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


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.


"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.