From the author: With the aid of a mysterious government agency, Barbara attempts to help her husband regain his humanity after a terrible disease turns him into a monster.
“Can I go to the basement and see Daddy?” Caroline said.
Barbara set the shotgun on the kitchen counter, checked the safety, and knelt beside her daughter. “No, honey. Daddy isn’t ready for visitors.”
“When he finishes his lessons?” Caroline asked, hopeful. She and David had been close, and she felt the loss more than her twelve-year-old brother. Mark wanted nothing to do with his father.
“We'll see, but that might be a long time from now.” She pulled her daughter close, and Caroline melted into the embrace. It took real effort to let her go. “Now go outside with your brother and Uncle Robert. I’ll call for you when I come back upstairs.” It was too dangerous to have the kids in the house during rehab.
“I could help you with the lessons,” Caroline said. “I could help Daddy too.”
Barbara smiled. “I know you could, but remember what the people from the Rehabilitation Agency said. Just one of us right now, until he gets a little better.” The rehab process fascinated Caroline, and she questioned Barbara on every detail. Barbara didn’t tell her daughter much--most of it wasn’t fit for an eight-year-old to hear, and the rest . . . She wouldn’t dash Caroline’s hopes like that.
“Please, Mom. I miss him so much.” Tears stood in her pale green eyes. Green like her father’s used to be.
“Go on, honey. Now,” Barbara said. Seeing her daughter like this sunk a knife in her heart.
Caroline shuffled to the sliding glass door, opened it, and stepped out into the backyard. Her brother and her uncle were waiting for her. Robert looked a lot like David, though his hair had started to gray at the temples. She watched him scoop up Caroline, saw her come alive in his arms, smiling and laughing as he spun her around. Mark walked up behind them. He smiled too. They all looked happy. Despite the terrible thing that had happened, her family looked happy.
She watched Robert and her children for a few moments, trying to soak in as much of their joy as possible. Robert didn’t like staying outside while she was downstairs. He wanted to be with her if things got bad, but she wouldn’t allow it. She needed him to stay with Mark and Caroline. She didn’t want to worry about them while she worked with David. There was another reason, too, one she couldn’t tell him. Robert had become the bedrock upon which they were rebuilding their lives. She couldn’t risk him getting hurt, or worse. She remained devoted to her husband, but if David couldn’t come all the way back . . . She pushed the thought from her mind, guilty for even considering it. She shouldn't think like that yet.
She locked the sliding glass door and returned to the counter where the shotgun waited. The Mossberg 500's cold black barrel and synthetic stock contrasted starkly with the soft yellows and creams of her kitchen. She picked up the gun and began loading it. Shotgun shells filled her pockets: double-aught buck. They packed enough punch to shatter a bowling ball at close range. She hated the gun, but it was mandatory. She’d asked for something smaller and easier to carry, something that didn’t kick like a goddamn mule. The Rehabilitation Agency refused. The gun had to have legitimate stopping power. She had to be able to kill her husband with one shot.
With the shotgun loaded, Barbara made her way to the basement door. It had been the first of the “improvements” made to the house when David had come back to live with them. They'd replaced the wall with a concrete slab to support a heavy steel frame and the new door. The entrance to her basement looked like a bank vault, a thick rectangle of shining metal with a wheel in its center. The door made her feel safe and terribly sad at the same time.
She entered a six digit code--David’s birth date--into the keypad next to the door to disengage the locking mechanism. Then she turned the wheel, retracting the four steel bars sunk into the frame. Barbara pulled the door open, and the stench of rancid meat wafted from the dark stairwell beyond. The smell used to make her sick, but you could get used to anything with enough time and determination. She flicked the light switch, filling the stairwell and the basement below with a harsh fluorescent glow.
Barbara thumbed the safety off on the shotgun and waited. The sounds of David’s chains dragging on the concrete floor drifted up after a few seconds.
“David,” she called out. “I’m coming down.”
A low, rattling moan followed her announcement, animal-like and unintelligible. She stepped onto the short flight of concrete stairs and made her way down.
The Rehabilitation Agency had remodeled the basement, like the door. First, they painted the concrete walls a soft blue. They’d had success with the color at the local containment center where David lived after the Agency captured him. He'd been there for six months before they deemed him a candidate for rehabilitation. The agency also put in banks of fluorescent lights in the ceiling and the manacles and chains on the wall.
David stood in the far corner of the basement, his gray, cloudy eyes tracking her as she moved into the room. His wrists and ankles bore heavy manacles padded on the inside with soft leather. The manacles attached to chains that in turn attached to thick steel rings set into the wall. He had five feet of movement in any direction. A bright yellow half-circle on the floor indicated how far he could reach at the end of his chains.
David had finished eating. There were no remains beyond the crimson stain around his mouth. She never asked where the “food” came from; she didn’t want to know. A white van delivered a package wrapped in opaque plastic once a week. The agency told her the wrapping was edible--like a tasteless fruit rollup--so she just pushed the package into David’s reach with a broom handle.
The only furniture in the basement was a plain wooden table and chair set five feet from the edge of the yellow half-circle. She'd positioned the table close enough David could see and hear her and far enough away he had no chance of reaching her. On top of the table sat the rehabilitation materials: a short stack of white plastic binders. Barbara put the shotgun down and smiled at her husband. He shuffled forward, his chains rattling against the concrete.
She sat and took a binder from the top of the stack. Inside were big laminated cards with pictures of ordinary objects. She selected one and held it up. “What’s this, David?”
He cocked his head and stared at the card. A line of pink drool fell from his bottom lip, and he opened and closed his mouth, making wet smacking noises. She almost set the card aside to choose another, and then he spoke.
”Treeee,” David said, his voice low and grinding. He sounded like a man who needed to clear his throat.
“That’s right, baby,” she said, trying not to feel too hopeful. He’d never identified that particular card, but they were a month into the rehab process and recognition of simple objects wasn’t enough. “What kind of tree?”
David tilted his head back and moaned. To Barbara it sounded like frustration, but the agency told her not to read into David’s vocalizations. Yet.
“You know this one, David,” she said.
He lowered his head, stared at the card, and then at her, his milky gray eyes moving back and forth. A few seconds passed, and then, “Crisssmaaasss treeeee.” He’d put two words together coherently for the first time.
“Yes!” Barbara said, unable to contain her glee. “That’s it, baby! Christmas tree! Christmas tree!”
It was a monumental breakthrough, but it paled in comparison to David’s reaction to her delight. The corners of his mouth, still stained red from his meal, twitched, and then rose. An unmistakable smile. The sight of it sent an electric thrill through her body and brought warm tears to her eyes. The smile disappeared, and David’s face fell slack again. She didn’t care. It was a real emotional response. Undeniable progress.
She set the picture of the Christmas tree on the table and looked back at the binder she’d taken it from. The label on the binder’s spine read SERIES TWO. Next to this binder sat a stack of four more. Their spines read SERIES THREE, FOUR, FIVE, and SIX. She looked at the stack and then back at David. Rehabilitation was a long, slow process, and the agency told her never to work outside the program. Full rehab was possible, although only fifteen percent of candidates made it all the way back. The agency told her she must follow the rules and complete each series in order, but David was doing so well. In under a month, he'd shown increased levels of cognition and memory and a decreased aggression response. Add to that the breakthrough today, and . . .
“You’re ready, right, baby?” She grabbed the SERIES FOUR binder from the stack, opened it, and flipped through the cards within. The one she wanted was at the bottom. She pulled it out, held it to her chest, and took a deep breath. Maybe it was too early for this. Maybe it would set him back. But she needed to see.
She held up the picture of Caroline. She'd taken it about a year ago at the park. Her little girl sat on the swings, her face glowing and happy. “Now who’s this, David?” she said, her heart thundering in her chest. She couldn't turn back now.
“Girrrrllll,” David said. His eyes fixed on the picture of his daughter.
He’d answered quicker than ever before. She knew she should stop now. Pushing him further might set him back weeks, might trigger a violent response. But he was so close. Could this be the road to full recovery? He’d loved Caroline so much. The agency didn’t know everything, right? Rehabilitation was a new process. They couldn’t have it all figured out.
She held the picture out further. “That’s right,” she said. “It's a girl. What else? Who is it?”
David studied the picture again, his mouth working, and his eyes roamed around the room, as if he searched for something. Barbara allowed herself to hope, to feel the surge of excitement he might remember his daughter.
“Come on, David,” she said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.
His lips squirmed away from his teeth, and his eyes rolled in their sockets. He looked like he was fighting something, trying to push through a thick caul of base instincts and hunger to the light of reason beyond. He failed.
David’s face relaxed--fell, really--back into the slack, emotionless mask he’d worn since he’d been infected. “Girrl,” he said, then looked away.
Despair washed over Barbara, a dark tide that smothered the hope she’d felt moments ago. She put the picture of Caroline down on the table and stared at it, running her hands over the glossy surface. Then she looked at the shotgun. Would it be better to end it now? Would it be easier on everyone? Robert was a good man and already like a father to the kids. Wouldn’t he understand?
She swallowed and shook her head. “No, I won’t give up on you,” she said. She put the picture of the Christmas tree and Caroline’s picture back in their binders, then stood and pushed the chair against the table.
David watched her do all this without a sound. When she finished, she picked up the shotgun and moved to the stairs. At the top, she flicked the light switch, plunging the basement into darkness.
She stood at the top of the steps, the shotgun dangling in her right hand. She knew tears were coming, but they would be for her. Robert and the kids couldn’t see; they needed to believe David was getting closer. She needed to believe too, if only to give her a reason to keep going.
She listened at the top step and heard David’s chains rattling against the concrete floor. She looked down at her left hand, at the plain band of gold on her ring finger. It felt heavy, very much a chain of her own.
Barbara began pushing the heavy steel door closed. Before it shut, David’s voice drifted through the thin sliver of darkness between the steel slab and the frame. It was like hearing a word from the other side of death, ghostly and heartbreaking. It crashed against her emotions, carrying both hope and the damning resignation there was still so much to do.
Barbara woke with a scream climbing up her throat like a tide of bile. The dream left no trace in her mind beyond a lingering sense of terror and panic. She let her eyes adjust to the darkness in her bedroom, taking deep breaths in an attempt to calm her racing heart.
Minutes passed and that sense of acute panic did not dissipate. She got up and went to her closet. Inside, behind the clothes, loomed a jet black gun safe. The Rehabilitation Agency recommended she keep her gun close at hand, but with an eight- and a twelve-year-old in the house, the thought of a loaded shotgun within easy reach terrified her. She reached out and touched the combination dial, letting her hand rest there while she tried to decide if she was being foolish.
She waited for the alarm hammering through her brain to subside; it did not. She spun the dial, entered the combination, and opened the safe. She pulled out the shotgun, shuddering as her skin made contact with the cold metal, then grabbed a handful of shells and stuffed them into the pockets of her pajamas. She couldn’t bring herself to load the gun yet.
Barbara left her room and stood in the hall, listening. The house was quiet. Mark’s room was closest to hers, and he always shut his door. She opened it a crack and peered inside. A boy-shaped mound lay on her son’s bed, and she watched the subtle rise and fall of his chest for a moment before she shut Mark’s door.
Some of her fear dissipated, and she moved down the hall to Caroline’s room. The soft glow of Caroline’s night-light splashed into the hall though her open door. Barbara approached, carrying the shotgun behind her back. She didn’t want Caroline to see it if she was awake.
She looked into her daughter’s room, and the panic came roaring back, dumping ice water down her spine. Caroline’s bed was empty.
“Caroline,” Barbara whispered, stepping into the room. No answer and no sign of her daughter.
She left Caroline’s room and ran to the stairs at the end of the hall. She stood at the top, listening again. Nothing. The stairs ended in the living room, and she could see into the kitchen from there. The overhead light was on, and she had a clear view of the steel door to the basement.
Someone had pushed a chair next to the keypad, and the door was open a crack, just large enough for a slim eight-year-old to squeeze through.
“No, no, no,” she said under her breath and dug into her pocket for shotgun shells. She ran to the vault door and made herself stop long enough to jam three shells into the shotgun and pump one into the chamber. Then she hauled the door open wide.
The lights were on below, but she couldn’t hear anything. Barbara bounded down the stairs, the shotgun at her shoulder, her finger on the trigger guard like the Agency had taught her.
Her heart hammered in her chest, and her mind whirled with terrifying images. Caroline missed her father so much, and Barbara sometimes worried she might follow her down into the basement. The keypad and the door made her feel safer. Caroline often lingered in the kitchen before Barbara went down to work with David. Had Caroline watched her enter the code? How stupid she had been to think such paltry obstacles could keep a grieving child from the one thing that would make her feel better.
Barbara reached the base of the stairs and stopped. The shotgun dropped from her shoulder, and she stared in mute horror at the scene before her.
There was so much blood. It ran in thick black rivulets from David’s half-circle and the wall behind him. Her husband sat on the ground facing her, his shoulders slumped, head down. Something lay on the floor in front of him, something she couldn’t look at, couldn’t see, or she would not have the strength or sanity to do what must come next.
She shuffled forward, her mind blank and numb. She brought up the shotgun and put her finger around the trigger. David didn’t move until she stood inside the “safe” zone. She pointed the shotgun at his head.
He looked up, his face streaked with blood. His eyes found hers, and some of the old green peeked through the muddy gray, but there was much more in those eyes than she’d seen in months.
David’s mouth worked, and his eyes held hers. He tried to speak. Her finger tensed around the shotgun’s trigger, but part of her needed to hear, needed to know if the destruction of everything good and pure in their lives was an act of animal aggression or something so much worse.
David’s eyes were pleading, desperate with terrible pain, and far worse, understanding. He answered Barbara’s question in a single word, uttered with perfect human clarity.
She pulled the trigger.
This story originally appeared in Red Sun Magazine.