Disclaimer: Nothing recognizable is mine.

Anna Mason was exhausted. A thin sheen of sweat caused her once-white undershirt to cling uncomfortably to her back. The bottoms of her shoes were sticky with blood and bodily fluids – none of which belonged to her – that caused them to make a sickening squelch sound against the old linoleum flooring. As she sank down into the hard plastic breakroom chair, she let her head fall into her hand. She was used to working long hours with few breaks but today was another story entirely. She was rounding out hour fourteen of what was supposed to have been a twelve-hour shift and this was the first chance she had gotten to sit down since she walked in the door the night before. Her back ached, her stomach was grumbling relentlessly and she was really, really regretting the moment she agreed to switch shifts with Higgins.

The vibration of her phone from inside the pocket of her scrubs caused Anna to lift her head again. You coming home? The text read, followed immediately by, Or do you have a hot date? The corner of her mouth quirked upward as she scoffed lightly. Anna couldn't even remember the last time she had gone on a date. She typed out a quick reply to her sister letting her know she was working late (again) before folding her arms on the table and resting her chin on top of them. Her eyes fluttered closed.


Anna swallowed a groan as her eyes shot open and she turned toward the source of the voice. The microwave beeped behind her, signaling that the coffee she had tried to drink eight hours ago was warm once again. "Yes?"

"You alright?"

"Tired," Anna admitted as her companion, one of the other physicians on her unit, made his way over to the table and took a seat across from her. With his messy hair and generally disheveled appearance, he looked to be in the same rough shape as she was.

"Me too," he admitted. "I've never seen this many rabies cases in one town before."

"I've never seen rabies act like this before," she countered. "The onset is so sudden in all of these cases; it's like a super strain or something."

It was true. Of all the patients admitted to Atlanta Medical Center's emergency department in the past twenty-four hours, eighty-three were victims of animal attacks who were showing extremely rapid onset of rabies symptoms. The hospital staff were administering HRIG and vaccinations so quickly that it made Anna's head swim. Baker reached behind him to take Anna's coffee out of the microwave, handing it to her with a small smile. She took it gratefully.

"You get the pathology report back on that 38-year old yet?"

Anna shook her head. "Pathology's not really putting a rush on it. As soon as I called for it, Miller told me I was wasting her time. I just feel like it has to be something else, you know?"

"Yeah, but if it's not rabies then what is it?"

As she opened her mouth to tell him that she had no idea, a shrill cry from down the hallway cut her off. She and Baker leapt to their feet and dashed out the door to find the source of the screaming. A small crowd had gathered around the doorway of room 241, each person wearing expressions of shock and horror. Anna and Baker pushed their way inside and found David Jones, a patient Anna had begun the rabies treatment protocol on earlier that day, violently thrashing in his hospital bed.

As she surveyed the scene, Anna's hand shot to her mouth to cover her gasp. The patient's skin was tinged faintly blue, his teeth gnashing wildly at the air. A group of nurses and CNAs had managed to wrangle his flailing arms into the restraints, but his fingernails still scratched desperately at the bed sheets. To Anna though, the most disturbing thing was the patient's eyes. Once a warm shade of brown, they were now glazed over and watery, cloudy and blue as if he had suddenly developed severe cataracts. Two residents were in the corner comforting the patient's shaking wife as she sobbed herself into hysterics.

"He bit me!" She wailed, clutching her injured wrist to her chest. "What's wrong with him? Please Doctor, do something!"

Anna gave her head a quick shake to ground herself before making her way over to the med cart one of the nurses had brought in. She fished a syringe and a vial out of one of the drawers, drawing the necessary amount into the syringe and inserting it into the patient's IV line.

"Pushing 2mg Lorazepam."

In her peripheral vision, she could see two nurses fighting to hold the patient's head steady as Baker flashed a light into the cloudy blue orbs that were his eyes. "Pupils unresponsive."

"Why isn't he calming down?" One of the residents shouted.

Anna met Baker's eyes and found that neither of them had an answer. Before she had a chance to respond, she felt a rough hand on her shoulder shove her out of the way. She found herself being pushed backward into the crowd of people as several police officers entered the room.

"Excuse me!" She shouted over the chaos, catching the attention of the officer nearest her. "You can't just barge in here and commandeer my patient. You have no right to-"

"With all due respect, Doctor," the officer cut across her as he backed her ever further out of the room. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Anna opened her mouth to protest but was met with a final harsh shove backward. The last thing she saw was an officer inspecting the wife's bite wound before the door was slammed shut in her face.

"Hey!" She shouted, slamming her palms angrily against the door. She tried the knob to no avail.

Behind her, the anxious chatter of the crowd that had formed grew ever louder. Her chest heaved as she backed away from the door, distraught and angry at what could be going on behind it. As she turned away she found herself face-to-face with Baker, whose expression matched hers.

"Anna," he began, his voice doing nothing to hide his unease. "What the hell is happening?"

Anna never did get her pathology report back, but she didn't need it to know that whatever was infecting these people, it definitely was not rabies. Less than four hours after Anna failed to sedate David Jones, every radio and television in the vicinity was showing news reports of infected citizens attacking people, always with their teeth violently gnashing as they tried to sink them into the nearest source of flesh they could find. Anna was at a complete loss. She had seen patients do some frightening things while under the influence, but she had never witnessed anything like this.

Atlanta P.D. had fully infiltrated Atlanta Medical Center by dusk. While a handful of officers made their way to the morgue – where Anna had heard disturbing rumors of reanimated corpses, as if that could possibly be true – the remainder began quarantining any and all patients with anything remotely resembling a bite wound or infection. No one would tell Anna where they were being taken and after a while she stopped bothering to ask.

The following day, the news reports stopped. They were replaced by emergency broadcast notifications urging citizens to stay indoors and avoid contact with any person they suspected could be infected. The military moved into the hospital two hours later, immediately declaring the trauma center to be closed. Family members were not permitted to visit their loved ones who had been admitted and phones rang off the hook. Every single patient under Anna's care was to be quarantined, which meant that Anna and the rest of the emergency department staff were temporarily reassigned to other units. Anna, along with Baker and a handful of nurses and CNAs, were sent to the fourth floor ICU.

"Anna," Baker whispered to her as they filed down the hallway, led by an armed Lieutenant. "Have you heard from anyone on the outside?"

Anna shook her head. "No. I'm surprised Alex hasn't burned the whole building down by now trying to find me."

It was true. Anna's ex-military sister had always been on the protective side, even more so after the loss of their parents several years ago. Whatever was going on outside the hospital walls, Anna knew that Alex would be paying close attention. She had been checking her phone as often as she could, hoping to hear something from her sister, but each time she found nothing. It was only recently that she realized she had completely lost her cell signal.

"What about you? Have you heard anything?"

"No," Baker frowned and Anna could see the concern in his eyes. "I called my wife and father-in-law twelve times before the lines went down and no one answered. I just hope they're okay."

Anna wanted to say something to comfort him but found herself coming up short. They were effectively cut off from whatever was going on outside the hospital walls, their only source of information being the armed soldiers who refused to tell them anything. Occasionally someone was able to sneak a glance out of one of the windows in a patient's room, but for the most part the soldiers kept the curtains tightly drawn. For a time, the days and nights dragged on in organized chaos. The staff slept in shifts, never more than an hour or two at a time. Tensions were high and the anxiety was palpable, but everyone seemed to content themselves with the knowledge that they were in the safest place they could possibly be.

By the fifth day, there was talk of a safe zone being set up somewhere inside the city. The next few days saw patients being evacuated with painful slowness, one floor at a time. Anna spent her time preparing her patients for evacuation, making sure they were in the best possible condition for transport and had all their necessary medications and dressings ready to go. She sat with some of her elderly patients, holding their hands and listening to stories of years long past to distract both of them from what was going on in the present.

When Anna woke from her brief sleep on the eighth day, any remnant of organization that was left had dissipated. The entire hospital, or at least the fourth floor ICU, had devolved into total chaos. The shouting was what woke her and when she opened the door that led to the hallway, she found broken glass, debris and medications scattered across the floor. The lights overhead flickered on and off, adding to the chaos. She saw patients and staff alike running through the corridors, some nursing wounds while others just seemed frantic. Anna tried to stop a few people to ask them what was going on but everyone refused to acknowledge her. Orders were being barked as people screamed. As she rounded a corner, Anna finally saw a familiar face.

"Baker!" She cried, her eyes immediately flying to an angry cut on his temple. "What's happening? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he replied, grabbing her by the arm and turning her back the way she had come. "We need to get out of here."

"How? Aren't they guarding all of the doors?"

"We have to at least try," his voice was becoming more frantic and Anna could feel her heartbeat rising in response. "While you were asleep a bunch of people broke through the barricades on the ground floor, trying to get to their loved ones or find shelter or- I don't know, it doesn't matter. But a bunch of the infected got in and now the whole building's compromised."

He yanked her into a darkened hallway as a trio of soldiers passed by, guns at the ready. Anna's heart pounded against her sternum so loudly she was sure they would hear it. Baker turned to her again.

"They're shooting anyone they think might be infected," he whispered. "Or maybe just anyone they see. I can't really tell anymore. Either way, it's safer to just stay clear of them."

When he felt it was safe, Baker peeked his head around the corner and gestured to Anna that the coast was clear. She followed him down the long series of hallways until they ended up at the far end of the unit, near the employee elevators. Anna swiped her badge to get the doors to open but Baker swatted her hand away.

"It's too risky," he chastised. "The power keeps going on and off. The last thing you want is to get stuck in an elevator, especially with one of them."

Anna nodded that she understood but in truth, her head was swimming. How could the military be shooting unarmed civilians? Why would they want to harm the hospital staff? What happened to evacuating patients to the safe zone? She had a thousand questions that needed answers and no time with which to ask them. Baker was already throwing open the door to the stairwell and from that point forward, time seemed to pass in slow motion.

Looking back on it later, Anna could never be entirely sure which hit her first: the sound of the shot or the splattering of blood across her face. Her stomach and heart went clattering to the floor at the same time Baker's body did, all three of them landing in a crumpled heap at her feet. She opened her mouth to let out a cry but was met with silence instead, though it was possible she just couldn't hear it over the ringing in her ears.

Anna could name every single piece of the brain involved in the fight-or-flight response. She could spend hours explaining why the body diverts blood flow from some of its parts to send to the muscles instead, or how the body knows to get a jump start on speeding up the clotting process in case of an injury. But in that moment, something somewhere in her sympathetic nervous system failed. She couldn't run and she couldn't fight; she could do nothing but stand rooted to the spot, the blood in her veins turning to ice and keeping her frozen in place.

She saw one of the soldiers standing in front of her, his gun raised in her direction. Her eyes snapped shut reflexively and she stumbled backward as she heard the shot ring out, sending herself sprawling across the dirty linoleum – but she felt nothing. Vaguely she wondered if she had imagined the entire thing but she was too afraid to open her eyes and find out.

"Fucking finally," a voice grumbled and when Anna's eyes shot open, she saw someone stepping over the bodies of Baker and the soldier and sliding a pistol back into the holster on their hip. "I've been looking for you for hours."

"Alex?" Anna asked, incredulous. "How did you get in here?"

"Magic," her sister replied sarcastically as she extended a hand to help Anna to her feet. "When that crowd broke through the barricade at the front door late last night, I slipped in with them. They had the whole ED blocked off so I've been working my way up, sweeping all the floors looking for you."

Anna blinked to try and clear her head as Alex flipped the dead soldier over and relieved him of his rifle. Her attention turned to Baker's lifeless form and she felt her stomach turn circles inside her body. She had seen countless gunshot victims during her time in the medical field but there was no class or clinical or residency in the world that could have prepared her for seeing her co-worker and friend murdered right in front of her.

"Come on," Alex said, forcing Anna's gaze away. "We need to get out of here. Take this."

She pulled a gun from the waistband of her pants and shoved it into Anna's hands, already making her way back down the stairwell before Anna could even protest.

"Alex!" She whisper-shouted in the darkness as she followed after her, worried that more soldiers might hear them. "You know I don't-"

"Yeah well, you've gotta learn sometime, right?" Alex countered, taking the steps two at a time. "The little lever on the side is the safety; make sure it's pushed all the way down when you're ready to use it. Then just point and squeeze, and try not to hit me."

Under normal circumstances, Anna would have rolled her eyes. "I don't really think that constitutes a less-"

Alex's sudden halt silenced Anna in a heartbeat. She motioned for Anna to move closer to the wall as she did the same, her rifle poised and ready. They were halfway between the second and third floors, Anna realized, but below them she could hear heavy footsteps and voices.

"Through here," came a man's order. "I think I saw one of them head this way."

Just a few feet below them, Anna could see two of the soldiers heading through the doorway to the second floor. She held her breath as she waited and, once they were satisfied that the soldiers were gone, the sisters continued on their way. In the dim lighting Anna could see blood splattered across her sister's clothing, although she had a distinct feeling that it didn't belong to her.

"Where are we going?" Anna asked in a low voice. "The safe zone?"

"Safe zone?" Alex repeated as they made their way down the final flight of steps. "What safe zone?"

They paused at the heavy metal door that led to the outside. Vaguely Anna knew that they were at the back of the building but she couldn't say exactly where. "There's a safe zone somewhere in the city. They've been evacuating patients there for the past few days."

Alex swore under her breath. Reaching into her back pocket, she pulled out two surgical masks.

"Look, Anna," she began, her voice uneasy. "I don't know what exactly they told you but there is no safe zone. And the patients, they-" she shook her head. "Just put this on. The smell is awful."

Anna wanted to ask what smell she was talking about but her sister was already shoving the mask into her hands. Once it was secure, Alex threw open the door to the outside. Anna practically recoiled at how bright the sunlight was after being inside for so long. It pierced through her eyelids like a hot knife but still felt welcome on her skin. She blinked a few times to clear the dots from her vision but once she finally focused, she wished she hadn't.

She recognized the lot before her as a loading and unloading area for deliveries and biohazardous waste, but there were no trailers or delivery vehicles in sight. For the entire length of the lot, all Anna could see were piles upon piles of bodies. There had to have been hundreds, thousands of them piled up like garbage. There were tarps and sheets haphazardly thrown over some of the bodies but they did little to conceal the effects of decay. As her eyes scanned the rows and rows of corpses in front of her, past the clouds of flies that were buzzing about incessantly, she could see maggots wiggling inside of open wounds. Some of the corpses bore the bite wounds Anna had grown so accustomed to seeing lately, but every single one that Anna could count had one thing in common – a gunshot wound to the head. She had to swallow hard to hold back a sob and force down the bile that was rising in her throat. Was this what they meant when they said they were evacuating her patients? Were they really just taking them out here to be murdered?

"Come on," Alex said as she gave her a tug, her voice muffled through the mask that did little to ward off the stench of death. "Stay close to me."

Anna nodded, feeling dumbstruck as she made her way out into the horror of the scene in front of her. For over a week she had been entirely in the dark about what was happening outside of the hospital walls but as she and her sister stepped out into the familiar Atlanta streets, she knew that was all about to change.

Thirty-four days later, Anna would have given almost anything to be back at that hospital with her sister. Or at least, she thought it was thirty-four days.

Late summer Georgia heat clung to her like a second skin, her once-white t-shirt so coated with dirt and dried sweat that it looked more brown and grey than anything. Her blistered feet ached from inside her worn shoes, the soles hanging on by a few bare threads and the sheer will of a god she wasn't even sure she believed in anymore. The palms of her hands were so calloused and torn she could barely even feel the handle of the little hatchet she held. Her body ached all over, her head pounding so hard that she was legitimately concerned her skull might burst. Twinges of nausea colored her uneasy stomach and she silently pleaded that she wouldn't be sick again. And god, her mouth was dry.

Two days after they left Atlanta Medical Center, Anna and her sister had holed up fairly comfortably on the outskirts of the city. Alex had managed to gather up a decent supply of weapons and medical necessities, something Anna was grateful for as she knew she was little help in the scavenging department. They took up shelter in an abandoned mom and pop shop that had already been picked clean by the time they arrived, but had two fairly secure exits and it was off the main path. For a few hours Anna even let herself believe that things might be okay but whatever hope she had left burned up that night along with her city, awash in the glow of napalm.

Alex led them further from Atlanta the following morning with Alabama on her mind. They planned to follow I-85 across the border to the I-65 split, letting it carry them down toward the coast with the option to stop off in some smaller towns like Georgiana and Andalusia along the way. Alex figured having the water at their backs would give them a little more security and they could always hop around to Miramar Beach to the east or Pascagoula to the west if Alabama didn't suit them. "Besides," Alex had reasoned, "No one wants to go to Alabama." Anna almost smiled as she remembered the comment but it was quickly replaced by a bitter thought about how quickly those plans were thrown to the wind. They'd hardly made it past East Point before they ran into a small group of three men, one of whom was nursing napalm burns on his leg. Alex tried to convince her sister to let them be but Anna was insistent, something she would come to regret for the rest of her presumably short life.

The men led Alex and Anna back to their campsite under the guise of expressing their thanks in the form of food, something Anna was naïve to insist they accept. The two-hour detour turned into two weeks, which was one number Anna was certain she had right. She spent every second of that time cursing herself for being such an idiot, for letting her need to help override her sister's sense of survival, and for getting them trapped in a situation where they were outnumbered, overpowered, and virtually helpless. Her own naivety was what got them stuck and, she noted bitterly, it was what ended up costing Anna her sister.

After that, the hours ran into days that ran into weeks and she'd lost track of the date and time and mostly everything else after she lost Alex and found herself well and truly on her own. Truthfully, she was surprised she'd even made it that long. The first few days were the hardest, both physically and mentally, but after a while she finally made it far enough away from the city that the dead ones had started becoming fewer and further between. Most days she only ran into a handful, often less, and she found it relatively easy to avoid them if she stayed quiet and was careful not to draw attention to herself. At this point, it wasn't so much the dead she was worried about anyway.

She frowned at the thought, her fingers twitching slightly over the handle of the pistol at her hip. There were three bullets in the magazine that held fifteen and one in the chamber - she knew that much, at least. Well that, how to turn the safety off, and – in her sister's words – how to make it go bang. The corners of her mouth fell deeper into a frown as she thought about all the times she had turned down offers from Alex and their dad to go hunting, opting instead to stay inside and study or watch tv or pour over the latest copy of Teen Beat. She would have given anything to go back and do it over, to hone some skills that would actually help her survive the hellhole the world had become, but there was no point in wishing for anything anymore. She supposed there was a large part of her that always assumed Alex would be there to protect her, the last woman standing at the end of the whole world. There was a twinge deep in her chest and she knew she had to push the thought away. She didn't have enough strength left in her to cry, not now.

One foot made its way in front of the other as she shuffled through the overgrown grass of whatever Georgia forest she'd found herself in. She was thankful for the trees at least, for whatever bit of cover they provided. Her sunburn from the week prior - or at least, she thought it was a week - had finally healed and peeled to the point that she wasn't in pain anymore, and that was an extra nuisance she really didn't want to have to endure again. A part of her did miss the direct sunlight though, if for nothing else than giving her a vague inclination about the direction she was heading in. Not that it really mattered if she was going north or west or to the goddamn ocean, really. Knowing how to get to where she was going only mattered if she actually had a destination in mind other than "far away."

She heaved a heavy sigh as she paused to lean against the thick trunk of a nearby tree to catch her breath. She slid the pack off of her back to give her shoulders some much needed relief. As she wiped the sweat from her forehead, she fought the urge to pull her canteen from the pack, knowing full well that it was as bone dry as it had been the last six times she had given into the urge to check it. The bark of the tree was rough beneath her head, the jagged edges catching on strands of her hair and yanking them free from the tie holding the mess off of her neck. She could feel it scratch down her back as she let herself slide to the ground, her legs suddenly losing whatever ability they had left to support her weight. The lids of her eyes felt heavier than they ever had and she cursed herself for stopping in the first place. Yes, she was exhausted; she hadn't slept for more than an hour or so at a time since- well, since she still thought she was dealing with the world's most severe rabies outbreak.

She felt half-drunk as she struggled to keep herself awake, her eye lids suddenly feeling as though there were ten-pound weights dragging them downward. Even her mind felt hazy, the combination of heat and exhaustion and lack of food and water causing every part of her body to work on overdrive. She couldn't sleep, she told herself. Not here. Not now. But although she called on every last bit of willpower she had to keep them open, she had no strength left to fight as her eyelids fluttered closed and left the world around her cloaked in a curtain of solid black.

How long Anna stayed that way, she couldn't even begin to say. When she woke it was with a violent start and a gasp, her mind immediately convinced that she was going to look to her feet and find a member of the dead gnawing on one of her limbs. Her heart beat so viciously inside of her body that she was worried it would break right out of its cage. Hastily she jumped to her feet, hatchet in hand as she spun in a quick 360 to survey her surroundings. She regretted it immediately. She could hardly even tell the leaves from the ground from the tree trunks as her vision swam and her head whirled. She blinked rapidly to try and clear the haze but to no avail. The imbalance in her equilibrium caused her to stumble backward and her nausea to return tenfold. She let out a groan as her stomach flipped over and over, her head seeming to match it each time. She had to put her hands on her knees to try and steady herself, though she was worried the ground was going to come rushing up to meet her.

When Anna heard the first twig snap in two, her heart might as well have done the same. Her spine straightened in an instant and she felt herself go rigid, the all too familiar fear creeping once again up the back of her neck. For a moment she only listened, her vision clearing but still too hazy for her to properly see. Silently she prayed for it to just be an animal, or a figment of her imagination, or even one of the infected – anything other than what she feared most. She held her breath as she waited, willing herself to stay calm. She couldn't let herself fall into the hands of another group of people like the one she'd been stuck with before. She couldn't go through that again. She wouldn't.

A lifetime seemed to pass in the course of a few seconds, but then she heard it. The sound was far enough in the distance to still be fairly faint but there was no mistaking the man's voice.

"I swear I saw it! Just yesterday, a deer right over there."

"Man, you didn't see nothing. Those two hunters haven't seen a deer the whole time they've been here. You trying to tell me you know more about hunting than those guys?"

If Anna thought her heart was pounding before, it was nothing compared to the bass beat it was currently hammering into her breastbone. She could feel the panic all the way down in her fingertips, a frantic tingling that left her devoid of nearly all sense of reason. She tried to take a deep breath to calm herself but it was hardly a drop in the sea of distress washing over her. She snapped her head side to side again as she tried to find a place to hide, but there was nothing. Anna let her head fall back in frustration and it hit the bark of the tree with an angry thud.

Realization dawned on her and she stepped away from the tree trunk and turned to face it, her gaze drawing upward to take in the structure. She reached down to grab her pack from the ground and swung it onto her back. She stepped closer to the tree and stood on her tiptoes, reaching her hand up as high as she could toward the lowest hanging branch but she couldn't quite reach it. Anna took in a deep breath as she closed her eyes again, trying to muster whatever bit of strength she had left. On the exhale she launched herself upward with as much force as she could, her arms just barely able to lock around the branch. For a moment she hung there unsure of what to do next. Even without the burden of exhaustion, Anna knew she lacked the upper body strength necessary to pull herself up; however, she was able to use the trunk as leverage, swinging her legs up and pushing against it with her feet to give herself the boost she needed to make it onto the branch.

Anna could hear the voices drawing closer and knew she was still too low to the ground. Her vision turned blurry once again as she hoisted herself up onto a higher branch, satisfied that she had put enough distance between herself and whoever might cross her path. She dropped her head so her forehead rested against the tree limb as she waited, trying desperately to ward off the dizziness once again. She could hear the men more clearly now and made the mistake of opening her eyes. The ground beneath her suddenly looked much closer than the fifteen or so feet away it really was and it seemed to move closer and then away again in rapid succession. She could feel bile rising in the back of her throat once more and forced herself to swallow it back down.

Please, she silently begged the men as she saw their figures come into view. Just keep walking.

"I'm just saying," one of them remarked. "It'd be nice to have some meat that's not squirrel, you know?"

It was the last thing Anna heard before she felt herself slip sideways off of the branch and the world around her careened into black once again.

A/N: Thank you all so much for reading! This little story has been building in my mind for several years now and I think it's finally time to let it loose. I hope you all love it as much as I do!

Very special thanks to my dear friend and beta-adjacent BouncingKappa, without whom all of my Nicholas Sparks-esque ideas would remain unchecked, and to BravoZver, who is the Teddy to my Bob Belcher and whose incredibly badass OC inspired Anna's sister Alex.