PROLOGUE Brent

IF SKYLAR KNEW how intensely I watched her, how I hung on her every word, would it have changed the outcome? If she knew why I’d altered my path to intercept hers, would she have run the other way? Her naivety made her vulnerable to all of us. I scanned the faces of the accountants as Bruce introduced me and the other temps. The employees at McClurry & Associates were all so unaware of what lay beneath the glum surface of their debits and credits, or at least, most of them were naïve to the crimes taking place on the other side of the cubicle wall.

She’d caught my attention when she’d stared at my coffee cup so intently. The simple act had pegged her, for no other reason than that, as my first target. I’d attempted to smile her way, but it had gone unnoticed. I depended on my charm, even counted on it, when trying to get closer. The more unaware the person was, the more vulnerable they became. It made my job so much easier.

CHAPTER 1
Skylar
The Day It All Began

ANOTHER MONDAY MORNING during tax season, and like the groundhog sticking his head out of a hole every spring, I rushed into McClurry & Associates because I needed routine, structure, and yes, money. The air outside the CPA office stung with a damp, bitter, cold, forcing me to wrap my jacket tighter around me as I raced across the parking lot. My assessment of the weather might have been an exaggeration since Jacksonville, Florida, rarely ever qualified as bitter. Still, to a native Floridian, when the temperature dropped into the forties, and the summer’s humidity settled into the air like invisible snow, the natives proclaimed an understanding of winter hardships.

The beginning of our busy season settled over us accountants like a black cloud. Sure, I’d picked my profession because I enjoyed being lost in numbers, too busy to notice the coworkers and clients that drifted aimlessly through the office. Still, tax season resembled taking a chocolate cake and stuffing it down a sweet addict’s throat until she suffocated.

Before heading to my desk, I stopped in the breakroom. As I always did, I poured myself a cup of hot coffee with an insane amount of French vanilla creamer. Reminding myself that the definition of insanity is relative, I felt no need to complicate an otherwise easy morning decision. Routines became my friends, and I clung to them.

In keeping with daily customs, my coffee-colored mug greeted me as it had for the last ten years. Its job of greeter had begun after the original mug had collided with the countertop and its service ended; the replacement cup happened to be the same color and relatively the same size. In truth, if not for the unexpected future events, my routines would still hold me captive, and I would still be swinging from one dependable vine to another while carefully navigating my way through this unpredictable world.

Breakroom moments with my colleagues were already becoming tenser—get coffee, prepare to personal taste, and head back to our cubicles to avoid conversation. During the months leading up to tax season, someone would mention a show or a sporting event he or she had attended, or possibly some gossip about mutual acquaintances or clients. All that trivial conversation was now considered wasted time. As with most offices, the coworkers skilled in the art of looking busy caused the others to get dumped on periodically.
What consumed their time while I scrambled to finish their work? I assumed the wasted time was eaten up by the critical task of reapplying additional coats of lipstick or studying the different forms of sugar in the breakroom.

Point in case, Roy moseyed in as I headed back to my cubicle. Before I could pass through the door, Roy spoke. “Morning, Skylar.”

Usually, I would have returned the greeting with an equally rehearsed response. However, I recalled Roy informing me the week before that he’d begin his tax season with a trip to Upstate New York where he would take part in a local polar bear plunge. He would remember the moment on the long drab days to follow and allow it to serve as a reminder that he was still alive.

A vision of Roy formed in my mind—his short, stocky body, wearing a Speedo, running down a snowy beach. The whiteness of his belly blinded my imagination as I envisioned it jiggling with each step. As we stood face to face, I tried to shake my feeling of amusement, shock, and embarrassment from privately imagining his half-naked body.

“So, I see you survived the polar bear plunge,” I said.

“Exhilarating, Skylar. You should try it.”

“I’ll get right on that,” I answered with obvious sarcasm.

For me, knowing my heart still beat in its rhythmic fashion served as sufficient proof of life.
On my way back to my desk, I mumbled a good morning to a few faceless characters who faded into the gray walls of the office. Rambling voices sputtered on about this or that; however, I’d trained myself to ignore them. Work called to me, so I settled into the cheap office chair, molded to my form, and powered up my computer. The land of debits and credits awaited me. The black-and-white world of accounting failed to excite most people. In fact, some might even find it exhausting and intolerable, but for me, it made the world seem safe. The rules, cemented in stone, and the columns, keeping everything tidy, allowed the story of the numbers to unfold without unnecessary color.

“Good morning, Skylar.” Liz strutted past me in her skimpy black dress. Yes, I did say a skimpy black dress.

“Good morning, Liz,” I responded because if I didn’t, I would appear rude, which I would never intend to do. I merely kept my distance because I didn’t like her. Now, I don’t mean that in an offensive way, believe it or not, but, seriously, what kind of accountant wears a skimpy black dress to the office? Enough said.

“Did you do anything fun this weekend?” she continued.

Her question led me to the second reason I didn’t care for Liz. She was quite aware that I rarely did anything exciting on weekends. I’d supplied evidence of this fact when I declined joining them for tequila shots on Fridays or any other function to be honest. Neither did I share stories around the water cooler on Mondays. Did I wonder what would happen if I looked up from my cozy world and saw more colorful possibilities? Sure. Who didn’t imagine a different version of themselves now and then?

“Adam and I did a few chores around the house. We were beat after that, so we just watched Netflix.”

The one-story, suburban home Adam and I had shared for the last ten years stayed immaculate, mainly due to having no kids and no pets. We’d grown accustomed to our quiet ways. At one point, we’d talked of marriage, yet one year had followed another, and neither of us had cared to change anything. We were content. Even though we weren’t actively trying for children, we would have welcomed them. Maybe that would have made marriage more appealing.

“Well, that sounds interesting.”

I couldn’t quite decide which tone of Liz’s I despised more—the condescending one she saved mainly for me; or the high-pitched, flirtatious one she used around all men. Every time I witnessed the hair flick and sashay of her hips, I clenched my teeth. Her rituals transported me into some National Geographic show that studied the mating patterns of humans. Since getting up and running from the office was not an option, I settled for secret eye rolls.

My general feeling when Liz addressed me remained the same. Liz intended to mock me, and we both knew it, yet being aware of her mockery created a dilemma for me. One, I could call her out on it—awkward. Two, I could give it right back to her with a witty slam of my own. I generally came up empty in this department. Or three, my favorite and most commonly used reaction—pretend she dished out the insults as an attempt to be genuinely friendly.

“Yes, Netflix lends itself to some good binge-watching on these cold days.”

“I’m sure,” Liz said before sauntering back to her cubicle.

Screw her. Liz had to be guilty of an occasional binge-watching afternoon herself.
Just as I settled into my work, Patty, the office secretary, popped her head over my cubicle wall.
Patty was a bit older than me—early forties—and had worked at McClurry and Associates about as long as I had—around thirteen years. The years had supplied her with plenty of material to gossip about, which she did daily. I kept a safe distance, believing every conversation served as a harvest attempt for fresh content. I had nothing to offer; nonetheless, it was entertaining using secretiveness to pique her interest. I could almost hear her wheels spinning at times.

“I’ve got some messages for you.” She handed me a stack of white paper, all with the personalized message
From the Desk of Patty on top.

“Thank you, Patty,” I said as I reached for the notes.

If I remembered correctly, she had received that notepad as a gift at a Secret Santa office party. Last year, I drew out Roy’s name. I’d made Adam select the gift—a Starbuck’s gift card and a coffee cup. That very cup had led to ‘the change.’ Well, not the cup; as much as the man who had mistakenly borrowed it from the breakroom and had stood holding it when Bruce, our boss, had introduced him as one of the new temps.

That day, I’d scanned the first document on my list and ignored the main office door opening and closing a few times. I’d successfully tuned out the mumbled greetings corresponded amongst my coworkers until Bruce had come out of his office and called us to order for a quick meeting. Only then had I looked up at my surroundings.

No surprise, fresh employees hovered around Bruce. This occurrence happened every year during tax season. I politely listened to Bruce introduce a woman named blah blah, a man called the same, and then Brent Foster. Typically, these temporarily-needed employees drifted into the background as nothing more than moving mannequins. As soon as the tax season ended, they suddenly disappeared from our lives, making it unnecessary to acquaint ourselves to any significant degree.

However, during this introduction, I’d possibly stared a moment too long—at the cup, of course. This action had allowed Brent and me to make eye contact, which in turn had made it the moment before the moment that had changed everything. In my defense, I’d looked away, as I’d recognized a possible exchange had threatened to take place. Despite my attempt, something indescribable had started to happen to me. The spark hadn’t ignited at the exact second that we’d made eye contact, but shortly after.

Brent was nothing to look at really, the type of person who slowly becomes attractive over time and exposure. Then again, he wasn’t so bad to look at in comparison to the others around me. I vaguely remembered thinking, Well, that’s a nice change, before meandering back to my cubicle and giving it little thought for the rest of the day. Honestly, that had been the extent of it. Straining my neck for a second glimpse was not something I’d made a habit of.

The following morning, Brent and I arrived at the office at the same time. A fleeting moment took place between us as we danced around, deciding who would go through the door first. I am ashamed to say, but the awkwardness caused me to emit an adolescent giggle that did not sit well with the beginnings of crow’s-feet. Sure, Adam insisted they didn’t exist; however, he wasn’t privy to the image that stared back at me from my magnifying mirror. Thirty-five years old, crow’s feet, and working as an accountant. Did this all bother me? Subconsciously— perhaps, yes. But isn’t everyone bothered to some degree? I couldn’t control the speeding train of life rolling over years like they were meaningless numbers and leaving them in the dust where the next generation begrudgingly picked them up and learned to cling to them as well. Future lip lines and crow’s feet were its unpreventable tracks.

Life unfolded as it should—ages changed, maturity showed, work happened. If I were honest with myself, there were times my life resembled a campfire. I built the fire by laying twigs in a heap, threw on a few good-burning logs, and encircled the fire with stone. Yet when I stood back to admire it, I could not deny one fact. Somehow, I’d forgotten to light the fire. When I giggled that morning, at the door with Brent, somewhere deep inside me, a tiny spark sent hope to the old logs lying dormant.

The spark smoldered inside of me for a few days. Over the weekend, my mind drifted to work, and somehow the temporary mannequin named Brent found his way into my thoughts as well. Just glimpses, leading nowhere, really; nothing to cause worry. However, on Monday, when Brent entered the office and headed directly to the breakroom, I rose and followed him. Entirely innocently, of course. He used a yellow pack of artificial sweetener and not real sugar, and for some reason, I found myself ripping open the yellow packet and pouring it into my cup too. I also rushed through the stirring process so I would leave the breakroom at the same time, leading to an utterly unprovoked conversation as I raced to keep up with him.

“How was your weekend, Brent? It is Brent, right?” I stammered.

He then turned and looked me right in the eye. “My weekend was awesome. How was yours?” he said with a slight pause, allowing me to remind him of my name.

“Skylar. My name’s Skylar, and my weekend, well, it was pretty uneventful, actually.”

“Well, Skylar,” he said while never losing eye contact, “I hope next weekend is better.” He turned then and headed back to his cubicle.

That night I had the dream—the one that lit the log on fire.

It was just a dream—an unquestionably bizarre and deranged dream I wanted to shake off. Yet, something told me the illusion represented more than an odd mental transformation of daily events. In my mind, the dream served as a warning, a premonition of some sort. Something powerful headed my way.
From the back seat of the car, I stared at the man driving. My heart pounded. Who was he? Friend or foe?
Snarling noises came from outside. The zombies were closing in on us. A half-dead man, slamming into the rear door near me, clawed at the car. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the distinct feeling that a premonition was demanding attention closed in on me, much like the creatures running at superhuman speeds outside my window.

Something large landed on the roof of the car and banged and scratched at it like an animal. My heart beat against my ribs until I thought it might bust out of me. And then a decaying hand ripped through the roof. I slid from one side of the car to the other, knowing that no matter what, this creature must not latch on to me with its rotten teeth.

I pressed myself against the door. The zombie’s face emerged through the roof. My breath stuck, making it impossible to let out the scream building inside of me, as the creature breathed the smell of death into the air. I squeezed my eyes closed, and the zombie’s teeth sank into my shoulder.

Suddenly, I appeared in the guest bathroom of my home, studying myself in the mirror. I slid the shoulder of my shirt to the side and saw only a small trace of the bite mark. Bringing my face closer to the mirror, I searched for changes and found none. However, something about me was different.
In the master bathroom, Adam innocently got ready for bed, not knowing that a new beginning for me was sprouting. A mysterious happening was taking place just a short distance away from him, and the woman he sometimes spoke of marrying would be changed forever.

The bite hadn’t turned me into a zombie, but instead, had made me powerful. Confidently, I stared at myself in the mirror as something enormous started banging against the closed cabana bathroom door. I watched my image staring back at me from the framed alternate world. Soon my power would kick in, and I would puff up to my immortal self, allowing me to demolish the being that threatened from the other side of the thin door.

I waited, yet my transformation didn’t happen. The banging noise got louder. My confident, knowing smirk faded, yet I had not completely lost faith. A clawed hand smashed through the door. I got my first glimpse of an enormous, alien-type being pushing its way into my happy home. Again, in the mirror, I stared at my unchanging appearance. I wasn’t big. I wasn’t powerful. I wasn’t immortal.

I screamed “I’m scared!” But I didn’t just yell, “I’m scared.” I called out his name, and almost in the same moment I heard his name leave my lips, I jolted awake and realized I was in my bed with Adam beside me.

In the quiet darkness of my room, I experienced a faint feeling a metamorphosis of my life had begun. I would have pondered the feeling more, but suddenly I was no longer alone in my thoughts.

“What’s wrong?” Adam sat straight up in our bed.

His watched me in the darkness, while waiting for a response. Still wondering what I had said out loud, I struggled to get acclimated to reality.

“It was just a bad dream.” I sat up, and he rested a hand on my back. My heart was still racing.

“You okay now?”

“Yes. It was a silly dream about zombies and aliens.” Satisfied I would survive, Adam curled back into his
blankets.

“Sorry I woke you.”

“No problem.”

I curled up as well, thankful some parts of my dream remained private.

“Who’s Brent?” Adam asked through his yawn.

“He’s a temp in the office,” I said while still trying to make sense of my speaking his name. “For some reason, he turned into an alien—or at least, I think he did. Dreams are confusing, you know?”

“Tax season makes you crazy, Skylar,” Adam mumbled into his pillow.
Before I could respond, his breathing deepened. In all the world, Adam remained the one person who understood why I’d chosen to live life behind the walls of a cubicle. And because of that understanding, I clung to him, and he never pushed me to let go.

Ours was the perfect relationship; symbiosis at its best. As I drifted back to sleep, I searched my mind for the tail end of my dream so I could grab hold and write the ending I felt sure I wanted it to have. Unfortunately, the images had already slithered to the recesses of my subconscious, where I could no longer alter them.