Project RD – Part Two
By: Michelle E. Lowe

—Step Two—

Before I was released from my bed, they strapped the restricting mask on me first.

"Try taking it off and I'll destroy you," Shelton warned vehemently.

This time, Blackwood said nothing in return. This was where his job started.

He and Phil the Collector brought me to the showers not far from my recovery room. Phil unstrapped my mask, but not without another stern warning from Shelton to behave. I didn't budge or say anything. I wanted clean warm water so much I hardly noticed them watching me when I finally stood beneath the spigot. My body felt stiff, even though I could move just fine. I raised the water temperature, thinking my muscles were strained from the experience.

I soaked for a while before noticing the needle holes in my arms. There were so many, I couldn't even count them. It didn't look as though any had healed since the first injection. Neither had the bite mark on my arm from that infected prick when he'd sunk his teeth into me.

I pressed on the wound to check for any pain, but there was none. I remembered my other wounds; namely, the scratches on my face from the homeless man in the alley. I slid my hand down my cheek and felt where the skin had been sliced. They also felt fairly fresh.

"Hurry and wash up," Shelton ordered.

I grabbed the bar of soap and sniffed. I'd always liked the smell of soap, but while breathing in the frothy bar, I smelled nothing. I suspected it was unscented. They gave me clean clothes—gray scrubs—and took me into an assembly room where three other Infected were seated in front of a small stage with a screen behind a podium. One was a husky man, the other, Scott. I was restrained by my wrists and ankles to a chair next to a familiar young woman. She looked at me over her restraining mask.

"I hope this isn't going to be another slide show," she groaned tiredly.

"Me, too. What's your name?"

"Sahila. Yours?"

"Alex." I studied her a moment. "Have we met before?"

She considered me for a long time, until a painful reflection flickered in her eyes. In those eyes, I saw the nightmare.

"Yes," she said with a lump in her throat, one she swallowed. "We were both in front of the movie theater when the Collectors came." Her chest started heaving. "Oh god, it was the worst night of my life."

If my wrists hadn't been bound to the chair, I would've held her hand. I didn't say it, but I totally agreed. It had been a bad night.

We got no further in our conversation before Blackwood came on stage, positioning herself behind the podium.

"Hello everyone."

It was the first time I had a conscious opportunity to look at her. She was model tall, with sharp facial features, and her hair pinned back tightly. General Shelton stood beside her, unmasked and staring indignantly at everyone.

"Welcome to Project RD. First off, I'd like to congratulate you for making it through Step One. I know it was very difficult, but because of your achievements, there is hope. I'd also like to apologize for the restraints and masks we've forced upon you. Unfortunately, although you've made it quite far into recovery, you're still unstable."

The lights went dim and a slide projector came on behind us. The screen showed a graph with three dimensional bars and a percentage above each. Blackwood used a laser pointer to rest on the second tallest bar.

"You're in the orange, in the forty–seventh percentile," she explained. "Meaning that even though you're mostly in control, you're still very tempted to Relapse."

Relapse? Shelton was right, it ought to be called Zombie Rehab.

"Your goal," Blackwood went on, moving the pointer past the yellow bar, over the blue, and stopped on green, "is to reach here; Sobriety." She turned to us and said, "As I mentioned in your recovery rooms, you'll go through a twelve–step program to control your addiction to human brains. You'll have a support team twenty–four/seven and will be treated like people, not zombies." Her face turned grim. "That is, unless you cross a line. Here to instruct you on the rules of Project RD is General Shelton."

She quickly stepped aside as if afraid of the general and allowed him to take her spot behind the podium. I didn't like the man and didn't want to hear what he had to say, but under the circumstances, I didn't have a choice.

"All right, this is how it's gonna be," he said, jumping right into the meat of it. "There are no second chances with us. If any of you brain–eating bastards try cracking a skull, we'll crack yours back before taking you down to the execution room for beheading."

I expected Blackwood to step in and say something about the way he talked to us, but she remained in the shadows. She must've had good reason for doing so.

"We begin with the ‘No Second Chance' Rule 'cause whoever you bite or kill will suffer along with their loved ones, and we won't risk repeating relapses from any of you. Got it?"

Scott whimpered. It was cruel to talk that way in front of a child, even a murderous one.

"You might think me a hard ass, and I am. But that's because I've been dealing with your kind since I was kid and the Worldwide Outbreak of 1957 took out my entire family."

I was right about the history.

"My men will be monitoring your every waking minute and will not hesitate to take you down at the smallest sign of trouble. Everyone, even the orderlies and doctors, will be armed with stun guns that have the power to paralyze a goddamn t–Rex, so keep that in mind whenever you get a grumble in your bellies." His expression then turned really dark. "And FYI, this whole place is sitting on a bomb. If there's ever a riot, I'll blow this freakin' building from the tower."

Blackwood stepped out in a hurry and came back into the light of the projector.

"Thank you, General." She took his place as he stepped down. "To my chagrin, he is correct. If you relapse even once, you will be put to death without delay." She then got off the bomb subject quickly. "The workers here are risking their lives every single day and it isn't fair to sacrifice several for the chance that one may be cured. But we're not here to discuss failure; we're here to prepare for your future. Within the last four decades, I and my team of scientist have worked to not only end the zombie disease, but to reverse it. After all this time, I'm proud to say that our monumental hard work has paid off."

Shelton rolled his eyes. Clearly, he thought differently, which made me question why he was even here if he didn't believe in the mission of Project RD.

"Some of you may not be fully aware about zombie history, but for those who do, you can view this as a recap." She took a remote off the podium and aimed it at the projector. The bar graph was replaced with a hieroglyphic of a man eating another man. "This is the first known record of the outbreak, which occurred in Ancient Egypt in 3000 BCE …"

She gave us the rundown on zombie history, starting with outbreaks in ancient civilizations. The Black Plague of 1665, which I'd thought was caused by diseased rats, had actually been caused by the Infected. There'd been outbreaks off and on throughout history all over the world. The worst though, was the Worldwide Outbreak Shelton had mentioned, and it had started in our small town, now renamed Ground Zero. It had been the first outbreak in America and the government hadn't been prepared to handle it, even though Europe had tried to warn them in advance. America had been brimming with confidence from the victory of WWII and believed the country could handle anything. Weeks after the American outbreak, the Disease had spread into a global pandemic. It wasn't until the mid–sixties that the problem had been controlled, but then it cropped up again in '89, at Ground Zero. The problem had been contained quickly before it could spread any farther.

When the history lesson ended, Blackwood shut off the projector and the lights came on.

"I wanted to show you that to not only give you information about what you've become, but an understanding about why this program exists. Imagine if we can stamp out this menace to society by curing the Disease, rather than just executing the carriers." She peered over her shoulder at Shelton, as if to say, my way is better than yours, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!

"If Project RD is a success, then the human race can carry on without the burden of worrying about another outbreak. Yes, there will be skepticism, and, yes, there will be negative comments from the public; but when you're cured and leave this facility as healthy and well–adjusted individual, we'll have shown the world that anything is possible, and it started with you; the First Group!"

I'll admit, I felt inspired.

That evening we were placed in rooms that could only be described as prison cells. I felt emotionally drained. Blackwood had announced that we could talk to our loved ones before lights out. For those of us wanting to do so, we'd been taken into private rooms with a laptop and a webcam. I wasn't allowed to have my restraints removed, but the orderlies had taken off the mask.

Man, my nose had itched. I'd been stretching at it when my parents came on screen. I quickly lowered my hands to hide the cuffs. Our conversation had started off light. We'd talked about the weather and who had won the Super Bowl. I went into what Project RD was all about and its agenda. Mom had said I looked terrible and Dad got emotional. I'd told them I loved them both and left. The orderlies relieved me of my restraints and mask while soldiers stood by. They put me in my cell with a tray of food. I ate slowly, tasting nothing. I hardly noticed the lack of flavor as I thought about Blackwood's pep talk. I was proud to be the first of something so important. To be a part of Project RD's first success group, who had the chance to actually be cured—this could really change the world.

The next day was the group's first session. We sat around in a circle without masks but still strapped to chairs bolted to the floor. Without the mask, I saw everyone's faces. Despite her pallid skin and yellow fingernails, Sahila was pretty. I gave her a genuine smile when our eyes met, and she returned the gesture. Sitting next to her was the husky man with a black beard. He looked uncomfortable and stiff.

It was just the three of us. I didn't know where Scott was. I'd hoped to see Tony, but he wasn't there. Between me and Sahila was a vacant chair, which was soon taken by a young woman.

"Hi, everyone, I'm Gia Thomson, your sponsor."

"Hi, Gia," we all replied.

"Today we're going to introduce ourselves and discuss what happened to bring you here."

She was perky, like a cheerleader on an adrenaline kick. She had an incredibly wide smile and eyes that …I couldn't look at them. All I thought about was the brains behind them. Being so close to an Uninfected ignited my temptation.

No, don't start slipping now, I told myself. Her tits, yes! That'll be my focal point.

To help cool my yearning, I reminded myself about Shelton's ‘No Second Chance' rule. Staring at boobs certainly helped control myself,—at least from one kind of hunger anyway.

"Who wants to go first?" Gia asked.

I did, just to keep my mind off my appetite for her brain. I stated my full name, age, and rehashed the night I'd been bitten. When I got to the part where I'd killed the homeless guy, my stomach started to ache with those strange hunger pangs. I skimmed over it before I got into describing every juicy detail.

Gia's face turned melancholy.

"It's painful to talk about your kills. I understand."

No, she didn't; and no, it wasn't painful. Not in the sense she referred to.

Next went the husky guy, Jeff Byrne. He'd been a mechanic when a zombie had bitten him inside his shop. He hadn't had a chance to kill before the Collectors found him on the floor suffering rigor mortis. He'd been unable to move around even after his muscle function had returned. He was going through physical therapy now.

Sahila Taylor had been a high school senior who'd worked as a waitress at the Ground Zero diner. She'd left work when an Infected attacked and bitten her on the same night as me.

Her experience haunted her. She whimpered and closed her eyes at times. I thought she was going to cry but no tears fell. Her mood shifted when she got into relating her first kill. Unlike me, she described the savory flavor of fresh brain and how it had squished ever so sweetly in her mouth, like a fat, ripe grape. Jeff and I started panting. You'd think she was describing the best sex she'd ever had.

"That sounds so good," Jeff moaned.

"Okay," Gia said, slicing into Sahila's words, stopping her from going into any more detail. "Let's stop here and continue tomorrow, 'kay?"

Next, we went to the medical ward for checkups. I got another injection of nanotech and a batch of vitamin supplements, which I had to slip individually through the tiny bars over my mouth. I asked about my wounds that weren't healing. The doctor said my cells and tissues were half dead and would take twice as long to heal. I asked if that meant I was half dead.

In a flat tone, he answered, "Yes, your body is at a standstill, in the gray area between life and death. I'm here to build your body up and tip it back over to the living side. Everyone else is dealing with your mental health."

Good, because I'd relapse in a heartbeat if that dispassionate bastard was my sponsor.

"Will it work?" I asked eagerly. "Can you guys make me well again?"

The doctor sniffed and shined a light into my eyes. "Only time will tell."

After that uplifting physical, I was taken back to my room.

—Step Five—

At this stage in the program, I attempted to reach out to the family members of my victims and ask for forgiveness. I wrote letters to make amends. Granted, I only killed four people, and the homeless guy probably had no family, but the responses were brutal. I got a vicious death threat from a widow whose husband I'd killed. In her letter, she stated how she wanted to peel my skin off and bury me in salt. The second letter was written on the back of a picture of a seventeen year–old theater employee I'd devoured. It read: You shouldn't get a chance to live since you didn't give my boy one. The third person to respond, Mr. Adams, whose brother I'd killed, sent me a Get–Well card with nothing written inside. That was one of my worst months.

—Step Eight—

Eight months later and things were looking up. During my physicals, I was observed through a CT scanner where doctors determined how my mind reacted to the subject of consuming brains. After months of injections, checkups, and heart–to–heart group therapy, my zombie mindset wore away, and I was relieved of my restraints and masks. I'd reached the blue level and was declared Low Risk. Others who just passed Step One were beginning their own Step Two stage. I saw them bond and wearing masks; I gave them encouragement to keep up the struggle toward sobriety. I also spent time outside my room with others and ate together in the cafeteria.

"It's nice to finally be able to hold a fork again," Jeff said, staring at his hand gripping the handle.

Jeff was much happier now that he could move about with ease. When I'd first met him, he'd been partially paralyzed. Now, after months of physical therapy and injections, he was a totally new person. We all were, since our appetite for brains had faded to a sickening memory.

The program was working. In fact, we told Oprah, CNN, and John Stewart on the Daily Show so. Sahila, Jeff, and I even made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Since the First Group was recovering so well, Blackwood thought it was time to publicize the success of Project RD and shut all those critics up. For our safety, we weren't allowed to leave the facility. Too many people wanted us dead. Our interviews were broadcasted live from Project RD and the photographers from Rolling Stone came to us. Blackwood had turned the Infected into romantic figures. Vampires move over; zombies were the in thing now.

Everything was going to be all right.

To be concluded in Part 3, January 2020

to be continued…

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