And this wasn’t the time to think about that. I turned back to the row of ornamental plants, watching as the last stragglers of the sleepwalker mob shambled into the hospital lobby. The screams were starting to taper off. I was willing to bet it wasn’t because the screamers had decided that the sleepwalkers weren’t all that big of a deal.
“Now,” hissed Fang, and shoved through the plants, knocking two of them over and creating a channel for me and Nathan to pass through. True to his word, Fang didn’t look back, and so neither did I. I just ran.
The sleepwalkers weren’t that focused. I could see them turning as I ran past, their blank faces betraying no curiosity or confusion. Only their failure to grab and hold us gave their bewilderment away. They couldn’t react quickly to changes in their environment, and we could: that was our big advantage over them. We could run away and they didn’t know how to follow. They just knew that something was happening, and that they wanted to devour it, because they wanted to devour everything.
Nathan pulled up even with me, trying to grab for my hand. I shook my head and kept my hands close to my body, focusing on the act of running. I understood what he was offering, and I appreciated it more than I could have possibly said, but I couldn’t let him pull me along. If we were both taken because he slowed enough to help me, what good would that do?
Ahead of us, Fang began to slow. We caught up to him, and I finally glanced back, seeing the sleepwalkers that had made the decision to turn as they shambled after us. There weren’t many of them yet, but there would be soon. My pheromones would see to that.
So there was danger coming from behind. I turned back to the front, and gasped. I couldn’t stop myself.
The red Corolla was there, exactly as Fang had described it, and Daisy was inside. Whatever mechanism she had used to open the doors—stolen keys or jimmied locks—didn’t matter nearly as much as the small horde of sleepwalkers surrounding her. They clawed at the windows and slapped the glass, and if they were anything like every other sleepwalker in the world, they’d break through soon. She was trapped. They’d devour her, and then they’d go looking for something else to eat. Something else like us.
Fang muttered something in a language I didn’t understand. That didn’t matter. There aren’t any real language barriers when it comes to profanity. He looked at Daisy in the little red car like she represented the end of the world, and I realized what I had to do. I didn’t want to do it. Nathan wasn’t going to like it. I didn’t see any other choice.
It only took me a few seconds to shed my lab coat. The sweater that had given me so much trouble going on was just as much trouble coming off: it snagged on my ponytail, forcing me to dance in place in order to get it off. That was what finally caught Nathan’s attention. He turned, eyes widening behind his glasses as he saw what I was doing.
“Sal?” He sounded bemused. That was all right. Me stripping in a hospital parking lot was pretty weird. “What’s going on?”
“I’m exposing as much skin as I can,” I said, finally yanking the sweater all the way off. I dropped it on the ground. It was never going to find its way back to its original owner, and I felt bad about that, but it was for the greater good. “Pheromones come through skin, right? So exposing more skin should mean more pheromones.”
“Yes?” Fang looked at me, his expression of resigned despair lightening a little as he took in my bare arms and the sweaty V of exposed skin above my hospital gown. I think he realized what I was going to do. He’d been with Dr. Cale for a long time. He had to have dealt with situations like this, or at least in the same family.
“Make sure he runs.” The sentence came out calmer than I expected. I leaned up, kissing Nathan on the cheek before he could react, and then I bolted toward the car, waving my arms in the air and shouting. “Hey! Hey, sleepwalkers, hey! Hey, it’s your cousin! Sal! I’m right here and I think I’m better than you and what are you going to do about it, huh?”
My exact words probably didn’t matter, since the sleepwalkers were too far gone to understand what I was saying, but they understood that someone was yelling nearby, and as they turned and their nostrils started to flare, they understood that the someone smelled subtly appealing. They understood that they wanted me, more than anything else in the world, they wanted me. That wanting might have been the first thing they really understood since they’d eaten their way into the brains of their human hosts, and once they’d come to understand it, they couldn’t deny it. It was too powerful. One by one, the sleepwalkers that had been surrounding the car pulled away, deserting their captive prize in favor of shambling after me.
They didn’t run, thankfully; they weren’t coordinated enough for that yet, and they might never be. But they shambled with remarkable speed, and many of them were taller than me, which meant that for some of them, each of their unsteady steps was the equivalent of two of mine. So I kept running, and they kept following, their numbers growing as more sleepwalkers shambled over from the direction of the hospital, or from the back of the parking lot.
I heard Nathan shout something behind me—a prayer, a plea, it didn’t matter, because there was a horde between me and him, and I had to keep going. If I stopped, they’d catch me, and they’d rend me limb from limb in their eagerness to have me. I was the perfect meal, the ultimate prize, and the only consolation I had was that they’d probably hurt each other getting to me.