You Can Stay All Day
by Mira Grant
The merry-go-round was still merry-going, painted horses prancing up and down while the calliope played in the background, tinkly and bright and designed to attract children all the way from the parking lot. There was something about the sound of the calliope that seemed to speak to people on a primal level, telling them “the fun is over here,” and “come to remember how much you love this sort of thing.”
Cassandra was pretty sure it wasn’t the music that was attracting the bodies thronging in the zoo’s front plaza. It was the motion. The horses were still dancing, and some of them still had riders, people who had become tangled in their safety belts when they fell. So the dead people on the carousel kept flailing, and the dead people who weren’t on the carousel kept coming, and—
They were dead. They were all dead, and they wouldn’t stay down, and none of this could be happening. None of this could be real.
The bite on her arm burned with the deep, slow poison of infection setting in, and nothing was real anymore. Nothing but the sound of the carousel, playing on and on, forever.
Morning at the zoo was always Cassandra’s favorite time. Everything was bright and clean and full of possibility. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, and so the paths were clean, sparkling in the sunlight, untarnished by chewing gum and wadded-up popcorn boxes.
It was funny. People came to the zoo to goggle at animals they’d never seen outside of books, but it was like they thought that alone was enough to conserve the planet: just paying their admission meant that they could litter, and feed chocolate to the monkeys, and throw rocks at the tigers when they weren’t active enough to suit their sugar-fueled fantasies.
Nothing ruined working with animals like the need to work with people at the same time. But in the mornings, ah! In the mornings, before the gates opened, everything was perfect.
Cassandra walked along the elegant footpath carved into the vast swath of green between the gift shop and the timber wolf enclosure—people picnicked here in the summer, enjoying the great outdoors, sometimes taking in an open-air concert from the bandstand on the other side of the carefully maintained field—and smiled to herself, content with her life choices.
One of the other zookeepers strolled across the green up ahead, dressed in khakis like the rest of the staff. The only thing out of place was the thick white bandage wrapped around his left bicep. It was an excellent patch job, and yet…
He stopped at the sound of his name, and turned to watch as she trotted to catch up with him. His face split in a smile when she was halfway there.
“Cassie,” he said. “Just the girl I was hoping to see.”
“What did you do to yourself this time?” she asked, trying to make the question sound as light as she could. Michael worked with their small predators, the raccoons and otters and opossums. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that one of them could have bitten him. If he reported it, it would reflect poorly on him, and on the zoo. If he didn’t, and it got infected…
There were things that could kill or cripple a zoo. An employee failing to report an injury was on the list.
“No,” he said, and grimaced sheepishly. “It was my roommate.”
“My roommate, Carl. He was weird this morning. Not talking, just sort of wandering aimlessly around the front room. I thought he was hungover again. I figured I’d help him back to bed—but as soon as he realized I was there, he lunged for me and he bit me.” Michael shook his head. “Asshole. I’m going to tell him I’m through with this shit when I get home tonight. He’s never been late with his share of the rent, but enough’s enough, you know?”
“I do,” said Cassandra, with another anxious glance at the bandage. “You want me to take over your feedings for the morning?”
“Please. I cleaned it out and wrapped it up as best I could. I did a pretty decent job, if I do say so myself. There’s still a chance the smell of blood could get through the gauze, and well…”
“We don’t need to exacerbate a human bite with a bunch of animal ones, even though the animal bites would be cleaner.” Cassandra frowned. “You’re sure it’s cleaned out? I can take a look, if you want.”
“No, really, I’m good. I just wanted to ask about the feedings, and it turned out I didn’t need to.” Michael’s grin seemed out of place on the face of a man who’d just been assaulted. “That’s our oracle.”
“Ha ha,” said Cassandra. “Get to work. I’ll do your feedings after I finish mine.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Michael, and resumed his progress across the green, seemingly no worse for wear. Cassandra frowned. It was entirely like him to brush off something as unusual and traumatic as being bitten by his own roommate, and it wasn’t her place to get involved. At the same time, the situation wasn’t right. People didn’t just start biting.
“Classic Cassandra,” she muttered. “If you can’t find a catastrophe, you’ll invent one. Get over yourself.”
She started walking again, trying to shake the feeling that some of the brightness had gone out of the day. The sky was clear; the sun was shining; one little bit of human weirdness shouldn’t have been enough to dampen her enthusiasm. But it was. It always was. Humans were strange. Animals made sense.
A tiger would always act like a tiger. It might do things she didn’t expect, might bite when she thought it was happy to see her, or scratch when it had no reason to be threatened, but those times were on her, the human: she was the one who’d been trained on how to interact with wild animals, how to read the signs and signals that they offered. There was no class for tigers, to tell them how to deal with the strange, bipedal creatures who locked them in cages and refused to let them out to run. Tigers had to figure everything out on their own, and if they got it wrong sometimes, who could blame them? They didn’t know the rules.
People, though…people were supposed to know the rules. People weren’t supposed to bite each other, or treat each other like obstacles to be defeated. Michael was a good guy. He cared about the animals he was responsible for, and he didn’t slack off when he had duties to attend to. He wasn’t like Lauren from the aviary, who smoked behind the lorikeet feeding cage sometimes, and didn’t care if the birds were breathing it in. He wasn’t like Donald from the African safari exhibit, either, who liked to flirt with female guests, talking to their breasts when he should have been watching to be sure that little kids didn’t jab sticks at the giraffes. Michael was a good guy.
So why was she so unsettled?
Cassandra walked a little faster. Work would make things better. Work always did.
The big cats were uneasy when Cassandra let herself into the narrow hall that ran back behind their feeding cages. They should have been in the big enclosures by this hour of the morning, sunning themselves on the rocks. Instead, they were pacing back and forth, not even snarling at each other, although her big male lion normally snarled at anything else feline that got close enough for him to smell. Cassandra stopped, the feeling of wrongness that had arrived with Michael blossoming into something bigger and brighter.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
The big cats, unable to answer her, continued to pace. She walked over to the first cage, where her female tiger, Andi, was prowling. She pressed the palm of her hand against the bars. That should have made Andi stop, made her come over to sniff at Cassandra’s fingers, checking them for interesting new smells. Instead, Andi kept pacing, grumbling to herself in the low tones of a truly distressed tiger.
“You’re not going to delight many families today if you keep hanging out back here,” said Cassandra, trying to cover her concern with a quip. It was a small coping mechanism, but one that had served her well over the years: her therapist said that it was a means of distancing herself from situations she didn’t want to be a part of.
It was funny how her therapist never suggested anything better. Surely there were situations that no one wanted to be a part of. What were people supposed to do then?
“All right,” said Cassandra. “I’ll go see what’s going on. You stay where you are.” She pressed the button that would close the tigers in their feeding cages, keeping them from venturing into the larger enclosure. Then she counted noses.
It was unlikely that she would ever mistake three tigers for four tigers, but it only took once. No matter how much they liked her, no matter how often she fed them, they would still be tigers, and she would still be a human being. They would eat her as soon as look at her if she caught them in the wrong mood, and then they would be put down for the crime of being exactly what nature intended them to be. So she counted noses, not to save herself, but to save them.
Always to save them.
The door to the main tiger enclosure was triple-locked, secured with two keys and a deadbolt. It had always seemed a bit extreme to Cassandra, especially since there was the concern that some zoo visitor—probably a teenager; it was always a teenager, on the news—would climb over the wall and scale the moat in order to try to pet a tiger. The number of locks involved would just keep any zookeeper who saw the incident from getting to the fool in time.
But maybe that, too, was part of the point. All it took was one mauling a decade to keep people out of the enclosures. It could be seen as a necessary sacrifice, letting the animals devour the one for the sake of the many who would be spared.
Even if that was true, Cassandra didn’t want the sacrifice to involve her charges. Let some other zoo pay the price. Her tigers had done nothing wrong. They didn’t deserve to die as an object lesson.
The day had only gotten prettier while she was inside, and stepping into the tiger enclosure—a place where tourists never got to litter, where snotty little children never got to chase the peacocks and squirrels into the trees, where the air smelled of big cat and fresh grass—made everything else seem trivial and small. She paused to take a deep breath, unbothered by the sharp, animal odor of tiger spoor clinging to the rocks. They had to mark their territory somehow.
The smell of rotting flesh assaulted her nostrils. She coughed, choking on her own breath, and clapped a hand over her nose. It wasn’t enough to stop the scent from getting through. Whatever had died here, it had somehow managed to go unnoticed by the groundskeepers long enough to start to truly putrefy, turning the air septic. No wonder the tigers hadn’t wanted to be outside. This was bad enough that she didn’t want to be outside, and her nose was nowhere near as sensitive as theirs.
Hand still clasped over her nose, Cassandra started toward the source of the smell. It seemed to be coming from the moat that encircled the enclosure, keeping the tigers from jumping out. That made a certain amount of sense. Raccoons and opossums could fall down there, and the tigers couldn’t get to them. If it had fallen behind a rock or something, that might even explain how it had gone unnoticed by the groundskeepers. They worked hard and knew their jobs, but they were only human.
So was the source of the smell.
Cassandra stopped at the edge of the moat, eyes going wide and hand slowly dropping from her mouth to dangle by her side as shock overwhelmed revulsion. There was a man at the bottom of the moat.
He wore the plain white attire of the night groundskeepers, who dressed that way to make themselves visible from a distance. He was shambling in loose, uncoordinated circles, bumping against the walls of the moat and reorienting himself, staggering off in the next direction. He must have been drunk, or under the influence of something less than legal, because he didn’t seem to know or care where he was going: he just went, a human pinball, perpetually in motion.
From the way his left arm dangled, Cassandra was willing to bet that it was broken. Maybe he wasn’t drunk. Maybe he was just in shock.
“Hey!” she called, cupping her hands around her mouth to make her voice carry further. “Are you all right down there?”
The man looked up, turning toward the sound of her voice. His face was smeared with long-dried blood. Staring at her, he drew back his lips and snarled before walking into the wall again and again, like he could somehow walk through it to reach her. His gaze never wavered. He didn’t blink.
Cassandra stumbled backward, clasping her hands over her mouth again, this time to stop herself from screaming.
She had been a zookeeper for five years. Before that, she had been a biology student. She had worked with animals for her entire adult life. She knew dead when she saw it.
That man was dead.
“Now Cassandra, be reasonable,” said the zoo administrator. He was a smug, oily man who smiled constantly, like a smile would be enough to chase trouble away. “I believe that something has fallen into the moat of the tiger enclosure, and I’m dispatching a maintenance crew to deal with it, but it’s not a dead man. It’s certainly not a dead man who keeps walking around. Did you get enough sleep last night? Is it possible that this is the stress speaking?”
“I always get enough sleep,” she said, voice tight. “It’s not safe to work with tigers if you’re not sleeping. I slept, I ate, I drank water and coffee with breakfast, and I know what I saw. There’s a man in the moat. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t breathe. He’s dead.”
“But he’s still walking. Cassandra, have you listened to yourself? You have to hear how insane this sounds.”
Cassandra stiffened. “I’m not insane.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t say things that make you sound like you are.” The administrator’s walky-talky crackled. He grabbed it, depressing the button as he brought it to his mouth. “Well? Is everything taken care of?”
“Dan, we’ve got a problem.” The response was faint, and not just because of the walky-talky: the speaker sounded like he was on the verge of passing out. “She was right.”
Dan blanched. “What do you mean, she was right?”
“There’s a man in the moat.”
“A dead man?”
“That’s biologically impossible. He’s up and walking, if non-responsive to questions. Angela thinks it’s Carl from the night crew. She’s going to get his shift supervisor. But he doesn’t answer when we call his name, and he keeps snarling at us when we try to offer down a hook. I don’t think it’s safe for people to approach him. I think he might get violent.”
Dan glared at Cassandra as he asked his next question: “But he’s not dead.”
“That wouldn’t make any sense. Dead men don’t walk.”
“Roger. Deal with it. I’ll order the path shut down. Call me as soon as you know what’s going on.” Dan put the walky-talky aside. “So you were right about the man in the moat. That’s an unexpected twist.”
“Wait.” Cassandra shook her head, staring at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“About shutting the path to the tiger enclosures. People always get around the barricades. They want to see blood. You have to shut down that whole portion of the zoo. Or wait—we haven’t opened yet. Can’t we just…not open? For a little while?”
“Not open. Are you sure that’s what you want to recommend?” Dan stood. “I can keep people away from that area. I can protect the innocent eyes of children. But admission fees are what pay your salary and feed your precious cats. Do you really want to risk that?”
“No,” admitted Cassandra. “But the man in the moat…something’s really wrong with him. We shouldn’t let anyone in until we know what it is.”
“Everything will be fine. Go back to work.” Dan walked to the door and opened it, holding it for her in clear invitation. After a moment’s pause, Cassandra walked out of his office.
The day seemed less beautiful now, tainted somehow, as if the stranger in her moat had cast a pall over the entire sky. Cassandra walked quickly back toward the tigers, intending to help the rescue crew, and paused when she saw a familiar figure staggering across the grass. Michael was walking surprisingly slowly for a man who had never met a path he didn’t want to jog on. He looked sick. Even from a distance, he looked sick.
“Michael?” she called, taking a step in his direction. “Are you all right?”
He turned to fully face her, lips drawing back. Cassandra paused, eyes widening. His eyes…they were like the eyes of the man in the moat.
He was her friend. She should help him. She should stay, and she should help him.
She turned, and she ran.
The tigers were still locked in their feeding pens, prowling back and forth and snarling at each other. They were restless. Even for big cats trapped temporarily in small cages, they were restless. It was like they could smell the taint in the air, warning them of trials yet to come.
“Sorry, guys,” said Cassandra, stopping in the aisle between cages, well out of the reach of questing paws. The tigers didn’t want to hurt her. She was almost certain of that. They still would. She was absolutely certain of that.
Humans had intelligence, and thought, and the ability to worry about the future. It made them great at things like “building zoos” and “taking over the world,” and it made them terrible at being predators. Humans could plan. Humans could think about consequences. Tigers, though…
Tigers existed to hunt, and feed, and make more tigers. They existed for the sake of existence, without needing to care about whether tomorrow was going to come. She envied them sometimes. No one ever told a tiger that it didn’t know how to be what it was. No one ever said “you must be mistaken,” or implied that there was something wrong with a tiger because it didn’t want to spend its time with confusing, contradictory humans.
One of the tigers yawned, showing her a vast array of fine, sharp teeth. Cassandra smiled.
“No, I’m not going to feed you early just because you’re locked in the feeding cage,” she said. “We’ll have you out in the enclosure in no time, and you know the guests get cranky when you spend the whole day asleep and digesting. Be good, and this will all be over soon.”
As if to put an immediate lie to her words, someone outside screamed.
Cassandra was running before she realized it. A large metal hook on a pole hung on the wall next to the door, intended to be used to remove snakes from the visitor paths and animal enclosures. She grabbed it without thinking. Something about that scream spoke to the need for weapons, the vital necessity of self-defense. Whatever was happening out there, she didn’t want to race into it unarmed.
The smell of decay hit her as soon as she was outside the tiger run. It was thinner than it had been on the edge of the moat. It was stronger at the same time, like it was coming from more than one source. The person screamed again. Cassandra kept running.
The tiger exhibits had their own “island” in the zoo’s design, dividing the public-facing portion of a large oval structure between themselves. Cassandra came around the curve of the wall and froze, grasp tightening on the snake hook as her eyes went wide, trying to take in every aspect of the scene.
The man from the moat was no longer in the moat. The security crew dispatched to help him had obviously done so, using their own, larger versions of Cassandra’s snake hook. Those big hooks were on the ground, discarded. The security team had bigger things to worry about, like man who was even now sinking his teeth into the throat of one of their own.
She had been screaming, when he first started biting her. She wasn’t screaming anymore. Instead, she was dangling limply in his arms while the other security people struggled to pull him away. For a dead man—and he was a dead man, he must have been a dead man; nothing living could smell so bad, or have skin so sallow and tattered, like he had slid down the side of the moat without so much as lifting his hands to defend himself—he had a remarkably strong grip. It took three security men to finally pull him off her.
He didn’t go without a prize. The front of her throat came away with him, clasped firmly between his teeth. As Cassandra watched in horror, the security woman hit the ground, and the man chewed at his prize, still staring mindlessly ahead of himself.
This was not predation. Her tigers were predators, would eat a raccoon or a foolish zoo peacock as soon as they would look at it, but they were aware of what they were doing. There was a beautiful intelligence in their eyes, even when their muzzles were wet with blood and their shoulders were hunched in preemptive defense of their prey. Tigers knew. They might not understand the morality of their kills, but they knew.
This man…he didn’t know. His eyes were blank, filmed over with a scrimshaw veil of decay. His jaws seemed to work automatically, inhaling the scrap of flesh he had ripped from the security woman.
The screaming hadn’t stopped. It was just more dismay and anger now, as the security guards who weren’t restraining the dead man tried to help their fallen coworker.
Then the man whipped around, faster than should have been possible, moving like he didn’t care whether he dislocated his shoulders or broke his arms, and buried his teeth in the neck of the guard who was restraining him.
Then the woman without a throat opened her eyes and lunged for the person closest to her, biting down on their wrist. The screaming resumed, taking on a whole new edge of agony and horror. Cassandra’s eyes got wider still. This was wrong. Everything about this was wrong, and she couldn’t stay here any longer, she couldn’t, this was wrong and unnatural and she needed to go, she needed to—
When she turned, Michael was standing right behind her.
He couldn’t have been there for long; she had been working with predators for too long to be the kind of person who could be snuck up on. The same smell of putrefaction and decay that she had gotten from the man in the moat was coming off of him. Faint, as yet, but there; undeniably there. His eyes were filmed over, unseeing, unblinking.
“Please don’t,” she whispered.
Everything was a blur after that. Cassandra didn’t know how she’d been able to escape; only that she had, because it was like she had blinked and been standing in front of the tiger habitat first aid station, with the door firmly closed behind her and the tigers snarling down the hall, still confined in their feeding pens, growing slowly angrier and angrier. Blood had been sheeting down her arm from the deep bite in her shoulder, painting everything in red. The marks of human teeth were unmistakable.
Even if they hadn’t been, the fact that Michael had left one of his crowns behind would have made it impossible to pretend that she had been bitten by anything other than a human being. Gritting her own teeth, she used the tweezers to extract the small piece of white porcelain from her flesh. It was jagged where it had snapped off, and had probably done almost as much damage to Michael as he had to her. But he hadn’t seemed to notice. He hadn’t seemed to care.
He had been gone. Impossible as it was to contemplate, sometime between asking her to take care of his charges and their encounter outside the tiger enclosures, he had died, and kept on walking.
“No,” said Cassandra. She grabbed for the hydrogen peroxide bottle and emptied it over the wound. It foamed and bubbled and stung like anything, like it was supposed to, but the feeling of rotten wrongness remained, worming its way down toward the bone. “No, no, no. No.”
No amount of denial would heal the wound in her arm, or chase the smell of decay from her arm. Time seemed to jump again, taking her along with it: this time, when the haze cleared, she was applying butterfly clips to the gauze encircling her arm, sealing the bite marks out of sight. They continued to throb. Out of sight was not out of mind.
“No,” said Cassandra, somewhat more firmly. She shook her head, trying to prevent another jump. What was this?
Think about it logically. Think about it like a biologist. Yes: that was the ticket. Think about it like she was back in class, like the worst that could come from getting the answer wrong was a bad grade.
Michael’s roommate had been acting strange this morning. Michael had come to work with a bite from that roommate fresh on his arm. Michael had been behaving normally. Now Michael was acting like the man from the moat, and he had bitten her. Michael smelled of decay.
The man in the moat had smelled of decay when she had found him; her first impression had been that he was dead, yet somehow still standing. He was wearing the uniform of the night groundskeepers. She had seen wounds on him, but they had all been consistent with sliding down the side of the rocky wall between the fence line and the ground. What if nothing had bitten him? What if he’d just…fallen? It was always a risk, especially when the staff had to lean over the low retaining wall to retrieve something from the moat’s edge. There had been falls before.
The woman, the security guard…the man from the moat had bitten her. He had torn her throat out with her teeth, and she had died. Cassandra had no doubt at all that the woman had died. She’d seen it. But after dying, she had started moving again, attacking another member of her team. So what if…
What if the man in the moat had died, only to come back again as something that wasn’t quite human anymore? Sometime dead and terrible, that looked like a human being but smelled like the grave, and only wanted to…what? Feed? Bite?
Pass the…curse, infection, whatever it was along?
Cassandra turned to look at the bandage on her own arm. Michael hadn’t died. Not like the woman. Michael had been fine. Human mouths were filthy things, but a bite wouldn’t be enough to kill a healthy man, not under ordinary circumstances. She could feel the hot pulsing buried deep in her flesh, telling her that something was very, very wrong. Whatever had been in him, it was in her now too. Hurting her. Maybe killing her.
“Okay,” she said, as much to hear her own voice as for any other reason. “I need to get out of here.” Michael’s mistake had been coming to work instead of going to the doctor. Doctors could flush the wound, could make things better. Could fix it.
She had long since accepted the fact that one mistake at her job could put her in the ground. But she wasn’t going to die like this.
Feeling better now that she had a plan, Cassandra started for the door. She needed to get to the locker room, to retrieve her purse and her car keys. She would tell Dan that it didn’t matter whether he closed the zoo today, because she wouldn’t be here either way. She would be at the doctor’s office, getting the flesh on her arm debrided and patched up, until the hot pulsing from within stopped. Until she wasn’t scared anymore.
The tigers paced and muttered in their deep feline voices as she passed them, expressing their displeasure with the whole situation. Cassandra smiled wanly.
“I need to be sure the dead man isn’t in front of your enclosure anymore before I let you out,” she said. “If he fell back in, that would only upset you. I’ll make sure someone comes to open the gates, I promise.”
The tigers didn’t speak English, but she had been their handler for years. Most stopped grumbling and just looked at her, staring with their wide amber eyes. They trusted her, as much as one apex predator could trust another.
“I promise,” Cassandra said again, and opened the door to the outside.
The smell of decay was like an assault. Behind her, the tigers roared and snarled, protesting this invasion. She couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t have to mean anything: not when she could smell them.
The zoo grounds had never seemed so claustrophobic before, so crowded with thick bushes and copses of trees. How many dead people could be lurking in there?
This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening. She would get to the locker room, get her purse, and drive herself to the hospital. Maybe stop long enough to make a few phone calls, to make sure that whatever was going on at the zoo was only going on at the zoo. Michael’s roommate was confined to their apartment, right? And Michael could have been exposed here, at work, picking up some…some novel parasite or tropical disease from one of the animals. Spillover diseases didn’t always look the same in people as they did in their original hosts. This could be, could be a flu, or a respiratory illness, or something, that behaved in a new, terrifying way when it got into a human being. It could be—
Cassandra crested the hill and froze, getting her first look at the zoo’s entry plaza.
They had opened the gates after all. Sometime between her leaving Dan’s office and coming to in the back hall of the big cat building, someone had turned on the carousel and opened the gates, letting the public—letting the dead—come to the zoo one last time. Bodies thronged around the admin buildings, moving with that same odd, graceless hitch that she had seen in Michael, before he had attacked her. Whatever this was, it was spreading with horrific speed. Based on what she’d seen in front of the tiger enclosure, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that it was spreading to everyone who was bitten.
Including her. She had been bitten. It was spreading—it had spread—to her.
Maybe that would protect her. If this was a disease, they might not attack someone who had already been infected. There was no sense in taking chances: if she got killed, who would take care of the tigers? They were trapped, penned in their little cages, without even the freedom of their enclosures to enjoy. She needed to make it back to them, now more than ever. But she also needed to see. She had to.
Carefully, Cassandra crept closer, sticking to the edges of the underbrush, where she might be ambushed, but she was less likely to be seen. When she came to one of the staff gates in the fence, she opened it and slipped through, relieved to see that the path was clear. These pathways were mostly used to transport things—food, equipment, sick animals—during the day; until the crowds got thick around noon, even the most privacy-loving zookeepers would tend to stick to the public side of the zoo. Maybe she could get to the gates without further incident.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter.
The throbbing from her arm was getting worse and worse, reminding her with every step that this was how it had started for Michael. Whatever this was, it spread through the bites. If she didn’t get medical help soon, she was going to become like them: dead, but still moving, still standing. Still biting. She was going to become a dangerous predator, something both more than animal and less than human.
The path ended at a slatted gate looking out over the zoo’s front plaza. The merry-go-round was running, the painted horses dancing up and down in their eternal slow ballet. Cassandra stopped a few feet back, looking silently at the crowd that pressed around the classic amusement. They swayed and shambled, eyes glazed over and focusing on nothing. The smell that rose from their bodies was thick and undeniable, the smell of death, the smell of things decaying where they stood.
There had been people riding the merry-go-round when…whatever had happened here had happened. Some of them were still tangled in their safety belts, dangling from their painted horses, unable to free themselves as they pawed mindlessly at the air. Cassandra’s stomach churned, bile rising in the back of her throat.
Soon that will be me, she thought. Soon I will be one of them.
What would happen to her tigers then? What would happen to Michael’s otters, or Betsy’s zebras, or any of the other animals in the zoo? Some of them were already doomed, unable to survive in this ecosystem, but others…
She could see the parking lot from her current position. There were dead, shambling people moving there, too. As she watched, a group of them caught up with a screaming man and drove him to the ground, where he vanished beneath a hail of bodies. This wasn’t contained to the zoo. This could never have been contained.
Cassandra turned her back on the scene in the front plaza. She had work to do.
Any disease that hit this hard and spread this exponentially was going to overwhelm the city in a matter of hours: that was just simple math. One was bad; two was worse; four was a disaster. The numbers kept climbing from there, until she reached the point where the dead outnumbered the living, and there was nothing left to do but die.
If she hadn’t been bitten, she might have tried to find another way. The big cat house, especially, had hundreds of pounds of raw meat stored in the freezers, just in case, and doors that were designed to stand up to a raging male lion. She could have locked herself inside with her beloved cats. She could have tried to wait it out.
But her arm burned, throbbing with every heartbeat, and she was starting to feel…bad. Feverish. Like she wanted nothing more than to lay down for a nap, to close her eyes and let her body finish the transition it was clearly aching to undergo. She needed to act quickly, before she was no longer equipped to act at all.
She began with the herbivores. She opened doors and propped gates, leaving the avenues of escape open for anything that wanted to take them. By the time she made her way to the aviary, there were zebras cropping at the lawn, ears flicking wildly back and forth as they scanned for danger. A kangaroo went bounding away down a side path, all but flying in its haste to get away. If there were dead people lurking in the bushes, they weren’t fast enough to catch it.
The birds knew something was wrong. As she opened their cages, they flew away, wings clawing at the air, and were gone. Some of them would make it. Some of them had to make it.
Slowly, almost shambling now, she made her way back to the big cat house. The smell of decay was less noticeable now, maybe because she was adding to it. Maybe because her nose was dying with the rest of her.
There were so many doors she hadn’t opened. There were so many cages she hadn’t unlocked. But there wasn’t time, and she didn’t want to endanger her animals. Not in the end. Not when the burning in her arm had become nothing more than a dull and distant throb, like the nerves were giving up.
The tigers stopped their pacing when she came into view, staring at her silently. Cassandra pulled out her keys.
“Try…not to eat me, okay?” she rasped, and started down the line of cages. One by one, she unlocked them, leaving them standing open. When she finished with the tigers, she began releasing the lions, the cheetahs, until she was at the end of the hallway with a dozen massive predators between her and freedom. They looked at her. She looked at them.
One by one, they turned and walked away, heading for the open door; heading for freedom. Cassandra followed them until she reached the main door to the tiger enclosure. Her fingers didn’t want to cooperate, didn’t want to work the key or let her turn the lock. She fought through the numbness, until the bolt clicked open and she stepped through, into the open air on the other side.
The door, unbraced, swung shut and locked itself behind her. Cassandra didn’t care.
Stumbling, she walked across the uneven ground to the rock where her big male liked to sun himself during the hottest hours of the day. She sat down. She closed her eyes. In the distance, the merry-go-round played on, a soft counterpart to the slowing tempo of her heart.
Cassandra stayed where she was, and waited for the music to stop.
About the Author
Mira Grant was born and raised in Northern California, where she has made a lifelong study of horror movies, horrible viruses, and the inevitable threat of the living dead. In college, she was voted Most Likely to Summon Something Horrible in the Cornfield, and was a founding member of the Horror Movie Sleep-Away Survival Camp, where her record for time survived in the “Swamp Cannibals” scenario remains unchallenged. (more…)
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, corporate customer service trainer, voice actor and professional robot girlfriend living in Atlanta, GA. She has a rather non-specific set of questionably useful skills, a plethora of hobbies, and almost enough cats. When not writing or on the phone, she stays entertained as a background actor and rogue. Follow her adventures at kittysarkozy.com.