Friday, March 18, 2011

Patient #110318: Erin Cole

I first encountered Erin Cole during the first year of her exquisite Halloween festival of fear, "13 Days of Horror" at her blog, "Erin Cole Writes".  I've become a huge fan of her writing since then, and during this past Halloween, was luckily chosen to take part in the 2nd annual "13 Days" contest.

(As you can probably tell, I've mercilessly borrowed the format of this week's event from her - so due thanks are owed.)

Erin has a knack of getting the reader right where she wants them, with meticulously chosen words and imagery. She then delights in pulling the rug out with wicked, malicious glee.

Here, with pleasure, is Erin's story, "Still Alive."

Still Alive
Erin Cole
[United States of America Presidential News Conference; May 10th, 2022]
Our nation is under attack.  But do not doubt, for a second, that we will prevail.  America is one of the greatest countries and we will persevere through this difficult time—today, tomorrow, and in our children’s future.

* * *

The sun faded into a black and green curtain of light from a debris-filled cloud.  Her memory flashed—an explosion—the punch of thunder—shards of glass and metal lacerating her chest and limbs.
Smoke burned air from her lungs (though others could still scream) and something else in the dust stung, like the sharp acidity of chemicals.

Leona gasped.  Awake.  Her eyes blinked open to a dim space.  The smell reminded her of a hospital, astringent with medicine and cleaning solutions, but the room stretched long and narrow, with grooved aluminum walls suggestive of some type of disaster relief shelter.  A circle of spotlights shined above her, blinding, but warm.
 Whatever had happened, she was still alive.

Without access to memories, Leona didn’t know who she was or much of anything else, just an awareness of the present filled with uncertainty—the fear of what doctors would tell her about the extent of her injuries.  From what she could remember, it couldn’t be good.

[Two men were talking]

What are the commonalities among them?

Most share your typical impact injuries: severed subclavian arteries, radial fractures, and chemical burns over most…

What?  Leona thought, panic-stricken.  She’d been burned?  She tried to imagine how she must look, the hideousness of her face and body, but it was too much for her to take in, and she focused on her immediate surroundings.

[A news station broadcasted]

Are you saying these are terrorist cells were dealing with, Nancy?

Yes, Jim.  That’s what the FBI is telling us.  So far, they believe that this was a biological attack—a new strain of anthrax laced with a synthetic spore.

A synthetic spore?

That’s right.  But the physicians at Emanuel Institute won’t say anything else until more tests are concluded.

Dread sunk into Leona’s gut, thick as oil.  Charged with fear, she needed to get up, walk around, eat something—pretend that things were normal again.  Her stomach growled with an appetite ferocious enough to be its own separate entity that wanted to climb from her jaws.  She tried moving her limbs, suddenly fearing that she might not have all of them.  Her legs jerked and her arms flinched under a crisp sheet.

She, at least, still had those.

“What the hell?”  One of the doctors said.  Pitch shook in his voice—something was wrong.

Leona sat up, but with difficulty.  The sensation that her head was larger than usual pained her neck.  The room swayed.  She fell back onto a bed, colder than a mountain river.

One of the doctors leaned over the foot of her bed, starring Leona into stillness.  His eyes resembled those on fish, all round and big like.  His mouth fell agape.  He was trying to scream.  When he finally found his voice, it came out shrill and pain-ridden, and he tripped over a tray dangling with bags of yellow and clear liquids.

He crashed to the floor, whimpering like a kicked dog.

Leona rolled her head sideways.  The other doctor, staring at her in the same way, grabbed the fallen doctor’s arm, and pulled him to the wall where they both shouted into a speaker next to the door.  Dear Lord, Leona thought.  I look worse than I can possibly imagine.

She slid her eyes downward and lifted the sheet.  Terror stormed through her.  The kind of terror when your child runs into the house with blood spilling from somewhere on his face; terror like the laws of nature have fractured and the gates of hell have opened.  Her body had been severely cut up.  No.  Not cut up.  Sliced apart, into two gory sections of flesh and muscle.  One long line that started below her naval ripped up the charred flesh of her torso to where she could see the curvature of rib bone beneath.

How can this be?  She questioned.  How could she still be alive?  Or even conscious?

[A lab technician beeped through the intercom] 

Dr. Gerald, it looks like we’re dealing with a more serious strain of anthrax than we originally hypothesized, one that sustains metabolic processes and prevents organic decomposition through bacteria eating sporophytes.  What this means is that the injured might not die, no matter the extent of their injuries.  I advise everyone to evacuate, this strain is highly contag…

The doctors, with mannerisms of wild chimpanzees, neglected to hear the voice from the intercom speaker over their yelling and banging on the door.

Leona sat up again.  Blood-covered organs glistened and slopped from her gut.  She pushed her hand (good Lord, she had only two fingers!) against her gut to hold them in place, but at the touch of warm, squishy tissue, the sweet, coppery smell of blood, her hunger overrode reason.  Leona took a bite of her own liver.  Madness—hot, black tar—spilled into her thoughts.

What is wrong with me?  She pleaded, before taking another bite.  She couldn’t help it.  It was one the best things she could ever remember eating.  And she couldn’t stop.  Didn’t want to.  Leona yelled for the doctors.  “Doctors?  Please, help me! Please!”

She couldn’t tell if she was actually talking, but the doctors wouldn’t hear her anyway.  They had already opened the door and were scrambling from the facility, moving their arms and legs faster than they could effectively function.  Leona wanted to do the same.  How could they leave her?  Like this?—Eating her own body parts.  “Please, somebody, help me.”

Emotions, as feral as primitive reptiles, stirred her with strength and determination.  She crawled off the cold bed.  One foot gave way under her weight and twisted sideways.  Oddly, it didn’t hurt.  She tried to look up, grappling to lift her head.  It fell to the side, but she could lift it enough to look in the mirror, as much as she didn’t want to.  She had to look at herself, like gawking at a car accident or descending into a blackened basement.  You don’t want to do it, but you do anyway—darkness has a place in every mind and it must be replenished.

Leona hobbled over to the mirror.  Though pain should have immobilized her, it was tolerable—actually, it felt good.  When she steered her eyes up and saw the grotesqueness of her own body, she froze, unable to recognize herself.  But…but…No.  Don’t say it!  She screamed at her thoughts.  Because her ruined body looked gorgeous, with all the cuts, burns, and broken bones.  The severity of her wounds gladdened her.

She wasn’t afraid.  Or maybe, just too hungry to care.

In the mirror, behind her, she realized that she wasn’t the only one like that.  There were others and they were waking up too.  Leona turned for the door.  She wanted to talk to those doctors.  Before she ate them.

Shuffling down rickety platform steps, confusion haunted her.  She looked around, struggling to fathom just what it was she had wanted to do.  She walked ahead, following the scent of people.

More hot, black tar erased her thoughts.  Time lapsed with it.  She was standing at a door, not knowing why, or how she was to get through it, but one thing was clear—she could smell people behind it.  They smelled like a barbeque and she moaned to devour meat from bone.

Shouts echoed across the street.  Leona turned to find two uniformed men in army-green, crouched behind cars.  The expressions on the men’s faces resembled those of the doctors’—fish out of water.
Their arms extended with long black objects.  She knew what they were, that they were dangerous, but she couldn’t think of the name for them.

“Shoot it!”  The first one hollered.

—memories suddenly crammed into Leona’s conscience.  She was a mother.  A wife.

“Shoot Higgins!”

—she went to the market for vegetables to make soup.


—she had just run into a friend she hadn’t seen in months when a blast exploded everything around them.

“God dammit, shoot it!”

—and now, she was an it.

A loud pop ricocheted through the streets.  Then again and again, a violent crackle of fireworks.  Leona felt an invisible punch throw her backward into asphalt.  She pushed herself back up.  More fireworks boomed, but it didn’t stop her from reaching the door to the building.

 How to open?  She grabbed the handle and pulled.  The hinges snapped and the door fell off the frame.  The people inside looked like fish too.  Leona grabbed one by the head, went for the neck.

Yes, she was still alive.

Erin Cole has been published in various online magazines and print anthologies, including 'The Best of Lame Goat Press,' 'Back to the Middle of Nowhere: More Horror in Rural America,' and 'Howl: Dark Tales of the Feral and Infernal.'  Her stories have been shortlisted in the 2009 Tom Howard / John H. Reid Short Story Contest and won honorable mention in the 2009 Kay Snow Contest.  She is the author of Grave Echoes: A Kate Waters Mystery and is currently working on the sequel.


  1. I was hoping Erin might dance onto the Madness in March stage - and what a performance! At you from the outset, relentless terror jars the nerves, strangles your gut with realisation and fear. What more madness could there be than a zombie holocaust? I felt privy to have an insight into Leona's mind throughout the change. Fantastic - I'm going to read it again!

  2. Now I have to pick myself up off the floor and give it another read.

    The way you put me inside Leona's head – and Leona inside mine – pushed beyond the tired zombie stereotypes.

    I have a Leona-sized hunger for more.

  3. Excelllent work Erin. I loved how you mixed the Terrorist attack and the zombie themes. you really provided some great descriptions thoughout and the imagery was so vivid. Two things make me cringe, vampires and zombies, but the way you did it was so unlike anything I have read. loved it.

  4. This is the most sympathetic zombie story I've every read.
    A wife, a mother reduced to a mere it. For goodness sakes, she wanted to talk to the doctors before she ate them. Sweet zombie girl! I loved the opening, and the anthrax take you give. Loved this, Erin. You're one of my fav zombie writers. This reminds me of your zombie story from the zombieluv contest last year (which has been stuck in my head ever since I read it).

    ps. itunes was playing Powertrip by Monster Magnet while I reading this. Awesome combo.

  5. Erin, you are amazing. Your prose is exquisite, and your imagination knows no bounds, especially when it comes to emotions.

  6. Thanks for reading Lily, Ben, Sean, Jodi, and Nicole!

    And thank you Chris for putting this all together; it has been great fun, and I look forward to the next...I have my suspicions and I can't wait!

  7. Thank you for this story Erin.

    Watching Leona's mind devolve from the inside out is a fascinating, horrifying experience.

    As has been said above, this is the freshest take on the zombie story I've read in quite some time, and the way you've tackled it makes it a fitting addition to this week of "madness."

    And if you're thinking of who I think you're thinking of... you may be right. ;)

  8. Hell yes, Erin! I agree with Chris, this is a very fresh (ignoring the decomposition) take on the zombie mythos. Too often, writers forget zombies, before the whole need to eat your insides thing, were people just like us; family, friends, neighbors. The pacing was great, and the frenetic splashes of her memories was perfect.

    BTW, "Leona took a bite of her own liver..." was some bloody good shit, although my first response was, "What? No onions?"

  9. Thanks Chris and Angel. My zombie take may be more personal than I care to, I don't eat my own fingers, but I think many writers can connect to that 'disconnection' in the world.

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone.

  10. Erin, I am just beginning to realise how much more there is to the zombie genre than I realised and this must be one of the best! True horror.

  11. WOW!! I've just had a late breakfast and I now feel I should start the day again and not eat before I read this. Totally engrossing, dark and gory. Excellent.

    I don't know about anyone else but sometimes I get a really strong urge (no, not to eat my own liver) to sit down and watch a really great film, and totally lose myself in it. This story done that for me. Thanks, Erin!!

  12. Poor Leona. So lonely, so misunderstood. So hungry. This was so vivid and visual. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it yesterday.

  13. Frightening and freaky and excellent. That was a fun read, Erin. I got chills!

  14. Great write. What I particularly like about this is the way you subvert identity which is attached to memory the fragmentation is palpable.

  15. You've taken the words 'plague' and 'zombie' to a new level. You cranked up the fear and kept it there the entire story. Fantastic read, Erin!