Part I – End of Days
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” – R.E.M.
It’s been a month since the world ended. I’ve been moving ever since. I used to be a truck driver, back before it all went to shit. I was in Nebraska when I first heard about it – some kind of “mass hysteria”, they called it. “No biggie,” I thought. I figured it was probably some bunch of religious nutjobs going on about the end of the world again – after all, we’d just lived through two predicted “raptures” and the end of the Mayan calendar. I kept heading west – I was running to Colorado, and then I was going home.
The reports didn’t stop, though.
By the time I got to Limon I was hearing about dead people walking and cannibalism. I figured someone at the radio station was on crack, until I heard the tell-tale BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! of the Emergency Alert System, and then a voice saying there was a public health emergency and telling everyone to stay in their homes. The news came back on, saying the National Guard had been activated.
“Fuck this,” I said. I had 300 gallons of diesel in my tanks and I headed straight back to Vegas. When I got there I wished I’d never made it.
Vegas was a wreck by the time I got there. I drove to my apartment complex – I had to try to find my family. When I got there it was deserted. The door was open; the place was empty. Not literally, but it felt deserted. I could see the remnants of a hasty packing job; the dogs were gone; the food was gone. Certain things were gone that would only have been taken by someone who knew what they meant – pictures, certain books. The Ruger I’d bought her for home defense was gone. The car was gone, so were the tools. I looked for a note, a sign, anything suggesting which direction they went, but there was nothing to find.
I figured my best shot would be to strike out east. It had only been a few days since this mess began, so I figured I’d probably still be able to get fuel and supplies. First things first, though. I wrote a note and left it on the table. I told her I’d come home, what day I was there, and that I was heading east to look for her. I gave her my route too. Just, in case, I figured.
I grabbed some clothes and a bat and went back out to the truck. It felt…eerie. I felt like someone was watching me, but when I would look, nobody was there. I dropped my trailer where it was. “Don’t think I’ll be needing this,” I thought to myself as I lowered the landing gear and unhooked the air and power lines from it. I stopped and looked around for a moment, listening. It was far too quiet. I got in the truck, fired the engine, and got the hell out of there.
My supply run was fairly uneventful. I broke into a CVS and raided the pharmacy, found the pumps still on at the truck stop, and stocked up on grocery items and water. My last stop was the sporting goods store – I wanted a rifle and a bicycle, plus some camping gear. I was loading up the last of my equipment when I heard a noise behind me.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was a man, a little taller than me, maybe in his mid-20s. His hair was brown, his eyes – how can I begin to describe those eyes? They were hungry, they were angry…full of hatred. The whites had turned a combination of red from burst blood vessels and yellowish, as if he’d been jaundiced. Some kind of blackish goo was oozing from his mouth. His lips were stained a reddish brown; his skin was mottled, as if all his capillaries had burst. His clothes were torn and he was missing a shoe. He never uttered a sound. I only heard him because he’d stumbled. He stared at me with those eyes…those hungry eyes.
I stared back at him, slowly reaching for my bat. I’d just reached it when he charged. He ran; I swung. The bat connected with his left temple and spun him around. He fell on his face and didn’t move again. Shaking violently, I got in the truck and hauled ass.
Part II – Run Like the Devil
“The time for sleep is now
It’s nothing to cry about ’cause we’ll hold each other soon in the blackest of rooms ” – Death Cab for Cutie
I found my first evidence of my family a couple of days after I escaped from Vegas. That was a nightmare, let me tell you. I still have bad dreams about it. I don’t know what the deal is with these people – whether they’re alive or dead. I do know they’re wicked fast and hungry as hell. I encountered my first one in the parking lot of a sporting goods store. I hit him hard, in the head, and he collapsed. I don’t know if I killed him or just knocked him out; I just know he was trying to kill me.
I made it down the road a few miles before I came to a pileup on the highway. It looked like a bunch of folks were trying to leave the city and – well, you can figure out what happened. Take a herd of panicked people, put them behind the wheel of their cars, and what do you get? Mayhem. I stopped the truck well away from the mess and got out to investigate. Maybe my car was in there somewhere, and if it was I owed it to my family to try to find out what happened to them. I saw several cars that looked like mine, but none were. Funny enough, though, all the cars were empty. I saw blood; I saw wrecks that looked like nobody could have survived; I saw deployed airbags – but no bodies.
I remember thinking of a line Captain Kirk said in a Star Trek movie: “This is damned peculiar,” right before the bad guy almost blows up the Enterprise. I had that feeling then, and I didn’t like it one bit. I could feel eyes on me but couldn’t see or hear anyone out there. The city had fallen silent by then – no planes taking off or landing at the airport, no engines running, no music…the electric billboards were still on, advertising lawyers and the like, but they don’t make any noise.
At that moment I felt like the last man on earth.
I saw movement out of the corner of my eye the same time I heard shuffling footsteps. I turned back toward the truck; this time there were three of them. They looked just like my unfriendly acquaintance from earlier – bloody yellowed eyes, full of hatred and anger, mottled skin…I noticed a smell about them this time though. They had an acrid scent to them – like stale urine and old sweat. As they stood there staring at me, I realized one of them looked familiar.
“Colleen what’s wrong with you? What the hell happened here? Where’s Shawn?”
More staring, and a chill crept up my spine. I started backing away slowly, tightening my grip on the bat in my hand. They stood between me and the safety of the truck. I really didn’t want to fight, and they looked hostile. Then they took the choice away from me. All three of them charged me at the same time. I sidestepped one, ducked underneath the other’s arms, and felt the third – the one I thought was my friend Colleen – grab hold of my hoodie. Her grip was like iron. She snarled and went to bite me; I rammed the butt of the bat into her face, crushing her nose and cutting her cheek open. That black ooze I saw on the other one spurted out, staining the front of my shirt. It reeked of stagnancy and decay. It smelled like death. I bashed her face again, harder, and felt her grip slacken. I pulled away right as the other two came within swinging distance. I choked up on the bat and swung at one, catching it in the side of the head. I saw his skull flatten out and he dropped like a stone. The other one grabbed onto me, and I swung the end of the bat into his stomach. I’d hoped he would crumple, but he held fast, almost pulling me on top of him. I went to my knees as I drove the bat into his skull, punching a hole into his cranium. He stilled immediately, and I proceeded to vomit all over the place.
After what felt like the entire contents of my body lay on the pavement and body in front of me, I managed to stagger to my feet. I’d cut my knees when I fell and was bleeding. I cast a quick glance around, saw I was alone, and went back to the truck. I felt exhausted. I’d barely slept for days as I rushed home, eaten less, and now I’d had to fight…what? Zombies? Sick people? Cannibals?
WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING ON??
I rinsed my mouth, changed my shirt, started the truck, and froze. There was a mob behind me. They were silent as the grave, and staring at me with those hate-filled eyes.
I had two options: plow through the mess in front of me and possibly destroy my best mode of transportation for the moment, or put the truck into high reverse and run down whichever ones didn’t get out of the way.
“May the gods forgive me,” I whispered as I stepped on the clutch.
Part III – The Way We Were
“Only time and life will tell
But it’s a long way home when you’re in hell
Where constant demons fracture souls
Once a nightmare, now just lifeless ghosts” – Flogging Molly
Her phone rang, distracting her from the almost unbelievable news reports she was watching on CNN.
“Have you seen the news?”
“How can I NOT have seen the news? School’s been canceled – Marisa’s not going while all this crap happens.”
“Good. STAY HOME. Lock the doors and don’t go anywhere if you can avoid it. I’m blowing off my delivery in Denver and heading straight home. I just talked to the Stones – I was planning to see them since I was passing through but they’re leaving. Justin said he and Steph are heading north and are gonna try to meet up with some others along the way.”
“I’m not entirely sure – he mentioned Ducky for one, but I don’t remember who else off the top of my head.”
“Kim. You remember Kim, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t like this – I don’t feel good about just sitting and waiting for whatever the hell this is to pass. I have a really bad feeling and I’m worried about my mom.”
“Me too. I’m worried about the rest of my family too. I haven’t been able to get hold of the boys for several days either. I’m really worried about them all.”
“When do you think you’ll be here?”
“I just left Limon. I’m gonna have to take an alternate route to get around the roadblocks…if I’m lucky and the weather holds, maybe late tomorrow or the next day.”
“Hurry. I love you. Be careful.”
“I love you too.”
She hung up the phone and went back to the news reports. Her dad poked his head in the living room and told her there were some supplies they were short on. She’d asked him to inventory certain things. “Dammit,” she thought. “You two get your shoes on – we’re gonna have to go to the store and we need to be quick. Once we get home we’re locking this door and not opening it again.”
He drove all that day and most of the night, winding treacherous icy roads never meant to be traveled by commercial traffic. By the time he got back to an area with cell signal, there was no longer any cellular service.
He drove faster.
• • •
I was an emotional wreck after running down all those people. Even an empty truck with no trailer attached weighs a lot, and when you move it at speed over something as fragile as a human body…
I’m a nonviolent person. Or at least, I used to be. After I got well away from the mob, I had to stop and throw up again. I was shaking again too. They never made a sound, even when some of them…popped. The only time I’d heard a noise out of anything I’d encountered was when Colleen got her hands on me and was trying to bite.
“Couldn’t have been her,” I thought, “they live in Pahrump and where was Shawn?” I kept telling myself this over and over, but then I remembered both the lip piercing and the tattoo.
I threw up again, screaming the entire time.
Eventually my screams faded to raspy cries. I got back in the truck and made my way back to the highway and turned south. I knew once I left I’d never see Las Vegas again.
The road was remarkably clear all the way to Kingman, Arizona. I got on the interstate and turned east. I figured they would only be able to make about 300 miles on a single tank of gas, so I should be able to catch up pretty quickly. I also figured they only had about a day to a day and a half head start on me.
Unfortunately I couldn’t go very fast. The roads weren’t as bad as they could have been, but they were still blocked in areas. By the second day I’d only gotten as far as Flagstaff. It lies high in the Arizona mountains, and true to form it was cold up there. We were still in January when all this happened. I crested the mountain when I came upon another roadblock. There’d been a pileup, and a big one at that. I crossed the median carefully, so I could pass it in the westbound lane, when I saw a car that looked like mine in the pileup. I stopped the truck and went to investigate.
Sure enough, it was my car. The keys were still in the ignition. I turned it on and saw the gas gauge was practically empty. So was the car. No suitcases, no food, no dogs, nobody. It was deserted. I knew she’d packed – the signs were there plain as day at home. Still, I knew they’d come this way, most likely heading for Georgia. I was both heartened and discouraged at this find. I was on the right track, but where could they have gone? I looked around for a sign – any sign of them, when I happened across a Dr. Pepper bottle, an empty bag of chips I knew Marisa ate (eats, I told myself. Present tense – they’re alive), and – amazingly – a set of tire tracks, almost wiped out under a fresh layer of snow – leading across the median and to the east.
As in Vegas, there were no bodies to be seen anywhere among the wreckage. I did find copious amounts of blood in some of the cars, and in one I came upon a Glock 9mm handgun and a machete. I decided I’d spent enough time among the ghosts here and went back to the truck. It was time to move on.
“Where are you?”
Part IV – Desert of Abandon
“I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name” – America
I drove eastward as fast as I could through Arizona, New Mexico, and finally into the Texas panhandle. I figured she’d head back to Georgia the same way we came when we moved out west. Along the way I found trucks still standing upright and siphoned their fuel. I was getting low and figured they didn’t need it anymore anyway, so why not?
Amarillo was closing in and I needed a rest. I pulled off the highway into a truck stop that was curiously devoid of trucks. I didn’t like the feel of the place but needed supplies, so I grabbed my bat, a bag, and my newfound toys from Flagstaff and headed inside. The doors weren’t locked and the power had finally given out. The store was dark and smelled bad – like stale urine and old sweat. I knew that smell and backed out fast, but it was no good. Several of them had obviously caught the flash of daylight when I opened the door.
Three rushed out at me – two women and a man. They barreled through the doors at a full run. I drew the gun and fired at them, managing – despite my fear – to actually hit all three. They went down in a heap, but were still moving. One of the women started pushing herself back to her feet, and I shot her again – this time in the head. She didn’t move again. I holstered the gun, drew the machete, and moved in to dispatch the other two. That done, I returned to the task at hand. I needed water, badly.
I’ve said before I don’t know what the deal is with these…what? Are they still people? Zombies? Cannibals gone mad? I don’t know what to call them. I know they were infected with something – but what? Is it a bacteria? A virus? Some kind of parasite? Or is it manufactured? Some kind of weapon that escaped or was released?
I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. I know now that their blood turns to some kind of thick black viscous jelly that smells like death. I know their capillaries pop and they turn a mottled bluish grey color. I know their eyes turn yellowish and are bloodshot. They’re slow until they sense you, then they’re stupid fast. They’re quiet too. They don’t moan, they don’t yell, they don’t scream…until they have you in hand. That’s what really makes them dangerous. They’re just so quiet. I know it takes more than one shot to kill them – I started with a 9mm, and have…acquired…several other calibers of handgun along the way. I have a shotgun, which will bring them down with one shot of buckshot at close range, but I don’t like to shoot at all if I don’t have to. It’s the noise, you see. The noise will bring them down on you like a pack of wild dogs. I learned that lesson outside of Dallas. Maybe I’ll tell you about it someday.
Anyway – I do know the only way I’ve found to actually kill them is massive head trauma. A bullet – a bludgeon – truck at high speed – stab wound…you get the picture. If they die from other wounds I can’t say because I just don’t stick around long enough to find out. I’ve been careful with my ammo and managed to stock up on quite a bit anyway throughout my foray through north Texas.
I found lots of what I needed (lots of guns in Texas) but no more sign of my family. By this point I’d been on the road for a week. I had no idea what kind of vehicle they were in, but was still hopeful they’d stuck to the interstate. I lost a lot of time investigating pileups and otherwise abandoned vehicles. There was never any sign beyond the soda bottle and empty chip bag in Flagstaff though. I was getting desperate by now. Had they changed direction and gone north? Were they intercepted? Were they even still alive?
I’d been traveling nine days since I left Vegas and in all that time I hadn’t encountered anyone else. Well – anyone else who was uninfected, anyway. That was about to change, and I still shudder when I think about what happened there.
Part V – Fallen Angels
“I hate what I’ve become, the nightmare’s just begun
I must confess that I feel like a monster” – Skillet
Somewhere in northeast Texas
He’d spent the better part of his life on this land – the farm had been in his family since Granddaddy Curt bought it after he came home from World War I. They’d survived drought; they’d survived the great recession; they’d survived the banks. He was mending fences by the house when his wife pulled into the driveway, kicking up a trail of dust behind her new SUV.
“Damn. I keep telling her lay off those brakes,” he thought as he watched her drive up to the house. His first inkling of something wrong was when – instead of stopping to wave as she usually did, she ran from the car directly into the house as if hell itself was chasing her.
“Erin?” he called after her as he started back toward the house. Then he broke into a run.
She’d been bitten on the arm by some crazy person, she told him. He insisted on looking at it; she showed him. It was a deep wound – the flesh was torn and it was bleeding. He looked at her, aghast.
“A person did this?”
“Babe we gotta get you to the doctor. This is bad. Who knows what was wrong with whoever did this to you.”
“Fine. Let me bandage this up first; I don’t want to bleed any more in the car than I already have.”
“Why didn’t you just go to the hospital?”
“It wasn’t this bad at first. I swear it’s gotten worse over the last ten minutes or so. Funny thing, John, is it doesn’t even hurt.”
He shook his head as she washed the wound in the kitchen sink. This was the sort of thing that happened other places, not out here in the country. “Whole world’s going to hell, I guess,” he thought as he heard a WHUMP! behind him. He turned and let out a yell as he saw his wife on the floor, apparently unconscious.
John ran for the phone, but there was no dial tone. “How can this daggone line be dead now?” he thought as he ran back to the kitchen and grabbed their first aid kit. He was glad he’d taken that class at church with Erin when she’d insisted.
When he reached her he saw there was no first aid on the planet that could help her now. Blood was leaking from her skin – ALL of her skin – except where she’d been bitten. Her blood was soaking through her clothes, staining her blue jeans a deep violet. There was a smell coming from her – like sweat mixed with urine – and her skin was unbelievably hot. He picked her up, carried her to the car, and drove like a madman to the hospital.
They never made it.
• • •
I’d been on the road nine days now and I was exhausted. I’d just barely made it out of Dallas alive and I was lucky to still even have the truck. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was still headed east, now on Interstate 20 and had so far to go. There was still no sign, but to be completely honest I was so busy trying to survive Dallas I didn’t really even look there. I pulled off the road outside of Canton, shut the truck off, and stepped out. There was a slew of abandoned cars here and I had to check – both for signs and supplies. I looked through the vehicles – all abandoned, true to form – and ran across one with a photo album in it. Not one of ours, but I had to look. It was a family with small kids. I looked at the back seat and saw two booster seats, both covered in blood. That did it for me. Between the exhaustion, the fear, the worry, and the atrocities I’d had to commit just to stay alive, I lost it for a while. I fell to my knees and just screamed for what felt like hours. I screamed for the friends I’d had to murder; I screamed for the family I knew to be dead.
I screamed at a god I didn’t believe in.
After a while I managed to get back to my feet and back to the truck. I climbed in, locked the doors, pulled the privacy curtain and fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of scratching at the door. I didn’t dare make a sound. How long had I been asleep? I reached for my gun and glanced at the clock. I’d been out for six hours straight. I hadn’t slept that long in days. Suddenly I heard muffled voices outside.
“Dude forget it if it’s locked.”
“Bobby we’ve been up and down this stretch of road for a week. This truck wasn’t here yesterday and why is it locked if it’s abandoned? Do you think this guy went off into the bushes to take a leak? Nah, he’s coming back and I wanna know who the fuck he is and what the fuck he thinks he’s doing out here.”
“And then what? You gonna kill him?
“If I have to I will. Seriously though – look at his plates. This guy’s a long way from home and he might have some things we can use. Check the other door, Bobby, just in case.”
Bloody pirates. Now what?
“Nah, this one’s locked too. Look Tim, I don’t like this. We’re out in the open here and it’s almost full dark. Suppose this guy comes back from behind these trees. He’s probably armed just like us. For all we know he’s lyin’ out there now, watching us.”
Bloody armed pirates. Well, between the two of them, Bobby seemed to have more sense. He was cautious and it didn’t sound like he wanted a fight. This other one…what the hell was his name? Tim – he sounded like a hothead. He was dangerous. I heard them discussing a possible compromise – hiding behind some cars and lying in wait for me. It sounded like they were in front of the truck. If I was to have any chance at all with these two, I had to move now.
On top of the Glock I found in Flagstaff, I’d managed to find a Desert Eagle .44 Magnum and a very nice Benelli tactical shotgun. I also had the Remington hunting rifle I’d picked up in Vegas before I struck out east. I already had the Glock in hand and grabbed the Desert Eagle in the other. I checked both guns, confirmed they were loaded, and stepped through the curtain.
• • •
The brothers have spent the better part of the week scavenging the road and the town they used to call home. They’re tired, they’re hungry, they’re scared and cold and one of them is very definitely mean. Timothy and Bobby Gaines have spent the last 27 and 25 years, respectively, watching each others’ backs. Life was hard in the trailer park they grew up in. Will Gaines was never much of a worker, and Barbara Gaines was never much of a homemaker. They drank to excess and fought with each other even more, often in front of their two young sons. One day when Timothy was 12 and Bobby 10, Will didn’t come home. The only time any of them ever heard from him again was when the divorce papers came by way of the sheriff. By this time he’d been gone three months and Barbara was working as a waitress at a diner in town. Eventually the whiskey got the best of her – this was during one of Tim’s frequent stays in the county jail – and she was found the next day, her face buried in the tree her car was wrapped around. The brothers had been alone ever since.
They stood in front of the truck neither of them had seen before, debating. Tim wanted to lie in wait for the driver, probably scare him off but maybe, just maybe, go ahead and kill him. Tim wanted to see what it felt like. He’d had plenty of practice killing this last week and he thought it was actually pretty fun. Bobby, on the other hand, wanted to just leave it be and head back to their shelter they’d built. It was getting dark and he’d recently acquired a new fear of the dark. Tim was right about one thing though – they did need supplies. The pickings weren’t necessarily getting slim yet, but who knew how long this nightmare would last?
Neither of them were prepared to see the man step out from behind the curtain, a gun in each hand. They were standing facing each other, and neither had their gun drawn. He motioned them to put their hands up and stand together. They did as he wanted. He put down the gun in his left hand as he opened the door, then picked it back up as he leaned out.
“Hi guys. Which of you is Tim and which is Bobby?”
“I’m Bobby. Who are you?”
“That doesn’t matter now. Look – I’ve had a rough couple of days and all I want is to leave. I don’t want to fight, and since I’ve got the drop on both of you I don’t think you do either. I’ll make you a deal: nobody has to die today. You boys go on back where you came from and I’ll just be on my way.”
Tim was furious. Who the fuck did this guy think he was, giving him orders?
“Buddy I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a rat’s ass. How bout we just kill you and take what we want? There’s two of us out here, sure, but maybe there’s more in the bushes and the trees.”
The trucker looked Tim in the eyes, hard. Bobby was scared. The guy was willing to just let them go – why did Tim have to go and start trouble?
The trucker spoke again, never taking his eyes off Tim.
“Bobby, you sound like a smart kid. You wanna walk away now. You keep your hands up and walk north until you get behind those trees. Then you go any way you want. As for you, Timmy, you’re free to go with him if you want. If not – you’re welcome to try me but I won’t guarantee you’ll survive the attempt. Listen to me, kid. Nobody has to die today. I’ve done enough killing this week to last me ten lifetimes. I don’t want to hurt you and we all know you two are alone out here. You can walk away now or you can die in the street. Your choice.”
As he said this he thumbed the hammer on the cannon in his right hand. Bobby broke out in a cold sweat. Tim didn’t move.
“Look mister, we don’t want any trouble more than you,” Bobby said, “but what’s to keep you from shooting us in the back if we start walking?”
The truck driver shook his head. “Boy have you not been listening? I don’t want to hurt you. If I wanted you dead you’d already be dead. I tell you what – one of you turn around, the other faces me. You both keep your hands above your heads. I’m gonna keep my guns on you because I don’t trust you. You’re just gonna have to trust me. Walk north until you get through those trees, then go any way you want. I’m not gonna make you throw down your guns. That’s the only deal you have. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to. You have three seconds to make up your minds. One.”
Tim and Bobby looked at each other.
Bobby kept looking at Tim. Tim looked back at the man in the truck, weighing his options.
“Three. Time’s up kids. What’ll it be?”
This time it was Tim who spoke. “I have your word you won’t hurt my kid brother?”
“You have my word, son.”
“Smart. Go now, before it gets any darker.”
Bobby turned and faced north. Tim kept his eyes on the man in the truck. As they walked north, he called out to them.
“Have you seen anyone else come through here? A woman about your ages, an older man and a little girl?”
“A car came through about four days ago, but we didn’t get a look at who was in it. It was headed east.”
“Thanks. Tell you what – I’ll drop a case of water on the south side of the road about a mile up for you two. Don’t come for it until morning. And don’t come after me.”
They made it to the trees and Tim turned around to face his brother. Bobby was crying. They hugged each other tight and heard a diesel engine fire into life. A few minutes later it faded into the distance. They walked, arms around each other, back to their shelter. The next morning they walked to where the man said he’d leave them a case of water. They found it, along with a bottle of rum, a pack of cigarettes (Marlboro Reds!) and a note.
“Go easy on the bottle. It’ll help keep the chill at bay in the night. Just a nip – this is no time to be senseless. Hopefully we’ll never see each other again. If we do maybe it’ll be under better circumstances. Watch out for each other and be careful. I killed a small pack of them about 100 yards back for you. Good luck to you both.”
They took the supplies and went back to the safety of their shelter.
• • •
Nine days ago. Las Vegas, Nevada
Clint and Ron stood on the highway, looking down at the bodies in front of them. This was supposed to be a quick and painless supply run. There’d been four teams of three each – all with their own assignments. Tanya was back at the car, waiting for the other two teams to show up at their assigned rendezvous point. Ron heard a car pull up and a door slam.
“Where are the others?” a man called out.
Ron turned and started walking toward his friend, devastated. How was he going to break this news?
“Hammy – I need to tell you something.”
Shawn looked at his friend. He was white as a ghost. He looked past him, seeing Clint standing in front of – well, you couldn’t really call it anything but one hell of a mess.
“Ron – what happened?”
“Someone else was here. We don’t know who, but whoever it was wiped out a whole herd. It couldn’t have been more than about three hours ago. The bodies are still relatively fresh.”
“Then they did us a favor.”
“You need to see this before you say that.”
“What aren’t you telling me? Where are the other two teams?”
Shawn’s heart sank. Suddenly he didn’t want to see whatever Ron wanted to show him. Ron led him past the carnage to the real nightmare.
Shawn sank to his knees and cradled his wife in his giant’s arms. He was silent for a moment, tears overspilling his eyes and running down his face. Then he raised his head to the sky and screamed. There was no hope in that scream – only anguish, and loss, and despair. Ron walked behind his friend, got to his knees, and bowed his head in a silent prayer. He asked the God he knew and loved to watch over his friends and to guide her soul to a peaceful place. He asked for strength for his friend now, more than ever.
Shawn looked back down at his wife, unable to think. Wave after wave of grief smashed into him as he held his wife, rocking her tiny limp body, venting his emotions in one long primal scream. She looked like a rag doll in a child’s hands. Ron turned away, giving his friend a moment of privacy.
The screams stopped.
Ron looked up in horror. Shawn was lying on the ground, his throat torn out. Colleen was on her feet now, walking toward him fast, blood (Shawn’s blood!, he thought) running down her chin and dripping on her clothes. Ron fumbled for his gun, struggling with the holster. She was almost on him when he heard a lound BANG! and saw her crumple in a heap. Clint was standing just behind him, smoke rising from the barrel of his gun. The remaining team chose that moment to show up.
Ron walked over to where Shawn lay quiet and still. He’d choked to death on his own blood. He knelt beside his friend, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer for mercy for Shawn and forgiveness for himself. Then he shot Shawn between the eyes.
The surviving team members wrapped both bodies in blankets and carried them to their cars for burial back at camp. They drove away in silence.
Part VI – Chasing an Empty Dream
“Coming for you
And all mankind
I’ve lost my mind
Psychotic, Rapid dementia
I won’t be fine” – Avenged Sevenfold
Five days ago. Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Texas
Before disaster struck this was the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the entire United States, its total area encompassing more than 9,200 square miles. It was home to more than 6.5 MILLION people. Now it was silent, its buildings dark, its streets devoid of people. All that remained in view were abandoned automobiles. There were no bodies in the streets. Even if there were, the carrion birds and flies would have avoided them.
A lone truck approached the city from the west. It moved slowly, occasionally crossing the highway to avoid the worst of the collisions. The noise from the engine was loud against the silent backdrop of the dead city. Noise was an aberration. Noise was different. Noise aroused curiosity. Meat made noise. The hunger gnawed. The hunger…ALWAYS…gnawed. Meat was life. LIVE meat was life. Couldn’t eat dead meat, no. Dead meat brought death. Need live meat, need hot blood.
They could hear it from a long distance away. The disease ate away at their higher functions, leaving only the need to feed. Their vision was poor – a side effect of the burst capillaries in the eye was a reduction in blood flow, leading to retinal decay. Their ears, though, tended to sharpen somehow. They could easily track their prey by the sounds it made. And they heard this one from a long way off. As the truck drew closer and finally into the city they had plenty of time to track it, plenty of time to triangulate its position with their animal senses, plenty of time to silently mass along its route through the surface streets.
The truck’s driver was forced off the highway in Bedford. This was one of the largest and busiest cities in the country, and it had died large and busy. There were collisions everywhere; overturned vehicles clogged the highways at nearly every turn. He couldn’t begin to hope to check every one; he’d be there for months, maybe years! His only hope was that they’d made it through far enough ahead to avoid some or – if they were lucky – even all of it.
The driver checked his fuel gauge and swore. He was running low, lower than he’d expected. He’d have to stop and siphon fuel. That meant getting out of the truck. Inside he was armored. They couldn’t tear through steel. Inside he was safe. Outside, though, every second spent was death. The creatures were so quiet. He’d been snuck up on enough times to be scared of them. It didn’t help that he’d lost some hearing in his left ear either. He was scared, alright.
“I’ve put this off way too long,” he thought to himself. There was no choice now but to suck it up, find some upright trucks he could siphon fuel from, and get out of there. In his younger days, he’d lived in and loved living in Dallas. Now the city was dead and it gave him the creeps. He searched for and found a few trucks still upright, siphoned off a pathetic amount of fuel, and exited the highway. Now he had to find a way through this maze.
Several hours later he’d only managed to make about ten miles. He came upon a truck service center that was still packed with trucks, and thanked his gods for smiling at him for once. There was bound to be fuel in at least some of those tanks! Cautiously, quietly, he stepped out of his truck and began checking fuel tanks. He found several that were nearly full, pulled his truck up alongside one, and began working.
One of the creatures – that’s all they were now, no humanity was left to them – shuffled along silently, tracking the roar of the engine. It drew close enough to smell the exhaust; it was hungry. It drew closer; finally close enough to see its prey. The meat’s back was turned to it, distracted by whatever it was doing. It raised its arms, ready to grab, ready to bite, ready to eat. All that mattered was the kill, then the meal.
It didn’t see the stone it kicked.
He turned around, saw what was coming at him, drew his gun and fired a single shot. The back of the creature’s head exploded and it fell to the ground, dead. He holstered the gun and went back to work.
The wind shifted.
He smelled an acrid smell on the wind – sweat and urine. Capping his fuel tanks, he hastily got back into the truck in time to see a mob approaching. His heart sank – he didn’t have nearly enough rounds to kill this bunch and he’d only gotten a few gallons of fuel out of the truck. He put the truck in gear and hit the accelerator, plowing a path through the creatures. He could hear the ones he didn’t hit scraping at the doors, trying to claw their way in.
His soul paid a heavy price for that escape.
• • •
Present – 14 days on the road
I was finally closing in on Columbus. I’d fought my way through Dallas, and having learned my lesson, tried hard to avoid traveling through major cities after that. Cities were death traps. I had nothing to go on now but hope. I hoped they’d made it this far. I’d lost their trail in Flagstaff, and had little to go on but the occasional dropped water bottle. I’d found a few, but I couldn’t tell their age. As far as I knew, I was just happening upon standard roadside litter. Still, I’d come this far. It had been a hard decision whether to continue east or head south to try to find the rest of my family. I’d decided to continue east – I’d come halfway across the country already to try to find them, I might as well go all the way. My first meeting with survivors had been a close one – those two boys in Texas had put me off meeting anyone else, but as luck would have it my next few weren’t quite so bad. I met a family outside Monroe, in Louisiana, that was heading north. They were friendly enough, once we’d all realized we didn’t mean each other any harm. Apparently they’d had a run-in with a surviving military unit who’d tried to kill the husband and son so they could take the wife and two teenage daughters as slaves. They’d managed to escape through the marshlands outside Alexandria and hadn’t seen anyone else along the way. I’d traded them some medicine for cooked meat – he didn’t volunteer what kind of meat it was and I knew better than to ask. We’d shared a campfire and stories, then wished each other well on our respective journeys. I warned them away from the cities; they warned me away from the swamps. I met a farmer who was willing to part with some fresh produce for fresh batteries not far from Newton, Mississippi. He wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been born on that piece of land and fully intended to die defending it. Occasionally I met bands of the things roving aimlessly about. I avoided those when I could, but they were attracted to the sound of my truck like moths to a flame. Then I had to either fight or just plow through them. The front of my truck was stained black with ichor, and not of the type that ran through the veins of the gods.
Still, I counted myself lucky. I’d made it through several thousand miles of very hostile territory alive, I still had a vehicle to drive and I hadn’t had to fight anyone still uninfected. I wondered what became of the people I knew and loved, though. I thought often of my friends in Vegas, I thought of the Stones, I thought of my family, scattered throughout the country, and wondered how they were faring. I thought of my wife, my kids, my mom and sister and nieces and hoped they were all managing to survive somehow.
I’d made it through most of Alabama and was approaching the last major obstacle – Phenix City. There was a major military installation just south, and I wondered how to best approach, then cross the Chattahoochee River. I decided I’d be best off coming in by crossing the bridge at US80 at Bibb City, then parking the truck somewhere close and switching to the bike. I didn’t want to attract any more attention than I needed to, and the truck was practically a signal flare.
I made it onto the bridge as evening closed in and immediately saw I’d have to change my plans. The eastern end of the bridge – where it crossed into Columbus – was blocked. Vehicles were placed – deliberately, it looked like – facing each other. There was no way through. I stopped the truck on the bridge and shut off the engine. This was as far as I would go this day. I wanted a full day to search the city, and I didn’t dare enter at dusk. The creatures tended to move more after sundown, and it would be tragic to get this close only to die at what I hoped would be the end of this part of the journey. I felt like I was on the verge of finding them. They were close – I could feel it, and I knew in my heart they were still alive. They had to be. Fate couldn’t possibly be so cruel as to lead me here alive only for them to be dead – or worse.
No, fate wouldn’t be that cruel to me. Fate had something far worse in mind.
• • •
I rose at first light, ready to start hunting. The end was near – I was eager to find my wife and daughter. I unhooked the bike from the straps I’d mounted it with, slung the rifle over my shoulder, grabbed the machete and the Glock, and set out over the bridge into Columbus. It was a chilly morning; mist rose from the river. I’d forgotten how humid it was down here. I slowly navigated my way through the vehicles, wondering who put them here. I hadn’t seen any lights moving during the night, and hadn’t heard anything outside. It was silent as the grave.
I made it into Bibb City, only a few streets down from where we’d lived when we lived here. I proceeded very slowly, very carefully. Someone put those obstacles there on the bridge, and I didn’t know if I wanted to find out who that someone was. I headed to our old house first – it still belonged to her mom, so I figured what better place to start?
When I got there I saw the front door standing open. I parked the bike under the carport close to the house, drew the machete and walked inside. The house was dark and silent. “Hello?” I called out in a loud whisper. “Anyone here?” No answer. The house was deserted. I went around to the back yard – nothing. There was no sign of anyone.
As I walked around to the front yard I caught the smell I’d come to fear so much – urine and sweat. I looked around, but didn’t see anything. I got on the bike and rode up to the main road. I could feel eyes on me, but nobody was in view. I rode across the street and pedaled toward her parents’ house.
When I arrived I saw the gate standing open, but the front door was closed. There was a Toyota Prius with Arizona plates parked outside. My pulse quickened as my heart leapt into my throat. They’d made it! Somehow – against all odds, they’d made it. I investigated the car – the doors were unlocked, and there were blankets, food and water in the car. Then I saw the blood.
“No,” I thought to myself as my heart fell. There wasn’t a lot, but that didn’t matter. I steeled myself for the worst, drew the machete, and walked through the gate.
I went to the front door; it was locked. I knocked quietly and thought I heard something on the other side. I knocked again and listened hard; there it was again! There was definitely someone inside the house. “Jenny!” I called in a loud whisper. No answer. I called again; still no answer. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened them again, and kicked the door as hard as I could. It flew open. What was left of my brother in law stood a few feet back from the door, staring at me hungrily.
“I’m sorry, Brad,” I said as I brought the machete down on his skull, killing him. The scent of decay wafted out of the house behind him. I crept through the house and examined every room to no avail. Nobody was here. I walked out the front door and went around to the back yard. Two freshly dug graves were there – both were marked with a piece of plywood. JLM and CRM were crudely carved into them.
“That’s it, then. I don’t know where to look from here,” I thought to myself as I knelt beside the graves. I was at a loss – I’d come all this way only to find my in-laws’ graves and murder my wife’s brother.
I wept over the graves, then dug another one for Brad. He didn’t deserve to rot in the front hallway of his parents’ house. I marked his grave and went back in the house. I examined the car further, looking for any sign or clue. There were blankets, food and water, but no spare clothes. There was no sign of the dogs either. I looked at the food – much of it was canned items that needed preparation. I checked the dates – practically all of it was expired, and none of it was anything she would normally buy. I checked the water – these bottles were empty! This was a decoy! To what purpose, though? Had they been followed? Were they being pursued? I went and re-examined the house, but still found nothing. Finally, I steeled myself and went to the back yard. I grabbed the shovel and began the long work of exhuming the graves.
Both of them were empty. I carefully examined the markers and saw – scratched into one, a very small single word. Texas, it said. I had to go, now. I jumped back on the bike, riding hard back toward the bridge. As i climbed the on-ramp for US80 west, I caught that scent again of sweat and urine. Suddenly I slammed the brakes on the bike. Standing between me and the bridge were hundreds of the creatures.
End of Chapter 1
Author’s Note: So we come to the end of the first chapter of my zombie apocalypse story. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Chapter two will begin soon. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!