Based off a dream….
I really had nowhere to go once I’d called the Infected’s attention away from the child. It tripped over the curb and fell on me, biting into my abdomen through the t-shirt I wore. Dull rounded teeth pinched skin together until I knew it drew blood.
I didn’t scream. I guess that would have been the normal reaction. Instead, I thought about how I didn’t want to be eaten alive. The image of my flesh being torn away chunk by chunk was vivid to the point I was too scared to scream. At the same time, I thought that maybe being eaten was a better death than what would come if it stopped chewing.
The air cracked with gunfire and the Infected flopped uselessly off to the side. I squirmed out from under its heavy waist and legs until I sat numb in my front yard, staring down at the saliva covered t-shirt.
“Did it bite you?” my new acquaintance asked. I think he asked it several times because his face looked flustered with irritation and worry.
My eyes drifted to his wife who cradled their toddler in her arms. My stomach twisted with nausea as I realized that if I hadn’t stuck my neck out, that little girl would have been a meal.
I swept a hand down to the orange cotton and drew it up to have a look. There on the left side of my body, horizontal to my bellybutton was a bruising impression of teeth. The skin was red and irritated, and only one tooth seemed to have broken the skin.
I swallowed the sickness squirming up from my belly and lifted my eyes to the man. His brow knit together so tightly it aged him by ten years.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed, shaking his head. “She got away from her mother… I… I don’t know what to say. You saved her.”
I nodded to his words; it was the truth after all. But, in saving her I’d cursed myself.
“Downtown has a military outpost. Someone said they had a cure, but… it only works if you haven’t turned,” he muttered. “They’re packing up though. The Turned are swarming and there are too many of them. I don’t even know when they are leaving. They just told us to get out of the city a few hours ago. Our car crashed up the street and we took off on foot when…” His eyes flitted back to his wife and daughter.
My gaze turned to my empty house and my well-stocked car, and I thought about how a few moments ago I’d been about to leave to meet my parents on their remote farm in the middle of freaking nowhere, where everything would be better. Where the population was in the low four hundreds and everyone carried shotguns.
Now I sat on the dew covered ground with a bite on my stomach and mild, resentful hatred for a two-year-old.
“Do you want me to…?” He flicked the wrist that held his rifle. The light glinting off the barrel caught my eye.
I felt that sick taste in the pit of my stomach, the one where you can’t decide if you need to throw-up or eat.
I looked back down at the bite, thumbing my finger over the wound. I pushed at the skin to see how bad it was, wondering if you needed a bigger bite to Turn. But, I’d seen people become Infected just from scratches. Deep down, I knew exactly what was going to happen. That didn’t make it any easier to accept.
My eyes brimmed with tears, and I worked hard to keep from crying like a baby in front of total strangers. Instead, I swallowed my self-imposed grief and stumbled to my feet.
“This way,” I croaked out, walking across the yard to where my SUV sat parked in front of the garage. I took out a pistol for myself and a box of ammunition. “I’ve got guns, don’t ask why so many… Call me a collector. There is food and ammunition in the back. I’ve got blankets, first aid kit, and pretty much anything else needed to survive an apocalypse. Get on Highway 45 and head north for near an hour until you see a sign that says County Rd. 10. Turn there. The house you are looking for is the second on the right. It’s surrounded by a lot of fields. You’re going to think you’ve gone to the end of the world, but right now that is exactly where you need to be. My family is there waiting on me. Tell them…” I choked on my next words before they could get out of my mouth. “Tell them I couldn’t make it. They’ll help you.”
The man shook his head. “Why are you giving us this?”
I cupped a hand over my sore stomach. “I don’t need it, and you do… Just don’t wreck this one. Do you remember those directions?”
He nodded and I passed him the keys.
His fingers cupped around them, his eyes locking on mine. “What are you going to do?”
My lip twitched with a smirk. “I’ll be fine.”
Ah, those words. If I had a dollar for how many times I told someone those words I’d own a private island with no worries about Infected.
“I don’t know what to say,” he breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
“Just get in the car,” I muttered, opening the door for him. “No car seat for the girl, but I don’t think you have to worry about State Troopers.”
“Thank you,” his wife professed in a breath, running to the passenger side.
“Yeah, yeah.” I muttered, about as sincere as I felt at this point.
I watched them with a twinge of bitterness as they backed out of my driveway and tore down the street. I listened to skidding tires and the roar of the engine, crossing my fingers that they didn’t wreck this one too.
When I didn’t hear the car anymore I stood frozen in my driveway with a gun in one hand and a box of shells in the other. I’d been so focused on the sound of the car that I’d blocked out the screams, the wailing sirens, the groaning of the Infected as they sought to satisfy a never ending hunger.
I looked at the gun in my hand, admiring the metal and the inscription of Smith & Wesson on the side of the barrel. For a moment I thought that this was perfect and that at least I had something to keep me from becoming one of them.
The cement of my front steps was a welcome chair to get me off my shaking legs. I sat there for the longest time staring at the gun trying to talk myself into it. How hard could it be? A bullet was fast, chances were I wouldn’t feel anything, whereas…. The alternative was becoming exactly what had tried to nibble me to death early.
I worked myself up to it, pulling the slide back and watching the glint of brass as it slid into position, and just as I was going to do it, I couldn’t. I kept thinking about what he’d said.
In the most populated area around.
Full of Infected.
And even with the overwhelming impossibility of it, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t pull that trigger knowing there was a possibility of redemption.
The question was: when setting one’s self against insurmountable odds, how does one prepare to face a scourge forty times your number? There is no real answer when failure seems definite. No matter how I looked at it, I only saw the fact I was going to be overwhelmed and eaten alive well before I made it to that cure, and that was if it was still there at all.
I reconned that I needed to be more determined to survive then they were to eat, and that’s saying a lot. They were pretty damned determined.
I tied the laces of my boots a little tighter, pulled my thin, long-sleeve plaid button-down over my orange shirt and slipped the leather of my brown belt through the pistol holster to secure it to my waist. I took the bullets out of the box and stuffed them in every available pocket, all the while stepping more confidently towards the end of my driveway.
Downtown was pretty far.
I should have kept my car and told them to F-off. My good nature was literally going to be the death of me now.
I took off in a sprint down the street. The main highway was a mash of wreckage, fire, and Infected. So, I kept to the neighborhoods, weaving through streets and backyards. Some shot at me, mistaking me for full-Infected, and I ducked for cover while scrambling to keep moving. Sweat poured in beads down my body, and my breathing grew labored faster than usual. I knew that, while I was running for my life, the faster my heart pumped, the quicker the infection spread.
Eventually, I collapsed behind an abandoned military truck, dry heaving for air. My limbs trembled. Fingers and toes jerked with spasms. I could feel the muscles in my body tensing with death, and the living tissue fighting to keep moving.
Somewhere in the distance I heard labored breathing. I pulled the pistol from my holster and pushed wearily to my feet. Around the front side of the truck sat a soldier with quivering hands pressed over a bite to the neck.
His blue eyes lifted to mine, and then to the finger I had on the trigger. While my bite barely broke the skin, he had a half-dollar sized chunk of flesh missing from his neck. Blood poured between the fingers of his hand. His whole body shook as he watched me with the same hopeless expression that I’d forcibly removed earlier.
I pushed forward against all my better judgment, slipping the pistol back into the leather holster and kneeling next to him. “Let’s cover that up,” I muttered.
“Don’t touch it,” he warned as he drew away.
I ignored him, tearing a strip of fabric from the bottom of my t-shirt and moving to wrap it around his neck. “How long since you were bitten?” I asked him softly. Even as he flinched away, I wrestled the fabric around the wound to stifle the bleeding.
“A few minutes ago,” he huffed.
“Good,” I muttered, turning my hard gaze on him. “You may still have time. Is this your truck?”
“Yes,” he murmured. “What do you mean, still have time?”
“We’re in the same situation. Infected. I was told that the military base downtown had a cure. If we reach it before we turn, we may be saved.” I shifted under his arm and pushed with tired legs to help lift his body from the blood-soaked asphalt. He was average height for a guy, toned and not overly muscled, so he was easier to manage than I was expecting.
I helped him into the passenger seat and ran around to the driver’s side, climbing into the cab. I looked down at the stick-shift and frowned.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know how to drive this,” he murmured.
“I’ll figure it out… I mean, it’s like a tractor right?”
He laughed, and despite the situation it was a pleasant sound.
“Press down on the clutch and the break. Turn the key. This is first, this is second, this is third, and so on. Just follow the diagram. When you shift into gear slowly let off the clutch. To change gears press on the clutch.” He wiggled around on the stick and then leaned back against the door, holding his neck. “If I turn before you make it, you’ll be trapped in this truck with me.”
My mouth worked as his words brought awful images to my mind and I physically shook them away. “You’ll make it,” I replied, turning eyes on him as I cranked the truck. “If you want to live, you’ll make it. So want it bad enough, okay?”
I could feel his burning stare as I managed to get the truck into first gear. It was a slow start, but when I got going I didn’t worry about stopping or slowing down. I drove like a bat out of hell, and it wasn’t too far from the truth. I weaved through traffic, thanking the government vehicle for durable bumpers as I plowed through the corners of cars and trucks.
Nausea was creeping its way into my throat, thick as sludge, and my vision blurred in and out. I lowered myself closer to the wheel to help guide our way through the chaos to the city center.
“How are you feeling?” I asked my new acquaintance.
“Delightful,” he murmured, his skin as pale as death. “So, what’s your name?”
I pursed my lips together before answering, “Laura.”
“Alan,” he introduced himself with a sigh. “Laura… how are you feeling?”
I smirked at him. “Delightful.”
“Watch out for that-“
We slammed over the median into the oncoming lane of traffic. This close to the city center we were the only things moving on the road.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking a shortcut,” I mused, turning a corner all too tight. “Why, scared I’m going to be the death of you?” I grinned back at him, but he didn’t seem to find my joke very funny.
In truth… I hadn’t seen the median at all.
“Do you think the cure is still there?” I asked him.
He didn’t reply, and when I turned my eyes back to him he was slumped in his seat, head resting on the dash.
“Alan!” I reached over, driving and shoving him at the same time. “Alan, stay with me!”
Alan jerked and I tensed into a ball, preparing for him to come clawing across the seat at me. Instead he sat straight, shaking his head. “I’m fine,” he whispered. “I’m fine.”
“You’re going to make it,” I told him, nodding, and I wasn’t sure if it was to reassure him, or myself.
I could see the high chain-linked fence belonging to the recently erected military compound up ahead. There were a cluster of parked cars blocking the street. I couldn’t drive any further.
“We’re going to have to run for it.”
The problem being the mass of aimlessly meandering Infected that lined the paths between the cars.
I pressed the break, and the truck clanked to a quiet death. My fists tightened and loosened over the leather steering wheel while I plotted out a course.
“That’s a lot of Infected,” Alan chuckled.
“Not too many,” I replied, meaning to stay the optimist in this partnership.
“I’m not going to make that,” he told me truthfully, a small sneer spreading across his face. “But, I can cover for you.” He placed a hand over his rifle. “You’ve got a lot more spunk left than I do.”
Dark circles had crept under his eyes, and I could see death coming for him in the pasty paleness of his flesh.
“Alright,” I muttered. “I’ll go in, get the cure, and bring it back to you. We’ll drive out of this shithole together.”
“Don’t even think of doing something that stupid,” he hissed, shaking his head firmly. “I might not be me when you get back. The cure won’t work then… and you’ll be trapped out here with them. You might be cured of infection, but they will still eat you until there is nothing left. I’ve seen it. Go, Laura.”
I frowned at him and his hard blue eyes. Even through the death swallowing him I could see how strong of a man he was. I didn’t want him to die.
“Besides, you’re a civilian and how would it look if you saved me?” he asked with a lighthearted chuckle. “I don’t mind this, Laura. I’m not scared of dying. When you get the cure you can’t get bit again. It’s not an immunization. It’s like taking an extreme z-pack for a cold. Don’t come back for me.”
“It’s not fair,” I murmured, shaking my head. “This whole day hasn’t been fair…”
“Their getting closer, if you’re going… go now,” Alan muttered, rolling down his window and leaning the gun out to prop between the mirror and the door. “Go.”
I took one last look at him as he settled himself into position, aiming through the scope. I slipped out of the truck.
When I got my bearings I clambered onto the hood of the car in front of us. Alan took down the Infected that swiped for my legs. I ran across the car and jumped to the next one. Infected fell around me like swatted flies as I leaped from car to car, slipping and sliding across slick metal.
The gate grew closer, and my heart swelled with hope. I felt it pulse through me, lighting every nerve I had on fire. The stiff muscles, my dying body, nothing could stop me from reaching that gate.
I leapt from the back of a truck to the chain link fence and climbed, falling over the other side to the ground.
I expected men with guns to rush me. Breaking into a secure facility had to be against some rule. Instead I was greeted by quiet. Paper rustled across the ground, the flaps to the white tents fluttered in the wind. There weren’t any living voices, just the wailing moans of Infected.
“Hello?!” I called to an empty lot.
I ran through the camp, calling for help, and no one came. It was completely deserted.
I was too late. And the thought tore a hole in my gut.
I wondered in a daze from tent to tent, searching for a cure that wasn’t there, and as hopelessness took a harder hold on my heart I saw a glint of glass lying on the ground. I stooped to lift the clear vial containing a cloudy blue liquid, appraising it for what it was. Across the way I saw more. They littered the asphalt and several yards away sat a busted metal container with vials smashed all around it.
I scooped up two good ones and started searching for syringes in the tents. I found one.
The truck I’d used to get there sat at the end of a very long line of cars and Infected. They packed the space between vehicles like insulation between walls. More had collected since the resounding snap of gunfire. I could barely make out Alan’s figure in the truck, his shadow slumped into the corner of the cab. I waved at him with both arms, but he didn’t move or signal back.
It struck me that inside this cage I was nothing but a forgotten pet, an animal left to die by delinquent owners. A cruel starving death, because if I stayed I had no food. I had no water. Even cured of Infection I’d die of natural causes. There was no real out for me. No forward plan. The only choice I had was to go back, whether Alan had turned in our truck or not.
I clambered over the chain link fence, balancing at the top before leaping into the bed of a truck. They rushed me, and I pulled the pistol from my hip. I was certain that if Alan were alive in the truck, he’d be curious as to why I was a such a good shot. Why I wasn’t affected by recoil or why I could reload without looking. That was a complicated and long story and right now all I could think about was how, if I had carried a gun on me like I always had, I wouldn’t have been in this mess. I would have simply killed the Infected, and taken that family to my parent’s hideaway in No Man’s Land. I made a silent vow to never go weaponless again, should I live.
I sprinted from car to car, leaping to avoid the flailing arms of the Infected. They snapped at me with mouths like piranhas, their jaws dripping blood and saliva. When I reached the last car I dove to our truck, dancing around the fender to the driver’s door. I couldn’t think about what was waiting inside, or if I’d die as soon as I opened the door. Infected were coming for me.
I opened the door and climbed into the cab, slamming it behind me. My chest heaved and I pulled air through flared nostrils. My whole body was shutting down. I could feel the death creeping over my organs, slowing them down to a saplings pace. My heart faltered, the steady rhythm in my ears waned and slowed. I clutched my chest.
Then it pumped again. Normal. Beating. Thriving. Life tried hard to fight off the Infection.
Alan shifted next to me. It caught my attention, and I turned with alert eyes to the soldier sitting next to me. His glazed eyes met mine, his pale face tilting as he appraised me. His mouth hung slack from his face, drool weaving a line across his chin.
I clenched my teeth so hard that I thought they would shatter and chose instead to look out the windshield instead of at him. He opened his mouth, easing forward, and I lifted my gun. Alan was gone with one pull of the trigger, curled in his corner as if he’d never moved from it.
It took me a minute to gather my senses. By then what shook me from my trance was the bloody hands slapping against the windows. I turned the ignition, doing exactly as I had done before. I moved everything back into its original position, but the truck didn’t rumble to life. It wined, and growled, but no spark. Like everything else in the city, the truck died.
Infected swarmed like angry bees and even I knew that I couldn’t stay forever. The truck, like the military base, was nothing but a tomb.
I slammed my hands palm flat against the steering wheel, roaring with frustration. I gagged on bile, my heart thumping and dying. I fumbled with one of the vials, pulling it from my pocket. My fingers were numb, and it slipped, smashing on the floorboard next to my boots.
I smacked my head back against the headrest, gritting my teeth harder when I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. My face was white, the veins of my skin showing through translucent flesh. My eyes were bloodshot, my lips blue. I looked just like Alan, except my eyes hadn’t glazed over and my pulse still tried to keep up.
I had one more shot.
The window shattered and a fist broke through. Its knobby fingers grasped a handful of my hair and pulled. I struggled against it, grabbing at the wrist to keep from being dragged out. I fired blindly and the hand shrank back. Another filled its place, a face and body sliding in through the opening.
I crawled over Alan and rolled down the window on the less Infected side. I took out the ones closest before toppling to the ground. I ran down the street, dodging them when I could, killing them when I couldn’t. The closest place to safety was the bridge. I knew chances were the government had taken it out, but I could cross the bay halfway and swim the rest. Infected couldn’t swim.
They ran after me, running over the slower wounded ones. The faster ones chased like wild dogs, their moans a barking signal to the others. Infected poured out of the buildings in a torrent of decayed flesh and dull teeth.
My heart thudded in my chest, and I could just make out the raised supports of the Bay Bridge. I ran for it harder than I had ever run for anything. The muscles of my legs tightened and contracted with cramps that nearly crippled me. My heartbeat slowed, my mind went blurry. I ran, not quite sure what kept me running.
And then I was climbing.
I dragged myself up the metal ladder of the supporting beam, pulling with everything I had to draw my dying body up and away from them. They leaped at me, trying to grab my feet before they went out of reach. When I was safe enough away from them I hugged the metal beam, looking down at the murky brown bay water. I took another breath, looking up above me for a safe place. There on a ledge I spotted a slender row of grating used as a walkway for bridge inspections.
I fisted handfuls of metal, pulling, clawing, and grasping with tight jointed hands at the ladder until I fell upon the sturdy support of the safety platform.
My breath came in quick short pants. I’d stopped sweating by now. I’d stopped doing a lot normal things. My toes, my fingers, everything below the elbow and the knee was dead to the touch. I shook, pushing to sit with my back against the metal. My hand slipped in my pocket and I fished through the bullets for the second vial. I couldn’t tell the difference, only the pressure. So I pulled out bullet after bullet and dropped it into the bay.
Finally, I found the vial and fished for the syringe. I grasped both in a death grip as I drew the cure, or what I hoped was the cure, from the vial. I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, and I wasn’t really sure where to stick it, so I turned my arm up, and with a quivering hand, I jammed the needle into my shoulder. I pumped as gleefully as a heroin addict, unsure of how much to take, so to be safe I used the whole thing.
I dropped the remnants into the bay.
A short thrill of laughter bubbled up. A maddening sort of laugh that happens when you’re on the verge of tears when you realize how impossible something is. How true it is. How awful it is. And when it’s so awful you can’t seem to understand if you should laugh or cry. And so I sat overlooking the bay laughing like a mad woman, listening to the gurgling groans of the Infected as they swarmed my little perch.
I couldn’t walk the rest of the way to the edge of the broken bridge. I couldn’t climb back down. Just like the military base and the truck, I’d wormed my way into another cage. Except this one had an obvious exit. A long way down, infested with bacteria, alligators, cold, exit.
I scooted to the edge of my perch and let my feet dangle off, watching them sway in the wind. I was so far up and unsure of how deep the water was, or if I’d fall and break my legs in the mud.
One brave Infected had figured out how to pull his legless body up the ladder. I watched as he struggled with the metal braces, gnawing at the air. It wouldn’t be long before a feistier one followed suit.
I scooted a little closer to the edge until my thighs dangled off and I balanced on the edge of my tailbone.
My hand tightened around my gun. The mud and water were going to render it useless. But, I was confident that the other side had been spared, or at least I was very hopeful. I dropped the gun and listened to it plop into the bay.
With a deep breath, I pushed off.
The water was cold and deep and murky and I surfaced with a wet gasp, shoving hair from my face.
I started swimming towards the other side. Taking my time, and resting every now and then by floating on my back. Then, something caught my pants. I tugged against it, but another thing grabbed a firmer hold on me and dragged me under.
The water burned my eyes, and I peered through particles of mud and pollution to see what had me.
I came face to face with it, a snarling mass of teeth.
Apparently, the Infected could swim.