“Wake up you whore!”
Gina opened her eyes. Her mom was inches from her face shouting, “I work my ass off to give you a place to live and food to eat and you repay me by screwing some boy under my roof with me in the other room?!” Bits of spittle launched from her mouth onto Gina’s face through Helen Targoff’s clenched teeth.
Although still groggy, Gina managed to respond, “Mom, what are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about?! You’re lying here naked, the screen busted out of your window!”
Gina was fully awake now. She was naked, but didn’t remember taking off her pajamas, well, not really pajamas. She had been sleeping in a t-shirt and panties because the air conditioner was on the fritz again. Gina had dealt with her mom’s bipolar episodes before and she knew that if she remained calm her mom would relax.
“Mom, you know that I would never betray you like that. I must have taken off my clothes in my sleep because of the heat.”
“What about the screen?”
“Maybe Buffy heard something and knocked it out.”
“Maybe. Where is Buffy?”
“Mom, you know she’s hiding. She can’t stand it when you’re upset.” “And neither can I,” Gina thought to herself. She loved her mom, but ever since Gina’s dad had abandoned them, her mom had been on an emotional roller coaster. At first she just cried all the time and drank a lot. She was better now, but still had emotional outbursts from time to time. Gina once again reminded herself that she would never allow herself to be hurt by someone like that.
School had been out for a couple of hours and Gina was done with her homework. Her mom wasn’t home from work yet, so she decided to take Buffy for a walk. The little Schnauzer was in bad need of grooming. Gina would mention that to her mom at dinner that night. It was already dark, but the temperature was warm. Gina’s mom hated this time of year because it got dark so early. Gina loved the dark though. And she loved Texas in the winter because it was possible to have balmy, 70 degree evenings like this. Their upper middle class neighborhood in Plano had a lovely creek running through it and the city had provided ample walkways throughout the neighborhood. There was even one that ran under the street that was lined with overhead lighting. Gina decided to take Buffy through that walkway because there was a duck pond on the other side of the street.
As Gina and Buffy exited the tunnel onto the walkway that ran along the creek bed, she stopped to listen to the gurgling flow of the creek when she noticed a coyote on the opposite bank. She was not startled because there were often coyotes sighted along the creek. Plano believed in wildlife conservation. Another thing Gina loved about her home town. But this coyote was different. It was larger than the others she had seen and silvery, not reddish gray. It seemed to look right at her and then it vanished. Gina stood there for a moment and then decided that it was just the poor lighting playing tricks on her eyes. Buffy as usual, didn’t do anything but wag her tail. She just wanted to play with the big dog. Gina bent down and wrapped her arms around Buffy, which Buffy responded to by almost wagging her tail right off her body. Poor dog wouldn’t last a day on her own, Gina thought to herself and smiled.
The car was in the garage when Gina and Buffy turned into the driveway in back of the house. Her mom had left the garage door open for them, so they entered the house through the garage instead of the backyard. Gina removed the leash before opening the door. As soon as Buffy saw Helen sitting on her recliner, she ran in and jumped on her lap. This resulted in a slight groan escaping from Helen.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” asked Gina.
“My stomach’s just a little upset. There was an accident at the lab today.”
“Oh my god mom, what happened?!”
“It was nothing. Some of the nanites escaped, but they were neutralized. I think the chemicals we used to do that upset my stomach.”
“Do you want me to heat up a can of soup?” asked Gina.
“No, I’m fine. I was about to watch the 6 o’clock news. I think Caecilia is going to be on.”
“About the accident?” Gina asked.
“Yes, can’t upset the locals you know.” Helen turned on the television and Gina sat down on the couch to watch it with her.
After the commercial break, there she was, Caecilia Demarkis. Tall, beautiful, with long, wavy auburn hair. Standing there in all her glory on the steps of Demarkis Industries HQ. Gina’s once childhood friend, now owned her own corporation, given to her by her father. Gina ran her fingers through her own, somehow always tangled brown hair and sighed. True, Gina was only seventeen and still in high school, while Caecilia was twenty-one and had a body like Scarlett Johansson. Gina hoped as usual, that she was just a late bloomer.
Caecilia was surrounded by reporters, but one woman was questioning her at the moment.
“The accident was contained. No one was harmed,” said Caecilia.
“Ms. Demarkis, isn’t it true that your company is working on nanotechnology to be used in warfare?” the reporter countered.
“It is true that we are working with nanotechnology, but not for use in warfare.”
“But aren’t you currently negotiating a contract with the Chinese government?”
“Yes, but for medical purposes, not war.”
The reporter wrapped up and then a commercial for some house cleaning agent or another blasted from the speakers. Gina stood up, picked up the remote, and after turning off the TV, turned to her mother.
“How can you say the accident was nothing, when Caecilia’s standing there surrounded by reporters?” asked Gina.
“She was just doing damage control, Gina. It was a small accident in the lab. No big deal, really,” said Helen.
Buffy jumped from her lap as Helen stood up. “I’m exhausted Gina, I’m going to bed.”
“Mom, don’t you at least want some dinner?” asked Gina.
Helen walked past Gina and down the hall.
“Good night Gina,” she said.
The next morning, Gina tiptoed around the kitchen as she made her lunch for school. She knew her mom had called in sick when she saw the car keys still lying in the same place on the kitchen counter as the night before. Not to mention the fact that after she let Buffy out back for her morning constitutional, she ran right back to Helen’s bedroom and jumped back in bed with her.
Adita walked in the back door just as Gina was shoving a sandwich in her backpack. Gina looked up at her as she entered the kitchen. Adita was taller than Gina and Gina often thought of her as a northern Indian princess because of her long straight black hair and olive skin. Adita was striking to behold. Gina often had to fight off urges to feel sorry for herself because she was so plain compared to her closest friends, Adita and Caecilia. Although, she didn’t see as much of Caecilia these days now that she was running Demarkis Industries.
“Hey Adita, where’s Ram?” Gina whispered.
“You know my brother. He’s finishing a video game level or something. Why are we whispering?”
“My Mom’s not feeling well. She’s still asleep. There was an accident at the lab.”
“I know. I saw the news last night. Is she okay? I’m really sorry, it didn’t occur to me that she might have been involved in it,” said Adita.
“Oh no, you’re fine. I mean she’s fine…I think. She just seemed tired last night. I guess she called in sick today,” answered Gina.
“Well at least it’s Friday, so maybe she’ll get enough rest over the weekend,” said Adita.
Adita and Gina turned toward the back door as Adita’s brother, Ram entered the kitchen. Ram looked fit, muscular beneath his plain, black t-shirt. “When did that happen?” Gina thought to herself. It was as if she was seeing him for the first time. “What happened to the skinny, video game playing kid she had always known? Now muscles…tall…thick, jet black hair, just a little long and wavy…” Gina shook the thoughts from her head. This was her best friend’s brother. She had known him since he was a little boy…
“Are you guys ready?” Ram asked.
“Shhh, Gina’s mom is sick,” Adita scolded him.
“Oh sorry,” Ram whispered.
Gina grabbed her backpack off the kitchen counter and slung it over her shoulder.
“Ram, where’s your backpack?” she asked.
“In the Outback,” Ram answered.
The three of them walked out the back door. After Gina stopped to lock it, they walked out the side gate to the driveway. There, in all its glory was a brand new Subaru Outback. It was a shiny, pale gold color. Still had the temporary tags.
“Is that a sun roof?” asked Gina.
“A moon roof,” answered Ram.
“What’s the difference?” asked Gina.
“I don’t know,” laughed Ram.
“And the color, it’s so unique,” Gina continued.
“It’s called tungsten metallic. Come on, you can ride shotgun and check it out,” said Ram.
“So this is yours?”
“Yup, a birthday present from my dad.”
Gina had forgotten Ram had turned sixteen and was now old enough to drive. Well, not really forgotten, since she and Adita were seventeen and she knew Ram was only a year behind them in school. It just seemed weird, that this little, video game playing boy, could now take someone on an actual date. Like drive a girl to a movie and such… Gina looked at Ram now and for a moment, saw what other high school girls saw when they looked at him. A tall, athletic, exotic looking young man with jet black hair and a face that had been carved out of bronze. She smiled and reminded herself that she thought of Ram as a little brother and said, “It’s beautiful, but if we keep standing here, we’ll be late.”
Ram smiled back at her and opened the passenger door. “My lady,” he said, still smiling.
Gina slung her backpack off her shoulder onto the counter in the center of the kitchen after shutting the back door. Buffy hadn’t come to greet her as usual, but Gina shrugged it off. She figured Buffy was in bed with her mom.
“Mom, is that you?”
The strange grumbling was coming from the living room, so Gina walked around the corner expecting to see her mom sleeping in her recliner. Gina stopped dead in her tracks as she saw the reason for Buffy’s absence in the kitchen. Helen Targoff was hunched over the body of the little dog. Gina thought she must be imagining what she was seeing. Her mom was munching away on the carcass. Blood was all over the area rug and wood floor.
“Mom! Oh my god!”
Helen looked up at Gina, lifting her head from what was left of Buffy. Blood and entrails dripped from her face.
Gina was frozen in place. But when the monster that was her mom stood up and started ambling toward her, instinct took over. She backed up into the kitchen. She quickly turned and grabbed a butcher knife from the knife block on the back counter, putting the middle kitchen island between herself and Helen as she did.
Her mom continued moving toward Gina. Helen’s progress was slow because her left foot dragged behind her as she walked. Gina started backing toward the door as Helen walked behind the island toward her.
“Mom! Stop!” Gina yelled as Helen approached her on the same side of the island now. Tears streamed down Gina’s face as she yelled again, “Mom! Stop! Please!”
Helen’s jaws snapped open and closed. Her eyes were dead. This girl begging her to stop meant nothing to the monster.
Gina stabbed her in the chest. The monster staggered back a couple of steps. Gina was sobbing now. The monster steadied itself and continued toward Gina.
Gina ran out the back door of the kitchen. She left the fence gate open as she escaped the hell that once was her home. She ran down the street to the Singh’s house. She pounded on the door. Within seconds she was face to face with Adita.
“What’s wrong?!” asked Adita.
Gina collapsed into her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Adita helped her into the house, holding her friend tight. Ram was at the foot of the stairs. He walked over and shut the front door before following them into the den. Adita and Gina sat down on the sofa, Gina still sobbing in her friend’s arms. Ram stood next to the plush, brown sofa watching, face tightened with concern.
“Ram, go get Gina a glass of water,” said Adita.
Ram did as he was told and made a quick round trip from the den to the kitchen and back again with glass of water in hand. Gina took the glass, gulped down the water and set it down on the coffee table. Ram took his place in the matching arm chair as Adita continued to console Gina.
Their father had entered the room now. He was a tall, imposing figure, complete with turban and well-kept beard wrapped up in the traditional Sikh fashion. Rambir Singh did not engage in frivolity. He believed in getting to the heart of the matter and solving problems. This attitude had served him well in his career as a Dallas police officer.
“Gina, I know you’re upset. But you have to stop crying and tell us what happened,” said Mr. Singh.
“Okay Mr. Singh, but it just seems crazy. I can hardly believe it myself,” said Gina as she continued to whimper.
“Just tell us.”
“When I came home from school…my mom…was…eating…Buffy,” Gina began.
Ram bolted to his feet. “Is that a metaphor? What does that even mean?!”
Gina collapsed back into Adita’s chest, sobbing uncontrollably.
Adita placed her hands on Gina’s shoulders and pushed her back so that they were eye to eye. “The dog? You’re talking about the dog?” Adita asked.
“Gina, you have to have imagined that. Or are you on something?” asked Mr. Singh.
Gina wiped her face with the back of her sleeve. “No! I didn’t imagine it!” she answered.
Mr. Singh looked at Gina for a moment, then turned and walked toward the back door.
“I’m going to get your mother, Gina,” he said as he departed.
Adita and Ram exchanged looks and then followed him out the door, being careful to hang back so he wouldn’t notice them. Gina collapsed face down on the couch, her body shaking as her sobs were now completely out of control.
Mr. Singh walked around to the front of the house with his children following several paces behind. When he reached the front walk, he spotted a neighbor across the street a couple of houses down lying flat on his back with someone leaning over him. He trotted toward them so he could help the downed man. He had seen the man doing yard work before, but didn’t know his name. Just as he stopped short, he recognized Helen Targoff as the one rendering aid. Helen was muttering something he couldn’t quite make out. He settled on his knees to her right, a pair of abandoned pruning shears off to his right.
Helen turned to look at him, still mumbling. Her eyes were vacant and blood and tissue was streaming from her open mouth. She was eating the neighbor with no name. For a split second Mr. Singh was frozen. His logical mind couldn’t process what was happening. But his police officer training kicked in and he fell back on his haunches and began the desperate scramble of retreat. His body knew what to do, even if his mind didn’t. He was dragging himself away with his hands, butt scooting on the grass. He cried out as Helen lunged and bit a chunk out of his calf.
Adita and Ram stopped in their tracks at the sound of his agony. They just stood there and watched as their father grabbed the pruning shears in his right hand and stabbed their friend’s mother in the side of the head.
Mr. Singh stood up as his children ran up on either side of him. He was shaking, not from fear, but acceptance. His mind had no choice but to see the reality before him.
“You’re bleeding, Dad,” said Adita.
But her father couldn’t feel the pain. His children supported him on each side as they walked back to their home. Ram opened the front door as Adita helped their dad into the house.
Mr. Singh turned and embraced both his children and said, “The world’s gone crazy.” He turned back around and Adita helped him up the stairs as Ram watched with liquid eyes, before turning and rejoining Gina in the den.
“How is Mr. Singh doing?” asked Gina when Adita returned to the den.
“He’s resting upstairs now. I bandaged the wound where your mom bit him,” Adita answered.
“I don’t think she was technically Gina’s mom anymore,” said Ram.
“What do you mean…not my mom?” asked Gina.
“I think she was infected by the nanites that escaped in the accident at the lab. I think that only basic brain function survives in the infected and she was no longer an individual,” Ram answered.
“You read too much science-fiction, Ram. This is real life,” said Adita.
“Really?! Real life?! Gina’s mom just tried to chow down on Dad’s leg!” Ram responded.
They sat in silence for a moment. The only sounds in the room, the whirring of an old Play Station 3 that hadn’t been powered down and the swishing from the ceiling fan. But then there was a new sound, an animal sound. But the Singhs had no pets.
“Did you guys hear that?” asked Ram.
Gina and Adita nodded. The three of them were quiet again, so they could listen. They heard it again. A gurgling, growly sound. It was coming from the stairs. The three of them stood up, but before they could make a move, Mr. Singh entered the room.
“Dad, thank god!” said Ram as he started toward him.
“Ram stop!” shouted Adita.
Mr. Singh had the same vacant stare as Helen Targoff before him. The sound came from his constantly gnashing jaw. He scuttled toward them.
“Oh god! He’s infected!” shouted Ram.
Gina ran to the fireplace and grabbed a poker. She rushed back and swung it at Mr. Singh’s head like a baseball bat, causing him to stagger back a couple of paces.
“We have to shut down the brain!” yelled Ram.
Adita ran to the kitchen and came back with an ice pick. She stabbed it into her father’s temple as tears streamed down her face. As he crumpled to the floor she whispered, “I’m sorry Daddy.”
Adita wiped her tears away with the back of her hand and said, “We can’t stay in Plano. There’s no telling how many people are already infected.”
“It can’t be that many, my mom is dead now,” said Gina.
“Adita’s right. It only makes sense. Your mother wasn’t the only one working in the lab was she? We’ll go to our grandmother’s ranch in Princeton, but we need to burn Dad’s body first,” said Ram.
“That will attract more of them and there’s no time,” said Adita.
“But…” began Ram, stopping because he and Adita had locked eyes in the sheer force of a battle of wills that can only exist between a brother and a sister. After what seemed like an eternity to Gina, Ram dropped his eyes.
Ram’s eyes shone brightly as he drove his birthday present down the street and out of their neighborhood forever. Gina was sitting in the back seat sideways and watched as one of the infected staggered after them until it was just a small figure in the distance.