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“...are assuring the public that they have partial containment of the epidemic. Locally, Fargo, Mariposa, and Hoffman have been evacuated, and there are reports from several other cities around the country including Sacramento and Chicago. Authorities are at a loss to explain what caused the outbreak, though they say a thorough investigation is underway, and any details the examination yields will be forthcoming. The exact number of casualties is undetermined at this time, and officials are assuring the public that there is still a very viable threat in infected areas. Those who are on highways or roads are being instructed to go to national guard designated safety zones, while citizens in secure homes or businesses are urged to remain there and not to go outside. Sweep teams are covering the state looking for survivors, attempting to capture or exterminate any of the infected creatures that have spread out of the contained areas. We have unconfirmed reports that murdered victims are return133
ing to life and joining the horde of ravenous creatures, adding further speculation to the exact nature of the outbreak. The national guard cautions that it is still too soon to determine what the plague is, but many believe that the dead are returning to life and attacking living victims, thus continuing the spread of the infection. Again, authorities are encouraging the public not to go outside until the threat has been stabilized, and this will help prohibit the expansion of the outbreak. We will remain on the air 24 hours a day providing information for the public, and any further developments in the status of the epidemic...” The voice of the woman on the radio was pleasant enough, but it failed to soothe Earl’s sweaty, shaken body. Still, in this spacious but windowless pantry, the sound was the only encouraging sign of life he was privy to. The sunlight coming through the crack beneath the door told him that it was the second full day he had been inside the cubicle, and it was the radio that had kept him apprised of his necessity to remain there. Without a window to provide a gaze into the vast cornfields surrounding his weathered house, he could not see how many of the creatures were out there. But he knew they were there. He could hear them shuffling through the stalks in his fields, the rustling of the leaves betraying their slow, steady approach. There were creaking sounds from his porch, and he knew that they emanated from beneath the feet of the foul monsters as they staggered around the premises, looking for him. And, most chillingly, he heard their wilted hands tapping on his doors and windows all around the property, seeking entrance into his sanctuary. He knew that they could sense him, or smell him, but they had not yet forced their way into the threshold, and that is why he was keeping out of sight. If they did not see him, they might forget about him. And, when he was forced to barricade himself inside, he knew that he was so far outnumbered that any escape would prove futile. Thus,
he was compelled to pray that somehow the creatures would disperse from the area if he could make them believe that there was no one inside the house. Occasionally, Earl would hear the distinct crackle of distant gunshots, yet he was unsure if this was a sign of life, or more death. Other than that, it was the far too optimistic voice on the radio keeping him sane. That, and the 12-gauge shotgun he kept in the pantry with him. The trouble was, there was only one shell in it. That was all he had left after his encounter with the vile fiends in the cornfield two days before. His shooting had been quite ineffective, though it took him a full box of shells minus one to figure that out. He shot some of the things repeatedly, yet they kept coming at him with the same fevered, hungry faces, eager jaws gaping open. So, now he was down to the one shell, which he would use to do himself in, if the creatures managed to gain entrance to his house. He had seen what they did with the meat they captured, and a shotgun shell to the head seemed a sweet mercy compared to what he had watched them do to Jasper. Earl consigned himself to remain in the pantry until he was forced to use his one shell, or until the voice on the radio and lack of shuffling sounds around his house told him that it was safe for him to emerge. The container was well stocked with provisions, and he had food and water to last him for at least two weeks, if he rationed it efficiently. Thus, there was no reason to risk another confrontation with the beasts, so he remained mute in his confinement, the radio turned up loud enough for his ears alone. Earl didn’t really sleep, except when his exhaustion would force him into timeless lulls that he could not measure since he had nothing resembling a timepiece in his pantry hovel. But, these wafting slumbers never lasted long, for the unforgettable sights he had seen two days before drifted through his head wrapped in blood soaked nightmares. Each one would inevitably jerk him back to consciousness, jolting him with a soundless
scream from his sweat-parched lips. Not that it mattered much, mind you, because even when he was lucid, he was unable to see anything but the leering, ravaged faces of the ghouls as they had lumbered toward him. Two days previous, he had been on his porch, a chilled glass of lemonade soothing his heat-stricken body. He was sore from tending the fields and contemplating a vigorous nap when the movement deep within his crops alerted him to the presence of something other than him on his lonely farm. The stalks spread as something moved through them, coming toward Earl slowly and methodically. Whatever it was did not scurry through the field, as an animal would, but he could not see what lurked within the parting rows, so it was rather small. Earl stood when his squinting eyes adjusted to the minute red trail that followed the shuffling corn approaching him. Whatever was coming toward him through the field was bleeding, and he could see its crimson path drawing closer. Daringly, Earl stood from his porch swing, set his lemonade on the planks, and approached the occupied field, moving with the same careful, sure footing that his visitor maintained. As it drew nearer, he clearly heard the crunching of the stalks in its path, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem to make any noise itself. As he stood at the edge of the field, peering through the narrow, obstructed window between two rows, he could make out the figure. It was a child, that much was easily apparent, for Earl could see the top of his head, a dirty frock of sandy blonde strands. But, the hair alarmed Earl, for it was matted with dark, stained blood. As the boy drew nearer, the face remained obscured, but the source of the bloody hair was very quickly revealed to be a deep, intrusive gash in the child’s forehead. It was obvious that the boy was seriously hurt, and Earl was alarmed and eager to help. “My dear child,” Earl consoled. “What happened to you?” Earl stepped into the cornfield, meeting the boy in his approach. As he did so,
the facial features of the boy began to come into view, and Earl noted something very unusual in the child’s eyes. They weren’t the vibrant, searching eyes of a young boy; rather, sunken, swollen, gray pits that looked toward him with what seemed to be cold indifference. “It’s all right, my boy,” Earl said warmly, continuing toward the child. “Come on over here. Let’s have a look at you.” But, Earl realized that the boy was actually looking at him. Perhaps Earl was a bit alarmed, but his desire to help the obviously wounded boy ultimately kept him focused on his approach. To be fair, there would be no way for him to expect what met him as he crossed the cornfield. “That’s right, child,” Earl called. “It’s all right. Let’s see what happened to you.” Earl pushed aside the stalks separating him and the boy, and when the child’s full face came into view, it did so for only a moment, because Earl gagged and released his hold on the row. A second was long enough, because the face on this boy was dreadful enough to remain in Earl’s mind for the rest of his life, however much he had left. The boy’s skin was a sickening yellow pallor, rubbery and unnatural like that of a corpse at a wake. The flesh was knotted and wrinkled far beyond what the skin of a small child should be, and this made the entire face look distorted, unevenly stretched across the young cheeks. There was an incredible amount of blood on the boy’s face which appeared to have emerged from the chasm in his forehead. Also stained red was the boy’s bare chest, which further revealed the uneasy skin color. The source of this blood was even more obvious than that on the face. The boy’s jaw had been torn free from the skull on one side, and it dangled from the tissue still connecting it to the head, swaying grotesquely as the child walked. It was a savage wound, and the massive sanguine accumulation on the child’s entire body revealed that if all the rules of mortality Earl knew of were accurate, there was no way that a child with such
an injury should be alive, let alone able to walk around. As the boy approached, eyes clearly locked on Earl, the latter continued to reel away from the horrid sight. He wasn’t as afraid of the boy as he was of the sickening nature of the boy’s askew jaw. He found himself unsure what to say. There seemed to be little chance of reassuring a boy who had his jaw torn free from his face. Yet, most amazingly to Earl, the boy did not seem to be in pain. Earl speculated that the child was in a severe state of shock, which would have accounted for the dazed demeanor on the boy’s seemingly lifeless face. Earl continued to step backward, reaching the edge of the cornfield again, and the boy was just ahead of him. Once free of the confines of the cornstalks, Earl steadied himself and took a breath as the boy stepped out from the field. “My boy, what happened to you?” Earl asked with sincere alarm. The child did not answer, but it reached out for Earl, grasping his arm with surprising strength. Then, as Earl looked on in stunned disbelief, the boy lowered his mouth, or, more accurately, what was left of it, to the appendage. Earl felt warm breath on his skin, and he became distinctly aware that the muscle of the boy’s ragged upper lip was tightening around his skin. Once he felt the teeth touch his skin, he realized the unbelievable: this mouthless creature that resembled a boy was trying to bite him. As he struggled beneath the boy’s grip, the separated jaw began to sway on its hinge with the movement, and Earl felt it tapping persistently on his ulna. Earl pushed the thing away, disgusted. But, the boy-creature was unfazed and continued its descent on him. The madness truly overtook Earl when he saw its small tongue loll inside the exposed throat cavity, pushing a bubbling mass of blood down the creature’s stained chest. Earl staggered backward and lost his footing as he tripped over a hoe behind him. The impact of the fall stunned him for a second, and the monster did not hes136
itate. It leaned down upon Earl, who kicked his legs desperately forward to push the thing off of him. As he pushed himself backward across the dirt, his hand grazed the hoe, and he grabbed it from the ground, gripping it desperately. He swung it at the creature’s head, screaming as he did so. The blade of the hoe sliced across the former boy’s face, sending its head reeling to the side. But, it did not slow in its pursuit, and continued to maneuver its way on top of Earl, its bloody non-mouth gaping open hungrily. The blow did not even stun it, and, in fact, it seemed completely indifferent to the punishment. There was no emotion in its eyes, and it did not seem to be angry, hurt, or discouraged by the wound, which tore off a large chunk of taut flesh from its cheek. The amount of blood that surged from the wound belied the apparent savagery of the attack, and, in fact, there was very little shed at all, as if the veins that held the blood were no longer pumping it. Desperately, Earl swung again, this time with much more force. The blade of the hoe lodged itself into the boy-thing’s cheek, sinking into the spongy, bloodied mass effortlessly. As it did so, the hoe handle tore free from its headpiece, and Earl was left holding a splintered stick. This shot toppled the creature, and it fell roughly to the dirt, sending a cloud of dust into the air. But, as quickly as it fell, it began pushing itself to its feet again, undamaged by the assault, even as the hoe blade protruded from the intact half of the thing’s head. But, Earl did not hesitate to find out how quickly the twisted creature would be on him again. He lunged to his feet and took off running, seeking no destination more complex than far away from the wretched spawn he was fleeing. He allowed himself only one look back behind him, and when he did, he saw that the child monster had now regained its footing, and it was following him, albeit at such a slow pace that Earl was yards ahead of it. As he raced across the dry, brittle grass, his panicked mind struggled for
comprehension, but none came. And, very quickly, he became aware that he was running toward a miserable sound. At first, it sounded like the agonized cries of a wounded animal. But, as he drew closer, still more fearful of the monster far in the distance behind him, he realized that what he was hearing was not an animal. It was very human, and quite recognizable: shrieks of the most bloodcurdling and excruciating pain Earl had ever heard. And, as a familiar barn grew into his view, he realized that the cries were coming from the farm of Jasper Dudley. The yelping grew louder as Earl neared the residence, yet it did not slow his stride. He feared the pursuing boy more than the unknown nature of the cries, and somewhere inside him, he was convinced that no matter what was causing the commotion on Jasper Dudley’s farm, it certainly could not be worse than the scene he was escaping. But as he rounded the corner of Jasper’s barn, he found that he was very wrong. He nearly stumbled over the sprawled corpse of Francine Dudley, Jasper’s wife. Actually, he could only guess this because of where the body was located, because the mangled pile of flesh he saw bore little resemblance to Francine. Her nose was missing from her face, and the flesh around the cavity had been taken with it. Francine’s upper lip was gone as well, which left her top teeth exposed, giving her half-missing face the appearance of a forced and wholly inappropriate smile. The left eye was also missing, and the frayed skin around the eye socket indicated that this had been done with little precision. Francine’s face looked, literally, torn apart, as if fingernails and teeth had ripped into her like a piece of fruit. Her left arm was also separated from the body, and it lay several feet from her; or, more accurately, the bones did. The flesh on the arm had been picked off so thoroughly that, in places, he could actually see the milky white finish of the bones beneath. There was blood everywhere, and scattered doughy shards of meaty red tissue.
Earl’s attention was again summoned by the agonizing roar he heard on his way to the farm. It was coming from the other side of the barn, where he knew Jasper Dudley’s home was. When Earl began to walk toward it, the nauseating presence of the festering corpse simmering behind him, he dreaded to imagine what he would see when the turned the next corner. Jasper Dudley was being attacked by several individuals. However, though they were several yards away, Earl could clearly see that there was very little human about the attackers. There was a total of eight of them dragging Jasper to the ground, and though they physically resembled human beings in form, it was clearly not people attacking him. Each of the eight had the same sickly pallor to their flesh that the boy-creature wore, and Earl could more clearly see this since four of the things were nude. The ones that were dressed wore what looked to be bloody, tattered rags, but this was the only distinction in the group, other than the obvious difference in sex on some. Two of the nude creatures were clearly female, and their gray breasts swayed as they struggled Jasper to the dirt. They didn’t seem to notice him, and Earl watched the lifeless transfixion in the creatures’ eyes as they ensnared their prey. The skin on their faces, those that he could see, was knotted and worn, as the flesh of the boy in his cornfield had been. Some of them had lacerations that looked large and painful, but the things did not seem to be bothered by them. As Earl squinted to examine them, many of the wounds actually appeared to be bite-marks. As they took Jasper to the ground, the circle of eight swarmed in on him, all leaning their heads toward his prone form. Earl did not have a view to see the bites, but the frantic side to side swaying of the creatures with their backs to him efficiently revealed that they were tearing into Jasper’s body, gnashing their teeth to pull the tough skin free. Jasper’s vocals seemed to indicate this as well. Hearing the dreadful sound, Earl could imagine in
his head what Jasper Dudley was enduring. Four of the frenzied beasts pulled away from the circle, twisting their ravaged frames into a squat. All of them lifted gelatinous masses of bloody meat to their mouths and began chomping on them uniformly. They ate with the tenacity of starving animals, taking large bites out of their prizes as blood poured down their chins and across their bodies. Jasper’s screaming had stopped, but from the edge of the feasting circle, Earl could see his fingers twitching on the ground as the creatures grabbed at him, tearing off crimson pieces that made wet sounds as they were detached from his husk. The monsters were literally eating Jasper alive, and, for Earl, suddenly the small child creature he encountered at his home didn’t seem nearly as imposing as the scene unfolding before him. Yet, he could not take his eyes off the cannibalistic spectacle. Then, to his horror, he heard scuffling from the cornfield behind Jasper’s house, and more of the creatures began to emerge from the stalks. They walked slowly and stupidly, staggering like drunks out of the crops. Yet, they seemed somewhat focused, for they headed straight for the dining group, several of which were retrieving seconds and thirds from Jasper's tormented, but mercifully dead, shell. As Earl watched on, a full dozen more of the creatures came out of the corn, and now there was almost a mob gathered at Jasper’s body. They all encircled the husk like ants on a candy crumb, now actually fighting each other for pieces of Jasper’s meat. Two of them struggled with a slimy, slithering piece of intestine, the creatures tugging against each other with sluggish ferocity. Finally, the limp tissue snapped into two pieces, and the satisfied creatures retreated from one another and began to devour their yield. When he saw the group together, they ebbed as a singular lifeform, all identically entranced and enthralled by the food on the floor. They continued to feast, and as the group repeatedly tore their dripping bites free, Earl was amazed at the amount of meat they were extracting from Jasper.
The increased number also gave him the ability to further study exactly what he was looking at. Several more of those in the new group were nude, and only when he saw multiple naked creatures did he realize that those without clothes didn’t seem to have contusions on their flesh. They were covered in blood, but this seemed to be from the messy meal they were enjoying. The creatures in clothing all had some visible wound on them, which left Earl to wonder if the nude creatures had bitten the others. And, if that was correct, was it the bite that turned them into the ravenous things he now observed? Earl heard dry grass snap behind him and wheeled to face the source. Amazingly, Francine Dudley was now back up on her feet. He knew she was dead. The savage mutilation of her face was beyond what any mortal could survive, but her one eye was open wide, glazed but staring directly at him. Her chewed and bloodied legs were walking, and her lone intact arm was reaching out for him. The exposed teeth no longer formed a smile, however, for Francine’s mouth was open and her red, blood-soaked tongue rolled out the side of her mouth like that of a panting dog. Black-red fluid dribbled from the corner of her lip, and she almost appeared to be salivating the rancid bile. Earl screamed as he flinched away from Francine, or whatever this monster that resembled her was. Almost instinctively, he forced himself to check back on the group that was eating Jasper, and his fears were realized. The hungry monsters had heard him, and each of the twenty hideous faces was turning his direction. Without hesitation, they began their slow, leering shuffle toward him. Earl did not forget the Francineshaped creature now upon him, nor did it forget him. The monster grabbed Earl’s arm as the boy had, and leaned its defaced head toward him, its mouth open eagerly. Without a hoe this time, Earl swung at the creature with his fist, feeling his knuckles hit the skull bone exposed beneath the
noseless gouge in the center of its face. Tissue splattered behind the blow and Earl felt still-warm blood trickle between his fingers. It was revolting, but the hit knocked the creature back to the ground, its head cracking against the side of the barn. It did not stall the monster, however, and it immediately began working its way back to its feet. Earl saw this and heard the slow but steady steps of the approaching horde behind him, and he was bounding away from the scene immediately. Again, he ran without destination in mind, but he was heading back in the direction of his property, with the blackjack of creatures following behind. As he ran, he scanned the countryside around him, and everywhere he looked, he saw approaching figures, all of which moved with the same absent shamble that the creatures used in their travel. Up ahead of him, he saw the familiar small figure of the boy-monster, which looked up at Earl as he raced to meet it. Earl shifted his course, running diagonally away from the tiny creature. It turned to meet his direction, but he was moving much faster than it, and he was soon quite distanced from the boy, and the horde pursuing him. The things moved very slowly, and Earl then realized he could easily outrun them, but he had seen a group of them take Jasper, by no means a small man, to his chewy death. As Earl raced back to his house, noticing scattered, moving shadows on the horizon in every direction he looked, he was forced to wonder exactly where he could run to, and how many of the creatures he would encounter on the way. He reached his porch, where less than a half hour before, he had been enjoying a delicious glass of lemonade. He had a fine view of the surrounding area from this vantage point, and, though he could see steadily approaching shadows in the distance, there did not seem to be any of the creatures in his immediate area, and the horde from Jasper’s farm was comfortably behind him in their pursuit. He had a moment to think, and he would use it,
at least as much as his panic-stricken mind would allow him. Earl was more than rural, and he did not have a telephone, a television, or, more importantly, an automobile of any kind. He scanned the inventory of his storage shed in his mind. There was a massive tractor, but it moved more sluggishly than the creatures did, and he could travel much faster on foot. When Earl went into town, he rode his trusted horse, Savini, and she was capable of very fast flight. But, Earl was forced to wonder exactly what he would encounter if he went into town, even if the creatures in the surrounding fields were unable to stop him from reaching there. Still, he knew that he had very little choice, so, as the creatures around him continued their descent on his home, he went inside to grab a companion he knew would come in handy on the journey. Earl emerged from his house with his Remington shotgun in his hand, and a box of shells in his flannel pocket. He scanned the area, discouraged to see that many of the creatures were now well in sight. He moved quickly, rushing to his barn, where Savini’s stable was set up. He pushed a heavy swinging door aside and stepped cautiously into the dusky barn. Earl was immediately aware that something was wrong. Customarily, he would hear Savini’s breathing or whinnying when he entered. But now there was a different sound: chewing. Earl raised the shotgun into firing position as he crept toward the stable. He could not see Savini, and, as he drew closer, he realized why. Savini was lying on the ground, and she was not moving, but something else was. There were two of the creatures eating the dead horse, both leaning over her lecherously and tearing pieces off of the frame, then shoving these pieces into their waiting mouths. The creatures did not look at him, apparently thoroughly engrossed in their meal, so Earl crept closer, the shotgun positioned directly toward the two fiendish beings viciously tearing his horse into bloody chunks.
He fired without warning, and his shot was well-aimed. One of the creatures flew back away from Savini’s corpse as a large wound opened its chest. The other, a sickly and emaciated creature that had once been a woman, stood up. Despite the abundance of meat on the floor in front of the monster, it now focused its attention on Earl, beginning to move toward him. As it did, its mouth opened and an unchewed piece of horseflesh fell from its cracked and bloodied lips and hit the floor with a sickening plop. Behind the approaching creature, the one Earl shot also took to its feet, apparently unphased by the shotgun blast Earl had sent it. As the beast regained its footing, Earl could clearly see where the shot had hit. It was hard to miss, as the hot elements had torn a massive hole through the creature’s chest, actually allowing Earl to see directly through it to the barn wall behind it, which was splattered with the monster’s now-missing insides. “God,” Earl cursed, probably to the creatures, though they didn’t seem to acknowledge his speaking. “What the hell are you?” It came as no surprise to Earl that the creatures did not answer; they merely continued their languid walk toward him. The wounded monster lost its footing, slipping on the warm pile of entrails that Savini’s opened belly had spread across the floor. It collided with the second creature, and both fell to the ground together. Earl stepped toward them, pointing the shotgun down at their rising forms. He fired again, this time hitting the unwounded one in the shoulder. Its flesh seemed to be brittle and weak, for the impact of the shot disconnected its arm from its torso. The appendage flew to the ground behind it, smacking the barn’s wooden planks roughly. Yet, even this failed to slow the monster, which continued rising to its feet, using its one arm to push up from the floor. Earl fired twice more, once at each of the determined monsters. Both shots hit their targets, rocking their distorted
frames but failing to stop the creatures’ relentless seeking. “What the hell are you?” Earl questioned again, this time screaming it at the unhearing beasts. He fired twice more, but this time his overwhelming confusion altered his aim, and both shots sailed wide, instead splintering the wood in the barn wall behind them. Now, the two creatures were on their feet, and taking stumbled steps in Earl’s direction. He pulled the shotgun’s trigger again, but there was no explosion, merely a disappointing click. Earl reacted quickly, fumbling for the box of shells in his chest pocket. He managed to get the package open, and fisted a haphazard handful of the rounds, losing a few to the floor in his haste. He had four in his hand, and these he loaded into the weapon as quickly as he could. But, as the creatures drew increasingly closer, Earl could see the wounds, a stippling of holes he had already delivered, which had failed to stop the monsters’ approach. The one-armed creature was almost upon him, and the shotgun in his hand no longer provided the optimism that it had a moment before. Taking one last look at the butchered lump that had been Savini, his only means of escape from the creatures, Earl retreated, rushing impatiently to the still open barn door behind him. As he stepped back outside, Earl was greeted by another one of the creatures, a nude old man covered in what appeared to be sewn shut stab wounds. This one’s behavior was familiar as it reached out for him with its unfed mouth gaping wide for a bite. It was right upon him, and the creature put its clammy hands on Earl’s shoulders, using them to pull its hungry mouth closer to his face. As it struggled with him, he shrugged away, and the box of shells left their precarious perch inside his pocket and spilled onto the dirt. Reacting quickly, Earl squeezed off another shotgun round. The range was mere inches, and Earl actually watched the creature’s stomach implode behind the shot. It flew back to the ground, send-
ing a spray of pungent smelling red fluid across Earl’s sweaty face. As the creature lay sprawled on the dirt before him, Earl could actually see where the heat of the muzzle flash had singed the monster’s flesh around the wound. It was a monstrous looking wound, but as the creatures in the barn had been, the old man, too, seemed impervious to damage. It was immediately trying to regain its footing, but Earl wasn’t prepared to give it another chance to engage him. He ran again, this time back toward his house. As he glanced back, he saw the box of shells on the ground, but their debatable effectiveness convinced him that it was okay to leave them behind. As he neared his porch, another creature stepped from within the cornfield, this one in the shape a woman who had probably been quite beautiful before the monsters tore her trachea and breasts from her body. From the creature’s chin to its bellybutton, there was a wall of splatter that surged from valleys of partially chewed tissue. Earl fired the shotgun at the woman-thing, more out of reaction than intention, and the shot blasted the top of her head from her body. As the creature toppled backward into the lush stalks of the cornfield, Earl saw shattered splinters of brain matter drip to the dirt. He kept moving, not waiting to see if the creature got back up. When he reached his porch, he could see that there were still creatures coming from the fields from all directions. They were still some distance away, and their diminutive speed would keep them from him for a few moments, but Earl found himself realizing that he had few options. The floorboards of his porch creaked, and another creature stepped from around the side of his house, its open mouth and outstretched arms clearly illustrating its intent. Earl moved toward it, pointing the shogun at its head, and fired. A spattering of holes opened up in its sinister face and it staggered backwards, falling off the porch into the grass. Knowing there was nowhere else to go, Earl opened his front door and
pushed his way into his house. He slammed the door behind him and fastened the deadbolt. He had never locked the door to his secluded home, and the bolt struggled with him, but he finally managed to secure the entrance. Once inside, he heard the stomping steps of the meticulous creatures outside, and knew that they would be on his house in a matter of minutes. He knew that the only chance he had was to keep the creatures out of the dwelling, and he forced himself to ignore the terror and madness that seized him and leap into action. He began by barricading the front door, grabbing every piece of furniture he could gather in his modest home and positioning it in front of the frame. A wanton pile of chairs and tables were assembled at the entrance, and it appeared heavy enough to resist any pushing on the door from the outside. He then set out to drag his two largest cabinets across the two main windows in the house. The creaking of the wood across the planks in his home was unbearably loud, but, in a matter of minutes, the shelter was reasonably secure. Still, there were other windows he didn’t have furniture to cover, and Earl realized that the creatures had focused their eyes on him outside, and they would surely try to get at him if they saw him on the inside. He resolved to position himself in the pantry. It was the most secure area of the house, with no windows to allow detection, and his food was located there, which would keep him from moving around in the house and making any noise that might attract the creatures. There, he resolved, he would hide out and nurse the vague hope that if he stayed out of sight, the creatures would forget about him, or pass him by. But, if the barricade on his door failed to hold, and the dreadful apparitions found their way inside the house.... For this scenario, he decided to save the one shell inside of his shotgun. He saw what the creatures did to Jasper, and had no desire to endure the obscene pain
of having chunks of his flesh torn from his body by those foul teeth. No, if the creatures did get inside, Earl opted to finish himself off and spare himself the agony of that ordeal. And, perhaps, if the creatures did not get their fangs into him, he would not rise to his feet and join their hungry quest, as he had seen Francine Dudley do. It was only after he locked himself inside the spacious storage room that he realized he had a radio in there. He turned it on, careful to keep the volume very low, and scanned the dial for reception, any hint a life beyond the madness that encircled his farmhouse. He did not have to look long, for a voice came through on the one station he received definitively clear at his house. Normally, it played country music, but now there was an unfamiliar voice, and this voice sounded deadly serious. Over the next two days, Earl kept his radio tuned to this station, which aired a continuous news report outlining some sort of viral outbreak that had spread throughout his state, and several others. There was very little information about the nature of the infection, but the reports seemed to match what he had encountered outside. As Earl assimilated the facts, they seemed to suggest that for some unknown reason, savage cannibalistic attacks were taking place all over. The authorities also speculated that these attacks were related to widespread incidents of bodies going missing from morgues and funeral homes across the country. There were also reports of several attacks in or around these sites, and Earl shuddered at what it seemed to suggest. After two days of listening to the reports, Earl was forced to accept that the creatures he had encountered were in fact corpses that had returned to life. Earl now knew that the dead were walking, and possessed with some sort of murderous desire. That explained why the clothed creatures he saw had bite marks on them. They had been victims of attacks, and when they died from their wounds, they somehow rose from the dead to join the famished horde. Knowing this, Earl was
sickened and defeated, for he knew that even if he was able to keep the creatures at bay, there were many more lurking about spreading the horrendous plague. Further, it made sense that the shots had done no good. After all, how can one kill what is already dead? As hours passed inside the pantry, Earl’s attention was often commanded by the sounds he heard from somewhere outside the house. He clearly heard the creatures as they gathered and commiserated around his farm. Their brittle nails scratched on the windows and their twisted hands pawed at the front door. At times, he could hear them thumping their frail bodies against it, pushing their clumsy weight at the sturdy wood seeking entrance. In a few far more chilling instances, he heard them fumbling with the doorknob, their dead minds exploring something distantly familiar. These sounds continued through the night, keeping Earl’s eyes, ears, and mind open at all hours. He slept very little, for even when the sweet silence of the creatures’ distance lulled him into uneasy rest, these spells never lasted long. From what he could hear, the things never grew fatigued. Without a view to keep him apprised, Earl never knew how many of the creatures rapped at his door. There was a kaleidoscope of sounds outside his view, so counting the sources was impossible. However, he heard enough life, if the sick defaced creatures could be described as such, to feel a teeming presence outside of his walls. But, as the two days departed, the creatures had been unable to gain entrance. Earl’s desperate plan was working, for now, but he was growing weary of waiting. Without sleep or nutrition more complex than the jars in his pantry would provide, he was growing ragged. And, as he weakened, it seemed as if the impulsive thumping at his front door seemed to grow louder and more persistent. Now he heard the door knob turning, and the creatures had learned to combine that with their forceful pushing. His barricade was holding, but he feared to guess
for how long. But if there truly were dozens of the creatures outside, as the consistent barrage of noises suggested, and they gathered to push en masse, they could potentially batter their way in. Earl came to realize that his safe time inside the pantry was not indefinite. But now, trapped inside of his tightening space, he knew he had no means of escaping the creatures if they surged their way through his barricade. Yes, he would probably be needing that last shell. But, not now.... For now, he would wait, because if this problem really was so widespread, then there were people out there working on a solution. And, perhaps it wouldn’t be long before someone found a way to stop the creatures, and Earl could emerge from his self-imposed confinement and somehow life could return to normal in a world where the dead returning to life is a reality. But, ultimately, he knew that any semblance or normalcy was an unfathomable fallacy. The dead were walking around, and nothing would ever be the same again. So, Earl remained inside his pantry, and he waited. On the fourth day, the batteries in his radio went dead, and the silence inside the pantry was suffocating. With nothing but his tense breathing to drown out the sounds from beyond, they resonated with more intensity and proximity. The creatures sounded like they were just upon him, and he could hear the piled components of his makeshift barricade shift with each push of their withered limbs. The fifth day was most curious, for Earl noted a significant decrease in the frequency of the noises. When they came, they carried the same powerful drive, but throughout the day, he heard the flurries only a few times. However, somehow, the silence seemed far more sinister. Though Earl was able to sleep in more reliable blocks, when he sat awake, searching the air for telltale traces of the vile creatures that encircled him, not hearing where they lurked haunted his mind more significantly than the identifiable thumping at his door.
He knew the one-minded creatures had not departed because he could feel them in air, but, by the end of the sixth day, their rumbling groans had vanished. Earl waited several hours before truly appraising the silence. His exhausted frame was still too frightened to be optimistic, but after some time without activity, he realized that the creatures were not at his door, or at least not on his porch. Outside of the direct vicinity of his house, he had no idea what they were doing, but, for now, it certainly seemed as if they had given up on gaining entrance to him. Had they truly gone away? Or were they simply in his fields, waiting for him as he waited them out? Earl was afraid to guess, but the alarming change in the rhythmic attack he had weathered in the previous days indicated to him that he had to investigate. Perhaps a quiet creep out of the pantry and a look out the window? Earl was sweating. It was hot and musky inside the pantry, and he had been living in the same air for several days. Breathlessly, he reached for the pantry door and twisted the knob, hesitating before he pushed the entrance open. When he did, his eyes were stung by the fresh sunlight that filled the house outside of his room. He paused in the doorjamb, listening intently for sounds from beyond the front door, but heard none. Perhaps the creatures really had gone away.... Earl changed his mind, however. For, as he sat perched on the verge of stepping out of his cell, a distinct rattling stole his focus. The front door knob turned roughly, shaking the wood around it, and Earl ducked back into the murky depths of the pantry. The creatures were back. They had heard his movement, and were now upon the house again. He shut the pantry door tightly, making a noise of his own. But, it didn’t matter now, because they knew he was still inside, and they were coming for him. He settled back into his seat on the floor as the front door thundered with impact. To his horror, he heard the crashing of wood on wood as pieces of his barricade began to fall off the heap to the floor. The
door thumped hard again, and he heard the barrier that kept the creatures at bay begin to crumble beneath their crushing force. Earl heard death at the door as the monsters smashed their way in. He reached for the Remington leaning against the shelving behind him. There was only one shell inside of it; scarcely enough to head off the onslaught that he heard coming for him. Earl cradled the shotgun in his lap, unsure rather to point it at the pantry door, or himself. He got his answer a second later, when the house shuddered furiously. He heard the barricade implode upon itself, and a loud splintering which must have been the door cracking beneath the creatures’ famished frames. Earl tilted the shotgun up to his face and wrapped his lips around the barrel. The cobalt was cold and slightly numbed his dry mouth. He closed his eyes and listened carefully as he reached for the trigger, searching for a last second reprieve from the approach of the monsters’ dinner party. But, all he heard was footsteps on his floorboards; the same slow and deliberate creaking that had carried across his porch through the previous days. The steps traveled through his home, each one stinging Earl’s trembling finger as he tensed it on the trigger. The steps came closer, increasingly closer, until he heard them right in the next room. He studied the sliver of light burning through just above the floor. Then, the light was eclipsed, and one of them was standing right at his pantry door. Earl pulled the trigger and the shotgun discharged. His fatigue, despair, and terror all burst out of the back of his head with his brains and most of his skull. His immediately dead body crumbled beneath him, and Earl slumped into a crippled rind as a fountain of blood poured out of his body, beneath the door, and under the feet that stood beyond it. “What the fuck?” shouted the startled voice above the feet. “Everybody, get the fuck back!” ordered another voice.
As the closest soldier pulled the pantry door open, and the other three in the search party aligned behind him, they all discovered Earl’s nearly headless corpse sprawled across the large storage room. They relaxed their readied weapons, and the front man, who had opened the door and now stood closest to the rapidly draining corpse, gagged at the grisly sight. “Jesus Christ!” one of them exclaimed. “What the fuck did he do that for?” “I guess he didn’t want to be found,” chuckled another. The front soldier, his name patch read “Davis”, turned an angry glare at the man. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Erickson?” he scolded. “You think this is funny? Huh?” He grabbed the sleeve of Erickson’s uniform and pulled him closer to the pantry, forcing the man’s face closer to Earl’s defeated corpse. “Is that fucking funny, Erickson? Huh? You like that?” “No, sir,” the rattled soldier responded, his tone now much more contemplative. “Now, go check the other rooms.” Davis pushed Erickson away from the pantry. “I’m going to report in.” The three grunts dispersed into other areas of the house, and Davis unholstered his walkie talkie. “Phillips, this is Davis, do you copy? Over.” “This is Phillips,” came the voice through the speaker. “Go ahead, Davis. Over.” “We’re about a mile from the safe zone,” Davis reported. “We’ve killed about twenty infected, but so far no survivors here. Over.”
It was 93 degrees as Jeremy Stratton rushed across the deserted campus of Fincher Community College. His watch, always set a few minutes fast, read 8:03 p.m., leaving him precious few seconds to reach his Mathematical Logic class on time. He was drenched with sweat as his quickened pace carried him through the oppressive, humid night, and the sticky perspiration reminded him how much he longed to leave his home in Dukirk, Texas. It was the last day of the semester, and Jeremy eagerly awaited completing the final exam he was about to take. The class was the last he needed for his transfer to Madrid University in New York. With his solid 4.0 grade point average, Jeremy had put himself in the small percentage of applicants who were lucky enough to be accepted by the prestigious film school. And now, it was all he could think about.
Jeremy’s desire to leave Dukirk had grown into a near-obsession in the two years following the death of his parents. After selling their home, which harbored too many painful memories after their passing, Jeremy lived alone in a modest apartment. The inheritance they left behind kept him taken care of, though not completely comfortable, and he spent his days sweating in his living room, tightening his resolve to finish his schooling and move on to something better. Jeremy had no real friends to speak of, and in fact, nothing at all to keep him in the city he had lived his entire life. He yearned for a change, and to Jeremy, film school in New York was as radically removed from his current situation as possible. He sweated through these thoughts now, with 8:04 p.m. showing on his digital watch. A slight dread came over Jeremy when faced with this increased possibility of being late. He recalled what Professor Dillon had said at the first meeting of the class, which Jeremy had watched the teacher enforce on several occasions: “This class begins at 8:00 clock sharp, not 8:01, and not 8:00 and 30 seconds.” The gruff instructor had then adjusted his rounded glasses for effect, Jeremy remembered, before continuing: “If anyone arrives for this class even one second late, they will be asked to leave, and not to return until they understand what promptness is.” Those opening remarks had pretty much set the tone for the laborious semester Jeremy had endured in Professor Dillon’s class. Although he maintained some semblance of respect for the aging teacher, who was actually quite good at presenting the material, Dillon was perhaps the most unpleasant man that Jeremy had encountered in his 21 years. The Professor was prone to loud and animated outbursts about etiquette when he heard anyone talking during his lectures, which began precisely at 8:00 p.m., and ended at precisely 9:50 p.m. When he became really agitated, he would pull his glasses from his face and slam them
down loudly on his podium. Jeremy was amazed that the glasses never shattered during one of these fits, but the same sturdy pair had been on Dillon’s face at the beginning of every class of the semester. The Professor also had a habit of smashing the chalkboard with his pointer, which he carried at all times in his right hand, and waved during his lectures like a symphony conductor. This violence was the only thing the chalkboard was used for, as Professor Dillon had never written on it during the semester, and did not even write his name on it the first day. One time, a girl in the class, whose name Jeremy never found out since she dropped the class after only a few weeks, asked Professor Dillon why he never wrote anything down. His dry response was merely: “Young lady, I already know the material. Therefore, I have no need to take notes from my lectures. However, I suggest that you do so.” Jeremy quickly adjusted to the teaching style, and Dillon explained everything so thoroughly, it was quite hard to misunderstand the material. Others in the class did not do so well, however. Each week it seemed like another person dropped the course --“defectors,” as Dillon called them--and by the previous week’s meeting, there were only nine people left enrolled. But Jeremy had continued to ace each test the Professor threw at them, and he was determined to go the distance, which he had. The last thing he needed now was to arrive late for the final exam, which Jeremy knew Professor Dillon would prohibit him from taking if he was not on time. He quickened his steps, his eyes fixated on the building that housed his Mathematical Logic class, now a mere 50 yards away. He was somewhat relieved to see the door to LB 104 still gaping open, a clear sign that the Professor had not started class for the evening. Finally, he was at this open door, and stepped into the hot classroom to see Professor Dillon sitting at his desk, scribbling something into a notebook, as he
often did, while the few remaining members of the class wandered in and took their seats. Tonight, Jeremy was the last to arrive, and he quickly studied the eight familiar faces of the other students, most of whom Jeremy did not know by name. He glanced up at the clock, which told him he had only 34 seconds to spare. As 7:59 slowly gave way for the eight o’clock hour, Jeremy hurried to his desk. Although there was no assigned seating in Professor Dillon’s classroom, each student seemed to claim a desk as their own, and Jeremy had sat at his at every class meeting. Tucked away in the corner of the room, with his nearest neighbor at least two desks away, Jeremy felt somewhat safe. He had never made any attempt to get to know any of the other students in the class, and he kept his distance from these familiar strangers that he saw every Wednesday night. Most seemed to pay no attention to him either, which was fine with Jeremy, and only a couple seemed to pay any attention to each other. Professor Dillon did not look up as Jeremy crossed the room to his seat, and even the teacher seemed somewhat removed from his surroundings. He seemed oblivious to the small, quiet group gathered before him, more focused on his frantic scribblings. Jeremy watched the Professor run a hand through his thinning hair, pausing his writing for a second as if searching for a perfect word for his thoughts. He found it, then scribbled one more sentence into the notebook and shut it soundlessly. His timing was nearly impeccable, and the Professor glanced up at the clock on the wall facing his desk just in time to watch the last seconds of 7:59 disappear into memory. He rose from his chair, as Jeremy had watched him do exactly 18 times, once at each class meeting. Dillon adjusted his tie, which was always his next action, and stepped forward to his podium, his navy Dockers shuffling together as he walked. The Professor had worn these same Dockers, or an identical pair, at every class meeting, and his short sleeve white
dress shirt was equally repetitive. Jeremy imagined the Professor’s closet as a flat wasteland consisting of 7 pairs of the navy pants, with seven identical white shirts hanging next to them. Only the Professor’s long necktie seemed to indicate any conscious thought while dressing, and Jeremy had noticed that he never saw Dillon wear the same tie twice. Professor Dillon paused for a moment at his podium and studied the faces of the students, all of which seemed to read, very simply: “let’s get this over with.” Jeremy followed Dillon’s glance uninterested, thinking the same thing himself. The instructor cleared his throat slightly, and removed his mighty glasses from his face slowly, deliberately. Jeremy noticed now that the pointer, always a staple of the lectures he had endured throughout the semester, was notably absent tonight. Perhaps Dillon would not be lecturing before the final, Jeremy speculated, hoping. Finally, Professor Dillon broke the silence in the room, which was becoming increasingly hotter. The air conditioning in the LB building had broken down a few weeks earlier, and the notoriously under budgeted College had yet to make any attempt at fixing it. Whenever anyone in the classroom would complain about the condition, which was nearly unbearable by 9:50, Dillon showed no sympathy, though he himself wore beads of sweat on his forehead. He would simply say: “The pursuit of knowledge is not meant to be comfortable.” Jeremy resolved to finish his final as quickly as he could, and leave this sauna for the last time, as the Professor began for the evening. “Tonight, we are going to do something a little different.” He spoke slowly, as usual, with each word impeccably spoken, as if for maximum effect. “I would like all of you to turn your desks to the left, so that you are all facing the door.” He motioned at the door to his right, which Jeremy had stepped through 54 seconds earlier, then without another
word, he carefully lifted his podium and carried it to the doorway, positioning himself directly in front of the entrance. As he did so, the students grudgingly followed his instructions, slowly turning their desks toward Dillon’s new location, then stared at him in mock interest. Jeremy did so also, somewhat alarmed by the haunting question that came suddenly to his mind: “Why is he blocking the only exit from this room?” Jeremy shook his head, as if catching himself dozing off, and looked up at the Professor, who stood behind the podium studying the group once more as the last of the students settled their desks into the new configuration. Dillon reattached the sturdy glasses to his face, still scanning the scene before him. And, as he did so, another abrupt thought penetrated into Jeremy’s mind. “Something is wrong.” He watched Dillon’s face as the Professor watched the others. There was a slight alien grin betraying the instructor ’s lips, something Jeremy had never seen on the man before, and beneath the godly glasses, Dillon’s eyes sparkled. The man appeared almost happy, Jeremy realized, but there was something else in the blank expression that Professor Dillon wore. Something…. Malicious? Jeremy shook it off again, thinking himself foolish, but the longer the Professor scanned the room vacantly, the more Dillon’s silence intimidated him. The instructor had spent the entire hour and 50 minutes of every class meeting talking, and this sharp twist into placid silence was an alarming departure. Finally, as if satisfied by his observations, Dillon broke the façade, his tone as cold and deliberate as ever. “This is much better,” he smiled slightly, the expression without warmth in any form. “Now, it has come to my attention that some of you in this classroom have strong objections to my teaching methods.”
He glanced around the room again, watching the guilty parties’ faces drain of color as his eyes crossed them. Then, he continued: “It seems that your objections are so strong, in fact, that you have seen fit to file complaints against me to your administrators, who are, subsequently, my employers.” Professor Dillon paused again, scanning the same faces, this time looking even more guilty and drained of color. “As a result of this, I was asked to attend a meeting with these administrators this afternoon,” Dillon continued. “After nearly two hours of negotiations, myself and the administrative board have reached a solution to the problem that you students have brought to light.” Dillon watched a middle-aged gentleman in the front row roll his eyes in impatience, then fixated his unyielding glare on the man. “You’ll want to hear this, Mr. Kundre, because it affects everyone in this room.” The Professor adjusted his glasses before continuing. “Tonight will be the last class I conduct as an instructor at Fincher Community College.” There was little reaction from the students, as most attempted to hide their satisfaction at this revelation. A few stirred in their seats slightly, probably those responsible for Dillon’s termination, Jeremy suspected. The class was silent, and so was Dillon, as if he were expecting some sort of reaction from the news. Finally, the man who the Professor had called Kundre raised his hand. Somehow, Jeremy knew he would ask the question that was inevitably on the minds of the rest of the class. “Yes, Mr. Kundre?” Dillon addressed him. “Does this mean we don’t have to take the final?” Kundre inquired. The class began to giggle slightly, all but Jeremy, who suspected that Kundre’s question was meant seriously. The slight and frightening smile that Dillon wore faded slowly, and he adjusted his glasses once again before offering his icy reply.
“Mr. Kundre, until 9:50 this evening, I am still your instructor, and it is still my job to teach you the fundamentals of Mathematical Logic.” Dillon watched the satisfied grin disappear from Kundre’s face. “So, tonight, since it is my last night as an instructor here, you will all have a final examination, and this test will be the entire basis for your grade in this course.” There was a reaction from this, as the students looked at each other in disbelief. Was Dillon actually throwing out the homework and test grades from the rest of the semester? Jeremy wondered this also, although his expression was punctuated with less worry than some of the other students, who turned their heads to those next to them, their mouths jarred open with the desperation of mice caught in traps. Sensing the slight uproar, Dillon reassured the students before him. “Now, now, before you go running to the administration office, there is something I should tell you about this examination,” Dillon stopped abruptly, waiting for the attention of the students. Then, it came over Jeremy again, the inexplicable dread that had invaded his head before: “How could we run anywhere? You’re blocking the door. There is no way out of here.” He put those thoughts on hold, as Dillon continued his explanation. “Our final examination is a bit, how should we say .… unorthodox.” The morbid grin reappeared on Dillon’s lips, and Jeremy noticed it immediately. “So taking this into consideration, I have devised a grading scale for tonight that is equally unorthodox. Each of you will receive an A in this course dependent entirely on your mere participation in our exercise this evening. I am not concerned with how well you perform, just that you follow the instructions carefully, and take our exercise extremely seriously. Do you understand?” There was no verbal reaction to Professor Dillon’s narration, but the students, including Jeremy, nodded their
heads in subdued understanding. Dillon studied their reactions carefully, then satisfied with their compliance, continued. “Now, are there any questions before we begin?” A young girl, probably about Jeremy’s age, he guessed, raised her hand timidly. Jeremy studied the girl, he thought her name was Cynthia, as if seeing her for the first time. For the last 18 weeks, he hadn’t paid much attention to her, and now he was realizing that this girl was actually quite attractive. He watched her delicate arm raise weakly into the air, anxious to hear the voice that went with this beauty. Perhaps he should have noticed her 18 weeks ago, he cursed himself. “Yes, Miss Timothy,” Dillon addressed her, noticing her upraised arm. Cynthia Timothy’s voice was almost angelic, Jeremy noticed, and he listened intently to her simple words, catching a hint of shyness and intelligence in the tone. “Well, sir,” she began meekly, “what exactly is the exercise?” Dillon smiled at her deeply, his fulltoothed grin somehow even more sinister than the slight hint of happiness he wore earlier. “Why, Miss Timothy, I’m so glad you asked.” He spoke slowly and deliberately, each syllable punctuated with a degree of sarcastic disgust that amplified the effect of the twisted smile he wore. “I will be splitting you into two groups for tonight’s exercise,” Dillon began. “I would prefer to have even groups, but since there are nine of you, we will have to work around that.” He smiled a knowing smile and chuckled briefly, as if remembering a joke heard the night before, leaving the students ignorant to the humor. “After all, I would hate to leave anyone out.” He stepped from behind the podium, something he had never done during a lesson before, and stood before the class, resting directly in from of Kundre, who gazed up at the Professor with a flat
bewildered expression on his face. The instructor continued his dialogue. “I will assign each of you a number, either a one or a two. Now, you are all college students, so I will assume that you are intelligent enough to figure out that your number corresponds with what group you will be in. Once I have assigned each of you a number, I would like you to take your desks to each side of the room, and gather with your groups. Group one will meet in the far corner to my left, and group two will be in the opposite corner. Mr. Kundre, you are number one.” Professor Dillon motioned to the middle aged man before him, then continued counting down each row, alternating numbers for each student. The instructor reached Jeremy and assigned him a two, then moved over to the last of the nine students, Jeremy remembered him as Miguel Perron, and assigned the young Latin man a one. “Now, get into your groups,” instructed Dillon, as he stepped back to his perch behind the tall podium. There was a rustling of backpacks and a creaking of desks as the students followed the direction, moving their desks from the center of the room to their assigned corners. It took only a couple of moments to gather the small groups, and Dillon watched the classroom intently during this time, his gaze never fixating on one student for too long, surveying their obedience as a group. When they had settled into circular formations, each turned their attention back to Professor Dillon, who looked back at them silently. Jeremy surveyed his group, and was pleased to see Cynthia Timothy sitting across from him. She smiled slightly, and Jeremy turned his head, pretending not to notice, and hoping that she would not see the redness forming on his cheeks. The other two Jeremy did not know, a black man who looked to be in his late 20s, and an overweight young girl who looked straight out of high school. He looked back to the front of the room, rejoining the collective stare of the class.
When Professor Dillon saw their attentiveness, he continued. “Now, I want you to look over the members of your group, and study them very carefully.” He extended the index fingers of both of his hands and moved them in slow circles, as if implementing some primitive and lazy hypnosis. His eyes slowly panned between the two groups as he did this, as if he were studying them himself. “Most of the people in this room are probably quite insignificant to you, but one of them may play a very important role in your lives tonight. As you study your group, I want you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each of your partners, and decide for yourselves who in your group is expendable.” From his quiet space in the corner with group two, Jeremy watched the group in the opposite corner and saw an animated young man’s face light up, as if with recognition. He lurched into the conversation with a near-repulsive excitement. “Professor Dillon?” he chimed. “Is this like that desert island thing, cause I think I’ve already done this before?” Dillon studied him amused for a few silent seconds, then nodded his head in response. “Yes, Mr. Joiner, it is something of that sort.” He smiled another knowing smile. “But, I assure you that this will be unlike anything you have ever experienced.” The one that the teacher referred to as Mr. Joiner calmed with this, satisfied. Jeremy moved his glance back over to Professor Dillon, who remained behind the podium while continuing his instruction. “Now, as I said, look around you carefully, because one of the members of your group will have to die for the rest of you to live.” There was an awkward silence here, as the students examined Dillon’s visage, the same foppish grin still adorning his face. Their expressions indicated little concern, and most seemed to merely wonder if they had heard the Professor
correctly. Jeremy was unnerved by Dillon’s words, but did not let his face register his fears. Still, the thoughts returned to him: He’s blocking the door. Finally, the silence, an eternity that occurred in seconds, was broken again, this time by the black man in Jeremy’s group. “I’m sorry, sir,” he began uneasily, “but what does this have to do with Math or Logic?” The Professor ’s response was as dry as Jeremy expected. “Why, Mr. Ryder, if you had been paying attention in my classroom for the last 18 weeks, you would realize that this exercise is the perfect summation of what we have learned.” He left it at that, and Ryder nodded his head in feigned understanding. It made little sense to Jeremy either. From group one, a burly man wearing a cowboy hat joined in the discussion. Jeremy scanned the unshaven man, probably in his mid-20s, as he stood from his desk defiantly and faced Professor Dillon like a cowboy waiting to draw in a duel. It was clear that he, like the rest of the class, saw the instructor’s decision making exercise as a waste of time. “So, Professor,” the burly man challenged, “when we choose someone, how are they going to die?” The class laughed somewhat nervously, and the man remained standing, obviously enjoying the attention. Professor Dillon stared at the man with a frost in his eyes, but no expression on his face. “Well, that is a fair question, Mr. Carter,” was the blank reply. “Let’s say something simple: a gunshot to the head.” Professor Dillon looked away from the man, expecting that to conclude the diversion, but Carter asked another question. “Okay, so how are we supposed to decide who gets it?” He wiped sweat from under the brim of his hat as he spoke.
Professor Dillon looked back to him, and Jeremy could see genuine annoyance on the instructor’s face. No one had ever talked back to Dillon in class, and, in fact, it was rare that anyone in the class spoke at all. Carter seemed to be unintimidated by the newly-fired teacher now, perhaps thinking that he was not a threat to the students anymore. The rest of the class had their attention squarely on Carter as well, except for Jeremy. Though he tried to fake their interest, the voice in his head distracted him. “Just sit down, you fucking hick. This is a bad idea. Let’s just do this exercise so we can all get out of here already.” “Well, Mr. Carter, I was about to explain that, if you will be patient with me,” Dillon cracked, with a not-so-frightening attempt at anger in his voice. Then, more menacing, “however, I am losing my patience with you.” Carter chuckled at this, apparently pleased to be getting under the Professor’s skin. Still, he was not satisfied with the mild annoyance he had received in response from the instructor. He spoke again, still refusing to be seated. “Just one more question, Professor,” he chuckled eagerly. “Let’s have it then,” Dillon invited. “Well, can we pick you?” The class laughed politely, but their patience was growing thin as well. Most remained focused on Professor Dillon, perhaps fearing that Carter would anger the Professor so much, that he would fail them all. Jeremy was the most annoyed. “Just shut up, you dumb mother fucker. I want to get out of here.” Jeremy looked back at the instructor, waiting for a rage-infused diatribe on classroom behavior. But, surprisingly, Dillon seemed to be calm, and the anger on his face slowly dissipated like the head of a beer. And, when he finally responded, after several uneasy seconds, his tone was the warmest Jeremy had heard come from that mouth before. “Well, Mr. Carter,” Professor Dillon cooed. “Since you so enjoy being the center of attention, and since you clearly
understand this exercise much more than me, perhaps you should teach the class today.” The instructor stared at Carter challengingly, and the young man’s smile drifted out of sight, replaced by a coat of confusion. The cowboy seemed dumbfounded that he had failed to get a reaction from Professor Dillon. For Jeremy, the lack of reaction was seemingly more suspenseful than the inevitable tirade that would normally follow such a challenge of the instructor’s authority. “So, Mr. Carter?” Dillon taunted. “What are you waiting for?” Carter was still frozen with a stupid look on his face, and he comprehended the words very slowly, then let a sly grin part his lips. “Are you serious?” he asked. “I am always serious, Mr. Carter,” the teacher replied. “Now, come up here, in front of my podium and face your classroom. They are all waiting on you.” Carter, still unsure, slowly stepped away from his desk and crept to the front of the room, approaching cautiously toward Professor Dillon, who did not move at all. The cowboy stepped in front of the podium, facing Dillon, his face still looking somewhat confused. “You are teaching them, not me, Mr. Carter,” Dillon was clearly mocking the young man, making him look foolish before the class. “I would suggest that they would hear you better if you turn and face them.” Carter slowly turned toward the body of the room, still shooting backward glances at Dillon, who did not move, except to remove his glasses. A mild annoyance was visible in the instructor’s eyes, and Jeremy remained fixated on them. “Well, what do you have to teach us, Mr. Carter?” Dillon monotoned. The cowboy looked increasingly confused as he faced the room, and did not turn to answer the instructor directly behind him, a podium’s distance away. “I don’t know,” Carter surrendered, slowly putting his head down. “I guess nothing.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that Mr. Carter,” Dillon consoled with mock sympathy. “I’m sure that this class will learn a lot from your lesson.” It happened so quickly that it barely registered in Jeremy’s head. He never saw a weapon, and there was almost no sound, but Carter’s face suddenly exploded outward, sending a torrent of blood and tissue soaring through the silent classroom. Though he was quite far from the scene, Jeremy felt the warm liquid and sticky matter cling to his damp, sweat-smeared skin. His eyes closed instinctually, and in the darkness of his head, he let out a terrified scream, though nothing came from his trembling mouth. He heard other screams fill the room, as realization spread through the 7 seated bodies around him. Closer to him, he heard Cynthia Timothy scream, a piercing cry followed by a bellowing of sobs as she choked back tears. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Carter, somehow still standing at the front of the room. There was a gaping hole in the center of his former face, with two glassy eyes resting right above the shredded skin that surrounded the wound. His jawbone hung askew, still swinging on the one hinge that connected it to the carnage. The rest was blood, and nothing but. It seemed to pour from the mock face like a waterfall, and it slid down the twitching body below it in thick, runny streams, soaking into the faded T-shirt that Carter had worn. Somehow, the cowboy hat remained in place on top of the mutilated head, and it was all that was recognizable of the young man who had so defiantly stood before them seconds before. As the legs gave, the twitching body plopped to the floor, its vacant eyes coming to rest on the stucco ceiling above. A thick crimson pool began to form beneath the back of the corpse’s head, which spread across the floor. The hands flopped at the body’s sides, making horrible splashing sounds in the river sliding across the carpet. Though he felt like vomiting, Jeremy’s eyes remained fixated on the grotesque thing on the floor. The room was eerily
silent, as the other 7 stayed their shocked gazes with Jeremy’s. “Now,” Professor Dillon’s voice splintered the shock, and eight pairs of eyes bolted upward to his satisfied face. He was completely calm, not so much as breathing heavy, and the only clue to his state of mind was the deranged glaze in his eyes as he studied the horrified people in his classroom. The gun in his hand, which had seemingly come from nowhere, still wisped a thin tendril of smoke from its barrel into the air. He held it like he had held the pointer for all those weeks, and let it wave slightly in his hand as he spoke. “Now that I have your attention, is there anyone else who intends to question the validity and seriousness of this exercise?” There was, of course, no reply from the 8 quivering people before Professor Dillon. Each wore a different expression, all of which portrayed the same combination of shock, horror, and knotted wrinkles of despair. Jeremy’s eyes were now open, and he briefly let his dampening eyes drift across the silent assembly. Across from him, Cynthia Timothy’s lovely face was streaked with thin streams of wet mascara, and her tears frequently retraced these tracks, running over her quaking lips and dripping noiselessly into a neat pool on her desk. Her eyes were somewhat vacant, and only the involuntary shaking of her body gave any hint of life behind them. There were slight patches of blood in her long brown hair, and a few dots on her right cheek. She made no sound, but air hissed through her lips as her heavy breath escaped her body. Next to her, the young overweight girl, whose name Jeremy did not know, gripped the sides of her desk with her pudgy fingers as if steadying her shaking desk. But it was the frantic tapping of her feet which led the desk in its swaying. She sniffed with her breaths often, choking back tears unsuccessfully. Occasionally she made slight squeaking noises.
The black man, Dillon had called him Ryder, was perched forward on his desk, his back to the still corpse laying behind him in a wide pool of blood that quietly soaked into the carpet below. Despite his bad angle, it was clear he had witnessed the scene, and his head was bowed forward, his eyes fixated on his desk. His lips were shut, and moisture slowly formed around his eyelids. Over in group one, Miguel Perron shared the overweight girl’s clear view of Professor Dillon, and his face was frozen in an expression of complete confusion. He did not seem to move at all, and Jeremy felt as if he was looking at a photograph of the man. The young man Professor Dillon had called Joiner had his back to Jeremy. But even the back of his staggering head revealed the disbelief that the face on the other side projected. Joiner was shaking his head no repeatedly, and his hands cupped the sides of his face, as if they were the only thing holding that head on his shoulders. Across from Joiner, a slim older woman wore many tears, and her eyes were firmly fixated on the smoking gun that Dillon let flutter in his hand. Her gaze followed the weapon as it gently waved to the classroom. Kundre was weeping the most and he sobbed deeply, his eyes shut and head bowed. Jeremy saw tiny drops of urine dribble over the edges of Kundre’s seat, and the moisture on the carpet under the seat revealed that the middle-aged man had wet his pants. Occasionally, he would look over his shoulder at the pile of flesh that once was called Carter, as if expecting to wake up from a horrible nightmare and find the scene before him without such an atrocity on the floor. When his eyes reaffirmed the reality of the situation, he would quickly turn his head forward again, shut his eyes tightly, and let out another deluge of tears and sobs. Jeremy forced himself to look back at Professor Dillon, whose eyes still roamed the room surveying the wave of panic unfolding before him. On any other day,
the aging instructor would be a far from imposing figure. But today, the large pistol in his hand, the splatter dotting his face, and the sadistic gleam in his eyes gave Dillon new and much more menacing persona. And, Jeremy was now completely terrified of the man before him. Dillon wore a face of complete contentment and serenity, and seemed unaffected by the blood he was covered in, or the lifeless heap in front of his podium. He seemed to relish the fear his students let seep into the hot, stale air of the classroom, and that was when Jeremy realized that himself and the 7 other people around him were all going to die today. Professor Dillon returned his glasses to his blood spattered face, and smiled the leer he had produced previously. He loudly set the gun down on the edge of the podium, making a loud knocking sound that broke the trance of the girl sitting across from Joiner. She gave a quick gasp, as if being woken suddenly, and new tears dribbled down her face. Dillon spoke in his usual dry tone, but his voice resonated with a new and terrible clarity. For once, the instructor had the strict attention of the entire classroom. “There, that’s much better,” Dillon began. “Now we have even groups.” He paused for a moment to let his audience consider how insignificant the act he had just performed was to him. “I know that some, if not all, of you are reacting to various degrees of shock, but it is important for you all to pay close attention. Because everything I say will have an effect on your performance this evening.” He paused again. “There may come a point after this initial shock where you begin to delude yourself into thinking that someone is coming to help you. This is a futile train of thought, and will only hinder your performance in this exercise. “Mr. Wallace is the only security guard who wanders the campus this late, but I have taken the liberty of removing him from this equation. I assure you that he will not be disturbing us tonight.
“As for your administrators, who work so tirelessly to maintain the integrity of this institution, they too have been taken care of. You see, several hours after we adjourned our little meeting, I returned to, shall we say, prepare your final examination. I entered the main office and used this gun to kill everyone I found. All except for Mrs. Chivers, that is. She decided to run from me, and I didn’t have time to reload, so I was forced to bludgeon her with the pistol. “If you were unaware of this before, we are the only class left on campus tonight, and in fact we are the only 10, excuse me, 9 people here. So, you see, we will not be disturbed. “So, feel free to scream for help to your heart’s content, because no one will hear you but me. However, please keep in mind that if you see fit to make any noise that I do not think is pertinent to this exercise, you will force me to exact a punishment very similar to that of our friend Mr. Carter here.” Professor Dillon motioned to the floor, but it was clear that the class understood without the visual. “Now, I will explain the terms of this exercise once again, and I trust that I will not be interrupted this time.” Dillon pointed his finger accusingly at no one in particular. “In order for anyone in this room to walk out alive, someone in their group will have to volunteer to sacrifice their life to save those of the other three in the group. This means at least two of you will not be leaving tonight, and I really have no preference which two of you that turns out to be. If you as a group can not come up with any resolution, and no one volunteers, then all four of you will share your fates together. “Do not attempt to bargain with me. You would be wiser to save that energy for the task at hand. Perhaps you may even be able to convince someone in your group to volunteer. You may not intermingle with the other group, and one volunteer from one group will not save you all.
“Those are your instructions, and you have 90 minutes to arrive at your resolution. I suggest you use your time wisely, because, as I’m sure you know, a lot depends on your grade here tonight. “Lastly, I want to make it very clear that you are all insignificant to me, and I have no problem with killing every one of you. If you want my honest guess, I have a feeling that is what is going to end up happening. But, I want to be fair, and let you make your own decision about your fate, although I won’t hesitate to make it for you. “You have 90 minutes starting now.” And with that, Professor Dillon reclaimed his gun from the podium surface and walked casually over Carter’s broken corpse, taking special care not to step in the still widening lake of blood on the carpet. He returned to his desk and opened his notebook, setting the pistol within easy reach and resting a damp, sweaty hand on its handle. With the other hand, he retrieved a pen from his shirt pocket and returned to the frenzied scribbling he had been slaving over when Jeremy stepped into the classroom. And, as the time began to tick away, the groups found themselves in silent circles, with most of the 8 still reacting to Carter. The lack of conversation was interminable, and Jeremy felt the time passing in agonizing miniscule increments. He never looked at the trusty, exact clock on the wall, as his gaze was divided between Carter’s sweltering corpse on the floor, and the frantic flailing faces of his group members. He did not look over at the other group, but he heard their similar panting misery. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear Professor Dillon scribbling diligently into his notebook, but mostly there was sobbing, a pulsating, collective malphese that burned with the fresh blood and hot sweat in the air. None of the students around him said anything, and as he searched their eyes for some glimmer of hope, he saw that these empty optics did not look back at
him, for they were lost in scrambled desperation of their own. An eternity passed in dwindling minutes, and it was Jeremy who finally broke the crimson silence. “Somebody say something,” he pleaded weakly, and the sound stirred life into the whimpering shells around him. But, though they looked desperately at him for some sort of assurance, Jeremy could think of nothing else to say. He looked over at Professor Dillon, whose head was also lifted by the utterance. The teacher stared back at him, damn him, with a smile on his face. The frumpy man was watching his cruel game unfold, and Jeremy could see satisfaction in the eyes behind Dillon’s taunting glasses. “Mr. Stratton,” cackled the Professor, “I’m glad to see that a least one of you is not content to simply shut down and die.” With that, Dillon returned to his scribblings. But no one else said a word. Jeremy surveyed the mourning faces of his group members once more, but their eyes were still absent, and their trembling lips offered no reply. He watched Cynthia Timothy’s lovely brow squint in despair. Even now, with drying blood staining her cheeks, she looked delightful, and Jeremy found it strange that the thought even passed through his head. Still, the struggling girl offered nothing to him in return. He glanced across at the group adjacent to him, but their weeping silence revealed that they too were still in shock. “Professor Dillon?” Jeremy attempted. Now, every other student in the room looked up, as if reminded of their predicament again. Jeremy saw seven pairs of eyes dart through the room, pausing on the pile of Carter, then move anxiously to the frail and terrifying Professor who sat so calmly behind his desk. Dillon looked up to address Jeremy, skepticism prevalent in his tone. “What is it, Mr. Stratton?” he asked. “May I approach your desk, sir?” Jeremy inquired nervously. Dillon grabbed the pistol that rested on his desk, but did not lift it. Rather, his fingers danced on the grip inquisitively.
“Very well, Mr. Stratton,” he responded quietly, though the tone still carried some menace. “Come on over.” Jeremy slid out of his cramped desk, gripping the surface of the tabletop to support his trembling legs. The other students in the room followed his ascent, and he paused for a moment once on his feet, slowly studying Professor Dillon, who faced him down eagerly, the gun resting easily beneath his reach. Jeremy stepped slowly away from his group, his eyes alternating between the desk that was his destination, and the bloody heap on the floor in his path. Carter’s body was sprawled across the ground, and Jeremy’s feet paused at the edge of the widening pool of blood that flowed from the hole in the body’s head. Jeremy stepped carefully around it like the rim of a cliff, somehow more sickened at the thought of actually stepping in this blood, than the splattered source of the mess. As Jeremy passed the body, he did not look back at it, and his eyes remained cautiously focused on Professor Dillon’s looming, smiling form. There was no fear in the teacher’s eyes, so Jeremy knew that Dillon was not the least bit intimidated by him, and the gun at his fingertips certainly gave him little reason to be. “That’s close enough, Mr. Stratton,” Professor Dillon interrupted, lifting his gun an inch from the tabletop for illustration. Jeremy complied, stopping suddenly a few feet from the desk. Dillon’s lips parted obscenely as he spoke again. “What can I do for you, Mr. Stratton?” he asked deliberately. “Don’t do this, Professor Dillon,” Jeremy said firmly, though the quavering in his voice belied the optimism of his attempt. “It’s already done, Mr. Stratton.” “It doesn’t have to be,” Jeremy attempted. “You can let us go.” “Unfortunately, Mr. Stratton, that is entirely out of my control now,” goaded Dillon. “Whether or not anyone leaves here tonight is up to your group, isn’t it?”
“Why are you doing this?” asked Jeremy, and he was sincere. “I am a teacher, Mr. Stratton, and I have been so for most of my life,” Dillon spat. “I am teaching everyone in this room a lesson that none of you will likely ever forget.” “No one here wants to die, Professor. But, we’re all a little too scared to figure all of this out right now.” “But, not you, right, Mr. Stratton?” Dillon taunted. “No, I’m really scared, Professor Dillon. I don’t want to die either.” “I’ll be honest, Mr. Stratton.” The Professor adjusted his glasses with the hand that wasn’t resting on the gun. “You are one of the only students in this class that has demonstrated any sort of promise to me.” He paused, raising his eyebrows to Jeremy, as if he had just paid him a great complement. “In fact, you are one of the most promising students I have seen in my years. And, your bold approach here simply affirms my view of you. But, your energy would be more efficiently spent on the task at hand here.” “Please, Professor Dillon, just listen to me,” Jeremy pleaded. “Mr. Stratton,” Dillon interrupted sharply, “what I am saying is that I feel that you have a better chance of surviving this night than anyone else in this room. Do not waste valuable time debating the relevance of my exercise with me. And do not try my patience with this tiresome plea for mercy.” The Professor pushed his glasses against his face. “If all of you are going to die tonight, so be it. But, your determination would be better utilized in an attempt to mobilize your group into some sort of resolution to the problem you are all facing here tonight.” The diatribe was cryptic, but Jeremy understood it, and there was no pity in Professor Dillon’s voice. Carter ’s festering body behind him was proof that Dillon would dispose of any of them without afterthought. Jeremy was quite defeated, but he tried one more time.
“Sir?” Jeremy began, but Dillon bolted his feet suddenly, raising the gun into aiming position as he did so. “That’s enough, Mr. Stratton,” Dillon scolded sternly. “Just because I like you doesn’t mean that I won’t put a hole in your face. Now, sit down. Or, don’t you even want a chance to live?” Jeremy’s head sank solemnly. “I’ll sit down,” he said weakly, and he slowly moped his way back to his desk, rejoining the three shaken people in his group. It was silent again for some time, and Jeremy’s defeat had not prompted him to engage with the people in his group any further. The fevered minutes were uncountable, but Jeremy’s attention was diverted when he saw someone from the other group, the angular young black man Professor Dillon had addressed as Joiner, rise from his desk. The other three in his group looked up at him in pleading bewilderment, and he nodded slightly to them as he turned to face Dillon. The instructor had seen Joiner rise, and he collected his pistol from the desktop to address the deviation. “May I speak with you, Professor Dillon?” Joiner asked calmly. “By all means, young man, come here,” Dillon responded, but the invitation was devoid of pleasantry. Joiner stepped slowly to the desk. His group was closer to Dillon, and Joiner was fortunate enough to avoid Carter’s husk on his path. As he stood before Professor Dillon, the instructor studied him intently, a grim smirk pulling his skeletal lips astray. Joiner breathed heavy, as if about to say something, but his exhale was all that came. “Well, what is it?” Dillon challenged. “Have you decided to volunteer?” “Yeah, something like that,” Joiner replied, a surprising lack of fear evident in his demeanor. “You were easy to convince,” mocked Dillon. “Nobody has said a word since we began this exercise.” “I made the decision myself,” Joiner countered coolly.
“Very well,” nodded Dillon. “Why don’t we go stand up here?” He waved the gun in the air, gesturing toward the podium where Carter had fallen. “Everyone can have a nice view there.” Joiner stepped backward slowly, toward the podium and away from Dillon, who slid his chair back from the desk. Unseen to him, seven other pairs of eyes were locked on him, as the remaining students in the musky classroom anxiously braced themselves for another death. The slim older woman in Joiner’s group began sobbing and buried her eyes in her shaking hands. “I can’t watch this!” she shrieked. “I don’t want to see!” Both Joiner and Professor Dillon turned to look at her, the former pausing in his backpedaling to do so. There was a second of stillness, and that was the second Joiner had been anticipating. He lunged into a sprint for the door, forty feet, one splattered body, and one podium away from him. But Dillon responded with terrible quickness, leaping from his chair and lifting the pistol into position. Jeremy tensed in his seat as the shot rang out, and next to him, the overweight girl bellowed an ungodly scream. Across from her, Ryder had been twisted around to view the scene, but as the gun roared, he turned back into the group and his awestruck eyes focused on his desktop. Across from Jeremy, Cynthia Timothy clenched her exhausted eyes tightly shut, squeezing a new deluge of tears down her face. In Joiner’s group, the slim older woman also screamed, her buried eyes imagining the sight unfolding before them. Miguel Perron and Kundre seemed to be completely shut down, and they reacted little. But Jeremy saw it clearly. The bullet tore into Joiner’s throat, and the projectile’s momentum cancelled the momentum his run had generated. The shot twisted his body around, and his flailing legs stumbled on Carter’s body. Joiner slammed into the podium, and the stand toppled to the floor under him as he followed it down. His stunted body crashed
to the floor next to Carter, and Joiner kicked his legs in the air chaotically as he clutched his throat. Blood gurgled out between his fingers and from his mouth as he choked on the bullet. The heavy woman next to Jeremy continued to scream as Joiner flopped on the floor like a suffocating fish. Jeremy watched the life pour from his throat, and his movement began to decline. His feet continued to kick meekly, each time smacking against the fallen podium and sending a knock echoing through its hollow frame. At this, Jeremy, too, looked away, but the knocking persisted, audible even through the unyielding shrieking next to him. The knocks slowed, and soon there was just the screaming. Then, that was interrupted by Professor Dillon, who Jeremy had almost forgotten about as he was lost in Joiner’s dying spectacle. “Shut up!” he roared, his enraged eyes stabbing at the screaming girl next to Jeremy. She stopped abruptly and leaned back into her desk, whimpering. Dillon stepped to the center of the room, standing in front of the two bodies littering the floor. The man Jeremy saw before him was so infused with rage that his entire face was twisted into a mask of feral fury. “Maybe you’re not taking this exercise seriously,” he growled. “Let me amend my original assignment. The next person who gets out of their desk will be dead before they stand. Are we clear?” No one responded, but the surrendering silence that encompassed the room was reply enough. “Good,” continued Dillon. “Now, you have all wasted the last forty-five minutes panicking, and at this point, you all seem resigned to merely sit and wait for your turn.” He paused to scan the tearful faces before him. “Five of you can leave here tonight, or none of you can leave. And it seems to me that there are a least five of you who want to go home. So, rather than taking the route that Mr. Joiner took here….” He
pointed back at the fresh corpse with his gun. “Perhaps you would be wiser to actually participate in this exercise, yes?” He hissed on the “esss.” No one said anything, but Dillon nodded as if they had. “Now, as I said, do not get out of your chair, do not try to plead with me, and do not address me in anyway until I say that we have concluded our exercise.” He looked at the perfectly set clock on the wall. “You have thirty-nine minutes left. I suggest you use it trying to survive this night. If you choose to continue ignoring each other, you choose to join our everwidening pile on the floor here. That is all I will say to you until I begin systematically shooting you. Unless, of course, we come up with some volunteers.” It was Kundre who fired back at Dillon. “He volunteered for us, man!” he pleaded. “You said one would have to die to save us all. So let us go now!” Dillon chuckled, genuinely amused. “My dear boy, I do not appreciate being deceived. I thought that Mr. Joiner had genuinely put some thought into the shallow frame of his miserable existence and decided that the lives of his three group members outnumbered the value of his own. But, in fact, he learned nothing from this exercise. He merely showed us all that he is a selfish coward, perfectly willing to leave the rest of you here to die without pity. He did not volunteer to die for you, he died for nothing. Now, I suggest you begin working through the equation you are all facing. So, do not let me distract you any further.” “You can’t do this!” Kundre shouted, but Dillon was unfazed. “The next mouth that opens to address me will be closed with this,” he held the gun into the air. “When the time is up, I will ask each group if they have made a decision. And none of you will speak to me again until I do so, are we clear?” Again, no one responded, but it was clear on each face that they all understood. “Now, get back to work. You now have thirty-seven minutes.”
The time went quickly, and after several moments of stunned silence, Jeremy began watching the thirty-seven minutes disappear on the reliable wall clock. No one in his group said anything, and Joiner’s group was equally subdued. Somewhere inside of him, Jeremy was outraged that everyone in the room was completely submissive to their predicament, but he, too, could not motivate himself to react any further. Jeremy, like the others around him, was reeling with a numbing wave of fear that pinned him to his chair. There was, simply, nothing for anyone to say, and the seven of them sat idly, patiently waiting for their turn to die. Jeremy’s malaise disappointed him, and as he struggled through what he knew would be his final minutes, his mind repeatedly conjured the same question: Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Surely, he understood, for he did not know what to say to the condemned people around him. The young overweight girl was simply staring at the top of her desk, her pudgy chin trembling as she gasped for air. The black man Jeremy knew only as Ryder similarly eyed his desktop. He had not looked up since he pulled his eyes away from Joiner’s gory fate, and though he did not weep, his face was heavy with a solemn countenance. Across from Jeremy, the Cynthia Timothy’s lovely face was moist with passed tears. She had her hands cupped together before her in a gesture of prayer. Her lips, too, were trembling, but she seemed to be voicing silent, desperate pleas to something beyond the sticky room they all sat in. Across the room, in the other group, no one stirred, and even Kundre, who had shouted aloud moments before, had sunken into a defeated silence. When Jeremy looked around the room, he realized that the people who sat around him looked just as dead as the two on the floor. Those in the chairs were simply cleaner dead people. But, their faces mirrored the knowledge that Jeremy was now digesting: that none of them were leaving this room alive.
As Jeremy looked over to the teacher’s desk, he saw a much different facial expression. Dillon was still lost in his writing, and the scratching of his pen to his journal created the only sound in the room, other than the dismal sobbing that arose from the group. Though the Professor did not look up at the students, Jeremy knew that the instructor’s thoughts were locked on them, for he wore a contented smile beneath his cold glasses. His plan was being realized to perfection, and Professor Dillon was possessed with a vulgar happiness. Jeremy could see it on his face, and he knew the teacher was counting the minutes until he could slaughter the rest of them. But, why was he waiting? The cruelest and most agonizing part of the students’ fate was the interminable moments they sat in now. Surely, Jeremy knew, Dillon was aware that no one in the room was going to give their life to save the strangers around them. Did Dillon really expect the groups to take his instructions seriously? Were they really supposed to sit in these circles and barter with each other in the vain hope of convincing someone in the group to volunteer their life? That was the part of Dillon’s plan that was putting the smile on his face, Jeremy realized. No one would volunteer, so Dillon would kill them all anyway. Jeremy suspected that even if someone did claim the bullet, the instructor would likely kill the rest of them regardless. There was no escaping the predicament— Joiner ’s violent reminder made that clear—and there was no hope for any of them, even if they did participate in Dillon’s sick exercise. So, each of them was truly engaging in the most human response they could: sitting in silent servile circles awaiting their deaths. So, wait they did, and the thirty-seven minutes dwindled with stunning rapidity. There was a subdued, sustained silence through this time, and it was Professor Dillon who interrupted it. “Your time is up,” he announced curtly.
The instructor rose from his chair, and as he did, Jeremy watched the six bodies surrounding him tense in their compact wooden desk seats. He did the same, but his eyes remained on Dillon, who had looked so meek throughout the semester. But now, as he eagerly appraised the room before him, the pistol dangling at his side, Professor Dillon was the most terrifying thing Jeremy had ever seen. “None of you had much to say throughout this exercise,” the teacher intoned, his voice permeating with indifference. “I find it rather disappointing that no one truly participated in our exam. You were each faced with a problem, and instead of working together to solve it, you simply resigned yourselves to be conquered. It seems that none of you have gained anything from your experience in my class.” He paused, surveying the reactions of the seated students before him, all of whom had their eyes and ears precisely focused on him. But, no one said anything. In fact, even the tears that had been so heavily flowing for the previous ninety minutes were absent. There was a collective lull of dreadful anticipation in the room, and Jeremy found himself lost in it. But, he paid full attention to the instructor as he continued. “Well, perhaps there is hope,” Dillon continued, though he shook his head as he did so. “Maybe some of you have used these silent minutes to reflect within yourselves. And maybe you have come to resolutions that you have not spoken aloud. Let’s find out.” Dillon stepped from behind the desk and moved to the center of the room. He casually stepped over the punctured head that sat on Carter’s formerly intact body, and his shoes splished in the thick pool that had gathered around the scene. He raised his gun into the air, aiming it the three people remaining in group one, who cringed at the sight of it. “Group one, stand up and go face that wall,” he ordered, waving the gun toward the wall to his right.
None of them, not Kundre, the slim older woman, or Perron, moved an inch. Their eyes carried the desperation of puppies peering through the bars of a pound, and a scattered disbelief seemed formed on their faces. “It was not a request!” Dillon shouted, and the force in his voice chilled Jeremy. “Get up! Now!” It was Miguel Perron who stood first, doing so slowly and gently. The other two studied him with disbelief, but as they watched him step toward the center of the room, complying with Dillon’s directions, they, too, rose to their feet carefully. Jeremy watched as Miguel, the slim woman, and Kundre formed an orderly line and marched toward the wall, guided by the watchful eye of the pistol Dillon aimed at them. As the Professor stepped into an executioner’s position behind them, they lined up against the surface as if preparing to be searched by police; Kundre on the far left, Miguel Perron in the middle, and the slim older woman on the right. The latter collapsed to the floor as she reached her hands toward the wall for support. She remained hunched over on her knees, curling herself into a ball. The woman was spasming violently, and Jeremy could hear her weeping profusely, muttering “please, please” over and over again as she buried her face in her lap. Kundre’s legs were shaking, but he was standing, though his head was also slumped down. He may have been crying, but Jeremy could not hear him. Miguel Perron was the strangest, however. He was not trembling, but from Jeremy’s seat, he could see that the man’s eyes were wide and fierce. There was anger in the stare, and Miguel bit his bottom lip passionately. “So, group one, do we have any volunteers?” Dillon said way too charmingly. There was no vocal response, save for the loud cry that the shrunken older woman bellowed. However, Miguel Perron responded visibly. He curled his hands into fists against the wall and
roared like a woken bear. Miguel turned around to face Professor Dillon, who wore an amused and confident expression. The gun was already in the air, perfectly aimed at Miguel Perron’s head, but the raging student stepped toward Dillon, his roar even more animalistic. One step was all he had time for, however. Before his shadow was off the wall, the gun screamed life, and Miguel met death. The shot hit him the center of the face, and Jeremy watched the back of his head explode against the wall behind him. Dark red mass splattered against the cold whiteness of the classroom’s barrier, and the body of Miguel Perron imploded beneath it, slumping limply to the floor. The slim older woman began to scream, and the overweight girl next to Jeremy harmonized with her. The next two shots were quick and efficient. After seeing Miguel Perron’s head disintegrate, Jeremy had turned his away, but he clearly heard Kundre’s body hit the floor after the first fire. And, as the second shot rang out, there was a disgustingly abrupt end to the screaming that wasn’t coming from the girl sitting next to Jeremy. He forced himself to look back over at the scene, and he saw what he had expected. Three more bodies now littered the floor, and Dillon was already disregarding them and looking excitedly back at the remaining four students. The pudgy girl’s screaming persisted, and Dillon seemed most intently focused on her. The grin on his face was wide, and Jeremy could fully see the man’s yellowed teeth and emaciated gums. But, as the gunsmoke wafted through the air, and the screaming persistently cancelled the deathly silence, this smile dissolved into a mask of mad rage. His voice was truly wretched. “Shut up!” Dillon shouted, but the screaming continued. “I said shut up!” he repeated, this time even more forceful than before, but the increased volume did not cancel the distressed girl’s cries. Jeremy watched the gun discharge again, and he heard it twice more as he rolled his head away. When he did, he watched three holes erupt in the girl: one
in her breast, one in her throat, and one nearly in the center of her forehead. The last one sharply silenced the screams, and the girl’s substantial body slithered down her uncomfortable wooden seat and plodded onto the floor next to Jeremy. Her eyes were looking up at him as he studied her, and Jeremy watched the final optimistic hints of fading life disappear from her face. He heard Cynthia Timothy whimper across from him, but Ryder didn’t make a sound. Jeremy did not have time to react, for Dillon interrupted his panic again. “Group two!” he yelled, still visibly infuriated by the girl’s disruptive humanity. He toned his voice down, continuing with the same apathetic grace he had displayed throughout this ordeal. “Perhaps you have learned something tonight, and come to a better resolution?” No one answered him. Cynthia Timothy was still praying, now more fervently, and Ryder was simply crying quietly, his fresh tears washing through the tiny spots of the overweight girl’s blood that dotted his face. Jeremy, too, was frozen, his eyes lost in the cradles of blood that seemed to be everywhere around him. Again, he did not have much time to react. “Well, let’s get up then,” he said, his voice betraying the implication of the action. This time, there was no resistance, and the three crushed souls took to their feet and awaited instruction. “Go ahead and face that wall,” he gestured, indicating the wall over behind the instructor’s desk. Jeremy followed his orders quietly, taking care not to look back at the nameless heavy girl’s body behind him, or at any of the other five bodies that shared the room with them. The others followed behind him, and each of them lined up as the first group had done; Jeremy on the left, Cynthia Timothy in the middle, and Ryder on the right. Each of them were silent against the wall, though Cynthia was clearly fighting overwhelming emotion. Again, Dillon gave them no time to react.
“Group two, do we have any volunteers?” Dillon asked, and though Jeremy was facing away from him, he swore he heard a chuckle in the question. As Jeremy expected, there was no response. Dillon didn’t wait long. “Very well, then,” he said simply. Jeremy heard the gun rise into the air, but he refused to give it a chance to fire. “Wait,” Jeremy said hurriedly. He turned around and faced Dillon, careful not to step toward him, and saw the instructor’s eyebrows rise with genuine interest. “I volunteer,” continued Jeremy, his head sinking down. “Kill me, and let them live.” He looked over at his two surviving group members. Both stared back at him with stunned disbelief, but there was an awkward glimmer of hope in their eyes. “Mr. Stratton, are you sure?” asked Dillon, his head cocked to the side. “You’re willing to give your life to save Miss Timothy and Mr. Ryder here?” Jeremy forced himself not to ponder the answer. “Yes. Kill me, and let them go.” “Well, this is certainly very interesting.” Dillon sounded delighted. “Very well, Mr. Stratton. I’m glad somebody took this exercise seriously.” He lowered the gun to his side. “Miss Timothy? Mr. Ryder? Turn around,” Dillon ordered. “You’ll want to see this.” They did as they were told, but neither took their eyes off of Jeremy. They watched him eagerly, and the look in their eyes sickened him. Jeremy did not see any indication of gratitude, rather, the two desperate people simply seemed to be wary that he might change his mind. “Mr. Stratton,” Dillon called. “Step this way, please, and face your group members.” Jeremy stepped forward slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements. His slumped shoulders carried his burdened head, which eyed Dillon suspiciously. “That’s just fine,” Dillon stopped him. “Now turn around and face them.”
Jeremy did as he was told, and two unsure people stared back at him. He felt some sort of unexplainable anger toward them, as if they had forced him to enter this predicament. But, there was not much time to dwell on that, for all thoughts drained from Jeremy’s head as he felt the warm muzzle of Dillon’s gun press against the back of his head. Now it was Jeremy who began to weep, clenching his eyes tightly as the tears poured from him. The gun pressed tighter, pushing his head forward slightly. But, he kept his eyes closed, not wanting to see the faces of those his death would send home safely. Still, Dillon’s procrastination continued, as he addressed things Jeremy could no longer see. “Miss Timothy, open your eyes,” Jeremy heard behind him. “Both of you need to see this. Mr. Stratton is doing this for you, and you at least owe him the dignity of witnessing what your selfishness has brought upon him.” Jeremy began to sob. “I said open your eyes!” The shouting again came from behind him. “If you close your eyes again, Miss Timothy, you die right after Mr. Stratton here. Do you understand?” Jeremy heard Cynthia’s weakened cries, but no other response. But, Dillon did not address it again, so he assumed that she was watching. “Now, Mr. Ryder, Miss Timothy, since you hold yourselves to such high importance, I want you to witness the heroic act of an unselfish man. I’m sure you’ll learn a great deal.” Jeremy tensed as he felt the muzzle lift away from his skull. Dillon was lining up his shot. Jeremy held his breath and awaited it. But, when the gun fired, Jeremy heard two shots, not one. There was no pain, and he was still lucid and on his feet. He dared himself to open his eyes, and when he did, the first thing he saw was two dark, murky stains on the wall in front of him. When he followed these down, he saw the bodies of Cynthia Timothy and Ryder on the floor. Ryder’s lifeless frame
had landed on top of Cynthia’s, and the two fresh corpses formed a malignant heap on the ground. Somewhere in that brief second, he had forgotten about Dillon, but the thought returned to him suddenly, and he wheeled around to find Dillon’s beaming visage looking back at him from behind an outstretched gun. “Easy now, Mr. Stratton,” cautioned Dillon. “You’ve done so well. Don’t blow it now.” Jeremy struggled for words, but little vocabulary was available to his rattled mind. An incomprehensible mumble was all that came. “Mr. Stratton, go ahead and have a seat,” offered the Professor, and for once, the warmth in his voice sounded sincere. Jeremy somehow carried himself to the nearest desk, trying to avoid looking directly at any of the scattered carnage that enveloped him. “I--,” he began, but had trouble finishing. “I don’t….” “Mr. Stratton,” enlightened Dillon, “you have earned an ‘A’ on this assignment. Everyone else in this classroom was willing to let each of you die because they were afraid to volunteer themselves. They put the value of their own life over the importance of the others around them. Their selfishness cost them their lives, and justifiably so.” The awestruck smile on his face broadened. “But not you, Mr. Stratton,” he continued. “You were willing to sacrifice your own life to save the lives of two people who, for all intensive purposes, were total strangers to you. The world would be a better place if there were more people like you in it. But, Miss Timothy and Mr. Ryder, who were so willing to watch you die to save their own selfish lives, they are not fit to inherit this world. Mr. Stratton, you are a decent person, which is something I see with unfortunate infrequency in my profession. Because of this, and the unselfish act you were willing to face, you will leave this room with your life tonight. I congratulate you.” He paused, as if expecting Jeremy to respond, but the stunned man could say
nothing. Though he could not take his eyes off of Dillon, his disbelieving and delirious composure left the stare vacant. “Now, go,” Dillon gestured for the door, “and remember this night for as long as you live. That is the greatest lesson I can impart on to you.” Jeremy remained seated and shaken, unsure whether he should attempt to rise or not. “I mean it, Mr. Stratton,” repeated Dillon. “Go. Live your life.” With that, Jeremy stood, bracing his shaking limbs on the desk. He kept his focus on Dillon, expecting him to fire again, but even as Jeremy cautiously walked around the Professor, the stillsmoking gun remained dormant. As Jeremy approached the door, which seemed an impossible eternity away moments before, he was overcome with fear, as his back was now to the Professor. He could feel Dillon’s eyes on the back of his neck, and he expected the pistol to ring out at any moment. And, indeed, it did. But, again, Jeremy felt nothing, and he turned around to investigate. He looked in time to see Dillon’s limp body slink to the floor, dead by his own hand. There was a rancid plume of smoke in the already thick air, and the fresh shot stung Jeremy’s nose. The teacher folded backwards, but he landed on his back, and Jeremy could see Dillon’s empty eyes staring up into the air. From Jeremy’s angle, it still seemed as if Dillon was looking directly at him. There was not a smile or a frown on Dillon’s face, merely a satisfied, flat expression. Though the body was still, and blood soaked its mouth where the fluid had cascaded out of its nostrils, Dillon almost looked alive lying there. The intent glare on his lips and the still glimmering spark in his open eyes seemed to echo the words he had said seconds before: Go live your life. Jeremy wept again as he opened the door and stepped into the not-so-cooling night air. It was still in the 90’s, and the
atmosphere outside was nearly as musky as it had been inside the dead classroom. But, he was outside, and the beauty of seeing anything but the ghoulish scene behind him was overwhelming. He quickly collected himself, and took one last glance back into the room. There was blood everywhere, but somehow, Jeremy was elated, because none of it was his. He looked up once more at the unyielding clock that hung on the wall, it’s bubbled surface smeared with a thick sliver of dark red mass. Through the murk, he could still see the ticking hands. It was 9:41 p.m., the earliest he had ever stepped out of Professor Dillon’s classroom.
April Hutton was found dead in her home on April 4th at 12:38 p.m. Her sister, Michelle Mallar, went to 4421 Heather Road that day to pick up April for their scheduled lunch date, and received no reply when she knocked on the door. Seeing April’s car in the driveway, Michelle assumed that her sister was either in the shower or in the backyard, thus unable to hear her knocking. Ms. Mallar tried the front door, finding it unlocked, and let herself into the residence. She found her sister on the living room floor, soaked in blood and clearly dead. Michelle would later describe the scene as “a horrible nightmare,” and claimed the room was “covered with blood; the floor, the couch, the bookcases, and even the windows.” Ms. Mallar also grimly recounted, “I couldn’t even recognize what I saw as my sister. It didn’t look like April, but the sickness twisting in my stomach told me it was her.” It was not Michelle who called the police, rather April Hutton’s next door neighbor, Samantha Richards. Mrs.
Richards called 911 when she heard screams coming from the residence. “What I was hearing turned my blood cold,” she later remembered. “It was just this terrible shrieking, ‘Oh, god, no! Oh, god, no!’ Over and over again.” After a thorough investigation of the scene, police later revealed that April Hutton was stabbed over 200 times. There were, in fact, so many wounds covering her entire body that the exact number was officially listed as “indeterminate.” It was clear that the majority of the wounds had been inflicted postmortem, but over 70 of the wounds would have been fatal by themselves. The first wound had been a deep gouge in the front of her throat, which would have caused her to bleed to death within a manner of seconds. April’s face had been severely mutilated by the stabwounds, and though the location of the body indicated to police that the corpse was probably that of April Hutton, fingerprint verification was necessary to make a definite identification. Not even dental records were an option for investigators, since nearly all of Mrs. Hutton’s teeth had been knocked out during the brutal attack. The autopsy also found that April had been sexually assaulted both before and after her death. The official time of death was noted as April 4th at 1:54 a.m. There seemed to be very few defensive wounds, and there was no sign of forced entry onto the property, so investigators speculated that April Hutton most likely knew her attacker. Additionally, no one in the neighborhood reported hearing any commotion during the time of the attack, even Samantha Richards, who described herself as a “very light sleeper.” Mrs. Richards’ bedroom window was open that evening when she retired, and she insisted that if there had been screaming or much struggling, it would have woken her. Police were quick to point out that the nature of the throat wound April Hutton had suffered first would have made screaming, or any loud verbalizing, impossible.
On April 7th, April’s husband Christopher was questioned about his possible involvement in the murder of his wife. Mr. Hutton emphatically denied that he had anything to do with the crime. He tearfully stated during that first interview, “you have no idea what this is doing to me... How could it even cross your mind that I would do something like this? I love my wife more than anything in this world, and feel like I am gone with her. Only an animal could do something like this... How could anyone do this?” The questioning went on for nearly three hours, largely because Mr. Hutton wept through the entire process, and according to investigators, he “could barely put a sentence together without completely breaking down.” Still, police named him as their prime suspect, for several reasons. Firstly, Christopher Hutton did not have a concrete alibi for the night of the murder. He claimed he had been studying financial records at the contracting office he owned, nearly 15 miles away from his home. According to Mr. Hutton, he had fallen asleep in his office, which he had done several times before when business tasks demanded he worked through the night. He said he awoke at approximately 1 p.m. on April 4th, when police called his office to inform him of the gruesome discovery at his home. Two employees confirmed Mr. Hutton’s work habits to investigators, and swore that when they left at approximately 10:30 p.m. on April 3rd, Hutton was still hard at work in his office. However, since he had worked alone through the night, and the office was not equipped with any sort of surveillance system, there was nothing to corroborate Hutton’s claim that he had not left his office any time during the night. Since the office was closed on April 4th, as it was every Saturday, there was no one to even confirm that Hutton had been in the office any earlier than when he answered the phone at 1 p.m. The most damning evidence the police held was the testimony of two witnesses who gave an indication that
Christopher Hutton might have had a hand in his wife’s murder. The first information came from Mrs. Hutton’s sister, Michelle Mallar, who told police that April had told her a week earlier, on March 27, that the couple had experienced “the worst argument in the history” of their four-year marriage. The next time Ms. Mallar spoke with her sister was on April 1st, when the two sisters had arranged their lunch meeting for the 4th. On April 1st, Mallar said, her sister had spoken of a reconciliation between her and Christopher. According to Ms. Mallar, April told her, “It’s all right now, Michelle. Christopher said he wants to fix all of this.” That was the last time Michelle Mallar spoke to her sister. Perhaps more damning was the testimony of the Huttons’ other next-door neighbor, Gerald Keeler. Mr. Keeler reported that he was on his porch smoking a cigarette at approximately 2:40 a.m. on April 4th. Though he was up through the entire attack, he too claimed to hear nothing out of the ordinary. However, he claimed that when he was out smoking that morning, he saw someone exit the Hutton residence through the front door. The street was exceptionally dark at this time, so Keeler said he could not definitely identify who it was. He added, “at the time, I just figured it was Chris. I didn’t really give much though as to why he would be out that late, since I’m a night owl myself. I really can’t say for sure that it was him, but from what I remember, the person I saw was about Chris’s height, and the body shape did seem similar. I mean, nothing struck me as out of the ordinary at the time, but if I had seen a strange person leaving Chris’s house, you bet it would have.” Adding to Keeler’s impression was the fact that he said he could clearly see the person turn and notice him sitting on the neighboring porch. “Whoever it was, they waved at me when they looked my way,” Keeler concluded. “I mean, I can’t imagine Chris doing what happened that night, but whoever walked out of that house that night waved at me when I saw them.
Jesus, they went and did that, then waved at me when they left. That’s just sick.” After the brief encounter, Keeler claims that he returned his attention to his cigarette, and though he did recall hearing a car start further up the street, but he didn’t pay enough attention to it to recognize it as Christopher Hutton’s engine. Police concluded that April Hutton not only knew her killer, but her killer knew Gerald Keeler. A crucial detail the autopsy revealed was unmentioned by any of the people authorities questioned during their arduous eight-day investigation: the body of April Hutton carried another inside it. The fetus in her stomach was determined by the case pathologist to be approximately six weeks developed. Michelle Mallar told investigators that April and Christopher had been struggling financially, as Christopher’s business was dealing with a large savings loss. Mallar recalled that April had mentioned a couple of weeks before her murder that Christopher had caught one of his employees stealing a large sum of money from a safe inside the office, and that the man had later confessed to making large cash withdrawals from the company account. April told her sister that Christopher was destroyed by the betrayal, and burdened by the dismal task of tearing apart the company’s financial records to determine exactly how much money had been taken. The scenario police constructed was that Christopher Hutton was enraged by the financial stress that his wife’s pregnancy would impart on them, and that he had killed her both to alleviate this strain, and to collect her life insurance policy, which was valued at approximately $70,000. There was little concrete evidence linking Christopher Hutton to his wife’s death, but enough troubling questions to merit his detainment. The most potent physical evidence was the murder weapon, a six-inch kitchen knife recovered at the scene. The crimson-soaked tool was discarded carelessly beside April’s body, about four
inches from her right arm. There were only two sets of prints on the knife handle: those of April and Christopher Hutton. When confronted with this, Christopher maintained that he used the knife that evening preparing dinner for he and his wife. While police were forced to concede that it was not uncommon that a kitchen knife in the Hutton residence would have Christopher Hutton’s prints on it, they were equally compelled to speculate why the killer had left no prints behind. Though April Hutton had been sexually assaulted, investigators were unable to get a semen sample from the corpse. This lurid absence first led police to believe that the killer had not ejaculated during intercourse, but a more terrible reality soon presented itself when a detective discovered a condom wrapper in a small kitchen wastebasket. This piece of evidence illuminated a sinister degree of premeditation. Fingerprints on the wrapper were too smudged to be positively identified as Christopher Hutton’s, but police found no fingerprints in the kitchen, even on the cupboard that housed the wastebasket, other than April and Christopher’s. Christopher Hutton was arrested on April 12th and formally charged with the murder of his wife April. The irony that a girl named April had been murdered in the month of April was not lost on the press, and the media soon dubbed the sensational murder the “Bloody April” case. ••• Christopher Hutton sat on a wooden chair in the center of a dimly lit interrogation room. His head hung low as he slouched on this perch, his manacled hands resting flaccidly on his lap. His face was haggard and unshaven, and the lids under his red, swollen eyes were decorated with thick gray rings. He had not slept in days, and his head had succumbed to an empty haze. The lamp that swayed gently from the ceiling above him conjured thick beads of sweat
on his decayed face, and this wetness ran down the sides of his face and the back of his neck. He stared listlessly at a paper cup of water that rested on the table in front of him, which was too small to be refreshing, even if he wished for such moisture. Beyond the cup, on the other side of the table, there rested an empty chair, which two detectives had traded off on during a grueling three-hour interrogation. He had answered their questions, but the barrage now seemed like an unintelligible blur, and he could not remember exactly what they had asked, or what he told them. One detective, a black man with his skull shaved bald wore a penetrating, accusing stare as he slid a small stack of blank white papers and pen in front of him. “We want to end this, Christopher,” the man had said with an actor’s studied sensitivity. “Just write down everything that happened and sign it, and this will all be over.” Christopher’s voice was weak and raspy, and he had meekly replied, “I think I need to see my lawyer. Please call Victor Marduk.” “You just fucked up, Christopher,” the detective had admonished. “You just made things so much harder on yourself. You’re finished, man.” The two detectives left the room at that point, and a plainclothes officer returned in their place a moment later. Christopher could feel this man’s eyes on him from the darkened corner of the barren, windowless room, but he did not turn to meet that glance. He simply stared forward at the empty chair in front of him and awaited the arrival of Victor Marduk. Christopher had known Victor since both men were 10 years old, over twenty years before the wretched day he inhabited now. Victor was a respected and rising criminal defense lawyer, successfully defending his clients in a number of prominent cases. Victor had told his friend that he prided himself on his ability to read the innocence of his
clients, and to work diligently to prove this absence of guilt. Indeed, two of the suspects Victor had defended were found innocent by the court, then later by the public when other perpetrators confessed to their alleged crimes. The two friends had a running joke about Victor giving Christopher a discount if he should ever require his representation, but Christopher never imagine that he would actually need the service. As he sat in lifeless room, he longed for the arrival of his friend, yet he detested the circumstances which necessitated this arrival. After what seemed like several hours to Christopher, he heard a rattling of keys outside in the hallway he had been escorted down at the start of his ordeal. The door opened and Victor stepped into the room. The lawyer appraised the trembling condemned man that wore Christopher’s frame, and his eyes swelled with horror and sympathy. He stepped slowly into the room, hands tucked nervously into his slack pockets, and approached the empty chair across from Christopher. When Victor finally spoke, it was not to Christopher, but to the guard who stood stolidly against the wall. “I’ll thank you to leave me with my client, officer,” Victor said rigidly. The proud officer stared into Victor’s cold eyes indignantly, making no movement of exit. Victor left his stare on the guard, his proud countenance demanding compliance. “Let’s go, Torrez,” boomed the voice of the black detective, who stepped into the room from the hallway. With this instruction, the guard complied. Though Christopher remained fixated on his newly arrived friend, he could feel the eyes of the policeman upon him as the uniformed man moved slowly toward the door. He did not look away from Victor as the door slammed behind the exiting investigators. His pride intact after the assault of the accusing interrogators, Christopher now began to sob. His face wrinkled
into a mask of agony, and tears began to pour out of his eyes. “Jesus, Chris,” Victor said softly. He could think of nothing more, and for a moment he looked down at the floor to escape the horrid face his friend wore. He took a deep breath and returned his compassionate gaze to Christopher. “How are you?” he finally managed. “I’m not good, Vic,” Christopher understated. It was not a quip, merely a simple and exhausted reply. Despite himself, Victor laughed. He quickly realized how terribly cruel the gesture appeared, but the more he tried to stop himself, the harder is was to contain his chuckle. He straightened himself, embarrassed. “Fuck, I’m sorry, Chris,” Victor tried to assure. “I know it’s not funny. I wasn’t laughing at you, it’s just....” He trailed off. “I mean, that was a really stupid question, I know, and you gave me the most obvious answer. I’m sorry.” “I understand,” Christopher barely verbalized. “I guess I can see the humor too.” “No, it’s not okay, Chris,” Victor continued to apologize. “I’m sorry man. It’s just so awful to see you like this. And, Jesus, April....” At the mention of his wife’s name, Christopher’s tears became a torrent. He lifted his bound hands to his face and cried into them thoroughly, shaking his head from side to side as his body shuddered. “Oh, God,” he sobbed repeatedly, but he could not find any other words. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, Chris,” Victor consoled, “but I’m here to help you, man. We’re going to figure this thing out, but I need you here with me, all right? I need you to talk to me. Can you do that?” Christopher lifted his streaked face toward his friend again and maneuvered his impaired hands to wipe the wetness from his eyes. “Okay,” he conceded, “I don’t know what to tell you though. They want me to sign a confession. They told me that was what I had to do.”
“No!” Victor scolded, finally pulling the other wooden chair out. “You are not going to sign anything.” He corrected his tone, and sat down, calming himself. “How long have they had you here?” “I don’t know,” Christopher tried to reason. “There’s no clock in here. Probably at least a couple of hours. But I feel like I’ve been here for days.” “Well, they’ve clearly violated your rights, but that’s the small problem, we’ll deal with that later.” Victor rested his hands on the table and clasped them together. “All right, Chris, I’m here to help you. But I have to ask you something. I know the answer to the question I’m going to ask, but I have to ask you anyway. I’m not asking as your best friend, I’m asking as your lawyer. Please do not misinterpret my intentions, okay?” “Okay,” Christopher sniffed. Victor leaned forward and peered into Christopher’s eyes. “Chris, did you kill April?” “No!” Christopher shouted, wounded. “God, Vic, No. I could never... Oh, God.... Do.... What they’re saying I’ve done. You, Vic? How could you think...?” “I don’t think you did this, Chris,” Victor interrupted. “I’m sorry I had to ask you that. Every part of me knew that you didn’t do this from the moment I found out about all of it. I’ve never thought you were guilty. But I had to hear it from your mouth. I had to look into your eyes and see the truth in them. Because, if you told me that somehow you did do this, that would change how we would have to approach this. Do you understand?” “I understand,” said Christopher, his face drained of color from the seeming accusation. “I’m going to get you out of this, Chris, I promise,” Victor said sincerely. “You know that you are innocent. I know that you’re innocent. We’ll show them that you’re innocent. You’re not here because they have an overwhelming amount of evidence. You’re here because the public wants swift justice, and they
want to give this town what it wants. You understand? They’re grasping at nothing here, that’s why they wanted you to sign a confession, you see? Quick open and shut, the husband did it, and everyone can go home. It’s that easy to them, but it’s going to be real hard for us, Chris. I got to tell you, man, it doesn’t look good. You don’t have an alibi, and your prints are on the weapon.” “It’s my knife!” Christopher interrupted desperately. “I bought it, I used it all the time, and I chopped onions with it that night. Of course my prints are on it. That doesn’t mean I’m not innocent.” “I know, Chris, I know,” Victor said soothingly. “I’m just trying to give you an idea of what we’re up against here. Please understand, I’m not pointing out the problems I find. I know you’re innocent.” “Why aren’t there any other prints on the knife?” Christopher inquired, sniffling. “I mean, if someone else used it, why are my prints on it?” “There are a number of explanations,” Victor conjured. “Maybe they wore gloves, maybe the prints were just smudged during the attack, I don’t know. But that won’t get us off here. They’re going to say it’s because you did this.” “Do you think they have a case against me?” Christopher asked, dreading the answer. “Well, like I said, it does look bad, Chris,” Victor replied sincerely. “I mean, they don’t have anything concrete, but they have enough to put you on trial. And with a crime of this nature, they’re going to try for the death penalty.” Christopher buried his face in his hands again as another barrage of liquid misery consumed him. “Oh, god! They’re going to kill me!” “It won’t get that far, Chris,” assured Victor. “Do you hear me? It won’t get there, I promise you. You have to trust me. They have their circumstantial evidence and their theories, but we have the advantage here. Do you know why? Because you are an innocent man. And I am going to prove that, Chris. I promise
you. You have to trust me, and you have to stay strong.” “Vic, I’m so scared,” Christopher lamented. “God, I’m scared.” “I know you are, man, and that’s okay,” Victor reassured him. “No innocent man deserves what you are going through right now. It’s going to take a while, but we will get you through this. This story will have a happy ending. You are not going to prison, I promise you that.” “I need to know something though,” Christopher said. “They could still find the guy who did this, right? Then they’ll know, because they’ll have the guy, right? They’ll know it wasn’t me?” Victor’s head sunk, and he sighed deeply. “Well, I won’t lie to you, Chris.” His tone was sympathetic. “As far as the police are concerned, they have their guy. He’s sitting in this room. No, Chris, I’m sorry, but unless some monster piece of evidence falls on their heads, or somebody barges into the police station screaming, ‘I killed April Hutton,’ they’re not going to look anymore. This case is closed to them.” Christopher shook his head in naïve disbelief. “No.... So whoever did this is going free? They’re getting away with it?” “I’m sorry, Chris,” Victor soothed. “That’s just the way they work. When this is all over, we’ll get this case reopened, and we’ll set things right. But right now, you need to focus on making sure that you don’t go down for this. Cause if you do, they’ll never catch the guy that did this.” “All right,” Christopher agreed. “What do we do now?” “I’ve got a lot of things to put together,” Victor replied, “a lot of things to figure out. I’ve got to go now, but I will be back real soon. I’ll keep you informed every step of the way, but I need you to stay strong, Chris. This is only the beginning....” ••• The murder trial of Christopher Hutton began on March 3rd.
The state’s case was being presented by Richard Handler, a seasoned and grizzled attorney whose most infamous career benchmark was the successful conviction of Javier Cruz, an illegal immigrant who was charged with raping and murdering three women in a frenzied two-week spree. Damned by the testimony of a fourth victim who identified him as her assailant, Cruz was sentenced to death for the crimes. A controversial state initiative had recently instated a mandatory five-year window of execution, and Cruz was put to death less than four years after his sentencing. About a month after Javier Cruz received his lethal injection, Henry Stodd, an unemployed alcoholic, was arrested for breaking into a bar an hour after last call. Drunk out of his mind and nearly incoherent, Henry Stodd reportedly rambled to the arresting officers, “you goin’ put me down for this? I done worse than this plenty, and you aint’ got me for that.” When the officers asked him, “what else have you done, Henry?”, Stodd told them, “ I guess you could say that I kilt three bitches and a beaner.” The investigation was reopened because of Stodd’s admission, and police later learned that Javier Cruz was still in Mexico when the first murder took place. The victim who survived later admitted that she had been knocked almost unconscious by a blow to the back of her head, and that she had not actually seen Cruz before or during the attack, only after, when he was arrested while standing over her battered frame. Cruz’s defense that he had come across the woman crawling on the park grass and was merely trying to help her up when police arrived was proven true. Two policemen were dismissed from the force for beating Cruz in submission and forcing him to sign a confession, which was entered as evidence at his trial. Cruz had testified that he could not understand what the document he was signing said, and that the officers
had told him it was a routine form he had to fill out. Suddenly, the media was hoisting the story that an innocent man had been put to death, an uproar that eventually extended the execution window to 12 years. There was even public speculation that the lawyer knew Cruz had been out of the country when the killings began. Attorney Richard Handler was called “a killer of innocents,” and his career suffered severely, a blow that he eventually recovered from. Handler went on to try many prominent cases, and the public soon forgot all about this ill-fated prosecution. However, no one would ever forget the events that unfolded in the case of the State vs. Christopher Hutton. During Handler’s 20-minute opening argument, the prosecutor delivered his address in front of an easel, which displayed three enlarged crime scene photos. Two of the pictures captured different views of April Hutton’s mangled corpse sprawled on the floor, while the third was a close-up of the victim’s unrecognizable face. When the photographs were uncovered, Christopher Hutton bellowed an agonized sob and began to shudder violently, a torrent of sorrow flowing from his eyes. The reaction was so violently pained that Victor Marduk asked that his client be removed from the courtroom while the photographs were on display. While Handler addressed the jury, Christopher Hutton listened from a holding cell elsewhere in the building. “There is no disputing the fact that whoever committed this crime deserves the most severe punishment the law will allow,” Handler said during his oration. “In fact, the murderer of April Hutton deserves far worse than we can give them. The state will show you, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Mrs. Hutton’s killer was Christopher Hutton, the man you just saw react so violently in this courtroom. Ladies and gentlemen, when you hear the testimony in this case, never forget that the animal we are speaking of is in this building. We have the beast captured, and it is up to you to make sure
that this unspeakable evil is never released upon the world again.” Christopher Hutton was returned to the courtroom for Victor Marduk’s opening argument, after the easel had been removed from the room. Though not as experienced as the state prosecutor, Marduk gave an eloquent and thorough rebuttal to the scenario described by Richard Handler. “All of you have been made aware of the concept of reasonable doubt,” Marduk stated. “But the most important piece of this mandate you must grasp is that if there is any avenue in which the facts do not precisely shape a straight line to my client, then you can not rule that he is guilty. You will find no straight lines in this case, and all of the evidence you will be presented with is wildly circumstantial. When this case unfolds, my client’s innocence will be abundantly clear. Then, as horrifying as the elements of this crime are, you will realize that far more terrible is the fact that while Christopher Hutton sits in this courtroom awaiting your judgment, the killer of April Hutton will be walking around free.” The first witness called by the prosecution was Michelle Mallar, who had first discovered April Hutton’s body. She was questioned extensively by Richard Handler, who focused on the fight with the accused that April had told her about. Somehow, without arousing an objection from the defense, he was able to lure Mallar into some potentially damning allegations: Richard Handler: Did your sister ever tell you that Mr. Hutton had been violent with her? Michelle Mallar: No. RH: Was the nature of your relationship such that she would tell you if he were? MM: I would think so, but she never told me about anything, so maybe not. RH: Are you saying that you believe Christopher Hutton was violent with April, but she never told you about it? MM: I’m not sure if he was. I can’t say. RH: Based on your knowledge of Mr. Hutton’s character, do you think he was violent with her?
MM: I really don’t know. I can’t say for sure. RH: Did Mr. Hutton ever exhibit a temper in front of you? MM: I have seen him act out a couple of times. RH: Can you please elaborate? How would he act out? MM: There was a time at a club where he had to be removed because he was fighting with another guy. RH: Do you know what the fight was about? MM: Christopher said that the guy had been making rude comments to April, and the two started throwing punches. RH: So, you saw this fight? MM: Yes. RH: Did you hear any rude comments? MM: No, I did not. RH: Did April tell you about the comments? MM: No, she didn’t. The two of us never talked about it after that night. RH: So, how did you get this explanation? MM: The defendant told me about it afterwards. RH: So, it’s possible that the defendant made that up? MM: Yes, I suppose it’s possible. RH: So, you’re saying that the defendant has proven in the past that he can be a violent person, whether he is provoked or not? MM: I said.... RH: Miss Mallar, based on your intimate knowledge of April’s murder, and any motive that may have preceded it, do you think Christopher Hutton is the perpetrator of this crime? MM: Yes, I do. When Victor Marduk cross-examined the witness, he asked very few questions, but delivered them passionately. Victor Marduk: Miss Mallar, what did your sister tell you was the nature of the fight between her and Christopher? Michelle Mallar: She told me that he was stressed out about finances. VM: Didn’t she tell you that they were working it out?
MM: Yes. VM: What in Christopher’s character would make you think that this is how he would work it out? MM: I don’t know, but I don’t think anyone else would have a reason to kill April. VM: And what would you speculate that Christopher’s motives would be? MM: Well, she did have a life-insurance policy. VM: Did she tell you when she signed up for that policy? MM: It was about two years before. VM: So, you’re alleging that my client signed his wife up for a life insurance policy two years earlier so he could kill her and collect on it? MM: I don’t know if he was planning on doing it at the time. VM: How was April’s mood when you had your last conversation with her? MM: She was really happy. April was always happy. VM: So, she didn’t sound threatened in any way? MM: No. VM: Don’t you think that, if someone with your limited knowledge of my client suspects from his behavior that he is capable of murder, that his wife, who knows him far better, would be afraid of him after a major fight? MM: Yes, I suppose so. VM: But your sister was not afraid of my client when you talked to her last, correct? MM: Not that I could tell. VM: Nothing further. The knife evidence proved most compelling to the jury, and was a major hindrance for the defense. Neither Victor Marduk nor his client could explain why the only fingerprints on the weapon were Christopher Hutton’s, and the prosecution’s attack of this damning fact was unyielding. If Hutton had used the knife earlier in the evening while cooking, as he claimed, then the killer had later handled it with gloves, which the defense speculated, then the gloved hands of the murderer, if it was
someone other than Christopher Hutton, would have surely smudged his prints. But, as Richard Handler got one of the chief investigators to testify, Christopher Hutton’s prints were easily identifiable on the handle of the knife that had been used to murder April Hutton. The defense had no conclusive answer to this. Christopher Hutton wept loudly when the case pathologist testified about the removal of the mangled fetus from April Hutton’s corpse. Hutton was facing two murder charges, since, the prosecution argued, Hutton knew April was pregnant, therefore knew he would be killing the baby if he murdered her. The defense contended that Christopher was very excited about the child, and used testimony from his family members to support this. Their goal was to divert attention away from the financial stress of having a child, which was a major point for the prosecution. But, Richard Handler managed to coax a small, but, he argued, significant, comment out of Christopher Hutton’s mother, Dorothy. Richard Handler: Mrs. Hutton, did Christopher ever discuss financial issues with you? Dorothy Hutton: Not normally, no. RH: So, he never told you about the sinking financial state his business was in? DH: He did mention that there were some issues he was dealing with in the business, but nothing specific. RH: And, when he told you April was pregnant, did he say anything about preparing for a child? DH: He did say that it would cost money, yes. RH: What exactly did he say, Mrs. Hutton? DH: He said “I don’t know how we’re going to afford this baby,” but.... RH: I’m sorry. He said, “I don’t know how we’re going to afford this baby”? DH: Yes, but.... RH: So you say it’s true that when he told you about April’s pregnancy, he was concerned about the financial strain?
DH: Yes, but everybody worries about having enough money for their child. RH: Nothing further. After three weeks of testimony, Richard Handler gave his closing statement, a simple appeal to the jury to consider what the case’s principal witnesses had said. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he addressed, “we know many important things in this case. We know that the defendant’s business was in financial upheaval. We know that when April Hutton was killed, Christopher Hutton stood to earn a lot of money from her life insurance policy. We know that the defendant was concerned about the financial stress of having a child. But most importantly....” Handler lifted the plastic evidence bag with the murder weapon inside of it. “We know that the only person who touched this knife, the knife that was used to stab April Hutton over two hundred times, was Christopher Hutton. Now, I’m a open minded man, and I’m sure that you ladies and gentlemen are open minded as well, but I’m forced to wonder how someone could lift a knife into the air and stab someone over two hundred times.... without touching it. You see, if Christopher Hutton’s defense is accurate, and it was someone else who murdered April Hutton, then that is what had to have happened. Ladies and gentlemen, how could somebody stab someone to death without touching a knife? It’s simply not possible. But it doesn’t have to be, because the person who killed April Hutton is sitting in this courtroom, and he’s right over there.” Handler pointed to the defense table, where Christopher Hutton stared back at him with moist, emotional eyes. Next to him, Victor Marduk wore a stern and thoughtful face. “His name is Christopher Hutton,” the prosecutor continued. “And now, it is your job to make sure that he is punished for this savage crime. The man sitting
over there not only killed April Hutton in the most brutal fashion imaginable. He also had intercourse with her slaughtered body...” Handler paused, and there was a collective gasp of disgust from the jury, the same wave they had created when testimony first arose about this fact. “But, perhaps most despicably, Christopher Hutton murdered the helpless infant that April Hutton carried inside of her, his own unborn child. Such a man does not belong in a society of decent people, and it is up to you to make sure that he does return there. No one else touched that knife, ladies and gentlemen. No one else touched that knife.” Victor Marduk’s closing address was much more brief, and did not have the same visceral resonance that Richard Handler’s had. “Ladies and gentlemen. The prosecution keeps telling you that only Christopher Hutton touched the knife that was used to murder April Hutton. But, that is a false statement. Crime scene investigators touched the knife when they collected it from 4421 Heather Road. Lab technicians handled the knife when they analyzed it and collected the fingerprints they are saying prove that my client committed this crime. So, they are essentially admitting that they could pass this weapon through all these channels, and even though they handled this evidence with gloves, they did not compromise the fingerprints of my client, which were put on the knife when he made dinner earlier that evening. So, if these professionals were able to use the knife for their purposes without smudging the fingerprints, how is it not possible that someone else could have used the knife before they did? My client did use the knife that night, but it was to chop onions for his supper. The next day, CSI collected it. But, in between those two uses, someone else came into the Hutton home and used that knife to murder April Hutton. And, if you find my client guilty of this crime, then whoever used the knife in that interim will never be found. The
prosecution has offered nothing conclusive that proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that we should stop looking.” After four days of deliberation, the jury found Christopher Hutton guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. He was led out of the courtroom to a holding cell inside the building, accompanied by his attorney, Victor Marduk. The events that transpired inside that cell were later reported by Marduk, and the two officers involved. “He was very upset,” Marduk recalled. “Christopher was an innocent man and he was wrongfully convicted in this courtroom today. Anyone in that predicament would be upset. He wasn’t in his right mind, I guess.” According to the two officers on the scene, they heard shouting inside the cell and rushed to investigate. When they arrived, Christopher Hutton was choking and pummeling Victor Marduk. Reportedly, Hutton was shouting, “I’m a murderer.” The officers physically detained Hutton, but were unable to take him to the floor. “He was fighting us real good,” described officer Hank Judd. “We were trying to get him down, but we couldn’t. Next thing I know, he had my partner’s gun, and he aimed it at the other fella on the floor. And, I just drew mine and shot.” Christopher Hutton was hit twice, once in the shoulder and once in the head. The second shot killed him instantly. Victor Marduk was badly beaten, but the officers had saved his life. Despite the confession heard by the officers, Marduk maintains his client’s innocence. “I know that Christopher did not murder his wife,” contends Marduk. “I can’t even imagine what being labeled as a murderer does to an innocent man. I think he just snapped, as most of us would under those extraordinary circumstances. But, I don’t think that officer should have shot my client. Christopher will not have a chance to prove his innocence now, and that is a tragedy.”
However, after a thorough investigation of the incident, officials determined that the officers reacted with proper force. “I shot him because he would have shot that lawyer,” Judd defends. “If I were in the situation again, I’d do the same thing. I mean, the guy was going to get the death penalty anyway. He had nothing to lose, and he would have killed all of us to get away. I’m just glad that he wasn’t able to hurt anyone else.” ••• Christopher was weeping into his shackled hands inside a cold, damp holding cell. Victor sat across from him at a table in the center of the room, saying nothing, for he knew nothing could console his grieving friend. “Oh, god,” Christopher gasped. “I didn’t do it, Vic. I could never....” He winced as the image of his wife’s mangled body shown during the trial surged through his head. “Chris, I believe you, man,” Victor consoled. “I know you didn’t do this. But, it’s not over yet. We’ve still got the appeals process.” Christopher was uninterested. “I can only imagine what’s going through your head right now, man,” Victor continued. “It must have been hell to go through the presentation of all that evidence knowing that you’re innocent.” “My prints on that knife,” Christopher remembered. “Why were my prints all over the knife, but no one else’s?” “There you go,” Victor coached. “Now you’re thinking.” “They’re going to kill me, Vic,” Christopher wept. “I’m going to die.” “Chris, the reason there were no other prints on the knife is because that’s not the knife I used.” Christopher didn’t seem to hear this, for he did not react. He was still crying, and seemed quite oblivious to his friend’s words. “I only touched that knife once, when I moved it from the kitchen and
rubbed it on her body. But, even then, I had my gloves on, and I wasn’t holding it by the handle.” Christopher was still unobservant, sobbing and shuddering into his cuffed hands. “Of course,” Victor chuckled slightly, “April was bleeding so much that I just had to kind of touch both sides of the blade to her, and the knife was covered with as much blood as the one in my back pocket was.” With this, Christopher ’s grieving trance was interrupted. He tilted his moist face up and studied his friend. Victor was smiling warmly; calm, collected, and poised. Christopher squinted like a confused puppy, and looked a pitiful sight. “What?” he muttered, his voice taut with confusion. “Chris, I’m sure you’ve known this entire time how much I wanted April,” Victor continued. “Shit, man, since we were teenagers. I’ve always been jealous of you. I mean, I’m sure you had to have seen it.” Christopher was still quiet, drained of emotion, but fighting to allow the words to sink in. “I told her, man,” Victor shrugged. “That night. I told her everything, and she told me to leave. Can you believe that? She didn’t even think about it. April really loved you, man. I mean, she was like insulted that I would tell her. But I still had to see, man. So, I kissed her, and she pushed me right away.” Christopher shook his head slowly, his face still perplexed and shaken. “What? No.... “ “Then she yelled at me, man,” Victor interrupted. “She said ‘some best friend you are, you asshole!’” He chuckled a bit. “She fucking called me a asshole!” “Vic....” Christopher protested, but he was interrupted again. “So, I hit her, and I felt kind of bad about it, but I hit her, man.” Victor recalled. “And she went right down. I mean, she hit the floor quick. So, I just took her.”
Now it was all appearing on Christopher’s face, which began to contort with comprehension. “She fought me the whole way, too,” Victor elaborated. “I mean, she couldn’t really scream too much, cause she was still pretty stunned from the punch, and besides, my hand was covering her mouth. But, she fought as much as she could. I couldn’t come though, cause she was crying a lot, and I just kind of lost the will, you know? So, I just kind of pulled out and pushed up off of her. But, when I was looking down on her, she fucking spit in my face, man.” Victor paused here, for he could see that Christopher was quickly becoming aware of what he was saying. “It really hurt me, man,” Victor stammered. “I mean, I understand it now, but at the time, it just fucking enraged me. So I hit her again, really hard this time, right in the mouth. I don’t know what came over me, but I stormed into your kitchen and grabbed a knife out of the drawer, the biggest one I could see. When I came back with it, she looked at me with such fury, and I knew she would tell you what I had done. So, I just started stabbing her, and I kept doing it for a long time.” Now, Christopher ’s face was shaped with unfathomable anger, and he tensed in the uncomfortable metal holding cell chair. “But, man, even when I was done, I still wanted her,” Victor chortled. “Can you believe that? I mean she was a fucking mess, but it was still April to me. So I put on a condom and just went for it. And she couldn’t fight me.” Christopher’s limbs tensed for attack. “Damn, Chris. I’ve never come so hard in my life.” Victor was smiling as he said it. Christopher lept out of his chair and across the table, bellowing an animalistic cry of pure, agonized rage. “You murderer!” He hissed the loathsome word with intense hatred, then shouted it louder. “You murderer! You fucking murderer!” Christopher’s lunging body pushed Victor out of his chair, and the pair tum-
bled to the hard, unyielding floor. Christopher began smashing his joined hands into Victor’s face, striking with all of his might, but hindered by the handcuffs. When this technique failed to stop Victor’s winning struggle beneath him, Christopher gripped his hands tightly around his quarry’s throat, squeezing with desperate fury. Somewhere outside of himself, he heard the door to the cell open, and a booming voice commanding, “let him go!” “Murderer! Fucking murderer!” Christopher shrieked, tightening his throat grip with each syllable. Strong arms suddenly wrapped around his, and he became aware that two officers were pulling him away from Victor. His grip released, and he began to struggle with the guards as Victor clutched his throat, gasping for air. The two officers tried to force Christopher to the floor, but he pushed his body back against them, slamming them against the wall and loosening their hold on him. Out of the corner of his eye, Christopher saw the gun in one guard’s holster, and he lunged for it. He succeeded in pulling it free, and refocused his aggression on Victor, who backpedaled away from him across the floor. Christopher aimed the weapon and put his finger on the trigger, but before he could fire, there was a gunshot, and he felt warm lead plunge through his arm, right below the shoulder. The impact of the shot ricocheted his body away from Victor, though he kept his footing and the gun was still outstretched into the air, now aimed toward the direction the bullet had come from. For a split second, he saw the barrel of the officer’s gun explode with life, a bright flash of crackling fury. Then, as the bullet tore through his skull, there was nothing. Victor’s revelation, and the scourging anger it had produced, were erased in a tiny moment of blinding brevity. Christopher’s body expired in an instant, and he toppled to the floor, his dead fingers twitching on the unfired weapon they clutched.
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