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.