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WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

THE THRESHOLD By E. F. Schraeder
June 20, 2012  Short stories   Tags:   

Darin leaned back and his chair creaked as he looked out from behind the wall of his cubicle.  He felt like the last person at the lab on campus, but he knew that wasn’t possible.  Hell, it was only ten o’clock.  Felt like midnight.

Sidewalks were empty, fluorescent lights hummed in the hallway, but they were too dim to see very far.  He’d been pulling late nights running some biochemistry tests on a sample the biology students picked up at the lake.  Some kind of organism that was unlike the other forms of algae they’d found.  It was resistant to most of the standard analysis at the lab, too.  It behaved like a parasite, in a way, consuming the algae and changing its form.  It multiplied by an insane rate once it achieved a foothold. At least that’s what the centrifugation process suggested.

Like an infection, a cancer.  Darin squinted at it in the tube, shook it and watched it swirl.  Strange, but he pushed it out of his mind.  He needed the extra cash and spinning samples was easy work.

Darin stood up and stretched.  Time to go.  No one in sight.  Not between semesters, this late.  Darin looked down the dark hall.  Shadows of the stair rail stretched lean and long from the outdoor light glaring from the window.  When the heating system clicked on he jerked up, startled.  Something giving him the creeps.  He rubbed his eyes and tried to let his eyes adjust to the dark.  Yawned.

“Too much computer screen,” he muttered to himself, pawing his eyes beneath his glasses.  For a moment he seriously considered picking up the orange campus security phone even though he knew it existed for the young students afraid to walk back to their cars at night.  Girls, mostly.  At least when he gave tours he told groups those phones were there for everyone, anyone, after four.  For any reason.  As if some jerk ass nerd in a yellow vest standing next to anyone would accomplish shit.

“Safety in numbers.”  That’s what Darin had said at least a hundred times to new recruits. He chuckled a little to himself thinking about it, how the phrase made parents smile and nod.

Deep breath.  Darin clanked open the heavy lab door and made sure the lock clicked into place after him.  The motion automated lights flickered on, brightening the space into neater lines than the shadows that preceded him. He flung his backpack across his left arm and kept his right arm free, just in case.  “What the hell’s with me tonight?”

Something groaned in the walls.  “Probably the heating vents,” Darin grumbled to himself, quickened his pace.  “Got to stop creeping myself out, man.”  He heard clunky footsteps on the floor above him and it made him quicken his pace.

No one should be left on this floor of the science building.  That much was true.  Darin had been the last person signed in two hours ago.  Every other office closed by 5 p.m. at least between terms.  Now he knew why.  He felt like a target flared onto his back as he stepped into the freshly painted elevator.

Everything was so clean before classes started again.  Industrial gray flecked carpets were scrubbed, walls painted a clean new white.  Even the posters were cleared off the bulletin boards.  Spring semester promised everyone a fresh point of entry, so long as they didn’t flunk out, he thought.

Darin waited for the elevator doors to open, admitting him into the stark lower level of the parking garage.  Cinderblock and cement.  The smell of oil and grime never erased, no matter how often they repaved.  Here is where it happened, where it always happened.  Always would.  Crime stats didn’t lie.  Darin puffed himself up, nervously waiting for the threshold to open up and let him out.  An uneasy feeling still pressed at him, and he shifted on his feet.

When the elevator beeped and the doors hissed open, he jumped to see one of the undergrads who’d found the weird sample across the courtyard.

“Wait, wait” Kate waved her arms and yelled for Darin to hold the elevator.  Something sure had her freaked, too.  Her short brown hair flopped over her eyes as she ran, and her steps were awkward and disjointed.  She bumped into a garbage can that teetered over as she ran.  She jumped over the spilling trash can, her jeans splattered with slop.  Somebody fumbled behind her, moving even more clumsily than her.  Darin thought she was being chased, and yelled out just as the probable attacker ambled into another building.

“Jesus, I heard you, Kate, slow down,” Darin hollered back to her.  Darin stepped out of the elevator and held his arm across it.

Kate tumbled to the elevator and flopped across the doors, panting.  Sweat trickled down her face.  “The library, it’s infested …”

Darin imagined the library crawling with roaches and interrupted “They spray between semesters, sends them out in droves.”  He smiled, remembering how it’d freaked him out the first time he’d seen it, too.

“No, not that.  Roaches I can handle.  The sample, I think it infected some of us, somehow.  Jerry handled it directly, and a couple others from class.  Oh God.”  Kate panted, still trying to catch her breath.

“Jerry and I, we were working in the library tonight.  I asked him about a mark on his wrist, it looked weird.  It was an oval shaped red mark, all puffy.  There was a small cut in the center that was oozing some pussy looking junk.” Kate gulped.  “It was gross.  He said it started to get puffy after the day of field tests, figured it was a reaction to something in the water, that he didn’t have it covered.  Anyway, after a couple hours at the library, it got even worse, darkened and thick lines started traveling up his arm and down into his fingers.  I told him he should get to an emergency room or something, like get it checked right away, it looked horrible.”  Kate looked down, tears streaming her face, “that’s when he flipped out, started tearing through the library, knocking everything over, and …” she stopped.

Darin dropped his arms, and the elevator was long gone.  He stared at Kate, open mouthed, waiting for her to make a joke of what she was telling him.  It had to be a joke.

“Then he started biting people, really biting them.  He ripped off the librarian’s arm, Darin.”

Darin squinted at her.  “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m serious.  He tore her arm off and started gnawing on it like, like some kind of animal,” she sobbed.

Darin didn’t really know what to say or do, but he had to react.  Kate was just a kid, straight out of high school.  If she was making this up, she should be a drama major.

“Okay, Kate.  Let’s assume you’re right.  Jerry is having some sort of reaction.  How many people were exposed to this substance?”  Darin felt queasy, thinking about how he’d spent the last two hours in the lab with it.

“I mean, it can’t effect everyone the same way, right?  You were exposed and you’re not going crazy, right?” Darin pressed, as much for his own sake as hers.

Kate nodded. Her eyes hazed with a sort of numb fatigue.

“Great.  So not everyone is going to turn into, into, um” he paused.

“A zombie” Kate said flatly.  Her eyes narrowed.

“Right.” Darin couldn’t believe what he was thinking.

“Well, he had a cut, an open wound.  Maybe it needs an entry point.  It doesn’t have much to go on, it can’t attack until its inside a body …”

“A host” Kate corrected.

“Right.  So, we’ve got to figure out –”

“There’s more, worse.” Kate interrupted.  Darin looked at her, his expression blank.  “The librarian, after he chewed on her arm, she turned too.  Then it started spreading fast, to everyone they attacked.”

“You mean he didn’t simply kill her?”

“No, he converted her.”

“Like a vector,” Darin said.  “Okay, good.  We understand something about it, and we can assume the infection has a tipping point.”

“Don’t start some ‘Let’s use science’ bull shit with me right now, Dari.  I don’t need a lab assistant right now.  I need someone with a shovel or a gun.  I need someone who can go back into the library and kill as many of those fucking things as there are right now.”  Kate’s voice pitched up about an octave higher than normal.  She was shrieking, getting hysterical.

Darin checked himself.  If what she was saying was true, accurate, she had every right to flip out.

“Okay, okay.  Listen.  Let’s get together everything we can that might stop them.  Are you sure about killing them?  I mean, don’t you think there’s anything we can …”

“You didn’t see them.  The library was practically teaming with them by the time I got out ten minutes later.  It spreads too fast.  The best chance we have is if they kill each other.  We’ve just got to get a handle on the situation.”

“Let’s call security,” Darin said.  He imagined the orange vested geeks coming to the rescue with hot pepper spray and walkie talkies.  “Or the cops, maybe we should call the cops.”

“I tried, but they thought I was nuts. They hung up on me,” Kate punched the wall.

“”Great.  Nice.  So, back at the lab, we’ve got safety gear, equipment.  Clothes, eye protection, gloves, I mean, so we don’t get infected.  How do you think we can stop them?”

Quickly they fled the lab fully donned in white protective gear, toting a fire extinguisher each.  They yanked three boards off the fence and tucked them into a backpack and Darin broke into the custodial supply room.  He picked up a push broom and broke the handle in half, handing one end to Kate.

Kate threw the stick against the wall.  “We’re not hunting vampires, Darin.  We need to do better than pointy sticks.  I need something to chop off a head,” she snapped.

Darin cringed, leaned over to pick up the broom handle.  “Well, it should be able to pin something down.  I don’t know.  I don’t know where to find a fucking chain saw right now, Kate.  We’re just gonna have to make do here.” He shoved the stick back into her hands and pointed to the base of her neck adding, “aim here, try to sever the nerves at the neck.”

“Perfect!” she yelled, lifting up a nail gun.  She pressed it to the board and spat out a few practice shots.  A series of nails thudded into the board.  “This will pin ‘em down!” she snarled.

Darin found a drill and checked its charge.  It revved nicely, and he tucked it into his back belt loop.



Darin and Kate pushed open the glass door to the lower entrance of the library.  Inside, low emergency lights blinked and the fire alarm blared over the muted sound of screams from the above floors.

Darin inhaled slowly, trying to calm his nerves.  He’d never faced anything stronger than an angry student complaining about grades before.  He bit the inside of his cheek and pushed ahead through the array of toppled shelves in the hall.

At the end of the hall wet chunks of a dismembered body sat in a wide pool of steaming blood.  They’d either been torn apart or chewed voraciously before whatever did that left it.  As they approached he noticed small bits of the body still twitching, threatening to come to life, but they didn’t have enough mass, enough leverage to go anywhere.  Bits of fingers clenched and extended, unable to move in any sensible direction.  He felt like puking, and his stomach muscles started to spasm uncontrollably. Apparently, there’d already been a skirmish downstairs, too.  He only hoped they wouldn’t encounter whoever left the mess as they trod through the slop of flesh.

“Come on,” Kate said flatly, already well disassociated from her earlier encounters.  She blankly stepped over a heap of quivering limbs, her footsteps sloshing through the sloshing mess of wasted bodies.

“Thank God we have masks on, I can’t imagine the smell of this,” Darin mumbled, still choking back the bile in his throat.

Kate plodded ahead of him, moving alongside the wall until she reached the end of the hall.  She tipped a flashlight just over the edge of her waist, reluctant to extend an exposed arm around the corner.  They hadn’t seen anything behind them, but that didn’t mean they were safe.  They knew they couldn’t afford to be bottlenecked by these things on both sides, so they moved cautiously.

“Look out!” Darin yelled as a grayish hand swiped at the light.  It ricocheted from Kate’s hand, clunking against the wall.


Darin extended a leg and nudged the light back toward them before the thing could get hold of it.  As he lowered himself he met it, eye to oozing eye.  He yelped in disgust as its hot, moist breath steamed the veneer of plexiglass protecting his eyes from exposure to its filth.  Darin tried to take a calm, slow step in retreat, as it flailed to grasp at him.  As he shone the light at it, it hissed, exposing a mouth full of rot, cracked teeth and a paste of bloody slime drizzled from the corner of its lips.

The bile Darin had been pushing down bubbled up in his mouth again and finally spurted out, stopped by the face shield he wore.  Its pungent, sour odor filled his nostrils, making him even more queasy.  He pushed his hand inside the mask and wiped the yellow mess away as best he could.

As it moved jaggedly toward Darin, stumbling over what looked like a leg, Kate moved behind it quietly.  She pulled back her arm and drew the broom handle out from her backpack and aimed it at the base of the thing’s neck.  In a single thrust she plunged it into the crevice where his head met spine.  She heard the fragile vertebrae crunch as she forced the stake deeper, and a splatter of blood splashed against her white chemical suit.

“Fuck you!” she screamed triumphantly, withdrawing the stake only long enough to reposition it above the thing’s collar bone, pinning it to a crumbling patch of drywall.  It’s eyes twitched and lips convulsed as it choked out a guttural moan.

Darin and Kate stood beside each other, panting, as they looked around the hall.  “I don’t know if this was the best idea” Darin said, looking up the dimly lit hall.  “I mean, shouldn’t we just get out of here.  Whatever’s going to happen …”

A grimy hand clobbered him from behind, and he felt fingernails scraping at his back.  He twirled and pulled up the fire extinguisher, pointing it straight ahead.  Foam shot with dizzying force and the second creature collapsed, briefly covered in the white spray.  It gave Darin enough time to rush it where it fell and he pounded its head with the extinguisher until it sank like a rotten melon, caving quickly into itself like mush.  Chunks of skull matted with blood and hair clung to the extinguisher and dripped off slowly into a small pile at Darin’s feet.

“Right,” Kate said, “we shouldn’t have come back.  At least you believe me now,” she said coldly, staring at the thing that used to be a person heaped on the floor, its brains dripping from a collapsed section of skull.

“Can we backtrack?” she said, glancing behind them.  They’d only travelled the distance of a city block or two, but it felt like a lifetime passed in those nervous steps.

“We can try.  It’s that or up to the next level and out the garage exit.”  Darin felt suddenly grateful for the summers he’d spent giving campus tours.  He knew the place very well, and it seemed genuinely goddamned useful for once.

Behind them, the emergency lights had blinked out, and groaning noises filled the corridor.  They both sullenly shook their heads, realizing they couldn’t go back.

Darin lugged the now empty extinguisher, still coated with a sludge of blood.  It was heavy enough to do serious damage, even if it had to be done up close.

They ventured slowly up a single flight of cinder block stairs, Darin holding the flashlight behind Kate.  They paused at the door and listened, but the steel door didn’t allow much vantage point.  Darin carefully clicked the handle and nudged the door open, allowing a sliver of light to filter into the cramped stairwell.

“Looks clear,” Darin said, one hand propping open the door.  “We can make a clean shot to the back over there,” he nudged his head back, pointing to the exit.

Kate tugged Darin back from the door.  “Darin, if this thing gets off campus, there’s no stopping it,” Kate’s voice was low.

He shrugged.  “We at least have something to report, something concrete.  But we have to make it out first.”

They stepped into the library amidst scattered books and tipped over computer tables.  A dripping sound caused them to glance toward the long arched windows where they saw an unseemly assortment of savaged bodies strewn and stacked across an upturned table.  They looked too torn apart to be a danger, but that didn’t make it any less disturbing.

They ran toward the exit, but three of the things closed in around them.  Darin hurled the extinguisher at them hoping to buy a moment to grab a weapon.  It clanked to the ground and toppled one of them.

Darin jumped over it and sank the drill into another one’s hand, pumping the motor until the screw fastened the creature to the side of a bookshelf.

It howled in pain and Darin moved quickly to its other hand, inserting another screw into the bit like he was reloading a machine gun.  He stuck it through the wrist, a spray of blood erupting as he wrestled the thing’s arm against the wall.

Kate riveted the fallen zombie to the carpet with a series of rigid shots from the nail gun and looked around.  There were too many of them, too damned many.  She looked at the exit.  It may as well have been ten miles.  She glanced at Darin and saw him wrenching his hand away from the thing stuck to the bookshelf.  His hand met a slippery ooze of blood as he tried to push its wrist flat with one hand.

Darin’s screaming echoed in the hall, and she saw his hand covered in blood, his blood, as he removed the grinding drill.  The thing was stuck, but it almost smiling, its wide gaping mouth in a twisted grin.

“Hand slipped” Darin yelled, head drooped.  Blood flowed from the severe gash across the meat of his thumb, his elbow length glove shredded.  He motioned for her to get out with his uninjured hand then removed his face plate, defeated.

Kate couldn’t risk helping him, she knew that much, but she had to try something.  She clutched the fence board and nailed it across the door creating a block.  Then she applied another, hoping to create a block.  She looked sadly at Darin in the hall, his left arm flailing, hoping he had enough time to react, to at least kill a few more before it overtook him.  Kate knew there were no authorities prepared to deal with what was about to be unleashed on the city.  She nodded as she heard Darin’s voice pierce above the fire alarm.

He repeated one word, “Run” raising the drill to the base of his neck.


E. F. Schraeder is a member of the New England Horror Writers. Schraeder’s creative work has appeared inWhitechapel 13, Gone with the Dirt, Tales of the Zombie War, Corvus Magazine, and elsewhere.


  1. Sometimes mysterious causes of the zombie apocalypse are best, but sometimes it’s fun to try to explain how it all came about. I like that you gave it a go here. And I love the terrible thought of what it would be like to be there at the very very beginning of the whole thing. Chilling!

    Comment by Orson on June 21, 2012 @ 1:37 am

  2. Very fine. exceptionally done well.

    Comment by John the Piper's Son on June 21, 2012 @ 4:47 am

  3. too short man.

    Comment by ralph on June 21, 2012 @ 4:52 am

  4. Enjoyed immensely! The action was nicely paced and had your classic gratuitous “guts and gore” fest. The story also sets up nice possibilities for a prequel as to how the pond slime became terminal as well as subsequent chapters chronicling the progression of the infestation. I look forward to more.

    Comment by Clement S. on June 21, 2012 @ 7:26 am

  5. I like the fact that you explained how it all started. Very few zombie stories actually explain the causes of a zombie outbreak. I have a few observations:

    1) For someone who knows about crime stadistics (comment about the garage and crime), Darin seems to outrule his fear and knowledge and go find out by himself whats going on way to fast.

    2) The use of some weapons seem very unrealistic. Drills and fire extiguishers make awaful self defense weapons.

    Very good use of environment to create a creepy scenario. Almost pooped my pants when you were describing the empty halls.

    Comment by Yamil on November 30, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

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