It’s coming soon! After almost three years, Bodies (Count them Rising) is being edited and prepped for print.
Take a look at Chapter One and let me know your thoughts.
Chapter One: Waking the Dead
Eric’s story — two months before Jenna wakes up
His nostrils flared. He recoiled from the smells saturating the air: blood and sweat. His heart pumped irregularly, the blood roaring in his ears like a truck accelerating under a bridge. Disoriented, Eric looked around. While the room was murky, Eric could make out blood stains the color of dirty, sun-baked bricks. The stains decorated the floor and walls like abstract paintings.
What had happened here?
Naked, Eric sat in a pool of his own blood, somehow alive. He pushed himself into an upright position. Everything hurt. Surveying his arm from which intense pain radiated, he held back a scream. He gagged, noise loud in the quiet, as he stared at the chunks of flesh loosely entwined with a string of muscle. It looked as if someone or something had attempted to chew his elbow off. Actually, his entire arm looked like someone’s dinner. His other hand went to cover the wound, but that hand was also decorated with missing flesh, half-healed scabs, and open sores.
A snippet of the previous day, at least he thought only one day had passed but he couldn’t be sure, surged back to him. He and the rest of the survivors had taken refuge in this old movie theater, but stalkers, the undead, found them. A fragment of the battle flitted through Eric’s mind. His head pounded as more memories cascaded like a tidal wave.
Dead eyes stared from outside the theater, not nearly as decayed as the rest of the creatures’ bodies that, in many cases, lacked clothes. Even with ruined body parts exposed, it was hard to differentiate anatomy when it was a blur of rot and decomposition. The maggoty swarm assembled along the large glass windows and doors. They pushed, writhing and swaying against the barrier. Jenna and Caleb, Eric’s friends and companions, had tried to herd him to safety in back, but Eric pushed them away. He was nearly sixteen. He had to fight. A stalker focused lifeless eyes on Eric, and then the window at which he stared, shattered. The battle with the stalkers began.
He looked around.
Where were his friend now? Had they all died? Had they abandoned him?
Eric jumped at the crackle of broken glass, bringing him back to the present. Heart pounding in his chest, body aching, Eric was surprised when his limbs responded and cooperated. Frantic, he searched the ground around him for a weapon, any weapon, but found nothing. He crawled to the corner and waited. There was little else to do.
The thing moved toward him. An atrocity Eric could easily smell from the distance even over his own unpleasant scent. As the figure emerged from the shadows, Eric noticed a face covered with tufts of matted hair. A long, unkempt beard hid thin lips and sunken cheeks. More hair, in knotted dread-like tangles ascended from the scalp and cascaded in all directions. Twigs had lodged in the mess and Eric had an absurd vision of a bird springing out of the tangled dreadlocks like an animated character in an old-fashioned Disney movie.
The beast pointed at Eric. “What happened to you?”
Eric, astonished, remained mute. Could it be human? Before him stood a man, not a stalker. He warily surveyed the person in front of him. While in much better condition than Eric, his appearance indicated life had not been kind to him, but it was the zombie apocalypse after all. Life had not been good to anyone lately.
Eric, instantly a shy teen once again, tried to find a place in the room to conceal his nakedness from the man’s critical gaze. Finding nothing to shelter him other than darkness, Eric squeezed back into the shadows before he spoke. His voice deep and scratchy, sounded to his own ears, little like he remembered.
“I don’t know what happened or how I ended up here alone.” He faltered, noticing the crowbar the stranger brandished in front of him. Wary, Eric attempted to slip deeper into the recesses of the darkened, abandoned movie theater. A wall met him.
In addition to the crowbar, a lethal looking curved sword hung from the belted loops of torn, stained jeans that encased the man’s long legs. A bandana hung loosely around his neck, but Eric could see scars that slithered from side to side. A grungy shirt with an ironic smiley face highlighted muscled arms underneath, corded and ready to deliver a deadly blow if needed.
He looked for an escape route.
“Wait, kid. Don’t get scared. I haven’t seen another human for months now, but, you look worse than the undead. Shit, are you human?”
Eric nodded. He wondered the same about the stranger.
The man scratched at the untamed beard, reminding Eric of the wizard out of Harry Potter but this man was surely no Dumbledore. He would not be able to help Eric with magic or spells to find his friends.
Eric didn’t know what to say next, but there wasn’t a need to reply. The still nameless man set down the crowbar and pulled a backpack off. A rifle was carefully attached.
“I travel light kid, so don’t expect a choice but you need some clothes. Here’s my spare t-shirt and jeans. I don’t have extra shoes, but I’m sure you can find some, if you live long enough.”
“Who are you? What happened to my brother Billy? Where’s Jenna and my friends?” Eric’s mind was a jumble of unanswered questions.
The man shrugged, handing Eric the clothes, almost as grungy as the articles he wore.
“My name’s Abraham, but friends used to call me Abe. We seem to be the only two people crashing this movie theater tonight. I didn’t see anyone else, human that is, in my travels. There’s definitely no one in this town, unless you’re a fan of the undead. They’re everywhere, so you better keep your voice down.”
Eric nodded and whispered, “Yesterday, at least I think it was yesterday, we were all here. I don’t understand.” He stood, awkward and shaky, as he attempted to put on the clothes offered by Abe.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Eric.” He scowled trying to remember more of the past. He ran a hand through his blond hair, but half-way back it stuck to a matted clump of what he hoped was just blood. It felt a whole lot thicker.
“Sit down, kid. You look like you’re gonna die, if you’re not already dead. What do you remember?”
Eric, flummoxed, began telling Abe everything his foggy memory would release. “I was here with my friends. There were sixteen of us traveling together. And we were heading to this inn in Virginia. It was supposed to be safe, but we got stuck in this movie theater during the day.”
“Sixteen. That’s a large group these days.”
“They’re all good people,” Eric looked embarrassed at his zealous release of information, but even talking made him feel better. “Well, people and ‘others.’” He stuttered, stuck on exactly how to explain his former companions. “Some of the people we travel with are different. They don’t like the light.”
“The ‘others.’ I’ve heard of them.” Abe said, his expression channeling one of the original three wise men. “They have an allergy to the light. Tend to avoid the sun when possible, but they are a lot stronger than the average human.”
Eric nodded and continued to relate what he remembered. “The front window shattered and a bunch of stalkers attacked. Me and my brother Billy had to save one of the “others” who ventured too far out to help in the fight and got caught in the sun. Jenna tried to get me to go in the back to safety, but I refused.” Eric’s head swarmed with bees. The pain traveled down to his spine.
“How’d you get left here?” Abe asked
“I don’t know,” Eric said. Frustration at the holes in his memory caused him to draw out each word. “We pushed Victor’s body back into the shadows and then chaos. I remember being swarmed by the stalkers and then…nothing.”
“Well, I’m making camp here tonight. As long as you don’t plan to eat me in my sleep, you are welcome to join me.”
Eric looked confused.
“A little stalker humor. Lighten up kid. I think we should move to one of the smaller theaters. I’ll see if I can patch you up some. I got some medical supplies and canned goods. I’m not usually willing to share, but you look like you had a tough day, and it’s nice to have company for once. Let’s just say the last interaction I had with humans didn’t really end well.”
“I’ll tell you more once we set up in back. Let’s hope for an uneventful night.”
The two trudged through the ruined remains of the movie theater. The once grand Cineplex was now a chaotic wreck. Bits of plaster mingled with the remains of stalkers. Broken benches and glass covered the floor like the water at the beach during high tide. Eric tried his best to avoid the sharp fragments, but with every step, he felt the prick against his soles. He must be dead. He didn’t feel a lot of pain. Or he just didn’t care.
The two traversed the empty space cautiously, listening carefully for any unnatural sounds. All was quiet until they tried to enter the last, small theater in the back of the building. The door squealed in rebellion, noise trumpeting across the empty space. Both men waited anxiously for anything to reveal itself, but nothing ventured forth.
Abe handed Eric the crowbar and grabbed the blade, before inching his way into the theater first. The crowbar felt overwhelmingly heavy in Eric’s hand. It hurt to lift it. Nothing. Silence. Then, as if performing The Nutcracker on stage, in front of the ripped curtains and the slashed screen, a body emerged from the shadows.
“Not good,” Abe whispered.
Eric and Abe stood side by side. Eric remained silent, but crouched, panic rising as the undead directed its gaze upon them. Dried blood etched a whimsical design on what remained of the stalker’s clothing. It shambled forward, stumbling over the wrecked seats in its path, limping toward Eric with unblinking, cataract-filled eyes. Eric readied himself to fight next to Abe who held the large curved sword clasped securely in his hands.
Eric’s palms were sweaty. His body shook with fear.
The creature charged at Abe, ignoring the theater seating blocking its way. Its teeth chomped, the sound loud in the otherwise empty space. As it came closer, Eric could see and smell the putrid ooze dripping from between its teeth and spots of mold devouring what was left of its already gangrenous skin.
Abe hoisted his sword and swung with all his might. The blade hacked at the creature’s arm, but did not stop the stalker. Abe stepped away from the slow moving stalker and swung again, his strokes sure and steady as if he had trained for this battle his whole life. Finally, the head of the creature flew off its decrepit shoulders and onto the carpet moments before its bone-bare, hooked fingers reached Abe’s face. The headless body swayed briefly and then pitched forward. Greasy, dark blood decorated the already vile and stained carpet. Eric sank to the ground, weak and nauseous.
“Dinner, anyone.” Abe joked.
“It’s not funny.”
“Sorry kid, but being alone for such a long time warped my sense of humor a little bit. You okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll live.” Eric gave Abe a small smile. “How’d you do that?” Even the brief exertion had left him short of breath and barely able to stand.
“Ex-military or rather I was in the military until the world collapsed around me.”
Eric grunted and moved further inside the small confines of the theater. “Need help cleaning up?” He asked, knowing he wouldn’t be able to do much.
“That’s the spirit.” Abe kicked the decomposing corpse, not at all flustered from the fight. “I’m good for now. You sit and rest for a couple moments and then I can use your help if you’re up for it.
Eric nodded but started to stand.
“Sit. That’s an order.”
“Okay. Then what?” Eric wheezed.
“After I get rid of the stalker remains, we’ll try to clean you up, and then dinner. You hungry?” Abe didn’t wait for a reply. “I got beans or beans.” He went back to firmly close the door against any new invaders, sheltering the two for a few minutes. Eric collapsed further down onto the floor. The closed door and the small amount of security that it brought with it didn’t last long.
Abe, who had dropped his supplies and moved the pieces of corpse near the door, reopened it in order to haul out the remains. Eric, wanting to be useful, held the corpse’s head by the sandpapery hair while Abe hauled the body out of the room by its legs. They also brought in the rest of Abe’s supplies, which he had stashed near the entrance in case there was a need to make a quick escape.
After ridding themselves of the stalker’s body, Abe surveyed Eric’s wounds under the dim light of a battery powered lantern and ripped up the last of the shirts he carried with his camping gear for bandages. As he ministered to Eric, dabbing iodine, binding the cloth tightly against the remaining bits of flesh that cleaved to Eric’s muscle and bone, he murmured in disbelief.
“You have wounds and scars everywhere. How’d this happen?” Abe asked.
“I still don’t remember it all. I’m trying.” Eric gulped water from a canteen in between answers.
“Don’t worry about it too much. We have a long night ahead of us.” Abe patted Eric on the head with fatherly affection.
Once Eric was bandaged and resting, Abe opened a can of beans that the two split between them.
“Sorry for the meager meal, but I wasn’t expecting guests. I’m here because I was running low on supplies and needed to restock. Pittsfield was the closest town to the house I took shelter in, but time to move on. I was getting too much attention from the stalkers.”
“My group was trying to find a safe place too,” Eric looked at Abe to see his reaction. “There’s an inn in rural Virginia someone knew about, and we were heading there. At least that was the plan before they left me.”
“Sounds like a smart plan.”
Eric looked around the theater in disbelief. His twin brother would have never left him here. He felt his eyes become heavy with tears.
Abe noticed and started talking, hoping that if he revealed more of his own history, he’d calm the boy. “Right after the virus broke out, I was on active duty with the army. My wife and family lived in New Jersey. I lost everyone pretty quick. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
“Thanks, but most people who have made it this long have a similar story. I don’t think anyone has family left.”
“I have a twin brother, Billy,” Eric said. “At least I did before this happened.” He pointed at the wounds that laced his body.
Abe’s arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t see any human remains around the theater. Maybe everyone escaped.”
“It’s just as likely the stalkers didn’t leave anything to be identified.”
“Stalkers don’t usually eat bones,” Abe said.
“The other option is that Billy, Jenna, and the rest of them left me here.” Eric’s frowned.
“My friend. How could they leave me here to die?” Eric’s voice turned into a whisper.
“So you thing they’re either dead or left you here to die?”
“I’m not sure which option I like better.” Eric covered his face with his hands so Abe wouldn’t see the tears fall.
“Maybe another option exists.” Abe patted Eric on the back with awkward strokes.