The dawn came, the sun casting its blinding rays on us. Nature’s alarm clock. My joints ached, as they did every morning. Sleeping in the truck just wasn’t good on the body. I missed the comfort of a bed and sheets and a pillow. I glanced around our surroundings. Things were much the same as the night before. The world still spun, the sun still came up… time, however, no longer sped along at a breakneck pace. It had dropped down to extra slow motion, each second like minutes, each minute like hours. Survival and loneliness are wearisome bedfellows at best and I had them both as companions.
“You awake, Humphrey?”
A yawn and a yes followed.
“Ready to head down there?”
After rolling up the wire-can alarm system and tucking it all back into the truck, we pulled onto the road. I could have made it to the next town over, maybe even further if I really needed to, but I had no desires to push my luck. I drove slow, scanned the area for anyone, living or dead. There were a few areas of blood near the fifties style buildings. The skeletal remains of a person lay scattered about near the entrance of what was the town police station – a building no bigger than a convenience store. The door stood open, a bloody shoe a few feet from it. Not for the first time did I wonder what terror the victim went through, if the person were ripped apart or killed themselves before the dead got to them.
Up ahead I could see the red car sitting at the parking light. My stomach quivered at the notion of who could be in it. I turned the truck around, pointed it back toward I-26.
“Stay here,” I said to Humphrey.
I stepped out, pistol in hand, slung the rifle over my shoulder. A handful of bullets later and I eased away from the truck, the door closed, keys in the ignition. I’ve never quite gotten over the jitters – each day it’s the same thing. Nerves on end. Quick breaths. Dry eyes from lack of blinking. Knots in my stomach. Sweaty palms.
The blood on the sidewalk had dried, paled over time, becoming more of a washed red color. The shoe in the door of the police station was a Nike. A bone jutted from a blood crusted sock. I peeked in through the door, not wanting to go in like a gangbuster and get myself killed. Shadows played along gray walls, making it difficult to see anything not directly in the sun’s light. My hand shook as I placed the palm down on the cool door and pushed it open. There were a couple of desks, papers and computers atop them, chairs nearby. A coat rack sat near the door, a gun rack on the far wall, steel bars keeping anyone from taking them. A body lay in the center of the room, flies buzzing about – a cop, his gun still in hand.
Against the wall closest to the door lay another body, a hole in its head. On the other side of the closest desk was a third person, a woman with jeans and a bloodied shirt. The top half of her head was missing. She was closest to the cop, probably the one who took him down. But, he got the shot off, or maybe someone else did.
I pushed the door open further, letting it hit softly against the wall. A hall led away from the central room. I inched past the corpses, checked the cop to make sure he was dead. He had put a bullet in his own head. I thought back to the Baxter’s, the way Max had mercifully killed his family before they could succumb to the death that surrounded them. Visions of what may have happened bounced through my head. The cop took out the first zombie, didn’t see the other one until it was too late and she had taken a chunk out of him somewhere. He wheeled, put a bullet through her brain and slumped to the floor, blood pouring from a wound, his heart pounding, the truth running through his head. With tears in his eyes, he probably put the revolver to his head, said a quick prayer and pulled the trigger. Maybe he had never been religious before and found it in that moment before taking his own life. I shook my head, took a deep breath and moved down the hall.
The bathroom sat on the right, empty. A door separated the hall from the next room. I opened it slowly, peered in. Another desk sat near the center of the room, its chair pushed underneath it. Three jail cells lined the wall. The first two were empty. The third one held a man. He leaned against the bars, his back to me, shoulders slumped. I could see the body on the floor, pieces of meat still clinging to bone.
“Hey,” I said, my voice barely coming out as a whisper. I coughed, repeated. The man pushed off of the bars and turned. His head lulled on his shoulders. The front of his clothes was soaked in gore, his hands bony and bloody. He seemed to stare at me with his head down. A grunt escaped him. The skin on his face had sagged. I could see the bones of his eye sockets.
My heart sped up, chest tightened. I lifted my pistol.
He grunted again, smashed his head against the cell door. He didn’t lift his arms and. Other than beating his head against the bars and grunting, he didn’t do much. But, there was desperation in those simple actions.
I swallowed. “Listen, buddy,” I said, trying to reason with him, if there was really any way to do that. “I know you’re in a bad way, but I’m going to take care of you, okay?”
A grunt was followed by another head butt to the cell door. Skin split his forehead.
“Calm down, okay? I’m not going to let you stay that way. I promise. I’m going to set you free. Just give me a couple of minutes, okay?”
I hurried back up the hall. I could have put a bullet in the man’s head, but sound – any type, I learned – attracted the dead. No need firing the pistol before I gathered some valuable supplies.
I stopped in the main room. The gun case was held shut with a pad lock. There were eight rifles and a couple of hand guns. I searched the desks for keys, found none. I turned to the cop, rolled him over, searched his pockets.
“Jackpot,” I whispered when I pulled out a key ring with several keys attached. The fourth key produced an audible click that made me jump. With the gun case open, I unloaded the weapons, carrying as many as I could to the truck and going back for the rest. I wondered if the cop had thought about unlocking it before he died. If he had the foresight to think that maybe he wouldn’t have much time to open the case when the dead were closing in on his tiny town. The case was still locked, my mind said. What do you think?
After loading the last of the guns and ammunition in the truck, I went back inside and down the hall. The man had sagged against the cell door, his eyes facing the floor. Black blood seeped down the bars his head leaned on.
“Hey,” I said from about ten feet away. “Are you still with me?”
He lifted his head slightly. His eyes were a filmed over black. A fly landed on one of them, did a little dance and took off again. My heart was like a tidal wave crashing along the shore, crushing blow after blow within my chest. He struck his head on the bars again, his mouth open. A low growl filled the room, like an angered whisper or a plea for help.
I lifted my gun, finger on the trigger. “If you’re in there and can hear me, I hope you understand I’m not doing this because I’m some mean, uncaring person.”
He stopped beating his head against the cell door. I saw nothing in his eyes, nothing in the way he stood, mouth ajar, arms dangling at his sides.
I wiped my mouth with one hand, swallowed hard. “If you can hear me and you don’t want me to put a bullet in your brain, step backwards one step.”
I waited, hands shaking, lips and mouth dry. He didn’t move, not even a waver from side to side.
“Okay.” I thought for a moment longer, daylight burning away outside, the hairs on my arms on end. “Okay. Listen up. If you can hear me, listen real carefully. I’m going to shoot you. I’m going to kill you… again. If you want me to do that, hit your head against that bar again.”
It was a reach, I knew. But, I had to know. I had to know if my experiment before was accurate, if there really were souls trapped inside those bodies.
Time stood still. We stared at each other, this stranger and I, until he lifted his head away from the cell door and brought it down hard against one bar. There was the audible noise as his forehead cracked. Again, he hit his head against the door. Two more times followed.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “You can stop now.”
And he did.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
His head snapped back with the sound of the gun going off. He fell backward, landing in a heap on the corpse on the floor behind him.
“They’re in there,” I said. “They’re still in there.”
I turned and walked toward the hall, stopped in the doorway. Standing between me and the door was another one. He shambled toward me, one arm held out, his bottom jaw missing. I backed up and around the desk and waited for him to get inside the room. He was in bad shape, barely tottering and looking as if he could fall with his next step. He bumped the door jamb, staggered sideways and through the opening.
I pulled the trigger while his face was turned from me. He struck the wall and fell. I stood, torn at recent revelations. These were people with lives, hopes, dreams. Someone gave birth to them, someone loved them at one point. They probably loved and had dreams and who knew, maybe the guy in the cell had kids or a wife. Either way, two experiments had led me to believe something that should be fundamentally impossible: the dead had souls and those souls were trapped in the husks of what used to be.
I had thought I would go to Hell for the murders I committed. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe I had to be the Grim Reaper and help these poor folks get to the afterlife… as painlessly as possible. Maybe surviving wasn’t all that was left to do. Maybe finding other survivors wasn’t all that was left to do. Maybe… maybe delivering the dead to… to where? The afterlife. Maybe ending their misery was the way to getting my soul back.
I stepped around the dead man and hurried down the hall, pistol in hand. I stopped at the cop. “Sorry, buddy, but I’m going to need that,” I said and bent down. It took a little work, but I took his gun and slid it in my waistband and beneath my shirt. It was cool on my back.
Outside the police station, I glanced both ways, made my way toward the red car at the light further down. My memories raced, searching through thousands of files before finding the right cabinet, the right moment in time. I hurried toward the car – a Chevy much like the one Leland had bought a couple of years earlier. I couldn’t see the tag from where I was, nor if there was a bumper sticker on it that read, Honk If I Made You Mad, on the right hand side.
From between two buildings a woman stumbled, her hair matted to the side of her bloodied face. I turned the pistol on her, my mind firmly on auto-pilot as I approached the car. One shot, one kill.
A few feet from the car, Lee’s voice echoed in my mind.
“How do you like her?” he asked as he ran a hand across the hood.
“It’s alright if you like that sort of thing.”
He shrugged. ”I do.”
Jessica had loved that car. She had screamed for joy when Lee showed it to her, a birthday present that kept on giving right until the end of the world.
I circled around the front of it, part of me terrified to see the tag, to see the bumper sticker Lee had put on as a joke – one Jessica wasn’t too happy with, but allowed it to stay to keep from scratching the paint while taking it off.
I thought of Lee as he and I and Davey Blaylock made our way from building to building, seeking supplies and survivors, putting bullets in anything that didn’t answer our calls. I thought of how Lee rounded a corner and the hands that grabbed his arm and the mouth that sank down on his bicep. I thought of the fear in his face as he pulled the trigger, taking off the guy’s head, how he laughed when he realized who it was.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he said with tears in his eyes. The laugh was involuntary – shock, maybe – and he let it out, a high pitched sound that could have been a whine or scream or a little bit of both. “Was that Paul Marcum?” he asked.
I glanced at the body. No doubt. “Yeah, it was.”
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he yelled and kicked Paul in the side several times. He lowered his gun, squeezed off two shots and screamed at Paul like it was his fault the world had died. After several minutes, he calmed, laughed again. This time it was an eerie realization that was carried in it. He shook his head. “Well, ain’t this some shit?”
“We’ll get help,” I said. “We’ll figure something out.”
He shook his head again. “No, little bro, we won’t. I’m a dead man and I’m not going to be a burden on you guys.” He pointed down at Paul Marcum. “And I sure as hell ain’t going to end up like that fucker. Can you believe this shit?”
“No,” I said. One brother was already dead and Lee was going to join him. It was only a matter of time.
“Paul Marcum,” he said. “Paul fuckin’ Marcum. We used to kick the shit out of him in school. You know, me and Rich hated his squealing ass. I’m taken out by a fucking nerdy ratter. How ironic is that?”
I shook my head against the memories, looked through the dirty windshield. A man lay slumped in the front seat of the car, his brain spattered on the windshield and side glass. I could see flies buzzing about his body. I didn’t recognize the face and what little bit I could make out didn’t look anything like I recalled of Mike Simmons’ appearance.
Around the corner came three more zombies. I leveled my aim on one, pulled the trigger. Missed.
There was no time for missing. Worse still, there wasn’t enough bullets to go wasting on not taking one of them out. I steadied my hand, squeezed off the next shot and dropped one. Two more shots and the other two were down.
I rounded the passenger’s side, glanced inside. No purse. No little kid toys.
More of the dead had come out into the street.
Hurry, my mind screamed.
The one closest to me was a girl – a teenager who the boys probably liked a lot. Her light brown hair probably flowed with the breeze when she was alive. She might have been a cheerleader or danced in the school plays. At that moment, she was another one of the dead, their souls trapped in bodies that only functioned to stumble about and seek out the living. I wondered if she were screaming inside as she approached me. The center of her head disappeared and I made my way to the back of the car. I wanted to close my eyes, but couldn’t. I glanced down and saw…
I saw nothing on the bumper. No sticker, no scratches where Lee might have taken it off. The weight lifted and I turned my attention away from the car, from what I had thought was Jessica’s Chevy and to the more pressing advancement of the dead. I counted six. Amongst them were two kids, both clearly under the age of ten.
I backpedaled toward my truck, slung the rifle off my shoulder and aimed. One down. Two down. Backed up. Ran for the truck. I reached inside, grabbed another gun, checked the rounds and fired off two shots. The children were last to go, slower moving than the rest and further off. I hated the feeling of nausea that swept over me, the way sweat spilled from my pores, the empty feeling in my chest as I first took down the little girl, then the boy. They could have been siblings. Maybe even twins.
Urgency swept over me as another realization kicked in. No matter how much I view these zombies as once living, breathing, loving people, they were still dead and they would just as soon kill me and tear me apart than to let me walk out of there unscathed. I turned in a circle, scanned the street and saw no one else.
I got in the truck, backed it up to the car and popped the release for the gas tank. As a kid, we learned the art of siphoning and, even with the safety features on new cars a hose could go down into a tank easily enough. Thankfully, a hand pump system made it easier. I grabbed the gas cans from the back of the truck, opened each one and set them by the car. I opened the car door. The dead man slumped a little, but didn’t fall out. Bending down, I pulled the gas lever. At the back of the car, the small door popped open. The siphon hose went down into the car’s tank easy enough. I squeezed the white rubber bulb several times until gas flowed through the hose and into the cans.
Another one of the dead came from behind one of the buildings. The front of her blouse was torn, exposing a ruined breast. I took a deep breath, let it out after putting her down.
With the cans full, I closed all but one of them, set them back in the truck bed. I poured the last one into the truck’s tank.
I hopped into the truck, rolled the engine over and pulled off. It was still early in the morning by the sun’s dial. Noontime was a good two hours away. More supplies were needed and what amounted to a grocery store the size of a convenience store sat a few buildings away. I parked the truck, again pointing it toward the interstate. I slid from my seat.
“Hang tight, Humphrey,” I said, added, “Don’t leave without me.”
The window to the store had been shattered. A brick lay on the floor a few feet from it. I stepped through the opening, glanced around the dimly lit space. Glass crunched under my boots as I stepped slowly around the first aisle. It still amazes me at how ransacked some places were and how untouched others were. In this case, the place had been ransacked, but there were still plenty of canned goods on shelves.
At the check out counter, I grabbed a handful of bags and stuffed them with as many cans as I could. Four bags went out to the truck and then I was back in for more. From the corner of my eye I saw the lurching man, his large stomach split open, his mouth slack and bloodied. Even in death carrying all that weight appeared difficult. I took a deep breath, aimed. A second later, he fell backward, his arms flailing forward as gravity pulled him back.
Back in the store I stopped on an aisle holding chips and candies and other things that in another life weren’t all that good for you. A man squatted in the center of the aisle, his clothes dirty, hair disheveled. He was older, maybe pushing seventy. I took aim, but lowered the pistol.
“Hey,” I called. “Hey, you.”
The man looked at me. There was color in his face, stubble on his chin. His brow was wet with sweat and in his hands was a bag of chips. He shoveled a handful into his mouth and chewed quickly, repeated this several more times. I couldn’t believe I stood twenty feet from another living person. He was as much skin and bones as many of the dead were, but he was alive and alive was something I hadn’t seen since the world collapsed.
I took a step forward and he cringed away from me, turning his shoulder as if he thought I would steal his chips. I stopped, not wanting to scare him.
“Hey… umm… it’s not safe here. Not without a weapon at least.”
He pushed onto his knees and then placed one foot on the floor. It took a few seconds, but he managed to stand, though shakily at best. He stumbled away from me, grabbing another bag of chips as he did so.
“Wait a minute,” I called after him.
He was faster than I thought and was through the EMPLOYEES ONLY door before I could reach him. I pushed through, my pistol instinctively at the ready. Across the stock room was another door. He opened it and went outside.
“Not bright,” I said and hurried after him.
Outside I was met with the backs of the buildings, where trash and recyclables once went. A few cars sat where their owners had left them for the last time. And the dead were everywhere – maybe only ten or twelve of them, but entirely too many to take on without any weapons.
The man hurried passed the outstretched arms of a woman, her head sagging on her shoulders, a bone jutting through her neck. He weaved in and out as if he were afraid of nothing, as if the dead wouldn’t turn on him. At that moment I wished I could have been that fearless, but truth be told, everyday I was scared, just like a child at night with the shadows playing across the wall. Only the boogeyman is real in this world.
Fearlessness like that could get someone killed. I knew this and took the cautious approach. I leveled my aim on the nearest of the dead, pulled the trigger. Three more shots and the four closest to me and in the line of the path I needed to catch up to the old man were down. I passed near the woman with the bent neck, gave it little thought as I put her down. The skin of her throat tore with the broken neck she had suffered and her head fell back on her shoulders before she hit the ground.
I saw the small house and made a run for it. The old man was almost to it when I reached him. He opened the door and looked back at me. His brow was creased and I saw a hint of blue from behind slit eyelids. “Go away,” he said. “Leave us be.”
“Wait. What?” I said.
“Go away. We don’t want you here.”
He stepped inside the small house, made to close the door. I grabbed it with one hand and held it open. “The world is dead now. You can’t stay here. They’ll get to you eventually.”
“We’ve made due so far. We’ll be fine.”
“Maybe so,” I said, desperate all of a sudden for him not to close the door on me. “But, you’re the first living person I’ve seen in months and… and…” I was at a loss for words.
He grunted, then his eyes lit up slightly, the lids opening, showing some yellow in the whites. Red lines snaked through, like cracks on the yellow backdrop. He shook his head as if he were aggravated. “Come on in. Besides, I need to get my Louisa something to eat. It’s been a while since she’s had anything to eat.”
I looked behind me. The dead made their way toward us, no longer a dozen, but more like twenty or more. I stepped into a dimly lit room, candles flickered their shadow dancers along the walls. The old man slid a board over the door – a makeshift lock that hearkened back to the days of knights and Vikings.
There were guns lying about and bottles of water. The guy wasn’t so helpless after all.
“Good to see you have some protection,” I said.
“Give me your gun,” He said.
I turned to him, saw the shotgun in his hands.
“Whoa, Mister,” I said, put both hands in the air about face high. “I’m not here to hurt you or anything.”
“I said give me your gun.”
I nodded, lowered the hand with my pistol in it. He took it and tossed it on a dusty couch.
“Now the knife.”
I slid the machete from my shoulder and dropped it to the floor. “Look, Mister, I don’t know what the deal is, but – ”
“I tried to get you to leave,” he said. “But, you wouldn’t listen. Since you’re here, my Louisa is hungry and I’m all out of food for her.”
“There’s plenty of food back at that store.”
He shook his head. “Not that Louisa will eat.”
My stomach dropped. Even before he opened the only other door in the room, I knew what he meant. At that point, I prayed he didn’t pat me down and find the cop’s gun tucked in my waistband behind me.
The man opened the door slightly and motioned with a jerk of his head. “Get on in there.”
“You’re making a mistake,” I said.
“They all say that,” he responded. He cradled the shotgun in the nook of one elbow, held the door knob with his other hand. “Now get on in there. She’ll take you dead or alive and I have no problems putting you down before she gets hold of you.”
I could take him. I knew I could, but I had to be careful. Reaching for the cop’s gun was out of the question. I gave a nod and stepped forward, hands still in the air. As I approached the door, he opened it further.
“Louisa,” he called. “Time to eat, Sweety.”
A groan echoed from the room and I peeked through the foot of space between the open door and the jamb. That room was darker than the one I stood in, no candles to keep it lit.
Three feet from the door, the man stepped to the side, pushed it all the way open. In the light of the dancing candles from the front room, I could see bones on the floor, skulls with hair still attached, faces that were half eaten. My stomach lurched as Louisa came into sight. She was a big woman with thick chords of gray hair hanging alongside her gore stained face. Her house dress was bloodied and clung to her ample breasts that sagged to her belly. A meaty hand reached forward and fear clutched me tight.
“Get,” the man said and shoved the shotgun forward.
It was all reaction, maybe from having two older brothers and a younger one. I dropped my right arm quickly, the hand grabbing the barrel of the shotgun. The left hand came down across the bridge of the man’s nose. It cracked, popped and blood spilled down his face. He fell back against the door, stunned, the open hand reaching for his shattered nose. Louisa – his Louisa – grabbed his elbow, pulled him to her. His eyes widened and he screamed as she bit down on his shoulder. The shotgun fell to the floor and I ducked. It didn’t go off.
The man tried to shove her off of him, but her teeth were firmly at the base of his neck. His screams were loud and filled with terror. I could have helped him. I could have pulled out the gun from behind me and put a bullet in Louisa’s head and gotten him free of her. But, I didn’t. In those seconds before Louisa had bit into him I saw the remains on the floor, saw the crazed look in his eyes – he was going to feed me to a zombie, his zombie. That town had been through what every other town in the world had, but the survivors had faced something worse, being sacrificed to the very thing they were trying to escape.
Heat filled my face and I finally moved. With my boot, I shoved the man and his Louisa back through the door and slammed it shut. His screams were muffled, but they were there. As I waited for them to die down, I stood listening, having exacted a measure of revenge for those he had killed.
I sat, my shoulders shaking with adrenaline. Long after the man had grown silent, I remained seated, my eyes on the door that hid Louisa from the world. What if I had been put in that situation? What if Jeanette or Bobby had been Louisa? Could I have put them down as easily as strangers or even those who were once friends? Or would I try to preserve them somehow, like the old man did? Would I hunt for ‘food’ for them? I didn’t know and hoped I would never find out, but it made me think – something I had become good at since being by myself. You never know what you would do in any given situation. At any time, any place, with the right circumstances, anyone could lose their mind and what once was wrong may not be so wrong after all.
I stood, looked around the room. A flash light sat on a table. I tried it, smiled when it flickered before coming to life. At what I assumed was the bedroom door, I held my pistol, fully reloaded and braced myself for Louisa. I shoved the door open, shone the light in the room.
Louisa sat hunched over, her arms moving stiffly from the floor to her face – she was still eating. I didn’t bother getting her attention and stepped into the room, around the many bones – far too many to be just a couple of bodies – and placed my pistol inches from her head. She looked up from her meal and exited the world for the last time. She slumped over onto the old man. Her heavy body shook the floor.
I stepped from the room, closed the door behind me.
There were no windows to look out of, but they weren’t needed to know the dead stood just beyond the door before me. I picked the shotgun up off the floor, cracked it open. It was empty. I shook my head. How many people had he led to their deaths based on the fear of being shot?
I checked the other guns – all empty.
I reloaded my pistol, checked the cop’s gun and prayed it was enough to get me out of there in one piece. I had seen enough of these movies to know it wasn’t going to end well – just keep them as far away as I could and hope not to run out of ammo.
My hands shook as I reached for the door. I was heading to my death and, though things had been lonely and I had little to hope for, I wasn’t ready to die. The door open, the first zombie fell forward and I started counting.
One shot. Two shots. Three. Four. Five. They fell as I emptied the cop’s gun and stepped out into the bright sun. I tossed the gun aside and took aim with mine. There weren’t as many as my mind made them out to be, but there were still enough of them that the only course of action I could take was to run straight forward, gun out in front of me, cutting a path in the dead.
A cold hand touched my arm, sending chills along my spine. I ran, still counting the bullets. Nine. Ten. Eleven. At the back of the convenience store I looked back. Maybe half of them still stood and shuffled toward me. I pushed the back door open and slipped inside. I shoved several boxes in front of it, hoping to barricade the door.
Sweat spilled down my face, from my armpits and around my groin. Breaths came in labored gasps. I ran one hand along my arm where the zombie had touched. I could still feel its fingers on my skin. There was no blood – I had escaped unscathed.
Hurrying to the front of the store, I reached the broken window and looked out. There were several more of the dead moving about, but none of them seemed to notice me. The truck awaited and I ran, not worrying about grabbing anymore food or water.
At the truck, I turned, emptied my gun on several of the dead, then got in, slammed the door shut and locked it. The engine rolled over and I shifted into drive. The tires barked as I mashed the gas and swerved into the center of the road. It was a mere minute before I reached the edge of town. From the rearview mirror I could see the dead lurching about, the noise of my leaving attracting them toward me.
For the first time in months I left the dead standing. Part of me hated myself for not putting those souls to rest. The other part – the side that said I almost died – let out a long sigh of relief and mashed the gas harder…