Everything seemed to slow as if she were underwater. Karly knew she screamed, she could hear it echo throughout the stairwell. But even knowing the noise was dangerous, she couldn’t stop it flying from her throat. As she watched the ax barely miss Matt’s shoulder, Karly was sure her heart would stop beating. Matt’s face was as shocked as she felt as he watched the wild man step toward him to raise the ax again.
“Stop! Please stop!” Karly screamed.
Her voice seemed to pull the ax-toting man’s attention her way. His hazel eyes, so full of pain and rage, swung to her face. His movements faltered and it was the window Matt needed. Slamming his shoulder into the man’s midsection, Matt rammed him into the wall. The ax fell away as the man cried out from the impact. It was as if the blow took the wind out of the man’s sail and he no longer had the fight in him. He immediately crumpled to the ground, covering his face in his hands.
Karly stood still as a statue as she waited for the man to move again. When the sounds of sobs began from behind his hands, she knew they no longer had anything to fear. Matt grabbed the ax and leaned it against the far wall of the landing. He stood away from the man and Karly could tell he was perplexed in the shift of behavior.
“It was you watching us in the restaurant?” Matt asked.
Karly was surprised by the comment. She looked at Matt questioningly first, before looking back at the man on the ground. They waited for him to answer. All he did was nod his head.
“Why didn’t you talk to us? Why attack us?” Matt continued.
The man on the ground leaned his head back to rest on the wall. His eyes were closed and his face was wet with tears.
“I wasn’t sure if you were here to attack me. I thought I should do it first,” he mumbled.
“Why would we attack you?” Karly asked softly.
She knelt down to sit near the man. His sadness radiated out and struck a chord in her heart.
“Because that’s what everyone is doing now.”
“We aren’t sick. You can see that,” Matt said.
His voice was laced with annoyance and Karly couldn’t blame him. He was the one avoiding an ax blade to the body.
“I don’t know what is going on anymore. Those things, they look fine sometimes. Except for their eyes….” The man trailed off. He then lifted his head and looked directly into Karly’s eyes. He studied her for a moment and shook his head.
“I wasn’t sure. I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“It’s ok. Everyone is ok now,” Karly said, motioning to include Matt.
“I’m not. I’ll never be ok. I’m not sure why you’re here, but leave me. You should run. Get away from here. Those things are all over the city.”
“We know. We’ve been out there. We came to find friends of mine. Are there a lot of the dead in the floors of the hotel?” Karly asked.
“Why aren’t you trying to leave?” Matt asked.
“I have no reason to.”
“Because your friend jumped?” Karly asked. She tried to keep her voice soft, but the man winced and tears began to stream again.
“He wasn’t my friend. He was my husband,” the man replied, choking on his words as he sobbed.
“Oh, no,” Karly said.
Right away she realized why the man was in so much pain. When they saw the suicidal man land in front of their car, Karly had no idea the man in the window watching was in love with the dead man. Now when she thought back, she remembered hearing the wailing from the open window as the infected began to feast on the body. Everything came into sharp focus for Karly and it cut her to the core.
Scooting closer to the man, Karly carefully put her arm around his shoulders. As if she were his lifeline, the man laid into her and hugged her tightly. She made soft shushing noises, trying to give him comfort in the only way she could think to.
“He…he was bitten. He didn’t want to be like those sick people. So he jumped,” the man said quietly.
“He was trying to protect you,” Matt replied.
“I didn’t want him to. I would have gone with him. But I’m a coward.”
To punctuate his words, he violently punched his thigh, as if the pain was a reminder that he didn’t follow his husband to his death. He was still alive and could still feel pain. Karly reached over and put her hand over his, trying to calm the outburst.
“You aren’t a coward. Survival instincts are deep inside us all. Your mind and body wouldn’t let you jump. Your husband knew that he didn’t have long left. His instincts weren’t the same as yours,” Karly said.
She didn’t know where the words were coming from. They made sense, but she wasn’t a therapist. She didn’t actually know if any of what she said was true. She just knew she wanted to give the man reassurances to help him understand what was happening to him. The sick eating people, that wasn’t something she could explain to anyone.
Karly pulled back once the man seemed to still. She looked at him and smiled softly.
The man looked back at her, weighing his options. Karly could almost read his thoughts. She was having the same. Would knowing the name of another person mean she was going to watch another person she knew die? Her mind flashed back to Helen and fear shimmered through her mind. She looked back at Matt unsure of where to go now.
“Stuart,” the man answered, as he tried to return her small smile.
Stuart made the choice for her. His small smile was everything Karly needed to see. He was trying to be a survivor, just like her. She couldn’t just ignore that because she was afraid of losing people. Instead, she felt determination well in her, they wouldn’t lose anyone else.
“This is Matt,” Karly said, pointing toward the man standing quietly a few feet away.
She wasn’t sure what was going on in his mind, but he didn’t seem quick to accept Stuart and his introduction. She tried to mentally will Matt to meet her eyes but he glanced away, not seeing her imploring look. Karly wouldn’t let him deter her from her feelings about the situation.
“We are trying to get to the fifth floor. I was staying there with my friends. I need to find out if they are ok,” Karly said.
“The sick ones are everywhere in the hallways. I’m not sure you’ll make it to your room,” Stuart replied.
“I have to try.”
Stuart nodded and got to his feet. He started toward the ax, but Matt stepped in his path. Karly noticed that he was holding his knife tightly, his knuckles white at his side. Stuart stopped short and looked into Matt’s face. Karly watched the two. She found it interesting that Stuart was as tall as Matt, but probably half as wide. Matt was built, someone who had worked hard with his body. Stuart was thinner, almost dainty. But she remembered his swing with the ax and she knew he was strong.
“I’d like to help you try to get to her hotel room. But I’m not going in without a weapon,” Stuart tried to reason with Matt.
“How do I know you won’t use the ax against one of us as soon as we turn our backs?” Matt demanded.
“Matt, I’m sure he didn’t mean to use it against us in the first place,” Karly said as she stood up and tried to stand between the men.
Matt’s arm snuck around Karly’s waist and he pulled her closer to his side. For a moment she was disarmed, feeling him close to her, his arm being around her. But she quickly remembered that she was trying to defuse a situation that could easily get out of hand.
“Karly’s right. I wouldn’t attack a living person. I was in a panic. I promise I won’t hurt either of you,” Stuart replied.
Karly turned her face to the side, only to find herself much too close to Matt’s face. She tilted her head slightly so she could meet his eyes. This time he didn’t avoid her gaze. She could see his eyes were hard and fierce. He took the job of protecting her very seriously. And she had given him the responsibility willingly. Her heart wasn’t built to turn her back on people that needed them. If they were to survive, they needed to accept help when it was offered and help others when they could.
She wasn’t sure how she got her point across, but she saw the moment that Matt decided to concede to her. His eyes softened as he looked at her and she could feel the sigh as his body moved against hers. A sniff from Stuart pulled her attention from staring at Matt and thinking about how close his lips were.
“You two are really sweet,” Stuart said.
“We aren’t….together or anything,” Karly stammered.
“Could fool anyone watching from ten yards off. The steam…” Stuart trailed off as he mockingly fanned himself.
Matt relaxed a little against Karly and his grip on her waist loosened.
“Well, if we are going to do this, let’s get moving,” Matt finally said.
Stuart picked up the ax and rested it against his shoulder. Matt watched him, still some caution on his face. Karly gingerly began to climb the stairs as they headed up to the fifth floor. She didn’t want to complain to Matt. She knew he was working too hard already to take care of her. However, her feet were screaming. Countless amounts of sharp stones and rough pavement had started to cause sores on the soles of her feet. She tried to step carefully, but that only made her toes take the brunt of the pain.
The three were silent as they wound through the stairwell. Matt passed Karly so he was the first to come upon anyone or anything above them. She held her smaller knife in her hand, wondering if she could actually use it if she was faced with an infected person. In her mind, she said she would do whatever was necessary to defend herself and Matt. However, if she was being honest, she had never killed anything in her life. She wouldn’t know how to even attempt it.
She felt luck was on their side when they reached the fifth-floor landing without another interruption. The small window in the door showed a clear hallway. Karly noted that there was blood smeared on the window and some of the nearby doors. The infected were nearby, just not visible. She stepped back to stand next to Matt.
“Where is your room?” He asked.
“Six or seven doors down, on the left,” she whispered.
She wasn’t sure why she was whispering, it just seemed the safe thing to do at the moment. Stuart moved to the door and looked through the small door. He seemed to be unable to stand still as he fidgeted with the ax and moved from foot to foot.
Matt took the lead, opening the door carefully and slowly. Karly let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding when the door didn’t squeak. She moved into the hallway behind Matt. She almost sighed at the feeling of the carpet under her abused feet. However, she quickly stepped in something wet and she let out a small squeak instead. Matt froze and turned to look at her over his shoulder. She just shook her head quickly so he would continue walking. She didn’t want to look down and find out what she had stepped in. Her imagination was already running wild.
Karly tapped Matt on the shoulder and pointed at her hotel room door, two doors from where they were. He nodded and held out his hand. She slid the key into his hand, grateful that he would enter first and make sure the coast was clear for them. The loud beep of the lock reading the key seemed to echo in the hallway. Karly could hear a hushed curse come from Matt as he slowly pushed the door open.
Without saying anything, Stuart followed Matt, leaving Karly alone in the hallway. Knowing she needed to keep the door open she held the doorknob, waiting for the all clear. A thump from the end of the hall pulled her attention from her concern over Matt. Looking down the long hallway, she stared at the curve. She knew if you followed the hall down it would curve and then you would have an option of the elevator lobby or another row of rooms. A scuffle sounded next and Karly could feel the hair on her arms stand up.
Her breathing began to speed as first one figure than three came around the corner. Soon there were five people ambling her way. Without seeing them clearly she knew a few things right away. One, they were sick. Their movements were unnatural, grotesque as they came around the corner and found a meal waiting for them in the hallway. As they moved, they bumped into each other and the walls without notice.
The second and more sickening thing Karly noticed was she recognized three of the infected in the group. The brown permed hair, a pink halter top, and a purple mohawk. Her friends came toward her, their teeth snapping, steps faltering, their goal clear. They were looking at her as if they only saw one thing. A flesh pop for the taking. Karly felt hot tears on her face, at the same time as bile burned her throat.
She knew then that the room was clear. Her friends weren’t inside. They were in the hallway. And they wanted to kill her. She felt frozen in spot. Could she help them? Was it possible to cure this disease? But she then remembered the man in the hallway of the Venetian. There was no way he could live with the injuries he had sustained. And yet he walked again, trying to attack Matt.
Karly stared at her friends for a moment longer. The door handle was pulled from her grip and she almost fell into the room. Matt’s body stopped her and he put an arm around her to steady her, a questioning look on his face. When she didn’t look at him, he followed her gaze and he gasped. Without hesitation, he pulled her into the room and let the door slam behind them. He threw the lock, though in a haze Karly wondered why. The infected couldn’t open doors from what they knew.
“What is it?” Stuart asked from the bathroom area.
“The sick. I think there were seven of them,” Matt replied.
He looked at Karly for some sort of agreement, but she was too busy swiping furiously at the tears.
“Karly, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer. Her gaze flew around the room and she realized why Matt hadn’t let her in immediately. The room was a bloody mess. The bed looked as if someone had laid in it and died of blood loss. The red was deep and fresh. She stepped toward the bathroom, but Stuart tried to stop her.
“There’s nothing you need to see in there.”
His gaze pleaded with her. Karly could see clearly that he was filled with fear and revulsion. She didn’t need to know the man, to know the look. He was practically radiating with his emotions.
“I need to know what happened, Stuart.”
“You already know, honey. This only makes it worse,” Stuart said quietly.
“My friends, the closest people in my life are on the other side of that door. I can’t imagine anything is worse than that,” Karly said harshly.
Stuart looked over at Matt, who nodded his head slightly. Karly watched the last moment of indecision cross Stuart’s face before he stepped away from the bathroom entrance. She didn’t move immediately, instead waited taking deep breaths. She gathered all of her resolve before she opened the door to the large bathroom the hotel boasted.
Her hand flew to her mouth as her mind reeled by the sight of the bathroom. The white tiled walls were splashed with red and black. Smears marked the tiled floor, bare footprints tracked the gore across the room. She tried to imagine what had happened. Did the feet belong to an attacker, or the one being attacked? She looked down at her own bare feet and stepped back slightly to put more distance between her and the blood on the ground.
Her eyes blinked quickly, fighting the tears and hysteria that tried to rise to the surface. Her gaze flew from corner to corner, refusing to not take in every bit of the scene. Her eyes rested on the handprint that streaked against the mirror and the image of one of her friends fighting to get away filled her mind. Questions flew through her thoughts. Did one of them get bit and then attack the rest? Or were they all infected when they got back into the room. How did they get back into the hallway?
With a sob, Karly knew she had seen enough and she needed to get away. Quickly she turned to flee the room and ran directly into Matt’s chest. His arms came up to circle her, as he basically lifted her to move them away from the open bathroom door. Stuart quickly closed the door, hiding the disturbing images from her eyes.
It wouldn’t matter. She knew she would never forget what she had seen that day. The banging on the door was a reminder that she was truly alone in the world. The only people she cared about in her life were dead, now wanting nothing but to feast on her. She cried into Matt’s neck, feeling the loss and the realism of the situation weighing her down.