Bodies…Chapter Six: Lost Lilly

Jenna stared at Caleb. It had been a few days since she was able to get up and out of bed. Now she slowly paced the floor. This wasn’t possible. “I need a minute.” She took a few deep breaths to steady herself. The rapid beat of her heart refused to quiet.

Caleb nodded, his voice quiet and controlled.  “Lilly was happy here.  You know that, but Gunnar was a mess after the incident.”

“Incident? My attempted rape and murder is a little more than an incident.” Jenna’s anger overwhelmed her. “We should never have let Gunnar stay after what he tried to do.”

Her thoughts instantly returned to the awful events of the past. Gunnar and his companions Tundra and David had plotted to take over the inn and use humans as the “Others” slaves and food supply. Tundra, never shy about getting what she wanted, set her sights on Caleb, but Jenna’s relationship with him was a problem.  To remedy this, Tundra created an elaborate scheme hoping to destroy the strong unity of everyone at the inn and lure Caleb to the dark side.

The outcast “Others” kidnapped Jenna, planning on raping her, draining her of blood, and then convincing the “Others” at the inn that humans were merely cattle waiting to be consumed.  Of the three, Gunnar was the only one who survived when Caleb came to her rescue.

“We all thought Gunnar could be rehabbed,” Caleb piercing violet eyes prayed for her forgiveness.

“I guess we know better now.” Sarcasm dripped like honey from the words. “Gunnar’s lucky you let him live. I still think he should have joined Tundra and David. We could have fed him to a stalker or something.”

Caleb sighed at the start of an old argument. “With someone following Gunnar around the inn all the time and a guard at his door when he slept, he really was a prisoner.”

“Humph.”

“It’s not like anyone forgave him for taking part in Tundra’s plan to kill you.”

“He should have been eternally thankful The Council let him live, let alone stay at the inn,” Jenna wobbled on her feet, still unsteady from the days of illness. “The Council could have punished him or banished him from the inn, but they didn’t. He wasn’t thankful about anything.”

“Gunnar resented the house arrest. You didn’t see it, but he became angry and belligerent. We were planning on doing something .”

“Obviously, not soon enough. As one of Tundra’s minions, he was always a jerk. You can’t expect him to be thankful about the fact that we didn’t send him out to be food for the stalkers.”

“I’m sorry you had to hear about this now. You’re still weak.”

“I’m okay.” Jenna tried to reassure Caleb, but she sat, her head throbbing. “How did he escape with Lilly?”

“We’re not sure. It’s all just guess work at this point.”

“Tell me.” Her eyes strained to focus on Caleb.

“He holed up in his room most days, but there was someone outside as guard.  The day he escaped, he must have jumped out the window and found Lilly. Gunnar probably lured her off property with some lame excuse.” Tall  but lean, he looked like a marble statue in the dim room.

“Lilly was always trusting and gullible.”

He nodded.

“She’s been gone for almost a week?” Jenna asked. “What have people done to find her? What can I do?”

“As soon as we knew they were missing, everyone went on patrol,” he said. “We scoured the grounds and took the vehicle into the surrounding area to search.”

“Find anything?”

“Gunnar stole one of the vehicles, but the trail only led to the main road. We found some information in his trash, but the patrols turned up nothing.  I’m sorry.”

Silence stretched time. Jenna wanted to rage or shout, but instead deflated. “Nothing?”
“People scoured the area, but couldn’t find any evidence of them.”

“There must be something else we can do?” She wished for civilization, laws, police. Someone in authority would have known what to do. Someone would have been able to guide her. Even with the love of her life next to her, she felt like a helpless child.

“Believe me, this has been the priority at the inn for everyone.” His gentle  touch made her shiver. “We’ve run out of options.”

“Then think of more options.” She took a tattered breath but couldn’t quite fill her lungs.

“Think long and hard but stay in bed while you do it and get strong.”

As if responding to those words, her illness rammed her like a runaway train. Even the simple conversation sapped her strength. She sat on the bed, back against the pillow, feeling the waves of exhaustion. A yawn escaped like a prisoner.

“Sleep now.” Caleb chuckled as she cuddled against him like a cat. He pulled the blankets up to her chin. “We’ll talk more when you feel better.”

“I am better.” Sleep fell upon her like heavy snow.

The next day, Jenna improved physically, but was emotionally destitute. Out of bed, she washed and changed. Her fresh t-shirt felt baggy on her thin frame, her black hair falling below her shoulders.

Caleb arrived with food. He was showered and changed, his favorite hoodie replaced with a superhero t-shirt.

Jenna sipped the hot broth, watching the potatoes and vegetables, probably the remnants of the garden she had started, danced in the cup. “I can’t let anything happen to Lilly. She trusted us.” She batted Caleb’s hand away during his clumsy attempts to feed her bread.

She remembered back to when Lilly arrived at the High Point Inn under the control of Tundra. The bird-like woman had been shy and reserved. Jenna soon found out why. Tundra had been using Lilly and her human companions as a food source, keeping them alive only to feed from them. When Lilly and Jenna had finally become friends, the other woman shared her plight.

Lilly also shared that Tundra hated Jenna’s outspoken stance against “Others” feeding off humans. When finally freed from the “Others”, Jenna and Lilly had much more in common than their age in common.

Lilly had been a social misfit in her pre-stalker life, something Jenna could relate too. A band geek, a girl scout, and a naturalist, Lilly was sweet and sensitive, an odd combination to carry on after the end of the world. It was Lilly’s love of nature and her knowledge of camping and the outdoors that had helped her survive. These interests brought her and Jenna together as friends as they minded the horses and tended the garden.

At the inn, both women had taken to Star and Moon, the two horses. Jenna also loved having another person her age to reminisce with. Some days their conversations felt like two friends at a sleep over, and Jenna was a sucker for nostalgia.

Caleb snapped his fingers in her face. “Are you in there? I’m not sure what else anyone can do to find them. We found some notes and maps in Gunnar’s garbage, but everyone’s still trying to figure out where he might have taken her.”

“I want to help.”

“You need to help yourself.”  A dark strand of hair fell across his concerned eyes. “But I’ll bring you the notes from Gunnar’s garbage if it’ll keep you quiet.” His smile softened the reprimand.

“I’m fine.”

“You’ve were pretty much out of it for three day. Even Emma can’t figure out what was wrong with you. You’ve had a fever and kept going in and out of consciousness.” He ran a hand through his dark, disheveled hair, pushing it off his forehead.

“I’m  better now.”

“Really? You just woke up after sleeping through the night and much of the day. Your weak and in no condition to carry out whatever crazy scheme you’re planning. “You’ve been out of it for a few days with a mysterious illness, a high fever, and bad nightmares. Remember, I know you.” He sent her a look meant to silence her.

It didn’t. “I feel fine and I’m not planning anything. Just thirsty. Can I have more water, please?”

Caleb poured more water out of the carafe. “Please focus on getting better or Emma will be mad at me, and even you don’t want to make Emma mad.”

Emma, a former physician’s assistance, tried her best to keep everyone alive and healthy. As if sensing the discussion going on, Emma entered the bedroom. In her late thirties, Emma’s long, golden curls were pulled into a high, messy pony tail. Jeans and a soft sweater made her look like a trendy soccer mom ready to chaperone a mini-van load of children around town. The ensemble was completed with a pair of fur-lined boots, slightly scuffed. Jenna wondered how she managed to scavenge an outfit that actually made her look trendy, if pre-apocalypse fashion ever became a priority.

Concern marked Emma’s face. She scrunched her petite nose as she stared at her patient. “I need to check up on you, even though Caleb’s been keeping everyone out until you had some food.” Emma leaned in for a hug.

“I’m fine. Caleb telling me about Lilly. I want to help.” Jenna said.

“Right now, all you need to worry about is getting better,” Emma said. “We have no idea what caused your fever or why you were out for so long. Recover. Then worry about all the rest.”

“Bull.” Jenna didn’t want their ministrations. “You can’t tell me Lilly is missing and then expect me to stay in bed and stare at the ceiling.” Jenna pushed herself up, making her head spin. “Caleb’s not telling me everything. Tell me what else you know, Emma.”

Emma eyed Caleb before speaking. “I’m sure Caleb’s told you all this. We found a lot of information in Gunnar’s room about the Eastern shore of Virginia, especially this bunch of islands around there called the barrier islands. There are more than twenty of them. In the past, pirates used to use them to hideout on, but most were protected from development by the time the world ended. Perfect for hiding out in a relatively stalker-free environment.”

“He didn’t tell me any of this.” She glared. “Maybe Gunnar had more smarts than we gave him credit for.”

“Fine,” Caleb gave in. “We found a couple vacation guide books in his room too. He must have picked them up during one of the scavenging parties or maybe he brought them with him. He made a bunch of notes about Chincoteague. It’s a larger island that attracted tourists because of the wild horses close by. A good place to go, lots of places to scavenge, but the island also had a larger population. That means undead roaming around.”

“It looks as if Gunnar planned to head that way,” the blonde said. “I’m not sure what else he was looking for. Most of the other islands are little more than sand and marshes. Not a lot of houses or shelter.”

“I guess if it’s mostly uninhabited, there would be fewer stalkers. That’s a good thing,” Caleb said.

“True, but how would they survive?” Jenna asked.

“I have a bad feeling that’s what Lilly is for.” Emma said.

“No! He wouldn’t do that to her.” Jenna voice pitched.

“Yes, he would.” Caleb said.

“I’m going to find her.” She heaved herself up in the bed. This overwhelming tiredness be damned.

“I forbid it,” he growled.

Let the battle begin.

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Bodies…Chapter 5: Nightmares

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.

“Eric!

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.

Bodies…Chapter Four: Decisions

 

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.

Bodies…Chapter Three: Can’t Ever Go Home

The dream detonated in her mind like a bomb. Heat. Pressure. The burning. A small room full of night closed in around her, a big window of light exposing a pregnant moon. Shadows hugged her, and Jenna was both repulsed and seduced by them. Part of her wanted to let go and stay shrouded in darkness, never to see the light again, but she also wanted to fight the emptiness before it took her away.

A gun exploded in the distance. Something moved outside the large window of her dreamscape, flittering in the moon light. Startled, she jumped, tripping, one foot entangling the other. It took a lot of effort to regain her balance. The silhouette of a creature came into creation on the floor like a painting brought to life with each new stroke of a brush.

Heartbeat loud in her ears, Jena stared as the monster grew to mammoth proportions: fuzzy, distorted, and utterly terrifying. She looked away, even if it meant her death. Nothing happened.

When she finally found the courage to return her gaze to the window, a large black crow perched on the windowsill, highlighted in the silver moonlight. No monster, just a bird.  Yet, it stared at Jenna with wicked intent, cackling, like the three witches eyed Macbeth.

Crows don’t speak but Jenna was sure that this one could. “Eric.”

Upon hearing it, she jumped back, while the indifferent and unflustered crow took off causally into the night just as the voices erupted around her.

Jenna recognized one voice in the crowd.

Eric wailed.

“Eric!” Jenna screamed and started a desperate search for him. 

The scenery shifted and he was in front of her.

Eric turned. His eyes were empty sockets, dripping maggots.

“Don’t you remember me?” he asked.  “I haven’t forgotten you. I’ve come to be with you always. Why did you leave me?” Eric’s looked at Jenna, vacant sockets somehow finding her face.

In her dream, events from the past unfolded like a damp dish towel. After the world had ended,  Jenna had joined up with Caleb, Eric and his twin Billy, and a group of survivors who had found a safe haven at the High Point Inn in Virginia, but even there, the group was never free of the undead.

Jenna stomach churned like she was on a carnival ride when the scene in her dream changed again. Eric and Billy squabbled loudly on a roof, looking young and innocent. When she had first joined up with the small band of survivors, Eric and Billy had been some of the youngest members at fifteen, and being twins, the only people with family still alive.

Fair-haired and optimistic, the twins formed a special bond with Jenna. She was happy to take on the role of big sister. The gangly twosome looked like they ought to be anywhere but in the middle of the apocalypse. The twins should have been driving a tractor on a farm in the mid-west with their freckled, homegrown, innocent faces. They were Jenna’s new family.

Again the landscape changed. An old fashion silent movie played.  The twin’s heads bouncing in unison, Eric throwing pebbles from the roof, the boys trying to outdo each other at target practice, both getting into trouble. Billy telling stupid knock-knock jokes. Eric playing cards with Jenna and making her laugh when she had been mourning all she lost in her previous life.

Blurred images, chaotic and violent, erupted like a volcano. Eric in dirty overalls fighting the undead; Eric trying to rescue Victor, another member of the group, in a dilapidated movie theater;  stalkers ambushing him; and finally, Caleb telling Jenna of Eric’s death.

Eric screamed in her dream and his body surged out of a mass of stalkers.

Someone followed behind him,  walking out of the murkiness.

 “Stop making so much noise,” Lilly murmured. “You don’t know what’s around. Try to think about getting out of here. We need you.”

Lilly reached out to touch Jenna, but Jenna moved away, and watched as Lilly’s skin beginning to decay. After the virus had hit and her family died, Jenna never thought she would be able to get close to anyone again. She tried so hard to remain distant, but the twins, Caleb, and then Lilly had found their way into Jenna’s heart. Lilly had been one of the last people to join the group. Already settled at the High Point Inn, Lilly had arrived with a group of strangers. Of all the new additions, Lilly, had become good friends with Jenna.

In the dream, Lilly beckoned for Jenna to follow. The movement caused a chunk of skin from Lilly’s arm to fall to the ground. From where the skin fell, the arm oozed black blood. Muscles and bone began to protrude. Lilly smiled, but her lips cracked.

“You have to find me and Eric or this is what we become,” Lilly said.

 “Can you show me the way?” Jenna asked, wandering through the haze. Darkness fell and Jenna stopped. “I’m scared to follow.”

“You need to follow me.” Lilly beckoned her forward, but the fog and darkness deepened and Jenna briefly lost sight of Lilly. When Jenna found Lilly again, she grabbed her hand, determined to find a way out. It slithered against Jenna’s fingers.

Bodies…Chapter Two: Waking the Living

Sometime in October

Jenna’s eyes opened to the sound of voices and gunshots. She wheezed, sucking in large gulps of air.  The dream receded, scratching and clawing as she forced it back, deep into her subconscious.

Outside her bedroom, bullets screamed like fireworks.  Damp and sweaty, Jenna struggled to sit up in bed, the room dancing dizzily around her. She fell back against the sheets and focused on the dull, streaky ceiling in an attempt to stop the vertigo.  Looking at the bland room, painted off-white, made her head pound harder. She squinted at the moonlight coming through the window, rubbing at a crust that attempted to keep her eyes sewn shut.

Every part of her body ached.

She gave into the pain and rolled into a fetal position.

Another gunshot.

Someone called for help.

Even barely cognizant, she noticed when the man glided like a fallen angel to the edge of her bed. Black hair escaped the edges of a hooded sweatshirt.

She swiped at her face again as if the movement would bring a memory back. Bits and pieces of forgotten time struggled forth. A flicker of a memory here, a whispered word there. She remembered leaving the High Point Inn to go see the horses in the barn. Was it only yesterday?

“Caleb?” Jenna whispered, throat parched. She could never forget him.

He knelt at the side of the bed, his long legs tucked gracefully under him,  poetic face aligned with hers fever-soaked one.

“I thought you were having another nightmare.” Caleb kissed her clammy forehead and then brushed the dark, damp bangs out of her eyes with a gentle caress of his calloused hand.

“What happened?” Jenna whispered, her voice raspy.  She tried to move closer to Caleb, but groaned when her stomach swam.  She tossed her head over the side of the bed as her insides heaved like waves in a storm.

“Okay?” He gently caressed her back, not expecting an answer. “You had me so scared. Everyone here worries about you so much.”  Caleb sank lower on the floor, trying to comfort Jenna. He sat stoically and waited.

Outside the door another shriek followed by rifle blasts.

“What’s going on?” Jenna asked when finally able to speak. She pulled her head up, ignoring the pain, and looked around. She was in her room at the inn. The oversized, sweat-soaked, rumpled t-shirt swam on her tiny frame. It was all she was wearing.

“Do you remember anything?”  Caleb’s hand covered hers.

Jenna noticed his nervous glance toward the door. He had ignored her question too. She shook her head, following his gaze.

The fever made her shiver.

She remembered little about the night she left the inn to see the horses except how impossible it was to fall asleep. And while she knew it was stupid to venture into the darkness alone, she had gone outside anyway. The horses provided some small comfort in this awful world like nothing else could, except maybe Caleb.

“Tell me what is happening. What happened to me?” Jenna needed to know made her try to pull herself up.

Instead of answering, Caleb handed her some water and Jenna sipped it, knowing not to rush him. “Do you want food?”

Her stomach heaved at the thought. She shook her head. The unexplained gun shots and screams had ceased, but the outside world, while muted behind the thick wooden door that separated her from the rest of her companions at the High Point Inn, pressed in on her.

She attempted to prompt the story from Caleb.  “I remember feeling sick and sleepless and going outside to check the horses…”

Caleb looked sad, pausing before he spoke. “Billy found you there in the morning, unresponsive. We don’t know what happened, but you’ve been in an out of consciousness for three days.”

“Three days? Can’t be that long.” Jenna paused to try and find the lost time. “I remember dreaming.”

She groaned as she tried to sit up straighter, muscles sore and protesting, but she persisted. Caleb got to his feet and positioned himself on the bed next to her. His body, cold against Jenna’s feverish skin, filled her with reassurance. He dabbed a damp cloth against her forehead, but it did little to end the throbbing. He sat close, once again positioning Jenna’s warm hand in his cool one. They rested for a long moment like this while Jenna attempted to puzzle out the information once again.

“Three days gone,” Jenna said. She rested her head on Caleb’s shoulder, her long bangs falling in front of her clover-colored eyes.

A thud beyond the safety of the door caused them both to jump.  “What’s going on out there?”  Jenna asked again.

Caleb, normally self-confident to the point of being smug, seemed unsure of what to do next. He released her hand and pushed Jenna’s raven black hair back so he could look her in the eyes.

While Caleb’s hair matched Jenna’s, the similarities ended there. Caleb’s eyes were a vibrant dark violet, a trademark of the “Others.”  At this moment, those beautiful eyes regarded her with a mix of love and concern.

“There are things I need to tell you.” Caleb wore his favorite hoodie and tattered, snug jeans. While the hoodie was large, it couldn’t hide the taunt muscles underneath.  His hair, straight and shoulder length, highlighting his chiseled face, which Jenna considered artwork: Straight nose, angular cheeks, and most importantly, kissable lips. Lips, right now, set in s straight line of concern.

“Something important,” Caleb continued. “I’m not sure you’re up for it, but I don’t want you to hear it from anyone else.”

“Tell me what?” She shook, not sure if it was more from fever or fear. What was happening outside?  Jenna reached out to touch Caleb’s cheek, making sure he was not a dream.  Eerily handsome, a fallen angel,  Caleb sat by her side in clothes Jenna was sure he had not changed in days. His midnight black hair was disheveled and he looked very much in need of a shower and a shave, something not easily come by before the group moved into the High Point Inn where they had been able to put a somewhat normal existence together, if normal was a word still in existence these days.

“There’s a stalker attack going on,” Caleb said. “Nothing we can’t handle, but we think Gunnar took some of the barriers down and let the stalkers in. That’s the noise you’re hearing. Half the people at the inn are holding them off while the others are out trying to find and fix the fences.”

“Why would he do that?” Jenna didn’t like where her thoughts took her. Gunnar was an “Other” like Caleb, but his beliefs were very different than most of the group.

As one of the “Others,” the virus that had decimated the planet didn’t to change Caleb or Gunnar into walking dead, but the plague had not left them unharmed. While most of the poor souls exterminated by the virus returned as stalkers, zombie-like creatures, some people had been changed in more complex, inexplicable ways. The “Others” weren’t human anymore, but tended not to gut and disembowel the living like their stalker relatives.  The “Others” survived off the blood of  humans and were similar to the stalkers in that way, they did not kill when doing so.

Caleb ignored her question, answering with one of his own. “Feel any better? It’s night time so I can take you downstairs or get anything you want from outside.”

The “Others” could not venture out into the sun, skin blistering so bad it could lead to their deaths if out in the bright light long enough. Still, the “Others” were stronger and faster than humans and stalkers, able to heal quicker than the remaining humans. They “Others were useful, and Jenna and her human companions had formed a strong alliance with them even when Gunner believed “Others” were superior.

When she didn’t answer, Caleb tried again. “Do you want to tell me about the dreams?”

“No. I want to know what’s going on.”

Jenna justified pushing Caleb for answers because of their new-formed, but strong relationship. Caleb ambushed Jenna with some powerful emotions, which she tried her best to at first ignore and then to resist. After all, love does not come easy when hordes of undead invade your private space and constantly attempt to devour the significant other in your life. Despite Jenna’s initial reluctance, Caleb persevered and Jenna succumbed to his charm. Intimate memories about their relationship flooded  Jenna mind, turning her cheeks crimson. She loved him. That was all that mattered in the world to her.

All I’ll say is they were bad. There getting worse.” She choked out the rest.  “They’re awful.  Too horrible.” She tried to shake the memories away.  “I can’t get rid of them even now that I’m awake.”

“I could tell you were dreaming all the time you were in bed the last few days. You constantly called for Eric. Talk to me. It’ll make you feel better.”

In the past, Jenna’s dreams had been about her, but the recent ones were different.  They were all about Eric and his death was still raw. She wanted to hold them inside but couldn’t. “The dreams are so real.”

“What happens?” Caleb caressed Jenna’s arm, which was still sticky with feverish sweat. She pressed against him.

“I see Eric in the woods. He looks like himself, but is somehow different. I can’t explain it right without sounding stupid.”

“You never sound stupid.” Caleb’s reassuring smile and kiss urged Jenna to say more.

“In the dream, Eric’s grown up, but these horrible monsters surround him. Not stalkers, but…”  Jenna paused, thinking about how to describe them, “shadow creatures. They’re all around him and then they were on him, inside him. Eric is screaming in pain.  Did you ever read Lord of the Flies in high school.”

Caleb sent her a confused look.

“Before all of this.  Did you?”
“No.” Caleb said.

“In the book the boys turn savage and swarm Simon, one of the little kids. They pounce on him like animals, clawing and ripping and destroying. They kill him. That’s what happens to Eric.  He called out for my help. I yell to him, ‘I’m coming for you.  I haven’t forgotten. I didn’t leave you!’  I kept screaming at him, telling him not to move, but when I finally got close, he was crushed under the weight of the swarm around him. He finally throws all the shadow creatures off and I look into his eyes, but he doesn’t notice me.  He’s dead, a stalker. His blank eyes terrify me. They’re evil. A watching crow caws from the trees mocking me.”

“It’s only a dream.”

Now started, the words gushed out. “The dream means something. Maybe Eric’s alive.”

Caleb avoided Jenna’s eyes, not wanting to have to relive the day in the movie theater when Eric died. “Let’s not.”

“Thirsty. Water please,” Jenna said.

Caleb handed her the glass of water. “What can I do?”

She gulped it greedily. Even lifting her arm hurts, and Jenna feels thin, skeletal. “I’m okay.”

“You need to rest more.” Caleb paused a moment, turning away and getting ready to stand, but then turned back to address Jenna. “You shouldn’t have to find out this way. Lilly’s gone. So is Gunnar. The same day we found you unconscious in the barn with the horses, they both disappeared. We didn’t know if Gunnar tried to attack you again.” He rushed to the end of the story. “We think Gunnar  kidnapped Lilly. There’s no reason for Lilly to ever want to go anywhere with him alone. He probably destroyed the fences to prevent us from following him.”

“Lilly’s gone?” Jenna asked before collapsing into darkness.

BODIEs (COUNT them RISING)

For anyone who read Apocalipstick and wondered what happened to Jenna, Caleb and the rest of the struggling survivors, I decided to release the sequel as a serial.  Here is the first chapter. Anyone remember Eric? One of the twins who was presumed dead when the movie theater was attacked by stalker? Read on to find out what really happened.

All material is copyrighted and not for distribution. 

Newcover

Chapter One: Waking the Dead

Eric’s story — two months before Jenna wakes up

His nostrils flared. He recoiled from the smells of blood and sweat saturating the air. His heart pumped irregularly, 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 tidal waves.

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, the sound bringing him back to the present.  Heart pounding in his chest, body hurting, he inched forward, surprised when his limbs responded and cooperated. Frantic, he searched the ground around him for a weapon, any weapon, but found nothing. He limped to the corner of the movie theater and waited. There was little else he could 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 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.” He faltered, noticing the crowbar the stranger brandished in front of him. 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.

Eric’s death.

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 would not be able to help Eric with magic or spells to find his friends.

Eric didn’t know what to say next when the nameless man set down the crowbar and pulled his 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?”

“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 about them 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.”

“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, and they’re stronger than the average human.”

Eric nodded and spoke. “The front window shattered when 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 his words. “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’ve 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.”

“What happened?” Eric asked.

“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. Abe’s flashlight sending a weak beam across the cavernous space. 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 the soles of his feet. He must be dead. He didn’t feel a lot of pain. Or he just didn’t care.

The two covered the empty space cautiously, listening 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 emptiness. Both men waited anxiously for anything to reveal itself, but nothing ventured forth.

Abe handed Eric the crowbar and grabbed the blade, and the two inched their 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, a dead body danced in front of the ripped curtains and the slashed screen.

“Not good,” Abe whispered.

Eric and Abe stood side by side. Eric remained silent, but crouched defensively, 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 seats in its path, moving toward Eric with unblinking, cataract-filled eyes. Eric readied himself to fight next to Abe who clasped the large curved sword.

Eric’s palms were sweaty. His body shook with fear.

The creature charged, the sound of its teeth gnashing together loud in the otherwise empty space. As it closed in on Eric, he could see and smell the putrid ooze dripping from between its lips 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 stumbling 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 clawed Abe’s face. The headless body swayed briefly and then pitched forward. Greasy, dark blood decorated the already 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. “I’m sure it will come back to you.”

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, but there are too many stalkers.”

“My group was trying to find a safe place too. 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,” Eric analyzed Abe’s reaction, trying to decide if he was one of the good guys.

“Sounds like a smart plan by the group,” Abe said.

Eric looked around the theater in disbelief. His entire body shook when he thought that his twin brother Billy might have left him to die.

Abe noticed. “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.”

Eric focused on Abe. “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks, but most people who have made it this long have a similar story. I don’t think anyone has family left. Actually, I don’t think there are many humans left at all to wonder if they have family.”

“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.

“Jenna?” Abe asked.

“My friend. How could any of them leave me here to die?” Eric whispered.

“You think 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.