Under a Ford Mustang with my hand over my mouth, my heart beating so hard I was certain they were able to hear it. There were about fifteen of the dead ambling slowly past the car, stinking to high heaven. My body shook, every muscle trembling as I fought to stay perfectly still. They shuffled and lurched unsteadily; dead, rotting limbs holding them up almost supernaturally. Tears of loneliness rolled down my face as I thought of my family and life before the virus. I wasn’t one of those teenagers who hated their moms, dads, and siblings. I actually loved my family and my life. I felt loved and cared for and during the first week of the infection, life went on in a semi-normal fashion until the people in my hometown of Briar Bush started getting sick. I’d had a bad feeling when a week before that an alarming number of low-flying planes in the area crisscrossed the sky with what some conspirators said were chemtrails. Of course, they were brushed off as loony toons until the dead started walking.
My dad was the first to get bitten sometime after leaving for work. He came home and killed my mother and baby brother. I never found out what happened to Georgie, but I’m pretty sure, as fast as this whole thing happened, he never stood a chance. I managed to get away, but not after seeing my dad kill my mom and having it etched into my brain forever. Annie and Zack were killed by family members, too. They must have been bitten and walked out into the street in a daze because I found their half-eaten bodies laying on the ground, attacked before they even had a chance to turn. When I finally left, my head was in a daze and I walked around for weeks passing town after town without even remembering their names. I lived on canned beans, fruit, and Spaghettios.
No one believed in Zombie Apocalypse except for me (well, me, Zack, and Annie, but they’re gone now.) I watched enough zombie movies and YouTube videos about this moment so it was no surprise to me. I knew it was coming. I also knew the rules. A shot to the head is the only way they die, never get caught without a weapon and run like hell if there were more than you could handle. I learned the rules from watching the movie, ‘Zombieland’. I knew, too, that unless you had a group, you were zombie food. So my goal was to find a group of like-minded people to band up with for protection during the long days spent foraging for food and supplies. It’s not only dangerous, but it can also get pretty damn lonely out here.
The last zombie staggered past but I waited another twenty minutes to make sure there were no stragglers. Quietly easing myself out of my hiding spot, I looked cautiously in all directions. Brushing the dust from my clothes, as if it mattered how I looked anymore, I quietly slipped westward into the woods. I needed to find shelter before sundown and Johnstown was just up ahead. I would clear a house, secure the doors and stay there for the remainder of the night. It was getting cool outside with Autumn just around the corner. I loved Autumn in New York. The peak leaf season was spectacular, bursting with color and beauty. I loved the feeling of crunchy leaves underfoot and the crisp, musty smell of the woods as another season’s layer of leaves is added to the spongy, forest floor. After walking for what seemed like miles, my backpack felt like it weighed a ton, my shoulders aching from the strain. The beauty became less noticeable, the crunchy leaves less pleasing to the ear until all I wanted to do was lay on a soft, cozy bed without being afraid to go to sleep. One thing I didn’t expect with the zombie apocalypse was the constant fear. You went to sleep with it and woke up with it. Sleep, if you can call it that, was all about closing one eye and keeping the other open. As I crested a rise, the town lay below in a peaceful setting straight out of a Thomas Kincaid painting. Beautiful, manicured homes backdropped by the Adirondack mountains. The main street was lined with small shops, diners, and the remains of those who lived and worked here. Minus the ones that now walked in limbo searching for flesh. I walked quietly, staying close to the buildings with my ears and eyes open, searching for any movement or sound that could harm me. I came across a small park littered with banners announcing the two-hundredth anniversary of the town. I bet Johnstown’s founding fathers never would have believed how their beloved town met its demise.
After surveying each house for potential hiding places, I finally found the perfect one. Tucked away at the end of a dead-end street, the charming little cottage was surrounded by trees and the proverbial white picket fence. Overgrown gardens stood wilted and dying in the fading light, a ghostly testament of what was once someone’s pride and joy. Gun in one hand, knife in the other, I ventured inside. Keeping my back against the wall, I peeped around the corner of the living room door into the kitchen. Nothing. Quietly I tiptoed into the dining room and surveyed the brightly colored, floral wallpaper. An antique china closet, just like the one my grandmother had, was smashed along with all of its delicate contents. I picked up a piece of bone China and tossed it by a staircase that led to the second floor. Noise usually drew the dead out, and after waiting a few minutes, I breathed a sigh of relief, finally able to relax my guard a little.
Placing my hand on the ornate banister, I felt the smooth, mahogany finish as I climbed the carpeted staircase. At the top were three bedrooms, one to my right and the other two down the hall on the left.
A scratching sound inside of the door to my left made me stop dead in my tracks. Walking slowly up to the door, I opened it quickly, knife held in a striking pose. Sitting on the floor next to the bed, a zombie child was eating from the carcass of a small dog. I hated killing the kids. It felt so wrong. This one was probably close to nine or ten-years-old. I didn’t want to use the gun because of the noise factor. Just as I was about to bring my knife down with a killing blow, it turned its head, saw me, and shrieked.
My arm froze in mid-air, shocked beyond belief. The thing looked somewhat like a zombie, smelled like a zombie and I saw the ugly, jagged bite wound on its small forearm. Seeing where my eyes went, it looked up quickly, holding its hands out beseechingly. The zombie was a young girl.
“No! I’m not a zombie!” she cried, “Please don’t kill me. I’m only part zombie! I only eat when I have to. I don’t crave like the others. Please, don’t kill me. I won’t hurt you.”
Okay, so there was a new development. But a zombie was a zombie and I wasn’t taking any chances. She was cute and all, but...
“I can keep them away from you!” she insisted. “They don’t bother me! I can actually walk with them if I wanted, but I don’t want to ’cause they smell funny and they drool and make funny noises.”
She sure did sound like a kid, I thought after her rambling stopped. My arm lowered as my brain tried to wrap itself around this new and very strange addition to the apocalypse. I thought about how the zombies always stayed in groups, which kind of blew my mind considering their brain function was the most basic of functions; feeding their ugly mugs. When you think about it, even that didn’t make any sense! I mean, they didn’t go to the bathroom, as far as I knew anyway, so how could they keep eating and not digesting? Where did all the food go? Why didn’t their teeth fall out? How could they hear? See? It didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.
I backed away from the kid and lowered my knife. I had to think. She watched me warily, like a fox with its foot caught in a trap. Under all the dirt, blood, and gamey smell, she was really quite pretty. Her hair, from what I could see beneath the tousled snarl of blonde, was amazingly curly. Reaching just below her shoulders, I knew girls, I mean, I used to know girls, who would kill for ringlets like hers. Her cornflower-blue eyes didn’t quite have that glazed, opaque look the zombies all had, I mean, the opaqueness was there, but only slightly. They looked at me with fear and longing as if she’d been alone for a very long time. I knew that feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve forgotten what a hug feels like or when the sun doesn’t shine for a really long time. When you’ve seen so much horror and death you just want to close your eyes from it all and pretend like it didn’t matter anymore.
“What’s your name, kid,” I asked her.
“Skye,” she said softly, sighing with relief, “My name is Skye.”
“So, you’re telling me that you’ve only turned partway? How is that even possible? When were you bit?” I asked.
Her thin shoulders visibly relaxed at my question. Now she could at least explain herself knowing I wasn’t going to kill her right away.
“I was bitten right in the beginning when it all started,” she told me, tears shimmering like blue diamonds, “I only eat small animals or canned dog food.” Seeing the disgusted look on my face, she got defensive. “It’s not that bad, for God’s sake. It’s better than eating human flesh!”
I agreed. What could be worse than that?
“Well, how can I be sure that in the middle of the night I’m not going to wake up and find you munching on my leg or something?” I asked.
She giggled at the picture I put in her mind, making me smile at the childish sound.
“’Cause I don’t like to eat people. It’s gross and it makes me throw up,” she answered, “and I hate throwing up, don’t you?”
I had to laugh at her childlike logic.
“Yeah, I do, it’s really gross. But what if you run out of dog food or can’t catch a wild animal, then what?”
“I try to catch animals, but sometimes I just go hungry,” she said, “What I like best, and it doesn’t make me sick, is cat or dog food.”
“Ewww!” I moaned, feeling a little sick to my stomach.
“I know, but at least I’m not one of those.” she said, pointing outside, “I would really want to die if I were.”
“What about your family? Are they dead?” I asked bluntly. This wasn’t the time to sugar coat anything. Not anymore. Her eyes flashed with pain and knew they were.
“Yes. My parents tried to protect my little sister and me. She was only three,” Skye said softly as she reminisced, “when the biters came, we were outside playing on the swingset. We heard screaming from down the street and it seemed like the whole neighborhood was running towards us. Daddy heard, too. He came out to see what was going on.”
“Then what? Did he stop them?” I asked her gently.
Her eyes glistened with sadness.
“Yes, only, he got bit. Then he bit mommy. After that, he and mommy came after my sister and me.”
Now she was really crying. Fat tears rolled trails through the dirt and blood. I felt so bad, I just had to put my arm around her. When I did, I swear she practically melted into me. I had to admit it felt good holding her tiny, warm body next to mine. It had been so long and despite her peculiar odor, I pulled her close.
“What came next, after he attacked you and your sister?” I asked, still holding her tight.
“He grabbed Star, that was my sister’s name, by her hair and took her right out of my arms,” she whispered as if saying the memory out loud would somehow make it worse. “Her screams were so loud and high pitched! I couldn’t save her, I was too scared! So I ran away. I heard my uncle Josh calling me, but I was too scared to come back. I went to the park and hid in the tunnel by the jungle gym. I just curled up and cried myself to sleep.”
“So how did you get bit, Elli?”
“I was so stupid!” she explained, “I let my arm dangle out of the tunnel. One of those things came, grabbed my arm, and just bit down as hard as it could. It took a chunk right off! I never felt anything hurt so bad. I got loose and ran as fast as I could until I found this house. I’ve been here ever since.”
I held Skye at an arm’s length. “Listen, honey, I’m really sorry you had to go through all of that horror. But something really amazing happened to you after you were bit and people need to know! There must be something in your blood resisting the virus!”
“What people?” she asked me.
“Well, for starters, the people that look for cures for stuff,” I told her, “you know, the scientists at the Center for Disease Control.”
“No way! All they’ll do is poke me with a bunch of needles and stuff!” she whined, “I hate needles!”
Yep, she was a real kid. No doubt about it. Whine and all.
“Listen, Skye, you’re different. I’ve been out here since it started and I haven’t seen anyone like you, a hybrid, I guess we could call you. I feel like that’s important!” I told her.
“’Ya know what? I don’t even know your name.”
I felt a little ashamed of myself after this poor girl just poured her heart out to me and I never even told her my name.
“My name’s Elli,” I said, sitting down next to her, “I’m sixteen. This place is cleared, right?”
“What do you mean by that,” she asked, “you mean those things? Yeah, it’s cleared. It’s just you and me here.”
I relaxed a little, taking the time to look at my surroundings. It must have been a cute house at one time, boasting a cozy little fireplace and a sprawling sectional living room set. A thick, soft rug sat in front of the fireplace just perfect for lounging in front of a fire. The owners must have loved plants, too, just in the living room alone, dozens of flower pots sat around in random spots, with crispy, dead plants within them. Most houses I ventured into were already ransacked and vandalized without even a lousy can of beans left. It’s kinda funny, actually. There’s always a can of beans. The beans are always taken last out of desperation. I can’t ever remember walking into a store and asking where the beans are.
I looked over at Skye wondering what I was going to do with her. The fact that she was part zombie was a little disturbing, to say the least, but she sure was a cute kid. Smart, too. It’s just that I’d been alone for so long, it was hard for me to think of anyone but myself. But it was also nice to have someone to talk to and for that reason alone I decided to make myself her ward. We would be a team. Mind made up, I turned to her and smiled. We walked back down the stairs so I could check to make sure the front door was locked. I put the chain lock on for extra safety, thinking of how nice having a partner would be.
“Okay, so I’ve been thinking,” I said, “I’ve decided that I’m going to let you tag along with me.”
I saw a change come over her face and it sort of reminded me of me. Hands on her hips, head cocked, her blue eyes flamed up.
“Oh, really? Well, what if I don’t want to ‘tag along’ with you!” she shot back, “What if I’m just perfectly happy being alone?”
Okay, I had to admit, I didn’t expect that.
“Hey, chill, let me rephrase that,” I told her. “I would be grateful if you would consider hanging out with me and being a team.”
That did it. The proverbial fur smoothed back down and she smiled.
“Now that’s more like it. I’d like that, Elli,” she said. “just as long as you remember that you’re not my boss.”
Now I was getting annoyed. “Listen, Skye, I’m older than you and there has to be a leader. You’re only ten so that automatically makes me the leader, got it?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she sulked, “but don’t think you get to boss me around. Things are different now.”
“I understand that. But when it comes to listening when our lives are at stake, please trust me, okay?” I looked into her eyes, trying to establish some kind of rapport with her. “We’re only going to survive if we work together. Deal?”
“Deal,” she agreed. “One other thing, I got dibs on the bottom bunk!”
I watched as she raced upstairs, glancing back over her shoulder to see if I gave chase, which I did. Shrieking and laughing, she got to the bedroom door and practically threw herself inside, reaching the bunk bed first.
“No fair, Skye! You had a head start!” I laughed, reaching the room seconds after her.
“Oh well, ya should’ve been on guard!” she giggled crazily, flipping over on her back. I jumped in bed with her, tickling and wrestling, laughing as she cried for mercy. We both lay on the bed, side by side, breathing heavily and savoring the company of a live human being.
It felt so good to laugh and be carefree. God, I can’t even remember when I’d laughed last. She was like a breath of fresh air, this strange little zombie girl.
“Ellie, do you think we’re going to live very long?” she asked, turning serious, “I mean, with those things out there and all the bad people that want to hurt us? This almost doesn’t seem real, ya know? Like I’m going to wake up from some nightmare I’m having.”
I sighed, remembering how I felt that way once. Now, though, I resigned myself to this new and terrible life and the things we had to do to survive.
“I know what you mean,” I said softly, “Sometimes I wake up and for a split second, I think I’m at home in my own bed and I’ll hear my mom calling me to get ready for school. Then I remember. I’m not home, my mother and my whole family are dead, and I’ll never sleep in my own bed again.”
“Yeah, well, at least you don’t have to eat bloody, warm meat,” Skye reminded her, “Try living that reality.”
I almost laughed at how she said that but thought better of it. She was right. I don’t think I’d last long if the shoe were on the other foot. Giving her a quick sympathy hug, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up to take a look around the room. I could see it was once a little girl’s room. The walls, painted sky blue and pink were set off by lacy pink and white curtains with blue trim. A large curio cabinet stood by the closet filled with creepy porcelain dolls from around the world. The weirdest thing was, they were all twin dolls, with each twin dressed in matching costumes. Spotting a photo on the wall, I understood why. Identical twins. I literally couldn’t tell them apart.
’Pretty cool, right? Their clothes are still in the closet and there’s a baby’s room down the hall, too, Elli. Their parent’s room is across from it,” she told me. “You can change your clothes there if you want.”
“Thanks, Skye, that sounds like a plan. I haven’t had a chance to get new clothes in like a week!” I told her, “I’m feeling a little ripe.”
“Right down the hall on the left, second door,” she said, closing her eyes with exhaustion.
I quietly left so she could get some rest, glad she trusted me enough to feel safe. Eagerly heading for the parent’s room, I opened the door slowly, peeking carefully within. You just never knew if a random zombie was lurking. I never took anyone’s say so, I had to see for myself.
The room was decorated in earth tones of brown, gold, and green, immediately lulling me into a state of calm. On the dresser, I found perfumes and lotions and greedily snatched them up to put into my backpack. It’d been a long time since I pampered myself. I looked in the mirror above the dresser and was horrified by my appearance. My honey-colored hair looked a shade or two darker, a mass of greasy tangles hanging loosely just below my shoulders. My tee-shirt was ripped and filthy, not like me at all. I looked at my hands, once pretty and painted, now calloused, the nails brittle and broken. I wanted to cry.
In the closet, I found a pretty gold and black women’s tee shirt and a black hoodie for the chilly nights. I was also lucky enough to find a pair of black Timberland boots, just my size, along with a pair of denim jeans. Now for underwear and a bra and I would feel like a brand new girl. I would have given anything for a shower, but unless I rigged one outside, I wasn’t getting one anytime soon. I felt so gross! I remembered Skye said there was a baby’s room and had an idea. Most babies’ rooms that I knew had a supply of baby wipes and so I quickly headed down the hall to check it out. Using my ‘safety first’ rule, I peeked inside. All clear.
The room made me feel profound sadness as I observed how much love was put into this child’s nursery. The walls looked professionally painted with scenes from Winnie The Pooh with matching curtains and baby blankets. A mobile hung above the crib with all of the Pooh characters; Poo himself, Roo, Tigger, Eeyore, and little honey bees. I wound it up and the theme song played: ’Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff....’. Wiping tears from my eyes, I remembered how I used to think the honey Poo ate from his pot looked so good, but when I tasted it, I was very disappointed that it didn’t taste as good as it looked. On the changing table filled with diapers, tiny onesies, pajamas, and diaper rash creams, I found an unopened box of baby wipes and pumped my fist in triumph. I gratefully left the baby’s room, silently thanking the parents for providing everything. There once was a family who had twins and a baby and lived in a beautiful home. Now they were gone, dead or otherwise. Taking the wipes into the parent’s bathroom, I used half the box to meticulously wipe down my body, feeling ten times better than I did. I put the remaining wipes in my backpack for Skye.
I think the people who lived here must have left in a real hurry. Most of their belongings were still here, and there were no half-eaten bodies. I recalled hearing on a TV in the mall about a safe zone. I remembered the cars full of fleeing families jammed bumper to bumper as they flocked out of the city like migrating Monarchs, desperate to flee the infection. Most of the cars still sat on major routes like I-90 and Rt. 30 S. It was a jumbled, metal mess. I went back to check on Skye and the kid was out like a light. She must have been exhausted. It was a good thing I did because passing by the bedroom window, I spied movement outside on the lawn. Instantly switching to survival mode, I pushed aside the curtain slightly, spotting three living people heading in this direction. One girl and two guys dressed in camouflage. Well, I got news for them. They have no idea who they’re messing with. Running to the twin’s bedroom, I quietly woke Skye.
“Skye, wake up! Company!” I hissed, shaking her shoulder firmly.
I was happy when she came instantly alert, rolling off the bunk bed to her feet in seconds. Hand on her waist where she kept a knife, she looked to me for direction. I pointed to the window and she peeked out, ducking down quickly and nodding her head to confirm she saw them. Then I remembered the clothes I had carelessly left on the bedroom floor. Taking off my shoes I ran down the hallway and grabbed my clothes, my heart pounding with adrenaline. Skye, who had quietly followed me, pulled on my sleeve and pointed up.
“The attic?” I whispered, “Where’s the door?”
Nodding, we searched frantically, finally finding it in the hallway by way of a trap door on the ceiling. We could hear the tinkling of glass breaking in the kitchen and knew they’d busted a window to get in. Grabbing a chair that was obviously used to pull the trapdoor rope down, we tried to be as quiet as possible, but I still winced at the creaking sound. Skye climbed up first, looked around, and waved me up. Thank God I remembered to put the chair back before I joined her. Together we pulled the ladder and the rope back up, closing the trap door silently.
We heard them talking, laughing, and unfortunately, breaking things. I hated destructive idiots like that. Why did everything have to be broken? Whatever. People sucked. Skye and I stood carefully, trying not to make the attic creak, even though they were still downstairs and probably wouldn’t hear us. She pointed to a window at the far end just wide enough to be a possible escape route. Walking carefully, testing each plank for creaks, we tip-toed over.
“We can do it, but first,” I pointed to the treeline, “we’ve got company,“.
A large herd of slow-moving flesh-eaters was heading in this direction. There had to be at least twenty-five of them, the perfect distraction. We only had to let the scene play out and when the zombies made their surprise appearance, we’d make our getaway. We could hear the three people downstairs as they laughed and continued to trash the house and then the screams as the zombies came in through a door carelessly left ajar.
“Come on, Skye, hurry!” I said, helping her out through the window. The backyard was clear, as the only exit door for the strangers in the house was in the kitchen which led to the side yard. We carefully navigated the walkway, then shimmied down a sturdy drain pipe to the ground. Staying low, we headed for the trees and disappeared out of sight. Skye and I jogged for about a mile until she tugged on my hoodie for mercy.
“Elli, let’s stop for a minute, okay?” she gasped, bending over to catch her breath. “I need a rest, my side hurts.”
I agreed, and together we sat with our backs against a tall, grand-daddy oak, its bark rough against our sweaty backs. Looking over at Skye, I noticed she wasn’t looking so hot. Pale, her eyes looked raccoon-ish as dark smudges appeared beneath them.
“Skye? Are you okay?” I said. “Do you want to find shelter and chill for the night?”
“Elli, I’m hungry,” she said weakly. “I need to eat.”
I felt a surge of revulsion for a moment, for I’d forgotten what she was. A hybrid. A half-breed. Without thinking, I inched away from her.
“Don’t be stupid, Elli, ” she said irritably, noticing my slight movement. “I’m not gonna eat you, for God’s sake.”
“Sorry,” I apologized, “So what can we do? What do you want?”
“What I really want is a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, hold the pickle, no onions, large fries, and giant vanilla milkshake,” she sighed.
“Oh, my God, yes,” I agreed, picturing it. My stomach gurgled hungrily at the mental image of the burger. “Or how about a giant Thanksgiving dinner with a juicy golden bird fresh out of the oven. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Green beans and those little round onions and candied sweet potatoes.”
“Shut up! Oh my God, you’re making me so hungry!” Sky moaned, making me laugh. She had a way of doing that in a tense situation. It was kind of cool.
“Okay, seriously, Skye, how do we keep you fed?” I asked her, but in reality, I didn’t even know what I was gonna eat at this point.
“I don’t know, Elli, I need fresh meat, it’s the only thing my stomach will accept. If I eat anything else, like real food, I get sick instantly,” she said, “If we build a little trap, like a snare, maybe we can catch a rabbit or something.”
I looked around the beautiful wooded glen we were in but I didn’t see anything to make a snare with. I told her to stay put and went hunting for vines. I didn’t have to walk far before I found what I needed to make a trigger snare. Wild grapevines. Taking my knife, I cut about four cords, each about two feet long. Hunting around for just the right kind of wood, I found eight long branches from a Cherry Wood tree that looked nice and hard. I cut a trigger-style notch in four of them and on the other four, carved the ends into points and stuck them in my belt. I also found some nice saplings for each trigger snare setting them up carefully about ten yards apart. Now, all we had to do was wait. I prayed that Skye was patient and didn’t do anything rash.
“Elli, how did you know how to make the traps?” she asked, “I would have had no clue how to do that.”
“My dad taught me,” I told her, “He took us camping a lot and taught us all kinds of survival stuff like traps, tying knots, and building fires. I always thought it was boring as hell, but not now. I’m so thankful to him for teaching me.”
I felt tears well up in my eyes as I thought of my dad. Gentle and kind, he was the best dad in the whole world and now he was gone. Everybody I loved was gone. I felt a small arm around my shoulders and suddenly the floodgates burst forth. I sobbed and wailed for the first time since it all started and Skye, God bless her, used baby wipes to mop my tears away. When I finally calmed, the sobs turning to occasional hitchings of my breath, we sat in quiet camaraderie listening to the birds and the rustle of the evening breeze through the leaves. Skye laid her head in my lap. She was burning up. I felt my insides cramp up thinking about something happening to her. I just found her! I looked up at God, begging, ‘please don’t take her away now’ and just as I sent that little prayer to the Man upstairs, I heard the quick, sharp squeak of a small animal.
“Thank you for being so quick, God,” I said, looking to the sky in awe.
Easing Skye off my lap, I ran over to the snares to check out what we caught. The first one was empty, as was the second. But the third one held a rabbit by its neck and around one front leg. I didn’t know if I could kill it as it stared at me with big, liquid eyes, pupils dilated with fear and pain. My own eyes filled as I held its squirming, quivering body to remove the vine strands from around its neck. The crackle of underbrush alerted me to Skye’s approach and I turned to share the good news, but one look on her face told me I didn’t have to. She was literally drooling, her lips curled up in a feral snarl. I dropped the rabbit, a little shocked at her animalistic appearance. She pounced on the soft bunny and I had to turn and walk away so I didn’t grow to hate her. I kept watch, listening to the little feral girl as she tore the screeching rabbit to shreds.