Chapter 2: The Beginning
Eli was beginning to fear that something had gone terribly wrong.
It wasn’t just that the internet was out. It wasn’t even the fact that the internet had been out for almost two weeks now, and no matter how much he tried to call the cable company about it he never got anything more than a busy signal. That was worrying enough, but now the power had gone out, too, and he couldn’t call the power company, either. He knew with absolute certainty, or at least he believed with absolute certainty, that they could not have cut his power or internet due to lack of payment. He had just paid when all of these shenanigans had begun, so he shouldn’t be in trouble for at least another couple of weeks, and then it probably should have been another week or two after that before they cut off the power. Of course, he couldn’t pay either bill with the internet shut off like this. Not that they deserved payment if this was how they were going to treat a loyal customer. Well, mostly loyal. Well, sort of loyal.
His stomach rumbled, interrupting his thoughts, and reminded him that he was almost completely out of food. There were still a couple frozen dinners in the freezer, and maybe a little bit of sandwich meat, cheese, and the remains of a condiment bottle or two, but he didn’t want to risk opening the fridge or the freezer with the power off. There were some boxes of Ramen noodles left over from his ex-roommate, but he had never grown nearly desperate enough to eat them. Now that he couldn’t microwave them that was even more not an option. In the cupboard there was a box of frighteningly old crackers, and a cereal box he didn’t even remember getting, next to a bag of tortillas he’d bought at the beginning of the summer and somehow never gotten around to eating. For a brief moment he considered the possibility that he might stop being such a slob and actually throw some of this stuff away, but it was only a very, very brief moment.
What this meant, all and all, was that if the power didn’t come back on in the next few minutes, he was probably going to have to - he squeezed his eyes shut tightly, not even wanting to think it – go… to the… store.
Maybe he could just grab some fast food. The problem with the electricity would probably right itself at some point that night, meaning he only needed to be able to get through one meal, maybe two at the most, before he could go back to eating his frozen dinners, the old sandwich meat, and – if worse came to worse – the Ramen. That could stretch out the need to go to the store for at least a couple more days, maybe more, depending on how well he could stomach the Ramen.
The plan made, he began to pace about the room, feeling the excitement quickly building inside of him. He could probably go to Nacho’s Tacos and get that big box of breakfast tacos. They came wrapped up in aluminum foil already, and maybe he wouldn’t even have to store them in the fridge overnight to have half for dinner and the other half for breakfast. They probably wouldn’t keep that well, but they’d probably remain at least edible. Yes, this could all work out, he told himself, and began eagerly dressing in appropriate clothing for going outside. This meant pants that didn’t have anthropomorphic, karate fighting cartoon turtles on them and a t-shirt that wasn’t a goodwill find from the 90’s and thus didn’t have some embarrassing slogan on it like “If I slept penguins would peck my eyes out.”
Unfortunately, most of his clothes were dirty, as it had been over two weeks since he’d done laundry, so the task wasn’t exactly easy. Still, he managed to find a decent pair of slightly faded dark brown pants with only one, minute hole in the backside, and an only slightly over-worn shirt for the band Urinal Projections. If anyone had problems with what his shirt said, then tough. It was a just a band name. It didn’t really mean anything.
He stalled suddenly, his excitement taking a sharp dive as he glanced toward the window. He wondered what the weather was like outside. It was still late August, just before school started, and Texas, so undoubtedly it was hot as all hell out there. But was it raining? Cloudy? Windy? He would look it up on the internet, if, you know, he still had the internet. In the back of his mind, he was acutely aware that he could simply part the blinds and look outside for a few seconds in order to get the basic idea, but that would mean letting all that terrible natural sunlight into the apartment. He shuddered at the thought. There was enough sunlight seeping through already, enough to tell him that it was day time, enough to tell him that it probably wasn’t more than a little cloudy. That, he decided, would just have to be enough until he got outside. If conditions were bad it was only a short walk down to his car and then he would be out of it again. If that wasn’t enough, he could always just come back inside and wait for a while longer.
If only he could check the internet!
The whole situation gave him pause, and the uneasy feeling that something was very wrong began to seep back into him. No matter how much energy he spent trying to ignore it, he found himself unable to forget it entirely. It was enough to make him want to do something he had not done in a very, very long time: check the news.
“The news.” What good had the news ever done anyone, really? Generally he had considered the news to only be of interest to sadists, perverts, and weirdos; basically, the kind of people most likely to end up on the wrong end of a news story. And politicians, obviously. They would have to be the kind of person that was self-absorbed enough to follow their own media trail.
Every now and then some event occurred that made him question this philosophy. Like that summer when there had been all those car fires around Paris, or whatever. He still wasn’t quite sure what had happened. He only heard about it because he’d happened to be taking a class that summer. Otherwise… who knows? Sometimes he wondered if he would have even known about 9/11 if it hadn’t been for being in school.
Oh God, he thought to himself, his face falling in horror, what if there’s been another 9/11? A worse one this time? A sickening feeling grew inside of him: a feeling like his stomach had fallen away down a bottomless pit. What could be worse than 9/11? What if… what if a war had started?
He glanced at his computer, sitting there quietly and useless. Now he really missed not having the internet! God, what if an atomic bomb had gone off, and all of the outside was just radiation?
His mind raced with a million different ideas, but he took a deep breath, shook his head, and by sheer force of willpower cut off the flow of horror and relaxed. If there had been a bomb, surely he would have heard it going off. He’d know by now if something like that had happened. There would have been some indication. He wasn’t that cut off from society, even without the internet and its weather and news updates, and Legends of Lorindia, the online game he spent most of his time playing.
Ironically, he realized grimly, the only problem was more likely than not simply that he needed to get out more. All this fretting and worrying was almost certainly just a product of nourishing an agoraphobic-like tendency to never go outside. But he wasn’t agoraphobic. He had no fear of panic attacks. Wide-open and public spaces did not concern him in the slightest. He simply didn’t really like other people. Not that he disliked people in general, he just wasn’t very good at interacting with them, face to face, and so he did his best to avoid those situations altogether.
In the end, however, he knew he was going to have to just man up and get on with it, so he took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped outside.
He stopped immediately.
Out in the hallway, just standing there, barely moving at all, was his neighbor from the next apartment over. She was an older lady, probably late middle age, who seemed to live alone with a dog and say creepy things when she passed him in the hall.
She probably wouldn’t seem creepy to most people. That was probably much more his fault than hers.
He stood there for a moment, silently, wondering if he should say anything, and considering that maybe if he waited long enough she would simply go back into her apartment without even noticing him.
“Hey… uh…” he said, racking his brains as he tried to remember her name. Suzy? Susan? Ann? Evelyn? Peter? Wait, Peter? Where did that come from? Obviously her name wasn’t Peter. Then again, you never knew anymore. People did crazy things sometimes. “Hey neighbor,” he settled on, “What’s-”
He stopped there, the next words choking off in his throat. She had turned to look at him, and suddenly no words seemed appropriate.
Her face was drawn and gaunt, so tight that her eyes seemed to be bulging out of her skull, ready to fall to the ground. Her cheeks were sunken, which created a very strange effect on her otherwise chubby features. Her lower lip seemed to be torn off on one side, exposing part of her teeth. Yet most horrifying of all was her left ear, which looked rather like someone had taken a great big bite out of it, several days ago, and she’d just let it grow infected and disgusting.
With a sudden spring of motion she launched herself at him, unleashing a strange, guttural growl that sounded almost like a moan. In horror Eli leaped backwards, trying to slam the door on her, but she proved faster than him. She managed to squeeze partway into the room, her head and upper shoulders just making it through past the closing door. She continued to push. He fought back, but was almost afraid to push too hard, not wanting to crush her.
“Are you crazy?” He called out, watching her as she repeatedly bobbed her head in his direction, trying to maneuver it further through the limited slot. Her jaw continuously opened and snapped shut, and he realized she was actually trying to bite him. Why would she want to bite him? “I’ll call the police!” he warned, but the threat didn’t seem to faze her in the slightest.
He considered trying to push her head back outside, but something in the back of his mind was warning him to not let her bite him, something more than just the desire to not be bitten by a random person. As the seconds passed she slid further and further into the room, and he realized his effort was pretty much futile. Her strength, despite how she looked, was somehow too much for his own.
Bracing himself, he quickly backpedaled, letting the door fly open. His neighbor sprawled to the floor, having not been prepared for the sudden release in pressure. “Oh god!” he exclaimed, taking a small step forward and raising his hands a little as he fought the urge to help her back up. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
Are you okay? Really? Was he honestly concerned with whether or not he had accidently hurt this crazy person? What is wrong with me? he wondered to himself.
Sally or Suzy or whatever her name was did not seem to even notice. She was quickly pulling herself back to her feet, her creepy bulging eyes on him the entire time. Before she even fully rose all the way up she lunged at him again, but without having properly balanced she simply fell back to the floor, almost a full foot from her target. This fact didn’t stop her. One arm lashed out and grabbed Eli’s leg, clinging with an inhuman strength. She seemed to be trying to reach out with the other arm as well, but it was trapped under her and she was simply not grasping the concept of raising herself up first in order to free it.
Despite her ridiculous situation, the strength in her limbs was ghastly. No matter how hard he tried to free himself, Eli could only watch, dumbfounded, as his leg was pulled ever closer and closer to the woman’s mouth. That mouth opened and closed with wild abandon, her desire to bite into him blatantly obvious by this point. Finally she did manage this, her strength proving victorious and she sunk her teeth, rather uselessly, into the rubber sole of his shoe.
Eli’s mind raced. Whatever this was that was happening was just so far beyond his comprehension that he could not even fathom it. He ceased trying to think and became simply a creature of responses. His head turned left and right, eyes searching frantically for the means of his salvation. Without a thought, his right arm reached out, grabbed up an empty jar sitting on a nearby table, and brought it smashing down on his neighbor’s cheek. The sickly sound of bone breaking ripped through the air, freeing Eli from his shock and making him suddenly fully aware of what he had done.
A blow like that should have brought a definitive end to this situation. Suzanne or whatever’s jaw should have been useless, and she should have been either unconscious, or rolling around on the floor, screaming in pain. This, most horrifyingly of all, was far from the truth. Instead, she seemed to not even notice the attack, as her jaw continued to gnash and bite in an effort to make it through his shoe.
Eli screamed - not in fear, but with an animalistic rage at the insanity of this situation and this neighbor - and raised the jar again, slamming down this time straight onto the woman’s head. Again, there was no effect, but he was not dissuaded. He repeated this action, then again, and then once more. Each time, the sickening sound of bones shattering under the assault sounded like the roar of a hurricane in Eli’s ears, but each time his attacker seemed to not notice as she continued her feast on his shoe. So he continued the beating, striking her over and over again, until finally he realized that several hits ago she had ceased her gnawing, and in fact little remained of her head beyond a disgusting, bloody pulp.
Straightening up, Eli pulled his foot free, and out of breath he collapsed against a nearby wall. The jar fell from his hand, long forgotten by this point. He stared at the remnants of his neighbor, finally motionless on his living room floor, and fought off the urge to throw up. His mind was spinning, and despite how ridiculous it all seemed at that moment, he couldn’t stop worrying what the police were going to think. How was he going to explain this to them, to his other neighbors, to his friends and family? Sure, she had clearly been crazed, and now that he took the time to notice it her skin showed a disgusting shade of green intruding on her pale skin, but how did that justify killing her?
With a startled jolt, Eli realized someone else had entered his apartment. This second person moved with what was mostly a waddle, on stiff legs that seemed unwilling to work for him. He was moaning soft, unearthly moans as he moved, but these moans had not alerted Eli to the man’s presence. It wasn’t until he came around the corner of the entrance hallway that Eli was drawn out of the spiraling depression his thoughts were pulling him into. As the newcomer came further into view, something quite disturbing became more and more obvious about him. While it had only looked as though someone might have maybe bitten off Suzie-Anne’s ear, there could be no doubt as to the chunk taken out of this person’s flesh. A huge portion of skin and muscle was missing from this man’s left arm, a portion conspicuously shaped just right for a human mouth.
Eli felt sick to his stomach. He watched TV and movies, he played video games. He may not have been a cultural savant but he had not by any means been living under a rock. He suddenly knew exactly what these two were. And if there were two, there were probably many, many more. While this new understanding might have brought grief, it also brought a sort of clairvoyance. Suddenly, he knew exactly what he needed to do. Turning, ignoring the shambling, slow moving newcomer, Eli walked back into his bedroom, searched through his closet for an object he had almost forgotten about, found it, and then returned to the living room. The man was still there, though it had managed to turn itself toward the bedroom and take a few more awkward steps. Eli smiled at it and raised his hand, revealing the sword he held there.
He had bought it a few years back, at a comic convention, for something like ten dollars. Though made of actual wood and metal, it was clearly cheap construction and he had no doubt it would break without much effort. Still, it was the closest thing he had to an actual weapon, so he drew the blade from the sheath.
The… thing standing before him raised its arms as its unsteady movements brought it closer and closer to its target. The moans it unleashed came faster now, as though it was growing more and more excited, and its movements, though still slow and awkward, increased in speed and intensity. Not that it mattered anymore, Eli thought, with a somewhat wicked grin spreading across his lips. He brought the blade of his weapon down as hard as he could onto the creature’s skull. With a sickening crack it split open the head, but became lodged less than an inch deep. The blade snapped off at the hilt, throwing Eli temporarily off-balance.
The newcomer was completely unfazed by the blow, and attempted to grab at his prey, but Eli was much faster than it. Cursing his luck, and the manufacturer of the “sword,” he hurried back into the bedroom, looking around desperately for anything that could be used as a weapon. Most of what was there was just a bunch of dirty clothes and trash scattered about the floor of the room. All at once he felt embarrassed to have his room in this condition and felt like an idiot for being concerned with something so trivial at a time like this.
The stranger was moving faster now, spurred on by his proximity to living flesh. Eli was quickly running out of time for random thoughts and indecision. Before he fully realized what he was doing, he grabbed his desk chair and rolled it across the floor. The carpet, difficult as always, grabbed the wheels and slowed its momentum, stopping the chair a good foot and a half short of its target.
“Why am I so bad at this?” Eli shouted, annoyed. He spun around, eyes darting about frantically, searching for something, anything, that could help him now. Then he saw it. Between his desk and the wall, shoved away and forgotten: the keyboard shelf to his desk. It had broken off long ago, and too conservative to throw it away and too lazy to find another use for it he had simply placed it out of sight and ignored it. He had always wanted to believe his pack rat tendencies would pay off one day. Now they had.
With a delighted exclamation he lunged for the item, ripping it free and raising it up in both hands. A cloud of dust exploded in his face, causing him to lose precious time to coughs and sneezes. He cleared his throat and shook his head, as though trying to shake away the dust cloud. Inversely, his unwillingness to ever clean his room had definitely never done him much good.
The man was drawing very close now, and Eli waited, biding his time, for that perfect moment and distance. It came, and Eli reacted immediately, smashing the board with all his might down on the other man’s head. It drove the blade, still stuck, a little deeper into the man’s head. Despite this, the man did not respond beyond a small bit of a stumble that he might have made anyway.
“Oh come on!” Eli shouted, and swung the board once more. This blow came more sideways, rather than straight down, and spun the other man around, sending him spiraling to the ground. Eli decided not to push his luck and instead tossed the board at the prone figure and ran from the room. He grabbed his keys up on the way to the front door and ran out into the hallway outside his apartment. Quickly he glanced left, and then right, but saw no one. Breathing a sigh of relief, he hurried down the hallway toward the parking lot.
He exited the hallway, and then instantly regretted it.
Despite being nearly rush hour, no cars rushed past the highway just a short distance from the complex, barely visible past a few of the other buildings. Instead he could see a few burned out shells of cars, a couple turned over completely, and still more either seemingly parked or crashed or stalled. An eerie silence hung over the world. There were almost no sounds at all aside from the wind. Even the birds and bugs seemed to have gone silent. The parking lot around him was mostly empty – of cars – as obviously everyone living there must have tried to get somewhere else when whatever this was had started. His car, still mostly in its space, had clearly been hit, possibly more than once, and looked rather inappropriately humorously like it had been parked by an extremely drunk person.
The rest of the parking lot was crawling – in some instances, quite literally – with the undead. There were easily a couple dozen, most of whom were just standing there, hardly moving beyond the occasional swaying from side to side, though some continued to wander about slowly, aimlessly.
He held his breath and tried not to gasp, to grunt, or to make any noise whatsoever to alert them to his presence. But it was already too late. That much was obvious. Maybe it was the shift in the wind, maybe it was something else altogether, but they noticed him. Slowly, ever so slowly, they began to turn towards him, staring at him with their vacant, bloodless eyes.
Then as one they began to move. Their steps were slow at first, almost deliberate, but their pace began to increase, surprisingly quickly, as they got their momentum going.
Eli took a step backward, at first uncertain, and then decided upon safety, and turned and ran back the way he had come. Would it be best to lock himself indoors and try to wait it out? But there was no food inside his apartment, so he would have to leave before long anyway. And what if he was followed, and these creatures waited outside for him, for when he would inevitably have to go back out?
He came up to his door and stopped short. The one he had left alive had recovered and made its way back to the door. It launched itself at Eli, but the young man quickly dodged out of the way and let the stranger face dive onto the hard concrete. The creatures were slower than him, but they were certainly persistent. The first of the group from the parking lot had already reached the other end of the hallway. That was two options down, and it was time for him to come up with a third. Turning, he hurried the rest of the way down the hallway, until it opened up into a bit of a courtyard. To his right was a metal fence, with a gate leading to the community pool. Before him was the main office, but to his left the courtyard opened up to some walkways and eventually, an exit from the complex. He started that way, but from around the corner of his building and the offices came more of the creatures.
That left only one option. As ridiculous as it seemed, he knew it was his best chance. He spun an about face and headed toward the pool gate. It was an iron gate, with no lock, just a little flip catch to keep the gate from being blown open by the wind. He flipped it, opened the gate, hurried through, and then for the heck of it closed the gate behind him. Only moments later the first one of his attackers reached the gate, and with a loud thud impacted against it. It let out what sounded like an angry grunt, and then attempted to reach through the bars and grab him. He watched from just outside of its range, eyes wide with astonishment. He should have realized the creatures weren’t smart enough to open doors. They seemed to be driven purely by instinct, with only their desire to bite at his flesh giving them purpose. From out of the hallway spilled more of them, and he didn’t want to wait around and see what would win between the weight of all of their bodies combined and the no doubt shoddily constructed fence.
With a triumphant chuckle, Eli turned and headed for the side exit to the pool that let out along the back of the main offices. He opened the gate and stepped out, feeling rather pleased with himself. Behind him, the once human monsters continued pushing against the entrance gate uselessly.
He stepped around the side of the building, only to find another of the creatures already there, ready for him. It fell on him, knocking him to the ground. Despite himself, he gave a cry of surprise, and a grunt of pain as the harshness of impacting on the cement blasted the air from his lungs. He struggled just to breath, yet knew he had to struggle even harder to keep away unwanted teeth. It was a fight he was rapidly losing, and he knew it all too well.
A roar of thunder ripped through the air, and he froze in place. As the sound died away the thing on top of him ceased its movements. It took his brain a few seconds to catch up, and then once it had he thrashed about, pushing the corpse off of him and squirming away from it up into a sitting position. He looked around for the source of the sound, and found, not more than a couple dozen feet away, a solitary girl, standing sure-footed, feet spread apart, with a gun in her hands raised and pointed in his direction.