Okay. Seriously. This time when I say chapter 1, I REALLY mean it. As you know a while back I posted a sample chapter one from The Undead Haze. Shortly after that I began editing again and realized Cyrus had it too easy. He tried to convince me The Undead Haze was bad enough, but I knew it could be worse.
So I made it happen.
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.
A quick run to the gas station down the street should have been easy. It should have ended with a bag full of Sour Patch Kids and protein bars, but all I had was an empty stomach, an empty gun, and a massive headache.
I thought about Frank’s cabin. It had been weeks since I left. I was nearly thirty miles away from it, still wondering if I made the right choice to abandon my home to find Blaze Wright. It felt like an eternity since I met her at the crazy-overrun prison in Monroe. I thought I was helping her escape, but by the time we got out of there she already saved my life once. The first woman I cared about also turned out to be more callous and sociopathic than I could ever dream of being.
Twenty rotbags shuffled over the pavement below me. Their gnarled hands clawed at the walls. It was too much to hope they’d just wander off. They hadn’t forgotten about me, and I wasn’t sure they ever would.
How many weeks had it been since they’d seen fresh prey?
I wiped a drip from my nose and leaned against the ventilation system on the roof. Twenty undead. I’d counted them twice in the past hour. Their numbers hadn’t increased. Good. And they’d stopped groaning. Instead they walked the perimeter of the gas station, their necks craned upward.
Everett was a big town, but there weren’t many zombies. Hell if I knew where they went, but I wasn’t going to curse good fortune. It seemed safe enough a place to rest, so I had picked a house on the outskirts of town and settled in with Pickle for the night. I’d been feeling off. A couple nights of rest were in order. On the second morning I locked Pickle in a bathroom and set off to find supplies. A mile down the road I found a gas station.
Then they came stumbling out of the forest like they’d been waiting for me. Only a handful at first, but more were behind them. I hadn’t stepped five feet onto the lot when I had to break into a run. The gas station doors were locked.
And there I was. Cold, hungry, and desperate, wishing that I’d brought Pickle with me. I thought I’d be gone for an hour at most. Now she was alone at that house, trapped inside that room.
“Hey, Ricky! We got a bunch of ’em over here!”
I twitched. The voice was faint, but it might as well have been a shout. I hadn’t heard another living person in weeks. I crawled to the side of the roof on my belly and peered over.
Three figures walked down the road. They all carried rifles. One of them held a walkie-talkie to his mouth. The slows below me moved en masse towards them.
As soon as the undead near the ladder cleared the area I shot down it, slipping on the bars, and booked it to the forest. People are bad news even if they have good intentions. Avoiding them was the only way I’d been able to survive the past couple months.
The frost-covered grass beneath my boots crunched. The edge of the forest was thirty feet away. Relief flooded through me.
Seconds later, roaring engines startled me. I glanced back just as two trucks pulled up near the gas station. One of them went off road and came straight towards me.
Automatic gunfire joined the sound of the trucks. I cleared the forest line as a bullet burrowed into the evergreen next to me.
What the hell had I done to deserve this? I risked another glance and saw figures trailing me. The truck that dropped them off was already circling back to the gas station.
My heart hammered in my chest. I didn’t have enough bullets to take them out even if I hit each of them in the head. I wasn’t sure where I was going or how long they’d pursue me
My boot hit a slimy, moss-covered log and I went down. My shin hit the log first, sending sharp pain up my leg. I tried to catch myself before the rest of me hit the ground, but it was too late. The side of my head smacked against a rock.
“Over there! Get ‘im!”
Spots clouded my vision. Someone’s boot was on my back and a hand pushed my face into the snow. My gun was snatched from my hands. I took a deep breath before it all went dark.
I woke up in a pile of people. I wasn’t even at the top of the pile. Flesh pressed against me and I couldn’t see faces. People whimpered all around me. I felt the edge of death surrounding us and wondered how long it would take until someone on the bottom died, came back, and ate their way out of the pile.
It was unpleasant.
My left arm went numb from being bent around my back. I tried to tug it forward, but aside from almost pulling a muscle, I accomplished nothing. I couldn’t move. I was on my back, my head on someone’s stomach, and it gave me an upside down view of foggy roadside.
I tried to take a calming breath, but the stench of fear and sweat and people made me gag. More than one person must’ve pissed themselves. The smell of warm urine was the strongest, and it saturated people’s clothing.
Somewhere near me a man sobbed. The moans from everyone else were almost overshadowed by him. Whoever I was on top of was convulsing.
After another attempt at escaping the pile I had no choice but to give up. My legs were trapped. I had no control over my left arm. Taking calming breaths, even through my mouth, was difficult since my chest was crushed under the person above me.
I wasn’t claustrophobic, but this was too much. I had no idea how many people were around me. How many crazies were guarding us?
“Where did that red haired one go, Bubba?”
“In the truck!”
“He ain’t in the truck, stupid fucker. You put him with the rest of the meat?”
Two hulking redneck beasts moved closer to the pile from out of the mist.
“You know what boss says,” one said. The pressure eased as he pulled a body off the pile. “Save the redheads ’cause they taste real good, ya know?”
“Well I left him in the truck, so I don’t know who done took him out,” Bubba said. “And no, ain’t never eaten a redhead because they rare and any ones we come across get eaten by the boss.”
Why me? I’m finding a box of hair dye if I make it out of here. Why the hell do people hate redheads so much?
I wanted to make a joke of it. Anything to lighten my mood, but it was proving difficult. I’d been around cannibals before. The prison in Monroe. The crazies in Startup likely ate people, also. Yet I’d never been so close to being eaten myself.
Do they kill you first? Burn you alive? Eat you raw?
They dropped one in front of me. The sobbing man. He got to his knees and started crawling away.
“Whadda we got here, Bubba?”
The rednecks surrounded the man. Watched as he crawled. It was pathetic.
“Looks like he tryin’ to run, Bear. What do you say? We make it so he can’t even crawl no more?”
Two hits later with the butt of his rifle and Bubba broke sobbing man’s legs. The redneck’s laughed at their cruelty.
“You know, I think—hey, look at that. Hey buddy, I think yer the one we’re looking for.”
They stood in front of me. Their upside down faces sneered, showing tobacco stained teeth.
“Boss’ll like this one,” Bubba said as they shoved and pulled bodies away from the pile. The people cowered together as they hit the grass, too afraid or too weak to try and escape. “He looks real healthy.”
They lead me to a line of tents.
There was a silver lining to everything. No more meat pile, no more disgusting smells. I inhaled as much of the cold winter air as I could, glad to be away from the stench.
My thoughts went into overdrive as I looked everywhere for an escape while we walked. We were on the side of a road by a truck rest stop. Five large tents were set up some distance away from the trucks these raiders stored us in. Dense forest flanked either side of the road. A green sign said Everett was five miles away.
I let my body sag, forcing the rednecks to take my arms and carry me. I needed to buy more time to think. They grunted but didn’t say anything. Our pace slowed.
I wouldn’t make it on foot down the road. It was unlikely I’d be able to steal a truck. Couldn’t kill all of them since I didn’t know how many there were and didn’t have a weapon. My best option was to escape into the forest, get as far away as I could, and make my way back to the town. They’d be looking for me there if they were hell bent on catching me, but I had to get Pickle.
We stopped at the biggest tent. It was a pavilion tent, each of the plastic panels closed tight.
“Immortal Son,” Bear said. “We found the redhead.”
A man pulled a panel aside. The moment I saw him I knew he was bad news. The name was a big clue, sure. His appearance even more so.
He wasn’t like any redneck crazy I’d ever seen. He was immaculately groomed. His tan robe touched the ground and was tied at the waist with a rope. Long blond hair was tied at the nape of his neck. Above all his eyes set him apart. Not dull and animalistic like the rednecks. They were calculated. Slow. But no less insane.
He flashed a pearly white smile. “Hello. Welcome. Please, carry this man inside.”
I planted my feet and straightened, yanking my arms from Bear and Bubba. If I was going to get eaten, the least I could do was have some dignity going in. More importantly, if Immortal Son was the only guy in the tent, my chances of escape looked promising. Going in willingly would benefit me.
“I’ll walk, thanks.”
They closed in on me again, their grip on my arms tighter this time.
He laughed. “You are very humorous, friend. Please escort him inside and tie him to the chair.”
He disappeared in the tent. The rednecks pushed me inside, towards an ornate wooden chair. Parts of it were stained red. The trampled grass it stood on was darkened with what looked like blood.
“Nourishment does not usually speak. It takes much prodding for them to even say their names. They cry in joy that they might serve such divine purpose, but they certainly do not joke,” he said as they tied me.
I kept my hands flexed as they wrapped the ropes. Once I relaxed later I’d have an easier time wiggling out.
“Is that so? I guess I’m a spicy flavor. I’ve got kick.”
He laughed again. It was practiced. I knew because I used to do it.
“Very good, very good.”
“You need anythin’ else, Immortal Son?”
“No, Bear. Thank you, my beloved Great One. You may leave.”
The rednecks left without another word. I was alone with the new crazy. I shifted in the chair and looked around. The tent was sparsely furnished. A cot, and a folding desk with an assortment of books and notebooks. A shining tin container of lighter fluid. I spotted a trunk in my peripheral. Hanging from the middle of the tent was a lantern that cast a yellow glow.
Natural light drifted in around the perimeter of the tent. I followed it until I found a vertical line of light where the walls of the tent met. It was small, two inches at best, but through it I saw forest. If I could get through, I might be able to make it to the forest without anyone noticing me.
“What is your name, friend?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I like to know the name of my nourishment so I might thank Him for sending it.”
“Oh, that makes me feel better. My name is Cyrus. Cyrus V. Sinclair.”
The V was going to stand for victim if I didn’t get myself out of this clusterfuck.
“It is wonderful to meet you, Mr. Sinclair. My name is Kevin, though my followers call me Immortal Son.” He smiled. “As I said before, nourishment does not usually speak.”
“I’ve got a lot to say. I could tell you all about how I was just being crushed under a pile of people that you plan on eating. I guess you knew that already.”
“You treat it very lightly. Aren’t you disgusted by being in the nourishment pile, Mr. Sinclair? Most are at first.”
“I’m disgusted by how no one tried to get out of it. The people on the top could’ve rolled off. Freed the rest of us. There were only two of your idiot crazies watching us.”
“Fear. Deep rooted fear is what keeps them there,” Kevin said. “When told they would be nourishment for the Son of God, they feared the repercussions of escaping.”
“They feared getting fucking eaten.”
“No. Should you learn the doctrine of the Immortal Son you would understand. Other nourishment is taught their purpose in this world. As they learn their faces show their enlightenment. They become very peaceful.”
Or they were so terrified by how insane Kevin was they completely shut down. I was on the verge of shutting down myself.
“You see, most people are not chosen to serve a high purpose. Some are meant for consumption, their flesh nourishing those of greater stature. In return, as those who are great consume them, their souls are cleansed so they might be saved in their next life.”
How could he be serious? He spoke with raw sincerity. He believed every word. The crème de la crème of crazies who happened to have a taste for redheads. Fantastic.
Kevin paused. Brushed his hand against the top of the cheap folded table. He looked up at me and smiled. “You are quite intelligent, Mr. Sinclair.”
“I don’t think you know the most important thing, Mr. Sinclair.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“That I truly am the Immortal Son of God, bringer of the Light in these Dark and Dead days. I have received revelation and—”
The glob of saliva I spit didn’t reach him, but as it splattered onto the dirt floor it shut him up. Then he lost it.
He flung the table, its items scattering on the ground. Kevin crossed the distance between us and grabbed my shoulders. He squeezed. His eyes shone with rage and tears. A turbulent mixture of emotions flashed across his face, but they all added up to one thing.
Crazy. So fucking crazy.
“—and that these messages I am offering you, and the rest of the people outside, is true. You are very lucky I am giving you this personal sermon so that you might have a better chance of understanding.”
I grinned. “No. I think I’m in here because you like to eat redheads.”
Kevin turned away from me, rubbing his hand on the back of his head. He stepped to the edge of the tent and peered through. When was this going to be over? I’d rather be eaten then listen to crazy talk any longer than I had to.
“When the group of people you call ‘crazies’ found me, not long after the dead rose, I had been inside a basement for three days surrounded by dead bodies. My brethren elected me as the vessel that would aid in their ascension from this mortal life. If we died any other way but by gunshot to the head, we would come back. Our souls would be trapped in rotting bodies, wandering this hell forever. Naturally suicide would be a grave sin, so I was given the opportunity to send them to their next life.”
I twisted my wrist while he spoke, using the time his stupid monologue bought me to try and find a weakness in the knots. There was a bit of give. I felt a flare of hope.
“So you shot them?”
Kevin nodded. “I did what I was asked in order to do right by my brethren.”
“Technically they used you to murder them. Don’t you see? They didn’t want to commit suicide since it goes against your ‘faith.’ By having you do it, their hands are clean. But you’re a murderer.”
He paused. His fingers tapped against his side rhythmically.
“You do not see the light now, friend, but you will, just as I did. You see, on the third day I received revelation.” Kevin turned back to me. The smile on his face sent a chill down my spine. “I persevered. The trial of isolation was testing my devotion. I succeeded and an angel came to me and revealed my purpose: to save the children of earth, by force if need be. He told me my brothers died so that I might be provided with nourishment until I was found. After another three days of being in that basement, knowing what my mission was but held back by fear of entering the undead world, my disciples found me. I taught them my mission, gained their trust, and am now here before you offering you the same truth.”
The apocalypse weeded out everything between saintly survivor and jacked up crazies. I was encountering everyone on the bad side of the spectrum. This guy topped the charts.
I shifted my hands. No luck with the knots. No luck getting this guy to shut up. I was low on energy and worried about Pickle. I did what I always did in a situation like this.
“Sounds to me that your friends didn’t care about you, the newcomer, so they had you kill them. Sounds like you ate your dead buddies because you’re crazy and you wanted to, then taught the rest of these rednecks to do it, too. And finally, sounds like you came up with a good story to justify the whole thing. Am I right, Kevin?”
His right eye twitched three times. Stopped. “Mr. Sinclair, I am not going to eat you.”
“What a shame. I hear redheads taste super. I bet I taste like sugar, spice, and everything fucking nice.”
“From the short time I’ve spent with you I can tell you are a very smart individual. You are also smothered in sin, and I now know that it is one of my duties to save you. It will be a challenge, but your position should be at the right side of the Immortal Son, and I will do all I can to make it so.”
Great. Why can’t he just eat me like a normal cannibal?
Kevin righted the table and cleaned up his mess. “Before I go, I will tell you one last thing. To help you understand why I’m doing this.”
I heaved a sigh, squeezed my eyes shut, and wished it would stop.
“Six months ago I was drawn to a house, and trapped there was the future bearer of the Chosen One. From a city of wickedness, chaos, and death I found a pure light that was destined for me. We cleansed the house with fire, but within were wicked souls. Many of my followers were lost, but the bearer of my future child, my closest disciples, and myself were delivered from the battle unscathed. Later she spoke of a redheaded man who was quite saintly. Brutal, but saintly.” Kevin smiled. “A miracle. You cannot deny it.”
“I can actually,” I said. “I do. If you only eat redheads you were destined to find someone who fit the description, weren’t you?”
Someone rapped on the tent door before Kevin could continue. “Immortal Son, they’re ready.”
“I will be there in a moment.” Kevin tightened the rope around his waist and donned a fur cloak over his robe. He stood behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders. His fingers were red and blistered. I tried to jerk away but he held firm.
“Mr. Sinclair, I do not yet know what your purpose is. Clearly you will not birth the Chosen One.” He paused to laugh at his own joke. “But I know there is another plan in store for you. The new world I am creating will need men of strength, honor, and intelligence. I have not met anyone who possesses all those requirements until you. I can only pray when He tells me what to do with you, it will be to put you by my side. Until I find that out, you will be under my direct protection. I look forward to speaking with you more when I return.”
He pulled the tent flap aside. Morning sun sliced through the shadowy interior, blinding me for an instant before my eyes adjusted.
“And if you ever betray the protection and trust that I am showing you now, fear not. I know it is merely another personal trial for me and not wickedness on your part. I will not blame you. But I will find you if you try to escape. I will hunt you. There will be punishment, because no misdeed can go unpunished. Now, in the mean time I will mark you with our seal of commitment so you should never forget your connection to me. Bear, please mark Mr. Sinclair.”
Then he was gone.