The Graveyard Tales
Chapter 2: Hard Road Ahead
By Max Bowen
The day dawned bright and clear. The sun was shining, the blue sky was dotted here and there with puffy white clouds. The air was warm, but not so warm as to be uncomfortable. In short, it was a perfect day to play some football, take a hike, or go on a picnic with that special someone.
Except for the billions of howling undead that covered the Earth. On second thought, screw the picnic. Don't want to give them any ideas.
It had been two days since Chris Macabee had shuffled off his proverbial mortal coil. Two days since Roger had been bitten.
The large man sat in one of the editorial offices, bathed in sweat despite the lack of any reasonable heat source. Kaitlin Comeau, a cheery, bright-eyed, brunette sat next to him, doing her best to keep him comfortable, which roughly translated into hoping he wouldn't turn while she was alone with him. A baseball-sized rock set next to her, caked with the blood of many a zombie. She believed it to be her lucky charm. During one of the undead break-ins, she had grabbed it, and without thinking, decimated seven in the span of a minute. Since then, she kept it with her at all times, preferring it over the larger cudgels she was offered.
Less than an hour after being bitten, Roger had begun to signs of infection. His breathing became more labored and his skin took on a pale, pallid tone. When he slept he had horrific nightmares, and by day he was delirious, talking to no one and remembering things that had never happened.
Jake Marlow walked into the room, holding his trademark table leg firmly in his hand. He had told the others to be armed at all times, just in case their friend turned.
"Hey man, how's it going?" asked Roger in a weakened yet happy tone.
Seeing his friend like this was almost too much for Jake to handle, though he had seen it countless times before. "Not too bad," was all he could think of to say. "How about you?"
Roger smiled as if he were on a vacation. Jake had kept a bottle of brandy in his office, and now generous amounts of it were being given to Roger. It seemed like the only way to keep him from screaming himself mute. "Can't complain, brother," he said. "At least the nurses here are real pretty."
Kaitlin could only muster a weak smile. Since the outbreak, the light in her eyes had dimmed, and not a day went by that she didn't cry herself to sleep. She looked to Jake and shook her head. Not that he needed any confirmation. Any fool could see Roger wasn't getting any better.
Hesitation clear in his movements, he placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You just rest, okay? We're going to get you some help."
Roger just folded his hands behind his head, the same carefree smile on his face. "Don't gotta tell me twice, man."
Walking out of the room, Jake was confronted with the eyes of his friends. Eyes which begged him to do something, though all knew what had to be done. It had to be done with Chris, it would have to be done with Roger.
James Cater shook his head before Jake could say anything. "No. No, you can't," he said, pleading. "He saved my life."
"And if we don't do something, he'll kill you. Nice symmetry, don't you think?"
"I won't do it," stated Marcus Flat, his eyes resolute. "I won't kill him, even if he turns."
"Relax, kiddo, I hadn't planned for you to actually do anything," he said,
Jake's eyes moved down to see Chris' corpse, covered with a window shade, a pool of blood two feet in diameter around his head.
"Then that's our future," said Jake, pointing at the twice-killed photographer. "If we don't kill him, we'll all be modeling the latest style in bodybags."
"It's not going to be enough if we kill him, is it?" asked Kaitlin, closing and locking the door behind her, beyond which Roger could be heard singing "California Girls," horrendously off-key. "We're just putting it off. If we stay here, we'll all be dead."
Jake nodded, looking toward the others. "She's right. We made the decision to stay when everyone else was running for the hills, and we've been paying for it little by little every day. If we want to survive, we're going to have to do something drastic."
Once more the others' eyes begged, but this time it was for him to do nothing.
"We have to leave."
They packed what meager possessions they had as the sun set, bathing the landscape in twilight. People who lived in the rural areas of Maine and Vermont often commented on how dark it could get when you didn't have an endless landscape of buildings to light up the night. Now the remaining employees of the Daily Tribune knew exactly what that meant.
"This is crazy," said James as he stuffed a few bags of Skittles into a backpack. "Absolutely, off-our-rockers,-completely-screw-loose,-light's-on-but-nobody's-home crazy."
"What's the alternative," asked Sara Kern, as she walked out of the bathroom, one last attempt made to clean herself up. "Jake's right. We stay here, we're all going to wind up like poor Roger and Chris."
James stopped what he was doing to look at Sara. "And who put him in charge, eh? Seems to me he was the one who told us to stay. Why do I get the feeling this plan is just a way of making up for past mistakes?"
"We all feel the same way," said Greg Swanson, the last of the survivors.
Greg had been a member of the ad department. Now, he was slowly becoming another victim. A week ago he had been scratched by a zombie that broke in. He had begun to show some of the signs of infection, but since he hadn't yet turned, they attributed his illness to the flu. Nevertheless, no one wanted to be in the same room with him, and it had been decided he be quarantined. Now, with the group about to attempt another escape, they needed every body they could find, even one that might jump ship midway through.
"Not me," said James, his voice brooking no argument.
Sara merely shrugged. "Fine, then you can stay behind and try your luck with the undead."
That seemed to take the wind out of James' sails. "Not me," he said, this time his hands noticeably shaking.
"Besides," said Greg. "Matt made it out in one piece. Maybe we can too."
The mention of that name brought all conversation to a halt. Matt Erickson had decided to leave a month ago, preferring his chances in the outside world to dying a slow death here. One night, the others were awakened to the sound of a car tearing down the road, hundreds of undead on its tail.
There had been no word since then. Matt had never returned, and most assumed him dead.
Just then Jake and the others emerged, bags packed and ready to go.
For a short time no one said a word, nor did anyone move. None wanted to leave the office, their safe zone. They all knew there was a solid chance they would die within minutes, and if they survived the night, it was only because the Reaper wasn't checking his list too closely.
As if eager to change the subject, Kaitlin said, "What about Roger? What are we going to do with him?"
From the locked office, Roger's tone-deaf singing could be heard, now punctuated with moans of pain. All knew what it meant. The infection was taking over, and soon their old friend Roger, the same Roger who used to bring in doughnuts every Friday would be nothing more than another shambling undead.
Without responding, the others made their way downstairs. Kaitlin paused glance one last time in Roger's direction, then quickly followed.
They made their way to the back door, the soft moaning of hundreds of undead echoing in the halls. Zombies were thin around the back of the building, and it was their plan to make it to their cars and pray that after two months they would still start.
No one was sure how the undead could tell the difference between their own decaying brethren and normal humans, but one thing was clear. They had to see or you to know you were there. So long as they could remain hidden and silent, they would be safe. Given the foolproof plan, it was no wonder Jake's hand shook as he unfastened the latches and turned the knob, or that Marcus was hoping no one noticed he had just wet himself.
Luck seemed to be on their side for a change, for there were no undead nearby as they stepped into the night. Their moans, however, were ever-present, and more than once Kaitlin had to stifle a scream.
They kept to the side of the building as they inched their way along, Jake and Sara in the lead and James and Greg bringing up the rear, watching for any zombies on their tail. Around the corner, they could see the parking lot, their cars catching the faint starlight. Nervously fingering his car keys, Jake activated the remote to unlock his doors. The sound echoed in the night, and everyone jumped at what to them was a cannon shot. The undead, however, took no notice.
With a nod, Jake urged the group forward. Their legs tensed, as if Death itself were on their heels. Pretty apropos metaphor.
The moans of the undead were often indistinct, and it was impossible to tell one from another. Just then, they heard a moan unmistakably unique.
It was less than a foot away.
Greg's scream cut the silence of the night a moment later, and the others darted away like fish fleeing a predator. With a sound of tearing meat, Greg ripped his hand from the zombie's mouth, saving his life but losing two of his fingers. As one, the undead turned to face the source of the sound, and as one, moved to consume it.
"Run!" shouted Jake, one the few commands the others didn't question.
They sprinted for the cars, but quickly found themselves surrounded by undead emerging from the trees and bushes. Snarling zombies, some with their entire faces torn off, revealing jawbones and skulls filled their vision, and none bothered to raise a weapon. No sense delaying the inevitable.
Suddenly, the heads of a dozen undead exploded, and without a sound they fell to the cracked asphalt. As hard as it was to take their gazes from the walking corpses, none could help but notice the figure striding towards them, a figure who was clearly alive. Discarding a spent pistol, the man, wearing body armor from head to toe, drew a fireman's axe and calmly approached the horde of cannibals.
In an act of incredible courage -or just shrieking insanity- the figure attacked the undead, the swings of his axe denoting a unique skill when it came to dispatching zombies.
One by one, the undead fell, heads severed or cleaved in two. The remaining zombies turned to this new figure, as if recognizing he was the greater threat. Not to be outdone, the staff of the Tribune attacked, table legs and pipes dropping one ghoul after another.
In minutes, it was all over. Covered in blood and gore, Jake and his friends looked like hardened veterans, the fear which froze their souls invisible on their faces.
The silent stranger calmly placed the axe into a holster on his back, brushing bits of bone off his black garb. Suddenly a lone undead, forgotten in the battle, reared up and bit the man on the neck. Though sporting a fresh head wound, the axe had not cut deep enough to destroy the brain.
Against anyone else, the bite would have spelled instant death. But against the stranger's armor, rotted teeth shattered like, well, rotted teeth.
A look of confusion crossed the zombie's face, as if aware its attack had failed. The stranger nodded, acknowledging the expression. "Sorry to disappoint," he said, the voice sounding garbled and alien coming from behind a gas mask.
He swung his elbow in a wide arc, the impact shattering the creature's head, killing it instantly. In the faint light of the stars, Jake could see a steel elbow guard. Looking to the seven uninfected, the man gestured down the road, and left without a word.
The others would have stayed to debate, but new moans filled the air. More zombies. Like their mysterious hero, the seven followed silently, the only sound coming from Jake's car as he thumbed the button on his remote to lock the doors.