There's No Place Like Home, Part 1
Updated: Sep 26
A widower falls asleep one night and wakes up in a world overrun with zombies. Will he survive long enough to get back home? Read it here or download the ebook.
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Max set the beer down and stared at the wall above the television as news reports echoed throughout the house. He ignored the newswoman reporting record-breaking deaths attributed to the virus that swept the planet. While the rest of the world panicked, Max sat in his chair and fidgeted with a small box of matches. He slipped out a single match and twisted it between his fingers.
After igniting the flame, Max stared into the burning light. It reminded him of her. She was the only woman that demanded more from him, and he gave her everything: heart, soul, and body. Then she died.
The match burned out, so he dropped it and lit another. Max’s eyes watered at the memory of his dead wife. Six years. That’s all he had with her. He wasted so much time before meeting her. Wasted it on partying, women that didn’t matter, and a biker gang that only wanted to drag him deeper into the criminal world. Then she saved him.
The second match died, and Max struck a third. He pinched this one tight and extended his arm out over the open gas can sitting at his feet. She saved him from a short-lived criminal life, only to abandon him to a long, miserable life without her. She was his moral compass that kept him on the right path. Without her, every breath Max took seared his lungs and squeezed his heart, and he couldn’t think of a reason to keep enduring the pain. There were no pictures on his walls of family or friends, only her. And she was gone.
The flame crawled down the match toward his tender fingers, and he grimaced. He should’ve done it. He should’ve just let go, but Max knew what she would’ve said had she seen him like this.
“Sometimes doing the right thing is hard,” he said to the match. “Do it anyway.”
As the fire touched his skin, Max flipped the match into his palm and smothered it. He stared at his fist for a moment, then he sighed and dropped the cold stick into the can. It floated along the surface of the gas with dozens of other burnt torches, while he slipped the box of matches into his jacket pocket.
As the newswoman reported on a meteor shower that was expected to brighten the sky that night, Max stood up and switched the television off. He screwed the lid onto the gas can and set it back against the wall before heading to his bedroom. He collapsed on top of his sheets, still fully clothed, and buried his face into his pillow. The alcohol and late hour did what he intended, and Max passed out within a few moments. Several hours later, the meteor shower sparked above Max’s neighborhood right on time.
The next morning, gut-wrenching anxiety propelled Max out of bed. At first, he wasn’t sure what caused the intense reaction that woke him. It could have been a dream that he forgot the moment he reached consciousness, or maybe it was the unfamiliar noises of the old, rotting building around him. Max spun around, examining the surprising state of his home. When they’d purchased the small house a year ago, his wife spent hours painting the walls, dressing the windows, and decorating until it felt like home. Now it was all gone. Nailed boards covered the shattered windows, gunshot holes peered through the rotting walls, and water stained what remained of the ceiling. His furniture was gone, save for the old mattress on which he’d woken.
Max stepped around the collapsed roof in the living room and trudged through the grass and vines overrunning the dilapidated building until he found the only item left in the house that he recognized. He lifted the shattered frame from the wreckage and tugged the photo free. Max stared at the faded and torn image of his wife and wondered how this could’ve happened. How did his house age like this overnight? How did it crumble around him without waking him? Who could’ve stolen everything he owned, even his bed? Was he drugged? Even that didn’t explain his broken home.
Unsure what else to do, Max slipped the photo into his pocket and found the small box of matches he’d stashed there. The box looked precisely as it did last night, as did his clothes. Sighing, Max shoved the photo and matches into his pockets and shuffled toward the front door. He had to figure out what was happening to him. He slipped out the open front door that hung crooked on its hinge, and, looking around, he found the neighborhood in the same condition as his home. The middle-class neighborhood that once hosted block parties, cookouts, and play-dates now looked abandoned and run-down with graffiti, boarded-up windows, and collapsed roofs. Even the yards brandished dusty soil rather than the treated, green grass to which he’d grown accustomed.
Max frowned at his empty driveway and grimaced at the salt in his wounds. Of course, someone stole his bike too. Grumbling, he hurried down the sidewalk in search of a new ride. He checked a few cars still parked along his block, but none of them were in working order due to rotted tires or empty gas tanks. At the corner of his street, Max noticed some odd mud tracks running along the street perpendicular to his house. They led past several homes, over a curb, and into a wooded area behind the neighborhood. The large tread marks reminded him of a small tank, but that would be absurd.
Max glanced around at his strange surroundings and shrugged before following the tracks toward the woods. After passing a few houses, the sound of breaking glass caught his attention.
He twisted toward the open door from which the sound escaped and called out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
When no one answered, Max stepped closer, leaning against a mangled fence. “I don’t know what’s going on here. I’m looking for help.”
Again no one responded, but Max spotted a shadow glide across the open door. He sighed, glancing back at the tracks that led into the woods, then reached for the broken remains of the picket fence. He tugged one of the angled boards free and swung it like a bat as he trudged toward the front door. His eyes darted around the crumbling debris of the foyer as he stepped into the house. Turning a corner, he froze.
A tall man aimed the business end of a shotgun at Max’s chest and shook his head. “How stupid are you?”
Max stuttered nonsense as he dropped the board and backed away with his hands in the air. He stared at the gun, wondering if this was the end.
“Stop right there,” the tall man said. “Where’s your camp?”
Max shook his head. “My what?”
“Turn around.” The tall man jerked the shotgun at Max. Slamming him against the wall face first, the stranger searched Max’s pockets and frowned when he only found a matchbox and an old photo. The man stepped back, letting Max go, and shoved his belongings back at him.
“Do you have friends with you, or are you suicidal?”
“I’m alone,” Max said, snatching the photo in one hand and the matchbox in another. “I’m just looking for some help, man.”
“I don’t believe you. Get out,” the tall man said, motioning toward the door.
“Okay, okay. You got it.” Max retreated with his hands raised and the gun barrel against his back. Max ran a thumb over the matchbox, still in is hand, and took a deep breath. Then, he twisted around, snapping the shotgun to the side and slamming his elbow into the tall man’s jaw. Pulling on the trigger, the stranger stumbled back, and a slug destroyed the rotting wall to Max’s left. Max snatched the gun from his assailant’s grasp and pumped it ready with the next shell. He pointed the barrel at the other man and glared.
“Now, it’s my turn to ask questions.”
“Are you crazy? We have to get out of here.” The tall man lurched for the door behind Max then jerked to a halt when a shotgun slug blasted into the wall next to him. “What the hell, man. You’re going to draw them right to us.”
“What are you talking about?” Max asked, and a groan answered from outside the door.
The tall man’s eyes widened at the sound, and he rushed back from the open door. “They’re coming.”
Max kept the gun angled at the other man while he glanced out the door. To his surprise, a decrepit hand erupted from the front yard's loose soil, followed by an arm and then a head. Rotting skin and muscle hung from exposed bone as the creature climbed free of its shallow grave. When its lipless mouth rose above the dirt, it screamed into the sky, and the ground seemed to ripple in response. Several dirty, broken bodies struggled out of the neighboring yards, each calling wordlessly to the forming horde.
“Holy shit. What the hell are those things?” As the undead creatures lurched toward the open door of the house, Max spun around to find the tall man bounding up the stairs to the second story. He followed the stranger into a bedroom to find the back wall nearly gone from decay. Two long boards bound together and fashioned into a makeshift bridge led to an open window of the house behind them.
“Come on,” the tall man said before hustling across. Max followed suit, careful not to drop the shotgun as he climbed through the window on the other side of the bridge.
“Where to, now?” Max asked after they rushed down the stairs and through the overgrown grass of what was once a living room. The stranger shushed him and motioned for them to stand against the wall closest to the front door. He peeked through a bullet hole, then waving at Max to follow, he retreated towards the exit. Once outside, the tall man led Max across the yard to the next house, pausing only to check for danger between the neighboring structures.
As they crossed in front of a shattered window, two decaying arms snatched the stranger by the shoulders. Max obliterated the zombie with a point-blank shot to the face. The tall man stumbled away, clutching his ears from the deafening sound. Max grimaced at the sight of more decomposing creatures emerging from the ground around them. An ominous death scream echoed throughout the neighborhood.
“Get up,” Max said, grabbing the stranger by the arm and dragging him away from the horde. As the two men ran, the zombies followed. The tall man led Max through a maze of backyards and alleys. As slow as the creatures moved, Max couldn’t understand how the horde continued to flank them until he realized the stranger was leading them back to where they started.
“Why are we going back?”
The tall man sneered over his shoulder at Max but didn’t answer. When they came to the corner of another house, Max yanked at his arm, demanding an answer. The stranger turned to face Max with a frown.
“This is your fault,” he said. “We could’ve gotten our supplies and been on our way home by now.”
“We?” Max asked. Then he gasped.
A zombie with one arm lurched around the corner and bit into the stranger’s neck. The man screamed and struggled against the creature. Max tried to help, but more zombies clambered into the fray. Max gaped as they tore the man to pieces like a school of piranhas. When one stumbled toward him, Max bashed the zombie with the butt of his gun and sprinted toward the only house left on the block. The community gate stood tall on the other side of the domicile, and Max knew the wrought iron fence encircled the entire neighborhood.
He rushed into the house and slammed the door behind him. Glad to see the windows boarded up, Max darted around the room, searching for something heavy to barricade the door. He settled on the remains of a battered couch and shoved it against the front door. Max stumbled away to lean against the far wall and watched the door as he caught his breath. He slid down the wall and plopped onto the floor, dropping the shotgun at his side.
As the horde pounded against the door, Max glanced at the gun and wondered how many shells remained. For the first time, he noted the green paint across the barrel that read ‘Destroyer,’ and he wondered at the man that had owned the gun, now dead because of him. A loud cracking sound drew his attention back to the zombies screaming for his death as the pressing horde splintered the door. Closing his eyes, Max rested his head against the rotting wall. Tears welled in his eyes as he considered his options, and he slipped a hand around the matchbox in his pocket. He gripped the shotgun with his other hand and pressed the barrel against his chin. One shot would be better than the horde. After watching the stranger die, Max was sure that he didn’t want to go out that way. As he tightened his finger around the trigger, a vision of his wife flittered across his mind, and Max paused.
The sound of a foot shuffling across the floor pulled Max from his thoughts as a twelve-year-old kid stepped out from the staircase and pointed a 9mm handgun at Max. The boy’s hard expression matched his tone.
“Where’d you get that gun?” he asked.
“I took it from some guy. He’s dead now.” Max’s hand slipped from the trigger of the shotgun, and he hung his head.
“Did you kill him?” The kid stomped closer and jammed the gun into Max’s face. “Did you kill my dad?”
Max looked up at the boy and grimaced. “I didn’t mean to. We were trying to get away, but they were everywhere.”
The kid’s face twisted with anguish and fury as tears welled in his young eyes, and his finger trembled against the trigger. For several long moments, Max watched the boy struggle with his rage, and he wondered if the young man could really kill him. As a tear slipped free and slid down the 12-year-old’s cheek, he pulled the gun back and holstered it.
“You’re going to help me get out of here,” the boy said.
“Why would you want my help?”
“Because I can’t do it alone, and you’re the only one here.” The boy glanced at the shotgun in Max’s lap. “You might be okay with dying, but I’m not.”
Max flinched away from the kid and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t want to fight zombies or try to figure out what happened to the world overnight. His fingers brushed against the matchbox in his pocket again. He knew what he wanted to do. He glanced at the door as a decomposing arm burst through a crack in the door. His rushed blockade wouldn’t hold for much longer. Soon the dead would pour into the house and overrun them. Escaping wouldn’t be easy, but they would both die if he didn’t try.
With a sigh, Max climbed to his feet and murmured under his breath, “Do it anyway.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. What do you want me to do?” Max said, slinging the shotgun over his shoulder.
“Come on.” The kid led Max up the stairs to a bedroom with a large hole in the wall. “We had an old bridge here, but it broke last time we came through.”
Max peered through the hole to find a shattered window in the house next door and several broken planks on the ground below. “How do we get across without the bridge?”
“We don’t.” The kid shoved his shoulder against a nearby armoire. “Help me push this through the gap.”
“That’s pretty big.”
“It’ll fit,” the boy said. “It has to. If we jump from this height, we’ll get hurt and then eaten.”
Max nodded and helped to push the old, heavy dresser across the room as the scraping noise echoed down the hall.
“Wait, listen.” The boy lifted his head long enough to catch the sound of the horde breaking through the blockade downstairs.
“Hurry,” Max said. They crammed the armoire through the hole, and Max smiled when it landed upright against the ground below as they intended.
“Go,” he said and helped the boy down to the dresser. As soon as the kid reached the ground, Max followed, but the commotion attracted the horde.
Dodging ravenous corpses, Max and the boy darted through the maze of houses to a familiar block until Max recognized the tracks he spotted before he woke the horde. The boy led him over the curb and into the nearby woods along the path of the tracks.
When they found the source of the tracks, Max stopped to stare at the monstrosity. A suped-up, red, pick-up truck stood tall with treads from a small tank in place of tires. The cab’s windows were gone except for the windshield, and the bed brandished sharped spikes along the tailgate and fenders. The kid climbed on top of the tread and opened the driver’s side door. He paused to look back at Max.
“What’s your problem? Let’s go. They’re right behind us.”
“It’s a tank,” Max said with a smile as he scaled the tread and climbed into the passenger side.
“It’s a truck.” The boy shrugged and turned the ignition. The tank-truck roared to life, and he maneuvered it down onto the street. The loud engine attracted zombies from all over the neighborhood, but the vehicle crushed any creature in its path. Those that managed to scale it were harpooned by spikes and eventually torn apart by the tread.
“It’s so much more than a truck,” Max said with a giddy smile.
When they left the gated community behind, the boy pulled onto the highway, and Max expected him to shift into high gear, but they continued at a slow 20 mph.
“Kid, does this thing go any faster?”
“No, and my name isn’t ‘kid.’ It’s Timmy.”
The tank-truck crawled down the highway under Timmy’s command, and Max stared at the scenery around them. Dilapidated buildings and abandoned cars lined the road. Grass and vines grew in some areas, but most of the city was bare and dusty.
“Where is everyone?” Max asked.
“Everyone who?” Timmy said.
“Where are all the people?”
“With their camps, I guess. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about everything. The building, the cars, the freaking zombies,” Max said. “How did this happen? I went to bed, and the world was normal. I wake up, and everything’s gone to hell.”
Timmy eyed the agitated man to his right. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s been like this since I can remember.”
“Yeah, and how old are you? Do you even have a license to drive this thing?”
“What’s a license?”
Max shook his head then rubbed his hands across his face. “Start with the zombies. Where did they come from?”
“Zombies come from other zombies. They bite you, then you turn.” Timmy frowned at Max. “How do you not know that? Have you been living under a rock all your life?”
“Sure, kid. Let’s go with that,” Max said. “I get that zombies make other zombies, but who made the first one?”
“You mean when everything Ended?”
Max paused at the sense of dread settling in his stomach. “What do you mean? What ended?”
“Everything.” Timmy motioned toward the horizon as they passed the crumbling city. “My grandpa told us stories. His dad was a kid when it all Ended. He said a virus spread across the world and infected a lot of people. It turned them as if they were bitten.”
“Your grandfather? How long ago was this?”
Timmy shrugged. “I don’t know, a hundred years maybe.”
“This is insane. This can’t be real,” Max said. He leaned his head back and stared up at the roof of the truck. “They came out of the ground.”
When Max returned his gaze to the horizon, he found a massive cloud of dust barreling toward them. “Is that a dust storm?”
“Yep.” Timmy slipped the bandana hanging from his neck over his mouth, then he motioned toward the glove box.
Max opened it and found several pairs of goggles and a few bandanas. After handing one pair of goggles to Timmy, Max slipped the protective gear over his eyes and face. Max cringed as the dust blustered around them and scraped at his exposed skin, but the truck-tank kept creeping onward. A few hours later and several miles outside of the city, the storm cleared, and the dust settled to reveal dead pastures along the highway. When a pile of old cars blocked the road, Timmy slowed to drive over the obstacle.
“Why don’t you just drive around it?” Max motioned to the field to their left as the tank-truck jerked wildly from its task. The tread clung to the rusted metal of the cars below it as it crushed what little life remained in the rotting vehicles.
“Why deal with a horde if we don’t have to?” Timmy said, frowning at the other man.
“How do you know they’re out there?”
“The ground is dead.”
“Oh, why are they in the ground? Who put them there?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Timmy jerked his hand through the air. “They dig up the dirt and sleep. Everyone knows that.”
“They sleep? Why? They’re dead.” Max frowned as he tried to make sense of this new world.
“According to my grandpa, it kept them from decaying at first. They sucked the nutrients from the soil, killing everything that grew there. I don’t think it stops the decay, just slows it down.”
“I guess that explains the dust.” Max brushed some loose dirt from his jacket. “Doesn’t that make it hard to grow food?”
“I don’t know. They manage it just fine in the cities.”
“It didn’t look like it to me. That place was a ghost town,” Max said then offered a grim smile. “Or a zombie town.”
Timmy smirked at the joke and shook his head. “I meant the walled cities. There’s a few around here, maybe more around the world. Me and my dad were headed to Los Verdes to find my mom.”
Max dropped his head, remembering the man he’d gotten killed just a few hours before. “I’m sorry, kid.”
Timmy didn’t look at Max as he gripped the steering wheel tighter. “I grew up in a camp with both my parents. We didn’t have much, but we had friends and family. We just didn’t have enough guns. The West Gang attacked and destroyed everything. Me and my dad got separated from the rest of the camp, or what was left of it. My mom and grandpa were with them. Dad said the camp would head to Los Verdes for shelter, so we were going to meet them there.”
Unsure of what to say, Max stared ahead as they scaled another precariously parked car. Max swallowed and sighed. “This world sucks.”
“Yeah,” Timmy said then jerked the tank-truck to the right onto an exit ramp.
“How do you know which way to go? Do you have a map?”
“I don’t need one. I just follow the signs.” Timmy pointed to a passing sign that was marked with yellow paint. An arrow signaled to exit and read: ‘Los Verdes.’
After a while, Timmy pulled into the parking lot littered with abandoned vehicles. He parked on crumbling asphalt near the highway and stepped out on to the tread of the tank-truck.
“What are you doing?” Max asked as he followed the kid’s lead.
“We need fuel.” Timmy opened the metal toolbox behind the cab and pulled out two hoses attached to portable pumps. “There’s plenty of cars here. We should find enough to get us the rest of the way to Los Verdes.”
Max exited from his side of the truck and shook his head. “There’s no way any of this gas is still any good. It’s sludge by now.”
Timmy chuckled and tossed an empty gas can to Max. “Don’t worry. Baby doesn’t mind.”
Timmy ran his hand along the fender, careful of the spears, then jumped down. “She’s gotten us through a lot over the years.”
Max climbed down after, and Timmy handed him the second pump and hose. The kid motioned toward the rusted cars all around.
“Get as much as you can. We’re going to need it.”
“What about a horde? Do you think there’s one around?”
“Not with all this concrete and asphalt.” Timmy stomped his foot against the hard surface, blowing dust into the air. “They’re not super zombies.”
“That’s not a real thing, right?” Max asked, and Timmy laughed.
Max shrugged and wiped red dust from the closest car and opened the gas cap. He shoved the hose inside and turned on the pump. As it siphoned gas from the tank, Max looked around at the old structures surrounding him. A small office with broken windows stood at the back of the parking lot, and half of a large billboard remained on the opposite end. Something familiar tugged at Max as he glanced around.
When the pump beeped, Max tugged the hose free and spilled a gooey mess onto the pavement at his feet. He cursed and sidestepped the spillage, moving onto the next vehicle. The pump hummed along again, and Max stared at the damaged billboard as he tried to figure out what was bothering him about it. He was working on his third gas tank when he realized that the crumbling mess at the front of the parking wasn’t a billboard. It was a theater screen for a drive-in movie. People used to come here for fun and snacks, but now it was a desert.
Max jumped when a cry for help echoed across the lot, and Timmy looked up from his work. Max dropped his gear and pulled his shotgun free of the sling that Timmy had given him earlier. He checked that it was fully loaded then glanced at Timmy.
“Don’t bother,” the kid said. “It’s not our business.”
“Whoever it is, they need help.”
“Or it’s a trap by the local gang. They like to prey on do-gooders.”
Max nodded as he let the shotgun in his hand hang at his hip. His other hand slipped around the matchbox in his pocket.
“Sometimes doing the right thing is hard,” Max said. Then he lifted the gun and marched toward the center of the parking lot where the cries had originated.
As he grew closer, Max frowned at the sounds of chainsaw roaring from inside a small building. Looking at the old office, he could tell that it was once used as a projection room. Now, it barely stood at all with broken windows and a crumbling wall.
Max sneaked across the pavement to lean against the damaged wall and glanced back to find Timmy right behind him. He met the younger man’s eyes and nodded. Timmy frowned and shook his head at Max’s decision-making skills. As the chainsaw roared, the cries for help grew more frantic. Max peered over the crumbling wall to find a large man brandishing the chainsaw with a sick smile plastered across his face. He waved the power tool around with a maniacal laugh while a smaller man cowered in the corner, begging for mercy.
“Come on, Leo,” the maniac said. “I just want a hand. Stick it out here, and I’ll let you live.”
“Please, don’t do this. Just let me go. I didn't do anything to you,” Leo said.
“It’s a simple choice, your hand or your life.”
Leo shook his head as he sobbed. “Please, please.”
“I’m disappointed, Leo. You’re such a fun toy. I thought you’d last longer than this.” The deranged giant revved the chainsaw louder and stepped closer to his hostage.
“Stop,” Max shouted, and the maniac turned in surprise. Leo squeaked in relief but didn’t move. Max stood in the open doorway with his shotgun aimed at the crazy man’s chest.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked Max.
“It doesn’t matter who I am. Let him go.”
The maniac snarled at Max but lowered his weapon, and the chainsaw slowed to a dull murmur. “Fine, you got the jump on me. But you should hurry. My brother and his friends will be here soon.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Max said. He motioned to Leo. “Come on. We’ll get you out of here.”
Leo’s eyes darted between his assailant and Max, but he didn’t move.
“Go on. You heard him, Leo. They’re here to save you.” The maniac flashed a wicked smile at Leo that sent a dark shiver down Max’s spine. He tightened his grip on the shotgun, and his trigger finger itched.
Leo crawled across the floor to the door, and Max stepped aside to let him pass. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure Timmy helped Leo, and he turned back to the maniac in time to avoid a wild swing with the chainsaw. Throwing himself sideways to avoid the roaring blades, Max squeezed the trigger, and the blast from the slug sent the crazy man flying backward. Max stared at the fresh corpse for several moments before Timmy called to him.
“We gotta go.”
“I’ve never killed anyone before,” Max said.
“Well, now you have,” Timmy said. “Welcome to the club.”
Max snapped his eyes to the kid in surprise then shook his head. “This world sucks.”
Leo followed Max and Timmy through the parking lot. They picked up the gas cans and pumps and wasted no time returning to the tank-truck.