This is a little people-trapped-together story I wrote a couple of years ago and included in a short story collection I first published and then unpublished on Amazon when I realised there was such a thing as magazines and anthologies out there that would give my stories a much better chance of being read by more than the five people who’d buy an unmarketed, unadvertised self-published collection.
Brandon Thompson was sleeping. His room was empty but if there was someone else there, someone who had no idea of the events that had been taking place in town, that person would have noticed the man in the bed was not sleeping peacefully.
He was tossing and turning, a string of incomprehensible sounds unwinding from his restless lips. That hypothetical witness would not have had to watch Brandon Thompson sleep for much longer: someone knocked on the door. Then they knocked again, urgently. If they could rattle the door handle, they would. Only this door had no handle. It had a knob.
Brandon groaned. His eyes flickered open and immediately closed again. He pressed his fists to his eyelids. One deep sigh later he took them off and sat up. The person on the other end of the door knocked again.
“I’m coming!” Brandon barked and pushed off the blanket. “Jesus, can’t you live without me for just an hour?”
“It’s been four hours, Dr. Thompson,” came a muffled response.
“Fine, fine, I’m coming.”
The door that Brandon opened revealed a stocky young man, who, it seemed, had not had the pleasure of sleeping recently as evident from the dark circles under his red-rimmed eyes. He tried to produce a reassuring smile but it was clear to both of them that it was the middle of the night and the situation they were in was so far from normal that the edge of normal was completely out of sight.
“What is it now?” Brandon asked, blinking the sleep away.
“It’s Mrs. O’Sullivan, she’s feeling sick. She didn’t want to disturb your sleep but we thought that we should pay attention to any illnesses,” said the boy, his eyes fixed on the doctor’s.
Brandon sighed deeply and crossed his arms. He was a slim, athletic man. At least he used to be, until five days ago. Now he was just thin.
“Um, yes?” The boy tried to stand to attention for some reason.
“Patrick, how long do you think I’ll be able to function properly if I ‘pay attention to any illness’?”
“I didn’t think about that, sorry.” Patrick loоked at his shoes for a second and then his tired, pleading eyes met Brandon’s again. There was determination underneath the pleading and the exhaustion. “But she does look real bad, otherwise I wouldn’t have come.”
“Fine, fine, I’m awake anyway.” The doctor sighed. “Give me a minute.”
He got his rumpled clothes from the armchair by the window, without bothering to close the door, and started putting them on. The boy stood at the door, head hung.
“Okay,” Brandon said, zipping his khakis. “Lead on, Patrick.”
Mrs. O’Sullivan’s room was two floors up, on the eighth. The two men took the stairs. Nobody wanted to risk it with the elevator. Besides, the stairs had the added benefit of keeping them in shape so to speak. It was some form of exercise, or so Brandon told Patrick.
“Any news from the outside?” Brandon asked, climbing slowly up the stairs after the boy.
Patrick shook his head wearily without turning back.
“Any news from the lobby and the other floors?”
The young man shook his head again.
“I thought I heard some gunshots earlier,” Brandon said.
“What’s with you?” the doctor asked, annoyed. “You usually can’t shut up.”
“Just tired, I guess. I haven’t slept since Wednesday.”
Brandon stopped abruptly in the middle of the staircase that was leading them to the eighth floor.
Patrick turned slowly.
“Now listen here, I don’t care if you’re trying to be a hero or you can’t sleep because of all the excitement. What I care about is surviving and for this we need all our strength, am I being clear?”
Patrick nodded his head again, blushing a bit.
“We don’t need dead weight. We need everyone in top shape. At least as top as possible under the circumstances,” he added after a pause. “Especially some of us.”
The boy managed a short laugh that sounded more like a bark.
“You mean Mr. Michaels?”
“I mean Mr. Michaels and Mrs. Nicotero, who’s four months pregnant.”
“Oh, yes, she told me yesterday.” Brandon leaned on the railing and ran his slightly trembling fingers through his thinning hair. “She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to take her vitamins regularly once she finishes the bottle she has,” Brandon laughed. “Vitamins! Of course, she was also worried about the nice guys in the lobby too but we all worry about them and there’s nothing we can do until they run out of bullets.” He snorted. “Of course, then we’ll have a whole new set of problems, so maybe we’re better off up here, with them armed and dangerous down there.”
They were still standing on the stairs, just a few steps away from the eighth floor. Brandon was staring at the wall in front of him.
“I also mean Mrs. Lukovski, who’s 68, and her husband, who’s ten years her senior and suffers from dementia.” He turned his tired eyes to the boy. “Do you want me to stop? Because I can continue.”
Patrick shook his head again, turned and walked on to the top of the stairs. There, he stopped abruptly and the doctor almost bumped into the boy.
“But the rest of us are okay, aren’t we?” he said over his shoulder.
“I don’t know, Patrick, are we? It’s not like any of us has ever been in such a situation. It would have been nice to have a cop in our midst or an army vet but we’re out of luck, apparently. Almost a hundred people in this hotel and not a single one with military experience and a sane brain!”
They were in the hallway now, Patrick still leading the way.
“I’m worried about Mrs. O’Sullivan. I’m really worried,” he said.
“What’s with the titles, Patrick? You’re not a receptionist anymore, you can drop them.”
“I’m just being polite.”
“No need for titles in the Apocalypse, boy.”
“Room 806, we’re here.”
Patrick knocked softly on the door. They heard a woman’s voice telling them to come in and did so.
Mrs. O’Sullivan, a large woman in her fifties, was sitting in one of the queen beds, the one closer to the window, pale and sweaty, her dark hair plastered to her face. There was also a younger woman sitting on the edge of the bed. She had a wiry frame hair and a concerned expression.
“Good morning, Mrs. O’Sullivan, Miss Landis,” Brandon said, giving them a curt nod. “What’s the problem?”
He sat next to Mrs. O’Sullivan across the young woman and checked her pulse.
“I’ve been throwing up since this afternoon. I don’t think there’s anything left in my stomach but I still get spasms,” she said. “And I’m a bit feverish.”
“Your pulse is very fast,” he said and touched her forehead with the back of his wrist. “You seem hot but a thermometer would know better. Any thermometers, Patrick?”
“Not on these floors, si… Brandon.”
The doctor gave him a crooked smile.
“I don’t imagine they’ll be well stocked on the lower floors, either. Oh, well, there’s nothing we can do, then.” He turned back to the woman in the bed and gave her a halfhearted smile. “Anything else, Mrs. O’Sullivan? It looks like a tummy bug but who knows? These days I don’t know anything, to tell you the truth.”
The younger woman, Landis, smiled and the smile made her otherwise homely face lit up, making her almost beautiful.
“I know exactly how you feel.”
Mrs. O’Sullivan closed her eyes for a second, then opened them and shook her head weakly. She swallowed with some effort.
“I don’t think I have any other symptoms, just the vomiting.”
“What’s this?” Brandon asked and reached out to touch a red spot on the inside of her left arm.
“Mosquito bite,” the woman said and scratched it.
Brandon shook his head to clear it.
“Right,” he said and got up. “I came here on vacation and I didn’t bring any medicines with me, and, as you know, we can’t just go to the nearest drugstore. Which is a problem.”
“How are things outside?” the younger woman asked quietly. Brandon looked straight into her eyes. Blue eyes they were, pale blue and possibly interesting under other circumstances.
“Not well, judging by the sound of it,” he said dryly.
She nodded and opened her mouth to say something but then immediately closed it again.
“I’m feeling a bit sleepy, you know, maybe some sleep would help?” said Mrs. O’Sullivan. Her voice dripped hope.
“Sure, get some rest,” said Brandon and got up from the bed. The Landis woman also stood, tapped Mrs. O’Sullivan on the arm and said, “You’ll feel better in the morning, you’ll see.”
“Thanks, Julia, let’s hope so.” Mrs. O’Sullivan looked at the other woman gratefully and touched her hand. Julia squeezed her shoulder lightly and headed for the door.
Brandon opened the door, held it for Julia and Patrick, and wished Mrs. O’Sullivan a good night or what remained of it.
Once the three were outside and the door was closed, Brandon leaned on the wall opposite room 806 and scratched his head. His hair was greasy, its usual chestnut color had dulled to something mousy.
“Do you think it could be that… disease?” Patrick asked.
“I have no idea.” He barked something like laughter. “That’s the second time I’ve said “I’ve no idea” in under a minute. So much for my reputation.”
Patrick reluctantly sat in the middle of the corridor, arms around his knees.
“Isn’t there something we can do in case it’s the disease?”
“Like what? The door’s locked, isn’t it?”
Patrick nodded his head.
“How many people are there in this hotel?” Julia Landis asked.
“Up here or down there with the jumpy boys?” Brandon said.
“Maybe about eighty, I’m not sure.”
“And we don’t know how this disease is transmitted, do we?”
Brandon slid down the wall to sit on the carpeted floor. Julia sat opposite him, forming, together with Patrick, the three points of a triangle.
“Can I speak freely?” he asked.
“Of course” she said.
“Right. No, we don’t know how it is transmitted, which is why the riot on Monday night happened and so many people lost their lives. But then again, if no one had been killed, there would have been less food for all of us. And I know how this sounds. We don’t know how many of the people those guys killed were actually sick. I don’t really care, either, not anymore. I’ve been here since Monday and I still cannot believe what’s happening outside. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that a horror movie has just become reality.”
“I’m worried that we don’t know how it is transmitted,” Julia said. “If it’s airborne, we have all been exposed, I guess.”
“It doesn’t have to be as contagious as they make us believe in horror movies. Bites and stuff.”
“Mitch said those people outside were zombies.” She tried to smile but her lips refused to cooperate.
“The Starbucks guy,” Patrick said. “He’s up here with us. Room 513.”
“I see. Well, that’s great. We have two members of the hotel staff on our side. But no, they are not zombies,” he said. Zombies are not supposed to be able to think, that’s what every book and movie about them says. Plus, our sick ones look just sick. They’re not walking corpses, just very sick and aggressive people.”
Julia suddenly laughed out loud and ran a hand over her face.
“What?” Brandon looked up at her, one eyebrow raised.
“Look at us, sitting in a neat Hilton hallway and discussing zombies, while outside people are probably dying horrible deaths.”
“Would you like to go and help them?” he asked quietly.
The woman stopped laughing. Patrick shot her a nervous look and moved his eyes to Brandon.
“No. No, I don’t,” she said.
They were all quiet for a moment.
“Are we… Are we waiting for, you know, this thing to happen to Mrs. O’Sullivan?” Patrick said after a while.
“That’s very probably the case, Patrick,” said Brandon. “Though I was actually dozing off, to tell you the truth.” He stretched his legs and tucked his hands under his arms.
“I’m going to check on her, maybe she’s asleep” said Julia, getting back on her feet.
Brandon looked up.
“What did you do in your previous life, Julia?”
“Oh, come on. “Previous life”! As if we need any more drama.”
“I was being ironic.”
“And does it help?”
“Make you feel better?”
“No. Not really.”
“I thought so.”
“So what did you do?”
“I’m a vet,” she said.
Julia went to the door of room 806 and put her ear against it. She slowly placed the master keycard Patrick had given her against the reader and opened the door a little bit. Then she opened it a bit wider.
“Anything?” Patrick whispered.
Julia shook her head.
Brandon got up and joined Julia at the door.
“Did you really think you’d be able to hear her breathe from here? Snoring is not compulsory, you know.” He was also whispering, angrily.
Julia showed him her tongue. He gaped.
“I’m going in,” she said and squeezed between Brandon and the door into the room. Brandon stayed where he was, watching her carefully as she approached the bed and leaned over the figure lying in it. He saw her touching the head of the woman. Then she straightened up and walked back.
“She’s sleeping,” Julia said in a normal voice once the door was closed again. “Her breathing is light but I think she’s fast sleep. And her fever’s gone.”
“What was that with the tongue?” Brandon said.
Julia waved her hand dismissively.
“You were getting on my nerves.”
“How very mature.”
“All right, now that we’ve seen that Mrs. O’Sullivan is fine, I’ll go back to my own bed, if you don’t mind.”
Julia blocked his way, crossing her arms.
“Stop being childish, Dr. Thompson. I suggest we use the fact that it’s the middle of the night and see what our friends from downstairs are up to. I heard shots earlier. What if they shot each other and there is no one to stand guard against those outside?”
“I’m in,” Patrick said, “I’m too hyper to sleep now.”
“I have two questions for you,” said Brandon. “I mean Julia.”
“Go on,” she said, glaring at hi. He put his hands in the pockets of his khakis and cocked his head to one side.
“First, how exactly do you plan to sneak up on those in the lobby, where I imagine their headquarters is, and second, how do you know my name?”
“I have a good memory, and you said it at the meeting, when the bad guys herded us and sent us up here. As for the how-question, I don’t know. I wasn’t actually thinking about sneaking up on anyone but tell me, how well is your mini bar stocked? Because mine’s basically empty and I don’t think they will volunteer to bring us more supplies. Plus, we don’t know how much longer we’ll have electricity and water.”
“They gave us food the first time,” Brandon mumbled.
“They sure did but what if they’ve gone through what was left in the kitchens over the last three days? It’s not impossible and none of us know how much food there was to begin with.”
Brandon leaned in as if he was going to kiss her. She didn’t move.
“And what if they’ve gone crazy and shoot us as soon as they see us?” he asked.
“I think they would have done this already if they wanted.”
“Not necessarily. They may have just forgotten about us,” Brandon said, straightening up.
“Oh, that’s enough. We’re not forcing you to come with us,” Julia said and headed for the staircase exit. Patrick followed her without looking back. Brandon sighed and started after them.
“Fine, fine, whatever. It’s boring just sitting in my room, anyway. But if I get shot, it’ll be your fault.”
“I’ll remember that,” said Julia and flashed him a smile over her shoulder.
The trio were passing the fifth floor when they heard muffled voices from the hallway.
“Of course we’ll go and check,” Brandon said and yawned.
“Maybe you should have gone to bed instead of grumbling all the time,” Julia suggested.
“All the time!”
“Well, you look like you’re constantly ready to start complaining.”
“Come on,” said Patrick, “Let’s go and see what’s going on.”
As soon as the former receptionist opened the door to the fifth floor, it became very clear that the voices were arguing. Their owners – a huge, almost circular man, and a scrawny boy – were standing opposite each other in the clearing that separated the two hallways into left and right. The fat man was sweating profusely and his face was disturbingly red.
“I’m telling you for the thousandth time, I can’t survive on these rations!”
“Oh, come on!” the boy shouted, “You can survive on just water longer than any of us!”
Brandon cleared his throat loudly. They both turned to the newcomers when they heard the door open.
“Hey, Pat,” said the boy. He was breathing heavily.
“Hey, Mitch. Hello, Mr. Michaels.”
“Hi,” the fat man said. “Very good timing. I need help and this boy here is denying it. It’s outrageous!”
“I’m trying to save your life, you idiot!”
“Keep it down,” Brandon said, stepping up to the pair. “What are you arguing about?”
“I’ve finished the food that was in my mini bar,” Michaels began, panting with the exertion. “I tried, I really tried to ration but I’m just not used to so little food!” he wailed.
“What a coincidence!” Brandon said, “We were just on our way to consult with our neighbors from the lower floors on the issue of food.”
“You see!” Michaels shook his index finger in front of Mitch’s face. “I knew I wasn’t the only one.”
“I bet you’re the only one who finished a week’s supply of food in two days, though!” Mitch said, pushing Michaels’ finger away.
“I am not going to respond to that,” said Michaels and turned his back to the boy.
“I’m coming down with you. I don’t care how dangerous these people are, I have to know how long we can survive here on our own.”
“Are you both feeling okay?” Julia said, looking them over.
“Sure,” said Mitch, “I just need to put a lock on my mini bar, because this guy here came to my room in the middle of the night, begging me to share my food with him.”
“I didn’t beg, I asked!”
“Stop it,” Brandon said, “Let’s just go and see what’s happening in the lobby.”
It was very quiet all the way to the lobby. When they finally got there it was eerily quiet, unlike five days ago, when it was crowded with people, and each and every one of these people shouted, screamed, cried, or fought one another. Now it was dark and empty, save for a human shape sprawled on a leather couch opposite the reception desk. The shape had a cigarette in its hand. The only light came from a standing lamp next to the couch.
The group approached the figure, all the while looking around for other members of the gang that had effectively seized control over the hotel. A heavy smell hung in the air and made them raise their heads and sniff around, though reluctantly. It wasn’t a nice smell. The figure turned its head towards them but remained silent until they got close enough to confirm that it was a man, and that he was one of the “rulers” of the lower floors of the hotel. There was no one else in the lobby.
“What do you want?” the man said. He was short and bald, and the dark eyes he turned to them were lifeless.
“Where is everyone else?” Julia said.
The man shrugged and pulled on his cigarette. “Dead.”
“All of them?” she asked.
“But… how?” Julia looked around the empty lobby with unease.
“They got sick,” the man said. He wasn’t a particularly big man, quite the opposite, but the expression on his swarthy face made everyone in the little group try to huddle behind Julia. Brandon stepped aside.
“All the thirty people you had here and who weren’t killed on Monday got sick?”
“I don’t believe this.”
“That’s your problem. First Carl and Jules got it. We shot them but it was too late and the others started catching it off each other like the flu. I finished Michael off a few hours ago.” The man looked down at his right hand, flexing it. Then he looked up at Brandon again.
“But were you sure it was this disease and not a real flu?” Brandon insisted. “Did you see them turn or whatever it’s called?”
“Hell no, we weren’t about to wait around until they turned and then turned on us.”
“So we still don’t know anything reliable about its communicability,” Brandon murmured.
“Where are they now?” said Julia.
“Stashed in the gym.” The man nodded in the direction of the gym. “It’s the only place that had enough free space. The rest is conference rooms, restaurants and shit. Hah, I thought about throwing them out, to see if the freaks would try to eat them but by that time I was alone and I didn’t think it was worth the effort. You want to help me do it?”
“Yeah, right!” said Brandon, taking a step backwards.
“Um, excuse me?” That was Patrick. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’m… I mean, you don’t sound the way you look. I mean…”
“I know what you mean.” The man turned his black gaze to Patrick and the boy shrank back. He took a pull on his cigarette. “I have a degree from Cornell, comparative linguistics. So what?”
The man took one last pull and put the cigarette out right on the table.
“Why did you do that?” Julia shouted, startling the men around.
“Who cares?” the man shrugged, unfazed.
“No!” she screamed, stamping her foot on the floor again and again. “You can’t do that! That’s wood!”
Brandon looked at her, mouth hanging open. The two boys exchanged a glance and stepped away from the screaming woman. Michaels watched her frozen in place, wide-eyed.
“Julia?” Brandon reached out to her.
“No!” she screamed again, then burst into tears and sagged to the floor. She hid her face in her hands and sobbed.
“Julia, calm down,” Brandon tried, squatting next to her. He reached out to stroke her hair.
“Go away!” she sobbed, trying to swat his hand away and missing.
The man, whose name they didn’t know, huffed and stood up. While the others gathered around the sobbing woman reluctantly, he slowly walked to the reception desk and eased behind it. He started rummaging under the desk, his eyes on the little group. His hands suddenly stopped, seemed to feel for something, then he pulled them back out and reached into a pocket. He took out a Bluetooth, put it in his ear and spoke.
“Petersavage here. I think it’s time.”
He listened for a few seconds, then nodded.
He saw that one of the boys, Mitch, was coming towards him and his hands went under the desk again.
“What are you doing?” said Mitch, half whispering. He could see the Bluetooth in the man’s ear. Petersavage took it out nonchalantly.
“Hey, guys!” the boy spoke loudly now, louder than Petersavage would have liked.
The man sighed and pulled out his hands, this time full of a machine gun.
“Hey!” Mitch shouted.
“Don’t try to attack me, all right?” said the man in a friendly voice. He saw the others, apart from Julia and Brandon, starting towards him.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Michaels.
“He’s got signal!” Mitch said, “He was talking on his phone!”
Brandon stood and joined the little group. He didn’t say anything, just looked at Petersavage and his gun. Julia was still sitting on the floor by the table but her sobs had quieted as she listened.
“My name’s Arthur Petersavage, and this situation here is over.”
“What?” said Mitch, “Situation?”
Brandon’s face had gone very pale.
“This was an experiment?”
“Are you asking or are you stating the obvious?” Petersavage inquired politely.
“Must be the latter,” Brandon mumbled, his eyes fixed on the man’s impassive face.
“Fast thinking under stress, good for you. Now, please remain calm, my colleagues will be here shortly.”
“An experiment?” Mitch turned to Patrick, whose chin was trembling. “Some fuckers did an experiment on us?”
Patrick didn’t seem to have heard him. He was staring at Petersavage.
Brandon went back to Julia, sat next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. This time she made no attempt to push him away.
“Is this true?” she whispered, still sobbing.
“Either that or he’s completely insane,” he said.
“What are we going to do if he’s crazy?”
“Beats me,” Brandon said and lay back on the floor, crossing his arms over his eyes.
A moment later headlights drowned the lobby in blinding white light. There were quite a few cars, judging by the noise. Brandon took his arms off his face, let them fall by his body and stared at the ceiling as someone unlocked the doors from the outside.
Julia got up and rushed to the men in uniforms that now filled the lobby, shouting “How could you do this! How could you!”
One of the uniformed men said “Madam, please remain calm,” but Julia continued to shout and cry, pushing the soldier that had spoken to her in the chest. Patrick was sitting on the floor, his face in his hands, and Mitch was shouting to one of the men.
“What the fuck! You think we’re lab rats?! What gives you the right—”
“Sir, let us explain, calm down,” the soldier said, placing his palm on Patrick’s chest.
“I WON’T calm down!”
Michaels was threatening them with lawsuits, sobbing.
Brandon slowly got up and made a few steps towards the men in uniforms. Petersavage stood apart from the crowd, near the reception desk, arms crossed, watching the scene. Everyone was speaking loudly, but a new sound started to ooze into the cacophony. A mix between a growl and a meow. The men who had come from outside and were facing the stairs at the far end of the lobby suddenly stopped trying to explain. One by one the others too turned their eyes to the stairs.
Mrs. O’Sullivan’s shape gradually came into full view and Brandon’s jaw dropped. The woman seemed to have hemorrhaged or was still hemorrhaging from every visible orifice. There were streaks of drying blood mixed with glistening fresh one on her cheeks and neck, trickles of red tears under her eyes. They were unfocused and the meowing sound was pouring out of her blood-flecked mouth incessantly.
“Great,” Petersavage mumbled and uncrossed his arms. He pointed the machine gun in the direction of Mrs. O’Sullivan.
Mitch made an abrupt about-turn and strode towards the woman.
“What now, is she one of your actors, eh? Eh?”
He reached out and pushed her back. The woman swayed but didn’t fall. Instead, she groped, caught the boy by the shirt, pulled him and bit into his nose. Mitch screamed.
“You really should have let them explain,” Petersavage said to no one in particular and took aim.
If anyone had been walking by the main entrance of the Hilton, they would have heard a series of shots followed by a long silence.