Harry Acker was the reason that Joe had attempted suicide. That was Joe’s darkest secret; one he would never share with anyone. He would always remember it as clear as daylight. The pills in the bathroom, his mum’s medication, he’d swallow them all. He’d gulp them down greedily, carried along by a glass of water. But then he’d realize his mistake and would immediately collapse in front of the toilet, make himself retch. He’d throw up until his insides were raw and his throat burned. Tears would be streaming down his face and he’d be shaking weakly, his fingers trembling like they were charged with electricity. The desire to live would burn brightly through his mind; perhaps he had experienced an epiphany. He could never leave his parents to discover his lifeless, cold body. They’d blame themselves; they’d never get over it.
The Tuesday before the world went to shit, Joe knew Harry was there even before he had rounded the corner. He had been anticipating it. All day Joe had been anticipating it. It became almost ritualistic that Harry should wait for him, to pounce like a predator might upon its prey. That’s all Joe was to Harry; prey. Joe was weak, Harry was not. Joe was introvert, Harry was not. Joe was everything Harry wasn’t.
There were five of them, all as big and intimidating as Harry. Joe got off lightly this time; a punch to the face and a kick in the ribs when he was down. He had experienced a lot worse. Harry had put him in hospital before, he had nearly killed him. But still Joe did not tell a soul of the torment he endured every day. He would suffer through it alone; nobody else needed to be dragged into it.
What didn’t kill you, made you stronger.
After the outbreak, the last person in the world that Joe thought he would see would be Harry Acker. Yet here he was, in this murky building staring at Joe with malicious delight. Automatically, Joe’s mind began taking him to another place. He cut it off though. For the first time in his life, he stopped it. Instead, he forced himself back into reality and stared back at Harry straight in his eyes. They were all in a precarious situation right now but the only thing Joe could focus on was Harry.
All of a sudden, Harry charged.
Joe tried to time it right, he really did, but he was a fraction of a second too late and instead of moving out the way, Joe just shifted slightly so that Harry collided with the right hand side of Joe’s body, sending them both flying to the floor.
Cancer and Sophia were fighting off four of the guys; the one who had been shot in the arm wasn’t putting up much of a fight and a simple plunge into the neck with the knife from Cancer ended him altogether.
Joe began to panic; he had never fought back before. The fight he had had with Cancer earlier had been his first and with someone like Harry, Joe realized how hopeless his situation began to look.
‘Joe Hartness,’ Harry flicked a knife out of his boot and began throwing it from one hand to the other. Joe thought they only did that in the movies. ‘Time to end this once and for all. It’s a wonder you’re even alive now.’
‘Yeah well I have something you don’t have,’ Joe responded.
‘Oh yeah? What’s that?’
‘Intelligence,’ Joe smirked. Harry growled and charged again, the blade aiming straight for Joe’s abdomen. This time, Joe timed it perfectly and he automatically ducked, grabbing Harry’s ankles and yanking him backwards. He fell with a grunt to the floor, dropping the knife. Joe dived for it and raised it high above his head, above Harry. Harry lay there panting, eyes wide and crazed.
Before Joe knew what was happening, Harry’s leg swung to the side, sending Joe to the floor. A bolt of pain shot up his arm as Harry stepped down on his wrist. His fingers let go of the knife and Harry swooped it back up.
‘You’re weak and pathetic. It’s all you’ve ever been.’
A kick in the ribs. Pain exploded all over Joe’s body.
‘You’ll never be anything more.’
Another kick. Joe’s eyes stung with tears. He tried scrunching himself up, but Harry still had one foot planted on his wrist and every movement sent another crackle of pain up his elbow which was now twisted at an awkward angle. Scenes of his school life flashed through his mind, his brain now begging him to take him away somewhere nicer. Maybe this is how it ends, Joe thought. Maybe I don’t get eaten by zombies. Maybe Harry ends it all for me.
‘You don’t belong in this world. You’re nothing, just an inconvenience. You couldn’t even save yourself. You sure as hell couldn’t save your parents.’
Joe froze. How did Harry know about his parents?
‘Who do you think lured them outside?’ Harry laughed manically, reading his mind. ‘The place was teeming with corpses and all they could focus on was the poor soul stranded in his car.’
‘David there’s someone trapped outside!’ Joe’s mother called, the panic in her voice was almost tangible. ‘He’s alive! We have to help him!’
‘Don’t panic Mary,’ Joe’s dad picked up the baseball bat he kept for protection. ‘It’ll be alright. Are you sure he’s alive?’
‘He’s stuck in his car. Oh good heavens there’s hundreds of them,’ his mother began sobbing. All Joe could do was sit on the sofa and watch his mother head outside before his father could stop her. That was Mary Hartness’ downfall: her loving nature. She could never bear to see another soul suffer and that is what killed her. The figure in his car, surrounded by zombies stared at the woman as she ran outside.
‘Mary come back!’ David screamed.
It was too late.
‘Joe!’ David’s eyes darted back to his son, torn. ‘Stay here. Whatever you do don’t follow me!’ He ran outside, in a futile attempt to save his wife.
That was the last time he saw his parents alive. The figure in the car had driven off, leaving Mr and Mrs Hartness in the hands of the walking dead. Joe watched from the window as they were pulled apart, knowing there was damn well nothing he could do about it. A gun shot was the only thing that lured the beasts away. Someone firing nearby. They had attracted the attention of the zombies and all that remained in their spot were the half devoured corpses of his parents.
He dragged them back inside. He didn’t know why, shock perhaps. But he had known what was to happen and used the old chains in the basement from the previous tenant to tie them up. It didn’t take long for them to turn. One minute they were lifeless, the next they weren’t. They were not his parents though. Not anymore.
He never saw the figure in the car again and he had never known who it was.
‘I was there Joe,’ Harry whispered in his ear. ‘I killed them.’
It was in that moment that Joe’s world shattered around him. Pieces of his life fell away, like shards of glass and were instead replaced with a vision of red. Fury crept into him; like a poisonous mist and it was the most intense feeling he had ever felt. He threw Harry off with a strength he didn’t even know he possessed, not even registering the agonizing pain in his arm and put all the force he had behind his fist as he brought it straight into Harry’s eye. He stumbled backwards and Joe wrenched the blade from his hands.
‘You son of a bitch!’ Joe screeched like a wild animal and his arm curved in an arc as he plunged the knife straight into Harry’s gut.