The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 11: Home Sweet Home
"Well," Michael Rayanson said as he looked out at the docks of Cape Cod. "This is the pits."
When the populace of the ruined United States of America tried to flee the country after the Great Exhumation, many did so by boat. And in classic undead fashion, zombies in the thousands pursued the fleeing humans, catching many at the docks as they made their desperate escape attempts.
And there they remained.
Even in Boston, Michael and the armor-clad brigade had never seen to many undead. Thousands of them milled about, their plaintive moans a strangely comforting chorus. Some were even aboard the boats, hands on the steering wheels, in a comic mimicry of their former lives.
"Come on," said Matt Erickson as he loaded a clip for his pistol. "We knew it was going to be bad."
"Yeah, but there's a limit to how bad you think a situation can be," Michael responded. "Trust me, this exceeds the limit."
Matt looked down the hill they were standing on, his eyes taking in the vast sea of pulseless humanity. In truth, even he was worried. When the decision was made to make for the islands, he had hoped to the find the Cape thinly populated, the zombies moved on after the food supply had been exhausted. His face betraying no emotion, he continued to methodically load the clip, slamming it into his pistol, the click of the chambered round a sweet lullaby in the land of the dead.
"It'll be fine," was all he said. "John!"
John Kasada looked up from the can of ravioli he was cooking on a small propane stove the group had 'liberated' from the supermarket.
Matt's stoic expression slowly widened into a gleeful grin.
"I think it's time for another one of your brilliant plans, driver."
The boat they chose was made for tour groups and large enough to carry a few cars, a good thing since the "brilliant plan" had a noticeable hole where one would usually include the part of stopping. The survivors were out in moments, spraying the undead with a cleansing shower of hot lead while John and Michael made their way to the bridge.
At the helm was the captain, one arm missing, a large, pus-oozing gash across his face. He turned to the humans, eyes widening at the sight of raw flesh, and quickly dove at them. John was ready, bringing his ax down in a swinging arc, bisecting the head, spilling brains and blood onto the floor.
Michael stepped over the corpse as if it were a pair of dirty sneakers. "Come on, let's see if this tub still runs."
On deck, the situation was steadily making that downward spiral from Barely Manageable to Oh Dear Sweet God Why Does Pain Like This Exist? The survivors were holding the line, but it was a thin line. The entire dock seemed to be aware of their presence, and zombies by the hundreds were swarming toward them. Some kept walking even as they reached the end of the dock, plunging into the water. In places where the Atlantic was shallow, hands reached out to the boat, grasping at empty air.
Matt swung his ax again and again, dispatching the zombies with ease. Ron Birm was right beside him, a pick axe in his hands, an ever-growing pile of undead at his feet. The others continued firing, missing more than they hit. When their guns ran dry, rather than reload, James Cater and Kaitlin Comeau ran back to the bus, hiding beneath the seats.
Within minutes the pile of dead was seven feet high, and still they came, clambering over the heap, in some cases falling down the other side to shatter their skulls on the deck. Suddenly, Jake Marlow fell to the floor, two undead on top of him. Sara Kern aimed her gun, only to be tackled herself. Ron ran toward them, kicking the ghoul off Sara and penetrating the brains of the two on Jake with six inches of iron while Matt ran interference.
Jake and Sara got unsteadily towards their feet, hands shaking. They looked on numbly as zombies poured over the mound, engulfing Ron and Matt, then ran to the bus, joining the others beneath the seats.
Biting. Matt felt it all over his body, like a torrent of bee stings. The sensations cascaded over him, and though his armor prevented the undead from tasting his flesh, the panic he felt was as genuine as if he were naked.
As zombies grew more numerous, the weight on him increased, pinning him to the ground and driving the breath from his body. A part of his mind not consumed with fear thought back to his two cats, how they would playfully bite him, and how familiar the sensations he now felt were to the nips of his kittens.
Hidden beneath the seats, the four journalists heard a sound that topped the charts of Horrific Noises, driving the moans of the undead to Number Two. An inhuman shriek, borne of fear and mixed with primal rage cut the air as Matt burst forth, knocking the undead back. Drawing his guns, he opened fire, cutting down one zombie after another.
When one got too close, trying to bite his wrist, he jammed the hot barrel of his pistol deep into the creature's mouth, then squeezed the trigger again and again until the clip ran dry. His weapons useless, he threw them aside, drew his ax, and waded into the sea of ghouls, cleaving their skulls one after another.
Years later, Ron would tell his grandchildren this story on Halloween, the time a monster worse than the foulest ghost or goblin came to the Nightmare Village, how it slaughtered everything in its path, laughing and howling with glee as it decimated them. Their eyes would widen with fear, as they would every time the story was told, when Grandpa Ron got to the part when the monster dropped its axe, coated with the gore of so many kills, reach out to the nearest zombies, and rip off their arms, using the decaying limbs as cudgels, battering the creatures to a grey and red pulp. And then the story would reach its climax, and the children would gasp in fright when their gray-haired storyteller would get to the part when a few of the demons began to shy away from the red-eyed monster, though it was well-documented that ghouls knew no fear.
Just then the rumble of the boat's engine added to the symphony of anguish, and with a lurch the boat pulled away, the force knocking some ghouls into the water, where they sank like stones.
The remaining zombies moved toward Matt, a decision they would regret if they only had the minds to form the thoughts. But then, if they had minds, they would have joined their rotting brethren beneath the waves. One by one, Matt beat them, shattering legs, arms, ribs, and finally their skulls, stretching the savage attacks as long as he could. When his festering weapons broke, he simple reached into the moaning horde, and one of the friendly neighborhood undead would kindly lend him a hand, arm and all.
Michael and John came to the deck to catch the tail end of Matt's show. The last of the undead lying motionless, he attacked the defeated, his rage unsatiated, his thirst for blood unquenched.
For a moment only the screams of their friend could be heard. In the bus, Jake Sara, Kaitlin and James cowered under the seats, hands pressed to their ears in a vain attempt to block the sound. No one moved, no on spoke, no one breathed.
Cursing under his breath, Ron strode over to Matt and with one left hook, knocked him flat on his back. The younger man was on his feet in moments, a broken femur clenched in his hand. Ron just stared at him, and with their masks on, it seemed like two androids were facing off.
"Cut the shit, boy. It's over," was all he said before walking away, taking his mask off, and lighting up a cigarette, the smoke quickly blowing away in the wind.
"Almost there," John said as he piloted the boat through the waters of the Atlantic, waters that had taken on a grey, lifeless tone in recent weeks.
Matt said nothing, merely staring out over the sea. He had been silent since the boat left the shores of Cape Cod, headed out for what they hoped would be their new home.
Michael walked over to his friend, a bottle of brandy confiscated from the ship's stores. Taking a long swig, he handed it to Matt, who remained where he was, making no indication he even noticed the other man's presence.
Michael nodded to himself and took another swig, watching the waves lap against the side of the boat. It was a known fact that zombies didn't need to breathe, and could survive even underwater.
Were they under the boat, he wondered. He imagined the undead, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, standing on the sea floor, their moans distorted by the water. Would they follow them to the island? Did they even know they were passing by overhead? He had no answer, but neither did he plan to remove his armor anytime soon.
He looked back to Matt to find his friend staring at his hands. He still wore his gloves, which were still covered in the blood of his undead victims. In fact, while Ron was painstakingly trying to clean his suit, Matt had made no attempts to remove the gore that covered him like a macabre form of camouflage.
"Jake and the others are downstairs," said Michael to no one in particular. "They wanted me to tell you they're sorry about running like that."
Matt just stared at his hands.
"I told them if they ever pulled that shit again I'd break their legs and leave them behind."
No response. He simply stared. Stared not at the blood, but at the hands that spilled them.
"Fucking monsters," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Hmmm?" Michael responded.
"Fucking monsters. They were all over me, biting me, trying to tear me apart."
Michael shrugged and took another swing. "I'll have to check the zombie field guide, but I'm pretty sure that's standard operating procedure."
"They had no right," Matt said, his hands clenching into fists, shaking with remnants of the rage that powered his earlier slaughter. "No right at all."
"Well, you sure showed 'em," Michael said, nodding his head in approval. "I doubt they'll make that mistake again."
Matt snapped his head around toward his friend. "Where did you say those fucking cowards are?"
For a moment Michael was silent, knowing that whatever Matt was thinking, it was nothing conducive to the good health of the four. That brief period of protection faded fast, however. "Down in the dining hall."
"You said if they ran again you'd break their legs?"
Michael nodded. Those remnants seemed to rekindle as Matt made his way there.
"Motherfuckers are gonna be lucky if that's all I do."
"Matt, wait, you don't have to do this!" screamed Sara.
Jake looked frantically at the water then back at Matt, who at the moment held the other man by his ankles over the back of the boat. Though he'd survive the plunge, at that distance from the mainland, it was doubtful he'd make it back.
"Trust me, Sara, dropping this spineless bastard won't require a lot of planning. Ron and I almost got killed because he ran."
"We all ran, Matt. You can't punish him for that."
"He's your leader," Matt said as he lowered the flailing man closer to the frigid Atlantic. "First rule about being in charge: everything is your fault."
"Matt please, I know I fucked up," Jake said as the spray from the boat soaked him. "Just give me a chance to make up for it. I swear I'll make up for it."
His eyes cold as flint, he flung the journalist to the deck. Jake quickly scrambled away from the boat's edge. "You think you can make up for it?"
Jake nodded quickly. "Yeah, absolutely."
Matt hesitated, considering the best way for Jake to make amends for his earlier failure. "Fine, then. You and your whore of a wife just became my Get Out Of Jail Free cards. We ever get trapped like that again, I'm throwing the both of you to the zombies so I can make my escape. As of right now, your lives belong to me."
Sara opened her mouth, but thought better of it when the barrel of Matt's gun appeared. "Or I can kill the two of you right now and be done with it. Frankly, between you and your dead-end kids, you're more trouble than you're worth."
Jake interposed himself between the gun and Sara. "Fine, whatever you say. We'll do it."
Matt lowered the gun and smiled, though humor was the last thing anyone was going to find on that visage. "I love it when negotiations go smoothly."
Just then a blast of the ship's horn filled the air, bringing everyone running to the bridge.
"What's going on?" asked Michael.
John only pointed ahead to the island, only a few hundred feet away.
"Look, look at the sky," he said.
The group did, and that's when they saw it. Thin plumes of smoke, at that distance barely the width of a finger. Too small to be burning cars or houses, but just the right size for something else.
"Campfires," said John.
That, and the sight of boats bobbing in the harbor, along with a large pile of decaying corpses, lead to only one possible answer.
Someone had already laid claim to the island.
For a time no one spoke, as the hope they felt earlier at finally finding a new home, a safe home, faded away like a candle in a cyclone. It was John's voice that cut through the despair-ridden silence.
"What are the odds they're looking for roommates?"