With so few humans left, wondered Skiff, why hadn’t the zombies simply starved to death? He poured the last of the kerosene on to the floor of the barn and dropped the empty can onto the hay.
Of course he knew the answer; they didn’t need to eat to survive, they ate to feed the ceaseless hunger for human flesh. Their own flesh was no longer human, it couldn’t be. When one considered the way the sickly gobs of the stuff fell from their bodies at the slightest provocation, it was obviously something dead and rotting.
The door to the barn slid open a little and Morgan slipped in. She was beautiful in the dim interior of the barn, her skin emitting its own light, as if it had absorbed some luminescence of the moon. Her dark eyes were wide as they adjusted to the darker interior. Skiff had cut her hair earlier in the day and the uneven ends hung loosely beside her cheeks while the choppy bangs stuck to her forehead with sweat.
“Hey Morgan, over here,” he whispered.
She advanced toward the sound of his voice and smiled a sort of half-smile when she was near enough to make him out. “There’s at least twenty of them moving this way. I think it’s too many for just the two of us this time. Violet’s leading the pack. Her body shows hardly any signs of decomp yet. They sure turned her fast.”
“How much time do we have before they’re here?” asked Skiff.
“About twenty minutes. Did you finish?”
“Yeah, Just now. Do you want to make some kind of timer, or stick around and fire it up ourselves?”
“Let’s stick around. I want to be sure we get Violet. She was pretty smart and I hate to think of her coming after us.”
“Assuming she can think anymore,” said Skiff. “If we’re staying, then we won’t need any other bait. Let’s show ourselves and lead them in.”
“Give me a minute, Skiff. I’m exhausted. It was all up hill on the way back.”
“Okay. Rest for a while. I’ll keep a lookout.”
Skiff moved to the barn door and stared into the moonlit night beyond. The first of the zombies had just staggered into view. He couldn’t be sure from this far away, but thought that it had to be Violet. Morgan said she was leading them, as if they could be lead. Let them get the scent of a live human and they’d make a beeline for it. There were no generals in the Zombie Army.
He remembered how just a week ago he had argued with Violet about whether to head north or west. He had argued for north, thinking that the lesser populated areas would be less likely to attract the zombies. Violet wanted to go west, arguing that it was the logical direction for any surviving humans to head, since the creatures had apparently originated in the east.
They finally agreed to go west, but soon ran directly into a swarm of the filthy monsters. Before they knew how many they were up against, they had been surrounded. Violet’s voice still rang in his ears, “Ruuuuunnnnnnn!”
Morgan touched his shoulder and he flinched.
“Take it easy,” she whispered. “Your hair’s getting long too, Skiffer.” She flicked a yellow lock. “Maybe I should give you a trim tomorrow?”
“It’s fine for now,” he replied and pointed. Is that Violet there?”
“I think so. God, I wish she were still with us,” offered Morgan.
“You believe in God?” asked Skiff.
Ten minutes later they could see Violet as clearly as if it were day. The moon hung so low and bright that her shadow stretched a whole ten feet to the side. Skiff and Morgan had left the barn door open, but moved inside. They stayed close to one another in the rear of the barn, waiting for the first of the zombies to enter.
Violet-Zombie staggered through the door first, looking much as she had in life. Her long blonde hair had fallen from its usual pony tail and hung in scraggly strands. Her face was pale, but not yet the gray of Zombiedom, though heavy black bruising surrounded her eyes. Dried blood and unidentifiable moist flecks circled her purple lips.
She was followed closely by a man who must have been in his mid seventies when he was “taken.” His hair was matted and dirty, but clearly silver and thin. The skin that remained on his body was saggy and blotched with patches of black and brown. He wore old-man pants with a low crotch and a high waistband, the left leg tattered but the right surprisingly intact. There were no teeth in his mouth and his lips and tongue were so black that it looked as though he simply had a deep hole above his chin. He was shirtless and Skiff could see dozens of bite marks on his chest and belly. Some of the flesh was slick and gangrenous and pieces had fallen away, exposing yellow bone and a view of his rotting innards.
The zombie that was so recently Violet focused on the two young humans before her and raised her hands, “More. More. More,” she called.
“Is she calling me?” whispered Morgan.
“I don’t think so,” replied Skiff. “Is it just me, or do you see meat and blood stuck to her face? We haven’t seen any humans for weeks.”
“I’ve seen the new ones attack their own kind. I think they have to learn the difference between human and zombie.”
Skiff lit a wooden match by striking it against his belt buckle.
“Not yet,” said Morgan. “Let some more come in first.”
Several more zombies filed into the barn. Violet moved to within ten feet of the pair and Skiff dropped the match. The hay that covered the floor of the barn would have ignited easily enough, but Skiff had soaked it good with the kerosene he had found in a can outside.
It took only a moment for the flames to reach Violet-Zombie. Her pants caught fire first and the flames licked their way up her body. By the time her hair was alight, Morgan and Skiff had fled out the rear of the barn. They ran about a hundred yards and turned to watch as the barn went up in gray smoke and orange flames. The smoke and flames roiled together as they rose, creating an updraft of sparks in paisley patterns that danced in the spiraling heat.
“Goodbye, Violet,” they whispered at the same time. They watched for a moment longer until they could see that a handful of zombies had skirted the inferno and were still coming on.
“The bastards,” spat Skiff. Morgan took his hand and led him away. The moon worked its arc across the southern sky as the two intrepid refugees made their way north. Remorse heavy in their chests, even as something new began to take its place. Something warm and distant, like a promise, but something as yet incomplete.
Morgan and Skiff had been far more optimistic when they had first set out with Violet. It was an every-man-for-himself world now, and friends were hard to come by. Even as they watched Violet fall to the zombies, so too did they resolve to never fall as she did, bravely or not. Heroes died much too quickly.
Skiff gave Morgan’s hand three short squeezes: I love you.
It took a moment, but Morgan soon replied with four of her own.
Morning broke gray and heavy. Everything was coated with a thick dew. Moving north had meant moving into colder climes and the pair had spent their nights of late huddled close together, in any shelter they could find.
Sometimes they would come across a single zombie, wandering aimlessly until it caught their scent. Then it would make for them with singular purpose. Eat. Eat. Eat.
They had little trouble fending off the single zombie here and there, but on occasion they had run into small groups and had to find creative ways to eliminate them. Fire was one of their favorite and most effective weapons. One had to be careful with zombies; more than half of what had ever been written about them proved to be unreliable. They had a knack for regeneration, even as their bodies fell to pieces of natural causes. It was a sick business making sure they were destroyed beyond redemption, but the task got easier as time went by.
“Wake up, Skiff.”
“What time is it?”
“How should I know? It’s light and I’m hungry. The zombie alarm stayed quiet all night.”
“Yeah, that’s good.” He yawned. “We can probably check out the town, now that it’s light. Do you want to bring in the alarm, or leave it up and stay here another night?”
“Let’s leave it. I’m starving.”
“Okay.” Skiff peeled back the tarpaulin they had used as a blanket during the night. He surveyed the interior of the van they occupied. “This was a lucky find. Too bad it’s out of gas.”
“Like every other vehicle we’ve come across. I guess when folks fled, they just up abandoned the vehicles when they ran out of fuel. It’s funny, how the one gas station we did find that still had fuel was so overrun with zombies. It makes me wonder if they can think. You know?”
“I wouldn’t underestimate the little bastards. The first time we do will be the last.”
“Yeah. Let’s check out the town and see what we can find. I’ll give you a kiss if you find me some canned peaches.”
“If I find canned peaches, you just might never hear of it. You’re ‘gonna want to kiss me just to see if I’ve been eating any.”
“Well, isn’t that selfish? Just for that, I’m going to use the last of the water to brush my teeth.”
They left most of their belongings in the van and made their way slowly a mile back to the small town they had skirted during the night, too tired to do a proper recon. They stepped over the zombie alarm; a crude wire perimeter connected to bells back near the van. It appeared to be intact.
Skiff carried a four-foot-long metal rod with a sharpened point; his preferred weapon for zombie killing. He had dubbed his weapon the jabber-rod. Morgan had two hatchets hanging from holsters on her hips and a pistol stuffed into her waistband.
“Why do you think there’s always zombies left behind at these places?” asked Skiff.
“Maybe they are grounded here, like ghosts, by their memories. Maybe those that don’t go had never left in life and they don’t know any better,” replied Morgan.
“I think they’re too dumb to go. You’d think that when the hunger got to them they’d head right out.”
“I hope they are dumb. Smart zombies would make life a lot more difficult.”
The town was small and consisted of a main street of retail shops, a restaurant, a small grocery store and offices. A couple of abandoned cars were parked neatly at the curb, red expiration flags showing on the five-cent meters beside them.
“No police station,” said Skiff.
“Yeah. No guns,” agreed Morgan. “I’d love a shot-gun, but the damn things are so heavy. Ammo’s hard to come by too.”
Skiff scanned the main street as they boldly entered the town. “If this place checks out, we’ll search some homes. But I’d rather spend the night back at the van.”
“I agree. Let’s check the grocery store for some canned goods and then the pharmacy for meds, okay?”
“Yeah. I’m getting hungry for those peaches.”
They made their way carefully down the sidewalk, checking around corners and inside buildings as they passed them. The grocery store was the fourth building down and they found that the double doors were unlocked.
Morgan drew her pistol and pushed her way into the store while Skiff remained outside until she called for him.
“Looks like it’s been picked pretty clean,” she reported when Skiff came up beside her. She stuffed the pistol back into her pants.
Just as Skiff was about to speak, he thought he heard a noise coming from a back room. “What was that?” he whispered.
Morgan looked at him and slowly shook her head, her eyes raised: I didn’t hear anything. She had sense and trusted Skiff’s instincts enough to remain quiet.
Skiff raised his weapon and moved slowly to the door to the back room. Morgan pulled a hatchet from her left hip and moved to the other side of the door. Behind the door, they could both hear a muffled scratching sound, but it stopped suddenly.
A shadow moved along the wall next to Morgan and she turned to look back across the aisles toward the front doors. There was a zombie standing outside with his hands up to the glass, peering into the naturally lighted interior. She tsked at Skiff who was making ready to open the door and rush whatever was in the room behind.
Skiff looked at her and she motioned with her head and eyes to the front of the store. They both watched the zombie as it watched them. Its hands were now framing its face to cut the glare of the morning sun. It stood near-motionless as it watched.
“That’s freaky,” whispered Morgan. “I’ve never seen one do that.”
The door behind them suddenly pulled open and a gooey-mawed zombie staggered into view.
Skiff spun to face the creature and raised his rod to strike. Morgan leaped forward, away from the door and turned to cover Skiff, drawing the pistol again.
The zombie at the front door began a guttural keening, but remained outside. The zombie in the back room did not come forward, and Skiff did not advance. He took a cautious step backward. “Watch the front, Morgan. I’ve got this one covered.”
Morgan returned her attention to the zombie outside the store. It continued to wail and pawed at the glass. Morgan could see others approaching from across the street.
“There’s more out there, Skiffer!” she shouted. “Is there another way out?”
“I can’t see anything in the back,” he replied. “Why aren’t they attacking?
“I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want out!” she shouted. She spun and fired a round from the pistol. The bullet struck the back room zombie in the forehead and exited in an explosion of sticky wetness from the back of its skull. It remained standing for a moment and then crumpled.
Morgan grabbed Skiff by the hand as she ran past him. They entered the back room of the store and stepped carefully around the fallen zombie.
As their eyes adjusted to the dimness, they stood back to back, alert and apprehensive. Morgan was already breathing heavy with the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Skiff blinked in an effort to get his eyes to pierce the gloom.
The sound of the front door opening reached them then and they could hear the scruffling of dozens of zombie feet. As their eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the back room, they could see no way out. There were no doors, and the only window was so small that not even a child could squeeze through.
The noises from the front of the store subsided. Skiff and Morgan turned to face one another.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered. His gaze was one of longing, tempered by despair.
Morgan’s gaze was hard and determined, “And you’re not giving up,” she replied. “Let’s go!”
She bolted back through the door and into the store. Skiff shook off the depression and followed. Morgan entered the store to find a small army of zombies standing quietly, forming an arc in the room, but packed-in behind.
Morgan and Skiff stood in the arc, the nearest zombie six feet away. It glared at them with milky eyes, around which was ashen, peeling skin. A hole in its right cheek let daylight into its wide-open mouth and Skiff could see yellow teeth and a black tongue. It had a scraggly beard and one of its ears had been ripped away. The short black hair atop its head was a matted mass that looked like a bird’s nest. It made a noise like some large animal mortally wounded; a thick, wet intake of breath and a low gurgling moan.
All of the zombies made noise and all were dressed in tattered rags. Some of the creatures were so decomposed that Morgan couldn’t make out their sex. There was one though, that had once been a woman. It stood slouched and had ribbon-like pieces of skin hanging from its face, as if it had been clawed by a great cat. One perfect, unmarred breast hung dangling from its chest and Morgan winced at the humanity of the picture, wanting to cover the creature.
The zombies stood their ground and did not advance. Skiff nudged Morgan, “What the hell is this?”
“I don’t know. They usually attack. What should we do?”
Skiff took a step forward but the zombies did not react. They did not back away, but they made no sign of being about to advance. Many of their mouths were drooling thick brown saliva that dribbled to the floor. Skiff could see one that was gnawing on its neighbor, the latter apparently unconcerned that it was being eaten.
“We can slaughter them where they stand,” offered Morgan. “They’re sitting ducks!”
A voice from somewhere behind the zombies, deep and clear, cautioned, “I wouldn’t do that.”
Skiff stepped back to protect Morgan and shouted, “Who are you? What do you want with us?”
The zombies began to part in the rear, allowing an unseen figure to make its way forward. Skiff watched the zombies’ heads move to the right and left as someone or something came through the crowd. Morgan bent her forearm to raise the pistol and Skiff put his own arm around her.
When the last zombies parted, the creature that appeared looked just like any one of them. It was a male of maybe fifty-five years old. It’s eyes were circled by dark rings and it’s lips were black as night. Red scars lined its face and neck and its hair was a tangled mess of wiry strings. It carried a very large handgun.
“That’s makeup,” whispered Morgan. “He’s human,” more loudly.
“That’s right, Children,” spoke the man. “I have to look just like my babies or they’d never trust me. They’d tear the flesh from my bones faster than a pack of jackals on a gazelle. But they trust me now, and they listen to me. So why don’t you put your weapons down and we can have a chat?”
“Who are you?” challenged Skiff. “How do you control these things?”
“All in good time, my young man. Now please put the weapons on the floor, before I have my babies take them from you.” The front row of zombies let out a collective growl. “Easy, my pets,” said the man. “You’ll be fed.”
Skiff looked at Morgan and she nodded. They both knew that they had little choice. Down went the pistol, thudding to the floor. Down went Skiff’s jabber-rod, quickly followed by Morgan’s hatchets. The pair held hands and stepped back from their weapons.
“Thank you both, sincerely,” said the man. “I’m sure you have many questions, and I do too. But first, let me get you to someplace that is a little more secure. Take them!” he ordered and the Zombies advanced.
Soon Skiff and Morgan were pressed upon by the small hoard and the two were moved out of the store, into and across the street. The mass of zombies grew larger as the pair were led into a bank. Into the open vault they were thrown, and the heavy metal gate was closed behind them.
The zombies left them there, clearing out of the bank until the place was empty. Morgan and Skiff had remained quiet during their abduction, but now Morgan spoke, her voice full of bewilderment.
“Where the hell are we, Skiff? Who is that guy? What are they going to do with us? Did you see how many there were? There must have been nearly a hundred zombies out there!”
“Easy. Easy now,” soothed Skiff. “We’re alive. Let’s try to figure a way out of here, or learn as much as we can.”
There was nothing in the vault that could help them to escape. The gate was made of heavy steel and it was securely fastened.
“Well, there’s no way out,” announced Skiff. “We’ll have to wait for that man to show himself again. I wonder how he’s controlling the zombies.”
“What’s with the makeup?” asked Morgan. “He’s clearly insane. At the least, he’s a traitor. Zombies are for killing, that’s all they do to us!”
“Right. But there’s nothing we can do about that right now. We’re going to have to find out what he wants from us. Keep your ears and eyes open. We need a way out.”
“Scheming already, are we?” asked the man who had appeared before the vault. He was not very tall and wore a tattered dark brown suit coat over the shredded remains of a purple button-down shirt. Despite the damage, the clothes looked very clean.
Skiff approached the gate and squeezed the bars. “What do you want with us?”
“Well, young man. I am in need of an intelligent person to run a little errand for me. You strike me as just such a person.”
“What makes you think I’d do anything for you?” asked Skiff.
“I’m not asking you to do anything for me, boy. I’m asking you to do something for her.” He cast his gaze upon Morgan.
“What do you mean?”
The man reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a large silver key. “If, for example, you do not agree to run my errand, I will give this key to my babies and they will come in here, unlock this gate, extract the girl from the vault and nibble the meat from her bones until she is nothing but a skeleton lying in the street.”
“You are insane,” spat Morgan as she rushed the gate, reaching through the bars and trying to grab the man.
“Insane would be declining my offer, little lady,” said the man as he backed away.
“You haven’t made an offer,” replied Skiff.
“Ah, that is correct. My offer is this; accept the errand and you will be released. Decline, and, well…” he wiggled the silver key.
Skiff looked at Morgan and thought for a moment. “I guess you’ve left us no choice. We’ll run your errand.”
“Oh, no,” said the man, “there is no ‘we’ here. You,” he pointed at Skiff, “will run the errand and your girlfriend will remain here to ensure you return with the object of my desire. Make no mistake, should you fail, this young lady will be nothing more than a rather small portion of zombie chow.”
“You are a very sick man,” said Morgan.
“Sick in this world has no meaning, girl. Or haven’t you been outside?”
“I’ll do it,” said Skiff. “Where am I going and what am I bringing back?”
“Skiff. No.” Morgan placed a hand on his shoulder.
Skiff looked into her eyes and for a moment was taken to a place where there were no zombies, just he and Morgan and no more running. “He’s left us no choice.”
“Aha!” the man clapped his hands together. “I knew you were a smart one. When I first saw you yesterday, I knew you’d be the one to help me.”
“You saw us yesterday?” asked Morgan.
“Oh, yes. I saw you make camp in the abandoned van and watched you lay out your fancy alarm wire. I was quite impressed, but you underestimate the intelligence of these creatures. The truth is, you can’t overestimate it. They are full of wonderful insight, once their hunger is slaked.”
“They’re always hungry,” Morgan remarked.
“Not always,” replied the man with a smirk.
The man left and returned with food and water. Morgan and Skiff ate quietly while the man explained what he wanted Skiff to do. He sat at a small table he had pulled near. On the table, Skiff greedily noted an oil-lamp, his jabber-rod, Morgan’s pistol and hatchets, just out of reach.
“There’s a farm up the road. It was a dairy farm at one time. I am in need of a part from one of the refrigeration units. I’ll provide you with precise instructions for finding and removing the part. Additionally, there is a tank of kerosene on a flat bed cart. You’ll need to bring that back as well.”
“Why don’t you have your slaves do it?” asked Skiff.
“Oh, you don’t understand. The farther from me they are, the harder they are to control. And before you ask, I can’t go myself; if I were to leave my babies alone for just a few hours, I’m sure they would separate into small groups and wander off in search of flesh.”
“I’ll need my weapon.”
“You shall have it. But remember that I will have the girl. ”
“Right. But let me tell you that if she should come to any harm, I will come straight for you. Zombie army or no zombie army, I will kill you.”
“Bravo, my boy! And here I thought you were too young to have ever seen television!”
“I mean it.”
“I’m sure you do,” smiled the man. “Now take a look at this map…”
Morgan stood before Skiff, here eyes full of tears. He hugged her close and whispered in her ear, “I’m coming back for you.”
“I know,” she whispered back, “I-”
Skiff cut her off, “I mean it. And soon.”
Morgan backed away and looked into Skiff’s eyes. She noted a new determination, a stark contrast to the despair that had so frightened her in the grocery store. She quickly gave his hand three short squeezes.
“I know,” he said. He turned to face the man who stood with weapon raised, beside the open cage door. “I’m ready.”
“Good!” The man motioned with the gun for Skiff to step out. He covered Skiff with the gun while he slammed the gate closed. “This way,” he motioned toward the street. Two zombies had moved the table against a wall, half way between the front door and the cage. Skiff decided not to try for his weapon; the risk was too great.
“Skiff?” called Morgan, a tear dropping from her cheek.
Skiff looked back at her. Despite the steel bars breaking up the view, she was the most lovely creature he had ever seen. He was reminded of a morning once, late in Spring, when he and his father had gone fishing. The zombies had found them and his mother had been “taken.” He and his father fled and he had cast a final glance back at the river valley that had been theie home for a few short weeks. The wrench of loss and longing was so strong then that he thought his heart was broken beyond repair. He felt that same ache now.
He swallowed hard, nodded to Morgan and turned away.
“Touching,” spoke the man beside him.
Skiff’s broken heart was mended at that moment, and encased in icy armor so heavy and thick that he knew the only way to melt it would be to kill this man; to feed him to his zombie slaves and take Morgan from this place.
The two zombies waited on the street outside the bank. One moved slowly forward and handed Skiff his jabber-rod. He took it carefully and relished the feel of the weight in his hand.
“That’s an impressive piece of hardware,” voiced the man. He continued to point the gun at Skiff and was keeping his distance.
“It works,” replied Skiff. “Depending on what I run into out there, I should be back by late morning. You’re sure the area is clear?”
“Yes, my boy. Any zombies within miles of this town are here with me. You might find a straggler here and there, but certainly nothing you and your big stick can’t handle.”
Skiff wasted no more time and immediately set off down the street. The dairy farm was only a few hours hike and he wanted to appear to be moving at a good pace.
The two zombies lurched along after him, but he soon gained on them and they were called back by the man who whistled and announced, “Who’s hungry?”
Skiff cleared his mind and focused on his plan. He exited the town and kept a wary eye on the surrounding landscape. He was looking for zombies, of course, but he was also looking for a place to discreetly leave the road. It was likely that he was being spied on and if he didn’t appear to have a good reason for leaving the road, Morgan might be in danger.
His opportunity presented itself at dusk, in the form of an old drainage ditch beside the road. It was a deep gouge in the landscape that was riddled with sewer grates. There was mud at the bottom, but no water flowed. It ran on for some distance, following the road. He slowed his pace to ensure the ditch would be near when he was ready.
When he decided it was dark enough, Skiff moved closer to the ditch. He stood with his back to the road and tucked his jabber-rod beneath his left arm. With his right he pulled his zipper down and mimed the act of urinating into the ditch. He looked around, as if to survey the surrounding landscape, and then the earth beneath his feet gave way.
He slid into the ditch and landed hard on his tailbone.
“Damn!” he cried out. It hurt. But it must have appeared real enough to anyone watching. Once he stepped off the edge, he hadn’t really been acting as he fell.
He kept low and made his way back toward town, staying in the ditch as long as possible, until it was blocked by a massive iron grate before it turned downward, moving underground.
It was a cloudless night. The moon so bright in the sky that he feared the light might give him away. He kept to any shadows he could find as he zig-zagged his way back to town, scampering from tree to tree, or crawling through any depressions he could find.
Soon the town was in view, with its welcoming shadows on the north side of every building. He squatted beside the pharmacy and scanned the main street. Nothing stirred. He asked himself where the man might be and it occurred to him that anything to do with refrigeration might likely be back at the grocery store. He and Morgan hadn’t had enough time to check the whole place out. It made sense, it was one of the few buildings big enough for him to assemble his small army of zombies.
He worked his way down the street, keeping a wide-eyed lookout as he moved from shadow to shadow. He came to a shop whose front door was lying on the concrete apron out front. The doorway was a vertical pit of blackness and Skiff was concerned about passing before it. He raised his rod and inched forward, straining his eyes to see into the inkblot doorway.
He stepped onto the fallen door, careful not to step on any of the small glass panes that were still intact. As he made his way past the doorway, a gray hand reached for him from within. He saw that the zombie had blood-rusted fingers and short black nails.
Skiff swung the rod hard and connected with the zombie’s forearm. He was given confidence by the hard crack of fractured bone and raised the rod to attack again. The zombie tried to raise the broken arm, but it bent downward until the fracture became a fissure. The broken end of the zombie’s ulna popped through the flesh, it’s sharp end threatening to pierce Skiff’s cheek or neck.
He parried the forearm with a swipe of his rod and continued the arc until he connected with the zombie’s other arm. Conscious of being spotted on the street and hoping there were no other zombies within the store, Skiff raised a foot and kicked the zombie in the midsection. The creature fell back through the doorway and into the shop. Skiff quickly followed, his rod raised for the killing stroke.
A beam of soft moonlight struggled to light the interior of the shop. Skiff could see now that he was fighting a male. The zombie stood before him, waving its useless half-arm, the hand and forearm having fallen to the floor. Skiff pressed his attack, wary of the creature’s good arm, and constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to finish this fight with as little noise as possible.
He tried a feint he had used before. He lowered himself until he was in a squatting position, just three feet in front of the zombie. The zombie’s eyes looked dry and flat in their sockets, as if they were hand-painted on the face of a doll. They followed Skiff’s move and the zombie bent as Skiff squatted, in an attempt to make a grab.
As the zombie’s head came down, up came the pointed end of Skiff’s jabber-rod. The zombie’s nose, which had already been little more than a hunk of gray-black flesh, was pierced through by the rod. Its head was thrown back. Rather than exit the rear of the skull, the rod was pulled free of Skiff’s grip. The zombie reached for the rod with its good arm and as its hand closed upon the weapon, Skiff jumped up and rammed it home the full weight of his body behind the move.
The rod punched through the back of the zombie’s skull. The monster reached for the weapon again, but this time Skiff put his weight into turning it. He pulled hard to the left and the rod spun, turning the zombie’s head with it. The force of the maneuver was such that the zombie’s head ripped clean from its body. The body collapsed to the floor but the head remained impaled on the jabber-rod.
He used his boot to hold the head against the floor as he pulled his weapon free. It was something he had done many times before and it was nothing more than business by now. He cleaned the rod on a curtain and stepped back through the doorway, back into the silent night.
The street was still deserted. The grocery store was only three doors down now and Skiff risked moving quickly. He skipped along the front of two buildings until he could slip into a recessed doorway. Safe again within the shadows, he finally took a chance to regain his breath.
A slight breeze cooled him as he forced himself to breathe easy. The next building over was the grocery store and he struggled to remember whatever details he could about the place. There was something odd about the back room. He’d been through countless grocery stores before and they always had room for stores and access to the rear for deliveries.
When he was rested, he ducked into the space between the grocery store and its neighbor. He carefully made his way through the shadows to the rear. Peeking around the corner, he could see that the narrow alleyway was deserted. More importantly, he saw a stairwell made of concrete that led to a below-grade door. The grocery store had a basement.
Scanning the alley, he approached the stairs. A second later he had descended and stood before a steel door, which had been painted white. Rust spots dotted the door, looking like bullet holes dripping blood. He listened and heard nothing, then gripped the stainless steel knob and turned. The door was locked.
Locked doors were nothing new to Skiff. He, Morgan and Violet had bashed down many. This one looked old but solid, so he was mildly surprised when it popped open after only a few moments of prying at it with his heavy rod.
The darkness inside was impossibly blacker than the alley shadows. He looked, listened, sniffed and then repeated the process. Nothing.
He opened the door wide enough to slip in and entered before he could change his mind. He knew that what he was doing was foolish and broke every rule Violet had forced into his head. But Violet was dead now, and Morgan would be if he didn’t push himself on.
He left the door ajar in an effort to take advantage of any light, however unwilling, that found its way in from the alley. He could make out a swinging door about ten feet away, across an empty room with a concrete floor and a low ceiling.
Crossing the room quickly, he made his way to the swinging door. He pushed it open a crack and peered in. The area within was cast in a dim red glow. The light was coming from indicators on the doors of several large freezers. The stainless steel doors helped to reflect the light and amplify the glow, giving the room a hellish hue.
There were six large doors. The light on one of them was out, either malfunctioning or the freezer not in service. Skiff remembered his errand, to get the part from the dairy farm’s refrigerator and wondered if this could be the reason.
But why the kerosene?
He moved to the first door and examined the handle. It was made of chrome plated steel and there was a pin securing the latch. He eased the pin out of its hole and left it dangling on its chain below the handle. He grabbed the handle, took a deep breath, and pulled.
The door swung easily outward with only a slight squeal. A rush of icy air hit his face and he blinked to clear a sudden dryness from his eyes. A light in the interior of the freezer came to life and Skiff was thrust into a nightmare from which he knew he could not wake.
Before him in the freezer were piled a dozen human carcasses. They were unmarred by the scourge of zombiedom. Some had limbs cleanly severed and it looked to have been done after they were frozen. Two faces that he could see clearly had bullet holes in their foreheads, their eyes frozen open, their fear plain to see.
A memory flashed back into his brain, of a man with a gun, face painted in mimicry of a zombie, whistling for his ‘babies’ and asking, “Who’s hungry?”
Skiff had eaten next to nothing in the past day, but his stomach managed to purge an acid-laden bile. He spat it to the floor and wiped his mouth with a sleeve.
“That sick, evil, son-of-a-bitch!” he cried. “He’s feeding the bastards!”
It made sense now, how the man could control the zombies; he controlled the food. He had a store of frozen human meat to draw on. He had electricity, probably from a kerosene generator hidden away somewhere. He had domesticated an army of zombies and fancied himself as their leader, their god. He had slaughtered these people like a farmer might slaughter a herd of cattle. He had created this zombie town to fulfill his own sick fantasy. And he had Morgan.
Skiff slammed the freezer door and ran through the basement and out the back door. In the alley, a pair of zombies shuffled toward him, followed by two more coming from between the buildings. He had been found, but he resolved not to let them get the better of him.
He took the stairs in two great bounds and was already swinging his rod before his feet were both on the ground. The first zombie’s head caved in. Bits of bone and brain shot out to either side, some sticking to the face of the zombie beside it. Before the zombie’s body hit the ground, Skiff was swinging again, bashing the second zombie with a side-stroke that took the top of its skull off. It stood there with arms raised, in a stunned suspended animation. Skiff shouldered into it and it too fell to the ground, the remaining pieces of brain spilling out in thick black gobs.
He advanced on the second pair. The first zombie went down with the rod still embedded in its skull. Skiff had tried an angled stroke and lost his grip when the weapon snagged on a particularly tough piece of neck muscle. Before he could retrieve the rod, the second zombie moved in to face him.
The zombie mouthed a silent scream and Skiff could see that its tongue was missing. A large chunk of meat had been ripped from its neck and Skiff noted, somehow in slow motion, how the thing seemed to breathe through the hole in its throat.Black spittle gurgled there and spattered the zombie’s neck and shoulder.
With that precious second wasted, the zombie landed a hard forearm to the side of Skiff’s head. He was smart enough to move with the blow and thus afforded the zombie no second chance to connect.
Skiff shook off the pain and mild dizziness and retreated a step. When the zombie came for him again he was ready. He spun and landed a hard kick to the zombie’s right knee. Like something made of rubber the knee bent backward but did not break. The zombie turned as Skiff followed through with the kick, smashing his fist into the zombie’s chin. Again and again he rained kicks and punches onto the zombie. Finally he heard a bone break and the zombie went down. As it struggled to rise on its one good leg, Skiff made for his weapon and retrieved it. When he pulled the rod free he was rewarded with a meaty sucking sound; as much bone and brain clung to the weapon as had remained on the ground.
He moved back to the second zombie and raised the rod high above his head. He brought it down, point first, into the zombie’s cranium. The monster ceased its struggles. It didn’t fall over until Skiff pulled the jabber-rod free. He looked for more zombies to destroy. He willed them to come at him, so full of hate had he become.
The moon had completed its nightly circuit and left the town in the a deep natural darkness. The stars above, like a million blinking eyes, waited for Skiff’s next move. He looked up at them, seeking strength, seeking calm. They gave him neither. They only reminded him of the beauty of Morgan’s eyes and of the true monster that still had her captive. “You want something to look at?” he challenged the stars.
He fought three more zombies as he crossed the street, leaving them with collapsed skulls or pierced brains. Another fell before him as he entered the bank building; a neat hole punched through the center of its face.
He first noticed the small oil lamp now burning on the small table. He was glad to see Morgan’s hatchets and pistol beside the lamp. The man was sitting in a chair by the vault, his handgun resting on a cross bar, pointed at Morgan who stood within.
“Oh, you young fool,” spoke the man. “I gave you a chance at freedom and you wasted it. I thought you were smarter than-”
“You feed them!” interrupted Skiff. “You feed them and train them and make them do as you please! How many people have you killed? How many human beings have you fed to those monsters?”
“Now, now,” said the man, rising. He kept the gun pointed into the cage. “Those people were as good as dead anyway. Don’t you know the zombies are winning? Don’t you know that the only way to beat them, to truly beat them, is to control them?”
“You are evil,” spat Skiff. He moved toward the table in the corner.
“Stay where you are,” commanded the man. He shifted the gun to point it at Skiff.
Skiff stopped moving and looked around. Outside he noted several zombies making their way toward the bank. Time was running out.
“Drop your weapon,” said the man. “Drop it or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“You’ll shoot me anyway, and feed me to your zombies. Why should I do as you say?”
The gun shifted to point at Morgan again. The man had begun to sweat, painting snail trails in the makeup on his face. “Do as I say, young man.”
Skiff lowered the rod, point-first toward the floor. The man shifted the gun yet again and aimed it at Skiff. Skiff bent as if to set the rod down but quickly rolled, performing a forward somersault in the direction of the table.
The man fired a shot and it missed by several feet, aimed at where Skiff had been a moment before.
Skiff came out of his roll and reached for the table, hurling it over in the direction of the man. The hatchets skittered, sliding across the floor and stopping at the man’s feet. Morgan’s pistol was lost from sight. The oil lamp shattered and flames quickly spread across the wooden floor between Skiff and the man.
Another shot rang out and Skiff felt a burning sensation in his right arm, his rod fell to the floor. He twisted his body and fell backward, away from the spreading flames.
“Skiff!’ cried Morgan. She had moved to the front of the cage to in the hope that she might retrieve her hatchets.
Another shot. Skiff heard splintering wood inches from his head.
The door to the bank was pulled open and a handful of zombies crowded the doorway, all trying to enter at the same time.
“Get him! Get him!” screamed the man. He fired the gun twice in quick succession, both shots wild and off-target.
Skiff turned to face the zombies, prepared to fight tooth and nail.
The first zombie entered and staggered toward him. He stood with his hands raised, poised to fend off the creature’s attack.
Skiff felt the bullet graze his left hand even before he heard the sharp report of the man’s gun. He then heard a click. Another click. Another.
Morgan squatted and reached through the bars, making a grab for one of her hatchets.
The zombie before Skiff raked a meaty fist across his left shoulder, causing bloodied welts to rise even through the tough cotton of his shirt.
Skiff then heard Morgan’s voice, screaming his own favorite word, “You bastard!” A flash of orange light hit his peripheral vision and turned to see that Morgan had picked up a hatchet and sunk it into the man’s head. The light from the oil fire reflected off of the polished blade of the second hatched as she brought that one down as well.
The man’s legs gave out and he slumped back into the chair.
The zombie managed to get a grip on Skiff’s shoulders with both hands and pull him closer. The zombie’s mouth was open wide and only inches from Skiff’s face. Skiff cocked his head forward and cracked the zombie. The zombie’s lower jaw gave way, but not before leaving a U-shaped row of teeth marks embedded in Skiff’s forehead.
Morgan scrambled frantically, searching the dead man for the silver key. She found it in his pocket and hurriedly unlocked the cage.
More zombies had engaged Skiff and he looked terribly weakened. Morgan exited the cage and pulled her hatchets from the dead man’s skull. She threw the first from where she stood and it sunk deep into a zombie’s right ear.
Skiff kneed the zombie before him with little effect. It’s hands still pulled at his shoulders, trying to bring him near enough to engage its damaged maw.
Morgan advanced and took the zombie out with a solid thunk as her hatchet did its work.
Still more zombies made their way into the bank.
Skiff bent and picked up his rod, and Morgan pulled him away before he was able to get her first hatchet back.
She pulled him away from the oncoming zombies, back toward the vault and the dead man.
Skiff pushed the dead man to the floor and picked up the chair. Morgan stayed close, sensing that he knew what he was doing.
He whistled then, and nodded, indicating the dead man lying on the floor. “Who’s hungry?”
He moved to the front of the bank, away from the zombies that made their way to the dead man’s body. He smashed the chair into the plate glass window. The window shattered and he used his rod to clean away the sharp shards that remained in the frame. He led Morgan out through the window frame and into the street. There were nearly a hundred zombies moving toward the bank, but any in the way were easily dodged or dispatched as the two made their way through the town.
As they neared the edge of town Morgan stopped him. “Wait, Skiff! We’ve got to stop them.”
Skiff was exhausted, from the battle and from lack of food and water. His wounds had gone numb, but he was weak and his arm needed attention.
“We can’t do anything now,” he panted. “But they won’t go anywhere for a while. They’ve got enough food to last them.”
“What food? That man will have already been eaten.”
“It’s okay. I’ll tell you more in a little while. Let’s get out of here.”
“But Skiff, the van is the other way”
“This way is better,” he managed. “There are no zombies between here and the dairy farm. Besides, I think we can use that tank full of kerosene.”
They left the town behind as the sky to the east began to brighten. Soon it looked as though someone had spilled a tall tropical drink across the horizon. The pink and orange was breathtaking to see, but Skiff thought it paled in comparison to the lovely creature that walked beside him. He gave her hand three quick squeezes: I love you.
She turned to him and smiled and gave him four squeezes in return.
Adam Francis Smith was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He says of attending public shool there that, “I learned more in the halls than in the classrooms.” He works full time as a real estate appraiser, a career that affords him just enough time to get his writing fix, without it ever becoming tedious. He hopes those that read his stories get half the joy out of doing so as he does out of the writing.