June 27, 2016

Questions 1

Questions

Rickett woke to darkness. He had been blindfolded and restrained, his hands bound behind his back with zip ties. His head throbbed from where Gus had struck him with the rifle, and the jostling in what he figured to be the bed of a truck exacerbated the pain. He was moving, or was being moved, lying in the aluminum truck bed. He kicked his legs around, hitting bags and not corpses. At least he wasn’t bound and lying with those who had been bitten.

He had a fleeting sensation of jumping from the truck’s bed and onto the road. But this wasn’t a movie, and he was an old, aching man. Instead, he turned his mind to focus on how he messed up, and did he mess up? I fought to help that son of a bitch. I saved his ass. I put everything on the line for a guy who I thought was human, more than a survivor, someone who wanted to set things right with others, and now I’ve got a huge fucking headache as my Boy Scout reward.

He settled down, and instead of thinking about escaping, he began replaying the scene in his mind, capturing faces, accents, and names, memorizing the most recent events as well as he could. Johnny, Stan: dead. Terry, Clint, and Gus: living. Vince—who’s Vince? He repeats it over and over to the rhythmic throbbing of his head wound until the truck eventually comes to a halt.

Gates screeched and people talked. He could hear Clint’s drawl, and then someone banged on the side of the truck. Rickett grew nauseous from all the sounds and the throbbing in his skull. The truck lurched forward and Rickett slid on the aluminum. Laughter. The truck lurched again. Clint’s fucking with me. But then the truck accelerates to a steady speed until it finally parks.

Rickett was pulled from the truck’s bed by his ankles, and he swallowed the rising pain induced groan to avoid making a noise. The throbbing and aches overwhelmed him, and just as multiple hands grabbed him to lift him to his feet, the darkness took him again.   

***

Rickett startled awake and tried to rise before the pain summoned the vertigo, and he lay down, trying to steady himself. He stifled any moans or groans with clenched teeth and taught lips, not wanting to show how much pain he was in.

The blindfold remained, and he could feel something—probably blood—caked to the right side of his face. The throbbing had subsided to a dull ache. He was in a cot, still in his clothes. The faint smell of bleach gave him comfort. He was safe from the biters, at least—somewhere inside, away from the trauma of the outside world. He knew people were watching over him; he could sense their presence. Perhaps outside of a door, or maybe even in the room staring at him.  

His hands were bound now in front of him, and his ankles had been zip tied together as well. Not good, he thought. But at least I’m not out there in the wild, dying world.

A door opened but didn’t close. Two men mumbled, and the smell of ham and gravy made his mouth water. He swallowed, unsure of whether there was actual food and if it was for him. The protein bars he scarfed down at the gym were long gone, and his body reminded him of his hunger. Yet another ache. Add it to the list.

“Don’t try anything stupid; we’re armed.” Gus spoke as he entered. Rickett heard his voice move closer. “Just got you some food and water so you’re able enough to answer some questions.”

“Where am I?” Rickett’s words came out like a coarse, grumbling whisper.

“Safe,” Gus replied, “and that’s all that should really matter for you.” There was rattling and clanking, the jingle of keys and the sounds from jostling firearms. “We’re going to cut the ties from your wrists and remove the blindfold. Don’t move, or you’ll likely be shot.”

Rickett acquiesced and followed instructions. The ties were removed, and the blindfold pulled from his head; the dried blood on his face cracked and flaked. He opened his eyes to blurred vision and a dimly lit room. Four armed men stood around him as Gus moved a school desk towards the cot.

“Eat up,” Gus said, pointing to a cafeteria tray. Rickett sat up, slowly moving his bound ankles over the side of the cot before clumsily grabbing for the plastic cutlery. “There isn’t much time before you’ll be seen.”

Instead of making eye contact with anyone to avoid confrontation, Rickett focused on the food, trying to blink away the blurriness.

“We’ll be back in a bit.” The armed men began to file out of the room, and Gus stayed at the group’s rear.

Rickett dipped a biscuit into the mashed potatoes, sopping up some of the gravy. Before he took a bite, he asked, “Who is Vince?”

“Huh?” Gus turned and looked at Rickett, puzzled. “How do know that name?”

“I heard you and the other fellow talking before all hell broke loose back in the street.” Rickett kept his eyes on the food, unsure of whether this may be his last real meal or not.

“What are you, some kind of spy or something?” Gus chuckled—a dry chuckle that masked sincere interest.

“No.” Rickett took a bite. “Just observant.”

“Yeah? Well, you can observe Vince when he gets here.” Gus left the room and closed the door behind him. Rickett raised his head enough to look at them from the corner of his eye. He could see their heads through the window in the door, but soon they were out of sight.

Rickett took his last bite and washed it down with some water Gus left next to the tray before stretching out on the cot again.  They’re going to want to know what I’ve done, where I’ve been, and whom I was with. Rickett looked around the room, a classroom converted into a shelter of sorts. Furniture pushed to the side, wired glass windows through which an afternoon sun shown. The real question is, how much of the truth am I going to give them?

June 14, 2016

Blood on the Road


Blood on the Road



Rickett stood before the door and tightened his grip on the aluminum bat in his right hand. There seemed to be a significant gap of silence between the shots fired in the black truck’s cab and the other men exiting their trucks, which were parked in the middle of the road, perpendicular to the wreckage.
 
The first man out hopped down from the driver’s side of a lifted blue pickup. He said something to the passenger in his cab before moving his attention to the black pickup and placing his hand on a firearm holstered on his right hip. His clothes were splattered with a mixture of blood and earth; red, brown, and black—a Rorschach of life and death, of survival and defeat—covered him from shoulder to boot. He moved to the front of his truck and motioned to the other pickup, a smaller, white pickup truck  with wheel wells caked in mud—or gore for all Rickett knew. The driver of the white truck—a broad chested, heavier fellow—exited and brought a shotgun with him.

The two men met in front of the blue truck and talked, motioning towards the black pick up, the school, and the road ahead throughout their dialogue. The driver of the blue truck seemed to be the leader of the two men as he did most of the jawing while the other fellow nodded. They eventually broke their huddle and headed toward the black truck and surrounding wreckage. Rickett moved away from the door, trying to position himself against the cooler of water so they wouldn’t see him as they approached the truck. Because the gym had so many windows, Rickett was able to keep an eye on the drivers.

The others moved slowly, cautiously, towards the truck. The leader, the man splattered with blood and dirt, drew his gun, a 9mm, and approached the driver’s side door. The man with the shotgun advanced to the passenger side door.

Rickett knew what they would find. Death was all too familiar with him lately, and it almost seemed to gravitate towards him. You’ll find them, dead. Bullets in the head. But he still waited, frozen with anticipation to see their reactions, and—ultimately—to pass judgment on them.

Just how human were they?

Obeying a bark from the leader, the larger man opened the passenger side first and peered into the cab with the shotgun raised.

“Dead,” he said. “Johnny’s dead.” His shoulders slump and he takes a step back, lowering the shotgun. “Stan, too.”

Now that they were closer, Rickett didn’t need to strain to hear them or make out their words; the rest of the world was silent.

“Hell, now,” the other man exclaimed. “Why’d they go and do that?” The leader jerked open the driver’s side door to look for himself.

“You saw what happened back there,” the larger man yelled, pointing in the direction of the school hidden within the billowing smoke screen that slowly inched its way closer.

“Ain’t nothin’ we coulda done to protect everyone.”

“Sure there was. We could’ve turned around and got help, but you and Stan thought we could handle it alone,” he accused the leader.

 “They got bit. Stan musta shot Johnny before slingin’ one inta his own head.” His voice was detached, uncaring.

A horn sounded from the blue pickup. A blonde fellow opened the passenger door and yelled over the roof of the truck’s cab at the two men squabbling around the wreckage: “Got more coming this way!”
The biters had broken containment from the school; the others’ effort to regain control with the fences of fire had floundered. Rickett couldn’t see how many were emerging from the smoke, but he knew that if there was one, more were not far behind.

“We need to take them back.”

“What’s that?” the leader asked.

“We’re taking them back, Clint.”  The larger fellow moved back toward his truck. “Terry,” he said to the blonde, “climb out and give us a hand.” Terry looked to Clint for confirmation, but Clint didn’t notice.

“List’n here, Gus!” Clint barked, charging after Gus, who had already placed the shotgun on his driver’s seat. “We ain’t got the time for that. Scabs are trailin’ us, and we already lost two back there.”

“Sarah and Alex are gone because of your decision. You ordered us to retreat, and so we did.” He donned a pair of work gloves and walked around Clint to the black truck. “We can make it right. Stan had his boys back at the lot. Johnny’s wife is pregnant. This is the least we can do.”

Rickett was in pain, and not because of his sore ankle. He could see the loss and frustration on Gus’ face, how everything was turning his beard gray and hardening his brow into a consistent scowl. He could tell Gus cared, if not for the dead, for at least those who would mourn them. Rickett wanted to help, but now was not the time. There was still Clint, and he wasn’t sure about the blonde fellow. Clint was too eager to leave, and that pained Rickett even more. The guilt of leaving Gavin rose like bile in his throat: acidic and bitter.

“Alright, Gus. You’ll get your way this time,” Clint said as he motioned for Terry to jump out of the truck and help expedite the process. “But I’ll have to tell Vince.”

“That’s fine,” Gus groaned as he pulled Johnny’s body from the wrecked truck. “That’ll give me a time to let him know how it got to this point.” Terry grabbed Johnny’s legs. Both men struggled to carry the dead weight back to his white pickup. They laid Johnny’s limp corpse on the trucks bed.

“Dammit,” Clint scoffed. “Scabs are closin’ on us.”  All three men turn to face the biters headed their way and closing the distance, their tongues flicking in and out of their mouths, tasting the air to find their prey. Rickett couldn’t see their eyes, but he had been close enough to them to know the milky, mucus-based film that covered their wild, searching eyes was there. He knew the brown, frothy saliva that leaked from their mouths. Their insatiable hunger. He knew it all too well.

“How the hell did there get to be so many?” Terry squawked as he and Gus made their way back to the truck to collect Stan’s body.

“Place was turned inta quarantine once it was evacuated. The mercenaries gathered all the wounded and housed ‘em in the lots and dorms.” Clint faced the swarming hive of biters and yelled over his shoulder, “We ain’t got the time to grab Stan. We got to head out.”

“Stan comes with us,” Gus hollered, pulling Stan from the driver’s seat. “We took on more back there, so just knock them around until we can get Stan’s body loaded up.”

“Gus! We—“

“His boys, Clint!” Gus almost dropped Stan’s body before Terry was able to grab its legs.

Clint vaulted into curse-laden rant, yelling on his way back to his truck, and Rickett was losing it. The itch to help was there. But Clint—he had to watch Clint. Something wasn’t right about this. He felt Clint was about to abandon the others as they were attempting to rescue their friend’s body from the biters. Instead, Clint pulled a machete from the truck’s cab and advanced to the closest predator.

Gus and Terry struggled with Stan’s body. He was a larger fellow, a little bigger than Gus. The stress of the situation was obviously wearing on them and causing them to almost fumble the body to the ground.

Clint was smart to not initiate the fray by slinging bullets and creating more noise with each shot. Instead, he swung the machete and grunted when he pulled the weapon free from his target. Clint moved out of Rickett’s line of sight as he continued his advance, attempting to hold the biters at bay.

“Terry!” Clint yelled. “Get your ass over here!” More grunts came from Clint; Terry stumbled and dropped Stan’s legs. Gus was off balance but caught himself to avoid falling completely to the asphalt.

Terry grabbed sledgehammer from the blue truck and went to help Clint. If Rickett wanted to see the outcome, he would have had to move his position at the cooler. He was able to see the oncoming horde of biters but not the two fighters that helped buffer Gus from the violence.

The hive was expanding, growing, almost pulse-like from the smoke. Rickett couldn’t tell how many were actually out there, but the number had grown from around a dozen to easily forty or so. Shit, he thinks to himself. The storm is here.

What Clint and Terry didn’t take into consideration was how the biters were predators, not just stumbling brawlers. They stalked their prey as a group, expanding and contracting when necessary to trap their victims, as their entire existence was based on consumption.

And that’s when Rickett finally decided to act. Biters were spreading themselves out, strategically placing themselves in positions to broaden their reach. Terry and Clint were primarily to the right of the scene, smashing and cutting, but Gus, attempting to heave the weight of Stan’s corpse into the bed of his truck, was to the left.  Like a giant carnivorous mouth opening to eventually close on its prey, Rickett sensed the looming danger, and Gus was weaponless. Gus was human, overwhelmed by compassion, something that set them apart from the biters or the “scabs” as Clint called them.

“Clint!” Gus tried to yell, but the attempts to heave Stan’s lifeless body onto the truck’s bed had stolen his wind. He knew what was around him, and he may have been regretting his decision to rescue Stan’s body.

Disregarding the pain in his ankle, Rickett moved quickly, opened the door, and raised his revolver.
He fired two shots, immediately dropping two biters closing in on Gus. Clint and Terry were startled, not expecting to hear gunshots, knowing the sounds would only bring more frothing mouths in their direction.

“Who the—,” Gus clamored.

“Never mind that,” Rickett roared back. “Get the body in the truck.”

But Gus was still fumbling his words, unsure of who this new face was and what danger he may have posed.

“Hurry!” Rickett yelled at him, firing his last shot and tossing the revolver. Another biter fell, giving Rickett time and space to help Gus pick up Stan’s legs and get the body onto the truck’s tailgate.  Before Gus could respond, Rickett had moved away from the white truck to fend off a few more biters.

“Hey, you!” Clint moved towards Rickett, using the machete to carve a path, leaving gaping wounds in the biters’ brittle heads. But Rickett ignored him and continued swinging the bat, aluminum shattering bones and faces, crushing the milky white eyes and open jaws.


It wasn’t until Rickett had fought off enough biters that he became fully aware of his situation. Clint and Terry were advancing towards him, yelling. Clint drew his weapon and pointed the machete. Rickett was ready for the confrontation, but he wasn’t ready for the blow from Gus, the Remington’s stock hitting his temple, sending him spiraling into darkness.

June 6, 2016

A Brewing Storm


A Brewing Storm


Minutes passed before Rickett would consider leaving the room after the others drove off toward the school. Rickett took advantage of the daylight and began sifting through the materials in the office. He ruffled through the files in the file cabinet and checked behind the drawers in the desk only to find flash drives, papers, receipts, and other items only essential to running a business, not to surviving the terror outside.

In the storage cabinet, Rickett at least found a few stacks of black polo shirts embroidered with the Pins and Pints logo. He replaced his gray sweater with an extra-large long sleeved shirt. At least he can feel a little cleaner by removing bloodied clothing.

Out in the main area, behind the counter and under the register, Rickett found a set of keys next to a box of clean white socks for bowlers who didn’t bring their own, a quick way for the place to make a buck. He replaced his own soiled socks with a new pair and shoved a second pair into his pocket.

Behind the seating and computers for the lanes at the far end of the building were stacks of small lockers.  Rickett walked with a slight limp to the lockers, gently swinging the bat in his left hand and tossing the new keys in his other. The silence was welcomed after what he had been through the past few days, but he knew not to get too comfortable with his surroundings.

After a trying a few of the keys on the first few lockers (there were fifty on each side of the building), Rickett discovered the master key. He went through the fifty lockers in front of him, but the majority were empty. Only a few lockers had bowling ball bags for those habitual bowlers, a small jacket, and a canvas drawstring bag. Rickett dumped the contents onto the floor, and a pen, small notepad, and textbook fell to the floor. Someone left their schoolwork, but he was sure that was the least of anyone’s concerns now that the local college was overrun with biters. He rolled up the bag and shoved it into his back pocket.

He went into the kitchen area next, which was located behind the bar. All the alcohol was gone, which didn’t surprise him, and the kitchen area had been stripped of anything edible. Even the walk-cooler and freezer were empty. Rickett needed to eat; he would have to leave the bowling alley, and he needed to do it soon.

***

He looked through the windows and scanned the area. Across the street were a few buildings, but the one that stood out was the fitness center. Who would raid a gym? There could be protein in there. Even water, perhaps. In his head, Rickett formulated a quick plan. 

After a few deep breaths, he ran as quickly and his hobbled ankle would let him. He clenched his teeth and hissed with each impact as he raced across the four lane road, through the parking lot, and around the corner of the fitness building. The windows were two tiered, the bottom level being just large enough for him to crawl through without making much of a noticeable mess by smashing through the door. Rickett broke the lower window with the bat and knocked glass shards from the frame. He crawled through the opening, keeping both hands on the bat so he wouldn’t drag his palms across the broken glass on the floor.

Once inside, he moved toward the building’s entrance. On the counter were small displays for energy and protein bars. He hastily ate two and shoved more into the bag he pulled from his back pocket. He turned around and saw a tall cooler stocked with bottled water and energy drinks. He put some bottles into the draw string bag and the cracked on open. He downed the water in large gulps, not caring about it spilling from his mouth and rolling down his chin and throat. He cast the empty bottle aside and looked around. Behind the on the wall adjacent to the main counter and register were athletic items. He helped himself to a pair of black weightlifting gloves and a roll of athletic tape.
He sat down, removed his shoe and sock, and massaged his swollen ankle. He’d had worse sprains inhis life, but he needed to nurse this injury or it would be the end of him. For him, surviving lately was mostly a game of chase: he had to outrun the biters to see another dawn. He took the white athletic tape and wrapped his ankle, testing his ankle’s stability and how much pressure it could take before putting on his footwear.

He cracked open another bottle of water and sat with his back to the counter so he could look out into the parking lot that separated him from the road. The sky was a bright blue until he looked in the direction of the college he escaped last night. The others must have reignited the fires as the smoke was thicker, blacker, and climbing into the sky like an ominous storm ready to roll in his direction.

***

The gunfire was distant at first, but he couldn’t tell how far away it was. The others must have made contact with the biters, he thought. Rickett felt better now that he had some food, albeit not enough, on his stomach and had drank his fill of water. They must have lost containment when the fires were low last night. The well of adrenaline opened within him.

He checked the ammunition in the revolver: three rounds left. He chuckled. Ain’t much, but it’ll have to do. He thought about how one of those spent rounds had ripped through Gavin’s throat, and Rickett’s initial burst of adrenaline was replaced with anger. The shots fired in his memories were as loud, if not louder than, the shots fired in the distance. The scene replayed itself over: Henry’s finger pulling the trigger, Gavin falling over—wounded—pleading for help, and then Rickett pulling another trigger. So many simple, common movements—the bending of fingers—took the last of what he had from him within seconds. He regretted pulling that trigger. The guilt for killing her and leaving Gavin gnawed at him, twisting his guts.

He stood and moved towards the glass doors to have a better view of the road. The smoke was closer, and so was the gunfire. A storm had been brewing in the early hours of the morning, and now it was headed his way.

Rickett heard the motor before he could see the black pickup.  The truck swerved back and forth for a few hundred yards before taking one sharp turn across the road and smashing into the side of an SUV. Rickett  sucked in a deep breath and held it in anticipation of what would come next. There was only silence after the initial impact. Rickett exhaled slowly, but before he could finish exhaling, someone in the truck’s cab fired one shot.

Rickett was tempted to open the door. The guilt he harbored almost forced him to, and he realized the doors to this building were not chained. They are only chaining what they want to control: drugs, food, equipment. There’s plenty of exercise when running from biters, so why waste a chain and lock on a gym? He turned the lock, and the click of the bolt retracting to unlock the door snapped him back to his senses. No. Wait. Maybe the storm will blow over.

The other two trucks pulling up to the black pickup told him that the storm was just beginning, that the smoke and death and biters were only so far away. But it was the second shot echoing from the black pickup that punctuated his revelation: an exclamation point of death.

May 30, 2016

Others

Others


The night grew darker as Rickett distanced himself from the fires. His ankle throbbed each time his foot hit the asphalt. He didn’t exert himself too much; another coughing fit could be the end of him. He needed shelter, and he needed it soon.

Patches of light projected from solar powered street lamps shown over the four lane road. Lincoln had become a ghost town; only the spirit of a once thriving population remained. The setting at eye level told the story of a town evacuated peacefully. Buildings looked to be in relatively good condition; automobiles in the area were organized in the parking lots or parked on the side of the road. But the ground, when Rickett looked down, told a very different story. Blood stains, shards of glass, spent casings from firefights. The litter and stains told a tale of violence, panic, and death.

All was quiet until he heard the faint pops of two gun shots. He tightened his grip on the bat and the gun and quickened his pace. The shots were well off in the distance, but there’s no telling who is shooting at whom or what. Was it the military? The civilian pirates he came across on the way into Lincoln? Someone had to pull the trigger, and he knew it couldn’t have been a biter. They didn’t have the mind for it; they would rather use hands and teeth to kill. Rickett just wanted cover. To catch his breath. To think.

Rickett sprinted away from the street, through a parking lot, and toward a building to tug on the first door handle he crossed. While the doors were unlocked, a taught chain with a key lock barred his entrance. He tugged on the lock in frustration and considered breaking the glass before realizing it would announce his arrival. He read the sign on the door: “Pharmacy’s hours.” Makes sense, he thought. Secure the drugs. The lock was to keep people like him out, not to keep anything in. This was an area under someone’s control, but whose?

A single shot, a single pop in the distance. No screaming, no yelling. He could only hope someone was killing the biters. 

He rushed from building to building, door to door, lock to lock. A gas station, restaurants, and other shops were chained and locked. Eventually, he came upon a series of chained doors, but one of the doors was only a frame. Shards of glass, spent casings, and large blood stains spread across the sidewalk. Someone died here for sure, and Rickett summoned optimism by thinking the spent casings were a sign of self-defense, someone fighting back but being gunned down in the process. Before crossing the threshold, he looked up to a once lit neon sign of a mug of beer striking bowling pins. Under the image hung the establishment’s name: Pins and Pints.

He entered the building slowly, the pistol in his left hand, and with his right hand, he held the bat, ready to strike. Dim slivers of light entered through windows lining the front of the building, barely penetrating the darkness. But since it was a bowling alley and bar, Rickett only needed to navigate the front entrance and the few rooms beyond, if that. He only needed to find a place to put himself in a defensible position. Biters and gunslingers were outside, and he wanted to make sure they couldn’t attack without him knowing first.

To his left was the service counter, and to his right was the bar area. The kitchen area would be behind the bar, most likely. While he was hungry, trying to navigate the building without more lighting would only be asking for trouble, especially if any biters remained in the area. Rickett moved toward the service counter, assuming the office or a dry storage area would be there.

He crouched and moved slowly, weapons ready, while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He could make out silhouettes and shapes, but not details. When he came across an opening, he moved behind the counter. The place was clean and organized. The registers, though powerless, were there, and bowling shoes of various sizes cubby holes. He put the gun into his waistband to free his left hand and drug his hand across the wall as he continued. A few steps later he came across a closed door. Taking a deep breath, he turned the handle.

The door opened into a small office. Three narrow windows lined the top of the room and cast the dim mixture of streetlight and starlight over two large file cabinets, a desk with chairs on each side, and a storage cabinet. He entered and closed the door behind him quickly. He looked around the floor and under the desk to ensure there were no surprises—no killers or victims. After turning the lock on the door handle, he put his back against the wall between the desk and the file cabinets standing behind it. He slid down the wall, exhaling as if his body were deflating.  

Rickett found his current situation ironic. Here was a man who had done what he could to stay away from the city, the buzz of progress and innovation, after he suffered the loss of his children. Now, when he returned to the city, he was alone.

He pulled the keychain out of his pocket, slipping his finger through the ring and mindlessly spinning the keys forward and then backward, stopping after a few spins to thumb the tennis racquet trinket.
She could be out there, he thought, and so could Gavin’s parents. So what do I do? Go back to the ways of solitude? Become a hermit again? I can’t go back home. Home is gone, overrun by the dead.
He pulled his knees to his chest and rubbed his sore ankle.

Tomorrow will bring daylight, and then I can move on. Forward motion. Just keep the teeth and bullets away for another day. And then one foot in front of the other, slow and steady. There has to be someone, some place where killing isn’t the only way to survive. People will be working together to exist and remain beyond this disaster.

There are still humans out there. There must be. And I will find them.

Exhaustion overwhelmed Rickett, and he slept. He dreamed of teeth, death, and anguish. He dreamed of rot, chaos, and ruin. Had anyone been around the building, he or she would have heard the hoarse screams evoked by his nightmares.

But the town, for now, lay dead in the night.

***

A revving engine and honking horn woke him. His hands immediately went to the weapons before he even opened his eyes. Sunlight shown through the narrow windows above the file cabinets and he could truly see his surroundings for the first time.

Men yelled back and forth with purpose instead of anger. This was no heated argument or confrontation; this was, as far as Rickett could tell, men covering distance and communicating their findings. He moved the office’s desk toward the cabinets and climbed on top to look through the narrow window.

The men weren’t military. They had resources: trucks, gas, and weapons. But they lacked clear procedures, leadership, and tactics. They yelled to each other as they loaded bags into the bed of a black pickup truck. These were common men, civilians armed and working towards a common goal. A white cargo van drove into the scene playing out in the four lane road in front of the bowling alley. It slowed and came to a stop, the driver communicating something to a man standing in the road in blue jeans and a long sleeve shirt. The van drove off shortly after. The blue jeaned man then climbed into the black truck’s cab, yelled something, and pointed in the direction of the school. Another engine roared to life. Doors slammed. The men drove off. Rickett listened to the engines fade.

Yes, others are out there, he thought.  And they’ll be back. The only things in that direction are fire and death.
Yes, they’ll be back



May 22, 2016

Prologue 2

Rickett adjusted the driver’s seat to make room for his long legs. He sucked in another deep breath, expanding his stomach in hopes to slow the adrenaline, but before he could exhale, a cough ripped through his throat. He quickly stifled it with the crook of his elbow and the thick gray sweater, fumbling the revolver into the passenger seat. Keeping the sweater pressed to his mouth, he secured the bat, handle up, next to the gearshift.

Rickett slid the key into the ignition and hesitated. Tendrils of smoke climbed up and over the car as the nearby fires continued to consume and move closer. I left them him in there to die, he thought to himself. Rage overtook him and he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. I could have tried. I could have done something—anything—other than run away!

“Coward,” he growled through clenched teeth. “Damned coward.” Rickett slammed the side of his fist repeatedly into the passenger seat’s headrest until guilt replaced the rage. He let out a deflated sigh and sunk into the driver’s seat.

We made it this far, looking to rescue her, Gavin’s sister, and now I sit alone in her car while everyone else gone. Now what? What’s left when the world around you burns? He knew that turning the key would bring the biters to him. Not igniting the engine only prolonged their assault. What do I do now? I have no clue where I am or  who else is out there.


He pushed on the brake and turned the key. The engine came to life. I just have to keep moving. Someone has to be out there. Maybe Addison’s still out there. And if she is, someone needs to let her know how hard her brother fought for her. How he sacrificed everything for her.

And like a volcano, the smoke induced coughing fit he feared erupted and burned his chest, throat, and every muscle between them with each paralyzing hack. Harder the coughs came, and Rickett dry heaved at the end of each brutal eruption, doubling over the gearshift and coughing harder and faster and more violently until his body seized and slumped, and his sight filled with exploding blue and yellow lights before tumbling into darkness.

***

“Wake the fuck up, old man!”

The yelling echoed in his head and jolted him awake. His vision was blurred, so he flailed his arms around, unsure of where he was, banging his hands against glass, plastic, and cloth. When the voice dissipated, a sharp ringing in his ears remained.

With blurred vision and his throat afire, Rickett called out to the disembodied voice. “Benny!” The name stumbled over his lips in a coarse the whisper, the coughing fit having stolen his voice, and he groped wildly, longingly, into the passenger seat. But Benny wasn’t there. He knew no one was there, that no one could be there. Not here, not now, and maybe not ever. Benny’s voice was left over from trauma, trauma that seemed to have no end.

Thuds and groans overlapped static from the car’s radio he had switched on when flailing. Fluid shadows slithered across his watery vision. Blinking was not helping, and neither did rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes. Although he couldn’t see clearly, he knew the hive had found him. The only thing that protected him from their hunger was the shell of a small, yellow Volkswagen beetle.

When his vision started clearing, he saw their broken, jagged teeth scraping against the windshield first. His sight expanded to include their taught, bruised salivating mouths and emaciated faces. Finally, their milky, mucus covered eyes rolled violently around in their sockets looking for the prey. Looking for him. But could they actually see him? He wasn’t so sure.

He looked to both sides of the car, and the teeth and eyes were there, too. Even behind him. He had been swarmed by a hive of hunger. Hundreds of teeth, snapping jaws, and searching eyes all honed in on him.

“Shit!” he hissed. Fingers raked against the soft top covering his head. He had to go now; if he didn’t, there’s no telling how long the top would hold out against these creatures. He would have to make some room, and that meant ramming the car into numerous bodies. Why didn’t her parents get her an SUV for graduation? he asked himself, shaking his head. He shifted into reverse and stomped on the gas.

He felt the contact through the car’s vibrations: bones breaking as the car forced itself backwards into the biters. He heard growls and groans, thuds and wails. Bodies slid from the car’s hood. When the car wouldn’t move anymore, he shifted into drive, the headlights highlighting the gaunt faces and milky-white eyes. Those that slid from the hood struggled to rise under the crushing weight of the hive’s second wave of biters. They would do anything to consume, even if it meant crushing others. While they amassed in hives, their motive was individual, singular: devour to sustain forward motion.

He pounded the gas again, thrusting the car into the bodies awash in the headlights’ yellow glow.  More vibrations, more sickening noises. He turns up the radio’s volume, blasting the white noise to drown out the sounds.

Again he shifted into reverse and accelerated. And again he shifted into drive, this time closing his eyes so he wouldn’t have to watch the gore. Even though these things wanted to eat him, they were human at one point. Sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters. Parents. At some point in time, they all wanted to make it to the next day like him. He already had enough human blood on his hands, so he didn’t want to watch more spill across the parking lot and the car. But when he closed his eyes, his mind returned to the hallway, to the dying boy mouthing the word “help” over and over.

Reverse. Wheels grinded bones and bodies. Drive. More bones and more bodies. Rickett repeated the process over and over until he was able to break free.

Once he broke through the outer layer of the hive, he turned off the static and maneuvered through the parking lot as well as he could, given that he didn’t know his way around the campus and the thick smoke obscured his vision. Rickett’s anxiety and urge to escape accentuated every bump, and when he turned, pops and clicks from the front wheel well echoed like thunder in his ears. He should’ve known the car couldn’t handle running over numerous bodies, but he didn’t have a choice. The car was his only way out, but he was worried his getaway vehicle wouldn’t get him very far.

Rickett did his best to weave through the lighter patches of smoke when he felt like he was on an open road. He didn’t know how many more creatures inhabited the smoke or if any of the local militia were lurking in the night beyond the fires.

After a few turns, Rickett entered a thick patch of smoke, spotting the glow of fire to his right. He slowed down to a crawl, unsure of where the road ended on each side of him. The world outside the car was smoke and fire, orange and ash.

Suddenly, silhouettes appeared to his left and he knew what they were by their shambling movements. If the biters were on his left, and the fires were on his right, he knew he needed to be on the other side of the flames. He remembered the fences of fire from the trip into Lincoln, how they contained the biters.

He sped up a bit, closer to ten miles per hour, hoping to accelerate his escape. The smoke thinned before Rickett came upon a crudely made barrier that had yet to burn. Orange construction barrels with reflectors showed bright in the headlights. The barrels, along with a mixture of wood and chain link fencing, stood between him, the fires, and the hive of biters. He could chance driving through it, but the car had sustained a good bit of damage already, as had Rickett. He didn’t need to take any more hits to the body; he would need to keep what strength he had left. Have to keep moving, old man, as Benny would say.

He cut the engine and pulled the keys from the ignition. He shook them around in his hand as he considered his next move. On the ring was a small silver tennis racket, a potential keepsake for Addison, but for Rickett, these keys were the only thing he had left to remember his purpose: to keep fighting like the boys had. To keep searching. He closed his hand and shoved the keys into his pocket before grabbing the revolver and bat.

Rickett breathed deeply. No more cowardice. Guilt and rage and anger and hate are all fine, but no more cowardice. Gavin and Benny didn’t know shit about guns or surviving, but they pushed on. And so will I.

Rickett opened the door, and with weapons in hand, he approached the poorly built but stable barrier. It was about shoulder high, and he scaled it with ease. He looked back briefly, wondering if and when the biters would eventually overtake the barrier and escape this particular containment area. He thought about all the bodies left behind, both human and biter. Yes, there is guilt and anger, and that’s human. To be human is all that’s left, and I won’t let the world take that from me.

He turned away from the college campus and entered into the night, this time with a renewed sense of purpose, similar to that of the bees, the biters: sustained forward motion.

May 15, 2016

Prologue 1



A whirlwind, chaotic, frantic. Gunshots, the dying bodies around him, and an ocean of rotting mouths—jaws and teeth, popping and grinding—forced Rickett to make the decision. He had to leave. A dying man’s mouth gulping for air reminded Rickett of a fish, but the man swam in his own blood, not water. Then Rickett realized that there was no hope. Those hungry mouths attached to the bees—the biters, those feral animals—had ripped through the living, blood staining their bodies like war paint. Only bodies and a slippery hallway guarded Rickett from the coming horde.

Rickett pulled a revolver from a limp hand and grabbed the bat lying next to a woman’s body. He felt the weight of death and murder, of failure, as he placed the firearms in his waistband before turning to watch the man struggle. He wanted to help. Wished he could help. But he knew to help was to die.

Everything seemed slower; the sharp, anxious pokes of survival that propelled Rickett forward had dulled, and after gauging the distance between the man and the slowly rolling wave of carnivorous teeth and lashing tongues, Rickett dropped to the floor, grabbing his hands.

The wave of bees crashed onto the shore that was the squirming body in front of Rickett, pulling at his legs and tearing through his clothes. But the man’s face showed no pain. Shock had set in. He was numb to everything, it seemed, but Rickett was not. He cried, borderline sobbing, as he mumbled, “I’m sorry. I—I’m sorry.” Rickett shook his head before glancing at the bees ripping into calves and thighs, tearing at the muscles and exposing bone. “My boys, again,” he stuttered.

Rickett had watched his sons waste away; his wife had left him—who knew if she was even still alive in this mess of a world? Now he was alone again, and because of that loss, he’d murdered out of anger. Wrath—the perfect sin for the coward at heart. It was time. The horde was slowly moving its way up the man’s body. Rickett the father. Rickett the murderer. Rickett the coward stood, took one last look at the body, and then opened the door out into the smoke-filled night.

***

Rickett opened the door into a smoke-filled night filled with snarling silhouettes lumbering towards him. He moved towards the parking lot where Addison’s car was parked, each step kicking up tendrils of smoke that, mixing with his teary eyes, further hindered his vision.

Claw-like hands emerged from the smoke, striking at him, coming close to ripping through his gray sweater. Rickett released an adrenaline fueled primal roar and swung the bat towards the attacker. Aluminum collided with a brittle mass, bones cracking on impact. He swung again, landing another hit to purge some of his anger, before turning from the attacker and continuing his search for the car. He wanted to move faster, but the possibility of running right into a hive of bees hidden within the smoke held him to a brisk pace. Regardless, if the bees didn’t get him soon enough, the smoke would. He had to get away from the school’s campus. His throat was already burning.

When the first car came into sight, a white Honda sedan, Rickett didn’t adjust his step to accommodate the curb and stumbled, rolling his ankle and hitting the asphalt. The clank of the baseball bat stung his ears; he knew that he had just rang the dinner bell. “Fuck,” he barked through clenched teeth, wincing as he pushed himself up. But Addison’s car was close, and a parking lot meant more obstacles for the bees to maneuver around. Stifling a cough with his sleeve, he couldn’t remember exactly where Gavin had pointed out his sister’s car, but since he exited the back of the building, he knew that it had to be either ahead or to his right. He dug the keys out of his jeans’ pocket, keeping them from jingling by clutching them in his fist.

But the noise would eventually become overwhelming. It was inescapable. The coughing, the bees slowly making their way to the parking lot, the first few tumbles from their lack of coordination when stepping down from the curb. Ultimately, he would be overcome once he started the engine—if it did indeed start. Rickett just needed to be silent up until that point. He stifled another cough, crouched low and began the move towards Addison’s car.

He moved slowly, mindful of his throbbing ankle. He noted the various cars in the parking lot. If he was wrong about the location of the yellow VW bug, he needed to remember what cars he had passed so he didn’t waste time looking in the same areas. The bees were close behind him, their gnashing teeth giving Rickett yet another reason to wince.

Where the smoke hung in heavier clouds, Rickett brushed his fingers along the cars’ grills to read their emblems like brail: Hondas, Toyotas, and Fords. He moved to the next row in the parking lot, hoping that the smoke impeded the bees’ ability to taste his scent in the air with their awkward flicks of the tongue. He wondered how much the fires had consumed. The increase of smoke meant that somewhere, the fires had gotten out of hand, no longer serving only as a fence to keep the bees at bay.

This time he had to move back toward the bees instead of away from them, and he knew that each step brought him closer to an impending doom if he wasn’t careful. He pulled his sweater up over his nose to help filter out some, if any, of the smoke. He even put some of the fabric into his mouth not only to help stifle future coughs but also to give him something to bite when the pain from his ankle shot up his leg. He spent more time thinking about his balance than he did listening to the noises of the hive collectively hunting him.

He found the VW in the following row. He remained to the right of where he had entered the parking lot, making sure to avoid the stumbling, struggling hive. He stayed as low as he could, moving on all fours at times, trying to avoid breathing in too much smoke. He had to get out of here, and quickly, before the coughing became too much or he lost consciousness.

He backtracked at an angle, putting some distance between himself and Addison’s car. Once he felt he there was enough separation between him and his getaway car, he stood and swung the bat, shattering the rear window of the sedan next to him. The loud, piercing wails of the car’s alarm made him cringe. With a second swing, he broke the side mirror off the sedan’s driver’s side door and picked it up. He limped back in the direction of the VW, the car alarm’s staccato noises echoed by the groans of a moving hive.

Reaching the VW, he listened to the cacophony of stumbling bodies hitting cars and each other, setting off further alarms as they searched for their prey, for Rickett. Before unlocking the door, Rickett throws the side mirror in the direction of the hive’s original location in the parking lot, setting off yet another alarm and shifting the hive’s focus. Quickly, Rickett unlocked the VW using the remote to avoid jingling the keys and jumped in, swiftly closing the door. There was a slight release of tension as he inhaled the stale, relatively smoke-free air and locked the car’s doors.