(13) Reverse Zombies

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"I need to leave," says a strangled voice behind me. It's Calico J.

"Go," I say without turning around. "Ditzy and I can investigate."

Something in me has calmed. It always does, in crisis situations. My heart still punches me in the chest, but my head is clear, and I can breathe more easily. I glance over my shoulder as Calico J makes his escape, and meet Ditzy's eye. She's staring at the body with eyes wide, and it's hard to tell in the dark, but I think she's paler than usual.

"Unless you need to go, too," I say.

I can manage alone, even if I don't want to. Something protective in me rises whenever someone else in my vicinity can't complete a task that I have the mental resources for.

Ditzy, though, shakes her head. "I can stay," she says, and her voice squeaks like a teenage boy's. I see her go red even in the flat light of my headlamp and the reflection of her flashlight's beam off the wall. She clears her throat and repeats, "I can stay," in a much steadier tone.

I've only once seen Ditzy scared. That I can remember, anyway, unless she's just good at hiding it. She's the person in our group who's taken down more Sleepers than the rest of us combined, and she's even said her mother was the first of those. Not that they had the best relationship before Red Thursday. I don't know anyone who does who calls their own mother by her first name.

But that doesn't matter, really. Ditzy has killed Sleepers, if the catatonic state they fall back into when lethally injured counts as death. At least one of them was no longer breathing. Each time, Ditzy simply turned away and went back to her business without so much as a waver. No shake in her voice. She didn't even go pale. Whatever this is, it's spooked her.

I nod and turn back to the body. Either way, it means I'm going to be the one responsible for investigating, unless Ditzy regains her usual composure in time to help. I'm not sure touching a Redding-dead person is a good idea when we don't know if it spreads, but I've hauled around enough Sleepers that I'm willing to take a risk for the sake of information. We know nothing about the next stages of this apocalypse. If it really is progressing, information could be the difference between life and death.

I hook my hands under the woman's arms and pull her away from the wall to check for Redding. The smallest thread of it smears the floor as the body moves. It slithers back into a crack almost immediately. Preserved. It's as good as confirmation.

The woman isn't heavy, and it's no struggle to lay her out on a bare patch of floor. I bite my lip. Blood and visible injuries don't phase me—they never have—but there's still something sickening about the patches of Redding that coat her skin. Maybe it's their passing similarity to bruises, and the implications that would ensue if they were. The woman wears sleeves of them. Her hands are dark red and blotchy, and red creeps up her neck and across her face, adding an extra layer of gruesome to its twisted expression. Even the lines where her shirt hikes up above her waistband and her rucked-up pants expose her ankles show the same red.

If those were bruises, her death would expose the depths of human brutality. But aside from the self-inflicted scratches, there's no sign of other injuries. Like the Redding itself killed her instead of putting her to sleep. Her phone lends credence to that theory: thirty-six new messages, but not a single call.

Her phone was out the window anyway. I drop to a crouch beside the body and rummage through the woman's pockets. I find her room key almost immediately.

"Do motels like this only issue one key per room?" I ask.

Ditzy doesn't reply. I glance over my shoulder. She's watching me with an expression I'm more used to from Patrick or even Calico J: a kind of helpless waiting for me to draw conclusions or tell her what to do.

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