‘Come on, you have to be home,’ I thought, pounding on the door in front of me.
“Angela?” I called out, slamming my fist into the door several more times. I could hear the sound of movement from inside.
“I’m coming; hold your horses!” a woman’s voice replied. The sliding click of the deadbolt was followed by the door swinging wide. Angela’s irritated eyes flashed over me, but her face quickly softened. “Amber? Are you okay?”
“N-no, I’m not okay,” I stammered, my eyes welling with tears yet again. There seemed no end to them. I cried nearly the entire way here and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
Angela wrapped her arm around my shoulder and ushered me inside, closing the door behind me. The house smelled strongly of cinnamon and apples. Angela was fond of potpourri and air fresheners. One could be found in every room. She brought me into the kitchen and sat me down at the dining table. It was set with simple placemats and a floral centerpiece. ‘Tulips?’ I wondered absently. I was never much for flowers.
“How about I make us some tea and you can tell me what happened?” Angela suggested, pulling a silver tea kettle from the cupboard and setting it in the sink to fill with water.
I nodded slowly. ‘Where do I start? Will she even believe me? Does it even matter?’ I sat for a few moments, staring at my hands. I began trembling as I realized they were spattered with dried blood. I looked up to see Angela kneeling beside me with a wet cloth. She placed it in my hands and gave me a warm smile.
I softly scrubbed away the brownish stains and worked up the strength to speak. Angela stood up, signaled by the kettle’s piercing whistle. I placed the cloth on the table as Angela set down a saucer and steaming cup. A string hung from the lip with a small paper label that read chamomile.
I took a sip and managed a thankful smile. “I woke up at David’s this morning…”
* * * * *
I sat up abruptly, gasping deep breaths, my forehead sheened with sweat. I glanced around the room, trying to get my bearings. I was on David’s couch in the living room of his apartment. I must have fallen asleep, as I had countless times before, watching David play video games and drink whiskey like it was a dietary supplement.
Sun filtered into the room through closed mini-blinds. On the coffee table next to me sat an overfilled ashtray which spilled butts and ashes onto the table’s surface. Next to it rested a third-full glass of murky liquid, melted ice. The powered off TV was housed in a shrine to geek gods. On one side of the entertainment center sat three gaming consoles along with a substantial library of games. The other side held a plethora of books covering the full range of science fiction and fantasy. Gaming and anime figurines lined the top, all posed in various action stances.
The end table had a second ashtray, nearly filled, and a book plucked from the great nerd archives. I picked it up and shook my head upon seeing the title, The Zombie Survival Guide.
David obviously believed me; how could he not? He swore up and down, mostly in jest, that the zombie apocalypse would come and, when it came, he’d be prepared. I guess this was his manual. I chuckled softly; the irony was jarring. I mocked David’s obsession with geek culture daily, and yet that very hobby may save us.
I stood up, stretching weariness from my joints. The wall clock’s digital readout displayed 11:37 in stark black numbers. ‘I must have been exhausted,’ I thought, moving around the couch to the hall leading to David’s bedroom. He’d be sleeping off his hangover as he did most days. Today his beauty sleep would have to wait.
Pausing in the hall, I noticed a large duffle bag. I unzipped it to reveal folded clothing, a canteen, a bottle of Crown Royal, a box of 9mm cartridges and the holstered gun to match, as well as a sheathed sword. I pulled the replica katana from the bag and slid it out of its scabbard a bit. I scraped my thumb across the blade and smiled. ‘Not even sharp, but I suppose it will still do some damage.’ I lifted the canteen and unscrewed the cap. Sniffing at the open spout, I winced, the astringent burn of alcohol filling my nose. “Priorities,” I muttered, unsurprised.
Reaching David’s bedroom, I pounded on the closed door. “David, we need to leave; get up!” I shouted. Waiting a moment, and hearing nothing, I opened the door. David’s room matched his entertainment center. The walls were covered in various anime wall scrolls, game posters, and memorabilia. Shelves were loaded with books, magazines, older gaming consoles and their associated game libraries.
I put my heel onto David’s shoulder and shoved hard. He rolled to the side with a snort and looked up at me with glassed eyes. “Wha?” he questioned, rubbing one sleepy eye.
“Get up, we need to leave,” I said, plainly.
He looked at his bedside alarm clock and groaned, laying his head down again. “It’s not even noon, lemme sleep.”
I cocked my head to the side and glared at him. “Zombies?” I reminded him.
His eyes flashed open and he sat up suddenly. “Zombies,” he murmured, grabbing the shirt from the floor and throwing it over his head. “I’m already packed,” he said proudly, his grin ear to ear.
“I noticed; obviously Max Brooks thinks of whiskey as a much needed survival tool,” I replied with obvious sarcasm.
“No,” he said, sliding his legs into the wrinkled jeans he picked up from the floor as well, “Max never mentions whiskey, but I know it’ll be good to take the edge off.”
I shook my head in disgust and turned to walk out of the room. “What about...I don’t know…water? I heard that’s pretty useful stuff to stay alive with.” I didn’t wait for a response, grabbing my jacket from the sofa and sliding my feet into my shoes by the door.
“We can get some supplies from Target on the way out of town,” David called from his bedroom.
I took the television remote from the end table and pressed the power button. A news anchor sat behind her desk addressing viewers: “…should try to stay indoors until the situation has been resolved. I repeat, citizens of Forest Lake should try to stay indoors until the situation has been resolved. Washington and Anoka County police forces are doing their best to keep traffic moving and to quell the violent outbreaks.”
A news ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolled by repeating a similar message in bold yellow text: ***RABIES OUTBREAK IN FOREST LAKE, CITIZENS SHOULD REMAIN INDOORS FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION***
I clicked the remote again to shut off the TV, tossing it on the couch, and then looked down the hallway. “Come on, David, things sound like they’re getting bad. We need to get moving.”
David appeared, fully clothed, carrying a shotgun on his shoulder. He reached down, hefting the large duffle, and smiled at me. He looked…excited. It was as if his entire life playing games and reading books was in preparation for this moment. I couldn’t help but smile back at him. I grabbed the Max Brooks novel from the table and raised my eyebrows at David in expectation.
“Don’t need it,” he scoffed, “I have the important parts memorized.” His smile was impossibly large as he approached me. He held out the shotgun and I took it from him hesitantly.
“When did you get a shotgun?”
“My dad bought it a few years ago,” he explained, “We were supposed to go hunting, but never did.” He shrugged, grabbing his keys from a hook near the door. “Ready?”
* * * * *
“Zombies?” Angela asked incredulously, “It’s just a rabies outbreak. Things will be cleared up in a few days.” She took a sip of her tea, her worried eyes focused on me.
“I know it sounds crazy,” I tried to explain, “I’ve seen things, Angie.” I took a sip of my tea as well and continued, “I watched a patient flatline, then attack Thomas an hour later. Rabies doesn’t raise the dead.”
“Oooh, that cute guy from the hospital?” Angie asked, smiling dreamily.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to keep the ever-present tears at bay. Angela must have sensed my unease and cleared her throat, quickly taking another drink from her cup.
“I’m sorry, you were saying?” she said, changing the subject, “Driving to…umm…Target?”
* * * * *
The drive to the local Super Target was short; David lived a mere six blocks away. The parking lot was half filled with cars, not unusual for a weekday afternoon, however the scene out front was. People scurried with shopping carts, overfilled with various goods. An employee, clothed in red and khaki, burst out of the front doors yelling and pumping his fist. He stopped, shaking his head and panting for breath, then turned to go back inside.
David parked the car in the closest available spot, half way across the lot. He turned off the car, pocketed the keys, and looked at me. “Aren’t you taking the shotgun?”
I rolled my eyes at him and slid a blanket over the weapon laying in the backseat. “No, David, do you see any zombies around? We’re far enough from the hospital; I don’t think they’ve made it this far yet. Who knows, maybe the SWAT team that saved me killed them all and we’ll be fine.” I forced a smile, not believing my own words. I continued, “I’m not waltzing into Target with a loaded shotgun.”
“Well, I’m taking my pistol,” he said, “and my katana.” He pulled the 9mm and sword from the duffle in the backseat. He stuffed the pistol into his waistband and slid the sword’s scabbard through a belt loop.
I shook my head at the ridiculousness of it. ‘Modern day samurai,’ I thought, ‘Idiot.’
Inside the store was just short of pure anarchy. People stuffed clothing, cosmetics, electronics, and everything not nailed to the floor into their carts. Occasional arguments broke out amongst the shoppers, some ending in torn clothing and broken glassware. We quickly moved toward the grocery aisles. David grabbed a blue backpack from one of the Back To School end caps and slung it over his shoulder, handing a second green one to me. Lane eight held beverages and snacks, denoted by the white and red overhead signage. The aisle was nearly cleared out. ‘I guess we’re not the only ones panicking,’ I thought. There were two one-gallon jugs of spring water remaining.
A man in a flannel shirt and dirty jeans was reaching for it when David pulled the pistol from his belt and cocked it. The man froze and slowly looked up at us.
“David!” I hissed, embarrassed.
He never glanced back, but kept the firearm trained on the middle-aged man. “Walk away,” he said. The man took a few steps backwards, his arms held out to his sides, then turned and sprinted out of the aisle.
Satisfied, David stuck the pistol back into his pants and quickly handed me one of the gallon jugs of water. ‘What was he thinking? How could he be so cruel?’ My deadpan stare must have betrayed my thoughts.
“What? You said yourself that we need water. Look at this place; it’s complete chaos in here.” David shoved the jug into my hands. “Put this in your bag and grab as much of that beef jerky as you can fit,” he ordered, pointing to a rack a few feet away.
I obeyed, pulling teriyaki, pepper-steak, and original flavored jerky from the racks and stuffing it unceremoniously into my knapsack. When I looked up, David was gone. I moved to the end of the aisle and began searching each of them. I found him in lane five, canned vegetables, stuffing his backpack full.
He smiled upon seeing me and asked, “You have room still? Get some fruit.”
I moved past him and began cramming canned peaches into my sack. I dropped a can, startled by a sudden gunshot ringing out across the store. There was a terrified scream followed by two more gunshots. My heart began thumping in my chest and I felt nauseous.
“Let’s get out of here,” David said as I looked up at him. I bent down to pick up the can I had dropped and froze, staring helplessly at my trembling hand.
I started as David grabbed me by the elbow and stood me up. “Leave it,” he said calmly, “We have enough. Let’s go.” He led me out of the canned goods aisle and we weaved through the store toward the checkout lanes. We skipped the aisles that were occupied to avoid any further confrontations and made it to the front of the store within a minute or so.
Two bodies were sprawled out in front of the customer service counter, bathing in a growing pool of blood. They both had the tell-tale red and khaki clothing of Target employees. I gasped, covering my mouth with one hand. David pulled on my elbow, taking me behind shelving that flanked the checkout counters. He put a finger to his lips, signaling me to be silent. I swallowed hard and followed him around the far end of the aisle. Passing the pharmacy, David swiped a couple bottles of aspirin and ibuprofen and jammed them into his pants pockets.
We came out near the back of the checkout aisles. A man in a leather jacket busied himself emptying a cash register, stuffing wads of bills into a backpack similar to ours. We waited behind a shelf as the man lifted a rifle that lay across the checkout scanner and moved on to the next register. We crept past as he worked on prying open his next prize.
I felt uneasy. I never stole anything before. If given the option, I’d have paid for our supplies, but the register clerks… Outside, David put his arm around me and smiled. “It’s okay,” he reassured, “we’re survivors.”
Near the car we heard the low moan carrying on the wind. The sound made the hair on my neck stand and my skin crawl. It was the same sound from the hospital, that awful groaning. We saw it approaching us in the same lane our car was parked. It’s moaning became louder and more frantic as it saw us. Plodding forward on unstable legs, it reached outward with both arms, as if to grab us.
David put a hand out against my chest, holding me back, and drew the katana from his belt. The scabbard clattered to the pavement with the sword hilt no longer holding it in place. David looked back at me and his face twisted into an evil grin. “Watch this.”
I did watch as he charged the creature. It’s groaning was mind-numbing, becoming louder still as David closed in. Once he was within a few feet, he swung the sword in a hard downward arc. It cleaved into the zombie’s neck, through collar bone and sternum, holding fast in the creature’s ribcage. The zombie snarled, oblivious to the wound that would have felled any living man, and lunged at David, pushing the blade to the hilt that was still gripped firmly in both of David’s hands.
The two toppled over. The zombie clamped its ragged mouth over the inviting shoulder and bit down, forcing a shriek of pain from David. He responded by kicking out with both feet, shoving the creature to the ground several feet away.
I watched in horror as the scene unfolded. David visibly winced as he reached for the pistol tucked away in his belt. Blood ran freely down David’s right arm and saturated his black t-shirt. The zombie managed to roll to his hands and knees in time for David to put the pistol to the top of its head and pull the trigger. The point blank shot was muffled by the exploding skull of the creature. I jumped back as fragments of bone and brain spackled the pavement. I collapsed to my knees and immediately started crying. Within moments, I felt David’s hand on my shoulder. He crouched beside me on the warm pavement and lifted my chin up with two fingers.
“I got him,” he grimaced through clenched teeth.
“You’re hurt,” I sobbed, “Why didn’t you just shoot him to begin with?”
“I was going to cut him in half,” David mused, “just like the old samurai movies.”
“You damned idiot!” I cursed, “Let me get the first aid kit out of your trunk.” I began to stand, but he reached out, snatching me by the wrist.
“It’s no good,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m bit; I’ll—I’ll turn into one of those things.”
I jerked my hand away and he groaned at the sudden movement. “Shut up!” I screamed, “You don’t know for sure. I—I can bandage you up. You’ll be fine!” I pulled the keys from his jacket pocket and smiled, touching his face gently. “You’ll be fine.”
He returned the smile at my touch and I stood up to retrieve the medical kit from the car. ‘It’s a good thing I forced him to keep one in his trunk in case of emergencies,’ I thought, searching through the tangle of keys for the one that would open the vehicle’s trunk.
The keys jingled as they hit the blacktop. My breath caught in my throat and my eyes welled up with the tears that were so familiar to me now. I slowly pivoted around, knowing what I’d find, but needing to see it anyhow. David lay motionless, staring at the sky; a crimson stream ran from beneath his head along the cracks and contours of the pavement. His 9mm sat next to his open hand, a small trail of smoke issuing from the barrel.
* * * * *
“Oh Lord, Amber, I’m so sorry,” Angela cried, standing abruptly and coming over to wrap her arms around me. The tears were already present; we cried together for several moments. It was the first bit of comfort I had felt in quite some time.
Once I had gained my composure, Angela poured us both a second cup of tea and prompted, “What did you do with the bod—uhh—David?” She had retrieved a box of tissues from the kitchen counter, offered them to me and returned to her seat, dabbing at her own eyes.
I took a tissue, wiping away my tears and clearing my nose. After my head was clear, I continued with my story, “No one came to help. No one called 9-1-1. The police didn’t show up. Even the people leaving the store ignored me as if nothing was out of the ordinary and there weren’t two dead bodies in the middle of the parking lot,” I paused, blotting my eyes with the tissue again. “I gathered up the supplies, loaded them in the car, and pulled David’s body into the trunk. I was going to drive home. I—I wanted to bury him there.”
I almost began crying again, but was able to contain it. “I made it up to Broadway, but traffic was backed up and police were scattered amongst the freeway ramps. It looked like they closed off access.”
“News said they were having trouble with traffic,” Angela interjected, “and that everyone should stay at home until they have it cleared up.”
“Angela,” I continued as calmly as I could muster, “it’s not going to clear up. It’s bad, really, really bad.”
I paused, making sure she wasn’t going to interrupt again, “I headed back toward David’s apartment and up Eleventh Avenue. I figured I could take the back route home. I was greeted with the same traffic and police presence at the Highway Ninety-Seven bridge.
“At that point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go home, so I decided to come here. I took Ninety-Seven back toward Forest Lake and came up to a blockade just south of the hospital at Highway Sixty-One. An officer there tried to make me stop the car, but I refused, knowing he wouldn’t be able to help me. I took the frontage road back toward Eleventh then stopped. I would have to go by foot to get across the highway. I consolidated the supplies into David’s duffle,” I gestured to the large black bag on the floor that I brought in, “and continued across the field, past the mall, and over the highway. I wanted to bring David with me, but…I couldn’t.”
I paused a moment, choking on my words and covering my mouth. Angela looked as if she’d get up again, but I waved her off with a finger. I took a breath and resumed, “I saw them, Angela…lots of them. They staggered about in groups of dozens, aimlessly wandering. The reason the cops have Sixty-One closed off is because of them. There are too many; they’re multiplying. David was right,” I hissed, “He was right, if you get bit…you—you’ll turn into one of them. Just like Thomas and Frank and Emma. We have to leave, Angie!” I exclaimed, standing so quickly the chair toppled over behind me.
Angela started, standing as well. “Amber, you should lay down. You’ve had a long, trying day. You can spend the night; I don’t mind, really. We’re safe here.” Angela took me by the arm and led me to the couch in her living room. “I’ll make some popcorn and we can watch Sex In The City. You like that movie, right?”
I sighed, exhausted once again. ‘Maybe she’s right,’ I wondered. ‘We’ll be safe here for now. I’ll spend the night. We’re on the east side of town already. I’ll just head to Scandia in the morning. Angela can come with. We’ll go to my parents’ house in Sommerset.’ I laid my head against the microfiber cushion and closed my eyes. ‘Everything will be fine.’