What Once We Feared, p.1Carrie Ryan
Also by Carrie Ryan
The Forest of Hands and Teeth
The Dead-Tossed Waves
The Dark and Hollow Places
“Hare Moon” (an ebook original short story)
Edited by Carrie Ryan
Foretold: 14 Tales of Prophecy and Prediction
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2013 by Carrie Ryan
Cover art copyright © 2013 by dimitris_k
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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The first time I saw the apartment building I thought it looked like a bunker; it never occurred to me that we’d end up using it as one. Nicky’s the one who actually lived there—or at least she and her dad moved in there when her mom kicked them out. She was the one who suggested we take shelter there. It’s not like we had a lot of other options and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But isn’t that always the case? The ideas that seem so good in the moment turn out to be the worst when everything is said and done?
The Overlook—that’s the name of the apartment building—was a massive chunk of a structure that sat just outside the interstate loop circling Uptown (how pretentious does a city have to be to call it “Uptown” rather than “Downtown?”). It was made of concrete and half dug into a hill so that three sides had a long, thick foundation and the fourth faced the road.
Most importantly, though, it was the closest place we could think to run when the outbreak began raging through the city. We’d been on a senior class field trip to Discovery Place when it happened. I’d just stepped outside with Nicky and I was thinking about how hard I’d worked to make sure I ended up partnered with her for this project and then BAM.
Nicky didn’t know what made the sound and at first, neither did I. I couldn’t place it—it was loud but not a gunshot, solid but not familiar. I was still trying to figure it out when I saw the body lying broken on the ground. Nicky hadn’t seen it yet and I tried to keep her turned away. Then there was another BAM and she started screaming.
The man landed not five feet away, one leg completely shattered underneath him from the fall. Another hit right after that, and I swear to God it seemed like it was raining bodies (later, Felipe would start singing “It’s Raining Men” whenever Nicky brought this up. It took her a while, but eventually she started laughing at the joke—what else could you do?).
Nicky had already jumped back under the Discovery Place awning, but like a moron I just stood there. “Jonah!” she screamed at me. “What are you doing?”
I was never able to explain it to her in a way she understood, but I couldn’t stop staring at that first body. Later I’d realize that bits of his shattered leg had sprayed across my pants. But in that moment I just kept thinking that there are 206 bones in the adult human body and I wondered how many of them were broken in the fall and from which story of the skyscraper he’d plummeted.
There was something impossibly beautiful about the moment. All at once I grasped that the man had lived this life and in an instant it was gone and I’d been there to see it happen. How many people get the experience of watching the moment someone dies? The switch from “something is there” to “something is not”?
I guess now that’s kind of a moot question; at the time, though, I remember being awed.
It was looking up that shocked me out of my reverie. There were more of them coming, tumbling through the air like acrobats. I stumbled back and Nicky grabbed my arm and pulled me to safety. No lie—two seconds later a body hit right where I’d been standing.
He was the first to start moving. He was so broken up it was impossible to tell where he’d been bitten, but it was the only explanation. The only way someone who’d just been dead could suddenly be not-dead.
When the first dead guy came back to life—not that guy on the sidewalk, but a man from the West Coast who’d ended up on the news weeks before—we all should have run. That’s what I know now.
But when the president gets on TV and tells you that everything’s under control, that the disease has been contained, and the best thing you can do is not panic and try to live your life as normally as possible—that’s when you’re in trouble. That’s when your parents send you off to school when they should be packing you up and raiding the grocery store.
That’s why your teacher still insists on the senior trip to the Discovery Place: because that’s what normal means. And since Uptown was packed with armed reservists and the outbreak hadn’t even touched the East Coast, the principal and most of our parents figured we’d be safe.
As it turned out, we weren’t.
Half of our class was stuck in the bowels of Discovery Place when the panic began, but Nicky and I were outside, with Beatrice, Felipe, and Gregor right behind us. We could hear screams coming from down the block.
The air stank of blood and Felipe had to shout over the sound of the reservists’ gunshots. “We should go back in—get to the buses through the rear entrance!”
The guy who’d landed in front of me was so broken there was no way he’d ever be able to stand, but even so, he twitched his fingers against the concrete, splitting his nails as he tried to drag himself closer.
There was such a desperate need in him that it was hard to make sense of.
Beatrice began hyperventilating and Nicky’s cheeks shone with tears. I hated the indecision of that moment. Even now I wish I could go back there and stop time and just give myself a minute to think.
That’s the thing about bad decisions. They can feel so right in the moment because they give you something to do other than stand around uselessly. But maybe all you’re doing is delaying the inevitable and giving yourself a nice long time to play out how stupid you were.
All around us, people were giving up on their cars, not even bothering to turn them off or to shut their doors after abandoning them in the middle of the road. The streets were gridlocked, horns blaring. We knew then that we’d never get far.
We’d never get home.
That’s what Beatrice said, actually: “I want to go home,” and I’m pretty sure that’s what made Nicky say, “My dad’s apartment—it’s in the Overlook.” And then we started running.
We were like a hive mind—no discussion, no coordination. One of us thought it and so it became. As a pack we dove through the city, drops in the sea of humanity desperate to escape. We learned quickly to stay in the middle of the road—those on the outside were the easiest targets.
Everywhere was madness. Or so I thought. Maybe I didn’t truly understand madness yet, because I still felt the compulsion to steady those who stumbled. To pull them free of clawing hands.
I still tried to help.
There were only two entrances to the Overlook: the leasing office, its windows already shattered, and the underground garage, which ha
Nicky pulled a remote from her purse and pointed it at a black box. Slowly, slowly, with a lot of creaking, the gate began to roll open. She was the first through, and then Beatrice and Felipe. They sprinted through the garage for the bank of elevators. I was the one to hold Gregor back.
“It’s every man for himself, right?” I asked him.
He didn’t get what I was saying. “Look,” I tried again. “We gotta lock this thing down now, right? Is it wrong if we do that? Keep everyone else out?”
Gregor’s eyes were wide as he looked from me to the road outside. People were screaming, trying to run. So many of them were smeared with blood that it was impossible to tell who’d been infected already and who was safe.
“Come on, Jonah!” Nicky screamed. Her panic was contagious, and my fingers fumbled as I pried the cover off the electric motor that worked the garage gate.
“Tell her to just hold on a sec,” I ordered Gregor, “and get that clicker from her!”
I’d wanted to be all cool and find a way to disable the motor, but in the end I couldn’t keep focused on all the wires and gears. I ended up grabbing one of the big metal garbage bins and slamming it against the motor until it was in enough pieces to be unsalvageable. Gregor pointed the clicker at the black box and sure enough, the gate was well and thoroughly broken.
No one was getting in through the garage.
Once we were all piled in one of the two marble and wood elevators, Nicky had to use a special electronic key to access the penthouse level. When she pressed the “P” button Felipe whistled. “Fancy girl, eh?”
She rolled her eyes at him. I remember that so distinctly because I’d been thinking how glad I was that he was such an ass because it made me look better by comparison.
Of course, that only lasted until we reached the top floor and the elevator doors opened. Nicky stepped out into the vestibule first, without even pausing to look around, and I grabbed her hand before she could take off down one of the dim, carpeted hallways.
“What are you doing?” I hissed in her ear. “What if it’s not safe?”
Beatrice muffled a cry by pushing her palm against her mouth, and even Felipe’s face paled. On either side of us a hallway stretched between the other apartments. Gregor took off to the left, but the floor must have been configured in a square or something, because a minute or two later he came sprinting back from the right. “Everything’s clear,” he reported. The corridors were silent, empty.
“Yeah, but for how long?” Felipe asked.
As if in response one of the elevator engines kicked in, and it whisked away from our floor down into the bowels of the building. There was a distant ding and then the sound of the elevator starting its climb back up.
I held my breath, hoping it stopped before reaching us, and thought of all those people out in the city. They were going to run somewhere, and this place would look pretty good, with its thick walls and proximity to Uptown. It was the closest thing to a fortress our city had.
“Unless we’re the ones who called for it,” Nicky whispered, “Whoever it is would need to have a key to get to this floor.”
Beatrice finally spoke up. “They … those things … can’t …”—she moved her hand in the air as if it could talk for her—“like, think, can they? You know, press buttons and stuff like that?”
It’s funny how long it took us to start using the word zombie. For the longest time we just called them “they” or “those things,” because zombie was a word that existed in games and movies. It felt stupid saying it, always coming out with a kind of “shit, can you believe I’m actually using this word?” laugh.
“We shouldn’t wait to find out,” Felipe suggested, already easing down the hallway. He tugged on Nicky’s sleeve and she shrugged him off.
“It could be my dad,” she said, emphasizing that last word. Felipe flicked his eyes at me, like I was somehow in control of the situation. But none of that mattered because the elevator dinged and my stomach turned over on itself as the doors slid open.
I don’t know who was more surprised—us or him. There was a moment where it felt like it could be a normal day and this normal guy with graying hair was getting home from work with his suit a little rumpled, his tie loose around his neck.
But then I saw where his sleeve was torn and how he held his hand against his stomach. There was blood. A lot of blood.
It’s not like he could think we wouldn’t see it, and for a second he had a guilty look on his face. Almost panicked, even. But then he must have remembered that he was an adult and we were just a bunch of teenagers, because he pushed past us and strode down the dim hallway, his keys rattling in his bloody fingers.
And it worked. We stood there like dumb kids and let him do what he wanted, because seriously, who were we to stop him?
Then, to add to our stupefied uselessness, the elevator doors began to slide closed and I couldn’t get there in time to stop them. I started pounding the button, trying to call it back. The call light lit up, but I was too late. Behind the double doors, the engine hummed and wires whisked the little cage back down into the building.
There would be more coming—more people. More infected. I’d locked the garage down, but they could still get into the Overlook through the office. We wouldn’t stay safe for long if that happened. We had to stop them. Any way we could, we had to keep anyone else from getting up to the penthouse.
We had to stop the elevators from running.
I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate, but every thought was shrouded in a red-tinged panic. “How many elevators are there?”
Nicky didn’t answer and I turned to face her. “How many?” I asked again, and she kind of flinched as though my words had been physical.
“Just these two,” she finally answered. “Why?”
Behind the metal doors I heard the cables whirring, from the bowels of the building, floor chimes rang one after another, growing louder. Other people were filing into the building. Like water rising, they would get to us eventually if we didn’t find a way to pull the plug.
On the other side of the vestibule a sign for the billiard room hung on the wall next to a set of double doors. I tried the handles but they were locked. “Can you get me in here?”
Nicky’s face was pale, her lips white and dry and the rims of her eyes raw. She was shutting down; my words seemed to be getting trapped in her head in some kind of endless cycle. Instead of answering, she stood there blinking.
Behind her the elevator’s engine hummed. Blood roared through me—that feeling of having the perfect strategy for winning a game and just hoping you have the chance to play it out.
And knowing just how many ways it could all go wrong.
A crisp ding sounded, and even though we’d been the ones to call the elevator, its arrival startled us. We turned as one, waiting for the doors to slide open. I braced myself for a monster to come stumbling out and felt almost light-headed when I saw that the car was empty.
Except for the glistening pool of blood oozing along the floor.
“Oh my God,” Beatrice started mumbling over and over. She backed down the hallway, a low wail building in the back of her throat.
“Don’t let it leave!” I called to Gregor as the doors began to slide shut. He had to dive for it, his foot slipping on the blood and his elbow crashing against the wood paneled wall
I turned to Nicky and wrapped my fingers around her shoulders, forcing her to focus. “I need you to get me in that room.”
Her hands shook as she held out the same black electronic key she’d used to access the top floor. I pressed it against the lock and the door opened with a click.
I didn’t care anymore about trying to appear smooth and confident. I only cared about what could be coming in that second elevator. Hearing its ascent, the beep of buttons as it climbed past floor five, then six, then seven. Knowing that eventually someone else with a key to the top floor woul
Those men who’d fallen from the top of the skyscrapers earlier—the ones who’d stayed dead which meant they were probably uninfected—had to have jumped because that was less terrifying than whatever was coming for them. I didn’t want to know what that was. I didn’t want to face it up here in this dim hallway.
As I’d hoped, the billiard room had a few seating arrangements, and I grabbed the closest chair, dragging it over the thick carpet into the hallway. Gregor kept having to battle the elevator doors as they tried to close over and over again. The alarm started to buzz, the sound grating and horrible in what had been almost silence before.
Gregor helped me maneuver the chair into place to block the doors, and then he climbed out, cradling his elbow. “Call the other one,” I told him as I went back for a second chair.
Nicky tried to stop me. “What are you doing?”
I moved around her. With the alarm going I couldn’t hear the cables of the second elevator, couldn’t tell how close it was. “Locking it down.”
“But my dad …” She grabbed my sleeve.
I pulled free. Said nothing. Started dragging another chair out into the hallway.
She jumped in front of me, kneeling on the seat and leaning over the back toward me. “My dad’s still out there,” she argued.
My hands clenched the armrests. I felt the words rising in my throat, pushing against my vocal cords. “Screw your dad!” I wanted to scream in her face, because seriously, what were we supposed to do? Camp out in the hallway and stand guard? Hope that her dad eventually showed up and wasn’t as bloody as the last guy?
Instead, I took a deep breath. “It’s not safe.” How could she not understand?
The other elevator dinged, and even before the doors opened we heard banging and moaning. “Oh crap,” Gregor breathed.
Beatrice took off running down the hallway, and Felipe chased after her. But I didn’t follow. I couldn’t. We had to block the elevator so more of those things didn’t get up here. I kicked the chair I’d been dragging toward Gregor and then grabbed Nicky, throwing her into the billiard room.
What Once We Feared by Carrie Ryan / Young Adult / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes