“Knock Once For Yes”
Copyright 2009 Carey Burns
It was well after curfew when Paul Wilson crept from his bedroom window out onto the roof and peered through the leaves of the oak tree for any sight of the militia. With the coast clear, he shimmied his lower half over the edge and nestled his feet onto the rungs of the rose trellis. Little by little he made his way to the ground, quiet as a mouse sneeze in a room full of cats. He looked up and down the street and smiled, breaking into a dead run toward Tyler’s house.
Tyler Strong lived five houses down and was Paul’s best friend. Earlier that day they were playing Truth or Dare with Tyler’s little sister, Alice, and Paul agreed to sneak down to their house, sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and then run back home. It was either that or tell the truth about his secret crush, and Paul wasn’t about to do that. Even though the militia enforced a strict curfew, Paul thought getting caught and returned to his mother would have been better than telling Tyler that he was in love with his sister.
He stood below Tyler’s window and caught his breath, hoping to make the song quick so he could get home. Paul picked up a rock and tossed it at Tyler’s window, his nerves shivering down his back.
Tyler opened his window and leaned out. “You did it! You really did it!” He whispered, in awe of his friend’s bravery.
Paul bowed and cleared his throat, ready to sing. “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little—“ A zombie lunged out from behind a lilac bush next to the Strong’s house, sinking its teeth into Paul’s arm as he staggered back, eyes wide and blood spraying his cheek. He could hear Tyler screaming but was so scared he couldn’t make out what he said.
Paul struggled to push at the zombie’s forehead to make it loosen its grip so he could try to run away, but its skin was slick with mold and pus and his hand slipped. He closed his eyes, ready to accept his fate as zombie food when he heard Tyler’s father’s deep voice.
“Hold still, son, lean back as far as you can from it.” The zombie didn’t even notice Mr. Strong because it was greedily gnawing on Paul’s arm. He took aim and squeezed the trigger, his bullet hitting the creature’s skull dead center, spattering blood and gore all over Paul and the side of the neighbor’s house.
The zombie fell dead at Paul’s feet and Paul sobbed and shrieked, cradling his wounded arm while Mr. Strong hurried to get him inside where it was safe.
As they came through the front door, Paul saw Tyler waiting in the hallway, eyes downcast, unable to look at him. Paul wanted to say something so Tyler knew it wasn’t his fault but his vision faded to black and something that sounded like hundreds of angry bees filled his ears. His limbs went slack and Paul slowly slid toward the floor, Mr. Strong was the only thing holding him up.
Paul blinked his eyes slowly, his cloudy vision making out Mrs. Strong hovering above him. After a few seconds he realized he was still alive and laying on the Strong’s couch. He grimaced from the pain in his arm and opened his mouth to speak but Mrs. Strong shushed him.
Mr. Strong stood across the room, the telephone pressed against his ear as he stared at Paul. “I need to report an exterminated potentially dangerous individual at 314 Locust.” He closed his eyes, turning away from his son’s best friend, tears in his eyes. “Yes ma’am, I heard a rustling in our bushes on the side of our house so I went to check it out. A PDI lunged at me so I shot it in the head and it’s dead, ma’am. Could you send a cleanup crew? I’ve got kids and I’d like it to be gone so they don’t see it in the morning.” He wiped the tears from his cheeks and took a breath.
Mr. Strong stood with the phone against his ear for a second then hung up, returning his focus on Paul. “We need to hide him. They’re sending a cleanup crew and if they see him they’ll exterminate him.”
Paul wept, trying to wrap his mind around what was happening to him. He was infected and would turn into one of those creatures, then before long they would exterminate him too.
He pressed his face against Mr. Strong’s chest; Paul’s body rocked from sobs as he bundled him up in an afghan and hefted him in his arms. Mr. Strong hurried upstairs toward the master bedroom and when he reached the top of the stairs Paul heard Alice’s voice on his left.
He peeked at her, angelic in a pink nightgown, and fresh tears filled his eyes.
“Paul? No!” She rushed forward and brushed his cheek with her hand but Mr. Strong pushed her back
“I’m sorry, Sweetie. Go back to your room and I’ll come talk to you in a minute.” He plodded down the hall, tightening his grip on Paul. Once inside the bedroom he laid him on the bed then pushed it away from the wall so he could get behind the headboard. He crouched down and removed a waist high, hidden panel and turned back to Paul. “Can you stand up?”
Paul nodded. “Yes.” He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Mr. Strong?”
“Hmm?” He studied the dark red stain of blood oozing through the bandage on Paul’s arm.
“Thank you.” He struggled for words, a growing fever muddying his thoughts. “I’m infected, sir. You might as well just kill me now so nothing bad happens to you or your family.” Especially Alice, he thought.
Mr. Strong clenched his jaw. “No. They’re close to a cure, Paul and I won’t let anyone hurt you as long as there’s hope, do you understand me?”
Paul stared at the man who had shot a zombie in the head just moments ago. “But, I’m no better than the thing that bit me and you didn’t think twice to kill it.”
“You haven’t changed into one of those things yet. You haven’t fed on human flesh and that is what makes you different. They say if a PDI hasn’t fed, it isn’t as dangerous; it’ll just be a docile being that can’t talk and has trouble moving. If I can just keep you safe until they find a cure...”
Paul stood on shaky legs, feeling faint again. “But...what if there is no cure? Please, won’t you just end it so I can die as a human and not one of those things?”
Mr. Strong stared into Paul’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Paul, but I have to try.” He ushered the reluctant dying boy into the storage area that ran the length of the house, what they referred to as ‘dead space.’
“I need you to be quiet, as quiet as you can be, do you understand?” He peered into the gloomy opening and waited on Paul’s nod of agreement. “I’ll bring you food if you need it, but from what I’ve heard you probably won’t eat it anyway. Remember, keep quiet.”
Mr. Strong replaced the panel then heaved the bed back into place and Paul sat in darkness. He was burning up from fever but cold at the same time, and he shivered, wishing he’d never taken that stupid dare. Now he could never tell Alice how much he loved her.
His eyes adjusted after a few moments and he looked around, feeling small and alone in the cramped space. Paul spied a stack of boxes on the far end of the storage area and crawled toward them, hoping to find something to use as a pillow or to cover up with until his fever broke. He opened the top box and found some of Alice’s old stuffed animals, smiling at a ragged teddy bear before tucking it under his arm. As he looked through the boxes he heard something on the other side of the wall.
Paul scooted close to the wall and pressed his ear against it, listening for the odd sound. In a moment, he heard the sounds of Alice crying as her father’s voice carried through the wall.
“You can’t open the panel, whatever you do. And don’t tell a soul that he’s here, do you understand?”
He sat with his back against the wall while he held the bear tight, wishing he could see her and tell her how he felt before he turned into something hideous. In despair, he thunked his head against the wall.
Seconds later he heard Alice through the wall. “Is that you? Are you okay?”
His heart quivered and he bit his lip, afraid to tell her. “Yeah, I’m okay for now. I’m just cold.”
“I feel so awful, Paul. This is our fault you’re infected. Please don’t hate me.” Her sobs drowned out her voice.
“I could never hate you Alice...” Try as he might he couldn’t get himself to say it.
She sighed and he could hear her sit down on the other side of the wall. “Are you in pain? What is it like?”
He studied his arm and realized that he hadn’t felt anything but the cold since the fever hit. “I can’t feel the bite anymore, it’s weird, it just doesn’t hurt like you’d think it would. I just feel...I don’t know. Numb.”
“That’s a blessing, at least.” Her voice was low. “How long do you think it’ll take before, you know, you turn into one of those PDIs?”
“I don’t know. Promise me something though, would you?”
He smiled, hoping she was smiling too. “Promise that you’ll talk to me like this even if I turn into some kind of monster?”
“Always. Good night Paul.” He heard her stand up and pad across the room then listened to the springs of her mattress creak as she lay down to rest.
He sat there clutching the bear wishing he could close his eyes and let sleep take him but he was wide awake. Into the wee hours of the morning he sat, listening close for her steady breathing. He closed his eyes, imagining her dark brown hair spilled over the pillow as she slept and how tender her flesh must taste.
Days passed and his fever subsided but the dark hunger grew stronger and he fought to keep it at bay. “I’m not one of them!” he would whisper through gritted teeth, trying to hold onto his last glimmers of humanity. Mr. Strong brought him raw steaks but the smell disgusted him and he would not eat. Only one thing could satisfy him and his body ached for it.
Alice remained true to her word and talked with him every morning before school and every evening before bedtime. Her voice soothed him but ignited the hunger so that he could barely speak. Over time, he stopped speaking as the beast took over the last of his faculties.
“What if we had a secret code?” She asked one evening. “You could knock once for yes and twice for no. Let’s try it. Is your name Paul Wilson?”
He recognized his name and an image of Alice laughing flashed through his brain. Paul raised his clenched fist and thumped it against the wall once.
“Good! Now, are you cold?”
He pounded his fist twice.
“Are you hungry?”
He paused, drool streaming down his dry lips. He tapped the wall, his knuckle grazing a board and tearing off a strip of flesh. Mesmerized, Paul watched it hang then peeled it back more, reveling leathery muscle and sinew.
“I don’t have anything to feed you and Dad says you aren’t eating. You want people, don’t you?” Her voice was just above a whisper.
He could smell her through the wall and wanted to sink his teeth into her throat and rip out her voice box to make her stop talking but fought the urge. He knocked his skinless knuckle against the wall.
She tried to disguise her sobs but he heard them. “Goodnight, Paul.”
Weeks later after Alice had left for school one day, Paul heard the sounds of glass breaking and Mrs. Strong’s screaming. He scooted closer to the panel as he smelled the musky scent of men and licked his parched lips, weak from hunger. While the men ransacked the house and searched through the bedrooms he listened to them threaten Mr. and Mrs. Strong. All they had to do was find the panel and he’d be waiting for them.
“You realize that harboring a PDI is punishable by revoking your Clean Papers and relocation to a quarantine unit, don’t you?” His voice sounded bullying. “They’ll take away your kids; you’ll never see them again.”
A memory flashed in Paul’s mind of his mother taking him to the clinic for blood tests and getting his Clean Papers. He patted his pocket and felt the laminated card through the filth-stiffened fabric of his pants.
Mr. Strong’s voice was clear and even. “If you continue to threaten my wife, I’ll have you brought up on charges. You’ve checked the house, we have nothing to hide.”
“We’ll be back. You can count on it.”
Mrs. Strong’s sobs filled his ears as he crawled back toward Alice’s bedroom wall to wait until she returned.
The men kept their promise and came back twice over the next three months and Paul waited for them at the panel but they never moved the bed. He was nothing but a skeleton covered by skin by this time and while he was hungry, it was just a dull pang.
Before bed, Alice told Paul all about his old friends and how Tyler was dating a new girl named Cindy. “Do you think, I mean, if you hadn’t been bitten, that you would ever maybe love a girl like me?”
A flash of a memory of how pretty she was and how he loved her filled his mind and Paul lifted his fist, thumping it once against the wall.
She choked back tears. “I love you, Paul. I don’t care if you’re infected, you’re still the same sweet guy I’ve always known.” Her nails clicked against the wall. “You can be my secret boyfriend.”
She was so close to him that he could smell her perfume through the wall and all he wanted to do was break through and eat her heart, infect her so they could be together forever.
“Alice! What are you doing?” Mrs. Strong shrieked, startling Paul. He could hear them struggling on the other side and he pressed what used to be his ear against the wall.
“Mom, stop! I love him!” She sobbed as her mother’s hand slapped her cheek.
“No! That isn’t Paul anymore, no matter what you think. That...thing isn’t Paul.”
“Yes he is! He talks to me and understands me and he said that he loves me!” Her voice was tinged with acid as she spat out the words.
“That’s it. You’re moving downstairs to Tyler’s room and he’s staying up here from now on. Stay away from him, Alice, I’m warning you.”
Paul listened as she left and Alice’s sobs grew louder. He scratched at the wall, his fingertips crumbling with each swipe. He wanted to take her and turn her and make her his own, but within minutes he heard her parents return and lead her from the room. Heavy footsteps entered Alice’s room and Paul listened, knowing it was Mr. Strong.
“You can’t have her, Paul. You need to stay in there and you need to be quiet. I hear they’ve come up with a cure and that it won’t be long until it will be released for use. Just be patient.”
Paul stared at the stain on the wall from where he’d knocked his hand over and over and his school photo flashed through his mind. He was young and handsome and fit. Now he was a walking corpse, missing bits of flesh. He listened as Mr. Strong left the room before crawling down the storage area toward the panel.
Without Alice’s talk sessions Paul had no idea if it was day or night or if he had been waiting weeks or months in the dark crawlspace. The men searched the house once again but still didn’t find him. His hunger was maddening and he just wanted to break through the wall but he was too weak to do anything but sit.
Sometime after they left, Alice crept into the master bedroom and sat on the bed. “My parents let me come up. It’s your birthday, Paul. You’re seventeen today. I made you a cake but Dad says zombies don’t eat cake, so I didn’t bring it to you.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “I miss you. And...I love you. God, that’s so weird, but I do. Happy birthday.” The bedsprings creaked as she stood and Alice trudged across the room and down the hall.
No memories surfaced, just hunger.
The men returned and Paul sat at the panel, waiting for them to finally find him. If he could just get one taste of flesh he could die and be at ease. He just wanted the hunger to go away. He listened to Alice scream, her words garbled through the floorboards. Room by room they sawed through walls, broke through doors, and ripped up floors. Anticipation was worse, more painful than the hunger as he waited for them to reach him.
Mr. Strong argued with the men and a single shot was fired followed by the wails and cries of Mrs. Strong and Alice. Paul knew he was dead. His defender, his captor, his protector was dead.
Paul shook from hunger as footsteps fell on the stair treads. He smelled them, sweaty and dirty from their demolition, and they smelled delicious. They cut open the mattress and box spring, overturned dressers and kicked open the closet. Finally, one of them had the brains to move the bed.
“Son of a bitch!” He yelled. “I need two men here. On my count...three...two...one!” He pulled back the panel and stared at the thing that was Paul Wilson.
Paul reached up toward him, baring his rotten teeth as he struggled to crawl forward.
“Jesus Christ!” He aimed his rifle at Paul’s forehead and squeezed the trigger.