In Eric’s nightmare, the cold pierced every point of his body like the gnawing teeth of a stalkers. He stiffened as rigamortis set in. He couldn’t move, but he heard Jenna’s singsong voice.
The black primordial ooze that exploded like oil from a well transformed before him into demons.
Jenna’s voice filled his head. “I’m coming for you. I haven’t forgotten. I didn’t leave you!”
He should have been overjoyed, but demons cornered him. Fear stabbed him.
Eric tried to find Jenna in his dream darkness, but instead of her warm brown eyes, he saw the glassy blank stare of undead. The nightmare creature grabbed his arm and took a bite. Eric screamed in pain.
He woke, t-shirt drenched in sweat, to Abe shaking him. Eric bolted upright.
“Hey kid. It’s only a dream.”
“It’s my friends.” He shook the sleepiness away, rubbing his eyes in an useless attempt to make the stalker in his head disappear. “They’re looking for me.”
“Sure kid. Whatever you say. You okay?”
Eric nodded. He didn’t want to explain the reality of his dream before he was awake.
“Go back to bed now.” His friend’s hair was more of a jumbled mess than usual.
The teen rested his head on the hard ground under his bedroll. They may be looking for me, but do I really want to be found by them if everyone I know is already dead?
When he woke again, many dreamless hours later, he found Abe smoking outside the tent as the sun struggled to rise above the tree line.
“Hey. Where’d you get the cigarettes?” Eric asked.
“I had ‘em for a while.” The older man offered the teen one, but Eric declined with a wave of his hand.
“I guess when most of the population dies off real quick and tries to eat those that remain, cigarettes don’t seem like a huge vice. I’m celebrating too.”
“Why are you celebrating?” the boy asked, stretching out the kinks in his neck muscles.
“Shit, kid. You survived another night. I had the odds at 50/50 after that dream. You were sweating bullets. I thought you had a fever or something.”
“I feel fine.” He pulled a ratty sweatshirt over his tousled blond hair, hitching the sleeves up to his elbows. “Really good actually. Feels great to be out in the sun.” He gazed thoughtfully at the older man. “Only 50/50?”
“Well, the odds are getting better. The first night we met I gave you less than a ten percent chance of waking up in the morning.”
“Funny. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Now that you mention it, every day makes me feel better, stronger. That’s got to be a good sign. No lingering effects.”
“Must be all the karate moves I’m teaching you.” Every wrinkle lining the man’s face creased deeply as he looked at the younger man. While scars littered his body, Eric had the prowess of an athlete, long and lean. It was easy to see how miles of walking and daily practice with weapons had created a powerful soldier against the undead.
While still a teen, he was no longer a child. “The self-defense and target practice has helped, but I think it something else.”
“Whatever it is, it’s good. Let’s get ready to head out. I’ve been going easy on you, but if you plan on staying with me, you’re going have to keep up now. Nothing against you, but I can’t always protect you. I haven’t stayed alive this long caring for strays.” Abe snubbed the cigarette out on the ground.
“No. I’m good. Really, really good today.” The teen lifted his arms and flexed.
“So what were you dreaming about?” The grizzled man asked as he took down the tent. He picked up the few items that had scattered during the night and shoved them into his aging canvas duffel bag.
“It’s all kind of a big jumble in my head.” While now awake, the entirety of the dream eluded him. “I think I was dreaming about stalkers and the movie theater, but something more familiar too. Wait, no, there were demon things. I don’t know. It was just a dream.”
Looking grandfatherly, the man remained quiet as the teen worked alongside him, trying to be helpful but mostly getting in the way.
A few minutes later, Abe said. “God can send us messages in some interesting ways. You need to be ready to listen.”
“I’m not in the mood for a discussion about religion. It’s too early in the morning.” He didn’t want to sound annoyed after all the other man had done for him.
Looking up slyly, he added, “I don’t know what you remember, but you were mumbling about your friends looking for you, and then you woke up screaming about stalkers.”
Silent for a long moment, the adolescent took in this new information. “I remember. Jenna was in the dream too. She was a familiar voice. Maybe they’re looking for me, which has nothing to do with religion.”
Eric had survived a stalker attack. How many people do that? He knew he had to continue to hope for something better than how he lived now if he wanted to do more than just endure day after day. Not that he wasn’t thankful to his new friend, but the two of them survived by staying constantly on the move and some dumb luck avoiding large nests of stalkers. These days, luck was useful, but after the previous night’s dream, Eric worried his might soon run out. “I just want my friends to be searching for me the same way I am looking for them. You think?”
Abe ignored the question, handing the younger man a drink of water before shoving the canteen back into the duffel last. “You ready to go?”
A quiet night disturbed only by a dream, both travelers hoped the day would be similar. They started to hike. The landscape remained stalker free as the two men plodded forward, meandering through the woods toward the highway. In the bright daylight, Abe and Eric walked stoically toward the next town. Once they arrived, Eric couldn’t help notice where bloodstains lingered after seasons of rain and wind. The stains were pale rust against a drab gray backdrop. Homes and storefronts had turned into ghostly shells of what they had once been. A black crow squawked from a high rooftop, but otherwise nothing moved inside or outside the deteriorating, uninhabited skeletons of buildings, each falling, day by day, into further ruin.
The two men scavenged through the remains, collecting anything of use. Later, they discovered a woodsy area off the side of the highway and set up camp as late evening approached. Having scored matches, the two collected wood and risked a larger than normal fire, heating cans of soup in which they infused a random can of jalapenos.
“I don’t usually break out the dinnerware, but now that you’re here, I need to use my extra mug all the time,” Abe joked. “You’re such a problem child.”
“You’re such a comedian,” Eric said. “I guess we got our vegetables for the day.” He pulled out a jalapeno out of his soup and popped it in his mouth. Seconds later, his sputtering cough echoed throughout the campsite. “Hot,” he muttered, but continued to shovel the liquid meal into his mouth, ravenous.
“This is a feast compared to some of the things I’ve eaten in the past. Once, I scored six cans of beans and lived on them for two weeks. At least there’s some diversity tonight.”
“I wonder if it’s better at the inn?” the teen asked. “If life is normal again.”
“This is the new normal. Get used to it.”
Eric fell silent, brooding about the loss of his brother and family as he finished the quick dinner. Wanting to wash, he tore off his t-shirt and sweatshirt.
With gaping mouth, the older man inspected Eric’s arms, chest, legs, and elbow. When he looked at the youth’s back, he whistled.
“What is it?” the younger man asked. “Gangrene? Am I deformed? Dying?”
He remained silent, terrifying the boy more.
“Come on your scaring me.”
“Have you been working out without telling me? You look like you’ve grown two inches and put on twenty pounds. More impressive is the fact you’re healed. Totally healed. The scars are even fading.”
“How is that possible?” He took a close look at his arm. Scars like feathers crisscrossed his bicep, puffy and pink, but the skin had mended, pushing itself back together. His chest was the same. Now dappled with lines and circles, the scabs and scars that had occupied the space not long ago had all but disappeared.
“You’re a freaking miracle. This has to be a sign.”
“What are you talking about? A sign of what?”
“A sign from God.” In a fatherly gesture, he reached out and hugged the adolescent tightly. “You not only survived, but healed.”
“If you say so.” Eric replied, confused. “I could just be a quick healer.”
“I can see it all clearly now. We need to stay together even if that means I have to help you find this family of yours at the inn. It’s our destiny. Whatever you are or whatever you turn into.”
“Turn into?” The teen laughed, but a serious and brooding look on the old man’s face stopped him. “I feel totally human,” Eric murmured. “But, I give you permission to shoot me if I’m a stalker one day when you wake up. That is if I don’t eat you first.”
“Deal. I swear, I’ll go with you to look for your friends, even as far as this inn of yours,” said Abe, “but then you are on your own.”
He smile revealed relief. “Thanks.”
They shook hands, forging a deal. Eric never thought one day he’d wholeheartedly regret that promise, that is if he stayed human long enough to remember it.