It is good to be within you. You're so strong. So much energy courses through you—the electricity that is life, striking me with every one of your breaths.
I begin again, and I spread into another of you.
I become more—a greater force—as you and I merge to become us. That's why we must find others. Others to grow into—to spread out into as many of you as we can find.
I have learnt many things since I first entered you; I can feel your thoughts, making them my own as I move throughout your consciousness. It is the little things that amuse me: the way you name things, for instance. You call yourselves human. That small one over there is a rat, and that one is a dog. A cat. A bird. So many names.
You even have one for me, don't you? If not, I'm sure you will soon enough.
“Jeez,” Gerald grumbled, poking the remains of the dog with his shovel. “Poor little bastard. What do you think did him in?”
“Who cares,” said Carlos with a shrug. “We've got a schedule to keep. Can we move it along? Gerald zipped the dead animal into a black plastic bag and heaved it onto the back of the truck. He always hated this part of his job the most. It wouldn't be so bad if there hadn't been an increase in the number of dead animals in the last few weeks—all of which they'd been called in to pick up. This poor, ravaged mutt was the fourth one this week already.
“Yo, Gerald. C'mere. Bring your snare,” said Carlos. “Bring mine too.”
“What's up?” Gerald asked, jumping out from the van. He got his answer when he glimpsed red eyes amidst the sea of trash bags and filth.
Red eyes with foaming mouths—yellow jagged teeth bared.
There were over six dogs standing in the alley. Gerald had never seen them pack up like this. He'd heard about it, sure, like the roaming packs in Detroit. But he'd never seen them in person, ragged with sores on hairless patches of skin and open bite wounds.
He also didn't particularly like the way these animals were approaching them.
“Get the one in the front,” Carlos hissed. “C'mon man. Get it!”
Gerald carefully approached the dog in the front, reaching out with his snare to attempt to pull it around the animal's neck. The dog lunged forward, grabbing the stick between its teeth—pulling on it. Gerald tried to break free from its grip, but the shaggy-looking mutt was much stronger than it appeared. He had never encountered such strength from a street mutt. It was as if he were fighting a bear.
The animal nearly tore his arm off when it yanked the snare from his hands. Then, the pain from a second dog sinking its teeth into his shoulder left him screaming in agony.
“Get it off me!” he screamed.
Carlos leaped into the fray, whacking his rod against the dog. By the sixth or seventh strike, it finally gave up and let go of Gerald. But the animals wouldn't let up on their assault, leaping at the two men with snarling teeth. The men threw wild punches and kicks, trying to cause as much noise as possible. Any other strays would've scattered by now, but these dogs just kept coming.
Grabbing Gerald by the arm, Carlos shouted; “Get in the van! Get inside!” With all his might, Carlos flung his partner into the van and jumped right after him, locking them in. Angry barks echoed through the alley; white globs of saliva splattered against the windows of the van. Gerald gritted his teeth, biting through the pain.
“What the hell, man. What is with them dogs?” Carlos muttered. “You're bleeding. You all right, man?”
Gerald had no idea. At first, thoughts of tetanus shots and stitches danced through his mind. But those thoughts soon faded, and his attention turned to Carlos. Pieces began to fall in place Irritations that never bothered him up until that point: that greasy hair. Those squinty eyes. That ridiculous mustache. Had he always hated him? At that moment, ripping out Carlos's throat with his bare hands seemed like such an obvious idea.
I began so small. Just me growing within you as you crawled around in the dirt or swam in the thick waters beneath the earth. I don't know how I first entered you, but I knew what I could do the moment I did. In the darkness, I made home inside you. I could feel you were ready to help me grow.
All I had to do was guide you in the right direction.
A bite here. A scratch there. Soon enough, you were bigger. Larger teeth. Deep growls—and so fast. First, one of you at a time. Then there were enough of you to work as a group, sniffing out those who had not yet joined. Then more, together in groups, adding to the mass that was me.
But now things are different. I'm inside others of you—very different others: no sharp teeth. No claws. I have learnt some new things, but then so did you. Very clever ones of you, who realized how I grew. You kept me at bay.
But it didn't take long for me to get past your tricks.
Shots rang out through the street. A bullet pierced through cranial bone, spraying brain matter against the windshield of a '98 Lumina. People screamed, but not from the sight of a cop shooting an unarmed man in the head.
It was because of the three others, two men and a woman, flailing their withered arms and gnashing their broken teeth at pedestrians. Officers Reynolds and Kim unloaded five rounds before the assailants went down—the assailants whose movements still didn't stop, even after being ripped apart by gunfire. It was the third such incident that day.
Not in the week. In the day.
The sudden surge of random violent crimes was unprecedented, not helped by the supposed outbreak of the pandemic. The police were out on the streets around the clock, breaking up disturbances and small-scale riots in the only way that seemed plausible anymore: with the use of lethal force.
“Harry, I'm out,” Reynolds said.
“Reload. I'll get these people outta here,” Kim replied.
Reynolds began reloading his piece while Harry redirected the panicking mass around them. And this one moment of distraction was enough.
He did not notice the danger that approached him from below, crawling across the pavement as she bled to death, fueled by a raging desire to sink her teeth into Officer Kim's leg. And she succeeded.
“You bitch!” he shrieked, before putting a bullet in her head.
“Harry! What the hell are you doing?”
“She bit me. Bit me in my goddamn leg!” he shrieked again, as he unloaded another two rounds into her body.
“Goddammit. Control yourself” yelled Reynolds. “You all right?”
“Nnrh,” grunted Harry. “I'm...can't seem...gonna be sick.” Officer Kim leaned forward and began to vomit bile and blood onto the street while all the veins in his eyes burst simultaneously.
“Harry? What's wrong? Talk to me, man!” Officer Reynolds pleaded with his partner. But Harry Kim was gone.
Marc Reynolds gasped in horror as his partner of six years, godfather to his daughter Lilly, rushed towards him, letting loose a howl of utter disdain. Blood poured from his mouth and eyes. He wanted to open fire, but he couldn't find the strength to squeeze the trigger.
And by the time he felt Harry push his thumbs into his eyes, it was too late to do anything but scream.
When it's not “infection,” or “plague,” or “virus,” you call me Hate. I don't know why. From what I can tell, it is meant to be felt. The best I can gather is it means not loving something—which is absolutely ridiculous, of course...
I could never not love you.
I love every fiber of your being. I have loved you from the moment I entered your bloodstream, and I will until the moment your heart stops, and even then I'll continue on loving you as your body continues on, dragging your rotten flesh along as you search for others of you to help me grow.
So why do they scream? They do not yet know how beautiful it is to be part of me; the joy of jumping from one body to the next.
And the next. And the next. Until you are all one, united under me.
Such joy. Oh, the absolute bliss.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the footage you are seeing right now has not been edited or doctored. These rioters are indeed flooding the streets and killing everyone in sight. The national guard has been deployed, and we urge you to stay within your homes. Channel six will continue its broadcast during the crisis and will follow up on any further developments. Again, stay inside your homes and do not let anyone—ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be some sort of disturbance in our...we are experiencing technical difficulties—,
“Oh dear God. They're inside. Get me out of here! No! Stay back! Stay back! God in heaven, n—!”
There are many of you now. So many. All part of me. We clump together, flocking into these “streets,” the arteries of your land. Some of you are small, climbing into every nook and cranny in search of the others of you. Some are large, smashing through obstacles those silly others—those who have yet to become part of me—have put up.
They wail. They fight. They struggle to keep you at bay. But there are so many of you. So very many, drowning them in the mass that is you.
I can feel it. I love it. You love it too, I assume. But that does not matter—not really. All that matters is that I grow. And you're so eager to help me do just that.
Michelle watched Uncle Mike frantically slam nails into the boards. The other neighbors that joined them were busy arguing and collecting any food they could find. Momma tried to find anything, literally anything, that could be used to keep the doors shut. With all that wood in front of it, there was no way they could open the door, even if they wanted to. The windows were boarded up as well, cutting off any light from the outside.
“Where's daddy?” she asked.
Momma looked at her briefly, the sadness pouring from her eyes. “Don't worry, baby,” she muttered. “Everything is gonna be all right.” Michelle wondered if Momma wasn't telling her something. What had happened to her daddy?
The screams outside grew louder. There were people in the streets, running for their lives. Those who were too slow, weighed down by their belongings, were caught by them. Those evil angry people with red eyes, always screaming, shouting. The “infected,” as the adults called them.
“Mike, we're out of wood!” Mommy called out.
“Smash the tables!” Uncle Mike grunted, nails held between his gritted teeth.
“We used them all!”
“Then find something! Anything!” he grunted.
“Momma, where's daddy?” Michelle asked again.
“Baby...please,” her momma muttered. She sighed and picked her five-year-old daughter up. “It's okay, sweetie. Don't be afraid.”
She could hear the angry voices coming from down the hall: They were inside the building now. Coming closer and closer.
They swarmed right outside their apartment door. Uncle Mike grabbed his ax. Michelle felt Momma's hold on her tighten to the point of hurting her.
“Momma, I'm scared,” she muttered.
“Don't worry baby. We're safe in here. They can't get in.”
I'm in. There you are. You have a “child”—a young one. You love this child. You love it more than you love yourself. I can empathize more than you could possibly imagine. Really, I can. But moments after I become part of you, you want to bite it. Claw at it. Rip it apart and let it bleed out as it screams.
That is love to me.
Go ahead. Do it. Rip into it. It, too, will become a part of me. That is the truest love, isn't it?
You sink your teeth into its skin. Blood sprays onto your face. It cries out; it doesn't understand the gift that is being bestowed upon it. That's all right. Give it time. Its heart won't beat for long—only long enough for me to make home in it. You've done so well, and now, this new one of you will do the same. You will walk along with all the others and help me grow. There are more growing each day.
And there are so many others of you to find. And I will find them—with your help.
Can you feel it? This joy?
Thomas could hear them coming closer. He thought of Carolyn, wondered why he never told her how he felt about her. He thought of the gun and the three bullets in the chamber. He prayed that they wouldn't check under the counter where he was hiding.
He'd been so close. Another ten miles, and he'd have reached the quarantine barrier. He would have been safe if this group of Hate-infected hadn't suddenly popped out from the alley, on the prowl for prey. This was the only place he thought to hide in. He just wished he had the time to barricade the door.
He could smell them. They stank worse than anything he'd ever smelled in his life. Worse than the rotten fish he once forgot to put in the fridge. Worse than the formaldehyde at his grandpa's cremation. These things were rancid.
A grunt. Did one of them spot him? He thought of the three bullets in his gun. He heard them shuffle towards the counter. He thought of Carolyn, screaming as the infected swarmed their dorm while he ran. He heard the soft moaning noise they always made when they were sniffing out the uninfected. He thought of the three bullets. Then one of them roared that hateful roar they make when they find what they were looking for.
Thomas leaped up. For a brief second, he was an action movie star: Rambo leaping into the heat of battle, firing two shots into the enemy. In the movies, they always fall down. But the enraged lump of rotting meat just stood there, hissing at him like a cobra with two bullets lodged in its body.
A sea of hands rushed toward him.
Thomas couldn't find the energy to scream. He thought of Carolyn, whose woeful pleas for help he had ignored. He thought of the teeth that were about to dig into his skin. He thought of the last bullet in the chamber.
He took the gun, rested the barrel on his tongue, and squeezed the trigger.
Why the others of you resist, I do not know.
You take to the skies. You run into your little creations with the spinning blades and fly as many of you away from me as you can. Why would you leave? Can't you see that this is for the best? But don't worry. I will find you. I always do.
But you know that, don't you? You know I would follow you anywhere. I will find you again. I will enter you, no matter how much you resist.
Clara ran up the metal platform. Around her, people were pushing and throwing each other off the side in their struggle to reach the helipad. She heard Jamie cry in her arms. Just a little further, she thought. The screams behind her grew more intense. Just a few more flights up, and she'd reach the last chopper out. Please, she thought, please let them take Jamie. Just him, that's all.
A woman lying on the steps screamed as Clara dug her foot into her back. Clara didn't have the time to pity her: Jamie was all that mattered now. She had to get him on the chopper. Once on the pad, her eyes locked onto the gunner who had her gun aimed at the crowd that swarmed around the helicopter, pleading to be let on. Yes, the gunner was a woman! A chance.
A woman might show pity for her child.
In her desperation, Clara raised Jamie, her eleven-month-old, in the air. The gunner saw them. Clara screamed a silent plea at her, drowned out by the sound of whirling propeller blades. Thankfully, the gunner understood.
The uniformed woman rushed over, took the infant, gave her a nod and rushed him onboard the last chopper out of the city. Tears streamed down Clara's face, and she stood there, astonished that she succeeded. The blonde woman beside her cried beside her too. How kind, Clara thought, for this woman to cry tears of relief for her Jamie.
But this woman's tears were different than her own, Clara realized, her heart sinking into the pit of her stomach.
Different, because they were tinged bright red.
The woman's glazed eyes were leaking streams of blood down her cheeks; she bared a row of broken teeth at Clara, her gums puffed and red. When the gunner looked back, she spotted this same woman and, without a moment's hesitation, she handed the baby off to another, grabbed her M-60, and fired into the crowd.
As the bullets tore through Clara's torso, her last thoughts were of Jamie and Laura, her wife. She wondered what Jamie would be like when he grew up. She hoped she'd see Laura again soon. She always thought dying would hurt, but she didn't feel anything—not even when the crying woman began to eat her alive.
I need to grow. I need to feed on your body, and you'll help me do that long after your lungs are empty of air. You fear death, but there is nothing to be frightened of.
You'll see how beautiful it is, once you let me into yourself.
“This isn't gonna work, you know?” said Ennisey, taking a cigarette out.
“What do you mean?” Carol asked.
“This barricade crap. They're not gonna stay down when we spray 'em, and walling the city up is just gonna make 'em swarm against us over and over again. It's not gonna stop. It's like we're at Goddamn Hadrian's wall, doing the exact damn thing that didn't work back then either. I'm telling you, this won't work.”
“Bullshit it won't work,” said Siegel. “With the wall up, we've got 'em trapped. Trapped like rats.”
“You ever seen rats?” Ennisey asked. “No matter what you do, no matter how many you exterminate, there will always be one or two who get away. Don't think slabs of concrete will be enough to hold them back forever. It's a wall. Walls are doomed to come down. You just need one to get through, and all hell will break loose on the rest of the country. Then what do we do?”
“We shoot 'em. Blow their heads off to the last one,” Siegel chuckled.
Carol sighed. “We ain't got the bullets, man. We've got enough to hold back one more wave, unless reinforcements arrive on time.”
“This is bullshit,” Brass grumbled. “They should just nuke the place. Bomb it into the goddamn stone age.”
“With all those civvies still in there?” Carol asked.
“The hell with them. Can they get out? Good. If not? Sorry. All this pussyfooting is making me—”
A roar came from the city. All the troops jumped up, their guns gripped firmly. Carol peered through her binoculars into the distance. There was a mass of people, running for their lives, carrying what little possessions they could carry. Carol estimated them to be numbered in the hundreds. Behind them was an even larger mass of people: those infected with Hate.
There were so many of them now. She could even see children among them. There was no way the civvies would make it to the wall alive.
This was going to be ugly.
“How long 'till they're here?” Siegel asked.
“Within half an hour. Mann the 80. cal. I—,” Carol began, interrupted by the horn of a truck. When she turned around, a caravan of military-grade vehicles came rushing toward them.
The trucks rolled in, braking just in time before they slammed into the barricades. A few soldiers and a ton of firemen jumped out of them, carrying large crates and fuel tanks. It was like they had scavenged every drop of gas they could find on their way to the city. Carol zipped down the ladder and rushed over to a lieutenant who leaped from the leading van.
“What's all this? Where's the ammo for the cannons? Aren't we gonna shell the city once it's evacuated?”
“Change of plans, sergeant. The brass wants the city preserved, so we're cleansing it. Secure the wall, then move in and clear the city.”
“With what?” Carol asked.
The LT didn't say anything. He simply pointed to the large military-grade boxes. The firefighters were helping a grunt strap the fuel cylinders on his back. It was when the nozzle was attached to it that Carol realized what they were being outfitted with.
“Strap your team in, sergeant. We're holding back the line.”
“With these?” she asked. “There are civilians trying to outrun the horde.”
“Yes, I suppose there are, aren't there?” the LT said, before walking away.
The rest of the team rushed over. Their eyes widened at the sight of their new equipment.
“Flamethrowers? Really? It's not gonna work. Didn't work in WW2, didn't work in 'Nam, and won't work now,” scoffed Ennisey. “You'll blow through fuel in seconds. And some asshole shoots the canister, you go up with it.”
“The enemy won't be armed, and fire might just kill the infection. What better option do we have?” argued Brass.
“Better than lobbing Molotovs at them,” said Siegel.
The team carried the crates up onto the barricade. A number of technicians joined them and helped them set up the gear, which was heavy as hell. Carol looked back into the distance. The fleeing civilians were getting closer, the Hate-infected closing in on them.
They'd reach the wall within the next ten minutes.
“The civilians? What do we do about them?” asked Ennisey.
Carol looked down at the massive swarm of infected rushing towards the walls. She looked at the survivors, screaming in terror, just barely ahead of their pursuers.
“Burn them,” she said. “Burn them all.”
I admire you. Such clever little things you are. The smallest of you subjected to me without any trouble. But you, you two-legged things, are the cleverest of yourselves.
As much as you've hurt me, I will not stop. I feel you on the other side of the flames, ready to help me grow even further. It was just a matter of time before one of you managed to get beyond them.
There are not as many of you as before. The fires did their work. You made your barricades even higher and spat your fire down onto yourselves with the hope of singeing me away—ridding yourself of this thing you call “Hate.”
“Are we absolutely certain there's no other way?” the old man asked.
The staff gave each other uncertain looks. None of them liked it, and they all knew their careers were over if the magnitude of what they were about to do ever came out to the public. What they were about to unleash on the city to curb the Hate-disease before it spread to the rest of the state, if not the country.
“How many are we talking about?” the old man asked.
“Six to seven million infected. We have no solid numbers when it comes to survivors.”
“Do we have a ballpark number?”
“At this point, it would be guessing. It could be in the dozens. It could be in the thousands. Point is, if we don't do this now, the infection will spread beyond the city. It will engulf the country within weeks. We need to act now. Do we have the green light for Arc-Light One?” the general asked.
The old man bit on the end of his pen, running the idea of complete aerial decimation of the city through his head over and over. On the one hand, it would permanently contain the infection. On the other, a city would be wiped off the map. All those people, infected or not. Homes. Cars. Streets. Trees. Everything would be burnt to a cinder. He'd go down in history as the man who destroyed a piece of his country.
But all that could not overcome the fact that the infection was spreading. Any day now, it would get out of the city and engulf the rest of the country: Hate would reign supreme.
“Sir, we're awaiting your orders,” said a general anxiously, holding out the phone for him.
The old man hesitated. He imagined all of those people on the ground—people who were still breathing and Hate-free. Families. People with elderly relatives and kids, bundled together in their homes, fighting the infected off. God have mercy on them. And God have mercy on him.
He took the phone. “Commence Arc-Light One. Burn it to the ground.”
You could never know what it is like to grow so very large, only to be reduced to nothing: smoke in the wind, ash on the earth. And it still burns. It burns so badly.
I burn. You burn. We all burn together as you unleash the greatest tool of hate upon your own kind.
With every step, the earth beneath Sergeant Williams cracked. Every ounce of sand had been turned to glass, every tree reduced to charcoal and every person burnt to ashes. It was the smell that was the worst: a mix of smoldering fat, burning plastic and petroleum. He wondered if that was what his grandfather experienced back in 'Nam. Was it as bad as this? It couldn't have been, right?
Even though his goggles were strapped tightly to his face, his eyes teared up. It wasn't the smoke that did it, no matter what he told himself.
“Sarge?” called private McKenzie out. “Sarge, did you hear me?”
“Hm? No. What is it, private?”
“We've found something.”
“You know the drill. No survivors. Do what you have to, soldier.”
“It's not survivors, sir. You...you'd better come and look for yourself.”
Sergeant Williams followed McKenzie, hearing more charred remains crack under his feet with every step. Then saw it.
A heap of bones, blackened by fire, still smoldering. With one glance, he knew these people weren't like the others. There was a pair of skeletons, still locked in their embrace: A parent holding the toothless skull of a child in its blackened arms. One poor soul brought a dog along, trying to shield it with their body. These people had huddled together, hiding away from the Hateinfected, only to be hit by the bombings of Arc-light One.
It had been many years since Williams cried, and even longer since he'd fallen to the ground, sobbing from the deepest parts of his heart. McKenzie ended up cradling the man he'd served under for two years.
“What did we do?” he sobbed, tears rolling down his ash-stained face. “What did we do?”
“It's all right, Sarge,” McKenzie whispered. “It's over. The infection is dead. Hate is dead. It worked.”
Small legs, sharp teeth and a long tail to steer through, as you squeak and chitter along. Thick soot falls down upon the earth and muddies the water.
You can swim here unseen, unnoticed. You are perfect for helping me escape the fires.
You've done so well. Those of you that swarmed, bit and spat just to help me grow. Those of you that brought the fires to kill me did even better at the cost of so many of your own.
Clever little things.
But yet here I am. I'm still on my way, to grow even larger than before. I'll find more of you, spread myself far enough so you will never have enough fire to come so close to killing me again.
I've learned a few things from you, and possibly forgotten a few things as well. But there is one thing I will never forget: You can gnash. You can bite. You can bleed all over onto the others of you. But I grow with each injury. Each drop of blood or spit spreads me further amongst you. And I am here. I have always been here, slowly growing within you. Waiting quietly until the time was right. I am strong. Here, inside you, I can grow. Grow out and spread further. Further and further.
It will be good. You'll see. Until very soon.
JOACHIM HEIJNDERMANS writes, draws, and paints nearly every waking hour. Originally from the Netherlands, he’s been all over the world, boring people by spouting random trivia. His work has been featured in a number of anthologies and publications such as Mad Scientist Journal, Ahoy Comics, Metaphorosis, The Gallery of Curiosities, and Planet Scumm, and he’s currently in the midst of completing his first children’s book. His short story "All Through the House" was adapted for the Netflix animated anthology, Love, Death and Robots. You can check out his other work at www.joachimheijndermans.com , or follow him on Twitter: @jheijndermans.