The trailer wasn’t safe. It didn’t take long to figure that out. I could tear the steps away from the front door, and take down the patio deck, sure. But there was the issue of the patio doors, two sliding pieces of glass with just a thin aluminum frame holding them on their tracks and a small lock to keep them closed. It wouldn’t take much to bust in that way. The ramp leading up to the patio wasn’t a good deterrent either. A handful of the dead could push it in, break the trim-like frame and possibly crawl in.
Then there were the living threats. The front door was nothing more than a closet door used as an entryway. It wasn’t hollow, but it wasn’t sturdy. That led me to looking at the back door. It was much higher up and the steps to it would be difficult for the dead to climb. I doubted many could make it past the third step, if they could make it onto the concrete slab at the stairs’ base. But the living would have no problems reaching that door, or the windows on the deck leading to it.
The bathroom where the homemade wine and shine were wasn’t in that good of shape, either. The floor felt like it could give out. I certainly didn’t need to be taking a leak and have it collapse beneath me. Who knows how many bones would break when I landed?
In the end, the trailer was a death trap for anyone trying to survive in these days.
The brick house on the backside of the trailer was a different story. There was a nice size deck on the front and a set of stairs along the side. It dawned on me then that the house was built on a descending hill, and though the front door was only about six feet off the ground, with a set of five steps leading up to the porch, the back door was more like twenty feet up, eighteen steps leading to it.
Someone had been careful. The windows were boarded up from the outside with screws, not nails. There were no gaps—the job had been done right, the boards measured, and screws placed two per board on both sides. Wilted flowers sat in pots lining the brown stone paver sidewalk.
I rounded the outside of the house, searching for a straggler, and found none. A wire fence circled behind it and stretched down to the lake and across a small alcove, wooden posts every six feet or so. It must have been a pen for animals—there was a small building that could have housed a large dog or some goats or maybe even a donkey. The hay suggested it hadn’t been a large dog. Back to the front, I went up the steps. A patio table sat in the center of the deck, four chairs around it—one on each side. To the right was another chair. The glass storm door was unlocked. I started to knock on the wooden door beyond it, and then tried the knob instead.
But it didn’t open.
It couldn’t be that easy, could it?
Around the side, I made my way up the steps, holding tight to the handrail. I reached the landing. There was no glass door here. I tried the knob.
This time, the door opened with a slight vacuum sound, a SWOOSH.
The door opened into a kitchen that held a dining table off to the left and a stove, microwave and cabinets straight ahead.
The first thing I really noticed was the smell. It wasn’t stale. It wasn’t the reek of decay. It was pleasant. Lilacs.
The house was neat and clean. The living room was off to the right, as well as the hall that led to the back of the house. Wood grain furniture right out of the seventies decorated the living room. It had that homey feel to it. Along the hall was a bathroom and three bedrooms. All the rooms were neat, the beds made.
It was as if the family left for a vacation and was planning to come back.
There was soap in the bathroom, towels hanging on the shower rod, toilet paper on the back of the tank. Bottles of water packed a refrigerator that had long ago become warm. Clothes were folded neatly in dresser drawers.
On the dining room table sat a letter on plain copy paper. When I first walked in, I didn’t notice it. Or maybe I did and it didn’t register. I picked it up.
To Whom It May Concern,
Welcome to our home. If you are here, then you have managed to survive so far. Feel free to stay a while. Drink the water, eat the food. This house is on a well that is powered by the windmill near the lake. The shower still works.
We have left for the Saluda Armory where my unit is stationed. It is the safest place in South Carolina. If anyone reads this, please, try to make it to the Saluda Armory. It is a safe zone.
Hoping there are more survivors out there,
I set the letter down and stared at it. There were people out there. The Saluda Armory—it wasn’t too far away. It was a supposed safe zone. Honestly, I doubted there was such a thing. Everywhere I travelled had been overrun for the most part.
Lyrics from a band I used to like came to my mind, and I shook my head. The cynical part of me that had seen little good in this new world refused to trust the words of someone no longer living at that residence. I wouldn’t be leaving there for a while. I wouldn’t go searching for a safe zone that wasn’t there. No need to chase misprinted lies.
Instead, I moved my gear into the house. It wasn’t neat at first, but I was more concerned with being stuck outside in case the dead came.
A hangover headache lingered, and I emptied the van as quickly as I could. Hauling everything up those steps wore me out and my headache intensified. On one of my last trips to the van, I came across the box of doll clothes I had picked up for Humphrey a while back.
My heart sank.
She had been so much a part of me, of my survival…
I became angry. If I’m sure of anything, it’s that I felt betrayed. Abandoned.
I took the box from the van and threw it across the yard. It tumbled, end over end, through the sky and then along the ground. A trail of little articles of clothing littered the yard.
I started to go inside. Like so many other decisions in my life, I should have gone with my first instinct. Instead, I made my way back to the trailer and into the bathroom with the homemade shine. I took several of the smaller bottles on the first trip, and then went back for two of the larger jugs.
It was stupid.
I made one last trip into the trailer, but not for alcohol. I took the picture of the pretty brunette off the wall and carried it with me to my new home.
That was one of the worst mistakes I ever made.
Days past. I drank. And I talked to the picture. Before I hung it on the wall, I noticed on the back was the brunette’s name: Cate.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Cate.” I said and lifted a bottle of clear moonshine that read Apple Cider on the label. Surprisingly, it had a strong apple flavor to it.
I remember little else for the next few weeks.
Drinking and loneliness are two things that go hand in hand, and they’re one bad combination.
Things happened. I know they did. But I don’t know in what order they occurred or how true they were in my mind, or if they really even happened.
It was a binge like none I had ever gone on in the pre end of the world days. I know I fired my guns a few times. I think I checked out a few of the houses, searching for anyone or any supplies. Did I build something? I didn’t know.
It was like I was asleep and all the nightmares were just far enough into the dark to scare me, but not for me to know why I was scared.
Then I woke up. Someone, somewhere was screaming. I opened my eyes. They felt crusty, and stung as if there were salt in them. I had been sitting at the kitchen table when I passed out the last time. The bottle of whatever moonshine lay tipped over on the table, most of its contents spilled out. I set the bottle upright, and then placed my head back on the table. It was just another nightmare.
But it wasn’t.
It wasn’t just another nightmare.
I lifted my head again. The screams were closer, and there was panic and fear in them.
I stood too quickly. My head swooned, and my stomach rolled over. I barely reached the sink before throwing up nothing more than phlegm and alcohol.
The scream. It came again. And again. And again.
My legs were unsteady, but I managed to make my way across the kitchen to the back door. On the way I grabbed a gun from off the counter, and checked the clip.
The sun was bright, and the sky was clear blue. The air outside was cool, and a breeze blew off the lake. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I could see where the screaming came from.
The guy ran up the dirt road, coming from the lake—there was a dock down there. He had just rounded the corner and probably didn’t realize he was running back toward the street this one circled back to.
A pack of the dead was behind him. Though they moved considerably slower, they weren’t too far away. I realized then that he was limping, and not really running at all.
“Hey!” I yelled and started down the steps.
The guy heard me. He started to run toward me, and then stopped.
“Come on!” I called to him.
From where I stood, he appeared confused. He looked to the horde following him, then at me.
“What are you waiting on? Come on.”
I stumbled down the steps, holding tight to the railing. My hand was shaking as I raised my gun. I squeezed off a shot that missed everything.
“Steady there, Hank.” I was far from steady. I had been drinking for too long.
Then the guy bolted for me. He hopped a ditch, then crumpled to the ground.
Head pounding, stomach churning, cotton-dry mouth, sweating like a pig, but I ran. All those other instances came back, and my hands became as even as they ever were. I don’t know how many shots I fired, but most of them hit home, taking the tops or sides of heads off and dropping the dead where they walked.
The guy struggled to crawl.
I tried to yell for him to get moving, but nothing came out. My voice had disappeared deep inside of me. I reached him as one of the dead was almost on top of him. It was a young girl, probably not too long deceased. She moved quicker than the others. It seemed the young ones always did.
My knife was out by then and I drove it into her right eye, shoving her backward and to the ground.
The guy was terrified, but as I would find out seconds later, he wasn’t afraid of the undead horde after him. He was afraid of me.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
I reached for his arm, but he pulled away.
“I’d rather die.”
I was dumbfounded.
“You don’t have that choice,” I said. I hate to admit what I did next, but it was the only way to get him off the ground and save his life. I pistol-whipped him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious.
I turned and fired several times. The closest of the dead fell. Others stumbled over the bodies, some of them tripping and falling as well. It didn’t buy much time, but it was enough. I bent down and grabbed the guy beneath his arms and slung him over my shoulder. I wavered for a second as my head spun.
Then I was running.
He wasn’t very big. He weighed maybe a buck fifty, if that, but having been drunk for who knew how long, I wasn’t in the shape to be carrying him and running.
Then I saw…
I almost stopped when I saw what the man had seen when I ran up to him. I didn’t focus on the scene to the side of the house. If I would have, I may not have made it.
I passed the first of the bodies hanging on crosses—how did I miss that when I ran to his aid?—and hit the steps in a clumsy sprint. I pulled myself up the stairs until I reached the landing. When I looked back, the dead had ceased their pursuit.
Did they see the bodies? Did they smell them? Every part of me said the souls trapped inside could see and smell and sense, and to go any further was to be the end of them.
I went inside and lay the man on the couch. His head was bleeding, as was his leg. I grabbed a couple of guns, shoved them in my waistband, and…
Where did the machete come from? Mine was gone—left on interstate 26 toward Charleston. But there it was, sitting on the counter like an obscene finger. The blade was crusted with dried blood and there were blackish red spots on the floor, leading away, or to, the door, depending on how you looked at it. I grabbed the machete. It felt right in my hand, like it belonged.
Then I was out of the house, and standing on the landing. The dead had come no closer than the first cross. There must have been thirty or forty of them. Maybe more. Some of them had turned around and were shambling away, but most of them just stood there.
I thought about running headlong into them, the machete raised over my head like a medieval warrior going into battle. There was no need, though. They weren’t getting any closer, and they weren’t really staring at me.
They were staring at…
They were staring at the bodies…
It didn’t quite click until then.
The side of the house was littered with crosses made from the posts of the fence that had once spanned the backside of the house. The crosses had been placed in the ground as if they were still posts. Nailed or tied to the cross were the decomposing corpses of the dead, each one missing part of their heads.
What the hell?
When the hell…
I looked further. The crosses stretched behind the house, each one holding a body. Flies buzzed about them, and many of them were nothing more than skin and bones and worn clothing. One in particular caught my eye. It was a child, maybe no more than three or four, bare-chested and barefoot. It was high on the cross, his little arms stretched out, his hands nailed to the cross. His head was, too.
I leaned against the doorjamb, stunned from what I saw. Then I went inside, my stomach having sunk into my feet and my heart having leapt into my throat. I closed the door, locked it, and dropped the machete to the floor. I sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the spilled moonshine.
I didn’t know what to think or what to feel. I didn’t believe I had done those things, but who could have? There were no bodies here when I arrived. The fence was intact then. How did I manage to get the posts out of the ground and cut and made into crosses?
What had I become?
I stood, picked the bottle up from the table and went to the sink. Its contents went down the drain.
“Why did you hit me over the head?”
I turned. The man was sitting up on the couch, one hand on the back of his head. He pulled his fingers away to look at a patch of dark blood.
“You were being difficult,” I responded.
Looking at him, he struck me as someone much like myself. He had seen a lot, probably lost a lot of loved ones, if not all of them. He had probably put down his fair share of the dead. His hair was thinning, but still dark and scraggly. A beard covered the lower half of his face. His eyes were bloodshot and his clothes were caked in dirt and blood and who knew what else.
“Yeah, difficult. I was trying to help you and you said you would rather die.”
“Gee, Rambo, I guess you haven’t seen the graveyard of biters you have around this place.”
“Honestly, I hadn’t. Well, until I picked you up and started back for the house.”
He stood, grimaced, and limped a few feet. “Are you some kind of drunk?”
I lifted the bottle that was still in my hand, set it on the counter.
“Yeah, I reckon so. I don’t remember much about the last few weeks or however long. That mess outside—I don’t remember doing it, but I’m the only one here, so I must have.”
“So, you’re not only nuts, but you’re a drunk, as well. Nice. Psycho drunk people are the best. Of all the people to get saved by, I get you.”
“Yeah, you got me. But you don’t have to stick around. You can take yourself right on out that door. Good luck, though. They got us surrounded and I doubt you’re going to get very far.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to die anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
He lifted his shirt. There were teeth marks on his stomach–just enough to break the skin and leave a bloody imprint.
“One of them got my leg, too.” He pulled at a hole in his pants, exposing a deeper wound–one that had already begun to turn gray.
He showed me his hand. A huge gash stretched across three knuckles. “I punched the one that bit my stomach.”
I stared at him.
“Where’d all the, what did you call them? Biters?”
“Yeah. Biters. That’s what they do. They bite and tear the flesh off your body.”
“Biters. That sounds about right. So, where’d all of them come from?”
“I don’t know. I just kind of ran into them as I was trying to get out of this area.”
“So, you ran this way?”
He laughed. “If that’s what you want to call it.”
“What would you call it?”
“Limping lamely, maybe?”
“Where were you coming from?”
“A house a couple of streets down. It’s not much of a place, but I holed up there for a couple of days until my buddy died. Then I left.”
“Did you put him down?”
“You think? You don’t know if you put him down? You either did or you didn’t.”
“I think I did.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Dean had been bitten and it was all I could do to make him comfortable. He wanted me to go ahead and put a bullet in his head before he died. He didn’t want to turn…and I didn’t want to kill him.”
“You didn’t finish the job?”
“I rigged the bedroom door.”
“Rigged the door?”
He nodded. “Yeah. With an axe and a rope. If he gets up and tries to open the door, the rope will pull a lever and the axe will split his skull. It’s the only thing I could think to do, other than be there when he died and do it then. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
I thought about that, and understood where he came from. I put Lee down, and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the way his head snapped back, and the way blood and hair and brains splattered the wall behind him.
“I hope it did the trick. If not, your buddy’s going to suffer for a long time.”
“What do you mean?”
“What did I say? He’s going to suffer.”
“But he’s dead.”
“Not completely. He’s still in there.”
“Impossible. He’s dead. They’re all dead.”
“I’ll show you,” I said, then went to the door. “Come with me.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” I opened the door. Minutes earlier, I went out there and noticed the chill in the air, but I didn’t notice the brown and orange and yellow leaves on the trees, mingled in with all of the greens. Fall had set in pretty good by then, I reckoned.
“What month is it?” I asked.
“Late October, if my watch is right.”
More time had passed than I thought. It was mid-September when I arrived here.
“I didn’t catch your name,” he said.
“I didn’t throw it.”
Silence fell over us like a cloud.
“It’s Hank. Hank Walker, but you can call me Walker.”
“Come here, Hetch. You won’t believe this unless I show you.”
He looked apprehensive. I guess he had reason not to trust me. I did whack him pretty solid on the head, and there were all the bodies in the yard on crosses. I went down the steps. Most of the biters—yeah, I liked that term—had shambled away. Only a few stragglers hung behind. I don’t know if they were waiting for a meal or for the angel of death.
The closest one was a man, maybe in his mid-forties. His brown hair was missing in places and his eyes drooped in their sockets. Even as a corpse he had seen better days. I drove the machete into his head, and pulled it free. A second male moved toward me, a low groan in his throat that I ended with another over the top plunge of the blade into his skull.
The third guy was a big man—not fat, but in life, he had been muscular. The muscles he probably prided himself on were still fairly solid looking, and only sagging around his chest and mid-section. If he got hold of you, there would be no breaking his grip. His hair had been cropped short and his shirt was ripped and barely hanging on by one arm. He had been bitten on the shoulder. For all the weight lifting and being in shape the guy had probably done, he was still like the rest of us: raw meat, and one bite was all it took to spoil it.
“This guy, Hetch. Look at him. You see him?”
“He was someone’s son. Maybe someone’s brother or dad. Look at his hand—he was married. He liked to work out. He might have been a jock when he was in high school. His appearance was probably important to him. Are you getting all this?”
Hetch stood at the top of the stairs. He looked ready to run back inside if things got out of control.
“Why does any of that matter?” he asked.
“The body is dead, but the person inside isn’t.”
“You really are crazy, aren’t you?”
“Maybe we all are,” I said, and then added, “Pay close attention.”
I picked up a hand-sized rock and moved toward Muscles. If this were the world that once was, I would have probably never approached him. I certainly wouldn’t have tried to taunt him. A few feet away, I threw the rock. It hit Muscles in the chest. It sounded like someone punching a bag of sugar—a heavy THWOCK.
“I think I made him mad.”
He staggered forward, his right hand reaching for me. I sliced it off with a quick downward slash of the machete. Muscles leaned to the right and let out a loud moan.
“Did you hear that? That’s the sound of someone in pain. He may be dead on the outside, but on the inside, he feels everything.” My eyes never left Muscles, and then I spoke directly to him, “Ain’t that right, fellah?”
His jaws snapped shut, and then opened. He shambled closer to me, this time extending his other arm. I took it off at the elbow. He howled like an angry wolf.
“Now what are you going to do, fellah?”
I hated what I was doing, but I had to prove a point, I had to make Hetch understand that there was so much more to the biters than just being reanimated corpses with an insatiable hunger.
I kicked Muscles in the kneecap. His leg buckled backward and he fell to the ground. His groans were agonized.
“Come here,” I said to Hetch.
“Come here. I have a headache the size of Montana, so don’t make me tell you again.”
I thought he was going to bolt. His eyes held that weary stare, that look that said if he had somewhere to run or a car to get into, he would. He could have just went in the house. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did.
Hetch limped down the stairs, holding tight to the railing.
“Help me roll him over.”
“Help me roll him over. I want to show you something.”
“Haven’t you shown me enough. Just put the machete in his head and get it over with.”
“I will, but you have to see this, first. You won’t believe me if you don’t.”
We stood in silence for several seconds before he finally nodded. He pushed from one side as I pulled on one of Muscles’ shoulders.
On his back, Muscles snapped his jaws at us several times.
“Damn it,” Hetch said and fell on his bottom. “Are you crazy? He almost got me.”
“It doesn’t matter—you’ve already been bitten. You’ll be one of them soon enough, right?”
I grabbed Muscles by what little hair he had on his head. “Listen up in there. Do you hear me? I know you do. Answer a question for me. Can you do that?”
“He can’t understand you, Walker.”
I knocked on Muscles’ head a couple of times. He growled and gnashed his teeth.
“Hey now, that’s no way to act toward the man who’s going to end your suffering.”
“Walker, that’s enough. Just put him down and…”
I spun on my knee and grabbed him in the leg where the hole was. He dropped to the ground, a scream escaping him. I had my gun out, and pointed at Hetch’s head.
What was I doing?
My grip on the world had slipped too far away. But I couldn’t reel it back in. Not right then, at least.
“You know what the problem with this world is? It’s not the dead. It’s the living. We’re all too busy being scared of those things, those biters. But, you know, maybe they’re just as scared as we are. Did you ever think about that? Did you?!”
Hetch had a hand over his head and one forearm at my chest. “No. No, I never figured they would be afraid of us. They just march along, killing and killing and killing.”
“They can’t help it,” I said and pulled the gun away. I slipped it back in my waistband and turned to Muscles. Hetch was right about one thing—I should have just put him down and ended his misery right then. The other biters had begun to turn around, many of them making their way back to us. “Unlike the living, they can’t help their impulses.”
I stood, and pulled Hetch to his feet. “Look at his eyes.”
“What about them?”
I chopped off one of Muscles’ feet. He wailed.
Hetch backed away. “What the hell?”
“You saw his eyes–they changed, didn’t they?”
“But he’s dead.”
“No. I’ve told you already. His body is dead. He’s still in there.” I looked to the biters migrating toward us. There were more than a dozen. “They’re all still in there. They can’t help themselves. But we, the living, we can. I don’t know how many living people you’ve come across, but most the ones I’ve met have been crazier than an asylum.”
Hetch gave me raised eyebrows.
“Yeah, I know how I must look to you—like one of those crazies. But I’m not. I’m just trying to survive and not doing a very good job of it.”
I didn’t know if Hetch believed a word I said. I didn’t know if I believed it either. To be truthful, I don’t know how anyone in this world—the way it is now—could be completely sane. Every one of the living had to be a little off kilter from the things they’ve seen, the things they’ve done. Sanity’s just a pipe dream.
I turned back to Muscles, and shook my head. He looked like he was in pain, like he was screaming on the inside. And me, well, I had caused that pain.
“Nothing personal, buddy,” I said to the poor guy. His head split open easy enough underneath the blade of the machete.
To Hetch I said, “Stay here. I have to help these people.”
Help them? That’s somewhat laughable if you think about it. In any language, it was murder. Or maybe it was assisted suicide, like that Dr. Death guy. He supposedly assisted in the suicides of over 130 ailing patients. He went to jail for murder, though really all he did was help those people leave this world.
At that moment I was Death—not so much Dr.—to these people. I provided the machinery. No, it wasn’t the Thantron or the Mercitron, as the good doctor called his machines. It was the Machetetron, and it was just as lethal.
“Come on, people,” I yelled and stepped away from the house, and away from the hanging corpses, which I can only believe I used to keep the dead at bay—if they couldn’t smell me, they wouldn’t want me. Oh, but they caught my scent right good, and several of them picked up the pace.
I sliced through them with ease, the machete lopping off the tops of heads or splitting them all the way to their noses. My arms grew heavy and ached—but the blood rush and adrenaline kept me going. Finally, the last one went down—a young man with long tangled hair and wearing only shorts.
Hetch stood at the bottom of the steps, one hand on the rail. Again, he looked like he would bolt.
I walked through the corpses—easily two dozen or more—and stopped a few feet from Hetch. I said nothing as I passed him and went up the steps. At the top, I looked down. The scene from there was worse than up close. I had cut off more than just the tops of heads. There were arms and legs lying here and there, and the blackish red blood painted the grass in splotches.
I was no Dr. Death, but on that day I was Death all the same to twenty-seven trapped people.
I motioned for Hetch to come in, and then walked inside.