It began with a cough. Jess cleared her throat, the air down here had become bitter. It tasted like burning flesh, gritty, ashen. It had the stench of barbeque, it made her hungry. Then came the headaches. Her flashlight barely lit the tunnels, she had to squint into the dark, the ink void ahead of her where the scratching of rats could be more. It all depended on how well they burned the bodies. Then the fever struck, left you delirious and hungry. Behind her, Sam’s soft footsteps petered out as though stifled by the thick air. They walked two paces behind, laying down shards of glass in irregular patterns where the extreme darkness would conceal them. After the fever, the sickness eased and you felt like a million. It didn’t take them long to realise though, not to trust that feeling. Jess was finally nearing the end of the entrance tunnel, ahead was a large room that expanded into the abyss on either side. A foyer, the most dangerous part of any building. Death was the end of it, and the two of them had entered a mausoleum. It was still warm, the ground covered in ash. Looking around her, light piercing thin strips of the darkness over the remains of charcoal, melted plastic, singed concrete and black skeletons.
Death was the end of it. After a week, or two, or three, they dropped. Aneurysms, heart attacks, no-one knew because there wasn’t much time until they stopped being dead. Snarling teeth, grasping claw-like fingers, the strength of demons. The dead, or more accurately the undead. Zombies.
A growl stirred up the air, Jess raised her flashlight and shadows scurried away. She followed it, the light chasing until it shone on the stooped figure of a woman, half-burnt and missing an arm from the fire.
A survivor. A good sign. Sam stepped past her and silenced the growling with a crowbar before gesturing into the darkness. She swung around her flashlight and it landed on a door, heavily damaged from the fire and swung open. Sam went first, bringing up their own flashlight. Fire damage continued along the new tunnel, and where it branched off into new rooms, it only took a few glances to tell where the bodies had been burnt. On the left-hand side was a room full of crispy bones – half of which had probably crumbled in the heat. On the right-hand side was another such room, this one with metal bed frames tangled in the bones.
Further down into the darkness there was a locked door and after a long struggle with her crowbar, Sam managed to pry it open by bending the metal bolt. It was a lock room and as brittle as it looked from the outside it was nearly pristine inside. The only thing wrong was the body of an older man, his blood sprayed against the back wall and a pistol still clutched in his fingers. Not even the rats had come for him.
Sam shook her head, “Nah, higher up, look at the ribbons,” she crouched down to point out the coloured fabric strips on the man’s right shoulder.
Then she pried the pistol free and inspected the chamber and the magazine, “Probably in charge when shit went belly up.”
“Piece of shit.”
Sam stood, flashed her flashlight out down the corridor past Jess and then turned to look at what Jess had just seen.
Jess grinned, resisted the joke and stepped over the body, “You were right.”
Rows and rows of shelves, untouched. Full of food, water and medical supplies.
“We should have brought a trolley.”
Jess turned to check the corridor, “Not what I meant, we can probably grab one though.”
“It’ll only weigh us down, let’s take what we can and find a way to block it up so we can come back later.”
“Work out where to stash it, come back to grab it later?” Jess stepped in to examine the shelves more closely, “We might need… wait, is that what I think it is?”
Sam checked the corridor one last time before stepping over to join Jess, it was what they thought it was, “A gun case.”
Jess opened it, it was empty, “Of fucking course.”
“No ammo?” she checked the door again.
“Nothing, looks like there was a rifle in it though, doubt we’ll find it here.”
“No like ammo boxes or anything around?” she made her way back to the dark corridor, it was as empty as before.
“Well if we find any for a pistol, we’ll be gold.”
Jess sighed, then inspected the water bottles. Packed in thick plastic, individual litre bottles. It had been a long time since she had seen it like that. The food was vacuum packed flat and labelled with the contents. The thick plastic coating was probably good enough to keep it spoiling for a long time, but even starvation would probably never be enough to make her trust something labelled; soup, savoury.
She opted instead to fill her bags with medical supplies and water. Bandages, medical alcohol, tape, dressings, all the usual. Only then did she realise her pack was full, it had been light going into the tunnels, now it was stuffed. So she grabbed the gun case, tore out the foam lining and filled it with food. It all fit extremely well, a few dozen meals at least. Once she was done it was Sam’s turn, and they grabbed medical supplies and water as well. As soon as they were done, there was no point risking the rest of the place. Scratching in the hallways and the prospect of slaking their thirst was enough incentive to slip out quietly, right after Sam got the door shut again.
Emerging from the dark tunnels and into the brilliantly blinding light of midday sun, the two of them sat on the bunker stairs staying concealed until their eyes adjusted. Silent, listening for footsteps, crunching glass, anything that would warn them of ambush.
A few minutes later and they crept out, the coast clear in the shopping centre staff car park. No cars, just broken down fences used to cordone the living and the dead, and the abandoned military posts.
“One down, two to go,” Sam offered optimistically.
Jess began the walk, rounding the building and checking the angles of the deserted, carless main car park, “At least one of those was a failed site according to that map.”
“How do you fuck up a burn site anyway?”
Jess shrugged, “Forgot to bring a lighter.”
“I mean, it’s kind of the only way. Drag the sick fucks into the basement, set them on fire. It ain’t exactly brain surgery.”
With everything being clear, Jess took her time walking out into the car park. A nice gentle sun, open blue skies, “Depends how many you need to burn I guess, and if you’re going to waste bullets on them first.”
“Conserve your ammo, never know when you’ll need to put a fag outta their misery, am I right?”
Jess gave her a stern look.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t joke about it.”
“No, you shouldn’t.”
She offered them a hug, and they let her, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, I know you were… I know what you meant.”
“I shouldn’t say it, even to mock them,” Sam held them to her chest, head still up and eyes on the road, “I’m trying.”
“I know, babe,” Jess kissed her neck, patting her back to comfort her.
“Let’s go home, have something to eat.”
Jess let her go, smiling, “Been a while.”
And almost on cue, Jess’ stomach growled but they both let their eyes dart across the car park. Then laughed when they realised.
Home was a large three storey house in the middle of suburbia, surrounded on all sides by decrepit remains of battle damaged houses. All around it was death, snarling, hungering undead. Luckily they had a way of sneaking in unseen.
It worked out for the best most days, no-one wanted to fuck around inside an area overrun by zombies. They lived in a soundproofed room on the top floor. The door to it was barricaded but by entering through the wardrobe of the adjoined room, they could be completely hidden and inaccessible. No indication that they existed, not even the sound of them.
The only sign of the outside from their side was the window that looked out onto the street. Blacked out with paint, but with small scratches that let them peer out.
A dark room, but a safe one. Jess had first brought her here. She had recovered from injuries here, and together they had made it comfortable. Boarded up the door, made the secret entrance, lured in the dead. It had been safer then.
“Beef curry, chicken satay, salmon mornay, tomato soup, there are actually a few to choose from.”
Sam sat on the mattress on the left of the room, away from the wardrobe. She had her shirt off, bare-chested and cleaning the last of her wounds to linger. The skin on her left wrist had been slow to heal, which probably had something to do with the fact she had nearly sawed through her wrist to cause it.
Two weeks ago had been her twenty-first birthday, a kind of irrelevant fact by this point.
Jess, meanwhile, knelt across from her at the stash of boxes and milk-crates holding up packets of food. The most beautiful woman in the world, one year younger and two dozen years her wiser.
“Been a while since I had soup.”
Jess pushed aside the other packs and ran a knife through the top of the packet. What she poured out into the pot was a horrifying red goop which clearly needed some extra water to thin it out.
“Gross,” Jess sniffed it suspiciously.
Sam rose up from the mattress and crawled over to sit by them, “Looks like something that came outta me.”
“Oh, okay, fuck. Well, I’m not hungry anymore.”
Sam slid the pot over, and lifted it onto the small camp stove they used to cook, “Pass some water, lets at least thin it out.”
Jess passed over the open bottle of water, and Sam poured some in, took a swig herself, it was good to be hydrated again.
“Looks a bit better, still not hungry?”
“I might just have a protein bar or something.”
“Have the rest of this then,” she offered the water, “the soup should do it for me.”
They took the bottle, had a long drink, then went back to rummage through the food chest.
“I was thinking maybe we could go check out that aid truck tomorrow.”
Jess examined a handful of the protein bars, most of which were brand-name they had managed to find left behind in stores, “Hopefully some batteries, we’re running low.”
“Already?” Sam sat back, letting the soup rise slowly to the heat, “I wonder if I remember how to make batteries, I know it wasn’t that hard.”
Jess nodded, “You still have to fix my car, it’s been out on the front lawn for nearly a year now.”
“Probably a lot more wrong with it now. Shame I didn’t pull the battery when I could.”
Jess screwed up her nose, “I think this is off,” she took another bite.
“Don’t eat it then.”
Jess sniffed it one last time before putting it aside, “Definitely off. Must be getting to the end of life for that stuff.”
Jess laughed, “No, of course not. How could I remember milk?”
“You laugh, but I’ve already forgot about… you know, that stuff you put on things.”
“No, the stuff, you know the stuff,” Sam pantomimed an inexplicable spreading of something onto bread, and squeezing it from a bottle, only to end up licking the air as if any of that made sense.
“Oh, right, the stuff. I loved that stuff,” Jess reached for another protein bar to inspect.
Sam stirred the soup, licked the spoon, sighed, “Coffee.”
“You don’t put coffee on things, babe,” holding the bar up to her nose, she concluded it was also rancid and probably time to bin them.
“I know,” Sam stuck the spoon into the soup again to stir it idly, “waking up, getting out of bed to make coffee so we could sit at the window and watch the sun rise. I miss that shit.”
Jess smiled, and after a long moment just smiling at her they gestured to the soup, “Guess I’m having that for dinner too.”
It didn’t take long, and the soup was kind of bland despite being nothing but tomato by the look of it. It didn’t really matter that much, a full belly was more than enough to satisfy them both.
“How many double-As do we have left?”
“Six,” Sam counted them out, “I’m pretty tired though anyway, maybe tomorrow.”
“Alright, I’m gonna take another look at the map.”
Sam nodded, crawling over to the mattress to lay down. Jess picked up their map, and gently unfolded it to cover the floor. Then she picked up her journal, a small notebook not really much to look at, and opened it to a fresh page. Each night before bed she drew down a section of the map – then if they had been there she wrote down notes from her memory. Some included changes to the map, others were codes about stashes. Then, just bed she wrote in the very back another piece of her note to Sam.
It had been two years, and Sam was terrible with dates. Tomorrow was the second anniversary of their first date, when they had gone to a tiny coffee shop on campus and talked about the rain.
Around the same time, there was news about strange things. Illnesses, diseases needing to be quarantined, but no-one really paid much attention when it wasn’t in their own interest. Africa was disintegrating, Asia was about to collapse, the countries with the money to actually fight it started to get worried. About a year in, the whole map had changed and life had stopped working as they were used to it.
Jess had spent the first anniversary with her first girlfriend in her house with her family and Sam’s mother planning to leave for a cabin owned by her father’s coworker. Almost romantic, getting away from everything to live off the land. It was the same day they started the burn pits, the same day they started rounding up the uninfected. If Sam hadn’t of gone back inside to look for her, maybe they wouldn’t be together for their second anniversary.
Virtually nothing had changed on the map though, a few sinkholes made by rain and battle. The skeletons of tanks pulled out of storage, a few armoured vehicles sunk into the earth under their own weight. Most of it was battle damage, and the landscape had only just started to look overgrown. It all swam through her head as she laid down and wrapped her arms around Sam. Drifted off to sleep.
She wasn’t asleep for long, Sam woke her with a blood curdling scream and another. She covered their mouth until they stopped, just muffling the sound. So used to it that she could fall asleep and dream of nothing.
Sam woke into a melting world. Jess’ arm across her chest, face nestled into her neck. Even sticky drenched in sweat, she just laid there basking in the feel of it. Hot enough it felt like they were melted together, and adolescent fantasies she had as a girl just so stupidly hanging in her head. Nothing was better than this, it made it worth it. Even as Jess snorted in their sleep, snoring like a broken chainsaw.
If only there was coffee, it would have been perfect.
It would have also been perfect if she didn’t have to get up.
Moving woke up Jess, who dealt with it well. One day, a comfortable bed, when they can get back in and sleep all the exhaustion away. Still tired, they both went about the morning ritual. Pulling on clothes, packing their bags, making sure they had everything they needed and then they slipped out the hidden passage into the house. Down from there, through the cellar and out into the world through the backyard fence.
It was the perfect day to inspect the truck, heat made them sluggish.
On the motorway exit coming into town, a humanitarian truck stood stalled. Jess figured it had run out of petrol, and all they’d need to do is find a way to get time to fuel it so they could drive it away. It was surrounded by zombies though, sitting around waiting for someone stupid enough to come for the truck.
Typical motivation for them, to be honest, they liked to sit around waiting for food to stumble into them – kind of like spiders – but unlike spiders they were too brain-damaged to work out how to ambush things.
Lucky for them, any smart animal would have worked out that if you just stood behind doorways you’d probably catch something eventually. Lucky for them, they were also predictable. Anything that could be a person attracted them, but they had little interest in other animals that were unrelated to people. Deers, birds, rabbits, anything usually wild was typically ignored. It also didn’t take much until they worked simple things out, like if you threw a rock behind them it usually only worked once.
That made this plan particularly stupid, but very necessary. The truck was a semi-trailer with shipping containers on the back, but it wasn’t alone. It was surrounded by vans, the lead of the abandoned convoy was an armoured car pinned against two cars that had crashed into it.
All around the truck were the dead, most lying down, some shambling about. Jess counted two dozen, Sam counted fourteen. Those two others were important, they were lingering around the cab.
“Alright,” Sam kissed her on the cheek, “Wait until the third whistle, and if they don’t budge try to kill them quietly.”
Sam finished pulling off the tape stoppering her molotov, “Get to the cab, see what the situation is, then make a run for it. I’ll meet you back here.”
Jess nodded, though she kind of wished they hadn’t agreed the fallback point would be a donut shop. Abandoned fast food joints were inherently creepy. They both checked their packs, they were leaving them here, hidden in the bushes so as not to slow themselves down.
“Good luck,” Jess strained out a smile, “promise you’ll meet me back here.”
“Only if you do.”
Sam kissed her again, this time on the forehead, before standing up, “Let’s go.”
They emerged from the car park of the donut shop, the bushes that lined the drive through had overgrown and made for perfect cover for them as they advanced. Jess stuck to the side and slipped behind cars, using them to stay hidden as she approached the truck. Sam stepped out into the open, approaching the truck from the road. It was a decent walk, a few hundred metres, so it took Jess a while to get into position. Sam took their time, placing three molotovs in a line and testing their lighter.
Jess had just made it to the car directly opposite the truck cab when a shrill whistle broke the quiet. She was in the thick of it, fourteen zombies raised their heads and all at once saw Sam approaching with a molotov in hand.
Another shrill whistle, she turned her attention to the truck, gripping the crowbar tightly. As soon as the zombies broke into a sprint, so did she. Their own footsteps cloaking her own, and Sam’s whistles turned to the smashing of glass. She turned to look as she reached the wheel of the truck, fire spread in a great patch to the left of the zombies and they began to shy away from it as they rushed forward. Another patch of flame erupted to the right and the dead tunneled forward until they were rushing straight for Sam.
Jess turned back to the truck, grabbing hold of the railing to hoist herself up and towards the door. The handle of the door was almost above her head from ground level, and only after dragging herself up two steps could she look in the window.
Looking inside the cab, a flash of white and a sudden ear-splitting shriek and she lost grip, slipped off the step and fell. The sky rushed past her and she struck ground back first.
Struggling to breath, unable to move. Whole body aching, lungs burning. Pain radiated through her, if it hadn’t been for her instincts forcing her to watch she would have blacked out. Instead she was stuck watching in horror as the cab door opened and a figure in black jumped down next to her.
A swirl of black fabric blocked her sight and the faint scratching of boots shifting on tarmac made it past her ringing ears. A woman’s voice, spoken underwater and groggy, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck-”
A grunt of extreme exertion, like they were forcing something through something else, then the pop of a dislocating bone.
“You need to get up!”
She couldn’t move, didn’t want to speak.
“Shit,” a pale white face came bearing down on her, fingers poking at her face until she winced, “You’re alive thank fuck, just uh, fuck.”
They disappeared again.
It wasn’t like she needed to save the woman or anything, it was just… she had to save the woman, it didn’t make any sense but like no-one deserved that. Surrounded by the dead, a probably murderer injured right next to her boots and a screwdriver.
The only hope was the fire in the distance, maybe it the woman’s friends.
“I really hope you don’t end up killing me.”
Snarling, snapping, the dead closed the circle. They had just seen her kill three of them before losing her knife in a skull. Thick black blood flowing from their busted up mouths, the stench of death completely overwhelming her senses.
They lunged for her, and she forced one back with her hand, another with her screwdriver. It planted firmly in an eye socket and the zombie fell away. The black ichor spewing out from its skull made it hard to hold onto. Then teeth found the thick fabric of her collar and the last zombie pushed her against the truck.
She screamed as fingers pressed into her flesh, clawing at her throat trying to strangle her. It lifted her off her feet, and shrugged off her elbows snapping against its skull. Sadistic grin on the bestial features, an opening mouth and a rasping growl of victory.
She felt it crumble, and immediately she grabbed for her throat and breathed heavily. Turning her eyes up she saw a woman, dragging a zombie by the arm and throwing it like a doll into a swarm of dead set alight.
Sam looked down at the woman briefly, then turned to dispatch the dead chasing behind her before drawing her pistol on the woman now crouching over Jess.
“Touch her and I’ll rip you in two.”
The woman raised their hands and rose slowly to their feet, “I didn’t mean it, she slipped.”
The woman took several paces backwards, and Sam rushed to Jess’ side. Jess smiled, and she took their hand. Their grip was strong, she leaned in to listen to their breath and Jess whispered softly, “I’m okay.”
There was a rasp, so she leaned back and told them, “Move your feet for me.”
Jess’ feet wiggled slowly.
“I think she winded herself-”
Sam raised her pistol at the woman, rising slowly to her feet.
“I-I didn’t do it.”
“And?” she took a step forward.
“I saved her!”
Pale skinned, not even a hint of tan. Dressed in a thick black coat, military boots, a scarf around their hair.
“What’s your name?” she lowered her pistol.
“Ash,” the woman took a step forward, “At least let me help you get her to safety, then I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again.”
“I can handle it.”
Ash pointed down the motorway beyond the exit, “There is a whole swarm of them, they’ll have heard my scream. Just let me help you.”
Sam followed their gesture, looked at the woman again, “Alright. Get on her left side, and if you hurt her I’ll feed you to the dead.”
“Yeah, right, got it.”
With Ash’s help, Sam managed to get Jess to safety and inside the donut shop where they could take refuge while a horde of undead prowled outside looking for them.