Stephen Carter dreamed of writing from an early age. Twenty-plus years producing in Hollywood instilled a sense of pacing while teaching him to think visually. Stephen has written articles, short stories, and screenplays. He recently began his debut novel, GERM LINE: REVOLUTION, an adaptation of his screenplay, GERM LINE. Stephen lives in Oregon, Ohio with his wife and their crazy-ass dog. You can find him on his website, on Facebook, or on Twitter (@stevecarter1).
By the time he stopped running his lungs were on fire, his chest so constricted it seemed his rib cage would implode. His temples pounded the rhythm of his heart, thudding at a machine gun rate, and his mouth was filled with cottony corroded copper. His feet were shredded and his face, torso and legs crisscrossed with cuts so numerous he was a solid sheen of red, appearing oily black in the dim moonlight. Even his cock was torn, his scrotum punctured and seeping.
Only his eyes had miraculously escaped damage from the thick vegetation through which he blindly pursued freedom. Wide, white-rimmed blue orbs scanned the darkness for an avenue, a path, any opening. He was in a small clearing, the first he’d crossed since effecting his escape. He wanted to bend, clutch his knees, and gather his breath but there was no time for self-indulgence. He looked up to get his bearings, dismay washing over him; only grayish darkness above, the stars masked by tropical cloud cover.
They would be on him soon if he didn’t get moving, but stumbling blindly through the jungle could kill him just as quickly as if he sat down and waited for them to find him. This was not the tame, wide-aisled jungles of Tarzan and Indiana Jones. This was the Panamanian jungle, with some of the thickest vegetation in the world, filled with poisonous insects, spiders, snakes, and reptiles. Death could strike from any quarter. He prayed one of the big cats had not caught his scent and was silently stalking him. Though death in that manner would be preferable to facing the hell that pursued him.
He needed direction.
He fought his instinct to run and closed his eyes, tuning his ears to the sounds of the forest. The “whoop” of the coral frog, the clicks and chirps of crickets and katydids, the buzz and whirs of flying insects. Holler monkeys roared like lions. The scurry of a rodent, underbrush, off to his left.
He slowed his breathing. His pulse rate dropped. His being shifted sharply into focus. He was cold. The temperature hadn’t dipped below 75° but loss of blood was stealing his warmth. A jagged tear in his side poured blood, a flap of skin the size of a maple leaf lay folded against his hip. Mosquitos and chiggers feasted on his body. He heard the roar of his pulse, smelled the metallic aroma of his open wounds, and tasted the fungal rot of the jungle floor. He was hungry, thirsty, tired and weak. Though well-trained and in peak condition, his strength had been sapped. Sheer will alone kept him on his feet.
His neck hurt—No, burned. No. Both. A throbbing, burning, searing ache that seeped to his spinal chord and permeated his jaw, overshadowing all other injuries. Fear had never served him, and panic would never overtake him, but a nagging tickle of concern invaded his thoughts, chilling his bowels. If he let it fester it would consume his mind, milking all his precious time.
He blocked it out to concentrate, to listen . . . to hear—
There! To his right, forty-five degrees. Distant, perhaps two klicks: Water. A river. An escape route.
He plunged into the jungle toward the source of the sound, slashing his left shoulder on the spines of a black palm. He ignored the assault, focusing on the goal. Pain was irrelevant, only serving as a reminder he was still alive. Still one step ahead.
He vowed that if he made it out he would visit his mother. Spend time with her. Perhaps convince her to join A.A. She was a good, smart woman, but she was a drunk and that made her mean and stupid. Whether she joined the program or not, he needed to see her, needed to tell her that he loved her. It had been too long. He’d look up Kristina too. If she was still single and hadn’t popped out a litter of dirt munchers. He could see her lopsided grin, hear her big laugh and smell her TRESemmé hair.
Maybe they’d get married, have some dirt munchers of their own. They shared a once-in-a-lifetime love forged in youth and purity, tempered in friendship and forbidden sex. But he had run away like a scared little boy, afraid of commitment, and routine, and stagnation. He chased adventure as a substitute for substance.
Marine Staff Sergeant William (Billy) Pierce had joined the marines at seventeen. He’d learned how to fight, how to kill, how to die, but he had never learned how to live. Now, he wanted to live. He wanted to live a dull, normal life with his quirky wife with the lopsided grin and a house full of slobbering dirt munchers. He wanted a boring job with a mortgaged ranch-style home and a rusty pick-up. He wanted a man cave with a 60” television to watch football with his asshole friends. Maybe he’d get a dog. A big, stupid dog that ate its own shit and knocked him down every time he came home because it was too dumb to realize he’d only been gone five minutes. Maybe he’d join a club, the Rotary, Kiwanis or the Elks, where they held annual fundraisers and had dinner dances where everyone complained about the rubbery chicken and overcooked rosemary potatoes.
He wanted all that more than anything. If he made it out alive he promised himself he would go home. Back to the one place he swore he would never see again. Because he knew now that nothing else mattered. Life was too short. Shit could go sideways before you could blink.
And it had. It had all gone sideways so quickly. He’d been leading an incursion to ferret out smugglers running drugs and guns from Colombia into Panama, destined for the United States. The squad of ten consisted of U.S. marines and Panamanian security forces. Their mission was to halt the activity at the border, shutting it down. Meaning, if necessary, kill everyone involved.
Now all of his men were dead and he had barely escaped with his life.
Onward he plunged through the dense jungle. It wasn’t fear that drove him, it was survival. Someone had to live. Someone had to remember. But first he had to forget. There would be inquiries, so he would tell a story about being ambushed by the smugglers. They would believe that. What they wouldn’t believe was the truth. No one would. So he would go home and forget. Forget their capture, forget his imprisonment, forget the death, and the blood, and the screaming, and the horror. Until he was alone, in the middle of the night. Then he would remember and hug his knees, and shake and cry because his soul burned with anguish. Because death came in so many flavors.
Now, there was no time for that. He had no idea what time it was, but it had to be near dawn. He was seeing more clearly, able to avoid running into trees and tripping over roots. He no longer felt the burn of his cuts, and the throbbing in his side was gone, but the pain in his neck was reaching crescendo. His temples pounded as if his head would explode, but on he ran.
He was close, the roar of the river loud. He redoubled his speed, ducking a branch, leaping a rotting log, avoiding a tree—
Then the bottom fell out. One moment running on terra firma, the next he was plunging downward, pinwheeling his arms. He fell forty feet, landing hard, his legs breaking the fall, the fall breaking his legs. The left sustained a compound fracture, his thighbone punched through the skin. He waited for the pain to come. Waited to bleed out. Waited for death. Three feet from the river’s edge. Ooo-Rah!
The pain came, not from his legs, but from his neck, head, and spine. Pain so severe it contorted his body in a backward arc, pulling his lips into a tight, rictal grimace, clawing his hands and bowing his feet. Spasms wracked his body, his head pounding the dirt: WHAP-WHAP- WHAP-WHAP! Mercifully, he passed out.
When he woke, he saw the stars. It was still dark, but he could see as clearly as if it were day. They were standing over him. Six tall, white, angular men—No, not men. Something else. Not human. Not any more. Though their lips were still, he could hear their conversation:
“He has turned.”
“He is meat.”
“No more. He has turned.”
Then they were gone. Disappearing into the shadows like smoky wraiths.
He sat up. The pain was gone. No cuts, no headache, no bone sticking from his thigh. He rose to his feet, fixating on a single idea: He must get home. To see his mother.
First, he must feed.