The sign on the road leading in said the town was called Bellview, but it was so worn and battered that it could have been Ballview and we wouldn’t have known the difference. Adam and I had just arrived in the town that afternoon. After checking out the area around a little old mom and pop grocery and making sure it was clear, we went in to scrounge for some food. Like most stores, everything inside still seemed untouched and pristine, apart from the rotten fresh and previously frozen foods. Past customers had apparently enjoyed the taste of baked beans as much as Adam did, and few cans were left in the storefront, so we went into the back room to see if there were any left back there. Not only were there baked beans, but I was able to find some tuna, my favorite. I had long since eaten all the tuna in our last town. We stuffed our backpacks as full as we could.
Then we heard the chime of the bell on the front door. Adam and I glanced at each other, and he quietly set down the can in his hand and grabbed his hatchet. I picked up my pistol, and he motioned for me to come with him. We hadn’t seen anything outside when we’d checked, but it was possible one of them had slipped past us. It was an unsettling thought. We stopped in the doorway leading back to the front and listened.
The shopping area was small and steeped in shadows, the only light being that which streamed in through the front windows and glass push door. The aisles stretched away from us, going nearly the length of the store front to back.
At first we heard nothing, and then we heard the shuffling of feet and raspy breathing. It sounded as if there were only one of them. Still, we had to be careful. Its steps were reaching the end of the pet food aisle, and we waited for it to show itself. Around the shelving it lurched, slowly, shuffling. One of its legs had been twisted and broken, and it dragged that leg along behind it. Most of its clothes were intact, but its skin had a blue pallor, no blood had flowed through those veins in quite a long time. Its eyes stared us unblinkingly, pupils completely dilated. It opened its mouth and a long, monotone moan came out as it shambled towards us, arms outstretched, fingers clenching and unclenching.
Adam moved before I did, raising his hatchet and burying it in the zombie’s skull. Its fingers relaxed and arms fell, and its whole body went limp. Adam’s hatchet was stuck, and his arm got yanked down with the falling body. Then we heard another moan start up, and a zombie had turned the corner around the next aisle from Adam, who was yanking on the hatchet. I lifted my gun, aimed, and shot it in the head just as it reached him.
Adam looked back at me and yelled, “What did you do that for? Everything for a mile around probably heard that!” He stepped on the first zombie’s face and levered his hatchet out. “We need to get out of here now.”
Right on cue, the front door bell jingled again. We could hear a multitude of footsteps entering the store. One of the front windows shattered. We ran into the back room and grabbed our bags. Luckily, there was a door to the back alley, through which the once-owners would have had goods delivered.
I could hear raspy breathing and steps coming from the front of the store. We didn’t have much time.
“Let’s get out of here!” I yelled at Adam.
He pulled open the door to the back alley, and immediately a zombie shoved its way in and fell on top of Adam, knocking them both over. There was a brief struggle while I pointed my gun, afraid of accidently hitting Adam if I shot. Suddenly the zombie went limp and Adam shoved it to the side. The handle of his knife stuck out from the zombie’s eye socket. He plucked it out, and we rushed out into the alley.
Eight feet in front of us was another building. Sunlight streamed onto the top of that wall, but the bottom of the alley was bathed in shadow. Off to our right, there were three zombies, who started moaning and broke into a shambling run as we exited.
Adam sprinted to the left, away from the zombies, and I followed. We were faster than the ones chasing us and creating good distance between them and us. I turned and looked just as a couple more zombies piled out of the back door of the store. They spotted us and joined in the chase.
Just before we reached the end of the alley and made our way out of the darkened alley, two more zombies rounded the corner in front of us. Adam immediately swung his hatchet, and it bit deep into the neck of the closest one, and the zombie collapsed, spine severed. Stopping as Adam dealt with those in front, I turned and raised my gun towards the ones chasing us. One, two, three shots, two zombies down. I had been practicing. On the fourth trigger-pull, nothing happened. I panicked and banged the base of the gun against my thigh. I realized the slide was jammed back on the gun, it wouldn’t budge. Then there was a squelching sound just behind me, between where I was and where I knew Adam to be. I jumped and spun around.
A zombie lay face-first on the ground, legs splintered and pulpy. Had it jumped down from a roof? As I watched, it lifted its upper half off the ground with an arm and reached after me. Suddenly Adam’s hatchet was stuck blade-first in the back of its head, and it collapsed. I looked up at Adam and he smiled at me.
Then pale hands pinned his arms to his sides and a zombie plunged teeth into his shoulder. Adam screamed in pain, I screamed in shock. Loud moaning came from right behind me now, but I ran to Adam. I used the gun as a club, pounding on the zombie’s head as hard as I could, but it didn’t let go.
“Run, Pro, run! Just save yourself!”
Adam shoved me away, and spun himself to the ground, trying to dislodge the zombie. I took a few steps backwards, out of the alley, and watched as another zombie dove onto Adam, then another and another.
There was no helping him.
I turned and ran as far as I could for as long as I could, until I dropped from sheer exhaustion, and even then I couldn’t sleep. I just heard Adam’s screams over and over again and saw the zombies swarming him every time I closed my eyes.
Since that day, I never touched a gun again. I found a machete and carried it with me everywhere I went, and I kept a knife on my belt. At night, I stayed in the branches of trees to avoid being found while I slept. During the day, I went into town and explored, grabbed food if I needed it, medicine if I found any. I took care not to make noise or accidently alert any zombies, but when I did find a lone zombie, I killed it if I could. I figured a dead zombie can’t swarm me later. It had been a long time since I’d last seen a zombie. And now, as I laid upon a large branch, beneath me stood a dilapidated zombie.
Head tilted back, it glared up at me, moaning steadily. It was missing its jaw down to its neck and most of its upper teeth, giving it an almost pathetic appearance. One of its hands was missing at the wrist, ending in a dried black stump with a small amount of white bone protruding from it. Its clothes hung in tatters, dirty and damp from innumerable rains. The zombie’s skin was blue-tinted and pale with green gangrenous spots scattered everywhere across it, and the hair on top of its head was matted and filthy. It reeked of decay.
I stared right back at it. I had never seen a zombie that looked so decrepit. I’d seen zombies with injuries before, gained before or after death, I wouldn’t know, but this was the first time I’d ever seen a zombie that appeared to be rotten or falling apart. Every zombie I’d encountered before appeared as if it were freshly dead. Never had one appeared to be rotting or starving, and I’d wondered about that before. Looking at this zombie, I wondered if perhaps there was hope, if maybe the zombies would eventually just die off of their own accord.
Then I noticed this zombie wasn’t reaching for me, just watching. This zombie was different, and I wasn’t sure why, but I wanted to find out more. I thought of a plan. First, I grabbed the backpack that was hanging further down the branch. I pulled out a spool of white nylon rope I’d taken from a hardware store and tied the end into a loop. The zombie stood still and continued to stare and moan as I dropped the loop down around its neck. I cut my end of the rope and tied it tight around the branch.
As I climbed down from the tree, the zombie attempted to follow after me on the ground but was pulled upwards by the rope whenever it tried to take a step. I walked up and stopped near it, and it still didn’t reach for me with its arms. It was tied up, missing its jaw and a hand, but I still didn’t want to risk it. I swung my machete and cut off the other hand. No blood dripped as the severed hand fell to the ground. Then I tied a new length of rope around its neck, cut the one holding it up to the branch above, and quickly led the zombie over to another tree. I kicked the zombie to the ground and tied the new rope around that tree’s trunk. Then I backed up a few steps, held the machete aloft, and waited. The zombie pushed itself up with its stumps and stood, then tried to approach me until it was stopped by the rope around its neck. A moaning emanated from its open throat.
I wandered back to my tree and sat against the trunk, machete on the ground by my side. What made this zombie so different? Were all zombies like this now, or was this one special somehow? Adam and I had talked about the future, wondered together what the future of humanity held, if it even existed.
The disease had appeared in scattered reports across the world almost simultaneously. At first it was hailed as a strange almost miracle. Patients checked into hospitals with terrible fevers, and within hours their hearts had stopped. Then they left their beds and began to wander. Doctors and nurses tried to put them back in bed, families tried to talk to them, but they were completely unresponsive. Good news turned bad when one of them viciously mauled a bedridden patient in another wing of a hospital in Sydney. Researchers discovered the virus stayed dormant for weeks before showing symptoms and that the zombies ignored the living who had already contracted the disease. The few that were attacked by zombies turned out to be immune to the disease itself. Everyone else was already infected. The panic and hysteria around the world hardly lasted a month before it ended as fast as it started. As far as I could tell, the entire world had died. I had found radios and called on them, but no one ever answered. The only living person I’d seen since then had been Adam, and that had happened by pure chance.
I started when I noticed my new pet had sat down. I’d never seen a zombie sit down, didn’t know they even knew how to. I stood up, half expecting it to copy me. It didn’t, however, and instead it just stayed on the ground where it was and continued to stare. The rope around its neck was still pulled taut.
I selected a stick from the ground and tossed it to the zombie. The stick hit its chest and fell into its lap. The zombie never even blinked. Although I suppose it couldn’t have played catch even if it knew how, I’d cut off its remaining hand.
I heard some scrabbling in the tree above the zombie. A squirrel hopped out of some leaves and ran across the branches, chittering excitedly. The zombie didn’t spare it a glance. That was another thing I had noticed. I’d never seen a zombie eat a wild animal or even chase one, never seen half-eaten corpses. As far as I could tell, they didn’t seem to require any sustenance. They just existed. None of it made any sense to me. Now, though, I had the chance to find some answers. I could keep this zombie for as long as I wished, see how it acted, how or if it aged. A cure was out of the question, I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to go about doing that, but perhaps I could learn more about them.
My stomach brought me out of my musings, reminded me I hadn’t eaten in a while. I pulled a can of baked beans out of the backpack. It was the second to last can in there, I needed to make a trip into town soon. I opened the can and watched the zombie. The sound of bending tin didn’t alert the zombie either. It seemingly responded to nothing, although its eyes tracked me wherever I went.
Elongating shadows told me the sun was setting. Especially after this zombie found me, I wasn’t going to be caught on the ground in the dark. I climbed back up into the tree and got settled on my branch. My pet zombie started moaning again, a little more insistently, and I glanced at it. Nothing seemed to have changed, it was still sitting down, the rope taut between its neck and the tree trunk. Almost regretting my decision to keep it, I did my best to ignore the moaning and let my thoughts drift.
Although I’d always lamented the fact I grew up in a rural area, it had turned out to be the only reason I’d survived. When the outbreak happened, the immune that happened to live in major cities had been swarmed by thousands upon thousands of zombies. Even though my area eventually succumbed to the virus, we had nearly a week of preparation before it did. I and everyone I knew stocked up on food and tried to wait it out, hoping and praying we didn’t fall to it as well. Even after the internet had gone out, power had gone out, and cell service had stopped, I still stayed in my home. It wasn’t until I had run out of food and water that I was forced to leave and search around to see what I could find. I brought a handgun with me, thinking I would need it for protection.
The first time I saw a zombie in person was just down the road from my house. Instead of shooting, as soon as it looked at me I bolted as fast as I could home and slammed the door shut again. I peeked out the blinds of the window near the door and watched as the zombie reached my door and pushed on it. It didn’t seem to know how to use the handle. It banged and banged, but eventually gave up and wandered away. I later realized how lucky I was that it didn’t spot me through the window.
After an hour had passed since I’d seen the zombie, I tried going outside again. I drove my car to the local grocery, passing only a few zombies along the roadside. They had tried to give chase, but I sped by and left them far behind, and they passed out of sight.
The grocery was in a standalone building with a nearly empty parking lot. It didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary had happened in the world, just perhaps it was a holiday and the store was closed. No zombies were in sight, no people either. I approached and noticed that one of the windows was shattered. Maybe a looter had done it, or maybe a zombie had broken in for some reason. I wasn’t going to take any chances. When I crept inside, I held my handgun in front of me, ready to shoot.
The smell of rotting fruit and vegetables hung in the air. The front of the store was lit by the sunlight streaming in through the windows, but the back was steeped in shadows. There were shapes that could have been product stands, but my mind saw each of them as a potential zombie. None of the shapes moved, however. As I approached the side wall of the store, I heard the crinkle of plastic bags being grabbed and dropped. Heart pounding, I stepped past the end of the aisle and pointed the gun.
“Don’t shoot! Please, don’t shoot!” the man exclaimed and threw his hands up. A cart sat in front of him full of cans and bags of potato chips. “I’m not a zombie, my name’s Adam.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and dropped my hands to my side. “I didn’t expect to find anyone else. I thought everyone was dead.”
“Well, I thought so too, but I guess not everyone died. You seem to be alive,” Adam said.
“I… I am. But I am really hungry.”
Adam opened his mouth to reply and moaned. It was a weird sound to come out of him, he’d never done that before. His moaning grew louder, and it sounded like there were more than one of him.
I opened my eyes and saw stars and a nearly full moon through the upper branches of my tree. The moaning hadn’t stopped. I looked down and gasped. There was nearly a dozen zombies crowded beneath me, hands outstretched and reaching, mouths opening and closing like fish gulping air.
I glanced at my pet zombie. It stood at the end of its rope, watching the group of zombies beneath me, arms at its sides, shifting its weight from foot to foot. It looked up at me, tried to step forward, but the rope pressed against its neck and held it back. It reached one arm up toward me, the other raised and rubbed ineffectually against the rope.
No zombie had ever found me here before. Then the pet found me, and now, not long after, I’ve been found by so many of them at once. Was I getting careless, did I do something wrong? Did my zombie somehow call them, or did they just hear my zombies moaning and come to investigate? There was so many of them.
Whatever the case was, I had a problem, one of the zombies had left the group and was now grasping at the tree’s trunk, trying to climb it. Then another seemed to notice what it was doing and went to the trunk as well. Then another and another. This was my chance. It was a tall jump, but if enough left, I might be able to jump down and run for it. I just had to wait for them to leave.
More zombies flooded in from the area and stood beneath me, pushing against each other, even while the ones already there moved to the trunk. There were no nearby branches for me to climb too either, I was stuck on this tree.
Climbing on a ramp of living corpses, a zombie had managed to reach the base of my branch. Machete held in my right hand, I shimmied over towards it. Once close enough, I lashed out with the machete. Swinging it was awkward, and the machete blade glanced off the zombie’s head. The zombie didn’t seem fazed, got a grip on the branch with one hand and reached towards me with the other, getting in the way of my swinging.
My next swing carried the machete through its hand and bit into the zombie’s face, but not deep enough. Now another zombie was climbing the branch from the other side. I wrenched the machete free and in doing so lost my balance. I panicked and wrapped my limbs around the branch to keep from falling off. I felt something grip my left arm.
I peered over the side of the branch. A zombie had leaned off the pile to reach up and grab my arm. I tried to shake it off but stopped when I almost lost my grip again. The zombie tugged at my arm, nearly pulling me off the branch, but my legs were still locked around it.
The zombies on the branch were clumsily getting closer, and I swung at them to keep them away. They didn’t even flinch. The zombie with the mangled hand was struggling to get onto the branch, but the other one had managed to get on top of it with me. With my left arm caught and being tugged, it was hard to get a good angle to swing the machete, but I tried anyway.
Suddenly the zombie beneath me fell off the pile and ripped me completely off the branch. As I fell into the writhing mass below, I caught a glimpse of my pet. It sat on the ground, slack in the rope, and watched as teeth and nails tore into me and I screamed.