I woke some hours later in what appeared to be the late afternoon. I was stiff and pained from lying awkwardly on the cushions I’d spread out, and I pulled myself to a sitting position, wincing at the fresh aches moving brought to the surface.
On autopilot, I dug a tin of meat and my water bottle out of my pack, eating and drinking slowly. I couldn’t feel the hunger, I was just running on some kind of vague idea that it must be time to eat.
I arched my back, stretching and trying to ease the kinks out of my body. I was completely swept under by constant waves of exhaustion, my mind a mess of fog. I knew I was surrounded here, but ideas of forming an escape plan came slowly, my thoughts murky and unclear.
I pulled myself to my feet and moved slowly to the nearest window, risking a look out into the street below, long shadows cast over the road as the sun dipped lower in the sky.
They were down there, now in bigger numbers than they had been throughout the day. It felt like they were dragging themselves home.
Home for the night.
I watched them come, some in small groups, until I couldn’t distinguish them clearly from the shadows. Night had fallen, and as always, it was my cue to move.
With no real plan, I retrieved my backpack and the knife, my mind working overtime, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get out of here.
No brilliant idea emerged from the fog of my brain.
I’d spent a long time now, standing in the dark, dismissing ideas as quickly as I thought of them. My mind paused on the idea of creating a distraction, but we still weren’t sure what drew them to us – smell, sound, sight. Distracting them only to be sniffed out was suicide.
With a heavy feeling deep in my stomach, I realised I had to try and get back out of here using stealth. I’d managed to access the building when I stepped around them gingerly, when I thought they were dead bodies. They hadn’t moved, hadn’t detected my presence. If I could repeat that, if I could force myself to ignore what they were, and just delicately avoid them as though they were corpses I didn’t want to touch…
Stealth was my only option.
I had worked my way over to the stairs in the dark, my trembling hand resting on the door handle. With a quiet squeak, I pushed down, easing the door open.
I had to assume the stairs were still laid out before me. Once the door clicked shut behind me, there was no light to guide my way. I ignored the temptation to leave the door open – I couldn’t risk it slamming shut – and fumbled my way forward.
I couldn’t hold in a loud gasp as my feet slipped off the edge of the first step. I grabbed the railing and held myself steady. The stupidity of carrying a knife in the dark dimly registered somewhere in my mind, but I wasn’t willing to move unarmed.
I tightened my grip on the railing and moved my feet forward, keeping my movements slow and cautious. With no light and no sense of time, I suddenly reached a landing, the bottom of the stairs. With one arm held in front of me I felt my way forward, moving slowly so if I hit anything, the noise would be minimal.
I moved forward at a crawl, the palm of my hand finally bumping the flat wooden door that would lead me out of here, back onto the ransacked ground floor.
My entire body tensed as I pushed the door open slowly.
I could see the unmoving masses on the street outside, it was as though they’d reached their homing point and collapsed. Resting, motionless. I stepped out on to the ground floor, my sneakers gliding over the debris, a barely audible crunch as I took a misstep.
I froze. Watching.
None of the forms moved. I crept forward, now standing before the shattered glass doors. My range of vision now wider, I stopped and stood as still as my shaking legs could manage, taking in the scene on the street before me.
There were at least as many here as when I’d first arrived, if not more. They were all lying down or crumpled in awkward positions on the ground, with no discernible movement.
They had once more become the unmoving bodies I’d first seen.
There was no clear path through or around them, no obvious way for me to continue. After a few more long moments of silently swaying in the dark – my legs were a quivering betrayal – I knew the time had come to keep moving.
With my grip ready on the knife, I took a few silent steps forward. There were several of them less than a metre from me now, but I fought the urge to turn back and pushed myself to go on.
I stepped through them carefully, weaving in and out between them, placing each foot slowly and deliberately. My footfalls were nearly silent, and I kept my breathing as shallow as I could.
My heart thundered in my chest as I approached a blockade of bodies. There was no easy way to get around this group of them, they’d fallen to the ground close together, some almost touching each other. I turned to look behind me. I could go back and try another way, but in the dark it was difficult to see too far in front of me, and I could end up in an even tighter spot.
Backtracking seemed even more dangerous than risking weaving my way through these close knit bodies. I eased forward, placing each foot carefully, panic taking control of my mind and visualising movement, my eyes darting back and forth constantly, watching them. Had they seen me? Heard me? Felt me?
The edge of my sneaker landed on the torn fabric draped over one of their limbs, and my entire system shut down, frozen in terror.
It didn’t react.
I jerked my foot away, more hastily than I should have, tottering uneasily on my other foot for a drawn out moment.
Nothing but a silent stillness surrounded me.
My heart racing harder than ever, I somehow found the courage to continue. Moving on a sort of primal autopilot, my conscious thought disengaged, my body moving at the commands of instinct alone.
After a lifetime on this street, I stepped around the last of them in the thickest concentration of bodies. They still continued on, as far down the street as I could see, but their numbers were thinned out now, the odd lifeless form here and there, dotted along the landscape of ruined shops and buildings.
With a small surge of speed – as much as I dared – I hurried along the street, now easily avoiding the bodies littered around me. I was about a block away from the medical facility now, and I felt confident I was in the right place to find the bicycle again.
This seemed like the right building. I ventured further into the darkness, hand out in front, feeling for the wall or the bicycle. It was nearly impossible to see down here.
My foot kicked some loose bitumen and sent the pebbles flying, a small, skittering noise in the night. I didn’t stop to listen this time – if they’d heard me, I had to find the bicycle quickly – or find out this wasn’t the right spot, and start running.
I saw the slight gleam of the chrome on the bike and rushed towards it. I’d straddled the seat and felt around – the shovel was still in the basket. Working on feel alone, I stored the knife alongside it, leaving myself free to ride.
I walked the bike in a tight circle, turning it around to get out of here. With the same dizzying rush of freedom as before, I braced myself to ride.
The grunt had me paralysed. Surrounded by darkness and with the slow tone echoing around me, I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from.
The scrabbling made it clearer – the violent noise of it pulling itself towards me from behind, right where I’d found the bike. It was close, probably close enough to touch.
I had to do something now, right now, fuck, it was so close, I had to do something.
I was locked up, the panicked thoughts racing through my mind as I stood still, weakly holding the bike up, eyes locked behind me, trying to see it.
Adrenaline kicked in at last, snapping me out of inaction. I couldn’t fight off without making a hell of a lot of noise.
Tearing my gaze away, I slammed my feet on the pedals and lurched myself forward, my riding clumsy and panicked. As the bike took off, I felt the thing’s hand graze my ankle as it grabbed out for me, clawing at the exposed skin under my jeans.
At its touch, I lost my balance on the bike, spilling out onto the main street, trying to correct the wobble and not fall off. Somehow I kept my balance, pushing my legs harder and faster, ignoring the clicks and whir of the bike interrupting the silence of the night.
Risking a glance behind me, I couldn’t see the zombie following. It hadn’t emerged from the darkness of the alley yet, but I didn’t have time to stop and think about why.
The mournful scream that followed me down the street answered my unspoken question. It was calling for more, a prey call through the night.
I didn’t need to look to know even now the others were struggling to their feet, looking for me. It wouldn’t take long for them to find me, the only fast moving object for miles. Over the subtle noises of the bike, I could hear them staggering, dragging.
The one I’d left behind continued to scream for another minute, eventually winding down to a low wail and falling back into silence. The siren call was complete, and I could feel them behind me, moving, hungering.
I chanced a look behind me. There were dozens of them – maybe hundreds – some lagging in the very back, stumbling after me, others able-bodied and fast, closing the distance far more quickly than I could have imagined.
How many others had been caught like this? How many had survived in the city only to be ambushed at night by this army?
I pedalled harder, the burn of exhaustion and terror blooming in my chest. They couldn’t catch me, not on the bike, not if I could keep riding this hard.
I worried about their tracking prowess, about what I’d have to do to stop them following me, sensing me. I had to get back to the house to get the rest of the supplies, but I couldn’t risk giving one of our safehouses away.
Finding myself cycling along a fairly straight, unobstructed bit of road, I risked slowing down slightly to look behind me again.
Some of them were running.
Not many, maybe only half a dozen, but they were coming fast. Their run was an awkward, lopsided sort of gallop, but the awkwardness did nothing to slow their hellbent speed.
I wasn’t confident that I could outrun them anymore, not on the bike, and certainly not on foot.
I had been heading in the general direction of the house, assuming I’d lose them before I got close enough for it to be a risk. I tucked my head down now, eyes locked on the road in front of me, and cycled harder, taking a swooping right turn into a side street. I could hear their pounding footsteps behind me and somewhere further back, another one had taken up screaming. Its cry sounded through the night, shattering my nerves and sending my adrenaline over the edge.
My speed had become treacherous now, the bike wobbling uncertainly over every slight bump in the road. Still they kept up, showing no signs of slowing down.
If anything, they’d closed the gap between us ever so slightly.
In the dark I almost missed the left turn that opened up, but screaming around it at the last second seemed to confuse the zombies, just momentarily. I heard the thuds of their run slow, even pause for a moment, before they realised what I’d done and continued pursuit.
Too late, I saw the chain link fence rise up high before me.
I skidded the bike to a stop, bouncing off the seat and running a few steps forward, slamming into the fence. The bike slammed to the ground, the knife and shovel spilling out of the basket with a loud metallic clang that rang through the night.
With the zombies only metres behind me and no time to think, I snatched my weapons up desperately and flung the knife over the top of the fence.
It landed on the bitumen on the other side with a jarring crash, but noise didn’t matter anymore. There was nowhere to hide.
With the shovel in one hand, the climb was awkward, but I started to scale the fence. The wire bounced and sagged under my weight.
Just short of halfway up, I felt a pull on my ankle. One of them was reaching up, stretching to pull me down. I kicked my leg back, satisfied with the crack of my heel snapping into its jaw. It fell back and I scrambled up the fence, nearing the top at last.
The top was lined with coiled razor wire, and I threw the shovel over the top, cursing myself that i hadn’t just done that to begin with. I’d never have been able to twist around and fend them off with it.
I struggled over the top of the fence, trying to clear the razor wire. It snagged my jeans and I heard them rip as I pushed myself over the top. I jerked the threads free and felt the wire scrape across my leg, slicing my bare skin.
I fell most of the height on the other side, slamming into the concrete, jarring every bone in my body.
Shaken, I staggered to my feet.
Only three of them had made it this far. One of them was already starting to climb the fence. Even as I watched him climb, he turned and snarled down at the other two.
I grabbed the knife off the ground and backed up, but there was nowhere to go. We were at the back end of some loading docks, the only shelter here a couple of overflowing industrial bins.
The first one was nearly over the fence now, the other two lagging behind, but slowly working it out to follow him. They were starting to climb.
I dropped the shovel, letting it clatter to the ground. He was dropping down now, landing on the ground more elegantly than I had.
I stared at him standing before me before shaking my head, freeing myself of the daze, and rushed forward. Adrenaline kicked in, sending jolts all over my body. He wasn’t quite ready for my sudden burst of speed and I slammed into him at full force, sending us crashing back into the fence with an ominous rattle.
He grunted and I could feel the strength in his arm as he grabbed at me.
I pushed, sending the knife forward, towards his neck. He was still knocked slightly off balance by my charging him and he wavered, his reflex out of sync.
The blade struck his neck, but he was ready for me now, and slammed me back with his full strength.
The other two were halfway up the fence now.
I scrambled to my feet. The knife had been knocked out of my hand and lay uselessly between us now.
Blind instinct guided me. I felt myself rolling over, away from him, reaching for the discarded shovel.
As I struggled to my feet, he burst toward me with full speed. I weaved away from him at the last possible second, sending him into a collision with the industrial bin behind us.
The fence rattled wildly behind me. One of them was almost at the top, but the other had fallen, back to the ground on the other side of the fence.
Not waiting for him to regain his balance from slamming into the bin, I rushed towards him. Holding the shovel in both hands, I slammed it into his head.
The violent thud sent a wave of disgust over me.
I kept striking him as hard as I could, slamming the shovel into his head again and again.
Finally he collapsed before me.
I could see my arms were splattered red, even in the moonlight. My face felt wet.
Fighting back a wave of nausea, I turned and ran towards the fence. The second one was just about to drop down.
I reached him as he landed and started striking. My arms were shaky, but the height of adrenaline was coursing through my veins.
With the last of my strength burning, I only had to strike him a few times before he crumpled.
The third one stopping climbing once her final hunting companion fell. She stared at me through the fence for a long moment.
My legs were shaking so violently I nearly fell where I stood, but I held her gaze, staring directly into her dead eyes. She grunted, almost pitifully, then dropped back down the fence and ran without looking back.
I collapsed to the ground, pressing my bloodied palms into the gritty bitumen.
Too shaken to move, I threw up on the ground until all I could do was dry heave.
Sobbing, I pulled the shovel closer towards me, and watched the fence line.