The sunlight stretched through the leaves of the live oak forcing my eyes to open. I looked beyond the branches to see a cloudless sky with a mild breeze coming in from the north. I would have considered it a beautiful morning if that last thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
“Please be a dream, please be a bad dream”, I muttered to myself only to look down into the somehow lifeless eyes of one of them.
I cursed out loud in shock as I scrambled back up the tree. The sound angered it as it tried hopelessly to come after me. It was a good thing that they couldn’t climb trees. They could hardly even climb a flight of stairs. If I had actually fallen out of that tree in surprise, I would have died right there, and not because of the fall.
Every day I wake up wherever I decided to set up base and I would pray that when I look over my shoulder it would all have been just a bad dream. Life always gave me a slap in the face, saying “Wake up, Casey! This is reality now. Deal with it!”
No one knows how they showed up. Some of the survivors say that the virus was artificial, a lab test performed by some sort of mad man, or perhaps just a standard test gone horribly wrong. Others say that it came from some poor guy carrying a normal virus who might have fallen into a nuclear waste dump. No one knows for certain. We call them necros and all that we know is that they were everything that we would expect from a zombie.
No, we are a hundred percent certain that they are dead now. Doctors had tried to cure them, but the victims would die somewhere within half an hour of a bite, depending on the victim. The brain itself was fried, other than the occipital and temporal lobe, plus areas responsible for the most basic of motor skills. Everything else might as well be nonexistent. Then, five minutes after the person dies, the body would struggle to get back to its feet and something horrible would be behind the wheel.
Then, the moment they heard you speak or make any sound that identified you as human, the bodies turned cannibal, and if a bite draws blood, it spelled doom for the victim. No questions asked. The necos would then gather and wouldn’t stop biting until the body became one of them, unless the body was already gone.
I saw this personally. I knew what kind of monsters they were. Half of my friends had gone under because of the necros.
The military has made efforts to wipe them out, but almost every time, at least one of the soldiers would have been bitten and no one would know it until it was too late.
I only saw two options. Number One: wait until everything dies down.
I already watched necros in silence as I monitored their actions, and I’ve seen that they could have fed on any animal that mistook them as human. The dogs ran right up to them in an innocent warm welcome. The necros didn’t even look at them. They didn’t care. It hit me then that they only fed on us. What’s even worse is that they went days without feeding with no further signs of fatigue. So I came to the unsettling conclusion that they were not obligated to feed.
They simply chose to.
With the virus behind the wheel, there’s no telling how long even a single necro could last, making my option Number One a bust, unless I planned on hiding forever.
Option Number Two was much more efficient: fighting. This I knew could work, but killing a necro was a very difficult task.
You could shoot them up all you wanted, but anything short of a blow to the head or neck would prove ineffective.
I had also determined (from accidentally pushing one into an empty public pool) that they could not swim or even move in the water. They could drown. However, pushing one into a lake, river, or the bay could have nasty results. Suppose the virus infiltrated our water supplies which were already running short. Any of us could become one of them without even so much as a face to face encounter.
Fire was a definite way to kill them. No creature was fireproof. However using this method may prove to have even worse results than drowning. Suppose that the virus became airborne in the rising ashes. That would be a killer case of secondhand smoke.
Thinking on that, killing even a single one in the wrong way could potentially kill off the entire surviving population of people. I don’t know for certain if that’s the case, but it’s a risk that I’m not willing to take.
The necro at the bottom of the tree gave up and walked the other way, probably because it forgot that I was even here. I sighed silently with relief.
At the same time I felt sadness. That necro was once a girl my age, probably a beautiful one at that. They were people too at some point in time.
I didn’t want to fight them. I wanted to believe that science could somehow reverse these effects, but I was still a youthful optimist.
You see, fighting something that was once a human being just goes against everything I once saw in the video games. Video games show fighting zombies as just plain fun. In real life it isn’t. In the real world when you’re placed in that situation, you’re you face morality and raw survival instinct. You will always choose the latter when in a pinch, but the guilt hits you long after the deed is done.
Still, what else could I do?
I wasn’t a kid. Not anymore. I was nineteen and had college in front of me before all this, but I was still a child at heart. Everything that happened forced me to grow up fast or die.
“Shepherd, you there”, Molly asked over the walkie talkie. I’m just glad that no more necros were around to hear.
“Music to my ears”, I muttered and smiled. They were still alive, thank goodness. My family was lucky enough to make it to the “Bunker” before things turned dire. As far as I know, they provide the only safe haven away from the zombie apocalypse within the county.
“Hey, sorry about that, Molly. I fell asleep on the job last night. Did the Petersons make it?” I responded.
“Yep. All five plus one dog are accounted for”, she said in a sing-song cheerful tone.
“Dang it”, I closed my eyes, “I said there were six people and one dog! Get to your post if you’re not already there and inform the Bunker that I’m still accounted for. I’m starting my shift now.”
“Come on, Casey. Just come back home. You’ve done plenty for now.”
“No. Not yet. I have enough rations to survive another day. I still have a job to do”, I said coldly.
“You’ve been doing this for a week straight. You can’t spend your life playing with death. Besides, a certain someone wants you to-“
“MOLLY!” I barked, catching the attention of a single passing necro, “Not now! If I go back now, people will die! It’s my job to send them home!”
Molly sighed on the other end, “What happened to you Casey? You used to be so innocent and now you’re acting like a soldier.”
“The zombie apocalypse happened, that’s what”, I sighed. I knew that my girlfriend, Molly, missed me. I smiled weakly, “Molly, I miss you too, but I can’t get a moment’s rest unless I know I’m making an impact.”
“You really want to be the hero, huh?”
“I’m no hero. I’m just the guide. Look, I’m sorry I yelled. I promise you that I’ll come home for tonight, but I set out again tomorrow morning.”
“I promise”, I smiled, “Tell everyone I’ll be home soon.”
Beside the will to survive, they were the reason I spent so much time in the field. It was my job now. I was a Shepherd.
Every now and then someone would be chased and I would distract the necros so the untouched civilian could escape to the Bunker. I knew every shortcut as well as every nook and cranny of the city and suburbs. I was faster and smarter. I can escape in a pinch.
The leaders of the Bunker had apparently seen me as the right person for the job, and little by little, I could see that they were right.
It was because of me that they had learned that necros can’t swim. It was because of me that they knew that necros only attacked once they heard you make a sound. It was because of me that they knew that necros only attacked humans and not animals. I was observant, a natural note taker. Right now, I probably knew more about these monsters than almost anyone who wasn’t a scientist.
They called me a “Shepherd”, because it was my job to find the stragglers and bring them home while wading through a pack of starving wolves. If things turned dire, a baseball bat to the back of the neck was enough to kill or at least temporarily disable an attacker.
In the past month that I’d been in this line of work, I’ve had to resort to combat a total of twelve times. My last bout was last night. Eight necros chasing me and eight corpses sitting around.
That officially brought my body count to fifty.
No, I didn’t want to keep track of this. That’s the problem. Every undead life you take feels almost like you’re taking a person’s life, and each and every second is forcefully branded into your memory whether you like it or not. My body count would likely be stuck in my mind, burning there until the day I died.
I didn’t like to fight. I didn’t want to fight. The problem is that sometimes, I have to fight. Sometimes I’m forced to kill, and I often find myself incredibly capable of doing so in a life and death scenario.
The only consolation is in knowing that when the job is said and done, you saved someone, sometimes several people. I still remember the time I saved that group of twelve from that surprise hoard of zombies. I was forced to kill ten necros that day, but all twelve of the stragglers made it safely to the Bunker.
That was another good thought. Not once in my career have I ever failed to bring someone back to safety. Without me, they would have died, or worse, become one of them.
To me, saving lives was all that really mattered.
A wail caught my ears as I turned to see a little girl running down the street. She was probably six years old. I recognized her.
“That’s the Peterson girl! Heather!” I muttered. She was the youngest of that family that Molly mentioned, and I had found the missing member.
“Mama!” she kept on crying out, but her mother was worried sick back at the Bunker. Also, the one thing that you should never do during the zombie apocalypse is scream.
Sure enough, they started coming. One by one they came out of the allies and yards to fill the streets, all lifeless eyes pointed right at her. She tried to run but tripped and fell to the ground.
“Dang it!” I yelled as I ran up behind an undead policeman and pulled out the gun on his belt. Good thing necros had super slow reaction time.
I dove between the necros and grabbed the girl in my arms.
“Kid! Look away right now!” I told her.
“But where’s my mama?” she cried.
“I said look away!” I pointed her head in the other direction as I pointed the pistol and fired. Seven shots, but five bodies dropped.
That bugger actually stole another two bullets from me. However, the mistake I just made was even worse than screaming. Gunshots were even louder, and using a firearm should only be treated as a last resort. There’s no telling how many I’d have to face now.
“Come on kid! I know where your mom is!” I picked her up in a piggyback and she looked at the bodies as we passed.
“Why is there red paint?” she asked, saying her W's like Elmer Fudd. I smiled at her. I’m just glad that she was too young to understand. It would make my job much easier.
“Molly!” I spoke into the radio, “I found the girl, but I’ve been compromised! I’m coming home right now!”
“Don’t tell me you used a gun” she sighed.
“Yep. Get the gates open on my mark. I’m two minutes out.”
“Why’s everyone so sleepy?” the girl asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked her as I jumped a fence.
“All the people are walking funny. Are they all sleepy?” she asked.
“Well…..yeah”, I decided to play along, “They..um...all ran out of coffee and they’re all just tired. They’re all a little grumpy too, so let me know if you see any, and please be quiet about it.”
“What about the paint?” she asked.
“Um…I don’t know really. Someone decided to play paintball or something, and they created one heck of a mess”, I know it sounds stupid, but it was better than telling her that what she saw was blood.
“Is that why everyone’s so sleepy. Did they watch paint ball past bedtime?”
“Well, yeah! that's right!” I couldn't believe that she bought it!
I almost laughed at the thought of this; trying to explain the zombie apocalypse to a six year old girl so she wouldn’t be scared. I think this might be a first.
Then I thought back on her questions. The poor girl was still too innocent to understand that our lives were on the line. Then again, I envied her. The necro invasion had taken the little remaining innocence I had left. Yet, here she was, six years old, surrounded by hoards of zombies, and she was too childish to even be phased. She always had the tendency to assume the best from the situation, and that was something that I wish I still had.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I’m taking you to the Bunker”, I told her, “Everyone who isn’t grumpy today is gathering there. Your family’s there too.”
“You mean it’s a party?” she asked with a happy gleam in her eyes.
“Yeah! Right, a party!” I said as I ducked past another necro and resumed the course, “There’s going to be big party poppers and a giant fort to play in.”
“Sounds like fun!” she giggled, “Look, there’s a grumpy guy on the left.” I dodged to the right only to find that the necro was actually to my right, not on my left.
“I meant the other left.”
“Dang it! Look away!” I said kicking it backwards before continuing, “Next time you see one coming from that way, say that it’s coming from the right, not your other left. You could have gotten us both in trouble.”
“Sorry, mister”, she shrank back a little.
“It’s alright”, I tried to sound happy, “Just be careful next time.”
I rounded the bend to dee the giant barricades of the Bunker.
“This is it!” I said happily as I sprinted forward, “We’re here!”
“Yay! It’s the party!” the girl cheered.
Suddenly, a single large necro, standing almost seven feet tall, stepped out from behind a building, forcing me to dodge at the last second. Then…
I cursed out loud as I stumbled a few more feet and fell to the ground, catching Heather in my arms. I twisted my ankle
“I think someone got you. You got red paint too”, Heather pointed to my face and I felt a warm drip down the side of my head. The necro slowly lumbered forward towards us.
I pulled out the pistol and pulled the trigger, but that last necro had stolen the last of my rounds. I desperately threw the gun at its face, but it merely phased the giant for a moment.
“You hurt him, you bully!” the girl walked right up to him and kicked him in the shin as hard as she could. The necro turned towards her.
“HEY!” I yelled banging my bat against a mailbox as hard as I could, “LEAVE HER ALONE!”
The louder noise caught the giant’s attention again as he turned towards me, almost in an annoyed manner.
“Heather, run! I’ll meet you at the Bunker!” but she ran right back to me in an attempt to get me back on my feet.
“I wanna help! ” she tugged.
Slowly, a weak smile spread on my lips. She didn’t know that I was done for.
“Heads up!” a voice yelled and a loud boom sounded just before the necro fell backwards to the ground in a pool of his own blood, “I know you want to be the hero and all, but this is where I draw the line!”
“Molly”, I looked back to see my childhood friend, now girlfriend standing with a smoking shotgun over her shoulder. Her long blonde hair blew wildly in the wind
“Ooh! Paintball!” Heather said excitedly as I smiled.
“Nice save, Molly”, a man walked up behind her.
“Mr. Isaac!” I said in surprise. He was the one who personally provided for the Bunker, a very resourceful man.
“You go ahead and bring Heather inside. Her parents are waiting.” Molly took Heather by the hand, who skipped inside happily.
“You got a little careless out there”, Isaac helped me walk back, “You need to stay home and rest for a little while.”
“With all due respect, sir, I still have a job to do.”
“And you’ve done a fine job all the same”, he motioned to Heather now in the arms of her mother.
“Casey”, he interrupted, “There is a reason I chose you for this line of work. You’re just a shepherd by birth, and the best shepherds are willing to throw their lives in front of the sheep.”
“You had to get biblical”, I chuckled.
“I said it because it’s true” the gate closed behind us and he sat me down in a seat in the infirmary and walked away, “Think about it. Keep up the good work, kid.”
Well, he isn’t wrong.
I had no religious reason for doing this like Mr. Isaac. It wasn’t because I wanted to please someone, but I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have that as a side bonus. I did this because I knew for a fact that it was right.
Thinking about it made me realize that we weren’t as God-forsaken as we thought. If we really were, I would have lost my sanity long ago. People like Isaac and Heather wouldn’t exist.
It’s why she still exists. My little sheep was still a sheep. An innocent little sheep.
The more I think about it, the more I want to get out there and continue doing just that. Saving the sheep.
It’s a Shepherd’s duty, after all, and regardless of my confusing motives, I was proud to bear that title.
“Who says that horror stories have to have tragic endings?” I said to myself with a smile.