I came face to face with my mortality the day I put a kitchen knife through my roommate’s forehead.
My friendship with Katie started fourteen years ago, and it was a friendship that could have lasted a lifetime if I hadn’t split her pretty head open like a rotten cherry. We always caught the oddest looks from people after I explained to them that we lived together, but never dated. I wasn’t any sort of loner type, nor was she “out of my league”, as some are prone to say; I just had my preferences when it came to girls, and I never saw Katie that way. There weren’t many who understood the emotional connection she and I shared, and that was fine.
Katie had been in bed for the last week after her doctor diagnosed her with the flu and gave her the standard “plenty of rest and fluids” speech. At my job, I noticed more and more people out with the same symptoms as Katie’s. The classrooms at the community college I attended grew smaller and smaller with each day.
On the fourth day of Katie’s illness, I stood in the kitchen, opening a can of chicken soup over the sink while she sat at the table, her pale face poking through a cocoon of blue fleece.
“I think I’m dying,” she complained, her button nose red and raw, and her wide green eyes heavy with exhaustion. “My muscles are so sore.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” I told her, smiling with confidence as I spilled the can of soup into the saucepan and lit the burner. “Kiddo, you should see my statistics class. There were four of us last night, four out of probably twenty. They’ll work through it and so will you.”
With the soup set to boil, I walked over to the table and tucked a heavy ceramic mug into her hands. It was favorite one, the ‘soup bowl with a handle’, as I liked to call it. Her doubtful eyes watched me over the rim of the mug as she sipped at the spearmint tea sweetened with honey.
Did she somehow know? I now asked myself. I wish I had listened to her.
“Thank you for doing this,” Katie said. “You know I appreciate it. I’m sure Ted does too, since he can’t be here.”
Ted was Katie’s boyfriend, and of all the men she had dated, he was the first to assure us he wouldn't lose any sleep over our arrangement. The average boyfriend would have balked at the idea of his girlfriend sharing living space with another man—and believe me, plenty had done just that—but all Ted did was laugh, before thanking her for her honesty. After she introduced us at a local bar, we hit it off and spend the rest of the night chatting like old pals. On our way back to the apartment, he pulled me aside and thanked me for being such a good friend to her, saying that she wouldn't be where she was today had it not been for my support.
Ted was a thanker. Seriously, the man walked around with a loaded “thank you” on his tongue, ready to discharge it at the nearest waitress or store clerk or random stranger who allowed him to go first through a door.
Now, I pictured his face, as I told him I had killed the girl he loved and I could only imagine him thanking me for having the courage to end her suffering. Just the thought of it made my organs turn to slime.
Not even an hour before this nightmare started, I was neck deep in the refrigerator, scratching at my scruffy brown hair as I decided between old Chinese or old Thai for dinner, when I caught sight of a sick Katie shambling down the hallway like a sleepy toddler. Her left hand grazed the wall, as if she were using it to keep balance, and the purple, polka-dotted sheet from her bed was tangled in loose loops around her calves, the tail end straggling behind her.
“You’re going to fall,” I chided, while frowning into the container of fried rice that had developed a suspicious carpet of grey fur. “You know, this isn't that old; we should get Phil to check the fridge.”
Like everything in our apartment, our refrigerator had seen its share of better days, and like every landlord in this town, Phil was a dick.
When my suggestions were met with silence, I shrugged and tossed my fuzzy rice into the trash can near the stove. I swiped my green khaki jacket from the back of the kitchen stool and began sliding my arm through the sleeve, but when I lifted my head to tell Katie I was heading out to grab dinner, the words fizzled in my throat.
My roommate, my best friend in the entire world, was staring at me across the countertop with eyes as cold and vacant as empty tombs. On a normal day, this girl’s irises were so green they made fresh-cut emeralds look drab by comparison, but now they were faded and hollow, only misty jade rings encircling inflated milk-white pupils. The hue of her skin had faded from that healthy, rosy pink to waxen yellow. The pale pink t-shirt she was wearing clung to her curves and the soft fabric between the contours of her breasts was splashed with a line of ruby red blood. As I dragged my eyes down the length of her body, I saw more patches of blood stamped onto her grey cotton shorts.
My breath seized in my throat. “Kiddo?” I whispered. “What’s wrong?”
I had filled the left sleeve of my jacket with my arm, but the other remained empty as it hung flaccid at my side. I slipped around the counter, even though sirens screamed warnings inside my head, telling me that I was in grave danger.
Katie didn’t respond to my questions; as if I hadn’t even spoken, she shuffled closer to me, the flats of her bare feet never parting from the cream linoleum tiles. Before I could blink, her hands were out, slashing at my face as she growled in a wordless rage. I lurched back to avoid her blood-clogged fingernails and lost my balance, crashing to the kitchen floor so hard I bit my tongue. In the space of a blink, she was on top of me, a mouth of angry teeth snapping, her eyes empty of everything but her hunger. A thread of reddish saliva dripped down my cheek as I held my arm like a bar against her throat, in a desperate attempt to keep those teeth from tearing off my face.
Terror fueled my muscles, delivering a blast of
adrenaline I didn’t have moments earlier. I managed to wedge my knee in between
us and push. The girl tumbled backwards, and an incoherent groan escaping her
lips as she slid into a kitchen chair, knocking it to the ground.
It only took a moment for us to recollect our footing. Without taking my eyes from her, I ran my shaking hand through the sink of dirty dishes until my fingers grazed across the flat of a kitchen knife. Her strawberry blonde curls hung like tangled weeds around her shoulders and her eyes trembled with fragility, a hushed cry for the feeling of another’s flesh, begging please don’t hurt me.
The pale, vapid lips skinned back into a snarl, revealing a full set of teeth to match her silent lies. This can’t be the real Katie, I thought. The real Katie never had to lie.
When she came at me for the last time, I sunk that blade into her forehead.
Katie dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks, shuddered, and then was still.
The wailing cries of an ambulance shook the windows of the apartment as it sped by and I now shuffled down the hall much like Katie had earlier, leaning against the wall for support, the bloody knife still gripped in my hand. I wanted to shut myself inside my room. I wanted to curl into a ball and sob against my favorite pillow like a lost toddler until someone swooped in to rescue me. Something punched me in the gut, telling me that there would be no cavalry, that everything I’d known before had changed the instant Katie died.
I hated this apartment, and there was no way I was going to allow myself to die here.
It was time to go.
My neighbor across the hall must not have shared my enthusiasm, and had chosen to control his own fate. His front door drooped open and I saw his lifeless body swaying from the ceiling fan, his once pleasant features warped beyond recognition by swollen, purpling flesh. An instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace poured softly from a radio in the kitchen and the television screen in his living room crackled with unnerving static.
I swiped the baseball bat that rested against his door frame, and made my way outside while the memories of Katie clung to the corners of my brain like stubborn cobwebs. My phone had gone dead some time ago, and I stared at it in my hand; this device had been such a vital part of my life this morning, and now it was nothing more than an expensive paperweight.
I tossed it away, and as it slid across the blacktop, something caught my eye.
Another creature was pressed against the door of a coffee shop, its two ruined fists nearly stripped of flesh. The sound of bare bone rapping against glass was enough to send bolts of fear down my spine.
Play smart, not hard.
The thing was stuck behind a door, so I balanced the metal bat over my shoulder and picked up my pace. This wasn’t going to be a sentimental recap of me doing all the “right” things, because this wasn’t a movie. I wasn’t going to break in doors, wielding my baseball bat like some valiant hero as I rescued people from the clutches of hungry monsters. I would need to keep my wits in check if I wanted to avoid these creatures, so what use would I have for my own flock of foolish, terrified survivors? They would be just as stupid as the things they were trying to survive—and I had no time or patience for that inevitable bad decision that cause people to get killed, especially if one of those people happened to be me.
This was my fight, my drive to persist and stay alive at whatever cost. I would need to save my strength and my only chance to do that was by keeping to myself.
I inventoried the contents of my pockets as I walked, and pulled out a soft cigarette pack. I wasn’t a heavy smoker in the least, but I’d usually grab a pack before heading to the bar or a house party, in case the mood would strike after I had a few beers in me.
Julia, my most recent ex-girlfriend, had despised it.
As the spring night made its final push through the town, the streetlights kicked on, bathing the asphalt in pockets of cool white light. Exhaustion reached out with greedy fingers and as I took my seat on the curb, I popped the last menthol between my lips after setting the bat at my feet.
Maybe Julia already belonged to the mindless swarm, shuffling along without a soul while muttering incoherent nonsense. Then again, it wouldn’t be all that much different from when she was alive, really. Ignoring the splash of drying blood on my sleeve, I struck the wheel of the lighter, and for the first time since putting that knife through Katie’s face, I smiled.
As I puffed on the cigarette and contemplated my next move, the stench of rotting flesh screamed into my nose. I swiped the bat from the ground in one fluid motion as I stood to my feet.
This wasn’t Katie, but a new creature like her. It watched me, swaying on precarious feet like a lost drunk, clutching at the lamppost with fleshless fingers. Half of its skin had been sheared away, and what remained was bloated with decay. Red fluid leaked from the gaping wet mass of red slime that had once been the side of its face. Any indication of gender or age was long claimed by degeneration. The events that followed played out in slow motion, as if time crawled by on turtle legs around me. The thing surged toward me in a clumsy lunge, fingers curled into hooks of bare bone, held together by rawhide strips of dried red ligaments. Panic seized my heart, twisting it with ugly, determined fingers, and bile surged into my throat.
I brought the bat up and pulled back for a swing—a swing I never delivered. While in motion, the thing’s head split from its body, as if it decided on its own to take flight and leap clean from the creature’s rotting neck. It rolled across the sidewalk and stopped against the corner of a blue trash can with a Thank You for Not Littering! sign tacked onto its side.
That might have been funny, if I wasn’t seconds away from passing out.
What might have also been funny was the fact that the headless body continued to walk forward for a few more lazy steps, before it finally dropped to the pavement. It flopped back and forth like a trout out of water, and then was still.
This could have been played off as a scene pulled straight out of the worst made-for-TV horror movie you’ve ever seen, and as I stared at the corpse, a girl stepped from darkness into the dome of light. The instrument of the creature’s demise was clutched in her hands—a fire axe, the curved silver edge slick with oily blood. The front of her orange sweater was dotted with spots of fresh red over stains of old burgundy.
She introduced herself as Evelyn Galloway, and she was as beautiful as a bloody girl could be. Her hair was short and straight, darker than a raven’s feathers, and her large probing eyes were the color of amber tea. Her sweater was loose and hung from one shoulder, and her shorts were torn, the hems frayed and uneven, as if they’d begun life as pants. She didn’t have the wasp waist, or curves like a Coke bottle, but at this moment she was more beautiful than anything I had seen in any magazine. I made conscious effort to swallow my fear as the girl edged closer to me, those predatory amber eyes blazing in the lamplight.
“I’d ask who you are and where you’re from, but honestly, I don’t care.” She laughed and cleaned the blade of the axe with the bottom of her sweater. “It doesn’t really matter at this point.”
“Maybe not,” I said with a hesitant nod. “But I suppose if everything around us is dead, then common courtesy shouldn’t follow them in to the grave. My name is Raleigh Rivers. My friends just call me Leigh—or at least they used to. I’m sure they’ll all dead now.”
“Probably. My ex and I were downtown at a café when all of this went down.”
“An ex?” I asked, oddly hopeful given the circumstances.
She weighed the fire axe in her hands and grinned. “That’s what happens after you kill them. The waitress at the café caught him on the hand. When his nose started bleeding and his skin began changing, I knew what I had to do. I think he did too—but he still fussed a bit.”
“No doubt,” I said with a grim frown. “It must have been hard on you.”
“They make it easy,” Evelyn admitted. She pulled the sleeve of her sweater to her elbow. A large handprint, red and purpling, marked the warm flesh of her arm. “Before you get all freaked, I won’t turn into one. But it felt like those nails were twisting flesh right from my bone. I gave him something to remember me by, a good old bop on the head. Their skulls seem to split easily, kinda like rotten apples, if you needed a visual.”
Avoid firearms if you can,” she said, then motioned towards the baseball bat I held with a white-knuckled grip. “That’s a good choice, I think.”
“Because they’re attracted to sound?” I suggested.
“What? No, they’re deaf. They’re also blind and stupid and clumsy, but they can smell people out as good as any damn dog.”
“That’s a relief.”
“How, exactly?” she asked with acid in her voice. “We can be quiet as a church mouse or as invisible as a ghost if we need to be, but we can’t change how we smell. They’ll follow that smell, too, so our best bet on staying alive is to keep them moving—keep them guessing. We can do that together or separate, whatever suits you.”
The longer I stared into her eyes, the more I felt my resolve from earlier melting away. What was the point of fighting, if there was no one by your side to share your victories?
“You seem confident,” I told her. My eyes hit the ground as I backed away from the pool of blood spreading under the raw neck stump. “How…how are you not scared?”
“I’m pretty scared, I’m just way better at hiding it than you are.” She shrugged and slipped the axe through a loop of leather tacked to the belt around her hips. “Anyway, the city is pretty deserted so there aren’t too many wandering around. Most of the healthy folk that could leave did so during the day, and the hungry did as hungry do—they followed their food source. Some were trapped in buildings, or took a little longer to turn than others, and those are the ones you see scuffling around. If you’re careful, and keep your head clear, they’re pretty easy to avoid.”
She wasn’t lying, I could give her that. The town where I had spent my life was empty and barren. Scarves of smoke billowed from open windows, likely due to the hasty abandonment of stoves and other appliances as they made their escape. It wouldn’t be long before buildings went up in flames. The wind blew scraps of paper into the air like white leaves as a couple empty soda cans tumbled across the road. There must have been so much blood behind the walls of these abandoned buildings, screaming stories of personal horror into the silent streets. I saw none of it, but I could hear their cries.
I knew it was there and slowly, I was learning to be grateful for the small mercies.
The evening chill bit my skin, and I zipped up the front of my jacket as Evelyn studied me with a critical eye. “You’d better find some reinforcements,” she finally said, bending forward after she’d inspected me from head to toe.
I admitted that I had no idea what she was meant.
Evelyn rapped her knuckles on the front of her leather boot and she went on to explain the odd, hollow sound that followed. “They’re shin guards, strapped underneath my boot. Their bites are mean, very strong, and could puncture leather—but not plastic.”
“Why do you wear them on the inside?” I asked.
Evelyn sighed. “One of the girls from the hardware store thought it looked better on the outside, too. She was such a stupid girl, favoring appearance over practicality. I tried to tell her this wasn’t some video game, or one of those absurd straight-to-video horror flicks.” She unzipped the side of her boot all the way down, from knee to ankle, and hooked her finger into the elastic straps holding the guard snugly around her calf. “One of those munchers caught her like this, and that was all it took. Slowed her down enough that by the time she fought it off, three more were on her. After that, it didn’t take long.”
“It doesn’t need said,” I told her. “I understand.”
She zipped up the boot in a swift stroke. “Rule number one, don’t give them something to grab.”
“Sounds simple enough,” I replied.
“Rule number two—if it looks bad, kill it.”
My eyes took to wandering the streets, though I wasn’t sure what I needed to find. Maybe I sought comfort or reassurance or hell, maybe even an explanation for all of this mess.
There was a small pharmacy across the street, and inside the lights flickered, displaying its white walls and empty shelves. The front window was shattered, the sidewalk speckled with splinters of broken glass. In front of the door was one of the creatures, dead, a single grey arm peeking out from under the flock of crows that covered the body like a moving blanket. Black wings beat against the black night as they cawed to one another in flat annoyed tones, fighting for the soft eyes and the choicest parts of bloated flesh.
“It’s the end of the world,” I whispered. Part of me still couldn’t wrap my head around it all, so I thought that saying the words might make it real.
That made Evelyn chuckle. “Nah, the world will get along just fine. It’s the end of humanity that’s got me a little concerned.”
“And we will never know how it started.”
“That might not be accurate.”
I pounced on the hesitation in her voice. “What do
“Would you laugh at me if I told you I knew who was responsible for unleashing this hell, and I was on my way to make him pay for it?
“How can you know that?" I asked.
“That’s easy, because I’ve known him my whole life. He’s my dad.”
It wasn’t a lie—there was no way it could have been. That rage, that betrayal and anger, threw an unmistakable flare into her eyes.
It certainly wasn’t salvation, but it was something, a reason to stay alive and unbroken at any cost. This was my second life. My previous one had died with Katie, but as long as I had Evelyn, I would not meet my end beneath a blanket of starving crows.
I picked up the baseball bat and rested it over my shoulder. The anger from her eyes drifted away like a fleeting memory and she smiled, because I didn’t need to use words to give her my answer.
“So we’re going to kill your father, then?” I asked after we walked for awhile in silence.
The girl smiled, and it drove away all the darkness around us. “That’s the plan.”
As long as there was Evelyn, there was hope.