I rest my neck in the loophole hanging from the tree. With my hands tied behind my back, I can't do anything, and my feet are tied together, too. Both by the same rope that made that made this weapon dangling from the great oak. No more protesting my felony, no more protecting my innocence - this is it. This is where my life on earth will end. The storm clouds are gathering, the thunder is growling, the sun has already disappeared... what a beautiful exit scene. I've always loved rain.

But I guess Billy didn't want it to end for me.

He ended up proving that someone else had committed the murder, and they let me go.

And I'm pretty sure you can call us best friends now.

"Ali, are you coming?" Billy yells up the stairs.

"Of course! Just hold on a bit longer..."

"How close are you to being done?"

"Well, I'm done, can you just fasten this dress? It's absolutely impossible..." I mutter as I clunk down the stars in my high heels and best dress.

"Yeah, turn around," and he buttons my dress together in the back, a tie slung over his arm.

"Now can you put my tie on?" Billy asks.

Yes, we're dependent on each other. He came over tonight to pick me up for the dinner we're going to to meet one of his friends, who's in the Army. The friend, Ash, is actually dating one of my friends - but I'm not sure how they met. This is where they both grew up. We're meeting them at the best restaurant in town... Billy is really excited to see them.

When we step inside the restaurant, I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of Italian food. I had never been here before, because no occasion had called for it. When we tell the host what party we're with, we are ushered to a private booth in the back room.

"Billy!"

"Ash!"

The two friends first outstretch their hands toward each other but end up full-on embracing each other. Kayla, Ash's girlfriend, and I greet each other with a smile and a "How are you?" We're not the closest of friends, but we've known each other since a young age.

"Ali, this is my friend Ash; Ash this is my gir- this is my best friend, Ali!" We shake hands, and afterwards, my hand is slick with sweat.

The pairs sit on opposite sides of the table. We order, and we small talk. Billy and Ash catch up, Kayla and I chat about random stuff over our lasagna and tortellini alla panna. And the whole time I'm feeling worse and worse; until finally I have to excuse myself and run to the ladies' room. A second later my stomach is empty. Thankfully I made it in time. I feel dizzy, and I sit down on the floor, holding my head. I don't know what could have caused this... All I know is that I feel terrible, and I don't want to go out there. And I start to retch again. I'm startled by a knock on the stall; I recognize Kayla's shoes.

"Ali, are you okay?" she asks, her voice filled with concern.

"Yeah, I'm fine..."

"Ali, no you're not. What's wrong? Tell me." she says.

"Well, I guess I'm sick..."

"How long have you been feeling like this?"

"Well, I didn't feel like this before dinner..."

"It's probably food poisoning, then. It'll probably continue for a few more days, if not more."

"That's great news, thank you..."

Kayla helps me out of the restroom, and Billy and Ash are waiting for us at the exit.

"Ali, are you okay?" asks Billy, rushing over. "Are you sick?"

"No, Billy, I'm fine."

"Makali Anderson, that's obviously not true," accuses Billy. He only uses my full Swahili name (meaning 'edge') when he's very angry or upset with (or, in this case, worried about) me.

"She has food poisoning, but she should be fine in a few days," says Kayla. I smile weakly and Billy takes me from Kayla, letting me lean on his shoulder.

Ash's temporary living situation has been settled: he is going to stay in the guest room of Billy's house; and now I'm gonna stay at Billy's house because he "needs to take care of me." So Ash drops Kayla off at her house and meets us at Billy's. I'm laying on the couch in the living room still in my dress when he comes in, and I'm moaning like the wind. Billy's upstairs doing something or other.

"I'm sorry you're feeling bad, Ali," says Ash as he closes the front door behind him.

"So am I..." I mutter. He chuckles a little before saying that Kayla had mentioned something about my interest in joining the Army a few ago, and am I still interested?

"Yeah, actually, I am," I say. Not as much as I was, but I don't tell him that. He proceeds to tell me about Army life, what they eat, where they live, how they train, and a few other things, all while sitting on the part of the couch I'm not taking up. Why am I interested? he asks.

"Well," I say, "My father was in the Army, as was my grandfather, and great-grandfather. My father wanted a son to follow in his footsteps. But he got me. He loved me, of course, but part of me always felt he wouldn't love me as much as he could unless I joined the Army. But then he died. So it's sort of been a life-long desire, I guess. I still want to please him."

"Why haven't you joined yet?"

"I don't know why I didn't join before he died. I mean, like I said, I've always wanted to."

Suddenly Billy comes down the stairs in a t-shirt and sweat pants. "Oh... maybe..." I breathe, and look to Ash, who is smiling. "So," says Billy, "Who wants to play some cards?"

We stay up well into the night playing various card games, with only a few retching spells. A lot of yelling and laughing spells, though.

I start to feel really bad again, at around 3:00 AM. "Maybe we should head to bed," yawns Billy, putting down his cards. Ash agrees, and they leave me with a goodnight and a feel better.

"... Feel better." Billy and I say at the same time. I go into the guest room with many different emotions in my chest. Fear and regret. Sadness. Mostly sadness. I know we did something wrong. And I have taken a liking to Ali. A tremendous one. But I know Billy... Then, I crawl into bed looking forward to a shaky night's sleep.

I was right - I wake up to the pictures shaking violently, some of the ceiling crumbling down, and I run out to the living room. Ali's still asleep, but Billy's awake upstairs.

"Billy, what are you doing?!" I yell up the stairs.

"Coming down! Grab Ali! Get safe!"

"Billy, it's not an earthquake!"

"What?!"

"Meet us at the Rec Center!" and with that, I pick Ali up and carry her outside. Then I think that this running is gonna make her sick, so I have to wake her up now. But staying asleep this long - she is a very heavy sleeper, or the fever is stronger than I thought...

"Ali! Ali, wake up! Ali!" I start to shake her, and she groggily opens her eyes.

"We don't have much time! We need to go now! Just follow me!" I know how easy it would be to get lost in this kind of thing, even though there aren't many people around, so I hold her hand and practically drag her to the Rec Center. She tries, but is truly only half awake; she is fully attentive when we get there, and she shows it by asking questions.

"Where's Billy? What's going on? Why are we here? Ash!"

"Calm down, Ali, catch your breath. I told Billy to meet us here. An earthquake-like catastrophe is going on, and this is the safest place to be."

"Why is that?"

"It's made completely out of concrete and bricks, and has no windows. Now, what's going on isn't an earthquake - but I'll explain when Billy gets here."

And so we wait.

And wait. And wait.

What the Rec Center does have, however, is a clock; we got here at around 5:00 AM, and right now it's 5:30 AM.

Where's Billy?

Where's Billy?

It's been so long here. Ash said there were no windows - this place better have a bathroom. Because I'm feeling sick again. And I'd rather not vomit in front of Ash. I look around for a sign, and I slowly get up, careful not to jostle around too much, and walk toward my salvation.

"Wait, Ali, where are you going?" Ash asks.

"I'll be right back," I murmur, holding my stomach.

It's a stall bathroom, and I go into the biggest, which is at the end. And I let it all go. After I'm done, I hear something in the stall a few down from me. A creak? A groan? I'm not sure, but it sure gets my heart sprinting. "Hello?" I get the courage to whisper. I hear it again and I freeze. I'm afraid I'm hyper-ventilating, though, and that extra energy is used in pushing open the door, and walking down to the stall where the sound is coming from.

Ali had gone to the bathroom and has been in there for a while. I don't think I'm getting worried, but I'm biting my nails. Suddenly, I hear this piercing shriek come from Ali's direction. "Ali?!" I frantically yell. "Ali!" I run to the bathroom and find Ali looking into a stall. "Ali? What's wrong?" I go over to her and look where she is.

I admit I am startled by what I see.

"It looks like... like she's... melting," breathes Ali. I pull her away and slam the stall door to block the hideous corpse. I push Ali out the door, open the stall, take out my gun, and shoot the thing. I then walk out like nothing happened; but I know Ali heard the shot.

"What was it? What did you do?" she cries. "I suppose it's time I explained it all to you." And I start.

"The government told the Army to conduct a series of tests. Just some chemicals, nothing new. Well, that's what everyone thought... But what happened was two foreign chemicals mixed, and they had to release it somewhere, because it kills people. They had thought this concoction was going to make humanity better somehow, but when they tested it on some soldiers, it... well... started to... melt them. It's a virus that invades the body, and takes over - kills the person, and recreates and uses the body. Sort of a zombie. Anyway, it was spreading through the air, and they needed to release it somewhere... and this is the smallest city - population wise - in the state..."

"So they chose here to release it?"

"Yeah. They're gonna quarantine this place... they probably already have."

"And it takes over the body, and does... what, exactly?"

"It uses the body to kill other people, by hurting them somehow, making them bleed."

"So the people that get infested... they've touched something that the virus touched? Or, the virus infected people touch their prey's blood? How come everyone doesn't get it?"

"No, it's not like lice. They travel through the air in a quarantined area for only about an hour. And then, if they don't have some victims by then, they die, and are harmless. See, it's like gnats, or flies. The virus is a winged insect. Anyway, after an hour, they die, and the only danger lies in the infected."

"How come we aren't getting it now?"

"Because they can't get into here."

"Why was that body in here, then? Do people react to the virus in different ways?" "She probably thought if she came in here, she would be safe. But she was already long dead. And yeah, completely different ways - no two are alike."

"She was here before us, then?"

"Not necessarily."

"How do you mean?"

"There's a back door to this place."

"You don't think the virus is in here?"

"Not at all. It's not a very intelligent virus. It probably just went right past the open door. And, it would be dead by now."

"I wouldn't expect it to be intelligent at all. What was the earthquake?"

"The virus coming out."

"So we can still live in town as long as we kill all the infected? Then the real human comes out?"

"No... we need to get out of town. And, Ali, there is no cure..."

"What! No cure!" I slowly nod. Her mouth gaping, she shivers, and her voice catches when she asks how we're gonna get out if the town is quarantined.

"You just have to trust me," I say. "Please."

"Do you think Billy's coming?" she asks.

"Of course Billy's coming. I told him to meet us here, and he said he was coming. Of course he's gonna be here. Don't worry."

"Don't worry?!"

"You know what I meant."

"You know what I meant." I have to worry about both the virus and Billy, though. Billy - is he alright? Did he get the virus? The virus - we're probably gonna die. So, what I understand - there's this virus going around that melts people and uses the recreated body to kill other people.

"Can you tell them apart?" I ask.

"What?"

"Can you tell the recreated bodies apart from the real person?"

"They have a flickering light in their neck."

"What?"

"Yeah, they have a light in their necks. That's how you tell them apart. You believe the rest, but not that?"

"I didn't say I didn't believe it. It's just really hard to believe."

"You can only see the light, though, if the sun's out."

"Really hard to believe. Really."

"I understand."

But does he really? He's seen it before, obviously, so I suppose that could be why he seems so un-understanding. He must have been freaked out when he first saw it. Right?

"The town is really small..." I say, "The actually populated part of it. It's actually one of the biggest areas in the state. 95% of it is woods and fields. So we can roam, anywhere but here. Is that what you're saying?"

"Basically. But we need food, water. I don't wanna risk going back -"

"We can go to the supermarket, or the food pantry - everything's free there." He nods, grabs my hand, and goes over to the door. "We're going to the pantry, partly because they'll probably be less victims there, partly because I would feel guilty about stealing food, and partly because it's closest to the edge of town."

"What about Billy, Ash?"

"I don't know, Ali, I don't know. You just have to trust me."

"I have more questions."

"And I'll answer them to the best of my ability."

"...To the best of my ability," I say, sneaking with Ali down the street. Really, Billy's house is too close to where the virus started... we can't go back there. I'm glad she interrupted me.

"So what do these things act like? Do they act like the person acted?" "Exactly. No different from the person. Like I said, the only difference is the light in the neck."

"Are you knocked out when the virus hits you?"

"Nope. You know it's happening. And you feel it, too."

"And once you die - that's it? No cure?" I pause. I think about my answer... should I? No. I shake my head for answer, and we press on.

We're in an alley now, doing our best to move undetected, but we see something in the nearest street light. It looks like it's staring right at us. But we're in the shadows; there's no way it can see us. Ali sees it too, and squeezes my hand, breathes in and out deeply, trying to control herself.

"Could it have heard us?" she breathes in my ear. I nod in my answer - these things haven't the best eye sight, but have amazing hearing. I could shoot it, but that would draw dangerous attention; we could run, but it would follow. What are we going to do?

What are we going to do? One of the things is staring at us, and I know we're gonna die. It's gonna call it's friends somehow, and Ash and I are gonna melt. And turn into zombies. And we're gonna kill. Cause we'll be dead. And there's no cure.

But suddenly and inexplicably, the thing walks away - and when it turns, I can see it's whole left side is covered with... well, I can see the person is going through the process of melting. Once it's out of sight, I breathe more easily, and Ash turns to me. "They have an amazing sense of hearing," he says, "even when they're going through the process, like she was." I nod and we press on in the dark of the night.

We finally reach the food pantry, though I'm not sure how Ash lead us here. "Wait, Ash," I say, "I have one more question: why did you come here if you knew the virus was being spread here?"

"Well... because I didn't... know when they were releasing it." He says this slowly, seemingly choosing his words with all caution. And with a small smile, he leads me into the pantry.

It's dark when we get in there. I feel along the wall for the light switches I know are there. Ah! Yes - here they are, and with a *buzz!* the lights flick on. I half-expect there to be more zombies and more victims, but there is no one in sight. "Come on," says Ash, taking my hand again, "We need to be very quiet and get as much food as possible."

"...As much as possible," I say in the quietest tones. She nods. I'm really hoping we don't run into anything; I'm pretty sure no one else has survived - but I really don't want to tell Ali.

The pantry is completely silent except for our footsteps, which I'm thanking God for. We're grabbing anything we think we need for survival.

"Potato chips? Really, Ali?"

"I'm grabbing anything within reach..." We're stuffing it all in a basket. Suddenly, Ali trips on something - and that something grabs her leg, and pulls her toward itself. She yells, kicking furiously, and the whole time the thing on the floor is grunting and pulling. I grab her arms from the elbow and yank her as hard as I can, but I see this virus-infested person matches, if not exceeds me in strength; you'd think we would have seen him sprawled on the floor like that. As I'm pulling, though, I notice what it's wearing... it's an Army soldier! Johnson... the one that stopped, but that they couldn't rewind... Ali pulls my gun out of it's holster and fires at the soldier's face, multiple times. The dead soldier finally relaxes it's hold, and Ali scrambles away from the corpse.

"You handled that well," I say, vainly trying to calm her breathing.

"Is he a soldier?"

"Yeah."

"Do we have enough food?"

"Yeah."

"Can we go then?"

"Yeah." And we exit the store as fast as our feet can carry us.

"I wasted your ammo." Ali says once we're safely hidden outside the pantry.

"You used them, remember?"

"It only needed one."

"Well," I say, "We have enough. I took the guy's gun - you can have mine."

"Are you sure?"

"You're obviously very handy with a gun. You might need it."

"... You might need it."

"You don't mean we might get separated?"

"It's just in case, Ali. Now, we need to go before we do get separated, or run into another virus."

"Go where?"

"We're leaving town."

"And Billy?"

I don't know why I'm still holding on to hope. And, apparently, neither does Ash: he's looking at me with a mixture of confusion, sympathy and frustration on his face. All of a sudden, it becomes hard to swallow and my cheeks are wet.

I'm crying.

And I hate it.

I wake up.

My face is sticky, my eyes are sore, and I begin to rub them. Then I cuddle back into the arms of... wait - what? Whose arms am I in? I turn around and look into the face of Ash.

"Oh, you're awake," he says.

"Good morning."

"Good morning?"

"Well, since we didn't die or get hurt, it's rather a good morning for us, isn't it?" I give into his 'logic' and lay back down. He tightens his grip around me.

"Wait - shouldn't we be going?" I mumble, my eyes closed.

"Probably."

"Let's go, then." I force myself to get up and stretch. He's wide awake already, though, and he just sits there, leaning against the tree.

"Wait," I yawn, "Are we in the woods?"

"We're on the outskirts. You can still see the town from here, on this hill."

"Oh. Yeah. You can." The sun is shining now, and the virus doesn't seem so scary out here in the open air. But maybe... maybe it's not so open.

I see a figure wandering around right outside the town, down the hill. "Ash? Ash!" it's calling. Ash hears it too, and stands up and looks for himself.

"Ash, I think it's Kayla," I say. He's close enough to me to he cover my mouth and tell me to be very quiet. He ushers me over behind the tree, taking the food and the gun he gave me with us. I can still see what I think is Kayla, and she's getting closer, still calling Ash's name.

"She's one of them," he whispers putting his lips to my very ear.

"How do you know?"

"Look at her neck." I stare at Kayla, who's rather too close for comfort now, and I do see a little flicker of light. I gasp, and that draws her attention. We both stay very still - but then I see Ash aiming his gun - and shooting it. But I watch in awe as the virus ducks right before it went into it's neck... and it starts rushing toward us.

"Run." Ash says, and with the supplies - we fly.

We don't run to something specific, we just run. To the middle of the woods, perhaps? Then what? Beyond these woods there's open fields - no place to hide.

I see some sort of building in the distance - I look behind me, and Kayla is rather lagging behind, but still coming after us. We run to the building, whatever it may be. It's our only chance.

It's our only chance. So we run toward it. As we come up on it, I see it's a little abandoned cottage. I kick down the door, and check out the inside. Ivy on the walls, grass growing through the floor, but it's safer than out there. I pull Ali in, and put the door back up. We brace it. It's completely dark except for the sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the ceiling. "Ash..." I still hear Kayla's - or, the virus' - voice.

Wait. I have an idea. It probably won't work. But it's something.

We inch over to the corner of the cottage, knowing well that the virus knows where we are. I draw my gun ever so slowly, and above me Ali does the same. The virus pushes down the door, still calling my name, and looks around the room. I cock my gun - the signal - and we shoot. At least, Ali shoots, my gun doesn't - but there were two shots. The plan worked: a shot was fired at her legs first, and she jumped, and Ali's bullet jammed in the virus' head. But where had the first shot come from? What was in the corner?

There's light in the cottage now, since the door is open, and we edge our way over to it, eyes on the corner the whole time. I check the gun I was supposed to shoot with, and I realize... it was never loaded. I take the gun from Ali's hands and point it toward the corner, ditching the empty gun. "Show yourself," I command to the shadow in the corner. The thing crawls into the light, and I see...

Billy.

Billy. Billy!

"Billy!" I scream, trying to get past Ash, who is blocking my way with his arm. But he won't let me by.

"Ash, let me through!" I yell, fighting vainly against his arm.

"No, Ali, don't come near me... I'll only try to hurt you..." moans Billy in a strange voice.

"Billy? Are you okay?" I ask, desperately naive. He looks at me with sad eyes, and shows me his body... what's left of it.

"Billy!" I cry again, and - much to Ash's surprise - I bite Ash in the wrist, and I manage to slip past him. I'm careful about not getting too close to Billy, though. "Ali..." he says, "You need to shoot me." The fact hits me like a lightning bolt. He sees my look of horror and tells me it's the only way.

"No... I - I can't! you can't! We can save you! Right, Ash?" I turn around only to see Ash shakily aiming the gun at Billy's head.

"Ash! No! You can't!" And I stand between the hunter and the prey.

"Ali... I have to..." Ash whispers, looking as pained as I feel.

"No... you can't... Billy!" I want so desperately to hug him, to feel him one more time...

"I can't let you die..."

"Ali..." mumbles Billy, "I lo-" BANG.

Billy's lifeless body falls limp on the ground, and I stand there in shock. "Billy! Billy! Billy!" I scream, throwing my body on top of his, and hoping with all of my life that my screams could awaken him.

"You didn't die! You can't die! Ash, he was saying something! How could you?! Billy! Billy!" I shriek over and over and over.

"Ali! Calm down! You're gonna hurt yourself!" Ash yells, lifting and grabbing me by the shoulders to restrain me from flailing around anymore. Once he lets go, though, I fall back onto Billy. Finally, Ash picks me up and slings me over his shoulder. I beat upon his back.

"Ash! Put me down! Let me die! Please!" It's started to rain as we go deeper into the woods. "Ash! Put me down!"

"Fine." He puts me down at the base of a great oak that the rain is playing peek-a-boo with. My hair is dripping with water, my clothes are soggy, and Ash is soaking as well. I'm catching my breath and holding my head, wishing I had something to take the pain away from my headache I had caused myself. Ash stands, facing away from me. The sky was incredibly clear for a rainstorm, and the sun was still visible. I stare at Ash's general direction until I notice something glimmering - it startles me, and I double-take as I stare at the back of his head. My mouth drops open and I want to scream, but no sound comes... Ash's neck is flickering. I back up against the tree, my hands reaching for something to grab and my feet slipping in the mud. I spill over the raised and decaying roots and start to run. I need to get away. My legs, my arms, my feet, my eyes, and my head hurt - but I need to keep going.

"Ali? Ali! Come back!"

No - I can't stop - but it hurts so much...

I find a tree to hide behind and I dive - and in the process twist my ankle. Now another thing that hurts. But I don't dare breathe, let alone moan or cry. I can hear him coming, the crunching of the leaves, the sloshing of the mud.

"Ali! Come back!" he calls. And suddenly his face pops out from behind my tree. "No!" I scream, trying to get up, but I stay there.

"Ali, what in the world is the matter?"

"You're one of them! You're one of them!" I cry.

"Ali -"

"No!"

"Please -"

"No!"

"Ali, I've changed! I'm different! I'm not one of them! I'm not like them! I'm not!" - are those actual tears welling up in his eyes?

"Please..." he says, leaning his nose against mine, and me doing nothing about it. He puts his hands on my cheeks, and puts his lips closer to mine, and the rain mixes with the tears streaming down his face.

"You just have to trust me," he says. "Please."