Updated: Nov 19, 2020
A widower falls asleep one night and wakes up in a world overrun with zombies. Will he survive long enough to get back home?
Following another painted, yellow sign, Timmy turned left down a crumbling asphalt road. Max grabbed the shotgun from the floorboard and pointed it out the window.
“Zombies,” he said, motioning toward several bodies that erupted from the field along the road.
“Where?” Leo sat up from his reclined position in the back seat. “Do they see us? Are they coming?”
Timmy glanced at the nervous man from the rearview mirror and frowned. “Calm down, dude.”
“I wonder what’s got them riled up,” Max said.
“I’m betting it was them.” Timmy pointed at the man and woman stranded on a trailer in the middle of the dead field. “It looks like their semi broke down in a bad place.”
The stranded people shot at the horde swarming around the trailer, but Max could tell they were starting to panic. The spears protecting the trailer could only do so much before the zombies climbed right over those impaled against the side.
“We should help them. It’s the right thing to do,” Max said, and Timmy sighed.
“What? You want to drive into that? They’ll rip us to pieces,” Leo said.
“Just shut up and hang on,” Timmy said over his shoulder.
Max climbed out of the truck window and into the bed. He clung to the toolbox when the truck-tank rocked back and forth as it squashed a crowd of zombies under its tread. As soon as they are close enough, Max called out to the couple and motioned for them to jump. They leaped from the trailer into the bed, and Max blasted his shotgun at the dead bodies trying to follow them. He banged on the cab to signal Timmy, and the monster of a vehicle turned back toward the road with the horde following behind.
“Thanks,” the young guy said.
“Yeah, you saved our bacon,” the woman agreed.
“No problem.” Max shrugged and offered a hand to shake, but the woman jerked her attention to the road.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Our camps in trouble too.”
Max stared at the massive horde surrounding a caravan of truck-tanks and semi-tanks. The dead smashed against a circle of trailers protecting the people inside. Fighters stood on top of the trailers shooting down into the horde and swinging machetes whenever a zombie moved into their reach.
“They’ve circled the wagons,” Max said with an impressed smile.
“It’s the best way to keep them at bay, but it’ll exhaust our ammo stockpile,” the woman said, and her comrade looked to her.
“What do we do, Gloria?”
“We join the fight.”
Max crouched to slide the back window of the cab open and relayed the plan to Timmy. Leo complained about the dangers, but Timmy told him to pick up a gun and grow a pair.
Timmy plowed into the living dead while the others held on tight. He ran over as many as he could, but three-quarters of the horde remained when he stopped in front of the wagon circle.
“Let us in.” Gloria waved at her people, and they rushed to make way for the tank-truck. As soon as the group entered the safety of the caravan, she commanded everyone to their posts.
Max raised his eyebrows at Gloria’s authority but did as he was told. Timmy followed his lead while Leo remained hidden in the tank-truck. A few hours and a lot of ammo later, Timmy shot the last zombie in the head, and the camp gave a collective sigh of relief.
“Thanks for your help,” Gloria said. “We don’t run into a lot of people willing to help out like that.”
“Sometimes doing the right thing is hard,” Timmy said in a sarcastic tone as he glared at Max. “And it just cost us nearly all our ammo.”
“We’ll be fine,” Max said.
“Where are you guys headed?” Gloria asked.
“Los Verdes.” Max motioned to a yellow sign nearby.
“So are we.” She smiled. “You’re welcome to join us. We’ve got plenty of food, and probably more ammo than you’ve got on your own.”
Max glanced at Timmy, who shrugged. “We might as well. I’m starving.”
“Me, too,” Leo yelled from the truck. Timmy huffed and rolled his eyes at the coward.
“Everyone, load up. We’re heading out in 5 minutes. We’ll find a nice spot to camp for the night, so everyone can rest. You guys did good today.” Gloria said, and her crew piled into their vehicles.
Timmy, Max, and Leo followed the camp to a nearby farmhouse with a mostly intact barn. The caravan circled the house and unpacked everything they needed for the night. Most people set up inside the house, but a handful, including Max, Timmy, and Leo, claimed spots in the barn. The three of them helped set up and completed the chores that Gloria assigned. At one point, Max noted a pleasant smile from Timmy when he spoke to a young girl his age. Leo scurried around, eager to complete whatever tasked he had been assigned.
“I like this place,” Leo said as they all three gathered around a heater in the barn that night. “They have generators, and they’re not afraid to use them.”
“Yeah,” Timmy said. “It’s kind of nice here. We should enjoy it while it lasts.”
“What do you mean? These are good people.” Max glanced around at the people sleeping around them.
“You’re right. That’s why we should leave,” Timmy said, and Leo balked.
“Are you kidding? This place is paradise.”
“What about that pretty girl you were chatting with today? Don’t you want to get to know her?” Max asked.
Timmy narrowed his eyes at Max and huffed. “The people that I get to know end up dead. Everyone I care about is dead or missing. These are good people. They don’t deserve that.”
Max dropped his gaze to the ground. He understood that feeling all too well, but he didn’t know how to help Timmy. He fingered the photo in his pocket and realized that he didn’t even know how to help himself.
“At least you guys are trying to help people,” Leo said. “I couldn’t even help myself against that maniac with the chainsaw. I was so grateful when you showed up and killed him because I’m completely useless.”
“You’re not useless,” Max said. Timmy raised his eyebrows but bit his tongue.
“I’m worse than useless,” Leo said. “A few weeks ago, my best friend convinced me to go on a scavenging run for our camp. We were really low on food. It was kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation. So we went out and ended up running for our lives from a horde. I got to the door first, and I didn’t even think about it. I slammed the door shut and locked it behind me. I just stood there while my best friend screamed for me to open the door. There was time, I could’ve let him and saved his life. But I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I was a coward. I was afraid then, and I’m afraid now. I know that eventually I’m going to get you guys killed too, but I’m too much of a coward to leave. I’ll never survive on my own. So I’ll do what I always do. I’ll follow you around and cower in the corner when things go wrong.”
The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes while Leo wiped away his tears. Timmy closed his eyes and bowed his head, then he sighed.
“Leo, sometimes doing the right thing is hard.”
Max raised his eyebrows at Timmy, who shrugged.
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Leo whispered.
“You’re right,” Max said. “Even when the right thing is the hardest thing, you’re supposed to do it anyway.”
“Even if it gets you killed?” Leo said.
“I’m okay getting killed while doing the right thing. Honestly, it sounds like a good way to go,” Max said.
“With the way my luck’s been, that’s exactly what’ll happen,” Timmy said. “So sticking with us is probably the bravest thing you could do.”
Max and Leo laughed while Timmy smiled at his friends.
Crouched between a rusted tractor and a humming generator, West peered through a broken panel of the barn wall as he listened to his prey chat. He snarled when he heard Leo admit that Max killed his brother. It didn’t take him long to track them down. Once he did, he followed the caravan to the farm and watched until night fell. Now was the time to take his revenge, but he’d have to be careful. He didn’t want to wake up the entire camp, or he’d find himself in the same situation as the horde they’d destroyed earlier in the day.
He yanked on the rope attached to his belt, and Sarah stumbled closer. Her tied hands tugged at the snare binding her to him, and she mumbled around the gag in her mouth. He snarled at her, she quieted. Sarah kept him entertained during their trip, and she’d learned to do as she was told for the most part. Every once in awhile, she’d try to pull something that kept him on his toes. Tonight, he didn’t have time for her antics, so he tied her to the tractor for safekeeping.
West stepped around to the other side of the tractor and crouched to examine the generator that chugged along. Hoses and wires ran along the metal casing, and an electrical cord slipped through the broken wood panel to the heater inside the barn. He jerked the exhaust hose free and shoved it through the wall; it would take 5-10 minutes for carbon monoxide to fill the small barn to toxic levels. Everyone inside would inhale the odorless gas and fall asleep forever. It wasn’t the death he wished upon his brother’s killer, but with this many people around, West had few options.
A few minutes later, West heard something snap from the tractor behind him. He whipped around in time to feel the full brunt of Sarah’s strike against his skull with a broken steel bar to which he’d tied her. West howled out and stumbled backward away from the barn, and Sarah followed him with a rage-filled cry.
Resting on his cot, Max stared up at the roof of the old barn until his eyelids grew heavy. He closed his eyes as sleep tugged at him, and he welcomed the sweet relief. He’d had one hell of a day. A noise outside the barn nagged at him, and he cracked his eyes open, but his sleep haze was too heavy. When he heard the sound again, he sat up then toppled back again. A pressure against his chest told him something was wrong.
“Wake up,” Max mumbled. He rolled to Timmy’s bed, but the kid was unconscious. Max pushed him from the cot, but Timmy didn’t wake up. Leo groaned from his bed.
“Leo, get up.”
“Max? What’s going on?” Leo mumbled as he stumbled to his feet.
“Get out,” Max said. He tried to stand again, but he tripped and slammed into the ground face first.
Max heard Leo shuffle to the small door by the generator, but his focus shifted after that. He rolled on to his back and stared at the ceiling again. He wanted to see his wife’s face one last time, but the effort of lifting the photo was too great. So he ran his fingers across the paper in his pocket and envisioned her lovely smile.
West snatched the pipe from Sarah on her second swing and jerked it from her grasp. He tossed it away and slammed her against the barn wall.
“You just won’t give up, will you?” he said.
“That should’ve knocked you out,” Sarah said.
“All those books you read in the safety of your nice, neat city, they didn’t teach you how to survive out here. There’s a nuance to killing and maiming that no book could teach you.”
“And you’re the expert, right?” She pushed and scratched at West as he pressed her against the barn. “I won’t let you hurt anyone else.”
“You can’t even stop me from hurting you.” West pulled back his fist but paused when a familiar voice called out.
“West,” Leo said. “Let her go.”
“Why should I listen to the coward?” West said. He didn’t bother to look at Leo until the little man racked a shotgun shell into the chamber. West sighed and peered over his shoulder at Leo with a snide smile. “What are you doing, Leo?”
“The right thing. Now leave, or I’ll blow your head off.” Leo sounded braver than he felt.
West stepped away from Sarah and lifted his hands into the air. “Fine. You win. I’m gone. But I’ll see you again.”
“It’s your funeral,” Sarah said. West smiled and back away until he was far enough to turn and run.
“Holy shit,” Leo said as he dropped the shotgun. His hands shook, and he bent over to hyperventilate.
“Uh, thanks for your help.” Sarah stepped away from the nervous man. “I have to get these doors open before people start dying. Are you going to be okay?”
Sarah sat in the tank-truck's back seat with Leo as Timmy followed the caravan along the route indicated by the yellow painted signs to Los Verdes. Max rode in the passenger seat with his shotgun in his lap and watched the barren world zip by him. He fingered the matchbox in his pocket and remembered how close he came to death last night. He had contemplated the end so many times since he lost his wife, but last night was the first time he was grateful to survive. He couldn’t help but wonder what had changed within him.
“Sarah, you said before that you grew up in a city?” Timmy said, glancing at his rearview mirror.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s all I’d ever known until we left for Los Verdes.”
“Why would you leave?” Leo said, and she smiled at him.
“I wanted to save the world.” Sarah shrugged. “I’ve studied all my life on how to stop the hordes. I’ve read every book available to me. When I learned about Dr. Oscar Zale’s work in Los Verdes, I had to come and learn from him.”
“What’s he doing?” Max asked.
“He’s got a cure. He can stop the infection once bitten. They’re still trying to figure out how to mass-produce it. They’ll figure it out eventually.”
“Really?” Timmy said. “Are you sure? It sounds too good to be true.”
“Why do you think so many people are heading to Los Verdes?” Sarah said. “I want to help him create something that will put the existing hordes down for good.”
“Sounds dangerous.” Leo wrapped his arms around himself and leaned against the door.
“Yeah.” Sarah’s eyes watered, and she looked upward to stem the tears. “I convinced my parents to help me. West killed them. He would’ve killed me if it weren’t for you, Leo.”
Leo met her teary eyes and offered a small smile.
Max grinned at his friend. “Leo saved all our asses last night.”
“Yeah, I’m a bona fide hero,” he said sarcastically, and everyone laughed.
The crew rode in silence until the caravan pulled over a hill to find a walled city in the distance.
“We’ll be there any minute now,” Timmy said as he wrung his hands around the steering wheel.
“I can’t wait to see this city. It has some pretty unique defenses against the horde,” Sarah said, and Timmy frowned at her in the mirror.
“You mean the wall? What did you hear about it?”
“Mostly, I read about it. There aren’t many new publications out there nowadays, but I found one on Los Verdes. And it’s not just a wall. They have a complete defense system.”
Leo sat up straight. “What does that mean?”
“See for yourself,” Sarah said as Timmy parked behind the caravan. The campers unloaded everything and followed Gloria to the base of the city wall. She motioned for Max, Leo, Sarah, and Timmy to join her. At the bottom of the massive steel wall, a dry moat surrounded the city and stretched the length of two semi trailers. Asphalt covered the inside of the moat, and hordes of zombies littered the ground around it. Many of the living dead struggled to move due to advanced decay.
“We don’t have the ammo to deal with these things,” Gloria said.
Sarah shook her head. “You don’t have to. The moat is there to catch these guys. The asphalt prevents them from digging into the ground. The city guard uses those platforms in the center of the trenches to reach the fuel stockpile in those sheds. There are pumps that spray gas, and someone on the platform lights the fire.”
“They burn ‘em to a crisp,” Timmy said with a grin. “Cool.”
When Leo cringed, Sarah waved her hands at him. “All we have to do is go through the gate.”
“What gate? I don’t see a gate,” Gloria said with her hands on her hips.
“I guess it’s more of a hatch. A very big, steel hatch. It leads into a protected part of the moat. Once you’re inside and approved to enter, they open the inner gate to the actual city.”
Max swung the shotgun over his should and huffed. “What happens if you aren’t approved for entry?”
Sarah shrugged. “I guess they don’t open the inner gate.”
“Alright,” Gloria hollered to the camp. “Everyone fan out and look for a big, steel hatch.”
To Max’s surprise, it didn’t take them long to find the hatch. It stood open and empty, so the camp marched inside without a problem.
“I kind of thought there’d at least be guards out there,” Sarah said as they marched down the ramp.
Inside the moat, steel walls on either side kept the hordes at bay, but Max felt a bit of unease. He glanced up at the large window above the inner gate, but the office inside was dark. When the outer gate slid shut behind the camp, Max cringed.
“Why do I suddenly feel like a sardine.”
“Hello?” Gloria called out.
A light behind the floor-to-ceiling window flashed on, and West stepped up to the glass with an evil smile. Blood stained his clothes, and several people in the crowd gasped. Sarah pulled her gun and fired three shots at her parent’s murderer, but they ricocheted off the bulletproof glass. Everyone ducked to avoid the blowback while West cackled from the safety of his perch.
“West,” Sarah growled. “What did you do?”
“Sarah, I’m so glad you made it. And you brought my friend along with you. These defenses were designed to protect the city against hordes and gangs, not one man. Besides I don't care about getting into the city." West pressed his hands to the glass and stared at Max with an eager grin. “I’ve got such plans for you both. And they’re far more satisfying than what I had to resort to at the barn.”
“So, you’re West.” Max looked the big man up and down. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
West’s smile slipped away, and he scowled at Max. “You killed my brother. You’re the reason I’m out here. You’re the reason all these people are going to die.”
Hoping the small door next to the inner gate led to the office protecting West, Gloria commanded her fighters to break it down. The larger campers kicked and slammed against the door, but it refused to budge. The hordes on either side of the trapped group banged against the steel walls, and Timmy drew his handgun from its holster.
“You can’t take us all,” he said.
West chuckled at the kid before he said, “I don't have to. Here’s a fun fact for you. When they burn off the horde, they always leave enough behind to keep the pit protected. In case a local gang thinks they can pretend their way past the guards.”
West motioned toward the steel walls protecting the camp from the hordes trapped in the trenches. Max’s stomach sunk as he realized West’s plan. He slipped his hand over the matchbox in his pocket and called out to the psychopath.
“Don’t do this. You can shoot me right now. No mess, no fuss. Kill me and let everyone else go. Please.”
"No, my brother always had flare to him, and killing you this way just seems too perfect. Especially if you live long enough to watch the horde eat all of your friends."
Sarah shook her head as she too realized West’s intentions. “You can’t do this. The city defenses aren’t supposed to be used this way."
"Did you read that in one of your books?” West spread his arms wide and flashed a toothy smile. “Welcome to the real world, darling."
When West slammed his hand down on a button in front of him, the steel walls protecting the camp slid open to reveal the horde of zombies trapped in the trenches. Gloria commanded her top fighters to hold off the living dead while she led the vulnerable people of her camp away.
“To the platforms,” Sarah yelled.
Timmy led a small group to a platform against one wall of the trench, then he held off the zombies that followed while his friends climbed to safety. He scaled the scaffolding as soon as he had the chance. Sarah followed a group to the top of a long catwalk and helped shoot at the dead that tried to climb after them. Leo scurried to a platform on the opposite wall from Timmy and clamored away from the horde.
Max stayed to fight with his shotgun, but there were too many. He drew a machete that Gloria had given him and tried his best against the zombies, but the other fighters at his side were far more experienced. When the living started to fall to the dead, Max tried to retreat, but the horde surged forward.
“Cover them,” Gloria called from atop a shed on the far side of the trench. Everyone on the platforms turned their guns to the line of zombies attacking her ground fighters. Max and those beside him used the opportunity to run. They scattered, and Max scrambled up the scaffolding of a nearby platform with two others. Everyone continued firing into the horde until one-by-one, they each ran out of ammo.
“I’m out,” Timmy said and unsheathed his knife. The scaffolding wobbled under the strain of the zombies, but he remained steadfast against the dead.
“Gloria.” Sarah motioned to the camp leader from her platform. “The fuel pump is inside the shed. Can you turn it on?”
Timmy threw his arms into the air. “Yeah, let’s burn ‘em.”
“We’re on it,” Gloria said. She and two others searched for a way into the shed until West stepped out of his hidey-hole.
He emptied his clip at Gloria and her friends on top of the shed. She cried out as a bullet found its mark, and she fell from the roof into the horde. One of her friends slumped over the edge but didn’t fall. The last one fell against the piping that spanned the trench walls.
"No hail-marys to save you today.” West reloaded his gun and pointed it at Max. “In fact, I think you were right. Why wait?"
Max ducked behind the railing to avoid a shot before a part of the horde surged toward the shooter. West dodged the walking corpses and dashed for the closest scaffold. Unfortunately for him, the platform he chose for safety housed Sarah and her new friends. As he reached for the final rung of the scaffolding, West found Sarah waiting for him with her machete and a vengeful gleam in her eyes.
Sarah smiled as West’s headless body fell into the horde, but Max cringed. A group of zombies surged to devour the remains, but most of the dead surrounded the small shed housing the fuel for the fire defenses. Gloria’s fresh body started the frenzy and the dead man hanging and bleeding from the roof kept it fed. The metal shed wasn’t built to survive that kind of abuse.
“It’s about the buckle,” Timmy called to his friends. “I need to get to the stockpile.”
“No, you’ll be killed,” Max said.
Timmy met his gaze across the moat, and he shook his head. “We can’t let them die.”
Max took several deep breaths as his eyes darted around in search of anything to help them out of this mess. He spotted Leo cowering on a platform near the shed. The nervous man was alone, and only one zombie seemed interested in him.
“Leo!” He looked up upon hearing his name, and Max smiled at him. “I need you to be the hero again.”
Leo’s eyes grew wide, and he whipped his head back and forth.
“I need you to run,” Max said, “and make a lot of noise. I need you to draw the horde away from the shed. I’ll take it from there.”
“I can’t do it.”
Max nodded his head at his friend. “Yes, you can. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard. Do it anyway.”
Leo cringed, closed his eyes, and tried not to hyperventilate. He glanced down at the zombie reaching for him then jumped passed it. Out of reach, he screamed and hollered until the horde turned his way. As soon as they staggered for him, Leo dashed away, screaming like a mad man.
With most of the horde following Leo, Max climbed down and rushed for the shed, dodging several zombies that spotted him. He flung it open and darted inside the dark shed. Using a wooden chair to block the door, Max searched the piping and gauges for the switch he needed. When he found it, he jammed his thumb across the button to activate the fuel pumps. A whirring sound filled the small room then a clanking noise.
When gas splashed to the ground from the roof above, Max jumped back in confusion. He found a closed hatch that led to the platform above, and after unlocking it, he pushed it open. On the shed's roof, Max found West’s third victim collapsed on top of some fuel piping. He pushed the body aside to discover bullet holes in the gauges and piping. Fuel rushed from the pipe onto the roof and spilled into the room below.
“Sarah, did the book you read describe a contingency plan due to damage?” Max didn’t bother looking at her. He already knew her answer. But the devastation in her voice still broke his heart.
He felt rather than heard the hopelessness that settled into the remaining camp. They’d lost so many lives on their trek to Los Verdes, but they had made it here. They were supposed to be safe at the walled city, not eaten in its trenches because of a vengeance-seeking psychopath.
Max lifted his gaze to Sarah as she collapsed and sobbed for the loss of her parents, friends, and the guilt she’d carry until her death. He glanced at Leo, who climbed onto the same platform as Timmy. Not ready to give up, the 12-year-old swung his machete at the relentless horde. He pulled Leo up and away from the outstretched arms that sought a fresh kill.
Wiping the sweat and blood from his face, Timmy looked to Max. “What do we do now?”
“The right thing,” Max said, and Timmy frowned in confusion.
Max pulled his empty shogun free and banged it against the railing of the platform. The noise rattled across the trench, and the horde took notice. He yelled and screamed for the zombies to come eat him and pushed the body of his dead comrade over the edge and into the frenzied horde.
Max ignored his friend’s calls. He couldn’t look at them, or he might change his mind. Instead, Max made more noise and fed the final body to the horde. When nearly all of the zombies surrounded the small shed and banged against the metal walls, Max slipped below and closed the hatch behind him.
Max settled in a heap next to the growing puddle of sludge. In the dark room, Max couldn’t see the dead trying to find him, but he could hear them. He gazed at the photo of his wife and ran a finger across her beautiful image. Then he dropped the picture into the fuel. As the shed started to falter to the horde, Max pulled the matchbox from his pocket. His hands shook as he struck the first match, snapping in half. He rushed to light a second match, and it ignited only for his sigh of relief to blow it out. He cried out in desperation as the door cracked in half, and zombies erupted through the broken wood.
Max held his breath with the third match as the small light illuminated the darkness, and he saw the vile creatures reaching for him. He dropped the tiny torch into the fuel and smiled as he remembered his friends. He remembered the excitement in Sarah’s voice when she described her dreams of learning enough to save the world, the quiet pride in Leo’s eyes when he overcame his fears to stand against West, and Timmy’s smile when he felt at home among the camp. In the instant before his death, Max wished he didn’t have to die doing the right thing.
With a gasp, Max awoke in his bed, surrounded by his furniture. He threw off the sheets and raced through the house. The moonlight shined through intact windows, the doors hung straight upon their hinges, and the walls stood firm. Everything was where he left it before the world went to hell.
Max had to be sure, so he flipped on the news. The anchorwoman spoke of a pandemic sweeping the nation, and Max recognized the broadcast. The cable news network replayed the recorded interviews from earlier in the night when Max had prepared for bed. He glanced at the gas can next to his bedroom door then back at the television.
Max gawked when Sarah appeared on the screen wearing a white lab coat. She spoke of the dangers of this flu-like virus and warned people to practice good hygiene. The anchorwoman segued to a recording of a father dropping his 12-year-old son off at school, and Timmy smiled into the camera as it panned across the schoolyard. Max shook his head when Leo popped up to describe a mugger that stole his wallet and keys. The anchorwoman teased an upcoming interview with a man on death row, flashing a photo of West in an orange jumpsuit.
Max turned off the television and retreated to his bedroom. He collapsed on the bed and pulled the matchbox from his pocket. He fidgeted with the abused box for a moment before sighing, then he tossed it into the drawer of his nightstand. He rolled onto his side and gazed at the framed photo of his wife. Closing his eyes, Max wondered if it had all been a dream.
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© 2020 by Kelly A Nix