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Tamarine turned from the punch table and looked toward the surprisingly full dance floor. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to replace the image she had just seen with bursts of yellow light in the nothing. It didn't work. The lights were there, but so was his hand, trailing over Lydia's bare shoulder. It would've been a tender moment, if it weren't for the fact that Lydia had been dead three days already.
There are more stages of decomposition than most people think. Over the last sixteen days, Tamarine had become personally acquainted with four.
OCTOBER 1 - INITIAL DECAY
Riding the bus to school was always a great way to get the day started. Lydia sat next to Tamarine, and Paul and Kevin sat opposite them in the very last seats. The four had been best friends since kindergarten when Tamarine, a mid-school transfer, was seated at their table. She fit right in with them and ever since they had been inseparable except when Kevin caught the chicken pox the others had been vaccinated against.
As Tamarine made her way back to her bus seat, Kevin and Lydia were already throwing their hands up and shrugging their shoulders. Paul's seat was empty.
"You didn't notice he wasn't at the stop?" she accused Kevin.
"Naw, I was late. Almost missed the bus myself."
"Well this is a first; wouldn't he have called one of us if he was sick?"
Lydia, the most level headed of the group, raised one eyebrow dramatically, "He'll probably come strolling in during first period claiming aliens abducted him or something."
They spent the rest of the bus ride contemplating what the aliens would look like, and whether or not Paul had been implanted with any tracking devices, and if so, where the aliens implanted it.
When Paul didn't show up by lunch, the three turned their thoughts instead to concern.
"Don't you think he would have called if he was just sick? I know something happened. He's probably trapped in his house under something heavy and can't get to a phone."
Lydia patted her arm," Tam, don't be silly, I'm sure he just forgot to call or something."
"Hmmm," Kevin pulled at his bottom lip, " I don't know. In the nine years we've been hanging out, not one of us has ever forgotten to call when something is up.
"I think we may have to bug out early and check his house out. "
"Sounds good to me." Tamarine leaned in close to the other two, "Besides, I don't think I can stomach sitting next to Andrea Meers in band. She sits in front of me in Algebra, and I almost passed out from the smell."
Skipping school and not getting caught was really easy as long as you got counted in the morning attendance. After that, all you had to do was slip out the back. Behind the school was heavily forested since a bunch of city engineers decided it was better to plant scores of trees in the name of beautification, than lose all that money to the roads at the beginning of the fiscal year back in 1972. In the eighties there were a rash of crimes committed right in those woods and a fence was put up between it and the school, but over time kids had pulled back fence pieces and worn a track through the forest floor that lead all the way around to Martinez Road, which was well out of sight of the school.
Since so many people in the area home-schooled their kids, and Martinez Road had the best used bookstore with a huge area for kids to study and read in, it was common to see kids in groups walking along, and adults in the area never questioned why they weren't in school.
"Oh, look, Bookstop is open. Let me just pop in to see if they have any copies of book six in the Rick Taylor series yet." Lydia was a hopeless book nerd and it figured that seeing the bookstore would sidetrack her from their mission of stealthily avoiding school and checking on their friend.
The door to the store opened and a woman stepped out into the sunshine holding her squirming young daughter's hand. She looked dead-tired with purplish circles under her drooping eyelids and she had pasty, chalklike skin. She looked up and smiled at the group, holding the door wider so they could pass. Tamarine looked into the woman's pale blue eyes and got a little freaked when a fly landed on the inside corner of the woman's right eye, who didn't even blink, much less shoo it away.
She grabbed Lydia's jacket and Kevin's hand and pulled them back before they could pass. "No thanks, we're not going in."'
The woman nodded vaguely, let the door go, and proceeded down the sidewalk away from them. The little girl glanced back over her shoulder and shuddered.
"Come on, it'll take just a second to ask about the book." Lydia turned back, annoyed at her friend until she saw Tamarine's face had gone slightly green.
Kevin saw it too, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, I just...I just thought," Tamarine smiled weakly," I just thought for second she was dead."
Lydia rolled her eyes, "Girl, you had me totally freaked out for a sec. Forget the book, let's just go see about Paul."
Paul's street was right off of Martinez, and even though Martinez was a pretty commercial road, Forest was not. All down the street trees towered two and three times as tall as the houses, sheltering them from the busy road. In the summer months, the trees provided much needed shade but this time of year, the fall, they left a mess of pine needles up and down the street. Paul was out front systematically raking pine needles toward the base of the tree in the center of his lawn.
"Dude," Kevin called when he spotted him, "What's up? Today national blow your friends off and do yard work day or what?"
Paul turned, smiled and waved to his friends. "How are you doing today, Kevin, Tamarine, and Lydia?"
The three friends looked at each other then back at Paul. He was staring at them waiting for an answer. His hair was parted and combed. He was wearing khakis and a t-shirt, both of which looked like they had been ironed. His face was frozen in a smile, as if he was amused by their dumbfounded expressions.
"Dude, are you alright?" Kevin took a half step forward, then rescinded instead.
Lydia pushed past Kevin and continued walking toward Paul. "What Kevin means is, you don't seem quite like yourself. Are you feeling ok?"
She paused and looked back at Kevin and Tamarine, giving them the don't-be-such-big-babies look she usually reserves for them when they are about to do something really stupid. As usual, it worked and they joined her on the lawn just 6 feet from the funny acting Paul.
Now that they were closer, they could tell something was really, most definitely wrong with the boy. His skin was ashen with a greasy sheen. His lips were dry and cracked and pale purple in color. His normally chocolate eyes were a pale, yellowing, tan color.
Paul took a step toward the trio, " I am doing alright. My mother let me sleep in this morning because she thought I was ill, but I feel fine now. I got bored cleaning inside the house, so I thought I would take care of this yard work she has been asking me to get to for the last three weeks.
"And you? You did not answer my question about how all of you are doing."
Lydia stepped even closer to Paul, "Paul?" She reached for Paul's arm.
Tamarine stepped forward as well. She was immediately assaulted by a putrid rotting odor that made her gag. She tried to say something to stop Lydia touching Paul's arm, but it was too late. Lydia placed her hand on Paul's forearm and pulled it back as if she had touched a hot iron.
Lydia stumbled backwards and threw up on Tamarine's boots. Kevin got to Lydia and pulled her hair back from her mouth.
Paul stepped forward too with a look of deep concern on his face. "Oh my goodness, Lydia. Let me help you."
The three friends looked up at Paul in shock as a blowfly crawled out of his open mouth.
Kevin grabbed Lydia and pushed her and Tamarine away from Paul. He didn't give much more than a slight shove, but the girls needed no more than that to start running back up Forest towards Martinez Road again.
When Lydia, Kevin, and Tamarine left Paul they rushed back up to Bookstop where Mrs. Wade was sure to have a phone. When they pulled open the door to the shop, the same rotting flesh smell oozed into their nostrils. Mrs. Wade smiled and invited them in, but her normally pale-blue eyes were almost completely white now. She had to be dead too.
Everywhere the trio went to get help it was the same; all the adults along Martinez Road seemed to be dead. Finally, Lydia broke down, "They're dead - they're dead - they're dead..." she kept chanting.
Tamarine's house was the closest. With Kevin's help to guide Lydia they were able to get there without seeing another dead person.
Kevin walked into Tamarine's bedroom carrying a glass of water and some Tylenol. He'd looked in the medicine cabinet in Mrs. Wood's bathroom hoping to find some sleeping pills or something. His mom always had a stash to help her through her migraines, but Tylenol was the strongest thing Tamarine's mom had.
"Shhh. She's already asleep."
Tamarine backed out of the room and partially closed the door. She slid down the wall and started weeping. Kevin slid down next to her and put his arms around his friend.
"It'll be alright. We'll just wait here until it all stops. Your mom gets home at four, right? She'll know what to do, or at least who to call if it turns out we've just gone looney-tunes."
OCTOBER 10 - PUTREFACTION
Tamarine's mom had come home from work on time, but she, like all adults and most kids over five, turned out to be walking dead.
At first Kevin and Tamarine tried to get Lydia up to run anywhere the dead were not, but Lydia was too exhausted, probably in shock. So Lydia slept, Tamarine watched over her, and Kevin ran home to check his family, only to return thirty minutes later with the bad news.
"They're all dead. Mom, Dad, even Rex." Kevin shook his head. "You know what's even weirder? They don't seem to know it. When I walked in, Mom asked me what I wanted for dinner."
"What'd you tell her?"
"I told her I was gonna spend the night at Paul's. What else could I do? She was so normal, but not. Calmer, ya know? Rex was lying on my bed when I got my backpack together. He didn't even jump on me or anything, just laid there wagging his tail whenever I would look at him."
"What are we going to do?" Tamarine would of wept but she was all wept out.
Kevin managed to make excuses to stay at Tamarine's house for the next nine days. His folks were just so calm and compliant about the whole thing. Lydia's mom called to find out where Lydia was, but Tamarine just told her mom Lydia was staying with them for a while. Everyone seemed ok with that too. Life just went on as if everyone were alive, only calmer.
By day ten, Lydia, who had come back to her senses, Tamarine, and Kevin had exhausted all avenues to get out of town. They had systematically circled the entire city only to find a twelve-foot tall, electrified fence around it. Had the rest of the country known what happened in town? Had they taken precautions to make sure this disease or whatever didn't spread? Whatever the reason, the trio had no way out.
Things wouldn't have been so horrific if folks had just been walking dead, but it turned out they were rotting more and more every day. Now the dead were bloated, and gases and body fluids escaped every pore. The stench was almost unmanageable. Lydia had suggested rubbing menthylatum under their noses so they wouldn't smell anything. She had read about it in some book or another. It worked a little. Score one for the book nerds.
The trio tried to convince the few others in town that were still alive to stick together, but things got rather chaotic and violent by day eleven. Jim Benton took a steak knife from his kitchen and tried to kill his sister. She was already dead of course and getting stabbed more than twenty times didn't have any effect other than to make Jim go crazier than he had already gone. The kids that witnessed it and told everyone else about it, said he cried while he was stabbing her and when she tried to comfort him with a hug, he tried to push her away, but her flesh was now so soft, his hands just sunk in. He turned the knife on himself after that.
Some teenagers kept watch over his corpse for a couple of days, curious to see if he would come back to be walking dead, or Dubya Dee, but he stayed dead.
OCTOBER 13 - BLACK PUTREFACTION
Kevin had moved back home eleven days after the first dead appeared and was glad to spend some time with his family. Paul had even come over for dinner one night, and they had a good time just hanging out, although Kevin couldn't look Paul in the eye any longer because maggots had claimed that piece of flesh as their home.
By day eleven most kids who were still living had accepted things as they were. They quit carrying knives around in their backpacks, quit jumping in fear every time someone walked up behind them, quit breaking down screaming in the middle of the street. Sure, you could freak out, but in the end, what good did it do? You could run away to the fenced areas around town, but then what? Some kids had even tried returning to school, but the smell was worse when you were trapped indoors.
Unfortunately, the W.D. kept rotting so sometimes they would leave slimy chunks of putrid skin around on things they had touched, or small pieces like noses and ears would just drop off into the street. Living had to be real careful to watch where they were walking or you could end up slipping on God-knows-what on the sidewalk.
Lydia was still living with Tamarine; although in her mind things were nearly unbearable; maybe she wished she were dead. Every time Mrs. Wood asked Lydia if she were staying for dinner, Lydia would decline, pretend to go home, and sneak back up to Tamarine's room where she kept a supply Gatorade and granola bars. Tamarine had gone on eating her mom's cooking after the third day or so, and she hadn't caught her death yet. Lydia was sure it was a matter of time and wasn't taking any chances.
"Why do we have to meet at Kevin's? He should just come over here."
"Look, he said he wanted to show us something. I assume whatever it is, is at his house."
"But what if his family doesn't leave us alone like your mom does?" Lydia was shivering again and she looked on the verge of tears.
"He said they pretty much let him do what he wants. None of the W.D.s has done anything bad, or even slightly annoying. It's like, when you're dead, your personality becomes mega-relaxed or something. I'm pretty sure we don't have anything to worry about.
"Besides, I'm going. You don't want to stay here alone do you?" It wasn't very fair of Tamarine to use Lydia's fears against her, but if she tried to reason too much with her, she'd just end up agreeing that home was the place to stay and Kevin could bring whatever it was he needed to show them.
Kevin lived down the street and around the corner into the Diamond Creek cul-de-sac. There was a nice three-foot sidewalk the whole way, but Lydia insisted on walking exactly in the middle of the street. That way they would be as far as possible should W.D.s be working in their yards on both sides of the street. Given the current rate of W.D. decay, and the smells that came with it, it was a sound choice.
"So, what's so important you couldn't bring it up to us?" Lydia was obviously still annoyed at having to leave the house.
"Come up to my room. You need to see it for yourselves."
Kevin's house was neater and tidier than the girls had ever seen it before. In the past his mom hadn't been much of a housekeeper, but now, well, the dead did like things neat.
Rex was lying at the bottom of the stairs and tried to get up to greet the girls, but his poor little legs had turned black and looked like they were drying out.
"Your dog is looking a little crispy." Tamarine pointed to old Rex.
"It's ok, just step over him. I guess he's rotting faster 'cause he's so small. I figure all the W.D. will go that way soon. Mom's fingers are already dark purple, and the smell is getting better."
It was true. The smell hadn't seemed as bad today. Even from inside Kevin's house with a rotting corpse just a few feet away, the smell was bearable.
Kevin's room was tidy too. It seemed almost alien to Tamarine to not have to wade through mounds of dirty laundry and smashed soda cans. Kevin had his telescope out on his balcony pointing over toward the highway overpass.
"Look," said Kevin making a grand, flashy gesture with his hands, "We may be saved."
Lydia squealed when she looked through as Tamarine strained her eyes to see what Lydia was looking at.
"Oh, Tam," Lydia stood back for her friend to get a look too.
Tamarine saw soldiers dressed in baggy green uniforms framed through the trees setting up some kind of equipment. Someone in a gray suit, who must've been the soldier's boss, wandered over and the soldiers snapped to attention.
"What do you think that thing is they are setting up? It doesn't look like anything that can help us."
"Can't help us? They're there! That's a help already. It's a chance. Don't you see Tam, someone knows what's going on!" Lydia slunk back over to the telescope and pressed her eye against the eyepiece.
Tamarine was shaking her head thinking, it just doesn't seem right.
"I agree with Lydia, Tam. At least it's a chance."
Tamarine was going to argue, but didn't get the chance. There was a huge whooshing sound followed by a sudden wind that nearly knocked the three friends back in through the door. Smoke billowed up from out where the soldiers were, and when Tamarine looked through the telescope again, it appeared they were taking down the equipment and packing up.
"They're leaving." Tamarine said as she stood to let Kevin look for himself.
"Then we have to go there before they are gone completely. They're not far outside that section of fence. If we take my mom's car, we can get there in fifteen minutes."
Kevin had become pretty skilled as a driver by day thirteen. It never even occurred to Lydia or Tamarine to drive. They were only fourteen and hadn't even been behind the wheel before. Kevin's dad had let him drive out on the more secluded roads when they would go out to the apple orchards every fall so his mom could make her award winning apple pies. Tamarine wondered briefly if Kevin had gotten to have that yearly ritual with his dad before all this happened.
Kevin figured the quickest way to get to the edge of town nearest the soldiers would be to cut through town center. He hadn't been out in a day or two and didn't realize how many of the W.D.s had collapsed when their ligaments detached from their bones. That left a mess of crawling corpses covered in beetles and maggots in the roadway to weave around.
"We're almost there." Kevin sped up and the girls slid painfully into him and each other as they took a corner too fast.
Tamarine sat between the other two and became suddenly aware how hot the interior of the car was getting, and when she pressed back towards Lydia to scoot her further toward her side, her arm almost felt as if it were burning where she touched Lydia's arm.
"Lydia, you feel hot." Tamarine put her hand on Lydia's bare skin and pulled it back quickly. "Really hot." Tamarine turned to Kevin, "Kevin, feel her arm."
Kevin reached across Tamarine to feel Lydia's arm. Tamarine could feel the heat of Kevin's skin through the sleeve of his shirt.
"What..." she started.
Kevin lost control on the next curve and they plowed grill-first into the young trees lining the sides of the road. Since none of them had thought to wear their seatbelt, the two girls flew forward into the glass, while Kevin's face crashed into the steering wheel.
OCTOBER 15 - BUTYRIC FERMENTATION
Tamarine awoke with pinpoints of light screaming through her skull. Bile rose up her into her throat threatening to force its way out of her mouth. She managed to take a few quick breaths through her nose and that helped the bile settle back down. On either side of her, she could hear moaning. She gingerly opened her eyes, they fluttered, closed, and she opened them again.
She was completely laid out on the dashboard. Her head had hit the glass, she supposed, knocking her out, and her body had simply followed the path her head went. Directly in front of her, Kevin's head was slumped onto the steering wheel and he was moaning slightly. Looking down toward her feet, she could see Lydia lying forward, moaning as well. Lydia's arm jutted at a forced angle up over Tamarine's legs and the dash, wedging Tamarine between the broken arm and the dash over the glove box.
"Lydia, can you hear me?" Tamarine's voice came out in a high-pitched squeal. She tried again, "Lydia?"
Lydia wasn't moving at all, just moaning. She didn't even move when Tamarine gave an experimental leg wiggle.
Smoke was billowing forth from under the hood of the car and Tamarine felt panicked again. If they didn't get out of the car, they could very well burn up in it.
With a grunt and a quick kick Tamarine managed to push aside Lydia's broken arm. The force sent Lydia's arm out the open side window, where it dangled at a ninety-degree angle from the middle of her forearm. Tamarine flopped into the middle of the seat, careful to keep her legs off of her friend's head.
Taking a hold of Kevin's shoulder and shaking him slightly had no effect at all. He just sat, slumped into the steering wheel, moaning. Tamarine crawled behind him and forced the driver side door open. She then pulled him out by his armpits, but he was so hot she almost dropped him before she could pull him far enough away from the smoking car.
Why is he so hot?
Lydia's door was jammed shut, so Tamarine pulled her across the seat and out through Kevin's door. She, too, was scorching hot, and when Tamarine finally got her onto the shoulder near the road, put her down next to Kevin, and stood back to look at her own hands and arms where she touched Lydia to pull her, she was surprised to see that the flesh was bright pink and felt as if she'd gotten a sunburn.
The smart thing to do would have been rush ahead to the fence and see if the soldiers were still there, but Tamarine couldn't leave her friends by the side of road. What if another car came and ran them over, or what if wild animals found them and thought they looked a better meal than they'd most likely had since this had all begun?
The car had quit smoking so Tamarine was able to salvage an old jacket from under the back seat for herself and a ratty, greasy blanket from the trunk that she used to cover her friends. Night came too quickly, and Tamarine huddled next to her friends for warmth.
When she nodded off at around four in the morning, she dreamt that she was dead on a game show, and even when she knew the answer and buzzed in first, the game show host would turn from her in disgust and choose a Living to answer instead.
"Tamarine? Wake-up, silly. It is morning. Time to go."
Tamarine listened to Lydia call her from sleep, but her too-tired eyes didn't open and she began to drift back off.
"Kevin, I do not think she is ready to get up yet."
"Well, we should just wait for her then. Poor dear looks very tired."
Wait, thought Tamarine, they are alright! It was a dream; everything is ok.
Tamarine opened her eyes completely and sat up. She was still on the side of the road, and Kevin and Lydia were a few feet away talking quietly with their backs turned away from her.
Lydia lifted her broken arm, with the bottom forth swinging with the motion, and managed to flip her hair as she turned and noticed Tamarine was up.
"Oh, goodness. I did not see you get up sleepy-head."
Lydia's pallor was a dullish gray and her light brown eyes had gone a foggy tan. Kevin turned and looked even worse. The gash across his jawbone was severe but not bleeding. Tamarine could see the dull pink flesh move when spoke to her. Her only two friends in the world were dead. Tamarine held her own hand in front of her. Her flesh was flushed an unhealthy pink, but very much alive. She screamed.
The only sign the soldiers left, the only proof of their existence, were tracks from the equipment that turned Tamarine's town into a walking, talking graveyard, and a sign that read Test Area: Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.
Tamarine sighed and began the long trek back to town. Things weren't so bad since most of the dead only smelled like moldy cheese now, a vast improvement to before. Insects mostly moved on too, once the dead flesh started drying out. Of course, not all dead were sixteen days old and drying. Kevin had asked her earlier that day if she would go to the school dance with him, and she'd said yes. Better hurry or she was going to be late.
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