Crossing the river
Morning broke early, filling the shed with filtered light, dust motes sparkling in the beams. Jasper was better able to see his surroundings, to take stock of what he had available. Once he realised how much light the shed let in he was horrified, he had been using his flashlight for an extended period the night before. A scratching sound at the shed door penetrated his mind. If it was only one zombie, he didn’t think it would be a problem. Just slam the door open, and take off its head. If there was more than one, a very different story. He decided to gear up first, just in case he was wading into a group of the undead.
He found a tool belt, a compromise until he could locate a decent sized backpack, and grabbed some essentials. A medium sized pry bar was the best of it. It was going to be a pain in the ass to carry, but it would make getting into buildings much easier. It seemed like breaking and entering was going to make up a large part of his life for the foreseeable future.
Once he had a basic tool kit set up in the tool belt he drew his sword and made sure it was well clear of his belt, then he kicked the door, driving all of his weight into his heel. The door flew open, as the zombie that had been pushing on it fell to the ground. It was just one, so he decapitated it. The first swing didn’t quite do it, the sword biting halfway through the creatures neck. A second swing did the trick. Snow followed, a moment behind him.
He had to cross the Bedford highway again in a moment, in order to make it into a path that would keep him off of the main roads, and for the most part out of sight. There were two paths he could take, the road crossed a small bridge, and there was a foot path that led under it, crossing a small river. It was hidden, would mean he could get across the road safely, but it popped up right next to the road, with no cover. He could be walking into anything, there could be hundreds of zombies right there, and he wouldn’t know until they were on top of him. The other path was over the road, exposed the whole time. If he took that one, he would be able to see what was coming, to plan.
It was worth the risk after his experience the night before. He didn’t want to be caught unawares again; Snow might not be able to save him this time. He crept up the embankment to a parking lot next to the road, surveying the scene ahead while staying as close to the ground as possible. His weight was on his elbows and toes, moving with almost a slither, belly centimetres from the ground. The strain on his shoulders was intense, keeping his weight that spread out, and he moved slowly, inch by agonising inch until he was in a position where he could see everything. His position was a bit above the highway, looking down at the chaos below.
The highway was covered in cars, empty of living inhabitants. The dead wandered between the abandoned vehicles, no pattern to their movement, no apparent logic to them at all. A grotesque tableau of decayed flesh. Even the intact ones had a quality to them, not just their too stiff movement, not just their grey and empty eyes, a slackness to their flesh, which made them horrifying. Jasper couldn’t tell how many of them there were; hundreds at least, maybe thousands. They were spaced out though, not clustered. The stopped cars provided cover.
Slowly, moving in a crouch so his silhouette wouldn’t be highlighted, Jasper made his way to the road. Snow stayed close by, eyes darting left and right, sniffing the air. The two of them crept up the stairs until they hit the sidewalk and crawled behind a van. So far so good, no increase in shuffling towards them. Jasper moved between cars, carefully and deliberately. He was almost across the street when his pry bar hit the side of a car, hard. The clanging sound spread through the street, and suddenly all the zombies were turning his way. Jasper leapt up started running. He hit a side street picking up speed, not even looking back. He could hear Snow panting next to him.
There was an office building not too far ahead, so he aimed for it, sprinting as hard as he could. The sprint was enough to give him a tiny bit of distance, get him ahead of the horde. Once he had some breathing room he slowed to a steady jog, settling into his long distance stride. He was still faster than the undead, and it meant he wasn’t going to run out of steam too quickly, running down the side street until the building was in sight. It was new construction, large glass doors barring his way in. He jammed the pry bar into the gap between the door and frame and pushed as hard as he could. The door popped open with a loud squeal, the frame bent out of shape around the lock, glass still intact. He was developing a love/hate relationship with the pry bar. Jasper had never been inside this building before, but he was counting on it being like most small office buildings. Sure enough, there was a stairwell right inside the door, on the right. He opened the heavy duty fire door to the stairs and headed up, Snow on his heels. The zombies were catching up to him, his pause to open the main door had cost him time. He was counting on that. The zombies started milling into the building lobby, scratching at the stairwell door, trying to get at him, their weight pressed into it. Jasper ran up the stairs with Snow. If he had guessed wrong about the layout of the building he had no plan, no idea what he would do, everything depended on this one guess. He slammed the second-floor door open, headed for the back of the building. Once he got there he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. There was another stairwell with the words “fire door, do not open” on it. Exactly as he had been counting on. He vaulted down the back stairwell hitting the latch on the rear door with an outstretched arm, and kept running. The tree line was right behind the building. He stopped running, wanting to make as little noise as possible, and moved slowly towards it. Snow seemed to pick up the need for quiet once again, slinking along next to him.
Finally, he was under decent cover. It was a small green belt, the kind you find in suburban neighbourhoods to make them feel more like you aren’t in the city. He moved slowly through the trees and back to the street, around a bend and out of view of the office building. The highway continued on the other side of the river, a natural barrier between him and the zombies that hadn’t chased him. The ones that had were long out of sight, not following any further.
He made his way down to the path next to the grocery store parking lot. He was hungry, hungrier than he had been in years, it felt like his stomach was eating itself. The last time he was that hungry he was doing his survival certs in mid winter. Snow would be at least as hungry as he was. The grocery store was tempting, incredibly tempting. He crept along the path with Snow, keeping low to the ground. He rounded the bend so he could see the front of the store. It looked safe, no zombies clustered out front, no people trying to break in. A lot of blood near the doors though, clear indication that something went down yesterday. A bad sign: the door was wide open, and the lights were out. There were better stores in the other mall across the highway, but no way was he trying that crossing again.
He moved through the parking lot, scanning from side to side, head up. He made it to the front door, it was jammed in place, random bits of trash blocking it. Inside he could see that the second set of sliding doors were closed, the lobby trashed. No food in between the sets of doors. Jasper moved to the inner doors, pushed the pry bar in between them, leaning his weight on it, hard. He heard something moving inside, shuffling towards him. Three zombies shambled into view. It was a gamble, it was possible that the horde from the office building would still hear him, but he was so hungry. He decided to chance it, but cautiously, methodically. He pushed the doors most of the way shut, leaving a thin gap between them. He pulled one of the large tables over to the outside doors and upended it so it was blocking the entryway, making as little noise as he could. The noise he did make was enough to pull all the zombies he could see right to the door. There were more than he had thought, ten or twelve it looked like, all clustered near the door, trying to push through. The door was starting to slide, so he drew his sword and stabbed the closest one through the head. The creature’s skull provided resistance for a moment, so he pushed harder, until finally it smashed through the bone, right through the back of the head. Pulling the sword out was harder than he had thought it would be. Another one filled the gap as soon as the first one fell, teeth gnashing. An older woman, heavily made up. Her body was torn in a dozen places and her throat had a gaping wound. There was a strong smell of shit coming from her, and probably from all of them. He hadn’t encountered them indoors before, and not in these numbers. The smell was worse than he had imagined. He knew that dead people would lose control of their bowels, but it hadn’t occurred to Jasper that meant zombies too.
He slammed the blade forward again, catching her at a bit of an angle, so it sliced off a large hunk of her cheek and some of the flesh on her head, just surface damage. She didn’t even flinch, continuing to try and bite him, teeth gnashing in the gap of the doors. He pulled the sword back again and slammed it forward on target this time. He realised the doors were starting to slide, and there was no way for him to brace them, he needed to pick up the pace and pick it up now. Desperate, he started slamming the sword into the undead as rapidly as he could. By the time the doors opened wide enough for them to spill through there was only four left. The first one fell to the floor as Jasper swung his blade. He caught the second in the neck, but his blade was coming at a downward angle. It bit into its far shoulder, lodging there and pulling out of his hand as the zombie fell. Snow jumped on the back of the one on the ground and started biting at the back of its neck, keeping it pinned, but that left two coming at him while he had no sword.
He backed up as he pulled the pry bar from his tool belt. The first one to reach him was a teenage girl, she might even have been pretty if all of her face had been there. Between the smell and the missing left half of her face she made him nauseous. Nothing in his life had prepared him for the smells and sights he was confronting. On television it was sanitized, hidden behind glass. It was different when the rot, the decay, the excrement, was in his nose almost solid in its intensity. The wounds were wet, oozing, dripping. The zombies made noises too, not just moaning noises, wet squishy sounds as they moved, the sound of bodily fluids drying and pulling against flesh. He brought the pry bar down on her head as hard as he could, throwing all of his weight into the swing. There was a sickening crack, and she stumbled… but didn’t drop. He drew back and slammed the bar down again. He knew that he had hit her with enough force to kill a human, but apparently it wasn’t enough to actually destroy her brain. She was reaching for him with hands drawn into claws, he didn’t have enough room to swing full force. The top of her head was deformed, bits of bone showing through her hair. He swung again, as best he could. Her fetid breath in his nose, blank dead eyes looking into his. The metal hit her already weakened skull, and finally she dropped. The other one was right next to her and got hold of Jaspers shirt, pulling itself towards him more than him towards it, before he had a chance to catch his breath. Jasper drove his weight behind the curved end of the pry bar and slammed it into the creature’s mouth. This one was a teenage boy, long shaggy hair drenched in blood, left eye missing, right eye milky and empty. Jasper heard teeth crack and saw them fall out of the things mouth. He kept pushing, harder and harder. Finally he got some momentum and slammed the zombie back into the glass next to the door. He jammed his right shoulder against one end of the bar, and pulled his hunting knife out of its belt sheath. He pressed the blade against the zombies temple, while trying to hold it steady between his left arm and his right shoulder. Finally the blade started to sink in, eventually making it deep into its skull. The life finally went out of the creature and it dropped to the ground, just in time. Jasper had no strength left in his arms, his breath was coming ragged and hard, trying to draw enough oxygen into his lungs, an impossible task at that moment. That left just one. Snow had it immobilized on the ground, straddling its back. Jasper put both hands on the hilt of his sword and one foot on the back of the zombie and pulled the blade free. It wasn’t too hard, with leverage on his side. The walked over, almost casually, and pressed the tip of the blade into the creature’s head. He pressed down, then leaned his entire weight onto the hilt. The sword popped through the skull and the creature stopped struggling. As soon as it stopped Snow stopped fighting it, somehow knowing in his doggy brain that the threat was gone.
Now that he had a moment to breathe Jasper wanted to be out of there fast before the horde caught up to him. First, he hit produce and grabbed a bag of apples. Apples are portable and keep for a while even without refrigeration. He ate one on the spot, marvelling at how crisp it was, how good the juice felt bursting in his mouth, rain in a desert. After he ate and gathered his breath, he started scavenging. He headed for bottled water and grabbed a large bottle for Snow to drink. The big dog started lapping at it instantly, not even stopping when Jasper headed into the meat sections. Normally Snow got high-end pet food, but what could be higher end than top of the line t-bone steaks? It wasn’t like they were going to be edible for much longer, and the dog needed to eat.
After Snow had his basic needs satisfied, Jasper started searching the store more seriously. He ate as he went, sucking up calories as fast as possible. He managed to find a medium backpack, a bargain brand leftover from last season that nobody had bothered with, not exactly suitable for his needs but better than nothing. There were a few other discounted items in seasonal meant for camping. He grabbed what he could, which was nothing much. There was one gem though, a few cans of alcohol gel meant for folding camp stoves. Just the dregs at the end of the season. There were also a few bottles of barbecue starter and a couple of barbecue lighters. He took all of that and improvised a sling for one of the four-litre bottles of water so that he could carry it around his shoulder. Finally, he had all he could carry, a bunch of tinned food, a can opener, a single can of pop, for the can, he still hadn’t decided if he should drink it or empty it on the ground. He headed for the entry way. There were a few zombies in the parking lot now, but still not many. Jasper left by the fire exit, since it didn’t have a giant table blocking it.
With a bit of food in his stomach things felt a lot more possible. Maybe he would be able to find a vehicle once he was out of the city and make his way by car most of the way. It would only take a few days that way. Karen was irritating, but competent. To be fair most people liked her, it was only Jasper that found her hard to deal with. There was something sticking in the back of his head though, something about the store. He put it aside to let his subconscious sort it out. One of the zombies spotted him right away, and started shuffling in his direction. He could see maybe a half dozen scattered around. There were bridges across the river leading to the parking lot he was in, and many, many undead on the other side of those bridges, he’d better be both quick and quiet getting out of sight. The path led along the river bank, and was far enough down that nobody from the road was going to be able to see him. Unfortunately that meant dealing with what was here fast. He drew his sword and moved on the approaching zombie. Fuck. Zombies. It hit him all of a sudden. He was swinging a sword at a zombie in the parking lot of the Bedford Superstore. This couldn’t be real, not possible.
The moment passed as quick as it had hit him, he was too busy, had too much to accomplish. He took off the things head and kept moving fast. Two of the others noticed the movement and started to close, close enough that he didn’t think he’d be able to lose them. The trail went under the first bridge, which meant he would have the advantage of cover and controlling the terrain if he could make it there before they could reach him. It would also mean that only one of them could get at him at a time. If they both tried they would end up in the river, which was swollen and overflowing its banks due to a wet summer. He half ran, half slid down the short slope by the riverbank and then moved fast into the hidden spot under the bridge. He saw one of the zombies come down, then another, then another, then another. Four. Shit. He’d managed to draw almost all the ones from the lot right to him. The first one came at him, a slow lurching crawl. He couldn’t get a good swing at its head, so he aimed for its right leg, swinging as hard as his body would allow. He cleaved its leg from its body. The zombie fell into the water and was carried away from him. The river was high enough that even on the path he was up to his ankles, and the water was cold. He stood and waited. Snow was behind him, waiting. Suddenly he heard Snow leap, the water splashing, and a moment later saw the zombie that had been sneaking up behind him float away. The next three were easy. He only managed to dispatch one of them, but the river dealt with all four the same way. Even for a living person the current was intense. Apparently zombies weren’t great swimmers. Nice to know.
Jasper kept to the path, but the path didn’t go under the last two bridges, it ran up to them. He weighed the odds, but in the end, it was Snow that made him decide to go over on top of the bridges. The husky could swim, but he wasn’t good at it, and Jasper wasn’t about to risk the dog who had saved his life at least three times in the last twenty-four hours. He crept to the edge of the roadway, one hand on the dog’s shoulder, keeping an eye for zombies. When Jasper couldn’t see any, he popped up and sprinted across the road. He made the first bridge without attracting any notice. Jasper was even more cautious at the next bridge and managed it without problems. Finally, he was out of sight of the highway and could stay there for a long time.
The path Jasper and Snow followed passed through a green belt that lasted several kilometres and was almost entirely out of sight. The path led them past a chain link fence, crowded with a dozen or so zombies, all in military garb. The rifle range, Jasper had been hoping to check it out, see if he could get any weapons - did they even keep weapons in there? That was the one area Jasper had been nervous about, the path almost met up with a larger highway for a few feet before descending into tree cover. He passed between the broad road and the chain link fence on high alert. Too many zombies to check the gun range, all of them snarling and growling, trying to push through the distressed links. At least the highway was empty. He was in an area that was not really part of any area of the city, a transition between one suburb and another, not usually heavily trafficked in the early morning, probably never heavily trafficked again he realized. They moved onto the tree covered part of the path, crisscrossing the river as they went. The hard packed dirt under their feet made it easy to stay quiet, and the rushing river drowned other noises in its flowing depths. Jasper felt safer than he had since leaving the yellow house.
Around midday, Jasper stopped for some food. There was a small nook, with a bench and a shady view of the river, an idyllic spot he often stopped at when walking Snow. Jasper unpacked some crusty bread and sharp cheese, chased with bottled water, no longer cold but so refreshing. He poured a second bottle into a small dish for Snow. Despite the proximity of the river, Jasper was very, very careful with water supplies. He knew the Sackville River was heavily polluted, not potable drinking water, or even safe to swim in. The clear waters were an illusion. Maybe in a few decades, the water would be clear again, the damage done by his species fading.
Despite his fear, his need to make it to Taylor, the peace and tranquility of this spot seeped into him, calming him, letting his mind relax. If he was going to make it to Charlottetown he would need to plan, to think things through carefully. So far he’d been going on adrenaline and need, moving forward almost randomly. Every time he thought about Taylor he started to go into panic mode, what if she was alive right now, cornered somewhere, desperate for help? She was so far away, weeks at least if he couldn’t get a working car. There was a voice in the back of his head telling him it was useless, but it was a voice he couldn’t listen to. Every time it got too loud he thought about that moment in the hospital when he first took her tiny body in his arms, met her still closed eyes with his and introduced himself “Hi, I’m your father. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with you for the next few years.” The smell of her, the warm softness, the feeling of life and potential from that new person, only in the world a few moments. She had nustled close to him, wiggling her little body so it made as much contact with him as possible, and fallen asleep. He just stared at her in wonder until the nurse came and took her away.
Finally, it clicked - the grocery store. Everyone in there was wearing a store uniform, and the inner doors were shut. How had they died? It didn’t seem like any zombies had made it in from outside. This looked like a Romero situation, no way this had spread so fast if it was only transmitted by bite, more likely anybody who died got back up again. The store was different though. Why would somebody have died in there? No answers presented themselves. Jasper put it back on the back burner of his mind, something to worry about when he had the time. Break over; he started moving down the path again.
The rest of the day was spent traveling, and the one after that. He was still technically in the city, but in much less populated areas. Sleeping in hollows and relying on the weather to stay fair and warm. This area was full of single family homes, widely spaced, lots of green space to hide in. He saw zombies pretty frequently but for the most part he was able to stay clear of them. There was only one that spotted him from close enough to be a problem. He was crossing cul-de-sac when the zombie stumbled on him, stepping out from between two houses. It was the corpse of an older man, balding and wearing his bathrobe over fuzzy slippers. The tie on his bathrobe was loose, and the robe hung open, showing a distended belly, black with rot. The zombie started walking his way, shuffling with arms outstretched. Snow pounced, knocking him off balance. He tried to bite Snow, teeth gnashing. This time Snow wasn’t able to knock him down, and Snow wasn’t biting, even though his lips were pulled back into a snarl. Jasper pulled his sword, swinging at the old mans head. He was getting used to the shock in his arms, like nothing he’d experienced in training. Flesh parted, bone shattered, and the blade cleaved deep, burying itself through the skull, right into the old mans neck. He fell, lifeless and limp.
By evening of day four Jasper was exhausted and cold. He needed to find a place with shelter and security. Close to nightfall he spotted a school. It looked empty. The school yard was fenced in, although there were significant gaps for entry and exit points. He moved in, cautiously, sword at the ready. He thought heard something from inside, but when he stopped to listen, it didn’t come again. Could be a zombie, but could just as easily have been a cat, or his imagination. If it was a zombie he would deal with it; he didn’t see any other choice.