I made good progress slipping through the back streets, feeling quietly confident I was headed the right way.
If I could get there quickly enough, I could probably make it into the city tonight. Nothing emerged to slow my progress.
I wondered if the zombies slept, if they had any need or sense to. We’d seen them at night, of course, but the streets were so still now. Maybe the lone ones roamed, but the packs hid and slept.
I’d made it back to the house completely undisturbed. The tiny window was closed, just as I’d left it, and I fumbled with shaking hands to slide it open. I pushed my way through, pulling it shut behind me and taking in what surroundings I could in the dark.
Nothing seemed to have changed, the house remaining a refuge. It had a musty, wrong smell, but I tried to ignore it. I knew the bodies were still upstairs, but I had no plans to go up there again.
In, out, and head to the city.
I stopped by the kitchen to grab a couple of tins of food, just in case. I took a better, slower look around the kitchen, feeling fairly safe in the quiet dark. I slid a couple of drawers opened, ones I’d overlooked or ignored last time.
Maybe they’d already been looted or maybe this old couple hadn’t had much, but the cutlery drawer was pretty sparse. I rummaged quietly in the dark, fingers finally feeling jackpot – a sturdy, thick handle. I lifted it up slowly, avoiding moving the rest of the cutlery and the noise it could make.
The large blade shimmered dimly in the pale moonlight that had managed to peek its way into the house. It was a pretty considerable knife, something I could probably do some real damage with given the chance. I sat it on the table and put my pack back on, picking up the knife and heading back out to the hallway.
The shovel was still where I’d left it, and I grabbed it, testing my ability with one in each hand. It would be clumsy, but I could drop one if it came to a fight. I only had one pack to deal with this time, and it seemed foolish to leave behind anything that might work as a weapon.
I hid under the window, braving a look every few moments. Nothing moved outside. The moon illuminated an empty, silent street.
I slid my backpack out the window, letting it fall near silently to the floor. Stretching awkwardly, I managed to drop both the knife and the shovel, one by one, onto my pack.
I wormed my way through the window, looking around hastily before retrieving my things.
It seemed, gradually, that everything was much too quiet.
I carefully slid the window shut behind me and using the wilted gardens as cover, crept my way further down the street. I could make it into the city tonight, but not knowing what waited for me slowed me down until I found myself loitering at an intersection, hidden in the jarring darkness underneath what was once a streetlight.
I set the knife and shovel down quietly and sank to my knees. My hands shook as I dug a packet of dried fruit from my backpack, but I managed to choke it down. My water supply was pretty low – I’d refused to let Jay leave much of it with me. I moved my thick tongue around mossy teeth, trying to delay an itching thirst.
Silence continued to press on around me, and I knew I was going to push into the city tonight. Jay had asked me not to, asked me to just grab the extra food and follow them, but the urge to try and find out something, anything, about them was too strong.
There were too many questions about these things… We’d called them zombies, but seeing them lead one another, hearing them try to talk…
A slow shudder slid down my shoulders, past my spine, sat heavily in the pit of my stomach.
I got back on my feet, shifting the weight of the knife and shovel in my hands, getting my grip right again. I stood for a long moment, fully alert, waiting for any hint of movement or sound.
Silence stretched out around me, completely uninterrupted.
I darted across the road, in between eternally parked cars, my sneakers scuffing lightly on the uneven bitumen.
I didn’t even see the bike, just slammed right into it, the metal of its frame, my shovel and the knife clanging to the ground with a sound that pierced the silence and screamed through the night like a siren.
I lay in the overgrown grass, my heart thumping in my chest, my ears, my throat. If they’d heard that – if they were coming, and they must be – it was time for me to lie here and die.
I had nothing left.
The silence continued on through the night.
I scrambled to my feet, too afraid to look around or check if the silence was real.
The bike would be quiet and fast.
I grabbed the handlebars, lifting it back up onto its wheels. It was in good shape and looked to have been abandoned in a hurry, just like the unlocked cars around me.
The cars would be faster, of course, but far too loud and vulnerable. Jay and I had never even entertained the idea, knowing what a beacon it would be.
But a bike. Despite my exhaustion, despite my heart hammering away at three times its usual pace, I found a small smile breaking out on my cracked lips.
It had a small basket on the front and I sat my shovel and the knife inside, leaving my backpack on and straddling the bike, shaking hands gripping the handlebars.
I shuffled it over the curb and started to pedal, the wheels moving smoothly and briskly over the road.
I’d always loved cycling, but this was the most exhilarating ride of my life. My shot nerves had me gripping the handlebars so tightly my fingers burned, but nothing could dampen the feeling of freedom that coursed through my veins.
I stuck as close to the curb as I could, resisting the urge to ride down the middle of the road as fast as I could.
Even before my joy had a chance to fade, I was nearing the heart of the city.
Even in the dark, the damage I could see had me slowing to a crawl, taking in the pure destruction that had taken place here. Most of the cars were reduced to broken, burnt shells, windows smashed and glass littering the ground.
The houses this close had obviously been looted and left to rot, with doors hanging off hinges and barely an intact window in sight.
It was the bodies that really frightened me.
There must have been hundreds – thousands – of people stuck in the city when the outbreak happened. I couldn’t guess how many had been turned, but bodies had fallen in the streets, the yards, in the cars.
A faintly sweet, queasy smell had crept its way to me, and I choked back a gasp, forcing my breaths shallowly through my mouth.
I hadn’t known what death smelled like, but now its scent invaded me, blood and decay crowding everything.
Nothing moved, no figures shifted in the dark. There was nothing here to notice me, to stalk me.
Dizzy, I cycled on.
The medical centre was only a few blocks away from what I could remember. Everything looked different now, my city a ghastly memory of what it once was.
I stopped a block away from the medical centre. I’d made it too far without interruption and it didn’t feel right.
I stashed the bike down the side of a building, hoping I’d be able to find it again to get out of here.
Hoping I would be able to get out of here.
I left my shovel in the basket, opting for the freedom of movement just the knife could offer me, and slowly crept forward towards the centre.
The bodies seemed to increase the closer I got, the pale skin of death almost glowing in the moonlight. There were so many here, some piled together, as though they’d been fighting to reach the medical centre before death overcame them.
Paranoia and tricks of the light fed off each other, my panic soaring every second as I thought I saw a body move out of the corner of my eye, a twitch here or a shudder there.
Trembling, I came to what was left of the medical centre doors.
It had been the largest in the city, a huge private treatment facility with a massive and very well sponsored research department and lab.
I’d never been inside before, but now I stepped over the jagged remains of glass and listened, on edge, as my sneakers crunched over the fragments all over the floor.
I wondered about infection, but Ken had been adamant only a bite could spread it, and they’d been all over us, fighting us, scratching us, and none of us were infected.
The path of bodies thinned out inside, and I’d seemingly become used to the smell, barely registering the sickly scent on my nostrils.
I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat.
The front desk had been all but destroyed, anything it had once contained now either broken or stolen. The waiting area was in much the same condition, the chairs destroyed, ripped magazines forgotten on the floor.
In the dark I found my way to the now motionless lifts. From what I could read on the wall plaque, the research labs were upstairs.
No glowing exit sign led me to the emergency stairs, but I found them and fumbled the door open, my eyes searching the dark.
What tiny light that crept this far into the building couldn’t penetrate the darkness of this corridor or the stairs beyond, and once I shut the door behind me, I would be fully engulfed in pure darkness.
I steadied my grip on the knife and with one last look behind me, I stepped forward and let the door click shut behind me.
The darkness was absolute. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face or where the stairs even started.
I moved forward blindly, my free hand out in front of me, trying to feel my way forward. After what felt like an eternity in the shadows, I almost tripped over the first step.
I stumbled up the stairs, using my hands to feel the railing on one side, the wall on the other. I reached a landing and felt my way along the wall, finally feeling the concrete shift to a door.
I held my hand on the handle for a quiet moment. What if it was locked? What if there was someone… something… waiting for me in there?
So afraid I struggled to breathe, I turned the handle.
It opened with a soft clunk, into a huge waiting area, slightly illuminated from the moonlight that leaked in through the high windows that lined the room.
It looked empty.
I pulled the door closed behind me and made my way into the waiting room. It didn’t look quite as beaten up in here, as though the masses downstairs hadn’t worked their way up here before they died.
Some of the waiting room chairs were intact, still lined up neatly against the wall. Magazines spilled from a table beside them, but some sat neatly still, waiting to be read.
The insane normalcy of that struck me hard. How could anything still look so normal after the chaos of downstairs?
Beyond the waiting room, dark hallways led to unknown research labs.
It would be too dark to see anything, too dark to even make my way easily down the hallways.
There were at least a few more hours left of the night, and exhaustion was slipping over me, my mind struggling to form proper thoughts, my movements sluggish and without purpose.
I sat awkwardly across several of the chairs, my unseeing gaze resting on the messy pile of magazines.
Somehow, plagued by the images of the bodies downstairs and the memory of the smell outside, I drifted away, not to sleep, but to a fitful thrashing rest that had me jolt awake a few hours later – stiff, cramped and even more exhausted.
The sun had come up by then, still low in the sky, but enough to light the room around me and down the hallways.
Out of desperation, I allowed myself the smallest sip of water.
I stood on shaky legs, looking around with the new vision the daylight offered. The room was, as I’d seen last night, empty.
Something felt wrong, though. Some presence, some slight noise or movement in the air.
I couldn’t hear or see anything, but I could feel it. Something had shifted.
Something was nearby.
The room, the hallways, stayed empty and silent before me.
I moved cautiously down the closest hallway, gripping the knife so tightly my knuckles were bone white.
The doors to most of these rooms were open, and each office had massive windows that took up most of the outer wall.
I nudged the door open further and edged my way into the nearest office. It was empty and looked mostly untouched – someone seemed to have left in a hurry, a mess of paperwork and a coffee cup long abandoned, but it didn’t look as though anyone had looted it.
I ignored the paperwork for now and inched towards the window.
I didn’t want to see the bodies, not in the daylight, not in all their bloody detail, but I was compelled to look. The presence I thought I felt, the need to silence my paranoia and reassure myself I was alone, pushed me forward.
I looked out into the street.
Everything was bathed in the blinding early morning sunlight.
Movement caught my eye. Then another. And another.
Movement was suddenly everywhere. Sometimes almost normal, fast movement. Others slow, awkward. Disjointed.
The bodies on the ground – nearly all of them – were staggering to their feet.