Red Hill - Page 1

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  • Prologue

    Scarlet

    THE WARNING WAS SHORT—said almost in passing. “The cadavers were herded and destroyed.” The radio hosts then made a few jokes, and that was the end of it. It took me a moment to process what the newswoman had said through the speakers of my Suburban: Finally. A scientist in Zurich had finally succeeded in creating something that—until then—had only been fictional. For years, against every code of ethics known to science, Elias Klein had tried and failed to reanimate a corpse. Once a leader amid the most intelligent in the world, he was now a laughing stock. But on that day, he would have been a criminal, if he weren’t already dead.

    At the time, I was watching my girls arguing in the backseat through the rearview mirror, and the two words that should have changed everything barely registered. Two words, had I not been reminding Halle to give her field trip permission slip to her teacher, would have made me drive away from the curb with my foot grinding the gas pedal to the floorboard.

    Cadavers. Herded.

    Instead, I was focused on saying for the third time that the girls’ father, Andrew, would be picking them up from school that day. They would then drive an hour away to Anderson, the town we used to call home, and listen to Governor Bellmon speak to Andrew’s fellow firefighters while the local paper took pictures. Andrew thought it would be fun for the girls, and I agreed with him—maybe for the first time since we divorced.

    Although most times Andrew lacked sensitivity, he was a man of duty. He took our daughters, Jenna, who was just barely thirteen and far too beautiful (but equally dorky) for her own good, and Halle, who was seven, bowling, out to dinner, and the occasional movie, but it was only because he felt he should. To Andrew, spending time with his children was part of a job, but not one he enjoyed.

    As Halle grabbed my head and jerked my face around to force sweet kisses on my cheeks, I pushed up her thick, black-rimmed glasses. Not savoring the moment, not realizing that so many things happening that day would create the perfect storm for separating us. Halle half jogged, half skipped down the walkway to the school entrance, singing loudly. She was the only human I knew who could be intolerably obnoxious and endearing at the same time.

    A few speckles of water spattered on the windshield, and I leaned forward to get a better look at the cloud cover overhead. I should have sent Halle with an umbrella. Her light jacket wouldn’t stand up to the early spring rain.

    The next stop was the middle school. Jenna was absently discussing a reading assignment while texting the most recent boy of interest. I reminded her again as we pulled into the drop-off line that her father would pick her up at the regular spot, right after he picked up Halle.

    “I heard you the first ten times,” Jenna said, her voice slightly deeper than average for a girl her age. She looked at me with hollow brown eyes. She was present in body, but rarely in mind. Jenna had a wild imagination that was oh, so random in the most wonderful way, but lately I couldn’t get her to pay attention to anything other than her cell phone. I brought her into this world at just twenty. We practically grew up together, and I worried about her, if I’d done everything—or anything—right; but somehow she was turning out better than anyone could have imagined anyway.

    “That was only the fourth time. Since you heard me, what did I say?”

    Jenna sighed, peering down at her phone, expressionless. “Dad is picking us up. Regular spot.”

    “And be nice to the girlfriend. He said you were rude last time.”

    Jenna looked up at me. “That was the old girlfriend. I haven’t been rude to the new one.”

    I frowned. “He just told me that a couple of weeks ago.”

    Jenna made a face. We didn’t always have to say aloud what we were thinking, and I knew she was thinking the same thing I wanted to say, but wouldn’t.

    Andrew was a slut.

    I sighed and turned to face forward, gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white. It somehow helped me to keep my mouth shut. I had made a promise to my children, silently, when I signed the divorce papers two years before: I would never bad-mouth Andrew to them. Even if he deserved it . . . and he often did.

    “Love you,” I said, watching Jenna push open the door with her shoulder. “See you Sunday evening.”

    “Yep,” Jenna said.

    “And don’t slam the . . .”

    A loud bang shook the Suburban as Jenna shoved the door closed.

    “. . . door.” I sighed, and pulled away from the curb.

    I took Maine Street to the hospital where I worked, still gripping the steering wheel tight and trying not to curse Andrew with every thought. Did he have to introduce every woman he slept with more than once to our daughters? I’d asked him, begged him, yelled at him not to, but that would be inconvenient, not letting his girl-of-the-week share weekends with his children. Never mind he had Monday through Friday with whoever. The kicker was that if the woman had children to distract Jenna and Halle, Andrew would use that opportunity to “talk” with her in the bedroom.

    My blood boiled. Dutiful or not, he was an a**hole when I was married to him, and an even bigger a**hole now.

    I whipped the Suburban into the last decent parking spot in the employee parking lot, hearing sirens as an ambulance pulled into the emergency drive and parked in the ambulance bay.

    The rain began to pour. A groan escaped my lips, watching coworkers run inside, their scrubs soaked from just a short dash across the street to the side entrance. I was half a block away.

    TGIF.

    TGIF.

    TGIF.

    Just before I turned off the ignition, another report came over the radio, something about an epidemic in Europe. Looking back, everyone knew then what was going on, but it had been a running joke for so long that no one wanted to believe it was really happening. With all the television shows, comics, books, and movies about the undead, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that somebody was finally both smart and crazy enough to try and make it a reality.

    I know the world ended on a Friday. It was the last day I saw my children.

    Chapter One

    Scarlet

    My chest heaved as the thick metal door closed loudly behind me. I held out my arms to each side, letting water drip off my fingertips onto the white tile floor. My once royal-blue scrubs were now navy, heavily saturated with cold rainwater.

    A squashing sound came from my sneakers when I took a step. Ick. Not much was worse than wet clothes and shoes, and it felt like I’d jumped into a swimming pool fully dressed. Even my panties were wet. We were only a few days into spring, and a cold front had come through. The rain felt like flying death spikes of ice.

    Flying death spikes. Snort. Jenna’s dramatic way of describing things was obviously rubbing off on me.

    I slid my name badge through the card reader and waited until the small light at the top turned green and a high-pitched beep sounded, accompanied by the loud click of the lock release. I had to use all of my body weight to pull open the heavy door, and then I stepped into the main hallway.

    Some people flashed me understanding smiles that helped to relieve some of my humiliation. It was obvious who all had just arrived on shift, about the time the sky opened up and pissed on us.

    Two steps at a time, I climbed the stairs to the surgical floor and snuck into the women’s locker room, stripping down and changing into a pair of light-blue surgery scrubs. I held my sneakers under the hand dryer, but only for a few seconds. The other X-ray techs were waiting for me downstairs. We had an upper GI/small bowel follow-through at 8:00, and this week’s radiologist was more than just a little grumpy when we made him run behind.

    Sneakers still squishing, I rushed down the steps and back down the main hallway to Radiology, passing the ER double doors on my way. Chase, the security guard, waved at me as I passed.

    “Hey Scarlet,” he said with a small, shy smile.

    I only nodded, more concerned with getting the upper GI ready on time than with chitchat.

    “You should talk to him,” Christy said. She nodded in Chase’s direction as I breezed by her and her piles of long, yellow ringlets.

    I shook my head, walking into the exam room. The familiar sound of my feet sticking to the floor began an equally familiar beat. Whatever they cleaned the floor with was supposed to sanitize the worst bacteria known to man, but it left behind a sticky residue. Maybe to remind us it was there—or that the floor needed to be mopped again. I pulled bottles of barium contrast from the upper cabinet, and filled the remaining space with water. I replaced the cap, and then shook the bottle to mix the powder and water into a disgusting slimy paste that smelled of bananas. “Don’t start. I’ve already told you no. He looks fifteen.”

    “He’s twenty-seven, and don’t be a shrew. He’s cute, and he’s dying for you to talk to him.”

    Her mischievous smile was infuriatingly contagious. “He’s a kid,” I said. “Go get the patient.”

    Christy smiled and left the room, and I made a mental note of everything I’d set on the table for Dr. Hayes. God, he was cranky; particularly on Mondays, and even more so during shitty weather.

    I was lucky enough to be somewhat on his good side. As a student, I had cleaned houses for the radiologists. It earned me decent money, and was perfect since I was in school forty hours a week at that time. The docs were hard asses in the hospital, but they helped me out more than anyone else while I was going through the divorce, letting me bring the girls to work, and giving me a little extra at Christmas and on birthdays.

    Dr. Hayes paid me well to drive to his escape from the city, Red Hill Ranch, an hour and a half away in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas to clean his old farmhouse. It was a long drive, but it served its purpose: No cell service. No Internet. No traffic. No neighbors.

    Finding the place on my own took a few tries until Halle made up a song with the directions. I could hear her tiny voice in my head, singing loudly and sweetly out the window.

    West on Highway 11

    On our way to heaven

    North on Highway 123

    123? 123!

    Cross the border

    That’s an order!

    Left at the white tower

    So Mom can clean the doctor’s shower

    Left at the cemetery

    Creepy . . . and scary!

    First right!

    That’s right!

    Red! Hill! Roooooooad!

    After that, we could make it there, rain or shine. I’d even mentioned a few times that it would be the perfect hideaway in case of an apocalypse. Jenna and I were sort of post-apocalyptic junkies, always watching end-of-the-world marathons and preparation television shows. We never canned chicken or built an underground tank in the woods, but it was entertaining to see the lengths other people went to.

    Dr. Hayes’s ranch would make the safest place to survive. The cupboards and pantry were always stocked with food, and the basement would make any gun enthusiast proud. The gentle hills kept the farmhouse somewhat inconspicuous, and wheat fields bordered three sides. The road was about fifty yards from the north side of the house, and on the other side of the red dirt was another wheat field. Other than the large maple tree in the back, visibility was excellent. Good for watching sunsets, bad for anyone trying to sneak in undetected.

    Christy opened the door and waited for the patient to enter. The young woman stepped just inside the door, thin, her eyes sunken and tired. She looked at least twenty pounds underweight.

    “This is Dana Marks, date of birth twelve, nine, eighty-nine. Agreed?” Christy said, turning to Dana.

    Dana nodded, the thin skin on her neck stretching over her tendons as she did so. Her skin was a sickly gray, highlighting the purple under her eyes.

    Christy handed the woman loose folds of thin blue fabric. “Just take this gown behind the curtain, there, and undress down to your underpants. They don’t have any rhinestones or anything, do they?”

    Dana shook her head, seeming slightly amused, and then slowly made her way behind the curtain.

    Christy picked up a film and walked to the X-ray table in the middle of the room, sliding it into the Bucky tray between the table surface and the controls. “You should at least say hi.”

    “Hi.”

    “Not me, dummy. To Chase.”

    “Are we still talking about him?”

    Christy rolled her eyes. “Yes. He’s cute, has a good job, has never been married, no kids. Did I mention cute? All that dark hair . . . and his eyes!”

    “They’re brown. Go ahead. I dare you to play up brown.”

    “They’re not just brown. They’re like a golden honey brown. You better jump on that now before you miss your chance. Do you know how many single women in this hospital are salivating over that?”

    “I’m not worried about it.”

    Christy smiled and shook her head, and then her expression changed once her pager went off. She pulled it from her waistline and glanced down. “Crap. I have to move the C-arm from OR 2 for Dr. Pollard’s case. Hey, I might have to leave a little early to take Kate to the orthodontist. Do you think you could do my three o’clock surgery? It’s easy peasy.”

    “What is it?”

    “Just a port. Basically C-arm babysitting.”

    The C-arm, named for its shape, showed the doctors where they were in the body in real time. Because the machine emitted radiation, it was our jobs as X-ray techs to stand there, push, pull, and push the button during surgery. That, and make sure the doctor didn’t over-radiate the patient. I didn’t mind running it, but the damn thing was heavy. Christy would have done the same for me, though, so I nodded. “Sure. Just give me the pager before you leave.”

    Christy grabbed a lead apron, and then left me to go upstairs. “You’re awesome. I wrote Dana’s history on the requisition sheet. See you later! Get Chase’s number!”

    Dana walked slowly from the bathroom, and I gestured for her to sit in a chair beside the table.

    “Did your doctor explain this procedure to you?”

    Dana shook her head. “Not really.”