George admired the fit of his tuxedo. He shrugged his shoulders and turned in front of the mirror, liking the way the white dress shirt and black coat and tie made him look sophisticated and handsome. Prom night was a big deal and would be the highlight of George’s young life. Some teenagers chose to go to college, get married, have kids, but George knew that none of those events would ever have any significance for him. He hated school, and the thought of bringing of children in a world where over half the population wasn’t even alive freaked him out a little bit.
While he wouldn’t mind getting married, he knew it wasn’t in the cards. He loved Marie, and he knew Marie loved him, but she wasn’t interested in marriage. Not anymore.
Prom would be his high point, so he was going to make the most of it. His parents had rented a limo for George and his friends, and they’d be cruising around town before the dance itself. The rest of the guys would have dates, which was fine with George. He knew he’d be flying solo, but it didn’t matter. He had a date with Marie after the prom.
His parents took pictures just before he left, their eyes sparkling with pride and sadness that their son had become a young man so fast. “Now we know you’re old enough to make your own decisions, George,” his father said sternly. “But you should know that your mother and I love you very much. Never forget that.”
“Thanks, Dad.” With final hugs for both of them, George was out the door and into the limo.
He directed the driver to his friends’ houses. Soon the limo was packed with prom goers laughing and taking pictures. The girls were dressed in glitter and satin, while the boys wore tuxes and ties. These were George’s friends, yet they’d be leaving him soon. They’d graduate and go off to the school. Of their whole group, George was the only one who’d made the decision to stay.
At the dance, George danced with other girls, girls who were his friends and girls he hadn’t known well. They were nicer than George had ever given them credit for to his surprise. Ronnie joined him for some of the fast dances. His school guidance counselor even danced with him one time.
After the dance, she said, “George, are you sure you won’t even consider going to college?”
“I’ve made up my mind, Miss Taylor, but thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”
“I wish I could have done more, but I understand your choice.” She hugged him and headed off to visit with the rest of the chaperones.
Towards the end of the night, George and Ronnie snuck out the back door to have a smoke.
“I can’t believe this is it,” Ronnie said. “You and Marie? Tonight?”
“Tonight’s the night,” George confirmed. “I wish she could have been here.”
“Yeah, she would have had fun. But things happen, right?”
“That’s for sure.” George took a drag on his cigarette. “I’m a little nervous. We’ve been planning this for so long, and now it’s time, and I’m not sure if I’m making the right decision. “
Ronnie shrugged. “No one knows these days. I don’t think anyone knew before the Rising either. You just did what you thought was right and didn’t question it until later. You’re doing what’s best for you, George. I think that’s all anyone expects.”
” You could’ve been valedictorian, Ronnie.”
“No way. That would have meant showing up for class.” The two of them laughed and finished their cigarettes.
The night ended and George said good-bye to his friends. Most of them were going to after-prom parties, but George had declined, knowing Marie would be waiting for him. It was late enough that her parents had already gone to bed, and he palmed the key he’d had specially made. It was the only way he could see her since her parents no longer invited him to the house.
George asked the limo driver to drop him off two blocks from Marie’s house. There was enough light from the moon and street lamps, and he’d listened to the forecast before getting out of the vehicle. No wandering Risers had been reported.
Marie’s two-story house was dark except for the floodlights that lit the entire backyard. The house sat several hundred yards from the road amidst trees and brush. Careful not to make a sound, George made his way through the shadows to the cellar door. Kneeling down, he quickly used his key in the lock, keeping his ears open for sounds of approach. Marie’s family had always been deep sleepers, but folks had changed their sleeping habits in the last few years. Marie’s dad owned guns, and George knew he wouldn’t hesitate to use one.
This wasn’t the first time George had been to see Marie. He knew where the light was and which step was weaker than the rest. He was familiar with the sounds of her breathing and knew that once she saw him, she’d growl and try to break the bars of her cage to get to him.
Sure enough, George had barely stepped off the final step when Marie crashed against the iron bars, arms outstretched to grab him. She growled and grunted. Her eyes were wild, her skin grey. Her hair had begun falling out and George couldn’t help but notice that her lips, lips that had once been sweet and full, had started to decay, revealing yellowing teeth and black gums.
“Ssh,” George said, calmly. “It’s okay, Marie. It’s just me.” Marie continued to bang against the cage with no recognition.
Marie had once been beautiful and intelligent. She’d been bitten by an old man who’d been bitten by his wife who’d simply came out of her grave three years after she’d died of lung cancer. Marie had been a volunteer, and had been going to the old man’s house to clean and cook his dinner for him. Their small town had supposedly been a Free Zone, but the toxins that had caused the Rising in other parts of the world had somehow found their way in.
Like most families, Marie’s parents locked her up and kept her in the cellar. Starving a Riser was the best way to kill them completely. Usually they’d die on their own if not fed, and their remains could be burned. But George couldn’t stand it, couldn’t bear the thought of his girlfriend starving. So he’d snuck in at night to feed her raw meat cuts from the butcher.
George had thought long and hard about what he wanted, and he’d made up his mind. He wanted to be with Marie. The pain of not being with her was too much for him to handle.
As Marie pushed and grunted against the bars, George removed another key, this one small and gold. It had taken some research to find a match to Marie’s cage, but he’d found a place online that sold them cheap. George figured the company would eventually be removed for security reasons, but he thanked his lucky stars he’d found them before that happened.
The key worked. The cage door swung open and George opened his arms as Marie ran towards him. As he embraced her, he felt her teeth tear into the flesh at his throat. Blood spurted down his tux and bubbled up into his throat. There was pain, but George welcomed it as a small price to pay to hold his girlfriend again. She smelled like decaying meat, but he knew he wouldn’t care for much longer. He knew that by letting her feed from him, he’d become a Riser too, and then they’d be able to communicate, and he could tell her again how much he loved her.
They fell together on the hard cellar ground, George smiling through spatter that now covered his face while Marie made a meal out of her high school sweetheart.
When George woke up, he found himself in a cage with an open door. The room was dark, but he could see light coming down from the ceiling. He didn’t know what he was doing there. In fact, he didn’t even know who he was. All he felt was an all consuming hunger.
Instinctively, he shambled up the stairs, led by nothing more than his need to eat something fresh and alive.