So what you’re saying is—the ones who talk, and run, the ones who are more advanced, more dangerous—it was all you. You’re the man behind the Variants.”
The doctor inclines his head. “I am.”
Several people, including me, start shouting all at once. But over the din, the thunder grows louder. Nearer. Only, it isn’t thunder because the rain stopped a while ago. The sky is blue. And the noise continues.
Over our heads, a helicopter passes.