This is how it ends. Sitting with his back to the wall, he seems to forget how to breathe. He spasms as if he’s touching an electric fence. His eyes are hooded and bruised and his scalp, where it was injured, looks black. He slumps forward slightly. His breathing slips into the realm of Impossibly Shallow. Both Tamara and Rand gasp for air since their breath was matching his.
And then he groans, once, like he’s sad. Or maybe he has seen beyond death and the nightmare makes him want to shriek, but that’s all his paralysed lungs can manage. He slides to one side and his dead body hits the floor like an empty suit of armour. Like it should. A proper, normal, real corpse. The corpse of Tamara’s boyfriend.
This is the time when she should cry and scream, and make phone calls. But she won’t be doing that. Something is still going on within the brain of the man she once knew. She waits for him to move again. It’s the end of his life, but the beginning of something else.
Zelinski burst into the room, wondering if he was too late. He was. He had a blanket that he’d ripped off the bed. “Here,” he said. “It’s better than nothing.”
It was all part of the plan. Now that Caleb was dead, it was their job to observe his behaviour. Tam needed to look less human. At least, in silhouette. She threw the blanket round her shoulders, wrapped herself in it. She looked like a character from a Western acted by kids. She took a deep breath and pulled the elephant mask over her face. Zelinski ran away. Rand, armed with a steel bar, stood between Caleb and Tam but not between Caleb and the door.
The minutes passed very, very slowly. There were some noises in the distance: shouts, and possibly gunshots. Tam noticed that there were no sirens. A dog barked. She wondered if Lily was okay. Caleb’s body was ten feet away from her but she did nothing. She stood perfectly still. It was absurd. But everything in the world seemed absurd lately. She wondered if, in years to come, she would think of this as the day she went completely insane.
When he moved it happened so smoothly, so naturally, that she was completely caught off guard and stepped towards him. In that split second she thought he was fine. That he’d made a full recovery. He just put his arms under him and lifted himself onto all fours. But it was a clumsy, robotic thing that rose from the floor. Yes, he was a zombie. She took a deep breath. Another mistake. Jesus, she was really fucking this up.
Rand grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her back. He walked right in front of Caleb. Now standing. The familiar face was gone. Something grey and alien was left behind. The way he moved was generic, like a clone. Like every single Wreck before him. The disease was in the driving seat.
This was the worst part. Watching him die was day-to-day stuff compared to this. Something unnatural and twisted, a demonic puppet, had been made out of the man she loved. And it really did look like a puppet. Like the dead corpse had ropes attached to it and some psychopath was making it dance. Tragedy comes in many shapes and sizes but nobody, anywhere, should be made watch their dead loved ones turned into agents for an unknown evil.
Her breath shuddered and she was sure that he would see her moving. If that happened, the only real plan was for Rand to batter him down with the steel bar while she escaped.
Caleb glanced in her direction. She gritted her teeth. He reached towards her. It seemed almost human.
Rand said, “Hey!” like he was talking to a cow, and moved towards the door. He tapped Caleb’s shoulder with the steel bar. Caleb looked towards him as though still trying to figure out what he was doing here, on his feet, a million miles from Heaven or Hell. Rand bullied him towards the door. Caleb stretched his hands out, in classic zombie style. He felt his way as if the air was full of cobwebs. When he was gone from the room, Tam let out a breath that was poisonous with fear.
Zelinski was hiding on his car. Rand made sure that Caleb went outside, then left him loose. At times like this, Tam was glad that she had a METMA exec on her side. He was used to dealing with Death’s recruits. At least the first part of the experiment had worked. As long as she didn’t move and didn’t look human from the point of view of something with less than animal intelligence, she had a chance. Then again, if Rand hadn’t been there to distract him, her boyfriend might just have bitten her face off.