Marbella couldn’t shoot the child. Wrapped in PPE and standing inside the disinfection tent the Tamestown Police Department set up in a secluded area a few kilometers from Tamestown Medical Center, he towered over the girl (five or six years old, he guessed) and gripped his service pistol with a heavy heart. He could see the girl’s pale face behind the face mask, her eyes brown and bright, and he concentrated on that paleness, reminding himself that if he didn’t do his job, they wouldn’t contain the virus.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Marbella heard gunfire outside the tent. Inside the tent, the girl coughed. Other officers had finished their work, but he was here being distracted by a girl, who was looking at the gun, as if contemplating what it was for and what the tall man in the weird suit was doing.
Indeed, what are you doing? Something inside him whispered.
“My job,” he said.
The girl looked at him, probably wondering if she heard him say something, and then coughed. He felt sorry for the kid; she was too young to be in this place to be “treated.” Most of his other “patients,” — 99, so far — were old geezers and middle aged brats who couldn’t follow simple protocols. Those people blamed their task force when they ended up needing machines to breathe. Sore losers. Poor goners. Good riddance.
But this time, the goner was a kid. Goddamned Chief Nuezca decided to include the kids in this “treatment program.” For the nation. For Tamestown. To contain the virus. Fuck my life, Marbella thought. I can’t do this. This is a kid. I can’t. He lowered his gun. He could wait until she was dead — that was the end game anyway. The bullet only hastened it, and he had time to spare.
No one in the town proper would know what the “treatment” exactly was because the corpses would be cremated somewhere far away from here. That way, not only did the town save time and equipment and hospital spaces; they also saved the rest of the town from potential infection. In any case, he decided he’d sit this one out. The child was supposed to be his 100th kill but that could wait, as was his reward from the mayor’s quota system.
As the minutes went by, Marbella became impatient inside the tent. The suit was getting a little too warm for his liking and he was itching for a smoke. He left the tent and went to another one, where officers gathered and exchanged stories and bullshit.
“Oy, Marbella, are you done?” asked Chief Nuezca, the balding, fat man playing cards on a table with two other cops in the tent. The Chief was assigned to this squad after getting caught on cam executing a mother and her child in broad daylight and in front of many witnesses. The video went viral online as any video these days always did, and the big-bellied Chief had to lie low. He was content with playing cards with the deadbeat squad while occasionally doing police work and God-knows-what. He once said he’d weed out the undeserving of the squad, claiming that not all of them could stomach the type of work the Tamestown police did. Some of them, he said, were going to betray the task force, as if he was Jesus and the cops were his apostles.
The Chief was winning, going by the stack of paper bills on his side of the table. “Don’t you forget your quota today, Marbella.”
“Yes, Chief,” he said. He took a long drag on his cigarette after taking off his mask and shield. It was a relief after a long night of waiting. He contented himself by watching the tong-its game unfold.
“Marbella, did you hear the stories?” one of the cops at the table said as the Nuezca shuffled the deck. Officer Zinampan, if he remembered correctly.
“What stories?” he replied, humoring the beat cop.
“Well, you won’t believe it,” Zinampan said, grinning and looking around at the others, as if expecting them to know the story. To Marbella, it seemed they did because they exchanged glances and nervous chuckles. “It’s crazy. You know how those fuckin’ researchers and dumb wokes talk about mutation and other crazy tales the commies and NPA cunt lickers feed them?”
“Yeah?” he said. To Marbella’s knowledge, reports said new virus mutations were becoming deadlier as months passed by. He believed some of such reports but didn’t take them seriously. Mutations or not, the bullets could take care of the job. That was their mantra.
“Well, now they’re saying the latest mutation turns patients into zombies,” Zinampan laughed. “Can you believe those dumbfucks? They’ll say everything just for the sake of scaring the people. Those fuckers know nothing.”
“Zombies? For Christ’s sake,” he said. “They probably shouldn’t watch too many movies.” Still, with the setting they were and the raspy breaths and coughing fits and bloody tents around them, such a story perked up his senses for horror.
Another cop, Punzalan, chimed in and said, “You know, it could be true. I saw one body twitch after, you know,” he then made a finger gun and made a firing motion. “Turned out a bunch of rats were lunching at it from under the blanket.”
The crowd of policemen were grossed out and Marbella himself couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the claims. In any case, he thought his patient was due a visit, because maybe she’d thrown in the towel. Kicked the bucket. Went belly up. Bit the dust. Coughed her final cough. And God forbid she turned into a zombie. He left the cops’ tent and went back to the young girl.
The girl was still on the bed and coughing when Marbella came. Her brown hair was a mess. He was disappointed with this, and the gun in his hand felt a little heavier with each cough of the girl. From somewhere in his heart stirred a little sympathy for the poor kid. Soon, she’d be gasping for air. For now, she had to endure the cough. Marbella paced around the tent and argued with himself.
You can wait until she’s breathless, and then your problem is solved, one voice said. Another said, Or you can end her pain and be done with it. You’ll be doing her a favor. There’s no cure for that. Your gun is the cure. And remember, it’s your 100th kill. You just have to have the guts.
Marbella continued pacing around the tent, trying to ignore the coughing. He thought he was numb to all of this after several kills. He always walked away only slightly bothered by the treatment, thinking it was a job well done. One less infected off the list of spreaders. Only, those were adults. They’d had their chance. They ate, partied, fucked, sinned, worshipped (other times, killed) — lived. This child, however, was nothing like those people. The virus fucked her life up. Marbella felt remorse and his blood ran cold and wanted to throw away the gun and walk away from there.
He was on the verge of doing just that, but then he heard gunshots outside, followed by shouts and screams of what sounded like his squad members. He took his gun and ducked to avoid stray bullets. For all he knew, the bastards had decided the game was rigged and the Chief was cheating. Maybe Zinampan lost his temper, and shit hit the fan. That cop would shoot a granny if he was drunk and pissed. He would also do it when sober.
Marbella tried to shout, “What’s happening!?” but his voice was drowned by the gunfire. “Shit,” he said. He took his knife using his empty hand and cut a hole through the tent to see what was happening. And what he saw horrified him.
He could only see their feet, but the feet were enough to paint a picture: a police officer was lying near the tent and another person not in PPE uniform was on top of him, moving as if… as if doing something with the body — to the body. Marbella could also see blood. The cop’s feet twitched, and he could hear mushing sounds, like somebody’s eating a particular jelly-ish foot. He suppressed a scream and held to his gun tightly. It wasn’t happening. This shouldn’t be happening. Could it be? The patients — they were turning into zombies! The dumb wokes and retarded researchers were right. This was a nightmare. He should get away; he should stay put. How…
That moment, he remembered the young girl behind him.
The girl was still on the bed, lying soundlessly at first and then noisily after a coughing fit assaulted her lungs. Marbella recognized the first signs of severity; raspy breath and shortness of it. The veins on the girl’s head stood and she was drenched in sweat. A young body like that could only fight so much. How long before she turns? Marbella asked. Fuck. I should be out of here. But how? Maybe if I stay inside of this tent, they won’t find me. But staying here means…
Again, clutching his gun and pointing it to the girl, he argued with himself. He knew he should shoot the girl before she turned, but what if the “patients” outside hear the gunshot? More importantly, could he do it?
Of course you could. It’s you OR her. There’s no other way around it, the voice in his head said.
The shield on his face had fogged up because of his heavy breath. He tried to listen and heard the sounds outside had let up. He wondered whether he could do it, especially now that the gunshot sound would stand out from the silence. Your knife, the voice said. Your knife, you dumbfuck. Just stab her in the head. Then you wait. Don’t be a pussy. You’ve done this before. What’s the difference? That child ain’t going to survive anyway.
“I can’t do it!” he hissed at himself, hoping he wasn’t loud enough to be heard by the zombified patients outside. Finally, he lowered the gun and decided to take a peek again outside. If he was lucky, he could spot a patrol car and make a run for it and drive away from that dark, terrifying woods. He’d warn the others. It was the apocalypse.
He heard a growl and a guttural sound just outside of the tent like it was coming from a wild animal, but something distinctly human was thrown in. He could imagine Zinampan lurking outside the tent, sniffing for a pound of flesh, so loud and clear. Was he beside him, just outside the thin fabric of the tent? He heard the wild humans-animal sound again. He turned around and saw a hand clasping at the tent, not too hard that the fabric was torn apart, but not too light either. He could hear footsteps outside, not quick, but not slow too — the patients, and heck, maybe Nuezca and the others, were shambling around his tent.
Marbella had no choice.
Without lowering his gun, he took his knife again and stepped closer to the girl. By now, she seemed oblivious of the surroundings or noise outside. Marbella didn’t even know whether the girl knew he was there; she probably thought he was just an apparition; a gatekeeper to the other side, whatever that side was, and if ever a kid had such a concept. She coughed and coughed and coughed, louder each time, and he could feel the skidding pain in her throat. Her breath was getting heavier by the second, her skin paler and paler.
But, unlike the folks before her, the child didn’t cry; she didn’t curse nor screamed for help or for her mama or for anyone; she wasn’t in an angry agony. She just coughed and coughed and tried to breathe, sucking in that now-elusive air. She tried and tried. Tried. And tried. And. tried. And with every breath, she gasped hard for air. Marbella felt crying. The brightness in her glistening eyes. Her young, frail body. Such purity ruined by a virus. Such innocence…
The growling outside, growing louder, reminded Marbella that he had to kill the child. Slowly, he lowered the gun and placed the back of his gloved hand on the girl’s forehead. Even more slowly, he started closing her eyelids.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, suppressing a sob that would give away his own feelings and their bodies to the patients outside. He raised the knife on his other hand and concentrated. It had to be quick so she’d feel no pain.
“Mister,” the girl said, stopping Marbella dead. “I…” she tried to say, “I need…air. Mister…”
That was when Marbella completely let go. The floodgates of tears were open. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”
He did what he had to do.
Suppressing his sobs, Marbella hugged the girl and whispered apologies, though she was already lifeless in his hands. He was furious at the virus, and he hated himself. But he had no choice. After a few moments, he took his gun again and turned to the entrance of the tent. He was going to report the squad and the Chief. It was time people knew what kind of treatment was being given to the patients. After all, the Chief prophesied a Judas among his fucking flock. Let that be him. He’d be glad.
But first, he had to kill zombies.
He slowly unzipped the tent, gun raised and breath held. Marbella saw no one. He expected ruined tents and shamblers outside, but everything seemed okay. As if no catastrophe touched it just a few moments ago. What happened? He stepped out of the tent, and was greeted by the voices of his fellow officers.
Cheery and happy. Alive. They were alive. Chief Nuezca was grinning, apparently drunk and having fun. Zinampan was dancing silly, covered in what seemed like fake blood. Another officer was wearing civilian clothing, also covered in fake blood. Marbella recognized them: the Zombie and the dead cop. They were alive. And partying.
“It’s your 100th kill!” Zinampan declared, offering him a bottle of beer. “Congrats, buddy! Now, you’ve earned being here. Also, that was a prank. We should’ve seen your face, man. Did you shit your pants?” Everybody howled in laughter.
Insane. This is insane. This is absurd, the voice in his head said.
“Marbella,” said Nuezca, “You proved yourself. I thought you didn’t have the guts. After all, that was your first patient…of that age, correct? I know. I assigned her to you. How did it feel? You have guts. You deserve this squad.”
Marbella’s blood ran cold and his ears rang. Zinampan stepped closer, still handing over the bottle of beer. “Come on, man.” Nuezca turned around, already bored of the spectacle. Without thinking, Marbella shot Zinampan in the head, just as he did to the other patients before the girl. For a moment, the police squad was stunned, unsure of what just happened. When they saw Zinampan fall, they took a step back. Marbella screamed and rushed toward Nuezca, who was just turning around. He intended to drive the knife into the Chief’s head. He killed a girl for this pig. He murdered her, and for what? A fucking prank, that’s what.
But before the knife hit the Chief’s skull, Marbella felt another hand grab his hand. He heard a couple of shots. Then, he felt as if the air ran out of his chest. He clutched his side. Something cold lodged inside his lungs. He inhaled, failed to exhale, and lost his balance. He dropped the knife. The world became a blur and he lied there face up. The face shield wasn’t fogged up, but he could barely make out the sky above him. Everything seemed fluid, like it was unreal. Reality was thin. Thinner. Thinner. And then, he heard the girl again from somewhere distant.
“Mister, I need air…mister please,” were the last words he heard.
Ace Bagtas is a writer, editor, and a dreamer. He likes horror in any media (books, movies, tv shows, etc.) and on his face. He lives in Angeles, Pampanga with his girlfriend, and he’s clueless about the gayuma’s expiration date. His favorite motto is: love is a many-horned cyst monster that has grown its own set of eyes and fur.