by Steve Carr
STANDING ON THE BANK OF JACKSON’S CREEK, Ned felt nothing but resentment. Twenty years as the janitor for Pine Rest Laboratories and all he got was a plaque and a cake. During his retirement luncheon no one mentioned all the unpaid overtime he had put in over the years cleaning up spills and accidents involving hazardous materials made by the technicians. They didn’t acknowledge that he put his life on the line every time he put on the protective gear to enter the labs where they were doing who knows what.
He showed them. He had the keys and know how to get into every lab in the building. He put on the overalls, cap, gloves, covers for his shoes, and a mask over his mouth and entered the lab simply labeled as NF Studies, whatever that stood for, carrying the remaining pieces of cake covered with saran rap and a few paper plates and plastic utensils with him. He placed them on a table then took a Petri dish from one of the dozens in an incubator. He took the lid off the dish and using a Q-tip swabbed the inside of the Petri dish then ran it across the top of the table with the cake and over the top surfaces of the plates and on the plastic forks. Then did the same to one of the counters where the technicians worked.
He started to put the dish back in the incubator, then realized he would be going home to nothing. His wife had died, his children never came around or called him. If he was going to go home and wait for an eventual lonely death in his house in Pine Rest, then the Petri dish and whatever was in it was going with him in case the technicians became unusually careful and tossed the cake and plates or wiped everything down before they started working and thwarting his plan. He put the lid on the dish and went through the decontamination booth without turning on the decontaminate spray, went into the change room and took off his gear and threw it into the waste can, then put the dish in his back pocket and as he left the building he ran the Q-tip along the walls of the hallway and the inside of the elevator.
It was just getting dark and standing on the bank of the creek he took the dish out of his back pocket and removed the lid, ran his finger around the inside, then tossed the lid and bottom of the Petri dish and the plaque into the creek and watched them sink. Then he drove to his home in Pine Rest and waited for whatever happened when exposed to NF.
* * *
Crawling out of Jackson’s Creek and onto a grassy bank, Andy lay on his back and looked up at the countless pinpoints of light that dotted the night sky. The creek’s swift current babbled and gurgled in the dark as it washed over rocks and stones. He put his hands behind his head and listened to the popping of the burning branches in the camp fire. At sixteen, this was how he wanted every night for the rest of his life to be. Rolling over onto his stomach he could see the silhouette of his girlfriend, Janelle, outlined on the nylon tent cast by a battery operated Coleman lamp. Two more years and they could get married with their parents’ blessings. Sometimes it seemed like an eternity away. The stream had been warmer than he expected, even if it was the middle of summer, but Andy shivered slightly, aware that his upper body was covered in goose bumps. He got up and sat on a log by the fire and picked up a thin branch poking at the embers, watching the bright red and white sparks rise in the dark then quickly disappear. He put his hand to his forehead, wondering why he felt feverish, and was surprised that the temperature of his skin felt normal. “Must be some reaction to being in creek too long,” he thought.
“Andy?” Janelle called from inside the tent. “I’m ready.”
This was going to be the night. They had planned for it in every way possible; him buying condoms and she starting on the pill, and with lots of discussion about it beforehand. No one but them would know they hadn’t waited until they were married to have sex, but they loved each other and just didn’t want to wait any longer. While he was in the creek, Janelle had brushed her long hair and sprayed the inside of the tent with an expensive perfume she had borrowed from her mother, without telling her mother of course.
Andy stood up, feeling slightly dizzy, waited for his blurred vision to clear, and tossed the branch into the fire. His gait slightly unsteady, he walked to the tent feeling conflicting feelings of excitement about what was going to happen and concern about how he was feeling physically, which was getting worse by the moment. Fumbling with the tent zipper he managed to pull it down in time to dive onto his stomach onto the sleeping bags spread out on the floor of the tent.
“Stop fooling around, Andy,” Janelle chided him. She playfully slapped his bare back. “Roll over silly. I can’t kiss the back of your head.”
Using what little energy and power he had, Andy rolled onto his back. “I don’t feel too good,” he said.
Janelle leaned over and kissed him on the mouth. “You’re more nervous than I am about this,” she said. She sat back and took a longer look at Andy’s face in the lamp light. “You look kind of greenish,” she said.
“I really don’t feel well,” he said, his words becoming sluggish.
“Should I go get someone?” She asked.
“We’re in the woods. No one to get,” he mumbled. “Just hold me.”
Janelle stretched out beside him and put her arms around him and closed her eyes. As Andy became very quiet, his breathing slowing to being almost undetectable, Janelle lay there feeling worried about Andy, but also not feeling well herself. She opened her eyes and looked at Andy’s face and screamed. Blood and mucus was dribbling out of his nose, mouth and ears. As she tried to sit up she realized she was too weak to do so, and put her arm around Andy’s body as it began to dissolve.
“What’s happening to us?” She asked. Those were the last words she spoke.
* * *
Inside the Pine Rest Laboratories Diedre had her back pressed hard against the glass of the decontamination booth. The puddle of urine at her feet gave the booth the aroma of a poorly cleaned bathroom stall. She wondered why the emergency alarm had stopped sounding and why the red lights that indicated a breech had switched back to normal white. Clearly, the emergency had not been resolved; her four dead co-workers in the lab were proof of that. It was only the clothes strewn about the lab that they had been wearing when they died that gave any indication they had existed in the first place. Their bodies were gone, having rapidly dissolved into pools of foaming, bubbling mucus and blood. What was left of them as physical beings was crawling up the walls or across the panes of glass to the windows overlooking the surrounding dense pine woods.
Diedre suspected the only thing that spared her of the same fate was that she worked while Jill served the others some cake left by someone, placing each piece on the paper plates with her bare fingers, breaking the lab’s safety protocols. Their decomposition one-by-one happened with such speed, that Diedre hardly had time to react. After hitting the alarm and diving into the decontamination booth and sealing it then turning on the disinfecting spray, she didn’t pee on herself until she realized the large things crawling around the lab that were once human, were now the same shape of the things they had been working on: genetically altered Naegleria fowleri amoeba, commonly known as the brain eating amoeba, injected with the equivalency of chemically engineered steroids. Jill, Mike, Jack and Louise were now amoeboids; protoplasmic entities conceived in a Petri dish. But these amoeba weren’t just killing their hosts, they were turning them into amoebas also.
* * *
The Pine Rest Ladies Auxiliary’s annual picnic along Jackson Creek was a success with fifteen of the small town’s most prominent and leading women of the town attending. Doris Wilding, the wife of the town’s bank president, the organizer of the picnic, was particularly pleased. Three tables of food and beverages had been set up and there were enough lawn chairs for everyone and a few extra. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and even though it was a little warmer than Doris or some of the others would have liked, it would not be rained out as it had been the year before. Dressed mostly in floral print summer dresses and sandals or pumps and wide brimmed straw hats, the women were a picture of upscale small town society at their leisure. Everyone seemed in good spirits, even Jean Lewiston, the eldest of the group at age seventy-nine, who rarely found satisfaction with any of the auxiliary’s functions. The chatter and the laughter of the ladies could be heard all the way to the road where their cars were parked, about a hundred yards.
Carol Planchette, Maggie Lyson and Sue Bristol had moved lawn chairs nearer to the creek and were sitting facing the creek, their shoes off, each with a plate of food in their lap and each with a glass of ice tea in one hand. Not only auxiliary members, they were good friends who spent lots of time together and whose husbands were also friends.
“What is that?” Carol asked, pointing at what looked like two large translucent spots with tentacles that expanded and drew back floating on the surface of the creek.
Maggie sat her plate on the grass, and stood up, carried her glass of tea to the bank and with her bare toes only inches from the water she bent over to have a closer look. “They’re staying right there but they keep changing shape.” She took the lemon wedge from her glass and tossed it onto one of the spots. It recoiled then quickly spread out propelling the lemon wedge onto the bank. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said picking up the lemon wedge.
Sue carried her plate of food and glass of tea to the bank and stood by Maggie watching the two spots. “They remind me of something I saw in a biology class in college,” she said.
“You mean those are living things?” Maggie asked.
“Well I never saw anything that big in biology class that looked like that, at least not that size. What I saw we looked at through microscopes were amoebas I think,” Sue said. “I don’t know what those are.”
Both women turned toward Carol.
“Don’t you have any curiosity?” Maggie asked.
“You really should . . .” Sue started, then stopped abruptly as she felt something coil itself around her ankle. She looked down and dropped her plate and tea as her skin began to dissolve and one of the two amoeba-like things that had been in the water began to pull itself out of the water and slither up her leg.
“Oh my God,” Maggie screamed as the other one attached a tentacle to her foot and quickly slid out of the water, wrapping itself around her leg.
Frozen in horror, Carol sat with her mouth agape, her throat as tight as if she were being choked, and watched as her two friends began to dissolve from the feet up as whatever had been in the water began to climb up their bodies. It was Sue and Maggie’s screams that drew the attention of the other women.
Doris and a few of the other women rushed to where Carol was still seated and stared in disbelief and horror as Sue and Maggie fell to the ground and inside their clothes the dissolving of their bodies gave the impression of them deflating like balloons.
The two things that had crawled out of the water quickly became four, with nothing left of Maggie and Sue but their clothes and remnants of blood, mucus and bile on the grass. They slid across the grass toward Carol and the women around her.
“Get out of here,” Doris screamed at everyone around her. She tried to get Carol to stand, to get away, but in shock, Carol wouldn’t move.
Doris and the others ran toward their cars, pushing Jean Lewiston along with them. As Doris got into her car the last thing she saw happen was Carol being covered by several of the slimy creatures.
* * *
At Andy and Janelle’s tent the deputy sheriff, Nick Olsen, followed two distinct trails through the grass to the bank of the creek. It didn’t look like anything had been dragged through the grass, but had crawled through it. He had not seen animal tracks like it before and since it looked like everything else the two teens had brought along was still in the tent, he scratched his head trying to make heads or tails of what he was looking at. What he knew was that the kids were missing. It wasn’t their bodies that had been dragged to the creek, that he was certain of. He went back to the car and picked up the hand set and called Millie, the dispatcher.
“What ya got, Nick?” Millie asked. “Over.”
“I’m not certain,” Nick said. “You better have the sheriff come out here. Over.”
“There’s something going on at the Pine Rest Laboratories,” she said. “He went over there. Over.”
“Does he need any assistance? Over.” Nick asked
“He didn’t say so,” Millie said. “Over.”
“I’m going to stick around here a bit and see what I can turn up, then I’ll come back into the office” he said. “Over and out.”
* * *
Diedre opened the door in the decontamination booth that led to the changing room and quickly removed her lab overalls, gloves, cap and slippers and tossed them into a waste basket with a blue hazardous materials sticker on it and sealed it shut. She slowly opened the doorway leading into the main lab and peeked around. It was quiet; too quiet. “They shouldn’t have had that goddam cake in there,” she muttered. She walked in and let the door to the changing room close behind her. Walking through the lab she picked up a spray bottle of chlorine and went through a door leading into the hallway. With no one around she wondered if everyone had evacuated the building as soon as the alarm went off. It wouldn’t be proper protocol, but it wouldn’t be the only protocol she had seen not being followed that day. Walking past the other labs and looking into them through the plate glass windows that lined the hallway, everything looked normal if it was Sunday, but this was Saturday afternoon and almost all of the labs had at least one lab technician or scientist who worked on Saturday, but there was no one. She avoided the elevator and took the steps down to the first floor.
As soon as she opened the door that led into the first floor foyer she saw what happened to what she assumed was everyone else. Their clothes and shoes lay in individual piles as if the people who had worn them had just stripped naked and left, except the clothes and the floor around them was stained with blood. The front door to the building was wide open. Outside the door was the sheriff’s car, the driver side door wide open. A rifle was lying on the ground next to the sheriff’s uniform.
“How did it get out of the lab to begin with?” She wondered as she walked carefully between the clothes. Going out of the building and walking toward the sheriff’s car she heard tapping on glass and turned around. Ed, the security guard, was at a second floor window.
“I’ll come get you,” Diedre shouted.
Ed shook his head, pointing to his ears that he couldn’t hear her and held his hand up signaling for her to stay where she was. He moved away from the window for a moment then returned holding a sign. It read: They shut it down.
Diedre had no idea what it meant. She shrugged her shoulders questioningly. He lowered the sign and she could see from his movements that he was writing something.
“Those things shut the emergency system down,” the sign now read.
“Oh my god, they have intelligence,” she gasped. Just as she was about to signal to Ed that she was coming back in to get him, he quickly turned away from the window. She waited momentarily and when Ed re-appeared at the window, an amoeboid was wrapped around his upper body. She could see him screaming, but couldn’t hear him. She got into the sheriff’s car and took the road that ran beside Jackson’s Creek headed for the town of Pine Rest. A mile before entering the town she slowed, looking at what looked like a hastily deserted outdoor affair of some kind. There were several tables of food surrounded by chairs, some overturned. On the edge of road three cars sat empty. She sped up and a few minutes later she crossed the bridge over Jackson’s Creek and entered Main Street in Pine Rest.
Pulling the car to an abrupt stop, she surveyed the scene in front of her. The street was littered with clothing and shoes, much like she had seen back at the Pine Rest Laboratories foyer. There wasn’t a living being in sight. She blew her horn three times and waited. A man in a law enforcement uniform stepped slowly out of the Pine Rest Community Bank. She drove up to him and rolled down her window.
“I’m from the laboratories,” Diedre said. “Is anyone else still alive here?”
“I’m Nick Lawson, the deputy sheriff,” he said. “Come inside where it’s safe. A few of us managed to get into the bank vault when those creatures began to crawl out of the creek. It looks like they’re gone now.”
Diedre turned off her car and got out carrying the bottle of chlorine and walked into the bank behind Nick. The floor of the bank was littered with a few piles of clothing and shoes. The bank vault was open and behind the teller counter, stood three men and six women, all looking in shock but unharmed.
“This is Diedre,” Nick said to them. “She’s from the laboratories.”
Doris Wilding came around the counter, and stood next to Nick. “My husband. My friends, they’re gone,” she said. “Those things came out of the creek and turned everyone they touched into more of them.”
“I’m so sorry, Diedre said. “I can’t explain how this happened.”
“You’re sorry?” Doris said, her voice tight with restrained rage.
Diedre turned to Nick. “I don’t know how it, how they, got out of the lab. Some mistakes were made inside the lab, but if they came out of the creek, I have no idea how they got into the creek to begin with.”
“Some mistakes were made?” Diedre screamed, unleashing her outrage and anger.
Diedre started to tell Doris again how sorry she was, but caught herself and said to Nick “where did the amoeboids go?”
“That’s what they’re called, amoeboids?” Nick said. “When it was quiet out here I came out and looked outside and those – amoeboids – were going back into the creek. Where do you think they’re going?”
“Amoeboids!” Doris said on the verge of hysteria. “They have names? It doesn’t matter where they’re going.” She grabbed Nick’s pistol out of his holster and aimed at Diedre’s head. “You’re not going to be able to kill them with that squirt bottle you have.” She pulled the trigger shooting Diedre in the middle of the forehead.
* * *
As morning rose on Montpelier, the amoeboids, now numbering in the hundreds, began slithering out of the Winooski River and up the banks.