Jasper was running through the pre-dawn light, breath heavy and ragged, heart pounding in his chest. The street lamp up ahead left a pool of light on the ground; it looked like sanctuary, rescue, salvation. An illusion of course; one made stronger by the tunnel of vegetation that he was passing through, the darkness of the hot summer night. At his heels, his dog Snow was just hitting his stride. Jasper’s headphones played an old track by Faithless that helped him keep his pace, toes striking pavement with every beat.
His mind wandered on his morning runs, a way to sort out his life, put everything in perspective. His divorce, not a recent pain but recent enough, the more recent pain of Karen taking Taylor to live in Charlottetown, the fact that he was burning out in his career. Not quite forty and already probably gone as far as he could, the fact that he hated his house, hated where he lived. The house was Karen ’s idea. It was in a good school district, but it looked exactly like all the other houses. The area was nice, but it took too long to get anywhere.
Still, when he ran, he could put it in perspective, the pain in his limbs reminding him that he was still human, that at his core he was an animal, a predator, that the world he had so much trouble adapting to wasn’t the real world, just a pale reflection of it.
Snow startled at a shape in the shadows. The dog wasn’t precisely a coward, but he was nervous of the dark. The shape resolved itself, another early morning jogger. Jasper gave a brief nod and kept going. The voice in Jasper’s headphones informed him that he had reached the halfway point, two point five kilometres. He turned around and began the run back home.
Traffic was light as he made his way up to the Bedford Highway and then ran south towards his suburb. He thought about how much the area had changed. When he was a young man this was where the wealthy lived. An exclusive area where the police came faster than throughout the city, where people like him weren’t welcome. He used to visit friends here, hassled by those same police for his poor clothing, white trash not appreciated. Back then you rarely saw any non-white faces in Bedford, and his group of friends was mixed race which made them even more of a target. Now it was one of the more diverse areas of the city, boasting a significant Arab population for starters.
He kept a good pace as he ran up the hill to his street. The house loomed, feeling like a trap. Karen wanted to be in a safe area, to give their daughter every chance for a decent start, and Jasper went along. Moving in when Taylor was only five. Eight years later the place was too large for just him and Snow, but he was having trouble getting it to sell. Meanwhile, he felt like a stranger there, because with the threat of having to show the place it was staged to look neutral, devoid of personality. Everything that made it his was hidden or in a storage locker. He went inside and took off his headphones. A quick shower, a smoothie, a cup of coffee, and a couple of caffeine pills and he was ready for work. The thought of going to the office filled him with an existential dread. Sitting there, writing code that he didn’t give a damn about, trying to make small talk with a bunch of people who were every bit as disenfranchised and tired as he was, it was too much. He went outside and started his car; the oversized engine roared to life.
The car was his big indulgence. An impractical vehicle if such a thing had ever existed. It was something Karen would never have tolerated, which may have been why he bought it. A right-hand drive 1990 Nissan 300 ZX. It was fast, crazy fast. Terrible on gas, way too low to the ground for practical considerations. He was trying to figure out how he was going to get through the winter with it. He’d bought it after the snow stopped, after Karen left the province with Taylor, bought it really on a whim. The problem was he bought it without really thinking it through, and he didn’t have enough money left over to get something practical. At least it made his one weekend a month trip to PEI more fun. Expensive as hell, but a fun drive.
Snow started barking from inside the house. This was unheard of. Snow had been his companion for three years and rarely barked. Jasper looked up from his phone and saw his neighbour, Mrs Tillman, heading towards him. She was wearing a nightgown, torn open, barely hanging off of one shoulder. Her neck was bleeding, and she looked like she was in shock… pale, moving with a slightly drunken gait. Mrs Tillman was in her mid-seventies and had been a widow for a decade already. Jasper helped her out around the house from time to time, and they often joked about how if it weren’t for their partners they never would have lived there. She had moved into one of the first houses in the subdivision when it was brand new. She was funny, in an earthy sort of way, and not a stereotypical little old lady, but Jasper was pretty sure that she wouldn’t usually be walking down the street with one breast hanging out of her flannel nightgown. She was quietly mouthing “Help me. Please way”.
Jasper ran to her side, sprinting despite the pain in his legs from his morning run. She collapsed just as he reached her, falling into his arms. Slowly he lowered her to the ground. “Are you alright? Mrs Tillman? Abigail?“. She didn’t respond. Her neck wound was bleeding, a lot. Jasper knew from first aid training that people bled a lot more than what you see on TV, but this seemed to be a lot more than was safe. He pulled out his phone and dialled 911. He got a no circuits available tone. Something was seriously wrong - much more than an old woman bleeding in the street. His heartbeat sped up, the edges of fear setting in. What the hell was going on? He checked her pulse. It was there, faint, so very, very faint. “Mrs Tillman, stay with me. I got you. Just stay with me. I’m getting help.” That was when he heard it. A low growling, animalistic, but somehow human at the same time. He looked towards Mrs Tillman’s house and saw it, a child walking towards him, growling, head cocked at an impossible angle. It looked like the girl from two doors over, the far side of Mrs Tillman, Becky maybe? He thought Taylor had babysat her once. It couldn’t be though, the way she was moving, stick like and stiff, shuffling. The child was covered in blood, the worst of it was around her mouth, running down her chin.
Jasper was a nerd, a huge one. His favourite show was The Walking Dead. He owned virtually every movie with “of the Dead” in the title. Half of his t-shirts had references to zombies on them. It still took him a minute to process. It’s one thing to watch TV shows and movies about the dead coming back to life, and another to have an eight-year-old dead girl walking towards you on a quiet suburban street. That was what she was, of course, a zombie. Still, he got himself together well before she reached him and sprinted for his front door, leaving Mrs Tillman where she lay. Snow stopped barking as soon as he made it inside, satisfied that he had done his canine duty in warning his master. He stood ready, muscles tensed and waiting. Jasper slammed the door behind him, blocking the nightmare of a little girl walking his way. He shut out the chaos, took a minute to figure out his course of action. One thing was clear; he needed to get out of there.
Jasper had moved most of the survival gear into storage to make the place more acceptable to potential buyers, but he still had a few things hidden away in the house. It wasn’t the full bug out bag that Karen had made so much fun of him for, but it was a start. His bow was first, a fifty-five pound recurve. A compound would have made more sense, but the recurve was what he had. Then he clipped the quiver to his belt. He considered leaving the bow behind; all his arrows had target heads on them, so they would be pretty limited but if he got a chance to get new arrows he would regret not having the bow that he had always trained with in his hands. Learning a new bow would take time, and he might not get any. He also strapped on the one real sword he had with him. A traditional European longsword, designed to be a hand and a half weapon. Finally, he grabbed his survival knife and put that on the other side of his belt, right next to his Leatherman. It wasn’t much, but again, it was what he had. Usually, his bag would contain rations, potable water, all the essentials, but with the sale of the house pending his real estate agent had talked him into putting the survival rations in storage “just for a little while”. She seemed to think it might be off putting to potential buyers.
He knew exactly where he was going. He had to make it to Charlottetown, to Taylor. He needed to find his little girl.
Finally, he grabbed Snow’s leash and headed out the door, calling the big husky mix to follow him. Becky was still coming, walking her stiff, jerky way over to him. He knew that moment, the one in the movie where the zombie closes in and the hero recoils in shock and horror, aghast at what he has to do. Jasper wasn’t a hero though, he was too practical for that. He had trained for survival and had been through enough as a teenager to act without hesitation. Instead, he pulled his sword and swung, not taking the time to think about what he was doing. The sword cleaved into her skull, splitting it. She dropped, whatever had been animating her suddenly gone. Apparently, the movies had gotten more than a few things right. He knew that later when he had a chance to process this would mess with his head, but in the moment, it was what he had to do, and nothing more. There were a couple more problems though. Mrs Tillman was getting up and more figures were shuffling down the hill towards them, moving in the same jerky was as Becky had.
Jasper opened the car door. Snow jumped in, taking up his customary spot in the tiny rear seat. Jasper sheathed his sword and tried to get in the vehicle, but the sword kept getting caught up. Finally, he pulled it back out and dropped in the passenger seat, the flexible sheath folding up out of his way.
He slammed the powerful V6 engine into reverse, backing out of the driveway at nearly full speed, spinning as he went so he was facing down the hill. The ground clearance being what it was, the bottom of the car scraped the road, throwing up a shower of sparks.
Jasper accelerated down the hill as fast as he could. It felt like being punched in the chest. An average car would never have been able to take the winding cul-de-sac at that speed, but the Z handled the turns without issue, staying glued to the pavement. He rounded the corner onto the Bedford Highway, and barely managed to avoid slamming into the large pickup truck that was stopped almost directly in front of him. He was trapped between the truck and the ocean, nowhere to go. “Fuck.” Both directions were full of cars, stopped. That was normal in the morning; the Bedford Highway was a major artery, and at rush hour it got pretty bad. On this morning though figures were shambling through the traffic, grabbing at people who dared to leave their vehicles. The car wasn’t going to work, not here, there was no way he could get through. “Come on Snow; we have to ditch. Let’s move it, buddy.” Talking to the dog was an ingrained habit, starting when Karen and Taylor moved out. He climbed out of the car quickly, grabbing his sword, and once again began to run. Snow followed, his long legs far fresher than his masters. He headed through the grocery store parking lot, trying to get to the boardwalk behind it. He sprinted, feet pounding the pavement, adrenaline making up for his tired, sore legs. There was a crowd already in front of the grocery store, trying to get in. Better to skip it, play it safe, get supplies when he had a chance.
There was a small gap in the fence behind the grocery store, low to the ground. Jasper slipped under it, to the nearly empty boardwalk and started running with his steady long distance stride. Five K, his typical morning run, wasn’t nearly enough to get him out of the city, and he had already done it once today, but he needed to manage some distance. He knew he had to cover miles, get out of the crowds, find a place that was secure to hole up and recover his strength. His mind started ticking off a checklist. The rule of threes, three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food. The practical nature of the list kept him from focusing on the larger problem. At least the route was familiar; he was running almost the same way he ran every morning. He passed the high-end condos, some of which had groaning, shuffling zombies trying to get at him through the privacy fences that surrounded all of them. Here the undead were kept behind barriers for the most part. One of them was on the path ahead of him though, an older man, in good shape, wearing jogging gear. He was a regular; someone Jasper would nod to most mornings. Jasper didn’t even slow, drawing his sword as he ran. He swung while ducking right around the man. His blade didn’t hit solid, catching the creature’s left arm, way off target. The shock of the steel biting bone almost wrenched the sword from his hand, but he held it, turning as he pulled the blade free. The creature reached out for him with its one remaining arm, so Jasper took that one too, cutting it off at the elbow with a single hard swing. Nothing but a dark ichor came from the wound, almost black. He threw a push kick into the creature’s hip, sending it back a pace. As it approached again, he took its head off, putting his back and shoulders behind the blade. Thankful for all the hours spent practising swordplay he turned and ran on.
The path, earlier so dark and threatening with its rows of trees that almost met overhead was now a beacon of hope. Out of sight of any houses, it was unlikely to be populated this time of day. He kept pace though, knowing that there was a limit to what he could do, that eventually his legs would stop moving, and that he was close that point. He moved onto the deserted path and finally stopped running. Snow stayed close, a half pace behind him as always.
Shore Drive was just ahead. He had to move on, out of the safety of the wooded path, but Shore Drive was a winding street with lots of cover, easy to miss a zombie there. There weren’t a lot of houses on the road, at that point only on the harbour side. Who knew how wide spread this was though? There could be hundreds of zombies just ahead of him. He wanted to steer clear of people for the moment, at least until he had a better grasp on the situation. It seemed like the undead were attracted to the living from what he had seen in the last few minutes, not to mention from countless TV shows and movies. The yellow house. It was perfect, was well kept up, but had been for sale for the last few years, and he was fairly sure it was empty. He crept, careful to stay out of sight of the road, right to the end of the path. Then he checked along the road to see if he could spot anyone. It looked clear, and the yellow house was just in sight. He needed to find a way into the house, to hole up for a little bit, at least until he had a chance to catch his breath. The place was set back from the road and secluded, empty. He sprinted for all he was worth, almost at the end of his energy and hit hill next to the driveway, sliding down it. The house was huge up close, even larger than he thought it had been from a distance. He ran around to the back door and tried the knob. It was locked, of course.
He checked one last time, made sure Snow was with him, then slammed his heel into the door right next to the lock. He heard the splintering sound of the frame giving way, one more kick and he was inside. There was an alarm panel on the wall, beeping in anticipation of the correct code. He grabbed it and pulled it out of the wall, tearing all the wires out. The panel went dead and with it the alarm. He took a moment to look around, breath ragged and hard. This room was hot pink, modern, jarring in its normalcy. In his head, it should have looked derelict, on the edge of ruin. He knew that was irrational, that whatever was going on had just started in the last few minutes, of course, the house was still fine. There was a wood stove, a treadmill, and some nice leather furniture, but he thought that his realtor would be horrified by it. No wonder the place hadn’t sold. He muscled the treadmill over to block the door, leaving it more or less secure. It would have to do for now. He made his way further into the house, up the stairs to the main level, keeping his body flat against the wall, taking the corner fast, moving into the room at unexpected angles. When the room turned out to be empty, he felt foolish for a moment, like a child playing at being a spy. The walls transformed from the hideous pink to an equally terrible hospital green. The ceilings were about thirty feet high, with floor to ceiling windows on the back wall, filling the room with light. The view across the harbour was unreal, letting him see the city proper. There was smoke everywhere. It looked like half of Halifax was on fire. How had it started so fast? Minutes, just minutes and things were already falling apart.
First, water. All the running had left his mouth parched. He tried the taps in the kitchen. The water was still flowing, as he expected. The area was on a gravity flow system, water usually worked even when power failed. The water was cold and clean. He sipped at it, slowly. He counted each breath, four in, four out, until his breathing calmed down. What the fuck had just happened? Had he just sliced through a little girl and an old man? Zombies. He started shaking, his muscles cramping and seizing from the adrenaline dump. His eyelids were lead weight, dragging, closing on their own, the room was starting to spin, his head felt like it was going to lift off his shoulders.
Upstairs, to the bedrooms. He fell prone onto one of the beds, and Snow jumped up next to him, loyal to a fault trusting his human to know the right thing to do. Sleep was instant. Jasper dozed on and off for the next few hours, sporadically wakened by distant sounds of sirens, gunfire, explosions, screams. By the time he woke fully the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the room. Time to get going. Taylor was waiting for him (had to be waiting for him, the alternative wasn’t something he could think about).
The evening was warm, smoke thick in the air, making breathing hard. The sun was low on the horizon providing shadow to move through. Jasper crept, his legs bent, body low to the ground, at this point speed had to take a back seat to stealth. He kept one hand on the hilt of his sword as much as he could, to keep it from tangling in his legs more than to have it ready.
There was a yacht club on Shore Drive, a small one with a half dozen boats in. Part of him wanted to grab one of the boats and set sail, avoid all the risks of going overland, Charlottetown was also a port city. Of course, he didn’t know anything about sailing, so he kept moving past the small building and all the boats with a sigh of regret.
His muscles wanted to run, his hunched posture putting more strain on his legs than just letting his stride take him, moving as fast as he could away from there. It was so tempting, but around him there were shambling dead people, walking slowly, aimlessly. He was sure he could handle one or two easily and with the right position even four or five. There were dozens even on this sleepy side street. If they realised he was there, he would stand no chance. One of them got close to him, so he lay down, staying as still as he could. He started to feel cold despite the warmth of the evening, the ground, at first pleasantly cool, was sapping the heat from his muscles. His stomach felt hollow, empty. The thing moved away, shuffling down the road. Time to get up and keep going, agonising step by agonising step. Full dark had set in, and even with the fires, it was hard to see anything.
Out of the blue Snow let out a snarl, quiet enough that it didn’t carry, and then there was a thumping sound. In the half light, he could make out the white dog sitting on the chest of a zombie, an older man with a large gut. The man was trying to bite Snow, jaws snapping, neck at an angle that he could never have achieved while alive. The big husky mix held him down, a paw on either shoulder. Jasper pulled his knife from his belt, pushed the creature’s forehead to the side and slammed his thick blade through its temple. The creature stopped trying to bite, lying still on the ground. “Thanks, buddy,” Jasper said, his voice no more than a whisper. He started moving down the road, a bit shaken, but also confident that Snow had his back.
Finally, a flash of light from a nearby explosion told him he had reached the small bridge at the end of the road; he had made it a full five kilometres from his house, a less than twenty-minute run achieved in a day
He moved quickly across the bridge, no cover to be had there, and into the small park right past it. Night had been a mistake. The zombies didn’t seem to care about the darkness, while it crippled him. Better to move through as much of the day as he could, maybe just stay out of sight of heavily trafficked routes, stay off roads, be more careful. There was a small hut inside the park; door padlocked shut. Jasper used the hilt of his sword to break the lock as quietly as he could. With all the noise going on around him he risked being heard, even if it was a small risk as quiet as he was being, reasoning it was less of a risk than trying to keep going outside. Snow followed him into the hut, padding along on silent paws. He pulled the door behind him, and then took out his phone. The light from the flashlight app was almost blinding after the hours of moving in near total darkness.
The hut was, as he had always assumed, a storage shed for groundskeeping equipment. He decided to scavenge a bit, and then try to catch some rest. Despite having slept most of the day he was exhausted. Probably a combination of stress and lack of food he figured, so he did a quick survey of the room and then moved tools and random stuff into a pile, so he had a bit of clear floor to lie on. He put down some canvas sacks filled with soil and lay down on them.