• track rec(s): 
    Howl – Florence + The Machine
    Let The Flames Begin – Paramore
Carsen

Carsen West had always been one to notice things.

It was hardly intentional; it was more of an occupational habit, really, something that sort of came along naturally with the chlorine and lane lines and Saturday morning meets. There was an entire collection of learned tendencies – anticipation, tenacity, an incurable impatience, the internal drive to wake before even the rise of the sun – but most of all Carsen noticed things. Sometimes they were simple, meaningless, like the color of nail polish that had been gradually chipping off the fingertips of the latest painfully shy freshmen to swim alongside her. Sometimes they were important, like when Haley hesitated for less than a second in the rhythm of her stroke, forcing her to adjust her relay start accordingly. And there were other times entirely, when she noticed the most strangely unnerving things.

Like the uncharacteristic, stumbling gait of Evelyn – who always walked in such a precise, flowing strut, even under the haze of alcohol – on the night of October the 31st, so unnatural that she was nearly unrecognizable across the moonlit darkness of the upper quad.

Or the seemingly endless amount of Campus Safety carts that raced under the window of her and Jessica’s room not five hours later, their constant buzzing keeping her up far past her usual too-early bedtime.

Or the way the door of Talya and Lauren’s room, just down the hall, was left blatantly ajar the very next morning, even though early practice had been cancelled and there was no reason for either of them to be up before brunch at 10:30.

“I swear, if they left without me … Jess? Hey, Jess!” she hollered up from the depths of her dirty clothes hamper, her voice hoarse with a mix of slept-in drowsiness and agitation. The faint squealing of one of Wanburg’s many, ancient doors echoed from down the hallway in response, mixed with the sound of some hungover sophomore surely shuffling for the bathroom. Carsen’s eyebrows knitted together above her eyes as she momentarily held her breath, waiting as the painfully slow steps faded past her own, mostly closed door before lifting her head from her search for some moderately clean jeans to hiss across the room in a more hushed whisper. “Jess?”

Nothing.

“Jessica,” Carsen repeated, a bit louder than before as she fished a dark sweatshirt from her hamper’s mess of wrinkled clothes, slipped it hurriedly over her head and fumbled with the task of squirting too much Colgate over the dry bristles of her toothbrush. Her back arched in a habitual stretch, drawing her surprisingly ache-free muscles taut; with the past two days of practice having been abruptly rescheduled, she’d suffered no stiff shoulders or tight hip flexors. “Seriously, wake up, we have like fifteen minutes and I’m starving.

Whoever was walking outside stumbled, momentarily, then started down the stairs. But still nothing came from Jess’ side of the room. Rolling her eyes at her reflection, Carsen turned away from their tiny, shared mirror and leaned toward her roommate’s bed over one of her many stacks of poetry books, growling through the minty foam of her half-brushed teeth as best she could.

Jessica Bruno.” She dipped out over the sill of their open window and spat, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand before busying herself with searching for some pants once more. “I don’t care if you and Austin were out til 3 am,” she said with only the smallest bit of a laugh sewn into her words. “You’re getting your ass up and going with me to breakfast, come on!”

Carsen’s own footsteps slapped angrily over the plainly tiled floor as she made a reach for Jessica’s huge piles of comforter, a lip curling back in preparation of her next poisonous remark. How exactly Jess managed to literally disappear into the mass of bedding, Carsen couldn’t understand.

She yanked back a handful of pink cloth and the bed was empty.

Then the shriek came as one shrill note, something she only half-recognized, shattering through the chilled morning air of the near-silent building.

Carsen started, her hand darting out to instinctively grip the cold, silver handle of her door as the entirety of her body weight fell against the wood and forced it shut. The lock clicked into place beneath the pad of her thumb, and she pressed her ear to the stained surface as the scream seemed, just like that, to be suddenly cut off.

It might have been three minutes or it might have been an hour, she couldn’t be sure, but she stood holding her breath until her chest seared in protest, until the weight of the dead-air pushed itself furiously into her straining ears. Her eyes flicked to Jessica’s unoccupied bed, lingering uncertainly on the tangled, empty sheets. She pricked up onto her tiptoes and peeked out the door’s old, foggy peephole, allowing her only slightly trembling fingers to spread tentatively out over the wood.

After another immeasurable amount of sickeningly noiseless seconds, Carsen’s fingers found the door handle again. Some portion of her found the will to push down slowly, so very slowly, to snap back the lock and stretch her neck out into the corridor. The plastic blinds of the hall’s only window whispered against one another in a sporadic, rattling song. A large splotch of what appeared to be vomit darkened a section of carpet just outside the bathroom. Talya and Lauren’s door still gaped open. At the far end of the second floor, a girl sat hunched against the white bricks.

“… Hello?” Carsen’s voice came out hesitant and wavering. She cleared her throat.

The girl’s head lolled against her shoulders, as though it might almost be too heavy, and one of her hands flopped out clumsily along the floor to support the uncoordinated weight of her as she swayed in Carsen’s direction. Her every movement was jerking and unbalanced, creaking and clicking with the sound of bones and joints unwillingly grinding against one another. There was blood, Carsen comprehended then, blood slathered about what was left of her face – what was left because the girl looked down the hall at her with one glazed eye and a giant, gaping crimson hole that didn’t match, her jaw hanging and unhinged, with yellowing teeth that clicked loudly at the sluggish turning of her head. The outstretched fingers dug into the carpet, the paling, near-translucent skin drawing taut over the crooked knuckles as she gripped handfuls of the rugged carpet and pulled the rest of her along.

Dragging herself and trying to push with one leg, struggling and groaning because there was nothing more left of the other besides the splintered end of her femur.

It was more than instinct, more than years and years of swim training and experience that moved Carsen so quickly, it was more than even simply adrenaline – it was desperation, frantic, consuming desperation and blazing fear. Something was wrong, something was very wrong. Her body lurched forward and into the frame of the opening to the stairwell on its own accord, hands slapping against the rough, stony walls as she fought feverishly for some additional purchase; she careened down the stairs, around the curve of the hand railing, her feet tripping over one another as she crashed through into the first floor and sucked in a deep pull of oxygen.

There was Talya, splayed on her back in the center of the hall, blank eyes staring up from the turned angle of her face. Three hunched figures – two guys and a girl, Carsen determined, maybe, but they moved too much like whatever she left upstairs – fumbled over the top of her, gurgling, slurping, tearing away pieces of shredded, wet clothing. Talya’s mouth twitched, lips parting to make some sort of sound, but thick, viscous crimson bubbled up instead.

Carsen’s held breath twisted itself very abruptly back up through her lungs and ripped out her throat in an ear-splitting screech.

One of them looked up, Carsen recognizing him because oh god, it was Fil; his bared teeth were stained, coming away with stringing pieces of flesh, and all of it so red, red, red. He was crawling over the top of the other two then, fighting to come to his unsteady feet with gnarled, reaching hands, and Carsen couldn’t force herself into motion before he managed a handful of the hem of her jeans. She misstepped, pitched back into open air, losing the last breath of her scream as her head cracked against the floor and bursts of white-hot pain exploded against the backs of her eyes. They were all coming for her then, hissing with hungered breaths, and Carsen kicked out blindly with her feet, caught the one that was Fil between the eyes. A stomach-churning crack reverberated under the force of her heel as his head jerked back, though the vice grip of his hand only loosened for half a heartbeat before the girl was snatching at her. She scrambled backwards on all fours, her chest shuddering with the palpitating rhythm of hyperventilation as they kept coming, ravenous. Dead, dead, everything about them told her they were supposed to be dead.

Talya moved, her now colorless, clouded eyes shifting to fixate on Carsen, unblinking, as she drew a whistling breath through the hollow cavity where her chest used to be.

This time, it was sudden and invasive, sounding too close, everywhere, ripping into her ears and quickening the beat of her heart as the inner lining of her throat split open with an undeniable heat. More screaming, horrid, blood-curdling screeching, almost inhuman, unnatural, enveloping her and never-ending, drowning out the rush of air preceding a door swinging open just behind her. Hiding the echo of a frantic set of sprinting footfalls.

Sweat-dampened hands closed about her open mouth.

Carsen bucked against the hold – a pair of long arms tightening around her torso, forcing what little air remained from her lungs and lifting her, dragging her down the hall – but the more viciously she twisted, the firmer they held her still. The shrieking was muffled now, her shrieking, as she was pulled back through a doorway. She jolted involuntarily at the sound of the dorm room’s door slamming shut.

“Shut her up, shut her the fuck up. Now.” snapped someone behind her. Carsen tried to thrash against the grip again, to turn her head and look because she knew it, she knew the sound, she’d heard it before.

“Cars, Carsen, breathe, breathe,” came a second voice; the hot, shaking breath tickled the curve of her ear suddenly, and she arched again, recoiling. A weak sound pushed its way out her mouth against the palm of the hand glued over the top of it, something between a whimper and a shuddering gasp. She squirmed – eyelids forcing themselves shut so furiously tears threatened to leak out the corners – until the voice murmured a more insistent time and forced her to swallow her sense of overwhelming, animalistic panic and listen. “C’mon Cars, I need you to hold still, you hear me? Shhhh, shh, quiet, they’ll hear us.”

Jasen.

She went rigid. Her cerulean eyes peeled open and locked with a pair of dark brown, hardly inches away. It was Gabe, right there, the tips of their noses almost touching, with his familiar charcoal hair, angular cheekbones, and tanned skin that was very much alive. One of his eyebrows spiked toward his hairline as he snagged her face between a thumb and forefinger, turning her sharply from side to side as he inspected every inch of her neck and jawline, squinting at the exposed skin. He took an uneasy step back and scanned her from head to toe, shooting his skeptical gaze over her shoulder to where she could feel Jasen standing.

“You bit?” Gabe asked, once Jasen’s arms loosened and his fingers slipped cautiously from her mouth.

“What?” her response came raspy, her voice taut with the strain of her screaming.

“I said, are you bit?” his words were hushed and low in his throat, but the weight of a threatening undertone was woven down into the question and set her on edge.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Did one of those,” Gabe’s arm lashed out to point at the closed door, and as though on cue, four, five, six sets of bloodied fingers slid themselves under the gap at the bottom, clawing at the wood. “Bite you? Scratch you?”

“I don’t think she –” Jasen started.

“Answer the damn question!”

“No! No, Gabe, shit, nothing happened to me, I –” she started, though a heavy thump vibrated through from the other side of the door and silenced all three of them. The two boys’ heads tilted to one side as they cocked their ears, listening so very intently, and after a moment, Carsen heard it too: more shuffling footsteps, somewhere, and the gradually intensifying sound of guttural growling.

“We have to go. Goddamnit, we have to go now.” Gabe decided almost instantaneously, tearing a black backpack from where it hung on the wall and proceeding to stuff it with just about anything he could reach as Jasen ran his hands anxiously through his unkempt hair.

“Are you kidding?” Carsen’s eyes flashed between her teammates; her hand whipped to fasten about Gabe’s wrist when he didn’t bother to pause in his hurried packing to even look back at her. “We have to go? Where the hell are we going?”

The muscles of his jaw tightened as he turned his obsidian gaze on her and the grip she held on his forearm faltered. “Anywhere, I don’t know, alright? But we have to leave, cause your fucking screaming got the attention of every last one in this entire damn building.” Another thump came from the door. An audible whine creaked out from the rusted hinges. “That shitty lock isn’t going to hold for long, and I really don’t want to stick around to see how many of them it takes to break it in.”

“… Jase?” Carsen tried next, though he had already gone to work on the room’s single window, pulling back one sheet of glass and prying at the plastic frame of the dusty screen with both hands. When she repeated his name a second time, he met her gaze with flat, hazel eyes and shook his head.

“Platner is out,” Gabe informed the both of them, tossing a second bag to Jasen and motioning for him to fill it. “That’s where they evacuated the freshmen, I think, and I bet the Science Center is fuckin’ packed.”

“The gym? The pool is gated all the way around and–” A crack snaked its way up from the bottom of the door; the wood buckled, suddenly, and the old screws of the hinges wailed in protest as they insisted on holding to the frame.

“Go, go, now, just go!” Even with Gabe’s sudden command loud in her ears, Carsen couldn’t pull her eyes from where they’d fixed on the grayed limbs pulling into the room, fingernails splintering as they dug reddened lines on the tiled floor. As much as she tried to will herself to move, the cold air seemed to freeze her in place; the world was stuck in slow motion and she was forced to drown in their symphony of starved snarling, to choke on the sharp, metallic reek of blood.

Jasen looped an arm around her waist, heaved her out the open window and suddenly time sped itself up again, everything happening too quickly.

She was running, sprinting, every breath searing through her like wildfire. Her arms pumped desperately, her tangled waves of blonde hair streaming out behind her as she tried and failed to keep pace with the boys on her much shorter legs. She felt her heart hammering in an uneven rhythm against her ribs, as though it might be able to throw itself with enough force to pull the rest of her along with it; they tore away and she gasped with a terrified lack of breath as they disappeared around the corner of the brick building. One, two, three strides and suddenly she was colliding with them, Jasen and Gabe streaking back to meet her with their faces drained almost stark white.

An entire horde was swarming up behind the two boys; all together, they moved with a pack-like alacrity, pushing off one another stiff-legged and stumbling and all half dead.

Carsen skidded to a messy stop, turned back, her stride shifting up onto the balls of her feet as she fought to accelerate with her throbbing, redirecting legs. Gabe’s hand swung out as he and Jasen passed, binding itself to her narrow wrist and yanking her along behind him with enough force to wrench her arm painfully in its socket.

“RUN! RUN, GO, GO, GO!”

Rough concrete bit into the bottoms of her bare feet, but still she ran. The little air she managed to drag through her chest was sticky, too-hot claws tearing down her throat. Each feverish beat of her pulse shot fresh, electrifying tendrils of adrenaline out into her veins to contrast the numbed ache of every stiffening muscle.

The vast expanse of the black desert parking lot opened up before them as they raced down the crumbling stairs to the right of  Wanburg; cars were crowded neatly alongside each other, seemingly untouched, but Carsen could still see the way Gabe’s sharp eyes swept hurriedly over the flat space before the three of them streaked down between the rows. Carsen darted just behind him through the parking spaces, slamming too loudly against cars as they weaved through them – she wasn’t moving fast enough, she knew, she could feel her fingers slipping from his.

“C’mon, don’t stop, run, run,” his voice was almost too winded to hear.

She kept her eyes trained on Jasen’s lithe frame bolting out ahead of them. Catch him, she urged herself, sprinting without knowing where she was going, internally pleading, begging the pace of her legs to hold steady, just catch him, and you live.

He disappeared over the lip of hill that dipped down to the quad. The dull roar of the herd had faded behind them, Carsen thought, maybe, but her ears were still congested with the sounds of their gnashing teeth.

They launched over right after Jasen, hardly five steps behind.

It wasn’t all in her head. There was another whole mass of them – gaping mouths and missing arms and dripping entrails – clogging the thin path past the loom of the old Wardman art building, blocking them in. Turning too many pairs of fogged, gray eyes up at the three of them when Jasen couldn’t keep back the breaking of his frenetic voice.

“Where do we go, WHERE DO WE GO?”

“ART BUILDING!” Carsen’s answer forced itself past her lips before she had even the chance to fully process it. Now she was throwing herself past Gabe and dragging him behind her, tucking around Wardman’s corner and dropping her shoulder as she slammed into the painted steel of the back door.

It resonated with her crashing weight but refused to budge. Her quavering hands rattled against the handle, thrust it again and again as Gabe and Jasen’s anxious bellows melded together and threatened to swallow her whole.

CARSEN!”

“OPEN IT, FUCKING OPEN IT!”

Dragging feet were too close behind them, louder and louder until all she could process through the storming cacophony was the pant of Jasen’s breath in her ear, hissing in rapid time with the skipping thrum of her heartbeat. She collided madly with the door once more, felt it give only fractionally beneath her tired muscles.

“It’s stuck, it’s stuck, it’s stuck, it’s stuck.” The words tumbled endlessly from her mouth, spilling over one another all in one breath, part of her convinced if she said it enough times soon it would grow tired of holding her out. “It’s stuck, HELP ME!”

Jasen pounded into the door to her right. It yielded another two inches.

Carsen dared half a look back, seeing Gabe shrugging off one strap of his backpack and slinging up the weight of it, catching the nearest dead thing under the chin to throw it back against the others.

“GABE!” His name broke halfway up her throat.

He took a second one in the temple, sent it pitching sideways, then turned back to hurl himself against her and Jasen – a reverberating, angry crack, and the door gave.

Carsen fell through onto the worn, creaking floorboards, her kneecaps snapping against the ground and the skin of her palms peeling away. Jasen hit beside her but was hauling himself to his feet in almost the same instant, meeting Gabe back at the door as the both of them heaved it shut.

Half an arm reached through the closing gap, severing off at the elbow. Carsen’s hands jerked up to fold over her mouth, bottling down the shriek she could feel building up from her knotted stomach as she crawled away from the ashen flesh, the still twitching fingers. Jasen reeled to grip the sides of the back wall’s industrial sink and vomited against the cold metal. Gabe slumped heavily against the now closed door, sliding down to his knees and digging the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Heated drops of soured scarlet freckled the hardwood floor.

to be continued …

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