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A note from SLRowland

I originally posted this in 2018, but I've decided to revise it, making the characters slightly older, and adding in a little more depth and worldbuilding. I'm working on this as a warm-up each day before my other projects, so I'll have a few chapters ready each week.

All feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading!

A decayed arm stretched out from the dark corridor, rotten hands reaching with ill intent. Grasping. Wanting. The monster looked almost human when it wasn’t moving, but with each step, Theo was reminded that it wasn’t human anymore.

“Just shoot him!” Theo’s brother yelled from over his shoulder, but he tuned Henry out and focused on the objective: survival.

He pulled the trigger and his weapon missed wide to the left. The shotgun pellets peppered the concrete wall, sending a puff of debris floating through the air like a dense fog. He’d never been a very good shot under pressure, and his heart thundered in his ears as the mob of undead funneled down the tunnel toward him.

There were too many of them. Way too many.

The closest one lunged at Theo, rotten claws grazing his arm as he jumped back. He stumbled but the wall saved him from falling.

He took a deep breath, an attempt to steady his shaking hands.

Falling back would only get him killed. The only escape was to move forward. Always forward. The gate behind him had locked once he’d passed through. There was no going back.

Theo’s brow furrowed in concentration as he aimed, and a small bead of sweat threatened to run down his face as the monster approached.

“Come on, Theo, shoot him!” Henry’s voice cracked. He’d never been good at hiding his anxiety.

Theo’s finger vibrated against the trigger as the monster shambled toward him, slouched and decomposing, a sickening ooze seeping from every cut and orifice. With a quickness Theo was not prepared for, the monster lunged. Theo rolled to the right, narrowly escaping before burying his Bowie knife in the monster’s head. He dropped the knife as a second monster charged, sidestepping and slipping in behind it. He pulled the trigger and white matter splattered across the wall, the headless body crumpling to the floor.

[Warning: Low Ammo]

Theo dismissed the notification, and silence engulfed the room as more of the mutated undead approached. Theo could hear his brother’s heavy breathing over his shoulder as the monsters staggered down the tunnel. They were locked on to his location, sensing his fear, or perhaps his humanity.

“You’ve got this,” Henry whispered.

Theo retrieved his knife and reloaded the shotgun as he backed away, giving himself distance to assess the situation. The shotgun could take them out easiest with it’s wide range, but it was slow to reload and had difficulty hitting a target from a distance. He was good with the knife, but it posed the greatest risk due to the close proximity. He switched to his pistol and started shooting as three more monsters stumbled towards him.

His first shot missed, wide to the left again. His second hit the body, doing little more than annoying it. The key was the head.

Aim better, destroy the head.

He fired again, and the lone female dropped to the floor. The others stumbled over her, one tripping and falling to the ground, buying Theo a few precious seconds to switch back to the shotgun.

He waited.

When they were close enough, he pulled the trigger and a head exploded into a red mist before him. The second zombie lunged. Theo backed away but he was too slow. It had his arm. He tried to jerk free, but the grip was vice-like.

“Boys! Come down for breakfast,” his mother’s voice shouted up the stairs.

“Knife him! Knife him,” urged Henry, his younger brother on the edge of his seat.

Theo removed the VR headset and tossed the controller to the floor. He was as good as dead anyways.

[You Died] flashed in bloody letters across the television his brother was watching, as a swarm of undead monsters swarmed his body.

Theo narrowed his eyes at his brother. “Bro, if the apocalypse ever happens for real, remind me to buy you a muzzle.”

“You were so close this time. Why did you give up?” Henry frowned.

They’d been stuck on this level for years. They’d bought the game Theo’s senior year of high school, and no matter what they tried, they could never make it down that last corridor. The monsters seemed never-ending. Still, every break a holiday they gave it a try for old time’s sake.

“I was already dead. We can give it another shot later. I’m starving though, let’s go grab some food.” Theo ruffled his brother’s hair like he’d done when they were kids.

“I think we’d fare better against the real thing?” Henry boasted. “I mean we wouldn’t be stuck in some underground lair at least.

“I’d still put my money on the mutants?” He smirked at his brother. “You’d give away our location in a heartbeat.”

Henry shrugged. “I get it from mom. What can I say?”

“A lot.” Theo teased. “It’s a good thing they don’t have detention in college.”

Downstairs, their dad sat at the kitchen table with his head buried in a newspaper. Their mother moved bacon from the frying pan onto a plate.

“Where is your sister?” Their mother asked no one in particular. “Isabelle! Breakfast is ready!”

“She’s probably watching crazy cat videos like she always does,” said Henry. There was movement upstairs before Isabelle appeared wearing a blue tank top over a red bikini, her long blond hair pulled up in a messy bun.

“I heard that, you little twerp.” She ruffled his hair on her way to the table.

“Mom!” Henry pleaded for vengeance upon his sister.

“If you really must know,” said Isabelle. “I was reading about this new technology. It’s some kind of virtual reality gaming used to help people with traumatic brain injuries. Apparently, they jack right into the brain, even if the brain isn’t communicating with the rest of the body. Pretty fascinating.”

“Nerd,” Henry whispered.

“That is fascinating, dear.” Their mom beamed at her daughter as she made her way around the table, pouring orange juice.

Henry took a large swig of juice. “Speaking of VR, Theo probably could have finally beaten Mutant Takeover, if mom hadn’t called us for breakfast.”

Isabelle rolled her eyes. “You two are still playing that? I’ll give it to you, you’re persistent if nothing else.”

Theo ignored their conversation, his eyes fixated on his father, who was oblivious to the world.

“Anything exciting, Dad?” Theo asked.

“Harry,” their mother called, pulling him out of a trance. “Your son is talking to you.”

“Come again?” Their father blinked a few times, and then closed the paper, suddenly aware of how lost he’d been.

Their mother gave him that simultaneously annoyed yet patient look only she could give.

“Sorry, it’s just these damn North Koreans. Every day, it’s something new. Threatening to change our lives as we know it. I don’t know if we should be worried or not. You know how the politicians get. I mean, the North Koreans have always made bold statements, but never like this. Never so frequently. Neve—”

She cut him off before he could finish. “Harry, you’re on vacation. You’re not at the office. You won’t have to chat with anyone about politics or current events for at least a week. Can you please put the paper away and enjoy yourself? All three of your children go back to college in one week. And this is Theo’s last semester. Would it kill us to be a family?”

“I hope I get as much attention showered on me when I graduate college,” scoffed Isabelle. She sat next to Henry and took a sip of juice.

Their mom crossed her arms. “We celebrate all of your achievements equally, dear.”

Henry and Isabelle both burst out laughing.

Theo’s ears suddenly felt hot. He’d always hated being the center of attention.

Isabelle seized the moment to torment her brother. “All bow down to Theo, king of the siblings. Star baseball player, great student, greater child.”

She and Henry moved to each side of him, bowing down repeatedly.

“Will you two stop it?” Theo glared. Truth be told, he was feeling the pressure of his final semester. He’d been a great baseball player but the time was quickly approaching where he’d have to decide if he wanted to slum it in the minors for years, or follow his other passions. He stood up from the table and walked out the door. “I’m going down to the lake.”

His mother protested, Isabelle and Henry apologized, but Theo had had enough. The screen door slammed behind him with a crack.

He sat by the lake and dipped his feet in the cool water. Goosebumps erupted along his body. Even in the summer, the water was abnormally cold. It always a soothing effect on him, though, capable of quenching whatever emotions had a hold of him and for a moment, bring peace.

They spent a lot of time at the bakehouse most summers, but on a particularly bad day at school or practice, Theo would make the drive from town and swim laps across the lake. Lake Brownstone, they called it, and it was deep. Theo never really knew exactly how deep. At least once every decade, there would be a mysterious drowning and they would never find the body. The authorities assumed it was lost somewhere in the murky depths. Theories of giant sinkholes or hidden caverns had emerged but were never proven.

Theo only knew that he never hit the bottom after jumping off the pier. Not even when he dove straight down, held his breath, and swam with all his might. About ten feet from shore, the bottom just dropped off. Even with goggles, Theo couldn’t see what was in the darkness beneath. It was unsettling at times, but it had become one of those mysteries everyone accepted. Just like the coldness. Even on the hottest days, the lake water could still chill him to the bone. Most people only wanted to take a short dip and then sit in the sun, but not Theo. He loved the icy water on his skin, the way it made him feel the blood as it pumped through his veins. He loved the way it made him feel alive.

After several minutes, the family joined him on the dock. By then, his mind was calm again, the rippling water and birds soaring overhead had that effect.

Isabelle and Henry took a seat on each side of him.

“Sorry we were turds.” Henry grabbed him on the shoulder. He might act like he was twelve most of the time, but he was nearly as big as Theo, even though he’d never put his size to use in sports. Henry was the brainiac of the family, the only one of them to get a full-ride to college based on academics alone.

“Yeah, we know you’re stressed. Growing up is scary and you’re the first one of us to do it.” Isabelle gave Theo a hug. “It’s gonna be okay. Whatever you end up doing, you’ll be fine. Whether you’re the baseball star or the buff history professor, the hot chicks will be throwing themselves at you, and you’ll forget about all your troubles in no time.”

Theo laughed at that. For all of his accolades, he always had trouble talking to girls.

Their mom and dad pulled out two old beach chairs, setting them up near the edge of the water.

Theo turned to face them. “Sorry I stormed out, Mom.” He was sorry. He hated losing his temper. It was the one thing he truly had no control over. He always tried his best to remain calm, but once he snapped, there was no coming back. He was like a runaway freight train until he ran out of steam.

“Just don’t let it happen again.” She gave him a stern look that faded into a smile.

“Hey, Theo, you want to have a diving contest?” Henry waggled his eyebrows.

Theo could see the excitement in his brother’s eyes. Who knew when the next time they would all be at the lake house again.

“Sure, let’s do it. You in, Isabelle?”

“I guess. It wouldn’t be summer break if I didn’t get to humiliate you on the dock, now would it? You can go first, pretty boy.” She took off the baggy shirt covering her swimsuit and tossed it aside.

“Fine, but you’re gonna be sorry.” He turned towards his family and flexed his muscles. He wasn’t typically a show-off, but when it came to sibling competition, he never held back. “Nothing can top this. Everyone stand back.”

Henry and Isabelle backed away to clear a path for Theo to run along the dock. Theo walked to where the dock met the shore. Turning around, he looked at the deep blue water. A silver sheen spread across the placid surface.

He took a deep breath, and sprinted. The wood creaked slightly as each foot of his massive frame thudded against the aged timber. His toes narrowly missing splinters with each rapid step as he roared down the dock. At the end of the dock, with not an inch to spare, Theo planted his right foot and lifted high into the air, spreading his arms and legs into a perfect X.

For a moment, time stood still. He imagine his family gazing at him, eyes wide. They couldn’t top this, he could feel it.

Then the Earth resumed spinning and his body descended toward the lake. Toward gravity. He broke the surface head-first, barely making a splash, before diving deep into the abyss. The blue became black, and Theo swam deeper. Deeper still until the cold enveloped him and his lungs burned to the point that he knew that if he didn’t turn around, he would die.

The soft voice of a woman startled him, and he took in a burning breath of frigid water.

“Unknown system error. Rebooting in 3…2…1…” her voice trailed off into the depths.

In a panic, Theo righted himself and swam upward. A small white light shined at the surface.

He breached the surface and gasped for air, coughing and gasping until the water he’d ingested no longer burned his lungs.

“Did you guys hear that?” His watery eyes made it impossible to focus.

No response. They were probably still in shock at how good his dive was.

What was that voice, though? System reboot? I must have played too many games of Mutant Takeover, and the stress is finally getting to me.

Theo wiped his eyes, and stared out at the empty lake before him. A cloudy sky had descended on the far bank while he was under water.

“Wow, that came in quick.”

He shook his head, trying to right his mind. Maybe I’m out of it today. I’m hearing voices and not noticing the weather.

He floated with his eyes closed for a long moment, trying to clear his head. “You should give up now. I told you I couldn’t be beat.” No one responded. He looked over to the dock, but no one was there. “Guys, where did you go?”

Theo swam to the dock, eyes searching the yard for his family. He’d been under a while, plenty of time for them to play a prank on him.

He searched the yard and the porch but there was no sign of them. Mom and dad’s chairs were missing too. Then he noticed the dock. It looked different. Everything around him looked different—older somehow.

I’ll give it to them, this is a good prank. They must have been planning this for a while to do it so quickly.

“Guys! Very funny. You can all come out now.” He climbed out of the water and onto the timeworn dock.

He scanned the yard again and chills spread down his spine. Everything had changed. The green grass and flowers his mom meticulously maintained around the lake house were gone. The trees were no longer full of summer leaves, now they were a grayish-green, on the verge of death. The blue sky with billowing white clouds was replaced with a dull gray, a faint orange glow where the sun was masked behind darker, more ominous clouds. The house was dilapidated; windows were broken, shutters barely hanging on. The front door creaked against the wind, occasionally slamming against the wall. Many of the trees were barren, a skeletal remain of the glorious summer. The wind howled in the distance and smoked billowed on the horizon.

What the hell is happening? Where is everyone?

“Mom! Dad!” he yelled, but no one answered. “Henry! Isabelle!”

Nothing.

Theo was alone.

He made his way to the house, where a thick layer of dust covered the porch.

I must be dreaming.

“There is no way this is real.” He pinched himself on the arm. It hurt, but nothing happened. He pinched himself again, this time harder, breaking the skin.

Wake up! Blood began to trickle down his arm, and he smacked himself. If I’m not dreaming, what is going on? This doesn’t make any sense.

The front door was unlocked. Inside, everything was similar to what Theo remembered, yet it felt completely different. Everything looked old, like no one had been inside for a long time. The furniture was ripped in places. The cabinets were barren. Musty air lingered.

Theo knew that no one was there. He didn’t even bother yelling anymore. He couldn’t explain what was happening, but he knew he had to get back home. Back to town. If there was any way he could find answers to what was going on, he had to start there.

Theo stepped onto the gravel driveway when something happened that shook him to his core. A piece of text appeared in the center of his vision. He closed his eyes, but when he opened them, the words remained. He tried to reach out and touch the words, to swipe them away, but it was no use. No matter where he looked, the words stayed. Whatever they were, it was like they were in his mind, superimposed over everything he saw.

Objective: Go to town.

Objective: Locate your family.

Objective: Do not die.

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About the author

SLRowland

  • Mordor
  • S.L. Rowland

Bio: S.L. Rowland is a nomad. Born in the South, he loves traveling and has road-tripped coast to coast three times over. He currently lives in the mountains of East Tennessee with his Shiba Inu, Lawson. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, reading, weightlifting, playing video games and having his heart broken by various Atlanta sports teams.

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