Summer and some of autumn slipped away along with the warm weather. The days while not arctic, held a steely chill. Eric’s face chafed in the raw wind that hounded them as he plodded forward, but he didn’t complain. The maples trees, wearing red and yellows leaves, stood tall next to bright scarlet oaks. Throughout the long hours of walking, Eric would stare at the beautiful colors, letting the sun warm his face. With each new day, he looked for any beauty left in the world.
But decay, more than anything else, prevailed.
The streets were deserted and quiet as Abe and Eric entered the town and negotiated the litter-filled sidewalk. Eric walked slowly and cautiously, avoiding stepping on glass, holding a discussion, or doing anything that might draw a stalker to him.
The two passed the charred remains of houses with nothing left to scavenge. Block by block they traveled until nearing the limits of what had once been a busy suburbia.
When they turned the corner, death stood waiting for them, and death, Eric noted was extremely unattractive. A stalker advanced. The faded, blood soaked remnants of black pants and a lime colored T-shirt covered the atrophying body. The creature stunk of guts and bowels worse than week-old road kill.
“Too late to run,” Abe growled, tilting his head to the right to make Eric step away from him.
Eric took a few steps away. “What do we do?”
“Fight the fucker.” Abe looked around. “I think it’s a loner.”
The undead took a whiff of the air and snorted, locking on Eric and Abe. With listless eyes staring at Eric, the corpse stagger forward. Eric raised the crowbar he carried. From the corner of his eye, he watched Abe unsheathed a crescent shaped sword.
The stalker, body tattooed with decay, advanced on unsteady footsteps. Eric scrambled forward, ready to try and repay Abe for his kindness by putting himself into the battle first.
“Kid, let me handle this.” Abe stepped in front of Eric.
“I’m good,” Eric stepped around Abe, all his attention focused on the approaching stalker.
Each second lasted a lifetime, and as he waited for death to approach, Eric inventoried each scar and wound on his body, all caused by creatures such as this. He had grown stronger and more deadly with Abe’s help, but in many ways he felt like a scared kid. His body was strong, yet doubted assailed him.
He took a step back.
The stalker closed the distance between them, greasy black spittle arching out between the remains of lips that chomped. Marbleized fingers, hooked bone and rotting flesh, reached out for Eric’s arm.
Eric’s crowbar connected with the monster’s jaw before his arm could be imprisoned, shattering a few of the rotting teeth that lingered in a stench filled mouth. The impacted did nothing to stop the stalker from closing in on Eric, arms outstretched to enclose him in a deadly embrace.
Eric aimed again. This time the crowbar slammed into the creature’s skull. Eric heard the sucking sound of wet brains as he pulled the bar out. He felt powerful.
“Watch out!” Abe warned, before he sliced at the creature, diverting its attention. The crowbar cracked against the creature again and the undead staggered before tumbling to the ground. A loud snap made Eric hopeful the next blow from crowbar broke something vital. Eric attacked again as the stalker lay stunned on the ground. Tightening his grip on his weapon, he bashed at the figure that wiggled like a worm on concrete in the hot sun. Changing his grip, Eric impaled the creature in the head. The sickening crack of rotting bone and flesh accompanied the ooze of murky fluid. Rage coursed through him. Eric repeated the motion again and again.
When Abe stepped in and pulled Eric back, both men were left looking at the liquefied remains of what had been the creature’s skull.
Eric turned away and gagged.
“I think it’s really dead now.” Abe stared hard at Eric. “Are you okay?”
Eric nodded, unable to speak as he gasped for breath, the contents of his stomach on the ground next to him.
Abe put an arm around Eric’s shoulder. “I can’t believe you were able to take the stalker down on your own. Does anything hurt?”
“I don’t think so. I feel good. Strong.” Eric replied with a shrug. “But evil.”
Abe shot Eric a quizzical look. “It’s already dead.” Abe moved Eric away. “We need to go. You never know about the possibility of more lurking undead.”
But the rest of the day turned uneventful. The further the two men traveled from the remnants of civilization the more comfortable they became. As society receded, Abe stopped more often along the route to scavenge a store or house, adding to his duffel bag an assortment of items: matches, clothes, and even a few overlooked dented cans of food. In addition, a successful search of a small house provided some much needed clean clothes, a sturdier backpack for Eric to keep his scarce personal belongings, and a newish pair of sneakers for his feet, only a couple sizes too big. Abe also found a bottle of Jack Daniels and had been sipping on it as they trekked along the endless road.
When evening finally settled in, Eric realized he ought to be bone-weary. Between the fight, his old injuries, and the hard day’s trek, he should be falling down. Instead, he could have walked all night if needed.
Before the sun faded, the two travelers made camp. They stacked wood into a high pile to feed the fire throughout the night. They set up the tent and opened bedrolls. Eric was tired after the endless walking and ready for some sleep before sitting watch for stalkers, but the alcohol had liberated Abe’s lips.
“The weather’s really turning,” Abe said. “We need a plan for the winter.”
“What have you done in the past?” Eric, despite his exhaustion, asked.
“This and that.” Abe, still reserved after their weeks together, held back information like it was a classified file.
Eric has repeated tried to get Abe to give him some history, but up to this point, Abe had been unwilling. This might be his only time to get answers. Eric looked into Abe’s slightly glassy eyes. “How’d you end up alone?”
“At first my town stuck together.” Abe rubbed his head like it hurt to remember, his tangled hair in clumps. “People holed up in the senior center, but it turned ugly quick after supplies got low. The original senior residents who somehow survived the outbreak, suffered the most. They were the first…” Abe’s words trailed off, his mouth a tight hyphen, his face reflecting the horror of what he had witnessed. “They were tortured by the same people I’d grown up with. The elderly were reduced to slaves or worse. Most were killed.” He shrugged his shoulder like the horrors of the past could not equate to the present. “In some cases used for food when there was nothing else to eat. My friends, the ones I thought I knew, were worse than the undead. People, scared and desperate people made choices, a lot of bad choices. They threw away God, their beliefs, their humanity, and I was part of it.”
“You still think there’s a God?” Eric asked.
“This event is both our curse and our blessing. We’re being punished, but we’ll also rise. If we believe. Do you believe?” Abe swayed slightly.
“I don’t know,” Eric voice remained monotone. “How can anyone believe in anything?”
“That’s a discussion for another day.” Abe’s hand flashed in front of the fire, which sparked and crackled like it planned to join the conversation. “I finally set out on my own, knowing that if my town could turn on the elderly, they’d just as likely feed me to the stalkers.” Abe paused. “That’s how I ended up here. Alone and still alive. I don’t know what happened to any of them, and I really don’t care. I try to avoid most humans I meet because they’re usually worse than the stalkers.”
“Do you really believe that?” Eric threw another branch on the fire, making it blaze.
Abe nodded, his shadowy form highlighted by the new flames. “It’s instinct. Kill or be killed. Right before I met you, I was pretty much out of all my supplies. I had to break my self-imposed isolation and find some food. Low-and-behold, I ran into you. Must be destiny.”
“My group of friends is nothing like that.” Eric wanted to prove Abe wrong. “We’re a family, and I miss them so much.” Eric knew he sounded like he was ten years old, but couldn’t stop. “My brother’s a nut, but in a good way, and Jenna is the best friend you can have. She’s also amazing with a weapon just like Caleb and the rest of ‘em. Gus and Emma act like parents, which I hate, but we help each other and keep each other safe. I have to find them.”
“Kid, slow down. I can’t keep all the names straight. Listen, to me. I’m sure you’ll find them if you want to. How hard can it be?” Abe asked. “I’ll even stay with you until you find out what happened and why they left, if that’s what you want.”
“You would?” Eric asked.
Abe sent Eric a rare smile and nodded. “Sure kid. I’d like to meet this ‘family’ of yours.”
Eric relaxed. The tension he’d been carrying for a long time finally slipped now that he knew for sure Abe wouldn’t change his mind and abandon him one day. He had found a friend, and he would find his brother and the rest of the group.
Something else had been bothering Eric for a while, and he felt forced to tell someone even if he sounded insane. He sipped some water before he blurted out what was on his mind. “I think I died, but I’m getting better.”
Abe laughed at the ridiculous statement, but turned serious. “You’re not making any sense,” Abe said.
“I keep thinking back to when you found me. It plays over and over in my head every night. I can remember the events of the day before – getting to the movie theater with the group, the stalkers surrounding the place and then crashing through the window. The stalkers surrounded me, and then there was terrible pain. I don’t remember anything else until I woke up and met you.” Eric pushed up his sleeves and looked at the scars on his arm. Healed and no longer bandaged, they still made him shudder. “Look at me.”
“You could have passed out from the injuries or a loss of blood.” Abe stared at the wounds.
“That’s true,” Eric paused in thought for a second, “but I should to be dead.”
“I guess you should be thankful you’re alive, but in this world staying dead sometimes seems the better option.”
Eric yawned, suddenly exhausted. “Maybe, I’m an angel.”
“Then I’m the devil,” Abe said, laughing.
Eric managed to half crawl, half drag himself into the tent and into his bedroll after Abe told him to go. He stretched out on the cold, hard ground, ready to pass out, suddenly so exhausted, it wouldn’t have mattered if he was lying on a bed of rocks. As soon as his head touched the ground, a deep sleep overtook him.
Then the dream followed.