Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Chapter 15: Melee

The good thing about fighting zombies is that you can talk all you want about your plans and actions without fear of the enemy reacting to the words. Oh, they might react to the noise, but if they already know you're there or are about to, so what?

I started the party. The interior garage door was just off the kitchen on the far side of the house from the bedroom, and it was of much higher quality than the other doors. Unless I missed my guess, it was actually a repurposed front door, what with it being metal sandwiched around a dense wood core. Secured with a deadbolt--the key was in the lock, thankfully--the mechanism hadn't been touched by the zombies on the other side. Lucky for me, Jess was at the other end of the house keeping the New Breed too busy to go exploring.

I'd taken longer than I wanted putting together my gear, but I was ready. One last bit of preparation required: I pulled back the bulky makeshift sleeve on my left forearm and made a shallow cut there. I wiped the blood on the front of my shield quickly and liberally. Not as some kind of macho show of fearlessness.

Nah. I was the bait.

I unlocked the garage door and opened it, stepping bracing myself on the pair of concrete steps leading up to the door as I set the shield in place. I'd added a couple supports around the door frame that the shield slid into nicely. By themselves they stood no chance of holding back the weight of even one person, but they'd add some much needed bracing when the flood hit me.

"Hey, assholes!" I shouted at the milling bodies whose heads had craned toward the open door. I was going to tell them to come and get me, but as always the cannibalistic dead were a step ahead in that regard.

The doorway was a natural choke point, which had its good and bad elements. Narrow enough that only one or two bodies could actively snatch at me at a time, but also concentrating the weight of every zombie pushing on them into a very small area. My legs were braced for the impact, and since I stood on the steps, I was lower than I would have been on level ground. The first zombie, driven crazy by the smell of fresh blood, had to reach up and over the shield's edge in an attempt to grab me.

I held the rock hammer in my right hand, my left attached to the thick plywood. On my head I wore an old construction worker's helmet, secured with a bit of rope. Heavy safety goggles sat on my face, a cloth with some stains I'd tried hard not to think about knotted over my lower face. I ducked down and let the fingers scrape along the helmet, time my attack, and brushed the overextended arms to one side with my shoulder as I popped up and slammed the narrow end of the rock hammer into the zombie's skull.

You might be saying, oh, no, what about the other zombies grabbing at your poor arm? Won't your giant, manly muscles take scratches when the try to claw it?

Your concern and admiration is appreciated, but no. In addition to covering my head as best I could, I used a roll of duct tape, some more rags, and a few select pieces of scrap wood to armor my forearms. Is it ugly? Of course. It was awkward and laughably thrown together. But it fucking worked.

The body of the zombie I killed fell back into its companions. I'd hoped to knock a few of them off their feet or at least backward an appreciable degree, but no dice. Instead it dropped almost where it was and tangled their legs as the swarm tried to press forward. Three or four basically tripped over each other and fell into the shield as a group.

Some of the force was directed downward, but enough slammed into me that one of the braces I'd hastily hammered into the door frame popped right off. My jaw clenched with effort, I put my left shoulder into the shield and held firm. My limbs didn't quite shake with the effort, but the deep ache in my knee rekindled, sending fresh new heat radiating down to my toes and up to my hip.

It took a few seconds for the toppled mass to right itself and relieve the pressure on me. The moment it began to let up, I chanced shifting myself to get a better look. Lucky as ever, the bare edge of a zombie's head hovered just over the rim of the shield as it steadied itself. I took another swing, moving a lot less so I didn't let up on my pressure against the barrier.

That zombie went down, too, but things got...complicated.

I hadn't planned for the dead behind the fallen bodies to step on them like stairs. I should have, especially since I've seen them do it before, but in the rush it just hadn't occurred to me. The next dead man to step up stood a good ten inches higher than the last, easily able to maintain its balance as it reached down at me. I crouched, which was convenient since I had a couple weapons laying on the top step. I sat the hammer down and grabbed a long, huge screwdriver, thrusting it up between the extended arms of the zombie and through the bottom of its jaw.

I used my legs to give the shot more power and damn near lost the fight right there. I almost toppled as the shield shifted in front of me. A pulse of fear shot down my throat, paused at my belly, and settled somewhere in the vicinity of my bladder. I was not going to piss myself. Death before dishonor!

Just kidding. I have no shame.

Unfortunately, the zombie sprawled backward when I killed it and took the screwdriver along for the ride. "Fuck," I said. I had other weapons, but I couldn't afford to lose them. Wasn't like I could leave this spot and go get more, after all. "Gotta be more careful."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Adam said from the room full of zombies in front of me. "I'll get it for you."

A few seconds later, a hand appeared and dropped the weapon into my waiting fingers. It did this by brushing aside the arms of a New Breed zombie trying to climb over the edge of the shield. I was looking up when it happened, and my heart dropped. The New Breed couldn't see or sense Adam in any way, but it was smart. Its arm was shoved aside, and its eyes narrowed in response. It knew something was there, even if it couldn't see it.

I tried not to lose my shit when the New Breed whipped an elbow into Adam's face with thunderous force.

This was super not good.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Chapter 14: Junkyard Dog

I'll spare you the details of getting into the garage. It was basically how I made my way to the attic, but in reverse and a ton easier since I could just kick holes in the drywall as needed. I had to make a couple to line myself up over the work bench, and luckily the garage was empty of zombies. I pondered what I'd do before I lowered myself down. If the door was locked, I was probably safe. If not, I'd need to come up with a battle plan post haste in the likely event that the dead heard me and came to check it out like curious, flesh-eating kittens.

Deciding that, yes, 'fuck it' was basically the theme of my life to that point and not wanting to break the streak, I lowered myself down with just my arms, touching my boot to the work table with barely a scrape. It was a display of upper body strength the me or pre-2010 would have been envious of, but modern Josh had a more nuanced view of what had been required to make those muscles happen.

"I'm gonna stay up here," Jess said, her head hovering over the hole. "I'm gonna go wake Adam up if I have to fall on him to do it."

"Right on," I replied. "If there are tools in here we can use, I can pass them up to you and we'll hit them from three sides."

Jess nodded, then vanished. I climbed down from the work bench and took stock of my options. Like any practiced looter, I started rifling through the place unabashedly. There were a handful of circular saw blades in various states of wear, the expected tools like hammers, screwdrivers, and other standard items. I never discount a length of hardened tool steel. That shit is tough and almost always useful somehow.

The full-sized wood ax was less ideal. Powerful and deadly? Totally. Easy to swing inside a cramped hallway? Not in the least. A hatchet would have been far better, but honestly almost any of the short tools hanging on the peg board would have been. The problem was being able to handle a swarm without being overwhelmed. My coat had an armored lining of plastic discs in it, but that only went so far. When four or five zombies take you to the ground, nothing short of Iron Man armor is gonna save your ass.

This is the part where I'm supposed to come up with some brilliant, out-of-the-box solution that blows everyone away, but real life isn't like that. Instead I found some pieces of plywood leaning behind a pair of tall cabinets and realized some familiar ideas from Haven might come in handy.

I packed up some tools in a bag for Jess when she came back, then got to work. Inside the cabinet, I found lots of the weird items that accumulate in garages. Door handles, cabinet fixtures, rope, sealant, dozens and dozens of random things. I pulled a four by two foot section of heavy, three quarter inch plywood from its stack and started on a shield. I kept a rock hammer for myself, and attached a strap to it. Why the person who owned this house had a rock hammer in the first place, I have no idea. I wasn't going to judge. Before the Fall, I myself had a collection of weird ass tools I thought I'd need but never once used.

The total work time for me was about ten minutes. When Jess reappeared, I at least heard her coming this time. No getting startled.

"What's the plan?" she asked, eyeing my homemade tower shield dubiously.

I told her. Nobody was really happy about it.


(Hey, guys. I've started a new serialized Zombie Apocalypse/Futuristic SciFi/Dystopian story called Deathwatch and I hope you check it out. The site it's hosted on pays by so many page views, so share it far and wide. You can bookmark my Vocal Media author page, where all the chapters will show up, for easy reference.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chapter 13: Overhead

Jess had followed me, of course. Not all the way up into the attic since she was well aware of the spider population of such spaces and had no qualms about letting me take the traditional male role when dealing with them, but standing on top of the dresser with her head and chest through the ceiling.

"They've got my leg," I said, a little panicked as I yanked my foot away from the zombies again. "Little help please."

And Jess actually hesitated. Mind you, it was because she looked at the insane collection of spiderwebs and (I'm pretty sure) had to stop her brain from just noping out right there, but still. Hesitation. I catch exactly no fucking breaks at all.

To her credit, she hauled ass once the mental tug of war was over, not even bothering to duck around the spiderwebs. Look, I know I'm harping on this pretty hard, but both of us were severely afraid of spiders. Stop laughing, you assholes.

"Count of three," she said when she grabbed onto my wrists. "Kick hard."

She counted it out and I lashed out with my foot just before she yanked me upright. Pushing with my scrunched-up leg was super not fun, but we managed it. Thank god I was able to free my right leg, or the assist wouldn't have accomplished anything. As it was, I sort of bobbed up and fell over, sprawling across the beams as Jess let go. Hard to blame her for that. I would've done the same to save my balance, too.

"Looks like you lost a boot, there," Jess said, nodding at my right leg.

On my back, staring at the dusty ceiling through silvery threads of webbing, I grunted. It was a general ungh of assent. Yes, I hear you. Yes, dear, you're right. Lost that damn boot. Can you please just give me a second to suffer in peace?

While I tried to recover, the deep pulses of nausea-inducing agony thrumming through my body slowly losing power, Jess deftly stepped over my body and looked down through the hole. "Ugh. Goddammit. It's always something. What do you want to do?"

I lay there for another thirty seconds without answering. My brain was starting to settle down but still had a bit of pain-fuzz to shake off. I pursed my lips as I thought about it. "Did you see whether this place had a garage?"

Jess cocked her head. "I...think so? Pretty sure it's on that end." She pointed toward the side of the house opposite the master bedroom. "But we have weapons. What are you thinking?"

"That if we use a gun, we're gonna draw every zombie for a mile around us," I said.

Jess nodded. "Yeah. There are a lot more than there should be. And it's going to be a lot of work to knife all of them without making a mistake and getting overwhelmed. Should we just go out the window? Knock a hole in the ceiling over Adam and pull him up, then leave together?"

I pondered the idea. "We can always do that if we want, but I'm a little worried they'll chase us if we just try to leave. Wouldn't hurt to see if we can't find something better than a knife that doesn't grab the attention of a gun." I left unsaid the fact that I'd left our other weapons just outside the room, thinking like an idiot that it was better to spread them out in case one of us got trapped in another part of the house. Being prepared is good, but stupidly over-preparing has pitfalls.

I sighed and rose to my feet. "I'll check it out if you want to try waking sleeping beauty again."

Part of me was hoping the garage would be infested, too. Just so we could call it a day and take our chances outrunning the zombies. It was less work, and I was out of practice dealing with the constant stress of being in the wild.

Jess, however, seemed to be coping with it just fine.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Chapter 12: Digging It

I almost broke my hand when I punched the ceiling the first time. I swore loudly and shook my paw vigorously while Jess stood there with a wry expression on her face.

"Looks like you hit a stud," she noted.

I gave her a baleful look. "You think?"

The second time around, I tapped more thoroughly as I looked for the hollow space I wanted. Then, feeling like an idiot, I gave the spot a few test punches. Increasing the strength of the hits each time ended with a small crack I could jam my knife into. Silently thanking my brother for taking me to work with him back when he installed drywall for a living, I began working the blade and widening the crack.

It took a few minutes of awkward, overhead shoving with the knife (that could have doubled for equally awkward sex between virgins) to create a void in the drywall I could work with. Once I was able to fit my hand in the space and pull, the rest was a cake walk. Once the hole was big enough for me to fit through, I sheathed the knife and hauled myself up. One silver lining of the end of the world was that I was in better shape than any time before it, so pulling my body up was not only possible, but easy.

The attic was unfinished, and everywhere by my point of entry was filled with familiar pink insulation. I shuddered at the ridiculous number of spider webs in front of me. Hey, stop laughing. I'll fight a zombie hand to hand, but the idea of a spider ending up on my face...nope. Not even going to think about it.

Thin morning light filtered in through the vents on either end of the attic, just barely enough to see through. I slowly, carefully picked my way across the wooden beams. Falling through wouldn't be immediately fatal, but presumably a hungry zombie would be happy to finish the job. It only took a few seconds to spot the access for the attic about halfway across the space. Of course there wasn't a handy fold-down ladder attached to it, but then my first priority wasn't to climb down. I needed to get the lay of the land first.

I popped the thin wooden panel free and pulled it up, then took a look down inside the house.

"Oh, fuck me," I said entirely too loudly.

Zombies filled the hallway through the hole. Not packed shoulder to shoulder, but enough that three of them were immediately visible. All of them looked up.

"Glad you fuckers can't climb, at least," I muttered. It was true, but only halfway. New Breed could climb, but I doubted the ability of one to find a way up through the access hole. My experience with these smarter, all around better zombies didn't fully discount the possibility, but that same experience told me it would take any New Breed longer to figure out and execute such a plan than I intended to give them.

"What's going on?" Jess asked from behind me. I jumped in surprise, my foot slipping off the edge of the wooden supports and crashing through the ceiling next to the attic access. My left leg collapsed, folding up even as I racked myself on the wood, a lightning bolt of pain and nausea lancing through my body from my groin outward.

"OHFUCKINGWHY," I screamed, almost incoherent from the sudden shock of pain. Below, something tugged at my foot. Something insistent on getting to the tasty meat inside.

Shit. Shit. SHIT.

"Jess, help me," I said, valiantly struggling against my captive foot, trapped left leg, and the thumping pain in my nethers only made worse by the pressure on my right leg as the zombies below tried--so far--unsuccessfully to pull me all the way through the ceiling.

All in all, it wasn't shaping up to be a great morning.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Chapter 11: Clever

Yes, the house was empty. And yes, we secured the doors, even going so far as to cover and reinforce the window we broke to get inside the place. We didn't fall into complacency, no matter how comfortable living on the farm made us feel. Jess and I locked ourselves inside one bedroom and shifted furniture in front of the windows. Adam did the same, though we helped him move stuff around because we're not complete dicks. 

This abundance of caution means extra time and effort before bed, but it's worth it not to be caught off guard. Every time I did it, I thought about how silly it felt. That was the old part of me, the tattered remnant of the guy I was before The Fall. He was a fan of zombie movies and kind of an idiot if I'm being honest. The type of dude who lived day to day never expecting the worst to happen to him. That the worst had happened, and to the entire world no less, somehow still hadn't managed to totally erase that aspect of my personality. Some people have angels and devils on their shoulder. I have a guy in a lawn chair with the mellow disregard of a deeply stoned Matthew McConaughey. 

But the desire to live won out as always, and I helped secure the room. That morning, the exception proved the rule. 

Like a prey species instinctively waking to the sound of its predatory, the noise of zombie claws scratching at the bedroom door brought me fully conscious with zero lead time. I leaped out of bed fully clothed, my injured knee throbbing under the sudden abuse. 

"Fucking fuckity fuck," I fucking hissed, because it fucking hurt. 

Jess was only a second behind me, rolling off the bed and onto her knees, snatching up the rifle as she went. She swept the room with the barrel of the gun, and despite the seriousness of the situation I couldn't help the urge to chuckle. Here she was, eyes still puffy with sleep and barely open, but with the steady hands of a practiced killer. The weapon didn't waver a millimeter as it traveled in its arc. I was pretty sure my wife would fight--and fight well--even when unconscious. 

"Whuzzgoin'on," Jess mumbled against the stock of the rifle. Then her ears perked up. She licked her lips and cleared her throat, though her voice was still dry and raspy when she spoke. "Is that a zombie? Inside the house?"

"Sounds like it," I replied. "Door doesn't exactly have a peephole, but I doubt Adam is standing there scratching at it." I cocked my head in thought for a moment. "Though if he is and this is just him messing with us, I'm totally going to punch him in the junk." I said the last part loud enough to be heard in the adjoining bedroom, but got no response. 

Jess shambled over to the wall and put her ear to it. Her face screwed up in concentration. "I'll be...he's still asleep. I can hear him snoring." She moved away slightly and raised her fist to the drywall, knocking on it loudly. "Hey, wake up. Do your ghost thing and lead these fucking zombies out of the hallway, please."

We waited for a few seconds. Jess listened again before shaking her head. "He must be out like a light. Still snoring."

I couldn't help a grin. "Just like that time Patrick didn't show up for lunch with us and we banged on his window for like twenty minutes. Some people just kinda hibernate."

Jess shrugged. "Adam might be the only person left on the planet who can get away with that and not have to worry about being eaten while he sleeps."

She walked over to the door and stopped just in front of it, watching the handle shake. It was locked, of course, but the inner doors of houses were notorious weak points. We'd moved one of the two dressers in front of it just to be safe, though offset a little from the knob so it could sit flush with the door frame. "How are we even going to see what's out there? Want to open the door and risk it?"


I shook my head and looked out the window. I had to lean up against the other dresser to do it, and even then I could only see out from a limited angle. "Ugh. There are like twenty of them outside. Where the hell are they coming from? We picked this damn state because it was mostly empty."

"Technically, we picked it because John's bunker was here and Kell needed his research to come up with a cure," Jess corrected. "But yeah, your point stands. At least we know it's a New Breed on the other side of the bedroom door."

I turned, eyebrow raised. "How do we know that?"

"It's smart," Jess said, pointing at the ceaselessly twisting knob. "Normal zombies don't mess with door handles. And I bet it was watching us from the woods. If it saw us break the window and flip the deadbolt, it might have figured out how we got in here and copied us."

A shiver ran down my spine. "Fucking smart zombies, man. So creepy."

"Creepy or not, we need to figure out a way to at least see what we're up against. If the whole house is full, it might just be better to go out a window."

Something lit up inside my brain. I don't know where the inspiration came from, but once the idea was there, I knew it was perfect. "Help me up onto the dresser," I said. 

Jess eyed me skeptically. "This can't be going anywhere good."

I smiled, pointing a finger at the ceiling. "I think I have a way out."

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Chapter 10: Wild Buck

Adam came in handy, I'll say that for the kid. After hours of walking and dodging the occasional cluster of zombies, we finally had to stop. Iowa was fairly empty of the dead, but only relative to how densely packed pretty much everywhere else was. Which was why, when we finally packed it in for the night, we had to clear away a handful of zombies from a house that looked ideal.

To my surprise, Adam waved for Jess and I to hang back at a distance. He asked to borrow my knife and marched toward the place, a little ranch style home that had been new when the world ended. The windows were all easy enough to see through, only dust marring the view rather than blinds or curtains. Even from far away it was easy to see there were no dead wandering around inside. Which didn't mean jack shit; they floor might have been covered with them. That was rare, and at any rate cleaning out a house was old hat for us. Getting in was the problem.

Adam was the solution, or so we thought.

"Have you seen him actually kill a zombie?" I asked Jess, who stood with rifle in hand just in case things went sideways.

She gave a half shrug. "He's survived out here for a while. I assume he has. He's definitely not an amateur."

Adam strolled to the clutch of zombies idling in the front of the house. This wasn't an uncommon sight. While most of their kind wandered endlessly in the search for food, when their reserves ran low many would clump up around places the faded instincts in their brains told them their favorite prey should be: houses. Anywhere that carried even the faintest whiff of humanity was fair game, but the deeper recognition of what a house was certainly seemed to play a part in the behavior.

Adam slipped behind a zombie at the edge of the crowd and grabbed it by the hair. His movement was swift and brutal, yanking the head back and taking its balance in one motion. He followed it to the ground, only giving himself a second to reorient and strike. The heavy knife went down three times, each blow jamming a widening hole into and through the eye socket.

"Definitely done it before," I observed. "You can't always get through the bone at the back in one hit. He did three like it was nothing."

Jess shot me a long-suffering look. "I know that. You know I know that. And since I obviously have eyes, I really didn't need you to explain it to me. I'm not an idiot."

My face went hot. "Sorry. I was just making conversation."

Jess looked back toward Adam without responding. She wasn't angry, I could tell that much. Her moods were usually clear to me, if more inscrutable lately, and this seemed much more like irritation. I didn't mean to come across that way, like a guy who thinks he has to explain everything to a woman. Part of me never evolved past the earlier parts of our relationship, when Jess was breaking free of a life that kept her from being able to learn about a lot of the world. Back then my ridiculous capacity for storing useless information was something she took advantage of all the time.

But things change. I guess I had to make myself change with them. Jess was, by any objective measure, a far more capable person than I would ever be.

"Oh, that's not good," she said, breaking me out of my reverie.

Adam was on his third zombie, and the group seemed befuddled by the sudden and inexplicable deaths of two of their buddies. Adam slipped when he went for the third, and it managed to dig its sharp fingers into his forearm. Whatever mojo made him impossible to see or smell clearly didn't do the same for touch. The zombie didn't try to bite the arm, treating it like a piece of wood, but it did have a good grip and was drawing a lot of blood. Even from fifty feet away--downwind, obviously--I could see the strain on his face as he bit back the scream trying to tear its way out of his throat.

I started forward, but Jess put a hand on my chest. "He's not in immediate danger. We'll just get in his way."

Adam struggled against the zombie, trying in vain to get some kind of purchase. Every time he shifted his weight, the dead woman holding him instinctively gripped more tightly and forced him to back off. The scene was bizarre, and that's saying a lot considering how off the rails the world had become. Seeing a zombie struggling with a living person but not actively attacking went against every expectation and norm I'd developed over the better part of a decade.

He didn't even look over at us for help, which I considered a credit to the kid. Instead he paused, took a few controlled breaths, and thought it through. A few seconds later he reached up with his free hand, put the tip of the knife to the zombie's ear, and slowly pushed. This wasn't at all lethal, but it did irritate the dead woman and force her to move out of the way. When she did, her fingers came loose enough for Adam to pull his arm free.

Bleeding and clearly furious, Adam stepped around and took hold of her hair, then drove the knife into the back of the dead woman's neck. The hit was clean, though risky as hell if your aim wasn't perfect. His was. The spinal cord and all the Chimera cells running along it were severed instantly.

Adam didn't hold back with the last few zombies. His controlled manner evaporated as he stepped in and kicked the knee of one zombie in, straddled it in the confusion after its fall, and drove the blade into the middle of its face with both fists. The kid didn't even seem winded when he took the fight--hell, it was really just a slaughter--to the remainder.

"Remind me not to sleep if I ever piss him off," Jess quipped.

I nodded seriously. "Yeah, no shit."

As it turned out, the house really was empty. It gave us a safe place to sleep once we broke in, and there were no more zombies around to give us any trouble.

But as they say, every day is a new day, and the next morning proved that point with authority.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chapter 9: Truckin'

When we left Haven, fuel was not a concern. Okay, let me qualify that: fuel wasn't impossible to come by. The oil fields of Texas were producing, the associated communities making up the Union had the old United States strategic petroleum reserved, and those two sources of crude were fed into the handful of refineries in an almost nonstop stream. Hell, Haven itself even had a little refinery. All it takes is a constant heat source and some basic equipment. 

It's a wonderful way to crack oil into all sorts of useful things, and the end result was to give Haven a stockpile of fresh, usable fuels. Primary among them gasoline. At the time of our departure, every vehicle used for more than local security sweeps was outfitted with admittedly homemade but functional extended fuel tanks. Few of them could go for less than seven or eight hundred miles thanks to this extra capacity. 

Our truck, on the other hand, had just a regular tank and even that was only about half full. Or half empty. Pick your own perspective on that one. 

The nearest hidden fuel cache was well outside our range, which was how we found ourselves walking a solid twenty miles southwest of the bunker which was supposed to be our rendezvous point. 

"This sucks, just FYI," I said. "Why did we take the long way around, again?"

It was a rhetorical question--well, okay, a rhetorical complaint, if such a thing exists--but Adam, plodding along between and slightly ahead of me and Jess, answered. 

"Trust me, it's the only way I know to stay ahead of these guys. Even being inside the truck won't have completely eliminated my smell or whatever they track."

Jess shook her head. "You were inside the cab the whole time. It'll be thin. We might have gotten away clean."

"Don't bet on that," Adam replied. "I stole a car to get away from them the first time. They still found me."

No one had a response to that, because what was the point? If he was right, there was nothing we could do about it anyway. Adam could be tracked or he couldn't, a rigid binary. We fell into another long, semi-companionable silence. Those were common on the road. Adventures in books were always interesting. As William Goldman made famous, books are usually the 'good parts' version of a story. They skip over the long walks (excepting, of course, The Long Walk by Richard Bachman) and the boring routines, and who am I to break that trend?

No world-changing events occurred on that stretch of road. Nothing of note would happen until the next morning, as a matter of fact. But every time Adam talked about his strange invisibility to the zombies, I couldn't help turning it over and over in my mind. I'd spent a fair amount of time studying the undead, and I had a basic grasp of biology. Adam seemed impossible. 

Oh, not that he put off some kind of blocker that made him unpalatable to the dead. That much I was a hundred percent behind. After all, ammonia will drive zombies away in all but the most extreme examples. Covering yourself with a thick enough layer of zombie gore will mask you, so long as it's not New Breed zombies you're dealing with. Nor was it the idea that Adam had some weird mutation of the Chimera organism inside him that would create such a unique and useful trait. The damn thing mutates like nobody's business. Hell, we once--and ONLY once--saw a zombie that had the ability to ward off others of its kind by vomiting up a secretion its body made. 

It was the total invisibility that bugged me. For zombies to not notice him at all rather than just not find him interesting or be seen as a threat--that implied something much deeper. Chimera began its life as a symbiotic organism famous, at least among the researchers who knew about it, for constantly adapting to new hosts, snipping useful DNA to keep for itself, and making the host better in some way. That same adaptable nature also made it ridiculously dangerous. Proof: end of the world. Not a hard sell there. 

But this smacked of information transfer. For a zombie, whose brain no longer functions and is in fact controlled by a delicate lace of Chimera inside the skull mimicking those functions, to wholly be unable to see Adam, it had to first know what not to look at. Right? I mean, if the dude is invisible, then how does the organism know not to see him? It's obviously being tricked somehow, but the mechanism was beyond me. Possibly the data was transmitted by the electromagnetic field living creatures put off, but I had a hard time buying that. Maybe the chemical or pheromone Adam exuded acted like a primer: smell this, and utterly ignore whatever is putting it off. That one I bought more thoroughly. It would be like having a scent that forced your brain to see a blank space where something was.

That's actually not as hard as it sounds. The brain is weird and can be tricked in a lot of ways to confuse the senses. But it still felt somehow...less than perfect.

What if that second theory was right, but not the whole story? What if Adam's pheromone functioned like a hammer or a stun gun, temporarily walloping the zombies around him. Then when he gets close, the Chimera in his body puts off little chunks of itself. The stuff eats up DNA and incorporates it into itself. 

Holy. Shit.

I stopped in the middle of the road. What if that was it: Adam put off Trojan horses. Tiny packets of cells floating on the air that contained instructions like a computer virus. Ignore this guy, it would say, then be integrated into the dead around him. That would explain why his pheromones were so persistent. You'd want to coat everything around you as much as possible to get the best effect. 

"You okay?" Jess asked, eyes narrowed against the afternoon sun. 

I had a theory, but it was just a theory. And it wasn't like it mattered. Surely the people who had imprisoned the kid and studied him already knew the answers. My suspicions and ideas had no impact on the real world or our immediate future. Not to mention a lot of it was speculation fueled by a lifelong addiction to science fiction and medical thrillers. Sure, I felt like it was a revelation, but that didn't necessarily mean Adam and Jess would even care. 

"Yeah," I said, and began walking again. "Just struck by a thought. But it can wait. Let's keep on trucking along."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Chapter 8: Dusty

"I was almost caught by one of the people chasing me while I was in town," Adam said.

Half an hour after our escape, we sat at a pleasant if run down little park off the main roads. We were further west than I'd have liked, it being in the wrong direction from our eventual destination as well as further from the areas Jess or I knew well, but Adam had insisted. He had stopped here on his long walk toward the farm and noted the tiny park as a good place to stock up on water.

Someone had already tried, years ago from the look of it. Dozens of containers spanning a huge variety of sizes and shapes were scattered about. From half-full old milk cartons to five gallon commercial-grade jugs, our options were not limited. At first I thought Adam wanted us to get water from the narrow creek next to the picnic tables and barbecue pits, but I missed the water pump nestled to one side. Apparently the aquifer it drew from was pretty clean.

We waited while Adam stripped down and took a quick dip in the creek, washing away the dust until he resembled a human being again. It was only after he dressed and plopped down at the table that he finally informed us how close to disaster we'd come.

"You want to elaborate on that?" Jess asked in a terrifyingly calm voice. "Especially the part where you didn't mention until now that we left someone behind who can follow us?"

Adam shifted uncomfortably,  though whether this was because of the scrutiny or having put his clothes on without being able to towel off, I had no idea. "Oh, he's not going to follow us. He's dead. That's why the swarm started going so crazy."

When neither of us gave any sign of relief, Adam sighed and continued.

"They send out these scouts, okay? People hunting me down who are supposed to radio in when they find me. I think this guy must have showed up after I left town the first time but before I came back to draw off the swarm. I was doing my thing, carrying around half a squirrel I took from one of the zombies to get them to follow me, when I ran into him. He had all his gear on him, radio tucked away and all. I think he'd just gotten there. He had the weird gadget they use to track me in his hand, so I'm pretty sure he didn't know I was there until we almost knocked each other over."

Jess put up a hand to stop him. "Wait, they have something that can track you? Like, GPS?"

"No," Adam said with a shake of his head. "Whatever it is that makes me invisible to zombies, it puts off a chemical they can track. Kept me from running away by explaining how futile it was supposed to be. The cloud I let off stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Sticks to everything, leaves traces. Their gizmo samples the air for it."

"And since you've been on foot, they can keep up with you before it dissipates," I ventured.

Adam nodded. "Yeah. Were you a scientist or something?"

I chuckled. "No, but we did a lot of our own research into how zombies work, and that was before we hooked up with a guy who knew a hundred times more than we ever dreamed of learning on our own. Zombies hunt by scent. The other senses matter, but they're no the primary way they gather information."

Jess ran a hand over her jaw. "Oh, I bet that's it. Whatever Adam's body secretes probably hijacks all the other senses when it's absorbed through zombie skin."

Adam looked bewildered at this statement. I held back a laugh. "That's why they don't need to breathe the way we do. Chimera rewires their bodies so they can absorb oxygen through their pores. It's also how they smell so well. But we can give you a biology lesson later. How did you end up covered in all that white powder?"

"Flour," Adam said. "It was flour. When the scout saw me, I guess I caught him so off guard that he forgot what his priority was supposed to be. He didn't even try to get to his radio. Just went right for me. I was at the edge of the swarm at the time, so I booked it. Must have dropped the squirrel when I ran. He chased me into a building with the door broken off it. Turned out to be a bakery."

"Oh, no," Jess said, stifling a laugh and covering her mouth to hide her smile, a task she failed at utterly. "Please tell me you didn't pull a slapstick comedy out of your ass."

Adam's sigh was all the confirmation needed, but he carried on anyway. "Chased me to the back. I yanked at this shelf that was looted and empty except for--you guessed it--a big sack of flour at the back. I guess whoever hit the place didn't climb high enough to see it. Anyway, I pulled the shelf when I went past it and the bag fell, hit the guy in the face, and busted wide open. Knocked him stupid for a few seconds."

I leaned in. "What did you do next?" I was really enjoying this story.

Adam fidgeted. "Grabbed a rolling pin and bashed his head in." He pointed to the gash on his own scalp. "Caught myself on the edge of the shelf while I was running out of there. Didn't want to be stuck in the room when the smell of blood got to the zombies. I'd have been hemmed in."

"So," Jess said, humor now drained from her expression. "You wanted us to double back on your trail to make it harder for them to tell where you are. Going back into areas you've recently been to will cover our movements. And now we have a chance to get away clean by, what, sneaking past whoever else is out there and shooting off in a whole new direction farther back on the trail?"

"That was the idea," Adam said, looking slightly disturbed that Jess had seen and understood his reasoning so well. He'd have to get used to it; that was just who she was.

"I'm cool with that," I said. "Better than having to constantly worry about being tracked for pretty much ever."

Jess nodded agreement, but her eyes never left Adam. It wasn't like we were virgins when it came to life-threatening situations, just that neither of us liked the idea of being manipulated into a course of action by having what little trust we could extend to others turned to that purpose. I knew what was going through her head as clearly as I knew my own thoughts, and the reverse was true as well.

Dangerous as it was, the plan was solid. Which didn't mean I wouldn't pull him to the side and have a little talk with him about telling us things we needed to know when we needed to know them.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Chapter 7: Ghost

Jess and I got into the truck and backed it out of the garage just before the dead began drifting back toward us in large numbers. The worry was more about getting the thing into the street; too many dead people in the enclosed space could have wedged the truck in place. But once in the open, we were good. It takes a lot of mass in the form of dead flesh to stop a couple tons of metal from going wherever it damned well pleases.

"Where is he?" I asked, twisting around in the passenger's seat to look for Adam. Jess had thrown the supplies at the foot well on my side, and I kicked them lightly as I fumbled for a better view.

Adam was nowhere to be seen, though given the density of the approaching swarm that was hardly a surprise. A dim, distant part of me felt bad that Jess and I had hopped into the truck with the instinct to save ourselves. I paid it little mind; years of living at the end of the world had a way of knocking the sharp edges off those sorts of reactions. I'd love to say I thought about Adam's invisibility to the dead in that moment of decision, but that would be a lie. Jess and I just put ourselves first when immediate action was needed.

Jess let off the brake and the truck idled forward. It was slow enough not to awaken any more chase instinct in the zombies than was already in play, but kept us from being totally surrounded. That's a lot more dangerous than it looks, mostly because a lot of the time the damn things will get pressed into nooks and crannies and end up stuck. Indeed, as we drifted slowly forward, one of them was already that position; a zombie's hand was wedged tight into the space between the cab and the bed of the truck. Don't ask me how. The damn things were like cannibal toddlers in their ability to fuck anything up in a fraction of a second.

"There," Jess said, pointing over her shoulder. "Just saw him in the rear view for a second."

I rotated the other direction, looking where she directed. A white flash darted between bodies about thirty feet away from the rear driver's side of the truck. It became clear in a few seconds that this was Adam, but he looked much different. I had to suppress a laugh at first glance because the impression his appearance gave was that he'd been plucked from a Three Stooges routine. His relatively clean clothing was utterly saturated in white powder. Every inch of him was covered in it save for, I realized a second later, a gash on the side of his head pouring a sheet of blood across the pale expanse.

"He's bleeding," I said. "Get ready to haul ass as soon as he gets to us."

Jess nodded, fingers tight around the steering wheel and eyes scanning ahead to make sure we had a clear path away from the swarm. I felt a momentary swelling of pride that she still trusted me to give her the green light. My judgment wasn't always great, but it reassured me to know she was willing to have me watching her back--literally, in this case.

Yet the inevitable pile-on never came. Fresh blood is universally like chum in the water for zombies, and I had assumed that whatever made Adam unseen probably wouldn't hold up with any of his insides on the outside. But here was clear evidence I was wrong. The zombies paid him no more mind bleeding than they had whole, even when he bumped against them and transferred smears of the stuff onto their chests and faces.

Adam slipped through the crowd with the same even determination as he'd left with when first planning to distract the swarm for us. He wasn't an easily rattled kid, I had to give him that. After being studied and experimented on, I guess running through a crowed of dead people who noticed you as much as a living person noticed the air they breathe wasn't much of a challenge.

Jess gunned the engine for half a second and the truck leaped forward by a length, breaking us mostly free of the zombies and giving Adam plenty of room to move. Without slowing a step, the young man put a hand on the edge of the truck bed and vaulted himself up and over. Half a second later he gave a the bed itself a resounding double slap--the universal sign for 'I'm good to go, you can haul ass now.'

That's just what we did. The farm was gone, well behind us now. We were on the road with only an uncertain but also entirely open future ahead of us.

I waited until our first stop to ask Adam why he looked like Casper's older brother. Good thing I did: the story was worth waiting for.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Glitched

Let's take a break, okay?

I know: I'm telling this story very slowly. And it may seem far too early for me to pause, but therein lies the fundamental divide between a storyteller and his audience. As I sit here in the cabin, shaded from the brutal heat outside, this gap between us feels wider and deeper than it has ever been in my life.

Telling a story, even true ones like this, is a wound that doesn't heal until the telling is done. The author bleeds and bleeds regardless of how positive or optimistic the tale might be, while the reader is simply a static observer there to watch the show. This isn't me talking shit about you, dear reader. Far from it. You're the reason I'm here, tapping away on an ancient and bug-ridden laptop while my caretaker goes and clears the straggler zombies who've made it this far into the woods.

But because this is in fact a painful, hard series of events to share with you, I can only take so much. Sometimes I need a break from it, or even a break from writing altogether. I know it's not what you want to hear, but it's the truth. We all have mental and physical limits.

I liken it to a computer glitch. Or not even a real error, if you prefer. Just as a CPU will begin to fail if the machine overheats, so too does my emotional control erode if I let my brain get too deep into the weeds with these memories.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't know how hard it would be to not only remember, but in a way that requires me to carefully reconstruct these events. I know, I know: I'm harping on about it. I promise not to make this a habit.

Just know that I plan to soldier on, no matter how difficult it might be.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Chapter 6: I Call Him Mr. Chompy

"Fuck!" I shouted as the nearest zombie lunged forward and snapped at my face. I barely had time to let go of the door handle and bring my arm down, putting it between him and me. Even then it was sloppy. The zombie got hold of my forearm and yanked it in his claw-like hands toward its face.

I did the only thing I could and went with the movement. This wasn't because I was some unstoppable badass--even years of combat training before and after The Fall can fail you--but pure instinct. Some people would have pulled away, which would have done little to stop the teeth going after the tender flesh beneath my sleeve. Others would react just the way I did, which was to essentially chase down my wrist and try to bring my body close to it for protection.

The practical effect was to slam the zombie against the tailgate of the truck. The impact didn't do much to stun the dead man, but it did enough. I slipped my free hand into the space between us as the zombie reoriented in that second of confusion, wrapped my fingers around my wrist, and pulled while twisting my hips and throwing my left elbow hard.

It was a messy, ugly throw, but it did the job. The zombie tumbled into the street, letting go of my arm to break its own fall. You'd think that would be the moment for retreat, put a little distance between myself and the enclosed space, but no. That would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, I spotted the handle of a baseball bat sticking out over the lip of the truck's bed and just kind of...went for it.

With silent thanks aimed at whoever had stocked this cache, I grabbed the bat and then moved myself out of the way. It was good timing; the zombie still inside the garage had moved around the truck far enough to be right on top of me. My last leap took me out of its range, and I let loose with a wild swing of the bat as I moved. It did no good; the zombie was it in the wrist but the poor swing didn't connect with the savage thunder of breaking bone.

When I landed, however, things changed. Bony fingers snatched at my boot and pants, clawing up my leg with inhuman determination. Now I did try to pull away, shaking my leg as hard as I could to throw off the dead man I'd dropped to the ground. I'm not too proud to admit that the sudden and some might say inevitable mental image of the thing getting high enough to grab hold of my junk was my biggest motivator.

I swung the bat again, this time at the head of the zombie trying to grip my twig and berries. The angle was shitty, abbreviating the arc and force of the hit down to half of what I could have managed in a fair fight. But like the man said; no fight is ever fair. Not if you're doing it right.

Forty inches of ash, besides sounding like the title of an excellent indie rock album, was enough to shock the dead man for a pair of seconds. People always act surprised that works, or that burning zombies is an effective way of stopping them assuming you put a little distance between yourself and them. The movies always made it look like zombies were unstoppable except for destroying the brain, but come on. They might be dead bodies, but they are bodies. They operate in the physical universe. The processes that keep them able to walk and hunt take place in the same neural space as the brain. They might be less sensitive to blows or fire, but hit them hard enough and the dead will stagger. Burn them and they'll lose the muscles and tendons necessary for movement.

So when the zombie climbing me like Everest paused from the hit, I flipped the bat around and drove its fat end down into its face. The force of both arms working in unison did the trick. The zombie's face crumpled in around the tip of the bat and it let go of me.

Unfortunately, it's now dead weight--ha!--fell against me. Normally, not a huge problem. Just then, it really was. The second zombie spent the span of this interaction closing in on me again. I was unstable and in a bad position to lash out, what with the bat being held in exactly the wrong way to accomplish anything other than hitting an opponent below me.

Fingers with sharp bone tips managed to rake my face, though I pulled away before they could find real purchase. Lines of wet heat formed there, and I could feel rivulets turning into streams. That was super, duper not good. Even at the other end of town, the smell of my blood was chum in the water.

With a mighty shove, I jumped backward once again. This time I didn't stand my ground, choosing to finally do the smart thing and put space between myself and the remaining zombie. I didn't stay there long. I was pissed, in pain, and had a sudden need to get the hell away from here before my delicious man smell drew the dinner crowd. Like a kid trying to hit the top of the high striker at a carnival, I brought the bat back and over my head in a comically large arc, smashing it into the zombie on the downswing. My aim was shitty, as one might expect from a move meant for sheer power over all else. The barrel of the bat skimmed down the side of the zombie's head at a shallow angle.

But it did manage to connect with the junction of neck and shoulder, and much to my surprise it really fucked that zombie's shit all up. Maybe a nerve bundle was crushed, could have been severe shock to the delicate bundles of Chimera fibers running through the spinal cord. Whatever the reason, the zombie folded like a cheap suit.

Just to be safe, I staggered back, head on a swivel as I scanned for danger. I found Jess standing just outside the bank door, a disapproving look on her face.

"What?" I said.

She pointed down the road. In my defense, I had been a little busy. Too busy to notice that whatever tactic Adam was using to keep the swarm away had apparently worn off a minute or two earlier.

We had company.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chapter 5: Hidden Treasure

Jess and I made short work of our trip into town. Finding the cache wasn't hard since the place had one of our markings on it. Our group were the ones who put it there in the first place, after all. The food itself was in a bank. I'm not sure who placed the supplies, but I couldn't help chuckling that our hidden treasure was secured in a place once meant to protect wealth. It still was; only the nature of the wealth itself had changed.

Jess and I made our way into the bank through the front door. We'd been drilled with the locations and facts about every cache, so we knew the key to the front door was sitting on top of the small brick ledge over the door itself. Whoever had set the bank up as a supply drop had cleared it first, found a way to secure it, and recorded the details. That was our standard procedure. If a place couldn't be secured--if it didn't have a lock and a key, basically--it wasn't up to our standard. I guess a manager must have died here, not that you could tell upon entering.

The supplies were kept inside the desks withing the offices lining the outer wall of the lobby. It wasn't a ton of food, mostly bags of deer jerky. One good thing about the sudden extinction of most of the human race--and yes, I realize that's an awfully dark cloud to hunt for silver linings on--is that the population of game exploded. The territory covered by animals like deer grew ridiculously over the last seven years.

"Found the keys," Jess said as she straightened from digging through the bottom drawer of a nice mahogany number. "Looks like it's a pickup truck. For some reason I thought the car here was, you know, an actual car."

I shrugged. "You have a better memory for that kind of thing than I do. When was the last top-up?"

Every vehicle we hid had to undergo a little routine maintenance. We as a collection of communities might be able to produce new gas from the Texas oil fields, but that didn't mean the stuff stayed good forever. Part of the job meant leaving basic information with the cache about how long the fuel had been sitting.

"Six months," Jess said with a frown. "Even odds it'll start at all."

I shook my head. "Fuck. If we have to walk the whole way to the cabin, we're probably going to die. Where's the truck? Does the note say?"

Jess tossed me the keys, the small paper tag attached to them fluttering as they jangled through the air. Right below the tiny lettering recording the top-up was a single faded line that said the location was a garage across from the bank. I glanced through the barred window and saw an old-fashioned roll-up door not forty feet away. An equally ancient and beat-up key had 'garage' written on it in loopy script.

"I guess I'll check it out," I said. "If you want to gather up the supplies."

I didn't wait for an answer. Instead I turned and left, freeing her of the responsibility of choosing. Jess would have taken the more dangerous job--a marginal label since the zombies were still at the other end of town--just to avoid any hint that she wasn't willing to do her part. I just needed a little time to myself, and the walk would help keep my joints mobile.

As always when walking outside of any protective wall or barrier, the part of my lizard brain responsible for sensing danger turned itself up to eleven. Back before The Fall, I was a huge fan of zombie fiction. The idea of walking around the apocalypse like a badass, ready to bash in skulls at a moment's notice, appealed to me as much as anyone who'd done a marathon of the best movies in the genre.

The reality sucks. I wasn't listening hard and scanning the area so I could show everyone how awesome I am by performing some super creative kill. I twitched at the scrape of old leaves on the pavement because they could have been the footfalls of a dead, starving cannibal. Or could have covered those footfalls. Or been caused by them.

The possibilities behind the flicker of any random shadow, the creak of unseen metal, the scent of any dying thing, were endless. The outside world was an infinite mousetrap, a Rube Goldberg device built by a vengeful and insane god. Even the short trek across the street was enough to send my glands into overdrive. From the perspective of anyone watching, I had to look crazy. I looked around constantly, spinning in place twice over those dozen or so yards. If we're being totally honest, a policy I'm in favor of in most circumstances, at best I resembled someone deeply addicted to hard drugs worrying over the next fix.

I didn't fumble the keys when I got to the garage. What I felt wasn't fear. Or rather, what fear I did have was contained and directed. The monkey on my back was anxiety, which thank all the saints didn't erode my ability to react rationally.

That's a good thing, because there were two zombies waiting for me when I rolled up that door.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Chapter 4: Walk Between the Raindrops

Adam wasn't clear on exactly how he was being tracked, mostly because he didn't know. GPS wasn't an option, not that he'd been tagged in any case, so it wasn't immediately obvious to any of us how the hunters were able to follow his trail.

Over the course of the next day, we formulated a plan. The beginnings of a larger one, anyway. First step was always going to be finding the car. We also needed supplies beyond what was squirreled away in the car itself. This meant searching the town, which required us to either kill or distract the swarm currently wandering about it like video game NPCs just waiting for a player character to interact with them.

Jess and I were both reluctant to let Adam do that part. Trust wasn't really the issue since the kid alone didn't pose much of a threat. And let's face facts: if he decided to lead the zombies toward us for whatever reason, he wouldn't be the first to do so. I might be operating on a bum wheel, but I'd been injured before. I would manage somehow.

"He's been gone for a long time," I said from my perch in the tree we'd staked out as a sort of home base.

"Mmm," Jess hummed noncommittally, continuing her habitual weapons check.

She didn't want to talk. I knew that much just from her body language. It's one of those things spending years together ingrains in your subconscious whether you want it there or not. Just as she should have known that when I'm anxious, I talk a lot. Uncontrollably, even.

"It's probably hard for him to get them very distracted since they can't see him," I continued. My voice was a bit higher, my words a shade faster than normal. Nerves. You'd think after years of this I'd have become jaded to this sort of danger. The opposite was true. I was more sensitive to it than ever, which several people I knew explained as a more honed survival mechanism. "I wonder what he's doing to get their attention..."

I left the end of the sentence hanging on the slim hope that Jess would pick it up and engage with me a little. She didn't.

That was okay. It's not like I was entitled to a response just because talking helped me manage the stress. One of the hardest things for people to internalize at pretty much any point in their lives is that other people are not the same as them. Every one of us is a unique individual with different reactions, needs, perspectives, and the like. Far too much conflict comes from this simple divide and the inability to understand it.

I let the silence stretch out for a while, occasionally lifting the pair of mini binoculars we'd found in our bug out bag. A quarter hour after I last spoke, a loud grunt of surprise worked its way out of me unbidden.

"What is it?" Jess asked, suddenly alert and with me.

I tossed the binoculars down to her. "See for yourself."

I knew what she'd observe. Adam had somehow managed to gather the town zombies into a loose swarm and lead them far enough to one end of the tiny village--hey, it was too small to really be considered a town--that they could be seen from a distance. How he managed it, I had no idea. It worked better than my suggestion, which was to find some kind of noisemaker and get the zombies to cluster together around it.

The fascinating part was seeing him dart between them. I had no idea why the loop Adam made in and around the swarm was necessary, but he'd run back and forth several times in the minute or so I was watching. He was easy to pick out of the crowd even from so far away.

Zombies never raised their hands at him in the way they would if he were visible to them. They definitely noticed something, that much was obvious. Withered heads turned in his direction no matter where he was, and the whole swarm moved in the general direction he led them. But at no point did even one of the dead so much as twitch in a way that seemed aggressive. It was the sort of behavior zombies exhibited when they were confronted by the smell of food but not with active prey.

Adam didn't hesitate in his movements, either. He clearly had a lot of experience doing this. I was fascinated. I needed to know more.

"I guess that's our cue," Jess said. "Come on. We'll hit the other end of town and start looking around. No way to know how long this will hold."

I nodded and climbed out of the tree. "If nothing else, we'll find some place to hole up that isn't outdoors."

Jess glanced at me, her expression unreadable. "That'll work, but I'd much rather get out of here as soon as we can."

I agreed. Whoever was tracking Adam would get here eventually. I'd rather be long gone when they did.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chapter 3: The Invisible Man

"This is Adam," Jess said when she came to a stop next to the tree I'd just climbed out of. "I found him walking through town."

I studied the young man. The first thing that struck me wasn't his age, which was late teens or early twenties though the constant hunger that leeched away baby fat made it impossible to tell for sure. It was that he didn't look like any survivor I'd seen in recent years. Even young children had the constantly moving eyes of people who spent a lot of their lives watching as if their lives depended on it. People who lived outside of communities usually looked like it; hodgepodge protective gear and weapons were minimum standard gear.

Adam wore what looked like a brand new t-shirt, a faded pair of jeans, an old bomber jacket, and a scuffed pair of leather work boots. He was taller than me--so, somewhere over six feet--but built like a swimmer. Lean and muscular, obviously not starving. I could see muscle through the shirt.

"You don't have a weapon or any gear?" I asked, a little confused. "Were you on your way back to whatever hideout you've got here?" It seemed obvious the kid spent a lot of time indoors; he was incredibly pale and lacked the weather-beaten look most survivors develop over time.

"I don't have anywhere," Adam said. His voice was deeper than I expected, but not smooth or rich. Even those few words had broken edges to them, as if he'd just finished going through puberty.

Or...

"How long have you been alone?" I asked. "Must've been a while."

He looked at me with surprise on his face. "How did you know?"

"You haven't had anyone to talk to in a while," I said. "We've met more than one survivor whose voice needs time to get used to speaking again. So, what were you doing just walking down a street full of zombies unarmed? Seems pretty dangerous."

Adam looked away. I'd have thought it was embarrassment but he didn't blush or fidget. He looked...worried seems like too simple a word for it. Scared, sure, but also instantly tired. As if he'd just remembered a heavy weight he had momentarily forgotten was on his shoulders.

"That's why I brought him back with me," Jess said. "When I say he was walking on the streets, that's what I mean. I watched him for ten minutes. Couldn't believe my eyes." She gestured toward the kid with an upraised hand, taking in his entire form with a lazy wave. "Adam walked right past every zombie, old school and New Breed alike, and they never so much as glanced at him."

I frowned. "That's impossible. Even with scent blockers, they still notice movement."

"Not when I'm the one moving," Adam said quietly. "I don't know why. It started almost three years ago, and some...people found out about it. Studied me. I escaped a while back, I don't know how long for sure."

Jess and I shared a look. Did this kid have something to do with the assholes who'd hit the farm? It seemed way too coincidental that he'd show up so close to us with what had to be a weird and possibly unique mutation in the Chimera colonizing his body right on the heels of a deadly attack.

"Why are you here?" I asked as politely as I could. "I mean, here specifically. Why Iowa?"

Adam's brows knitted together in confusion. "I'm here to find you. Your settlement, I mean. I ran into a friend of one of your people. She knows a guy named Mason, apparently he was her contact with the western communities. She told me where to find you, that you guys could keep me safe and help me figure out what makes me different."

I gave Jess a questioning look. Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Cassandra, I think? She's the scout who does, or I guess did, all the rendezvous meetups."

I blew out a breath. "Okay, well, I don't know what my wife told you, but the farm is gone. Our people are scattered. Right now we're on our own, and we need to get into the town you just left and find a car we stashed there. If you're willing to help, I think we can at least try to find somewhere you'll be safe. Haven would be, for sure."

As I spoke, Adam took a half step back. It was unconscious, just a bit of body language. But it wasn't a good sign, that much was clear.

"I'm not sure," he said. "Look, I don't know if I can trust you. But even if I could, it's not safe for other people to be around me."

This got Jess's attention. "Why, does your invisibility cloak or whatever put off toxic gas?"

"No," Adam said with a shake of his head. "I've been staying a few steps ahead of them, but the people I ran away from are still looking for me. If I stay with you..."

Then we'd be in the crosshairs, too. Good to know some things didn't change.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Chapter 2: Iowa

Let me tell you something about Iowa: it's pretty fucking empty. That's why we moved here.

Well, part of why. The sparseness of its population was why the CDC set up a secret lab housed in a bunker not all that far from our eventual home. A home we picked because of its proximity to that bunker and all the juicy research contained within. The man living in it, John Liebowitz, was Kell's former research partner. He joined us, which meant moving all the research to the farm.

Gone now. All gone.

My larger point is to demonstrate that you can walk for a long time in this state and not see anything past the plains and the farms written into their soil. Towns are oases, small dots of civilization with resources to draw on. Our slow walk led us to one of them. As happens more often than anyone likes, this ended up being a lot of boring time spent with little change followed by sudden and unpleasant excitement.

Though the spaces between towns and cities here were nearly bare of zombies, even a small burg like our destination always had a few. We stopped a hundred yards from the first buildings at the edge of town and stared at the milling bodies ahead.

"You've got to be fucking kidding," Jess said. "Didn't we sweep this place like a month ago?"

"We did," I confirmed. "I figured some would drift in, but this many is just insulting. It's like we didn't even touch the place."

There were dozens of them that we could see. Jess and I both had weapons, of course. The escape tunnel we used to get under the farm's fences was provisioned for a worst case scenario. Jess's rifle rested on a strap over her shoulder, but it was a tool of last resort. I held a heavy baton, a solid bar of aluminum. She carried one of the mass-produced extra-thick machetes common across all the communities in the Union.

Jess crossed her arms, letting the blade dangle from her hand. "We're not going to fight those things. You do know that, right?"

I frowned. "Do we have a choice? The car we stashed here isn't going to drive itself to us."

She gestured at my lower half. "You can't run. You've been pushing through the pain and it's impressive and whatnot, but this is just gonna get you killed. Probably me too."

I leaned on the baton like a cane, trying to subtly take pressure off my knee. Jess noticed, of course. She noticed everything nowadays. I ignored the satisfied smirk on her face. "What do you suggest, then?"

She gazed toward the teeming dead, who clearly had yet to smell us since they weren't moving toward our position. "Let me scout it. If I can get to the car, I'll drive back to you. If not, then at least I'll have a better lay of the land than we do now."

"And what am I supposed to do while you go out there and risk your life?" I asked.

She pointed toward a tiny cluster of trees. "Haul yourself up and wait for me."

The argument happened in my head at about fifty times the speed it would have in real life. I could have tried to cowboy my way through it and pretend I was fit enough for a fight, but she was right. Once again, Jess would be carrying me. I didn't hold it against her--she was tough and strong, fully capable--but it made me feel like a burden. It was a common state of being for me.

"Fine, go ahead," I said. "I'll wait for you."

Jess nodded, wasting no time as she turned and began jogging in a wide arc around the outer buildings. I watched her until she vanished from sight. I made my way over to the trees and found an oak with a branch low enough to snag. Pulling myself up without the use of my leg would have been impossible before The Fall, but the apocalypse got me into pretty good shape.

I found a comfortable perch and settled in. Over the years the worst enemy I'd fought was my own mental health. Depression and anxiety that would have still emerged had the world not ended, but made that much worse by our circumstances. I knew on a logical level that many of the fears and worries I had were unfounded, yet as I thought back to a few minutes earlier, a bunch of facts lined up in a way that didn't seem a product of my imbalanced brain chemistry.

Even before we moved to Iowa, Jess had begun to change. I don't mean the obvious stuff like becoming a better survivor and developing rock solid confidence. I guess it was more about how she changed with me. We spent so much time together that the slow decline in how often we shared a laugh or even companionable silence was hard to notice at first.

Since leaving Haven, it had become much harder to ignore. She protected me, but something wasn't quite right. She left to face danger, possible death, without so much as a pat on the shoulder.

It scared me in ways I didn't even know existed.

But I waited anyway. I knew she'd be back. Long legs and years of cardio meant it would take a truly groundbreaking zombie to run her down.

When she finally came back more than an hour later, it wasn't in a car. And though she was being chased by zombies--outpacing them by a wide margin--it isn't the dead I'm referring to when I say that she didn't come back alone.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time

To explain fully how Jess and I ended up living in Iowa with a bunch of other survivors would require me to drop a huge information bomb. There are a bunch of ins and outs, and most of it has been written about here before. Even the more secretive aspects are now well-known. 

Worst opening for a story ever, right? Fine, then. Let me say this. 

After three and a half years of building a community, of surviving the plague of zombies salting the earth, after losing more than any sane person should ever have to cope with, we didn't actually want to leave. Haven was our home, and even with the terrible pain we'd suffered, I always thought it would be. 

But as you may now be aware, we had a diamond hiding in the rough. I called him K or Big K, but his real name is Kell McDonald. He's the one whose work was stolen and used to accidentally create the plague. Long story short, I and a few other people had interesting symptoms that Kell thought he could study and use to create a cure. That's why we left the safety and prosperity of Haven for a farm so truly in the middle of nowhere that seeing even one zombie was the exception instead of the rule. Kell was planning to save the world. We wanted to help. 

That isn't where the story starts. Why would it be? Every survivor knows the basics. We found a property, built it up, made a home. This isn't about daily life on our little farm.

We were attacked. That's where it begins for me. After a few years of relatively idyllic daily life, we were targeted by a group from the east coast. They wanted Kell and his research. This too is mostly public knowledge by now. I've seen the updates on the repository website. 

I suppose the above is the groundwork needed to understand the tipping point, the instant in time when the momentum of change marked the real beginning of my recent history. 

It's always hard to figure out the exact moment in time to tell a story. Think about every time you've relayed one to a friend. Where does your adventure--or misadventure, as the case may be--start? It's difficult to put a finger on the space between heartbeats and decide which pause is the right one to begin your tale. 

Sometimes you just have to take the plunge. 


* * * 


After the attack, I slept for most of two days. Jess and I escaped with our lives and not much else. We weren't stupid; the farm was always a target and we'd prepared for that. All of us had. There were caches of supplies and a few hidden places safe enough to hunker down in for a little while. Jess got away clean, which was good for me because she was healthy enough to help haul my ass away from the farm. I torqued my lower back and left knee hard as we escaped through the tunnels. Pain was not a new acquaintance of mine by any means, but enough of it slows down anyone even when running for their life. 

Because of her--which should be the title of my biography--we made it to safety. The two of us curled up around a pair of backpacks loaded with canned food and jerky after downing enough water to drown us under normal circumstances, and we slept. Ten straight hours of running and evading will do that to you. 

"Are we going for the rendezvous?" I asked her when we were finally both awake and resembling something close to human. "We're going to have to find a vehicle if so."

There were quite a few of them dotting the surrounding area, trucks and cars made to look like the rest of the abandoned hulks we'd put back together and refueled for just such an emergency. I knew where several were, Jess knew of others, but getting to any of them would require a lot more walking. 

She hesitated in a way I knew to mean there were layers to the expression. Pursed lips, looking down and away, a new tension in her shoulders. She was about to say something I wouldn't like. 

"I think we should find a car, but not to go to the rendezvous," she said. "Whoever those people were, they can't follow all of us. We're probably safer on our own."

I nodded along with this statement. "We'd eventually have to go somewhere, though. We can't just wander forever."

Jess gave me the curiously flat look that told me I was being stupid and she was being nice enough not to say that out loud. "Yes, thank you very much, captain obvious. I know that. I think we should get to the cabin. Stay there for a while and keep an eye on the repository so we can read about whatever's going on from a safe distance. Did you notice the guys who shot at us were all wearing matching gear? Using military weapons? They were organized. This wasn't some random group of marauders."

I blinked. She was right--she usually was--but I hadn't really thought about the logic of our situation. "Okay, the cabin is fine with me. But I don't think a single tank of gas is going to get us there. We'll have to walk a bunch of the way."

Jess waved a hand roughly in the direction of my still-aching back and knee. "We'll take it slow, and I'll drive once we find one of the stashed vehicles. You'll be able to rest and recover. Don't worry, sweetie. I'll carry your water like I always do." She said the last with a gently mocking smile, just giving me a hard time,  but there was a lot of truth in the words. No relationship is perfectly equal, and since The Fall began, Jess had blossomed into an almost entirely different person than she was before it. Confident and outspoken when she'd been withdrawn and quiet, a decisive leader instead of happily letting others set the tone. Circumstance determines a lot about behavior, or so I concluded years ago about the origin of those slow but powerful changes in her personality. 

We stayed in our little hole, which was in the manager's office of an oil-change place, for another half day to regain our strength. Jess used the ladder bolted to the inside of the bay wall to scamper onto the roof every hour or so, scanning the area for any enemies who might be looking for us. Unlikely since we were nearly ten miles from the farm. The tiny little burg was mostly built around a truck stop. I doubted more than two thousand people had lived there in its prime. 

Eventually my leg felt solid enough to walk on, and we moved out. It would take time to find the nearest of the camouflaged escape vehicles, assuming there were any left, but we'd do it as we did most things. 

Together. 

I had no idea how fleeting that state of existence was for us. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A preface for a new age

If my last post was too vague, forgive me. In some ways writing here again felt completely natural, as if I'd never left. In others it was strange. Not unlike picking up a guitar after years of disuse and finding the chords for a song you aren't sure how to play. The last post was something of a hello, a wave to those of you who've been here before. Today, indulge me one more time before I start on the story proper. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about it and feeling a need to muster up the courage to finally tell it.

And so today I will set the stage and satisfy some of your curiosity by telling you the general state of my life as it is now. How I got here is pretty much the point of the overall story I'll begin telling in my next post, so we'll leave that element alone for now.

In short, I'm living in a large, fortified cabin on the edge of a small lake. I can't tell you where it is for a few reasons. The first is that I'm not entirely sure. I know how to get here from several directions--I should, since I'm the one who found it in the first place--but I never used a map or paid attention to road signs or borders. Those kinds of considerations are minimal at best when zombies have destroyed civilization itself. It's enough to know it's west of Kentucky by a fair margin, temperate in climate, and far from any community of survivors I'm aware of.

The cabin was intended to be our fail safe. Jess and I found it years ago on one trip or another. Just the two of us, I remember that much, though we might have been on a short scouting trip inside of a larger group mission. My memory isn't clear on the particulars. Funny, since this place is so important to me now. You'd think the specifics would stand out sharply.

At any rate, the lake provides all the water I'll ever need. Jess and I made a few discreet trips out here over the course of a few years to stock it as best we could. Even after we left Haven, we occasionally came here to make sure it was untouched and to add to the supplies. We found an intact distribution center for a big box store and spent three solid days bringing boxes of canned food, rice, everything you can imagine. Which is good since I can't hunt for myself. My warden, as I think of him, won't let me out to do it.

The cabin itself is rarely bothered by zombies. We're far away from any main roads or population centers. There's just not enough human scent here to attract them. Once in a while a straggler or two, even a small swarm, will wander through. I might not be allowed out to hunt, but Adam has no problem letting me pick off random zombies with my bow. Best not to get rusty, after all.

Adam is also part of the story. It's easy for me to sit here and call him my jailer, but the truth is that I'd be dead a dozen times over without him. Our relationship is complicated.

So I sit here in a lovely cabin built by people who clearly had some expectation that things would go wrong in the world, warmed at night by a huge wood burning stove and cooled in the day by dips in the lake. I spend some of my time preserving meat and other food Adam brings home, or filtering lake water, or working on some project or another to make life here that much more comfortable. I remember an early post back when The Fall was new where I wrote about how surprised I was that boredom could ever be a problem at the end of the world. Here I sit today, a little befuddled at the idea that I would be able to once again take up my favorite pastime--swimming.

A lot of you would call this life an idyllic one, and I don't want to sound ungrateful. I can recognize my fortune in being safe and having provisions, in living in a zombie-proof home.

Which brings us to why these circumstances are faint concerns for me. It all ties in with how I got here, and what happened in the time between. I'm sorry you'll have to wait a few days for the story to begin, but it's unavoidable. Our portable cellular transmitter has batteries, but they're recharged by solar panels and it takes time to build up enough to send a signal, however brief.

So from here on out, no more foreplay. No more dancing around it. I will intersperse pieces of the story with life here with Adam, but I promise you the next thing you hear from me will be the beginning of the tale.

God help me. I know telling it will be therapeutic, but that doesn't mean the pain of doing so is any less scary. Still, it needs to be told.

And so I will. Consider this post and the last its preface, the necessary mixing of facts and circumstances needed to prepare you--and if I'm being honest, me--for taking the leap.

The bottom is a long way down.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nothing ever ends, and everything does

I'm a bit rusty, so I hope you'll forgive me. I don't know where to begin.

Almost four years ago I said my goodbye. My intent was always to come back to this space, to update you on how things were going for as long as I could. That obviously didn't happen. There were a lot of reasons, ones I can't and won't detail here. They're split between being unimportant or too private for public consumption, and they have no bearing on what comes next.

Many, probably all, of you are aware of the changes that have taken place in the world since we left Haven. I'll be touching on those larger shifts in the near future, but for the moment it's a smaller story I want to focus on. That's going to require some explanation. Some prep work.

You see, I'm not writing here to start again on a project I consider complete. When I wrote my goodbye years ago, I considered the job done. The end of the world had come, and I chronicled my life and our experiences through the darkest of it. When Jess and I went out as settlers with our crew of people, a new dawn for humanity was just in sight. We'd passed through the most dangerous part of the bottleneck. We were going to make it.

And we did. We as in the human race, that is. On the smaller scale, things took a turn. That's why I'm not here to tell you about my daily life; it's unimportant. I will touch on that, too, but only in small ways that give you context. I'm here again not to tell you what is happening, but what has happened. My current circumstances are a direct result of events over the last few years.

The state of affairs is simple. I'm alive and but for one other person, I am alone. That person is not my wife. For all practical purposes, I am a prisoner. A pampered one to be sure, but a prisoner nonetheless. Why am I allowed to write freely? How am I able to upload these words to our small but scrappy attempt at an internet? We'll get there. I promise.

You need to know these things to understand what comes next. I've been working on this story as a means of therapy. You might call it grief counseling, which in a weird way it is. The point is that yes, I will be updating on whatever schedule I can, and yes I will be talking about what's happening with me now if not in the way I used to. But I'll also be relaying events that have already occurred.

In short, I'm going to tell you a story. I've been working on it in my head for a while now. To make it easier to consume, I will present it as just that--a story. A first-person account of the twists, turns, and tragedies of my recent history. The only spoiler is that I lived through it, and I can't honestly say it's a blessing.

Will the words spoken by the other people, the characters if you like, be exactly what was said in reality? No. No one has that sort of memory. But the spirit of them will stay the same. The larger purpose will be to expiate my own grief and loss by finally putting pen to paper, or at least its digital equivalent.

We live in a world where the dead have risen, where humanity still fights a daily war (which we're winning so far) against the zombies shambling like a plague of locusts across the land. There was no species-wide epiphany in which all people everywhere suddenly realized that decency and respect would pull us together and make survival a safer prospect. Which is a pretty way of saying that for all the good in humanity, there are still a lot of selfish, murderous dicks out there looking to get theirs at the expense of whoever is in their way.

We are together at this moment, you and I, because I have another story to tell. I don't know that it's necessary for my mental health for anyone else to read it, only that I have to write it. I hold a slim hope that at least one of you will find something in these words that touches you, helps you, or reminds you of the basic decency we all sometimes have difficulty holding onto.

Consider this post a preface to that story. I will certainly move in and out of the narrative I've been building in my head, updating you on my circumstances. A slow drip of explanations about how I'm living now is required; I won't leave anyone in the dark about the specifics.

But these are secondary things. The chapters explaining how I got here are the larger purpose behind me finally returning to this space.

I hope you'll stick around.