“234… 235… 236…”
There was a dull cry, followed by a long and slow dragging noise. A guttural moan echoed against the wooden paneling of the hallway.
Sarah closed her eyes tightly, biting back a rush of hot tears that stung at her eyes, and whispered, “Zero.”
Scrape. Silence. Scrape. Silence. The staggered walking traveled down the hallway until finally it reached what she was fairly certain was the door.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she waited, wishing for silence.
After a few moments, she released a long sigh of air. Listening to the gentle thudding of her heart, she began to count.
“1… 2… 3…”
It had been at least a day; a day since warning sirens had erupted in her neighborhood and chaos had overtaken the sunny suburban landscape. Everywhere, people had piled hastily stuffed bags into the trunks of cars while screaming children stood by clutching family cats. Sarah had been loading her own car when the neighbor’s three-year-old was snatched up, screeching tomcat and all, and bitten through the neck by one of the crawlers.
That was when chaos had become terror. Every car made for the road simultaneously, as the monsters emerged from the trees on all sides, and the road became a snarl of collisions and twisted metal. Looking at the mess helplessly, Sarah turned and fled from the carnage at the neighbors’, which had spread from the three-year-old to include the parents who’d come to her valiantly pointless defense. The crawlers were distracted with squabbling over the dead family’s parts, and it gave her time to get inside.
She’d seen footage of them breaking down doors to reach all the obvious places. Some part of the crawler brain still understood where a human would try to hide if someone were coming to dine on them. News programs had advised the only good hiding place was one they would not expect. Sarah had only one idea: a crawl space beneath the downstairs hallway that she’d squirmed through to install cable wiring. Taking refuge inside it, she’d tried not to listen as the crawlers did their work in the rest of the neighborhood.
But the screaming was too loud.
Her plan had been to wait—to wait for them to finish up their eating and move on, leaving behind another pocket of devastation. Whenever she had just about decided to push up the floorboards and see, she’d hear them: dragging their feet across her floorboards.
Her nerves were frayed and shot. Sarah no longer trusted her own instincts to tell her when it was safe to go. But she couldn’t stay in the dark forever. She didn’t have any food or water, and she didn’t trust that there might not be things in the crawl space that were just as deadly. Immediately, she began to catalogue all of the poisonous spiders in California. Brown recluse? She was done for. Black widow? Treatable, but only if you could actually get to a hospital. The thought of them was enough to make her nearly bolt, crawlers or no.
So she had devised a system: she would count a thousand heartbeats. If nothing interrupted, that would signal her moment of escape.
So far, she had not made it past three hundred.
Her mouth was sticky, and though it was oppressively hot, she didn’t sweat: dehydration was starting. At some point, she would have to leave. It might have been death out there, but it would be death down here as well. At least above ground she had a fighting chance.
But leaving posed an additional threat: undeath. Being attacked by a crawler didn’t necessarily mean dying. Certainly, if they devoured you completely, there was nothing left to keep going. But their bite made you one of them, and she’d seen videos of half-men dragging themselves by their fingernails across deserted streets, screaming at news cameras in hunger.
No, better to die alone in the dark, Sarah decided, than become one of them. If she couldn’t reach one-thousand, she would stay below and accept her fate. She continued counting.
“145… 146… 147…”
She’d been close. She’d almost reached nine-hundred, and then there had been a tortured cry — not human, some unlucky animal — and she’d had to start again. Still, there had been nothing inside the house since the last cycle. Perhaps that was enough.
It was foolish to stay down here, her mind screamed, to just let herself die. Another part of her recalled the threat of undeath, but then a strange question called up in her mind: was it really so much worse than death?
The thought settled heavily in her heart. Sarah did not believe in the after-life, and so for her, death was the end, an infinite void. If she could not get away, if the crawlers caught her, if they made her one of them, was that really worse than the Nothing of death?
She knew the thought was perverse — worse, even — but she couldn’t shake it. More and more, she just wanted to get out. She wasn’t even counting heartbeats anymore. She was just listening, and contemplating, struggling against bolting from pure impulse.
Time crawled slowly. She was dimly aware that at least two days had passed.
“I can’t just let myself die down here,” she whispered, starting to cry but finding she didn’t have enough water left in her body to produce tears. Her heart raced as panic set in.
She pictured herself kicking up the floorboards and bolting from the house, evading crawlers and running all the way to a safe zone, where steel walls and guns would keep the monsters at bay. Then she pictured something very different: herself, with moldering skin, staggering, moaning, crawling from city to city, devouring.
A sense of profound calm settled over her; chased by purpose.
Without another moment’s hesitation, she pushed up at the loose floorboards, and stood, facing whatever lay waiting beyond.
Lindsay Morgan Lockhart has the rare fortune of making her way in life filling virtual worlds with stories, but it has not subdued her raging desire to put her own stories to the page as well. Her fiction can be found cluttering like cobwebs throughout the internet.
This story is sponsored by
Debi Blood — What dark secrets is your iguana keeping from you? The Glendale Witch.