Human evolution runs on a clock… and our time is up. – George Centro

At first, life continued as normal, as though the undead incursion wasn’t happening everywhere. This wasn’t global war. These weren’t natural disasters or biblical plagues. Why should anyone discontinue their normal routine? The apocalypse had come, however. The human race simply didn’t recognize its arrival.

Most of the undead were spotted at night, just prior to dawn. By the time daylight shone through the buildings and trees, the zombies were gone. Only the signs of their appearance remained: half-eaten dead or decomposing bodies, grieving families, fearful citizens. There were abounding rumors that these creatures might be harmed by daylight, which is why they were rarely seen during the day. Maybe they had their own social order. Maybe they didn’t like “real” humans and didn’t want to stick around to endure the eventual ridicule that we as a race heap on those that are different from us.

No one really knows where they went during the day and nobody could say if they had some kind of aversion to sunlight. Or the city. Or crowds. Or ridicule. Understanding zombie behavior wasn’t a priority for anyone, especially since there were so few of them at first. There wasn’t the expected massive conversion of humans to zombies, rioting in the streets, or immediate economic collapse. It was a slow, protracted apocalypse, like the proverbial frog in the frying pan that never realizes it is being boiled. The change occurred so slowly, most saw the incursion as being under some semblance of control.

Before long, the population of entire towns simply disappeared. Some were turned. Others were killed. Many moved to the larger cities. Those that were left pillaged and preyed on those that didn’t. Or couldn’t. Without law enforcement or emergency services, areas with small populations fell into chaos and ruin. The infrastructure experienced the same slow death as our species. The incursion was never under any control.

Society as a whole was behaving as a gravely injured organism, cutting off the flow of important resources to less important areas so higher functions could continue. The larger cities were inadvertently amputating the suburbs and rural areas from the body of human civilization, leaving those that did not immediately move to the relative safety of large numbers to fend for themselves and then eventually die. Soon, that wasn’t enough. All but the largest cities became a wasteland.

Even those will soon succumb.

Our lives are a constant battle now. Not just against the undead, but against our own nature, against previously conquered foes. Disease. Hunger. Thirst. Each other. The lucky few were able to find sufficient shelter and keep it maintained and safe for extended periods of time. We count ourselves among that number. The gated apartment community provided a place to sleep and a fence to keep others out. The food had run out long ago, but there are still plenty of places that had stocks of food and other resources. We just have to go get it.

John was right about the school. It was deserted, but also pristine- a combination not usually found, at least not since the demise of our civilization. The entire world now seemed to be a study in entropy: buildings falling into disrepair or being burned or destroyed by the lawless and disorderly with nothing new being built and nothing old being restored or maintained.

But the high school was recently built, one of the last building projects completed before the start of the apocalypse. It was sturdy and had many years before it needed even preventive upkeep. As we approached, we could see that not even any windows were broken. It seemed to be hidden from the ravages of the apocalypse and its accompanying horrors.

The front doors were all glass, with the only metal on them being frames and the horizontal cross-bars that contained the locking mechanisms and handles. Eight in a row. Unbroken.

It was like we were looking back in time.

We park as close to the front doors as we can, each of us getting out on the side of the vans closest to the doors, putting an impassible barrier between us and anything that might be waiting for us, living or otherwise.

We brought two minivans, one for the passengers and one for the cargo we hoped to find. Jennifer and Brian stayed behind with their weapons and radios, waiting for direction. Hopefully, we wouldn’t need to carry everything back through the school and Brian’s van could be driven around to the chained up loading door we saw on the right wing of the school as we reconnoitered the exterior of the building. Those doors were locked, so we’ll need to go the long way. If we had to, we would simply break down all the front doors and drive the vans through the school. We’ll want to avoid that. This place might be useful at some point in the future: To us or someone else needing some kind of respite.

I grab the brushed metal handles of each door and pull. None of them give way except the right-most door. It pulls easily and I open it to its widest. Instead of stale, stagnant air we have come to expect from deserted buildings, cool air rushes out. The ventilation system is working, which means someone is or was here. There is no power grid, so there must be a generator somewhere, maybe on the roof. More importantly, there is someone to maintain that generator.

Squatters almost always equal trouble. But a squatter that has enough technical expertise to keep the ventilation system in a building this size running might be civilized, even cooperative.

Doubtful.

Damn, this apocalypse has made me so cynical.

Seven of the doors were locked, leaving only one way in and out without breaking the glass or unlocking additional doors. And who knows where the keys are; this area of town has been deserted for months now. The possibility that the janitor or groundskeeper is still around not undead is nil.

Maybe the occupants have the keys. Maybe we won’t have to kill them.

As I enter the school, the familiar smell of death surrounds me, forcing me to grimace and setting off ancient, involuntary alarms in my head. By design, it’s a smell to which I will never acclimate. This building doesn’t smell strong like we’ve come to expect, though, and the muted scent is probably due to the ventilation system transporting the odors all over the school from a single place.

Some buildings are full of the rotting dead, the putrid scent detectable from far away as if it were a warning to the living. Occasionally, vagrants or vigilantes live in places like that. How they overcome the constant, involuntary revulsion, I will never know. But maybe only having to face the smell of the dead and the visit of the occasional hungry or curious zombie is better than both the ravenous undead and the murderous living.

Despite most of the lights being out, we can easily see that the area is quite clean. No blood or viscera on the floor. No smears on the wall. No arterial spray on the ceiling. A welcome sight, believe it or not. But the smell of death means something was here. Or still is.

Where the dead rest, the undead lurk.

The main hallway has a map of the school hanging by the entrances of two hallways, one each on the left and right.

Steve takes one off the wall and studies it for several seconds. The frame is a simple black plastic border and the plain letter-sized map is kept safe behind a sheet of thin, cheap plastic.

Lowest bidder indeed.

Steve easily breaks the frame in half over his knee, removes the paper map, and hands it to me.

“Tom, hold on to this. It looks like the cafeteria is at the end of this right hallway, like we thought.” I take the map from Steve and offer it a quick glance. It appears to be an evacuation map, just detailed enough to satisfy the city’s fire safety requirements. From our position, all arrows point to the entrances behind us. The map is barebones, but more than we had one minute ago.

From where we are standing, the school looks like an upside-down cross with a bulbous “foot” end. Several classrooms and offices line the main hallway on both sides and the arms each have multiple classrooms. We entered on the “head” end.

This is not a very big school. I would estimate the total number of attendees might have been about five hundred. This is good for us because we won’t have much ground to cover. But there won’t be much in the way of supplies. We’ll take what we can get. I fold the map and stuff it in my right pocket.

There’s no point in exploring the hallway to the left. We’ve learned not to waste our time.

Steve gives the signal and the six of us take up our positions as practiced: Steve and I in the front, John and Ken directly behind and to the left and right, and Pete and Josh farther back, directly behind Steve and me but walking backward to keep watch on our escape if we need to retreat. From above, we’d look like a misshapen rectangle, with the points facing the direction of hopeful advance or potential retreat. This was Steve’s idea, the configuration comparable to the military’s wedge formation.

We move slowly, with minimal light. There is enough light to see, but not enough to see well. Our steps are gentle and short. We all have flashlights, but only Steve and Pete use them, one in front and one in back. This conserves batteries and hides our numbers against potential human attackers. Zombies don’t care about flashlights; whether we had one or six burning bright, they’ll run straight for the closest living being they can hear or smell.

Almost immediately, Steve calls for a halt. He shines his light down the hallway and we all see it at the same time: a blood pool with streaking behind it. Not an uncommon sight everywhere else, to be sure, but given the hospital-like cleanliness of what we’ve seen so far, this discovery chills me. I am more afraid of what this one blood pool means than I have been of any I’ve seen. Something is very wrong here. The omnipresent scent of death adds a sense of dread in the deepest and oldest portions of my brain.

Keep moving. Follow Steve.

As we pass each classroom, we check the doors to ensure they are locked. Most are, and those that are not, John or Ken lock them as we pass.

It feels like we’ve been walking down this hallway for hours. My heart is racing and my forehead is slick with sweat; I can hear the swish-swish, swish-swish of my heart in my ears. My sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, clouding my thoughts. I attempt to control my breathing and perform complicated math problems in my head to distract myself. I close my eyes to take a long, slow breath. As I open my eyes and exhale, I realize that I have almost passed Steve, who has stopped, his light shining on the tiled floor.

We finally arrive at the blood. Unlike our usual finding, this might be fresh blood, maybe a day or two old. There’s an initial pool, but the then an elongated smear, as though someone had an enormous, bleeding wound and then was dragged through their own blood, their clothing sopping it up like an old, saturated towel and then transferring it back to the floor as they were dragged.  It leads forward and as Steve follows the wide trail with his light, it slowly curves to the left, finally disappearing behind a slightly open door about a hundred feet ahead. The volume of blood does not subside as the dragging pattern moves away from us.

“This is not good,” Steve quietly remarks, without taking his eyes off the end of the streaked bloody trail. “Zombies don’t drag their victims; they kill and eat them in the same place.” He steps forward, immediately behind the dried pool and kneels down, scanning the brownish-red floor around him. By habit, we maintain the short distances between us.

John approaches and kneels, too. He observes, “There aren’t any hand or knee marks in this blood. The person wasn’t wounded and crawled away; they were mortally wounded and then dragged into that room. They’re likely dead, but what killed them isn’t. I saw some cast-off on the wall over there,” he shines his light on the pale, white wall, revealing a stripe of brown, dried blood to the rest of us, “consistent with being stabbed or enthusiastically sliced.”

I don’t like the idea of being enthusiastically sliced. “Time to go, then?” I could only hope.

John speaks again, “No, we have six and the likely numerical advantage. It looks like there is only one. Plus, he has a knife and Steve and I have guns. Those are good odds. Let’s follow the trail and see where it takes us. It’s better to deal with it now when we might have surprise and aren’t in a hurry to leave than to have to fight our way out of here through this way again if we run into more trouble ahead.”

The plan was to exit out of the doors in the cafeteria, but no plan survives contact with the enemy. Let’s hope we do.

Steve interjects, “Good plan. We don’t need a fight on two fronts.” He stands up, walks around the dried blood pool and continues forward, also avoiding the smeared blood trail. We follow in kind. Slowly.

A noise, like something is being hit. Ahead of us. From inside the room.

Steve raises his fist. Stop.

The hitting sound creates an invisible wall of fear, directly in front of me. I feel like I cannot continue moving forward. My legs are like lead.

I immediately start to second-guess myself. Was I only lucky in my first encounter? What would have happened if I didn’t have the high ground?

Even though the wound has long healed, I am still aware of the bite on my side. And I’m reminded of my mother, as I always am.

Her face. The shock of being killed by her own son.

So much blood and death. At my hands.

“…Tom. Got it?” I don’t even know who is speaking.

“Tom, John is coming up with us. Move over.” Steve.

“Right.” I move to the right, still only half in reality.

John signals to Josh and they switch places in the formation. Ken and Josh lock the two remaining doors on each side of the hallway as we approach the end of the bloody trail. John walks next to Steve and me. Pete is still in back.

Smack. Louder as we advance.

It has to be a zombie. But that makes no sense, unless the blood pool belonged to an undead and it somehow overcame exsanguination and killed its attacker.

Shit. I hate zombies.

As we approach the classroom door, Steve stops, kneels and signals us to approach. “Listen, the low light in the hallway is all we have, but it’s still better than most get when clearing a room. I don’t want to give up the element of surprise. We’ll take the room like we’ve been practicing.”

Smack. Something- a hand?- is hitting a something else hollow and metal. A steel door?

We line up next to Steve and each try to get a look into the skinny window. I see three figures. Two standing around. The other has his hand in the air or against a door in the back of the classroom. It’s probably the one making the noise, slapping the door. I’m confident they are all undead.

Smack. The hair on the back of my neck stands straight.

They want what is behind that door. And now I want to know what it is. Or who it is.

John speaks up, “I only saw the three. One looks bloodied. Could be the bleeder from out here.” Everyone else nods in agreement. Three against six. Pretty good odds, especially if one is nearly dead and the other is distracted for long enough with the door.

Smack. Pete jumps.

“Okay, this outside door opens inward to the room, like the others. So, we could either lock it and they’ll stay in there for a while, or we can take the room,” Steve says. “The way the door opens would keep them there, versus a door that opens outwardly.”

Smack. I can’t wait to stop whatever is doing that.

John immediately casts his vote, reiterating his previous thoughts. “Take the room. Better to do it now when we’re ready for it than later when we might not be.” He looks at each of us as he speaks, as if to will us into agreeing with him. The rest of us give a hesitant but approving nod.

Smack. We have to stop that noise.

“Okay,” Steve begins, “John and I will go in first with the rest of you in tow. We both have the guns and experience, so it should be easy. John, you take left, I’ll take right and then both take the center. That means the rest of you follow us in, alternating behind one of us, as we rehearsed earlier today.” Standard military and law enforcement housework. “Stay behind the guns.” Don’t have to tell me twice. The rest of us only have large knives and baseball bats. I’ll just cut whatever comes close.

At least zombies don’t shoot or stab back.

We line up on the wall. I look ahead and see that I’ll fall into Steve’s line, right after Pete. It’ll be easier to watch John, as he goes first, straight in. Steve pushes into the room immediately afterward, through the door and directly right, hugging the front wall of the classroom.

John’s pistol spits three bullets as soon as he enters the room. He wastes no time, his Elzetta pistol light illuminating the target not even twenty feet in front of him. His suppressor all but silences the weapon. No loud report. No deafening discharge. Just the ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink of the slide’s action echoing in the cinder block room. Blood, cranium, and brain matter literally explode, coating the wall, ceiling, and floor.

My revulsion nearly makes me miss my cue to follow Pete into the room.

Steve is a little slower; his target wasn’t right in front of him like John’s was for him, so he needed to scan and move to the right at the same time. His back is against the wall, and he’s walking sideways, his customized AR-15 raised with the light scanning for his target. Pete is immediately behind him, almost pushing him.

The edge of the light catches the other zombie and Steve adjusts his aim to fire. The main cone of light falls on his target. It’s very close, even closer than John’s was to him.

But no shots. Instead, I see his light jerk up to the ceiling and then drop to the floor. I hear Steve fall to the ground and the AR-15 skitter across the tiled floor. Through the dim, reflected light, I see Pete trip, too.

I stop moving.

Josh’s light comes on and swings toward our fallen teammates. Ken finally enters the room- late- his light switching on and turning toward the scuffle, too. Their collective light reveals three bodies on the floor, all of them writhing around, two of them attempting to get up and away from each other.

Three bodies. Oh hell.

A deafening scream and the lights reveal why.

The third body has its face buried in Pete’s torso, pulling away clothing, skin, and muscle. The floor below becomes a rapidly spreading pool of blood.

Another figure enters Josh’s beam of light, arms outstretched. Within half a second, it falls. On Pete. And bites down on his neck. Blood immediately pours out.

Pete’s piercing scream turns into a wet, gurgling cry.

I’m frozen. I don’t know whether to pull Pete away, attack the zombies, or stay where I am out of fear of being shot. I don’t know.

My lizard brain is in control.

Time has stopped. I am completely unaware of my own body, or of anyone else around me. My head is drowning in my primordial instincts. I can only watch Pete being eaten, slowly and painfully being killed, as though he were in another room separated by a glass wall. I can’t even speak.

Ka-chink! Ka-chink! Ka-chink!

John’s gun again. The slide’s report causes me to snap out of my stupor and involuntarily turn my head toward the sound. His light reveals a similar scene as before: exploding zombie brain matter. From the one slapping the door.

His light turns to meet the others’. My gaze follows his beam.

John yells, “Help him! I don’t have a shot!”

I’m the closest.

Flight turns to fight.

Before I’m even aware of it, my parang has found purchase in the kneeling zombie’s head. Pulling on the handle doesn’t free the large knife from the zombie. The blade isn’t as easy to remove from the zombie’s skull as it was to embed. Instead of the parang being pulled out of the zombie’s head, the entire zombie is pulled away from Pete, like a bull being led by the ring in its nose.

One more pull and the creature is pulled away. I place my foot on its shoulder and yank the parang one more time to free it. I immediately swing again, miraculously striking the exact spot once more.

The sharp blade bisects the zombie’s skull. Bone and brains separate.

Chuk! Chuk! Steve’s suppressed AR-15 finishes off the other one.

I turn and see two bodies on the floor, both immobile and bleeding profusely. Josh and Ken hurry over to help remove the lifeless creature from Pete. I see John scan the room with his pistol light.

“Pete! Stay with me buddy!” Steve’s face betrays him, however. One look at Pete and I know it, too. Even if he were on an operating table, his wounds would be fatal. We can only wait for the end.

Steve kneels down and holds Pete’s hand. Within seconds, Pete loses consciousness. We gather around him and kneel, each of us reaching down to grab his hand or touch him in some way, as if our life force could be transferred to him, to revive him somehow.

We remain silent as the involuntary agonal breaths begin. Pete’s life ends with him surrounded by his friends and brothers-in-arms.

We live in a dying world filled with death. It never gets easier.

It would be easy to take our time here and mourn. But, we must keep going.

“John, you and Ken take Pete back to the vans and get back here. We don’t leave anyone behind.” They nod in agreement, step to Pete’s head and grab him by both arms, under his shoulders. They get him up and turn him around so that his arms are resting over their shoulders and around their necks, in a two-man casualty carry. They are both in excellent physical shape, so they should return quickly.

Steve remains silent until John and Ken have left the room with Pete’s body. He inhales deeply and exhales slowly.

“Okay, we need to keep going. John and Ken will be back in a minute. Let’s make sure this room is completely clear.”

We spread out with our lights, ensuring there are no additional surprises.

After a few seconds, “I got something over here!” Josh calls out.

In the far corner, Josh is standing over a corpse. A bloody trail leads from the corpse to the entrance to the classroom.

One mystery is solved. It’s impossible to tell if this one was alive or undead, but it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like he attacked this one out in the hallway, dragged it in here and then was attacked by these other three. That one that Steve and Pete tripped on was mostly disabled…” Josh starts.

“… and then the other two came in and he made the choice to retreat,” Steve fills in. “I’ll bet that’s who is in this closet.” He points his light toward the door as he says ‘closet.’ “I just can’t figure out why he would drag the one in here.”

My turn, “Well, I guess we can ask him. We’re going to let him out, right?”

Steve thinks for a moment. “We should. Josh, you and I will stand away from the door. Tom, you open it, but don’t stand in front. Wouldn’t want you to run headlong into a bullet. Knock first to see if we get a response.”

Josh and Steve stand away from the door, lights pointed downward. I put my parang away and stand with my right shoulder on the door and my hand on the knob.

With my left hand, I knock.

Nothing.

One more knock.

“I’m coming out.” From inside the closet.

I turn the knob and pull the door open, being careful not to expose myself to whoever is inside.

Steve’s AR-15 is pointed at the man, his Elzetta light shining brightly. “Put the knives down, sir. We’re not here to hurt you.”

“We don’t have a problem. I’ll put them away.” The man’s voice is rough, like he’s older. I hear the sound of knives being sheathed.

“Step forward. What’s your name and why are you here?”

“George. George Centro. I live here. I’ve maintained this building since everyone left the area. I had no problems until this group showed up.” He gestures around the room, obviously referring to the four undead invaders. “They were more than I could handle, obviously. I’m glad you came. I ran out of water a few hours ago. I don’t know how much longer I would have lasted here.”

“Probably only a couple of days without water.” Josh begins. “How did they get in and why did you drag the one from the hallway to this room?”

“I let them in. One at a time, though. I didn’t think they would team up on me like they did.”

The insanity of that statement forces me to release the doorknob and walk toward Steve and Josh. “You LET them in? Why the hell would you do that?”

My presence surprises him. I can see a wry smile appear on his face as he realizes that there are three of us, instead of two, as if he is giving silent acknowledgement of our tactic.

“I’m doing my part. And come on, don’t act so self-righteous.” He looks around, “It’s not like you’ve never killed any of them. It was either them or me.”

Them or me. I am instantly endeared to this man.

I can see Steve thinking about this. “Fair enough. We’re here because we need food and water.”

“There’s plenty there and I’ll help you load it up. It’s the least I can do. What are your names?”

Steve introduces us. “We need to wait a minute until our other guys get back. They should just be a minute or two. But you can lead the way, since you know your way around,” he instructs.

George starts walking toward the classroom door, “We can wait. They need to hurry, though. The sooner we start, the sooner you can get out of here…”

John and Ken return, their lights announcing their arrival.  Steve makes the introductions, “John, Ken… meet George Centro. He was holed up in this closet until we arrived. Did you get Pete to the van?”

“He’s in the back of Brian’s van, covered up with one of the tarps. I don’t know how Brian is going to take sitting there with Pete in the back. I’m losing my appetite for staying here, too.” Neither John nor Ken acknowledges George with anything more than a nod.

“The gang’s all here, then. Let’s go. I’ll lead.” George is already walking toward the door as he speaks. In the dim light, I see Steve give a small shrug to John.

We’re out of the room in a few seconds, but then George stops and turns toward me, “Do you ever wonder what all of this means?”

At first, I’m not even sure he’s talking to me. I look around at the others to gauge their reaction. Before I can see anything from my friends, he continues his questioning.

“Yes, I’m talking to you. Do you ever wonder why this happened, why, now, at this point in our history, we’re seeing zombies? I mean, why not during the Dark Ages? Or after Europe started exploring the rest of the world? Or after we developed the atomic bomb? Why now?”

I can’t say I’ve never thought about this. Maybe not in such terms, but I’m sure it’s perfectly normal for anyone to ask why the world is why it is and why it behaves the way it does. That’s basic premise for all of science, right? “Not really. I’ve just tried to live one day at a time, honestly.”

George studies my face for a moment. “Tell me, Tom, what purpose do you think the undead has in the greater picture of humanity? Everything has a purpose, right?”

“I… uh… well… I don’t know. I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it like that.”

“No one does. No one thinks about their fate until it is upon them. And then they try to reason with it. But it’s too late by then.”

I can see his point. How many times have we heard the story of the man on his deathbed wishing for one more day and what he could have done to have it?

He stops walking and turns to me, “I can tell you haven’t really thought about this much. But I have. This is evolution. The undead are nature’s way of telling us that we are obsolete now and that it’s time to move on.” His pause indicates that he wants me to respond, like a teacher attempting to prompt an answer from a student.

I oblige. “This can’t be evolution. If that’s true, we’re done. Humanity is over. ”

A smirk appears on his lips, as though my answer was expected. “Yes. Human evolution runs on a clock… and our time is up.” He clenches his fist at chest level for emphasis, as if he were the villain in some kind of overacted movie.

“You imply that there’s pressure for us to accomplish something, and that if we don’t, we’re to be replaced. I don’t think that’s how evolution works.”

For the briefest of moments, his face changes. A hint of… anger? I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it or if the low light is casting shadows on his old face. “Humans in their current form are weak, hesitant.” His emphasis on the word ‘hesitant’ is strange, said through his teeth with his lips drawn. “The undead are pure predators. Hard to kill. Strong. Fast. Merciless. They are the inheritors of the earth.” He stabs his finger toward the classroom we were just in.

A lot to consider, to be sure. “I don’t really follow. There are plenty of animals that are essentially brain dead killers compared to us. Evolution doesn’t need to make any more. We have survived and reached the top of the food chain because of our advanced brains, not because of our hunting ability. This is a step backwards, not forwards.”

George squares his body toward me, “That’s not how evolution works. Yes, sometimes an evolutionary change is better and moves the species forward. But sometimes the change isn’t better or worse. All that matters is that the new species survives. Clearly, from a mental or intellectual perspective, the undead are a step backward. But survivability is what matters, not thinking ability. Judging by the state of our race, it’s apparent which of the species has a better chance at survival.”

His point is valid, honestly. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about evolutionary development. I don’t know that he does, either. But I can’t help but to find some kind of kinship with this man. He’s spent some time thinking about his purpose in this new life, about humanity’s role in the apocalypse. He’s been through a harrowing, personal experience here and has survived. That’s something to be admired, at least. But I still have doubts. “If the point of evolution is to survive, what happens when there are no more humans to turn into zombies? I don’t see any of them doing the undead nasty to make any more.”

“How do you know? How do any of us know anything about them? We don’t. Nature makes a way. We may not be around to see it, but life will perpetuate itself.” I can’t help but think I’ve heard this before.

Steve interjects, with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “Look, I’d love to hear about the benefits of the evolutionary process, but we have to get going.”

George purses his lips, raises his eyebrows, and turns his head slowly toward Steve, as if the interjection interrupted a complicated thought. A second later, his face softens and he blinks. His arms come up to chest level, palms out- like a low surrender, “Okay. Let’s get this done. I don’t want to stop you.” And with that, he turns his head and then his body toward the cafeteria and starts walking.

We were already near the end of the hallway, so it only takes a few seconds to reach the large double doors of the cafeteria. They aren’t windowed like the classroom doors, but they open outward, toward us. We’re standing in a large, square vestibule, more than twice the width of the hallway. The alcove for the doors is only as wide and tall as the doors; the rest of the open space is opposite of the double doors, about a third of it being a continuation of the hallway and the rest looking a larger alcove on the opposite side of the cafeteria doors . It’s possible a person could hide in either alcove without someone else in the hallway being able to see them.

“George, what’s your take here? Are there any surprises we should know about?” John asks.

After several seconds, George finally speaks up. “There’s a couple undead in there.” He must have noticed the aggravation in our facial expressions. “They make good guard dogs. I can’t watch this whole place by myself.”

John, after a long silence and then a quick, loud, frustrated sigh: “How many, George?”

“I don’t know. They’ve been in there a while. I was locked up for a couple of days so I haven’t checked on them. For all I know, they could have died of dehydration.”

Dehydration? We never really paid attention to the ones we encountered, whether or not they were exhibiting any signs of dehydration. It’s not like they’ll let us do pinch tests on their hands. It does make sense, though, and it creates far more questions than it answers. This is something to explore later.

If we get out of here.

John, clearly irritated, speaks again, “This is what you’re going to do: you’re going to open one of those doors and we’re going to kill every last of those bastards. And when you open the door, you had better open it wide and stay out of our line of fire.” He motions to the door on the right as he speaks, the flashlight on the end of his pistol giving direction to which door George needs to open.

George’s expression doesn’t change. “Alright. Fair enough. You let me know when you’re ready.” He walks toward the right side door of the cafeteria.

Steve puts his tactical skill to work, pointing with his hands and head as he gives instructions “John and I have the guns, so we will be in front. We’ll create a breach with the open door, allowing them to only move through a limited space. If we have to retreat, we’ll move backward down the hallway, forcing them to turn the corner if things get too hairy. Stay out of our way, to our left. If something gets through, it’s your responsibility to take it out. If he’s right and there are only two or three, we should be okay. Just stay out of our way.”

Ken, Josh, and I stand to Steve and John’s left, close to the large alcove. Steve and John raise their weapons, their lights practically burning a hole in the door. The only sounds are that of the weapons in their hands and our knives and swords being unsheathed for battle. I decide to use my sword instead of my parang. This is less close quarters than the classroom. I have room to use it properly.

“One. Two. Three!” John gives the signal.

George pushes the lever with his thumb and pulls the door toward him, backing into the corner. He pulls the door all the way to the wall, so that he’s completely shielded in the small triangular space formed by the door and the corner of the wall.

The smell of hot death rushes from the room. The strong odor envelops us. Ken vomits.

Low growls penetrate my consciousness. Not one or two.

Many.

Shit.

“Shut the door, George!” I shout. “Shut the damn door!” No reply. If it didn’t require me passing in front of the lines of fire, I would have done it myself.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

The lights are shining into the sea of darkness beyond the doors, but reveal nothing. Where could they be?

John and Steve hear it, too. “George! Shut the damn door! GEORGE!” They are both yelling.

John points his pistol to the ceiling and takes a step toward the open door.

Steve is completely aware of John’s double-mindedness. “John! Stay here! We’re committed! I need you here!”

John stops, as if to consider this, frozen between his responsibility to Steve and desperation to close the door.

There is no time to change the plan, which is falling apart more by the second.

The closed door erupts, the handle striking and then bouncing off the cinder –block wall as though it were rubber, leaving a gray mark where the paint has been chipped.

“Shit!”

Instant chaos.

Shit.

Immediately, Steve is firing into the horde of zombies. John’s pistol lowers, the firearm spitting flames and projectiles into the hungry, screaming wall of death.

“Back up! Back up!” I can’t tell who is yelling. Even though the guns are suppressed, the reports from their firing in the enclosed area echo off of every wall multiple times. The growling and yelling of the zombies and my own heart and racing thoughts are drowning out any attempt at meaningful communication from anyone else.

Josh, Ken, and I are separated from Steve and John. The virtual river of zombies flowing out of the cafeteria keep us from them and force us to back up into the alcove in hopes to keep a low profile.

The undead are more attracted to the noise of the guns than Josh, Ken, or me. This is lucky for us, not so much for John and Steve.

They move backwards, away from the crowd of undead, their guns constantly firing. There are so many that even if they miss their intended target, something behind gets hit anyway. Their luck holds, as the walls of the hallway keep them from getting flanked and the zombies that fall become obstacles to the ones behind. The undead spend more time tripping and attempting to stand than they spend moving forward to attack. The more that die, the larger the obstacles.

The rest of us are cut off from John and Steve. We can’t get through the mob and the constant gunfire pushes us backwards to avoid being hit. Before long, I sense the wall at my back. Josh and Ken are in front of me, but to my left, side by side.

I didn’t think there could be more zombies, but they continue to pour out of the double doors. George must have spent days, even weeks, collecting them here.

As John and Steve move farther away, the zombies exiting the cafeteria are less attracted to the noise.

And more attracted to us. Several break away from the main group and shamble toward us.

Shit.

The first three bear down on Ken right away. He easily dispatches the first with his bat, but the remaining two attack in tandem before he can return the bat to its ready position.

Josh’s bat is quick to assist. But not before Ken’s left forearm is full of zombie teeth. His scream pierces the dark, penetrating to the oldest parts of my brain, which ensures I understand that danger is near. I understand his pain. I have felt it before.

Josh’s second swing takes down the zombie, but two more take its place. I feel helpless as I watch multiple zombies close in on my friends.

Only now do I grasp why George emphasized that humans are hesitant. And why he thinks we will not survive the undead onslaught.

Zombies have no fear. They can’t consider the consequences of their actions. They have no ability to second guess themselves. They just kill, with no hesitation. They don’t retreat, even as their undead comrades are being completely decimated by the hail of bullets.

At last, I understand. I understand why my mother died. I understand why Pete died. Hesitation to kill. My hesitation.

In combat, the warrior that strikes last… dies. Hesitation is a symptom of unpreparedness, not with equipment or training, but with mentality. If I am not prepared to kill without hesitation, I will die. Those are the only two choices.

Kill or be killed.

Them or me. If my hesitation is a handicap, I must overcome it. I must evolve. But how?

Drops of sweat run down my back. I can feel more of it on my forearms, running onto my wrists and on my palms.

In my palms. Which are holding my sword.

It’s as if I’ve discovered fire for the first time in human history.

The beautiful and deadly steel in my hand calls out to me, like we are symbiotic beings, requiring each other for existence. I look down, to confirm that I’m still holding it. I walk toward my friends.

Preternaturally, the sword rises into the air and swoops down on its first victim. A clean kill. I raise it again. And kill again.

Josh and Ken are moving, backing away from the cafeteria, deeper into the larger alcove. Over the gunfire and the thuds of their bats striking undead skulls, I can hear their heavy breathing. I can see the dim light reflecting on their sweaty faces.

John and Steve are at least alive, though I can’t see them. They are still firing. The sound is still reverberating on the brick walls. The lights on their guns are still illuminating the hallway, allowing me to see.

Another death, this time from a sideways cut, taking the head completely off the shoulders.

My subconscious is taking over. In my mind’s eye, I see myself in the fitness center, standing on the rubber mats, practicing my strikes. I unconsciously count each stroke, as if this were just another workout.

Four.

Five.

Six.

I can see past the crowd of zombies in front of me, into the cafeteria. There are no more zombies exiting, but there are at least 15 zombies in front of us, hungry for blood, brains, and flesh.

I see George, who has moved from behind the door. He’s watching us, making no effort to aid. I see a metallic object in his right hand. His large knife is drawn, but he’s not moving.

The sight is enough to disrupt my muscle memory.

The next downward stroke isn’t hard enough and deviates right. Instead of cleaving the skull, the sword merely cuts off an ear and then lodges itself in trapezius muscle and collarbone. Pulling on the sword only draws the zombie toward me.

I pull again but only draw the zombie closer. It’s screaming- rightfully so- but so are its comrades. The screaming is distracting, frightening, unnerving.

I must get my sword back.

I see George walking toward me. The zombies that are directly behind my most recent victim are closing in on me.

I am not ready for them.

 

School Map

“Four ninety-six.” The sword glides through the air easily and quickly, the skill of its bearer evident in the stroke.

“Four ninety-seven.” Each slice of the sword is as perfect and clean as the last. There is no wasted motion in the action. While the exercise is practiced daily, the actions don’t reflect the usual absent-mindedness that would be found in a typical habit. There is never a slash made in which the swordsman questions if he made it. Never a lost count. Each has a purpose, a target in mind. Some are made for revenge. Some are made in preparation for the future. His mind’s eye often sees the faces of the ones he has killed, as his success is replayed in his mind as a reference for correct technique. Often, he sees his mother’s face, as a reminder of his errant judgment.

“Four ninety-eight.” As the sharp edge of the katana slices through the air, Tom imagines that each cut divides individual molecules into their separate atoms, each atom dividing into its individual components, severing electron shell from nucleus, proton from neutron. He practically wills that time itself be cut into pieces, that he might step through the self-made chasm and change history or select the singular piece of time that changed his life forever and toss it away as if it were a piece of refuse that would be so easily forgotten.

“Four ninety-nine.” Tom’s mind hovers between the active and passive monitoring of each stroke, his subconscious controlling the fine muscular action of each motion. But his conscious mind controls his thoughts, not allowing them to stray, keeping them focused on the precision of each stroke, his motivation for each session remaining the same throughout.

“Five. Zero. Zero.” Today’s last cut. As Tom deftly slides his sword back into its scabbard, sweat drips down his face and neck, forming droplets on his nose which spray forward upon his strained exhalation. The swordsman practices this routine every day without fail, his skill with the ancient weapon incrementally increasing with each repetition. One could criticize him for failing to develop his dueling proficiency, as he has never prepared to match his skill with another practitioner of the art. But, in this world, the only opponents that would ever feel the sharpness of his blade are the undead. His goal is a quick, disciplined kill. He practices as he imagines he would fight: cleanly, with no squandered action. The heat of battle is no place for second-guessing; there is no time for wasted effort. On that field, where each warrior balances on that fine cord separating life and death, it is the decisive that live and the tentative that die.

Tom’s first opportunity to use his weapon resulted in his own salvation, but at the expense of his own future. His partiality to a blade versus any other type of weapon was a passing interest. His skill was amateurish at best. The days and weeks following allowed him to consider his relative lack of skill, his obvious deficit in conflict. His personal reflection brought him to the conclusion that he needed more than just that passing interest. He needed to be able to save his own life, and the lives of others, should the need arise.

Several months ago, he made one of the most important decisions of his life in joining with his new friends. Their camaraderie has been the most valuable he has ever known. His life and theirs are inextricably intertwined and he vowed that his mistakes would never again carry such a high cost. His extraordinary intellect is one of his greatest gifts, but it is his and his alone, something that could not be shared or transferred to another. His swordsmanship is something that he could share with others, a skill that he could confer on those around him, a benefit to those that might depend on him during their time of immense need.

“I would have never thought that swinging that sword around would get you so hot and sweaty. It just doesn’t seem like that much work.” Jennifer’s sarcastic incredulity is never hidden.

Tom turns in alarm, obviously not aware that Jennifer was watching him, though surprising himself that he didn’t know she was there. “How long have you been watching me?” Tom had long stopped trying to figure her out, realizing that some will always be a mystery, purposely remaining enigmatic.

“Long enough.” She pushes away from the doorjamb she was leaning against and walks toward him, her red ponytail swaying hypnotically like a pendulum on an old clock, swishing back and forth over each of her shoulders as she walks.

Tom regains his composure, “I have an extra sword. I’d love for you to get all ‘hot and sweaty’ with me. You might even like it.” He had been trying to get many of his friends to practice with him for weeks now. But the relative calmness around them since they took up residency at the apartment complex, combined with the very few encounters they have had recently, had obviously increased their complacency. Since John, a cop, joined the group, guns were the preferred weapons and the success they had using those weapons was undeniable. However, Tom considered them loud and ultimately undependable, especially in the hands of the unskilled. Those two flaws, combined together, could mean the difference between living and dying, considering the lethality of their adversaries. Tom always hoped that he would be wrong, but he knows that no one can be completely wrong all the time.

Jennifer stops and gives him a wry smile which Tom cannot decipher. Ignoring his obvious double entendre, she returns to her original intention as the bearer of news. “Maybe some other time, Tom… when I run out of bullets and my biting wit stops working.” She rolls her eyes, but the smile remains. “Anyway, Damon wants you and me to go with John and his guys to the school in Somerville. It looks like we’re attempting to push out a little bit, take back some of the area, since the undead activity has been low lately. John thinks we might be able to get into the area pretty easily, maybe board it up to be used as a survivor camp for later on.” Survivor camp. That they even needed one was a mixed blessing. That they were finding survivors from the massive incursion several months ago was simply unbelievable. The idea that in Twenty-First century America, a survivor camp being necessary was something that one could not have imagined just less than a year ago.

“I’ll go see him.” And with that, Tom walks away, navigating around Jennifer, and out the door of the small cardio room ordinarily reserved for members of the long-abandoned apartment community. He often thought she was simply playing hard to get with him, that maybe she actually did like him for more than just a companion who also happened to survive a zombie attack. His innate sense of how women reacted to him considered another likelihood, however. He was almost positive that not only was she playing hard-to-get, but that she was actually impossible to get, and that even if by some planet-aligning miracle he was able to win her affection, she would be like a venomous pet snake: ready and willing to bite him without a second thought, injecting her bitter poison into him, rendering him completely incapable of recovery and seizing his insides so that no woman would ever want him after Jennifer was through with him. But something within Tom would never stop his casual pursuit of her, even knowing the eventual outcome. His intellect and rational mind have been completely overcome by his desire for her approval.

 

A common katana sword.

Day 11, Month 4: Tom

Posted: May 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Tom had been up for several hours surfing the internet, making his usual rounds at each of his favorite websites. Normally, he’d be in bed by now, but his attention had been captured by a rash of gruesome videos just posted to several of the internet’s seediest gore-fest websites… websites to which Tom was no stranger. He fancied himself as a bit of a gore-hound but as more of a curiosity than anything else. On a visceral level, he sincerely enjoys seeing death, or at least the process of dying. He has a fascination with the human condition, what it takes for the human body to cease functioning, and especially how the human body will do anything and everything it can to live. He is constantly amazed at some of the accounts told of amazing feats of survival, how some bodies could be so wrecked, so mangled, yet survive, but then, how something simple like an accurate bullet or unanswered bacterium might end a life. He is in awe of the mind-body connection and how in many cases, it seems a horribly injured person could survive such drastic injury through sheer willpower alone. He had hoped that he would have that level of willpower should the need arise, but he is happy to be the observer of that character quality, instead of the demonstrator of it. The many horrible deaths he had been reading about lately could very likely not have been prevented, even though those that are now dead might have possessed this quality.

For the past few months, he had been seeing news reports and reading eyewitness accounts about these murders- as they’ve been called- but even decent footage is scarce. By now, there were several hundred gruesome videos of the murder victims and maybe a few dozen that captured footage of the supposed murderers, but most were shaky, grainy, or even fake. Some websites were vigilant about weeding out the fakes and some of the better websites were very good about only posting the videos worth watching, of which there were very few. Because of the relatively low number of decent footage of these victims and attackers, there seemed to be a sort of outcry against “the system,” making the accusation that videos were being suppressed.

There were the usual conspiracy-type websites that were claiming that the bloody deaths were all part of a cover up, with the usual explanations ranging from a new flesh-eating bacteria for which medicine had no cure, or a precursor to the end of the world due to some Mayan prophecy, or even an alien virus accidentally set free from Area 51. As all conspiracies go, it wasn’t the wide-ranging amount of information that drove the movement; it was the relative lack of information that brought the interested into the fold and made them believers. Indeed, whatever information that was available was incomplete and confusing, providing more questions than answers, pouring more fuel onto the fire of speculation. There were some circles that had mentioned the idea of a zombie outbreak, but this was not anything like anyone expected. Society hadn’t collapsed. There weren’t roving mobs in the street looking for their next meal. If they were zombies, they were unlike anything in the movies.

As Tom scrolled down the list of new videos, his cursor hovering over each one, a pop-up window gave a brief description of the video itself. For now, there were less than ten good videos, each a different length and of varying quality. He hoped that there would be more as the evening went on, but the world went from a relative information blackout for weeks to having real, tangible information about these strange deaths was a more than adequate respite.

Excitedly, Tom clicked on each of the videos and watched them in their entirety. Most of them were dark or had poor resolution, some with the camera shaking so badly that the images were mostly impossible to make out. “These are supposedly the good ones,” Tom thought. Combine the bad video quality with the novice narrators’ voices talking throughout the videos- some not even in English and most of them scared out of their minds, with half of them vomiting within seconds of finding the mutilated bodies- and Tom was beginning to think that this boon of information had not moved anyone any closer to understanding extremely rapid increase in murder in the world, much less his own city.

Not that he thought it was his job to stop any of those murders. He wasn’t a cop, but just a nineteen- year-old clerk at the grocery store outside of his neighborhood. But, as seemingly all internet-empowered citizens feel, something had to be done and the cops weren’t doing enough of whatever that was. Tom knew, though, if the opportunity arose, he would be able to fight his way through whatever or whoever tried to get in his house. He turns his eyes to the sword he keeps sandwiched between the box-spring and mattress of his bed. Only the black handle is visible, with the scabbard and blade hidden from view.

He had always been a fan of fighting blades and owned many of each: swords, knives, daggers, pocketknives; practically one for each day of the week, one in every room of the house, and one for any possible occasion. He bought this particular katana during a visit to Japan with his mother only a couple of years ago. It was there that his fascination with bladed weapons took hold and he bought this sword- his first- from a sword-smith at a market on Honshu, the main island of Japan. He had to bargain and plead with his mother to spend the amount of money the vendor asked, but only after he agreed that it would be the only souvenir from the Land of the Rising Sun that he could afford to purchase, would she allow him to buy it. The sword represented his very deep appreciation for a long-lost art- an art he felt needed more practical exposure here in the States. He’d spent several hours looking at videos detailing how to use the weapon and even visited the city college gym to observe some experts practice, but ultimately, the amount of time required to become truly proficient in the dueling arts was prohibitive- at least in his mind. He was going to go to college soon. He was going to meet girls, get a great job, and make lots of money. Why would he ever actually need to kill someone with a sword or defend himself from an attack from one? This was Twenty-First Century America, after all. Not feudal Japan.

After re-watching the newly-posted videos once again, hoping that an even newer new video would be posted so he could justify waiting up for so long, Tom finally gives up. If there was going to be another video, it probably wasn’t going to be tonight. Besides, he was getting tired. His eyes were starting to hurt and his breathing was becoming slow and shallow. Sleep would overtake him soon and whatever was waiting for him out there on the World Wide Web could wait a few more hours. Tom finished getting undressed, crawled into bed, and almost immediately fell asleep.

Several hours pass and Tom is awakened by his mother, Anna, softly rapping on his bedroom door, whispering his name with each impossibly light touch on the door frame. “Tommy. Tommy, get up.” At first, Tom wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or it was real. His question is answered, however, as Anna taps on the door again, quietly speaking his name once more, “Tommy. Tommy, get up. Something is going on next door.”

Next door. The neighbors. Those neighbors. Perpetual partiers. Tom could never figure out what they did for a living, but whatever it was, he wanted in on it. They never seemed to go to work, but had a party almost every night. Throngs of college-aged women and men lounged around the front and back yards at all times of the night, with a few of them occasionally making out on the patio in the backyard. Or on the porch in the front yard. Or in the front yard. Half of the time, most of them were drunk. The rest of the time, they were attempting to get drunk. At first, they were loud and wildly inconsiderate, playing their loud music and drinking games all night long. Tom attempted to inject himself into the scene a couple of times, hoping they would see his relative lack of booze and sex and have some compassion for a nerdy neighbor. No such luck. Seat’s taken. Party is by invitation only. No one here is interested in what you have to offer. Rebuffed at every turn, Tom finally decided that if they weren’t going to let him in their inner circle, maybe it was time to see to it that they weren’t going to have an inner circle.

It took multiple calls to the police and multiple cruiser appearances before the neighbors finally got the message that all that noise and debauchery simply wasn’t acceptable in civilized society. They might not have to work, but every other person in the neighborhood does. And they’re making everyone jealous. If you can’t keep up with the Joneses, keep the Joneses from making everyone else feel bad about it.

While the parties as of late were relatively tame and tolerable- it seemed there was finally an unspoken, mutually agreed upon level of noise and sex that was allowable- tonight was just a little bit different. As soon as Tom came to his senses from being woken up by his mother, he knew exactly why she was attempting to wake him up. The noise from below wasn’t so much louder or more intense as it was… different.

Tom puts on a pair of sweat pants and shambles toward his mother, opening the door just wide enough to press only his face through the opening between it and the door frame. He hides his body behind the door and cranes his neck around it to talk to her, as though she had never seen him without a shirt on before tonight.

“Mom, I don’t know how many times we have to have this discussion, if you want me to wake up, just make more noise.”

“I know, Tommy. I just don’t like scaring you.” Anna obviously deeply loves her boy Tommy, but their relationship, as all mothers’ and sons’ relationships become, had been strained over the last few years. He wanted more freedom but didn’t want to move out of the house. She took his not moving out of the house as a sign that he wanted to continue their relationship as it had been.

Immediately frustrated, Tom huffs his reply, “Mom, you won’t scare me… just… never mind. What do you need, mom?” Tom was hoping that his mother would not make him go over there another time. He could hear the unusual amount of noise coming from the duplex below, but he didn’t want to think of what new kind of sex or drinking- or sex and drinking- game they would not invite him to.

“Tommy, I heard screaming. You need to go check it out. Please. For your only mother.” Anna, though in her forties and no longer spry as she once was, still had the ability to get men to bend to her will, whether it was through a look, an inflection in her voice, or just because most men, and especially Tom, knew that resistance was truly futile. She would get what she wanted. She was just that headstrong. Tom imagined that his mother might never die, that her willpower might be so strong as to be an actual superpower.

Resigned, and with the experience of fighting these losing battles with her before, Tom agrees. But before he lets her see victory, he makes her wait for it, making her think that he’s thinking about it, that just this once, he might deny her. It’s a little triumph he feels he gets when he does this, making her wait, giving the illusion that she is at his mercy. Anna waits patiently, allowing Tom to feel this tiny bit of success. But she is never fooled.

“Alright, mom. Just go back to your room and I’ll take care of it. I’ll get dressed and go over in a minute.” Secretly, Tom hopes that the neighbors would simply calm down and finish whatever game they were playing and that he wouldn’t have to confront them over it. But deep down, he knows that will never work. Just as a football fan couldn’t actively will a quarterback to throw the ball to the open receiver he couldn’t see, Tom knew from experience that waiting it out and reaching out through the ethereal plane to get his neighbors to tone it down simply didn’t work. He is either going to have to take care of this himself or it was going to be yet another call to the cops. He was hoping for the latter, though the former might not be so bad if they finally decided the squeaky wheel needed to get some grease. He’s not sure what his mother would say about that, but at least she wouldn’t be able to harass him about how much noise they were making.

Anna heads back downstairs to her room, shuts the bedroom door and lies back down in her bed, covering up. She thought that she might be able to get back to sleep if she could just relax. But that scream. That horrible scream. It wasn’t natural and Anna’s mind could not stop thinking about it, nor could her brain tone down the activity of her sympathetic nervous system, forcing her heart to pound and her rate of breathing to rapidly increase. She lays on the bed, on her back, eyes wide open, ears hyper-attuned to every little sound, her brain involuntarily analyzing each noise to determine the potential menace that might come of it. There would be no sleep for her tonight.

Tom puts on a tank top and slides some old sandals on his feet. And then changes his mind about his outfit. If they were going to invite him into the party, he didn’t want to be the worst dressed there. No pretty girls would ever talk to him and no one would give him any alcohol if he looked like a poorly-dressed dork. He needs to look respectable and at least like he could handle himself, not like he just hopped out of bed and had no business being there. If he could look like he belonged, there would be a better chance of him being accepted. And drunk. And laid.

Tom trades his pajama pants for some light-colored blue jeans and his tank top for a plain, black t-shirt. He adds socks and a pair of sneakers to his ensemble, checks his appearance in the mirror on his wall, and thinks to himself that he’s ready. If there was ever a time they were going to let him join the party, this might be it. He takes a deep breath and turns around to leave his room.

Before Tom makes it to the entrance to his bedroom, he hears a loud banging coming from the living room downstairs. At first, he thinks it’s the stereo system from the neighbors- maybe they turned up the volume for a good song. But the severity and irregularity of the pounding, along with the lack of accompanying singing or other instruments, gives Tom second thoughts. He opens his bedroom door and listens more intently. Immediately, he concludes that the pounding is coming from his own front door, not his neighbors’ stereo system. The hair on the nape of his neck stands on end as he realizes that someone is attempting to break in.

Tom quickly turns around and grabs the handle of the katana protruding from between his mattress and box-spring. He pulls the curved, twenty-five inch blade from its resting place. The tip of the sword lightly strikes the metal-wrapped mouth of the scabbard, making a slight pinging noise as its shiny blade slides into view. With his right hand down by his waist, holding the handle by his side and the sword projecting itself forward, Tom half runs, half speed-walks out of the bedroom door and then to the stairway. Grabbing the handrail with his left hand and then allowing gravity to help him, he bounds down the stairs. He can hear the pounding on the front door growing louder with each step. As he reaches the second half of his descent, he sees what is making the noise: the front door is being assaulted with heavy, rhythmic blows. He can actually see the center of the door bowing and the entire wall shakes with each hit.

By the time he reaches the final few steps above the intermediate landing, the doorjamb splinters and the door completely gives way, flying open with explosive force, lodging the door handle in the wall. A woman is standing in the doorway, surveying the apartment, head tilted backward with her nose in the air, sniffing. The noise of her slow nasal inhalations sounds like an old bloodhound searching for contraband. Tom can hear the woman wheezing through her rapid breaths, much like one would breathe during an intense cardiovascular workout.

“Is she smelling my place? What the hell…?” Tom thinks. Within that fraction of a second, the woman runs straight toward Anna’s room, smashing headlong into her door, bouncing backward from the impact and falling on her hind end. He hears Anna yelp from the other side of the door. The woman jumps to her feet and tries again, this time using her shoulder to attack the door. The door breaks free from the door frame and the woman stumbles into Anna’s room. Tom can see Anna has already gotten out of bed on the far side of the room, putting the bed between her and the invader. She is screaming in pure panic. But Tom is frozen in surprise and fear, in the exact spot where he stopped descending the stairs when the woman broke through the front door.

“Tommy! TOMMEEEE!!! Help me!” It’s apparent she’s crying and the ‘me’ on the end of the sentence sounds like ‘me-hee-hee.’

Tom snaps out of his frozen state, yelling, “Mom! MOM!!! I’m coming!” As he finishes out the last few steps and then rounds the bannister before the final two steps, another woman runs full sprint through the already-broken front door and into the living room, heading for Anna’s room. When Tom reaches the bottom step, the new intruder stops short and turns to face him. Tom sees that her face is covered in blood, which soaks the front of her t-shirt and shorts. He only vaguely recognizes her as the neighbor he occasionally sees at the mailbox. She is no longer as pretty as he remembers, and before now he hadn’t realized how short she is, probably only five feet tall. She leans forward, hands and arms reaching out in front of her, and charges.

She moves inhumanly fast, with speed that suggests she might have been an athlete before she changed into the creature she is now. Even though the front door is the entire room away from the bottom of the stairs, she reaches Tom in less than two seconds, just long enough for Tom to grab the sword with both hands and raise it in the air to strike her. But her speed outmatched his skill with the weapon and she collides with him, striking the left side of his torso with her left shoulder, sending him backward on to the stairs. He trips on the bottom step and falls backward, and she follows him to the ground, growling and gnashing her teeth in a desperate attempt to bite him.

Reflexively, Tom is able to break his fall with his right hand, extending it backward and catching it on the top step of the intermediate landing of the stairway, but still maintaining the grip on his sword with his left hand. If it were not for that small landing and the diminutive size of his attacker, Tom would have completely fallen backward, possibly striking his head on the floor and knocking himself out or stunning himself, both of which would have eventually been fatal. Instead, he awkwardly sits down on the small platform, continuing to fall backward with his back striking the wall behind him, stopping his movement. The woman also seems stunned for a moment, but the reprieve is all too brief. As Tom attempts to shove her away, she bites his left side, into the shirt and skin covering his left latissimus muscle, at about the tenth rib.

The pain is excruciating, worse than Tom has ever experienced, worse than he could ever imagine a human bite could be. The pain from the woman’s teeth puncturing his flesh, and the rush of fear that comes immediately after, causes a ringing in his ears forces him to cry out. His mind is suddenly focused on his intense agony and how to escape it. He struggles to get away from the woman, but she is pulling against the piece of flesh on his side, exacerbating his pain. He pushes and kicks with his feet, attempting to move backward, his efforts quashed by the wall at his back, his feet sliding on the carpet. Instead, he turns slightly sideways and grabs the bannister spindle behind him and to his right with his free hand. He pulls himself up one step. At the exact same time, the woman, likely in an attempt to get a better grip on Tom’s flesh, slightly slackens her iron bite and Tom is able to pull free. Tom pulls himself up several more steps to the middle of the staircase. The woman, now on her stomach, rights herself up to all fours and glares at him, her mouth opening and closing. Tom immediately realizes that she is chewing the bit of skin and clothing that she was able to tear from his side. The pain is still more than he can fathom and he thinks that he is probably bleeding to death from the wound. The thought occurs to him that this woman- this zombie- has just bitten him and now he will become like her. But his thoughts are cut short as the woman starts up the stairs toward him.

Anna moves away from the intruder, toward the night stand by the bed. She opens the drawer, but keeps her gaze on the woman now in her bedroom. The intruder appears to be in her early twenties, but otherwise very similar in size and stature to Anna. The woman is breathing heavily, almost wheezing, like she might have been a heavy smoker. The invader looks at the bed between them, almost confused about how to conquer this obstacle. Anna reaches into the drawer and fishes around blindly, her panic growing with every breath. She breaks her gaze for only a moment and sees what she has been desperately trying to find: a four-inch boot knife. She grabs it clumsily, the blade pointing toward the outside of her hand. In that moment, however, the intruder has jumped on to the bed and is scrambling toward her. The zombie lunges at Anna, colliding with her in mid-air, taking her to the ground.

The woman’s strength is inhuman and Anna cannot hold her away. She bites into Anna’s left shoulder and pulls upward, stripping a small piece of flesh off like one would pull tape from a cardboard box. Anna screams in pain which is beyond anything Anna has experienced in her lifetime. She realizes in this moment that she is going to die at the hands of this woman. If only Tommy had gone to check on the neighbors or called the police when she told him to, this would not be happening. If only Tommy would get in here and help her.

“Tommy!”

She is only a couple of steps below him so Tom kicks his pursuer with all his might, landing the blow to her lower face, striking her nose and mouth. He hears a loud popping noise as his shoe connects, her nose breaking and lips bursting. As she stumbles backward, what seems like entire pints of blood gush from her nose and lips, coating the front of her chin and shirt, spilling onto the floor. For the first time, she screams a loud, murderous scream- partly in pain, mostly in fury. She starts pawing at her face and eyes, attempting to clear her vision and ease the intense pain from her broken nose and teeth. Tom realizes that this might have bought him a few seconds, but maybe this doesn’t matter, as she is in a blind rage now. Whatever he does, it needs to be quick. And fatal. In a matter of a few seconds, one of them is going to die. “It’s going to be her or me,” he thinks.

“Tommy!” Tom realizes that his mother is still trapped in her room with the other woman, very likely being attacked- mauled- by her in the same way he has been, or even worse. He can’t help her right now, he concedes, as any attempt to get past his attacker would end up with her on his back with more of him in her mouth than he would care to think about. There is no easy way. He must kill her. The thought reminds him that he does have an advantage over his attacker. Steel. Hardened, folded, sharpened steel. He brings the handle to his chest and grasps it with both hands, fingers facing inward, like he might drive it down toward his feet, into the ground if he were standing upright.

“Her or me.”

In complete desperation, Anna scrambles backward, attempting to move out from under the woman. It’s only half as effective as she would hope, since the only direction for her future murderer to fall is left or right, which are both blocked by the bed and wall. And since the woman is constantly attempting to bite her, she is bearing down against Anna’s left arm- pressed against the woman’s upper chest, but weakening from both pain and muscle failure. Anna has only one option now: the knife in her hand.

She had taken a self-defense course several years ago, but did not commit to practicing the techniques she learned there. If she had remembered them, she could have easily flipped her attacker over and disabled her in only a couple of strokes with her knife. But the fight or flight or response changes the human brain into an unrecognizable, useless, mound of gray flesh. No matter the intellect or prior planning, the sympathetic nervous system is the great equalizer, and in many cases the great handicapper. Without intense, specific training to overcome its crippling effects, humans become nothing more than scared or hyper-aggressive animals, either cowering from or lashing out at the perceived threat. Human beings lose whatever humanity they might have, the advantage of a developed frontal lobe completely disappearing.

With short, quick strokes, Anna stabs the knife wherever she can, slicing with the blade toward her own body. Most strikes simply glance off the woman’s skull, but opening up large gashes in the zombie’s scalp. Within only a few seconds however, the woman’s entire head is covered in blood, pouring onto her face, draining down onto Anna. With every cut of the knife, Anna sharply exhales, yelping like a tennis player hitting a ball over the net.

But one lucky thrust is all she needs. Instead of cutting the back or top of her attacker’s head, Anna thrusts the knife into the thinnest area of the skull- behind the woman’s left eye- in the temple. The knife lodges there and when Anna attempts to pull it out, it remains stuck, like it’s somehow caught on the skull bones. Anna leaves it and continues to punch the woman on the head with hammer fists, though her blows are useless without the knife. The woman has become too heavy and after a dozen seconds, Anna’s muscles finally give up, allowing the woman to fall on her, literally head-butting Anna in the mouth and nose. Anna’s lips are cut open on her own teeth and blood pours into her throat from the back of her now-broken nose. Anna partially swallows and begins to cough on her own blood.

But the attack is over. The knife severed an artery in the zombie’s skull, giving her a very quickly advancing brain hemorrhage. Anna, still coughing from her own blood is able to push the zombie off of her just enough that she can sit up. Then she moves to kneeling on all fours, coughing and spitting blood onto the brown carpet. Her eyes are watering, her head is screaming in pain. Her shoulder is oozing blood from the bite, which also burns with extreme agony. Her entire chest and face are covered in blood, both hers and the zombie’s. And then she remembers Tommy. Why hadn’t he shown up to help? Something must be wrong. He could be in danger and she must help him. Using the side of the bed, she pushes herself up from the floor. She slowly staggers toward the door, breathing heavily through her mouth and still wheezing from the exertion of only a few moments ago.

Like an ancient explorer planting his nation’s flag into the ground of undiscovered land, Tom thrusts his sword at the woman’s head. The curved tip strikes her left cheek, but then glances into her eye socket, finding the eyeball to be a willing and easy mark. The sword glides through the fluid-filled organ and then easily pierces the paper-thin bone behind it. The brain is as tender a target as the eyeball and the sword easily slices through all the way to the back of the skull and then out of the occipital bone behind. Death is instantaneous and the woman slumps onto the stairs, her head held up by the sword to look at Tom, as if in a final, dead stare.

Tom moves the sword left and right to see if the woman responds. But there is no response. He slumps backward, his head resting on the steps, looking upward at the small light globe in the ceiling. His side burns even worse now that he’s looking up and thoughts turn to how long he has before he changes into one of those things. Minutes? Hours? Days? Did he have to die first? Would the virus kill him and then change him? How long until the government found a cure? Could he hold out that long? He had seen nearly every zombie movie ever made and none of them prepared him for this. Like every movie-goer, he was certain that he would be one of the survivors, one of those that helped humanity restore its rightful place on the earth. He never thought he would be one of the very first that might change. What would his mother do without him around?

His mother. Tom places his foot on the dead woman’s face to steady her head and he pulls the sword out of her skull. The sound is disgusting, like the squashing of raw burger meat being made into patties. The sword is covered in blood and brain matter.

He stands up and runs down the rest of the stairs, on to the intermediate landing and then leaps into the living room, bypassing the final two stairs. He turns to face his mother’s bedroom doorway. His adrenaline is pumping again, his heart racing.

In the dark, he sees a bloody, shambling woman in the doorway of his mother’s bedroom. He stops, hoping that his eyes are deceiving him. Her wheezes confirm his greatest fear. He was unable to save her.

The woman coughs and starts to walk toward him.

“Her or me,” he thinks.

He raises his sword and charges forward, intending to take revenge for an untimely death. The woman puts her hands out, ready to attack him as he gets closer. He will not give her that chance.

“Her or me!”

Cleanly, the sword passes between the left ninth and tenth ribs, severing the woman’s spleen and then passing out between her ribs in her back. The woman chokes in pain, looking down at the fatal wound. She looks up at her attacker, with both despair and confusion on her face.

“Tommy! Why?”

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Posted: April 11, 2011 in Tom's Intro Story Arc

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1/1/1- The Beginning

Posted: April 2, 2011 in Read this story first!
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Blood. All around me. The scent is so thick I can feel it on my tongue, that unmistakable taste of iron. How can this be? I live alone, so it must be my own blood. Did I cut myself? Did I bite my lip in the night?

I open my eyes and it’s light out. I missed my alarm by at least two hours. I’ve slept at least a couple extra hours, yet I feel tired, heavy, like I haven’t slept much at all. I don’t want to get up. But the blood. I must know. I feel no pain, not like I’d expect with the strong scent I smell. I sit up and look around.

The blood. I can smell it, feel it all around me, like the afternoon humidity. With a quick check of my body and bed, I have eliminated that it’s my own blood I smell. I’m not sure if this is worse. I’m relieved that it’s not my own, but whose could it be? And why don’t I hear cries for help? Why didn’t I hear them in the night?

It’s difficult to tell what time it is. The power went out in the middle of the night, so my clock continuously blinks 5:26, yet I know it’s not that early. The sun is warm, bathing me in light through my window. Something else I notice is the stillness. There’s very little activity around, no car horns, no vehicles passing by, no dogs barking. It could just be that it’s later than normal and everyone has moved on to where they intend to be. But that can’t be it. Not everyone gets up and goes to work at the same time. I should still hear something… people, machinery, animals. Something. How badly did I oversleep?

I swing my feet over to the side of the bed, slide my sandals on my feet and attempt to stand. Dizziness overtakes me and I slump back down on the bed. Am I that tired? Can oversleeping do this to me? I attempt to stand one more time and the dizziness is gone. I’m sore all over, like I have the flu. I don’t feel sick; I have no cough or runny nose, but I feel hot, like I have a fever. All of my muscles are sore, like I did a full-body workout the day before- after taking a long break from exercise. And I am ravenously hungry. For the first time, I notice that I have started to sweat. Did the air conditioning go out? I hope not. I don’t know anything about that. It’s going to cost hundreds to fix, I’m sure of it.

I put on some pants and an old shirt and work my way around my small bedroom to see if I can tell from where that smell is radiating. It doesn’t seem to be any stronger in any part of the bedroom, which tells me that whatever- or whomever- it’s coming from has been that way for a long time, possibly all night, and the entire apartment will smell this way. How could I not have heard a struggle? More importantly, how did they get in? Is the attacker still here? Am I in danger? After listening closely for a minute or two, I don’t hear anything, so it must be safe.

Nothing in the hallway or the bathroom. Everything appears normal and in order. No broken glass, overturned furniture, or marks on the floor or wall. And no blood. Anywhere. Not even in the rest of the apartment. But the powerful scent is the same. I’m getting used to it now, but it is just as strong as when I first awoke.

How am I getting used to it? That makes no sense to me. It’s blood. I think I should be terrified. I know there is blood around and it’s not mine. Something happened and someone is possibly dying or dead. I should be more fearful, more cautious. My senses are lying to me. I smell blood, yet I can’t find it. I feel the scent, but it’s nowhere. And everywhere. And I am hungry. I have to get out of here. I must eat, but there’s nothing in the kitchen that I want.

Just eat something. My normal breakfast. Should I even be eating breakfast? What time is it? At the other end of the counter, I find my watch, wallet, cell phone, and car keys exactly where I left them. Untouched. No struggle here at all. And no blood. Anywhere.

It’s 2:42 in the afternoon. The power went out at least three hours later than my alarm should have sounded. Did I miss it? I never miss it. How is this possible? And why has no one from work called me to question where I am? Oh no. Work. I am not at work. I cannot miss a day. I don’t have the sick time or vacation time to spare. Not to mention that I haven’t called in at all. I will certainly be written up for this. But the blood. That has to be an adequate excuse. I’m sure they’ll understand about the blood. I must find it. I must know.

Outside. That must be where the blood is. It’s nowhere in the apartment, so it must be outside. I must go outside to find it. My desire to understand far outweighs my immediate, famishing hunger. The blood is my new hunger, my new goal.

Slowly, I open the door- expecting an ambush. And it comes, in a way I do not expect as I am virtually overcome by a wave of various smells. But the strongest is the blood. The aroma of blood is much stronger here than in my apartment. This calms me, yet makes me stronger, and makes my desire to know more formidable. Going outside was the right action to take. With every breath, I am confirmed in my desire to find it. I am a man possessed now. Nothing can stop me.

I step outside my door and look around. No one in sight. Several other apartment doors are also open. I have had no interest in my neighbors and today is no different. But for the first time, the scent seems stronger in one direction. I’m not sure how I know this. But I know it. Deeply, more than I have known anything. I can smell that my neighbor’s apartment two doors down is the source. Almost without thought I am moving toward the door. I don’t remember making that conscious decision, but I’m certain I would have. I am getting closer and my desire is overtaking me. I have never felt this way before. A part of me thinks that something is wrong, but then I inhale and I no longer hear it.

The door is closed, but I must get in. I must know. I must see the blood with my own eyes. The pounding I hear is not just my own heartbeat in my ears, but my fist on the door. At first, slowly, but as scent grows stronger, so does my pounding. This is pointless. He will not come to the door. I must go in. I must get through this door. I must have the blood.

The handle is locked and as I twist it again, it breaks off in my hand, which surprises me. Still, the door does not open. I push with my shoulder. Once with no effect. Once more. Harder. Again. Harder. A cracking noise, but it’s not the door. My arm hangs uselessly. Once more and the door starts to give. Once more and the door splinters away at the lock.

There he is. But he is living and not bleeding. Not what I expected. I can see the fear in his eyes. He did not expect to see me come through the door. I attempt to speak to reassure him that everything is fine, but as I inhale to do so, the scent of his blood overtakes me. He is the source. The blood is inside him. And I must have it. I don’t understand why, but I must have it.

He attempts to turn and run, but I am too quick. He has no chance. He is saying something, screaming perhaps. His hands flail about uselessly, as though he is trying to push me away. Why is he so weak? His strikes and slaps mean nothing to me. His hand is in my way, so I grab it and pull it down, out of my way. I hear a snapping noise and more screaming. He is weak. It is easy to pull him toward me and my fingers dig into his useless arm as I effortlessly draw him closer. The closest part of him to me is his head. That is good enough. My teeth tear at his scalp and I see blood! I smell the blood. I taste the blood.

I have found it. And I must have more of it.

Welcome to my world!

Posted: April 2, 2011 in Welcome Page
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I’m glad you’re here. This series of short stories has been a dream of mine for some time and I’m glad that you are sharing it with me.

To understand the chronology of the chapters, look at the three-digit chapter title. For instance, the first chapter, 1/1/1, takes place on the first day of the first month of the first year of the overall story’s timeline. All stories will have that same format.

So come along for the ride and be sure to let me know how I’m doing. I’d love to hear your ideas and comments.

Matt

Special thanks to the following people who have helped me along the way: Nick, Jim, Sarah, Shon….

MTF