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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    WORSE THAN DYING by Brett Van Valkenburg
    March 19, 2014  Longer stories   

    I

    Within a week every person in Barrel County was either holed-up or dead… to some degree. Most of the Barnes family was of the former category. Shortly after graduating in 1969, Charles Barnes married his long-time sweetheart Barbara O’Day. They had reluctantly purchased an ancient house on the outskirts of the town of Lyons, New York. They didn’t want the seventy-five year-old “fixer-upper,” but it was the only thing they could afford at the time.

    The house’s location turned out to be an asset thirty-five years later when people began coming back from the dead. The Barnes family still encountered their share of roamers, but in numbers far fewer than they would had they lived in town.

    “I’m going to do a sweep. Do you want to come?” Noah Barnes asked his father.

    Charlie didn’t answer. He sat in a beat-up leather recliner staring at the darkened TV, his fingertips raking back and forth over the cracks in the armrests.

    Noah sighed and walked into the kitchen. His father hadn’t gone outside in over a week – not since the day a corpse surprised Charlie from the shadows of their tool shed. He nearly had a heart attack when she came staggering towards him, a stick jabbed into her left eye socket, blood-stained wrists hungrily reaching for food. Until that moment Charlie had been handling the crisis with relative poise, but the sight of that familiar mangled body emerging from the darkness pushed his mind over the brink. He shut down – stood there waiting for her to tear the meat from his bones with her blackened, necrotic fingers. Just as her hand grasped Charlie’s shirt collar, Noah brought his machete down on the back of her head, nearly splitting it in two.

    It would be days before his father spoke again, and even when he did he wasn’t the same. Noah had to take over most of his father’s duties.

    “Can I go with you?” asked his little sister, Abigail.

    “Sorry, darling, but it’s too dangerous,” he said as he looped the machete sheath around his belt.

    “But you get to go,” she argued.

    “Because I have to go. Believe me, if I could stay in here with you, I would, but someone’s got to keep us safe.” Noah looked at his father out of the corner of his eye.

    Abigail furrowed her brow and puffed out her cheeks.

    “Don’t pout, Abby. If everything’s quiet I’ll take you out to play after lunch, I promise.”

    “Fine,” she said bitterly, and then turned and clomped away.

    What a pain, thought Noah with a smile.

    He picked up the Regal 700 Rifle that was leaning against the refrigerator and removed the magazine. Three rounds. Noah rarely used the gun, but he always carried it with him just in case. Some people might have said that his family was lucky. Charles had spent twenty years working as a foreman for Regal Arms, a local gun manufacturer. His job gave him access to steep discounts on all kinds of long guns, and whenever he could afford to Charlie took advantage. He unconsciously became a gun collector simply because the deals were too good to pass up. It got to the point that he would have to hide some of the more extravagant purchases from his late wife. One such covert purchase was Charlie’s Regal Sedona.

    “What the heck do you use this thing for?” Noah had asked Charlie, examining the four inch brass shells that fed the gun.

    “It’s for hunting rhino,” replied Charlie.

    “Why would you buy that?”

    “Why not?”

    Noah raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

    But if anyone would assume that a stockpile of munitions was advantageous they would be wrong. The Barnes family had fired off only a few rounds at the beginning of the end. It didn’t take long to figure out that the ones who came back were attracted to sound (and movement). Shoot one and an hour later three more show up to investigate. A bullet wasn’t worth the immediate safety or convenience. When they discovered the pattern, Charles and Noah began dispatching each corpse with a blow to the head. After, they’d burned the bodies in a grove on the back of their property, far from the road.

    Noah stepped outside and quietly closed the door. The front yard was empty. He never knew what to expect whenever he left the house. Most of the time it was safe, but sometimes one of those things would be lurking around their defunct dog house or toolshed. Sometimes there’d be more than one. Whenever that happened, Noah would quietly slip inside and wait a few hours. By that time, they had usually moved on. He almost always encountered them later, but further away from the house, where their moans wouldn’t draw more dead to his family.

    As Noah made his way down a path into the woods he spotted something. In the distance flashes of red fabric wove through the brush. It moved much too fast to be even recently deceased, but that didn’t make it less threatening. Noah hid behind a tree and waited.

    In a minute’s time a chubby, bearded man came flailing out of the bushes. His black and red checkered shirt was tattered and layered with burdocks. He stumbled into the creek-bed, cutting his knee on a rock. The man labored to his feet. He traipsed through the water and collapsed on the bank when he reached the other side.

    Noah watched the man as he lay on the dirt gasping for breath. He knew what was coming next. In the distance leaves rustled and branches snapped. The dead were on his trail. The question was, how many?

    Three came staggering out of the brush, one after another: a man, woman, and a young boy about fourteen years in age. Noah recognized them. Each had chunks of flesh gouged from various places on their bodies, and the boy’s arm had been completely gnawed off at the elbow. As bad as they looked, Noah had seen worse.

    The chubby man sat up and began dragging himself backwards. Noah backed away, slinking a few paces downstream. He waited until the three of them were stumbling through the creek, completely lost in the sight of their prey. Noah aimed his rifle at the one in the middle and fired. The bullet went clean through woman’s decaying skull, dropping her instantly. Noah let go of the rifle and sprinted toward the creek. The male fell down a few feet from the bank, and the chubby man let out a yelp. Before it could pick itself up Noah leaped down the bank, bringing his machete onto its neck. He had so much momentum that his head was lopped clean off.

    The stranger’s eyes bulged at the sight of the decapitated head falling into the stream and cracking open on a rock.

    Noah backed out of the water and waited for the boy to get closer. When it stepped onto dry land he lifted the machete overhead and brought it down hard on the side of the thing’s temple. The body dropped into the water, freeing the blade as it fell.

    Noah turned to the man, eyes wild and chest heaving.

    “Thank you. My – god, thank you,” the man wheezed

    Noah held out his hand signaling the stranger to be silent. He closed his eyes and listened.  All he could hear was running water and the stranger gasping for breath.

    “Just the three?” he asked in a hushed tone.

    “Yeah, I guess so.”

    “Guessing could get us killed.”

    “They were the only ones I seen.”

    Noah nodded. Though plump the man’s splotchy skin seemed loose and saggy, as if he had lost a lot of weight in a short period of time.

    “Come on. The gunfire will draw more.” He held out his hand and the stranger took hold. “Noah Barnes,” he said.

    “Alvin Bartlett. Al.”

    Noah’s eyes widened slightly.  A Bartlett, he thought apprehensively. In high school the name was associated with trouble – fights, meth, drinking, bigotry – the contemporary Yules of Lyons.

    “You related to Luke Bartlett?”

    “Why, what’d he do to you?”

    “No, nothing. I go to school with him, that’s all – went to school with him.”

    “Yeah – my brother. I haven’t talked to him in a few years though – any of ‘em really.”

    “Oh,” said Noah, feeling strangely relieved. “We’re about a half-mile from my house. Try to keep up.”

    The pair headed home. Alvin’s exhaustion caused them to travel at a perilously slow pace. It made Noah nervous. When they finally arrived, Alvin noted the boarded windows on the first floor. Set back from the road a few miles in between any town, it was an ideal location to weather the chaos. He wondered if his home was equally intact. Probably not, he thought grimly.

    Noah unlocked the door and led him into a dimly lit hallway.

    “You got a generator?” asked Alvin, surprised to see a working light bulb.

    “No. This side of the county runs on hydroelectric power. The hydro plant must still be running on its own, unless people are holed-up there,” he said, pondering the latter part of his statement.

    “You’re lucky. I just come from Bermadine. They don’t got power. That whole area is dead.”

    “They probably run on coal.”

    As they entered the kitchen Noah’s father’s attention perked up. He came charging into the kitchen, shotgun in hand.

    “Who’s this?” he demanded.

    Noah didn’t answer him right away. Instead he handed a glass of water to Alvin.

    “This is Al. I found him out in the woods.”

    “And you brought him back here?”

    “Yeah. What should I have done, sprinkled some salt on him and left him in the woods?”

    “Is he dead?”

    “Is he – what? No, of course not. Look at him.”

    Charlie’s eyes fluttered with confusion. He looked the stranger up and down. “He can’t stay here,” his father declared.

    “He needs our help.”

    “We can’t be looking after charity cases.”

    “Dad, we can’t just turn him away. It’d kill him.”

    His father shook his head.

    “What would mom say?”

    “Your mother isn’t here anymore. Remember?”

    “I remember, and right now I’d say it’s a good thing. She’d be ashamed of what you’re saying.”

    The old man stood there staring at the intruder in his home. He looked back at his son. “Once he’s fixed up, he has to leave,” he said and then stormed upstairs.

    The two looked toward the ceiling as Charlie’s footsteps pounded overhead.

    “I’m sorry to put you out,” Alvin said to Noah. There was a look of slight confusion on his face.

    “Don’t listen to him. This whole thing has got him spun around.”

    “He ain’t the only one,” he said after downing the entire glass of water. “You got any food, buddy?”

    Noah went to the pantry and rifled through the cupboards. “Chili alright?”

    “Anything. Anything at all.”

    While Noah heated the chili on an electric hotplate his little sister came skipping into the room.

    “Daddy said we have damned stranger!” she exclaimed, excited to see someone new for the first time in weeks.

    “Volume,” her brother scolded.

    “Sor-ry.”

    “And he’s not a damned stranger. He’s Alvin.”

    “Hello there, little lady,” Alvin smiled. “What’s your name?”

    “Abigail,” she beamed.

    “Well, that’s a pretty name – a pretty name for a pretty little girl.”

    “Thanks!”

    “Hey. Volume.” Noah spoke as if he were shocked she didn’t listen to him the first time.

    “What’s with the volume?” asked Alvin.

    “It’s a rule to speak quietly inside. When we’re outdoors we barely say anything, and if we do it’s in a whisper. Those things like noise.”

    Alvin nodded. “I’ll be sure to follow the rule,” he whispered and winked at Abigail.

    Abby giggled.

    “You can wash up in the bathroom upstairs. I’ll fix up the guest room at the end of the hall.”

    “Did you get bit?” Abigail said to Alvin.

    “Bit? No, but I would have if it weren’t for your brother.”

    “He saved daddy too,” she said proudly. “But he couldn’t save mommy.”

    Noah looked at her sternly and shook his head. Abigail stopped talking.

    “Speaking of,” Noah changed the subject, “how did you get here? Where were you coming from?”

    “Well…,” Alvin stopped himself. “Abby, why don’t you go play while your brother and I talk about the bad men in the woods?”

    Abigail frowned. She put her head down and walked into the living room.

    “Cute kid – reminds me a lot of my own sister.” When she was out of earshot Alvin continued. “I’ve been the gate operator for Lock 17 on the Barge Canal for the last five years. It’s a government job – great benefits – decent pay.”

    “Was,” Noah corrected him.

    “What?”

    “It was a government job.”

    “Oh, right,” he paused and looked at the floor.

    Alvin explained the events that had lead him to the Barnes’ property. He had been working when a twenty-foot yacht drifted into the lock and slammed into the gates. Alvin called to the ship on the bullhorn, but no one responded. Sensing a problem, he filled the lock and hopped onto the boat when it buoyed.

    The ship looked abandoned. Alvin walked around the deck. When he reached the stern an old man and woman climbed out of the cabin. Although their skin was jaundiced and gaunt, and they stunk of rot, Alvin had yet to encounter the dead and didn’t know what to make of them. They shambled toward him, arms outstretched and mouths chomping.

    As Alvin backed away, he tried to reason with them, but they wouldn’t listen. “They just kept comin’ toward me, and moanin’ – god, those moans,” Alvin said, rubbing his temples, “enough to strip the varnish off a deck.”

    Alvin ran to the bow and jumped onto the catwalk that ran along the gates. They followed. The woman fell off the ship and buckled over the catwalk railing while the man leaned over the gunwale and swiped at him.  As he tried to avoid the man’s grasp, Alvin lost his balance and fell over the railing into the water. He surfaced just in time to see the woman stand up and fall in after him. Frightened, Alvin swam downstream as fast as he could.

    Alvin came close to drowning before climbing ashore near a trailer park on the edge of the town of Bermadine. It didn’t take long to discover that there were more of the things from the boat in the trailer park. They chased people in and out of the double-wides, pouncing on anyone who couldn’t get away.

    Alvin was in shock. He headed for the nearest trailer and climbed in through a window.

    Inside he found the body of middle-aged man. There was a plastic bag around his head. On the accent table beside him sat an empty prescription bottle and a half-finished liter of Jack Daniels.

    Alvin locked the body in the bedroom. He checked the entry points, making sure they had been secured before raiding the pantry and then passing out on the couch.

    He was awoken the next morning by a thumping sound. Cautiously he crept down the hallway, stopping outside the bedroom door. Alvin leaned in and listened. A violent thump caused him to fall back against the wall. He noisily scrambled to his feet, and as he did the pounding grew louder and more rapid.

    Alvin flew out back door. As he headed back to the canal he noticed a small aluminum fishing boat beached on the shore several yards from where he had climbed out of the water the day before. Alvin attempted to push the boat into the water. A shrill screech sounded as the metal hull scraped against the rocky shore. The noise attracted the attention of several of the dead. Alvin pushed with all his strength. Some of the dead came dangerously close, but he managed to launch the boat moments before any could reach him.

    He paddled well into the night, eventually coming ashore across the road from Noah’s house. Alvin climbed through the drainage ditch that ran under the road and tried to get into the house across the creek.

    “But there were dead inside, and they chased me when they saw I was living.”

    “The Fitzpatricks,” Noah interrupted.

    “Huh?”

    “The ones chasing you – the Fitzpatrick’s – they were my neighbors. I thought they turned, but I wasn’t sure. I wonder if their son, Adam, is still alive. He wasn’t after you.”

    Alvin shrugged. “I didn’t think to ask,” he said with a timid smile. “That’s when you found me.” He swallowed the memory. “I owe you.”

    “You don’t owe me anything, Al. It’s what you do in that situation, if you can.

    Why don’t you go wash up and then lay down. You must be exhausted after all that. We’ll have supper ready by the time you come down.”

    “Thank you, Noah.” Alvin took his hand and gave it a firm shake. “Thank you.”

     

    II

    The corpse of Adam Fitzpatrick stood before the altar of the First Roman Catholic Church of Lyons, New York. The church was locally renowned for being made entirely of wood – even the nails were wooden pegs. Adam milled around the pulpit aimlessly. He had entered the cathedral to investigate a clamorous noise he heard that afternoon, but he found nothing aside from others like him.

    A week earlier, Adam had been living – working as a delivery man for the local Sears department store. He and a coworker had driven to the end of Lansing Street to deliver a new dishwasher to a recently widowed senior. Adam knocked on the man’s back door as he had been instructed, but no one came to let him in. Instead his presence was acknowledged by low groan, like that of a man in pain. Adam didn’t waste time. He kicked open the door and rushed in to see if someone needed help. Upon entering the kitchen, he halted, startled by the sight of the old man shuffling down the hallway. He looked pale and dazed. Fitzpatrick assumed he had a stroke.

    “Are you okay, sir?” he spoke loudly.

    When Adam reached to steady him, the old man clamped his false teeth onto his index and middle finger, tearing them off with the jerk of his head.

    Adam yelled and pushed the old man to the floor. When he examined his hand and saw the bloody stumps that used to be attached to two calloused fingers, he let out a shrill scream.

    Fitzpatrick backed toward the door as the old man took to his feet, the severed fingers still rolling around the maniac’s gnashing porcelain teeth. The old man shuffled toward him. As Adam stepped backward he tripped on the door’s threshold and fell down the stairs onto the concrete walkway. He chipped the bone in his left elbow against the cement. A wave of pain shot through his body. Before Adam could recover the old man stumbled out the door and tumbled on top of him.

    Fitzpatrick tried to block his attacks, but the shock from the fall had disoriented him, and the old man was able to sink his dentures into Adam’s neck. Within seconds he passed out.

    The other delivery boy jumped out to help his partner. When the old man heard him approaching he lifted his head and moaned. His brown irises were frosted white, and bits of flesh hung out of his bloodied mouth. Terrified, the boy retreated to the truck. He pulled out of the driveway in a panic taking half of the neighbor’s sentinel shrubs with him.

    The old man continued to feed until the meat grew cold and unappetizing. No longer interested, he moved on to find warm flesh.

    Shortly after Adam reanimated. He picked himself off the ground and let out an inaugural moan. Gunshots broke out down the street. Excited, Fitzpatrick began shuffling in the direction that the sound had come from.

     

    After a few hours of exploration it appeared there was nothing to eat in the cathedral. Eventually Adam and the other corpses slowly staggered down the red-carpeted aisle, and out into the gray June afternoon.

    Adam stumbled from side to side like a drunk, not quite aware of where he was going or what he was looking for. The only thing he was aware of was a primordial need in the center of his decaying brain urging him to eat, to survive.

    A plastic shopping bag blew across the street. Adam lunged after it. He grabbed hold of the bag and brought it up to his mouth. It took only one bite to realize that this was not food, even though it had moved. Adam let go of the bag.

    A moan sounded from down the street. It was followed by another moan, and then another, and another. When the call relayed to Fitzpatrick’s location, he too moaned and then lumbered off in that direction.

    Halfway down the street an orange tomcat darted across the road. Fitzpatrick chased after the cat with such focus that he ran right into a black wrought iron fence. Adam buckled over with enough force that the spear-like tip of one of the posts stabbed into his gut. He let out a visceral groan prompting a few of his brethren to investigate before moving on.

    Adam pushed himself off the fence post. A chunk of his liver remained lodged on the spike. The singular motion of the mob caused him to forget about the cat, and he continued walking down the street in the direction of the other corpses.

    This went on for hours – walking, being distracted, losing attention, another distraction, more walking…. It was almost 5 pm and Fitzpatrick hadn’t ventured more than a mile from the cathedral – none of them had.

    When the clock struck five on the hour, the electronic timer triggered the church’s carillon creating a long melody of bells. Every corpse within a two-mile radius heard the bells, and every one gravitated toward the source of the sound, just as they had twice a day, every day, since the town died.

    An hour later Fitzpatrick was wandering around the pulpit of the First Roman Catholic Church, investigating something he heard moments ago. After some inspection he found there was nothing to eat, and so he wandered down the aisle and out into the cool June evening air, as did the others – hundreds of them.

    III

    Alvin had been living with the Barneses for almost a month, much to Charlie’s dismay. The old man had voiced his disapproval to his son many times, but Noah refused to turn Al away. Noah figured he had the final say since it was Alvin who now helped him reconnoiter for walking corpses and scavenge the local houses for supplies. He even took to looking after Abby as if she were his own sister. His father hadn’t helped with any of those duties in over a month, and it was nice to have someone he could count on again. Despite Noah’s appreciation, Charlie would still find fault with Alvin.

    “I want you to take back his gun. That belonged to my father,” said Charlie early one morning.

    “You mean you’re going to use it to help do sweeps?” Noah responded sarcastically.

    Charlie ignored the comment. “I don’t trust him around Abby.”

    “Dad, you think he’s going to shoot Abigail? He’s a hunter. He took all the safety courses.”

    “I don’t like the way he’s always around her.”

    “He’s protecting her, old man – something you should be doing.”

    “He’s eating all of our food.”

    “He finds most of our food.”

    “I don’t trust him.”

    “Yeah? Well, I do, and until you start pulling your weight like you used to, I get to decide what’s best for the family,” Noah said emphatically.

    “Then I will,” Charlie barked.

    Noah looked at him with an arched eyebrow. “Volume,” he said calmly.

    “I will!” he said angrily.

    “Shhhh!” Noah put his finger to his lips. His father hadn’t left the safety of the house in over a month. He had real fear put in him, and Noah knew that it would take real motivation to confront it. “By all means.”

    “Fine,” Charlie continued in a pissed-off whisper, “and when I do, he’s gone.”

    They stared at one another a moment.

    “You really hate him that much?”

    “I’m telling you, that Bartlett boy is no good.”

    “That’s what it is. Isn’t it? It’s about where he comes from, not who he is. It’s his family.”

    “No.” The old man shook his head. “He’s rotten fruit, that one. Believe me.”

    Noah shook his head and walked away. He didn’t believe for a minute that his father would go back outside.

    As he entered the living room he found Abigail grimacing from the top of the staircase. There was a large wet spot at the center of her nightgown. When she saw her big brother she began to cry, embarrassed.

    “Did you have another accident, Abby?” Although he tried, Noah couldn’t conceal the frustration in his voice. It was the fifth time that month she had wet the bed and he was getting tired of washing soiled linens and pajamas. “Ok, ok, there’s no need to cry,” Noah said as he climbed the stairs. “It’s not your fault.”

    He went to hug his sister, but she recoiled instinctively.

    “It’s fine, I’ve had worse on me. What was it, another nightmare?”

    “There was a dead man in my closet,” she whimpered.

    “No there wasn’t. The dead men are out there, and we take care of them. It was a bad dream, that’s all.” He took her hand.  “Come on, let’s get you out of these clothes.”

    Charlie looked up as the pair passed by the living room. “What happened?”

    “An accident – bad dream. You want to help her?”

    Their father shook his head. “You’re so keen on being the man of the house – you go right ahead and be him. For now.”

    Noah’s head swelled with rage. He had to stop himself from cursing him out.

    They stood in the basement next to the washing machine. The moisture made the gown cling to Abigail’s skin, and Noah had to help her pull it over her head. He threw the nightgown into the washing machine before rooting through the contents of the dryer for something clean to wear.

    “Here, put these on,” Noah said handing her new underwear and his old Limp Bizkit t-shirt.

    “It’ll get dirty,” she protested.

    Noah laughed. “Go right ahead. I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought it.”

    The shirt came all the way down to her knees. Noah turned his head as she pulled off her underwear and exchanged them for the clean pair. As she pulled her underwear up to her waist, she hissed in pain.

    Noah looked at her curiously. “Are you hurt?”

    Abigail nodded.

    Noah’s eyes nervously darted around the room. “Is it painful,” he swallowed uncomfortably and tilted his head toward the floor, “down there?”

    “A little.”

    “What does it feel like?”

    “It stings.”

    Noah thought a moment. “You probably have a urinary tract infection. I think Mom used to get them sometimes.”

    It looked as if Abigail were about to burst into tears.

    “No, no, don’t panic. It’s not a big deal,” said Noah trying to sound soothing. “Women get them all the time – guys too sometimes.”

    “What do I do?”

    “The next time we scavenge for food I’ll bring you back some cranberry juice, that’s all. Cranberries can fix it. For now you’re just going to have to put up with it.

    Why don’t you go on upstairs and take a bath. That should help a little. I’ll have your sheets changed by the time you’re done.”

    After his little sister had gone upstairs Noah put his hand over the side of his face and shook his head. This was something their mother would have handled had she been alive.

    Why am I the only person in this family that can keep themself together? thought Noah. He slammed the washer lid and started the load.

    It didn’t happen that day or the next, but over the course of the week, Charlie started going outside again. At first he would only wander around the front yard. But after a few days he moved to the back, and then out into the woods. Noah could hardly believe it.

    Almost a week had passed before they encountered a corpse. The thing’s back was to them. It stared into the branches of a Dutch elm tree.

    Charlie was yet to do a full perimeter sweep on his own. He had insisted that Noah stay with him whenever they went into the woods. Noah measured his old man’s reaction.

    Charlie stood frozen, gripping his shovel tight. Noah nodded to his father who ignored him. He was breathing heavily, transfixed on the corpse. Noah shook his father by the shoulder. The old man snapped out of it. He looked at his son gravely, the color drained from his face. Noah nodded to him emphatically, and his father nodded back. He handed him his machete in exchange for the shovel.

    Charlie looked down at the dinged blade as if he had never seen it before. Noah waited a moment, and when it appeared that his father couldn’t muster the nerve, he took a step toward the corpse. But Charlie put his arm in front of Noah, stopping him. He closed his eyes and in one deep breath a decision was made. Charlie sprinted at the corpse. The thing turned when it heard his heavy footsteps approaching. Its jaw lowered slowly as it attempted to moan, but before it could make a sound Charlie swung the machete at its head with such force that the body spun around in a circle before falling to the ground.

    He stood over his kill, panting. Noah walked up beside him and examined his father’s handy work.

    “I told you I could do it,” he declared bitterly as he traded the machete for the shovel. “Tomorrow – he goes.”

    Noah stared at the stiff body at his feet as his father walked back toward the house. “He goes,” he said to himself.

    IV

    Noah had tried to reason with him, but Alvin didn’t take it well.

    “If you turn me out you’re gonna kill me,” he had said.

    “Don’t you want to weather this mess with your family?” asked Noah.

    “I told you, I cut them out of my life. Would you want to go back to your alcoholic old man? Or a big brother who broke your nose when he was tweaked out on meth? My thirteen year-old sister miscarried last year – we still don’t know which one of my brothers was the father.”

    Noah swallowed. Rumors about the Bartletts had been swirling around school ever since he could remember. They were bad, but none were as bad as what Alvin had described.

    “It’s a different world, Al. People need each other now more than ever. Besides, it’s out of my hands.”

    “I’ll bet it is,” he said looking at Charlie who sat silently in his recliner staring into oblivion. Alvin lowered his voice. “You’d rather have him around than me? I do ten times as much work as he does.”

    “It’s not that simple, Al. He’s my dad.”

    “Sometimes blood isn’t thicker than water.”

    Noah shrugged. “He’s my father, man. My father.”

    Early the next morning Alvin and Noah scuttled around packing supplies. Noah gave him as much food as he could carry. Alvin might be exposed, he thought, but at least he won’t starve.

    Abigail was quiet at breakfast. In the last few weeks she had become pickier and pickier about her meals. She sat stirring her oatmeal with a spoon not saying a word to anyone.

    “You alright, Abby?” Noah stopped and asked her. “You haven’t eaten a bit of your food. Are you upset because Al has to leave today?”

    She didn’t respond.

    “Gonna miss me, aren’t you, Abby?” Alvin asked, trying to sound chipper.

    Abigail shook her head timidly.

    “I know, but he has to protect his family too,” said Noah.

    “There’s no need to lie to her. I told her why I was leaving.”

    Noah looked at the floor.

    The whole family stood outside to see Alvin off, each Barnes looking on his departure with drastically different feelings. Alvin slung the backpack on his shoulders.

    “Here,” said Noah as he handed him their Regal 870 shotgun. “You have seven rounds. Don’t use them if you don’t have to.”

    Charlie was aghast at the gesture. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? We need that!”

    “We can spare it, dad. If we’re going to throw him out, we can at least give him a fighting chance. And keep your voice down, you’ll attract the dead.”

    Alvin smiled. He was happier to see Charlie put in his place than to receive the gun. He hugged Noah and Abigail goodbye before heading down the driveway.

    As Noah watched his friend leave the knot in his stomach grew tighter. Before he disappeared behind the bend in the driveway, Noah called to him.

    Alvin turned around, an inquisitive expression adorning his face.

    “Wait,” said Noah. He sighed. “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you get home.”

    “What the hell are you talking about?” Charlie whispered through his teeth.

    “I can’t just sit here knowing that we’re probably sending him off to die. Maybe you can, but I can’t.”

    Alvin walked back to the house. “You’d go with me?” he said skeptically.

    Noah nodded.

    “You can’t be serious?” said Charlie. “What about us? You’d just leave us here unprotected!”

    “Calm down. It’d only be for a day or two. Besides, you said it yourself, you’re ok now. Right?”

    Charlie didn’t dare renege what he had said a few days before. Alvin was finally going and he wasn’t about to give his son any ammunition to argue in favor of him staying.

    “What if a drove shows up while you’re gone?”

    “A drove won’t show up, dad. How many of those things have we seen lately? One a week maybe? Back when this started we’d see a few a day. It’s dying down. You can handle it.”

    Noah took an extra hour to prepare. Before they left Abigail hugged her brother.

    “Please don’t go with him,” she quietly whimpered into his ear.

    “Hey, don’t you worry. Those deadbeats don’t stand a chance against me and my big brain,” he winked. Noah pried her off of him. “Now say goodbye to Al because you won’t see him again for a little while.”

    Abigail began crying. She ran inside.

    Noah looked at Alvin and shook his head apologetically.

    “It’s alright. I told her not worry and not to be mad at your father. This mess has got him all

    spun around.”

    Noah nodded. “Let’s go.”

    As Alvin started down the driveway Charlie put his hand on Noah’s shoulder. He could tell by the way Noah turned and crossed his arms that he was preparing for an argument.

    “Look, I know I can’t stop you. I just want to tell you to be careful.” Charlie’s face softened. “Come back to us alive, will you, son?”

    Noah smiled. He hugged his father for the first time in months. “I promise I’ll come back. Alive,” he added with a mischievous smile.

    The two left the house and headed down the driveway and across the road. As they crossed the road Noah took note of how quiet it was. Even after months of being cut off he still found it eerie.

    “We gonna steal a car?” said Alvin.

    “No – too dangerous. We’ll take your boat and paddle down the canal until we get to town. From there we’ll walk. The boat will keep us out of reach of any nearby dead.”

    “That’ll take forever. Why don’t we just take a car instead?”

    “I’m telling you, it’s not worth the risk. We exert gravity on the dead. Each one you come across starts following you and moaning. Others hear it and come crawling out of the woodwork. Before you know it we’ll be dragging along a horde of those things as if we were the Grand Marshals of the god-damned zombie parade.”

    “Yeah, but we can outrun them in a car.”

    “Maybe, but when something catches their attention, they usually don’t let up. Throw a rock into the middle of a pond and eventually the waves will ripple back to you. We’re better off taking our time and staying off the road.”

    Alvin conceded with a sigh.

    They headed over an embankment, across a set of railroad tracks, and down a slope of ballast. The boat was right where Alvin had left it. They dislodged it from the shore and climbed in. Noah picked up an oar and pushed the boat out into the middle of the river.

    They took turns paddling down the canal. Occasionally a corpse would spot them from the riverbank. Unable to think logically, it would follow them into the canal, and after wading a few yards from shore the current would take care of it.

    After passing under a bridge clogged with abandoned cars they drifted by the local marina. Most of the ships were gone except for a fifteen-foot sailboat and a thirty-foot yacht. Black smoke was pouring from the thirty-footer’s cabin.

    “We should take that boat,” said Alvin pointing to the yacht.

    “Are you kidding? That would make more noise than a car. Besides, judging from the smoke, the motor’s shot.”

    “No, I mean the dinghy.”

    Noah scoped the motorized inflatable raft hanging twelve feet above the water. The electric motor was small and probably quiet.

    “Is it worth the risk though?”

    “It’s taking too long this way. If we don’t go faster we won’t make it to Lyons until after dark, and I don’t think you want that.”

    Noah knew it would make the trip easier. He lowered his eyes and thought a moment. “Let’s go for it.”

    They paddled toward the boat launch and beached on the cement incline. The two hopped out and cautiously walked up the ramp onto the promenade that ran along the water.

    Despite the marina being deserted, Noah felt uneasy being on shore. It was too open, too vulnerable.

    As they made their way to the yacht Noah noticed a Winnebago parked on a hill that seemed to teeter slightly from side to side. He decided not to mention it. If one of those things were still inside, it must have been trapped or it would have gotten out by then.

    They arrived at the boat. It looked to be derelict, although they couldn’t see through the cabin’s tinted windows. Noah hopped on board and took a few steps toward the stern. He turned back to Alvin when he realized he had yet to jump onto the ship. With his head Noah gestured for him to follow. Alvin didn’t move. He stood frozen, his arms across his chest.

    “Come on, man. What’s the problem?” Noah whispered.

    Alvin’s body shook. After a moment he stuck his foot out as if he were about to step onto the gunwale, but his boot hovered over the gap between the boat and the retaining wall. He looked at Noah.

    “I – I can’t,” he whispered shaking his head. “I can’t get back on a ship.” He backed away breathing heavily.

    Noah thought back to the story Alvin had told him the day they met. “It’s alright. You get back in the rowboat and swing around her stern. You can hop in when I get the dinghy in the water.

    He shook his head in agreement. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.”

    “Don’t worry about it. Just go.”

    Alvin trotted back to the boat.

    Noah lifted himself onto the roof and walked toward the rear of the ship. He covered his mouth as he made his way around the helm, careful not to breathe in the thick fumes rising from the stairwell that led to the cabin below.

    The dinghy was suspended from the ship by a winch. Noah looked around for some kind of release lever, but there didn’t seem to be one. He rested his hands on his hips, about to give up, when he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Noah howled and wheeled around, instinctively flailing his arms at the source of his pain. He was shocked to see a burnt corpse fall back against the ship’s cockpit. The thing was so badly burned that it was difficult to tell whether it had once been a man or a woman. As it stood up Noah’s blood dribbled down its chin, the red liquid contrasting sharply against its charred flesh.

    The thing came closer. Noah backed away, cupping his shoulder. Judging by the depression of the wound, he had lost some skin, but luckily the bite was shallow. As he stepped backward his foot caught on the lip of the roof and he fell into the dinghy. The corpse was on him in a matter of seconds, snapping at Noah’s face and neck. Bits of charred skin flaked onto Noah’s face as he fought against it. As he turned his head from side to side to avoid being bitten, he spotted a crank on the backside of the ship. He kicked it hard, spinning the handle around like a pinwheel in a strong wind. The dinghy immediately fell into the water below, striking the surface at an angle.

    The momentum of the plunge threw the corpse out of the boat and into the canal. Noah lay still, stunned by the impact. From the corner of his eye he could see Alvin paddling toward him.

    “You alright?” he asked as he neared. “What happened?”

    Noah propped himself up on his elbows. “One of those thi – .”

    But before he could finish his sentence Alvin cocked an oar over his shoulder like a baseball player. Surprised and confused, the only thing Noah could do was duck and cover his head.

    Alvin swung the oar over Noah’s body, cracking the skull of the burnt creature as it tried to lift itself back into the raft. Its moan turned to gargles as it sank into the murky water. Noah scrambled to the other side of the boat.

    “That thing attacked me up on the deck,” he said, shaken.

    Alvin pulled up alongside the raft and hopped in. “Shoot, really?”

    “It was down in the fire and came crawling up top when it heard me walking around,” he said in between breaths.

    Alvin kicked the side of the dinghy. “Damn it, I should have gone with you. This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t chicken out. I’m sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have gone in the first place. It’s stupid to take a risk like this if you don’t have to. I know better, I just – I got lazy.”

    Suddenly there was a large splash a few feet away as another corpse fell into the canal.

    “Dead dummies,” said Alvin with a smirk.

    Noah looked around the marina and saw movement everywhere. The clamor was enough to rouse the dead from every nook and cranny within earshot. A few were walking through the maze of cars on the bridge. A couple more came out of the back door of the Dockside Cafe, and another came stumbling out of the public restroom near the launch. The one that had fallen in the water a moment before came bobbing up to the surface like a buoy, flailing and twisting only a few feet away from them.

    A brief screech sounded from the Winnebago as it started to slowly roll toward them.

    “What the hell?” cried Alvin

    “Something put it in gear,” said Noah. “We have to get out of here, now.” He turned to the electric motor and attempted to glean its operation. Black and red wires sprouted from the back of the motor. He connected them to a car battery in the stern.

    “Will it work?”

    “It has to,” he said, looking back at the Winnebago. In moment it would be right on top of them.

    He flicked a switch on the tiller and a power indicator flashed. They both breathed a sigh of relief. With a twist of the throttle the little four-horse engine carried them out of the path of the Winnebago. It drove off the retaining wall and slammed into the riverbed.

    “Yeah!” Alvin celebrated.

    Although Noah put his finger over his lips, he was smiling.

    The raft cruised down the canal at a modest pace. The electric motor was much more efficient than paddling, and, to Noah’s surprise, it actually made less noise than the oars did when they banged against the gunwale after every rotation.

    When they were far from the marina Noah stopped the boat and switched positions with Alvin so that he could examine his injury. He hissed as he cupped his shoulder and rotated his arm.

    “Oh no,” said Alvin, covering his mouth, “you’ve been bitten.”

    “Yeah?”

    “Well… doesn’t that mean you’re gonna turn into one of them things now?” said Alvin nervously. He picked up a paddle with his free hand.

    “Bites won’t kill you, necessarily.”

    “But in the movies they always turn after one of those things bites them.”

    “It’s not like it is in the movies. We already have the disease, Al. It won’t matter until I die, and I’m not going to let a scratch like this do me in.”

    “How can you be sure?”

    “Because I know someone who died without having been bitten, and they came back from the dead anyway,” said Noah.

    “Who?” Alvin asked skeptically.

    Noah sighed. “My mother. She slit her wrists – no bites – and still she came back.”

    “Oh god, I’m sorry.” Alvin pursed his lips lowered his eyes. “What happened?”

    “I don’t know. I awoke one morning and she was gone. I guess she just got tired of it – tired of being scared and nervous every minute of the day. You know how I told you about my father losing his marbles after one of those things surprised him in the shed?”

    Alvin nodded.

    “It was her.” Noah looked out over the river. Tears welled in his eyes. “I had to kill my mother.”

    Alvin’s eyes widened.

    A moment of silence passed between them.

    “How do you know a bite won’t trigger it though?”

    “Common sense.” Wiping his tears away he turned back to Alvin. “If I had rabies, why would it take a bite from a rabid dog to trigger what’s already in my blood? I told you. It’s not like it is in the movies.”

    V

    Noah and Alvin arrived at Lyons shortly before noon. After pulling the boat onto the rocky shore, they gathered their equipment and headed toward Alvin’s house on the other side of town.

    The streets were surprisingly clear, and Alvin began to think that maybe Noah’s intuition about the chaos dying down was more truth than bluff.

    They stopped at the intersection of Commerce and Cyprus Streets. Noah pointed to a Walmart a few hundred feet away.

    “Are you crazy?” said Alvin with panic in his voice.

    “We need supplies, and that’s the best place to get them.”

    Alvin shook his head.

    “Don’t you think that showing up with a load of supplies would be a good way to ease tensions with your family?”

    Alvin pursed his lips. He had a pained look on his face.

    “We’ll be ok,” Noah reassured him. “We just have to be smart about it.”

    Noah looked down the five-lane commercial drive that bisected Lyons. Aside from a few abandoned cars and the occasional carcass, he could see clear to the other end of town. There was no movement anywhere.

    Alvin felt something tug at his pant leg. He gasped and jumped back as a corpse with his waist twisted backward reached for him. Without hesitating Noah destroyed its brain. Alvin bent over, hands braced on his knees, and caught his breath.

    “If that’s the worst we encounter today, I’ll consider us lucky.” Noah told him.

    Alvin looked up just in time to see the traffic light shut off. “That’s weird. You see the light just stopped working?”

    “Maybe the power grid finally shut down.”

    Alvin smiled. “Your old man is probably freaking out right now.”

    “Probably,” he muttered.

    They crossed the street, walking between the pumps of a gas station that stood at the end of the Walmart parking lot. A few cars were still waiting for gas, and a large fuel tanker had been abandoned. It sat above the station’s underground fuel tanks, yet to deliver its cargo.

    The pair passed the station and headed to the superstore. There were still thirty or so cars in the lot, and that unnerved Noah.

    They approached the automatic doors, but with the power off they wouldn’t open. Each man grabbed a leaf and pulled. The doors slowly spread apart. As they came to the inner door, Alvin readied himself to repeat the process.

    “Hold on,” Noah whispered. He put his hands up to the glass and peered inside. The soft rays pouring through the frosted skylights were enough to give him a dim view of the front of the store. He could see movement. “Some are still trapped inside,” said Noah not taking his eyes away from the glass.

    Alvin peered through the window. Several bodies were walking through the aisles of merchandise without thought or purpose.

    “It looked like this before everything went to hell,” Noah commented with a chuckle.

    “Should we just go in?” said Alvin reluctantly.

    “I think we should try to lure them outside. There could be as many of them in there as there are cars in the lot.”

    “How you wanna do that?”

    “I don’t know.  Let’s check around back.”

    They left the foyer and walked around the building. Out back was a loading dock with two large metal garage doors. One was closed, but the other was ajar by a few inches. Noah peaked inside. He could see nothing in the darkness.

    With his hands on the bottom slat, he raised the door. Out of the darkness crawled the decayed body of a stock-boy. The two jumped backwards, startled. It pulled itself under the door and fell four feet to the ground, landing on the pavement with crack. Noah dispatched him with his blade. They waited to see if any more would follow. None did. Noah jumped onto the edge of the dock and threw the door open. Sunlight flooded the empty loading bay.

    “Somehow we need to lure those things out through this door,” he said looking down at Alvin. “While they’re piling up out here we go in through the front and seal the room from the inside.”

    Alvin nodded.

    Noah walked to the back of the loading dock. A handcart stacked with boxes of air conditioners blocked a set of double doors. The stock-boy must have holed-up in the backroom before dying from bite wounds, he concluded. Noah pulled the cart out of the way.

    Suddenly a loud siren went off, startling him. He ran back to the edge of the loading dock to find Alvin struggling with the door of a locked car. Before Noah could ask him what he was doing, the door behind him swung open and an overweight dead couple shuffled in.

    “Oh, crap!” Noah yelled.

    He jumped to the ground and ran for the corner of the store, waving for Alvin to follow as he flew by. Alvin forgot about the alarm and ran after him. They cleared the corner of the building and stopped to catch their breath.

    “What the hell were you doing?” asked Noah, annoyed.

    “I was looking for something to draw them out and I set off the car alarm by accident. Sorry.”

    Noah peered around the corner. The heavyweights were already pounding on the car. Another corpse fell off the dock, then picked itself off the ground and joined them. “Well, you got their attention alright. Let’s get inside before any more come out of the woodwork.”

    They circled around front and entered the store, closing the doors behind them.

    Ten blocks away a horde of lumbering corpses turned their heads in unison, their attention aroused by the faint commotion in the distance. Fitzpatrick moaned, triggering a succession of moans from the corpses nearby, and then headed in the direction the sound was coming from. In less than a minute every living dead in the area was shuffling toward Walmart, whether they had heard the car alarm or not. Hundreds of bodies lumbered down the streets, and with the power now off, there was no carillon to call them back to the church.

    Noah and Alvin crept through the store. They had split up with the intention of clearing out any stragglers before stocking-up on supplies. Noah was nervous about the car alarm. He knew it would continue to sound as long as those mindless things kept bumping against the car. All he could do was hope the battery would run down sooner than later.

    Noah was close to the back door when an old man lurched toward him. He stepped aside, allowing him to fall forward, and sunk his blade into the back of his skull. With his foot on its back, Noah wrenched the machete free. He made his way down a dark corridor out onto the loading dock. There were nearly twenty living dead trying to pound their way into the screaming car. Under the cover of the alarm he was able to close the door without any of the dead even noticing him.

    Noah returned to the store and swept through the rest of the aisles in search of Alvin. He finally found him among the aisles of rotting produce. A dead little girl in a white Sunday dress was slowly shuffling toward him. Instead of bashing her head in Alvin backed away, too frightened to attack. Before she could sink her teeth into his friend, Noah darted at the girl and lodged his blade in the side of her head. Instantly she fell to the cold, tiled floor.

    “What are you doing?”

    “I – she,” he stuttered, “She looked like Abby,” said Alvin short of breath.

    Noah looked at the girl. Her brown curly hair did cast a slight resemblance to his sister, but aside from that and her age it was the only similarity. “A little, I guess. But she’s not Abby. None of these things are anyone anymore. Remember that.”

    Alvin nodded.

    “Grab what you need. I have to get antibiotics – for two people now,” he said, wagging his head at the blood-soaked shoulder of his t-shirt.

    Again Alvin nodded, his face still painted with shock.

    Noah headed to the pharmacy.

    Alvin knelt down next to the little girl. He smoothed her hair over the gash on the side of her skull. She looked far less decayed than the other corpses they had run into.

    No blood, thought Alvin. Dehydration maybe? Or were they eating her from the back?

    He wasn’t about to flip her over to check.

    After dressing his wound and swallowing a handful of Amoxicillin capsules (the same antibiotic he was prescribed to treat his acne as an early teen) Noah headed for the sporting goods department to raid the gun cabinets.

    He had yet to see Alvin gathering supplies and it worried him. Noah rounded an aisle leading back to the produce section and stopped, frozen in disbelief. Alvin was kneeling next to the dead girl, his hand rooting beneath the skirt of her dress. The other hand was in the crotch of his pants.

    “What are you doing?” Noah said, not entirely sure of what was happening.

    “What?” said Alvin surprised. He snapped his hands back into the open.

    “What are you doing!”

    “Nothing. Nothing. I was just – I was seein’ if she had anything useful on her.”

    “What the hell could she possibly have that you couldn’t find in a department store?”

    “No, I – I just – I mean, I….”

    Noah shook his head. “You’re screwed up, man. There’s something wrong with you.”

    “Oh, come on. You said it yourself, these things ain’t people anymore.”

    “They’re not…?” He trailed off. “You just said she looked like Abby! And you’re trying to tell me she isn’t a….”

    Noah abruptly shut up. His eyes widened as a collection of thoughts suddenly fell in line: Abby’s sullenness before they left, her loss of appetite, the nightmares, the bedwetting, the pelvic pain, and at the end of it all – Alvin – never far from her side.

    Noah’s mouth was agape. He stood shocked and speechless. After a moment, he finally spoke. “Dad was right,” he said to himself. He pointed a handgun at Alvin. The UPC tag still hung around the trigger guard. “You get away from her!”

    “Come on, Noah, relax. She’s dead!” said Alvin.

    “I don’t care! She’s a little girl, and I’m not going to let you defile her!”

    He put his hands up in the air. “Come on, be reasonable here. You know how long it’s been since I seen a woman?”

    “She’s not a woman!” Noah barked.

    He looked away, thinking of his sister, then looked back to Alvin. “Did you touch her?” There was a hint of desperation in his voice.

    “What?”

    “My sister, did you touch her?”

    “Of course not, buddy.” Alvin said, forcing an incredulous chuckle. “I would never. She’s like my own sister.”

    Noah kept the gun trained on him. “I know how the Bartletts treat their sister. Who really was the father of that miscarried baby?”

    Alvin’s lips quivered, but he said nothing.

    Noah lowered the gun, disgusted. He turned and headed toward the front door.

    Alvin followed after him. “Hold on now,” he said putting his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

    Noah rotated his shoulder, shaking free of his grip.

    As they moved through the first set of double doors both men froze, startled by the sight of a sea of living dead making their way through the gas station at the other end of the parking lot.

    “Holy crow,” Noah whispered. He turned around and headed back into the store pulling Alvin along with him.

    Once inside they closed the second pair of doors.

    “Oh my god. What are we going to do? What are we going to do!” said Alvin as he peered through the glass.

    “Volume!” Noah responded curtly. “Calm down. I don’t think they saw us.” He strained to see through the glass. “They’re coming for the alarm. The car’s battery should die in a few hours. As long as we don’t do anything to draw their attention they should leave when they find there’s nothing to eat. So until then just stay away from the doors and don’t make a sound.”

    “Yeah. Yeah, good thinking, buddy.”

    Noah shot him a reviling look from the corner of his eye. “This doesn’t change anything between us. We’re stuck here for now, but after that, you’re on your own. And if I get home,” he pointed at Alvin, “and I find out that you did something to her, I’m coming back for you. Do you hear me? I swear to god, I will come back.”

    VI

    They didn’t see much of one another throughout the rest of the day. Noah spent his time scavenging, organizing and reorganizing supplies, discarding a few things he now doubted as useful, and picking up other items he had overlooked. Alvin was lurking around somewhere, he knew, but he didn’t care where he was so long as he stayed away from him. His perversity had completely spoiled Noah’s perception of him. He was thankful he would only have to see him once more, at daybreak. They had agreed that it would be best to leave the store together before going their separate ways.

    At dusk Noah lay back on a faux leather recliner atop an elevated furniture display. He sharpened his machete on a mill file he had found in the hardware department until he dozed off.

    Noah awoke the next morning to the sound of paint cans toppling onto the floor a few aisles away. He sat up and the recliner followed him, making a clunking noise. A nearby corpse heard it and began shambling his way.

    The sight of the corpse confused him. He was about to hop down and kill it when he noticed another one further down the aisle. Noah looked in the opposite direction. Three more were headed his way.

    “Damn it,” he said to himself.

    Noah grabbed his rifle and slung the backpack over his shoulder. He stealthily moved along the display, weaving between the other furnishings. He snuck past the three that were heading toward him before hopping off the display and darting into the corridor that led to the loading dock. As he threw open the doors his heart jumped into his chest. The garage door was open and the car alarm was silent. Two corpses were meandering around the loading bay, and at least ten more shuffled around aimlessly outside. When they saw Noah come through the back door, the two moaned and advanced. The pack of living dead on the ground took notice and began climbing into the loading bay.

    Feeling panicked, he turned and headed back down the corridor into the store. As he pushed open the doors he was surprised to find six corpses there to greet him. There were too many to take out with the machete. Noah pulled a Beretta from his bag and shot the two nearest in the head. As the echo of gunfire faded, the whole store filled with a cacophony of moans and the arrhythmic clomping of shoes. They were everywhere.

    A terror that Noah had never known before seized him.  With the dead close behind, he spun around and ran back into the hallway. Three corpses pushed through the loading bay doors. He took care of the first few that entered, but after he shot one more appeared. The dead began to file in from the store as well. His breath sped up, and he gripped the handgun tightly. A variation of this moment had haunted his dreams many times before now.

    There was no way in hell he was going to let those things eat him alive. He held the gun up to his chin and took a deep breath. “Three… two… one,” he counted.

    Just as he was about to fire, Noah caught sight of a doorknob a few feet in front of him. He lowered the gun and tried the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Noah fired the gun at the lock several times until it swung open. The door led to a large store room that had been converted into a makeshift back office. Noah ran inside and tipped a nearby file cabinet in front of the door. A chorus of moans sounded from outside as the door began to thump against the cabinet.

    There was a dead man sitting in an office chair. Although the body hadn’t moved, Noah shot him in the head as a precaution. He looked around frantically. At the far end of the room was an exposed staircase leading to the roof. Without hesitation he sprinted for it. Halfway up the stairs he heard the file cabinet scrap against the floor as the door was forced open. Three dead spilled onto the floor and were quickly trampled by the hungry mob that followed.

    Noah didn’t look back. He hustled to the top of the staircase and burst through a hatch onto the roof. The only thing he could find to weigh the hatch down was a half-filled five gallon bucket of roofing tar. It wouldn’t do much, but he was desperate.

    Noah ran to the closest edge of the roof and peered over the side. It was over twenty feet to the ground. There wasn’t much time, but a broken leg was the last thing he needed at that moment. Noah skirted around the perimeter of the store looking for another way down. As he made his way around the roof he could see undead wandering for miles in every direction. A parade of corpses stretched down the road that ran in the direction of his house.

    He halted. “No.”

    The roof hatch jumped, spurring him onward. At the far end of the front of the store Noah discovered a lower roof slanting halfway down the side of the building. The bottle return center had been tacked-on after the store was constructed, giving it its own structure.

    The tar bucket covering the hatch was hopping up and down. It wouldn’t be long before they spilled out onto the roof. Noah looked over the parking lot, which was now a mine-field of undead. He was trying to formulate a route in his head when suddenly the tar bucket was thrown clear and the living dead began pouring onto the roof like cockroaches. With only a moment’s hesitation Noah jumped onto the redemption center. He slid down the corrugated tin roof, onto the sidewalk below.

    His feet stung when they hit the cement, but there didn’t seem to be any real damage. The dead began moving toward him. He raised his handgun and picked off a few strategically positioned corpses. Any dead that hadn’t noticed him before were now aroused and heading straight for him.

    Noah bolted toward the gas station weaving between pairs of reaching arms like a running back on the football field. Adrenaline seemed to pause time and before he knew it he was at the gas station looking for a car with gas and keys.

    Despite being abandoned, it appeared the drivers still had enough of their wits about them to leave with keys in hand. The only vehicle that had a key in the ignition was the fuel tanker.

    Noah cut down a carcass that had come dangerously close and then hopped into the cab. With trembling hands he turned the key and prayed that it would be too ironic for a gas truck to be out of gas while sitting in a gas station. To his relief the engine roared to life.

    Noah shifted the clutch and put the truck into gear. It jerked forward, startling him. He turned out of the station and onto the main highway. As he passed the store, he noticed that the front door was wide open.

    “Alvin.” He spoke the name as if it were an obscenity.

    The truck’s transmission didn’t seem too different from the standard transmission on a car, but for some reason he felt he couldn’t get it moving fast enough. The road leading to the Barnes’ house was littered with undead, but the rig was powerful enough to mow them down with minimal resistance. After what seemed like an eternity Noah arrived home.

    The truck was too big to navigate up the winding driveway, and he had to leave it in the middle of the road. Noah jumped out of the cab and ran up the driveway.

    His heart sank at the sight of his house. The front door was open. Numerous corpses milled about unopposed – no one fighting to keep them out.

    There were too many to kill to get inside. Noah ran back down the driveway. He opened the door of the truck and tied the strap of his backpack around the pull cord that hung from the roof. Noah dropped the backpack causing the air-horn to bellow steadily.

    Noah slammed the door and slid down the ravine toward the canal. He ran through the drainage pipe to the other side of the road, stopping at the mouth. He waited in the darkness, watching as a steady stream of dead left his property to investigate the tanker.

    When the flow of corpses tapered off, Noah ran to the house. With machete drawn he flew through the front door. When he entered the living room, Noah found two corpses hunkered over his father’s body. The shotgun lay beside him. There were spent shell casings all over the rug, along with a few corpses lying motionless on the floor, their heads blown to pieces.

    “Hey!” Noah reacted.

    The corpses looked at him, but they refused to leave their meal. It was the only time Noah had ever gotten the dead’s attention only to be ignored.

    He charged, hacking and slashing in a frenzy of anger. Eventually he struck a head, and then another. The dead fell to the floor. Noah’s chest heaved as he stared into the concept of his shattered family.

    There’s nothing left, he thought. Nothing.

    His father coughed spraying blood over his chest. Surprised, Noah knelt beside him and took his hand.

    “Dad?”

    Charlie’s eyes fluttered open. “You shouldn’t have left,” he strained to speak.

    “I know. You were right. You were right about Alvin. I didn’t see it.”

    His father nodded, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He was almost gone. There were multiple bites on his body, and his right hand had been chewed almost clean off. It remained attached to his wrist by bone and a few sinews.

    “I’m sorry, dad. Damn it, I’m sorry.”

    A scream sounded from upstairs.

    She’s still alive, thought Noah. He dropped his father’s hand and flew up the staircase into his sister’s room where he was surprised to find Adam Fitzpatrick pounding on the closet door.

    “Adam!” he yelled.

    Adam turned to him.

    “You stay away from her!”

    Noah swiped at Adam with his machete, but at that moment Adam lunged, diving just beneath the blade. As they crashed onto the cedar planks Noah dropped the blade. He groped for the machete with one hand and fended Adam off with the other. The weapon was a few inches out of reach.

    Adam ferociously snapped at his face.

    “You want it?” grunted Noah, as he cocked his free hand. “You got it!” Noah punched Adam in the mouth sending several teeth clattering against Abigail’s dresser. Adam fell on his side giving Noah just enough time to grab the machete. Before Adam could recover, he lodged the blade in the back of his head. Adam fell to the floor never to move again.

    Exhausted, Noah hobbled over to the closet.

    “Abby! Are you in there?” He called through the door.

    “Noah?”

    “It’s me, Abby. You can come out, I got him.”

    The closet door opened slowly and Abigail cautiously stepped out. Her red eyes contrasted sharply against her pale skin.

    “Oh, thank god,” Noah said, squatting and pressing her to his chest.

    He held her in front of him and looked her up and down. Abigail had a stuffed tiger pressed against her forearm. It was saturated with blood. She collapsed into her big brother’s arms.

    “Oh no,” Noah’s voice quavered. “No. Abby?” he whimpered.

    “I wasn’t quiet enough,” she sobbed.

    “No. No, it wasn’t you, sweetheart. It wasn’t you.”

    Noah picked her up and sat her on the bed. “Let me see,” he said, gently peeling the tiger off her arm. The bite was deep. Blood pooled in the cavity with every beat of her tiny heart. At that moment, he knew he had lost her too.

    He wrapped a pillowcase around her arm. Abigail slowly leaned back in her bed. She was growing weaker from the blood loss with each passing second. Noah wiped the tears from his eyes.

    “Did he hurt you?” he said. “Did Alvin do something bad to you?”

    Abigail shook her head gravely.

    Noah grimaced. “I’m sorry, Abby. I left to protect a man I let hurt you.” He sniffed. “I let you down, Abby,” his voice cracked. “I let you down so bad,”

    She put her hand on Noah’s knee. “He’s good at lying.” Abigail looked past her brother. “Daddy?”

    Noah’s eyes widened. He turned to find his dead father standing in the doorway. Charlie reached for them, but strangely he didn’t strike. Instead he seemed to be stuck at the threshold of the door, as if his death had been so recent that maybe some shred of memory was keeping him from attacking his children.

    The machete was still lodged in Adam’s head. Noah stood up and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said, inching toward his dad. “I’m sorry I let him in our house. I’m sorry I left with him. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

    His father tilted his head.

    “And I’m – I’m just sorry for….” He looked back at Abigail as she bled to death. Noah wiped his tears with the back of his bloody hand. “For everything.”

    Charlie took a step toward him. In one fluid motion Noah jumped onto Adam’s back, freeing the machete and swinging it into Charlie’s forehead. His father dropped to the floor like a sack of grain.

    He turned back to Abigail. Her closed fists were pressed over her mouth.

    Noah sat back down next to her. “That wasn’t daddy,” he said. “You know that.”

    Abigail’s breath was fast and shallow. “Will I be like him?” she asked, her eyes closing and opening slowly.

    “No. I’ll stop it from happening… after you go to sleep.”

    As he walked out the front door Noah wiped down the machete with a rag. With rifle in hand, he headed to the small hill that overlooked the highway. From there he could see the fuel tanker. Although the horn had run out of compressed air, it had attracted every shambling corpse within a half-mile radius.

    He dropped the machete in the overgrown grass and raised his rifle, aiming it at the tanker. Noah fired.

    “Argh!” He yelled and doubled over. Noah had forgotten about the bite on his shoulder. When the rifle kicked it sent a surge of pain ripping through his arm.

    The stray bullet winged one of the corpses in the shoulder, spinning her in Noah’s direction. The other dead turned in time to see Noah stand up and reload. They moaned and shuffled in his direction, but before they could cover any distance, Noah switched shoulders and fired again. The second round pierced the tank, sparking the gasoline. The rig burst into a large fireball, incinerating most of the surrounding undead.

    “Now die!” he screamed.

    Noah took pleasure in watching the few corpses that weren’t immediately destroyed stumble around engulfed in flames. They flailed their arms wildly before falling on the ground to writhe and cook.

    Wiping a tear from his eye, Noah dropped the rifle and headed to the toolshed for a shovel. He knew he’d have to dig the graves quickly before the morning’s commotion attracted more dead to the area. After he finished burying his family he’d head down the road and hold-up in a neighbor’s house for the night. The next day he would set out to find Alvin.

    VII

    Noah barreled down a back road leading to north Lyons in a blue Ford truck. It was the first time he had driven a vehicle since the world fell apart. There was a pack of Marlboro’s in the center console. He pulled a cigarette from the box and stuck it in his mouth. “Why not,” he said as he lit the cigarette with the truck’s electric lighter.

    The road was clear until he reached the cemetery. A dead man stumbled into the street from behind a stone shed, attracted to the rumble of the truck’s engine. Noah rammed him, flinging his body onto the side of the road.

    As the truck cruised along the hillside that ran past his old high school a tall corpse wearing a Lyon’s basketball jersey stepped into the road. They collided, but instead of plowing him aside, as he had the other dead man, the body flew over the hood and crashed through the passenger side of the windshield.

    Startled, Noah jerked the steering wheel, and the truck swerved from side to side. He had almost regained control when the corpse recovered and began thrashing around. With his attention divided between driving and defending himself, Noah lost control of the truck. The Ford burst through the guardrails and rolled down the hill until crashed into the side of the cafeteria.

    Noah hung upside down, stunned. When he came to he looked over the dash. The corpse was gone. He unclipped his seatbelt and fell onto the roof. With rifle and machete in hand Noah slowly dragged himself out of the truck. It was an effort to stand, but there were no serious injuries. He winced as he put his hands on his hips and arched his back. Two pops sounded as his vertebrae cracked.

    Halfway up the hill the corpse lay on its back, waving at the sky, its pelvis crushed. Noah’s first instinct was to finish him off, but he was so sore from the crash that the idea of walking fifty feet uphill was enough to dissuade him. He walked away from the wreckage, but he didn’t get far before his guilt got the better of him. Noah turned back and picked off the corpse with his rifle, putting it out of its misery.

    As Noah headed down French Street in the direction of Lake Ave, he came across his former high school music teacher, Professor Church. The professor’s entrails hung from his gut, dangling over the fly of his black slacks like the purse worn over a kilt. Having always been fond of the Professor, Noah instinctively raised his hand to wave, but he caught himself and shook his head at his foolishness. He rushed at his former teacher, destroying his brain with the machete.

    I couldn’t have run into any of the jerks I went to school with? thought Noah as he wiped the blade on Church’s pant leg.

    His encounters with the dead grew more frequent until he decided it would be best to get off the street. Noah headed up the dirt road that led to Oakwood Park.

    The park was deserted, as it had always been even before the outbreak. He and his friends used to spend Friday nights drinking on top of the tall hill that overlooked the junior varsity football team’s practice field. The height afforded them a clear view of the road should the police come looking to bust their chops. Even when the police did spot them, the steepness of the hill was usually enough to dissuade most cops from giving chase.

    Noah climbed the hill and headed down a path that cut through the woods. After two miles the trail ended at the top of Irving Hill Drive, a mile from Alvin’s home. As he headed downhill he came to a small bridge that ran across the Hydraulic Canal – a modest waterway dug during the thirties to ship materials to and from the town’s many thriving textile mills. After the last few mills had shut down the canal dried up, along with the town’s economy.

    Noah knew that the Hydraulic eventually ran along the Bartlett property. It would have made the last leg of the trip easy, but when Noah approached the chain-link fence that ran along the canal bank he found half a dozen living dead milling about inside.

    They must have wandered in through a break in the fence and gotten trapped, he thought. Not that they would see it that way. He’d have to cut through backyards for the rest of the trek.

    Noah headed into the backyard of the nearest house. He skirted an above ground pool, before climbing a fence and cutting through the neighboring yard. As soon as he stepped off the curb he recognized that he was on Suitor Street, the road his good friend, Tim Fuld, lived on. Tim’s house was only a few lots down, and Noah couldn’t resist seeing if, by some astronomical stroke of luck, his friend might still be alive.

    Noah crept down the street and onto Tim’s front porch. He squinted through the gossamer curtains drawn over the door’s window. There didn’t appear to be any movement inside the house. Noah lightly knocked and waited. A woman slammed against the door, smudging her bloodied face against the glass. He quickly ducked, hoping she hadn’t seen him. The knob began to jiggle, and Noah took it as his cue to leave. He crawled away from the door and jumped over the railing at the end of the porch.

    As he entered the backyard, Noah spotted Tim standing with his back to him, staring into the toolshed. Noah snuck up behind him taking care not to give away his presence. As he raised the machete overhead, he paused. He looked Tim up and down. His body didn’t appear to have any wounds, at least not on his backside. Noah was almost certain Tim was dead, but he had to be sure. With machete still poised to strike, Noah snapped his fingers with his left hand. Tim slowly turned, and Noah was aghast to see a steak knife jammed into his eye-socket. Before a moan could escape from Tim’s receded lips, Noah brought the blade down on his head. His body crumpled to the ground.

    Noah stared at his friend’s body. Who had stabbed him, he wondered? Whoever it was, they were unlucky. Judging by the angle of the knife’s handle, Noah guessed that the blade had slid just beneath the brain. A mere ten degree difference would have stopped him.

    He reached into Tim’s pocket and took his zippo. Noah pulled the Marlboros from his flannel pocket and lit a cigarette. Without meaning to he made an uncomfortable comparison between smoking a cigarette after sex and smoking one after killing the living dead.

    “Gross,” he muttered.

    Curious, Noah peered inside the shed. He found a lawnmower, gas and oil cans, and gardening tools – nothing of interest to either the dead or the living.

    After cutting through a few more backyards, Noah finally made it to Lake Ave. As he crossed the road he spotted a couple corpses meandering down the street. He ignored them and instead headed down a long gravel driveway that wrapped around a small stand of pine trees. Noah unslung his rifle and reloaded. A machete worked well against the dead, but a living enemy might scoff at a big knife.

    When he reached the house he bent down and scooped up a handful of gravel. Noah stood at the foot of the porch, examining the large boxy structure. Its yellow paint had all but completely peeled off, giving way to its wood paneling, which had grayed from years of exposure.

    Noah tossed the gravel at the front door. After a moment he thought he saw one of the curtains shudder. A minute later the door cracked open.

    “You livin’?” said a raspy voice. “Say somethin’ if y’ar.”

    “Of course I am.”

    The door opened revealing Jimmy Bartlett, eldest of the Bartlett brood. Peering out from behind him was his little sister. Alvin had said that Abigail reminded him of his sister, and, although they didn’t look that similar, Noah understood why he would make the connection. They were both pale and skinny, and Alvin’s sister had a head of auburn hair that behaved as wildly as Abby’s did.

    “What do you want?” asked Jimmy. “We can’t give you any food.”

    “Did Alvin make it here?”

    “Maybe.” He crossed his arms.

    “How many of your family survived?”

    “Not enough.”

    “If Alvin is here, I would appreciate it if you sent him out. I have business with him.”

    “And what’s that?”

    “It’s personal.”

    “You got business with one Bartlett, you got business with all of ‘em.”

    His lips pursed, annoyed. “He…,” Noah hesitated. It was difficult to verbalize.  “He touched my sister, and lured me away from my family. They’re dead because of him.”

    “If he didn’t kill ‘em, then he didn’t kill ‘em.” Jimmy turned his head and spat chewing tobacco onto the lawn.  “As for your sister, why should I give a damn who Al shacks up with?”

    My sister was seven years old you, you inbred hick.”

    The girl recoiled behind her big brother. Jimmy lowered his eyes and shook his head. “God damn-it, Al,” he muttered.

    “Yes, god damn-it, Al. Now send him out.”

    “You don’t have to worry about him. We’ll take care of it.”

    “That’s not good enough. I’m the one he has to answer to. I’m the only one left who can hold him accountable for what he’s done.”

    “I said we’ll take care of it. Now you just wander back to wherever it is you came from.”

    “There’s nothing to go back to, don’t you get it! He destroyed my life, and I’m not leaving until I settle this!”

    At that moment Jimmy was brushed aside by his younger brother, Dakota, who strode through the door with a shotgun in hand. Dakota pointed the gun at Noah.

    “He said git!  Ya hear? Now go before I put a wad of buckshot in yer ass!”

    “If you chase me away now, I swear to god I’ll come back here, and I will bring this house to the ground.”

    Dakota fired. A patch of grass just feet from where Noah stood jumped into the air.

    “Jesus, Koty!” said Jimmy. “You’re gonna bring ‘em all here!”

    Noah began to back away. The Bartletts were known to be a lawless bunch back when the law actually meant something. Who knew how far they would go now that the threat of consequence was nonexistent.

    “You’ve made a mistake,” Noah said before retreating.

    “No, you made the mistake, ya damn fool!” Dakota shouted after him. “And if we see you again, we’ll kill you!”

    Noah was breathing heavily when he got to the end of the driveway.  He was nervous and scared, but mostly he was angry. Alvin was in their house and they were protecting him, he knew it.

    Moans sounded from nearby. The dead that had been floundering at the end of the street were now close – drawn by his noisy exchange with the Bartletts. Noah ran at them, finishing both off with haste.

    I should have hid and let the Bartlett’s deal with them, he told himself. The thought gave him pause. Noah looked back at the fence that ran along the bank of the Hydraulic.

    He bolted, disappearing into the nearest backyard.

    Alvin lay in bed with his shoulders propped against the wooden headboard. His body wrenched as he tore into a long coughing fit. When the coughing stopped he laid back and gently rubbed his hand over the bandage affixed to his side. He winced in pain.

    Suddenly the door was kicked open, startling him. Jimmy plodded into the room, his face burning red.

    “Still can’t keep your god-damned hands to yourself, can you?” he shouted at him.

    “Wha – what are you talking about?” Alvin wheezed.

    “That family you stayed with? Their little girl? Seems you forgot to mention that part of the story.”

    Beads of sweat began to grease Alvin’s hot, pale skin. “What – who?”

    “Some little punk just showed up, talkin’ about how you crossed him.”

    Alvin’s eyes bulged. “He was here?”

    “Yeah, he was here,” he said sardonically.

    “Come on, Jim, y – you’re gonna believe some stranger over your own brother?”

    Jimmy guffawed. “If you hadn’t done it before, I might not.”

    The floorboard creaked. Jimmy turned around to find his sister standing behind him.

    “Brandy, get out of here, we’re talkin’!”

    She ignored his warning and came closer. “Do you think that boy is gonna come back, Jim?” her voice quavered.

    “I said get the hell out!” Jimmy shoved her.

    She took a few steps backward before falling to the floor. Brandy scowled. She stood up and ran out of the bedroom.

    “What’s she mean, come back?” asked Alvin.

    “He’s after you, Al. Koty scared him off, but he swore he’d come back. Hell, half of me wonders why I just don’t let him at you.”

    “He ain’t… gonna…,” Alvin began coughing so hard that he couldn’t finish his sentence.

    “It don’t matter,” said Jimmy dismissively. He pulled a faded blue bandana from his pocket and threw it at his brother. “He’s weak, same as the rest of ‘em. He ain’t gonna do nothing to us.”

    As Jimmy walked away Alvin weakly picked up the handkerchief and wiped his chin. When he pulled the rag away his eyes widened. There was a dark red stain on the white paisley pattern. His hands began to tremble.

    Just then the door creaked. Alvin looked up to find Brandy peaking at him from behind the door.

    They stared at one another not speaking. Finally Alvin broke the silence. “You come to make your big brother feel better?” He strained to smile.

    Brandy kept an eye on him as she slowly pulled the bedroom door shut.

    Alvin frowned as the light from the hallway was eclipsed. He broke into coughing fit.

    VIII

    Noah was kneeling in Tim’s shed, tilting a red gas can over a funnel. The gasoline swirled before draining into the mouth of a bottle.  When the container was three quarters-full, Noah put the can down. He grabbed a rag that was looped around the handle of an old Valvoline container and stuffed it into the mouth of the bottle.  After soaking the rag in gas, Noah threw the rifle over his shoulder and headed for Irving Hill.

    Noah approached the fence that surrounded the Hydraulic Canal. A few corpses milled about inside.

    Hey,” he half-yelled.

    The dead moaned at the sight of living flesh. They clumsily climbed the bank of the canal. The first one to reach him began clawing at the metal fence as if he might eventually tear through it.

    Noah didn’t move. He stood examining it. This was the first time he had ever been able to get a good look at a reanimated corpse for longer than a few seconds.

    It was a man, pale with glazed eyes. Large chunks of flesh had been bitten out of its arm, and an entire swath of skin had been scraped from his side exposing most of the right ribcage. The jagged point of a broken radius bone stabbed through the flesh on his forearm. It sounded like wood when it grated against the chain-links. Noah wondered whether the break had occurred before the body died, or after. As he drew closer to the fence the thing seemed to grow more frenzied.

    “I hate you,” Noah said gritting his teeth. “I hate you.”

    Another corpse approached, falling into the one that was already there. The fence billowed and Noah jumped back.

    “Alright, let’s go,” he said miserably.

    As he walked along the canal he dragged the dull edge of the machete across the chain-link fence. Each dead body he came across was instantly drawn to the racket. Some even came at him from the backyards on his side of the fence. Each time one neared he quickly split its skull and moved on. He feared letting the dead in the canal congregate for too long. Their numbers were mounting, and he knew that, although not a horde, a mob that size wielded considerable power.

    Dusk had fallen by the time Noah reached the dead-end of Lake Ave. By then the collection of living dead in the hydraulic numbered well over a dozen.

    Noah moved toward the fence and as he did the mob grew more ravenous. The chain-link mesh pushed toward him with an extreme curvature. He could hear the bones of the bodies at the front of the crowd breaking as the weight of their brethren pushed into them. Metal screeched as a section of fence folded forward until it kissed the edge of the pavement. Bodies began to spill into the street like water from a hole in a dam.

    Noah’s heart beat rapidly at the sight of so many grotesque figures, more than he had ever seen in a tight group, hungrily creeping toward him. He could imagine what a group that size would do if they got ahold of him. Despite the adrenaline surging through his body, he held fast. He couldn’t just run off – not if he wanted to control the mob.

    Noah led the group to the top of the driveway and then sprinted ahead. As the dead took their time to catch up he pulled out the zippo and Molotov cocktail and lit the fuse. With the mob close in tow, Noah ran up to the house and threw the gas-bomb at the Bartlett’s front door. The bottle shattered, splattering the wood with liquid flame.

    Noah sprinted into the backyard.

    Dakota had been in the kitchen eating tuna straight from the can when he heard something slam against the door. As he ran to the front of the house, he could see flames licking the small window set in the top of the entrance. Dakota grabbed a nearby coat and flung open the front door.

    “Jimmy, get out here! We got a fire!” He was so focused on the flames that he neglected to see the shambling drove heading up the driveway. They didn’t fail to notice him.

    A moment later, Jimmy flew onto the porch with a large jar of water. He noticed the dead immediately.

    “Jesus, Koty, there’s a whole mess of ‘em!” He said, pointing at the driveway.

    Jimmy threw the jar of water on the fire and pulled his brother inside, locking the door behind them.

    From a darkened corner of the backyard, Noah heard the shots break out. The firing went on for what seemed like hours. Noah waited for the dead to clear the house for him, to absorb the bullets so he wouldn’t have to. He wondered what would be left once they were through. He hoped that Alvin would be alive – he wanted him to feel the pain he had inflicted on Abigail – but he knew that was hoping for much. There was a far greater chance he would be a thriving corpse by the time Noah got to him, but there was nothing he could do about that.  Alive would be perfect, dead: enough. He’d take either state so long as his brain was intact.

    Noah’s thoughts were interrupted when a nightstand came crashing through an upstairs window. A moment later Jimmy dropped from the second story, landing on the pavement at an awkward angle. He was quick to get up and continue moving, fortunately for him, as a corpse tumbled out the window after him, landing head-first on the spot where Jimmy had fallen.

    As he hobbled into the backyard he caught sight of Noah.

    You,” he said bitterly.

    Yeah, me,” Noah replied holding the rifle up to his shoulder. “Other way,” he said, motioning with the barrel.

    Jimmy kept coming.

    Even though the gun was already loaded, Noah slid the bolt out and locked it back in place for effect. “You get the road or a bullet,” he told him. “I really don’t care either way.”

    Jimmy stopped. He curled his lip and then turned and limped way. “I’ll get you,” he said looking back over his shoulder. “I’ll get you.”

    “No you won’t,” said Noah matter-of-factly.

    IX

    By dawn most of the dead had wandered off. Noah took care of the few that strayed into the backyard, but most had instinctively walked out the front door and onto the street.

    When no more dead left the house, Noah quietly slipped in through the back door. He crept through the house, stepping over stiff bodies without incident, until he came to the living room. A corpse lay on the floor, his head moving from side to side, his teeth clicking lightly. Noah moved in for a closer look.

    There was a hole in the top of his sternum. He guessed that one of the Bartlett’s must have blown out the spinal cord, paralyzing it. With one solid chop to the temple its teeth stopped chattering.

    He continued up the stairs, keeping a cautious eye out for Dakota. Dead or alive, he would pose a threat. After searching a few rooms, Noah found him milling around in what had to be Brandy’s bedroom. Pieces of flesh had been bitten off his face, and his abdominal cavity had been all but entirely scraped clean. Even to a veteran of gore, like Noah, the gruesome sight of Dakota was enough to bring him to the brink of vomiting. Noah choked it down and cleaved his skull in two. When it was done he rushed out of the room.

    After taking a moment to collect himself, Noah put his ear up to the last door. He could hear movement behind it. With machete raised he kicked the door open. Nothing came at him from the darkness, but he could see a vague shape moving at the far corner of the room.

    As he inched his way into the dim room the stench of rot grew more pungent. Noah moved to a window on the far wall and tore down a drape that had been nailed to the frame. The early morning rays filled the room with a sallow glow. In the corner lay Alvin – now a member of the living dead. His arms and legs were tied to the bedposts with rope. There were multiple dressings on his body – most had bled through. His wounds needed stitching, but without any medical knowledge, all the Bartlett’s could do was bandage up their brother and hope that his body would take care of the rest.

    Noah approached the bed slowly, wary that the bonds might snap at any moment. Alvin shook violently, riled by the sight of warm meat.

    He held the rifle muzzle up to Alvin’s face. “Do you recognize me?” he said acerbically.

    Alvin moaned and wrenched in his bonds.

    “Do you remember what you did to my sister? To my family?” he shouted at Alvin.

    Alvin stared at him with what Noah hoped was a glimmer of recognition.

    “I could have protected them!” He thought of the horde that had overtaken his house, and how there were so many dead – perhaps too many to fend off. “I – I would have thought of something! I always do!” He paused. “But instead I was with you.”

    A floorboard creaked behind him. Noah wheeled around, the gun ready at his shoulder.

    “Drop it!” he ordered Brandy.

    She opened her hand, and a carving knife fell to the floor. The tip of the blade stuck into a worn wooden plank.

    Noah looked her up and down. “Where did you come from?”

    “I hid under my bed.”

    They stared at one another silently.

    “You gonna kill, me?” she said, timidly.

    He lowered the gun. “How did this happen?” Noah motioned to Alvin with his head.

    “He came back a few days ago. Said he got all bit up down at the Walmart.

    “Did he mention that he left me there to die?”

    “Said he was with someone, but he shot him ‘cause he tried to steal his things.”

    Noah’s wry grin flared and then faded in an instant. “You believe that?”

    She shrugged.

    “Well don’t. Your brother’s a bad, man.”

    “I know,” she squeaked. Brandy lowered her head and hugged her chest. “You gonna kill him?” she asked, her voice barren of emotion.

    Noah looked back at Alvin who was squirming and snapping. He was hungry for the two of them, but without a mind to focus on undoing his restraints, he was powerless.

    Noah sighed. “I came here to kill him.” He paused. “But maybe this is punishment enough. Maybe this is worse than dying.”

    The two turned to Alvin as he twisted and turned in an effort to break free. Without warning, Noah cocked the machete back and brought it down on Alvin’s left knee, hacking at the joint again and again until he had completely severed his lower leg from his body.

    Brandy shuddered and moved away.

    He repeated the process on the right leg, and then on his arms.

    Noah looked over his shoulder at Brandy. “So he can’t hurt anyone else,” he said in an attempt to quell her fear of his erratic behavior. The explanation was only partly true.

    Noah turned to leave the room. On his way out he bent down and pulled Brandy’s knife out of the floor.

    “Here, you’ll need this,” he said, handing it to her.

    Brandy stared at her brother. Alvin’s torso wriggled and jerked until it fell onto the floor.

    Noah walked downstairs and out the front door. He sat on the porch steps and lit a cigarette. A few minutes later Brandy came out after him. She stood near the door and watched him.

    “I came here because your brother cost me my family.” Noah spoke without looking at her. “And here I’ve done the same thing to you.”

    He pulled the rifle off his shoulder and extended it to her.

    “You can kill me if it’s what you want. I don’t have anything left anyway.”

    Brandy looked at the gun, surprised by the gesture. “I don’t want to kill you, mister.”

    Noah turned his head and squinted at her. “Why not?”

    “’Cause I don’t want to be left alone.”

    Noah stared at her. Her freckles reminded him of Abigail.

    He snuffed out the cigarette and stood up. “My name is Noah,” he said holding his hand out to her.

    She hesitated before taking hold of it. “I’m Brandy.”

    Noah smiled sympathetically. “Well, Brandy, we should probably get moving,” he said.

    11 Comments

    1. Beautiful, if a sequel isnt forthcoming its a shame.

      Comment by SciFiFan96 on March 19, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    2. Incredible detail and I like the restraint involved here. It’s always a particularly unpleasant possibility that a zombie or other apocalypse will unleash the worst in human nature…in this case, Alvin’s monstrous pedophile abuse of Abby.

      Certainly an appropriate title and a very dark, atmospheric, well-written piece. Well done, Brett.

      Comment by Craig Y on March 19, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    3. I really enjoyed this. Took me all day, missed a bit of work, but totally worth it.

      Comment by Justin Dunne on March 20, 2014 @ 5:46 am

    4. Loved it. Some parts felt rushed, but i enjoyed your story.

      Comment by gunldesnapper on March 20, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    5. I can understand the need for vengeance and restitution that Noah feels.
      There is a little part of me though that doesn’t allow strangers or even acquaintances of any sex that is not close to the family to be alone with a very young relative regardless of gender.
      In fact, i often warn the young members of my family to not allow anybody to speak or touch them inappropriately, to raise hell if anybody does so and to alert family members and police of such abuses.
      This is during normal law and order situations and my instinct goes into overdrive in situations where i cant get any help from the police.
      Almost everybody in my family and my in laws are like this so i assumed most other people are also.
      I just kind of cant understand why Noah didn’t get suspicious right from the start especially more so when Abby displayed some symptoms of trauma shortly after Alvin came.

      Asides from that this is a moving story with well written scenarios that put you in the middle of the action.

      Comment by bong on March 21, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    6. Wonderful! I’d love to see more of this story. What happens to the Noah and Brandy?

      Wonderful writing.

      Comment by Kristen on March 21, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    7. Bong, that’s a good point, but it’s probable that Noah might have been preoccupied with the effort of surviving the apocalypse that he just didn’t notice what was happening to Abby. He would have noticed under normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances.

      Comment by Craig Y on March 21, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    8. Hey guys! Brett Van Valkenburg here. I awoke this morning pleasantly surprised to find that my story was published on ToWWZ.com. Big thanks to the website’s host.

      I am very grateful for the feedback, both positive and critical. Feedback is invaluable to an aspiring writer, and I sincerely appreciate it.

      As for the continuation of the story, yes, I would like to do something further with it, and hopefully I will get to someday. But I’m currently working on another, even longer story about time travel–ZERO zombies. If time travel interests you or if you’d like to read anything else I’ve written (brace yourself for a shameless plug) then please visit my writing blog at http://brettagher.blogspot.com/

      Thanks again for the encouraging words. You guys are great.

      Brett

      Comment by Brettagher on March 23, 2014 @ 11:12 am

    9. This was great. Well written, good pacing, reasonable behaviors from the characters.

      The only thing that has me confused is why/how the hoard found it’s way to the family home. At first, I thought Al had lead them back to the house — perhaps in an effort to spirit away the girl — but, if he was badly injured escaping the WalMart, that doesn’t follow. Were they just the dead that had been being called back tot he church bells every day, set free by the loss of power?

      Would have liked to see Al getting his, rather than just the aftermath, but can’t think of any way to do that without making Noah into some kind of super-Rambo. More realistic this way.

      Thanks.

      Comment by zombob on March 26, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    10. Great read!
      Loved the flow of the story. Never slowed or took a breath. Explenations and descriptions of people /places were embedded with the story, thats what I meant by flow. LOL. Jsut makes me more determined to get my short story finished, maybe next year….lots to do before then.

      Comment by Luke on March 26, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

    11. Great Story!

      Comment by johnny on March 26, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

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