It took only a few minutes for the first of them to appear.
Their patchy, bloody skin had a tainted glow in the moonlight as they dragged themselves around the front of the house. They had followed me that far, but their movements were still sluggish, with no signs of the frenzy they were capable of when their prey was in sight.
They didn’t seem to know exactly where I was.
As they moved closer to the window – the very window I’d climbed through – I shrank further back into what I hoped was a deep cloak of shadows.
There was maybe half a dozen of them, moving in disjointed, awkward strides. Their movements were slow and rigid.
They were children.
I’d been crouched, but now I sank into a sitting position, my hands shaking violently as I set the shovel down beside me before I could drop it.
As I watched, I realised one of them was not a child. He was older, and seemed to…
I had to be wrong.
I found myself leaning forward, watching every move I could as they dragged themselves in and out of line of sight.
He was older, an adult.
As I watched, I could feel the horror of what was before me manifest. It crept along the back of my neck, tiny pricks of adrenaline making the hair on my arms bristle, my stomach dive. I sat on my hands to stop them shaking so hard, fearful I’d bump something unknown in the dark.
He seemed to be in charge. He didn’t speak, but moved his head in those strange, jarring movements. Jerking it one way and the next, an unnatural stiffness to his gestures. The children kept looking at him, seemingly following the strange, mute directions he indicated.
He stopped at the window and looked inside, his movements staying predatory, but slow.
He didn’t know I was here. He turned and grunted at the kids – an angry bellow even I could hear. The kids turned to look at him, their search of the house forgotten. He was striding away from the front of the house now, a lopsided, uneven march that the kids soon followed.
He led them away from the house without so much as a backward glance. I waited a long time after the darkness had swallowed the last child before I could find the will to move.
Without the energy to process what I’d just seen, I secreted the memory of him into the darker parts of my mind. I knew I would be revisiting what had just happened, again and again, but right now I had to just keep going.
With no further movement outside, I picked my shovel and pack up and stood on shaking legs. I had waited so long that the moon was retreating, a milky sunrise slowly emerging.
The heavy drapes upstairs let in only enough light to let me see what I was doing, without leaving me feeling completely exposed. I crept my way down to one end of the hall, a shivering hand resting for a long moment on the door handle before gritting my teeth and slowly pushing it open.
It looked to be a spare bedroom of sorts. An untouched single bed. A generic painting hung on the wall. A few storage boxes stacked in the corner, with dusty magazines sitting on top in a disorganised pile.
I slid open the dresser drawers, not expecting much. They were mostly empty. In the bottom drawer was a thick jacket, which I quickly slid on over the top of my own. The nights were still freezing, and my jacket had been ripped to shreds and left a bloody mess.
I slid the drawer shut and crossed the hall to the next room. This door was slightly ajar, but I still paused in front of it, my hand hovering over the handle.
My heart raced as I pushed the door open. Later I would come to think I sensed something, but in the moment I was just afraid.
At first I thought maybe they were alive. And human.
I gripped my shovel and lifted it anyway, ready. I didn’t trust anything anymore, human or otherwise.
Even in the low light, realisation slowly dawned on me. There were no normal sounds – no regular breathing of someone deeply asleep, no rustling of sheets as someone stirred. Their forms lay silent and still. Frozen in whatever moment they’d been lost to.
I lowered the shovel to my side. I was sure that whoever they were, they were dead. Even if they weren’t, I couldn’t do it again.
Slowly, I edged my way towards the bed. As I got closer, I could see the blood. Splattered on the wall, the bedhead, the sheets mottled with it.
She lay on her back, a violent bite mark on her arm, the skin around it patchy… The colour of her blood wrong. She didn’t look to be as far along as some of the others I’d seen, but she had definitely been infected.
The gaping black wound in her temple left no doubt what had happened to her. Some effort had been made to cross her arms over her chest, but these too were splattered.
He lay beside her. Wrinkly and grey. An older couple.
No effort had been made to cover his wound. The gun lay beside him, one side of his head just… Gone. A mess on his pillow.
My mind was silently screaming a chain of Nonono, but my feet moved forward until I was just before the bed.
His skin, away from the bullet wound, was clear.
Before my mind could catch up, before I could process what had happened here, I picked the gun up. There was a small box on the table beside the bed, I picked it up too, a satisfying rattle answering my question – bullets.
The no, no, no was slowing down now. My mind was catching up with what lay before me.
I stowed the box in my jacket pocket, the rattle unnerving me further as I backed out of the room and into the hallway.
I couldn’t hold it together any longer. Barely aware of anything but the sticky new weight in my hand – the gun – I stumbled as far away from their room as I could.
The door creaked open to reveal a bathroom. I clicked it shut behind me, setting my shovel and the gun at the edge of the bath. I dropped my pack on the floor.
I threw up, twice, in the toilet. My hand automatically pressing the flush button. Nothing happened. There was no water. I’d known that but in my despair I’d forgotten. I stared at the now useless button, tears blurring my vision.
Everything hit me at once. The child I’d killed. The impossibly intelligent zombie, leading the children. The elderly couple down the hallway. Jay and Annie, so far away, with no way to know if they were safe.
I climbed into the bathtub and curled myself into the smallest ball I could.
I’d thought I would cry, but I lay there silently in the dusty morning light, waiting for sleep or death.