Sarah Shepard was sound asleep in her upstairs bedroom when the phone rang, and deep in the midst of a surreal dream.
She stood in the center of a giant stadium, her foot propped on a soccer ball, her gaze panning 360 degrees to take in the bright lights and cheering fans. It was a warm Austin night. The stars were out. Electricity filled the air. The national tournament had arrived, and she was the star player. But where her heart should have been filled with excitement, instead it was filled with a sense of unease.
She scanned the faces in the stadium hoping to catch sight of her father, but the shadowy parade of spectators were vaguely recognizable as human. It was the oblong gaping holes for mouths and the flickering lights for eyes that added to her unease, and their cheering sounds were more possessed of madness than mayhem, and it occurred to Sarah the bodies they embodied wanted nothing more than to desperately descend upon the field.
She emerged from the dream at the insistent demand of a buzzing by her bed. It was the cordless phone on her nightstand. Almost reflexively, she picked it up. Her body was awake but her mind lagged behind and she answered without thinking.
The voice on the other end had a desperate sense of urgency that immediately frightened Sarah and shook her from her sleep. "Sarah, honey. I need you to get your daddy on the phone."
"Uncle Tommy," she said, recognizing the voice. She struggled for some context to help ease her fear. "What time is it?"
The tone of his voice demanded her alarm: "I need to talk to your dad now. There's some --"
And then the line went dead.
"Uncle Tommy?" Sarah asked, her heart racing. "Hello??"
There was only the familiar looping of a disconnection tone on the other end.
Sarah replaced the handset and forced her mind to focus. She sat up out of bed and rose to her feet. How she had gotten into bed she couldn't remember. The lamp on the nightstand was on, giving her room a faint glow, filling it with pale light and long shadows.
She used the palm of her hand to rub the remaining sleep from her eyes. "What was that all about?" she heard herself ask. Her mind was still coming to life, the embers not yet fanned to flames.
She opened the door of her bedroom and stepped into the darkened hallway.
There was no answer, but she heard the faint murmur of a television coming from his room. She opened the door to the upstairs bathroom. It was empty. A recent edition of the TEXAS HERALD lie on the counter by the sink. She picked it up. The headline shouted at her: ADMITTANCE STRIKES IN AREA HOSPITALS!" Her subconscious mind registered other disturbing headlines below, but she put the paper down, not wanting the seeds to take root.
She left the bathroom and turned to her right, heading for her father's bedroom. The bedroom door was ajar and she could see the white-static light of the television strobing from within. As she approached, the sound from the television became louder: she heard a woman's concerned voice coming from the speakers. She pushed the bedroom door open and entered.
"You in here?" she asked.
Her father's bedroom was big and, like her father, an untidy mess. A used bath towel hung from the rail of a stair-step climber beside the bed. There were dirty socks, crumpled jeans, coffee-stained architectural plans. A dog-eared Guns & Ammo magazine lie face down on the carpet. None of this surprised Sarah; this was how her father's bedroom always looked.
No, what grabbed her attention was the female reporter speaking to the camera and the frightened edge to her voice: "...seem to be somehow connected to the nationwide pandemic."
"Where the heck are you?" Sarah asked the empty room.
The reporter went on, and Sarah now turned her full attention to the live news broadcast: "We've received reports that victims afflicted with the infection show signs of increased aggression and --"
Her mind struggled to form a connection. Her missing father, the shocking headline in the paper, this live news feed. As she watched the screen, she saw men in uniforms carrying machine guns struggle to contain a fire in the reporter's background. They must've spotted the news crew, for their attention was immediately diverted from the fire to the woman holding the mic.
"We need to move everybody out of here now!" shouted one of the men in authority. "There's a gas leak!"
Sarah recognized the building in the background. It was the old courthouse near the capital building. She knew it well, as did everyone else living in the state's capital city. "That's nearby," she said without thinking.
"Hey!" the man shouted, anger and disbelief in his voice. "Move!"
But the reporter was too distracted by her own broadcast to heed the man's warning. "There seems to be some commotion coming from behind the..." As the reporter turned, the men panicked and raced to get her to safety. "Lady! Get the hell outta here right now!"
Because of a delay in the feed, Sarah heard the actual explosion before the woman on camera knew what was happening.
"Uh, what was that?" Sarah asked, shoulder blades up to her ears.
She turned and saw a bright ball of fire mushroom in the distance, followed by a pillar of black smoke. On the television, the live news feed went dead, and the television screen was filled with white static. She could only imagine what had happened to the woman reporter and the men trying to save her.
"Oh God," she gasped.
The explosion set off dogs and car alarms all over the neighborhood. She could hear the incessant barking mixed with wailing sirens in the distance. With her nerves completely on edge, she eased herself out of the bedroom, shoulders still tense.
"Dad?" The sound of her voice seemed unnatural in the strange glow of the room.
As she walked toward the door, hunched in fear, the fuzzy light from the television cast a surreal shadow of herself moving along the wall and she had the creepy sensation she was not alone.
She cried out again, louder: "Dad?!"
She hurried down the stairs, holding herself as she went. "What is going on?" she asked quietly, hoping the calm in her voice would soothe her.
When she reached the living room, she heard sirens approaching. She edged toward the window near the front porch and watched as several squad cars raced past, sirens wailing, red and blue lights flashing. Wherever they were going, they were hellbent on getting there.
Again, she hugged herself as a chill coursed down her spine. The sirens faded and she was left with the lone sound of a dog's relentless barking. Sarah recognized the bark. It was Luther, the neighbor's well-trained black lab. And he only barked when --
Her attention was grabbed by the vibration of a muted cell phone on the tile counter in the kitchen. She saw it. "There's his phone," she said, with a mixture of relief and concern.
She picked up her father's phone and looked at the list of alerts on the glowing touchscreen.
"Eight missed calls," she spoke aloud without thinking.
They were all from Uncle Tommy.
"Where the hell are you? CALL ME!" she said, as the icy chill of fear ran through her veins.
She saw the last one, sent at 2:11 am and read it aloud: "On my way."
She struggled to make sense of it and replaced the phone on the counter. Fighting a grip of terror threatening to constrict her lungs, she walked toward her father's office where a sole desk lamp provided a halo of luminescent light.
But as she passed before the sliding glass doors leading to the side patio, she heard a horrible yelp and jumped. Luther's barking had ceased. And, Sarah noted with a heart-stopping gasp, the tire rope swing that hung from the oak tree just beyond the patio was swinging madly.
Something was out there.
"Dad?" she whispered with a trembling voice. The pounding of her heartbeat against her ears made it impossible to think. She reached the double doors to his office and pushed them open. That's when she saw her dad rush in, crazy-like, as if something horrible were chasing him.
Instead of being reassured by his return, the terror in the way he moved and acted froze the blood in Sarah's veins. He was panicked. Scared. And in her ten years of life on this planet, she had NEVER EVER seen her dad show fear.
Joel, oblivious to his daughter's presence, quickly turned and slid the outer door to his office shut, locking it with a grunt of relief, his eyes scanning the outside for some unspoken terror.
"There you are," Sarah said, more with surprise than relief.
The sound of Sarah's voice brought Joel's attention back to the room, back to her.
"Sarah," he said, his voice laced with panic. "Are you okay?" He didn't wait for an answer. He turned immediately and started rifling through the drawers of his office desk, frantically searching for something.
Sarah answered his question with a hesitant, "Yeah." She was still trying to make sense of everything that had happened since Tommy jolted her awake with an abrupt and mysterious phone call.
Joel found what he was looking for. With dogged determination, he pulled the aluminum case from the drawer, opened it and reached for the Smith & Wesson .357 magnum inside.
"Has anyone come in here?" he asked over his shoulder. Sarah could hear him grapple with bullets, loading them frantically into the chamber.
"No," she replied to his back, barely able to speak. "Who would come in here?"
"Don't go near the doors!" Joel ordered, his tone more measured as he loaded one round after another. "Just stand back there."
Sarah was on the verge of tears. She didn't want to lose it all right then and there. She was just a kid and she needed some reassurance from him to keep herself together, not fall completely apart.
She said, "Dad... You're kinda freaking me out." In her words were the desperate plea for comfort. "What's going on?"
Her father must have sensed her need because the next words he spoke were delivered with a forced sense of calm. "It's the Coopers," he panted. "Something ain't right with them. I think they're sick."
Sarah struggled to make sense of the connection between the words he spoke and the gun in his hands.
"What kind of sick?" she asked.
But before he could respond, a horrible guttural cry, followed by a pounding at the sliding glass door made Sarah jump and spin around in fear.
She heard the terror in her father's voice as he gasped, "Jesus," and then he pointed his revolver at the glass and shouted a warning: "Jimmy!"
"Dad?!" Sarah exclaimed, edging backward, her heart in her throat. Somewhere deep inside, the revelation was dawning: Jimmy, the next-door neighbor's eldest son, was trying to smash through the heavy glass door.
"Honey, c'mere," Joel said. He backed up alongside her and motioned for her to get behind him. "C'mere, c'mere" he repeated in a panicked voice, sliding his body between her and the door.
As she backed away from the glass pane, huddled behind her father, the figure disappeared and Sarah heard a strangled, tortured cry come from the darkness, an inhuman moan that sent a cold sliver of fear down her back. She trembled from it and dug her fingers deep into her father's waist.
He heard her father whisper, "It's okay," and she could feel the adrenaline surge through his blood, could sense the raw energy rising to the surface. She knew he was at the peak of alertness, that all his survival instincts were primed, ready to be ignited.
The young man reappeared, throwing himself against the glass pane again, this time with much more force, and again Sarah's heart jolted.
"Jimmy!" her father warned a second time, but there was something in his tone... a desperate finality, as if he knew his efforts were useless.
The figure outside the door disappeared from Sarah's view for a second time, a heartbeat longer, and she knew instinctively what Jimmy was doing.
He was getting a running start.
And when Jimmy Cooper appeared again, he was racing toward the glass like a madman.
"Jimmy!" her father shouted.
Cooper hurtled himself inside, smashing through the pane, sending glass shards in all directions. He landed in a heap on the floor amid the broken glass.
The impact didn't seem to have an effect on the boy as he rolled to his side and snarled. In that instant, with Sarah huddled behind her father, she caught a glimpse of Jimmy's face. It was the blood-soaked chin, the mask of dark-blue around his wild, blood-shot eyes, and Sarah felt the horror of his existence. Whatever this was, it wasn't Jimmy Cooper any longer.
Joel shouted at the thing as he continued to back-peddle keeping Sarah behind him: "Jimmy, just stay back. I'm warning you..."
But the creature scrambled to its feet in an cannibalistic rage and Sarah heard herself cry, "Oh my God..." and Joel shouted again. It made a blood-thirty lunge for Joel's throat, oblivious to the gun leveled at its blood-stained chest.
"Don't!" Joel yelled and in the next instant, the gun went off, filling the room with a blinding flash of light, shattering Sarah's eardrums with an explosiveness that clamped her body tight. She screamed, burying her face into the back of Joel's shirt.
She heard the deadening thump of a body hitting the floor as a shiver of terror coursed through her. Trembling, she opened her eyes, saw Jimmy Cooper writhing on the floor, a gaping hole in his chest. In the next instant, the body was still.
Joel had grabbed her by the wrists and was pulling her back into the kitchen. "Go, go," he ordered, pulling her into the light. Her mind was in shock as it grappled to conceive the inconceivable.
"You -- you shot him," she said with trembling lips.
Joel lowered himself to eye-level with Sarah. He had his hands on her arms, trying to control her fear, his body blocking her view of the office and the dead body inside.
"Sarah," he said. There was a peculiar calm to his voice, a lifesaver for her to grab on to, to keep her from drowning in fear.
"I saw him this morning..."
"Listen to me." He spoke slowly and deliberately, his eyes peering into hers, forcing her to focus. "There is something bad going on." He spoke the word carefully, so that Sarah knew it wasn't over-exaggeration and it caused Sarah's focus to return. She met his steely gaze, embraced the comfort it provided. The fear that threatened to consume her retreated.
"We have got to get out of here, do you understand me?"
Sarah nodded and said, "Yeah."
Just then, Joel's attention was grabbed by their shadows moving across the wall. A vehicle had just pulled into the driveway, its headlights shining through the windows, filling the den with light.
"Tommy," her father said, exhaling a sigh of relief. He grabbed Sarah's wrist and headed toward the front door. "C'mon."