/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

The Dead & Dying

W Rose

In an apocalyptic world where the dead roam the earth, Carl Teegarden lays dying. Fatally wounded by the undead, he watches his lifeblood drain from his ravaged body and struggles to come to terms with his inevitable fate. Knowing that this fate will not necessarily end with his final breath, he fights through the pain and looks back upon his life, remembering the events which have led to his lonely demise. Only he isn’t alone. The spirit of a woman with whom he’d found love in a ruined world stands by his side, her loyalty transcending the barriers of life and death. Smoldering across the room is the ghost of a small child whose hatred of this man burns with such intensity that no amount of suffering can sate his thirst for revenge. All the while, legions of the walking dead scour the countryside for the slightest sign of life. As their destinies intertwine, stories of love and devotion intertwine with failing and regret across a timeline marked by the grim struggle for survival. And in this nightmare world, each will come to understand, in their own way, exactly what it means to be numbered among the dead and dying….


THE DEAD & DYING

A Zombie Novel

By

William Todd Rose

CHAPTER ONE: CARL

Damn, but those bastards can put a hurtin’ on ya. Fucking things tore out a chunk of my side before I managed to pop a couple rounds in their heads and now I can’t stop bleeding for the life of me. Doesn’t seem to matter how much pressure I apply: these old t-shirts just keep soaking up the blood like drought-cracked earth hungry for rain.

Hurts like Hell, too. Imagine something rips a hole in your flesh about the size of a dinner plate. Then imagine tiny shards of broken glass get sprinkled around inside the wound before having rubbing alcohol splashed all about the gash. On top of all that, there’s this damn throbbing. Like there’s some sort of giant heart below all that torn meat and tissue, pounding as if it could somehow break free and plop right on out of my body.

Course, I know what this means. I’ve seen it happen enough there’s no doubt in my mind how all this is gonna end. The only thing that keeps me guessing is how much longer I’ve got: twenty minutes? A day? Never seen anyone last more than a couple of nights, no matter how hard they fight. Sooner or later those chills are gonna set in and then there’s gonna be a few moments where the pain just melts away. My body will be dead before my brain even knows what happened and for that brief bit of time I’ll be stuck somewhere between life and whatever happens once you’ve turned.

Just before Josie took her final breath, she said it was like she’d finally found the nirvana she spent her entire life looking for.

“Everything’s so clear now. Everything’s so beautiful.”

I suppose as far as last words go you can’t do much better than that.

When her body went limp, I squeezed my eyes shut so I wouldn’t have to see the light in her eyes flicker out. I pulled the trigger, felt the pistol kick, and tried to ignore that little tickle gunpowder puts in your nose. I wanted to remember her with that spark in her eyes, with the glow that somehow seemed to radiate from her pale skin, the corners of her lips turned slightly upward into a knowing smile….

‘Course, there won’t be anyone around to do me the same favor. It was just me and Josie by then and I’ve been traveling alone ever since. Maybe if I would’ve hooked up with some of the people I met on the way, maybe that Chinese fella or the little group that said they were heading to Paris Island; maybe then none of this ever would’ve happened. After all, having someone to watch your back usually ain’t such a bad thing.

But I was tired, ya know? Tired of getting to know people, tired of hearing about the pain they’ve been through and the loved ones they’ve lost and such. You share your stories with these people, you end up crying yourselves to sleep together, and sometimes even laughing when you can steal a moment. You share blankets and food and every emotion you feel throughout the day. Before long, you care about them. They become like family. Hell sometimes, like with Josie, you might even find yourself falling in love, as unlikely as that may seem. And for what? To see them pulled down by a mob of staggering corpses? To hear their screams as you’re torn between the urge to help and the instinct to run?

That first night without them is always the worst. You replay the whole thing again and again, trying to figure out if there was something you coulda done different. Maybe if you hadn’t knocked that tin can over or if you’d been just a little more alert. Or a little quicker hopping over that wall. You try to sleep, but the questions don’t stop and you keep seeing their faces, that expression that seems to plead for help and accuse all at the same time. And then you think of them out there, shambling through the darkness as they look at the world through the film of dust that’s already begun to settle across their eyes….  I reckon that’ll be me soon enough, though.

But as long as I keep thinking it takes the edge off the pain a bit. Maybe that’s why so many people talk to the dying when they have the chance. Not because they think the words can honestly reassure the person, but because they somehow know that any distraction is welcome. Shit, for a moment I found myself trying to count the cracks in the wall… but that ain’t quite the same. Got to about twenty-five before it felt like those teeth were ripping away at my skin all over again.

Maybe if you die quick, your life really does flash before your eyes; but if it’s draining out of you nice and slow then there’s not really much call for rushing through. So I’m just gonna lay here and let my mind wander for a spell. I’ll lay here and bleed and try not to moan too loud when the pain gets bad. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find that little piece of perfection Josie told me about… or maybe I’ll end up tasting the barrel of my pistol and painting the wall with my brains. Guess I’ll just hafta wait and see how this all plays out, ya know?

CHAPTER TWO: JOSIE

It breaks my heart to see him lying over there in so much pain. I wish I could wipe the beads of sweat off his brow or hold his hand and tell him everything is going to be okay; but I know he can’t see me, that he doesn’t even realize I’m here. I tried to call out to him once. I shouted as loud as I could, “Carl, it’s me. Josie. I’m here sweetie. I’m with you.” But all he did was press that bloody shirt tighter against his side and grit his teeth through the pain.

And he looks so much smaller now. A lot more so than when I first met him; and I don’t mean simply the weight he’s lost from going so long on so little. It’s something else: almost as if there’s something more than just blood leaking out of him; it’s like he’s deflating right before my eyes and there’s nothing I can do.

For what must be the thousandth time, I think this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Carl shouldn’t be here in this old shack with dust motes turning lazy circles in shafts of sunlight. His life shouldn’t be spreading across the floor in an ever widening puddle and he shouldn’t be dragging all the clothes from his rucksack in some feeble attempt to last just a few breaths longer, a few minutes more.

I’d hoped he would eventually make his way somewhere that resembled the way things used to be. A fortified town where he could have a little house and spend time gardening in the Spring, perhaps. I pictured him sitting on a porch swing at night, looking up at the stars overhead, and maybe thinking about how he had finally found the kind of life we had always dreamed about. I’m not even sure places like that exist anymore… but, if they do, that’s exactly what I’d wanted for him. And now I have to face the harsh reality: he’ll never be able to obtain that type of life. Or any life at all, for that matter. He’ll end up like me. Or worse….

I’m no fool. I know why he can’t see me. I know I’m dead. I remember when he closed his eyes and shot me: the way his hand trembled and the single tear that cleared a swath of clean skin through the grit and grime on his face; his bottom lip quivered and I remember being afraid that he wouldn’t actually be able to do it.

I was trying to part my lips, to let him know that it was okay, when he lowered his head and stiffened his body. The void washed over me instantly but I could hear my thoughts echoing, as if they were receding down an infinitely long tunnel: Thank you, my sweet… thank you….

I’d always thought I would be reincarnated when my time in this body had come to an end. I thought my spirit would inhabit another shell and I’d begin the entire cycle anew. And who knows? Perhaps, eventually, I may have.

But for a while there was only the darkness; I’m not sure how much time had passed in this realm while I was sleeping in the great unknown. I only know that at some point I began to feel a tugging. When I was a child, there was a stream that ran through my backyard and I used to dip one leg into the cold water, just up to the kneecap, and feel the current as it surged around me. The sensation I felt in the void was similar to that, like there was a force acting against me, pushing from one direction while pulling from another. Thought began to return and there was a joy that can’t be described to anyone still trapped within their fleshy prison: surely, my time had come… I was being reborn.

As suddenly as the darkness had originally descended, so was it lifted and I found myself in this little shack. I took in the paneled walls, the dust covered floor, and the planks nailed over the windows. I somehow knew that I wasn’t a small baby and that, instead, I’d been called to this place for reasons I couldn’t quite comprehend.

Until I heard the coarse voice moan from behind me. Once I turned, I knew exactly why I had been drawn to this particular place at this particular time. He needed me… even if he wasn’t aware I was with him.

I stood there, watching him helplessly, and he’d tossed one t-shirt to the side and replaced it with a fresh one by the time I noticed the child crouching in the shadows by the empty bookshelf.

The boy can’t be older than five or six, but his eyes burn with the rage of a one who’s experienced a lifetime of pain and remorse. What’s left of his lips are drawn back in a constant snarl and his shoulder-length blond hair is matted with blood. Most of his clothes have been ripped and tattered, revealing scratches and welts that crisscross his body.

“Carl, run!” I shout, even though I know my words can never penetrate the veil that separates us. “Damn it, Carl, it’s right there!”

The boy whips his head toward me as if suddenly aware of my presence. For a moment, the anger is gone from his eyes and his mouth moves as if trying to find words. Something about him reminds me of a startled animal and, as we stand here studying one another from across the room, it begins to dawn on me that this child can see and hear me. Carl can’t, but this bruised and battered little boy can.

“But I was tired, ya know?”

Carl’s voice is hoarse and paper thin. Not the deep baritone I had known, but still enough to draw the boy’s attention back to him.

The boy pounces from his hiding place and is at Carl’s side with the speed of a striking snake, his fists flailing through the air as a throaty growl rumbles from somewhere deep within his small body.

“Leave him alone! He’s not doing anything to you! Leave him alone!”

I’m almost to Carl’s side before I realize that the boy doesn’t actually appear to be hurting him. The child is practically a tornado of rage and fury but his little fists seem to simply pass through Carl’s chest like mist through a screen. Carl doesn’t react to the boy’s presence any more than he does my own and I stop short as the meaning of this dawns upon me.

“Who are you?”

The boy leaps away from his prey as if I had just poked him with a hot iron. He glares at me and backs away almost as if afraid to turn his back.

“I won’t hurt you. I want to help.”

The child’s eyes dart from me, to Carl, and then back to me again and I can sense the tense energy pent up within his small body.

“What’s your name?”

In all the talks we had, Carl never mentioned a son so I feel safe in ruling that out. He never actually mentioned any type of kids what-so-ever, come to think of it.

So I am left with nothing but questions: who is this boy? Why has he been drawn here… and why does he seem to harbor so much hatred for the man I have only known as the sweetest and most noble person I have ever met?

CHAPTER THREE: THE CHILD

Hate him, hate him, wish him dead. Hope he’s hurting so bad he wants to die right away but it takes a long, long time. He’s so mean he deserves it and I’m glad I’m here to watch. Wish I could kick him or poke out his eyes so he can’t see when the monsters come for him. Wish I could light him on fire and watch while he burned up but not all the way, just enough so that it would hurt even worse.

I try to spit on him but can’t spit, try to hit him over and over but he don’t feel nothin’ I do. He don’t even look at me and I’m right there in his face. I know he knows I’m here. He’s just tryin’ to make me mad, ignoring me like Uncle Bobby used to. And that lady on the other side of the room gives me the creeps. I don’t like the way she looks at me but somethin’s not right about her so I don’t dare say nothin’ about it. I bet she can see somethin’s not right about me too and that’s why she sometimes looks at me real sad like and other times yells at me to leave him alone, that he ain’t never done nothin’. So I’ll just pretend I can’t see or hear her and hope she just goes away.

At the same time, though, I wish I knew what she sees. Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. Like I’m here in this little room but also out there somewhere just wanderin’ around. I hear dogs barkin’ and smell smoke and feel like I’m walkin’ but I ain’t doing nothin’ but just standin’ still. And the dogs and smoke seem like they ain’t quite real, like I just woke up from a dream or somethin’ and parts of it followed me out into the real world.

I even see things, trees and fields of grass and all these people around me who are kinda blurry. But it’s almost like the shows I used to watch on TV where people would be doin’ one thing and then it would kinda blend in with other people doin’ different things. And there would be a coupla seconds where you could see all the people but you could also see through ’em at the same time. When this happens I hafta think real hard about Mr. Carl and this room to make it go away but even then it comes back after a bit and I have to do the whole thing all over again, which isn’t fair.

None of this is fair and it’s all his fault. I miss my mommy so much that it makes my belly feel all funny cause I know I ain’t never gonna see her no more. I miss Pepper and Mister Boots and all I wanna do is go back home. I want my bedroom back with my video games and all my toys and I don’t wanna be hungry or cold no more and I want Mrs. Peters to tell me how good I draw and that I might grow up to be an artist if I try real hard. But he took all that away and I hate him ’cause of it.

I remember when I used to get scared at night and Mommy would come in my room and tell me how monsters weren’t real. She said there weren’t nothin’ in my closet or under my bed to be afraid of and that big boys didn’t believe in things like that. But then the monsters really did come and they looked kinda like the people from my neighborhood only all messed up and stuff.

And I also always thought monsters would be all noisy and growly but they didn’t hardly make no sound at all. They broke out our windows and I heard Mommy screaming and when I ran into the room they were all grabbin’ at her and she had a piece of glass in her hand that she was stabbin’ with over and over. She had blood on her hand but I think maybe it was cause the glass was cuttin’ her too; but it didn’t matter how many times she stabbed the monsters, they just kept right on comin’.

I started cryin’ and didn’t know what to do and all of a sudden Mommy was there, scoopin’ me up in her arms. Hide your face, baby, she said and I pressed my face into her shoulder and I could feel us runnin’ through the house. Behind us I heard stuff breakin’ and fallin’ over and I knew the monsters were still after us and my Mommy held me so tight I couldn’t even move my head to see how close they were or nothin’.

Next thing I know we’re in the car and the tires are squealin’ just like on the cop shows and Mommy’s telling me to lay down in the floor and not to look out the windows. She’s got the radio on and they keep tellin’ people to stay calm, not to panic but that only made me cry harder so Mommy turned it off and started singin’. Only her voice wasn’t the same as when she usually sings to me and it sounded like she was about to start cryin’ herself which probably scared me more than anything else.

All around us I could hear sirens and loud crashes and people screamin’ and car horns. Then Mommy stopped singing and just kept saying over and over, please God, please God, please….

After that, I really don’t remember much. It was like I fell asleep without really tryin’. One minute I’m in the floor of the car trying to hang on and next thing I know Mommy’s got me in her arms and she’s shakin’ me and saying, “Come on, baby, wake up, please wake up, baby.”

I opened my eyes and there were trees all ’round us and our car was sittin’ halfway in a ditch and it smelled like gasoline. The car was kinda hissin’ and makin’ this ticking noise almost like a clock but other than that everything seemed really quiet.

When Mommy saw I was awake, she hugged me so tight and started rockin’ back and forth. I was lookin’ over her shoulder and could see big clouds of smoke way off in the distance.

“Come on, baby.” she says to me. “We gotta keep movin’.”

Then we were runnin’ through the woods cause she said we needed to get away from the major highways and she carried me for as long as she could but after a while she started fallin’ a lot and asked me if I thought I could run real quick on my own. I told her Mr. Washington said I was the fastest boy in gym class and she pinched my nose and said she bet I was too.

That night Mommy found this little cave that she said would make a good place for us to hide. We crawled inside and snuggled in real close together and she tried to tell me it was like an adventure, that plenty of pirates and ninjas slept in caves so I was kinda like them. I didn’t say nothin’ but I didn’t want to be a pirate or a ninja right then. All I wanted was my nice warm bed with Pepper curled up down by my feet.

Halfway through the night I had to pee real bad but Mommy said I needed to do my best to hold it until morning and asked if I thought I could do that. I told her I thought I could but ended up peeing in my pants after all. But Mommy said it was okay, that sometimes even the biggest boys can’t hold it and we would find a stream to wash in the next day.

And we did too. I was standin’ in the stream splashin’ water on my pants when he came bustin’ through the woods. He saw me and Mommy and stopped in his tracks. Then he lifted his gun and pointed it right us and I still remember word for word what he said.

“I swear t’ God if you don’t say somethin’ in the next three seconds I’m puttin’ a bullet right in your head.”

Mommy always told me that hate was a strong word and that I shouldn’t hate. But I really hate him and I can’t help it. And I really think that in this case Mommy would understand.

CHAPTER FOUR: CARL

Might sound sick, but – on some level — I’d always hoped this would happen. Not the dying part. To put it mildly, that kinda sucks. But everything leading up to it had always been tucked away in some little corner of my mind: if I was taking a walk on a Sunday morning and heard the wailing of sirens in the distance, I would think, This is how it begins. I’d see smoke billowing on the horizon and feel a little rush of adrenaline hit my veins as I took stock of everything around me, searching for potential weapons and what have you. But it never amounted to anything more than a house fire or a three car pileup on the interstate. So, I just went about my life waiting for the unthinkable to happen.

See, in my previous life I was just Carl Teegarden: three-time employee of the month at the Pit Stop down on Route 47 and two-time loser where it really mattered. But in a world turned upside down, I thought I could be somebody; I thought I could make a difference and be the one who busts through the door at the last possible second to save the day.

After all, I’d seen all the movies. I’d read the books and even played some of the games. I thought I knew the rules, ya know? Which is more than I can say about life. One of those bastards gets too close and a round to the head takes them down, plain and simple. You listen outside of doors before opening: if you hear moaning in there, then you either leave that sucker closed or bust right on through with all guns blazing.

Turns out it’s not always quite that simple. Sometimes a single bullet to the forehead will drop one of those suckers, but sometimes you hafta pump in a couple more before they finally drop. And they’re so damn quiet it doesn’t matter how long you listen outside that door. You might hear some scuffling on the other side, but is it really one of them? Or just some schmuck trying to be as quiet as possible because he hears you out there and thinks you might be one of them? You go in like Rambo and there’s a good chance you won’t accomplish anything other than killing some poor bastard who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For a while, I traveled with a fellow who went by the name of Doc. Big guy who looked like maybe he played a little football in high school. A lot of people we came across seemed to assume that Doc wasn’t too bright right off the bat. Maybe it had something to do with the way his brow and beard made him look a little like the caveman in those insurance commercials. I don’t know. But, truth be told, that man had one of the sharpest minds I ever come across.

The way he saw it, a single shot didn’t always work because the bullet would tear through different parts of the brain. He told me about a chicken he’d read about named Miracle Mike: apparently, back in the forties or fifties, some farmer tried to cut off this rooster’s head. Only he botched the job a bit. Mike’s head came off all right, but there was still some of the brain stem or something like that left over which kept this headless chicken alive for a year or so as he toured across the country in sideshows.

Doc said he reckoned the zombies are a lot like ’ole Mike: if you don’t wipe out the part of the brain that’s in control, they’ll just keep coming at you until you do.

He also said it makes sense, when you really think about it, that they don’t make much noise. To get sound, you’ve got to force air over the vocal cords. And these bastards definitely aren’t breathing. Oh, you might hear some gas pass out of them every now and then. Sometimes that gas might even bubble up through their windpipes and cause this soft, little wheeze; but they don’t moan and groan like I always thought they would. Hell, I’ve been doing more moaning than they ever dreamed of.

And you don’t need to be bit to become one of them either. Don’t get me wrong. Bites like the one I got right here speed up the process, that’s for certain. But sooner or later we all die one way or another. And when you do, you’re coming back. Plain and simple.

Pain tends to make the mind wander, doesn’t it? I was originally thinking about how I always thought I was prepared for this. Truth be told, even though that little part of me always half expected this to happen I still didn’t recognize it when the news reports started rolling in. In the beginning I thought, like plum near everyone else, that this mystery illness I kept hearing so much about was some sort of terrorist attack. It just seemed to make sense, ya know? People getting sick in New York, DC, Los Angeles: pretty much all the major cities, all at the same time. And then the reports of what they originally thought to be riots and widespread violence. Sounded like some sort of nerve gas or biological agent. Al-Qaeda type shit.

By the time the infection, or whatever the hell it is, hit Harrisburg there wasn’t anything that could really be done. It spread through our town like the clap at a whorehouse, I tell ya. One minute it’s just another dead-end hole in the wall and the next all Hell’s breaking loose.

 I remember looking back over my shoulder at the Pit Stop, watching the flames licking at the night sky like the tongues of hungry demons, the smell of wood and burning rubber; I watched from a distance as the pumps finally caught ablaze. A big orange fireball shot up so high the tops of the pines out back started burning as well and even from afar I was buffeted by this wind so hot that it nearly took my breath. A few seconds earlier, I’d heard tires screeching and turned just in time to see a pickup plow into the station. There was just enough time for me to start recognizing some of the people piled into the bed of the truck before they were all engulfed by the explosion.

But even then one of them was still coming for me. He was all lit up, covered from head to toe in flames and leaving burning footprints in his wake. If he felt any pain as the skin and muscle crackled and dripping fat hissed like frying bacon, he didn’t give any signs. Just kept staggering down the middle of the road. Like something from one of those movies I used to love so much. Only this wasn’t some stunt man in a special suit covered with flammable jelly. It wasn’t even really a he: this human shaped torch was all that was left of what had used to be Bob Hightower.

 Me and ’ole Bob had grown up together. We played little league and went fishing and shared most of the same classes when we finally hit junior high; the first sip of beer I ever had was filched from Old Man Hightower’s cooler… the first breast I ever saw was from peeking through the keyhole as his sister undressed for the night. But if he coulda made it to me, he wouldn’t have been reaching those fiery arms around me for a brotherly hug. I knew this as surely as I knew that no living man could be so engulfed by fire and live longer than a minute or so.

And, at that moment, I knew things would never be the same again.

Shit, I’m cold. So fucking cold it feels like I should be able to see my breath. At the same time, though, there’s this sheen of sweat on my chest and my hair is so damp it’s practically plastered to my skull. And that damn gash just keeps right on oozing.

I’m almost out of clothes to use and flies have started buzzing around the ones I’ve thrown to the side like it’s a flippin’ buffet or something. When I switched out the t-shirt for the sweater I’ve got pressed against me now, I stole a little peek at the wound. Can’t believe I’d actually almost convinced myself that maybe it wasn’t really so bad. That maybe it was just a flesh wound that was bleeding like hell.

But looking into that bite was like gazing into a canyon of meat. Crags of torn muscle jutted out from the walls of the chasm and I could see glints of bone down there, like the fossil of some extinct beast preserved for all eternity. And at the bottom of the canyon there was this crimson lake that seemed to throb and pulse with subterranean forces.

I saw a fish leap out of that pool, it’s scales flashing brilliant silver in the mid-day sun before splashing back into the thick, red liquid. And, nestled between a clump of gristle and a severed artery, a lizard poked its head out as if making sure no predators were circling overhead before committing itself to basking on the canyon walls.

And then I felt like I was falling, the wind buffeting my hair and whistling in my ears as the bottom of the chasm grew closer with each passing second. There was no fear, no moments of regret or wishing my life had turned out differently: I saw myself reflected in the lake of blood below and was perfectly content to simply watch as my scarlet twin grew ever larger.

When I hit bottom there was a blinding flash of pain that dissolved the world into an infinite field of white. I heard screaming, the sound distant and hollow like it was reaching me from the far end of a cavern or tunnel.

The scream grew louder and I began to feel a burning in my throat; at the same time I realized that the voice calling out in such agony and torment was my own the blank whiteness shattered like an exploding light bulb. These tiny shards of reality pierced the wound in my side, brought everything back into sharp focus real quick like.

But for a moment, delirium and substance must’ve bled into one another: and in that fraction of a second I thought I saw Josie standing across the room, her entire body glowing like a lantern in the fog, as beautiful and serene as in those final moments of her life. Maybe even more so.

“Josie”, I croaked as I stretched my hand toward her, “Josie, baby, I l…. ”

But then I saw him as well: the boy. I saw the flesh peeling away from his small round face, hints of bone and teeth where lips should have been. And his eyes, glaring at me, challenging me, hating me with every ounce of his being.

“I… I’m sorry.” Tears spill from the corners of my eyes and I wrap my arms around my stomach as if I can somehow hold back the tide of blood flowing from my body. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Funny thing is, if anyone was around to ask, I couldn’t really say if I’m talkin’ to Josie… or the boy.

CHAPTER FIVE: JOSIE

When I first met Carl, I was traveling alone. Somehow, the idea had gotten into my head that I should try to make my way across the country, all the way to what used to be California. Maybe I was lured by thoughts of palm trees and beaches; maybe there was still some mythical appeal to this land by the ocean. Or maybe, it was more practical.

Winters are bad enough when you have to strip clothes off the rotters you’ve killed just to have one extra layer between your skin and the bite of the wind. You think about lighting a fire, of rubbing your hands over the crackling flames and deeply inhaling an aroma that would bring back memories of camping and bubbling marshmallows impaled on a stick. But you know better. A campfire would draw them in from miles around; they would slowly tighten the circle until there was no hope of escape. So you shiver and try to ignore the stench wafting up from the sweatshirt you just pulled over your head: you cope and survive.

But, if that wasn’t bad enough, the winter also works against you in other ways. Once the temperature dips below freezing, freshies stave off deterioration much longer. Without decomp breaking down muscle tissue, they can stay fast and cagey almost indefinitely; and even the rotters’ slow march toward mulch is put on hold.

Some argue that you can hear them better as they crunch through the icy crust of the snow; and that, if it piles up deeply enough, it slows down the freshies enough to give you more of a fighting chance. But these idiots have apparently never experienced what an Illinois winter can do to the human body.

You see, the cold can devour you as quickly as one of those damn zombies. It starts with the soft parts of your face, your nose and cheeks, the earlobes and lips….  At first, it almost feels as if your skin is tightening, as if it were trying to pull away from the danger and hide deep within the warm safety of the skull. Undaunted, the wind continues its attack with invisible teeth and soon you begin to feel needles of pain, like tiny pieces of flesh are being stripped away. The pain quickly grows into a burning sensation and you flirt with the idea of rubbing snow across your skin to find a modicum of comfort. After a while, however, it recedes and there is only numbness; at this point, you know these parts of your face have been totally devoured and no longer exist. The cycle then starts over then as the cold begins to feast on your toes and fingers, its hunger insatiable….

It had been nearly two hours since I’d left my last shelter and, as these thoughts went through my head, I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. With its single point of entrance and exit, the old silo hadn’t been exactly the safest of strongholds; but it did provide a screen from the wind and a place where I could stretch out free of snow. But, as I laid there listening to the little pops and creaks of the metal, I began imaging a veritable army of corpses tightening around the outside of my resting place.

I could picture them trudging through the snow, their numbers growing with each passing moment, coming closer… and closer… ever closer.

What at first had seemed like a cavernous room now began to feel as dark and constricting as a coffin. It was almost as if I could feel the walls pressing in and the air suddenly seemed thin and dry, making each breath an act of sheer will power.

That screech echoing through the darkness: was that a wire raking against the outside of the silo? Or broken and jagged fingernails scratching against the metal, desperately searching for purchase?

My heart pounded in my chest and I clutched my tire iron closer to me, the metal warm and slick in my moist palms.

“Damn it, girl, you had to go and drop the gun didn’t you? Shit…. ”

I pictured the shotgun, laying at the bottom of what could have either been a very large stream or an extremely small river. Probably trapped beneath ice by then, the way the temperature had been dropping. And I knew exactly how it felt: cold, isolated, and useless.

Something clanged against the outside of my shelter, the sound causing a queasy warmth to spread through my stomach. I held my breath and listened for it to repeat, for even the smallest ting or pop.

“Girl, you need to get up and get your ass out of here. You want to die in this place?”

The voice in my head sounded reasonable, but I laid there for several minutes with images of rotting flesh and gnashing teeth looping through my mind.

Could I really bring myself to kill them if I had to? And how many were out there? Just one? Ten?

“Be a whole lot more if you don’t get your ass moving.”

I stood and walked to the entrance of the silo, holding the cold metal lever in one hand with the tire iron raised above my head in the other. Waiting. Listening.

My heart pounded in my chest and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my brow.

Another scraping sound, so soft that it could have been nothing more than a twig swaying in the wind.

But was it really?

Fuck this.

I threw open the door and my head instinctively whipped back as I winced in pain. Tears streamed from the corner of my eyes and I backed away, swinging the tire iron wildly before me.

When the door was flung open sunlight had flooded into the previously darkened silo. Intensified by the reflective blanket of snow, I found myself blind. Vulnerable. And trapped.

There was a sound in the doorway. A soft crunching that could only be feet breaking through icy crust. At the same time, a stench wafted in, a smell that reminded me of coming back from spring break only to find we had left steaks sitting on the counter in our dorm room.

I continued backing away, swinging the tire iron at what I imagined to be head level; trying to blink away the flashbulb-like explosions that obscured my vision.

But, inside, I knew that it was pointless. The little voice that had urged me to leave while I still had the chance now whispered with quiet certainty:

“Girl, you’re going to die in this place.”

CHAPTER SIX: THE CHILD

He saw me, I know he did, I could tell by the look on his face. I knew he was just tryin’ to ignore me and that he had to be able to see and hear me all along. I just knew it. And he can keep tryin’ to pretend he doesn’t but I know he can now so it won’t do him no good. I’ll keep yellin’ and kickin’ and hittin’ and every time it looks like he might be ready to pass out or something I’ll make sure he wakes back up. He has to feel every little bit of the pain, has to suffer every minute ’til he dies. If Mr. Boots was here, I’d say sic ’em boy, go get ’em and I know he would ’cause Mommy always said Mr. Boots was my protector and would do anything to keep me safe.

If Mr. Boots had been there that day in the creek, I know things woulda turned out different. He wouldn’t have let that man point the gun at me and Mommy. I know he wouldn’t.

When he said he was gonna shoot us if we didn’t say somethin’, I started tryin’ to talk but it was like my brain had forgot how to make words. There was kind of this feeling in my throat like maybe I had tried to swallow something a little too big and my belly felt all warm and sick.

Mommy jumped in front of me and threw up her hands.

“Don’t, please, for God’s sake, no.”

The man looked like he was glad Mommy had said something, like maybe he really didn’t want to shoot us after all. But now I think that it was all just an act.

So the man said his name was Carl and he said there were a bunch of those things headin’ our way and we’d best be movin’ on if we knew what was good for us. Then he asked if he had any weapons or anything.

Mommy told him we didn’t, that it was just her and me and she didn’t understand what was going on and just wanted to keep me safe and was trying to make her way to my Grandpa’s farm. She started crying again and it was real hard to understand what she was saying after that.

Mr. Carl kept lookin’ over his shoulder the entire time and he kinda bounced from one foot to the other like he had to pee real bad. But he listened to everything Mommy was saying and for a minute it looked like he was about to cry too.

“You two better come with me.” he ended up sayin’. “You won’t last long out here without any weapons or nothin’.”

So Mommy scooped me up in her arms and waded out of the creek, but the man looked at me and kinda frowned. He told Mommy that those things were really fast and if she was gonna carry me the whole way she better be darn sure it would be quicker than me runnin’ alongside. He said those things didn’t care if I was a kid or the King of England… that they would snatch me up the minute they had a chance.

When he was saying all this, I just wanted to lay my head on Mommy’s shoulder and cry. Maybe if I cried long and hard enough I would wake up like I sometimes do and find out this was all nothin’ more than just a bad dream. But there was another part of me that told me to be a big boy, so I blinked really fast and held my breath until I didn’t feel like I had to cry anymore.

The rest of the day we spent wanderin’ through the woods. Sometimes Carl would tell us to wait by a tree or a rock while he went to take a look up ahead. And he would always say that if he wasn’t back in ten minutes then we just needed to run and keep on runnin’ and not worry ’bout what had happened to him. And sometimes, when we were waiting for him, we would hear gunshots and Mommy would try to cover my ears but it was already too late.

It was after one of these times that he came back with blood all over his clothes and that was probably the only time I ever saw him cry. He just kinda plopped down in the grass and held his head in his hands like he had a headache or somethin’. But Mommy knew right away something more was wrong with him, just like she does with me.

“Carl,” she said, “what’s wrong? What happened?”

He looked up at us and his eyes were all watery and it was weird but his face somehow looked longer than it had before. He opened his mouth like he was about to say somethin’ but instead he made these noises almost like he was chokin’. And then his entire body started shakin’ and he started cryin’ just as hard as if he’d just seen his favorite puppy get run over by a truck.

Mommy went over and crouched down beside him and started rubbin’ her hand across his back like she does when I’m sick. She was whisperin’ to him, but I was far enough away that I couldn’t really hear her very good. And Carl just kept sayin’ over and over again, “It ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”

So I was just kinda lookin’ around, not really knowin’ what to do, and I heard this rustlin’ in the bushes. I remember thinkin’ that maybe it was a deer and I got a little excited ’cause I’d always wanted to see a real live deer and never had.

I turned around to ask Mommy if I could go look at the deer, but she was holding Carl now and his head was buried in her shoulder as she rocked back and forth, pettin’ his hair and still whispering to him. So I thought she wouldn’t mind, not so long as I stayed where she could see me.

I walked over to the bushes as quiet as I could and had almost made it there when the branches started shakin’ and rattlin’. I stopped in my tracks and held my breath and watched the leaves as they moved and for the first time I started getting’ a little afraid.

What if it weren’t a deer in there at all? What if it was a monster? The bushes were big enough that two or three of ’em could probably fit in there and I wouldn’t ever know.

I bit my lip and kept watchin’ the bush, but by now the shakin’ had stopped. I tried to listen real hard. To see if I could hear any monster noises.

“They don’t make no noise.” part of me thought. “Remember? They don’t growl or nothing.”

My heart had started beatin’ really hard and I wanted to turn around and run back to where Mommy and Carl was. But I was afraid. Afraid that if I turned my back the monsters would leap out like a jungle cat.

I thought about yellin’ for help, but what if it wasn’t a monster at all? What if it was just a rabbit or squirrel or somethin’? I had been tryin’ real hard to make Mommy think I wasn’t afraid or nothin’ because I wanted her to be so proud of me.

And besides, I remembered how fast those things were when they were chasin’ us through the house. What if I screamed for help and they jumped out at me? They would have me before Mr. Carl would even be able to pick up his gun.

The bushes rattled again and I knew that whatever was in there wasn’t no rabbit. Anything that could make them shake like that had to be big.

I felt like I was about to throw up and I wished I never woulda walked over to where I was. I shoulda stayed by Mommy and Mr. Carl, stayed where I knew it was safe.

My whole body had started shakin’, just like those bushes, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

Because I knew.

I knew there was a monster in there.

I knew it was waiting for me to make one wrong move.

Waiting to pounce.

CHAPTER SEVEN: CARL

The boy. Sometimes I still wake up in a sweat, his voice echoing through my head like a ghost trapped somewhere between the realm of sleep and reality. And the image of him from the nightmare lingers on for a moment: usually he’s crying but sometimes he’s just standing there staring at me; his eyes as hard and cold as two pieces of coal, his teeth clenched in anger, radiating accusations without actually voicing the words.

You killed my mother….

Looking back, I’m sure he hated me and, to be perfectly honest, he had every right to.

You killed me….

How do you say “I’m sorry” for something like that?

I was supposed to be their protector, their shining hero in a world gone to hell; and look what happened. Shit, in the end I couldn’t even keep myself safe, could I? And, despite what Doc always told me, I can’t shake the feeling that I deserve this. Maybe this is what Josie’s karma is really all about: I killed a little boy and his mother and now am paying the price.

“That,” I hear Doc say in my mind, “is so much bullshit…. ”

He was the only one I ever told about the boy. After that, I kind of locked it away in my head. I thought if I pretended it never happened then maybe I would be able to convince myself that it had all been some sort of dream. But, as much as you wish it did, it just really doesn’t work that way.

I still remember the day I told Doc what had happened as clearly as if it were only a week or so ago; but we were actually several months into the infestation by then. Long enough to know that once the corpse’s muscle tissue started breaking down they weren’t quite as fast as the ones freshly dead. Long enough for our society to have collapsed entirely with no hope of it ever rising from its ashes like a silver winged phoenix. By then we knew that we were utterly alone. The military, FEMA, the Red Cross… no one was coming to save us. We only had each other and what meager supplies we could scavenge to see us through.

Fifteen miles out of Bloomburg, the engine started sounding as if one of those damn corpses had crawled up under the hood and was pounding away with a hammer. About the same time, that ’ole temperature gauge started creeping up and threatening to ease its way into the red. Doc eased up off the gas for a fraction of a second as he slammed a fist into the steering wheel, causing the horn to overpower the growl of the engine for the same amount of time it took him to curse. But then both hands were back on the wheel again, gripping it so tightly his knuckles were white as bone.

“Can’t stop now!” he yelled over the sound of the engine. “We’d never stand a chance out there.”

He was right. Though most of the scenery was nothing more than a blur, it was all too obvious that those people out there weren’t bored locals who just up and decided to take a leisurely stroll down the interstate. And this late in the game I didn’t have to actually see them to know what they looked like: I was more than familiar with the festering wounds that even maggots wouldn’t touch; I’d seen bones jutting through flesh, little kids with half their faces looking like the skin had been peeled back, refugees from a burn ward staggering along as bits and pieces dropped off. After a while, your mind kind of goes numb and you really don’t think too hard about that old man with a screwdriver sticking out of what used to be his eye or that pretty young girl dragging her intestines along behind her.

“Bout ten more miles or so and we should be outta the ’burbs.” I yelled back.

Personally, I wasn’t quite so sure the old Chevy would make it another five miles, much less ten. It’d taken quite a beating when we tried to force our way through the downtown district. In the movies, you could always just plow your car through small groups of them and they would go flying and rolling off the hood. In reality, a person – even a dead one – does quite a bit of damage to a vehicle. There’s this thud that you feel all the way in the pit of your stomach and the hood just kind of crumples up. Sometimes they do bounce off the top of the car but more often than not they just kinda disappear a fraction of a second before there’s a bump in the road that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I could tell ’ole Doc was having a hell of a time trying to keep the steering wheel from jerking right out of his grasp but I was only seeing that out of the corner of my eye. Mainly, I was watching the plume of steam that had begun rising from the buckled remains of the grill and cussing myself for talking him into coming this way.

By the time we hit the on-ramp, the notion of just busting our way through anyone or anything that stood in our way had been left with our front bumper back at the corner of Oak and Swanson. So I just braced myself against the window with one arm as Doc swerved in and out of the mangled hunks of metal that used to be cars.

Part of me had expected the Interstate to be virtually clear of the dead, but they were everywhere. The rotters shambled along as quickly as their decomposing tissue would allow and tended to cluster in small packs; the freshies, however, were a different story. Once they’d broken through the initial rigor mortis, they still pretty much had control of their muscles. They ran behind the car like a pack of wild dogs chasing down a rabbit: zigzagging through overturned buses and multi-car pileups, leaping over barrels that had fallen from trucks, crashing through clumps of rotters….

To make matters worse, the sound of our engine was like a beacon for the bastards. They scrambled up embankments and fought to break through the glass of the cars they had died, and subsequently become trapped, in. Every ramp we passed was already congested with a rush hour of rotting flesh by the time we got there and I began to taste that metallic tang of fear in the back of my throat.

“This ain’t looking good, Carl. This ain’t looking good at all.”

Even though Doc was practically standing on the pedal, the car was beginning to lose speed. Every few seconds it would shimmy and lurch as the gears whined in protest; something that smelled like a cross between burning rubber and ozone flooded through the vents, causing my eyes to water and the little hairs in my nostrils to tickle as if I had to sneeze.

“Come on, come on damn it, come on!”

We weren’t going to make it. The certainty of this hit me like an cold fist in the gut. Our car was going to shudder and die. And within moments we would be overtaken.

An image flashed through my head of ants clambering over a crust of bread that I had dropped onto their hill as a child. I remembered how quickly they had descended; how, for a moment of two, not so much as a speck of white could be seen through the densely packed bodies that swarmed over their prize. And then they began ripping and tearing at it, carting away jagged little pieces….

We’d dropped to about thirty miles per hour by then and the little icon of an engine was flashing red on the dashboard while this bell chimed out over and over.

“We had quite a run, huh Doc? I just want you t’ know…. ”

“Don’t you talk like that, Carl! This ain’t over, my friend. Not by a long shot.”

We were coming up on an overpass and by now were going so slow that I had time to notice the lone zombie standing up there. Strangely enough for a second or two I felt this wave of sadness wash over me. As if this walking corpse with his missing left arm and tattered clothes were looking out over the Interstate like the Indian in those old commercials from the seventies: surveying all the damage that had been wrought as a single tear slid down the oozing flesh that had once been his cheek. In my mind, I heard this voice, this narrator, say in a deep baritone: “People start pollution; zombies can stop it.”

I felt a laugh bubbling up within me and knew I had to fight to keep it down. I was afraid that if I started with even the smallest chuckle, it would keep right on growing to the point that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I could all too clearly imagine them tearing and biting and gouging while I continued to cackle like some exile from the loony bin.

Doc was so focused on the labyrinth of twisted metal and decaying bodies that he didn’t see what happened next. I’d already been watching that zombie on the overpass, though, so I saw everything as it played out. It couldn’t have been more than just a fraction of a second, but time seemed to kind of slow down; it was almost like I were a character in a movie and someone who knew what was coming up had decided to hit the slow-mo button on the remote.

The freshy on the overpass looked as if it jerked to attention, almost like the roar of the engine below had startled it from a state of reverie. Without a moment’s hesitation, it vaulted over the concrete wall, launching itself into the air as if it would be able to soar like a bird of prey on the wind currents. Gravity had other plans, though, and I remember noticing how the shredded shirt covering its body flapped in the air like streamers as it fell.

“Doc, look ou…. ”

The falling corpse smashed into our windshield, releasing a spider web of cracks through the glass. It’s one remaining hand sought for purchase, clawing at the smooth surface as if it thought it could dig its way in; but then it’s entire body slid off the car and tumbled across the pavement. At the same time, Doc had lost all control: the car spun in circles for what could have been an eternity or merely the amount of time it took to blink an eye before a bone jarring crash stopped it’s momentum.

Doc blinked his eyes a couple time and shook his head as if trying to get the world around us to stop spinning.

“Son of a bitch!”

The engine had died when we smashed into the side of an overturned tanker and Doc frantically turned the key in the ignition. It whined in protest but tried to turn over none-the-less.

“Start damn it start…. ”

For a moment, it caught and the car sputtered to life.

“Hot damn!”

Doc slapped the transmission into reverse and, as he did, the entire car shook like we had suddenly found ourselves in the middle of an earthquake. There was a loud pop from under the hood before the car flooded with the smell of gasoline and died again.

“Shit shit shit!”

Through the shattered windshield, I could see a small cluster of corpses about half a mile away, shambling toward the bridge that stood between us and the next off-ramp. From that distance, they looked to be mostly rotters.

“What the fuck happened?” Doc’s normally deep baritone now bordered on a squeal and dark stains had begun to spread around the armpits of his t-shirt.

“Zombie. Jumped off the overpass to try t’ get us when it saw us comin’. We hafta get out of here, Doc. We hafta get out of here now!”

A freshy had burst through the pack of rotters on the bridge, toppling several and leaving others reeling in the wake of its enthusiasm. Though too far away to actually see its eyes, I had no doubt that they were solely focused on our wreck of a car.

“Damn it, Carl, you think I don’t know that? Shit!”

A quick glance over my shoulder caused a chill to settle into my body so completely it was as if I’d been dipped in liquid nitrogen.

“Doc, we’re in it deep my friend.”

The interstate behind us was swarming with the dead we’d already attracted. They were practically shoulder to shoulder, packed so densely that the freshies among them had to claw and climb their way over the top of the throng.

Doc stole a glance and what little color he had left drained from his face.  He was silent for a moment as he gnawed repeatedly on his lower lip.

“Well,” he finally said, “there’s definitely no turning back.”

Ahead of us, more and more corpses joined the slow march toward the bridge. Two more freshies were fighting their way through and the original one had closed half the distance between them and us.

“Just a matter of minutes, now.”

I pulled a cigarette from the crumpled pack in my pocket and studied it for a moment. I looked at the little tears in the paper, the dark stains where it had gotten wet and then been allowed to dry again. Doc may have thought I was trying to play it cool, but in reality I was wondering if my hands would stop shaking long enough for me to actually light the damn thing.

“These things will kill ya, Doc. Be glad you never took up the habit.”

“Son of a bitch, that bastard’s still kickin’.”

I rose up in my seat a little so I could look out the window at whatever it was Doc had noticed.

“I’ll be damned…. ”

The freshy that had leaped from the overpass in the throes of homicidal zeal looked as if it had been attacked with sledgehammers. Jagged shards of bone poked through just about every part of its body; both legs were splayed out in angles never meant for the human form to experience and the left side of its face looked as if it had caved in. But, even so, it was wiggling its way across the asphalt, inching closer and closer to the side of the car.

“Crazy fuckin’ zombies …”

I lit the cigarette and took a long, slow drag. The smoke scratched my throat and tasted like oven-baked shit, but I would be damned if I was going to die without one final puff.

CHAPTER EIGHT: JOSIE

But I didn’t die; not then, not there. As I swung the tire iron and squinted into the brightness of the doorway, a deep voice echoed through the silo.

“Whoa, missy, easy there. We’re alive… we’re living!”

The figure looming before me was still nothing more than a blurry silhouette but as I tried to blink the stinging away I began to realize that it was holding both hands in front of it, palms outward. For a moment I thought of a mime in the beginning stages of a Trapped In A Box routine and my mind rapidly filled in the details: black and white striped shirt, a bowler hat, face painted as white as the gloves he held up before him. And I began to laugh.

In fact, I began to laugh so hard that the tire iron thumped to the ground as I hugged my stomach with both arms. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes and I tried to speak but every sound that began to pass through my lips seemed to become the most hysterical thing I’d ever heard.

At some point, I dropped to my knees and what had started as a laugh had somehow morphed into crying; at that moment, kneeling inside an abandoned silo in the middle of snow-blanketed fields that stretched as far as they eye could see, it really hit me: everything was gone.

Everything I had ever loved, everything that had comprised the brush strokes in my portrait of reality… a wave of mutilation had crashed down upon it all, leaving nothing but ruined reminders and artifacts amid the flotsam of rotting flesh. The world had changed in every conceivable way and there was no going back now.

Through a shimmering veil of tears, I saw the silhouette rush forward. He dropped to his knees beside me and gently pulled my face into the hollow of his shoulder; the jacket he wore was scratchy and smelled like stale sweat with an undercurrent of decay, perhaps from the splotches of blood that had dried dark against the khaki colored material. But he was alive, he was warm, he was like me….

He spoke in soft tones as his hand stroked my hair, whispering in a way that reminded me of my mother as she sat day after day in the hospital, watching my father waste away. Despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, everything was going to be okay, it would all work out in the end: we just had to be strong and believe.

Later, I would learn that the man’s name was Doc. The group he was traveling with had noticed a couple of zombies, what they called rotters, stumbling along outside the silo, their hands running over the smooth metal as if searching for a way in.

“We figured if they were that interested in what was inside, it had to be survivors.”

There were four people in their group, so dispatching the rotters wasn’t too difficult for them: it only took a few blows to the head with an ax while the others created a diversion.

By the time Doc led me out of the silo, my eyes had adjusted to the glare of sunlight on snow. Two people were standing off to the side, bundled so tightly in layers of clothing that it was impossible to tell if they were men or women and they appeared to be talking. Another man, however, was squatting next to one of the bodies that had fallen. If he smelled the stench wafting from the blackened flesh of the corpse, he gave no sign; he simply continued to plunge his hands into the pockets of the rotter, turning them out onto the ground.

“What’s he doing?” I whispered to Doc.

The man looked up at me and I was struck by what I saw in his eyes. I had always read about people who have a haunted look to them and had always thought I understood. But mere words can never do justice to something that so thoroughly penetrates the soul. It was almost as time and space had no meaning in those brown irises: he was an old man with a lifetime of sorrow and regret; he was a young boy coping with his first experience with death; he was every age in between… every pang, every ounce of remorse and pain, all trapped behind those eyes.

“What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m goin’ through its pockets.”

His voice held no malice, but reflected what I had seen in his eyes. It was as if the landscape of his soul was as desolate and barren as the post-apocalypse prairie.

“I can see that. Why?”

“Very few people,” Doc said, “die with empty pockets. Never can tell what you might find in there.”

The other man had pulled a wallet out of the corpse’s hip pocket and thumbed through its contents. He fanned out a wad of cash before tossing the billfold to the side.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “there’s people out there who still think this is worth something. More than you’d reckon.”

“That’s Carl, by the way.” Doc said with a grin. “He’s mostly harmless. As long as you’ve got a pulse that is.”

Doc nodded toward the two androgynous bundles of cloth across from us.

“Over there. That’s Sadie and Watchmaker.”

“He’s blind, ya know.” Carl chimed in as he stood. “I reckon he was so hard up for a shot of hooch he chugged some rubbin’ alcohol. He’s a bit of an old soak, if’n ya know what I mean.”

From somewhere beneath the sweaters and scarves, a voice as coarse and scratchy as the fibers croaked.

“I’m blind not deaf, you asshole.”

Doc laughed, releasing a plume of breath into the air; for the first time in God knows how long, I began to feel something I thought would never again grace my spirit. If there was laughter still in the world, then surely there could also be hope.

I found myself grinning and, even though I have always had a difficult time fitting in with other people, wanting to join in with the good natured banter of this group.

“It’s okay.” I called out with a smile. “You may be an old soak but at least you’re not a grave robber.”

The words had barely passed my lips when Carl pulled a pistol from his waistband with the speed of an Old West gunslinger. He leveled it in front of him, advanced toward me with quick steps, his face devoid of any emotion what-so-ever.

In the time it took for a snowflake to melt on the tip of a warm tongue, I had went from having an almost family-like feeling for this group of travelers to looking down into the dark barrel of a gun.

“Look,” I stammered as I scrambled backward, “it was just a joke, you know. I was just…. ”

But Carl was still advancing, if anything his pace quickening to almost a run. My stomach felt as if I had just dropped eighty feet on a roller coaster and the words dried up.

I could only look on in horror as I saw him pull back the hammer with the tip of his thumb and heard that little click that can never be confused with any other sound in the world.

CHAPTER NINE: THE CHILD

I got that feeling again. The one like I’m in two places at the same time and everything seems all confusing and stuff. I’m still with a bunch of blurry people, but somehow I still feel so lonely. Almost like I don’t even realize they’re there or anything.

And it hurts, it really hurts, like every inch of my body has done been skinned up and bruised but much worse than I ever got from just fallin’ off my bike. At the same time, I’m glad that I’m there and also here all at the same time. Somehow, I know that if I wasn’t here in this little room then the pain would be so much worse, so bad that I probably wouldn’t even be able to cry ’cause I’d be afraid that the tears would hurt as they ran down my face.

And I wonder if that other me feels the same thing. If it can tell somethin’ isn’t really right too. Does it see me and this room over top what it’s lookin’ at? Does it see a ghost-like Mr. Carl layin’ there on the floor in all that blood? If it does, I bet it’s as happy that he’s dyin’ as I am.

See, I know that this is all his fault, too. He split me off into two parts somehow, maybe like one of those evil wizards in the stories Mommy used to tell me before bed. I wouldn’t put it past him to do somethin’ like that.

But the other me is kinda fading now and I can barely see the trees and bushes and that smoke in the distance that we all seem to be headin’ toward. The pain is going away too, but I can still feel that loneliness inside. Almost like it latched onto me with a hundred tiny little claws and can’t be shaken off no matter what. And I think the lady somehow knows. She’s lookin’ at me the same way people used to when I told ’em my Daddy died when I was just a little baby. Kinda like she feels sorry for me but doesn’t know what to do or say to make it all better.

What she doesn’t know is that she can’t make it all better. No one can. The only thing that’ll help is if Mr. Carl takes forever to die and I know that he’s been sufferin’ every stinkin’ minute. And even that won’t make it all go away. It’ll just make it easier somehow.

I remember, that day in the woods when he was cryin’ and Mommy was tryin’ to talk to him, he yelled out, “It was just a little girl, for Christ’s sake!”. And I heard Mommy say back to him that no it wasn’t, not anymore. I didn’t really know what she meant, but I really wasn’t payin’ too much attention to tell the truth.

I was still standin’ there when I heard ’em say those things, still watchin’ the bushes shakin’ and tryin’ my hardest not to start cryin’ and needing to pee so bad it almost hurt. Still waitin’ for the monster to jump out at me the moment I turned to run.

Only it wasn’t no monster after all. I musta been standin’ really still because while I stood there watchin’ I saw this little white tail through some of the branches. It was headin’ farther into the woods and it only took a second for me to see the rest of its body. It’s brown fur looked so soft that I just wanted to go up and pet it but the antlers looked like maybe they could be sharp. So I decided to keep watchin’ it but also to keep away from it a little bit.

I tried to step real soft like they do in movies when they are trackin’ somethin’; but every couple minutes I would step on a twig and it would snap. When that happened the deer would stop and his head would jerk up and he would kinda look around like Pepper used to before she’d go outside with the other cats.

So I would stand really still and ’ventually the deer would go back to eatin’ and walkin’. For the first time since Mommy and me ran away from the house, I wasn’t scared at all. I was pretendin’ that I was an explorer deep in the jungle and that the deer was magic and it would lead me to the Lost City if I was just able to follow it long enough.

And I did a good job, too. That deer just kept walkin’ and I just kept followin’. Until I tripped over that darn root.

When that happened, I kinda fell forward and into some bushes. The bushes had thorns all over ’em and they scratched my face and arms and I musta yelled ’cause when I stood up again the deer was way off in the distance, jumpin’ and runnin’ as fast as it could.

I turned around to ask Mommy if she had saw the deer, too. But the clearing where Mommy and Carl were wasn’t there no more. Around me all I could see was trees and bushes and I couldn’t hear Mommy talkin’ no more. I heard birds chirpin’ and this weird cluckin’ kind of noise I hadn’t noticed before but everything else was so quiet.

I wanted to cry again and I kinda spun around in circles, hopin’ that maybe I had just got confused and I would be able to see her and Mr. Carl in a different direction. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see nothin’ and I couldn’t help it, I just started cryin’ and my belly felt sick again.

I yelled for Mommy as loud as I could and these birds in the trees musta got scared ’cause they all took off flying at once. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to be back with Mommy and not all alone in the woods with the bears and snakes and wolves and things. So I kept hollerin’ for her over and over until my throat felt like it was burning.

And then I heard Mommy’s voice holler my name, but it sounded so far away away that I tried to yell louder even though I was sure I was screamin’ so loud now that my throat just had to be bleedin’.

Only Mommy didn’t answer me this time. Instead I heard Carl’s voice.

“Jason! Stop screaming! Don’t scream. Stay where you are. We’ll find you.”

I didn’t know how he thought they were gonna be able to find me if I stayed real quiet like he wanted me to, so I yelled some more.

“Damn it, Jason, shut up! We will find you just shut the Hell up!

And that was when I figured it out. He didn’t want me to scream because he really didn’t want them to find me. He wanted me to stay lost in the woods like those two little kids in the fairy tale. If some mean ’ole witch came along and gobbled me up, he wouldn’t even care cause then he would have my Mommy all to himself.

One time Mommy said she was goin’ out with Mr. Patterson from the butcher’s shop. But when she picked me up at Miss Donna’s that night she told me she wouldn’t be goin’ out with him ever again. She said that he wanted just her but we were a package deal and if he didn’t love me then we didn’t have no place in our lives for him. So I knew that there were people out there who wanted to take her away from me. And now I knew that Mr. Carl was one of those people, too.

But the only thing in the world that I wanted was my Mommy… even more than I wanted Pepper and Mr. Boots. So I kept yellin’ no matter how many times Carl yelled back at me not to.

I had just stopped to take a really big breath so I could yell the loudest I possibly could when I heard the bushes behind me rattle. If you’ve never been lost then you don’t really know what it’s like to be found again. How your heart feels kinda fluttery inside and how you can feel happy from the tips of your toes all the way up to your hair.

I spun ’round and was getting’ ready to run to Mommy so I could give her a big hug… but then I saw that it wasn’t her comin’ out of the bushes and it wasn’t Mr. Carl neither.

The monsters looked like marshmallows do when you’ve held them in the fire too long and the outside gets all burnt and bubbly. And all three of ’em were like that, but I could see bits of clothes in places and the little one had tennis shoes on but the bottoms kinda looked like they had started to melt. I’m not sure how I knew, but as I looked at ’em I could tell that it was a whole monster family: a Mommy, a Daddy, and a little kid.

I remembered the monsters from the house and how they had chased us, so I screamed and took off running as fast as I could. I didn’t know if I was running toward Mommy and Mr. Carl or if I was runnin’ away from where they were but I didn’t really care right then.

All I could think about were the monsters behind me as I jumped over fallen logs and ran through the woods. I could hear them back there, crashin’ through the brush and could almost picture those arms reachin’ out to grab me.

My heart was beatin’ in my chest so hard I felt like it was gonna pop and I started getting’ this pain in the side of my belly that made it hurt to run. I was cryin’ and the trees and everything looked blurry and I was still screaming but I can’t really remember what I was sayin’.

At one point, I looked back over my shoulder and saw they were so close that I could see a little Hello Kitty on a piece of the clothes that was stuck to the kid monster.

They’re gonna get me, they’re gonna get me, they’re gonna get me …

I just kept thinking that over and over and it seemed like every time I would look back they would be just a little bit closer.

Next thing I know, I was falling cause I had tripped over a root or rock or somethin’. I landed on my knees and fell forward but was only on the ground for just a second. I was racin’ to get to my feet as quick as I could when I felt something on my tee shirt, a kind of tuggin’ or pullin’.

I screamed and started runnin’ again and heard a ripping sound. Next thing I know half my shirt is gone and briars were scratchin’ my chest as I ran by.

I knew what had happened, that one of them had almost had me, and wondered if it was still holding my shirt as it chased me. But I didn’t want to look back again, didn’t want to know how close they were now or take the chance that I would trip again.

I had started scramblin’ up the side of a hill when I saw a little cave up ahead. It was a lot smaller than the one Mommy and me had slept in but I thought it was big enough for me to get into but not enough for them to follow.

As soon as I got to the cave, I kinda dove into the entrance like a baseball player slidin’ in to home base headfirst. It was so small that I had to kinda wiggle ’cause the rocks were scrapin’ my sides and my back but I just kept crawlin’ forward.

If I coulda, I would’ve crawled right down to the very center of the earth. But, instead, I felt this hand grab my ankle and it was colder than any hand I had ever felt before, so cold that I could feel it all the way through my sock.

And then it was pulling me backward, back toward the entrance and I knew the moment my leg was outside it would all be over so I grabbed onto this rock with all my might and tried to pull myself farther back into the cave.

The monster was really strong and my fingertips began feelin’ like they were about to snap right off and I suddenly felt a warmth in my pants and smelled pee. But even that smell wasn’t as strong as the dumpster-like stink of the monster behind me.

My arms began shakin’ real bad and I kept holdin’ on to that rock and tryin’ to pull myself in the other direction.

Then I felt another hand pullin’ at the bottom of my pants leg and I knew that maybe I would be able to keep holding on if just one of them was pullin’ on me. But I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay in the cave once all three of ’em began pulling.

“Leave me alone!” I yelled at ’em. “Go away!”

But my yells only seemed to make ’em tug harder and next thing I know my fingers slipped from the rock and I felt myself being pulled backward, back toward the entrance of the cave and the three monsters waitin’ outside.

CHAPTER TEN: CARL

So there we were, trapped in the car: I looked over at Doc, ready to tell him how it had been a pleasure knowing him and that I wish we woulda met before the whole world turned upside down. But he had that look he sometimes got. His eyes darted from zombies making their way toward us to the road beyond them and I could almost sense excitement starting to rise in him.

“I got an idea, Carl. You still buckled in?”

“Yeah. What’s up? What you got in mind?”

Doc took the little cross that dangled from his neck and lifted the chain to his lips. He closed his eyes for a moment before kissing the pendant.

“It’s the bottom on the ninth, Carl. We’re down by one run and got one man on. No balls, two strikes, two outs. If I don’t hit a homer on this pitch, it’s all over…. ” With his eyes still closed, Doc reached for the ignition one last time. He hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “Please…. ”

The original freshy from the bridge was close enough now that I could see the rage in its eyes, that burning hatred that seemed to fuel its existence.

Leaning out the window, I pulled the pistol from the glove box and took aim. Two squeezes of the trigger and one sulfuric-smelling cloud of smoke later, the zombie’s head dropped with a wet smack to the concrete below.

Doc turned the key and the car rumbled to life; but it was a life sort of like the ones most of those things out there lead: sluggish, nothing more than an shadow of its former existence really, and destined to succumb to the ravages of wear and tear in a relatively short period of time.

“Hot damn! I think we can avoid those rotters.” Doc shouted, “But we gotta do something about the freshies or else this car starting doesn’t mean jack.”

I could tell he wasn’t so much talking to me as working out his thoughts, so I stayed quiet and let his mind work.

“You pick off those freshies quick as you can, Carl. If your aim is good and this works out the way I think it will, we just might stand a chance.”

Before I could respond, Doc threw the transmission into drive and stomped his foot on the gas. The car lurched forward and, for one sickening moment when I felt as though my stomach had just plummeted into some bottomless abyss, I was positive it was about to shudder to a stop again. The engine coughed and wheezed, sputtered, and then roared to life again.

We were speeding toward the next freshy as it continued its mad dash toward us, the distance closing with each passing second. Leaning slightly out the window, I tried to steady my hand and pulled the trigger.

Rather than shattering the damn thing’s skull like I had intended, the bullet slammed into its shoulder, causing it to spin around for a moment like some bizarre ballerina.

“Damn it, Doc, this car’s shakin’ too bad.”

The knocking from the engine was now so loud that I could barely hear the sound of my own voice and that dang corpse was so close that I could clearly make out the blood splattered Nike logo emblazoned on its shirt.

Doc slammed on the brakes, the tires squealing like a band of demons loosed from the gates of hell as the stench of burning rubber filled the air. Still leaning halfway out the window, I drew a bead, held my breath for a fraction of a second and pulled off another shot.

This time I hit my mark and couldn’t resist letting out a whoop as the god-forsaken thing slumped to the ground. Part of me wanted to take a moment to cherish the small victory, but I knew there were still two more barreling toward us, intent of exacting their rage before the rotters, who were just now beginning to shamble across the bridge, ever had a chance. Two more shots rang out, both as steady and true as if they were guided by the hand of God.

“That’s it for the fresh …”

But Doc was already laying on the gas again, his eyes narrowed into mere slits and jaw set in an expression of grim determination.

“Hold on tight, Carl, you hear me? Hold on!”

The crowd of rotters loomed before us like a wall of cadavers, packed so tightly together it was hard to see where one body ended and another began.

“We can’t break through ’em, Doc! There’s too many!”

The car thumped slightly as it bumped over the little ridge of asphalt where road turned to bridge. Fifty yards away now and I could smell the stench, sweet and greasy and sickening all at the same time, overpowering even the odor of exhaust and scorched oil, becoming trapped in my hair and clothes and nostrils.

The side of Doc’s mouth turned upward into a slight grin.

“Through? Who the hell said anything about through?”

He jerked the steering wheel sharply to the right and we were suddenly racing toward the waist-high wall of the bridge. I opened my mouth, to cuss or scream or maybe just to make some wordless sound of fear; but before the breath had even left my lungs, our car smashed into the wall and we were flipping, the rear end lifting up and over, forward momentum carrying us over the little wall with the screech of metal on concrete vibrating through my teeth.

And then we were falling, toppling, road maps and empty soda cans tumbling like weightless astronauts through the compartment.  After a few seconds, my entire body felt a jolt like it had never known. Pain flared through every joint in my body simultaneously and I tasted blood, warm and salty, as I inadvertently bit through my lip. Everything still rolling now, but punctuated with bangs and crashes that whipped my head back and forth, pain shooting through my neck and shoulders.

We ended up upside down and I sat there for a moment, blinking and trying to make sense of exactly what had just happened, wondering where that high pitched ringing that was suddenly in my ears was coming from.

“Move!”

Doc had already slid free of his seatbelt and was scurrying through the twisted remains of the driver’s side window, kicking free the little clumps of safety glass that still remained. Though it hurt like hell to even breathe, I somehow found the strength to follow him and was soon crawling across grass and staggering to my feet. Doc had already regained his balance and had turned to look back toward the way we’d come, one hand pressed tightly against his side as if he were hugging himself with a single arm.

I turned to look as well. The rotters on the bridge, in their single minded pursuit of the living, had done the same thing as the zombie on the overpass. We watched them falling and toppling through the air, a seemingly endless waterfall of decaying flesh as they spilled over the side; their bodies hit the ground with dull thuds, the snapping of bones so loud that it was almost like the constant crackling of a fire hidden somewhere in their midst.

Doc slowly shook his head as if he were looking upon a mystery of nature.

“Crazy fuckin’ zombies… ”

  I felt like an idiot standing there, grinning at my friend as wave after wave plummeted toward the ground: but the sun was warm, the birds in the forest behind us were chirping, and we were alive, by God, we were alive!

“New rule, Doc.” I said as I spat blood from my busted mouth. “Number twenty-two: Stay the hell out of the cities.”

Doc started to laugh then and I soon joined in, slapping him on the back as we began trying to salvage what supplies we could from the fallen remains of our once-proud chariot: I thought again how the sun was warm, the birds in the forest were chirping, and we were alive… if only for another day.

It was only later, as we limped through the woods with our supplies jangling and clanking in the “backpacks” we’d fashioned from a piece of tarp and bits of cord from the car’s trunk that my mind turned to the past. Maybe it was the way the sunlight dappled through the canopy of leaves overhead, the way the shadows danced over the forest floor as the wind rustled through the branches; or perhaps it was the smell of honeysuckle and pine mixed with that old vegetation smell that’s almost like mildew but not quite.

Whatever the cause, I grew quiet as we trekked through the wilderness. At one point in my life, I probably would have been appreciating the beauty of the leaves that had just begun turning into the brilliant yellows and oranges of fall. I would have found a sort of solace in the gurgling of the streams we leaped across and the way the squirrels scampered up the sides of trees in an almost corkscrew pattern.

As it was, though, my thoughts and emotions were as jumbled and twisted as that wreck of a car we’d left in our wake.

I was tired; so tired that I just wanted to lay down on the forest floor and sleep for a thousand years. A dreamless sleep, preferably, where the faces of those I had known and loved, or even those I had simply met in passing, didn’t haunt me with visions of a past that could never be recovered. And yet I kept walking, kept putting one foot in front of the other for reasons I myself couldn’t begin to understand.

After what must have been nearly forty minutes, I cleared my throat and glanced over at my companion. But it was only a quick look. I knew I would never be able to hold his gaze while I told the story I was about to share.

“Doc,” I finally said, “I ever tell you about the time I shot a kid?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN: JOSIE

I had read about people looking down the barrel of a gun: how time seems to slow down and they look back over the course of their lives, flashing back to childhood or perhaps a wedding or the birth of a child; sometimes they even notice the smallest details of the weapon pointed at them, from the darkness of the bore to the smudged fingerprint on the barrel. In real life, however, it wasn’t like that at all.

In fact, it was all over so fast that I only had enough time to throw my hands up as if believed I were Wonder Woman and my bracelets could deflect the bullet. At the same time, there was a sharp crack and a puff of smoke rose like magic from the pistol.

There was no time to think a final thought, no time to beg for mercy; there was only the blast of the gun immediately followed by something that almost sounded like a gnat whizzing by my head.

My muscles had tensed in expectation of the shot and for a moment I couldn’t understand why the burst of pain never came. My hands scrambled over my body, desperately searching for the blood I was sure had to be oozing from the wound but coming up clean time and time again.

Doc let out a long whoop and threw both of his hands straight into the air, bouncing on the tips of his toes as a smile spread across his face.

“Son of a bitch, Carl… one shot! Who da man? You da man!”

Carl brushed past me and I turned in bewilderment, feeling like a person who’d walked into a theater halfway through the movie. A thousand thoughts raced through my head and I felt as though my entire body sighed as the certainty that I had not been shot took hold.

Carl had made his way to the side of the silo and I tried to remember if the body had been lying there before. Didn’t Doc say they had killed two of those things? Or had he said a few?

The corpse was lying on its back and I could see blood seeping into the snow, radiating out from its head like a crimson halo. It was dressed in a ratty, blue bathrobe with a single bunny slipper adorning one foot; the other was bare and I could see black, swollen splotches on the toes and ankle.

“Freshie.” Carl called back, his voice sounding distant and muffled by the blanket of snow surrounding us. “Ain’t been dead more than a week I reckon. Maybe two seein’ as how cold it’s been.”

He crouched and began rummaging through the creature’s pockets.

“If there’s any more around here,” Doc shouted back, “that gunshot is going to bring them running. We need to get going.”

“Hot damn! Nearly full pack of smokes here. Lighter too.”

Carl pocketed the cigarettes and undid the loose knot in the robe’s belt. Then he rolled the thing onto its side and slipped one of the beefy arms out of the sleeve.

Doc squinted in the glare of the sun and scanned the horizon.

“Come on, Carl. We gotta get a move on!”

Carl came running back, his boots crunching through the icy crust, and the robe cradled in his arms like a baby; the fallen zombie was left naked and face down….   For a moment I almost felt sorry for the thing. It had once been someone’s son, perhaps a husband and father. It had worried about the same things we all used to: bills, the cost of gasoline, terrorism. Now the last shred of dignity had been stripped from its body and it found true death in the same manner it had originally came into the world: cold, naked, and alone.

Maybe Carl saw something in my eyes as he passed. Or perhaps he instinctively knew what I was thinking.

“There were bits of flesh still stuck in its teeth.” he said. “And I guaran-fucking-tee it wasn’t chicken.”

He walked over to where Sadie and Watchmaker stood, wrapped the robe around one of them, adding another layer of warmth and protection.

“Shit girl,” Doc mumbled as he placed a hand on my shoulder, “you act like you’ve never seen one of those bastards killed before.”

Later that evening we managed to find an old farmhouse that seemed like an oasis of normality in the flat fields. Carl and Doc had left me outside with Sadie and Watchmaker as they swept each room of the house; I held an ax in my hands and was told , in no uncertain terms, that if things went bad not to try anything foolish.

“You just see these two somewhere warm,” Carl had said as he handed me the ax. “We’ve been working our way south. Keep heading that way.”

  But the instructions proved unnecessary; after nearly a quarter hour of hearing their voices call out “Clear!” every few minutes, they finally appeared in the doorway and ushered the rest of us inside.

By the time the sun had begun to set, we had settled into the relative comfort of the living room. The couches and chairs were as old and dusty as some of the pictures hanging upon the wall; springs that were barely concealed by threadbare floral patterns poked into our butts and backs and the entire place had the musty smell of age. We had broken some of the kitchen chairs and had the wood neatly stacked in the stone fireplace with layers of blankets covering every window of the living room; now we were only waiting for night to camouflage the smoke that would soon be curling from the chimney, only waiting for the warmth our bodies so desperately craved.

Even without the fire, though, we were able to peel off some of clothing now that we were free from the bite of the wind; and, for the first time, I got a good look at Sadie and the man called Watchmaker.

Sadie’s skin looked as soft and wrinkled as old tissue, her eyes like two dusty sapphires. Her hair, which was the color of old ash, was pulled back into a tight bun and somehow her neck looked as thin and frail as a dry twig beneath the bulk of sweaters and scarves.

What little hair Watchmaker had, on the other hand, was as white as the snow we had recently trudged through… most of it taking the form of a bushy beard that flowed nearly down to the hollow in his neck. His flesh, while as deeply wrinkled as his wife’s, looked more like old leather than tissue and his eyes were milky white, like a can of paint that had been spilled into water.

“… and then that sunnava bitch hit that poor girl. Right in the head with a shovel. Took her can of beans and never looked back.”

Sadie shook her head slowly as she finished her story, the frown on her face causing new wrinkles to form around her mouth and eyes.

“Wouldn’t have happened back in the day.” Watchmaker piped in. “Even before all this you had people runnin’ around like they ain’t got a lick of sense. But most of ’em at least had a lick of decency. But now…. ”

I reached forward and touched his hand, amazed at how easy it was to feel the bone beneath the flesh and muscle.

“It’ll come back on them.” I said. “You’ll see.”

I heard Carl scoff from his place in the easy chair and turned to see him shaking his head like someone listening to a child spin an obvious lie.

“I’m sorry, did I miss something, Carl?”

“Oh no, ma’am. Not at all.”

He fished a cigarette from the pack he’d taken from the corpse and ran it under his nose, inhaling deeply. His face, however, still looked mildly bemused.

“Carl doesn’t believe in any of that.” Doc explained with a nod toward his friend.

“Any of what?”

With a flick of the lighter, Carl lit the cigarette and leaned back in the chair with his head tilted toward the ceiling. He slowly released a plume of smoke from his lungs before saying anything.

“Heaven and hell, Karma… all that shit. The way I see it, it ain’t nothing more than a way for people to cope. Bad things happen to good people, but it gives them comfort to think there’s some sorta justice out there. Even if they have to wait ’til they die for it to happen.”

  “But there is justice.” I interrupted. “The Universe seeks balance. It does in everything. Light and dark, positive and negative. Nature has a way of …”

“Damn girl, there’s no justice out there. Just survival. And, to be perfectly honest, murdering pricks like the one Sadie was talking about will probably last longer than an honest man.”

Carl paused to take another drag from his cigarette. I wanted to argue with him, to prove that he was wrong; but I was still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that his view of humanity was so bleak.

“Expecting life to be fair just because you’re a good person,” he continued, “is like standing in front of a rotter and expecting it not to attack because you’re a pacifist.”

“So why bother then?” I stammered. “I’ve seen how you take care of Sadie and Watchmaker. And I’ve gathered they’re not family …”

“Right as rain about that.” Watchmaker said. “Before last month never saw neither of these two boys before.”

“And you still haven’t seen me, blind man. Unless you’ve been lying about something all along.”

The others laughed and Carl continued smoking, leaning forward in his chair with a grin.

“No wait,” I interjected, “I have to understand this. If you don’t believe in any type of repercussions why even bother? Why not ditch these two as zombie bait and haul ass at the first sign of trouble?”

Carl had an amused twinkle in his eyes, but his brow furrowed in a manner that made him appear entirely serious.

“Wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

He shrugged and crushed the cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe.

“Just the way I was raised, I reckon.”

“But you have to believe in something.” I insisted.

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right… I believe I’ll have another smoke.”

There was another round of laughter and I remember studying Carl as he lit his second cigarette. I watched how quickly the smile melted from his face, how the twinkle in his eyes faded into that eons old stare, and noticed, for the first time, how he looked at the others through a mask of sadness. As if he somehow knew that this closeness, this fleeting sense of togetherness and belonging, could never withstand the ravages of the new world we’d been thrust into.

And, as I sat there studying this man, I remember wondering exactly what he had seen through those eyes. Since the day the first corpses began to stir with new life, we’d all lost loved ones. We had all felt the pangs of heartbreak, of loneliness and loss. But there was something more to him, something deeper than all of that… and it was something I thought would probably take a lifetime to understand.

CHAPTER TWELVE: THE CHILD

I’d almost been pulled outta the little cave when I heard my Mommy’s voice screaming.

“Let ’em go, you bastards, let ’em go, let ’em go!”

Then I heard Mr. Carl’s voice, real loud and angry like.

“Monica, don’t!”

All of a sudden I wasn’t bein’ pulled anymore so I scurried back into the hole. I realized I was cryin’ and I was a little bit embarrassed ’cause it seemed like all I did anymore was cry. But the monsters almost had me and I didn’t know what they woulda done if they coulda pulled me out of that little cave but I knew it wouldn’t have been anything good.

Outside, I could hear my Mommy still yellin’ and Mr. Carl was shoutin’ at her to get outta the way, let him handle this but I don’t think she was listenin’ to him because he just kept on sayin’ it over and over.

I’d crawled far enough into the cave that I found a space where I could kinda wiggle around so that I was facin’ the way out. I could see all the light comin’ through the entrance and every now and then somethin’ would run by. But it was too quick to tell if it was a monster, my Mommy, or Mr. Carl.

“Damn it, Monica, get the hell outta the way!”

Carl was really angry and I began wonderin’ what was goin’ on out there. So I started crawlin’ toward the entrance so I could get a better look.

When I was crawlin’, I heard Mr. Carl’s gun shoot a coupla times and then I heard him cuss and start yelling at my Mommy some more. But she was still screamin’ at the monsters to leave us alone and her voice sounded like she was so mad she was about to cry.

I was finally close enough that I could see outside; Mr. Carl was runnin’ along the side of the hill with his gun pulled and held out in front of him like he was a cop or somethin’. Behind him, I saw the little kid monster layin’ on the ground. It wasn’t movin’ at all which made me think that Mr. Carl had prob’ly kilt it when he was shootin’ earlier.

Mommy was just a little bit away from my cave and she had this big old limb that she was swinging in front of her like it was a baseball bat. Her face was all shiny with tears, which made me feel better about me cryin’ so much, and two of those monsters were coming toward her.

The Daddy monster was a little faster than the Mommy monster and it kinda jumped toward her at the same time she was swingin’ the limb. I thought for sure she was gonna hit it, but the piece of wood just barely missed. Then it grabbed my Mommy’s shirt in its hands and was pullin’ her toward it and Mommy was tryin’ to swing her limb but it kinda seemed like the monster’s arms kept getting in the way.

Next thing I know, the monster opened its mouth and Mommy started screamin’ and I suddenly knew what the monsters wanted to do with us. They wanted to eat us, just like monsters in movies, and I think Mommy knew this too ’cause her screams sounded different this time, like she was more afraid than mad.

I screamed for her and this seemed to remind the mommy monster that I was in the cave ’cause it turned and came runnin’ back to where I was hidin’. But I was quicker and I started crawlin’ backward again.

Outside, I heard Mr. Carl’s gun again, three times: Bam! Bam! Bam! Then, I heard Mommy scream again but she didn’t sound mad or afraid. It sounded more like she’d hurt herself real bad but I didn’t have a whole lotta time to think about it ’cause all of a sudden I saw the monster’s face lookin’ into the cave at me.

I was still close enough that I could see there were bits of bone stickin’ out through its burnt up skin and I could also see these little pieces of glass stickin’ out of the corner of one of its eyes.

I kept thinkin’ it would growl at me or something, but it didn’t. It just pushed its hands into the cave like it thought it could actually reach me. And I began wonderin’ if monsters had magic powers. If it could make its arm stretch or make itself small enough that it could crawl into the hole after me.

I picked up a rock and was just getting’ ready to throw it when I heard Mr. Carl’s gun again. At the same time there was this hole that suddenly appeared in the monster’s forehead and it just fell down right where it was. But not before I had time to notice that monster blood looked really dark and thick, kinda like black pancake batter with all these little gray bits mixed in.

Then the monster disappeared and I saw Mr. Carl’s face lookin’ into the cave.

“It’s okay, son.” he said. “They’re all dead. Come on out now, it’s okay.”

All I could think about was havin’ my Mommy’s arms around me and hearin’ her tell me that everything was gonna be fine. So I crawled outta the cave just as fast as I could.

When I got toward the entrance, Mr. Carl kinda pulled me out and lifted me over the body of the monster he’d killed, but as soon as he put me down I was runnin’ to where my Mommy was, hollerin’ her name as I started cryin’ again.

She was sittin’ on the ground but she still gave me a big ’ole hug and held my head against her shoulder. She rocked back and forth and petted my hair and she was cryin’ too which made me squeeze her even more tighter.

After a while, I heard Mr. Carl behind us and his voice was real soft and sad sounding.

“You shoulda just let me get clear shot. You shoulda just let me handle it.”

When I heard him, I got mad all over again for him tellin’ me to shut up when I was lost in the woods. I pulled away from Mommy and was getting’ ready to yell at him when I realized that my chest felt kinda sticky like.

I looked down and saw all this blood where my shirt had been ripped only it wasn’t dark like monster blood but red like people blood. And then I looked at my Mommy and saw that she had blood all over her shirt too and there was a huge tear in the side.

And I realized that Mommy looked kinda sick. Her face was real white and she seemed kinda shaky.

Now that she wasn’t huggin’ me, she wrapped her arms around herself and kinda pressed in where all the blood was comin’ out.

When Mr. Carl spoke again, he was cryin’ too.

“Why didn’t you just let me get a shot?”

I was real scared ’cause I knew the monster had tried to eat my Mommy but I tried to be brave ’cause I knew that’s what she would want.

“It’s okay.” I said. “It didn’t get you too bad, Mommy. We just need to get a buncha Band Aids or somethin’. And Mr. Carl killed it so it won’t try to get you again.”

Mommy put her hand on the side of my cheek and looked me straight in the eyes like she always did when she was really serious about somethin’.

“I love you, baby.” she told me. “I love you more than anything in the world.”

I tried to tell Mommy that I loved her too, but when I opened up my mouth the words kinda felt like they got stuck somewhere down in my throat. And for the first time in my life I got really scared in a way I can’t really explain; I felt like all I wanted to do was crawl back into that cave with my Mommy and stay there forever. I would hold her in my arms like she always held me and keep her safe and make sure nothin’ bad ever happened to her.

But somehow I still couldn’t clear my throat enough to tell her I loved her too.

“I know baby.” she whispered. “I know…. ”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: CARL

God, I’m cold. I reckon this is what it must feel like if someone drained all the blood out of a body and replaced it with ice water. It’s a chill that goes deeper than just the skin: a cold that seems to radiate from somewhere inside the marrow of my bones and I know that even if I had a mound of blankets it would never be enough.

And it doesn’t help that I’m sweating like it was uncle’s day at the whorehouse either. My hair is plastered to my head and the drops trickle down my forehead, roll into my eyes, and sting like a mother fucker.

Outside, the wind is howling through the trees like a pissed off demon. Must be a storm on the way. I wonder if I’ll still be alive by the time the rain actually starts to fall. God, I hope so….

I used to love watching thunderstorms. I’d stand on the back porch and watch the distant clouds flicker with lightning; and there’s this smell carried on the breeze right before it rains, a smell that lets you know everything will be fresh and clean soon and all of the ugliness will be washed away; I would stand out there breathing that smell in and count the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the boom of thunder.

I hope I can hold out. I know that I don’t have much time left, that my body can’t just bleed indefinitely… but I’d love to hear the patter of rain on a roof one last time. I’d like to close my eyes, listen to the sound of the storm outside, and drift off to sleep like I did when I was a kid.

That sounds so good right now. I’m tired beyond belief: tired of the pain flaring through my side, tired of the cold, tired of the ghosts that haunt my memories and remind me of everything I’ve lost. I just want to lay my head down and let it all be dissolve away.

But I have that option, don’t I? I’ve got my pistol and, like a bad stereotype, a single round left. I can’t imagine it would hurt for long… probably no more than it would take for my heart to beat once. And could it be any worse than what I’m feeling now? A flash of pain in exchange for an eternity of release… is that really such a bad deal?

But I really wanna hear that rain, ya know? Just once more. If I can hold out until the first drops start splattering against the windows, if I can catch a glimpse of the pines as they bend to the power of the wind while thunder rumbles and lightning bathes the world in electric blue… if I can just hang on that long then maybe.

Shit, what was I thinking about before? Something to do with Doc, I think. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was it. But what? It’s getting hard to concentrate, hard to keep stringing these words together in my head. Wonder if this is how Grandpa Jackson felt when his mind first started to go? Confused, mentally exhausted to the point that thought seems to almost take on a physical weight, more than a tad bit scared because there’s these gaping holes where memory ought to be. It’s so dang frustrating, like trying to remember a song lyric that’s right on the tip of your tongue. But for the life of me I can’t remember what I was thinking about just five minutes ago. Only that it was something to do with me and Doc.

Instead, I find myself thinking back to a time before I met the man. It was right after everything went to pot and most people still had hope that it would all blow over quickly, that the military would step in and stop this insanity before it could spread any further. Thing was, until that time came you still had to run. You still had to find somewhere safe to hide until the helicopters flew over and broadcasted that it was safe to go back to your homes now, safe to go back to your lives.

Me, I knew better. I knew that once something like this started there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. You might’ve as well tried to hold the wind in your hands as my father used to say. So I tried to step right into the role I always thought I was born to play.

  Very early on, I met up with this woman and her little boy. Somehow, we’d all ended up in the same patch of forest at the same time, not too far from the interstate, and I knew, I just knew, that this would be my one big chance. I’d lead them through the ruins of civilization, would protect them from marauders and the throngs of undead that were sure to come; perhaps, in time, the woman would come to love me and we’d steal tender moments whenever we could; I would teach the kid how to stay alive, how to survive in this new world, and there would come a day when he would shyly call me dad and Monica would smile over his shoulder as I tussled Jason’s hair and laughed.

But first, I had to lead them through the maze of trees we’d found ourselves in. And, in my own defense, I thought I was doing pretty good in the beginning. I channeled every action hero I’d ever admired, every bad ass who’d slaughtered the undead in the name of all that’s righteous and pure.

I was Bruce Campbell, Woody Harrelson, and Ving Rhames all rolled into one. When I walked, I adopted this little swagger that (I hoped) let Monica and her son know that as long as I was with them everything would be right as rain; I spoke only in short phrases that could’ve been lifted right from the script of any low-budget fright flick and sometimes motioned for them to stop as if I heard something out of place in the forest. But, truth be told, more often than not I was just doing it for dramatic effect.

See, back then it all still seemed almost like some kind of game. Despite seeing a man I’d known all my life turned into a human torch, it had the feeling of a dream that you were sure to wake from soon: a dream where you could be anyone you chose and no one would ever call you on it. I could be the devil-may-care Zombie Killer Elite and who was to say that wasn’t who I truly was inside?

Funny thing about reality though is the way it has of keeping you in check. In this instance, it happened when I’d left Monica and the boy in a clearing to scout out the way ahead. Truth be told, I just had to take a dump so bad my stomach felt like I was about to give birth to a fire-baby. But that’s not really the kinda thing a hero tells the damsel in distress, ya know?

So I walked about fifty or sixty yards out into the forest, made good and sure that I was well outta sight, dropped my trousers, and squatted down beneath this big oak tree.

In my past life I’d always kept a book or magazine within arm’s reach of the toilet. If, for some reason, I found myself without suitable material, I’d reach for a shampoo bottle and start reading the information on the back of it. Anything to give me something to actually do but sit and listen to the sounds of my own waste. Out there in the woods, though, I didn’t have anything to distract me; so I just kinda looked around, taking in the way the sunlight dappled through the canopy of leaves overhead, trying to remember what those little blue flowers that crept up all over the damn place were called, that sorta thing.

I was studying this tree that somehow had an old tire stuck on a limb about halfway up the trunk, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Snapping my head to the side, I saw this little girl in a pink dress come staggering out of the bushes.

As far as I could tell there weren’t any obvious injuries on her: no cuts or lacerations, no burns or bite marks or shards of bone jutting out through the skin. The front of her dress had been splattered with blood… but somehow I knew it wasn’t hers.

So I just kinda squatted there for a minute, watching this thing that had once been somebody’s daughter while my heart pounded in my chest like a racehorse on steroids. Without taking my eyes from her, I slowly reached to the ground and felt around in the cool moss for the pistol I’d laid by my side.

She’d been pretty in life and probably would have grown up to break plenty of hearts: she had this flowing blond hair that perfectly framed her round face and, though her skin was as pale as the face of the moon now, I could imagine the glow that must have radiated from her smile as she played with her friends in the park.

I felt this cold hand grip my heart and squeeze it so tightly that little flares of pain shot up my arm. I couldn’t think about who she had been before. I couldn’t even really think of her as a she if I was smart. Sure, she might be just kinda lumbering around now like she was in some sort of daze but she hadn’t caught sight of me yet.

I’d seen how fast those things could move. I’d witnessed how vicious and relentless they could be, how single minded their pursuit of violence was. The moment those vacant eyes noticed me squatting beneath that old tree, she would be all over me like a wild dog on a chained goat.

“She’s not a kid anymore.” I tried to tell myself as I raised my pistol. “She’s not even human.”

Still, my hand was trembling so bad that I was hard pressed to keep the side of her head within the sights. My eyes started stinging and I could feel tears welling up. My vision blurred and I felt like throwing up right then and there.

But I had to do it, right? There was no way I’d survive in this new world if I still thought of these things as children.

Maybe I sniffled. Or perhaps she’d caught the scent of my fear or simply knew, somehow, that she wasn’t alone. Whatever the reason, she turned slowly to face me.

Without another thought, my finger pulled the trigger of the gun.

At the same instant, her eyes widened as she opened her mouth.

“Mister, I…. ”

And then she was falling to the ground, a small hole in her perfect little forehead as the sound of my shot echoed through the forest.

Mister, I….

I tried to tell myself that I hadn’t really heard it, that it had simply been my imagination kicked into overdrive by fear and adrenaline.

Mister, I….

That small voice sounding as if she’d just awoken from a dream and didn’t know where she was. That soft, sweet voice that would now never talk again.

It’s too easy to pull a trigger. It should be harder. Even in this fucked up reality.

And that’s what they never showed you in the movies or told you about in the books. That’s the little secret they kept tucked away far from the eyes of common folk: heroes aren’t perfect. Heroes make mistakes. And those mistakes can sometimes take the life of an innocent, of someone they should have been safeguarding through the turmoil and strife.

And, somehow, you have to find a way to live with yourself. Even when those mistakes repeat themselves again and again.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: JOSIE

We ended up staying in that old farmhouse for nearly a week. During daylight hours, we stayed inside and tried to remain as quiet as possible. Doc had an old deck of cards he carried with him and we’d spend hours sitting around the kitchen table, playing rummy, and whispering stories back and forth.

Slowly I began to piece their histories together: how Doc and Carl had met in a burned out grocery store and almost shot one-another, each initially thinking the other was a freshie; how Sadie and Watchmaker (whose real name turned out to be Tobias) had watched their children grow up and then have children of their own. How they had lived for the past half century in the same house, collecting a lifetime’s worth of memories and laughter within those walls. Even when Tobias first began to lose his sight and found it more and more difficult to work on the intricate cogs and gears from which his nickname stemmed, they still had each other and that had been enough. They told me how they’d stood in their front yard while yellow and blue flames licked at the night sky like hungry tongues of hell; how Watchmaker could feel the heat on his face and hear the crackling and popping but see only flickering shades of light and shadow. How they’d held each other and cried softly as all of their pictures and keepsakes had been devoured by the insatiable inferno.

The fire, of course, had attracted the attention of every freshy and rotter within miles. In a world that now only knew the darkness of night, a world where the Milky Way could finally be seen over the crumbling skylines of Los Angeles and New York, this blaze was a beacon.

They came lurching and staggering and running across the twenty-some acres of property; like waves of putrefied flesh, the carcasses rolled across the landscape from all sides. Before the roof had even collapsed, Sadie and Watchmaker had found themselves surrounded: an island of life amid a roiling sea of decay. But the raging fire had also drawn the attention of others….

They hadn’t really known why they’d been drawn to the blaze: they knew that the area would surely be swarming with the undead and any supplies that may have existed would already have been reduced to nothing more than cinder and ash.

“Hell,” Carl had joked during the telling of the story, “I just reckoned someone was having themselves a barbecue, that’s all.”

Whatever the reason, by the time they’d arrived Sadie and Watchmaker had holed up in a little storage shed in the backyard. The heat from the burning house had seeped into the corrugated walls and they could hear flesh sizzle like frying bacon as the zombies outside pounded and grabbed at the metal walls.

“It was like being trapped in an oven.” Watchmaker had said. “But I figured it was worlds better than what laid outside those doors.”

At this point, Doc had taken over the story and Carl began to look like a kid who had been called to the front of the class to recite Jabberwocky. His face was slightly flushed and he found any excuse to look away from the group as he rearranged the cards in his hand again and again.

“We knew there had to be something alive in that shed.” Doc said. “Otherwise those damn things wouldn’t have wanted in so badly. Only question was, how the hell do you get them out?”

Luckily for Sadie and Watchmaker, though, Carl had some kind of plan.

No matter what happens,” Doc had continued, donning a pretty accurate imitation of his friend, “you get those people outta there. Don’t you worry ’bout me. And I couldn’t argue with him. He wasn’t having it.”

So Carl started yelling at the top of his lungs, his voice cutting through the banging of fists on metal and the roar of the blaze while Doc crouched in the shadows. No one could remember exactly what he was saying, but his words drew the attention of the zombies away from the shed.

“I remember thinking that he was a dead man.” Doc said. “I saw all those things turning to face him, saw the freshies lunge forward, pushing rotters out of their way. Didn’t think there was anyway a single person could survive that kind of attention.”

“And he didn’t even know us.” Sadie cut in. Her voice quivered as she spoke and I could see her eyes glistening as if a tear were about to roll across her wrinkled cheeks at any moment. “He could’ve met his maker out there. For perfect strangers.”

Carl squirmed in his chair and seemed to study a framed sampler on the wall that had the words They may be crazy, but they’re still my family stitched into the fabric.

“Hell, I was thinkin’ there might be some sorta lonely, supermodel in that shed. If I knew it was just your wrinkled old asses, woulda been a different story.”

Carl winked and we all laughed, but I found myself wondering why he did that: anytime someone said even the smallest thing about him, anything that showed him in a positive light, he was so quick to turn it into some kind of joke. He would make a quip and, while everyone else was distracted by laughter, a shadow would pass across his face; it was the same infinite sadness I’d seen before. An expression of sorrow and regret that somehow made me just want to take him in my arms and whisper Everything’s going to be fine. Everything’s going to be alright.

Anyhow once Carl had the full attention of the crowd of zombies, he took off running; being the single-minded creatures they are the undead followed, forgetting the people in the shed as quickly as children distracted by a newer and flashier toy. And he made sure he kept their attention, too, continuing to yell and whoop as he disappeared behind the burning house.

As soon as Doc thought it was safe, he slipped out from his hiding place and scurried over to the shed.

“We heard this man whispering,” Watchmaker said, “telling us to stay quiet, that they were gonna get us out of there.”

And they could hear gunshots echoing through the night. So many shots, they said, that at the time they’d assumed a small militia had come to their rescue.

“Never dreamed it was just one man makin’ all that racket.”

“Hey,” Carl said, “ I thought if I popped enough of them I was gonna win a kewpie doll. No one told me there weren’t any prizes involved.”

By the time Doc had freed the elderly couple from the shed, Carl had reappeared around the other side of the house. Behind him was a mass of flames that writhed and twisted in human-shaped forms as they continued to stumble forward.

“We later found out all the shooting had been Carl picking off the freshies first. Which was smart. After the freshies were all gone, he simply made zombie torches.”

I raised my eyebrows in a silent question and Carl, for once, chose to answer.

“You get a bunch of rotters all clustered together,” he said, “and then you just toss some fire right in the middle of ’em. Once they’ve been dead a while, they’re pretty dry. Go up like kindling. Zombie torches. Don’t need no gasoline or nothing.”

“What he’s not telling you,” Doc interrupted, “is that he burned the hell out of his hands lighting those fuckers up. Damn fool took a timber from the burning house.”

“Only one end was on fire. I didn’t think the wood on the other end would be so damn hot. Shows how much I know.”

“Anyways,” Sadie added, “that’s how we met these two fine boys. And they’ve been looking out for us ever since.”

That night, after the others had drifted off to sleep in the warm glow of the fireplace, Carl and I sat up late into the night. For the most part, we talked about movies we’d seen, books we had read, people we’d known. We sat side by side with our shoulders touching, snuggly wrapped in blankets, and whispering so as not to disturb the others.

There were times when we laughed, times when we bordered on tears, and occasions when we simply sat in silence, enjoying the closeness of each other’s company and stealing glances like two smitten teenagers.

But at one point, once the fire had burned down to nothing more than glowing coals, I touched his shoulder lightly and made sure he was looking into my eyes. I had to ask him, had to know.

“Carl, why do you do it?”

“Do what?”

He had seemed genuinely perplexed, as if I had just asked a question that couldn’t be answered.

“Why do you put yourself out there like that? Taking risks for people you barely even know?”

He tried to look away and I moved my hand to the rough stubble on his cheek, guiding his gaze back to my direction.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “it’s the right thing… ”

“No, it’s more than that. I can tell. There’s something else. Something I can’t put my finger on.”

He seemed agitated, as if his blanket had suddenly become coarse and itchy, and the half-grin melted from his face.

“I swear,” I coaxed, “you tell me and we never have to talk about it again if you don’t want to. But I have to know.”

And I did. I can’t explain why it was so important for me to understand this man, to know what made him tick so to speak; but it was and I would be as relentless as a rotter on the trail of the living if I had to be.

After what seemed to be an eternity, he managed a weak smile as he sighed.

“Atonement. Plain and simple. I gotta put things right again.”

And that was the last I ever heard him say on the matter. Far from sating my curiosity, though, his answer only served to fuel it: what had he done that was so bad he felt he had to risk his life time and time again simply so others could live?

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE CHILD

I’m with the blurry people again and I can see dark clouds in the sky that flash with lightning like a storm’s on the way. I know there’s wind and I used to like the way it felt blowin’ through my hair and stuff, but for some reason this wind makes my skin hurt. It’s almost like there’s invisible acid in the air and it burns and stings and hurts so bad that I wanna scream but can’t. So I just keep walkin’ but even the bottoms of my feet hurt with every step and I just wanna sit down for a while until the pain goes away but for some reason I just can’t. So I just keep walkin’ with the other people.

But something’s different now. Everyone else seems to want to just keep going straight ahead, but I feel like something from the woods is pullin’ me. I don’t wanna walk toward the storm clouds in the distance and I don’t wanna stay with the others. I wanna split off and go into the trees, I wanna go toward whatever is drawing me and not stop ’til I’m there.

There was this one time that Mommy had a little piece of metal and she put it on top a sheet of paper. Then she took a magnet in her other hand and held it underneath. Wherever she’d move the magnet, the piece of metal on top would follow and that’s exactly how I feel: like there’s this giant magnet under the ground and every time it moves it pulls me along after it.

Once the blurry people see me headin’ off into the woods though, they kinda stop for a moment and then start followin’. I wonder if they feel it too or, if for some reason, they think I might actually know where I’m goin’?

The wind is blowin’ harder now and it makes my skin hurt so bad that even my teeth feel like they’ve been cracked into a million bits. But I still can’t scream and I still can’t cry and all I can do is just keep walkin’ and it’s not fair, I shouldn’t be feelin’ like this, it should be him not me. I never did nothin’ to deserve this… all I ever wanted was to stay with my mommy in our little apartment and color and play baseball when I got old enough. He should be the one in all this pain, he should be the one hurtin’ so bad that all he wants to do is just lay down and die. Not me….

I’m back in the room with Mr. Carl and the lady now but the pain is still kinda there. Just not as bad. The lady keeps lookin’ from me to Mr. Carl and then back to me again and I can tell she’s thinkin’ ’bout somethin’ but she’s not sayin’ nothin’ so I don’t know what. But she looks so sad that it makes me start feeling lonely and kinda lost inside, if that makes any sense. Something about the look in her eyes makes me think about Mommy and I just wish she was still here, that she would hug me and kiss me and tell me it had all been a bad dream and then ask if maybe I wanted some cocoa.

But I know that’s not gonna happen. I remember how Mr. Carl had carried her through the woods after they saved me from the monsters at the cave. How she kept trying to reach her hand over her shoulder and I kept trying to reach back. But Mr. Carl was so tall that even if I could stand on tiptoes, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to hold her hand.

Besides, we were movin’ real fast through the trees and bushes and Mr. Carl was cryin’ and told me to try to keep up as best as I could, that he was tryin’ to find somewhere we could rest and help my mommy.

I tried not to look at the place on his shoulder that my mommy was layin’ over ’cause there was so much blood now that it started almost lookin’ like Mr. Carl was bleedin’ too. Only I knew he wasn’t. I knew all the blood was Mommy’s and I knew she was hurt real bad.

We finally came to this big, white house and Mr. Carl kicked the door open with his foot like the cops do on TV. He went running into a bedroom and dropped Mommy on the bed and then told me to stay there with her, to keep talkin’ to her and tellin’ her how much I loved her and stuff. And then he ran outta the room and I thought he was probably leaving us but I didn’t care.

I climbed on the bed and snuggled up to Mommy’s side like I used to when it was cold and we’d watch the snow falling outside together. Only back then she was always warm and toasty, but now she was so cold that I could feel her shiverin’. So I tried to get up and go get a blanket for her, but she put her arm around me and started talkin’ to me.

I’d never heard her voice so soft before, not even when whispering, and she kinda seemed like she was havin’ trouble making some of her sounds. Kinda like Stutterin’ Johnny at school only when Mommy did it, it was scary instead of funny.

“J-Jason, b-baby… I love you… I love you, s-s-so much. N-never forget that, s-sw-sweetie.”

By this time I was cryin’ again and I felt like a giant ice cream scoop had come along and dipped out everything inside me. I pressed myself against her as tight as I could, thinkin’ that maybe my body could help keep some of the blood inside.

“Y-you listen to… to C-Carl. Okay, baby? Listen to Carl.”

Her voice was getting more and more quiet with each word and I started shakin’ my head back and forth.

“I don’t wanna listen to Mr. Carl, Mommy, I wanna listen to you. I just wanna listen to you…”

“Shhh… it’s okay, b-baby. I love you. Always re… always remember that. Always remember how much I loved you.”

Mr. Carl was runnin’ back into the room now and he had all these towels in his hands and he was sayin’ something but I couldn’t tell what.

All I could think about was how somethin’ was different, how somethin’ had changed. I couldn’t feel Mommy’s chest moving up and down against my back anymore and her hand had stopped petting my arm and was just kinda layin’ there.

I rolled over and started shakin’ her and I don’t really know what I was sayin’ but I know I was cryin’ and hollerin’ for her. But she wasn’t movin’ at all and she was just looking up at the ceiling and not blinking or anything.

Next thing I know, Mr. Carl was trying to pull me away from her and I kicked and scratched and fought and all I wanted was for him to leave me and my mommy alone, to just let me lay there beside her and hold her and keep her safe from all the monsters in the world.

But he was so much stronger than me and he just carried me out into the hallway and then slammed the door real quick in my face. I remember pounding on the door, yelling at him to let me in, that I wanted my mommy and didn’t want to be alone and he better open up right now.

When he didn’t I dropped down to my knees and peeked through the keyhole, just wanting to be able to see Mommy again.

Inside the room, Mr. Carl was standin’ at the foot of the bed and he had his face pressed into his hands and I could tell he was cryin’ but nowhere near as much as me.

But then I felt my heart kinda skip a beat or two and I began smilin’ real big and I was cryin’ then because I was happy, happier than I had ever been and happier than I ever knew I could be.

“Mommy!” I hollered. “Mommy, I’m out here!”

Mommy wasn’t dead after all, the monster’s hadn’t got her. As I was peeking through the keyhole, I saw her fingers start movin’ like she was trying to grab something that wasn’t there. And then she was sittin’ up in bed and she looked like she was really, really sick but at least she was still alive. At least I had my mommy back and would never have to be alone again.

But as I watched, I saw Mr. Carl take a step backward as he pulled out his gun. I started bangin’ on the door again and started yelling for Mommy to look out, for Mr. Carl to leave her alone.

And then he shot her. Just like that. He didn’t say nothin’ or anything. He just shot her.

I squeezed my eyes shut but it was too late. I’d already seen the way the hole just seemed to open up in her forehead, the way the blood splattered against the wall behind her as her body fell onto the bed again.

Just like that, he killed her. Just when I thought everything was gonna be okay. Just when I thought I had my mommy back and things would go back to the way they had always been.

But I knew then that things would never be the same again. No matter what happened, he’d taken my mommy away from me.

He had killed her.

And I wanted so badly to bust down the door and take that gun from him and do the same thing to him.

Mommy always said I shouldn’t hate.

But she’d understand.

I know she would.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: CARL

Doc has pulled up a chair and sits beside me, leaning slightly forward with his hands folded in his lap. Was the chair there just a minute ago? I’m not sure… I don’t think so. I thought this little shack was pretty much empty except for me and my belongings. But it must’ve been, right? Otherwise, where would the dang thing have come from?

“You’ve messed yourself up real bad, my friend.”

I always liked the sound of Doc’s voice: it has kind of a scratchy quality to it, like a blues singer the morning after a gig in a smoke-filled club.

“You’re telling me…. ”

I try to manage a weak laugh, but even that small act sends streaks of pain racing outward from my wound like baby snakes fleeing the nest.

“I’m dyin’ here, Doc. Fuckers bit me bad.”

Doc leans back in the chair and studies me for a minute. He looks me straight in the eye and chews on his bottom lip, just like he always did when something was on his mind.

“I wasn’t talking about your injuries.”

We’re silent for a moment, each of us looking at the other, feeling like there’s so much to say but too few words to express it all. This man was like a brother to me and I’ve missed him so damn much since we parted ways. More than I’d ever let on.

After what could have been half an hour or just a few minutes, he clears his throat and speaks again.

“You remember the time we saw that tornado, Carl? Somewhere in Iowa maybe?”

It hurts too much to talk, so I simply nod my head. How could I not remember something like that?

We were standing on the roof of an old music store, tryin’ to get the lay of the land so we could figure out where we wanted to head next; lightning flashed to the south and the horizon was covered with clouds so dark and low it almost seemed as if they had grown too heavy to stay aloft and were sinking like leaky dirigibles toward the ground.

“That’s a wall cloud.” Doc had said. “If we’re lucky, we might be in for a treat. It’s got some good rotation going on.”

Almost as if he’d called it into being, a funnel started forming beneath this pendulous cloud. At first it was nothing more than a twisty, white ribbon but, as we stood watching, it stretched toward the ground, growing longer and wider with every passing second.

It was kinda magical watching this thing form literally out of mid-air: for a while I was able to forget about the rotters clustered around the base of the building and the way they clawed at the brick as if they could somehow scale the side if they only tried hard enough; I was able to forget the abandoned buildings of this town, these monuments of a world that would never be again, the bloodstained sidewalks and shop windows shattered on the streets.

“Still a chance it might break up. I’ve seen it happen. You think the sucker is going to touch down and then it just dissolves into the sky.”

Once, the town below us would have echoed with the wail of sirens as people scrambled into basements and storm cellars, rushed through red lights, and tried to find whatever shelter they could. But now the streets were empty except for a few rotters who straggled their way toward us; now we could only hear the wind in the distance, sounding like a cross between a jet engine and the roar of a waterfall as cool wind blew through our hair.

The twister didn’t break up after all. Within minutes there was a swirling umbilical cord connecting earth to sky and Doc handed me the pair of binoculars he’d been holding.

I lifted them to my eyes just after the funnel had ripped through a farmhouse as if it were nothing more than a child’s creation. For a moment I forgot to breathe as I watched the cloud of dust and debris at its base: compared to the vortex above, this cloud seemed to roil and churn in slow motion… almost as if the twister had ripped the fabric of time and allowed the secret workings of the universe to seep out.

But there was something else. Among the shattered pieces of lumber and shards of broken glass that orbited the trunk of the storm, I could see these little silhouettes. As they twirled on winds strong enough to rip ancient trees from the clutches of the earth, I could see tiny legs and arms flailing, searching for purchase where there was none.

I couldn’t help but picture these airborne zombies more clearly in my mind: their flesh being stripped away by sand and chunks of metal, splinters of wood driven through their torsos by the sheer force of nature, body parts severed with sheets of tin… and somehow still trapped within the shadows of Life and Death, not alive but not really dead either.

Suddenly there’s fingers snapping right in front of me and I see Doc’s face, leaning in so close that I can smell Spam wafting from his breath.

“Carl, hey buddy, come back to me.”

I blink several times and I’m back in the shed again, far from that Iowa rooftop and the finger of God that had reached down from the sky to rake the earth.

“Look, my man,” Doc continues, “I mentioned that tornado to make a point… not to send you off on a trip to Emerald City.”

“I don’t know wha…”

My voice sounds thin and strained, even to my own ears, and every couple syllables it cracks like a man whose been wandering in the desert.

“Save your strength. Don’t talk.”

I want a drink of water so badly… just a sip, enough to wet my lips and ease the swollen burning in the back of my throat. But my canteen was emptied hours ago and Doc doesn’t seem to have any supplies with him. Which is odd. If there was one thing that man always made sure he had with him, it was water.

“The way I see it,” he says, “is that you’re a lot like that tornado. You’ve got all this death and destruction revolving around you and you’re just tearing across the countryside and bustin’ up anything that gets in your way.”

He leans back in the chair with that self-satisfied grin he gets when he thinks he’s said something particularly clever; but his eyes tell another story. I can see concern in the furrowing of his brow, sadness and fear in the way he squints and blinks. When you really know a person, you get to where you can read these things.

“Problem is, even an EF-5 can’t go on indefinitely. Sooner or later, that rear flank downdraft just wraps around and chokes off the twister’s air supply. The vortex starts to weaken and then poof… this awesome force is suddenly gone. Just like that.”

Doc looks as if he might be on the verge of tears. His eyes glisten and when he blinks it almost seems forced, as if he’s squeezing his eyes shut instead of allowing it to come naturally.

“Once Josie died things really went to hell for you, didn’t they?”

You’re ain’t kidding, my man. She was the only thing left which really meant a damn to me….

“Yeah, I know. I could see it in the way you two looked at each other.”

Did I say that last part aloud? Or had Doc somehow tapped into my thoughts like the Jedi Knights he held in such high regard?

“When you were with her, you weren’t the tornado. You were the sun rising over a misty field at dawn. Shit, the world may have fallen apart all around you but you were at peace, man.”

I wish I could believe like she did. Doesn’t even have to be reincarnation. If only there really was something beyond all of this other than an eternal void. I would love to think that I’ll actually see her again in some mansion in the sky with crystal walls and golden ceilings; that we will play harps and laugh and sing and all of that other happy horse shit. That I’ll actually get the chance to tell her that I loved her.

“She knows.” Doc says, apparently reading my mind again. “And she’s closer than you think, brother.”

He turns toward the window and is silent for a moment as he watches the trees sway in the wind.

“Storm’s coming.” he finally says. “And when it does, you’re going to have to make a decision. You gonna stay out in the rain? Or are you gonna come in where it’s warm and dry?”

Just like Doc to pull some sort of Zen psychobabble on a dying man. Like Josie too, now that I think about it.

I start to ask Doc not to play with words, to just come out and say whatever the hell he’s driving at; but as I watch, he begins fading like cigarette smoke on the wind. One moment he’s there and the next he’s breaking up into little tendrils that melt into obscurity the further they drift.

But I can still hear his voice, as if he were still sitting just across the way.

“I’ll miss you dearly, my friend.”

And then there is only the sound of branches scratching against the roof and the whistling of the wind as it blows through cracks in the wall.

I’ll miss you too, Doc. You take care of yourself out there. You stay alive, hear?

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: JOSIE

Why do I have to see him like this? What good can I do if I can’t stroke his hair and try my best to comfort him? If I can’t hold his hand and mop the sweat from his brow? He’s dying and all I can do is stand here and watch as the light slowly fades from his eyes.

I’d rather remember him as he was during our time at the farmhouse: that crooked little grin that would creep across his face whenever I’d speak to him, the way he would genuinely laugh at even my feeblest attempts at humor….

When we sat together at night, he’d get this distant look in his eyes as he described a place we both so desperately wanted to believe existed: a small town surrounded by walls too high for the freshies and rotters to scale, packed with cottages where smoke curled from stone chimneys and fresh water was only a hand-pump away. In the mornings, he said, you’d be able to hear babies crying for their mothers’ breasts as you sat on the porch, sipping chicory root coffee and waving to the neighbors across the way. Being a vegetarian, I would fit right in seeing as how meat would be so rare of a commodity that it could be traded like gold. Instead, the garden would be our main source of nourishment and the produce would be fresh and abundant.

And then he’d tell me how what he really missed – more than television, movies, or even music – were fried green tomatoes. He’d had a little patch in his backyard during his former life and he’d describe how it had that earthy smell after a rain, how the fruit would plump up until they practically fell into his hands at the slightest touch. He’d gather the tomatoes in his hands and head to the kitchen where he’d slice them into thin circles, dredge them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and then savor the aroma as they sizzled in the cast iron skillet. It almost sounded like a religious experience, the way he told it; and it was little details like this that began to blossom the simple seed of physical attraction into something so much more beautiful.

At the same time Carl and I were growing so much closer, however, Sadie was in decline. It had started as nothing more than tightness in her chest and a tickle in the back of her throat.

“Just a bit under the weather.” she’d claimed. “No use getting your panties all in a bunch.”

Within days, though, the tickle had mutated into a cough that rattled deep within her chest. You could hear the phlegm in her lungs gurgling as it tried to break up and she would double over in a fit of coughing so bad that it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had vomited. But nothing ever came of it other than a raspy voice and a fever so high you could feel it without even touching her.

Watchmaker stayed by her side the entire time, giving her sips of water that had been melted from the snow and occasionally singing snippets of a song that was, as Carl later informed me, and old ballad by Johnny Cash. Her hand looked so small and dainty in his, as if with the slightest bit of pressure he could crush the brittle bones into indiscernible fragments; but there was tenderness there, a delicacy in the way he touched his wife that told a lifetime of stories in a single gesture.

“She needs meds.” Carl whispered from the dining room. “She’s just gonna get worse otherwise.”

Doc and I stood in silence, watching as Watchmaker pulled the tattered quilt up to Sadie’s chin. His hands felt for the couch cushion she was using as a pillow and from there found her face, brushing her cheek with the tips of his fingers.

“We could see if we can find a town.” Doc finally said. “Maybe raid a drugstore or doctor’s office. Bring back what she needs.”

Carl closed his eyes and leaned back in the kitchen chair as he pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

“All well and good,” he said, “but what if we get lost out there? What if we can’t find our way back here?”

“Wait.” I interrupted. “What are we talking about? Taking her? We don’t even know how far the next town is. She could die out there and …”

“And I reckon she definitely will if we don’t, sweetie. You’ve seen how it is out there. Nothing but snow covered fields as far as the eye can see. Shit, it was just dumb luck we found this place to begin with.”

“We could Hansel and Gretel it.” Doc whispered. “Leave something as a trail so we can find our way back.”

Carl snorted and shook his head.

“And what happens if it decides to start snowing again? Before we’re even halfway back that little trail would be gone.”

I listened to the two bicker back and forth and watched the elderly couple in the other room; I watched as Watchmaker’s breath formed plumes in the air as he sung; I watched Sadie try to kick the blankets off her sweaty body and how he had to fight to make sure she remained covered. I watched the two and knew Carl was right: we had to do something.

“… if those things come ’round while we’re dragging our sorry asses across the prairie? It’s only a matter of time. They’ll find us, mark my words. They always do. We can’t stay here forever. Besides, we’re runnin’ out of food as well.”

“Fuck this.”

I stood and walked into the living room, leaving the two men in silence as they watched my departure. Standing next to Watchmaker, I placed my hand on his shoulder and he turned to look at me with those milky eyes.

Leaning close, I whispered in his ear, recounting the debate that had been raging in the kitchen. I explained the pros and cons of each side, laying it out as bluntly and factually as I could.

“So,” I said, “what do you think?”

Watchmaker sat there for a minute, listening to his wife cough as she shivered. Despite the sheen of sweat that glistened on her face and the mound of blankets beneath which she was buried, there were still goose bumps on her arms.

In that moment he looked far older than I had ever seen him, as if decades had passed in mere seconds. His face drained of color and he squeezed his eyes shut as if warding off a headache. When he next spoke, his voice was as thin and devoid of emotion as a rotter in the most advanced stages of decomposition.

“I don’t really see as we have much choice, do we?”

Though he tried to hide behind a tight-lipped mask of stoicism later that night – as the rest of us were preparing our meager supplies for an early departure – I could hear him weeping softly from the other room as he whispered prayers on his wife’s behalf. I couldn’t imagine what he had to be feeling and wanted nothing more than to hold this old man in my arms like a small child and allow my shoulder to absorb all of his fear and concern; I wanted to place my hand on Sadie’s forehead and draw the fever out, wanted to clear her lungs of the cloudy fluids which threatened to drown her. But all I could do was visualize a beautiful, healing white light surrounding the elderly couple as I continued shoving cans of outdated vegetables into my rucksack.

We said goodbye to the farmhouse just as the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon like a giant, fiery head. Streaks of yellows and orange blazed across the thin clouds as the last of the stars grew dimmer and dimmer until they were no more.

Somehow, this brilliant display made the cold more bearable, as if the cells of my body were channeling the rays of the newborn sun and amplifying them. Not only did this process radiate warmth from within the confines of clothes and skin, but it also awakened a sense of hope. Surely, we had to be close to some sort of town; before society collapsed, everyone had to go to the store. Everyone had to go to the doctor. We would find what we needed and begin the process of nursing Sadie back to health.

Doc had fashioned a sort of stretcher out of two poles and a piece of canvass that had been pulled taut and stapled to the wood; Sadie laid on it but to the uninitiated it probably looked more like a mound of blankets and quilts than anything even vaguely resembling the human form. He and Carl had decided that they would take turns pulling the stretcher behind them, trading off whenever the weight grew too heavy for their shoulders.

Somehow all this triggered a fleeting sense of deja vu in me: the jerry-rigged stretcher, the fevered woman so desperately in need of medicine, the snow covered fields all flat and white and seeming to stretch out for infinity….  I felt as if I had been through all of this before, perhaps in another lifetime. But just as quickly as it had appeared, the sensation was gone.

Doc had volunteered for the first shift, which left Carl and I ample time to talk as the exertion of pulling the stretcher through the snow demanded the strictest concentration on Doc’s part; and Watchmaker? He hadn’t said a word to anyone the entire morning and instead elected to hover near his wife in silence, presumably so he could be near in case she needed him.

“I reckon there might come a time when Doc and I have to share the load.” Carl said as he handed me his pistol. “That happens and it’s up to you to be point man, honey.”

The pistol felt as heavy as a brick in my hand and I remember looking at it and thinking how dark the metal looked against the blanket of snow that stretched out in all directions. I lifted it a few times, testing its weight as my stomach churned sickeningly; I chewed on my bottom lip and too a long, slow breath as I tried to keep my hands from trembling.

Carl must have noticed too but mistook my nervousness for something else.

“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. That’s a helluva gun. And I won’t lie. It’ll kick like a mule in a bee’s nest. But as long as you’re expecting it, then it shouldn’t be too bad.”

I glanced at Carl and decided the time had come to be totally honest with him.

“I’ve never actually done it.”

“Done what?”

“You know… it.”

Carl suddenly seemed as if the mounds of clothing he’d donned had doubled in weight and he tugged at his collar as he cleared his throat.

“Look,” he said slowly, “I don’t know if now is really the time to be talking about that sort of thing. I can appreciate you being a virgin and all but I…. ”

I felt my face grow warm beneath the ski mask and was glad he couldn’t see the blush that washed across my cheeks. It never occurred to me that he would misunderstand.

“No.” I laughed in an unsteady voice. “No, you pervert. Not that. Of course I’ve done that.”

He now seemed more confused than ever and his tone grew short with frustration.

“Then what in tarnation are you talking about?”

Taking a deep breath of the cold winter air, I finally blurted out my confession.

“I’ve never killed one of those things, alright? I’ve never shot, bludgeoned, beheaded, or burned anything.”

Carl stopped walking as suddenly as if I’d told him the dead could now fly as well as walk. I could picture him standing there, his mouth hanging open and eyes wide with shock; but I kept trudging through the snow, refusing to look back.

Somehow, this admission embarrassed me even more than when Carl thought I was proclaiming virginity. Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I watched as my feet disappeared into the snow again and again.

“B-but,” he stammered from behind me. “you’re alive…. ”

“After all these years the cute boy finally realizes I exist.”

I tried to turn it into a joke; I suppose I was looking for a way to deflect the feeling I suddenly had of being under a microscope. But, for once, Carl didn’t laugh and I heard his footsteps crunching throw the snow as he ran to catch up with me.

“No, I want to understand this, Josie. You’ve never killed one of those things?”

His tone implied disbelief, that perhaps he suspected me of leading him on to some grand punch line. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him and continued to study the never-ending field of white that stretched out before us.

“Nope. Never.”

“But you said you had a shotgun?”

“Yeah, I said I had a shotgun. Never said I used it, though.”

Carl was silent for a moment as he mulled over this distinction and I listened to the Doc’s labored breathing and the soft swishing noise made by the stretcher as it was drug through the snow.

“How the hell are you still alive, kiddo?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“I don’t know. Luck maybe? I’ve just been really good at avoiding them, I guess. Except for the silo. That was just stupidity on my part.”

“You’ve really never killed a zombie?”

I sighed and felt my chest tighten with frustration. Why was it so hard for him to believe I could make it as far as I had on wits alone?

“Look, Carl… I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life practicing non-violence. I’ve embraced vegetarianism. I believe that every life is sacred, that there is a spark of the Almighty within every leaf, every squirrel, every person, dog, fish, or chicken.”

My tone was sharper than I had intended but somehow it felt as though a decade and a half of my personal beliefs were being put on trial.

“You probably don’t know how hard it is just to abandon everything you ever believed in. Seeing as how, by your own admission, you don’t believe in anything.”

“Look, Josie, I didn’t …”

“But I look at those things and I wonder how they fit in. I won’t kill a rabbit just so I can eat its flesh to stay alive. But would I kill one of them if I were being threatened?”

“Josie, I…. ”

I had grown so angry that tears streamed from the corners of my eyes and left icy trails down my cheeks; my hands were balled into fists so tightly that my knuckles ached.

“So don’t lecture me, okay? Don’t sit there all smug and mighty on your high horse and tell me how wrong I am because I’m having a little fucking trouble figuring out how my beliefs fit in with all this shit.”

We walked in silence for a while; I stomped through the snow with more force than was required while Carl lit and smoked the last cigarette from his dead man’s pack.

“Look, Josie,” he finally said softly, “I didn’t mean no offense. And I’m truly sorry for riling you up that way. I was just kinda shocked, that’s all. Hard to believe someone could be out here so long and never had to kill one of them bastards.”

I nodded my head silently and began trying to replay the conversation in my head. Had he really said anything to ignite the fury I’d unleashed on him? Or had he simply been a handy target for the conflict that raged within me?

“Believe you me, there’s a lot of killing I wish I could go back and erase. A lot of death I’d rather just forget. So, in a way, I really envy you, I guess. Your conscience is clean. And that’s pretty damn rare these days.”

There was something in the way his voice cracked, something in the pain that tinged his words, that made me finally glance at him out of the corner of my eye.

“See, there was this time when all this began that I…. ”

For the first time in half an hour or so, Doc’s voice boomed through our conversation.

“Town!”

Our heads snapped to attention and there it was: one of those little clusters of buildings that seem to pop up out of nowhere in the flat fields of the Midwest; like an oasis of brick and wood in a sea of withered cornstalks poking through waves of snow. The town seemed so tiny from this distance, like a scale model that had been constructed in God’s basement, but the shapes of houses and stores were unmistakable.

“I reckon about an hour and a half or so and we oughtta be there. Sound about right to you, Doc?”

The wind had started to blow a little causing Carl’s words to seem as if he were much further away than he actually was.

“Give or take, yeah, that’s a pretty accurate estimate.”

And, just like that, our first argument came to a close as we trudged on toward a little town that, we hoped, would have the supplies we needed to save Sadie’s life. But I always wondered: if Doc hadn’t spotted the town, what would Carl have told me that day? What closely guarded piece of his past would he have brought out into the light?

By the time we were within half a mile of the town, the wind had picked up to the point that we had to turn our heads away from its force just to see where we were going. Carl and Doc had swapped positions with the stretcher and for a while he and I had tried to make conversation with Watchmaker. The old man, however, was not in a talkative mood and the chill of the wind quickly dashed any further attempts at brightening his mood.

Silently, I’m sure we were all praying for the same thing: a small-town pharmacy that had remained unlooted or perhaps a doctor’s office with supplies of medicine still intact. Though muffled by the piles of cloth covering her and the howling of the wind, we could still hear Sadie cough every now and then and with each wet hack my heart fluttered with concern.

“What the fuck?”

The urgency in Carl’s voice made us all turn our heads into the wind from which we had previously tried to hide. In the distance, a wall of white advanced across the prairie like something from a biblical passage: it towered fifteen, maybe twenty, feet in the air and blotted out everything within its path, seeming to devour the occasional tree and crooked fence line as it barreled toward us.

“Holy shit…. ”

“We gotta move people!” Doc yelled out. “We gotta move now!”

“What the fuck is it?”

Doc dashed to the end of the stretcher and picked up the other end so that it was like a bridge connecting him to Carl.

“White out.” he called out. “Biggest fucking one I’ve ever seen. Now move!”

Doc barked out the words like a drill sergeant, leaving no room for further discussion as he and Carl tried to run through the snow without toppling Sadie into the dunes.

“Watchmaker, grab Josie’s coat. Josie you grab mine and for God’s sake people keep up and don’t let go!”

As Doc would later tell us, this type of whiteout is created when a strong wind surges across the plains; the wind scatters powdery snow and lifts it on its gales, scooping up millions of tiny crystals with each passing second. With no mountains or natural barriers to impede progress, it forms what he referred to as a blizzard without any actual snowfall. And this parapet of snow and wind was gusting toward us at sixty-plus miles an hour.

We knew we’d never make it to the town before the storm overtook us, but we needed to close as much distance as we could before it hit. The whiteout could blow by us in as few as five seconds… or it could rage around us for much longer, depending on how strong the wind was.

“Move, move, move!”

We couldn’t risk getting turned around in squall, wandering further and further from the town that possibly held Sadie’s only hope for survival. There was no other option than to push forward as quickly as we could.

We’d closed maybe half the distance by the time the howling winds blasted against our bodies with the force of a linebacker. I wasn’t prepared for how strong the gust would be, hadn’t braced myself for the shock of nature pushing at me with all of her might.

I staggered sideways, stumbled over my own feet, and fell face first into the snow. At the same time, I was aware that the pressure of Watchmaker holding onto the hem of my jacket was suddenly gone. And that Doc’s jacket had slipped from my grasp as easily as if it had been oiled.

Standing as quickly as I could, I looked around, trying desperately to find the others. But everything was obscured by a veil of whiteness so dense I could barely make out my own outstretched hands as I spun around, trying in vain to catch sight of my companions.

My heart hammered within my chest so hard I could feel the rhythm pound in my temples. I tried calling out for Carl, for Doc, for Sadie and Watchmaker; but the wind blew my voice back at me and made it sound so tiny and lost… even to my own ears.

Lurching forward, toward what I thought was the direction we had been heading in, I tried to fight off the images which haunted my mind: my body, lips blue and ice crystals stuck in my eyelashes, lying rigid and frozen in some godforsaken field that would never be tilled again.

Though I knew it was futile, I screamed Carl’s name again and tried to listen past the keening wind for even the faintest reply.

And it’s funny, but all I could think of as I pictured myself dead and stiffened in the subzero temperatures was Carl. How I would never see his crooked little grin again. How he would remember me as the woman who bit his head off on her last morning alive.

But then, like a phantom materializing within a cloak of fog, I saw a fuzzy silhouette form in the blinding whiteness. It’s hands were reaching out for me, ready to pull me back into the warmth and safety of the group.

“He found me.” I thought as the fear leached from my body, leaving my formerly tense muscles feeling tired and spent. “He found me.”

“Carl!”

I reached through the shroud of snow and wind, stretching my fingertips forward until finally connecting with his outstretched hands.

Only, it wasn’t the slick vinyl of gloves I felt beneath my hands. No, what I felt was so cold that it seeped through my mittens. And it had a rough texture, like something that had been cracked and chafed and abraded to the point that the flesh had begun to flake off.

Before I had the chance to realize what this meant, it seized my wrist and I was yanked forward as a blackened, gnarled face emerged from the obscurity of the storm.

At the same time, I heard – very faintly – an ancient voice screaming out in terror and pain.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: THE CHILD

I don’t know how long I was there in the hallway, kneelin’ down in front of the keyhole but not really lookin’ through it anymore. It was almost like the whole world just kinda stopped when I saw Mr. Carl shoot my Mommy: I wanted to cry but couldn’t, wanted to scream at him through the door or just pound away on it ’til my fists were all bloody. But every muscle in my body felt like it’d just froze in place.

After a while, I thought I heard Mommy’s voice, only it seemed like it was somewhere inside my head and not comin’ from the other side of the door.

“Run baby.” She told me. “He’ll kill you, too. Run!

So I stood up and started running as fast as I could down the hallway only I was in so big of a hurry that I bumped into a little table and the vase that was sitting on it crashed to the ground.

“Jason!”

It was Mr. Carl’s voice behind me, loud and booming and I could picture his gun pointing at me but didn’t take the time to turn around and look.

“Jason, no!”

I crashed through the door and was outside again. For a second I just kinda stood there, not really knowin’ which way I should go but I could hear Mr. Carl’s footsteps runnin’ down the hall so I knew I hadta go somewhere, anywhere… I couldn’t just stand there and let him shoot me like he had Mommy.

So I ran across the yard as fast as I could, jumpin’ over flowerbeds and these little pink birds that were stuck in the ground all over the place.

“Jason, come back!”

Mr. Carl’s voice was getting’ softer each second and I kept expectin’ to hear the boom of his gun but kept right on runnin’ anyway. He might’ve killed me, but I wasn’t gonna make it easy for him that was for sure. I remembered something I’d seen on TV and started zigzaggin’ back and forth as I ran to make it harder for him to shoot me, which is probably why I never did hear a shot.

And then I was back in the woods again and I felt a little safer cause I knew the trees would help protect me from his bullets and stuff. But I still kept runnin’ though cause I didn’t want him catching up to me.

“Jason!”

And my Mommy would have been so proud of me. I kept runnin’ and runnin’, just like Forest Gump, and before too long I couldn’t hear Mr. Carl hollerin’ for me anymore so I started slowin’ down a bit. My legs were hurtin’ real bad and my heart felt like it was gonna beat right outta my chest so I stopped for a second and sat down on this old tree that had fallen over.

I was catchin’ my breath and listening to the wind in the leaves when I started thinking about Mommy again. I kept hopin’ that I’d see her walk through the trees, her arms spread out for a hug, smiling so big that her eyes would look kinda squinty.

“I was just foolin’.” She’d say. “Just trickin’ Mr. Carl so we could get away, baby. And you did good. You did so good.”

Only part of me knew this wasn’t gonna happen. I could sit there and watch the woods until all the nighttime creatures started comin’ out and I could holler for her until I couldn’t holler no more and she’d never come. And it was all his fault.

If it hadn’t been for him, Mommy woulda been there and she woulda been able to tell me exactly what I needed to do. She woulda knew where to go next, where to get food and stuff. But most importantly she woulda been able to hold me and rock me in her arms like I was just a little baby and tell me everything was gonna be all right. And I wanted that more than anything else in the world. To smell the perfume I’d gotten her last Christmas and that she wore every day, for her to kiss my forehead and sing me a little song.

Now, I’m in the woods too only all those blurry people are around me again. We’re still walkin’ and it still hurts every time my feet hit the ground but I just can’t stop and rest like I did the day Mr. Carl killed my Mommy. I just hafta keep going on, like someone else is in control of my body and I don’t have no choice or nothin’.

It’s almost dark but up ahead I can see someone. It looks like a woman and she’s got her back turned to us and I can’t really make out what she’s doin’ but she’s kinda crouched down.

We get closer to her and I can see these little sparks as she runs her knife across a rock or something’. There’s a little pile of twigs and old leaves in front of her and every time she scrapes the rock, the sparks fall down onto them and she starts blowin’ like she’s trying to cool soup or something.

I feel really excited when I look at this woman, like I just wanna run up to her for some reason, only at the same time I feel really angry and I wonder if it might be because her hair kinda looks like my Mommy’s. But all of the blurry people around me seem kinda worked up too because they’re walking a lot quicker now.

And I start wonderin’ if maybe the real reason we’re trying to get to this lady as quick as we can is because she isn’t blurry and fuzzy like everyone else. I can see the checkerboard pattern on her coat just as good as I can the trees and bushes around me and I can see every piece of hair on her head too and the way leaves are kinda stuck to it in places.

And she has this smell that’s kinda like a mix between old fruit and sweat and the smell makes me even more madder, but I don’t know why ’cause it’s just a smell.

We’ve almost made it all the way to her when she hears us behind her or something. She stands up real quick and spins around and her face looks like she just saw a ghost as she starts backin’ away real slow. At the same time, she’s lookin’ around like maybe she’s lost something and the blurry people are all rushin’ toward her now and I am too.

She starts screaming and her voice hurts my ears so bad that I just want her to shut up, to stop yelling and be quiet, and it makes me even more mad that she won’t.

She kinda dives toward this really long knife like the one jungle explorers use to cut through vines and stuff and she just touches its handle with her fingertips when all of the sudden we’re all piling on top of her.

I can hear her clothes being ripped as we claw at her and she’s still screaming and for a second I see her boob only I don’t feel all embarrassed like that time when I walked in on my babysitter changin’ clothes.

She’s still screaming and kickin’ and tryin’ to push us away but there’s too many of us and I start seeing blood squirtin’ everywhere. It smells rusty and salty at the same time and its warm on my face and chin, so warm that I didn’t realize exactly how cold I was before.

And I’ve got something rubbery in my mouth, something that tastes like I bit down on an old penny or stuck the tip of my tongue against a battery. But at the same time, I like the way it makes my mouth feel nice and toasty and as soon as it’s not warm any more all I want is another piece, a little bit more make my tongue feel like it’s a cat sleepin’ in sunlight.

The lady isn’t fighting as hard now. Maybe she realizes we just don’t wanna be cold no more and that she can help. Or maybe it’s ’cause she’s startin’ to get a little fuzzy now herself. It’s almost like her face is melting in front of my eyes, her nose and lips and ears kinda smoothing out into one big blur that starts to go down her body, covering everything in its path.

By the time the lady is just as blurry as everyone else, she’s stopped moving altogether and I don’t feel that excitement any more. None of the others seem to either ’cause we’re all standing up now and starting to walk away. When we were with the lady, it didn’t hurt no more but now I can feel it starting again, like little needles bein’ shoved into the bottoms of my feet. And my eyes are starting to sting and my skin feels like its shrinking and crackin’.

Maybe she didn’t want to be alone anymore or maybe she was starting to feel cold too, but the lady in the checkerboard jacket stands up and for a minute it almost seems as if she’s about to fall down again. But she doesn’t and she just kinda falls in with the rest of the group, just like kids used to do when we had to go back inside at the end of recess.

And I can feel that tugging again only its stronger than what it was before. It’s almost like I’ve got an invisible rope tied around my waist and am being pulled through the woods by something a lot stronger than me. My new friends follow along behind me and I don’t know if they feel it too or if they’re just kinda playin’ Follow The Leader.

Either way, I don’t really care. All I know is that I want to be warm again, that I want to find someone else who’ll share their heat, that I want the hurting to go away. Even if only for just a little bit.

And I somehow know that out there in the woods, hidden by the trees and rocks and shrubs, there are others like the lady in the checkerboard jacket. All I need to do is find them….

CHAPTER NINETEEN: CARL

For some reason, I find myself thinking about the day I shot Jason’s mother. God, that seems so long ago… almost like it’d happened to an entirely different person or perhaps in another life.

Josie always talked about reincarnation, you know? About how she’d die and come back again as a little baby… how this cycle had been repeating over and over throughout the course of time and would just continue on until she had learned whatever it was she was supposed to. And I think she had the basic concept right; she just had it all muddled up with religion, superstition, and what-not.

The way I see it, a person can reincarnate a hundred times within the span of a single life. But there ain’t nothing mystical about it. There ain’t no divine plan guiding the way. It’s all about having an experience so damn intense that it seeps into every pore and every cell of your being. And it changes you. Sometimes slowly, sometimes so quickly that you’re left feeling as dazed as if you’d just been struck by lightning. But the change happens and you come out on the other side as someone other than the person you were before.

Hell, you don’t even look the same in the mirror any more. Your eyes seem a bit older, hopefully wiser, and the emotions left over from this here experience bring out new expressions that re-sculpt your features. You see lines and shadows that weren’t there just a day earlier, slight variations in your complexion and the contrast between your skin tone and the stubble growing across your chin. Even your voice sounds different… and, at some point, you realize that the reason for all of this is that the old you is dead now. You’ve been reincarnated and it didn’t take your whole dang body kicking the bucket to bring it about.

Jason and Monica, the little girl in the forest… that was one of those experiences for me. Hell, unless you’re some kinda nutjob a man can’t take two lives in a single day and just expect to go on like nothing ever happened. And those books and movies I used to like so much? They lead you to believe that it gets easier with time: that eventually you can just pop one of those things in the head without giving a second thought to who they used to be. But, for me at least, it was always right there in the back of my mind. I’d try to push it away, to remind myself that whatever it was that made these people human had long since left their rotting bodies. But, truthfully, there was always this part of me that wanted to cry.

And that day, I did. After I shot Monica in that bedroom, I felt as if every sorrow I’d ever felt, every heartbreak or pain, just came rising to the surface like bubbles in a pond. I didn’t want this anymore. I wanted to return to the way things had always been. Just give me my boring, old life back. Give me the Pit Stop, the customers bitching me out ’cause I’d shorted them a nickel, the never ending routine that marked my day to day life. Let that little boy have his mother back, let everything return to normal, and I would never wish again that my life was more exciting or unpredictable than what it was.

Of course, I knew that couldn’t happen. Might have as well wished for a bumper harvest in the middle of winter. So I knelt in that there room and felt like those tears were pulling everything that had ever been worth a damn plum out of my soul. Left me feeling hollow and empty inside, how I expect a Jack-o-lantern would if it were able to think and feel.

I thought things had hit rock bottom. I thought there was no way in tarnation it could possibly get worse.

I thought wrong….

After I realized the boy had run off, I tried to find him. I ran through those woods, calling out his name until my voice felt like glass scratching against my vocal chords. I knew that I’d attract every damn rotter within earshot; but I didn’t care. I’d fight my way through each and every one of them if I had to. Whatever it took to make sure that I didn’t fail that little boy again.

I kept thinking about how alone he was out there, how dark would be coming soon, and how he wouldn’t stand a chance against those things. I had these pictures of him in my mind, pictures that I tried to shake off like a dog flinging water: rotters tackling him to the ground, freshies leaning so close to his face that he would smell their decaying organs waft from their opened mouths. Him screaming, begging for help.

By the time the sun had sunk below the horizon, I was no closer than I’d been before. I’d seen signs that I thought might have been him passing through: broken twigs and crushed undergrowth, a scrap of cloth that could have been from his shirt. But they could have just as easily have been from someone else trying to hide within the forest. Or even from one of them.

But I had to keep looking. If I didn’t at least try, I knew I’d be signing that little boy’s death warrant. So even after the full moon had risen well within the sky and tinted the woods in a bluish light, I kept searching. Kept calling his name and dealing with corpses as they staggered through the trees.

The sun rose, the birds chirped their little Good Morning songs, and by then the soles of my feet stung with burst blisters. I’d walked through the woods the whole night through, stopping for a spell only when I couldn’t force myself to take another step. I might’ve nodded off here and there, but if I did it weren’t nothing more than a cat nap and offered no real rest. At least not the kind my body demanded.

The morning sun, however, has an effect on someone whose been up the better part of the night. It’s almost like the golden light filtering down through the trees and leaves gives a boost of energy. A body feels more hopeful and the cobwebs start to clear from the head a bit. And, of course, the thoughts in that head turn to breakfast.

My stomach rumbled like an angry bear and I realized that it’d been close to fourteen hours or so since I’d eaten anything. I also realized that I couldn’t keep going on an empty stomach. That if I had any hope of finding Jason, I had to get some food energy in that tired ’ole body of mine. I knew I had a bunch of Spam in the backpack, maybe some crackers, a mess of Slim Jims, and one or two cans of….

And then it hit me. The backpack. It’d had all my food in it. The little first aid kit I’d lifted from a wrecked car on the interstate. The rest of my ammo. And, in my hurry to chase after the boy, I’d left it back there in the house. In the room with his dead mother where it wouldn’t be doing anybody any good.

I had this feeling like my stomach had just turned itself inside out and all the bile had spilled over my innards. I wanted to throw up, to bang my head against the nearest tree as I screamed out my frustration. How could I have been so damn stupid? My life depended on the contents of that bag and I’d just waltzed away, never giving it a second thought until I’d gone so far that I’d never manage to find my way back to where I’d left it. On top of that, I’d killed an innocent girl, let a little boy’s mother get bitten by one of those fuckers, and then lost him in the process… some fucking hero I was turning out to be.

About half an hour later, I came across a little patch of blackberries and attacked them like they were manna from heaven. I shoveled handfuls in my mouth, ignoring the prick of the thorns as they drew beads of blood from my fingers, and probably ate more than a few of the little grub worms you sometimes find inching their way along the berries. It wasn’t much of a breakfast, but to me the tart sweetness of the juice that stained my lips and fingers was like a full course meal with all the trimmings.

After eating, I kept walking until the sun was well over halfway across the sky. About fifteen minutes earlier, I’d spotted something in the distance: something white, something that occasionally flashed with brilliance from its hiding place behind the trees. I was pretty sure that it was a house or building of some sort and that the flashes were the reflection of the sun on glass windows. Maybe I would be able to find something substantial to eat there or even a weapon that had more than just three rounds left.

My instincts wanted to run full out toward that little glimpse of civilization, but I had to force myself to walk the way my Grandpa showed me when he taught me to hunt. Each foot carefully placed in front of the other, mindful of twigs that could snap and give away my position; in a way I was stalking this building, creeping forward at a pace that would have done a turtle proud. What normally would’ve taken me a few minutes to cover ended up taking nearly half an hour.

But eventually I was at the edge of the woods and I hunkered down within the trees as I scoped out that lay of the land. What I’d seen had been a house after all. But that house was just one part of a small town, much like the ones I’d grown up in. A single road, most likely called Main Street, cut through the center and I could see the marquee of a theater called The Roxie that looked as if it dated back to the fifties. Accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, a hardware store: all the earmarks of Americana were laid out on either side of that empty road.

I watched for movement, for anything that would betray the presence of rotters. But there was only the shadow of clouds easing across the street and buildings. Only the rustle of leaves on the little trees bordering the sidewalk as a slight breeze rattled litter through a town that seemed frozen in time.

Finally, I stepped out of the safety of the forest and into the open. I gripped my pistol with both hands so tightly I could feel my pulse throbbing within my palms. Take a step. Stop. Listen. Scan the town for any signs of activity. Repeat.

The American flag outside the post office fluttered in the surreal silence and I forced myself to take long, slow breaths.

Take a step. Stop. Listen.

In my mind I had imagined that every city in the country would be in shambles: all shattered glass, burnt out buildings, the wreckage of civilization smoldering amid the ruins of a crumbled world. But this town was immaculate. As if all the residents had simply disappeared in the wink of an eye. As if the Rapture had come during the wee hours of the morning to whisk them away from the hell that was about to be unleashed upon the world.

Take a step.

Maybe I’d be able to find another first aid kit in of the cars parked alongside expired meters.

Stop.

Maybe the grocery up ahead would be filled with row after row of canned food, just waiting for me to come along to find it.

Listen.

Thoughts of food caused my stomach to growl and in the stillness it sounded like a rusty door swinging open.

Scan the town.

I would get what I could from this place, stock up, and then head back out into the woods. Resume the search for the boy. He couldn’t have gotten far.

Repeat.

Nearing an intersection, I saw a green, rectangular sign which confirmed my earlier suspicion: the corner of Main and Elm. Before I could go back and check all these mom and pop shops for supplies, I needed to make sure that this place was a clear as it seemed.

I eased my way over to the sidewalk and pressed my back against the rough bricks of Brighton Hardware and Feed. Just a few feet from the intersection now… I stood and listened.

Nothing but the chirping of birds, the wind, and the breakneck rhythm of my own heart.

The pistol felt as heavy as a chunk of granite in my moist palms and I tried to ignore the little voice whispering in my head:

Only three bullets left….

As slowly as I could, I peeked around the corner of the building and what I saw caused my breath to catch in my throat.

Whereas Main Street could’ve been lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, Elm was an entirely different story. Here was the destruction I had expected to see: shattered windows with curtains flapping through the empty sills, front doors flung wide open, cars crumpled around telephone poles, bloodstains like dark inkblots on the street and sidewalks. Four houses on Elm were nothing more than a huge pile of cinder and blackened stone and the wreckage seemed to radiate out from a central point as if there had been an explosion.

I saw bodies littered about the street, sprawled out with dark clouds of flies buzzing overhead and crows ripping long strands of flesh with bloody beaks. But none of these bodies seemed to be moving and I was pretty sure zombies didn’t have the presence of mind to play possum in an attempt to lure fresh meat to them.

I rounded the corner and came to the first of the fallen. In life, he’d been a young man but now he was nothing more than a sun-bloated feast for the insects and scavengers. His eyes were long gone but there was something within the darkness of the sockets that gave the impression that things were moving around in there. A scuttling sound. Changes in light and shadow. Lumps that shifted position just beneath flesh the color of a paper grocery bag. For a second, I thought I caught a glimpse of something pink as it poked out through the bullet hole in the center of his head. But it was gone so quickly it may have been nothing more than a trick of my exhausted mind.

When I’d approached, the crows had taken flight and perched on a phone line overhead. They called out in their gravelly voices and somehow this sound I’d heard all my life now seemed threatening. As if they were warning me to step away from the food. Just step away and no one gets hurt….

The man’s right arm was stretched out away from his body. As if, even in the throes of death, he had been trying to reach the overturned shoe box a few feet away. The contents of the box had spilled out across the street and I saw a few bottles of aspirin that had rolled a distance away, two tins of tuna, a pair of binoculars.

This is wrong. I thought. Zombies don’t carry supplies….

Overhead, the crows called out again.

Let them have their feast; I would have my own. This man may have been killed when blood still flowed through his veins, but I couldn’t let that get in the way of my own survival. The food and supplies, as meager as they were, was fair game and I’d be damned if I’d just leave it behind based on principle.

I gathered the supplies from the street and began stuffing them into my pockets, noticing that fortune had decided to smile upon me. There was also a little Bic lighter and an unopened pack of smokes that had been blocked from view by the overturned box.

After everything was neatly tucked away, I raised the binoculars to my eyes and began sweeping across the landscape. Maybe I could find something else in all of this carnage and destruction, anything that would help me live for another day.

And then I saw them. The undead. They were clustered around the base of a church, hammering and scratching at the walls, hurling themselves against the door, scrambling over one another in their zeal to gain entrance. There must’ve been fifty, hell maybe seventy-five, of those filthy bastards attacking this little white building with its bell tower and stained glass windows too high off the ground for them to reach.

So that’s why I hadn’t come across any of the former residents of this town. Something else had caught their interest before I arrived. Something living. Something trapped.

For a while I was like one of those people who see a horrible accident on the freeway but can’t tear their eyes away from it. I watched as their fingernails raked ragged scratches in the paint. I watched while they pounded their fists against the wood and leaped at the windows as if they could sprout wings and crash through them.

Finally I snapped out of it with the realization that sooner or later one of them would see me. And that single corpse would set off a chain reaction. Once it began staggering toward me, the others would follow.

Time to leave.

I tried not to think of whoever it was holed up within that church. Tried not to think of the fear they must be feeling as their former friends and neighbors eagerly tried to break into their stronghold. The boy… he was my responsibility. I had to return to the search, had to find him. Besides, with only three bullets left there wasn’t anything I could do to help the people inside the church. I would get myself killed trying to save them which meant, in turn, that Jason would die to. If he was even still alive.

I lowered the binoculars and slid their strap around my neck as I scooped the shoe box of food into my arms. I had to get while the gettin’ was good as Chris Bryson used to say.

I had just stood when I heard it: a voice, small and muffled from this distance, screaming for help. A voice filled with terror. A familiar voice.

A child’s voice.

I flipped the binoculars to my eyes again. The zombies, which had been pretty damn persistent before, were now like a pack of starving dogs that had cornered a rabbit in the brambles. They writhed and scrambled, clawed, and I swear I even saw one biting at the walls of the church as if she could chew her way through.

“Leave me alone!”

That voice….

I saw books begin to rain down upon the horde, black covers and pages fluttering as they fell and bounced ineffectually off the heads of the attackers. As if God were dropping Bibles into the crowd in the hopes of casting out the demons that possessed them.

The sides of the church and bell tower blurred as I swept the binoculars upward. No, not God… just a small, frightened boy with tears streaming down his grimy face. A boy I instantly recognized.

Jason.

I lowered the binoculars again, realizing now that I had no choice. Somehow, I would have to make it through that sea of rotting flesh. With only three bullets I’d have to gain entrance to the church, grab Jason, and then fight my way back out again.

And it would have to be soon. The last time I’d spied on the zombies, I’d noticed that the wooden door of the church was beginning to show signs of cracks. It was splintering and before long would be smashed into a jagged hole. And once they had that hole, the rest of the door would quickly fall. So if I wanted to save this boy, I needed to think of something. And fast.

“Go away!”

I had no way of knowing at the time, however, that this little town would be forever burned into my memory. That it would haunt my nightmares and constantly gnaw at the back of my mind like a rotter that preferred thoughts to flesh. For this little town would become the scene of my greatest failure… and I would never be able to forgive myself for the events that played out there.

CHAPTER TWENTY: JOSIE

I was so close to the rotter that, from a distance, it probably looked as if we were about to kiss. Its face loomed in front of me, filling my field of vision. The skin was dark and seemed pulled taught against the skull, almost as if it were paper mache that had been stained ebony. Clumps of hair were scattered across the otherwise bald scalp and the neck looked so long and thin that, for a brief second, it reminded me of the little bobble heads people used to place on the dashboards of their cars.

Its open mouth came toward me in what seemed to be slow motion and I pushed with all of my might. The thing was surprisingly light and it stumbled backward, its grasp on my jacket broken. But then it was coming forward again, reaching out with arms I could now see were so spindly that I was amazed I had ever mistaken them for Carl’s.

Somewhere in the swirling veil of snow, the voice was still screaming and I could hear pain and terror in its wordless shrieks as gunshots popped like firecrackers. And then Carl’s voice, sounding as if it were miles away.

“Josie! Josie!”

The rotter was at me again, grasping and pulling at my clothes, trying to position its mouth on the soft flesh just below my ski mask. I tried shoving it away again, but this time its grip was more solid. It staggered backward but tripped over its own feet and suddenly we were both falling, me being pulled down into the snow and landing on its body with a sharp crack that could have been brittle bones snapping.

It struggled to raise its head from the ground and thrashed about like a child throwing a tantrum. I had it pinned however and my fingers were wrapped around either side of its head, pushing back, keeping its teeth from tasting the flesh it so desperately craved.

The screams had stopped now, but I was peripherally aware of Carl still shouting my name again and again, his calls punctuated by gunfire.

At some point during the struggle, my thumbs had slid up the leathery cheeks and slipped into the soft pulp of the eyes. It felt like they were sinking into Jell-O that had frozen just enough that an icy film covered the top. But then there was a slight pop and my thumbs went deeper into the skull, hooking around the eye sockets as something cold and wet seeped into the cloth of my mittens.

But still the creature fought, gnashing its teeth as it flailed its head in an attempt to break free from my clutches. The muscles in my arms had begun to quiver and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold it at bay. Sooner or later, exertion would take its toll. My throbbing muscles would give out, perhaps for no more than a second. But that’s all it would take.

But then, as suddenly as if it had materialized from the snow itself, a brown boot blurred by in front of me. It struck the rotter’s face with enough force that my thumbs flared with pain as they slipped away from the eye sockets. The boot lifted and for a fraction of a second I could see the things crushed face, its features mangled to the point that it looked like a macabre version of a Picasso painting; but then the boot came down again and again and I could hear the skull shattering as I crab-walked backward as quickly as I could.

Doc’s face was filled with rage as he stomped over and over, his eyes large and round, teeth clenched together, and his entire body quaked as if he were having a seizure.

“Stupid rotting son of bitch!”

Spittle flew from his mouth as he yelled and he was now jumping up and down on the thing’s face with both feet.

I hate you! I hate all of you! Why can’t you just leave us the fuck alone?

Tears had begun dribbling from the corners of his eyes and the thing had long since stopped moving, its head no more than a pulpy mess forced deep into snow coated with gore. But he continued jumping, stomping, shouting, with hands balled into fists.

Just fucking die already, damn it! Just die…. ”

Eventually his rage spent itself and Doc crumbled to his knees, pressing his face into his hands as his back hitched with sobs. The whiteout had passed us by and I could now see that we were only twenty yards or so from the edge of town. Several corpses were sprawled across the snow and Carl was hunkered down near one of them. At first, I thought he was going through its pockets like he always did, but then I noticed that he’d pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it like a man trying to coax away a headache.

His body seemed slumped and weary as he shook his head slowly. He looked over his shoulder for a moment, back toward the stretcher where Sadie was just now staggering to her feet. Something about this seemed to ignite a powder keg of anger within him; he began punching the snow, pummeling the dunes with his fists as he growled like a pissed off jungle cat.

I then noticed that the other corpses seemed to form something of a ring around this one. Almost as if it were the epicenter of the attack. And the snow surrounding it was bright red with tendrils of steam still curling from the splatter.

Sophie tottered over to where Carl was and I heard a wail tremble from within her that words could never begin to describe. But I can say how it made me feel: hearing that old woman’s voice made me feel as if there were no more hope for mankind. That we’d had our day in the sun and thrived for much longer than any creature has the right to; but now we were at the end and there was nothing left for us out there in the world we once ruled. Nothing but despair and sadness and a chasm waiting to be filled with blood and tears.

She was on her knees now as well, her body splayed across the corpse as if she could somehow infuse it with some of her own life force. As if the heat from her fever could thaw the muscles that were beginning to stiffen. As if she would only lay with him long enough, he would reach up and stroke her hair one final time.

I realized then that I, too, was crying and I wanted to go to Sadie and take her in my arms. I wanted to press her frail body against mine and let her cry until it seemed as if she would never cry again. But, somehow, I couldn’t force myself to get up out of the snow; it almost seemed that if I did this, then it would prove what my mind so desperately didn’t want to believe: Watchmaker was dead. And he wasn’t coming back. At least not in any form we wanted him too.

I’m not sure how long I stayed there, but eventually I wandered over to where Watchmaker’s body lay. Doc had already joined them and Sadie was draped across Carl’s arms, her face buried into his shoulder, sobbing softly.

“I’m sorry, Doc. I just can’t do it. Not this time.”

Carl’s voice sounded strained and his eyes seemed to plead with his friend.

“I just… I just can’t.”

Doc placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head slowly.

“It’s okay, buddy. You get these ladies to town. I’ll be along shortly.”

Without being told, I took Carl’s pistol from the waistband of his pants and we began trudging through the snow and toward the little town ahead. We walked in silence, each of us lost within our own thoughts as Carl’s jacket soaked up Sadie’s tears.

Snow covered fields gave way to streets that had layers of ice hidden beneath the white blanket and we picked our steps carefully; our eyes scanned the signs outside of businesses watching for one that either read MD or RX.

As we turned a corner, a single shot rang out and Sadie screamed as she burrowed her face further into Carl’s shoulder. He opened his mouth as if to say something; but if there were any words that could help alleviate some of the suffering within the old woman he carried, they wouldn’t come. All he could do was hold her even more tightly as he glanced at me through eyes that shimmered behind a veil of tears.

Watchmaker was gone and Doc had ensured his body would not rise up again. He wouldn’t pursue the woman he’d spent decades building a life with, wouldn’t taint her memories of him as he fought to claw his way through his flesh. And this, perhaps, was the greatest comfort we could have possibly given her. The comfort of remembering him as he truly was….

We ended up finding a supply of amoxicillin and prescription strength ibuprofen in a drugstore that looked as if a bomb had been detonated within it. Shelves had been overturned and products were scattered across the floor: curling irons, printer paper, disposable cameras, and bottles of talc that had burst open and spilled piles of white powder out of their mouths. In the corner someone had apparently made a fire at one point for the walls and ceiling were covered with dark stains of soot and the carpet had melted in a radius around a pile of ashes. Scrawled across the wall in black magic marker were the words Helenboro overrun. Scott’s Bluff infested. DO NOT GO!

Doc had rejoined the group by this point and the three of us sorted through the mounds of pills and tablets that littered the pharmacy section while Sadie curled into a tight ball nearby. Her tears had dried up by then and she simply lay there, staring at the wall with an expression on her face as blank as the fields of snow outside.

We took what we thought would be useful, stuffing little blister packs and loose pills into our pockets to sort through later.

“Man, people have their priorities all out of whack.” Doc said. “Anyone but me notice that there’s all these antibiotics, all these low-grade pain relievers? But have you seen a single narcotic? Any type of controlled substance at all?”

“Beer cooler’s been wiped out, too.” I added. “Noticed that when we first came in. Wine section, too.”

Carl had been strangely silent since we’d left Doc with Watchmaker’s body out there in the field. We tried to pull him into the conversation, tried to distract him with questions, but it was obvious from the distant look in his eye that his mind was somewhere far away. And there was pain etched into his face; pain that I somehow knew was deeper than just the loss of the old man.

“Hell even before all this shit went down, people were looking for a way to escape. I guess now, for some at least, a little self-prescribed numbness is all they’ve got left.”

We were all silent for a moment as we listened to the wind bang the signage out front against the plate glass window. Finally Doc broke the silence with a hushed whisper.

“We’ve got to get her somewhere warm. Somewhere out of this cold. We can dose her up, but this chill’s not good for her lungs. We’ll be fighting a losing battle.”

“I thought that was the plan all along. You guys told me so the first day we met.”

“Yeah, but this walking the earth shit isn’t cutting it anymore. We can keep heading south, but I doubt she’ll last another two weeks out there in the snow. We need some wheels.”

For the first time in nearly an hour, Carl spoke but the voice seemed almost as if it were running on autopilot. It was like the words were somehow detached from the man speaking them.

“You remember Bloomburg, Doc? All the trouble we got ourselves into ’cause we thought a car would make life easier?”

Doc took a deep breath and seemed to turn Carl’s question over in his mind for a bit.

“How the hell could I forget? I thought you and I were going to die on that damn freeway. But we don’t really have much of a choice here. If Sadie isn’t somewhere warmer, and soon, we’re going to lose her too.”

It occurred to me that our lives had basically been condensed into that one statement: we don’t have much of a choice. Survival made demands on you. Sometimes its requirements were easy ones. Other times it was like wrestling with an alligator. But in the end, consequences dictated our course of action and we were helpless to fight against the flow.

“I saw a Hummer as I was coming into town. Those things are built like tanks. As long as there’s gas and we can find the keys, I say we put some serious distance between us and this town. Hell, if we’re lucky we could be in Florida in no time at all.”

For the first time since I’d met the group, I felt like an outsider. And I’m not sure why. But part of me thought this was a decision they would have to make on their own.

“Shit, Doc, I know you’re right. I know Sadie has to be taken outta this place soon.”

“But?”

Carl sighed and looked his friend directly in the eye.

“But I can’t go with you, man. I’ve been turning some shit over in my head today. Revisiting old haunts. Stirring up ghosts.”

“Look, Carl, we can…. ”

“No, hear me out. I’ve gotta try to set things right in my own mind. Find some sort of closure like all my ex-girlfriends used to say. I’ve gotta do this for me, Doc.”

“Carl, let’s talk about this.”

“Ain’t nothing to talk about really. You take Sadie and Josie and that Hummer and get your asses to Florida. There’s a little island down there called Captiva. You work your way there and sooner or later I’ll meet up with ya.”

“Carl, whatever you need to do we can…. ”

“You get her safe, Doc. Both of these ladies.”

“Fuck that.”

I crossed my arms over my chest.

“I’m not leaving you alone out there, Carl, while the three of us speed away. Wherever you go, I go too.”

“Dang it, Josie, don’t argue with me. You’re going to…. ”

“I’m going to stay with you. And you better get used to the idea because I’ll just follow your tracks in the snow if I have to.”

There must have been something in my voice because Carl lapsed back into silence then. He looked at me and I tried to read the expression on his face but it was like looking at a book written in a language I didn’t understand.

Several hours later, Sadie was laid out in the backseat of the Hummer and Doc was behind the wheel with the window rolled down. All of our goodbyes had been said; tears had been shed. But it seemed as if no one really wanted to part ways. There was always one last thing that needed said, one last reminder.

“Captiva Island, Doc. Don’t you forget, hear? We’ll all be swimming in the ocean together before you know it.”

“You take care of him, Josie. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, okay?”

Finally the excuses ran dry and Carl and I were left to watch as the yellow Hummer slowly pulled away. Doc threw his hand out in a wave and we stood there together, Carl with his left arm wrapped around my waist, his free hand waving back.

We stood and watched until they were nothing more than a yellow speck in the distance. A speck that rapidly faded into nothingness. And, just like that, Sadie and Doc were out of our lives.

“What do ya say we get this show on the road? Sooner I take care of my shit, the sooner we can be catching the rays with Doc and Sadie.”

I nodded my head and took his hand in mine. As we walked through the snow, I glanced back over my shoulder, half-hoping to see the Hummer making its way back to us. But there was nothing but the clouds creeping across the sky and a flock of birds silhouetted against the sun.

I thought of Florida, of the crash of waves against the beach, of Carl suntanned and lean with sand caked on his calves and bare feet. Doc and Sadie were lounging on towels and I was laughing as the tide crept in and slowly eroded the walls of the castle Carl had worked so hard to build. That was the goal I had to keep in mind. Sunny, Florida….

But I had no way of knowing that was the last time I would ever see my friends again. Within the span of a week’s time, I would be dead.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: THE CHILD

After Mr. Carl killed my Mommy, I just kept running through the woods. I didn’t know where I was goin’ and really didn’t care neither. But I kept thinkin’ that I heard him behind me and that he was comin’ to get me so there wouldn’t be any witnesses or anything to what he did.

I got so tired, but every time I’d stop and try to find a place to hide for a while I’d get this picture in my head. I’d see Mr. Carl shooting Mommy over and over and I wanted to cry but just couldn’t anymore. And I couldn’t figure out why he’d did it. I thought he wanted Mommy all to himself and that he wanted me out of the way so he could have her. But then he murdered her instead of tryin’ to get her to a doctor or something and it just didn’t make any sense. Nothin’ made any sense anymore. All I knew what that I was scared and more lonely than I’d ever been and I wanted to hug Pepper and Mr. Boots so tight that they’d squirm to get away.

But instead I just kept on runnin’ ’til finally I came to this little town. At first everything looked pretty much normal except it was all empty which I thought was really weird. But I also thought maybe I could find a policeman and tell him what Mr. Carl did to Mommy. So I started going in to all the stores only there wasn’t ever anyone in them. It was kinda like everyone in town had all went on a field trip, like maybe the zoo or something.

After I walked a little bit I came around this corner and the buildings on this street was all messed up and stuff. It looked like maybe a couple armies had been fighting it out and I suddenly saw all these bodies laying around. They weren’t movin’ at all and some of ’em had birds peckin’ away at their skin and I knew they was dead and I started to get really scared. I wondered if maybe the monsters had been here too and if they had done all of this. And then part of me wondered if Mr. Carl had gotten there before me and shot anyone who might’ve been able to help.

I didn’t know what to do so I just kinda stood there for a minute, turning round in a slow circle and it was like all the thoughts in my head had been wiped clean. I was scared, but I wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout being scared. I wasn’t thinkin’ anything at all.

Finally, I saw this little church up the road and I thought if I went there that the preacher might be able to get me to some cops. And if monsters had been there, then I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to go inside a church ’cause it’s protected by God and stuff.

So I started walking toward it and then I noticed someone movin’ around in one the stores that had its windows all smashed out. I couldn’t see ’em very well cause the inside of the story was really dark even though it was bright and sunny outside.

And then I started hollering for help as loud as I could. I hollered out that Mr. Carl had killed my Mommy and that he was probably comin’ to kill me too and I needed someone to call the police.

The person inside kinda acted like my voice had scared him at first. His shadow jumped a little bit and he seemed to freeze in place. But then he came runnin’ toward the street and instead of comin’ out the door like a normal person, he kinda jumped out through the window.

Once he was outside I saw that his face was all cut up real bad and his tee shirt was all covered in blood. He came runnin’ at me and I screamed and took off toward the church ’cause I knew now that the monsters were in this town.

All of a sudden, monsters started poppin’ up left and right. They were crawling out from underneath wrecked cars, comin’ out of houses and stores, and one even jumped out of a window. I remembered the way the monsters had tried to get me when I was in the little cave so I ran just as fast as I could and finally I was goin’ up the front steps of the church and I’d just got inside and slammed the door shut when I heard one of them thud up against it. Even if the church was protected by God, I didn’t wanna take any chances so I turned the little lock on the door anyway. And I think it made them mad that God had saved me cause they started pounding on the walls so hard that the windows kinda rattled around.

I thought maybe if I stayed real quiet that they might just go away after a while, so I went up toward the place where the preacher stands and laid down on one of the little benches. I didn’t move or make any noise at all. I just closed my eyes and pretended like I was somewhere else. I imagined I was on the playground with Danny and Pete and we were playing tag and Mommy was standin’ just outside the fence watchin’ and smilin’ like she always did.

I think I might of went to sleep for a little bit ’cause next thing I know the inside of my mouth is all dry but my head’s sticky and there’s all kinda spit on the bench I was layin’ on. And those monsters were still out there and they were still poundin’ away on the door and walls and I just wanted them to go away and leave me alone.

I kept hopin’ that I would hear army helicopters comin’ into town and they would open fire on all the monsters with their machine guns and then soldiers would break through the windows and tell me everything was gonna be alright. I kept hopin’ to hear police sirens outside and someone saying through one of those horns they use step away from the church, we have you surrounded. But the only thing I heard was the thumping and pounding from the monsters.

Then I began to notice how hungry I was. It felt like my stomach was startin’ to eat itself so I started lookin’ around to see if I could find some food. Only there weren’t nothin’ in the church but a bunch of song books and some candles. I did find a little ladder with a rope leading up into the ceiling beside it though and I started climbing the ladder, thinkin’ that maybe I could find some way to escape the monsters if I got to the top.

It ended with a little trap door and when I opened it, there was a big bell aver my head and it was like I was standing on a little porch or something. I could see the whole town from up here and could see all the monsters down below. I sat there and cried for a little bit, then I got real mad so I climbed back down the ladder and got a bunch of the songbooks and stuffed ’em down the front of my shirt. After that, I climbed back up again and started throwin’ the books at the monsters, hopin’ maybe it would scare them off. Only it didn’t. It just seemed to make them even madder.

Then suddenly I felt real dizzy, like I’d spun too fast on the merry-go-round and it got real hard to breathe. My heart kinda felt like it was tryin’ to beat right out of my chest and I was super hot. For some reason I started panting just like Mr. Boots after he’d been playin’ in the sun only my tongue wasn’t hangin’ out like his. And all these thoughts kept going through my head, tellin’ me that I was gonna die, that the monsters were gonna break in and get me and it didn’t matter whether this was a house of God or not. And the voice also kept reminding me that my Mommy was dead and I was all alone and that there wasn’t anyone in the whole wide world who’d be comin’ to help me.

Everything got kinda blurry and then became real clear again and I started worryin’ that maybe I was gonna fall off the side and down among all the monsters. So I started climbin’ back down the ladder, only my hands had gotten all tingly like they do when I’ve laid on them for too long. And as the dizziness got worse I started breathin’ harder and my heart started beatin’ faster which just made me feel more and more dizzy. And that little voice was still in my head, still telling me I was gonna get eaten, they were gonna kill me just like Mr. Carl had killed Mommy only it would hurt a lot more cause they wouldn’t be using guns or knives or anything like that.

About halfway down the ladder, my vision started gettin’ real dark around the edges and I felt like I was rockin’ back and forth as I climbed. My whole body was numb and tingly now and that darkness kept spreadin’ until it was almost like I was back at that house lookin’ through the keyhole again.

Next thing I know, I’m fallin’ and then I hit the floor with a big thud that caused some of the candlesticks to fall over and there was this pain in my ankle that cut through the dizziness and darkness and made me scream. I tried to stand up, but it felt like my foot was being rammed with a ninja sword and I fell back down again, only not as hard this time.

Outside the monsters kept poundin’ and I could hear this loud cracking sound that reminded me of how Buddy Holloway used to break sticks over his knee before he moved away.

They’re gonna get in, the little voice told me, and when they do you won’t be able to run or nothin’. They’re gonna get in and they’re gonna eat you and you’re gonna die.

And I couldn’t do anything but lay there on the floor of the church and cry ’cause I knew the little voice wasn’t just tryin’ to scare me. I knew it was right. I was gonna die and there wasn’t anyone comin’ to save me.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: CARL

I’m standing on the shore of a lake. On the opposite side are rows of pine trees that sway softly as a breeze moves among their boughs; the sky is the clearest blue I’ve ever seen and these big, fluffy clouds drift by so slowly that it almost seems like it’s the sky behind them that’s actually scrolling by.

The sun is warm on my skin and glistens on the surface of the lake like glitter that’s been dumped down upon the tiny ripples of water. I smell honeysuckle and lilac in the air and I wish my grandpa was here with me so we could drop some bobbers in the water and see if anything’s biting.  And Josie, too.  I woulda loved for her to have met the old man.

It’s a beautiful day.

A perfect day.

And then I notice my grandpa is here. While we fish, Josie spreads out a red and white checkered blanket and starts unpacking the food from the little wicker basket she’s brought along. She’ll give us a hard time, of course, about yanking these little creatures out of their world; she’ll try to make us feel guilty, ask us if we can see the fear in their round eyes, the panic as they struggle for breath in a world they never know existed.

“How would you feel,” she says, “if some alien came along and just pulled you right off the face of the earth?”

My grandpa laughs from the bank and for a second I wonder where these two have come from. I’d simply wished they were here, hadn’t I? Or maybe not. Maybe they’ve been here all along.

My grandpa pulls a flask out from the inside pocket of his fishing vest and takes a snort.

“Damn good hooch, I tell ya.”

He passes the flask to Watchmaker who eagerly raises it to his lips as Sadie slaps him in the back of his head with her palm. We all laugh and then Jason is running along the shore, holding a rainbow trout at the end of a long strand of twenty-pound test, his smile as bright and brilliant as the rays of the sun.

“Look what I caught! Look Uncle Carl! I caught it, I really did!”

I try to tell the boy that trout live in streams, not lakes but Monica just shakes her head and tells me I’d better give up, he’ll never believe me.

“Carl,” Josie calls, “picnic’s almost ready. Will Doc be joining us?”

I don’t think he will. He was here earlier and we talked for a while but then he just up and disappeared. Said something about a storm coming, but I think he’s wrong this time. It’s such a beautiful day. That’s the thing about weathermen, I say; it’s the only job where you can be wrong ninety-five percent of the time and not get fired.

There’s a round of laughter, but something out toward the middle of the lake catches my eye. Nothing more than a few bubbles at first, rising to the surface and popping like there might be a turtle or something down below.

As I watch, though, the bubbles become more and more frequent and before long the center of the lake looks like a pot of water that’s just coming to a boil. Everyone has clustered around me and we’re all silent as we look out at the water.

“What is it, Carl? What’s going on?”

Momma always said it’s better to keep my mouth shut and have the world think I’m a fool than to open it and prove them right. So I don’t say anything and just stand and watch alongside everyone else.

The water’s roiling now and the ground has begun to tremble beneath our feet like how I’d always imagined an earthquake would feel. Josie takes my hand and squeezes it hard, her eyes wide with fear.

Something bursts through the surface of the lake, something so large that the mind balks at the sheer enormity of the thing. It continues to rise as sheets of water rain down like a mighty waterfall and waves crash against the grassy shore as if we were standing by the ocean instead of something so much smaller.

And still the thing continues to rise, its shadow spreading across the water and falling over the group of people who cluster around me. Fifty feet, sixty feet, seventy… it blocks out the sun and casts the day into darkness as lightning begins to flicker way off to the east.

I realize that what I’m looking at is a monstrous pair of jeans. They’re ripped and tattered and stained with grass but they’re jeans none-the-less and each leg is larger round than most buildings I’ve seen in my life.

My eyes follow the legs upwards until they turn into a black t-shirt the looks as though the world’s largest moths have decided to have a little snack on it. More holes than threads, I can see withered flesh below, the ivory curve of rib bones with strands of muscle hanging down like seaweed from the wreck of a ship.

Thunder rumbles and the ground shifts beneath our feet, causing us to huddle together even more closely. But still I continue looking upward, tilting my head back until I am almost looking directly up at the sky.

Lightning flashes and I saw unblinking eyes lacking even the tiniest spark of life. The flesh is pale and bloated and looks as though fish may have been tugging flakes away for quite some time. But the features are unmistakable. This giant creature, this rotter from the depths… it’s me.

It moves more quickly than I thought it would, it’s arm shooting out and snatching Jason and Monica into a fist the size of a large boulder. The others scatter like cockroaches in the light, but I realize that my feet have turned to roots and burrowed down into the ground so tightly that I can’t move at all.

I watch as this monstrous, undead me pops the boy and his mother into its mouth as if they were nothing more than sunflower seeds. And then it’s scooping Josie and Watchmaker up, raising them toward its cavernous mouth and I want to scream, to throw stones, to do something, anything. But my chest and arms have petrified now as well and my grandfather steps in front of me and shakes his head sadly.

“That ain’t you, squirt. That ain’t you at all. You don’t have a hunger like that.”

Lightning flashes again, this time so bright that all I can see is an endless expanse of white with little blue bursts popping like flashbulbs. When the intensity of the light fades, I find myself in the back in the shack.

The pain in my side feels like it’s been bitten into again, as if the injuries are fresh and new. The wind howls and I feel the breeze cooling the sweat on my body as the door bangs back and forth against the wall. At some point it must’ve blown open, but I don’t remember this happening. I can see outside, though, and it’s as black as the heart of Satan, the trees whipping back and forth as if bowing in subservience to the might of the approaching storm.

Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see him. Jason. Standing there and looking for all the world like he wishes he could rip my head off with his bare hands. But when I turn to look, the image fades and there’s only the same dusty walls I’ve come to know so well.

“I’m sorry.” I try to say, but the words that come from my mouth are undecipherable. I may have as well been speaking in code.

But it does turn my mind back to that day again. Back to that town. Back to that little church at the edge of the woods …

I looked around me, trying to take stock of anything I could use to save that kid’s life without sacrificing my own. But the pickings were rather slim: nothing more really than piles of rubble, broken glass, an electronics store, and a little shop of knick-knacks with a wooden sign proclaiming Timeless Treasures. For a moment I felt lost, like a toddler who slipped out of his mother’s hand and found himself in a strange, nightmare land. Which must have been how Jason was feeling.

I knew if I stayed out in the open that it was only a matter of time before one of those zombies at the church saw me. And since the street held nothing useful for me, I slipped into the electronics store, taking care that the little silver bell above the door didn’t jingle as I pushed it open.

For the most part, everything inside was still in order. Computers looked down from shelves at me, reflecting the gloom of the store in their dark monitors; a few adding machines were strewn across the floor and reams of paper had burst open, spilling white, rectangular sheets like abstract throw rugs. I saw a row of televisions and wondered if anyone was still broadcasting, if there was news of exactly how far this thing had spread. But, lacking the time for idle speculation, I eased my way past them and made my way to the back office.

The office consisted of a desk with a 1980s style boom box perched on the corner, a calendar tacked to the wall, and a whiteboard with a list of names, days, and scheduled times scrawled across its surface. There were a few filing cabinets, a phone that the snapped telephone pole on the street made useless, and a door on the opposite side with a little red exit sign above it. Just a standard office. No more, no less.

I slumped into the chair at the desk and swiveled back and forth. I wanted to pound my fists against the wood, to release the energy in my tense muscles with a shout. They would be in that church sooner or later. And here I was, surrounded by useless artifacts. Powerless. Helpless. A would-be hero facing his own limitations and failings.

Lying in front of the boom box was what appeared to be the plastic case for a series of motivational tapes of some sort. They were labeled, in large black letters RISE UP AND OVERCOME: Personal Power Through Positive Belief. One of the tapes was missing from its slot and I noticed it securely nestled in the jam box’s tape deck. Funny, the things your mind will latch onto when what you really need is to think of something useful. For example, I also noticed that the boom box wasn’t plugged in, that there was no cord connecting it to the outlet on the wall.

An idea flared in my mind like a match striking. I bolted from the chair, grabbed the boom box with both hands and flipped it over. I fumbled with the little plastic covering and finally popped it out. Six D-cell batteries inside. There might be hope yet.

I then ran over to the exit door which had a little sign advising that an alarm would sound if opened. Seeing as how power was gone from this street, however, I didn’t think that would really be much of an issue. Pushing it open, I peeked outside and saw that it lead into a typical alley: brick buildings on either side, dumpsters, graffiti.

Alrighty then, I thought. Let’s pray this works.

Returning to the boom box, I turned the volume knob until it could go no further. Then I slid the three little paddles on the equalizer to the very top of their troughs and depressed the little button labeled bass boost. The office door I propped open with a computer tower and then, pausing only for a moment, I pressed the play button on the tape deck.

As the words came booming from the speakers, I made for the exit and slipped out into the alley I’d glimpsed earlier. My heart was pounding and adrenaline was surging through my veins like a ruptured water main. But I forced myself to slow down, to walk as softly through the alley as I could and to press myself into the shadows.

In the silence of the town, I could hear the narrator on the tapes almost as clearly as if I were wearing headphones.

“… you have to believe. Now, what exactly do I mean by believe? Isn’t belief a simple matter of…. ”

By the time I got to the mouth of the alley, I could just make out the church in the distance. The zombies were still hammering at the door and walls, still scrambling to gain entrance in any way they could.

“It’s not working.” I thought. “Son of a bitch, it’s not working!”

“… having a conviction from information received from, or derived by, your five senses? Yes and no.”

As I watched however, I saw one of the corpses whip its head back toward the street. It stood there for a moment like a coon hound catching a scent. Others took notice as well and the entire crowd began to slowly turn toward the source of the sound. The thudding on the walls had completely stopped now, which made the words of the motivational speaker even more distinct and clear.

“What I am talking about is belief based on the presumption that you…. ”

Like water bursting through an earthen dam, they spilled out onto the street. A few freshies in the pack led the way, but the rotters straggled after as quickly as their deteriorating muscle would allow.

I pressed myself flat against the alley wall, hoping that the shadows and their single-mindedness would help cloak me from view. I heard them pass with the sound of feet shuffling against concrete, fart-like sounds as gas from rotting organs escaped, scraping and dragging. The smell drifted into the alley like I was downwind from a pig farm after slaughtering day. I held my breath and pinched my nose to keep from gagging on the noxious stench, to keep from giving away my hiding place with a retch.

I heard the breaking of glass, things toppling over with thumps and thuds, and knew they had entered the store. As quickly and quietly as possible I started making my way toward the church, making sure to stay as far from the line of sight of the store as possible. Just in case any of them happened to look out the window at the pillaged street beyond.

Almost halfway there and all I could think was, it’s working, it’s really working….

Then I noticed that the man on the tape had begun to slur his words, sounding like a drunkard four shots into a binge. The sentences were getting slower and seemed to be dragging.

“Good god, can’t I catch a fuckin’ break?”

It had never occurred to me that the batteries in the boom box might not be fresh. And there had been a whole display out in the front part of the store, too….

Abandoning caution, I sprinted the rest of the way to the church as the words from the tape continued to drag slower and slower. I was pretty sure the door to the church was locked, but I also knew it had been weakened by the undead barrage; as I neared the top of the steps at full speed, I threw myself into the air and crashed into the wood with my shoulder.

The impact jarred my entire body, but the door flung open with a sharp, metallic ping and I was suddenly rolling across the inside of the church.

The little boy started screaming and I tried to quiet him, to reassure him.

“Jason, it’s me. Carl. Shhhh. They’ll hear you.”

He was lying on the floor beneath a ladder and even from this distance I could see that his left ankle was swollen to the size of a grapefruit and was covered with blue and black bruises.

He must’ve thought I was one of them, because he started trying to crawl his way backward, all the while screaming in a shrill voice.

“Get away from me! Leave me alone! Help!”

“Jason, it’s Carl. I know you’re scared, but you have to be quiet.”

I looked back over my shoulder through the doorway. Good. Apparently his screams hadn’t distracted them from trying to find the person they assumed was hiding somewhere in the electronics store. But how much longer would the tape fool them? How much longer before the boy’s voice drew them back to the church?

“Shhhh.”

Frustration spread like an oil spill within my belly, making me nauseous and tense. I scrambled to the boy and clamped my hand over his mouth, but then there was a flash of pain as his teeth sank into the fleshy parts of my palm.

“Help me! Someone…. ”

“Damn it, Jason, they’re gonna hear you!”

I slapped my hand over his mouth again, fought back the urge to pull it away as he bit again.

In the silence I could hear the tape again. The words were so slow now that they were unrecognizable as English.

“We’ve got to get out of here.”

I scooped the little boy into my arms. I was pretty sure we could make it into the woods behind the church before the corpses even realized we were gone. But we had to move now.

The boy thrashed about in my arms and I tried to remind myself that he was terrified and probably hadn’t realized yet that I wasn’t one of them. But every instinct in my body wanted to slap him across the face.

Something tickled the back of my neck and my heart felt as if it had literally stopped. End of the road. Those had to be fingers reaching out for me….

I spun around, expecting to see a rotting face glaring back. But there was only a rope swinging back on forth with tassels on one end. A rope which lead up through a small hole in the ceiling.

“We hafta go now”

I began to run toward the door, but the boy was still fighting like two cats in a sack. He squirmed and flailed and kicked and bit down so hard I had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming as blood trickled down my hand.

“Damn it, Jason, stop it! I’m here to help!”

His hands grabbed onto the rope and he tried to pull himself free even as I was trying to move forward. Overhead I heard the bell toll, a low bong sound that seemed to ring out and waver in the silence.

Silence. The tape had stopped completely.

Jason pulled again, trying to wrestle himself from my grasp, and again the bell above chimed.

“Jason, no!”

Down the street, I saw them stream out of the electronics store. Corpse after corpse stumbled and tripped in their haste and it seemed like they just kept right on coming. The street filled with their mangled limbs and twisted flesh, the freshies leading the charge at a full-blown run.

There was no way we could make it to the forest now. Before we were even halfway there the freshies would bring us down like a bobcat on a rabbit. And the horde continued to draw closer even as the boy kept struggling and that old iron bell rang and rang, tolling out our doom.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: JOSIE

“We probably could’ve went with them for a spell.” Carl admitted as we walked. “They’re heading to Florida, we’re going for West Virginia. Right along the way, you might say.”

“Then why didn’t we?”

I was cold and tired and thought of the heater in the Hummer blasting out warm air as Doc and Sadie raced southward. The soft, comfortable seats….

“I turned it over in my head. I really did. But I was afraid when we finally got to West-By-God it would be too easy just to keep right on truckin’.

I felt annoyed and grouchy and wanted to snap at Carl, to lash out at him with my words. But I had to keep reminding myself that this was my choice. He hadn’t forced me to come with him. I’d kind of argued my way into his plans just so I wouldn’t have to say goodbye. Just to have more time with him. So I really didn’t have any other option but to play by his rules.

“Where exactly are we going?”

Carl searched through his pockets and brought out a pack of cigarettes which, as it turned out, were empty. He crumpled the pack into a ball and tossed it over his shoulder.

Old habits die hard and I had to chew on my bottom lip to keep from launching into a lecture about litter and how we’re the custodians of this planet. But we weren’t. Not anymore. Trash carelessly tossed aside were the least of our worries now.

“Not far from where I grew up. A little town called Brighton. Probably all grown over by now.”

He was still fumbling through his pockets as he spoke, but I got the impression it was just a ruse. That he knew his hands would turn up empty but welcomed the distraction anyway.

“Can’t believe I’ve got no more smokes. Doesn’t that just beat the devil?”

“What’s in Brighton, Carl?”

I tried to ask the question as innocently as possible, as if I were simply making conversation to pass the time. But I had this feeling that whatever laid in that little town among the hills and valleys of the Mountain State would be the key that would unlock the secrets of Carl’s sadness.

He sighed and his voice dropped to no more than a whisper. I had to strain to hear him through the earmuffs he’d liberated from a freshy two days earlier, but it was important to me to catch every word.

“There’s this little church I want to go to.”

I laughed and shook my head in an attempt to keep the conversation light, to keep it flowing.

“You? Going to church? If you’ve found God, Carl, there’s plenty of churches around here. It is part of the Bible belt you know.”

He smiled, but it wasn’t the same one which caused my heart to flutter with hope and chased the cold out of my chest. This was a sad, knowing smile that never really touched his eyes.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, sweetie.”

“So tell me. Lord knows, we’ve got nothing but time.”

Carl stopped, turned to face me, and took both of my hands in his; his eyes locked onto mine, his gaze steady and unfaltering.

“It took the end of the world for me to find someone who made me realize it wasn’t such a bad place after all. And I want to tell you everything. And I mean everything.”

Carl gave my hands a little squeeze and pulled me to him; he was now so close I could feel the warmth of his breath and see my own reflection in his tired eyes. And the woman I saw there was smiling: a soft, serene smile that would have looked more at home on a painting of the Virgin Mary than that odd, angular face. But I knew the smile was genuine, could feel it radiating with the heat of a thousand suns from deep within my soul.

“But, sweetie, I’ve got to get it right in my head first.”

“But I can help, I can …”

“You do help.” he said. “More than you’ll ever know.”

For a minute we stood there, simply looking into each other’s eyes, and that bleak and comfortless wasteland of snow just seemed to melt away. The freshies, the rotters, the refugees who picked through cruel relics of a world that no longer was: none of that mattered. Just this man, his hands, his eyes, his voice and breath….

“When we get to that little church,” he finally said, “assuming it’s still standing that is, we’ll sit a spell on the pews. And I’ll tell you all of it. Each and every detail.”

Carl’s eyes shimmered, but he made no move to blink away the tears forming there; he didn’t look away or fidget or give any indication that he felt even the least bit threatened by this display of emotion. He held my gaze and made a promise without uttering a word.

And then, seeming as if he were moving in slow motion, Carl leaned forward; our lips touched in a brief, sweet kiss. It was the type of kiss I had always thought existed only in movies. The kind that reaches into the very core of your being and finds a small, warm spot to call home. Then we collapsed into one another’s arms, each of us holding the other as if we could somehow anchor ourselves to this particular place. This specific time. And cherish it for infinity.

Maybe it was the lingering effects of that kiss. Or perhaps it was simply that after days of cloudy skies that looked as if they were wrapped in dirty cotton, the sun was finally shining again. Whatever the cause almost two days later, Carl and I were romping through the fields like excited children.

We’d spent the better part of an hour playing in the snow: making angels in the drifts, lobbing loosely packed balls at one another as we darted to and fro, our laughter seeming surreal in the quiet of the Illinois winter. At one point, Carl even constructed what he referred to as a snow rotter: it was basically your typical snowman but was missing one eye and the branch that served as its left arm had been purposefully mangled. As a finishing touch, he’d punched in the side of the face that lacked an eye, giving the giant snowball a caved-in look.

The entire time I’d been with him, I’d never seen him so happy and carefree. That haunted expression had temporarily vanished, giving way to eyes that sparkled and a smile that touched every inch of his face with its warmth and light. For a while, we were able to forget the death and destructions that lay out there; we could pretend that the world had simply continued on like it always had, that we would be returning to our jobs and bills, perhaps taking in a movie or snuggling on the couch as we listened to a Leonard Cohen CD by candlelight.

And maybe this made us reckless. In fact, I’m sure it did. Why else would we would have begun an impromptu game of tag that had us running through the drifts like a wolf and hare in some nature documentary? Under any other circumstances we would have known better; we would have thought of consequences, of survival. But on this particular day, all of that seemed so far away. So distant and somehow, as strange as it may sound, unimportant.

By the time we’d both been it several times, we were panting and out of breath. We stood there with our hands on our thighs, grinning at one another like a couple of happy idiots, not concerned with the film of sweat that had formed beneath all those clothes.

“Ya know,” Carl gasped, “when we get to that little church, I think I’d like to…. ”

His voice trailed off and he fidgeted before me. He seemed slightly uncomfortable, as if his clothes had suddenly become two sized too small, and I couldn’t tell if he was blushing or if the redness in his cheeks was just from exertion and the chill of the air.

“Like to what?” I teased. “Repent all your worldly sins? Finally confess that there’s something out there bigger than …”

“I think I’d like to marry you.”

There were only a handful of times in my short life when I can honestly say that I was speechless. But this was one of them.

“Now, you don’t have to give me an answer right away.” he stammered. “You can think on it a spell. But I’ve never felt as right as I do when I’m with you. Never felt as whole.”

“Yes.” I whispered as a grin crept across my face. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”

I threw myself into his arms and we kissed, slow and deeply. It was crazy: here we were, in a world where we didn’t know where our next meal would come from, where the cities and institutions of civilization had crumbled into ruin, where the dead walked the earth. And I had just been proposed to.

“Come on.” I urged as I pulled his coat. “Let’s get moving. I want to get to that church as quick as we can.”

Within fifteen minutes of walking, however, a coldness had seeped into my body like none I’d ever experienced. I glanced over at Carl and saw that his teeth were chattering as well, his lips light blue, and that he was hugging himself as tightly as he’d embraced me after the proposal.

When he spoke, his words were stuttered and punctuated with the loud clacking of molars hitting against one another.

“S-sweat d-dr-drying. C-c-cooling b-body temperatures.”

I felt like there was an arctic tundra somewhere within my torso, somewhere so deep that no amount of clothing could ever thaw the glaciers that were forming there. Their cold radiated outward, causing chills to creep along my flesh as my body trembled.

“N-need shelter.”

Every step I took seemed to require more energy than the last and my arms had begun to feel like they were being pricked by millions of tiny thorns.

“R-reckon it was pretty s-st-stupid to r-run… around l-like that.”

It was weird, but I’d never felt so tired in my whole life. Almost as if every ounce of energy had suddenly been sapped from body, crystallized on the freezing surface of my skin, and then shattered into microscopic shards. I wanted nothing more than to just lay down in the snow for a little bit, maybe to take a little nap. I was positive it would be warmer down there in the drifts, that after a little sleep I’d be able to trudge onward. Nothing in the world had ever sounded better.

“H-hang in there, sw-sweetie. S-see? There’s a b-barn up a-ahead. Hang in th-there.”

The barn he referred to looked so far away, so distant, that I couldn’t imagine having the energy to pull my exhausted body all that way. I’d started to yawn and my legs felt as if they had been tied down with weights.

“Just let me sleep.” I whispered. “Just for a few minutes, baby. Sleep… .”

Carl wrapped his arm around me, hooked it under my arm pit, and pulled upward to keep me from slumping to the ground.

“D-Damn it, girl, we’re almost th-there. It’s not as far… as it l-looks. You just keep r-right on walking. You can d-do it, Josie.”

With Carl’s constant stream of encouragement the red structure in the distance gradually grew larger. Before long we were able to make out a little white house near it that had previously blended in with the snow.

“Almost there.”

One wall of the house had been almost entirely obliterated: the jagged hole was like a dark mouth grinning at the barren landscape. Just within the darkness, I could make out the tail end of a truck that had apparently smashed its way into the structure.

Now that we were closer, I actually began to believe the little pep talk that had been a constant prattle from Carl’s mouth. I really could do it….  I thought of the hay that was surely piled up in the barn, how warm and toasty it would be when I burrowed my way into it, how I would finally be able to rest.

“C-can you walk on your own?” Carl asked.

His voice was low and grave and I nodded my reply as I followed his line of sight. There were footprints in the snow, leading up to the little door on the side of the barn. He released me from his arm and drew the little pistol from his waistband, flicking the safety off with his thumb.

Rotters? Or other refugees like ourselves simply looking for shelter? Impossible to tell from simple tracks. But what we did know was that these footprints were relatively fresh. Maybe an hour old at the most.

The sound of our own feet crunching in the snow suddenly seemed like the pounding of a kettle drum. With nothing more than a glance, we’d both slipped into what Doc had always called survival mode. Our steps were slow and deliberate, our movements limited to just the basic necessities. Sounds seemed sharper now, the biting tang of dried sweat wafting from our bodies all that more pungent: all of our senses had kicked into overdrive and the iciness of my skin seemed less important as adrenaline coursed through my veins like liquid fire.

I was holding a baseball bat and had it raised beside my head, ready to swing at a moment’s notice.

Close enough to the barn now that we could hear a shuffling sound from inside. Feet against floorboards. We listened for a moment, then Carl looked at me and held up one hand as if he were giving the peace sign.

I nodded. Definitely no more than two in there. Any more and the noise would’ve been less furtive.

Carl glanced toward the side of the door, communicating with his eyes, and I slid into position beside it.

Lowering the bat, I touched the knob with one hand so lightly that there wasn’t even the slightest rattle. Carl had dropped to one knee directly in front of the door and had his pistol leveled in front of him.

He stared straight ahead as we listened to the sounds from within. Finally, he nodded. Nothing more really than just a dip of the chin.

I flung the door open and immediately raised the bat in one fluid motion, ready for anything that might come charging through the entrance.

Instead, we heard voices from within, quickly followed by the unmistakable sound of shotguns being shucked.

“What the fuck?”

Carl quickly stood, raising his palms in front of him to show he meant no harm.

“Human.” he called out. “Humans here. Don’t shoot!”

He walked slowly through the doorway, keeping his hands raised as if he were a prisoner and I fell into line behind him.

“We don’t mean no harm. We just need a place to rest for a spell. To get warm. Then we’ll be moving on.”

Our original assessment had been correct: there were two men in the barn, both pointing shotguns in our direction. They seemed skittish, which was understandable as we had just burst into their refuge.

There was a large stump that someone had drug into the barn, probably to use as a seat or table, and Carl slowly began to lower his pistol toward it, making sure to keep his palms facing the frightened men.

“Look, I’m puttin’ down my weapon, see? We ain’t looking for trouble, guys. It’s just me and the lady. A couple hours and we’ll be out of your hair. We just need to rest.”

Something about the men made me nervous and I wasn’t sure what. They looked like any other survivors we’d encountered: shabby clothes ripped and stained with fluids you didn’t want to ponder for too long, hair a stringy tangled mess, faces lean from hunger and roughened by exposure to the elements. But there was this feeling that I couldn’t shake: a queasy nervousness as if I had just encountered some entirely new life form, perhaps a human-rotter hybrid.

I wanted to tell Carl to tuck the gun back into his pants instead of placing it on the stump, to tell him to keep it close at hand. But, at the same time, I felt slightly silly. So far, these men had given me no reason to distrust them. In fact, they looked just as frightened as I probably had when Carl and Doc first found me back in that silo.

“See, fellas. I’m not armed. Name’s Carl. This here’s Josie. We don’t want no trouble.”

The one with the red beard turned to his companion and whispered something. The other one, who I’d begun to think of as Scarface due to the pink gash that covered his left cheek, furrowed his brow and whispered something back.

“Look, Carl, let’s just go and find…. ”

“We got food. Not a lot, but we’ll be happy to share.”

The two men finally began to lower their shotguns and it was almost as if I could see the tension melt from Carl’s back and shoulders. I, however, was still uneasy.

“I’m Roscoe.” the redhead said. “This here’s Freddy.”

Freddy nodded but remained silent as the pair walked over to the stump and placed their guns beside Carl’s weapons.

“You folks from around here?”

Neither one of them answered for a moment and I could feel their eyes on me. It had always made me uncomfortable when men would appraise me with a leer, their gazes lingering on my breasts as if they defined my entire worth as a person. I shuffled closer to Carl who somehow seemed oblivious to my nervousness.

Finally Freddy spoke.

“From up north. Heading south out of this fucking cold shit. You said you got food?”

“Yeah, in my pack.”

In the center of the room I could see where they had made a pile of hay and began piling scraps of wood and timber on top. They began walking toward it and we followed.

“Looks like you fellas were getting fixed to have a nice little campfire. Sorry we scared you like that. Thought there were rotters in here.”

The redhead walked into the shadows and I heard the creaking and splintering of a plank being ripped from a stall. Carl had taken his pack off and was rummaging through the piles of clothing for the canned vegetables that were in the bottom.

Freddy said nothing but shook a cigarette out of a crumpled pack and lit it with the flick of a lighter. At the sound, Carl’s head snapped up for a fraction of a second.

“Say, friend,” he said, “you reckon I can get one of those off you? Been about three days since I ran out. Three long days.”

Freddy blew a slow plume of smoke from his puckered lips and I felt his eyes crawling over me again. Though covered by layers of clothing, I somehow felt as if I were as exposed and vulnerable as if I were standing naked before him. After what seemed to be an eternity, Freddy finally replied.

“Tell you what, partner.” he said. “You let me play with your girl’s big ’ole titties for as long as it takes for you to smoke it and we got a deal.”

Excuse me?”

Carl stood quickly and stepped to the side so that his body shielded me from view.

“Look,” he said, “ I reckon it might be best for us to just move along now.”

His words were short and clipped, his jaw set at that particular angle it got when he was upset about something.

“Best of luck to you fellas.”

He stooped back down to re-zip his pack when there was a blur of movement. Without warning, the redhead had charged from the shadows with a two by four clutched in his hands.

Growling like an animal, he swung and I heard a sickening thud as it slammed into the side of Carl’s head. Almost immediately, Carl slumped to the ground and I turned to run but it was too late. I felt hands grab the back of my jacket and push me forward so forcibly that my feet got all tangled in each other.

I feel forward and my forehead crashed into hard, unforgiving wood with enough force that bursts of light exploded before my eyes.

I felt dizzy and nauseous as I rolled over onto my back and the room seemed to swim in and out of focus.

Roscoe had dropped the two-by-four and was in the process of pulling a hunting knife from a belt sheath; Freddy was walking toward me, undoing the zipper and button on his jeans as a cold smile spread across his face.

Everything went dark for a second and reality struggled to reclaim its grip. Bits of the barn disappeared into shadows only to reemerge seconds later. The man before me wavered in and out of focus and everything sounded as if I were hearing it through the other side of a wall.

“You’re gonna like this, girlie. But probably not as much as me.”

Laughter.

“Go ahead and kill that one. No use for him. Once he’s out of the way we can take as much time as we need with this little beauty here.”

I tried to raise my head, to scramble backward but there was a ringing in my ears now so loud that it made me eyeballs seem to sting and my muscles seemed incapable of following my brain’s instructions

I was vaguely aware of the redhead squatting over Carl’s body, the knife in his hand gleaming in the half darkness, as his friend began tugging at my jeans.

I tried to call Carl’s name, but only a hoarse whisper escaped my mouth.

“We’re gonna have us a hot time tonight.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: THE CHILD

At first I thought it was one of the monsters that had busted through the door, but when I found out it was Mr. Carl I think I was even more afraid than if it had been a monster. He tried to pick me up but I started kickin’ and scratchin’ and yellin’ for help just like Mommy told me to do if anyone ever tried to take me. But he was so much bigger than me that I had to grab onto the rope that was comin’ down outta the ceiling and hang on for dear life. He kept tryin’ to pull me away but I wouldn’t let go and then somewhere over our heads a bell started ringing and when he heard that he started usin’ all kinds of bad words.

For some reason, he kept lookin’ over his shoulder as he cussed and pulled at me and he looked really scared, like maybe he thought the bell would let the police know he was tryin’ to kill me like he did Mommy. So I screamed for help even louder which caused him to cuss even more and he started yankin’ at me so hard that the rope felt like it was biting my hands.

I wanted to let go so bad but I knew if I did he would take me somewhere that no one would ever find me. After we fought for a bit he finally said the really bad swear word – the one Uncle Bobby used to saw when he’d hit his fingers with a hammer. And just like that, he let me go; only he didn’t do it real easy like. He just dropped me and my hands were suddenly slidin’ down the rope and it felt like all my skin was being peeled right off. But then I hit the floor and the pain in my leg got so bad that I screamed just like Suzy Bobbins did that one time when she stepped on the broken glass.

I could see Mr. Carl but he looked all watery cause my leg hurt so bad I thought I was gonna start cryin’ again. He’d took the gun he’d used to shoot Mommy out of his pants and I knew why he’d dropped me: he musta thought it would just be easier to kill me right then and there since I was fightin’ him so hard and everything.

Only, he didn’t shoot me. Instead, he spun around so that he was facin’ the door and at the same time a monster came bustin’ through. This was one of the fast ones and he kinda looked like a regular person ’cept there was this big hole in his cheek that I could see his teeth and the side of his tongue through.

The monster came runnin’ at Mr. Carl, jumpin’ and fallin’ over the benches in the church like he didn’t even care that they were in the way. It’s hard to explain but part of me wanted that monster to get him, to rip him into a million tiny bits and make him pay for what he did. But I also knew if the monster killed Mr. Carl then it would come after me next. I kept tryin’ to stand up so I could run away but it kinda felt like there was something inside my leg grinding against something else and it hurt so bad that I felt like I was gonna throw up as I fell back down again.

Mr. Carl just stood there, watching the monster as it got closer and closer to him. When it was only a few benches away he shot his gun and all of a sudden there was this little black hole in the monster’s forehead and it fell backwards across the benches as everything crashed down around it.

He didn’t take no time to make sure it was really dead but ran to the doors of the church instead and threw them shut. Then he picked up one of the benches and smashed its legs real hard against the wall. They broke right off and he kinda flipped it around and did the same thing to the other set of legs and then kicked away the part that made up the back so that it looked like he was just holding a big board.

The doors started to fly open and I saw this hand that looked like the claw of an evil old witch reaching through. But Mr. Carl slammed his body against the doors and they shut on that hand over and over and over until finally there was a really loud crack and it just kinda fell off.

The whole time he’d been holding the broken bench close to his chest and now he started trying to slide it down into these two hook-like things that were attached to the wall on both sides of the door. I’d seen things like that in cartoons about knights and knew that was how they used to lock doors before they had real locks; and I also knew the reason that the doors looked like they were bulgin’ out was because the monsters were on the other side tryin’ to force their way in.

Finally, Mr. Carl got the bench slid into the hook things and he just kinda fell backward onto his butt and sat there breathin’ real hard. His hair was all covered in sweat and when he looked over his shoulder at me I could see in his eyes what he was thinkin’… he was sittin’ there wonderin’ what the best way to kill me was.

I didn’t want to look at him no more so I just closed my eyes really tight and laid there, waitin’ to hear the sound of his gun and feelin’ like I had to pee worse than I ever had before.

Mr. Carl didn’t shoot me though. Maybe he thought it would just be too easy. Or maybe he wanted to make me really hurt. That’s probably it, because after the monsters were locked out of the church he started bein’ really mean to me.

He came over and squatted down next to where I was layin’ and started tryin’ to talk to me but I wouldn’t answer. Didn’t matter, though, cause he just kept right on talkin’ anyway.

He started pokin’ around at my hurt leg and every time he did it felt like someone was jabbin’ a knife into me. I remember him sayin’ how my leg was broke and then he said he was gonna hafta sit on it or something and that it was gonna hurt real bad. He took my leg in both hands and asked me if I was ready and all I wanted to do was claw his eyes out. It was like he was just makin’ it worse by tellin’ me how he was gonna make me hurt. But before I could do anything, he kinda pushed real quick on my leg and I screamed so loud and it hurt so bad that everything went dark and then it was like I’d fallen asleep somehow.

When I woke back up, I noticed that he’d taken two pieces of wood and tied them to my leg. I figured this was probably so I couldn’t run as fast if I tried to get away, which was stupid cause I wasn’t even able to stand up or anything.

I don’t know how long we sat there and listened to the monsters pounding on the doors but it seemed like forever. He tried to tell me stories, tried to talk to me, but I kept quiet and wouldn’t say anything back. After a while I could tell from the light coming through the colored windows that it was startin’ t’ get dark outside and my stomach growled real loud.

“You hungry, kid?” he asked me and since I didn’t want to talk to him at all I just nodded my head. Which was maybe kinda cheatin’ but my belly felt like it was shrivelin’ up.

He pulled out these cans and started opening one up and it smelled just like the tuna salad sandwiches Mommy used to make me. My eyes got all watery but I didn’t want him to see me cry so I kinda turned my head around like I was looking at the big painting of Jesus that hung on the wall. I didn’t cry though and when I turned back around he had a handful of this pink meat he was holding out to me. Mommy had always said I shouldn’t eat with my hands but I was so hungry that I know she would have said it was okay in this case.

It didn’t take long to eat the tuna fish he’d given me ’cause I just gobbled it right up. I sat there waiting for him to open the other can too, but he just put it back in his pocket and I knew I was gonna have to say somethin’. Which is probably what he wanted all along.

“I’m still hungry.” I told him. “I want more.”

Mommy probably would’ve been mad because I didn’t say please but I didn’t see why I had to use manners with someone who was just gonna kill me anyway.

“Sorry, kid.” he said. “We gotta make it last.”

And then I knew exactly what his plan was. He didn’t shoot me when he had the chance ’cause he was gonna make me starve t’ death. I knew that as soon as I was asleep he was probably gonna take that tuna fish and eat it all up by himself and that made me really mad all over again.

“You got another can.” I said. “I seen it. I want more.”

He just looked at me for a minute and then slowly shook his head.

“Sorry, but maybe we can have some more tomorrow morning.”

I was so mad that I turned my whole body around even though it made my leg hurt really bad. I crossed my arms over my chest and kept thinkin’ again and again how I wished it was him that was dead and not my Mommy. And then, for some reason, I thought about the big black birds I seen before I came to the church. There were dead monsters layin’ in the street and these big old birds were just eatin’ away at ’em. And it wasn’t fair that those birds had something to eat and I didn’t and it was all his fault. Maybe I’d just wait ’til he was asleep and eat that tuna fish myself.

Or maybe I would wait ’til he was asleep and take his gun from him. Maybe I would do what he did to Mommy to him and see how he liked it then. And I would still get all the tuna fish I wanted and not have to share any of it with him. I’d never shot a gun before but it looked easy. You just point it and shoot.

“I’m really am sorry, kid. Maybe we should just try to sleep and then morning will be here before we know it and we can eat again.”

And I thought that sounded like a really good idea. Just let him go t’ sleep.

But then I heard Mommy’s voice in my head and she was sayin’ no baby, it’s wrong, don’t do it baby. Which made me real confused ’cause I figured she would want me to get back at him for killing her but the voice just kept right on sayin’ please don’t do it, please don’t.

And I knew that Mr. Carl was lucky this time. ’Cause if it hadn’t been for my Mommy I really woulda done it and I wouldn’t have felt bad or nothin’. But instead, I really did go to sleep and all night long I dreamed that Mommy was bringin’ me hot dogs and pie and meatloaf and all kinds of good stuff. Only every time I’d get ready to take a bite Mr. Carl would show up outta nowhere and snatch it outta my hands.

Even my dreams weren’t fair and I remember thinking in them ’bout how I wanted to be one of them black birds. At least they weren’t bein’ starved to death by a killer. At least they could fly away from all of this. But if I was a bird I would peck out his eyes and poop on his head.

I really would, too.

I can’t wait for him to die.

I hate him.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: CARL

I knew the kid was hungry. Hell, my own stomach felt like it was turning inward and devouring itself amid rumbles and waves of nausea. So I figured it had to have been ten times worse for the boy. He’d come from a world of coco flavored cereal in the morning. Perhaps a snack between a soup and sandwich lunch and a full spread at dinnertime. The worst hunger he’d probably ever felt was waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts of the cookie jar on the kitchen counter.

But things weren’t really looking good, ya know? I kept hoping that some poor son of a bitch might wander into town; that the zombies would go after him like flies on shit, giving us enough time to slip unnoticed into the woods. But the hours kept dragging along, day turned to night and then to day again. I rationed out the tuna as best as I could, aiming for a subtle balance between taking the edge off the cravings and making these few cans last as long as possible. Hell, I didn’t know how long we’d be holed up in that there church with those rotting bastards pounding away at the door. So I did what I thought was best. But even then, the food was gone before we even had a chance to really feel it in our bellies.

To try and help pass the time, I started reading out loud from a bible I’d found up by the pulpit. Began with “In the beginning” and just keep right on going until my throat was so dry I sounded like a sickly creek frog.

But I started thinking as I read that maybe all this had happened before. If you took the stories I was reading as history enshrouded in religious superstition, it was all too easy to start seeing the similarities.

The world, after all, had been our Eden. All of our needs had been taken care of. Everything we could ever want was right there in our garden and life was actually pretty damn easy. But then some old guy in the sky got pissed: we were cast out into the wilderness, forced to fight like animals just to secure the basics of survival. And who knows? Maybe the reason ’ole Cain bashed in his brother’s skull is that Abel had come down with the slack-jawed vacant expression of a rotter. And if little brother got a tasty little chunk of flesh during the exchange then that would sure as hell explain why the first “murderer” was condemned to wander the earth and not able to be killed by those who crossed his path wouldn’t it?

I kept these thoughts to myself though. Jason had hardly said a word since I first found him in the church and I reckon he was probably still grieving for his mother. Which was understandable. Last thing he needed was for some old fart to lay some heavy shit on him. So I just let him be and kept right on reading until I physically couldn’t talk any more.

And the hours just kept dragging on. Day turned to night and then to day again. And it didn’t take long before I had this panicked thought whispering in the back of my mind: you’re both going to starve to death. You’re never getting out of this here church….

I tried to tell myself not to listen to that voice, that I would think of something. But it’s hard to lie to yourself when your stomach feels like a shriveled walnut and your piss is as dark as wine from dehydration. It’s hard to have a positive mental attitude when all you can think about is how good some fried green tomatoes or a nice oven baked chicken would taste. Or when you actually start wondering how to go about filtering your own urine so your tongue doesn’t feel all scratchy and swollen.

Of course, it probably didn’t help matters any that I wasn’t sleeping worth a damn either. I’d lay there in the darkness, watching the boy sleep and think about how badly I’d fucked everything up. His mother was dead, we were slowly wasting away to nothing, and there was a crowd of rotters hammering away at the door. Rotters who were bound to find a way in if given enough time. And to make matters worse, I suspected that the child was beginning to crack under the strain.

Most of the day he’d sit there in his Power Rangers t-shirt, just glaring at me with eyes that almost seemed to burn with hatred. At first I thought that maybe I was just seeing that because it was how I actually felt about myself. What Doc would later tell me was called projection. But when he started getting really weird on me, I started wondering if there was more to it than that. If the boy had simply snapped.

See, he’d gotten to the point that whenever I’d ask him a question he wouldn’t answer with words. No, he’d sit there with that cold, even stare of his and wait for a few seconds to pass, forcing me to ask the question again. And then, as naturally as if he were saying hello, he’d caw like a raven in this voice that seemed too thick and raspy for such a tiny throat.

The first time he did it, I thought maybe he was playing some kind of a game that I didn’t understand. So I asked him again if he needed me to loosen the leg brace I’d made him for a bit. And the boy cawed again. Louder this time with his eyes and nostrils flaring as the sound crossed his lips. It was downright creepy and caused the little hairs on my arms to bristle just like they do right before a lightning storm.

The kid must of cawed at me for two, three days. Hard to say really, cause time had a way of getting fuzzy in that church. After about half a day of it, it’d spooked me so bad that I just stopped talking to the boy. But he kept right on doing it, anytime I would walk by or look in his direction.

It finally got so bad that he was making that crow-sound every few minutes and I felt my muscles kind of tense. I wanted to storm over to where he was sitting and give him the backside of my hand across the face, to shake him until his teeth rattled, to do anything to get him to stop making that god awful noise.

Caw. Caw. Caw.

I clenched my teeth together so tightly I could taste blood oozing from around my gums, balled my hands into fists over and over again, and paced around the church like a man on death row waiting on the Governor’s call.

Caw. Caw. Caw.

His voice caused my eardrums to feel like they were lined with broken glass and his eyes followed me no matter where I went.

Caw.

I couldn’t take it anymore. If he kept it up I was gonna start hitting him and once I started I didn’t think I’d be able to stop again. I just wanted him to shut the hell up, to use his damn words for Christ’s sake, to be a normal little boy and not some fucking basket case that I’d created through my own failures.

Caw. Caw.

I ran over to the little ladder that led up into the bell tower and started climbing my way up the rungs. I was so damn weak from hunger and exhaustion that it felt like I had a fifty pound weight attached to either ankle, but I had to get away, to just steal a few minutes of peace and fucking quiet.

When I made it to the top, he finally stopped and all I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees and the pounding of the rotters below. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face, smelled the scent of pine from the forest mingling with the stench of decaying flesh; if not for the stabbing pains of hunger shooting through my gut, I could have almost imagined I was back home, sitting on my porch with a cold beer at my feet and a fridge full of food.

And then I started to cry. It was like there had been something bottled up so tightly inside me that it finally came spewing out. I cried for the little girl in the forest who’d somehow wandered away from the interstate and was lost and scared and needing an adult so badly. I cried for Monica, for the way she’d kept reminding her son that she loved him when she knew the end was near. Even for little Jason, driven to the brink of insanity all because one man was frigging cocky enough to think he could ride in and save the day.

I don’t know how long I sat there with my knees pulled up to my chest, but eventually the tears kinda dried up and I was left feeling as hollow inside as those chocolate bunnies I used to give my niece for Easter. I opened my eyes and watched the tree branches sway in the wind. And I began to think.

Those branches kind of hung over the far side of the church roof. True, the angle of the roof was something fierce and looked like it would be easy as hell to just slide right off if you weren’t careful. But I could take the rope off the bell maybe. Lay myself flat and kinda shimmy over to the trees. Then if I could tie one end of the rope to a branch and one end to that there bell tower….  If I could do that, then maybe Jason could hang onto my back like a baby chimp. The rope would make sure we didn’t fall. And once we’d made it to the trees we could just go from branch to branch until we were a good piece into the forest.

Yeah, I thought it just might work. After all, the zombies were all clustered around the front door. As long as the boy didn’t start that crow shit, they’d never know we were even up there. They’d still be hammering away at the door and never even realize we were eating berries and roots and drinking cool water from a mountain stream.

For the first time in days I felt excited and hopeful. It was crazy, but it really could work. And even if we did slide off that roof and fell to our deaths, at least it would be quick. Not like the slow torture we’d been suffering through since the tuna ran out.

I felt like dancing or jumping up and down, clapping my hands and giggling like a damn idiot. In fact, it took about every ounce of willpower I had to keep from doing so. After all, with his bum leg the boy would pretty much be dead weight. I had to save my strength. Maybe catch a few hours of shut eye and then we could make our big escape under cover of darkness.

I shimmied down the ladder much more easily than I had scaled it and when I got to the bottom, I saw that Jason had drug himself over to the body of the freshy I’d shot on that first day. I shoulda gotten rid of it, but to be quite honest I didn’t really want to touch the damn thing. And whatever brings those fuckers back to life seems to slow the decaying process a little, so it had really started smelling too bad yet.

“Hey buddy,” I called out, “we’re getting out of here. I’ve got a plan and by this time tomorrow our bellies are going to be full and we won’t ever have to set foot in a church again.”

If he heard me, he didn’t give any indication. Not even so much as glancing back over his shoulder at me. What the hell was he doing anyway?

I’d crossed about half the distance and thought maybe he hadn’t heard me.

“Jason, you hear? We’re getting out of here and …”

This time the boy did turn around and there was something clenched between his teeth. Something that looked like a pink piece of rubber. Only it had these dark streaks on it that looked like they’d been flung there with a paintbrush.

He pulled with one hand and tore a long strand away and then slowly began to chew. I noticed the dark streaks were on his lips and chin, that his hand was covered in this goo and that it looked as if something had ripped the corpse’s lips away all the way down to its chin.

The boy swallowed and looked at me with those dark eyes of his. Licking his lips, he made a single sound:

Caw.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: JOSIE

The air within the barn was like cold hands against my thighs and I felt revulsion twist my guts into a concrete pretzel. This couldn’t be happening: we had simply wanted a place to come in out of the cold, a shelter where we could be warm, where we could rest….  we had fought out way through hordes of rotting flesh, had buried one of our own in an unmarked snow bank outside some bullshit little town, had lost everything we had ever loved or cared about. Everything except each other. And now these two greasy assholes were just going to waltz right in and steal everything away from us? These two low-life degenerate sons of bitches with their stupid fucking leers?

My jeans were around my knees now and Jerry had bent my legs as he pulled so savagely that the burn of friction cut through the blurry haze that had become my world. For a moment the barn was thrown into sharp focus: the sunlight filtering through the gaps in the walls, the little pieces of hay and dust that drifted through the shafts of light, the smell of old manure, the floor cold and gritty against my bare legs. I saw the redhead lifting Carl’s head by the hair, saw the knife and that obnoxious grin on his twisted, evil face.

Anger exploded within me with more force than Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. It felt as if every muscle in my body had simultaneously released all the frustration, all the wrath and bitterness that had been stored within its cells since this whole fucked up apocalypse had begun. How dare they try to steal the only person I fucking gave a damn about when everything else in my sorry excuse for an existence had been ripped away from my clutches and trampled in the dirt! How fucking dare they!

I yelled or screamed or growled or something. I can’t even say if there were even any words. All I knew was that my vocal chords felt raw and torn as this primeval sound erupted from my lungs and my legs had begun kicking with more force than I’d ever guessed I had.

My foot slammed into Jerry’s nose and I could feel as well as hear the sharp snap as blood began to gush from his nostrils. But still I kept kicking, inching my way toward him with my feet flailing in the air, connecting again and again with the soft flesh of his face. More blood from a lip split open like an overripe tomato, but still kicking, still yelling, still unleashing the full force of my rage. I wanted to stomp him into a bloody pulp, to see his brains squish through crushed eye sockets, to hear him cry and scream for mercy, to feel his skull crush beneath the fury of my feet.

At the same time, I was keenly aware of everything. I knew that Roscoe was frozen, the knife mere inches from Carl’s throat as he stared at the scene playing out before him. Maybe he was in shock. Maybe he didn’t expect a mere piece of pussy to so completely eradicate his friend’s features. I don’t know.

At some point I had stood and stepped out of my jeans and was now kicking Jerry in the head with the tip of my boots again and again. Blood splattered up and dotted my panties and thighs and I became aware of someone yelling at the top of their lungs. The voice sounded like a demon unleashed from the gates of Hell, gravelly and overflowing with contempt and hatred.

  “You like that, you cock sucker? Huh, you like that? What’s a matter baby, can’t you take it? Come on, bitch, take. Take it mother fucker! Take it!”

 I saw bits of shattered teeth slide down Jerry’s chin in a foamy soup of spit and blood. His eyes were swollen slits encased in puffy dark bruises and his nose was mangled to the point that it would have looked entirely flat if it hadn’t been for the shards of bone jutting through the broken skin.

He was trying to say something as he crawled backwards and his words sounded as if he were speaking through a mouthful of mush. But, quite frankly, nothing he could have ever said would have made one damn bit of difference.

“Yeah, you fucking cum rag, we’re gonna have us a hot time tonight!”

I kicked him in the face again and noticed that his friend had let go out Carl’s head and was standing now, apparently free from whatever paralysis had gripped him. His face was warped with anger and he held the knife in front of him in a stance that somehow reminded me of a fencing match.

“You stupid cunt. You’re gonna pay for this shit.”

He ran toward me with a yell and I found myself doing the same, despite the fact that I was armed only with the ferocity of a woman scorned. Mere feet from each other he lunged forward with the hand holding the knife. At the same time, I spun around as if I were on a dance floor, moving entirely on pure instinct. The blade passed within inches of by body but by then I was directly beside him and my foot shot out, entangling itself within his stride. For a second his arms pin wheeled and then he was falling and, as he thudded to the floor, I heard a slight squish. Blood oozed from beneath his shoulders and the tip of his knife had rammed clear through his throat. It’s gore streaked tip sliced through the flesh on the back of his neck and he twitched a few times as the last of his life gurgled out of the wound and across the dirty floor.

“Mprumph fuffin fiff!”

That had been Jerry’s feeble attempt to form words again through the shattered remains of his face.  He was half laying, half sitting against a hay bale and his fingers played over the pulp of his features like a blind man trying to get a feel for someone’s looks. His entire head was black and blue and swollen and bloody, like an infectious zit on the verge of popping.

I walked back to the large stump that the weapons were laying on and picked up Carl’s pistol.

I felt calm.

I felt totally in control.

  I felt justified.

I squatted in front out Jerry, just out of reach enough that his grasping hands couldn’t find me, and spat in the remains of his face.

“You’re not gonna like this, buddy.” I whispered to him. “At least not as much as me.”

I leveled the gun so that the little nub at the end of the barrel was perfectly aligned with the center of his forehead.

“Fuffin fiff!”

Without another thought, I pulled the trigger and watched as blood and brain spattered the bale of hay behind him.

“Who’s the fuffin fiff now, cock sucker?”

  It took nearly half an hour for Carl to come to. I put my jeans back on and had cradled his head in my lap, stroking his hair and being careful not to touch the softball sized lump that had formed on his forehead. During the time he was out, I sung every song I could think of to him: Bridge Over Troubled Water, Walk on The Wildside, hell even Party in The USA despite the fact that I had almost always turned the radio to a different channel when it came on. Back when there was still such a thing as radio, that is.

Eventually, Carl’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled weakly when he saw me looking down at him.

“Hey there, beautiful.”

He tried to sit up and winced in pain as his hand went instinctively to the bump on his head.

“Son of a bitch. Feel like I’ve been run down by a tractor.”

“Shh, it’s okay baby. Everything’s okay now.”

I saw his eyes scan the barn, watched as even more color drained from an already pale face as he saw the blood and bodies. Looking up at me, he wetted the tips of his fingers with his tongue and rubbed away what I assumed to be flecks of dried blood from my cheek.

“What the hell happened in here, sweetie?” he croaked.

“Well,” I answered slowly, “I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m no longer a pacifist.”

He glanced at Jerry’s battered remains, tilting his head slightly as if trying to figure out exactly which part of the face was which.

“Yeah.” he said softly. “I reckon not.”

As Carl regained his strength, I told him about everything that had happened. At several points my voice cracked and I felt tears well up behind my eyes; but he would squeeze my hand and, after taking a deep breath, I would go on. When it had all be told, we sat in silence for a moment and listened to the wind as it whistled through the gaps in the walls.

“Shit,” he finally said, “remind me never to piss you off, darlin’.”

I laughed and kissed his cheek lightly, enjoying the scratch of his beard against my face. I had come so close to losing this man that everything about him suddenly seemed fresh and new again, as if I were seeing him for the first time.

“Come on, let’s get outta here. My head hurts like the dickens, but I reckon I can manage.”

I put my arm around him and helped him get to his feet. He was still a bit unsteady so I pulled him closer, allowing him to use my body as a crutch as we shuffled across the barn and toward the door.

“You’re one helluva woman, you know that? I reckon there’s not another …”

My ankle felt as if it had snagged on something and I tried to kick free but then pain flared through the bottom of calf like I’d never known. I screamed as agony ripped through every nerve in my leg and tried to yank free again. But the white hot pain only intensified as I fell to the floor.

The thing that had been Roscoe had its hands wrapped firmly around my ankle and its teeth bit into the soft flesh between the hem of my jeans and the top of my sock. It gnawed and chewed and ripped as blood spewed from the wound and I tried kicking it away but it’s hands were like vices as it buried its face again and again into my skin.

Over top my own screams, I could hear another. This one not of pain, but of rage. Carl suddenly loomed beside me and I saw his pistol, a lick of fire and the stench of burnt powder as the thing’s head whipped backward with the impact of the bullet. Carl stood over it, tears streaming down his face as his finger pulled the trigger again and again and again. Bullet after bullet shattered the thing’s skull, sending bit of bones flying into the air like shrapnel from a grenade and I pulled myself backward, leaving a bloody swath on the floor as blood continued to gush from my wound.

Carl’s clip was empty but he stood there, still pulling the trigger as the firing pin clicked uselessly above the fallen freshie.

  “No, no, no, no!”

 He sunk to his knees and began bashing the thing in the face with the butt of his pistol.

“No, it’s not fucking fair, no, damn it, no!”

His words blubbered between sobs and I watched as his assault gradually lost steam. The pummeling became less forceful, less frequent, until finally, he threw the pistol across the room and hunched over the motionless body while his body hitched with sobs.

My leg felt as if it had been set on fire and the slightest movement caused severed nerve endings to flare in protest. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I shoot that one in the damn head as well?

“Carl…. ”

The sound of my voice snapped him to attention and he came scrambling across the floor on hands and knees. His face glistened with tears and something about him reminded me of a small boy who was lost in a world of darkness and couldn’t find his way out again.

I reached for him and he took my hand, kissing it repeatedly.

“Carl…. ”

“Everything’s gonna be okay, sweetie. Everything will be fine. I’ll patch you up and we’ll get ourselves to that little church I was telling you about.”

“Baby, I don’t think I’m gonna make it to that church.”

“Yes!”

His voice was strained with emotion, cracking as he yelled and squeezed my hand.

“Yes you are. Don’t you say that. We’ll go to the church and we’ll have ourselves a little ceremony. It’ll probably be spring by the time we get there and I’ll pick you a nice bouquet of wildflowers.”

Bubbles of snot blew from his nose and I tried to reach up, to wipe the tears from his eyes but my leg flared in pain.

“I… I love you, Carl. I want you to know that, baby. I love you. Always remember.”

“No, you’re gonna be okay, sweetie. Don’t talk like that. We’re gonna be okay. You can pull through this.”

  I knew he was trying to convince himself of this more than me. But at the same time, I wanted to believe him. If nothing else than to simply help ease some of the pain I saw reflected in those faded, tired eyes.

“Just hold me, baby. Hold me tight.”

He hugged me then and we sat there in the middle of the barn, slowly rocking back and forth as our tears moistened one another’s shoulders. How long we sat like that, I don’t know; but eventually tears turned to sniffles and then then to a silence so complete that I could almost hear the sound of his heart breaking.

“You keep going.” I finally said. “You find that church and whatever it was you were looking for there, you hear me?”

“No, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving you, Josie.”

I reached up and managed to stroke the side of his face this time, my fingertips trailing over the lines so gently I could feel the peach fuzz on his cheekbones.

“You promise me, Carl. If you love me, then promise me this. Find what you were looking for, baby.”

“No, I…. ”

“Carl, promise me.”

He was starting to cry again and he bit his bottom lip as he squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head back and forth.

“Promise me, baby.”

“Okay,” he finally blurted. “I promise. If that’s what you want, then I promise.”

I managed a slight smile and tried to ignore the way the pain seemed to be creeping up my leg. It was all too easy to imagine the infection surging through my veins, poisoning healthy cells as it slowly made its way toward my brain.

“Good. Now sit with me a while, okay? Sit with me and, when the time comes, don’t let me turn into one of them. Don’t let me do this to someone else, okay?”

His lips were thin and taut, his teeth clenched together so tightly that tears were squeezed from his shut eyes like water from a sponge. But he curled up beside me anyway, pressing his body against mine so closely that I could feel his heart beating within his chest. He slung one arm across my waist and buried his face into my hair as he kissed my scalp and I was reminded of an old married couple bedding down for the night.

We stayed like that up until the very end. Up until I could feel the last of my life channeling its way up through my body, ready to escape into the ether with that final breath. And, just before that moment, I saw a beautiful light radiating from everything around me: a light that was as soft and gentle as a butterfly kiss; a light that warmed my spirit and assured me that, somehow, everything really would be alright.

Everything was so clear.

Everything was so beautiful.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: THE CHILD

I don’t really remember a whole lot about all the time Mr. Carl and me were in the church. I think we were there a long, long time but after a while it’s like my memories just turned off or something. I remember thinkin’ about shootin’ him with his own gun; I remember him readin’ Bible stories, only he read them in a voice that made ’em sound kind of creepy, like they were bein’ told by a demon or an old, old, old man. But after that it’s like there’s this dark spot in my mind and no matter how hard I try to look into it, I can’t see nothin’.

Except for bein’ sick. I remember that real good. I remember how the inside of my belly felt like it was hot and cold all at the same time and I kept tastin’ throw-up in my mouth only I never did really puke. And then it started feelin’ like my muscles were turning to stone or something cause they got really hard and it hurt so much just to move a finger or blink an eye.

Mr. Carl was somewhere close by and his voice sounded super loud and made my ears hurt every time he’d talk. He kept sayin’ over and over that it was all his fault, that he shoulda been better prepared, and that he shoulda never left me all by myself. It kinda sounded like he was angry and crying all at once and I wasn’t really sure if he was talkin’ to me or if there was someone else there with us.

I tried to ask if I could have some water cause my throat and lips was burnin’ really bad, kinda like that time I snuck a drink outta Uncle Bobby’s special bottle and got in all that trouble. Only when I spoke, my words didn’t sound right which was really scary. It was like I could hear them in my head and knew what I was tryin’ to say but when they came outta my mouth the sounds were all wrong and didn’t make any sense at all.

So I concentrated real hard on the words and tried asking again, but this time it was even worse and I don’t think I was actually sayin’ anything at all… unless it was in some language I didn’t understand.

By this time I’d got this really bad headache that felt like somethin’ was inside my brain and beating on it with a hammer. I wanted to scream ’cause it hurt so bad only my throat felt like it was gettin’ smaller and smaller and it was hard enough just to breathe so it was like that scream was just stuck somewhere in my body and couldn’t get out.

Since I couldn’t scream, I tried kickin’ my legs but that made it feel like my muscles were bein’ ripped in two so I just ended curling up into this little ball and holdin’ my stomach, hopin’ that the pain would go away.

Mr. Carl was still talkin’ but his words were all messed up now, too but I knew he’d started throwin’ stuff at the wall cause I could hear the crashes as he broke stuff.

And then I really did start throwin’ up and it seemed like once I started I couldn’t stop. It was comin’ outta my mouth and my nose and stung really bad and I wanted to lift my head but couldn’t do it. So I laid there with all this puke around me and every time I would stop throwin’ up for a second I would open my eyes cause it hurt to keep them squeezed shut so tight.

My throw up looked kinda like foamy water only there was these bright red streaks in it and the more I vomited the redder the puke got and it was all thick and sticky.

By this time, I couldn’t hardly move at all. I tried to see if maybe I could crawl backward so my head wouldn’t be laying in all that throw up, but my legs didn’t wanna listen to my brain and when I tried to use my arms the only thing I could do was wiggle the ends of my fingers. And even that hurt so bad that I just stopped tryin’.

Mr. Carl was kneelin’ beside me and he kept makin’ the same set of noises again and again and then he started shakin’ me. I tried to look at him t’ see if he was finally gettin’ ready to kill me but it was like this real thick fog had somehow rolled into the church. I could see his hands comin’ outta the fog but everything else was like shadows and stuff.

And I started gettin’ really, really tired right about then. It was like all that throwin’ up had taken up all my energy and all I wanted was a nice, long nap. Mr. Carl put two of his fingers on my neck for a bit and it’s hard to describe how it felt. It’s like I knew his fingers were there only it seemed like everything was really far away. Like it wasn’t really my neck at all, but someone else’s.

But that didn’t even really matter. All I wanted was to just go to sleep. To just close my eyes and hope that maybe when I woke up I wouldn’t be sick and it wouldn’t hurt any more.

And I remember how the darkness kinda slowly closed in around me. How everything just felt farther and farther away the darker it got. Until finally, there wasn’t anything other than the dark.

Me and the blurry people are still in the woods and it’s started rainin’ on us only no one really seems to care. The rain is comin’ down really hard too and lightning keeps flashing every few seconds and the thunder booms so loud I can feel it in my feet. We keep walkin’ even though it’s all muddy and some of ’em keep falling down and tripping over old logs and stuff.

And I still got that feeling like I’m being pulled. Everyone else seems to be heading in one direction and part of me wants to follow them. But it’s like I don’t really have no control over my own actions and I start breakin’ off from the others and walkin’ toward the left.

The other people around me kinda stop for a second as they watch me start t’ walk away. A few of ’em even turn and start to follow me, like I’m the new leader or something. Once they start following, the others turn around and they begin walkin’ with me too. And I don’t think they can feel the pulling like I do; I think they didn’t really have nowhere in mind that they were going so my way was just as good as anything else.

We cross this big road and there’s all these wrecked cars all over the place only they look like maybe they wrecked a long time ago. But we really don’t pay much attention to ’em and just keep walkin’ until we’re heading down this little hill. The mud and all the rain makes it really slippery and I end up falling and rolling all the way to the bottom where a tree finally stops me. Only it didn’t hurt or nothin’ when I hit the tree so I just stand back up and start walkin’ again.

That tugging feeling is really strong now and it feels like my whole body is just being pulled along. I want to walk faster but it’s like I can’t. All I can do is take these little baby steps that don’t even really make me lift my feet all that much.

And I see this little cabin up ahead, all by itself out here in the woods. It’s really old and run down and I can hear the door bangin’ as the wind blows it and I can also tell that it’s that place that’s been pulling me all along.

Lightning flashes and even through the rain I can see someone layin’ inside. They’re not blurry like us and I know this means that they’ll be warm and that they can make the hurting stop for a little bit.

My legs feel like they want to run toward the cabin and that warm person but they can’t. So I just keep takin’ those baby steps and the door of the cabin gets closer and closer so slowly that I don’t think I’ll ever get there.

But I hafta. I hafta get there, hafta get that person inside just like we did with the lady in the checkerboard shirt. It hurts so bad and I just want it to stop. I just wanna feel their warmth in my belly and on my chin and hands. So I keep walkin’ and the others keep following.

We’ll be warm soon enough. Even if it’s only for a little bit.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: CARL

After Josie died, I reckon I went a bit crazy. Up until then, I’d always been pretty darn careful in my dealings with the dead. If the odds looked like they were stacked against me then I’d try to skirt around the freshies and rotters whenever I could; I tried to learn from my mistakes, to constantly improve the technique of keeping my ass alive.

I suppose, on some level, I’d just stopped caring about what happened to me. I kept making my way toward that little church only because that’s what I promised Josie I’d do. But it seemed like every stinking, rotten face I saw along the way was like a match tossed into a puddle of gasoline. I’d see a group of corpses staggering along and everything just flared up so quickly that I could almost hear a whoosh and feel the heat of the flames wash over my soul. All I could think of was Josie, of Jason and his mother, Watchmaker, the little girl in the forest, and all the friends and family I’d lost along the way. Their faces flashed in my mind like a slide show of suffering.

And I blamed those damn zombies for all of it. It was like these creatures suddenly embodied every horrible tragedy that had ever touched my life and I wanted nothing more than to crush their ugly fucking faces beneath the heel of my boot, to hack limbs and feel their cold, putrid blood oozing across my hands. A shot to the head was too kind for them, too easy. I wanted to make them suffer, to rip them apart with tooth and nail if necessary, to actually feel their bones crack and break….

I’d found a lawnmower blade in the barn when I was looking for a shovel to bury Josie with. Also found some duct tape and I’d ended up wrapping the silvery stuff around one end of the blade until it bulged out and formed a handle of sorts. And this makeshift weapon became the sword of an avenging angel: a dark angel who tore through the countryside and burned with righteous anger, cleaving a trail of destruction that marked his path with signposts of arms and legs and headless torsos.

I can’t reckon I can rightly say how many of those bastards I left lying in little chunks. Enough so that my shirt and jacket became so stiff with congealed blood that it seemed as if they’d been dipped in glue. Enough that I had to sharpen the blade at least twice a day and was continually keeping my eye out for more tape to patch up my handle.

But even then it was never enough. I wanted to wipe each and every last one of those god forsaken nightmares off the face of the earth. And when the last one had fallen, when the world had been cleansed of their filth, I would raise my blade to the sky and shout at the top of my lungs: Is that the best You got? What now? Bring it on! Just You fucking try me, You sanctimonious bastard!

Of course, that day never came. In the end there were simply too many of them and I was so damned tired. Hatred takes a heavy toll on a body: it saps the strength from you so slowly you don’t even realize you’re reacting a fraction of a second slower than the day before. You don’t notice that your lawnmower blade isn’t sinking into the skull quite as deeply as it used to. You have no clue that all you really want is a deep rest and an end to all the torment and anguish that gnaws within you like a pack of famished rats.

But I made it pretty damn close, didn’t I? I reckon about eighty or ninety more miles and I would’ve been there. Still, maybe it’s for the best that I got myself bitten. What did I really expect to find there anyway? Some sort of absolution? Some kind of forgiveness? Well, maybe I never really deserved it anyway.

I mean, who the hell leaves a little boy to die alone? It doesn’t matter that he was fading fast anyway. I should’ve stayed with him up to the very end. Hell, at the rate the sickness took hold after he ate the flesh from that dead freshy it wouldn’t have taken long. The last time I felt for a pulse it was so shallow and weak that for a moment I thought the boy had already turned.

To be entirely honest, I really didn’t know what to do. I was scared, sad, angry, and defeated all at the same time. If only I hadn’t left the damn backpack behind or had taken the time to raid that grocer before entering the church. If I’d only put a little more fucking thought into my half-assed rescue or never left the boy alone to begin with….

I’d done nothing but destroy every life I’d touched since this damn thing had started. Every idea I had seemed to have a way of backfiring on me. So yeah, I threw me a little tantrum in that church. Anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor ended up flying through the air and smashing against the walls: song books, candle holders, pews… I tore through that building, cussing at The Man Above, tears streaming down my face, lost and confused.

I’d snatched this picture off the wall of Jesus with all these little children clustered around his feet. I held the gilded frame so tightly that the edges started cutting into my fingers and I pressed my face up so close that my spit peppered the glass as I yelled. I can’t rightly remember exactly what I was shouting but it was something about how it wasn’t fair, how this wasn’t supposed to happen to kids, and that I didn’t know what the hell He wanted out of me.

After a bit, I threw that picture so hard that I kinda stumbled over my own feet as I let it go. I fell to the ground and heard the shattering of glass at the same time my body thudded against the floorboards.

My head shot up and I saw that the picture had flown right through one of the stained glass windows and the stench of the crowd outside filled the room like air rushing into a vacuum. I picked myself up and stood directly behind the boy, who was moaning so softly now that it sounded more like a wheeze.

I looked at the bloody vomit that caked his Power Rangers t-shirt, at the way his veins seemed so dark against his pale skin.

Pulling my pistol from my waistband, I leveled it at the back of his head. The barrel was mere inches from his sweat drenched hair and I knew I should pull the trigger. That I should end his suffering and give him the same gift I’d given his mother.

But I couldn’t do it. God knows I wanted to. My brain was telling me to pull that trigger but my body was in the midst of a full blown mutiny. All I could do was stand there and cry as I thought of that little girl in the forest.

Mister, I….

I couldn’t kill another child. I just couldn’t. So instead, I turned tail and ran. I scrambled back up that ladder and shimmied across the church roof just like I’d planned. Into the branches, then from tree to tree, and then finally dropping to the forest floor. And I simply walked away, trying not to think of the little boy who had utterly depended on me. The boy who was now taking his final breaths utterly alone.

I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but the rain is really pouring down now. I can hear it slapping against the roof and the wind is slamming the door against the wall as cool wind gusts into the inside of the shack. The breeze causes the exposed nerve endings in my side to scream in agony and I grit my teeth as I close my eyes.

I listen to the patter and think that maybe it’s time to leave all this behind. I’ve lived long enough to hear that final storm and that’s all I really wanted. Maybe now I can know peace.

The pistol feels so heavy that it takes every ounce of concentration I have just to lift it. But isn’t this how it always was in the books and movies? Our so-called hero with the barrel of a gun in his mouth, a single round in the chamber, ready to usher his way into death?

I open my eyes to take one final look at the world and see that dark silhouettes are shambling through the doorway. Looks like I reached this decision not a moment too soon.

A flash of lightning illuminates the shack in electric blue and for a moment everything is as clear as day. I can see the decayed and peeling flesh of the rotters, the way their wet clothes cling to frames so frail and withered that it’s amazing that they can still stand at all. And I can also see that the one out in front, the one leading the pack so to speak, used to be a little kid.

Another flash of lightning right after the first and I see the small rotter is wearing a tattered t-shirt that’s splotched with bloodstains. But I can just make out the Power Ranger logo and it takes only a fraction of a second for memory to overlap with reality.

The lightning fades and I can hear the scuffle of feet against the floor. So close now that I can smell the rot and mildew.

The barrel of the pistol floods my mouth with a metallic taste, like sucking on a penny.

I try to tell myself to just do. To pull the trigger and end this fucking thing.

But I can’t. It’s like I’m suddenly paralyzed and this thought keeps going through my head. What are the chances that out of all the rotters out there this particular one just happened to find me?

Lightning again and the creature that used to be Jason is only a few feet away now. There’s no recognition on his face, no emotion what-so-ever. Just that empty stare of the walking dead.

None of the zombies are close enough yet to even think about taking a bite, but I feel someone lightly touch my arm. The hand is warm and for a moment my heart forgets to beat.

“You do whatever you think is right, baby. I’ll always love you no matter what.”

I love you too, Josie. I think I loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you. And maybe, just maybe, that was enough to make up for everything else.

I take the barrel out of my mouth and aim into the darkness. When the next flash of lightning bathes the inside of the shack, Jason is leaning forward, his mouth opened wide, teeth ready to tear and rip.

I pull the trigger as I should have so long ago and the bullet tears through his tiny skull as his body falls.

Go, now. Be with your mother.

I let the useless gun drop to the floor and squeeze my eyes shut as the first hands begin tugging at my clothes.

It should only hurt for a little while. I don’t reckon I can have all that much life left in me.

Still, at least I fulfilled the promise I made to the only woman I’d ever truly loved. At least I kept my word.

I found what I was looking for. And –maybe – what had been looking for me as well.

I close my eyes and await the end.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Named by the Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow, William Todd Rose writes dark, speculative fiction which often lends itself to the bizarre and macabre.  With short stories appearing in various magazines and anthologies, his body of work also includes the novels Cry Havoc, Shut The Fuck Up and Die!, The Dead and Dying, and The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, as well as the short story collection Sex in the Time of Zombies.  For more information on the author, including links to free fiction, please visit him online at www.williamtoddrose.com

If you enjoyed The Dead & Dying, you might also enjoy these other books by William Todd Rose:

SEX IN THE TIME OF ZOMBIES

Even in a world filled with the living dead, sex exists.

A stripper hell-bent on survival faces off against the living dead in a no-holds barred dance of death.

A lone soldier, separated from his unit, finds that the ghosts of his past may very well be more dangerous than a hotel overrun with zombified furries.

A boy faces his inner demons, ready to do anything to be accepted by his peers.

A woman, captured by slavers, finds out there are worse horrors than the walking dead.

From the first day of the undead apocalypse to points far in the future, this book explores the roles sex and sexuality play in determining survival.

Sex…zombies…love.

Let the infection begin.

THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY INFECTIVE PEOPLE

Bosley Coughlin can travel through time. And the future does not look good.

Through a heady cocktail of drugs and the occult, Bosley slips through time and space and glimpses The End. Cities lay in ruins, and those who still cling to life hide in the rubble like frightened animals. Walking carcasses shamble through the debris exacting a horrible fate upon any living they find.

This horrific future is the only world fourteen year old Ocean has ever known. Starving and alone, she struggles for even the most basic of necessities: food, water, shelter, love…

In the present, Bosley stumbles across Clarice Hudson and soon realizes that she is much more than a simple shop girl. One by one, she displays the seven symptoms of the contagion that will bring Bosley’s world to an end and create the nightmare Ocean calls home. Clarice may hold the key to stopping the coming apocalypse and sparing Ocean from the atrocities of mankind’s imminent future… but only if Coughlin is willing to push beyond every notion he’s ever held about right and wrong.

“Compelling, interesting, and will keep you intrigued from start to finish… a very unique and wild ride.”--Patrick D’Orazio, author of COMES THE DARK

“There is a very TERMINATOR-esque feeling to the narrative… deserves a spot on your shelf.”—T.W. Brown, author of ZOMBLOG

“I kept imagining The Dude (from THE BIG LEBOWSKI) telling a drugged out version of H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE… This is a book that is really worth reading…”--BuyZombie.com