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Ooze and the bazooka

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he five of us packed into the not-nearly-big-enough brown station wagon and hoped that this would be the last time we had to do it. I had hoped that Ernie would’ve jacked something with a little more speed, but at the end of the day, speed wouldn’t be our fate-decider. It had gotten so bad that the only way we could stay away from them was by rubbing lightning bug blood on our arms and faces so that we would glow, too. But that was temporary. As was the glow-in-thedark paint we managed to buy before the stores were infiltrated. After the Brian incident, I was sure we would never be careless again. Two days ago, we stopped at a gas station. Most of us remembered the glow, but Brian figured that since it’s harder to tell in the daylight, he’d go without it. Pay at the pump, like most were since the infected didn’t particularly enjoy interacting with one another if it wasn’t necessary. “If we’re discovered, it’s your ass on the line,” Ernie said. “You know the drill.” Brian nodded. He stepped out of the station wagon and put his card into the machine. He pulled the lever and put the pump into the car opening. He stood there. Seconds later, a blue corvette with no doors pulled up to the pump next to us. We already looked suspicious, with so many of us packed into the car. Brian wasn’t even green. He noticed and put the pump back in its place while screwing the gas cap back in place. One of the infected from the car jumped out, preparing to fill his car. He had these brownish gray lesions on his neck, distracting from the bloodshot eyes and wispy red hair that fell to his shoulders. We could smell him from the station wagon. Brian bent down and smeared his hands all over our dirty tires before wiping the grease and dirt all over his arms and face. No matter how hard he tried, he still looked like a normie. Plain as day. Just as he made his way back to the car, the infected one with the lesions walked over to our pump, sniffing the air. He saw Brian and grabbed him faster than we could blink. “Shit,” Ernie said. What happened next, well, it was ugly. Ernie immediately hopped into the driver seat and revved the engine. The second infected one in the corvette jumped out and raced over to the passenger side of our car. Jessica pulled out the bazooka and fired. Green and brown oozed every which way. It smelled like skunk meets cow dung, too. Ernie was ready. He shouted at Jackson to take the jars from the back and fill it with the infected one’s insides. We just had to be careful about the contents nearing our mouths. Saliva in our bloodstreams meant death. Ernie put his foot on the gas pedal and we began to move forward. We all knew that Brian’s days were numbered. I turned around in the back seat, a wavering dagger in each hand, and watched as the one with the lesions pushed Brian’s head back to expose his neck. I flinched for only a second, then watched as the infector bit into Brian’s neck and pulled his own head back. In his mouth was a chunk of greased up skin and sprayed blood. I could hear Brian’s screams down the road before he fell to the ground. It would be at least another 24 hours before he, too, became infected. Derrick, Jessica’s younger brother, sat in the back with me. A tear drop glided down his round cheek, yet he remained silent. I wondered how he kept his composure so well at the age of 12. Then again, we were all 1 | Soetaert


taught how to cope with death in the most unimaginable ways possible. Derrick had more to weep about than the rest of us. We all loved Brian, but he was careless. A liability. For Derrick, though, Brian was a hero. He’d always taken Derrick under his wing, and Derrick respected him for it. Looked up to him. “Jesus, look at all this slime,” Jessica said. She used the jar lids to scrape the ooze off of her and into the jars. She called for a towel from the back. She took it and wiped off her mouth. “You’d think after all this time I’d get used to the smell. But no. Same oozy smell. Imagine how this stuff tastes.” Ernie sniggered. “Kid, you don’t know nothin’.” She blew the stray brunette hairs out of her face and wiped a glob of ooze off her cheek with her shoulder. The rest of her long braid seemed to remain intact. “That’s probably for the best, Ern.” I put one dagger back in its holster around my ankle and placed my free arm around Derrick, who still appeared spooked. He sniffed and looked the other way. I gave his upper arm a squeeze. “It’ll be alright. I promise,” I whispered. It wasn’t like we hadn’t experienced it before. But Chuck’s death happened forever ago. He rushed into a convenient store to grab some extra supplies. He burst through the doors, arms full of junk. The only problem: three infected ones were following right behind. Bye bye, Chuck. And that was when we had the Range Rover. Those were some good times. Thank god we left with a full tank of gas this time. I just wished Derrick would follow Ernie and Jessica’s examples and move on. There would be other normies and stragglers. There always were. That’s how each of us found each other in the first place. “Seraphina, will you stop babying him and get this thing to the backseat?” Jessica asked. She practically lunged the oozing bazooka at me, then pulled out two semi-automatics from the glove compartment and reloaded. She was only three years older than me at 19, but somehow managed to treat me like I was more at Derrick’s level. She’d always been that way. Then again, she’d always been the toughest of all of us — with the exception being Ernie. I didn’t get mad at her for being so uptight all the time. When we lived on Cherry Lane, I always watched from across the street as her dad yelled at her so hard and put his forehead up to hers as he did it. She didn’t even blink. She didn’t even react. She just took it. Her mom would come out sometimes, trying to push him aside saying it wasn’t Jessica’s fault she was late that day. It wouldn’t do anything though. She’d still take it. Almost every day, while Derrick sat on the porch and watched. “Yeah, sorry.” Almost three years had passed since the initial infection. The media vortex went wild. Politicians tried to cover up the scare. Even we kids could see through the Bologna Sandwiches they were feeding the country. A minor outbreak turned into a raging epidemic. And then it went suburban. And then there was no news at all. Panic spread through the neighborhoods. No one could be trusted, anyone was susceptible to infection. “Lay off her, Jess. She’s only doing what you don’t know how to do,” Ernie said. Before we knew it, Jessica and Derrick’s dad was the first infected on the block. I heard one of the neighbors say to my own mom (pre-infection) that they’d locked their dad in a room because they didn’t want to kill him, but they couldn’t be around him. Finally mommy dearest caved, and Jessica and Derrick were on their own. My mom fell pretty quickly, too. The equation went a little something like this: Woman needed groceries. Woman went to the store. Woman never came back. The three of us joined forces almost immediately. Brian and Jessica had classes together. She saw him along the road when we traveled at night. He joined us without reluctance. From what we could tell, he was agile and crafty when it came to escaping, so we were happy to have him. We were headed to the outskirts of some town in Kentucky when Derrick finally spoke up about needing to go to the bathroom. It always took a while for someone to Soetaert | 2


speak up about stopping after we’d lost anyone in the past. Vulnerability crept in where confidence snaked away shortly before. Though no one would say it, we were shaken up about Brian. “You be quick now, you hear? We need to keep moving,” Ernie said. Derrick nodded after rubbing infected ooze all over his face and arms. Even the youngest member of our again shrinking group remembered the basics of exposure. And with what happened to Brian fresh on all our minds, no one was willing to make a careless mistake. It was important that we traveled along the outskirts of cities and towns because the infected tended to flood the previously densely populated areas. Something about shiny things and endless supplies of food — a.k.a. stupid humans who didn’t know the rules still hiding around there. Some went rogue, but for the most part, the infected ones flocked together, which was why we made sure our bathroom breaks and other necessary stops took place in the “safest” areas possible. I stepped out of the not-nearly-big-enough brown station wagon for a breather while Derrick did his business behind some trees. Daggers still in each holster, I lifted my leg up onto the back bumper and stretched it. The thing about sitting around too long was that it caused poor circulation. No one wanted to be subpar when facing a possible attack. And we always faced another possible attack. I switched legs and repeated the stretch. We initiated Ernie into the group just over six months ago when we passed through El Paso. Every now and then we’d pick up radio signals from various populated areas. We could usually tell when it was a trap because the infected ones would play the same voice over and over again on repeat. We heard Ernie’s call on Jessica’s walkie-talkie. He sounded angry as all heck. An infected one had murdered and eaten his only traveling companion, a 9-year-old Australian shepherd named Bosco. The rest of us were unsure whether or not Ernie should travel with us, but Jessica seemed convinced that we needed him. In the end, she was probably right. Ernie taught us different survival tricks we had never heard of before, and he didn’t fool around. Brian wasn’t opposed to having another guy around. Derrick didn’t like him at first, particularly because of his age. I thought it weird that a 32-year-old man with a daunting scar running from the bottom of his left eye to the corner of his mouth chose to travel alone for so long. But Ernie grew on me. I continued stretching at the rear of the car while Derrick finished up his business in the woods. No screams, which meant that everything was fine for the moment. The windows were rolled down again in the wagon, so I could just barely make out the details of Ernie and Jessica’s conversation about our next whereabouts. “God, I just want to get this ooze smell off of me. Can’t we just find some remote town outside the city and camp there for a few days?” Jessica said. She always had this irritation in her voice, like everything was inconvenient. “Yeah kid. Looks like Blaine, Kentucky, is where we’re headed. Last official headcount recorded at 259. Surely we can set up camp there.” “How long’s it gonna take?” “Well since we’re takin’ back routes, I’d say about four more hours.” “You’ve gotta be freaking kidding me.” “Hey.” There was a pause. “It’s going to be alright, kid. Remember what we said?” I heard no response, but could tell through the back window that she nodded. I peered in as nonchalant as possible and could’ve sworn I saw Ernie’s hand brush Jessica’s cheek, but before I could get a closer look, Derrick came out of the woods. He looked slimy and disgusting, but that’s what the ooze did. Better to be safe than sorry. “Alright, let’s get going. We have a little ways to go before we can camp out for the night,” Ernie said. The skunk-meets-cow-dung stench continued to infiltrate my nostrils, making it hard to think of anything else even with the windows down. But we continued onward. No official law enforcement meant we could go as fast as we liked. That was one good thing about the infection — fewer cars on the road. Even when the infected ones did ride around on the highways, they tended to be careless and stupid. With adrenaline pumping quadruple the normal rate, they always wanted to race each other and would crash and burn more often than not. As the sun set, we made our way into Blaine, Kentucky. Population: Zero. At least that’s what it looked like. We looked out the now closed windows anxiously. Everyone oozed up in preparation, which made the situation more uncomfortable. Then again, the sooner we secured the location, the sooner we could wash up and rest. No radio signals and no strange bustling along the road. Ernie drove us through what appeared to be a people-less 3 | Soetaert


residential area. He drove slowly until stopping before a house with a swing on the front porch that swayed ever so slightly in the evening air. “This is it. I have a good feeling about this one,” he said. “Thank god. I’m so done smelling like this.” Derrick unbuckled his seatbelt. Jessica gave one of her semi-automatics to Ernie before opening the car door and hopping out. She stuck her other gun halfway into her pocket and looked around the lot. I got out, keeping one dagger in hand. The bazooka stayed in the trunk, stinking up the wagon. No foot prints in the vicinity of the house. Derrick and Ernie made their way out of the wagon too, weapons in hand. There was no such thing as too careful. “I’ll check around back. Derrick, you come with me. Ern, Seraphina, you two check inside. We’ll join you in a minute.” Ernie nodded, quickly catching up to me as we made it up the front porch stairs. If someone was in the house, they knew we were coming. The trick was finding them, then discovering whether or not they could be trusted. Ernie went to the basement, I went through the kitchen and then made my way upstairs. Standard procedure. Everything looked tattered. Drapes torn, scratches up and down the walls, furniture unkempt, it was evident that whoever lived here before had been attacked. I gripped my dagger so hard, I could feel each groove in the shaft. If attacked, my traveling companions would either kill me or abandon me. So much more stress emphasized on being the killer and not the killed. The first bedroom seemed empty enough. Dried blood stained the sheets of the unmade twin bed. Clothes were strewn all over the floor only to reveal an empty closet. Bathroom looked empty aside from the cockroaches residing in the stained, smelly tub. I turned one of the knobs on the sink, realizing that the house still had running water. Unusual. The last bedroom upstairs smelled especially grotesque, even from down the hallway. The sliding door in the kitchen opened down below. Derrick and Jessica must’ve made their way inside. I walked nervously into the final bedroom. Again, unmade bed with stained sheets. The smell kept getting worse. I thought about calling for backup, but that would only give me away to my potential attacker. I took the other dagger out from the holster, slowly. Then I heard a click. I hoped so hard that it was a mouse or squirrel or human in hiding. The walk-in closet door was cracked open a little, light turned off. Inch by inch, I moved quietly toward the closet. If the noise came from an infected one, surely I would’ve been attacked already. I took a deep breath, attempting to cease the trembling in my hands and lips. I kicked open the door, flipping the switch with one dagger. I gasped. A boy, no older than 17 or 18, sat up against the back wall of the closet with his hands holding a gun pointed directly at me. “There are others with you.” I nodded, keeping my dagger steady in front of me. “Don’t say a word.” I couldn’t figure out why he was being so quiet. We were on the same side. Until I realized that his left arm had a chunk out of it. Spilled blood trickled down the side. His face was grayer than normal, but not quite the glowgreen of the infected. “What attacked you?” I asked. “I said don’t say a word.” “We can help you. Please put down the gun.” “You don’t understand. No one can help me now.” The sound of footsteps echoed through the halls and into the room. Someone was coming. I didn’t know which I was more afraid of, someone else coming or being killed by this strange new person I’d encountered. “Seraphina, is everything OK up there? Coast clear?” Derrick said. The boy looked at me, still gripping the gun. “Say yes. Get rid of him. Now.” “Yeah. Everything’s fine. Tell Ern the coast is clear.” More footsteps echoed. “Derrick, you don’t want to come up here. It reeks. Worse than the car. Just go tell Ern and Jess, OK?” “Whatever you say.” Soetaert | 4


He walked back downstairs. The boy kept his gun pointed at me, breathing heavily. He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. His tawny curls tangled around his face while sweat dripped down his brow. He bit his lower lip repeatedly, yet his legs stayed immobile. “Are you going to kill me?” I asked. “No—I, er, haven’t decided yet. I need you and your friends to leave. Get them to leave, OK?” “They won’t leave until they have a reason. Unless there is an infected one running around here, we’re not leaving. We drove a long time to get here. We’re tired and we need to bathe.” “Find another house.” “We found this one and we’re not leaving. Please put the gun down. I’m not going to hurt you, I swear.” It was a leap of faith, but I slowly moved my daggers back into their holsters, then put my arms up where he could see them. “Seraphina, right?” I nodded. “Can you get them to leave by tomorrow morning?” “No. We usually stay put for a week before we relocate. Are there infected ones here?” “Not anymore.” He coughed into his shoulder, though his gun lowered slightly. “Look, you have to hide me while you’re here. No one else can come in this room, I don’t care what it takes. No one can find me.” “I don’t understand—“ “Just do what I say and there won’t be any problems.” I sighed. He didn’t give me much of a choice, and I was still unsure of what attacked him. He had no lesions to speak of, and he wasn’t the same color as most of the infected ones. He seemed fairly rational, too. Still, something told me that things weren’t all good with him. “What’s your name?” “Not that it matters, but my name is Ian. Do we have a deal?” “Fine, Ian. But I have to go back downstairs or else they’ll think something’s not right. Can you let me go for a bit?” He lowered the gun. Then lifted up again. “Yes, but only if you swear you’ll hold up your end of the bargain. I’m not kidding, I will screw everything up for you if you make things difficult.” He coughed again into his shoulder. “We have a deal. Please don’t shoot me,” I said while backing away. I carefully pulled the door behind me and left it at a crack before heading back downstairs. Everything seemed off. If he was attacked by an infected one, why hadn’t he changed? But if he was fine, simply bruised up a bit, then why had he left the house like this? And how did he get here? Questions kept racking my brain until I shook myself out of it. I couldn’t be distracted around the others, or they’d think I was up to something. I intended to keep up my end of the bargain, solely to learn more about this Ian guy. The bazooka propped up against the front entryway. Jessica, Ernie and Derrick rummaged through the kitchen. “What took you so long?” Jessica asked. Ernie pulled a package of oatmeal out of the pantry, looking at the expiration date with a shrug. “Still good.” I looked out one of the bay windows at the yellowed grass in the backyard. “Just double-checking everything. The main bedroom is really stinky, but I think that’s where I’ll sleep tonight. May clean it up a bit, you know?” “Ick. I can’t deal with infected smells anymore. If only more normies stayed alive, the world would smell a whole helluva lot better.” Derrick stood next to me at the window. “Everything OK?” “Yeah. I’m just worn out, that’s all.” Ernie continued to make noise in the pantry. “You know, I think most if not all of this food is still good. Someone must’ve been here before us.” Jessica rolled her eyes. “Yeah. You sure know how to pick ‘em, Ern.” “I’m serious. All this food’s still good. Plus, the dirty dishes in the sink look fresh and there’s running water. Seraphina, you’re sure you didn’t see anything up there?” “Nope.” “Hm. Guess we’re just lucky then. And I know how to pick ‘em.” 5 | Soetaert


I walked out of the kitchen before calling back to them. “I think I’m gonna go wash up and conk out. I’m a little tired.” I walked back up the stairs, a little less nervous. I hoped Ian stayed in the closet. He surely knew better than to walk around in that bedroom. I closed the door behind me when I got in and walked toward the closet again. “You OK?” “You’re back already?” “Yeah. If I have to sleep up here, I’m going to clean this place up a bit. It smells like the infected. How can you live like this?” I pushed open the closet door to see that he hadn’t moved since I left, except for the gun that now sat at his left leg. His arm still bled. He reached for a T-shirt sitting on the ground and dabbed his wound. I almost threw up looking the exposed bone. “Ian?” “What?” “Did you get bit?” He didn’t look up at me. Instead, he just kept dabbing the wound with the T-shirt, though his arm continued bleeding heavily. “Yeah.” Shit, I muttered under my breath. “When?” “Two weeks ago.” I almost let out a ‘ha,’ but snapped out of it. “Two weeks? You’re joking. You weren’t bit by an infected one. It was an animal, right?” “No. I was bit by an infected.” He refused to look at me. “Then why aren’t you attacking me? And why aren’t you green?” “I don’t know. I don’t know, OK? It just happened, and I can’t make this stop bleeding. All I know is that I’m still alive. Even if just barely.” “I can toss you a wet towel to wipe up the blood if you want—“ “No, don’t. It doesn’t help, I tried that already.” “Huh?” “The water. It just makes it bleed more. I can’t even hardly drink it without getting sick.” “So . . . you really are infected, then.” “The wound that wouldn’t heal.” “How do I know you won’t attack me while I’m sleeping?” “Because as of yet, I haven’t had the urge to consume human flesh. That good enough for you?” “I don’t know. Why should I believe you?” “Because you’re one of the good ones, I can tell. And because if I eat you, the rest will come after me. And I don’t really want to die. So I think it’s in both of our best interests for you to trust me,” he said. “Fine. But I’m a light sleeper, so don’t pull any crap on me. And you’re right. Don’t do anything stupid or you’re dead.” As I removed the stained sheets from the bed and cleared the cluttered clothes from the floor, I wondered what he had been eating to survive. Surely he was hungry. The whole thing made no sense. He’d been bitten, yet it was like he was half alive. I wanted to help him, but I wasn’t sure that I could trust him. I couldn’t get too close. I put one dagger on the nightstand. The other stayed under my pillow. The only light on was the one in the closet. “Someone will hear if you attack or shoot me. So just don’t.” “Wasn’t planning on it.” “OK. Goodnight,” I said. “Yeah.” My eyes closed, but my head spun. I couldn’t get the memory of Brian writhing on the ground at the gas station out of my head. If only we could’ve saved him. But he knew the rules. We all did, and we followed them strictly. Rules or death. Ian, on the other hand, presented a completely different set of problems. This whole half-life thing really was a gray area. Uncharted territory. The next morning I woke up to the sounds of Ian moaning and Jessica moving pots and pans around downstairs. Derrick slept in the room down the hall upstairs, and came out about the same time I did. Soetaert | 6


I made sure to shut the door when I left. It still stunk enough in there that I was sure no one would bother peering inside the room. “How’d you sleep?” “Fine, I guess,” Derrick said. “Yeah, me too.” “You didn’t sound like it. I heard some weird noises last night. You feeling alright?” We both made our way down the stairs together. “Yeah, I’m fine. Probably just mumbling in my sleep. Maybe I had a nightmare, but I already forgot it.” The bazooka stayed in the same spot it had been the day before. We got to the kitchen as Jessica had eggs sizzling in a frying pan on the stove. “Eggs don’t go bad, right? I mean, when I cracked ‘em, they looked yellow enough.” We both just shrugged. “Ern went out to explore the area. He’ll be back soon, though. You made quite the racket last night. Made it hard for the rest of us to go to sleep. You feelin’ alright?” I looked away, wondering how bad the noises had been. Wondering why I hadn’t noticed them in my own slumber. “Yeah, I’m fine. Must’ve had a bad nightmare. I was pretty exhausted last night.” “Maybe you better wash up. I can smell you from over here, and I tell you what. I’m sick of smelling that crap. Then we can eat.” I could tell by the look on her face that she really did want me to clean myself up before breakfast. I’d gotten so accustomed to the smell the night before that I almost hadn’t noticed. I went into the bathroom and splashed some water on my face. My hair stayed plastered in the braid I’d done a few days prior. And then I heard a thump from upstairs. “What the—Derrick, was that you?” Jessica asked. Immediately, I left the bathroom to see if anyone pieced what’d happened together. Jessica had already cleared out of the kitchen and was heading up the stairs. Derrick looked at me with worry. I raced to the front door, only to see that she’d taken the bazooka with her. Ernie entered through the front door at that moment. “Hey kid, nice of you to—“ “No time, Ernie. Jess is about to do something rash. We have to stop her.” I ran up the stairs calling out, but Ernie pushed in front of me. “Jess! Stop, please! I have to explain something to you.” BANG. Tears rushed to my eyes. I didn’t even know why I was upset. I didn’t even know Ian, but somewhere inside of me, I wanted to know him. I got to the bedroom and saw a large pool of blood coming from the closet. “NO!” Ernie screamed. He saw before I did. Jessica’s lifeless body lay on the ground. A bloodied bullet sank into her forehead. Ernie picked her body up, not looking at Ian in the closet, who still clung his gun. Time slowed down. Without even thinking, I reached for the bazooka and fired. “You son-of-a—“ Next thing I knew, Ernie and I lay on the ground of the bedroom, covered in ooze and blood. My thoughts ran back to Brian and how he didn’t ooze up because I took the last of what we had. He went out looking like a normie because of me. He died because of me. And now, because I didn’t have the guts to kill him in the first place, Ian killed Jessica. Jessica died because of me. “Ernie, I—” My throat welled up so hard, and the tears practically blinded me, but I couldn’t get the words out without crying. “Save it, kid.” His eyes, too, were teary and oozy and bloody. “We gotta get out of here. Now.” “But Ernie, it’s OK. Ian was the only one who—” “I don’t want to know his name. I don’t even want to know that you knew his goddamn name. We gotta get out of here. Rules are rules.” “I can stay. You can go without me,” I said. “Nah,” he said. He sniffed, still holding onto Jessica’s body, which he dragged with him during the blast. “We’re not leavin’ you unless you’re infected or dead. And you’re neither, so you’re comin’.” I nodded. 7 | Soetaert


“Oh, and one more thing.” I just sniffed and cried and wiped the ooze and blood from my face. “You get to tell Derrick.”

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Ooze and the bazooka