I don’t know how many people died between the outbreak and the time I laid in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar house. Thousands? Millions? Billions? I didn’t know if the entire world was infected, people dying and getting back up, the dead killing and eating, a relentless army of rotting flesh, never stopping, never resting, always hungry.
How many people did the dead kill? How many of them were screaming and crying and begging for someone to help them, begging for their lives against creatures too unfathomable to believe were real, though they were? Creatures who may have understood inside their rotting brains, but were helpless to stop because of the hunger that drove them?
I thought of Max Baxter. He had killed his boys while they were asleep in the bed. He did the same to his wife before turning the gun on himself. He opted out. He didn’t give his family a chance to survive. He was a coward. Or maybe he knew something some of the rest of us didn’t.
I thought of Jake, not more than a young man when I sent him with the rest of my family, forcing him into a leadership role he probably wasn’t ready for. He tried so hard to take care of the group. He tried so hard to protect Jeanette…and Bobby. The last I heard it was just Jake and Bobby. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive, but the odds weren’t too good for them to still be among the living. But he had tried.
My baby brother had tried…
I thought of Jeanette dying. I hadn’t been there, but I had seen Lee die and turn and I had a real good image of what it may have been like for her.
What would she think about me after this? Would she think me a coward like Max Baxter and all those others who opted out?
Lee’s figmented ghost came to mind. He still held a beer in his hand, and he was looking down on me.
“See? I knew you had already given up.”
Given up? Is that what it was? Given up?
I thought of Davey Blaylock.
Davey Blaylock was my best friend. We grew up together. Our families lived six houses apart when we were kids. We played baseball together and were a pretty good double play combo—he a short stop and me a second baseman. As adults, Davey and I lived four blocks from each other. He was the best man at my wedding. One day I hoped to return the favor.
That never happened. Never will.
My mind spun back to the last time I saw Davey.
Pop and Lee were dead—my brother just in another room where I shot him and covered him with a blanket. At that point we hadn’t been completely surrounded. At that point…we still had a chance to get out of there.
We were in something like a storage facility, a building probably owned by a nice business, a law firm or accounting firm or something along those lines. There were desks and office chairs and useless computers, all in their own section of the large room we stood in. There were wooden shelves—a couple hundred of them—along one wall. Lamps and light fixtures, a huge fan that looked like it belonged on a swamp boat, tables and tablecloths, and a ton of nice plates, glasses, mugs and silverware.
We had few bullets and I had my machete. Davey had a baseball bat, the barrel stained red to go along with his pistol.
There were steps that led to a catwalk that circled the inside of the large room. There were other rooms, smaller by comparison, offices. The main floor windows had been boarded up. There were a few bodies inside when we arrived carrying a feverish Leland Walker, sweating and delusional. They were dispatched of easily enough and without using our guns.
All we need was a moment to rest. Just a moment. That’s all we needed. A moment to get Lee comfortable before he died.
The moment turned into three hours and three hours turned into six more. By the time Lee had died and risen and I had put a bullet in his head with tears in my eyes, it had been almost eleven hours, most of them spent in the dark as night passed us by.
It was early morning; the sun was on its way up. Unlike us, I’m sure it was well rested. A gray fog covered the land.
“I need to bury Lee,” I said.
“He’s my brother.”
“We need to get out of here.”
Davey was right, but I was stuck in an emotional storm. I couldn’t leave Lee in some room where he would rot and where someone may find him, or maybe not. No, I wanted to bury him. I needed to bury him.
I went out to my truck as the first rays of sun started to burn off the fog. Davey was behind me. There were a few corpses walking around, but they didn’t seem to notice us.
“Hank, we need to get out of here.”
I turned on him. “If you want to go, then go. I won’t hate you for doing it. I’ll understand. I promise. But I will not leave him like that.”
Davey stepped back. His hazel eyes held gray and purple bags beneath them. He had a full beard–something I hadn’t noticed until right then. His hair had gotten long and touched his shoulders. It was the hippie revolution all over again. All he needed was a peace sign on the front of his shirt and a lit joint in one hand.
He frowned. “I’ll stay. I’ll help you.”
I wonder if Davey regretted that a couple hours later.
We hurried, finding a soft spot of land and digging for all we were worth. It wasn’t a deep hole, but one that would serve its purpose. We wrapped Lee in one of the long tablecloths in the warehouse and carried him out to the hole. Gently, we laid him in the ground and hurried to cover him up.
By then the fog had burned off completely.
“Hank,” Davey said as I tossed a spade-full of dirt on the grave.
“We need to get out of here. Now.”
I looked up. This is it, I thought. This is the end.
The dead were shambling from all around us, stumbling droves. My truck was on the other side of the building and all we had were shovels, the bat, the machete and two guns that would be useless soon.
We were always running.
The building grew closer, but it didn’t matter. Around the corner came several rotting corpses that were little more than bones held together by drooping skin. I had the brief thought that they must have risen at the very beginning of the outbreak.
They were on us quick. Quick. I swung the shovel at the nearest one, then at another one and another and another. We were almost to the corner of the building. Another few steps and my truck would have been in clear view.
I swung the shovel again, connecting with the side of a woman’s head. She did a pirouette, her entire body spinning as she fell to the ground. I swung again and…
…and Davey screamed.
I whirled around. Davey leveled what once was a woman square in the face. Her forehead caved in and she dropped to the ground, but she had done her damage. There was a hole in his shirt to the side of one shoulder blade. Blood spilled from the wound.
“No!” I yelled over and over and ran for him. I don’t know when I dropped the shovel and pulled out the machete, but I swung it in wide arcs, taking out as many of the dead as I could.
Most people would have given up. Most people would have let the shock kick in, and then let the world end around them. Not Davey. He swung his bat harder and harder, crushing fragile skulls with ease. And he moved away from me, going the opposite direction of the truck.
“Davey, this way,” I yelled, and took out another three of the dead.
“No! Get out of here! Leave!”
Right then I had a movie moment. The world, as it had done some many times before, and as it would do so many times after, slowed down. The sounds became distorted and everything brightened and became clearer. The rotting corpses stood out like three-dimensional objects on a video screen.
“Get out of here,” he said, but I wasn’t listening. I ran toward him, grabbed his arm and tried to pull him with me. Davey shoved me away, shook his head, his eyes wet with tears and full of resolve. I could see him so clearly. A few strands of gray in his beard, the speckled brains and blood on the front of his shirt and face, the red in his eyes. His lower lip was bleeding and there was a smudge of dirt on one cheekbone. It was all so vividly clear.
Then the world sped up and he said, “Get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“I’m a dead man, Hank. I’ll lure them away.”
I started to argue, but he shut me down and shoved me back toward the truck, back in the direction where there were fewer dead coming toward us. I swung the machete, took out a little kid with dark hair and slack eyes.
“Run!” Davey yelled one last time, before doing the same thing, but away from me instead of with me.
I stared at him for a moment until the hands of one of the dead touched my arm. I turned, screamed and swung my machete, taking off the top of the man’s head.
“Run!” Davey yelled again.
And I did. I’m ashamed to say that.
I ran and hacked at the dead. I rounded the building and saw my truck was by itself. The driver’s side window was slightly down–enough to hear the world as it passed by. It took maybe a minute to reach it, to crawl in and slam the door shut, and then crank it up. Without really thinking I floored it, determined to save Davey one way or another. The back wheels spun, and then caught traction. Panic set into my chest and my hands squeezed the steering wheel tight.
The truck swerved around the building. Bodies bounced off the front and sides and I could see the hoard was lurching away from me. A few turned back and I ran them down, angry and sad and full of guilt, and hoping I would find Davey alive and…
…then I heard the gunshot. One. Single. Shot.
The truck came to a stop. I could see the dead had stopped as well. There was a crude circle of decaying bodies near one edge of the building. In the center of that circle was my best friend, Davey Blaylock. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there, and I knew he was the reason the hoard had stopped, and that they were feeding on him.
The thump of a hand on the side of the truck pulled me away. The woman was missing most of her face. Her bottom lip was barely there and she was mostly bald. If not for the top she wore I wouldn’t have known it was a woman. For a moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. I could see myself opening the door and stepping out of the truck and into the waiting arms of the rotting female. Go ahead, bitch, eat me.
My hand was on the handle. I was going to do it, but…but…I couldn’t. As far as I knew Jeanette and Bobby were still alive. Jake and the rest of our families were holed up in a cabin in Table Rock. Yeah, as far as I knew was all it took for me to let go of the handle and focus on getting out of there.
I put the truck in reverse and backed over several more of the dead. The truck didn’t so much as bounce over them as it crushed them like soft melons in an overripe field.
I whipped the truck around, shifted into first gear and mashed the gas. A minute later I was on the road and speeding away, leaving the dead behind. Leaving Davey behind.
As I lay in that bed later on, the gun in my sweaty hand, my tears soaking into my hair and the pillow beneath me, I thought of Davey. It was my fault he was dead.
He had wanted to leave, and if we would have, he might have still been alive.
Maybe not. I don’t know for certain.
What I do know is if not for him, I would be dead. He led them away, using his bleeding back as bait.
My thumb found the safety of the gun, and flipped it on. Then I sat up in the bed. My head sang a chorus of angry lyrics as it thump thumped. My mouth was dry. I stood from the bed, and pushed the dresser from in front of the door.
I entered the living room, searched the house, saw the picture of the pretty brunette and wondered if she were still alive, and if so, where was she.
I had been running for so long at that point, like a fugitive from the law, but the law in this world didn’t want justice. All it wanted was to offer the death penalty to any and all that came across it. I was tired of running and if I were going to stop doing so, then I needed to hole up somewhere safe.
I stepped through the back door. The high deck and steps were safer than the ones on the other side. I needed to take those down if I planned on staying there. If I was going to die, I would do so fighting, but not for me. For Davey Blaylock, for his memory.
For his sacrifice.
In the back of my mind, I could feel Lee smile.