Joel looked around the corner of the house. He could barely make out anything in the rain, but he saw a handful Roamers were digging into a rotting dog while a few others stumbled around. He quickly withdrew behind the house as one turned in his direction. Moaning in pain, Marshall clutched his bloodied, bandaged head. Joel had to get Marshall back to Nicholas’ house where Emma was waiting for them. They also had to get the two backpacks full of food back. Joel thought of Seth and his friends who went after him.
When he heard the gunshots, he feared the worst. Joel grabbed his walkie talkie, but opted not to call. He glanced at Marshall who was staring at the grey skies. He wondered if Marshall blamed himself for Seth’s current situation.
He nudged Marshall, “Are you okay?”
Marshall’s voice was weak and distant due to the pounding rain, “I’ll live.”
“Stay close. If we get separated, keep going,” Joel said.
Marshall didn’t answer.
Joel broke out in a crouched run with Marshall not far behind him. The Roamers couldn’t hear them over the rain and their own moaning. Joel kept a steady eye on the creatures as they passed them. Suddenly, Joel was jerked back and heard a sharp rip. The sound of tumbling cans alerted the Roamers as Joel dropped to the ground. Joel’s bag had been caught on a fence post.
Roamers started surrounding the boys. Marshall threw the bag off Joel’s shoulders and chucked it at a Roamer. Another one limped towards them. Marshall roared at the top of his lungs and swung his crowbar everywhere, taking them down left and right. Joel took a knife from his belt and finished off the Roamers Marshall missed. In a few minutes, they had reduced the Roamers to a pile of bodies, leaking blood into the street. Marshall continued to scream as he looked to the sky.
“I’m tired of being weak! I’m going to kill them! I’m going to kill them all!” Marshall yelled at the clouds.
Joel wasn’t sure if it meant the undead, or the monsters among the living. Joel tightened his grip on his knife, ready to fight Marshall if he tried something. He uneasily reached towards Marshall; he rested his hand on his shoulder.
“We have to go, Marshall,” Joel finally said. Marshall frowned at Joel and walked ahead of him. Joel picked up some of the dented cans that didn’t roll away. He stuffed them in his torn bag and hurried after Marshall.
Joel barged through the door and told Marshall to sit down on Nicholas’ couch. Joel expected Emma to come rushing to them, but she didn’t. Joel did hear the yipping of his dog, Banks, as his paws clicked against the wood floor. Joel ran into the upstairs bathroom. He rummaged through the drawers, yanking out all that he needed to treat Marshall. He bulleted down the stairs and started unraveling Marshall’s bandages.
A few weeks ago, Joel would have winced and looked away from Marshall’s bloody temple, but that was the Joel of the past. This Joel was the one who was determined to survive and keep as many people as he could alive. Joel wrapped Marshall’s head with the fresh, dry bandages. Joel handed Marshall some antibiotics and a water bottle. Marshall popped two of the pills in his mouth and took a swig of water.
“Take it easy,” Joel said as he entered the kitchen.
He spotted a note on the counter. He quickly scooped it up and skimmed it. It was from Emma. She had left. Joel didn’t bother reading it; he crumpled it up and tossed it aside. He didn’t need to waste his time with finding Emma. He needed to worry about the now.
The rain had cleared, and Marshall had drifted off to sleep. Joel was now standing outside of the warehouse that the kidnapper’s van was parked outside. Joel searched the van, but found no sign of Seth, Nicholas, Jarret, or Evan. Joel pushed the warehouse door open and backed away with his gun in hand. Dozens of bodies littered the floor. The rotting smell of Roamers hit him like a frieght train.
Joel covered his nostrils and mouth for a moment before he pressed on. He stepped over the bodies, stopping to see if they were his friends. He didn’t know if it was good or bad that any of friends weren’t one of the bodies. Joel cautiously walked up a flight of stairs leading to the upper roof. He pushed open the first door he found. He looked on in confusion. Maps of the Avoca area lined the walls with certain spots circled. The one that caught Joel’s attention the most was the map with a bright red circle around a certain area; one word written above it: Walnut.
Joel swung open the next door and went up the stairs behind it. He kicked the metal door open and scanned the roof. His hands maintained an iron grip on his gun. He spun around and felt his stomach drop at what he saw. A gray skinned Seth lay dead. Joel let out an unsteady breath and looked away. Seth was dead, and Evan and his other friends were nowhere to be found. He knew what he had to. He knew where he had to go. He was going home; he was going to Walnut.
“What are you doing up here?” I heard Jarret ask. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“The doc cleared me,” I continued to fix my gaze at the navy blue climbing over the orange horizon.
I was atop one of the buildings close to the wall of Walnut. I gingerly ran my fingers over my bandaged stomach. We had been at Walnut for a few weeks now, and I had just started moving around freely. Walnut was a sanctuary, a stable community that was formed after the whole world went to crap. We had even met an old friend, Brody, Joel’s cousin. He and another person had gotten us out. He had mentioned her a lot, but I had never seen her.
“I keep telling myself this is a dream,” I said. “I keep thinking I am going to wake in my own bed, and I am going to go school. Seth will be there, Clayton too. We’ll go to the football games on Friday. Everybody will worry about who’s dating who and they won’t have to worry about fighting for their lives. But I know better than that. Sometimes reality is just a nightmare you can’t wake up from.”
Jarret walked over to me and looked out into the distance. He was watching the sunset though; he was watching the Roamers scattered in the fields outside the walls.
“Randall decided to put all of us on scavenging duty,” Jarret turned to me. “I guess we grew on him.”
“Since when did we decide to stay?” I asked.
Jarret sighed, “There’s no doubt that on one of runs, we will go to Avoca. We’ll look for Joel, Marshall, and Emma, and we’ll bring ‘em back. This place is safe, and I want to help keep it that way.”
“I don’t want to abandon them that’s all,” I turned my back on the view. “I can’t believe the leader of Walnut is putting a couple of kids on a scavenging group.”
“The last one he sent out didn’t come back. He’s short on numbers. Besides, Brody will be there. And that one chick as well.”
“That’s real specific,” I rolled my eyes.
“I’ll belt you right in that bandage!” Jarret threatened.
I let out a chuckle, “Yeah, sure. I’m going back to our house, see what Nicholas is up to.”
“I need to ask Randall something. Curfew is coming up so I won’t be far behind you.”
I flung open the trapdoor and started down the ladder. Once we made it to the streets below, we pounded fists as a farewell. Jarret made his way over to the old town hall building where Randall was nine times out of ten. I strolled down the street, admiring the view. Most of Walnut’s main street had once been made up of little shops and business, most having to do with antiques. I made way to the row of houses beyond the shops. A couple of younger kids played in a yard as I passed them. I could feel them staring at me. I could feel them staring at my bandaged side.
As I passed a baby blue painted house with a wrap around porch, I heard a frustrated grunt and felt wad of paper bounce of my head. I bent down and uncrumpled the piece of paper. A sketched image of the rotting head of a Roamer’s head was on the paper. I furrowed my brow at the sight of it. My gaze ascended to roof from which the paper came from. A very unique looking girl was sitting on the roof, drawing away in a notebook. Her hair was very short except for a few locks of vided, red dyed hair that cascaded down the right side of her face. She had on pair of rectangular glasses, and her ears were lined with piercings.
I continued to watch her draw before I piped up, “This yours?” I held up the crumpled paper.
The girl flinched before looking down at me, “Yeah.”
“Do you want it back?”
“No, it’s not good enough. I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I’m new. Some of your people took me and my friends in. I’ve been in the infirmary for a while.”
“What happened?” she put her notebook aside.
Seth’s corpse flashed in my head, and I awkwardly shifted around, “I got stabbed.”
The girl grinned, “Sweet.”
“Any particular reason why you are drawing Roamer heads?” I changed the subject.
“Somebody has to capture the events of this. If I’m alive, art is. Songs, pictures, I do it all.”
“I never really thought of that. Does that mean you believe in civilization being rebuilt?”
“Ain’t it happening now,” she gestured to the rows of houses with a smile.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“That’s a nice name. I’m Evan.”
“Evian,” I heard Autumn mutter.
“Nothing. See ya around!” Autumn climbed through an open window with notebook in hand.
“I could’ve been friends with her before all this,” I said to myself.
Nero looked to horizon, the setting sun to his back. His eyes were filled with crazed lust. He wanted to make his move right now. He produced a wooden chess piece from his coat pocket. It was the crucial piece in a chess game: a king. He ran his finger over the top the piece for moment but quickly put it away.
He looked back to the large group of men around a campfire, roasting their meat on a spit. A woman laid motionlessly on the ground beside them. He nimbly walked over to woman as the men roared with laughter. He yanked her up by her hair and pulled her over to where he was originally standing. She didn’t let out a cry like she did when they first found him. She remained emotionless and didn’t move.
“I hope they have been treating you well,” Nero smiled down at her.
He received no reply, but he kept talking. “I know they are horrible monsters in most people’s eyes, but I love all humans including you and them. I really do find them interesting. They can be extremely dull and predictable, but as you know they are...resourceful. I have yet to find out why they do what they do. That’s just makes them all the more charming.”
“Don’t talk, just listen,” he yanked her up to his eye level and ran a thumb down her cheek. “I haven’t told many people about this, and the one I did, I stabbed him. He’s alive of course. He’s back at your home, Walnut, if I am not mistaken. You see, I am a people watcher. I play this game where I put people in certain situations to see how they react and deal with it. The endless possibilities of what a human can do is astounding. The choices they make, the way they express emotion. This apocalypse was the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s the perfect chessboard for my game. Murder, betrayal, desperation, anything is possible now!”
“Look over there!” Nero turned her head to rolling hills he was staring at early. He pulled her close so they were cheek to cheek.“Walnut is just a couple of miles away. With the help of those men, I will make my next move! Just thinking of the possible human reactions, makes me soar!”
“What are you doing with that head over there?” one of them men asked as he bit into the woman’s cooked arm.
Nero tossed her head in the air and caught it with one hand, “What do you even do with the heads?”
The rough looking man pointed to the row of spears planted in the ground with human skulls impaled through them.
Nero grinned with impress and threw the woman’s head to him, “I see. Leave room for tomorrow because you will have the meat you could ever want at the feast tomorrow. They’ve been behind those walls fattening themselves like pigs.”
A man with an eye patch grinned with drool running down his chin.
“Hey, Nero,” a voice grunted.
“Yes?” Nero asked causally.
“We found this girl sneaking around the woods,” the man pushed a young girl forward. She fell to the ground with a grunt of protest.
Nero squatted down and looked her in the eyes, analyzing her fear and grief. Nero smiled with wide eyes. He recognized her.
Nero ordered, “Tie her up and nobody touch her. This pawn will play a big role in my next move.”
The bitter chill of November struck me in face as I stepped outside our house, graciously given to us by the people of Walnut. Despite the cold, I kept my jacket unzipped. I pulled on a stocking cap and a pair of fingerless gloves. Jarret and Nicholas exited the house and closed the door behind them. We started our way to the main gate to meet up with the other members of our group.
“Do you think we’ll find Joel and Marshall?” Nicholas asked, expelling a puff of visible breath.
“I’m not leaving without them, and I don’t think Brody will either,” I said. “Funny thing really, we lost a friend to gain one.”
“Can we not have a moment without your bullcrap philosophy?” Jarret snapped. “You act like Seth’s death meant nothing.”
“I mean the exact opposite, Jarret. You seem to forget that I’m that one who had to put him down. And a good handful of our other friends and classmates. Whenever it is quiet, every private moment, I see them. I recount every one, and it always ends with Seth. A gunshot rings and rings and his death is the most vivid. Like it’s happening all over again.”
Jarret looked away. We were silent for the rest of the way to the gate. The walls of Walnut were mostly constructed from sheet metal and wood. A white van was parked in front of the gate, readying to leave. A lean boy with short blond hair leant up against the van, loading an assault rifle. A girl with long, bright blond hair was behind him cleaning a knife.
“Hey, Brody,” I nodded.
Brody grinned, “Sup, dawg.”
“Who’s this?” I jerked my head to the girl behind Brody.
“Oh, I’m just the one that saved your sorry butts. Name’s Allison,” she said.
“The van’s all ready to go. You know where you’re heading, right?” a tall African American man came out of the back of the van.
“Course we do, Randall,” Brody said.
“Good luck then,” Randall smiled and jogged off.
“Pick your guns,” Brody pointed to the back of the van.
Jarret hurriedly picked up a shotgun while Nicholas settled on a simple rifle. I was stuck with the pistol. Jarret, Nicholas, and I stuffed our pockets with ammunition as well as taking a knife. We climbed in the back of the van while Brody took the wheel, and Allison claimed the passenger seat. The gate screeched open, and Brody burned rubber; he blew out of the gate with a battle cry. Roamers drew their attention to our van as we rushed past them, but they couldn’t keep up
“I know you all came along because of Brody’s cousin,” Allison turned around to face us. “I don’t mind saving people, but keep in mind our main concern is the supplies. If saving Joel compromises it in anyway, I won’t be afraid to do what is necessary.”
Brody glared at Allison through the rearview mirror.
“Sir, yes, sir!” Nicholas gave a mock salute. Allison rolled her eyes and turned around.
“I know who I’m ditching if things get hairy,” Jarret muttered.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I whispered.
“You know what I was thinking?” Brody glanced at me.
“What?” I asked.
“We need a basketball court,” Brody slammed his fist on the dashboard. “I have not balled in forever. We need set up some type of bracket.”
“I haven’t a popped a three awhile!” I joked.
“You gonna pull out the pistols again!” Brody laughed.
“Stop!” Allison shouted.
Brody immediately slammed on the breaks. I lurched forward, hitting the back of the driver’s seat. Jarret swore as Nicholas crawled to the front to see what was happening. I rubbed my head and looked over Brody’s seat. Road spikes lined the road. My mind raised for an explanation of this.
We piled out of the van and scoped out the area. We saw no one around, and there wasn’t a sign of Roamers.
“Might as well move them,” Nicholas started towards the spikes.
A bullet whizzed in front of Nicholas, piercing the ground before him. Suddenly, people covered in mud, grass, and camouflage surrounded us, guns in hand. We raised our weapons at them; we were far outnumbered.
“What do you want?” Allison spoke up.
“Are these ones allowed on the menu?” a grass cloaked man said to another.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” he answered with a sick smile from under his hood. They started to draw closer to us.
Suddenly, the fierce bark of a dog stopped their advance. A small canine jumped onto one of the men and sunk its fangs into his arm. He roared in pain and shook the dog off. He aim his gun at the small dog and bang! The man was on the ground dead. My friends, Joel and Marshall, opened fire on the men from a ditch. Nicholas and I took cover behind the van while the others fled to the ditch.
“I take left, you take right,” Nicholas said.
“You got it,” I darted from around the van and shot at the first grass cloaked man I saw. He dropped to the ground, clutching his side.
Gunfire rattled in the air, the smoke from the guns filled my nostrils. My heart pounded in my head. I hadn’t been this terrified since I was stabbed. I fired once more at a man charging to an overwhelmed Marshall. His head snapped back, and he dropped to the ground. It didn’t bother me that I was killing people. It was for survival, self defense; I could tell these people weren’t saints. In my mind, it was justified. Then again, a lot things were going through my mind.
Marshall leapt from his side of the ditch gunned down one of the men who was trying to take cover. The few men left started to retreat. My heart wanted to let them go, but my mind want me to keep firing, so I did. Like soldiers making a final push, the rest of my friends ran out of the ditch and opened fire on the men. They all dropped to the ground. We didn’t let our guards down yet, we carefully scanned the area to see if anymore were still around.
Brody was the first to lower his gun. He embraced his cousin, his only family left. Joel’s dog, Banks, yipped as he pawed at Brody’s legs. Jarret clasped Marshall on the back.
“Good to see you, man,” I patted Marshall on the back.
Marshall nodded, “You too.”
I gave Joel a fist bump and a similar greeting. I noticed Emma wasn’t there, but I put off the question of her location. Our reunion was going great until Allison walked up to us with a walkie talkie in hand.
“I think I hear something coming in,” Allison handed the radio to me.
All I heard was the rumbling static until I heard a voice that sent a cold tremor down my spine. It was him. It was Nero.
“I’m impressed, Evan, you made quick work of those cannibals,” he said. I glanced down at one of the men.
“What do you want?” I gritted my teeth.
“I want to see what you do when your king is in check. In this case, Walnut. I also have a friend of yours, Emma. Follow the smoke and you’ll find her...and me for that matter. By the way, don’t be afraid to sacrifice your fellow pawns. Trust me, you’ll need to.”
The message cut out. I grunted in frustration and chucked the radio at the ground, shattering it. My friends watched as the bits of wiring and plastic covered the ground.
“Brody, Joel, Nick, take the van back to Walnut. Someone is planning to attack it. Tell Randall, he probably has something figured out,” I said quickly.
“What’s going on?” Nicholas asked.
“The psychopath who killed Seth has kidnapped Emma, and he is more than likely going to kill everyone in Walnut and if these cannibals are with him…” I didn’t need to say anymore.
The trio piled in the van along with Banks. Joel gave a small salute as they sped off for home. I turned to Jarret, Marshall, and Allison.
“We’re going after Emma,” I pointed to an upward climbing chain of smoke in the distance.
“Wait, she’s alive! I know her!” Allison exclaimed.
“Then you won’t mind saving her,” Marshall said.
We ran as quickly as we could through the bare fields to the smoke. We approached a thick treeline and continued into it. My eyes danced around the trees looking for any type of threat whether it was a Roamer or another one of Nero’s minions. The smell of smoke became stronger the farther we went into the trees. Finally, I saw clearing with a and ducked under a tree; the others followed suit.
I peeked around the tree-- Emma was there. Her hands were bound to a tree, her lip was cut, and she sorrowfully rested her head against the tree. I stiffened when I saw Nero come into view, a few men trailed behind him. Suddenly, Emma’s head shot with wide eyes; she looked right at me.
She mouthed the word go. I shook my head and turned to Allison.
“What do you think we should do?” I whispered.
“I say we shoot them all dead now,” Allison hissed.
“Emma will be in the crossfire,” I glanced back at Emma. Nero had left my sight, leaving one of his henchmen to guard her. “I have a really stupid idea, keep your sights on the guard.”
I took Allison’s knife from her belt and threw it over to Emma. I heard the rustle of leaves as it landed behind the tree.
“Quit movin’!” the guard ordered, kicking her in the side.
I released a sigh followed by a bead of sweat. It was all up to Emma now. Thoughts bounced around in my head like popping corn. What if Nero came back? Would he kill her on the spot? Did Joel, Brody, and Nick make it to Walnut in time or had the invasion already began?
“I gotta take a leak,” the guard grumbled. The brute stomped away from Emma.
Emma immediately turned herself around. She wiggled her bounds to the bottom of the tree and picked up the knife. She slipped the knife in between her right wrist and the rope. She started jerking the knife back and forth until her hand was free. She made quick work of her other hand. Emma was about to come sprinting our way when she looked to something I couldn’t see. She scurried behind a tree.
I shifted uneasily. I didn’t like where this was going. The guard came into view. He swore aloud when he saw Emma’s rope on the ground. He started to poke his gun into a bush. I saw Emma creep up behind the man, knife in hand. He whirled around only to have the knife plunge into his heart. He sputtered out inaudible words until Emma stabbed him in the head, preventing him from becoming a Roamer.
Emma stood there, staring at the man she killed. I wanted to scream at Emma to tell her to get over here. Emma looked at backed away from the dead man, pointing Allison’s knife at whoever was coming at her.
“Now this is why I love humans,” Nero approached her coolly. “Their determination for survival. The things they do to breath a little while longer. I love it when I see how a human deals with danger. You want to know what I love more than a human dealing with danger?”
“Emma, get down!” I shouted raising my gun.
A smile played on Nero’s lips, “A human dealing with loss.”
Nero grabbed Emma’s hand and forced the knife into her throat.Without hesitation, without thinking, I squeezed the trigger. The bullet grazed Nero’s left shoulder. Nero pushed Emma to ground as she choked on her own blood. Nero fled to the trees as our bullets pierced each one he weaved by. Once Nero was out of sight, we ran to Emma.
Allison covered Emma’s throat with as hand as she cradled her head. Allison silently cried for her friend. Emma ran her bloody hands over Allison’s shirt, then Marshall’s, then Jarret’s then mine. Emma’s eyes rolled, showing their white bottoms. She was gone.
“Stand back,” Jarret aimed his gun at Emma’s head. We all got to our feet.
Without another word, Jarret pulled the trigger. I found that red grass was becoming more common. That’s when I finally heard the hungry sobs of Roamers. Our gunshots had attracted them, They were closing in on all sides. There were too many to fight.
“I wonder how serious this is,” Nicholas said from the back of the van. “I wonder how many people this guy has. I hope Evan and the others found Emma.
“We’ve dealt with a raid like this before,” Brody reassured his friends. “Four injured, two dead.”
“That doesn’t really help, Brody,” Nicholas sighed with frustration.
“All I am saying is, we are going to be alright. We’ll all be fine.”
“Brody, do remember when we broke Grandma’s mantle?” Joel asked, petting Banks from behind his seat.
“And we put it back on, but it broke when she moved a freaking vase on it,” Brody smiled at Joel. Banks started barking madly.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Joel asked.
“Oh, god!” Brody shouted.
Joel turned around to see a Roamer slammed into their windshield, forming a bloody spiderweb of cracks. Joel saw another glimpse of Roamers up ahead. Brody swerved to the other lane, but he couldn’t see with the dead Roamer on his windshield. Another Roamer flew into the windshield, successfully breaking it. Half the Roamer’s body was sticking into the van. He made a swipe for Joel who pulled his gun out in a second and blew its head off.
“I can’t see where I’m going!” Brody screamed as he plowed another living corpse.
Joel shifted to the side-- a whole herd of Roamers were ahead of them.
“We gotta abandon the van, man!” Joel’s voice cracked from panic. Brody slammed on the brakes, and they all piled out.
Roamers were on them in an instant, grabbing the clothes and trying to sink their teeth into them. Blam! Joel fired his handgun, the same one he got from Burns. A Roamer’s head erupted with blood. Joel pointed his gun at another one of the monsters only to hear the worst sound you could possibly hear at that moment. A hollow click came instead of a loud bang.
Joel swore and whipped his pistol into the Roamer’s skull. Nicholas had run out of ammo too. He was clubbing Roamer’s left and right with his rifle. Brody emptied his entire clip on a cluster of Roamer’s at the hood of the van while Banks barked at his side.
“We have to go around!” Nicholas shouted as slammed a Roamer’s head into the van, painting it red.
Joel scooped up his dog and lead the charge to the barbed wire fence at the side of the road. He took one of the wires and yanked it upward to allow Brody and Nick to slide under. Once they were across, Joel threw his dog over and stepped in between the wires. Joel took another step and realized his sleeve was caught.
“Crap! Not again!” Joel shouted.
A Roamer seized Joel’s arm and open its mouth to take a chunk of flesh from Joel. Joel roared and jerked his arm forward with all his might. His sleeve completely ripped off from his shirt. Nicholas took Joel and pushed him forward. The trio and the dog sprinted through the empty cornfields, away from the Roamers. They ran until they couldn’t any run anymore. They slowed down to a walk.
“Where have you guys been?” Brody asked through multiple breaths.
“We would’ve come to Walnut as soon as we found out about Seth. Did Evan tell-” Joel was interrupted.
“Evan told me.”
“Well, anyway, there were some complications. We needed supplies, and Marshall wasn’t ready to travel. I left Marshall and I’s packs on the van.”
“We won’t need them,” Nicholas pointed up ahead. They could see the maingate of Walnut.
“How did you get the walls up?” Joel asked.
“As soon as the authorities gave up on us, we blocked off a bit of mainstreet, and we just expanded from there. We had a good leader, and a few people who knew constructions and architecture. Randall, our leader, just had good vision is all. People live in houses, we have crops, we have church group for the people who still believe, and we have a huge storehouse. Everybody has a job there, You’ll love it, Joel.”
“If it stays that way,” Nicholas looked at Walnut with worry. “We don’t what we are up against.”
“I’ll defend it with my last breath if I have to,” Brody said. “It’s our last hope for civilization.”
The road seemed clear of Roamers so they returned to the asphalt. Walnut grew closer and closer. Finally, they were only a couple of yards away from its gates.
“Yo!” Brody called out. A figure one of the platforms behind the wall disappeared to open the gate.
Brody turned to Joel, “I’m glad you’re alive, man.”
Joel smiled, “Likewise.”
The gate started to slowly screech open.
Brody put his arm around Joel, “We can crash at my place and live together like fa-”
The sick crunch of a bullet piercing Brody’s skull echoed in the air. Brody’s lifeless body slumped to the ground. Blood pooled around his head, reaching Joel’s shoes.
“Brody,” tears welled up in his eyes. Joel sank to his knees, soaking his jeans in blood. “B-Brody, no, no. No!”
Armed men charged down the road, shooting at the two boys. More cannibals. Nicholas wanted to mourn Brody as well, but there was no time. Nicholas grabbed Joel and dragged him behind the gate as he screamed out his cousin’s name. The gate closed behind them. Joel’s grief had quickly turned to rage.
“I’m gonna kill ‘em! I’ll kill them all!” Joel got to his feet and stole a rifle right out of someone’s hands.
Joel climbed up the ladder the platforms surrounding the wall. Joel couldn’t believe this was happening. There were so many of them. So many murderers, so many monsters. Roamers were pouring down the road as well. The cannibals started throwing grappling hooks and setting up ladders. Joel shot one down as he set his hook on the wall. Joel looked to his left to Nicholas and few others fighting them off as well.
A person to his right was shot off the wall. A cannibal successfully made it over the wall; she ran to Joel with her machete raised. Joel shot her in the stomach, and she fell to the outside of the wall.
Nicholas was having troubles of his own. While the cannibals were climbing and shooting at him, Roamer’s where piling up against the wall. Nicholas could feel the sheet metal tilting. Nicholas glanced to his left and saw a girl his age with short, unnatural red hair and glasses. She was gunning down cannibals left and right, muttering something under breath.
“Behind you!” Nicholas shouted when he spotted another cannibal climbing the wall.
Autumn shot the man without hesitation. She give Nicholas a smile and a thumbs up.
“We need backup! The south wall has been breached!” Nicholas recognized Randall’s voice as he shouted.
“I’ll go,” Joel said to Nicholas.
Joel and a few others left with Randall. The good news was that Nicholas was seeing less of the cannibals. The bad news was that there had to be way more at the south wall.
“Come on, Marshall!” I pulled him to his feet after sinking my knife into his undead attacker’s skull.
The forest was full of Roamers; they were the moths and we were the flame. We could only keep moving forward. I hurtled a fallen tree and dodged a Roamer’s grip. Allison, the one leading the pack, stopped dead in her tracks.
“Why are we stopping?” Jarret yelled as he looked back at our pursuers who kept stumbling closer.
“We have to jump over this!” Allison answered.
I looked ahead and saw we were on a small cliff. Below were a few Roamers who moaned at us in hunger. We could jump to the other side, but it was barely manageable in the state we were in.
“Is there another way around?” my eyes searched to answer my own question.
“Nope, I’ll go last. Everyone across!” Allison ran to the back of our group. She shot down a few Roamers who were getting too close.
I backed up and pumped my legs as hard as I could until I met the cliff’s edge. I flung myself over the flesh eaters below. My right foot landed on the other side while my left foot dangled above the Roamer’s who made mad swipes at it. I pushed myself up and waited for the others to come across. Jarret was the next to jump and did so with little problems.
The Roamers were drawing closer to Allison and Marshall. Marshall didn’t have as much room to jump as Jarret and I did. He backed up as far as he could without getting grabbed by one of the Roamers. Marshall flung himself over the Roamers. His stomach hit the cliff’s edge hard. His hands clawed at the ground to keep himself from falling; he slipped farther and farther to the Roamers.
I slid on the ground and caught Marshall’s hand. I yelled, “Jarret, help!”
“I’m a bit busy!” Jarret yelled back as stabbed an approaching Roamer’s skull.
I started to hoist Marshall up when I saw Allison jump across as well. Just like Marshall, she hit the edge and started to slide down to the Roamers below. I felt a tug on Marshal’s leg, preventing me from pulling him up. Marshall kicked at flesh eater, but the Roamer wouldn’t let go. I turned to Allison who was hanging by a tree root that had grown out of the cliff. She still had her gun.
“How many bullets do you have left?” I asked quickly.
“One,” she grunted as she tried to pull herself up.
I looked back to Marshall. Marshall was as selfless as they come. He would have wanted me to save Allison. As terrified as Marshall was, that’s what he would have wanted. Marshall, one of my brothers.
“Evan, help!” Allison screamed as her root started to rip out of the dirt cliff.
I looked at Allison coldly and apologetically. She knew what her fate was right then. She knew there was no chance that I would save her.
“Please,” Allison threw her gun to me, signifying for me to put her out of her misery.
Allison dropped to the pack Roamer’s below, screaming. The ones chasing us fell to bottom. They all swarmed to Allison and began tearing her apart. Allison screamed in unbearable agony. I picked up the gun and aimed it at Allison’s head.
The barrel drifted to the Roamer that had Marshall. I pulled the trigger; the Roamer dropped and released Marshall.
Forgive me, I thought.
I pulled up Marshall, and we continued through the forest. Nero’s words came to mind. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice your fellow pawns.
“I’ve got it from here, get to the south wall!” Nicholas shot down another cannibal. He and Autumn were the only ones left on the maingate.
Autumn nodded and climbed down from the platform. Nicholas looked around. He only saw Roamers that kept piling up on the wall. Nicholas wobbled slightly as they kept stacking up.
“One more look around, and I’ll join the others at-” Nicholas’ eyes widened when he saw a boy, a little older than him, with a rocket launcher. “Oh god, no!”
The kid hefted it on his shoulder and took aim at the gate. Nicholas pulled the trigger on his rifle. He was too late. Right when the bullet met the boy’s head, the rocket shot into gate. Nicholas was blown off the wall by the explosion. Nicholas hit the ground hard; he felt like his brain had turned to mush.
A constant ringing bounced around in his head, he couldn’t even hear the Roamers drone as they swarmed him. Nicholas was spent. His body couldn’t do anything as the Roamers tucked into his insides. He couldn’t even scream.
It was complete chaos when I arrived at the south wall. Our people were far outnumbered. Roamers and the cannibals were everywhere. The first thing Jarret, Marshall, and I did was pick up weapons from the bodies around us. Mine belonged to Randall. We were shooting down anything that came near us. I was looking someone in particular though: Nero.
I looked to Town Hall and saw the monster I was looking for. He was on the front steps, taking everything in with a smile. I told Jarret and Marshall to leave him to me so they left to help transport the wounded.
“Nero!” I shouted.
His smile grew even wider. Nero and I raised our guns at the same time. We pulled our triggers. A fiery pain exploded in above my armpit. I cried out in pain and clutched my bleed wound. It was close second to getting stabbed. Through clenched teeth, I glanced to where Nero stood. He was no longer there, and the door to Town Hall was wide open. I wasn’t going to let him escape this time.
I stumbled through the doorway and found a trail of blood leading up a wide staircase that was centered in the lobby. I kept a death grip on my wound as I climbed the stairs. The blood became more abundant the higher I climbed. I reached the top then took a left through a hallway. Near the end of the hall, an office door was open.
I slowly approached the door. I let go of my wound and placed both hands on my weapon. I spun to the doorway, ready to fire. Nero was sitting on a windowsill with the window open; he smiled contently at the fighting below. His left hand clenched his bleeding chest. His right hand held a king chess piece, stained with red.
I should have shot him right there, but he seemed...so out of place. He turned to me with his pleased smile.
“I never thought I’d see the day. A pawn turned into a player,” Nero chuckled, blood dripped from his lips.
“Why? Why would you do this? What made you think you could do things like this? Do you think you’re some type of god?” I stepped forward with weak legs.
“Somebody had to do it if you think about it,” Nero stared out the window. “Do you see him around anywhere? I really only did this to show how much I love humanity.”
“If you loved humanity so much than why didn’t you make a charity? Why are you killing us off?”
Nero let out a laugh which resulted in him spraying red on the white windowsill, “I am making the human spirit stronger. I am unlocking its full potential. All of its instincts and emotion. Do you understand?”
“From your sick perspective? Yes.”
“You are by far my greatest achievement, Evan. You have yet to disappoint me. And like that my little helpers are gone.”
I glanced out the window to see the remaining cannibals flee.
“Don’t let the little game die out. You know all the rules. You’re now a player. Have fun,” Nero placed his king on the desk next to him. “Check and mate.”
Nero flicked the king over. He smiled at me like an old friend then tipped out the window. I heard his body fall. I rushed to the window to see his dead body down below. He still had that smile on his face. Blood ran up his cheeks, making his smile even bigger. I looked on as my tortmenture, the one responsible for the death of Allison, Emma, and Seth, get torn apart and devoured by the Roamers.
My legs gave in; I tried to lean on the desk, but I only swatted the dusty papers off the desk. I collapsed on the ground. I turned my head to the side. The king piece was only a few feet away from me. I heard a mixture of familiar voices as my eyes fluttered shut.
I ran my hand over the five graves. Seth, Emma, Allison, Brody, and Nicholas. We had taken back Walnut and rebuilt it. A few houses including mine were left standing. Everything else was practically a log cabin. It was now spring. The attack on Walnut was fresh in my mind like yesterday. The deaths aren’t as vivid or frequent as they used to be.
I turned around to see my remaining friends: Jarret, Marshall, and Joel with Banks at his feet. My family.
“Wanna play a game of pickup ball before we go on our supply run?” Joel twirled a basketball on his index finger. Joel had fulfilled Brody’s wish, and he had built a basketball hoop on a slab on concrete.
“I pick Joel!” Marshall exclaimed.
“I don’t want Evan!” Jarret complained.
“Then I guess you don’t want to win!” I stole the ball from Joel and ran to the basketball court.
The darkness I had been through made those moments shine the brightest.