A Short Story by Richard Bleil
“Oh, God, not vacation photos!”
“The Brankmen are very old-fashioned,” she says while putting on her earrings. “They like showing off their slides the old-fashioned way.”
“But NOBODY uses slide projectors anymore!” he complains straightening his tie. “Can’t we just say we’re not feeling well?”
“That’ll only put it off, Tom” she replies. “Besides, you LOVE their pot roast!”
He does love their pot roast. Maybe it’s a small price to pay, sitting through a slide show for Betty’s pot roast. “You tick me off, Victoria.”
“Why is that?”
He walks behind her, gently kissing her neck and reveling in the perfume. “Because you’re always right.”
“Where did you go again, Allen?”
“An Asian island just off of Japan. Beautiful thick forest, very few tourists.”
“Want some wine, Tom?”
“Only all I can get, Victoria.”
“Thomas, cut that out!”
“How’s it coming, Allen?”
After a pause of silence, Tom looks over at Allen. He seems frozen, lost in his own mind, scratching his back. “Allen, are you okay?”
Allen snaps back suddenly, “Oh, yeah Tom. Sorry, kinda drifted off there for a minute.”
“He seems to be doing that a lot, Victoria,” Julia says. “It started on the trip.”
“Is it a coma?” Victoria asks. The room is typical for a hospital, plain white sheets in an adjustable bed. Allen lays motionless.
“No,” the doctor answers. “He’s unresponsive, but his eyes are open. Periodically he even gets up.”
“Gets up?” Tom asks.
“Yes, it’s very odd. Here, let me show you a security video. This was taken in the hallway last night.”
The tablet shows Allen alone in the hallway. “Where are the nurses?” Victoria asks.
“It was the night shift,” the doctor responds, “a skeletal crew. They were probably off tending to other patients.”
The video show Allen walking down the hall, arms hanging limp by his side, eyes open, vacant and unblinking. At one point, he seems to approach a corner in the wall.
“What is he doing?” Tom asks.
“I don’t know,” the doctor replies, “he looks as if he is clawing at the wall. He’s always calm, easily led back to bed, but we don’t know what the issue might be. His brain scans come back normal but…I don’t know.”
Victoria watches Allen intently as she asks “Where is Julia?”
“Why did he have to be moved into an isolation room?”
“He is showing unusual nodules on his head,” the doctor replied. “The test on what it is filled with came back…inconclusive. We’re just being cautious.”
“How is our patient, Doctor?”
The old man appears to be out of place. His skin leathery, jet black hair, and deep wrinkles betray the amount of time he clearly spends outdoors.
“Just fine, Dr. Socomora,” the doctor replies. “By the way, this is Thomas and Victoria Johnson.”
Dr. Socomora bows slightly. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“So are you a neurologist?” Tom asks.
“I’m afraid you misunderstand,” Dr. Socomora replies. “I am an entomologist.”
“I am really worried about Julia,” Victoria says.
“We’ve done all we can do,” Tom replies. “The police are looking for her.”
“But where could she be with Allen in the hospital? She should be with him.”
Tom doesn’t look up from his laptop. “What are you doing?” Victoria asks.
“Looking to see what I can find on our new friend, Dr. Socomora.”
“What did you find?”
Tom pauses. “I think we might want to invite him to have supper with us.”
“It’s delicious,” Dr. Socomora says. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“I don’t usually cook Japanese food,” Victoria replies, “but this looked good. Is it authentic?”
Dr. Socomora nods politely. “It is perfect,” he replies, being overly generous so as not to insult the hosts.
“I must admit, Dr. Socomora, we had alternative motives for inviting you to supper,” Tom says. “You seem to have published a lot of papers on this, um, fungus? Condi…cody…”
“Cordyceps Unilateralis,” Dr. Socomora cuts him off. “The so-called ‘Zombie Virus’.”
“Zombie virus?” Victoria asks startled.
“Have no fear,” Dr. Socomora says soothingly. “It affects only insects.”
“So, why are you here?” Tom asks.
“It does WHAT?” Victoria asks Tom as they are preparing for bed.
“Apparently, it attacks the host insect, causing…unusual behavior.”
“Well,” Tom climbs into bed, “the insect seems to instinctively begin climbing. It stays alive, hosting the virus, immobile where it stops.”
“That’s horrible,” Victoria says, getting into bed next to him.
“It gets worse,” Tom says. “Eventually, the insects grow tendrils out of their heads, with…nodules on them.”
“Nodules?” Victoria asks. “Why?”
“The nodules contain the virus. It’s how the virus is spread in the air.”
“What’s the emergency?” Tom asks.
Victoria meets him in the driveway, terrified, breathing heavily.
“Victoria, relax, it’s okay, I’m here. What’s going on?”
“I…” Victoria stop to take a breathe, “I came to water the Brankmen’s plants, and…”
“I found Julia.”
“Oh, no,” Tom says, “Is she…did she pass…”
“I don’t know,” Victoria says. “Come with me!”
She takes Tom by the hand, and leads him to the back yard. “Look,” she says, pointing to the tree.
“What?” Tom asks.
“Up,” she replies, “up there!”
Halfway up the tree, well hidden in the leaves, is Julia.
“Oh, God,” he says. “JULIA!”
“I tried,” Victoria says. “She doesn’t reply.”
“What…what’s on her head?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria replies. The two look at the long, flesh colored tendrils coming out of her head, longer than her height, stretching up into the tree with green bumps. Thomas walks to the tree, and grabs a branch.
“Can it be that virus?” Tom asks.
“I don’t know,” Victoria replies. “Dr. Socomora said it only affected insects.”
“It could have mutated,” Tom replies. “There must be some reason he is here.” He moves towards the tree.
“What are you doing?” Victoria asks.
“Climbing the tree,” Tom replies. “We have to know if she’s alive or not.”
It’s been a long time since he climbed a tree, but there are enough branches that he manages to make it. He braces himself on a branch close to him.
“Be careful!” Victoria shouts.
He looks at one of the greenish nodules on one of the tendrils. He looks closely, and as he does, a wind suddenly rises. Her tendril moves towards him. When it strikes his head, the nodule bursts open, spreading the virus on the wind, heading into town.