The world was quieter than it had ever been, and beneath Storybrooke General in the basement of the psychiatric ward, little Belle French lay curled on her side, hugging her knees to her chest and whispering what few prayers she knew under her breath. Sweat trickled across her back beneath her hospital gown and down the back of her scalp. The air conditioner had cut off a day or two before (had it only been that long ago?), and the summer heat was sweltering beyond her muggy barred window. It was easier to breathe past the stuffy air and ignore the dull churning of her stomach if she was laying down.
It was also easier to listen.
Ear to the floor, Belle had stayed in almost the same position for an entire week as she listened to the world outside end. Noises like monsters roaring and buildings toppling shook the earth beneath her, and sirens wailed outside, deep and thunderous against the darkening sky. Thousands of feet pounded on the ceiling above as people ran back and forth. She could always hear nurses shouting for help (“We need more blood!” “I need a new IV!” “Restrain him!”), and for nearly three days straight, she recognized the voice of Dr. Whale above the rest, yelling commands at his staff over the moans of pain and sickness.
But the sound that consistently never stopped, no matter time or day, against the grain of the chaos from above, was the dull thud. At first it had only been once every few hours. Then once an hour. It increased, like an irregular heartbeat against Belle’s ceiling. It always preceded a noisy crash or a collection of screams, but those dull thuds continued, always into the night, waking Belle every few minutes to scramble against the floor and hug herself tighter.
Each time a body hit the floor above, it shook the walls of her cell.
Her nurse would not answer her questions since the chaos on the ground level had begun. In fact, she never even spoke to Belle, simply opened the grate of her door long enough to slip her meal tray inside and then promptly shut it. Not that she could even think about food, but in hindsight, she wished she’d made herself eat the protein gruel, to take the medicine on the napkin with the glass of water, because when the nurse didn’t come inside to force her, she knew things had gotten worse.
A week went by, and no one came to let Belle out to take a shower or to use the bathroom. She tried to ignore the needs of her body for as long as she could, the stink of her own breath and the stickiness of her hair and face making her sick. In the end, she was reduced to the corner of her cell to relieve herself and crying into her elbow in shameful disarray.
The food rotted after she’d picked off what little she could salvage, and there was no way for Belle to open the grate to push it back out, so she pulled the neck of her gown up over her nose and mouth, even though the trapped heat of her cell already made it difficult to get air. That was the last day she’d heard noise.
Waking up to silence was unnerving; not knowing what woke her up was frightening. Even beyond her window, the sirens had stopped. There were no crashes, no screams, nothing. It had come and gone in a week and a half, but something was still so very, very wrong. Belle stayed curled up even after she’d awoken, too scared to move and simply listened.
For hours, only quiet met her ears, until a soft scraping noise became clear just outside her door. Belle slowly lifted her head up, her eyes falling on the grate. It had been ripped off at some point when she’d been asleep, metal hinges and all, and just outside the hall the fluorescent lights flickered noisily. Belle watched and waited as the scraping grew louder until a pair of dirty feet dragged by, the gait heavy and labored. Whoever it was, they were hurt.
The lighting in the hallway continued to cut in and out, and Belle suddenly realized that her door was open, cracked enough to allow a sliver of light into her darkened cell, the flickering bulbs blinking. Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard that it hurt, but... no, she couldn’t stay there waiting for someone to find her. Because no one would find her. No one was coming for her, no one remembered her.
With that hard truth pressing against the back of her mind, Belle slowly collected herself up off the floor and onto shaky legs. Her muscles were weak and tired, and her mind felt both extremely foggy and undeniably clear at the same time from the abrupt break in her medication, but she steadied her balance and put her hand to the door. In too many years to remember, Belle had never opened the door by herself of her own accord. It was heavy, and she took a moment to inspect why: someone had tried to break the door down (how had she slept through that?). The uneven hinges shrieked as she pulled with her body weight enough to slip through out into the dimly lit hall.
The first thing she saw was a gourney, broken and collapsed haphazardly in the middle of the hallway. Slumped on top was her nurse, the blonde’s neck twisted unnaturally, her head hanging off the side and blood pooled on the cement beneath her. Her fingernails had been ripped off, and Belle saw the grating to her door just a few feet away. She had tried to free Belle, then, before...
Her hand went to her mouth, the metallic scent of the dried pool of blood hitting her like a wave. The snapping of the fluorescent lighting above was the only noise, that and the continued scraping, and the movement out of the corner of Belle’s eye shot through her heart when she realized she wasn’t alone.
It was the man with the mop, or so she’d come to think of him. No one had ever told her his name. She only remembered him from the handful of times he’d been in the hallway when she was carted to and from her showers. He was limping down the hall now, away from her, his massive form cutting a huge shadow.
“E-Excuse me,” her voice was scratchy and rough from disuse, and she hadn’t realized she’d started to cry. When she swallowed, there was that familiar, painful knot in her throat, and fear and confusion began clawing inside her, hot and unpleasant that left only a raspy whimper, “Please... please, help me.”
At the sound of her voice, the man stopped, and it was only then Belle could hear his wheezing breath against the buzzing of the lights overhead. When he turned to face her, the ravaged hole of his neck, discolored and mangled, gaped as he gasped for breath, his eyes wide and yellowed.
Belle wished she hadn’t said anything. She was almost sure her mind was playing tricks- she’d suffered nightmares before her incarceration-they’d obviously gotten worse, the only explanation for the increase in her medication. As the man stumbled closer, faster, his hands beginning to flex and grasp in front of him, Belle had to believe this was all in her mind, that this was just another hallucination, just another bad dream.
Self preservation, however, was always a strong instinct in Belle, and when the man launched himself forward, Belle threw herself down and slammed her feet against the gourney. It wedged against the wall, trapping the man for a few moments. Having rolled it away, Belle was able to ignore the sticky patch of dark blood on the floor she was sitting on as her eyes lighted on what had fallen beneath the gourney.
Her nurse must have grabbed the crowbar and attempted to open her door, and Belle made the split second decision in grabbing it just as the man took notice of the same dead woman atop the gourney. Belle gripped the crowbar with both hands so tightly her arms shook, her heels scraping against the floor as she scrambled away. The man bent over the nurse, and Belle wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, fumbling in a frenzy, until she heard a sickening wet sound that had her stomach heaving. So engrossed and rabid, he didn’t seem to realize Belle was even there.
Move. Go, now, a voice whispered inside her diseased mind.
Pulling the crowbar tight against her body, Belle pressed her back against the wall and inched around the gourney, which trembled under the weight of the man’s enormity. It only took her two more steps before she broke into a clumsy run, and Belle didn’t look back until she was down the hall and around the corner, past the nurse’s station.
The foyer of the ward was in ruin, the desk in shambles and shards of glass scattered everywhere. Papers carpeted the floor, cabinets were overturned, and it was as if a horrible gale had hit the hospital. Being careful where she stepped, she toed across the room until she reached the stairs.
The world above was even worse.
From her dim memories of being brought to the hospital, Belle remembered the sterile smell of linoleum and alcohol, of painful white paint and starched aprons. What she was met with was a destruction, a building that was a remnant of war. Benches and chairs were overturned, glass walls and doors cracked or broken. The lights had been killed, at least at this end of the hospital, but Belle could smell the sour odor of rot and the heat of the summer and knew the electricity was probably out through the rest of the building.
As she walked down the deserted hallways, Belle could taste death. It was heavy, like salt and metal and mildew, sticking to the walls and floors. She pulled the neckline of her hospital gown above her nose and mouth again as she shuffled through papers and broken syringes, wandering in search of anyone, and Belle listened harder than she ever had, but heard not a soul.
Dried blood caked parts of the floors and walls, and the heat made it almost unbearable. She felt sweat trickle down the back of her neck, tickling along her spine and when she finally saw the first bit of natural light washing through plate glass windows of the hallway, tears filled her eyes to see sunshine. What met her beyond that was horror of another kind.
The streets beyond the hospital were torn apart. Buildings seemed condemned, crumbling, sidewalks broken and cars overturned. She could see light poles that had fallen and electrical wires blowing in the breeze. Whatever disaster had befallen them, it had hit irrevocably.
Following the windows until she met the main lobby, which was just as overturned and dismantled as the rest of the hospital, Belle was startled to find the sliding glass doors of the hospital closed, but the panes completely shattered, glass littering the floor. Aside from the breeze, everything was so still, so eerily quiet that she felt goosebumps prickle her skin.
Stepping through the broken door and out into the daylight was painful, having gone so long without it, and she tried to shield her face against the sun with her hand. Stumbling down the drive, she threw her whole arm up to block her face, keeping the crowbar tucked beneath her arm, panting under her breath until she could slump against the portechasche. Her head swam in dizziness, and for a long moment the only thing she could do was close her eyes and breathe through her mouth. Her empty stomach churned, and she wanted so badly to vomit but knew nothing would come up from days without eating.
Blinking against the harsh sun, Belle’s eyes adjusted better and the silent, abandoned street stretched out to either side of her. Struggling to her feet, she walked wearily out through the parking lot, trying to swallow the knot in her dry, cracked throat. She still felt off balance, and, squinting against the sun’s glare of the blacktop street that shimmered in the heat, Belle sucked in a breath when she saw movement. People, two or three silhouettes all the way down the street, walking towards her. Falling to her knees and slowly slumping on the curb, Belle put her cheek to the cement. It was searing against her skin, but there were people here.
They would see her.
They would help her.
Dimly behind the growing throb in her head, Belle could hear a growling, low and deep, and a gurgling, wet sound that could’ve been a cough, but she was too tired to lift her head, too weak to open her eyes. Whoever it was, they were getting closer, and she hoped that they could help her, could see that she was unwell. She hardly had the presence of mind to speak, and their shuffling steps grew closer. With a sigh, Belle, rolled onto her back, her eyes blearily gazed up into the sky as she began to drift away.
A dark, shadowed face floated into her line of vision against the harsh, hot view of the clouds, and Belle blinked slowly. The face was distorted, flesh bubbling and puckered and discolored in places with crooked, rotted teeth and cataract covered eyes that rolled back and forth like baby blue marbles. Dr. Whale’s tie was gone, and a chunk of his hair had been pulled out at his temple, leaving a bloody patch that streaked down the side of his face and neck, and Belle wished she could remember how to move her lips to ask if he was alright as he leaned over her, his hands pawing roughly at her hospital gown. Too hard, too harsh, and the touch was enough to startle her awake.
It wasn’t Dr. Whale.
“No- no-” Belle cried, gasping as she shoved herself back over the curb and into the street. His blunt nails scraped over the thick tights that coated her legs as she scrambled backward from him, whimpering cries breaking in her throat each time she tried to push herself up, but her legs and arms weren’t working and she couldn’t move fast enough. Suddenly, Dr. Whale threw himself on her, and Belle was too scared to even scream. She wrestled beneath him enough to twist her way out, but he caught her foot and she stared in horror as he bit down viciously on her hospital slipper.
He was trying to eat her.
“Stop!” Belle cried, begging as she tried to pull at her leg. She could feel his teeth tearing through the rubber sole, and when he didn’t respond, Belle slammed her other foot against his head with all the adrenaline she could muster, sending him reeling back. She scraped her heels across the pavement to push herself up but her back came into contact with something solid and strong.
“Caught a pretty boy, duckling!” A bright voice sang from behind her, and whoever she’d ran into suddenly stepped over and around her. He was tall, slender, and well built in dark jeans, a sweat soaked, long sleeved shirt and boots. He twirled the brush-axe in his hand as he practically sashayed to the disoriented doctor struggling to stand. With a hum of satisfaction, the man took his axe in both hands and slammed the hooked sling blade down, brandishing through Dr. Whale’s neck and opening his head like a rotten pumpkin, spilling it across the sidewalk.
Belle stared in horror as the dark black blood pooled across the cement, seeping into the grass. The man tapped the brush-axe on the bottom of his boot, knocking some of the residue away with a manic smile as he looked down at Belle, still laying in the street. “Name’s Jefferson, if you want to thank me. And you should, seeing as how he would’ve licked your bones clean, little duck,” the man said brightly, a giggle on the edge of his voice like he was sharing a joke. With two long strides, he knelt down in front of her, axe tilted across his shoulders as he reached out to cup her chin too ungently, his blue eyes meeting hers with malicious relish. “But then again, maybe you shouldn’t thank me yet. Let’s save you for the living to gobble up.”