Ryan was finishing up a session with one of his favorite students, Donte Jackson, when his cell phone rang on his desk. He’d been the guidance counselor at Bristol High School for just over two years, and in that time he’d trained everyone he knew not to call his cell phone during school hours.
“I’m real sorry about that, Donte,” he said, swiping the ‘ignore’ key on the phone to send the call directly to voicemail. He didn’t even look to see that the call was from his wife, Kelly. “I think you have a good chance at getting those grants, and I think you’ll be really successful at Tennessee.”
“Mr. Fullerton, if those grants don’t come through, I won’t be able to go,” said Donte.
“You meet all the qualifications and you’re just the kind of student they’re looking for. I think you’ll be fine,” said Ryan, trying to give the young man some confidence. Donte was a star scholar, had managed to stay out of trouble his entire high school career and had all the right extracurricular activities, including raising best-in-show sheep for two years running in the 4H club. Ryan spent his first year on the job trying to convince Donte he could go to college, and had spent the last year helping him decide which one was best for him. Ryan really loved his job, and it showed in his interactions with his students.
“Thanks, Mr. Fullerton. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” said Donte standing up to head back to class.
“I’m going to miss you next year,” replied Ryan, also standing up to shake the boy’s hand. Ryan stood almost six inches taller than Donte, but then Ryan was used to being taller than everyone. “Have a good day, and if I don’t see you before, good luck at the farm show this weekend. I’ll see you next Tuesday if I don’t run into you at the show.” Ryan always ended his weekly meetings with students with a reminder of the next one. Most of the students looked forward to their time with their guidance counselor.
Donte walked out of the tiny interior office as Ryan sat back down and picked up his phone. He hit the voicemail icon and listened as his wife freaked out about something. Frustrated at not being able to understand her message, he hit three to delete the message somewhere in the middle, and dialed her number.
“Ryan! Oh my God, Ryan, thank God you’re ok,” she said before it rang even one time on Ryan’s end.
“Kelly, what’s wrong?”
“The hospital is full of people. They’re sick, Ry, and they’re dying,” she said, her voice clear.
“What do you mean? What’s happened?”
“I don’t know. No one knows. Old man Hillsboro came in with his wife, said something about getting bitten by some stranger in the diner, and he was running a crazy fever. The next thing I know, he leaned over and bit his wife! Bit a piece right out of her! Now there’s twenty or thirty people here, and the Broadmore Home is calling saying they need help. They’re saying the folks in the home are eating each other. Ryan, somethings happening. I’m–”
“Kelly, darlin’,” Ryan cut her off, “Is it bad enough that you need to get out of there? Do you feel like you’re in danger? If you are, get on out of there and go home. I’ll be home in an hour, and we can worry about the trouble at work together.”
Kelly was not prone to overreaction, and that had Ryan worried. If she was this panicked, there was something really odd going on. Kelly was one of those good “salt of the earth” women. When Ryan’s father had cut his finger off sharpening the combine blades, Kelly was the one who took charge of the situation. She ordered Ryan to get him to her car while she dug through the dirt to find his finger. It was because of her calm head and quick thinking the doctors were able to reattach the finger.
“Come on home, Kelly,” Ryan said. “On second thought, I’ll cancel my last appointment and be there to meet you.”
“Okay, I love you. I’ll see you in a few minutes,” said Kelly.
“I love you too darlin’. We’ll see this through.”
Ryan stood up as he was saying goodbye, locked his office door behind him and was halfway to the principal’s office before he stuck his phone back in his pocket. He knew the rules about using his phone in the building, but this had him pretty rattled.
“Miss Jo,” said Ryan, sticking his head in the administrative offices. “Can you email Katey Dickenson’s 5th period teacher and ask her to let Katey know I need to reschedule our appointment? Something’s come up with Kelly, and I gotta go.”
“Okay, Ryan. Hope everything is Ok.”
“I think it’ll be fine. Some big ol’ dust up at the hospital’s got her shaken up, but I’m sure it’s nothing,” Ryan lied.
He worried about his wife as he drove home. He knew he didn’t really need to; she could take care of herself, but she was his whole life. His fear of losing her was probably bigger than any danger she was in, she had her glock and knew how to use it if necessary. She had a good, solid truck and knew all the back roads and side roads in Bristol county. The two of them had spent years exploring all those roads looking for good make-out spots in high school.
About halfway home, Ryan woke from his daydream of those evenings in high school just in time to slam the brake pedal to the floor. His old blue Ford F250 screeched to a sideways halt. Ryan jumped out to take a look at the still steaming car that had run into a tree. The whole engine compartment of a red Toyota Camry was folded around a mid-sized pin oak tree, and the shattered windshield was laying on the ground beside it.
When he got to the drivers side of the car, he thought he saw signs of movement inside. Ryan pulled on the handle to open the door, but it was wedged shut. In a panic, he crawled onto the hood of the car to look in the hole where the windshield had been. As he stuck his head in the car, the drivers hands locked on to his head and pulled. Ryan heaved backwards and as the drivers teeth snapped shut, he landed butt first on the hood of the car with his back against the tree.
The driver clawed and pulled at the frame of the car, slicing her hands to shreds on the shards of broken windshield still attached.
“Ma’am, stay still!” Ryan yelled, reaching in his pocket for his phone.
He dialed 9-1-1 and held the phone to his ear. A second later he heard the telephone company tones, followed by an “All circuits are busy. Please hang up and try your call again” message.
“Ma’am, I’m going to go for help. Try to stay still,” Ryan yelled as he ran back to his truck.
Ryan sped off as fast as his truck would accelerate, flying down the roads he’d been driving since he was ten years old. He had to get to Kelly, and make sure she was safe, and he had to find someone to help that lady.
The old blue Ford veered right onto a dirt road, heading up the mountain. The first house on the road was Mrs. Wiggins house – she was always home. On these old country roads, houses didn’t have driveways and yards as much as a general area where people parked. Ryan stopped his truck a few feet from the porch, hopped out and banged on the front door.
“Mrs. Wiggins! Mrs. Wiggins, there’s been an accident. Can you call 911?”
Ryan breathed a sigh of relief when the old woman came tottering over towards the door. Her husband had died back when Ryan was in high school, and all three of her kids had moved out of the state. Ryan had taken to checking up on her a couple of times a week, just to see if she needed something, or to mow her lawn. She had a home healthcare nurse every other day, and the nurses car was parked in the driveway.
Ryan opened the door as she approached, but she didn’t stop. The little old woman grabbed the hand that was holding the door open and pulled it towards her mouth. As she did, Ryan saw a large open wound on her neck. He yanked his hand back, pulling the old woman on top of him, and both of them landed in a pile on her front porch.
The young man scrambled to get out from under the old lady, but she was holding on to his head for all she was worth. She brought her mouth close to his face. Ryan forced his hands out from under her and held her off his face with his hands on her throat. Old Mrs. Wiggins drooled a little onto Ryans face, and was much stronger than someone her age should have been.
“Mrs. Wiggins! You have to stop. Stop! Don’t bite me, STOP!” he yelled, getting louder with each “stop.” She continued to push for his face, as if the only thing in her head was getting her teeth on him. He let go of her neck with one hand and reached his other arm out for anything he could find, settling on a wobbly brick that bordered her porch. The high school guidance counselor worked the brick free, and brought it up to her face and pushed with it.
“Ma’am, you gotta get off me. I need to get home to Kelly, and there’s been an accident.”
The old woman kept coming, even with a brick pushing into her teeth. That’s when Ryan noticed the healthcare nurse, a man in his late thirties, was coming out of the house. He was walking crazy, and holding his hands out towards Ryan. When he got close, he fell to his knees and grabbed at the pinned man’s leg. Ryan kicked his leg and gave one huge heave to throw Mrs. Wiggins off of him. She landed on the nurse, and the two creatures struggled to get untangled and stand up. Ryan dropped his brick and ran for the truck. Something was really wrong, and he needed to get home to Kelly.
The old Ford spun its wheels as Ryan flew up the hill, towards his log cabin at the top of the mountain. Ryan bounced along the rutted dirt road, across the wooden bridge he’d help rebuild last year when an especially wet spring caused a mudslide that took out the old one and deposited it in the creek thirty feet below. The bridge was only fourteen feet long but without it, he’d had to drive nearly an hour out of his way to get around the mountain. Ryan’s land started on the opposite side of the bridge. He lived on his family’s old plot. The land had been in his family for hundreds of years before his grandfather moved everyone down to the farm in the valley.
When Ryan took possession of the land, the only thing on it was an old falling down pole barn. Ryan, his dad, and Kelly’s dad had built a beautiful 2500 square foot, three bedroom three floor log cabin on the top of the mountain, looking out over the valley. Kelly’s dad was a building contractor, and had given them the foundation and the log cabin kit for their wedding. The assembly was easy enough. Ryan was a capable plumber, and his dad had been an electrician in the Army. With the rough-in Kelly’s dad had done, everything went smoothly and the home passed all the appropriate inspections throughout the building process with ease. It was a solid, beautiful home, and Ryan couldn’t wait to get back to it, and the safety it offered. He couldn’t wait for Kelly to get back.
Ryan eased his truck into its parking spot, and ran for the house. He left the side-door open, but his first steps were to lock all three other entrances on the ground level. He pulled the drapes closed over the French doors that led to the lower deck, and went upstairs to wait for Kelly, who should have only been a few minutes past him.
But she wasn’t.
Nearly two hours later, he saw Kelly walking up the driveway, just behind Mrs. Wiggins and her nurse. She had the same stumbling gait as the pair he’d run into earlier, and Ryan knew she’d been bitten, without even seeing a mark.
Everything in his world stopped and Ryan felt his heart in his throat. His eyes focused on hers and even from this distance, he could tell that the light she carried that he so adored had been snuffed out. As he watched her, his knees grew weak and he fought to remain standing. In an instant, every single moment they had shared flooded his mind. Ryan had first seen her on the track and field ring in high school. Even in 95 degrees and after she had been sweating for at least at hour, Kelly was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Their relationship ran deep – often being called “disgustingly cute” because of how perfect they were together.
Ryan had fallen to his knees – his world moved in slow motion now. Hot, silent tears streamed down his face.
It had just been their anniversary the week prior and Ryan wanted to make sure it was something special. He had taken her to the river where they had first kissed, bringing a picnic lunch, white wine, chocolate covered strawberries and roses with him. The blanket had already been laid out and the edges were all lined with white pillar candles. It had been his goal for her to cry with joy. She did.
Everything about her had quickly become his entire world. He knew that because of her, he had striven to become a better man. To be that same solid rock for her as she was for him and as Ryan’s body touched the floor, he remembered how soft her skin was against his palms. The way her skin smelled. How crazy her hair looked in the morning. The way her lips moved as she laughed – oh, how he loved her laugh. How her fingertips would trace his jawline and the soft way she would say “I love you” before their lips would touch.
A body-wracking sob exploded out of Ryan’s mouth and he curled up into a fetal position. They had everything planned and knew where they wanted to end up in life. Ryan had often spoke of them growing old and sitting together on this porch, still holding hands the way they always would. As a pair, they would be old and grey but still forever, endlessly, hopelessly in love. Just like the baby they had so tragically lost, that future would never happen. The nursery would sit, empty. Her side of the bed would no longer carry her warmth. Her smell would eventually drain out of her clothes and of the linens on the bed. And as he sat there, he realized the last words he said to her. We’ll see this through. But they didn’t see it though. He had gotten there too late and now he couldn’t save her.
“God, no. No, no, this can’t be happening. Not Kelly…not my Kelly.” Ryan was muttering to himself over and over, trying to form some sense of what had happened. But there was no sense to this.