From behind a mailbox I watched the corpses continuously retrace their steps, waiting for something or someone to break the routine. The smell of skunk and feces lingered as the sun beat down on their putrescent bodies. I tried my best to breathe through my mouth. Nothing compared to the stench of the dead.
Buildings up and down every block either stood with their wounds or crumbled into rubble, leaving nothing but sidewalk signs to tell their stories. Abandoned vehicles filled the streets; debris littered everywhere in between.
After my run-in with the remains of Leslie—or Krissy—and the disappointing turn-out of their apartment, I came across a small house that offered a few cans of food. My backpack was heavy, but not heavy enough. The small victory led me straight to my intended destination: the city. A part of me wished I would’ve found more food elsewhere so I didn’t have to go. I could’ve turned around and headed back to Lionel, supplies aplenty, and we could’ve set off to Stonewall once again. If things were that easy, people wouldn’t still be dying at the hands of these walking monstrosities. If things were that easy, we would’ve overcome the apocalypse by now.
The dead infested every nook and cranny like cockroaches, searching, swarming anything that resembled food. An older ‘roach—its bones prominent through shriveled skin—bumped into a fresher, fuller ‘roach, provoking a snarl from both as if they were offended. Despite the circumstances, I chuckled to myself, imagining the words they would’ve exchanged if they could have. Infected could groan, hiss, and moan, but they couldn’t actually talk. The virus messed with their brains or something. No one knew for sure. Not yet anyway. The inability to speak was something that set the infected and uninfected apart—besides feeding on the living.
My eyes followed the fresh ‘roach. Its skin was barely pale, and it walked effortlessly among its staggering, well-decayed counterparts: a clear indication rigor mortis had long subsided. A quick glance could fool someone into thinking it was a man on a suicide mission, until you spotted the rotting laceration across its face. Its ripped and bloodied Chiefs shirt was also a dead giveaway.
I glanced at my objective a block down: “For Your Convenience” written in faded cursive on a weather-beaten sign. It was hard to tell if a store in the city—on the main street nonetheless—would have anything, but I couldn’t rule it out. The only issue was the sea of ravenous creatures itching to pounce at the first sign of fresh meat. I needed to be smart with my approach. One wrong step and Lionel would be on his own.
I stayed low and made my way to a pile of garbage. Once there, I scanned the horde, picking out another freshie. Its faded fauxhawk almost made me jealous, until I glimpsed the bite wound on its wrist. The twinge of envy disappeared. Even if I hadn’t had a proper haircut in months, at least I was alive, at least I was still myself. I continued on, eventually taking cover behind a stoop less than a hundred feet from the store. Nothing left but a clear path.
I diverted my gaze to the ‘roaches, only to lock eyes with the one wearing the Chiefs shirt.
My back slammed against the side of a building. Heart pounding, my breath caught in my lungs and I cursed and prayed it hadn’t seen me.
As I went to check again, a clatter stopped me. I whipped around, eyeing the alley not far from where I was.
If you couldn’t avoid cities—and I always opted to unless I had no other choice—you could at least avoid alleys. Not only could they be an endless labyrinth, they harbored merciless creatures unlike ‘roaches. We didn’t understand the virus, we didn’t even understand the ‘roaches, but the monsters lurking in the dark were a species all their own:
Nocs. Living. Breathing. Barbarous.
More clatter arose, then what sounded like shattering glass.
I choked on a gasp as hands emerged from the alley. Pale, chalky flesh on lanky fingers curled around the building like spider legs. I slapped my holster out of habit, but I knew it was the wrong answer. It was a stupid reflex. A gun would work for one or two, maybe even three, but it wouldn’t save me from the many, many more the gunshots would attract.
As the hands dragged the body attached to them, I spied blue cotton sleeves before turning to flee. The store was close enough. I could make a break for it without any of these mindless meat puppets even—
Chief cut me off.
I stumbled backwards and something wrapped around my ankle. Flailing and kicking I shook the alley ‘roach’s grip. It hissed, as if upset by my self-preservation. I barely became acquainted with its soulless eyes before Chief charged me, arms extended.
I ducked and dodged its deadly embrace and bolted toward the store. When I glanced over my shoulder, Chief gave chase, and the alley ‘roach wobbled to its feet. I assumed it’d chase me, too, so I locked my sights on the dilapidated sign that started this particular expedition. I couldn’t bear to look at the undead army lumbering next to me. Seeing them turn in my direction would’ve made the thought of surviving impossible. And I had to survive, for Lionel.
The store’s door busted off its top hinge. I dashed to the back, past bare shelves and turned over displays, kicking and crunching garbage scattered across the floor.
I huddled behind a revolving rack, relishing a moment’s peace to breathe. As helpful as Kevlar was, it was suffocating when you weren’t used to it. The sudden urge to strip the vest was as overpowering as the need to keep it on. Cornered by the dead, your heart racing, all you’d want is to scream. But screaming would only attract more.
I dug in my pocket and retrieved my earplugs. It wasn’t the best idea, but I knew I’d need them soon. There wouldn’t be time to put them in when they were absolutely necessary. Planning ahead was how you stayed alive, even if it seemed like a death sentence.
I could still hear the ‘roaches’ groans over the ear plugs, though they weren’t as loud. My insides shook while my body remained still. I risked a peek around the rack, and Chief was the first to fling itself through the doorway. The alley ‘roach barged in soon after. Its grimy blue tracksuit caught on the doorframe, tearing at the arm. They bared their teeth, stalking through the store, every movement precise.
The only comfort—if you could find comfort in a situation like this—was the infected from the alley wasn’t a noc. Those monsters didn’t stray from the dark unless they were newly transitioned. It was awful watching a fresh one collect itself before realizing just how deadly of a creature it was, before realizing it was a better hunter when the lights went out. I could handle a ‘roach better than I could handle a noc.
I shifted to the product shelf next to me before peering around the side. Chief turned away, cocking its head, sniffing the air. Stay quiet. Maybe they’ll leave—forget what they were doing and just leave. But I knew they wouldn’t. It would’ve taken hours for them to move on, and that was if I were lucky enough something came by to draw them away. ‘Roaches were mindless but persistent.
If I learned anything from the world ending it was to make my own luck. If I wanted to escape, I had to do it. A fairy godmother wasn’t going to appear and poof me away. I had to find a way.
I looked left: the display window, useless unless I wanted to showcase myself to every ‘roach in the city. Which I didn’t. Above me: a rusty-colored ceiling. No vents. Nothing. I nearly cursed thinking the store had anything useful after so long, until I glanced right. Dusty, empty coolers lined the far wall, same as the wall in front of me, the last catching my eye. The collapsed shelves revealed an opening to somewhere on the other side, and somewhere was better than where I was.
When Chief rounded the corner, I crawled to the next shelf. The dulled sounds around me brought an all-too familiar powerlessness. Earplugs weren’t ideal, but unless you wanted to go deaf using your gun, you found your way around it. I just had to stay alert, pay attention, and not get greedy.
I peeked into the aisle. Empty. I turned back in time to catch a whiff of Chief’s rancid breath as it moaned in my face. As I scrambled away from its reaching grasp, Tracksuit stepped in. Ducking, barely dodging its bony embrace, I kicked its knee, popping it back with a skin crawling crack. Tracksuit crumbled to the floor, and I bolted for the counter, sucking in a breath at the sight of a back door.
Whipping around, I reached for my pistol, but I didn’t unholster it. A gunshot would send the hungry horde my way. It wasn’t time. I needed something else.
Chief slunk closer, head bobbing, a toothy grin stretching from cheek to cheek. It lunged. I dove out of the way and snagged a broken pipe from the floor. Chief charged again, and I thrust the rod into its gut, ripping through its shirt, sinking deep into its flesh. Blackened blood oozed out. The creature didn’t let up. Its hands grabbed at me. Its jaw snapped at the air. For every step it took, I was forced to step back.
I wasn’t strong enough.
If you’re looking to satisfy your hunger for zombie fiction, you’ve come to the right place, but when you’re done, I ask that you clean up after yourself. Blood stains are a hassle to remove.
When I'm not chasing things that go bump in the night, I'm writing about different ways the world could end.