Joel looked out on his neighborhood. Speckled along his street were more zombies. His older brother, Jay, had come home with a bite on his shoulder. Joel treated it the best he could after his failed attempts at calling 911. It just got worse and worse until Jay started spazzing out of control. Joel didn’t know what was going on until Jay took his final breath among the living. He turned into one of those things soon after and tried to rip Joel apart.
Joel was now in his room with his dog, trying to make sense of what was happening. He thought for a moment. He needed to get out of his game room and find help for Jay. He slipped on a jacket that he found in the corner of the room. He pocketed his phone and slid open his window right above his patio.
“Stay here, Banks,” he said to his dog, giving him a quick ruffle of his fur.
Joel took a deep breath and swung his legs out the window. He sat a story above his yard. He muttered a few words of encouragement and leapt from his window. He rolled onto his lawn, gaining a couple bruises. Joel took one last look at his house and began cutting through yards, and making his way to Main Street. Both his mother and father worked on Main Street. He had to find them. He needed to know if they were safe. He ran onto his neighbor’s back patio only to have a hand reach through the backdoor and grab him by his shirt.
Joel stared at the man who grabbed ahold of him. He looked into his haunting, starving yellow eyes. Joel snapped out of his daze as the man, who was once his neighbor, tried to bite Joel’s hand off. Joel ripped away from his neighbors grasp and continued toward his destination, imagining his parents like Jay. He refused to accept his parents were zombies, and he refused to accept Jay was gone forever, despite his gut feeling.
Joel finally made it to main street, and what he saw was beyond imaginable. Fires, bodies, gunshots, all blended and slurred with his senses. He saw a National Guard vehicle pulled right beside him and soldiers jumped out of their vehicle and into the street. There were five of them, gunning down zombies left and right. They ran right past him, ignoring him entirely.
“Burns, why are we even here? Our orders are for Des Moines!” a soldier said.
“This town when to crap fast. We have to help!” Burns fired on another zombie.
He looked around me and noticed zombies coming into on all sides. How? It was as if something was leading them there, something put them there. He peeked over the soldiers and down the street, looking for his parents. A woman with short brown hair was bent over a man with light brown hair and small beard. His parents! Joel was about ready to run down and fall into his parents’ arms when he realized his mom’s eyes were now yellow and puffy. Blood dripped from her lips and she was feasting on his dad’s intestines. His mom turned right towards him, not recognizing him at all. Her own husband and son had become a meal to her. Joel’s mom’s head snapped back, spurting blood as she collapsed. Joel turned to the smoking gun of Burns’.
“No!” Joel roared.
The soldier turned to him, confused yet guilty. Tears ran down his face as he lunged at Burns, unsuccessful at knocking him down. He beat at the soldier with his fists, “You killed her! Why? You killed her!”
Burns seized Joel’s arms and shook him, “Get ahold of yourself son.”
“You killed my mom!”
Burns winced as if Joel slapped him across the face, “I’m sorry, son. She was gone. She wasn’t your mother anymore. Once you turn into one of those things, there’s no going back. Destroying the brain is the only way to kill them. It’s the merciful thing to do.”
Joel ripped away from the soldier. He let the words sink in. An image of his brother turned monster flashed in his mind. Joel balled his hands into fists, letting his fingernails sink into his palm. Another soldier came up behind Burns.
“Burns, we have to go. We can’t stay here. We don’t have the firepower,” the soldier said.
Burns somberly nodded and turned towards Joel, “Come with us.”
“No,” Joel said. “I can’t.”
Joel heard a soldier curse and open fire on a group of zombies coming down a hill. The soldier turned to Burns, “We have to go now!”
Burns pulled a handgun from his belt and pushed it into Joel’s hands. He gave him a bit of extra ammo. The two locked eyes. They both seemed to be looking into their own reflection. Burns and the other soldier piled into their vehicle. Burns looked at Joel one last time.
“Survive, but don’t lose yourself,” Burns started the vehicle and they were off.
Before he knew it, Joel was at his house. He looked down at the gun that was given to him. He pushed open his door. He heard Jay pounding away at a door. Silently, Joel crept up the stairs. Jay took notice of Joel and started limping towards him. Joel raised his gun, a single tear down his eye.
“I’m sorry, Jay,” Joel squeezed the trigger.
A sharp bang exploded in his ears. A fountain of blood spurted from Jay’s forehead as he slumped against a wall, painting it red. Survive, but don’t lose yourself. Joel already did and he wasn’t sure what he what would take it’s place.
Roamers. That’s what I call them. Days ago, they attacked my school and killed my classmates. I had no idea if my friends made it out. All the time I was in the kitchen, moping around, I heard gunshots coming from town, but never dared to leave the school. I survived off the food in the kitchen, and it would have lasted me for awhile, but I couldn’t stay in there forever. I had to clear the school.
I stepped out into the hallway. Dead ahead of me was someone I wish I didn’t have to see. The person ahead of me was Brock, a friend of mine. He slowly turned around to face me. His gray face was smeared with blood and he let out a hungry drone. He reached his arm that was stripped of flesh, out toward me. He stumbled closer to me.
“Crap, Brock, I liked you,” I muttered.
I swung my baseball bat, a sick crunching noise filled my ears as Brock dropped to the floor. I shuddered and patted Brock on the head. I continued down the hall and couldn’t believe what was happening. The face of Sydney Zimmerman turned towards me. Was God testing me? Was this a punishment of sorts? Were there more faces of the past ahead? Would I see Marshall, or my mom, or my brother? Or even Jarret, or Seth? Sydney finished the bit of meat in her hands and limped towards me.
“Sydney,” I said to her as she tried to make a grab for me.
I sidestepped her and brought my bat down on her skull. Her body violently dropped to the floor. Hoping that was the last of my classmates, I pressed onward. I opened the door to the office and check the narrow hallway that branched off it. Nothing was there, but a hand soaking in a puddle of blood. I started gagging which lead to me throwing up. I felt weak in the knees yet I refused to collapse. I wiped my sleeve on my mouth and exited the office.
I continued straight down the hallway toward the woodshop. I stopped dead in my tracks. This was the spot where I lost Jarret and Seth. This is where I was condemned to my horrible fate. A fire sparked inside of me. The fire burned with loss, grief, hatred, and anger. I charged to the woodshop and threw the door open. A terrible rotting smell attacked my nostrils and collapsed at what I saw. Ethan McCoy, Grace Luna, Caleb Ratzlaff, and Lucas Young were tearing apart Grace Holtz, eating her piece by piece.
I got to my feet and charged toward the Roamers that were once my classmates. I roared like a vicious animal and lost it. Everything was a blur of red and before I knew it, I was sitting in a pool of blood. Surround by my dead classmates, I stared at the window covered with someone’s blood. I couldn’t stay here. I was already losing it, but I wouldn’t leave without giving my friends what they deserved.
One by one, I carried them outside to the graves I dug. I wrapped them in whatever cloth or blanket I could find. A makeshift cross marked each grave with their names scratched into it. I was like a lifeless machine. Dig, make cross, engrave name, carry body, and cover it. When I was done, a field of crosses stretched across the school’s lawn. Each one bearing the name of a soul, empty with unfulfilled dreams and lives.
I said a quick prayer then left the crosses behind me as I entered the school. I emptied my backpack of my school supplies and started filling it with things I would need. I grabbed extra clothes from the lost and found and packed as much food as I could. I raided the nurse’s office for medical supplies and took what I needed from the emergency cases teachers were given. I also equipped myself with a hammer on my belt. I placed my baseball bat in my bag but unzipped the top, so that I could pull it out at any point.
The late afternoon cold welcomed me as I stepped out of the school. Finally, after being trapped in there for days, I felt ready to leave. I was going to find my friends and family. I might have escaped the school but that was only the beginning of the end.
“I’ll be around if you need anything, Emma. I need to take care of some things,” Nicholas guided Emma to the couch.
Nicholas shifted awkwardly before leaving Emma alone. Emma was devastated. Clayton turned into one of those things for what? To save her? Emma had frozen when she found Clayton, with only one leg, staining the grass with blood as he crawled towards her. She was going to let him end it right there if Nicholas didn’t find her.
“Thank you,” Emma croaked as Nicholas climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
“Anytime,” he said softly.
Emma waited for him to leave before she crept into the kitchen. She pulled the sharpest knife from the butcher’s block and slipped out the door. She looked at her house with disgust before running to Clayton, hoping he was still there. Sure enough, he was there. Hungrily moaning, Clayton drug himself along the empty lot. His sad yellow eyes looked to Emma as she approached him.
Emma sat down a couple of feet away from him. She hugged her knees to her chest. Her palms were sweaty yet she had an iron on the knife. She dug deep down into her memories and found the one she wanted. The memory was of when they first met. She just wanted Clayton to smile like he did that day, but Clayton wasn’t himself anymore. A single, sparkling tear ran down her cheek.
“No,” a voice said.
Emma jumped and looked to the source of the voice. A short but built boy stood behind her. His hands were crimson red and a gun was clenched tightly in his right hand. The boy was Joel. His eyes were fixed on Clayton.
“I hoped he had made it,” Joel sighed.
“Does it spread by bite?” Emma asked, looking back to Clayton.
Joel looked down at his hands, “Yes.”
“How do you do it?”
“You destroy the brain.”
There was a long pause filled with Clayton’s haunting cries.
“Are we going to put him down?” Joel asked sorrowfully.
“I will. I just-”
“I understand. But you have to. For him and yourself. It’s the best and most precious thing you can give in this world. Mercy.”
Emma rose to her feet; she gulped and shifted the knife in her hand. She staggered to Clayton, expelling the urge to cry. Clayton looked upward and tried clawing at her. Emma wished there was a less violent, savage way to put him down. She wished there was some way to drift him peacefully to sleep. She wished this never happened.
Clayton clutched Emma’s ankle. Emma yelled and plunged the knife in his skull. A sick crunch filled the air and rung in Emma’s ears. She yanked the knife from his head and threw it aside. Clayton’s inhuman eyes were wide open, staring at Emma. Emma couldn’t look at them anymore. Her fingers glided down his face and gently shut his eyelids.
“Clayton too, huh?” a group of boys approached Joel and Emma.
Joel and Emma recognized them immediately. Jarret, Seth, and Marshall, all battered and dirty crossed the lot to Joel and Emma. Each newcomer looked at Clayton mournfully. Seth walked up to Joel.
“It’s good to see you guys,” Seth weakly smiled.
“You too,” Joel noticed how Jarret was looking at his gun. “Jay.” He said after a while.
Marshall nodded, “Do you guys have a place?”
“I’ve been staying at Nicholas’,” Emma piped in.
“It’ll do. Does he have room?” Jarret question.
“I think so.”
“Well if it isn’t the class of 2020,” another boy approached them.
“Evan!” Marshall exclaimed.
Evan looked just as bad as Marshall and the others, maybe worse.
“Thanks for coming back,” Evan said bitterly.
“W-we didn’t know you were alive. And there was no way we could search the school!” Seth tried defending him and the others.
“At least you tried,” Sarcasm dripped from Evan’s voice. Evan shook his head at the sight of Clayton, “Let’s just forget it. I don’t blame you guys.”
“Can you help me bury him?” Emma interjected.
“I’ve already buried too many of my friends,” Evan dropped his bag and turned away from them.
“I buried my brother,” Joel snapped.
“At least you know what happened to Jay!” Evan yelled. “I would rather know that my family is dead than to guess for the rest of my life. I don’t know if my mom’s a Roamer or if Ryan’s rotting in a ditch with a bullet in his dead. I would rather put them down myself, than have some passerby kill them and leave them there.
“Do you know what it’s like? Do you know what it’s like to see your friends like that? The people you see everyday are just gone. And I had to be the one to deal with them, to bury them. They chose me. Out of everyone, they chose me to put them down.
“And I’m going to have to see their ghosts. They chose me! Everyone of them! Brock, Grace, Lucas, and countless more!”
Everyone looked at Evan with pity and concern. Evan hadn’t lost a family member that he knew of. But he might as well have.
I looked on as the other’s dug a grave for Clayton. I had already dug my share of graves today. They shoveled the dirt with the utmost care with the shovels Nicholas brought. Nicholas and I had been friends since before preschool so it was nice to see him alive. He assumed Emma went to finish Clayton when he discovered she was gone. Emma carved his name into a nearby rock.
“I never thought of that,” I broke the silence.
“What?” Emma finished carving an ‘n’.
“Gravestone,” I pointed the rock in her hand.
“What did you do?”
“I never thought of that.”
They finished digging his grave and placed him carefully into the ground.
“Evan?” Emma poked me.
“Can you say a few words?”
I walked to the foot of Clayton’s grave and cleared my throat, “Clayton, even in times of chaos and peril you held on to your loved ones and gave your life protecting them. You never strayed from the light. Let’s hope there’s more people like you out there. We’ll miss you.”
I stepped back and let Jarret and Marshall cover him with dirt. Emma placed the rock at the head of his grave and walked away without another look at his grave.
“You think this place was picked clean?” Marshall asked.
“Only one way to find out. We need food after all,” I said.
“Do we just go barging in?” Seth asked, unsure of the situation.
“The automatic doors definitely won’t work,” I kicked the door.
We stood outside our town’s one grocery store: Super Foods. We discovered last night that we barely had enough food to go around. Joel, Nicholas, and Jarret had gone to clear Casey’s and another nearby gas station. We were supposed to take care of Super Foods. Emma wanted to stay back at Nicholas’.
“I got this,” Seth backed up and put his shovel down.
He barreled through the stiff door, knocking it off its hinges. A hungry moan filled the air and a Roamer was on Seth in an instant. Seth yelped as the Roamer bit on his jacket. I swung my bat at the Roamer, a spray of blood exploded on the floor. Marshall pulled Seth out and gripped his crowbar. Seth snatched up his shovel.
Roamer started funneling through the door. We shattered the heads of anything thing that came towards us. My arms were growing heavy and I couldn’t catch my breath. More just kept coming and coming. Two were coming my way and I could barely take one of them out. One seized my arm and got ready to clamp down. Marshall’s crowbar crushed the Roamer’s skull and Seth took the other one out.
“Are we good?” I asked after we confirmed there were no more Roamers coming out.
“Yeah,” Seth panted. “My jacket’s just torn.”
“All good here,” Marshall spun his crowbar around.
With great caution and stealth, we entered the store. Marshall pushed Seth down and made a beeline for the candy rack by the registers. Seth tried getting to his feet, but I shoved him down as well. Marshall and I laughed as we searched for our favorite candy bars. I gasped at the Skittles I saw buried under some Hershey Bars. I clutched it to my chest with a smile.
“Save some for the others,” I nudged Marshall. “Except Seth.”
“I’m gonna stick the shovel the sun don’t shine!” Seth exclaimed as he tried grabbing some candy from Marshall.
I walked toward the mostly bare aisles. I skipped over the rotting produce and went straight to the dry goods. I managed to collect two boxes of mac & cheese, a couple soup cans, a box of cookies, a bag of chips, and some boxes of noodles. I started searching the place for batteries and things of that sort. I managed to find a small pack of AAs but nothing else.
I decided to check the back for anything else. I pushed open a door with bright letters, saying it was only for employees. I rejoiced at the huge stacks of soda. I tore open a case of Mountain Dew and downed a can in seconds. I grabbed two more for Marshall and Seth and ran to the front of the store. Marshall laid on the ground, unconscious, with a gash in his head and Seth was nowhere to be seen. I dropped the cans which resulted in them exploding on the ground.
I fumbled in my bag for the medkit. I wrapped his head in bandages and ran outside to see where Seth was. A black van peeled out of the parking lot. I cursed, discarded my backpack, and sprinted after it. The driver was toying with me, going slow enough to give me hope of catching it.
“Evan! What’s going on?” Joel shouted at me as the van passed Casey’s.
“He’s got Seth! Take care of Marshall!” I shouted back.
Jarret and Nicholas gave chase with me while Joel sprinted to Marshall. The van lead us to edge of town, near the highway. We followed the van over a hill and passed the graveyard and a motel. Suddenly, the van sped up and left us in the dust. We slowed to for a moment and rested.
“It looks like it’s going to the old warehouse by the truck stop,” Nicholas said between breaths.
“We gotta keep going,” I tapped my baseball bat on the ground. “I’m not losing anybody else.
“This happened before,” Jarret said.
“What?” I asked in bewilderment.
“A few days after we lost you, a guy tried to rob Marshall, Seth, and I. He had a gun to Marshall’s head. I killed him. With my bare hands. And I’m going to do the same with whoever took Seth.”
Jarret took off towards the old warehouse. Nicholas and I were behind him. My sweat brought warmth to my body. My mind was going as fast as my heart. Was Seth alive? Why did the driver take him? What was he going to do with him? The afternoon sky was gray and it looked Heaven would start crying any second. A large bang echoed in the distance. I feared the worst when I heard it.
The black van was parked outside the warehouse. It was empty. No driver, no Seth. A note was attached to the warehouse door. The game begins. A smiley face with a tongue sticking out was below the three words. I angrily crumpled it up and threw it aside.
“I’ll stay here and see if Joel will pick up,” Nicholas unclipped a walkie talkie from his belt. “And if that guy tries escaping, I’ll stop him.”
Jarret pushed the door open and we entered the warehouse. It was completely barren except for some large crates and a staircase leading to a balcony and the roof. Jarret and I swept the room, looking for any other places he could have gone. A garage door was on the far wall; we approached it. Jarret yanked the door up.
Dozens of Roamers poured in. We both backed up, making sure to get as much distance away from them as possible. My eyes darted around, analyzing my options. The staircase!
“Go on without me,” Jarret swung his bat at Roamer.
“What?” I exclaimed.
“Get Seth!” Nicholas barreled through the door and took a Roamer’s head off with a hatchet.
I fired up the steps and yanked open the first door I found. Inside was nothing but a desk and maps of Avoca. Red x’s were marked over certain areas. Pictures of various people covered the wall along with newspaper clips. I shook my head and went to next door. I flung the door open and was greeted with another set of steps and another door. I ran up the steps and pushed the door open.
No one was in sight. A gun had been cast aside. I snatched it up and dropped my bat. An almost full clip was in it. The bang we heard. Did the driver shoot Seth? Did Seth shoot him? A familiar groan of a Roamer pierced the air. I whirled around and pointed the barrel at it. I felt my blood go cold, the gun had become weightless. Seth stumbled towards me with a gray arm outstretched. A bloody hole was in his chest.
“No,” I gasped. “No. Seth, Seth. No. Please don’t do this.”
I backed up until I tripped and fell on my back. Seth moaned and swiped at me. I scooted back on my butt, keeping my gun fixed on Seth.
“Seth, please stop!” I knew my pleading was meaningless but I kept doing.
One more step and Seth would be on me. I yelled and shut my eyes. My finger pulled the trigger. The bang of the gun and a meaty crunch filled the air. Seth’s body thudded next to me. My eyes remained close. I started to sob. Seth, one of my closest friends, the butt of every joke, the loyalist guy you could ever need, was dead.
“Don’t you just love it when the weather matches the mood,” a serpent like voice said.
My eyes shot open and I got to my feet. A man with black hair and a matching trench coat looked to the gray sky. He looked to be in his mid twenties. I instantly knew he did this. He attacked Marshall, kidnapped Seth, sent Roamers on us, and killed Seth.
“You killed him,” I shook with rage.
“He had a hand in that too,” he fixed his on the clouds. “He made a grab for my gun and it went down south from there.”
“How did he turn into one those?” I questioned bitterly.
“Fun fact, it doesn’t matter how you die. You come back as one of the dead no matter what unless you destroy the brain. The bite just quickens the process of your death..”
“Why did you do it?” my hand tightened on his gun.
“I love humans. I really do. Interesting creatures they are. I like seeing what they do when the play my game. And you, Evan, are a player. Welcome to my game!” he stretched his arms out, gesturing to everything.
“I’m gonna kill you!” I screamed.
I opened fire on the murderer. He spun out of the way of the first bullet and ducked under the next one. He darted to me and cracked me across the face. My jaw was set on fire and I dropped the gun. The psychotic killer kicked the gun away, and I got to my feet. I lunged at the man; I managed to punch him across the face and push him to the ground. I went ballistic. I swung at the man repeatedly. He blocked most of my blows, but I managed to connect a few.
My body was running on complete grief and anger like it did at the school. The man caught my fists and smashed his head into my mine. A bloody smile played on his lips. I rolled off the man and clutched my forehead. My vision swayed, but I scrambled to my feet. I made a break for my baseball bat and snatched it up.
“I would like to apologize for what I said early,” the man grinned, blood dripping from his lip. “You are not a player. I don’t know why I would say that. I am the player. This is my game. And you and your little friends are pawns. Nothing more. And you’re the funnest pawn yet. But you still can’t rise to a player.”
“I don’t care about your psychotic game. All I care about is killing you right here and now!” I roared.
I swung my bat at his head. It zoomed over his head and he planted his knee in my stomach. My lungs wheezed out air. I clutched my stomach.
“My pawn, you’ve made your first move in the game. It took me so long to get all the creatures here. And all that sabotaging. But the game is alive and I hope you enjoy it. As the player does with his pawns, I’m going to move you in danger for a great cause, my enjoyment.”
The cold tip of a knife penetrated my stomach. I yelped with surprise and pain. The world started spinning and the ground hit the back of my head. Seth’s body was just inches away from me. Blood erupted from my mouth.
“Do your player a favor and don’t die,” the man laughed. “I’m Nero and we’re gonna have fun together.”
Nero left my sight. The heaven’s opened up and the rain started beating down on me. Drops of water ran down my face; I couldn’t tell if it was rain or tears. A pool of blood leaked out of my body, giving the rain a crimson color. One hand clutched my wound while the other reached toward Seth.
This was it. I was going to die and the souls I encountered in the school would die with me. I would leave my friends behind. I would finally know what happened to my family. The banging of gunshots attacked my ears. I closed my eyes and let the rain carry my blood away as I died.