Here is the prelude and first chapter for your enjoyment! TUH is being returned to me sometime next week with edits. I’ll work on it as fast as I can (Without skimping on the edits of course…) so the whole thing can be delivered to you guys by the end of the year! Please note, this is the unedited version. It does not reflect on the final product. The final version may be different than the one you read below.
Well, things didn’t work out.
Surprise, surprise, right?
The mere thought of Blaze still being alive caused my newly developed—and much disliked—humanity to start kicking in. It didn’t happen right away. No, weeks passed before that whisper of hesitation turned into full-blown doubt. Logic was gone and guilt, that infuriating, oppressive guilt, came to tell me I needed to leave the safety and perfection of Frank’s fortress-like cabin and go find her.
Was she alive? Was she dead? It didn’t matter. Blaze could be a shambling, festering zombie but my need to know outweighed my inclination to keep quiet and safe.
Besides the feeling of remorse plaguing me, I also grew increasingly sick of the still quietness of the deep forest I was in. Since I arrived, two undead hikers that managed to wander this far into the northeast, popped up outside my fence. I killed them, but not before taking amusement out of separating them, studying them, and hunting them down. It was the only excitement I experienced during the months I was there.
In a way, I disdained my solitude and craved danger and adventure. Before the apocalypse I lived a subdued life, but after spending weeks killing zombies and crazies, before ending up in the cabin, I couldn’t get the taste of anarchy out of my mouth. It certainly suited me. Why not go charging back into it?
There were at least twenty solid reasons I used to justify strategically loading a hiking pack with food, water, and other supplies. Justification flowed through me.
But why am I justifying it to you?
My name is Cyrus V. Sinclair, and I don’t need a reason.
Even though it felt like thick, acidic tapioca coming up my throat, I coughed up another ball of phlegm and spit it into its designated bucket. After a few seconds of relief, more throat snot worked its way up until I needed to repeat the process. By now the aroma must’ve been beyond vile, ranging into intolerable. If I could smell it I would’ve been disgusted with myself.
There was a thick fog outside. I couldn’t see Monte Cristo or any of the buildings past it. I vaguely saw Parks straight across from me. Today would be a good day to scavenge if I wasn’t on the verge of death. For all I knew I had a new form of the bubonic plague.
Somewhere under the desk Pickle moved around, making herself more comfortable in the tiny bed she’d made over the weeks we’d been there. I found it humorous how she had a better setup than me. My bitter laugh was cut short as I involuntarily hacked out another yellow package.
Everett Community College was supposed to be a pit stop where I could rest and fend off what I thought was a head cold. I wasn’t familiar with the town itself, but I was drawn to the campus because I’d taken some classes there years ago. I knew its layout. Remembering the names of different buildings was comforting. Knowing the lay of the land didn’t hurt either. Any advantage helps.
The campus was a ghost town, which is one of the reasons I thought it was a good idea. I was still running on the assumption I was just getting sick. Mildly sick.
I’d spend just a day there. That’s all.
Then, after searching a few locked buildings, I walked across a sky bridge which lead to the second of a three story building called Rainer. The heavy glass doors downstairs were shut and locked, so I didn’t have to deal with securing more than one entrance. The only thing I worried about was the door I came through, which I locked with a crowbar in addition to its normal upper and lower locks and their manual bolts.
On day one I searched the bottom story. Day two my cold turned into something nasty, and that was it. No more searching. I whimpered like a baby as my nose clogged and my throat got dry, afraid there were undead roaming the areas I hadn’t cleared. As time went by a new sense of paranoia set in. Weakness and fear gnawed at me and it only grew worse the longer I didn’t search. Each time I thought I heard something I paced behind my closed office door, secretly hoping the soft padding of my feet on the carpet would lure any undead out, but dreading the moment when they did. It was a vicious cycle.
I’d been living on vending machine food, which was running low. I even ate pretzels, which I hated. And drank Mountain Dew—which I hated more than pretzels. Catching on to my desperation? Good.
I huddled in my makeshift bed of padding ripped out of couches and chairs and shivered. I carried one thermal blanket in my backpack, but winter was coming on and that wasn’t enough. Hell, I even layered on tapestries and wall quilts from the offices. Not like it mattered.
I’d been trying to make a plan to get into Parks for about two hours. If memory served, there was a cafeteria and student store. Even if it was more vending machine food, I wouldn’t complain. The problem was that Parks was locked. If I was going to get in, I’d have to break a window and that was never a good idea. I didn’t need to go outside to know it was dead quiet. The slightest noise would bring them out.
However, what option did I have? None. I was going to starve soon. I was dying from Bird Flu, and freezing to death. See how all the options result in death? Technically if I went outside I wasn’t increasing my chances of dying since my they were already 99.9%.
Ah, the weakness and paranoia rear their ugly heads again. That kind of thinking is what got people killed, yet I couldn’t stop it from coming.
I glanced outside again. The scene hadn’t changed but my willingness did. My head swam as I removed myself from the blankets and I grabbed the filing cabinet for support. My nose dripped and my body convulsed in an onset of shivers.
There was one thing about my situation I particularly disdained; my lack of weapons. I suppose my adventures in the summer were far too easy since ammunition was abundant. Even during desperate times I had something, whether it was a handgun or assault rifle. Now all I had was a 9mm with a few rounds, a flashlight, and a baseball bat. The bat had some modifications, though. Just some nails here and there. And a ladies face I drew on—her name is Barbara, in case you were interested.
Gathering my two weapons, I opened the office door and peeked out. To my left there were no windows and the hallways faded into blackness. Even if I waited for my eyes to adjust, I wouldn’t see anything. Well, except part of a corpse. Half the body was obscured by a right turn in the hall. All I saw were the legs. That half of the building was creepy; it instigated my paranoia. So still and dark. When I went to search that floor, I could only take a few steps into the bleeding edge of blackness until I had to retreat. I’m not sure what it was about down there, but I didn’t want to find out.
Look at me, Cyrus V. Sinclair, afraid of the dark and the boogeyman.
I stepped out of the office and closed the door securely behind me. Yesterday Pickle escaped, bent on having an adventure. I didn’t see her for over a day. Since then, I’d been keeping the door shut.
The hall was vacant and chilled. My boots made no noise on the carpet. At the right end of the hall were heavy wooden doors that lead to an open space before the staircase. I heaved one open. Blinding light dazed me and I squeezed my eyes shut until the burning went away.
Once my vision returned, I took a few steps towards the window until I had a good view of the campus. Taking my time, since I had a lot of it, I scanned the area for any signs of life—or death—, of which I found none. Not even a breeze moved the leafless branches of the bushes and trees.
I was as confident as I ever was going to be. I opened the stair access door and headed one floor down to the sky bridge landing. Each footstep echoed, bouncing around the cement stairwell.
Too loud. Stop being so noisy, I chided myself.
After another door I was in a similar room as the one above me; open and chilly. I assessed the area around me again, then stared at the door to Parks. It wasn’t very far away, just across the sky bridge. It was like most other entrances in the college. Glass with a metal frame bisecting the door at waist level. As far as I could tell, my only option was to break the glass and squeeze through the lower half.
Swallowing an incoming slime ball back down my throat, I unlocked the double doors, yanked the crowbar out and crouched to open one to slide through. If I walked across the bridge, I would be visible.
I was convinced death was around the corner but I couldn’t help but make a few efforts to prevent it.
My legs were rubbery as I stayed low and moved across the bridge. The air felt like it was thickening my mucus by freezing it. There was no hope of breathing through my nose. And was it just me, or was it cold enough to freeze my eyeballs, too?
Clutching my bat, I came up to the overhang of the roof at Parks. In front of me were the doors, to the left was a wall, and to the right was a slanted walkway to the parking lots. As the coast was still clear, I moved forward, Barbra in hand. I was right when I said the door was the same as Rainier. There was a primary key lock and peg locks on the top and bottom.
I took the bat, gathered as much strength as I could, and swung at the lower half of the door. The sound of it cracking was so startling I had to fight back a reactive shout. After hearing nothing for so long, one sound that loud was too much. To the undead out there, it was a dinner bell. But I had to keep going. Bringing the bat back once again, I gave it another hit and it gave way. I chipped away as much of the remaining glass as I could with the heel of my boot, as fast as I could.
You don’t need to hear a moan to know they’re coming. I was well aware when I broke that glass I’d be surrounded in no time. Even though I hadn’t seen any Zs, it didn’t mean they weren’t there. Whether it was minutes or hours, I had to hurry.
I tossed Barbara in and squeezed through the tiny opening. My gloves made getting through the broken glass a hell of a lot easier. Once in I stood and glanced around.
Down the hall was a skylight, barely lighting up the linoleum floor. Posters and bulletin boards promoting nonexistent clubs and programs lined the walls. To the right were glass displays with mannequins sporting school apparel and backpacks. Behind the display paper would be the student store.
I started forward. Once at the end of the hall I glanced to either side. Left was fine, front was fine, but the right made my heart stop.
The store security gate was closed. The metal grid barred me from everything I wanted.
Why hadn’t I thought of that? The school was clearly closed down when the apocalypse came, so why wouldn’t the gate be closed? Being sick put me in a foul, spacey mood. But look at where I was? In a disappointing situation with Zs coming from at least a mile radius to eat me up.
I’m not giving up. Get your fucking act together, Cyrus. You’re getting in there.
I walked past the gate and father right. There was a book buyback window, like a drive through window, but nothing else.
At least I had an option. Gritting my teeth, I struck the pane of glass at the buyback window, which broke faster as it was thinner than that of the entrance doors. I threw the bat in and tried hauling myself through. The first attempt didn’t work and I fell back onto the ground while releasing a loud sneeze. My throat throbbed in pain and my vision blurred.
Wiping the dribbles of snot off my nose, I got back up and put everything I had into lifting myself up and over the counter. Glass clinked on the ground. A series of tearing sounds was enough to let me know jagged pieces were snagging on my clothes. Then I was through, both feet on the ground, inside the store.
Minimal light filtered through the front gate, casting most of the store in darkness. It smelled dusty and unused. Heart pounding I remained in a crouch and listened, though my ears were ringing from the silence. I strained to hear, but if something was in the store it wasn’t voicing it.
I grabbed the flashlight from my jacket pocket and clicked it on. A subdued yellow beam hit the floor and I raised it up. Binders, notebooks, backpacks, and all manners of school supplies were pristine on shelves and walls. My spirits soared when I saw school sweaters and jacked. On the back wall, beside the backpack, I saw two large drink refrigerators, in front of which were racks of snacks that might prove more substantial than the junk going stale in vending machines.
Finally, my luc—
Every time I gave myself a high five for finding something, or thought things were looking up, I jinxed it and things went bad. Cutting my thoughts off before the cosmos could work against me, I stood and began my search. Cautiously.
My heart and stomach wanted to rush for the food, but the store was small enough to clear in no time. I held Barbara in one hand and the flashlight in the other and searched each aisle. Each row yielded no corpses, moving or otherwise. Relieved, I went to the back wall, grabbing a backpack as I passed. My hand shook from the stress of feeling out of sorts and on a time crunch as I unzipped it and began filling it with anything useful.
I wanted to take everything. I filled the backpack with a good mix of liquids, snack foods, and—just because it was there—candy. Repeating the process with three other backpacks, I forgot about the impending doom waiting outside until at least ten minutes had passed. Before I could forget, I moseyed over to the sweaters and grabbed a hoodie, pulling it over my head. I repeated the process until I had two sweaters on. There were definitely more clothing products that would help me out, but I’d have to come back later to shop more. Returning to the last backpack I’d been filling, I resumed my work.
Outside I heard glass crunching. Dropping into a crouch again, turning the flashlight off quickly, I relied on the cashier island in front of the gate to obscure me. I forced my breathing to normalize and stayed still trying to formulate a plan of escape.
Should’ve thought of that sooner, you idiot.
As ideas raced through my mind, a nearby shelf caught my attention.
Nyquil. Dayquil? Mucinex!
An over the counter respiratory dream. Knowing I might forget them when things got hot, I took them all and crammed them into my fourth backpack. Even if I made it out with just that one, I’d be pleased.
Any pleasure I was experiencing evaporated quickly when I heard a squeaking noise drawing closer. I didn’t need to guess what was making it.
What was there to worry about? It wasn’t as though a zombie had the dexterity to climb through the buyback window. And besides the gate, there wasn’t any other entrance. If worse came to worse I would just stay in the bookstore until they cleared out enough for me to escape.
Footsteps grew louder and I peered around the cashiers’ area to see an ordinary man standing in front of the grate. I estimated he’d been dead about five months since he was emaciated and on the verge of snapping. Dark splotches stained the front of his striped polo and down his khakis. A ragged chunk of his face was missing. He looked around blandly, but having found nothing he remained. Minutes passed and another one, an Asian woman, walked passed him and began a slow ascent up a staircase across from the bookstore.
Still, Khakis remained. Occasionally he wheezed and shifted positions, but wasn’t leaving. If I was in this situation four months ago I would’ve pulled out an assault rifle and popped one in his head. No problem.
Now I was as desperate as any other survivor out there. My primary form of defense was a baseball bat. I asked myself repeatedly what to do, but the backwoods part of my brain didn’t produce their usual suggestions.
He was the only one as far as I could tell. If I waited longer, I risked more coming. I wanted to wait until they cleared out, but the plan was flawed. If too many of them came there was no way to know how long it would take them to leave. Feeling a little dejected, I turned my head and saw the three resource-filled bags. I had one with me, mostly filled with drugs, but some food, too. I doubted I’d be able to make it with more than one backpack, but leaving them behind was out of the question. I needed those supplies. What if I never had the chance to come back?
Looking around once more, I waited for an epiphany. To my left was a pegboard where the sweaters hung. After a minute I realized it was what was behind the display windows. I couldn’t leave the same way I came in—too dangerous—but the pegboard gave me an idea. As slow and quiet as I could manage, I made it to the pegboard. It was made of multiple panels allowed it to span ten feet across.
Each panel was on a hinge, which was how people must’ve gotten behind it to create the displays. A rectangular notch acted as a handle. If I was right, tugging on that would let the panel swing open.
Then, if I broke the glass, I could toss the other three backpacks out and make a run for it with just one. Once the commotion subsided in a day or two, I could just run out and grab the other three. This plan wasn’t perfect by any means, but I was pleased with it.
I heard a groan from Khakis, an alert to the others, and knew my grace period had expired.
I sprinted from the pegboard to my packs, looping their straps around my forearms, and dashed back. Hinges squeaked and apparel fell off hooks as I pulled the panel open.
Lunging forward, I heaved the backpacks with me, stepping into the display. I dropped the backpacks and Barbra as I was blinded from the bright white light from outside and stumbled, knocking over what must’ve been a mannequin.
The glass took two hits from Barbara before it even cracked. A series of deeper fractures spiraled out from my initial strikes before the glass cascaded downward and shattered to the ground. While hoping Khakis was too dumb to go around I threw the packs into the empty hallway and jumped down. Broken glass crunched under my boots. The hallway was empty, and outside appeared to be, too. But how could I really know? There was a blind spot to my left outside the door. I wouldn’t know if something was there until I stuck my head out.
I tossed Barbara out, dropped to my knees, and crawled through the opening. I looked to the left and I saw her. Saw her real, real close.
The Zs chest cavity was gaping open, grayed organs still intact. Ragged, torn skin framed the gruesome scene. Above that was a mostly intact face, though dead and definitely missing one eye. She was a foot away and leaning down. I was probably the first living bag of flesh she’d seen in months.
I propelled myself forward. In my attempt to avoid her yellowed mouth, my knee caught on the remaining glass of the door frame. I made it through and she fell onto my back. Her arms locked around my waist.
This is why I saved ammo. Sometimes there were circumstances where a bullet was the only thing that could save you. Barbra was too far away and I wasn’t at an angle that gave me the leverage to destroy her zombie brain.
Jerking the 9mm out from my vest holster under the sweater wasn’t easy. The seconds it took brought me closer to death than I was comfortable with. When I finally got it out, I twisted around as much as I could. The stiff’s head rose and her arms loosened, one swinging up for my neck. I rolled onto my back, bringing the gun up between us, under her chin, just as her mouth opened.
The stiff had been dead for so long all her blood was congealed. Nothing came out of the hole through her chin or the top of her head. She fell on top of me and I quickly shoved off her truly lifeless body, sending it aside with a fleshy thump.
Barely able to breathe through the congestion in my throat, I scrambled up and rammed the gun into my new front sweater pocket. I looked at the door behind me. Khakis was making his slow way toward me. There was no telling how long I’d have to stay cooped up in Rainier again. I took the risk of reaching through to get another backpack. My heart pounded. I thought of everything that could go wrong. It could get caught on the doorframe, another Z could come up behind me—but no risk meant more suffering later on.
I pulled another pack through without a hitch and ran across the sky bridge straight into my haven. I wanted to stop and take a look around to see what was coming for me.
But after months of the same story you didn’t need to stop.
Once in I shoved the upper and lower locks into place. I was too rushed to mess with the crowbar. Instead I began the difficult rush back upstairs. Aside from the echo of the slamming door and my own wet breathing, I couldn’t hear a thing. Not near me, at least. No noise outside the office. Beyond the doors downstairs I heard a faint confused moaning.
I made it. The first thing I did was crack open a bottle of blissfully sweet cough syrup.
Too cold. Freezing. Wake up.
My eyes opened, but my body seemed to be paralyzed. Between all the sweaters and blankets I was steaming myself to death. A cottony texture coated my mouth and teeth. Despite the numerous layers I felt cold. Rigid.
The fever didn’t wake me up. It was the dream. I was back in the crashed Mustang past Startup. All the darkness surrounding me was constricting my breathing. My body was hanging by the seatbelt, but this time it was cutting into my flesh. I could feel blood trickling down my chest and stomach, dripping into the cold river water swirling around me.
I didn’t want to turn my head, but I had to. To know what was next to me.
This time she was in the car with me. And this time, she was dead. Her face was rotting and her eyes were opaque, but I knew it was her. Instead of gnashing teeth and groans, the dead Blaze looked at me blankly.
“You left me,” she wheezed. “Didn’t see that coming.”
I opened my mouth to apologize, but nothing came out.
“You thought I was dead. I wasn’t.” Blaze’s mouth opened in a long sigh, black liquid and smoke seeping from between her cracked lips.
And I woke up. Like I always did when I had that dream.
Blaze couldn’t leave me alone. She plagued my mind when I was awake, and certainly wouldn’t leave when I slept. In my adrenaline-induced mania after raiding the store, I took too much cough syrup. Later, I saw her standing over me before she walked out of the room. My logic was getting shaky. For a split second I considered running after her.
I groped around in the darkness for a bottle and my fingertips brushed against a familiar plastic surface. Rolling over, I grabbed whatever it was and cracked it open.
The citrusy smell of Sprite assaulted me. I drained the flat substance before throwing it across the room. It must’ve struck Pickle because I heard an angry squeak and the sound of skittering feet.
Dizziness overcame me. The room tilted until I blacked out again.