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By moving the sheet, Chris had exposed the body's torso and pelvic area. The face was still covered, but I could tell right away that it was Mr. Hershel.

His body had been sliced open from his neck all the way down to his pelvis. His rib cage was pried open with a metal spreader. I hadn't ever seen human organs on display like that. The scent of wet offal rose from the cavity like heat. 

But that wasn't the worst part. 

Nothing was missing between Mr. Hershel's legs like the last body I'd seen, but the pair of things that you would normally find there had expanded into two huge, baseball-sized spheres of flesh. The skin around each one was tight, like a balloon, and they were both darkened to a deep blackish purple.

"Oh my God." I took a step back.

Chris uncapped a scalpel from his breast pocket.

"Stage three is bad," he said. "The host body starts to decay, movement becomes awkward, personality and memory fades, and people start to get, well, kinda rapey. It's the last chance for the parasite to pass its eggs to a new host, so the reproduction impulse goes into overdrive. At this point, in the case of male hosts," Chris nodded at Mr. Hershel, "the parasite has filled the reproductive organs with its own eggs, suspended in a kind of honey—a lot like bees' honey. The new larvae will feed on the honey after the eggs are transfered into the new host, where they hatch, and start the process all over again."

Chris carefully positioned the scalpel over one of the bloated spheres of flesh between Mr. Hershel's legs.

I held my breath. I didn't think I could watch this.

With the tip of the blade, he punctured the bruised skin. Immediately, a viscous, yellow substance oozed from the puncture.

Chris held a droplet on the tip of the scalpel blade, displaying it as well as possible in the granary's dim light.

"If you were to taste it, it would taste a lot like honey," he said, then he laughed. "Not that I recommend tasting it."

Right away I thought about how I'd kissed Bryce in the coffin, and how I'd spit out his saliva as an afterthought. But was I still at risk? What if Bryce was infected? What if I'd felt so attracted to him because he'd been releasing the pheromones Chris mentioned? After all, who, in a normal state of mind, would do anything so strange as to make out with someone inside a buried coffin?

"How contagious is it?" I asked. "I mean, if you kissed someone, say, would you get infected?"

"Probably not." Chris shrugged casually. "Not as far as we know, anyway. The infection can only be passed if you sleep with someone who's infected. We're pretty sure they have to climax, too, in order to pass on the parasite. And it works both ways. Women can pass it to men just as easily as men can pass it to women. So, kids, always use protection!"

He gave me and Ian an ironic thumbs up.

"Otherwise, you'll end up like this guy." Chris nodded at Mr. Hershel's motionless body as he pulled the sheet back over it. "Or, worse, like that guy you two found at the high school." He winced. "Poor guy cut off his own twizzler when he couldn't stop thinking about forcing himself on cheerleaders. Didn't help him any though. He finally expired and fell through that window above the showers. When the parasite's life cycle completes, the colony dies, and the host expires too. But the only way to stop the process before a host's natural expiration is to destroy the amygdala. That's why the Home Guard doesn't have any qualms about shooting TGV positives in the head, straight through the center of the brain. They could keep them isolated until they expire naturally, but that's too costly, and, according to them, too risky. An ice pick in the ear would be neater, but the rangers like their guns. That's why they get away with it, though. Because TGV positives are technically already dead."

Setting aside Chris's callousness, I was trying my best to understand.

"But how are they dead?" I asked. "I mean, I get that they've technically died, and that the parasite takes over the brain. But if a person is awake, and has the same personality, and memories, and thoughts, how is that any different than being alive? Especially in the first stages?"

Chris shrugged. "Well, it's not any different. Not really. That's why I defected from the hospital when the Home Guard took it over. That's why I'm stuck hiding out in this granary. I don't see how it's okay to go around whacking innocent people SS-style. Even if they are already dead."

Now that Chris had finished his explanation, Ian touched my arm solemnly.

"Ash, I have to show you something," he whispered. "I didn't think you'd be ready for this, not after everything you've been through today, but now I'm thinking maybe you are."

I braced myself. I wasn't actually so sure that I was ready for anything else today. . . 

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DEAD IN BED By Bailey Simms: The Complete First BookWhere stories live. Discover now