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Mark Tufo and John O’Brien

A SHROUDED WORLD 

WHISTLERS

A Novel

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To the men and women in the armed forces and first responders, active duty, vets, or those who gave it all. You put your lives on the line every day, thank you! 

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 1

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Well, I guess from the title of my journal entry, you’ve figured out my name. I, at least, know that much, other than that, I’m at a loss. I was on my way back to Maine to stop a sociopath (Or is it psychopath? Probably both. I should have paid more attention in my sociology classes, but Betsy Hoegler, who sat two rows up and one over, was oh-so-pretty—wow, there’s a digression—focus, Talbot! That’s probably why you’re in this fucking predicament). Okay, let me try to make my thoughts cohesive.

My name is Michael Talbot (we’ve established that). I am heading back to my brother Ron’s house in Maine to head off Eliza, an evil bitch of a vampire who, for some unfathomable reason, has decided that my family and I should be wiped from the planet like a plague. (Does that make sense? It does in my head, and since I’m writing it, I guess that makes it okay.) I nearly met my end in a house I lit on fire, taking out some potentially misguided vengeance on some cats (the caretakers of the underworld). PETA would probably have my balls in a sling if they knew what I did, but if any of you were there, you’d know why I did it. I laid the whole thing out in my fifth journal, and I have no desire to revisit it; the wound is still too fresh.

While I was recuperating from my wounds, I came across one of the most unique individuals I have ever had the…what…pleasure? (not sure if that’s the right word)…of coming across. His name is John the Tripper, and NOT because he’s clumsy. He makes Timothy Leary seem like a daycare teacher.

We were evacuating his house when he thought it would be a good idea to dose on acid. Now, I’m a full decade (or close to it) from my last journey into the center of my mind, and he broke the cardinal rule: he slipped it to me without my knowledge or consent. Hey, I’m always up for a good time, but definitely not in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

So there we are, I had just driven his 1970s VW van out of his garage, zombies had come up to the driver’s side window, and I’m laughing—I’m talking gut hurting, tears flowing, mouth stuck in a perpetual smile, laughing. Apparently, zombies are some seriously funny shit when you’re as high as a kite. Fortunately, somewhere inside of me, survival mode kicked in and I punched down on the gas pedal. I clipped a curb, and almost made one hell of a fiery exit from this world when I narrowly missed a propane truck that had the audacity to be parked on the side of the street I was barreling down.

I had swerved hard, maybe I smacked my head against the driver’s window, I don’t remember, but I could have, and then…I’m not sure. In a flash, John and I are on foot, the van is gone. I’m thankfully straight (and not so, thankfully, scared). We’re out of the town and on a desolate highway. Well…I guess if you define a highway jammed with the world’s largest exodus of cars as desolate, then that’s where we were.

Thankfully I had a gun—again, not sure where it came from—it was an old school AR. Nope…hold that. Holy shit! It was an old school M-16 A1, fully-fantastically-automatic. It even came with a mod package that I couldn’t have afforded if I didn’t have three kids. If this was a dream, it was of the wet variety. Too graphic? Sorry, as a gun enthusiast we always adore things that shoot rapidly. I’m talking guns, get your head out of the gutter.

I turned to John the Tripper, his first words to me, “Who are you?”

Wonderful , I thought.

“Mike Talbot,” I told him. “Remember? You helped me in your living room?” I could see random thoughts swinging around on the vines his brain used as synapses.

“That’s a nice poncho,” he told me.

Quick back fill: I had pretty much destroyed all my clothing in the fire, and John had seen fit to give me some of his, which included a poncho that a Mexican with a sense of humor must have made specifically for some gringo tourist. Probably laughed his ass off the day he sold that thing. I also had some size thirteen-ish boat shoes that were presumably from John’s wife that I’m assuming was either from a lost Amazonian tribe or male. Either way was fine with me. Luckily, it didn’t appear that anyone living was here to judge me. A six year old with reasonable fashion sense would have known not to wear the ensemble I had on.

So that really brought us back to reality, or at least this skewed version of it. Something had happened, and I had to assume it was zombies. What else did I have to go on? There were empty cars everywhere, and a city behind us was burning. These folks had left in a hurry, but to what end? Where were they?

“John, stay close.”

I would have liked to split up a little and check some of the cars for supplies. I had my blessed rifle, three full magazines, and nothing else. We needed water, and I’d take a little food, too, as long as it wasn’t a cherry Pop-Tart. But John on his own was a scary thought, although, if I really stopped to ponder, he had fared way better than me since this whole shit-fest began.

“Look what I’ve got!” John exclaimed, pulling a slingshot out of his pocket. “What the hell is it?” He handed it to me.

“It’s a slingshot,” I said, handing it back. There was not a hint of recognition on his features. “Look in your other pocket.” I didn’t know the rules to this new place, but I was willing to bet he had some projectiles there. He pulled out a clear bag of steel ball bearings.

“Marbles!” he exclaimed happily.

“Sort of…can I see them?” He handed them over. I held my hand out for the slingshot. After a moment of realizing what I was asking for, he handed that over as well. I put a ball bearing in the leather pouch, pulled back, aimed valiantly, and missed wildly.

“Whoa! That thing shoots?” he asked, grabbing them back. He put a ball in, stretched the damn thing as far back as it would go, and then looked over at me.

I was like, “John, you need to aim.” My words were immediately followed by the shattering of a driver’s side rearview mirror about twenty yards away.

“Did I get it?” he asked, never taking his eyes from mine.

“Umm…that depends on what you were aiming for.”

“There was a mirror on the red car.”

“You’re kidding right?” I looked back to the shattered mirror on the red sedan.

“It’s only bad luck to break a mirror if you’re looking at it,” he told me as if he had just looked it up on Wikipedia or made it up on the spot. Tough to say with John.

The noise was extremely loud in a world devoid of human sound; and, now that I thought about it, all sound. There wasn’t so much as a bird chirping or a cricket cricketing. Never a good sign, animals always know when the shit is about to hit the fan.

“We’ve gotta go.”

“Funky people?” John asked, looking around. That was his take on zombies. As accurate a description as any, I suppose.

“Not sure, buddy, but it got awfully quiet.”

“Who’s buddy?” he asked as he placed his ammo and slingshot away.

I stepped onto the hood of a car and then the roof. The nearest cover I saw was a burning city a good five miles away. Other than that, there were about a billion trees, and since I wasn’t a botanist, I couldn’t even identify what part of the country, or which country, I was even in, but considering that the vast majority of cars looked familiar, I figured we were still in the good old US of A.

It was a sea of cars, a grassy median, and a darkening woods line that seemed to stretch for miles. It was getting dark and slightly chilly. We were technically lost and under-supplied. To top it off, for one of the first times in my life, I didn’t have a ‘plan.’ Although, if you know anything about me from my previous journals; you might realize I was better off on this aspect anyway.

I did the only thing I could think of; I mean, for the most part, it was unthinkable…but I did it anyway.

“Any ideas, John?”

He started frantically slapping his hands against his body like he had stepped on a fire ant hill and was even now covered in them and getting bitten. He alarmed the hell out of me with his actions.

“What’s the matter, man?” I asked, trying to figure out how I could help.

His hand slapped against his chest and he visibly relaxed. “It’s all good, man.”

“What? What the fuck is all good?” I asked, looking for his unseen assailant.

John had an infectious grin as he pulled out a spun joint from his pocket.

“Are you kidding?” I asked incredulously.

Then, in one of his more lucid moments, he said, “Hey, man, you deal in your way, I’ll deal in mine. So stop harshing my high.”

“Sorry,” I told him, holding my hands up. “But we still need to get moving.”

That tree line looked foreboding. There could be zombies, rednecks, clowns or feral cats—the last making me shudder—in the darkness that oozed forth. The thought of spending the night in one of these abandoned cars held merit, but if we were to get surrounded,

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we would have effectively slept in what would then become our tomb.

John was a cool guy and all, (although I wished I’d met him maybe twenty years previous—scratch that, we’d both probably have long, scruffy beards and have great difficulty remembering our last Dead show) but if I was going to die soon, I wanted it to be in the loving arms of my wife Tracy who, earlier this morning, was roughly a thousand miles away. Now it appeared she was a shrouded world away.

“What did you do with my van, man?” John asked as he finally seemed to be stepping onto the same page.

Two could play his game. “What van?” It was kind of an asshole move. I’m going to blame it on the rising trepidation I was beginning to feel.

“Did you hear that?” John brushed my question aside. “It sounded like Howler Monkeys.”

I most certainly had not, but between working on an airfield and about three decades worth of rock concerts, I had an accumulated hearing loss making mine akin to a mole’s. It’s my understanding they’re deaf…shit…nope. Blind. Okay, I’m as deaf as some heretofore unmentioned almost deaf animal.

“Whoa,” I said as I caught a sound I’d never heard before. And no, Howler Monkey didn’t seem the right description.

John lit up his joint. I was jonesing for a good time, too. Right now would have been perfect. Whatever was screaming in those woods was approaching, and if I had to go, it might as well be with a smile on my face. John tapped me on the shoulder. He was sticking the joint under my nose. His cheeks were puffed out and smoke was leaking from his nostrils; his eyes were already beginning to glow a dull red.

“That some good shit?” I asked, seriously looking at his offering.

He nodded and smiled, more smoke leaking out from the edges of his grin.

“You suck, man,” I told him as I pushed it away.

I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along. We were parallel to the tree line and the howlers (that was their name for now). I couldn’t risk the woods; for all I knew, the ones on our left could be driving us to others waiting on the right. So, down the endless line of now useless status symbols we weaved.

The noise was beginning to increase as it got darker. I didn’t know if there was a correlation, and didn’t have time to dwell on it as I pushed John along. He was of the mind to stop and look at just about every shiny object we came across.

“John, we really gotta move a little quicker,” I told him.

“I’d be inclined to agree with you if we had a destination to be gotten to.”

Again I had to agree, we were rushing to where? Away from the sounds, but they seemed to be paralleling our movements. What were they waiting for? Reinforcements? Sounded like there was already a shitload of them.

The sun was just cresting below the tree line as my dread surged. Something deep down was telling me that we needed shelter, and fast. I saw a refuge up ahead. It wasn’t ideal, but it would do.

“Come on, man,” I said as I was now full-on dragging John behind me.

“You want to get in there?” he asked me as we looked at the back of the tractor trailer.

“Yes and no.”

“You know that makes no sense, right?” he chastised me.

I hated the idea of being in the back of a darkened trailer; not being able to see our enemy and basically trapped. But as I watched, the first ‘howler’ emerged out of the woods, and I knew it was the right thing to do. At least in this instance. It was a human once, but that loping, hunchback way it ran, looked more like a werewolf in the early stages of change. Could that be possible? I’ve dealt with zombies, vampires, aliens, and spirits; why wouldn’t my vengeful god throw in a werewolf or two for good measure?

“Hey!” John shouted, raising his hand up in a waving gesture to the figure that was thankfully a few hundred yards off and hadn’t heard him.

I quickly opened the back of the trailer and helped John in. In my haste to join him, I nearly ended up in a part of his anatomy I’d rather not be. I closed the door behind me and did my best to secure the locking mechanism as we were plunged into darkness.

John clicked on a lighter, the old-school kind with the cover. “I think I’m in Heaven,” he said as he raised the lighter over his head illuminating cartons upon cartons of Phrito’s, rushing for the first box he could get to.

“No, John, we can’t chance it and what kind of cheap knock-off is this? Spelling Phrito’s with a P. H.”

He turned to look at me like I had just lost my damned mind. All I could think about was the opening of that loud cellophane bag, followed by the loud crunching of the corn snack. Then, the contented sighs of John as he ate his munchies. And to top it off, the pungent smell of the snack itself.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked as he opened the carton. “I’m starving, and the patron saint of junk food has led us to his bounty.”

“John, there’s something out there.”

“There’s enough in here to share. I’m not THAT  hungry.”

“Buddy, I don’t think they would care about the corn snacks.”

John whipped around looking wildly. “Who’s buddy?” He stopped when we heard more howling and mewls. The sounds were immediately followed by more. It sounded like a hunting party. I could only hope we weren’t the prey.

“You’d better get your slingshot ready,” I told him as I looked to make sure I had a bullet in the chamber and the safety was off.

“My what?”

“The thing that shoots marbles.”

“Well, why didn’t you just say that?” he asked.

“My mistake.”

“How about after one  bag of Phrito’s,” he said, exaggerating the word.

I heard glass smash, and it wasn’t too far away. This was followed almost immediately by gunshots. It sounded like a small caliber, probably a .22. My heart was pounding. I got down into a kneeling position as far back as the cartons would allow, my rifle barrel pointed out. I was fully expecting the doors to open at any moment.

“John, put the lighter out,” I said softly as we could hear footfalls approaching.

“Run!” a male voice shouted.

Well, it was safe to guess that not all the cars were empty. We were lucky they hadn’t shot at us as was wont to happen with strangers these days.

“So tired,” a female voice responded.

“Shit.” I stood. We needed to help them.

“Jessica, NO!” the man screamed, and then, so did Jessica. It pierced the burgeoning night like a train whistle at three in the morning; it sounded like she was being eviscerated.

Her screams were cut short and there was a volley of rifle shots. From the sounds of it, it was the same gun. Then there was a heavy grunt as if something impacted the man, followed by shrieks for mercy as whatever attacked him seemed to start with his most tender bits. I cringed inwardly; my throat was dry and I was terrified. Whatever those things were, if they were zombies, we had now moved on to the fourth or fifth generation of them, as they constantly seemed to evolve.

“Phrito?” John asked, shaking a bag under my nose.

“Don’t move, John,” I told him.

We could hear the wet smacks of many mouths chewing through two bodies. Occasionally, I would swear I could hear them raising up and sniffing at the air. It was a good twenty minutes before they had finished their early evening meal. We could hear them start to move on as the food began to diminish. I had to think of it as food and not as what had been two living, thinking, and breathing beings. That was how one held onto their sanity.

“Are we still being quiet?” John asked, not more than an inch from my ear.

I could smell the funk of Phrito breath as he did so. I couldn’t even begin to think how he had opened that obnoxious wrapper without me hearing it. I had to hope that, if I hadn’t heard it, then neither had whatever was out there.

“Want one?” John asked as he shoved a Phrito into my mouth just when I was about to respond.

I would have cussed him out and maybe given him a shove if I knew where those things outside were. You know how they depict ancient kings being hand-fed grapes? Well, personally, I find that fucking disgusting. I am not going to put anything into my body that someone has JUST touched with their germ-encrusted hands. Did they perhaps just pick a wedgie? Maybe they dug out a golden nose nugget. Maybe their crotch was itchy and they shoved that hand down the front of their pants and scratched away at their sweat-soaked genitalia. Or worse yet, they had just touched an elevator button. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a plague had started here in one of those germ breeding facilities, elevators, if I didn’t make myself abundantly clear.

My wife used to get a kick out of how I would pull my sleeve over my hand before I would depress anything in one of those pulley-driven disease boxes. An untended gas station bathroom was less of a breeding ground. If you still had the internet, I’d tell you to look it up; facts are facts. Fuck, what do I know? Maybe waiters and waitresses are the type of people that don’t believe in washing after using the restroom. Now there’s a disgusting thought! Ever wonder what your food server has been up to as she hands you your water glass, her thumb strategically located inside the glass?

Rest assured, any place you think that hand has been, it has. We’re humans and we’re gross. We all know what we do when we think no one is watching. Supermodel to fast food worker, doesn’t matter, we all have the same parts. So remember that the next time your boyfriend/girlfriend sticks a gross-ass strawberry in your mouth. Okay, that’s worded wrong, I love strawberries, it’s the bacteria-laced fingers I have a problem with.

So when John the Tripper shoved that Phrito in my mouth I could barely concentrate on the deliciousness of the snack, rather, I was m

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ore fixated on what else was attached to its main ingredients. Corn didn’t quite sound as good if you added e. coli  to the mix.

“Don’t fucking do—” He shoved another one in my mouth.

“Good huh?” he said as he spilled the rest of the bag into his mouth, some sticking in his beard and others falling to the floor. He flipped on the lighter and snatched them up, summarily eating those as well.

I was horrified. I began to smash some of them under my foot. John gripped my leg and was trying to prevent me from coming down on any more of them. As I shifted, he would wet his fingers, placing them to the floor and have the Phrito dust stick to them.

I almost gagged at the sight of it. Hands were already disgusting, but they had nothing over where feet had been. “What the hell is wrong  with you?” I hissed.

“I’m hungry,” he said, hurt clear in his tone.

“There’s like ten thousand packs! Get another one!” I was on the verge of shouting.

“You should be more quiet,” he told me as he turned. I saw his feet merrily lift up off the ground when he saw the boxes, like he had just discovered them for the first time. And with John, that probably was the case. “Want one?” John dug into a new box.

“I’m good.”

Our earlier scuffle was apparently all but forgotten—at least for him. Now I was left wondering how long it would take his germs to incubate in my stomach and make me ill. I could only hope I lived long enough to find out.

Jack Walker — A Rabbit Hole

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I suppose I should start with a bit of an introduction. I’m Jack Walker and the last survivor of those who fled the planet Krypton. Although the tights are a little snug, I can still leap a mighty tall building. Well, if the wind is right.

Okay, I can’t continue as the tears of laughter are interfering with my ability to see. So, the real story is almost as incredulous. The world changed in the blink of an eye, and I’m one of the few survivors struggling to stay alive in a world filled with night runners and marauders. For those of you who don’t know, night runners are the result of a genetic mutation stemming from a flu vaccine that was supposed to counteract a flu pandemic sweeping across the world. Needless to say, night runners are not on my Christmas card list, nor will they ever be the recipient of the other half of a ‘best friends forever’ bracelet.

As for me, well, I’m just a normal guy trying to survive in a drastically altered world. Having a bit of a military background allows me to keep the pointy end of a carbine aimed in the right direction without sending those around me running for cover. However, with that said, each day brings about new dangers for the small group of survivors I’m with.

Having built a sanctuary in a Cabela’s store, we are still a rung down on the food chain and barely able to keep one step ahead of the quickly adapting night runners. And now, there is this. The world I was in was surreal enough, but now I find myself in one even stranger.

Keep in mind that things have happened in the other world, and some things about me may not make a lot of sense until you find out what went on before.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Sitting with Robert, Bri, and the rest of Red Team, I listen as they tell various war stories; both recent and past. Although the kitchen crew manages to make quite tasty meals, I barely notice as thoughts race through my head. They are very scattered, with none sticking around for very long before being replaced by another. I glance toward the front door and the daylight pouring in through the entrance windows.

I notice, in an abstract manner, the periphery close in. The gray light filtering in seems to zoom into focus, and I feel myself rush forward into the light as if speeding through a tunnel. The light vanishes.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Light returns in a flash. It’s not a slow emergence of shadows becoming slowly brighter, it’s instantaneous. One moment I’m eating with my kids and the others of Red Team, the next I’m standing here — wherever here is. The change of scenery is so vastly different; it’s shocking and takes me unawares.

The smell of smoke is heavy in the air, carried on a light breeze blowing against my back. It’s not the friendly scent of wood smoke drifting from cheery fireplaces or wood stoves on a chilled day, it’s the cloying odor of something manufactured, and it permeates the air. The high cloud cover is almost obscured by the thin, dark smoke that is pushed along by the higher winds aloft.

This has all of the essences of a dream. After all, I was just sitting at a table with food planted in front of me, but it feels different. For one, I don’t ever remember smells being in my dreams. I pat myself and feel solid enough. That’s another thing, being in total control was never something in any of my dreams either. I couldn’t tell myself to pat myself and have my dream-self actually do it. No, this seems real enough; although where I am or what this place is remains a mystery. It’s real to the point where I wonder if the last events weren’t the dream.

What the fuck is going on? If that is a dream, where in the hell are my kids? Where’s Lynn? Where in the fuck am I? 

I look down to find that I have on the same black fatigues I was wearing, along with my tac vest. Checking the pouches, I have a full complement of mags. I look over the M-4 in my hands. It seems real enough and appears to be in good working order. If I didn’t know any better, I would say it’s the exact same one I was using in the real world — down to the suppressor and mod package. I guess dreams can work this way, although this seems like the oddest one I’ve ever had. That’s the only way I can explain it even though I don’t remember falling asleep. I guess I must have just passed out at the table, and everyone is probably worried. I notice I have a Beretta in a leg holster with several mags attached. I also feel the straps of my knives around my lower legs. Letting the carbine dangle from the single-point sling it’s attached to, I pull each mag out one at a time. They’re full.

That’s handy , I think, grabbing my M-4 again and checking over my surroundings.

I’m standing in the middle of a tree-lined highway. Abandoned cars, some with their doors open and others sealed, stretch into the distance. It looks like a mass exodus occurred creating a massive traffic jam. There are vehicles of every description stalled in the lanes, off to the side of the pavement, and in the median as drivers apparently attempted to get around the congestion. The side of the highway is also clogged with cars heading in the same direction.

Bringing my M-4 up, I switch on the SpectreDR optics and verify it’s working. I test the laser and light mounted to the top and side. Reaching up, I feel a raised set of NVGs perched securely on my head.

What… in… the… fuck? I didn’t have these at the table. Not that I’m complaining .

The breeze blows a piece of paper, its edges charred, past me and along the pavement. I look over the tops of cars and the seemingly endless stretch of vehicles. My view is blocked to an extent by several motor homes and campers wedged in amongst the other cars. A number of the vehicles have belongings tied to their roofs. Some of the ropes have been cut, the items once held spilled to the ground. In all, it’s a confused mess.

To go with the absolute stillness, a quiet pervades the area. The shock of finding myself suddenly in a different place is wearing off and I feel fully conscious of being in this  time and place. I mean, I still don’t know where the fuck I am, let alone the how.

There is an avenue wide enough to walk through between the jam of cars along the stripe dividing the lanes of the highway. On both sides of the wide road, across strips of grass, a line of fir trees march along. The dim light making its way through the smoke and clouds isn’t reaching far inside the forest, making the woods seem dark and foreboding.

Yeah, like the rest of this shit isn’t forbidding enough , I think, turning to look behind.

The congestion of vehicles continues in that direction, but disappears as the road drops down a hill. The trees to the side thin after a distance, creating an opening. The widening of the trees and the road’s descent allows me to see what these people were apparently fleeing. In the far distance, a city burns.

Large and small plumes of smoke rise from the vacated metropolis. At least I assume it’s vacated by the number of cars littering the freeway. It’s too far away to see any flames licking through the dark columns, but it’s apparent that it has been burning for some time. Most of the skyline is hidden behind the pillars of smoke billowing upward. The very tops of tall office buildings become visible for moments as the smoke eddies and swirls around the structures.

I guess I’m not going that way , I think, staring at the ruin.

As far as that goes, I’m not sure where to go. Being suddenly deposited in the middle of wherever this is, seeing the snarl of vehicles, and now a town going up in flames has pushed my anxiety meter into the red. I can usually tell myself ‘this is just a dream’ at times like this, but this certainly doesn’t feel like one. This seems all too real.

The smoldering city worries me and I wonder what happened. It couldn’t have been anything nuclear or there would be a bigger hole, and the buildings wouldn’t be standing as they are. The only thing readily obvious is that something bi

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g occurred that grew rapidly out of control.

Well, let’s see what I’m dealing with , I think, turning back to the long line of strewn vehicles.

I glance down at one of the cars. It’s not rusted and appears in fairly good shape, so whatever happened must have been relatively recent. The billowing of smoke rising above the beleaguered city gives evidence of the same. The car windows are covered with grime so there had to be some passage of time. The inside of the nearest vehicle is obscured but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing that it’s empty. Of people that is. Clutter lies on the front and rear seats, adding to the fact that everyone seemed in a rush to leave. I don’t blame them with the intensity of the fires behind me.

But what started it? 

Wanting to see if anything inside of the car will give me a clue, I let my M-4 hang at my side on its sling, draw my 9mm, and open the door. It opens with a slight metallic squeal. Dust and soot slides off the door — another indication that things have been like this for a while. The silence of the area makes the opening of the door sound like I’m putting the car in an auto crusher. The air that seeps out of the vehicle smells old and carries a slight stench of rotting food. Several backpacks and small cases line the floorboards, along with filled plastic sacks scattered on the back seats. I turn a set of keys dangling from the ignition, expecting to hear the chime that indicates a door is open. Nothing. I rotate the key farther. No lights or anything else. The battery is dead.

I try a couple of other cars nearby with the same result. It appears that whichever direction I’ll be heading, it will be on foot. It’s not like I could have driven anyway with the traffic congestion. I have plenty of ammo but am a bit shy of food and water. The floorboards of several cars yield a few unopened bottles of water and a box of Cheez-Ems.

Cheez-Ems? 

With a shrug, I take them, thinking they’re a knock-off. There are a few other sundries. I take one of the smaller rearview mirrors so I’ll have the ability to see around obstacles should I need to. I even locate a compass stuck on the inside of a windshield. The indicators around its edge aren’t the usual N, S, E, or W, but a series of symbols. It is, however, easily identifiable as some form of compass. Turning in a circle, I note the needle steadily point one direction, tracking whatever serves as north here. I may not be able to use it as normally would, but I will be able to keep to a direction. Emptying a backpack containing some clothes, I fill it with my finds. I’m sure those departing in such a hurry packed some food and water, so finding those shouldn’t be a problem as long as I stay close to the road.

But, shit, where am I going? 

I’m pretty sure this isn’t a dream anymore and it’s time to start thinking that a new reality has set in. The how and why is still unknown but, for now, it’s time to think of the here and now.

“Okay, Jack…whatever started those fires chased these people out of the city. Fine, I get that. So, what made them leave their cars, and where did they go?” I say to myself. “Well, there’s nothing to it but to get to it. Let’s see where this leads.”

The way toward the city is obviously not the way to go, so that only leaves one other direction. Adjusting the backpack over my shoulders, I rearrange my M-4 and start down the road. Of course, those fleeing went this way and didn’t make it far, so I’m a little cautious about continuing. I’m not a huge fan of open areas and eye the trees on either side of the road. Then, it hits me. The absolute quiet…the stillness. I should have picked up on that earlier, but the shock of my arrival shut me down a little. I should be hearing some wildlife. There should be a squirrel bitching at me, warning others, or chirping among the trees. There should be movement of birds flitting through the branches. I look up to see if there are any circling above or crossing the road. It’s completely still and silent.

What the fuck have I found myself in? 

I cautiously walk in the avenue formed between the cars. Grime covers all of the vehicles. They sit as silent witnesses to what happened. I hear the swish of tree branches as a gust blows through. It brings debris swirling around my feet and continuing past, moving down the path I have chosen. There is something else the wind brings. It sounds like a moan. I turn but see nothing

It could have been the trees rubbing together . Thinking that’s all it is, I push on.

Passing one of the cars, I notice a darker smudge along the driver’s window under the grime. I brush away some of the soot and see a hand print streaking downward at an angle. A closer look shows that it is definitely made in dried blood. I guess the panic that must have been prevalent caused all sorts of injuries.

Although, again, where did everyone go? Well, they were heading this direction, so I guess I’ll find out at some point. 

It’s that ‘some point’ that worries me. Is this an isolated incident or has whatever happened been cast over a wider area? The fact that this mess hasn’t been cleaned up tells me that it’s not merely something local.

The compass says I’m heading…well…whatever direction the symbol means that is ninety degrees of what serves as north. As far as I can see through the murk overhead, the sun is ahead of me. That means it’s early morning, so I have hours of daylight left. It’s not overly cold, but I have no idea where I am. The cars are familiar styles which gives me the impression that I could be in the good ol’ land of opportunity. How far north, south, east, or west I am remains to be seen. At some point, I’ll surely find a sign along the highway which will give me some indication. The one thing I am hoping is that this world isn’t full of night runners. I suppose I could be in the real world, but just in a different part of it. This situation and the fact that I’m in the open doesn’t give me warm fuzzies. I’ll have to find some form of shelter before dark. I suppose I could use one of the motor homes if I have to, but I don’t imagine any of them will hold off even the smallest of packs for long.

I’ll definitely have to find more ammo if I’m here for long .

Movement among the tangle of cars ahead catches my attention. Someone is walking in my direction. They are moving slowly and staggering much like I’m sure I have after a night in the O-club. I stop, bringing my M-4 into a ready position. Whoever it is stumbles their way into the lane between the cars through which I’m negotiating. My experience in recent months has made me doubly cautious, so I’m not about to run up and throw my arms around whoever it is, professing a long-lasting friendship. The man or woman turns in my direction and trudges onward, bumping against the cars as they draw closer.

As they near, I notice they’re wearing tattered clothing covered with dark stains. This sends chills up my spine as I remember others with stained, shredded clothing. But this is no night runner. It’s light out and they aren’t running like a track star. I hear a moaning sound, similar to the one that I heard earlier. I guess it could be coming from someone who is famished and on their last legs. Another gust of wind blows from behind me. It’s taking the person forever to get near, and I’m not about to close the distance on my end. I have cover where I’m at and a quick escape route over the grass and into the trees if I need. The person doesn’t appear to be carrying any weapons, but that doesn’t mean anything. I check behind and to the sides to find it’s clear.

“That’s close enough,” I call out.

They aren’t that close, but I see no reason why they should get any nearer without formal introductions being made. I’m not able to see their features very well, but as far as I’m concerned, they are already too close. Any nearer and I want a ring — or at least dinner. Whoever it is completely ignores my shout and continues their drunken walk toward me. It’s like I’m talking to my kids — not that they have a drunken walk mind you, I’m just referring to their listening skills.

“Alright, numbnuts. I’m not fucking around here,” I yell, with the same result.

I flip the sight over to the four-power setting and am taken aback by what I see. While not as magnified as if through a higher-powered scope, the facial details come into view, and it’s not pretty. The face is pale to the point of being ashen with old sores and cuts covering most of it. Part of the upper lip is missing, showing stained teeth beneath. If I didn’t know any better, and odds are that I don’t, I would say it was chewed off. I’ve seen a few bodies in the past that have been out for a while and have had rats have a go at it. The face I am staring at through the scope has a similar look. Short, dark hair hangs limply and looks like it hasn’t been introduced to shampoo in some time. Although it’s hard to tell with the pasty color, dried blood, and part of the face missing, the stumbling person appears to be a man. Whatever it is gives me the creeps.

The man is staring directly at me but without any form of recognition as he draws closer. I don’t really want to drop a person who may just be looking for help, but I’m also not in a real trusting mood at the moment. The alien aspect of suddenly finding myself in this weird place hasn’t diminished, and seeing this person making their way along the line of cars toward me only adds to the feeling. I still hear moaning coming from him and it’s not a pleasant sound.

What’s his problem?  I think, watching him bump into another car door.

I know if it was me, I’d be very hesitant about closing on someone who told me to stop and was pointing a weapon in

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my direction. However, he seems quite ignorant of the situation. It’s time to change that and get his attention.

I shift my aimpoint to the windshield of the vehicle next to him. A slight kick against my shoulder and my round streaks out, closing the distance quickly — the only sound that of a muted cough. The bullet strikes the glass, starring it, and whines off into the distance. Now I know this isn’t a dream. Anytime I’ve fired before in one, the bullets never behaved the way they were supposed to. The man doesn’t even flinch, but turns his head slowly toward the impact point and then back to me. He shuffles his foot forward and once again begins his slow, plodding progression toward me.

Okay, I’m done with this shit , I think, centering the small crosshair of my scope onto his chest, adjusting for the range with the bullet drop reticle.

Another kick and I watch his torn and tattered shirt puff up from the impact of my jacketed round with the middle of his chest. He jerks backward from the force of the strike, but then continues his slow march.

What the fuck? Is this guy on drugs?  I think, putting another round into his chest.

The usual flow of blood is missing as this round has the same effect as the previous one — which is nothing.

Now, this is behaving more like a dream . I send a third greeting his way with the same result.

Lifting my crosshair a touch, I squeeze the trigger again. The bullet flies out, intersecting with his face to the right of his pale and dirt-encrusted nose. Gouging the skin, the round’s path alters and tears through the soft tissue of the eye. Unencumbered, it races through the brain and forcefully collides with the skull. The cranium gives way and the bullet exits, leaving a large hole just above his ear. Chunks of hair, skin, and brain follow in the bullet’s path, but there is a distinct lack of the pink mist I’ve seen in the past. The man’s legs buckle and he drops to his knees before falling to the ground face first.

Okay, well, at least head shots seem to work .

Although the moaning from the man stops with his tumble to the pavement, I pick up other faint sounds of the same being carried on the wind. Checking out the area, I discern no movement. I keep my M-4 trained on the downed man as I hesitantly step forward. So far, I’m not overly thrilled with this place, dream or not. If I was going to have a dream, I’d rather have one that…well, let’s just say that this wouldn’t be it.

I walk along the avenue between the cars noticing that a few more of them have blood streaks under the grime covering them. Drawing close to the figure lying on the highway, I pick up the stench of something dead — I mean long dead — and there isn’t the usual iron scent of blood that’s been spilled. Dark liquid slowly trickles out of the newly created hole in the man’s head, forming a small, oil-like pool just below it. Avoiding the mess, I roll the body over with my foot. The disgusting odor roils upward, gagging me. Looking down at the ruined face, my previous sight of him wasn’t anywhere near what it is like seeing it up close.

The man, if that’s what I can call him, looks like he’s been dead for longer than the scant moments it took to reach him. It’s what I’d expect to see if I came upon someone that has been dead for a lot longer. The blue-gray skin is covered in old sores and cuts that never healed. The missing lips reveal darkly stained and chipped teeth; the remainder of his mouth and lower chin are coated with old blood. The clothes covering the putrid body are shredded and covered with dark blemishes to the point that the original coloration isn’t apparent. Long-dead-yet-mobile equates to ‘zombie’ in my book. I’d laugh at this idea if my last few months hadn’t included night runners. I’m at least thankful it was this, whatever it is, instead of them. Night runners on the prowl in the light would definitely ruin my already grand day.

A scream erupts from nearby. Several others quickly follow. Turning, I see five figures emerge from the tree line and begin running in my direction. It’s not the drunken stupor walk of the previous one, but a flat out run. They appear in better shape than the sickening decay of flesh lying at my feet, but they still have a ghostly complexion. To all appearances, they look like night runners, although they’re not as fast. And now, my day that started off so well appears to be heading downhill in a hurry. Let’s call it as it is — it has become majorly fucked up.

I’d like to wake up and go back to my other world now .

That one may not have been full of puffy clouds and pearly gates, but at least I didn’t have night runners streaking out of wood lines during the day. Yeah, I’m done with this place.

Raising my M-4, I center on the chest of one that is slightly ahead of the others. A kick against my shoulder lets me know that a round is streaking outward. I send a second one on its heels. The first bullet hits just off center of the sternum staggering the pale figure racing across the grass. Another dark spot appears on the light t-shirt which indicates my second round has found its mark, causing it stumble. The figure recovers and presses on with the four others catching up.

Head shots, you idiot , the thought penetrates.

I raise my small crosshair a notch, placing it on the bridge of the creature’s nose. It bobs and weaves as it streaks toward my position, making the shot difficult, but I send another projectile out to greet it. Dark liquid sprays outward from the impact with its head, and the running figure flops forward into the grass as if it hit a trip wire. Quickly shifting my aim to the next, it spins to the right and drops to the ground. The other three have closed the distance and have reached the ditch separating the highway from the grass along the side.

Their advance is slowed by the tangle of cars. Two go around one of the vehicles while the third leaps onto the hood. I turn quickly, looking to see that I have room behind me, and begin stepping backward. I line up my sight with the creature on the hood. A muted cough, with a puff of smoke emitting from the end of my carbine, signals yet another round exiting my barrel. The figure on the hood takes my greeting card in the middle of its forehead. Its feet slip out from under it and its head hits the windshield with a loud crack, starring the grimy glass.

Two remaining .

Rounding the car, they are attempting to navigate around another one. They dart through small openings, trying to find way through. The tops of the vehicles are interfering with my ability to get a clean shot, so I continue backpedaling to gain a little extra distance. Adrenaline is flowing through my system. I can’t believe I have to deal with fucking night runners in the middle of the day. I do not like this one bit.

I finally manage to keep my crosshair centered on one long enough to squeeze the trigger. Sending two shots out, I see it drop and disappear behind the car next to me. The screams have diminished to the single remaining one. Not that it really diminishes. A screaming figure running directly at me, with the intent of causing harm, isn’t my idea of lessening anything. I’d really prefer drinking a Long Island Ice Tea while sitting on a warm beach somewhere. That, however, isn’t where I’ve landed.

The roof of the car is blocking any shot at the one remaining. It’s getting a little too close for comfort so I thumb the selector switch to auto. At this range, taking my time to get a well-aimed shot just isn’t going to happen. If I can’t get a couple well-aimed shots off, I want the ‘lots of not so well-aimed shots’ option.

With a loud scream, the figure leaps onto the hood of the car next to me. It hits the hood with one foot and springs into the air. I raise my M-4 and squeeze the trigger. My laser walks up the body to the head with rounds hitting along its path, finally connecting with the head of the leaping figure. I sidestep as the creature begins its fall, impacting against the side of a car next to me with a heavy thud. Its head snaps back sharply and its body slams into the pavement.

I scan the area to see if there are any more ‘friends’. Although the intense screams have vanished, I still hear groans floating on the air. They are coming from the direction of the burning city and seem distant, but they are still there. Looking down, I study the figure that almost ruined my delightful morning stroll. On closer examination, it doesn’t look much like a night runner at all. It has the same pale skin but without the darker gray blotches. Also missing is the redness that appears with the previous night runners I’ve encountered that have come into contact with the light of day. Whereas the night runners bleed red when shot, this one has dark liquid slowly leaking from its wounds. And, as with the other rotting corpse, the body lying on the pavement is covered with unhealed cuts and gouges.

I look to the forests lining the highway. I’ve always felt comfortable in the woods and look at them as my friend. They provide cover and concealment in addition to just being great places to be. Being in their midst has always provided a sense of security and lifted me. Now, for one of the first times ever in my life, the trees look foreboding. They are packed tightly together and light only penetrates a few feet into the thick, wooded mass, turning the interior into a dark unknown. The woods take on an appearance much as I would imagine the look and feel of the Mirkwood Forest in The Hobbit  would be.

“Well, they aren’t bloody night runners. I don’t know what they are, but at least I’m not dealing with that,” I whisper to myself, looking once again at the body and feeling a little relieved.


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>The relieved feeling is short-lived. Even if these aren’t night runners, they are much faster than the first creature I encountered. And, even more importantly, they are not seeking my friendship, but to do harm.

Running dead people wanting to see me join their ranks… fucking wonderful! 

Even more delightful is the fact that the once distant screams and moans are increasing in volume. Changing my half empty mag with a fresh one, I turn toward the sound.

In the distance, I see movement amongst the jammed cars. Being far away, it’s more of something shifting than anything I can actually see, but there is definitely something. Whatever it is, it’s causing the sounds drifting in the air. Climbing onto one of the hoods, I look through my optics on its 4x setting in order to get a better idea of what I am dealing with.

At the limit of my vision, I see heads bobbing above the roofs of the distant vehicles. The bodies stretch from one side of the highway to the other. If there was ever a definition of a horde, it is this that I’m looking at. Wherever there is space among the packed cars, the zombie-like creatures fill it. They aren’t speeding this way like the ones who emerged from the woods, but they are undeniably heading in my direction. I don’t have a limitless supply of ammo — it’s definitely time to go. If I didn’t have a certain direction in mind before, the horde behind me, coupled with the fact that runners appeared from the woods beside me, limits my options.

I’m about to lower my carbine when movement from the mass catches my eye. Several figures break away and begin running toward me. Even from this distance, I can tell that I’m their goal. There’s no time to lose. If I stay here and wait for them, the horde will be close when they arrive. My best option is to create some distance so there will be space between the runners and the mass behind.

God, I hope they aren’t all runners , I think, counting approximately twenty creatures racing away from the main group. The intervening vehicles prevent a true tally of their numbers.

Hopping off the hood, I begin jogging, keeping an eye behind to watch the closure rate. When the runners get within range, I’ll stop to take a couple out, move on for a ways, and attempt to take a few more down. With luck, I’ll be able to whittle down their numbers as I don’t really want to tackle twenty at once. That is not how I want to spend this already fantastic morning.

My pace is to conserve energy while creating distance. I’m not sure of their endurance but, with my experience from the night runners, I don’t really want to test it. If I was to take off at a run, they may still catch me, and I’d rather not engage them winded. It appears as though energy is something I’ll need for the remainder of the day — if not longer. I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to keep ahead of the rest as long as they continue their slow shuffle. What I’ll do later is another question, but right now, I just to take out the track stars on my tail and keep ahead of the multitude following. Yeah, this is shaping up to be a marvelous day.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 2

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At sporadic intervals I would awaken during the night, hearing far off cries; sometimes there were shots, but nothing overly close. I had just started to doze off again when something made me sit up. It was difficult to hear anything over John’s light snoring, but there was something going on. It was the damned sniffing again. I was fully awake as a burst of adrenaline slammed through my system. I gently put a hand over John’s mouth, a whistling sound began to come from his nose. I was convinced if I covered his nose he would start farting.

“John,” I said softly, shaking him slightly.

If he awoke with a start and yelled out, we would definitely be found out. The whistling thankfully ceased as I strained to listen for what was looking for us. I pulled my hand back quickly, John had licked it. And then I was blinded as his lighter flicked on.

“You’re not my wife,” he said as he peered at me.

“What? No, I’m not your wife.” I vigorously wiped my hand on my pants. Then I had to wonder; did she often place her hand over his mouth? Was this some strange mating ritual between them?

“Why would you put your hand over my mouth, then?” he asked.

“We’ll talk about that later…or maybe never I hope. Be quiet for a second, there’s something outside.”

“Where are we?”

“Same place we were when you went to sleep.”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have asked,” he grumbled a little peevishly.

“Sorry, man, we’re in a Phrito truck.”

I had to cover his mouth quickly when he began to shout out happily. “PHRIT—!”

“Shhh, man. I just told you there’s something outside.”

“Right, right, I heard you. It’s just that I love Phrito’s. They’re my favorite, I think. Maybe it’s cheese puffs, but I definitely love Phrito’s.”

“John, please.”

“Alright, I’ll get you a bag.” He stood up, but even he stopped when he heard something drag against the side of the truck.

Trip was certifiable for sure, but then who amongst us didn’t have some sort of hang-ups? Some more than others, I suppose, thinking back on my laundry list of issues. The howling started. He, she, or it, was calling for reinforcements; we’d been found out.

“You ready for this?” I asked Trip as I pulled him further back into the truck, moving boxes aside as I did so. The noise of that was not a problem at the moment.

“Good idea!” John shouted, “Now we’ll have Phrito’s all around us. Won’t have to ever move far to get some.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too. You should get your marble shooter out,” I said to him as I heard the rapid approach of many footfalls.

“You mean my slingshot? Why wouldn’t you just call it that?”

“You give me a headache sometimes.”

“I’ve got something for that.”

I knew what he was reaching for before he ever got to that pocket. “I don’t need any leafy aspirins.”

It took him a few moments to think on my words. “I get it, man!” he laughed.

The truck began to shake as something(s) outside began to look for a weakness, a way in. Then slams began as they started hammering away. I turned on my rifle’s tactical light, pretty much wishing I hadn’t as I watched the thin metal of the truck siding begin to dent inwards from the heavy ministrations outside.

“Why don’t they just use the door?” John asked.

“You’re really not giving them ideas, are you?”

“Are they vacuum cleaner salesmen? They can be pretty pushy. I’ve already bought three of them and they still keep coming.”

“Yeah, well we’re not going to buy a fourth. You need to be really convincing this time. You ready, buddy?”

“I am, not sure about Buddy, though,” John said as he held his slingshot aloft.

“Well, hopefully he gets on board, too.”

The fist blows continued on the side of the truck and began to move towards the rear where I figured they’d get to eventually. The surprise came when I saw the locking rod start to slide upwards. I’d known all along on some level these weren’t zombies; this just rushed the thought to the fore. Something was manipulating the lock. If it got open, we were screwed. I placed a shot right around where I figured its head was.

A sliver of murky light filtered through the resultant hole and, for a blessed moment, the truck hammering ceased along with the lock being moved.

“Did I do that?” John asked as he looked at his slingshot.

The shot only stopped them for a moment, and they seemed to redouble their efforts when they realized there was canned meat available. The meat being us. The sides of the truck were being relentlessly pushed in. This was sort of like the first Star Wars  flick with Luke and company in the trash compactor. It would only be a matter of time before the metal failed and then, unless they were really into corn treats, we were screwed.

I was startled as I heard beings on the roof looking for a way in, and Santa Claus they weren’t. I thought about peppering some holes up there like I’d seen in so many movies, but I kept focused on our most obvious breech point.

The lock on the back door began to move again. “Light ‘em up,” I told my wingman.

Wrong phraseology, I know this now. As I was busy sending rounds downrange, John, in his infinite wisdom, lit up a little of God’s greenery. I put at least ten or twelve rounds through the door, hoping that at least half had struck targets. Our enemy shared something with zombies, instead of running from the hot lead, they seemed to congregate to it. The doors shook and rattled as they struggled to get in.

“I don’t have enough for everyone,” John said in a near panic as he let out a large sigh of smoke.

At least one of us was going to die happy. I put both magazines on the box next to me. I was completely convinced this was now a do-or-die mission, and we had drawn the short straw. I should have been ready, but when that door swung open, I was caught completely off guard. The first of the howlers jumped in with a grace and power that evaporated any lingering doubt I may have still had that they might be zombies.

I did controlled bursts, sending the first of the invaders into the abyss of whatever hell they had originated but, even as I did so, I knew it was a lost cause. Unless they all lined up nice and pretty and let me shoot them in the heads, so I could take down two or three at a time, I was going to run severely short of bullets before the coalescing mass outside of the truck was wipe

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d out.

“What’re they so mad about?” John asked me.

I didn’t know, but there was an etched mask of rage on all of them as they entered. That was also something different about the zombies that I knew. They were usually indifferent. Whether they were chasing you, eating you, or just plain ambling around, they seemed detached from the world—much like John. These things, though, not so much, they hated us.

Must have known me previously , I thought as my rifle kicked in to my shoulder. Maybe I dated one of their old girlfriends.

They had not yet established residency in the truck as I dropped the expended magazine and fumbled for a moment with the new one. I had taken my eyes off it for less than a fraction of a second and I had tried to jam it in upside down. That was the only opening they needed, a basketball team’s worth of them were advancing quickly. Fuck the controlled bursts, I held that trigger down, blasting them backwards into those that tried to come in behind. I was thrilled to at least know these beings could be stopped without a head shot. Head shots are hard under normal circumstances and are exceedingly difficult under stressful conditions, I laid waste to them; chest cavities exploded open as I blew holes through the transgressors. Arcs of blood and bone spewed out like a deep underground fissure had finally broken through the surface of the earth.

Casings tinkled to the ground; within a few seconds I would have dry-fired had not my bolt stayed open when I shot the last round, I had won back a few feet at the expense of half my ammunition. The third magazine went in much easier; I pressed in the bolt release button, the first shot blasted out in a somewhat muffled tone. I don’t know if it was old or defective ammo, but the resultant blowback didn’t have enough power to eject the brass from my rifle. I turned the rifle sideways to discover the brass jammed in the ejection port. My fingers sizzled as I pulled hard on it. I was finally able to wiggle it free and slam hard on the forward assist, placing the next round in the chamber.

A howler was within handshaking distance. I wouldn’t be able to get my rifle between us to fire. I brought my gun up to place it between us like a barrier. Large drops of saliva fell from his open mouth, his lips pulled back in a menacing growl. He was screaming in what I would imagine to be a triumphant sound, which was immediately silenced as I watched in awe. A steel ball was propelled into his eye, giving him a slightly robotic look for a moment before the bearing disintegrated the creature’s eyeball. I don’t know what kind of force John had put behind that shot, but all that was left of the right eye was a hole where it once resided. The thing fell to the ground, shook once, and was still.

I don’t know if that one was their leader or if they were just out of fight. There was a sound that I will now associate with their retreat signal. They all looked to the sky as if on cue and headed out. Even the ones that were in the truck and were mere feet away from their desired goals, they left, every last one of them. At least those that could, a few were on the ground outside the truck too injured to move.

I poked my head out cautiously, expecting this to be some kind of ruse, although that made no sense, they had us dead to rights. John might be deadly accurate with a weapon he barely knew he was holding, but he would not have been able to hold off this new adversary. Their actions and movements made it abundantly clear they were not zombies. I dropped down out of the truck, fingers of light from the oncoming dawn beginning to spread.

There were some dead howlers littered on the ground. I can’t even begin to tell you how relieved I was to learn that they could die. Nothing worse than fighting an enemy that seemed virtually indestructible; the name ‘Eliza’ seemed to strike that chord.

I noticed movement on only one. It looked like it was trying to crawl by use of its chin, a bullet had caught it right under the jaw and exited the back of its neck, blowing out the creature’s spine. The thing was of human form, that it was not  human was easy to determine because it was still trying to move after a fatal wound had been delivered. With my rifle at my shoulder, I placed my boot under its shoulder and flipped it over. A face fraught with determination suddenly turned to intense rage like maybe I owed her a bar tab.

“Whoa, did you piss her off?” John asked as he sat down on the bed of the truck and hopped off. “She sure looks like she could use some SPF.”

“What?” I asked, thinking the man had once again lost his mind, but that would mean he’d once had it.

But now that he said something, I noticed that the woman was rapidly reddening and even beginning to blister. I backed away. I’d seen this movie; eventually she was going to burst and spray body juices in a three hundred and sixty degree radius. I was determined not to catch any.

It wasn’t quite dramatic as Hollywood would have led me to believe, but it still wasn’t any fun to watch. What was once a vibrant young woman was dying by some unnatural cause. When she had finally stilled after burning to a golden crispness, I approached.

“Her blood is red.” I really said that bit mostly to myself. It was not the congealed, clotted mess that the zombies generally leaked out. It was the red of humanity, but of that trait, she had none. “What the fuck is going on? John, we’ve got to get going.”

Whatever the howlers were, sunlight had devastating effects on them, and we had to use that to our advantage. Another night in the truck was not an option. They’d figured the doors out easily enough and, even if they hadn’t, I could tell by the way the walls were caving in that they would have been through them in another ten minutes at the most. We had once again barely dodged death. I wondered how long our luck could hold. If I was in Vegas, I wouldn’t bet on our odds. I was thrust out of my reverie by the crashing of a wooden pallet on the pavement.

“Shit, John, what are you doing?”

“Grabbing some Phrito’s, man.”

“What?” And then it dawned on me, he was going to pile this pallet high with cartons and then find some way to push or pull it.

That would be great; we’d probably make a good mile or two away from the truck before nightfall. I was positive that would not be nearly far enough away from the howlers.

“Not a chance,” I told him. His face mirrored the howlers as it went from intense determination to rage. Apparently I had that effect on everyone I encountered. “John, we need to find some shelter from these things and try to figure out what they are…and more importantly, where we are.”

“What do you mean ‘where we are’, we’re right here.”

“I love New Age shit.”

John wasn’t quite ready to give up his idea of taking some snacks with him, and I wasn’t completely done reconning our immediate area. I rounded the truck to discover the couple who had fought valiantly but hopelessly. They were eaten and torn to shreds almost as if the howlers, in addition to being vociferously hungry, hated people with every fiber of their being and wanted to take it out on whomever they encountered. I turned away, glad that I hadn’t eaten more of the Phrito’s than the two John had given me, or I would have had the misfortune of getting to taste it twice.

“John, we gotta go, man,” I spoke, hoping the air flow to push the words out would hold down the gorge that threatened to rise.

I also had a fear beginning to bloom in the base of my spine that I hadn’t felt since that first day of the zombie apocalypse. We were in unfamiliar territory with a new, more deadly enemy. I had very limited ammunition, and I had no idea where my family was or how I was going to get back to them.

“John?” I asked as I rounded back around the corner. “Really, man?” He had cut out a piece of seatbelt from a nearby car and had tied it to the bottom of the pallet, his goal, I guess, being to pull it along like a sled. “John, you can only take what you can carry. We’ve got to go.”

On retrospect, I probably should have been clearer. John hopped back up onto the truck and fumbled around a bit until he had a carton resting on each shoulder. He came to the edge of the truck and was looking for help from me to help him down.

“Why can’t I get stuck in an alternate universe with Rambo? Would that be asking too much?” I asked the heavens as I grabbed each box in turn.

“Rambo, isn’t that the deer who gets stepped on by Godzilla?” He hopped down, propping himself on my shoulder as he did so.

“That’s Bambi, John, and the Godzilla thing was a joke, not the actual movie.”

The explanation was unnecessary as I’d already lost him.

“Shit, Mike, there’s Phrito’s, did you put them here?”

“Yes.” In truth I guess I had.

“Can I have some?” he asked like a little kid.

“Be my guest. And then, can we go?”

“I should probably take these with us.” He placed them on the pallet.

“Oh, I give up.”

“Were we playing Monopoly?”

I didn’t respond, by the time he figured out I hadn’t conceded a board game victory, he would be on to the next shiny distraction.

“No pallet, John, we have to move fast. Just take what you can carry,” I told him referring to the cartons. I guess I’ll never learn, he wrestled with them for a minute or two until he had them once again resting on his shoulders.

He moved surprisingly well for a Phrito-laden pack mule. I stopped at any car that looked promising in regards to supplies: namely food, water, and ammo. Not in any particular order, their importance changed with the circumstances. If howlers came, ammo rose to the top. At the moment, I would just about kill for a cheeseburger. Sadly, I was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to com

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e across one, at least not in edible form.

It was a form of food I found first; that is, if you can call the hard granola bars food. I tore the wrapper off the bar, not even caring that it was cranberry flavored. Peanut butter would have been better. John had taken the down time to rip open another bag of his snacks, something he did at every car I went through. We were a good dozen cars checked down the road; how he didn’t have a belly ache was beyond me.

There was a trail of wrappers leading away from the truck. I felt like Hansel and Gretel, he was Gretel. Although, if I remember the tale correctly, Hansel left the trail, I guess that makes me Gretel, I did a small curtsy.

“What the hell are you doing?” John asked around a mouthful of salty corn.

“You saw that? You’re not even looking this way. Forget it.”

“Forget what?”

“Want a granola bar.”

“Never touch the stuff,” he said as if I were offering him a swig of whiskey.

“Not missing much,” I told him as I nearly chipped a tooth severing a piece off the end.

I had the wrapper in my left hand and was about to add it to our trail when I thought that maybe the wrapper itself may hold a key to our location. ‘Made proudly in New House, JL, United States of Columbia.’

I dropped the wrapper faster than if it had been on fire. It was safe to say we weren’t in Kansas anymore. And then it finally dawned on me, something that had been nagging me in the back of the neck like an overly persistent sand flea. (If you need further explanation, join the Marine Corps and make sure you go to boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Then that sentence will make complete sense.)

Why I hadn’t thought to do it earlier I don’t know. Maybe whatever John the Tripper had was catching. I looked to the cars and where their license plates should have been. Now, either there was an extreme plate hoarder on the loose, or this new place we found ourselves in just didn’t mark cars like that. I checked at least four cars; none of them even had so much as a placement holder for a plate.

“What the hell?” I stood up, scratching my head.

And there it was, a cellophane-looking placard with nearly translucent numbers adhered right to the rear windshield. My guess was that it became back lit when the car was running. Some god had a hilarious sense of humor. I moved in close so I could see what the plate said. It was a vanity plate ‘SCREWD’ stared back at me.

“Take you all day to think of that!” I yelled up.

“I didn’t say anything,” John replied. “Was I supposed to?”

“You’re good,” I yelled back. I could barely make out the ‘state’; it was so small, and I also had no reference. ‘Amissus’ is what I read. “Is that in between Georgia and Alabama?” I asked.

“Man, I’m getting full.” John rubbed his belly. However, that did not deter him from opening another bag.

“John, any chance you know where Amissus is?” I figured ‘what the hell.’ Geography had never been my strong suit in school. Although, if I were truly being honest here, there were no classes in school I had been particularly great in.

“Lost.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“No…that’s what Amissus means.” He walked over, the bag now tilted up as he poured its contents into his eager mouth. “Have you found any green tea? I’m thirsty.”

“No green tea, there’s some water in this car though. Amissus means lost?”

“Latin.”

“You know Latin?”

“Nope.” He grabbed the water bottle and headed back to his stash.

“Thanks for the clarification.”

He raised his bottle up in response.

What I assumed was the expiration sticker read 14.14.13, I scratched my head again. Even if this was some sort of British thing where they put the year first (talk about strange), this date still made no sense. Any way you looked at it, there was either most likely fourteen months or thirteen; still more than the normal twelve I was used to. I could feel the deep pulses of a killer headache beginning to radiate out from the center of my taxed mind. No matter how hard I looked, the placard was not going to yield anymore knowledge except that I was ‘screwed’ and ‘lost’. I wanted to tell the gods they could kiss my ass, but apparently they already had, and hard.

I debated looking in the glove box, but I was fairly certain the registration would have a street address of Ha Ha Lane or something equally as inane, and we needed to get away from the howler’s hunting grounds. John was like a machine when it came to eating. I figured at some point he would have to yield to the limits of his stomach, but just when I figured he was getting to the breaking point, the soft sweet smell of seductive smoke would drift lazily around us. His supply of medicinal marijuana seemed to rival his Phrito hoard.

It took approximately somewhere in the neighborhood of triple digit cars ransacked before sweet Mother Mercy yielded her prize. Although ‘prize’ is grossly exaggerated. There was a box of 22s—close to fifty. Great little round, but without something to shoot them out of, they were virtually useless. I tore everything out of the car, hoping that whoever had been in here had just so happened to leave behind the projectile launcher.

“Holy sweet mother of all that is sanctimonious!” I shouted as my hand came in contact with the cold steel of gun metal. I was in an awkward position, leaning over the back seat of the car, my hand thrust out as far as it could go under the driver’s seat when I felt it. When I pulled my hand back with ‘prize’ in hand, I moaned.

“It’s a fucking Derringer.” I sighed.

“Can you eat them?” John asked, coming over quickly. He slouched back to lightening his load when he realized it was a gun.

But to call a Derringer a gun was the same as calling a Yugo a luxury car. The gun was all of three inches long, the barrel maybe half that. It had two chambers where I could put one round each and, unless a howler walked up and literally let me press this thing against its head, it was useless.

Who the fuck brings a Derringer to an apocalypse? 

I’m not kidding when I say you’d be better off with John’s slingshot. Don’t get me wrong, I took it and, after loading it, I stuffed it in my pocket. Worst-case scenario, it would be my early checking-out implement. I was not going to be eaten, at least not alive. I felt somewhat better with my find. Then it dawned on me, now that I wasn’t quite so fixated on locating ammo. Where were all the people from the cars? They had left in a hurry, but not in an outright panic. The supplies left over looked mostly to be what was too heavy or unimportant. I’d been in enough situations that I could tell the subtle difference. When you and your family’s lives were in danger, nothing else mattered, not even fire engine red Jeeps.

We passed cars in various stages of disarray. The pull was strong to check each of them, but the odds seemed less than worthwhile of finding anything of note, and that big, giant, uncaring survival clock was ticking in the back of my head. The howlers seemed a creature of the night, I had a couple of points to validate my argument. The first being that we hadn’t heard or seen one in the day and second they headed for parts unknown at the first hint of daylight. We needed to take more advantage of the howler free hours.

We came across a turned over RV which reminded me of Little Turtle, my fallen community. It produced an unwelcome pang in my heart. It looked like a decent place to set up shop for the night, and I just may have if not for the relative proximity to our Phrito truck. Short of being on the other side of the planet, or in an underground bunker, I just wasn’t going to feel safe. There had to be something better, didn’t there? Plus…the smell, yeah that was no bargain. Picture an unwashed zombie. I don’t know how much more I need to say about it really. My eyes watered just getting near it. I wondered for a moment if anything was in it besides bodies, and then we moved on.

Jack Walker — Great Balls of Fire

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Luckily, it’s fairly easy to maneuver around the cars. That’s good, or maybe not. If there was a jam that couldn’t be walked through, or in my case now, jogged through, then perhaps the horde couldn’t get through. That wouldn’t take care of the cross-country team hot on my heels, as I’ve seen them leap cars, but it would take care of the others. I can’t keep the pace up all day and night, so I’ll have to figure out something in the interim. The thing I have to do now is to remove the immediate threat closing in.

Turning, I brace myself along the top of a pickup hood, looking back down the road. The runners have marginally closed the distance. My pace has created a little space between them and those following, which is the best that I can hope for at this point. I’m feeling a touch on the winded side with having to carry the supplies I picked up, along with the rest of my gear. It’s not only time to rest, but time to lessen the amount of creatures attempting to run me down.

I bring my crosshair onto the nearest one, who is running through a small avenue between the cars. I’ll have to make head shots, which makes everything inherently more difficult. I thought the world I was in was fucked up, but I like this one even less, aside from the fact that I don’t know what happened to my kids…or Lynn. Yeah, that alarm clock can go off anytime now, thanks. I won’t even hit the snooze button.

Allowing for bullet drop, I raise the center of the crosshair to a few inches above the creature’s head. I won’t bore you with the mil-dot details. Luckily

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, it’s running directly at me which makes it a bit easier. I put pressure on the trigger and feel a light kick as a round speeds on its way toward its intended meeting. I send a second chasing after it. The first round strikes just off center on the forehead, causing its skull to rock back from the collision. Its head stops while the feet continue, and the zombie crashes to the ground like a player sliding into second. The second round zips over the top of the falling body and slams into the windshield of a pickup behind.

I shift my aim to another lane of cars, centering on another leaping figure heading slightly from my left to right. Leading it slightly, another kick to my shoulder lets me know another round is streaking outward. With a spray of black liquid, the bullet smashes into the side of its head near the temple. I observe it fall behind a vehicle, hopefully meeting its death.

Two down, eighteen to go , I think, rising off the hood and continuing my merry jaunt down the road.

Stopping at another vehicle, I lean across the trunk. They’ve closed the distance more than expected; I’m going to have to be quicker about this whole thing. Adrenaline is masking some of my tiredness, but that won’t last forever. Screams from the runners echo off the wall of trees to either side. Settling my elbows on the grit and grime covering the car, I take quick aim at one of the runners. Dark, viscous liquid forms a mist about its face as my bullet again strikes home. It too vanishes from view behind one of the cars.

Another head bobs just above the roof of a sedan. I settle the crosshair just ahead of where the creature will appear in greater clarity near the windshield. The distance they’ve closed isn’t critical at this point, but it will get to that point. The goal is to have as few of them as possible to contend with when that time arrives. The figure appears, and I send my greeting out to it. Another splash of the viscous substance that resides within them tells me that my aim was true, and it falls forward out of sight.

The screams of the others escalate as if annoyed. I recognize that scream of frustration, and I am not all that fond of it. These creatures, like the night runners, are relentless. Focusing on yet another sprinting madly in my direction, I lead it ever so slightly. A puff of smoke exits my barrel on the heels of the speeding projectile. The figure turns at the exact wrong moment causing my round to streak by its head. The bullet whines off into the distance, leaving behind a starred windshield. I adjust my aim and fire, seeing the creature lurch to the side and fall across the hood of a car. It slowly slides down toward the front, picking up momentum as it slips farther until it limply falls to the ground. Switching to a runner directly ahead, I place two rounds in its head before it hits its knees and falls forward.

That’s five , I think, rising to begin beating cheeks to a new location.

The remaining runners sense their closeness and seem to navigate between the cars with even more speed — as if that were possible. This spurs a little more effort on my part. I notice the latent smoke in the air is winding me a more quickly than normal. I’ll have to figure this whole thing out soon or I’ll end up completely out of breath and my options diminished. I turn in an attempt to lessen their numbers and see a few of them scrambling over the hoods and trunks of vehicles in order to close in. This doesn’t give me warm, fuzzy feelings. If I was going to be transported to another place and have zombies, why couldn’t they just be the slow, shambling ones I used to read about.

Leaning over yet another trunk, I line up my shot with the easiest runner. Intervening vehicles are blocking any clear shots to the nearest ones so I’ll have to take the shots that I’m afforded. I just don’t have the time to pick and choose at this point. I have to adjust my position as one of the grenades hanging on my vest gets hung up on the trunk lock.

Grenades! Damn! This little transition must have really fucked with me. Here I am being chased in a large, wide-spread gas tank farm and I’m trying to plink the bastards , I think, triggering another round into one of the runners’ heads. Now if these vehicles actually have any fuel remaining, I can create a fire break between me and those trying to make me their dinner .

I shift my aim to the gas tank of a car in the median and pull the trigger, making sure to pick one a little distance away. I don’t want to be close in case the one-in-a-thousand shot actually ignites the tank. The round hits with a metallic ‘chunk’ and I’m rewarded by a trickle of clear liquid flowing out. I angle across the jam as best as I can — sliding over hoods when no clear avenue is found — putting rounds into the tanks of as many cars as I can, all the while keeping up a semblance of speed. Back and forth I transit across the congested vehicles with the runners keeping pace and following; ever closing the distance.

In one way, my strategy has worked as the horde following these Jesse Owens clones have disappeared from view. I make a few more runs across the pile of cars, placing rounds into the gas tanks. The sound is similar to a muted cough as I fire through the suppressor, followed by the hard ‘thunk’ of the bullet hitting metal. Most of the time, I see a flow or trickle of fluid. Some are either empty or my rounds don’t penetrate the steel casings. With each round, I have to crouch in order to get a clear shot at the tank which slows my progress, allowing the screaming figures to draw closer.

I would like to make a few more runs, opening up more tanks, but I’m just going to have to be satisfied with what I have. The runners have drawn too close. If I take any more time, they’ll be through the area currently being soaked with what I hope is gas, thereby making my efforts pointless. Plus, there is the very uncomfortable aspect that this won’t work at all, and I’ll have to contend with fifteen very upset zombies. That’s not my idea of a good time. I start out at a run, maneuvering through the tangle as best as I can, unhooking one of the grenades.

Coming to a stop, I unpin and toss a grenade into the jammed cars far to the right. Quickly readying another, I toss it in the path of the loose gaggle of runners. They’re coming at me like I’ve stolen their last Twinkie — for Twinkie lovers, you’ll understand. For others, insert your favorite snack. I then take off in case my grand master plan is an epic failure. I think of Lynn and what she’d say regarding my magnificent planning ability. The thought of her brings a sharp pang of missing her, and worry. I have no idea where I am, let alone where she might be. The thought arises that I could be stuck in this effing place without ever seeing her or my kids again. That almost stops me in my tracks. If there isn’t a chance of seeing them again, what’s the bloody use of running or continuing on? Of course, if I just give up, the odds of seeing them drops to the same percentage of winning the lottery without buying a ticket.

A thunderous explosion from behind brings my thoughts back to the present. Another monstrous roar follows the first, causing a rolling boom to echo through the trees and across the stationary vehicles. Sliding over the trunk of a car, I glance over my shoulder. The grit stuck to the vehicle’s surface changes the slide to more of a series of shuffles, but I clear it. Behind me, a sheet of flame and smoke is shooting skyward from where each grenade landed. The back end of one of the cars, engulfed in fiery blaze, is settling back to the ground. Flaming globs and metal licked with flame are flying through the air. They settle and other fires begin amongst the cars where gas has flooded the ground. Another car is lifted as its tank catches in a burning explosion. In short order, a large part of the route behind is blocked by flames.

One figure emerges from the small inferno, consumed in fire but continuing toward me. Yeah, they are relentless alright. I stop, turn, and bring my M-4 up, firing into the now fully engulfed runner, aiming in the general direction of its head. It slows and then drops to its knees on the paved highway before falling face forward. Flames continue to rise from the body, making it sizzle. I watch to the sides, waiting for any others that manage to circumvent the rapidly spreading conflagration.

Another detonation lifts a vehicle into the air, throwing hot metal and fiery gas outward. I feel a blast of warm air as it rushes past. The fire is now a living, feeding thing and it’s time I put some distance between it and me. With the prolific amount of fuel around, who knows how far this will spread. I begin to think I may have overdone it a bit and there’s a chance it could catch up with me if I don’t start getting the fuck out of here. With that in mind, and the fact that I don’t see any runners emerging, I turn and begin putting some distance between my ‘carefully laid plan’ and me.

I hear the roar of the flames behind as the fire gathers strength and intensity. I keep checking for both the fire gaining on me and any runners that happen to have made it through. If they have the ability to think and reason, they will be able to go through the woods and circumvent the blockade of fire. Not seeing any of the creatures, my main worry is that the fire will catch on the grass along the sides and race forward. The wind is behind me and there is a definite chance of that happening if my ‘well-laid plan’ runs amok. I also hope that the trees don’t catch and I end up burning down the whole…well…wherever I am. Another glance behind shows that the flames, while tall and looking rather warm, are staying relatively contained in the area where it started. The atmosphere isn’t all that dry, but it isn’

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t exactly moist either.

With smoke billowing into the already polluted air, I slow and continue my merry trek to see where this leads. It’s not that I have much of a choice really. I opt to stay close to the middle of the highway, edging through the tangled metal as best I can. Although keeping me in the open, which already makes me nervous enough, it will give me warning of anything approaching from the trees. I just hope it’s clear to the front.

I stop and reload my partially empty mag with the rounds from the other partly used one. The traffic jam continues ahead in an unrelenting fashion and I see no end to the hopeless blockade of vehicles. I think it’s a little odd that I haven’t come across any road signs that would give me an indication of exactly where I am. I guess time will tell.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 3

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The lack of disorder when we first found ourselves on the roadway made me think that whatever had happened here was more of a controlled migration rather than a fight-for-life retreat. That and the ground wasn’t littered with brass casings unless this was some abysmal land that had taken gun rights from their citizens. In that case, they never really stood a chance. Sure, they left enough granola bars to keep a hippie commune going for years, but no guns worth a crap or jewelry. Most of the car doors had been shut; certainly something people in panic mode wouldn’t have cared about.

The farther we went along, the more that changed. It was subtle at first, like a car door open or full bottles of water discarded on the side of the road. Then it began to become more insidious, bloody handprints and then blood trails. Next came the true panic, possessions became afterthoughts as everything was shed in a desperate attempt to lighten loads. Aunt Mabel’s fine china set held little importance when your life was endangered, especially from an enemy that wished nothing more than to strip the meat clean from your still breathing body. The only question now was where were they trying to go? It took another mile until I got my answer.

“This place is a junk food addict’s worst nightmare,” I said to John as I looked in another car, hoping they had something that didn’t say ‘healthy’ on it.

“Shit,” John said as he placed his boxes down and began to stuff paraphernalia deeper down into his pockets.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, doing a quick scan. I was not overly concerned at this point. John and my versions of problems were vastly different.

“The Man, man.”

“English, John, we talked about this.”

He pointed instead, which was probably better. I could barely make it out through the maze of cars and trucks ahead. But once I really started to look, it was difficult to miss the olive drab of military vehicles. How he had seen it through the haze in his eyes was a mystery.

“That would explain the controlled movement of the people in the cars.”

“I figured it was the Rapture,” John crunched out.

I looked at him for a moment. “Don’t lose that thought, it’s still a possibility.” But anytime you really want a situation to get all screwed up, just throw the military into the mix. “Now, if we could figure out where everyone went, maybe we could get some answers.”

“Awesome, man, I always wanted to know how whales communicate.”

“Yeah maybe that answer, too. Let’s go.”

I was torn. A part of me wanted to make as much haste as possible to the blockade. Odds were high we would find out what happened here, who the howlers were, and maybe how to get back to where we belonged. On the other hand, I had a healthy fear of all things governmentally controlled. In times of severe crisis, the government is FAR less concerned with the safety and well-being of its citizens than it is the smooth running and continuation of the government. People merely became an obstacle, or a way and means for that end.

It’s funny how depth perception works on the open road. The waves of heat that emanated off the pavement somehow magnified the military vehicles, or maybe that was just how everything was in this new place. What seemed like half a mile, was taking us close to an hour to traverse. Even going as slow as we were, we would have been traveling at a three-mile-an-hour clip. We were burning through daylight like Deneaux burns through cigarettes. (If you are new to my journals, she is one of the most cantankerous old women that ever walked the face of the planet. She has the blood of Calamity Jane and the steady aim of Annie Oakley coursing through her veins.)

We were finally within a hundred yards, I had yet to see any movement or have that sense I was being watched through crosshairs. It was John that nearly gave me a heart attack. I was crouched low, trying to keep as small a profile as I could on my approach, when he dropped one of his boxes.

“Done,” he said as he stretched.

The convoy completely forgotten, I walked back towards him. “Bullshit.”

He proudly held the cardboard flap back.

“You ate an entire carton of Phrito’s?”

He smiled, his teeth most likely permanently stained corn yellow.

“Tonight, when we finally hunker down, you make sure you’re down wind. You ready, or do you need a few minutes to say good bye?”

“I’m good,” he replied as he put the still full box on his shoulder and marched on.

“Not sick of those? Really?”

“Why would I be?”

“Just stay low…let’s see what this is all about,” I told him.

We came up slowly. As the wind shifted, it was not difficult to ascertain that there was nothing living in the general vicinity. The oh-so-ever-present reek of death assailed at least my nostrils, John didn’t seem to care. Then again maybe it did.

“Stink weed?” he asked me.

I didn’t reply. To open my mouth would have sent jets of throat lubricating water to spray from my mouth. A fierce battle had been waged, and my more normal friends (zombies) were the opponent in this drama. A good number of civilians had been ripped apart as they approached the military blockade. I wondered if the zombies had come out of the woods much like our howlers.

Did they co-exist?  From all I’d ever learned, predators don’t play well together. So, if not the woods, where then? 

Zombies by nature were nomadic, roaming to where the food was. So, in all likelihood, zombies had migrated to this spot en masse. Zombies, people, and spent shells littered the ground; in some places, a few feet thick. It made traveling the roadway impossible, stepping on to the shoulder was far from my favorite idea as it brought us closer to the howlers and whatever other fucking nightmare lingered in there; my guess is there was a Bigfoot or two just for good measure.

John was openly weeping as we passed family after family; either ravaged or hewn in half by excessive crossfire—caught in the middle of an uncaring machinegun nest. If I ever found the puke that had manned that gun, I’d put the Derringer to his temple.

I understand panic, I do. I get it; in spades as a matter of fact. But to just mow civilians down; at that point, what are you saving? Certainly not your soul, because I’m sure Saint Peter will have something to say about that. I checked out a couple of the people, only to get an idea of how long ago this travesty had taken place; rigor mortis  had come and gone, the bodies had not quite bloated. The ones that had not been infected were covered in flies and the beginnings of maggots. The insidious little bastards hadn’t taken up root yet.

It was no picnic to watch as human skin shifted underneath the movements of the fly larvae. Three days at the most, this had happened three days ago. Half a week ago, these people were concerned about their mortgages, car payments, whether Timmy or Tina needed braces, if their favorite baseball team was going to win a game. Just normal, everyday bullshit, the way life was meant to be.

“Fuck,” I said, dragging my hand over my face.

John was looking into the woods, fat tear drops cascading to the ground. “My wife isn’t here.”

“Let’s hope not,” I answered, although that wasn’t what he was thinking.

He meant she wasn’t ‘here’, wherever ‘here’ was. My initial answer still held more validity. We had zombies and these new howlers, this new world sucked. I grabbed John’s arm gently and turned him towards the olive drab of the military vehicles.

“I know you don’t want to head up there, but I’m not leaving you behind, and I need to see if I can salvage some ammo.”

John didn’t say anything, his cheery disposition wiped clean. He kept his head down and moved the Phrito box to his left shoulder as a barrier to the atrocities that lay on that side. We walked in stony silence towards the blockade. I received no measure of satisfaction when I found the machine gunner’s position had been overrun. He died with his finger on the trigger. The irony of it was that it looked like a child zombie had inflicted the death blow before being shot herself. A zombie girl had latched herself onto the man’s neck and had been tearing a chunk free when someone had come up behind her and spilled her brains over the side of the gunner’s face.

“Guy that shot the zombie shot the machine gunner, too. Dumbass. Although I guess he was already dead.” I pushed the girl out of the way. She fell wetly to the side. Shock was etched on the man’s features as he seemed to look pleadingly at me. “Karma’s a bitch,” I told him. “This is what I’m looking for,” I said triumphantly, bending down, picking up a metal ammunition box.

They were 5.56 wh

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ich were perfect; the only problem was they were linked for machinegun fire. Simple enough remedy, it would just take some time. I was going to keep this box close and go look for something that was ready to use right from the can. I helped John and his Phrito’s up into the cab of the closest truck. I also stashed my ammo with him.

“You alright, pal?” I asked him. He hadn’t said much and, more surprisingly, he hadn’t eaten anything in a bit.

Instead of asking me who pal was, which would have been normal, he asked something much more serious. “Why’d they all have to die, man?”

I looked him in the eyes. “Don’t know, I really don’t. But me and you…we’re going to find a way out of this mess. And to be honest, John, I’m not sure that everything we’re seeing right now isn’t some sort of dream. Figments of our imagination or, more than likely, a drug-induced conjuring. Last thing I truly remember was your van and then being here.”

“This is a flashback?” John asked with pleading eyes.

I’d been in some shitty situations along the path of my life but never anything quite like this right now. I hope it wasn’t a flash forward, a portent of things to come. “Let’s just hope it’s only a vision of zombie-things-to-come if we don’t change it.”

And like the intuitive person he was, he answered, “This is the worst rendition of the Christmas Carol  I’ve ever lived through.”

You know  I wanted to ask him how many he had lived through, but I dropped it. Maybe tonight, if we found some place safe to hang out I’d bring it back up. Odds would be he wouldn’t remember this conversation, though. As it was, I didn’t like to be out of his view for too long because we’d have to go through the introduction process again.

There were spent magazines everywhere, which was actually pretty cool considering I had left a couple of mine behind in my haste to leave. I saw more than one soldier that had been shot by a civilian. Easy enough to tell from the exit wounds. M-16s didn’t generally travel all the way through a human body. Usually it got hung up somewhere inside, which caused more destruction that way, bouncing and ricocheting off of bones and internal organs. More than once, the Geneva Convention had wanted to ban the cartridge because of this ‘design flaw’. The Russian-made 7.62—a much larger and heavier round—was considered to be more humane as it would travel clean through just about any soldier, whether they had a flak jacket on or not.

Some of the soldiers had fist-sized holes in their backs; indicating high-powered hunting rifles. It didn’t look like a coordinated attack or an ambush. I just think it was scared people trying to get away from the blockade. Unfortunately, without much success. I don’t really know how long I’d been doing my survey of the destruction. Enough to know that men, women, children, civilians, military, howlers, and zombies had all met gruesome ends here.

The one and only blessing I found in regards to howlers was that it appeared that it did not necessarily need to be a head shot to take one down. I might have overlooked the female howler had she not had the signature sunburn I’d seen outside of the truck. She had on torn Capri pants, her ankles a blistered and angry red. Her forearms and hands were also the same tortured color. What stuck out was her long blond hair that glowed like golden wheat in the sunshine. It wasn’t the hair color; it was the lack of blood in it that I found interesting.

Was it a ruse?  She was face down and I’d have to get close to turn her over. Son of a bitch .

The knowledge was worth the risk. Howlers were faster and smarter than zombies. If I didn’t need to be particularly concerned with putting a bullet in their skulls, then we were that much better off.

I made sure the safety was off, I had my finger resting lightly on the trigger guard. I licked my lips and, with my left foot, I hooked it under her thigh, lifted, and pushed her over. I looked at her face for any signs of life, some clue to her deception, a fluttering eyelid a twitch of her mouth. Nothing. Her face was frozen in fury, she was pissed off and left nothing to the imagination in that regards. She had a series of at least three bullets, traveling up from her navel and across her right breast. The bullets had torn her open, blood had cascaded from her. Flies swarmed to the wounds and enjoyed the banquet.

“Just great,” I said as got down on my haunches. I placed the muzzle of my barrel against her head. I moved my hand closer to her face. “This sucks.”

Everyone has watched enough horror flicks to realize this is when the dumbass gets bitten. We’re all sitting in our seats at the movie theater shoving popcorn in our maws, telling our significant others ‘we’d never do that, he’s a dumbass.’ Yup I was the dumbass, but at least this time the monster’s seemingly dead eyes didn’t fly open as it latched onto my hand, ripping my thumb off.

“Thank God for small miracles,” I said aloud after examining her entire face and head for any sign of trauma.

Nothing, not a scratch on her face except for some minor burning on the left side that must have been exposed as she was dying. When I was done looking at her, I stood. “Hey, God, I really appreciate the small miracle, but a big one would really be fucking appreciated!” I said to the heavens. That was pretty much going to get me sent to the disciplinary division of Heaven. I’d deal with that problem after this one.

Back to the task at hand and what was going to keep us alive. God was going to have to wait his (or her) turn. It seemed zombies, howlers, and even my wife Tracy had staked a claim at meting out some justice. I found a fair amount of dropped bullets and mags, and I hastily filled a couple to make sure I had adequate firepower in case something arose. I don’t know where the day went. I was just noticing that it was getting more difficult to see into the far back of the troop transports. The canvas coverings were hiding any treasure and the sun on its downward path was making it more difficult. I had enough ammo for a sustained battle, but nothing even remotely akin to finding a safe place from which to wage this battle. I was just looking into the back of my tenth (thirtieth?) troop transport truck when I heard the slow dying bleat of a truck horn on its last legs. Too many descriptors, dying implied last legs, oh well, hopefully this journal entry won’t be scooped up by an English professor (or basically anyone with a rudimentary hold on the language).

I popped my head out of a truck I, odds were good that John was just playing with the horn. The beauty of his condition (primarily stoned) was that his short-term memory was really only good for about three breaths or one deep inhalation; that should be clear enough, knowing John the way I do. The bleat came again, this one not much more than a goose hiccup. I walked back over to where I had left him. He was downing bags of Phrito’s and pointing out the front windshield. I couldn’t see from my location, at least not until I stepped on the running board of the truck he was in. It was a zombie hoard, and they were coming at a decent clip. Runners seemed to be intermingled with the shufflers, I could tell because they usually looked less dead if that makes sense, fresher corpses may be a better explanation. But they weren’t running…so far.

I had yet to figure out the relationship with the runners and the shufflers…why they hung out together. I can’t imagine it was any sort of symbiotic relationship. I very much doubt that the runners tracked and trapped the food, and then patiently waited for the shufflers to catch up so they could eat. I could see some benefit for the runners to stay with the slow ones, safety in numbers, less likely to get shot if you’re in a group of a couple of hundred. That implied thinking, and I for one was not yet at the point where I wanted to believe that was an option. My zombies were going to stay stupid eating-machines right up until they caught and ate me. I began to scan the area, nothing worth a damn stood out as a viable defense.

“I’m thinking maybe you should have yelled,” I told him. I rested the barrel of my rifle on the hood of the truck. “My old boss always told me to be proactive in the face of a crisis.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” John said before I pulled the trigger.

I looked up at him. “Mind about what, John?” I asked.

“I didn’t tell you?”

“No, man, you didn’t tell me. What should I be minding about?”

“When I get nervous, my fingers tend to work on their own.”

“John, what the hell are you talking about? We’ve got some funkies coming, and I’d really like to drop some of the faster ones.”

“The bullets, man, the bullets.”

My heart was sinking. “Oh, John, what about the bullets?” I asked, figuring he had somehow pulled all the lead tips off. I was about to get John out of the truck and make a run for it. It didn’t look like we’d have enough for a firefight.

He tossed all the metal clips out the window. I started laughing. He had removed the connectors that had held the individual bullets together so that they could be fired through a light machinegun.

“I’d kiss you right now if I thought my man-card could take that kind of serious hit.”

“Man-card?”

“Do you know how to load a magazine?” I asked hopefully, handing him up six of the ones I had pilfered.

“Like Sports Illustrated ?” he asked back. I put the magazines back in my pockets.

“Worth a shot I suppose. Just make sure all the bullets are back in the box and the lid is latched, okay? We’re going to have to leave here soon.”

“Can I keep the truck?”

“I wish.”

The dying horn bleat was an indicator of the good odds that this behemoth would not start. Although, i

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n retrospect, why I didn’t try some of the other trucks eludes me; time had expired on that option, no sense on dwelling on it. Just as I lined up my shot again, I heard the clatter of brass into steel. I would have shaken my head if it wouldn’t have messed up my targeting.

“Boom,” I whispered as I sent a high-speed projectile down range.

The speeder’s head exploded in a splintered shower of bone and blood. He dropped and was immediately trampled underfoot. That was a hard thing to watch, the loss of any sign of humanity. That, more than anything, attested to their savagery and how far they would go to attain their goals.

I’d been to combat in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. I’ve fought Iraqis, Afghanis, insurgents, and a half dozen other enemies I can’t remember the names of. They all hated us as much as, if not more than, we hated them. We were fighting to keep our friends alive and to get back home to Mom and apple pie. (Not my  mom’s apple pie mind you, but someone’s mom’s apple pie.) The people we were fighting were generally fighting for their country or the way in which they chose to live their lives. They had every right to fight like demons, and often times, they did…performing atrocity after atrocity. But as I write here today, I will tell you—be it Taliban, Rebel, or Usurper—that fighting force would stop and pause with whatever the fuck they were doing when one of their own took a head shot.

There is something so primal when you watch the man next to you have his hopes, dreams, thoughts, and beliefs literally destroyed in an instant; his brains torn from the rest of his body. Advances would halt, retreats would move back quicker, planning shifted to survival. Whatever it was, the enemy would stop and alter course.

Nothing is more demoralizing to an enemy than a sniper wiping out a comrade with a head shot. It took the fight out of them and that’s why we aimed for that particularly part of the anatomy. The point? The point is that zombies didn’t give a fuck; didn’t concern them in the least. Maybe on some level they were happy because it meant one less mouth to feed; less competition when they did get a hold of their prey. Those were my thoughts as I sent a magazine of bullets scorching towards their targets.

Most hit, because with this many of them, it would have been harder to miss. Chests caved in as impacts shattered rib cages and sternums; legs were sheared off from the ferocity of the bullets. Arms became little better than T-Rex appendages as I pulverized them. And then, on occasion, I was rewarded with the assassination shot. Heads snapped back, necks recoiled from the shock of taking in something with so much force. I popped in a second magazine. When I was fairly confident I had done a good number on the speeders, I told John it was time to go. I was thankful he had grabbed the ammo case, I could only hope and pray it was full of bullets and not of Phrito’s. Speaking of which, where were they?

He hopped down from the truck, I followed suit. “Where are your snacks?” I asked.

“Almost done.”

“Are you kidding me? How long have I been gone?” Seemed like an hour, two at the most.

Was the world in which we now found ourselves different? Were the rules altered? Were days twelve hours instead of the standard twenty-four, or had I been looking for supplies longer than I’d originally thought? 

He showed me his yellow tongue, his teeth coated with damn near a half inch of corn paste. That was fucking grosser than watching the zombie’s head explode.

“We going to the water tower?” John asked.

“Where?” I asked, coming up next to him. I reached out and pulled on the arm that was carrying the ammo. It was heavy, I breathed a sigh of relief.

John was pointing to a green structure maybe a mile off from our present location.

“How in the hell did I miss that?” I asked.

“Saw it since we rested by the trucks.”

“You didn’t think to say anything?”

“Why?”

Fair enough answer, I suppose. I just couldn’t figure out how I spent the entire day missing the giant monolith. Ahead, I saw more zombies. We were going to have to take another way and cut through the trees. It was going to be a mile through woods, fences and a neighborhood. With zombies in tow, and others ahead, this was not going to be an easy endeavor.

“You ready?”

“I was born ready,” he answered proudly. Then, as an aside, he asked. “Ready for what?”

“Let’s go get some water.”

“Great, because for some reason I’m thirsty as all get out.”

“Can’t imagine why,” I told him as we started off with a slight jog.

Then, what I feared even more than the zombies reared its ugly head. Entering the trees, I heard the howlers in the forest in the distance. Seems we were coming into their time zone.

“This oughtta be rich,” I said aloud.

Jack Walker — Signs

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Farther down the road, I see several of the slower zombies shuffling aimlessly next to a semi-trailer with its rear door open. Ensuring they are my only company, I raise my carbine. There’s really no other way around as I’m still not overly fond of finding out what the woods to either side holds. There’s only three that I can see, so it shouldn’t be too difficult making my way through them. I still have a few mags, but those can disappear in a hurry.

Using a car for support, I steady my aim and fire; the suppressed round barely heard. The scalp of one lifts from the impact of my bullet to the side of its head and the shambling figure drops straight to the pavement. The other two turn toward the one that fell, perhaps drawn by the sound of its body hitting the ground. They then continue their slow meanderings. I fire twice more, causing them to join their compadre  in whatever afterlife zombies go to.

The slight gusts of wind bring the smell of smoke. Checking to see that all is still clear, I notice the dark plume of smoke rising in the distance where the cars are still presumably burning. Far into the distance, the smudge of smoke from the burning city is still faintly visible.

I cautiously slink up to the semi where the shamblers were skulking about. Drawing nearer, I notice numerous holes in the doors of the trailer. From the shape and pattern, it’s pretty obvious that someone was shooting out from within the tractor trailer. From a couple of cars away, through a gap, I see two bodies on the pavement near the truck. I check quickly on the three I just took down to ensure they stay that way and aren’t about to rise up to take a bite out of me. I’m assuming that’s what they do, but hell, I’m not positive of anything in this place. For all I know, they had jobs and went zip-lining on the weekends. The three aren’t moving and have presumably settled in for their long winter’s night.

This is the case with the two other bodies as well; a man and a woman who appear relatively young. Of course, most everyone appears relatively young to me. Blood and gore cover the dark gray of the asphalt. The bodies are both badly mauled and it looks to have happened recently. The man is holding a handgun with several shell casings scattered nearby, which leads me to believe they weren’t these zombie-like creatures, although I guess the spent cartridges could have been from someone else defending themselves. The bullet holes in the door certainly show that someone was shooting a lot.

Stepping around the intervening vehicles, with silence all around, I see other bodies lying on the pavement. Most are at the rear of the semi with a couple lying near one side. Bullet holes appear along the side of the trailer as well. Someone definitely fought a battle here and, from initial appearances, they defended themselves from inside the enclosed trailer.

Looking closer at the other bodies, my heart stops and my breath catches. I most certainly recognize what these are. The red mottled skin is definitely that of a night runner left out in the daylight. The mauled bodies of the two become clear. They were caught in the open by night runners.

Fucking great! Night runners and these zombie-like creatures! Now my day is complete! What the fuck have I stepped into? 

That still doesn’t explain the multitude of holes in the trailer. The patterns show automatic fire, but I don’t see a weapon like that lying about. It could have been from a different time, but the freshness of the bodies indicates that whatever happened did so within the last day or two. And the wounds on the night runners are consistent with the gunfire from the truck.

Looking in the truck, I notice several bags of opened Phrito’s lying on the floor. An unmistakable odor of gunpowder lingers within. Just underneath, there is another scent. At first it’s hard to identify, but then, like a flash, I know what it is. Someone had been enjoying one of nature’s herbs. At least I still retain a semblance of the ability to pick up faint scents. I hope the ability to see in the dark is still there.

Shell casings litter the bed of the trailer. I climb inside to search for a weapon and/or additional bodies. The casings are definitely 5.56mm. It would be nice to find a small cache of them as you can never have enough ammo.

Pencil beams of light stream into the trailer from the holes along one side. The indentions of the bullet holes show that they were created from inside. Searching quickly, I only find more open Phrito bags and a couple of roaches left from whoever was enjoying their little respite. Having partaken, the Phrito’s must have made whoever was here feel lik

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e they were in heaven. I stare at the bodies surrounding the trailer, the bullet holes, and the remains of an interrupted pot party. Yeah, there must have been an interesting story here.

Not finding a secret cache of ammo, I hop out of the gunpowder, Phrito, and pot-infused trailer. The dark smoke is still rising in the distance from the burning cars. I’m hoping I’ve gained some distance between myself and the mass of zombies that were heading this direction. I’m also hoping the way ahead is clear, as I’m not overly fond of being trapped, but what choice do I really have. I don’t understand this place, but staying alive is the only way I’ll be able to figure it out. Hopefully, there is a roadside sign or flashing beacon that will point out what in the fuck is going on. I’d like nothing better than to know where my kids are and how to exit this place. With nothing else to find, I continue on my walkabout.

The road plows forward with no end in sight. It has a couple of turns, but it is straight for the most part. There aren’t any signs, mileposts, ramps, or openings. The wrappers and shell casings are the only evidence that someone else is around and it’s my hope that, if I manage to find them, they can shed some light on what is going on. Until then, it’s stay alive and try to figure this out. Hopefully, I’ll just wake up and chalk this up to a bad dream. I don’t even want to think of the alternative. My heart aches for my kids and Lynn.

The snarl of vehicles is relentless. There are a few semis and motor homes that limit my view but, for as far as I can see, the massive traffic jam continues. I make my way through, having to slide over and around the vehicles. I’m wary of the ones I can’t see into and give them as wide a berth as possible without venturing too close to the neighboring trees. Every once in a while, I spot a Phrito wrapper caught against the wheel of a car, and once, I spot another almost-finished joint on the ground. I’m at least following the one, or however many, that left the truck and, from all appearances, he, she, or they are enjoying their stroll.

The farther I get, the more the cars become entangled. The avenue, with the center stripe running down the middle, is no longer an open aisle, which slows my progress. There are more than a few accidents where vehicles collided; either hitting each other in the mass exodus or while trying to clear a way through.

I snack and drink on the go. I don’t want to stop and allow the ones behind me to gain ground. The day is getting on and it won’t be long before I have to find some place to hold out for the night. There’s no way I want to be out in the open when the night runners emerge from their lairs. The problem will be finding a location that’s secure enough to stay safe from the night runners without becoming surrounded by the zombie-like creatures. I don’t have enough ammo to clear a path if that horde behind shows up and encircles me. In essence, I’ll be trapped.

I notice that the farther I walk, the greater the number of darkened streaks of dried blood there are on the sides and windows of cars. I can’t even imagine the panic that must have been prevalent. People fleeing from whatever cleared out their city only to become stalled and unable to proceed any farther. Desperate families trying to decide what to take and knowing they are at the mercy of the elements and those around them. The mass of people taking to the road with their meager possessions on their back. Kids wailing from fear of the unknown, and the parents trying to figure out what to do. Mayhem and crowded roads. I wonder if they even had a destination in mind, or whether it was just blind panic. With that massive horde of zombies trailing me, I can guess what must have been the cause of their exodus. This entire roadway must have been the scene of a tremendous amount of terror.

The places between the cars are filled with debris of all kinds: Bags, papers, boxes, clothes, empty water bottles, and other goods. Open and partially open doors attest to the fear that must have prevailed. It is what I always thought a post-apocalyptic scene should look like. I search a few random vehicles looking for ammo, food, and water bottles, replenishing my consumption of the latter two.

Besides the entirety of this place being off, there is something else amiss that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s one of those things where you know something is not quite right, but it’s not readily apparent. As I haul myself across yet another grime-covered trunk, it comes to me — the license plates. I could have checked early on to determine where I’m at, but there aren’t any plates. Looking at the rear of the cars around, they are absent.

An idea forms that I could check the registrations. That will show where in the hell I’ve landed. Opening the nearest vehicle, I check the glove box. Sure enough, there is a paper with a name and address. However, it makes no sense at all. The state listed is ‘Amissus’. Now, I’m not a genius at geography, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a state named that. It just adds to the mystery of what I’ve fallen into.

What the fuck? Where the hell is this place?  I think, looking around at the cars again.

The fact that the driver’s wheel is located on the left says that I could be in my world, but the registration says differently. As if this place couldn’t get any stranger. Everything is so tangible — the smells and feel — and seems like reality, but it isn’t the one that I know. The bumps and bruises I have certainly indicate this place is the real deal. It’s all rather confusing and this brings my kids and Lynn to mind once more. The ache in my heart returns. I need to find them or at least know they are okay.

Taking a drink from one of the water bottles, I notice another difference — minor, but one nonetheless. The water is labeled “Arcadia”, from the pure springs located high in the Arcadia Mountains. Again, I don’t have a master’s degree in geography but I’ve never heard of any Arcadia Mountains.

“Well, it is what it is,” I say softly, taking a last swig and moving on.

As I make my way through the tangle of cars, I pass several decaying bodies…or what is left of them. They have all been ravaged to the point that mostly only their skeletal remains are left. It’s reminiscent of the bodies I found at McChord and elsewhere. Small, dried pieces of tendons, ligaments and tissue remain attached to bone, but the rest has been picked clean. This could be from wildlife in the area, but my guess is that night runners were here. It could also be from the zombies, but I’m not sure if they pick their kills clean. Whatever it is from, the bodies become more numerous the farther I go which isn’t giving me that warm glow of comfort.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 4

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The zombies departed the roadway as they watched our retreat. The one beauty of them was their inability to forecast our location. Instead of plotting an intercept course and meeting us at some point ahead, they kept adjusting to our present location. As long as we kept at a good clip, they wouldn’t catch us…at least the slow ones. The fast ones I had to keep stopping and culling through, they could seemingly run forever. Stamina was of no concern to them. Whatever drove them onwards did not get cramps, get winded, or even apparently care about blisters. Even the barefoot ones with ground-shredded feet didn’t miss a step. Relentlessly they ran.

It didn’t help in the least, no matter how many times I told John to keep going and that I’d catch up, he’d turn and ask me why I had stopped. Since my encounter with Eliza’s brother, I had some slight advantages over the normal man. As of yet though, I had not fully recovered from my injuries when I found John; add to that the fact that I hadn’t eaten or drank anything in sufficient quantities for days, and I was beginning to flag. Killing the rapidly approaching faster ones was going to be the only way we’d escape.

The Phrito fanatic next to me seemed to be doing wonderfully, like corn, oil, and salt was somehow a super food and he was deriving all the energy he needed and then some. Maybe I should have eaten more of them. I sighed as we got to our first chain link fence eight feet high and topped with everyone’s favorite—barbed wire. John tossed the metal ammo box over before I could warn him to do it a little differently. I ducked thinking we were in for one hell of an explosion. It struck a small outcropping of grass, and seemingly in slow motion, it teetered to the side and fell over. No explosion. Now I knew in the back of my head that unless a bullet is fired from a gun the odds of it going off are incredibly small but who wants to take that chance.

“Let’s go, John.” I grabbed the links in my hands.

“This is just like breaking in to the Pentagon,” he said gleefully.

Normally I’d cry ‘bullshit’, but in this case I believed him. First off, because I doubt he lacked the memory to sustain a lie.

For a career stoner, he was pretty spry John got up and over without too much trouble. The only hitch was when a bag of treats fell out of his pocket and onto the ground we had just yielded. I saw him debate whether to go back over and down to get it.

“I thought you were out?” I asked him as he stared longingly at it on the other side of the great divide. “It’s alright, man, I didn’t want any anyway.” I patted his shoulder. “Come on, they’re getting entirely too close.” Zombies were now within a couple of hundred yards of the fence, and some of them looked like track stars.

We still had at least

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a half a mile to the water tower. The horde that was coming would easily push through this latest barrier.

“I hate zombies,” I said as I turned and followed John who had already started his flight.

The howlers had picked up the chase as well it seemed. Their screams blistered through the burgeoning night. The sun, our greatest ally, had decided to sit this battle out and was rapidly descending as if it were a thief in the night.

“I hate howlers,” I added.

We were maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a mile from our destination when we heard the metallic clanging of a fence meeting its demise. We had slowed up a bit to catch our breath, and right now that seemed like the least smart thing we could have done. The water tower was a great idea. The problem was that I had no idea if we would be able to get up to the maintenance ladder. We probably needed a ladder to get to the ladder if that makes any sense.

Most towns will have a water tower secured in a locked area or have the ladder only accessible with a cherry picker (those vehicles that extend out and are usually used for line repair). I was a dumb enough teenager to know that if I could have got up one of those monstrosities, I would have done so in a heartbeat. You got to figure that the townsfolk here figured out that little problem as well. I guess there are dumb teenagers everywhere. Oh yeah, and that doesn’t even bring into account those lovelorn folks that would pull a nosedive off the thing because Suzy or Sammie Rotten Crotch dropped them for someone else.

We’d make it to the tower ahead of our pursuers, but we were screwed if there was no way up. Now I was concerned.

“John, maybe we should find a house.”

“Ponch, I’m so thirsty.”

I was going to tell him that might be another reason not to go to the tower. I was relatively sure there would be no way to gain safe access to the inside. The zombies had caught sight of us, the pursuit was on. That many feet slapping against the pavement was an easy enough sound to hear as it reverberated off any available structure. Well…that, and there wasn’t so much as a lawn mower running anywhere in the country to drown out the noise. This was no longer the world of man. Yes, there were still some pockets of people left, but we weren’t living anymore, we were just trying not to die. Subtle difference in wording but a huge difference in meaning there. I started to track off of our present course.

“Trailer park. Of course it is,” I sighed. John was twenty yards away before I realized he wasn’t following me anymore. “John?”

He didn’t slow down. “Ponch, it’s like a desert in my mouth.”

“Yeah, that’s what happens when you smoke pot and eat enough salty snacks to keep Morton’s salt mines in operation.”

He had completely tuned me out and was like a guided missile that had already locked onto its target and nothing was going to dissuade it from its course of action. I looked back at the doublewide before picking up my pace to catch up with John. The thing would have caved in within hours with zombies pressing in, and I didn’t even want to dwell on what howlers could do to the tin can.

Would they work together? Would they even acknowledge each other? 

If howlers were as mindless as zombies, they really wouldn’t give two shits about each other…only us.

“I guess the pink flamingos will have to wait,” I told John when I caught up.

“If I wasn’t so thirsty, I’d get them,” he said in all seriousness.

“They’ll be fine.”

I followed John for a couple of reasons. Primarily because I wasn’t going to let him wander too far off, and secondly, he had that luck. You know…that crazy fucking luck that some people are just born with. Like the baby that fell out of the third story window onto concrete only to land on a urine-soaked diaper. The gel material exploded like an over ripe melon under a car tire. The baby, however, besides trying to figure out how it had got to where it was, was completely unharmed. That’s the luck John had, and I wanted to be around him. It was going to be luck and a healthy dosing of lead injections that was going to get us out of this mess.

The fence leading into the water tower complex was down, it looked like someone had come in and stolen one of the maintenance trucks and, not having a key for the locked gate, had decided to just run the damn thing over.

Works for me , I thought.

We were on a concrete slab some hundred feet by hundred feet square, big enough to support the huge metal tank’s legs. I glanced quickly over to the ladder that led up, it was a good ten feet high. An NBA star would have a difficult time jumping high enough to grab the bottom-most rung. We were now in the world’s largest boxing ring, and this was a one round affair to the death.

“Shit,” I said, skidding to a halt past the downed fence.

I turned, got down on one knee, and started to drop our nearest and most immediate threat. Zombies were in high gear, having found another speed when they realized food was so near. Cracked lips were pulled back to reveal brown and black chipped teeth. Outstretched hands with fingernails caked in gore and blood reached out. Old, young, fat, slim, women, children, men—they all were coming towards us. Some dressed in business suits, others gym outfits, in a few cases there were pajama clad zombies and they were all headed our way. I rocked slightly as I fired; the beauty of the M-16 is its minimal kick. I was able to bring the barrel back down quickly to reacquire targets as I drenched the ground in gray gristle.

“Hold,” I told myself like a Revolutionary War sergeant would tell his ranks of green, unproven militia men. Much like then, to leave now meant death. “Hold,” I said as I dropped my empty magazine and shoved a new one in.

I lost precious seconds as I fumbled to find the bolt catch release. A quick tap on the forward assist and I was back in business. The zombies were close enough, I could hear them as their broken bodies collided with the ground and each other. I stood while I kept firing. They were close enough now that what I lost in my shooting stance was more than made up for in their proximity. I sincerely hoped John was going to make it as I held my ground…mostly. I found myself involuntarily stepping back at just about every shot. I dropped dozens with kill shots and a couple of scores more were hindered with devastating wounds. Those that didn’t get out of the way fast enough became stepping stones, the zombies merely finishing off what I had started.

“You coming?” John asked in between shots.

I didn’t have the luxury to answer or even turn around. He sounded like he was behind me by the base of the water tower. I had hoped he had bugged out or at least found somewhere to enjoy his last few moments.

“Screw it might as well die together,” I said as I turned and ran for it.

My surprise came when I didn’t immediately see John. It was entirely possible that his voice had echoed off of something and I hadn’t triangulated him correctly. Even more likely, I was so deaf from the shots that I couldn’t hear-place him at all. I elevated my gaze. I practically stopped when I realized he was fifteen feet up the side of the structure.

He had gotten up the ladder. How was that possible? 

It was then that I saw it, like a desert mirage, a telescoping ladder was placed against the housing structure of the water tower ladder. I had a bunch of questions, but now was not the time to ask them as I sprinted for sanctuary. My heart was slamming in my chest, adrenaline burning through my muscles as I sought a speed I hadn’t felt since my high school football glory days. Provided I didn’t turn an ankle (errant fucking thought) I’d make that fucking ladder in all its height-defying glory.

“They’re right behind you!” John shouted.

If I dared divert any energy to anything other than my legs, I would have shouted, ‘Really? I would have never figured that out considering I can smell the stench of death and decay coming from their mouths they’re so fucking close.’ Instead, I wisely kept pumping my legs on for a ladder that would not get close quick enough. I hit it so hard that I almost toppled the damn thing. That would have been rich with safety so close. I was halfway up, or five feet in the air, when zombies slammed into the ladder as well. I reached up a couple of rungs from the top, and with my trailing leg, I jumped. I knew how this was going to play out. The ladder was falling away from me as I was launching myself skyward. Unfortunately, I was more like a North Korean rocket than an American missile. I was going to fall inches short of my desired destination.

I had resigned my fate. As my skyward arc began to peter out, a hand shot out from above. John clutched my forearm. My mind was reeling, between, “Is this possible?” to “Get me the fuck up there!”

I looked up at him. His face was a grimace of grit and determination. Zombies had clutched my dangling feet and where even now trying to sink their teeth into me; more than one got a piece of boot sole to round out their nutrients. I think rubber is on their food pyramid. It goes something like, brain, meat, fat, bone, plastic, leather, rubber. I was just doing my part to help with their general well-being.

I didn’t know if I wanted to tell John not to let go, or to let go so I wouldn’t drag him down with me. He must roll some heavy damn marijuana cigarettes, because the bastard hoisted me up to the first attached rung. He let go of me when I pulled up to the third or fourth. I was right below him and I had gotten my leg up onto the bottom most one.

“Holy fuck, John, thank you,” I told him, tears of relief in my eyes. Maybe it was sweat, because that was pouring off both of us.

He loo

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ked at me, a twinkle in his eyes. “Dead shows wouldn’t be the same without you, Ponch,” he told me as he headed up the long climb.

I looked down once at the upturned faces of the zombies. If it was possible, they looked more pissed than normal. I was thankful for the shell housing that surrounded the ladder. It allowed a view out and a place to lean against as I tired during my ascent. I was halfway up the two hundred and fifty feet-plus before the shakes subsided. I kept drawing death as my dance partner, and eventually he was going to be able to dip me before the music stopped.

“Another close call, Talbot,” I said aloud.

“Swear to me now, you will never tell Tracy about this,” I admonished myself.

“I swear it,” I answered back.

The adrenaline flow had finally come under control, and my muscles were beginning to feel like wet noodles, deprived as they were of the go-go juice that had been careening around my veins. Now I had another problem to deal with. I was deathly afraid of heights. It stems from an older brother who had dangled me by my feet from an old ranger’s station. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world while I begged him not to drop me.

“You tell mom about this,” he had said while I stayed motionless, “and I’ll bring you back up here.”

The threat was implied and understood, even if I was only seven, I knew better than to test his sanity. He hauled me back in, making a big show about almost dropping me. I’ll never forget that view of the world as I hung precariously from the perch some fifty feet in the air upside down. One gains a certain perspective when you’re looking straight at the ground. I had never truly gotten over that fear. Even as I jumped out of planes during my Marine Corps days, the panic always threatened to overwhelm me. I had learned certain breathing techniques that could bring it under some semblance of control, but it was always there, rippling in the undercurrents of my thoughts like a sea serpent ready to strike at the most inopportune time. It seemed this was one of those times, I didn’t have the energy to fight back the heavy flood of hysteria that wanted to render me incapable of moving.

“How bad could sleeping on a ladder be?” I asked myself, trying to rationalize my present predicament. John had already completed the climb. “Shit…how long have I been stuck here?”

He was looking down the open chute at me. I couldn’t make out features, but I’ve got to imagine he was wondering what in the hell I was doing. “You alright?” he shouted down with some concern.

“I hate heights,” I told him, gripping the rung with my right arm draped over it like I was going for a choke hold.

“It’s not high, not much more than two, maybe three hundred feet,” he shouted back down as if that was going to help.

I could count the number of times in my adult life I had been on a ladder higher than ten feet—seven. I won’t go into what I was doing, but that I catalogued each endeavor should be proof enough of my sincerity.

“Want me to come down there with you?” he asked.

“I’ll get there…just going to take a minute.”

That minute was somewhere closer to a half an hour, and John never moved, every once in a while alternating between offering a word of encouragement or terrifying the hell out of me. With phrases like “I think the air is thinner up here” or my personal favorite “Can God hear us better because we’re closer to Heaven?”

By the time I pulled myself up onto the top, I was coated in a sheen of sweat. I was better, but only marginally. John had pushed back on the three foot wide parapet. He had his back against the tower and his legs extended out into space. He was alternating between smoking a joint and shoving Phrito’s in his mouth.

When I got up there, I stepped over his legs and slid down the cool metal to sit next to him. I didn’t even hesitate when he passed the joint. I took a long hit, reveling in the feel of the tickle it left in my throat and chest as I exhaled. I was alive, still alive. We finished off the smoke, I got my emotions in check, and luxuriated in the high. It was long moments before I spoke. My eyes were closed and my head was against the tower.

“I don’t have words, John,” I started.

“Where’d they go?” he asked, looking at me. I opened my eyes when I heard him shift.

“I think somewhere underneath that haze; you know what I’m talking about.”

“Want some Phrito’s?”

“Of course.”

Jack Walker — Living the Life

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The day wears on, well into what I determine to be late afternoon. I’ve walked by a few severely mauled bodies along the way. Those have become more numerous the farther I proceed along the highway. I passed a military blockade that was surrounded by decaying bodies and spent cartridges. A search of the vehicles revealed nothing. The only worth noting was an empty box with Phrito wrappers nearby.

Nothing has stuck out with regards to a good place to hole up, but it’s also a little too early to stop. I want to put as much distance from the multitude of zombies behind me as I can before nightfall. My worry is that I haven’t seen much of anything that could withstand a determined assault from night runners. The best that I’ve seen so far is pretty much what the other one or others ahead of me found — an enclosed semi-trailer. That may end up being my best bet. The darkening sky, as it unyieldingly heads toward evening, tells me that I had better find something soon.

I begin to pick out a now familiar stench — that of those long dead. A motor home lies on its side across the lanes, blocking any view I have ahead. It’s obvious what it is that’s causing the atrocious smell, but I can’t see where they are or if they are the shambling or runner type. My preference is for neither, but I’ll take the slow-movers as a second choice. I’m tired of being chased by anything that can move as fast as, or faster, than me. As a matter of fact, I’m quite tired of this whole thing.

The odor of decaying flesh is accompanied by a low groaning sound. The blocking motor home is still some distance ahead, but my increased sense of smell and hearing picks up these indications far in advance, even with the wind blowing in the other direction. The way back is a no go, and I do not really want to try the trees, although they may be the only option. I want to see what is ahead before making a decision. If there are only a few, I can hopefully shoot my way through. I need to find some place soon, though. On the open road or in the woods at night with night runners about is not my idea of a good time.

Edging over to the far side of the road, over and around the myriad of vehicles, I glimpse the creatures ambling aimlessly amongst the cars near the motor home. They appear to be the shambling type, but perhaps runners behave that way before their prey is sighted. There are only about ten of them, so it should be a fairly simple process of picking them off as long as they don’t turn into track stars. I creep along the edges of the stalled cars to get closer and therefore have better shots. They don’t seem to notice me, even though my scent has to be carrying in their direction. Perhaps they don’t hunt by scent, or the hint of smoke still in the air is masking me.

I don’t really want to waste additional ammo as this may be all that I have…for like ever…but I really don’t see much of a choice. The area is absolutely still except for the moaning coming from the shuffling figures as I line up my first shot. I’m ready to run for the woods if any runners appear from the group. A puff of smoke from my barrel and my shot is on the way. One of the creatures disappears in a thick, dark mist, dropping out of my line of sight. Lining quickly up on another, I send out another speeding projectile. It impacts with the side of its head just before it lurches behind a pickup truck. It too drops out of sight. The groaning from the group is loud, echoing off the trees and metal skins of the vehicles. Dropping a third, a fourth comes into clear view. I line up my next shot when I hear the distinct sound of metal crunching behind me. And I mean right  behind me.

Turning quickly, I see a figure vaulting directly at me in the air. Time slows, freezing this particular moment. The runner is leaping with outstretched arms and mouth open in a silent scream. The ash gray skin of its face has several bloodless cuts across both cheeks and its milky, cloudy eyes are locked onto me. Its tattered and torn red plaid shirt, hanging loosely over darkly stained jeans, billows with its leap. My heart explodes into action with the sight, sending a surge of fear-filled adrenaline through my body.

Reaction takes over. I sweep my M-4 around and step to the side. Using the momentum of my turn, I catch the diving figure under the arms with my carbine in mid leap. Continuing my turn, I slam it heavily into an adjacent car with a solid thump. The creature begins to slump to the ground while trying to get up at the same time. Reversing my weapon, I fire a single shot into its head, splattering the front wheel and fender with dark liquid and dead tissue. My mind’s eye reminds me of what I saw during the brief glimpse to my rear. Other runners are close by.

I also notice the remaining shamblers have become aware of me and are slowly making their way in my direction. Another crunch of metal lets me know my next visitor is right behind me. I duck and turn not knowing what to expect, but when I heard that same sound a moment ago, a runner was already in the air behind me. I’m not disappointed as yet another

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one is leaping off a hood toward me. My quick bend down causes its aim to be too high, sending it almost over me. I rise quickly as it passes overhead, catching it in its legs. It somersaults over and lands heavily on the hood of the car on its back. It’s then that the screams of the runners begin to punctuate the air.

Looking around, other runners are making their way around the vehicles, and another is about to vault onto the hood, following its compadre. I’m in a death trap between these cars. There aren’t many of them, but I’m at a distinct disadvantage in my current location. I need room to act instead of react. I hear the one that just slammed onto the hood just behind me scrambling to rise. It’s time to move.

The stench of the dead is almost overpowering and comes close to making me hesitate. I move toward the trunk of the car that has absorbed two runner bodies so far, aiming to get onto the roof to gain a little leverage. If my red cape was a little brighter and not so tattered, I’d just leap onto it but, alas, the days of performing major feats like that are long gone. A runner rounds the bumper of the car next to my intended destination, cutting me off. I raise my M-4.

An old master sergeant taught me a little trick of using my middle finger as the trigger finger and aligning my pointer finger with the barrel. The pointer finger will track with the eyes better and, if aligned with the barrel, will provide a better aim when firing in a reactionary manner — where your eyes are focused, your barrel will be pointing. It’s also easier to eject the mag. You just have to be careful that your finger isn’t resting on the slide or over the ejection port– self-explanatory.

I pump two quick rounds into it. The first hits its throat, spraying the viscous matter outward. The second hits on the upper front teeth and continues unimpeded into the upper palate, smashing into the lower skull. The force of the impact causes the back of its head to explode outward, sending chunks of dead flesh onto the vehicles, pavement, and the scattered debris. It falls forward onto its face almost at my feet. I leap over the fallen figure, hearing the runners closing in from the side and behind.

Climbing onto the trunk, my feet slip on an oily residue covering it. Barely keeping my balance, I see the runner that slammed onto the hood has gained its feet and is coming across the roof, eager to get me in its grasp. Rather than attempt to recover from my slip, I go with the momentum and sink to my knees. It’s the quicker solution and time isn’t something I have a lot of at the moment.

I raise my carbine. I feel the shock of my old knees as they hit the hard metal. It’s not the most graceful maneuver, but it’s the only thing I have. Flipping the selector switch to auto, I fire a burst into its head. It spins from the multiple forceful blows and falls from the roof to the pavement below. There’s no time to admire its ballerina precision, which is much more graceful than mine. I gain my feet, not having time to make for the roof as another runner is climbing onto the hood ahead. Two others are in the gap where I just was and closing quickly — only feet away. This will have to do…like I have a choice.

I put a quick burst into the top of the nearest one’s head. It drops to its knees before falling forward onto its previous companion — both of them now dead for the second time. Time slows again. The two remaining are equal distances apart. I won’t be able to take both out before one or the other is upon me. The one on the ground is the easier shot, but the one now coming over the roof is the biggest threat.

I decide to fire a burst at the one at my feet, putting it down for good. In my peripheral, I see the one on the roof leap. I don’t have time to turn or perform any other neat tricks. Without thinking, I dive into the air sideways toward what I hope is the hood of a car right behind. Turning slightly while in the air, I see the vaulting runner almost upon me. We are both sailing slowly through the air. It has its arms stretched out and lips peeled back, revealing darkly stained teeth. Its open mouth is emitting a shrill, piercing scream. That, and its close proximity, rocks my brain. I blind fire and am rewarded with the sight of bullets striking its face, which vanishes momentarily behind a splash of viscous liquid. That good news is over quickly as I meet the terminus of my dive. I slam into a car’s hood on my back, my head thudding hard into the windshield.

The collision stuns me immediately, sending a blinding white flash through my head. I feel another heavy object land on me and barely have the presence of mind to push it off to the side. My brain is screaming to become more alert as I know deep down that I’m still in trouble, but I’m have a hard time responding. I don’t really know who I am, let alone why the red alert is going off in my head. Slowly, and it seems like an eternity, consciousness returns. The ability to think in simple terms returns. My mind is screaming that danger is close and the signal finally reaches my shattered consciousness.

I raise my head off the starred windshield to see the remaining zombie-like creatures closing in. The pain from rising isn’t the most pleasant, but the sight of the stinking creatures takes priority. I roll to my side, away from the runner lying next to me. Forcing myself up through a now throbbing headache, I steady my carbine on the nearest zombie, thankful that there aren’t any more runners about. Steady is a very relative world as my barrel is creating arcs through the air. My full consciousness returns but that doesn’t help my aim one whit. I squeeze the trigger and am surprised by the multiple recoils spraying bullets everywhere.

When did I move the selector switch to auto?  I think, moving it back to semi. Oh yeah, that’s right .

The moaning figures are still making their way closer.

Focus, Jack. Focus .

With careful deliberateness, I center the scope on the nearest one. This time a hit registers and the figure drops to the pavement. It’s hard to stay focused, but I manage to drop the remaining ones before they get much closer. The stench, combined with the piercing headache, is too much at this point. Standing on the hood of the car, I lean over my knees and expel the remains of my snacks and water onto the pavement below.

My head feels a little better afterward. I search for any others in the vicinity, but for the moment, the area seems empty. The sky overhead has taken on the darker gray of the impending sunset. There still isn’t anything that looks remotely secure, and time isn’t standing still.

Think, Jack. You have to push through this and think .

I have two hours at best until the time of the night runners is at hand. Far into the distance, I see the top of a water tower poking above the near tree line. That would be better than anywhere else, but there is no way I will make that before nightfall. Under normal conditions I could, but wading through this tangle makes that nearly impossible. I most likely won’t find any place if I trudge onward. I eye the overturned motor home.

Yeah, that will have to do. It’s not much and won’t withstand a determined night runner assault, but my choices are very limited at this point .

I’m just going to have to make it so I’m not detected — sight, smell, and hearing. Sight and hearing are relatively easy. Smell, yeah, different story. Especially after that adrenaline rush. That is fading and my heartbeat is about back to normal, which is alleviating the pounding in my head. The putrid odor of the dead is still making my stomach turn over, but it’s manageable. I walk past the rotting corpses to the overturned motor home, and, using a car next to it, haul myself up to its side. Thankfully, the entrance is on this side. I pull the door open.

The interior is in shambles. Everything spilled out of cupboards and drawers when it turned over. Seat cushions lie amongst shining silverware, pans, and paper, along with broken plates and cups. It’s a long drop inside and, once there, it will be tough to get back out without shattering the windows in the front or back. Walking on top to the rear, I notice a ladder bolted to the side where the previous owners could climb up to the roof.

That will do nicely , I think, placing a shot into each of the places where it’s bolted in. I manage to wrest the ladder free and place it by the door.

The inside should be fairly easy to seal up against the night with regards to being seen. With the vehicle turned over, that eliminates one side that needs to be taken care of from a defensive point of view. If I can find some duct tape or something similar, I will be able to block the windows with blankets and anything else I find. The night runners will only be able to get in through the front windshield, the back window, and the side facing up. Those are the weak points. It’s awful hard to pound through the windshield of a motor home as they’re made a little thicker than that of a normal car. However, I wouldn’t put it past a night runner to be able to do so.

Time is moving on and I need to be hasty. I drag the fallen zombies and place them around the motor home. It takes some work, but I also manage to hoist a few onto the upward-facing side. Searching through several autos, I find a roll of duct tape in the glove compartment of one and stow it away for later. Now to the messy part, and one I’m not all that looking forward to undertaking. The smell of the dead bodies is horrid already, but I want to create a wall of stench that the sensitive noses of the night runners can’t penetrate.

The odor is horrific as I lean over the first body. The smell has an almost physical presence to it which causes my eyes to w

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ater and initiates my gag reflex. Taking my knife from its sheath, I cut the shirt away, exposing the rotting flesh of the torso. If anything, the smell becomes so strong that I can’t sink my knife into the corpse. I’m thinking the reek is good enough as it is.

There’s no way anything will be able to smell me through this shit. 

However, I can’t assume anything. If there is something I can do to better my already crappy situation, then it needs to be done.

With that in mind, I place my knife just below the sternum and, turning my head, slice downward. The stench from the decaying insides roils upward. Cursing my enhanced sense of smell, I gag and then retch on the ground. There isn’t much left, but there’s no way I can stop the reflex. I don’t look at the body but rise after a moment, more from needing to get away than to carry on. I move to the next body and go through the same motions. Yeah, I’m not going to be able to eat anything tonight. I’ll be lucky if I can keep a sip of water down.

Finishing the last of the ones around the motor home, and with the sky growing darker by the moment, I walk away to get a breath of fresher air. That isn’t entirely possible, but I am able to clear my head some. The small amount of drumming still going on in my head, coupled with the stink pervading the area, is not making me a very happy camper — pun not intended.

I crawl back on top of the motor home and look at the two bodies I hauled up. Enough is enough, and I just can’t bring myself to cut into these two. I know what I said earlier about doing anything to make my situation better, but I just can’t. If there is something that can smell me through the reek of decaying bodies that have been nearly disemboweled, then I need a new deodorant.

Standing on the top with the last of the daylight covering my little island paradise, I cast outward with my mind to see if I can feel the presence of any night runners about. I immediately sense a couple of middle-sized packs in the nearby, dark forest. Yeah, the woods are out of the equation and I’m glad I didn’t venture into them. They are apparently dense and dark enough to allow night runners to lair there.

Roger that, remove the woods from the equation .

Still feeling ill from the stink, I open the door, drop the ladder inside, and descend. I test the ladder to see that it will reach and am happy to find that I’ll have a way out. Plus, it will help with sealing the windows that are now high above me. Heading to the back, which is no easy process with my having to climb and step on cabinetry and walls, I find the back bedroom in the same shambles as the rest of the motor home. A mattress and blankets are lying in a heap on the wall/floor. I prop a box spring against the window and tape it in place to prevent it from falling. Hauling the actual mattress across the maze to the front, I wedge it up against the windshield and tape it there.

It takes the rest of my time available, but I manage to tape blankets and towels against the windows on top. The interior darkens into shades of gray and I find that I have retained the night vision from my other world. I still feel this is some sort of dream but the pounding in my head and bruises are real. Regardless, here I am and I intend to survive. I’m sure I won’t be able to sleep tonight with the stench, much less if there are night runners prowling, but I’m hoping to get some rest. When I wake, I want it to be in the nightmare of the world where my kids are.

Almost anything is better than this. I’m alone in the state of ‘Amissus’, trapped inside an overturned motor home, surrounded by the overwhelming odor of decaying bodies, with night runners about to venture out on their nightly hunt.

How much better can it get? 

I think through anything I might have missed regarding my security for the night. Nothing comes to mind, so I find a place to settle in. Just in case you want to know, there is no place of comfort to be found on the wall of a motor home. However, I pile seat cushions as best as I can and, placing my M-4 in my lap and two mags by my side, I settle in to see what the night brings.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 5

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I don’t know if it was THC induced or not, but when the moon arose, it looked both larger and greener than I had ever remembered.

Was this alternate realm even of the same planet? 

That scared the bejesus out of me. I didn’t have an interstellar rocket ship license. Odds were good John did, and then I laughed. I stood up carefully and stepped over to the railing.

Nothing to it but to do it.  A silent mantra I’d often used for a myriad of my issues.

It usually worked except when I had to deal with my daughter or, Tracy, my wife. I pushed gently against it, making sure it didn’t give way. When I cautiously peered my head over and looked down, I was not rewarded with a sight I would have hoped for. My initial band of runners had swelled into a full-fledged horde. There had to be some means of communication among them, how else could the slower bastards have tracked us down?

We were safe because I hadn’t met a climbing zombie yet, but would they leave? How long could we stay up here without food and water? That was another funny thought; we were inches from a lake’s worth of water, and we couldn’t touch it. There’s some more damn irony, pretty soon I was going to be able to build a story with all of it.

“I’m so thirsty, Ponch.”

And so was I. I would have commiserated with him, but just then we heard the war-slash-hunting cry of the howlers. It seemed that they had picked up our scent. The question now was, could they  climb?

“Look,” John said.

He had come up to the side of me and was peering off into the darkness, pointing. The greenish tint of the earth from the moon looked as if we were peering at everything through night vision goggles, which I would have given my left ball for. (Well not really. I like them just where they’re at, it’s a figure of speech.) A group of thirty howlers were heading our way, and I’d swear that, from time to time, they would stop and stare directly at us.

“Does everyone in this place have super-smelling skills?” I asked no one in particular.

“I was going to say something about that,” John stated.

“Don’t even go there, man. It’s not like you smell like lilies of the field. I just can’t figure out how we became so popular.”

“Howler Monkeys can climb trees, can’t they?” John asked. He was leaning pretty far over the railing, enough so that I had taken a grip on his belt. I could see him completely forgetting his locale and just letting go for the flight of his life. “This thing has support cables all over it,” he said as he stood back up. He staggered a moment and gripped the railing tight. “Head rush, man! Cheap high!”

Nothing was clicking, maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the mild buzz I was enjoying, or just fucking maybe I didn’t want it to. Simple as that. This could basically be the world’s largest jungle gym to what was heading our way. The zombies had ‘treed’ us and the howlers were coming to do the wet work.

“I really wish you had a rifle,” I told John.

“Probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” he answered seriously.

I looked over at him. “Probably right.” I smiled. “You’re going to have to be my spotter then, alright?”

He nodded.

“Do not let go of the railing,” I admonished him.

I laid out my magazines and began to jam rounds into them. I kept it to twenty-five rounds per thirty-round magazine. I’d learned over the years, both in the military and in the civilian world, that the springs in these high capacity mags fail all the time, and it’s those last few rounds that ninety-five percent of the problems will arise from. When you’re shooting at the range and a round fails, you put your rifle down on a table and clear the jam, taking your time to be safe. In the midst of a firefight, one jam can mean your life or your death, simple as that. Anything I could do to improve my survivability, I would do.

I was finishing up on my last magazine when John spoke. “They stopped.”

“Like for coffee?” I don’t know why I asked, it was the first thing that came to mind. John turned to look at me. “Sorry.” I told him.

“No, not for coffee.” He turned back around. “They stopped at the fence edge. They keep looking up at us and over at the zombies.”

“Really? That’s pretty friggin’ interesting,” I said as I stood up, strategically placing magazines all about my body in various pockets.

I got next to John, and that was indeed the case. The howlers for once were quiet and not moving. Well, that’s a lie; some of them were walking the perimeter. I would imagine to find a less conspicuous way to come in. It was fairly safe to say that the Z’s and H’s weren’t in cahoots. I don’t know if they actively hated each other or just weren’t in a sharing mood. I followed as three scouts walked counterclockwise around the perimeter. They stopped and looked around when they realized the zombies were the thinnest on this side. One of the monsters began to climb, I noticed two things: one, he was real quiet, and two, he was good at climbing. I didn’t think the water tower was going to be much of an obstacle to them when they got to it. My best defense just became my offense.

The first scout had just jumped down from the top of the fence and was getting his feet under him, looking around for any signs of trouble.

“Should have looked up,” I told him, sending a bullet do

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wn into the top of his skull.

His knees buckled and his ankles folded in on themselves as the bullet slammed into his skull and spine. His two howler buddies glared at me. I swear their eyes glowed, just about stopped my heart to look at them.

I immediately sent one of them back to the hell it had originated from. My first shot caught him high in the thigh. He practically shrugged it off, no more affected than if a tennis ball had hit him. Maybe it was only a flesh wound. The second shot was center mass, even from my height I could hear the satisfying impact of a round striking breast plate.

The third howled and was gone before I could acquire him as a target. Then the best news of the night happened as the zombies came over to see what all the fuss was about. They began to tear into my first kill.

“So, apparently howlers are on the menu. Good news,” I said, wanting to fist bump myself. “Where’d they go?” I asked, coming back to John.

“They split as soon as the one guy came back. And he looked pee-oh’d. Think they left for good?”

“Doubtful, it looks like viable food sources for these guys are becoming increasingly difficult to come across. No way they’re giving up so easily. On a good note, zombies like to eat howlers.”

“Seriously? They don’t look like they taste good.”

“Some might say the same thing about two hundred and seven bags of Phrito’s.”

He shrugged his shoulders in response. “I think I see movement in the woods across the street.”

I was by his side in an instant. I could not detect any movement, not matter how much I strained to see. “You sure?”

“I was, can’t see them anymore. Maybe they left.”

“Doubtful,” I said with chagrin. “They’re just trying to find a weakness in the zombies and in our defenses.”

I walked the entire perimeter of the parapet a dozen times before they made their next move. The sneaky bastards sent two out to entice the zombies into following them. The two distractions shouted and hollered until the zombies took notice and began their pursuit. Our guardians were leaving in droves, chasing the new meat. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a large detachment of the howlers approaching from the side.

“Son of a bitch. Damn near textbook.”

“I loved school,” John said, startling the hell out of me as he came up beside me.

“Huh…wouldn’t have thought that. Looks like uninvited company is going to try and make an appearance. You need to start shouting and draw the zombies back in.”

“The funkies? We want them back?” he asked, perplexed.

“Right now we do.” Thankfully he didn’t question me anymore as he started to hoot and holler.

“Hey, girls and boys, look at this!” he screamed pulling up his shirt. “USDA prime beef! Top shelf! Come get a morsel!”

I left him to his devices. The howlers were coming en masse, maybe all of them, tough to get an accurate count as they streamed into the opening. I began to open fire; even if they had been standing still, this would have been a difficult shot. They were a football field away, and because of the severe angle, I didn’t have a much bigger target than their heads and shoulders. After a couple of them had climbed the fence and dropped to the ground, they began to randomly zigzag across the concrete. The only bonus I received was the slow zombies that had not yet made it off the pad smelled the blood and came to investigate. The howlers were smart, but not geniuses, they had not allowed their distraction enough time to truly take hold. Either they weren’t overly bright, or they were just starving and desperate. I was going to hold on to the low IQ theory for a little while longer. Made me feel better inside. Maybe not warm and fuzzy, but better.

Jack Walker — Cage Match

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I’m in for a long evening, but it’s better than roaming around at night with no cover. That would quickly determine whether this is a dream or not as I’d not last long. I can tell almost the precise moment the sun sets and darkness descends upon the land as shrieks from night runners fill the air. That is a sound I’ll never be comfortable with. Their presence, and the fear they cause, is so great that the motor home suddenly feels like it’s made of tissue paper. I don’t want to be in here…trapped.

I take a deep breath to calm myself. There’s nothing to be done about it now, and I can’t let fear take over my senses. In the cramped space, if they do get in, it will be close quarters. I’m not sure if that’s a disadvantage or not. I’d prefer longer range where I have the distinct advantage as long as I have ammo available. Basically, I’m just plain fucked. I want to open up my mind to ‘see’ where they are, but that will give me away, as they’ll be able to sense me as well. No, I’ll just have to fold up and become a dark hole in the fabric of space and time.

The shrieks increase in volume. From the sound of it, one or more of the packs I sensed earlier are drawing near. The odor from the zombies outside are permeating the area to the extent that I can’t even smell myself, so I know I’m relatively safe from being discovered in that manner. Of course, that’s assuming the night runners in this world behave the same as the ones where I came from. Maybe they can see through walls here, which would suck mightily. Or sense heat.

Fuck, I never thought about that one .

The shrieks nearby stop, although I can hear faint ones farther off in the night. Shortly, I hear noise of movement coming from just outside of the thin metal shell I’m holed up in. There is the same metallic crunch I heard earlier in the day as something lands on a nearby vehicle. Then, there comes the noise of something shuffling outside and quick footsteps… several footsteps. During intervals of quiet, I hear sniffing. I’ve heard that sniffing sound enough times to know that there are night runners just outside searching for prey.

They aren’t running or trotting by in their hunt for food; they are lingering nearby. I hear them circle the motor home several times. It’s obvious they sense something, but they aren’t trying to break in. I’m hoping I’m not the thing they sense. I could have left a presence of odor farther off that they may be detecting, but why would they home in here. I didn’t urinate close by as that would have left a definite clue. I have an urge to open up my mind to sense what they are seeing but, again, I don’t dare, lest I reveal myself.

I run my thumb along the selector switch, ensuring I am on full auto. Looking down at the two full mags gives me a sense of security, but there is little of that with night runners on the prowl just scant feet away. A thump on the roof — side — draws my immediate attention. Something just landed over my head, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t Santa and his reindeer announcing their arrival. I hope the manufacturer who built this coffin prided themselves on workmanship. I didn’t feel the walls give when I was on top, but that doesn’t mean they won’t if several jump up on it.

Another thump on top follows. I now have two night runners above me. I hope the zombies I hauled on top cover any smell I might be giving off, or left behind. I’m now wishing I had the fortitude to cut them open as well. There’s a scraping as the two on top walk forward and come to a stop near the door.

Please don’t open the door…please don’t open the door , I think, listening intently for the squeak of a knob being turned.

As quietly as I can, I raise my barrel toward the door. If they open it and peer in, I’ll fire, but keep in my mind that they may just quickly drop through the opening. One of the night runners on top shrieks. I swear it vibrates the motor home with its intensity. I’m not sure what the shriek is about, but I’m hoping it isn’t one of discovery. I’ve heard that one far too many times. This one sounds a little different than the eagerness that’s portrayed when we’ve been found in one of their lairs. It still doesn’t make me feel very comfortable…like any of this does.

Bang!  

A night runner slams against the side — which is actually the roof — of the motor home. I startle as my heart kicks up a notch, pounding furiously. It feels so loud in my chest that I’m sure the night runners can hear it outside. Another night runner pounds on the metal skin of the motor home by the door. Shrieks erupt in the night, filling the air. I stay still and silent.

I hear other screams mixing with the shrieks until I don’t think the air can hold any more. The pounding against the side and top cease. Footsteps run along the top as the night runners make for the front. It’s obvious something is up outside, but I don’t dare move. Whatever it is can’t be good. Outside, there is a large commotion. Shrieks…screams…footsteps pounding on the pavement. A loud thump against the side and something large, or several, slam into it. Snarling mixes in amongst the screams and shrieks. From the sound of it, it seems that a brawl is taking place.

What in the hell could be fighting the night runners? Surely it can’t be the zombie runners? 

The possibility is so intriguing that I almost want to open up a window and watch. But, yeah, that’s not going to happen.

A shriek of agony momentarily rises above the other sounds. I hear the thumps of bodies on cars and just like that, the shrieks and screams diminish and then fade off into the night. I’m left with the silence in the aftermath of whatever occurred. The stench is still pervasive, but the sounds of anything nearby have vanished. Far off in the distance, there are faint sound

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s of gunshots — automatic gunfire at that. This perks me up a little as it’s indicative of someone else around. I was beginning to think the evidence I found earlier was just an illusion and that I was leading myself on. I’ll investigate in the morning provided I make it through the night. It’s still a long ways until dawn and anything can happen. I just hope the night runners don’t return…or whatever chased them off. I can’t imagine night runners running from anything and, if I hadn’t heard it first hand, I wouldn’t have believed it. I hope that whoever is firing makes it through the night and can tell me what the fuck is going on here. I’m so ready to go home and won’t complain about it ever again. Okay, I probably will, but I just want to see my kids again.

The night passes with sporadic gunfire throughout most of it. That, and the putrid air, keeps me awake. I feel my head drooping when I look at my watch and notice that dawn should be here.

Night runners and zombies? When does one sleep here?  I think, pulling myself up.

My bones creak and my back is sore from sitting in an uncomfortable position for hours on end. My head feels a little better but is still sore from the lack of sleep. I pull the mattress back a little from the front and verify that daylight has come to this section of the world. However, what greets me on the other side of the glass is not what I wanted to be seeing. Shamblers…and lots of them. I look out the back window and see the same. The horde has caught up.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” I say softly to myself, closing the window back up.

The one thing I didn’t want to happen has — I’m trapped. I can’t see out of the sides as they are now the floor and roof, but I imagine it’s the same. I have enough food and water to last for a while but not for an eternity. I can hole up here and hope they move on, but they don’t seem to want to do that anytime soon. They are just milling randomly, without any set direction.

I stretch and settle back in to think over the situation. I could create another fire block with my remaining grenades and clear a hole through them. That’s if there aren’t runners among them, which I’m sure there must be. I can’t climb on top to get a better picture and don’t even know the extent of how much I am surrounded.

This is majorly fucked up .

Thinking for a while, I’m not able to come up with a single option without knowing what truly lies outside. I was hoping the multitude would move on, but they appear to be content with where they’re at. I have to get a better look from up top. If runners appear, I’ll pop back in. I’d be in the same position as I am now, except they’ll know I’m in here; but I have to do something.

I quietly raise the ladder to the door and anchor it in place. Easing the door open, I use the rearview mirror I procured and make sure the top is clear. It is, and I pan around. To the best that I can see, zombies encircle the motor home, meandering in random directions. I poke my head out. Sure enough, I’m surrounded, but it’s not as bad in front as it is to the sides and behind. For whatever reason, the horde has chosen to stop here.

They all have the ravaged and decaying look that the shamblers I’ve witnessed so far have. The runners look, well, more fresh, if that’s even remotely possible. The mirror doesn’t give a very detailed look, but I don’t see any that look like runners. What I need is a distraction to draw them away and then make a run for it, creating another fiery blockade to slow them further. Easing the door shut, I climb back down and begin searching through the debris. I know what I’m looking for and hoping that whoever owned this house on wheels had one. Sure enough, I locate a kitchen timer with the turn knob for the minutes. Looking through the bedroom, I manage to find a wind up alarm clock — one of the foldable travel alarms. They aren’t the most accurate, but it will do for my purposes. Thankfully, unlike the compass, the numbers are readable. I also locate a couple of road flares in the glove box. I was hoping for a map, but I’m almost glad I couldn’t find one. Although wanting to find out where I am, I also don’t think I’m ready for what it might show.

I set the time for noon and the alarm for shortly thereafter. It’s hard to set an exact time for the alarm, but I try for ten minutes. I set the kitchen timer for the same ten minutes and climb the ladder. Opening the door, I toss both alarms as far as I can into the grass behind the motor home. Having them hit the pavement or another vehicle and shattering would really, really suck. I wait with the door partially open for the alarms to go off and see what happens.

It seems like an eternity. It’s so long that I think I broke both of them with the toss, but I finally hear a ringing. The shamblers immediately turn toward the noise and begin a slow shuffle toward it. The other alarm goes off and it draws more in that direction. Now is the one time that I wish the creatures could move faster. I don’t want the alarms to go quiet when the zombies haven’t cleared out of the way and start their ambling again. The alarms continue ringing and a path ahead opens up. I open the door quietly and try to minimize my movement as I crawl across the top.

Reaching the edge, I drop over the side to the pavement below. I need to minimize my noise as I don’t want to alert any of them to my presence. I have a clear route, but that could close in a moment if there are runners about. I notice a couple of night runner bodies on the ground with a fair number of the zombie runners lying tangled with them. It must have been a hell of a fight last night and I’m thankful that I wasn’t caught up in it. I edge past a few vehicles, managing to keep my presence as yet unknown. I would like to catch up to whoever was shooting last night.

I’m tired and need to find a place where I can hole up and rest; a place where I won’t be surrounded during the night. I used to be able to stay up all night and function the next day, but not now. First, however, I want to put a little distance between me and the horde.

The water tower ahead grows larger. It’s the only thing I’ve really seen on this miserable stretch of highway, and it acts as a beacon. It’s something manmade along this road and that means something — however small. I mean something manmade beside all of these bloody cars. A scream to the side in the trees halts my meandering thoughts. Runners appear from the woods slightly behind on the far side of the road.

Fuck, there goes Plan A .

They are too close to create a fire block like I did before and too numerous to take down before many more of them are upon me.

Time for Plan B…the water tower .

I just don’t have the energy to run all day and I need somewhere safe for the moment. Of course, that means I’ll be trapped again, but my choices are dwindling with each footstep. I take off running, maneuvering over and around the vehicles.

I’m quickly winded from the lack of sleep and exertion over the last day. The runners are gaining with each passing moment. I’m making for the water tower with runners on my heels…lots of them. During brief glances behind, it seems more have joined their ranks, emerging from the woods. I think about tossing my two remaining grenades over my shoulder, but the mass of cars would limit their effectiveness, unless I was lucky enough to ignite a gas tank. No, I’ll save them for a last ditch effort. I’m not there yet, but that moment is quickly approaching.

The side of the road opens up where the water tower stands. It’s much like a rest area with a couple of concrete brick buildings in the middle and the tower rising off to the side. I really hope it isn’t fenced off as I doubt my ability to scale a chain link fence right now. I’m barely able to keep moving and feel my breath shortening with each stride. It’ll be even odds making it to the tower as it is. I also hope there is a ladder leading upward without having to figure out some engineering marvel that makes it inaccessible. If that’s the case, well, I just don’t want it to be.

The screams from the runners are unnerving, especially considering they appear to be coming from the pack on my back. I round the corner and my last hope fades. Standing around the base of the tower is a crowd of shamblers, who, at this very moment, seem very interested in me. There aren’t many, but they are there — completely encircling it. I think about using the buildings to defend myself, but a quick glance closes that option down as some of the walls have fallen in. My thoughts race for a way out, but coming up with a solution and enough time are at complete odds with one another.

So, this is it? This is how it goes down? I’ll expend my grenades and make sure there’s a pile of brass beside me before I’m taken. What I won’t do is become one of them. I’ll leave one grenade on my vest and just pull the pin — game over…quickly. 

I turn toward the rubble of the buildings, thinking to at least have the higher ground, when I hear a voice rise above the screams behind me. Looking up, I see two people standing on the catwalk encircling the water tower. I can’t hear what they are saying, but it’s a human voice and not the screech of the undead. I continue to run and hear rifle fire.

I hope that’s not me they’re shooting at .

After all, I’m bringing a horde of zombies with me, and they may not like that fact. Or maybe I do hope they are shooting at me. Maybe they hope to end my misery.

Please be a good shot , I think.

Unpinning my two grenades, I arc them at the shamblers. The grenades go off one after the other with a tremendous blast. Although the explosions may not have taken the shamblers out entirely, it did

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create a hole. I turn toward it and the safety of the tower. More gunfire erupts, and it’s then that I notice a few of the runners on the ground. Whoever is above is picking them off my backside. It’s not enough to keep them from my back pocket, but it helps. Feeling a hand grab the pack I’m wearing, I feel the zip of something heavy and fast pass near my ear. The weight of the hand falls, only to be replaced by another. This time, the zipping sound by my ear is definitely a streaking bullet. I feel a thick spray against my neck and am again free.

Charging through the narrow corridor created by the grenades, I fire shots into the nearest shamblers, not caring if they are head shots. I just want the lane to be kept clear, even if that means only rocking the zombies back a little. The ladder draws near and I switch to a better grip on my M-4. The bottom rung of the ladder is about ten feet off the ground. Leaping into the air, I catch a rung with my free hand and start pulling myself upward — yes, a scratch from a night runner, in addition to the increased hearing and night vision abilities, has given me a little extra strength. Something grabs my heel and I kick out, feeling a solid connection.

I continue climbing until my feet connect with the bottom run. I’m out of reach from the ground. Looking down, I assure myself that the zombie runners can’t climb. Scaling a few more rungs to give myself more of a margin, I hook my legs in, leaning back against the metal shielding around the ladder. Adjusting my M-4 tightly against my body, I start my climb in earnest , resting halfway up. I’m just plain beat and it’s hard to catch my breath. Adrenaline is still coursing through, but that only provides marginal help. The fact that I’m still alive, when I had prepared my mind that it was all but over, makes the climb feel surreal.

I’m eager to meet my saviors. I just hope they are as eager to see me. I didn’t arrive in the best of circumstances, but they didn’t appear to have been in the best one either. If they aren’t friendly…well…I’m just too tired to do anything about it. The fact that they saved my bacon, and I have a lot of bacon, at least tells me they can’t be that bad.

Looking down, I see that I, and whoever is on the catwalk above, are surrounded once again. The screams and stench of the already dead rises and follows me on the climb. Looking up, the ladder seems to stretch for an eternity, but I’m also greeted by a couple of faces peering down. Taking a deep breath to calm my racing heart, I climb.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 6

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The zombies were able to interfere with most of the usurpers, actually catching a few as the howlers seemed more intent on eating us than saving their own skin. When a smallish horde closed off that avenue, the rest retreated, but we had been breached. I could hear the fuckers grunting as they climbed. Occasionally I could hear the twang of a cable or something striking a metal column as they came up. I got down on my hands and knees and stuck my head through the railing and angled down, I could just make out three or four forms as they ascended. They were a ways away, but it didn’t appear that gravity or acrophobia was going to deter them.

“We got howlers on the tower!” I shouted over to John who, for all practical appearances, looked like he was dancing to Fire on the Mountain  by the Grateful Dead in an aisle at Red Rocks. You know the hippie dance, hands up in the air, head bowed down, lost in his mind as his legs flailed about wildly. Gotta admit he looked like he was having fun, his original mission all but forgotten.

“Tell them to grab some beer!” he answered without ever looking up.

“Howlers, buddy, not concert staff.”

He finally stopped, one leg still in the air, he lowered it slowly as he finally began to realize where he was. “On the ladder?” he asked, heading over to the opening and fishing in his pocket for the slingshot.

“On the cables.”

“Tricky ones, aren’t they?”

“Yup.” And then I smiled, Trip had given me an idea.

There was no way I could get a shot off by hanging over the railing, BUT, if I went down the ladder chute a little ways, that might give me some targeting vectors. I began to take in some deep breathes to calm a system that was already beginning to go into overdrive. John mercifully held on to the back of my shirt as I went over the edge, I really wasn’t in any danger of going over the edge because of the skirt that shrouded the entire ladder structure, but it was still a comforting gesture.

“Thanks, man,” I told him, I then quickly descended about ten feet. “Son of a bitch,” I said softly. There had to be ten of the little monkey mongrels swinging around down there.

They were almost at the halfway point. I rested my back against the shroud and made sure the crevice in my heel was planted firmly on the rung I was standing on. I lowered my rifle, took aim, and sent one of the fuckers plummeting to his untimely demise, or timely, just a matter of perspective.

The nine, in a freaky, synchronized unity, turned to look where the shot had come from, not to where their buddy had fallen. Another savage opponent less concerned with being killed than killing. They redoubled an already demented pace. The ones that could find a semblance of cover did so, making sure to stay out of my line of fire, the three that couldn’t quickly found themselves to be zombie chow. The last one I had shot in the knee. He had bent backwards awkwardly as his leg shattered when he flipped back over, he never took his eyes from mine as he plummeted to the ground.

“These guys suck.” I stayed a few moments longer, but when I realized that the ones still coming were not going to show themselves, I hastily climbed back up the ladder. “We’ve got about ten minutes, John. You ready?” I asked him when I got back up.

His eyes grew large for a moment, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it as we heard a huge cacophony below us. Apparently the new-and-improved zombies, or whatever the hell they were, were not content with the fact that some of their brethren were going to eat while they stayed in the shadows. I’ve got to imagine the entire hunting party came out of the small copse of woods to confront the zombies that were impeding their way.

It was a full on assault to get to the ladder. The zombies had superior numbers, but the howlers were more aggressive and had a plan as they forged ahead. It wouldn’t take them more than a minute or two to climb that ladder once they got in the well, and there was no doubt in my mind they were going to make it. Would they come out one at a time from the opening? Like a whack-a-mole perhaps. That would make my life a lot easier. Odds were the first couple would, then they’d crawl through the rungs, grabbing onto the structure and coming up from multiple areas. We were in a world of hurt.

“Didn’t you say you loved heights?” John asked, looking at the same scene I was.

One howler was able to rip and rend its way through a dozen zombies before succumbing to sheer numbers. The carnage was horrific. If this battle had been between humans, I would have walked away long ago, I’ve got to admit, I was slightly thrilled they were destroying each other. It was kind of like playing the board game Risk , nothing is quite as rousing as watching your opponents square off and destroy each other so that you can come in and mop up the mess. Stakes were obviously higher, but the same concept. I hoped they completely destroyed each other; let the devil sort them out.

The howlers had created a phalanx. They made a wedge, driving themselves through the zombie ranks and allowing their kind to gain access to the ladder. They didn’t even bother with the turned over aluminum ladder, they just leaped up and grabbed the rung.

“Shit, they made that look easy. Time’s running out. Where you going?” I asked John.

“Come on, man, you’re going to love this.”

I didn’t…not even by a long shot. I’d circled this stupid tower more than a dozen times, and I don’t know if I had turned a blind eye on the thing because I just didn’t want to acknowledge its existence or what. But on the far side from the ladder that came up here was a ladder that was adhered to the tank itself. Unlike its predecessor, it did not contain the encompassing safety shroud.

“Not a fucking chance,” I told John as I looked up the small ladder built into the tank.

It went all the way up to the domed top. The beauty of it was that this was truly a one way up deal. The rest of the tank was completely smooth, no handholds whatsoever. Oh, I’m sure Spider-Man could make it up, but I hadn’t seen any sucker hands on the howlers.

“Climb or die, Ponch,” Trip told me as he started up.

“Are you sure those are my only two options? I mean there has to be a third, like maybe a flight for life. That would be perfect.”

John was still climbing. The tower was reverberating with the sheer number of climbers on board. I hated to admit it, but John’s words were prophetic. It was really as simple as climb or die, although I was more inclined to think it was climb AND die. As if in response to my dour prediction, the wind picked up just as I grabbed the bottom most handhold.

“Really, God?” I asked, looking up. “How about a nice torrential downpour accompanied by lightning strikes…now, that would really liven things up. You know I’m kidding, right?” I wanted to make sure HE or SHE knew that.

The New Age zombies were close, they weren’t ‘talking’ as to give themselves away, but I could hear the gru

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nts of their exertions and the twanging of metallic parts as they clanged off of them. I looked up, John was nearing the top where the ladder angled over, following the curve of the roof line. Had to be at least another fifty feet up. And then what was up there? I’m sure there wasn’t some nice seating arrangement complete with safety harnesses. Gorge was threatening, and it may have finally found release if it wasn’t for the soft vibrations I felt under my feet. Something had just made it on the landing with me. I started climbing. I didn’t like it, not one fucking bit, but I started climbing.

I was a good twenty feet off the parapet, going at a pace I’m sure a grandmother would be proud of, but no one else, when John shouted down.

“You’ve got a follower!” he shouted down over the rising wind.

A howler had found the ladder and subsequently…me. I hate heights; I also hate being eaten. I know, I know, my wife says I’m high maintenance all the time.

“Move so I can get a shot!” John shouted.

He was leaning far over, way more than I figured was safe. The slingshot, which I thought was no better than a novelty weapon, was now looming large in my eyes. That shiny steel ball looked like it had murderous intent when you’re staring up at it.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea!” I told him.

“Move in closer to the ladder, man, I’ve got this!” he said, I guess trying to comfort me.

“I get any closer, John, and me and this thing are going to mate!” I told him, but when I felt a hand clamp on my shin, I just about melted in with the metal.

I wondered what I’d name my offspring. Maybe “Chutes” (think about it). Would he be a Step- son? I think weird things when I’m petrified. I felt a metal ball graze my cheek. It caught my attacker high in the forehead. I heard the sickening thwack as his skull fractured. Blood plumed from the wound. I don’t think it killed him as he fell away, pretty sure the bouncing off the railing twenty-five feet below and then spinning wildly the other two hundred and something feet and merging with the concrete did him in.

“Holy fuck,” I said; gripping the ladder tighter if that was even possible.

“Misfire!” John shouted.

“What?”

“It went off before I meant to let it go, they really should put a safety on these.”

I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but I wanted off this ladder. I felt a slight vibration as another howler hopped on for the chase.

“Move, John!” I told him as I was coming up fast.

It was going to take a little bit of luck to get up to where the ladder sloped, then get the rifle off my back and aimed at my pursuer, but I’d be damned if I was going to chance my existence to another errant ball bearing. I was hauling ass, well compared to my earlier pace, I suppose, but the thing behind me was rocketing up. This was going to be close. I just crested the top, with my right hand, I grabbed the first rung that led onto the gentler slope of the roof. With my left, I began to shift my rifle from back to front. When the rifle came to my side, I was already spinning so that my ass would land on my previous handheld. The ladder was just about wide enough for this. A few more years of office work, and that might not have been the case; pancakes and value meals would have had me slid right down the runners.

I thumped down hard, my teeth clicking as I did so. I quickly thumbed the safety off and looked out. The howler was in flight. IN FUCKING FLIGHT! He must have launched himself from the ladder! He was on a collision course for me. All I saw was his angry, ashen face, gnashing teeth and outstretched, hooked hands approaching. I had enough time to bring my rifle up. It caught him flush on the throat, his forward progress was slowed as his weight pushed me back and down. I pulled the trigger, thankful it was on auto. Three rounds tore his neck wide open, blood sluiced from him. His head fell over to the devastated side, his spinal column nearly severed. He fell away. I shuddered when I heard him make contact below.

I didn’t have much time to recover. I scooted back a couple of feet so that I was completely on the roof. I planted my feet on the rungs below me and waited. Well, waited seems the wrong word, that implies that there was a delay. The next howler was poking his head up before the repercussions of his brethren had died down. I thought this one was going to give me the finger when he realized I had blown the side of his face off, a spray of teeth blowing in the wind as he fell away. Three more came up this way and met the same fate before they must have had a regrouping strategy below.

“John, are there any other ways up here?” I asked, shouting; not daring to turn around and see what he was up to.

“Why you shouting?” he asked in my ear. If I’d eaten anything more substantial than a Phrito in the last seventy-two hours, it would have magically produced itself in an instant.

“You about scared the shit out of me.”

“Nothing else up here except a hatch that leads into the tank.”

“This is about my least favorite place in the world, John,” I told him in all seriousness, perched on a structure three hundred-plus feet in the air, sitting on a cold metal ladder not much more than twelve inches wide.

“Worse than a Thai prison?”

“Well…that’s not a fair comparison. I’ve never been to one.”

“I have…this is better.”

“I’m going to ask you about that when we get off this thing.”

“Ask about what?” John asked.

“Never mind. You hear them?”

John’s head shook back and forth. I know this, because his long beard dragged across the top of my head as he tried to peer over me.

“It’d be nice if they gave up,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s in their nature.”

“Look out!” John screamed in my ear.

He had startled me to my core, so much so that I started firing before I had even acquired a target, and good thing too. Two of the things had jumped up, one was twisting to the right and the other to the left. I caught the large man in the chest. He skittered on the roof, clawing to seek purchase, leaving a wide swath of blood as gravity won its war. The woman that had twisted to the left was now descending on me. I knew it was a hopeless venture, thinking I could get the muzzle around in time. I swung the butt of my rifle, catching her in her jaw. She rocked from the impact. Her hand tried to dig into my pants so I slammed her again in her mouth before she could bite down on me. Two of her fingernails were embedded in my pants as she fell away screaming.

“That was too close, John. I’m going to need to lean over the edge. We can’t let them get that close again.”

I started shuffling back down; that Thai prison was looking better. As I approached the lip, I had no clue how I was going to do this and remain somewhat safe. John solved that problem; he came down with me.

“I’ll hold onto your back,” he told me. “It’ll be like riding bitch on my wife’s Harley.”

“Your wife makes you ride bitch?”

“It’s her bike.”

“Okay…and thank you. Don’t forget you’re holding on,” I told him.

“She told you about that? It was only once, and we were leaving a Dead show in St. Louis.”

“I meant me, John, don’t forget that you’re holding me in place.”

“Why would I do that?”

“That’ll have to do.” I leaned over. The stuff of horrific nightmares was coming up that ladder. There had to have been about ten of them, and they were determined. “Got something for you!” I shouted as I leaned further and began to shoot.

The lead howlers screamed in rage as I emptied my magazine into their ranks. Some got hung up on the ladder, but most swirled away to die. Others on the parapet looked up at me and yelled before moving out of sight from my rifle.

“That’ll give them something to think about!” I whooped, hopped up on the heat of the battle.

Don’t let anyone ever fool you, fighting for your life makes your body create one of the most exhilarating cocktail of drugs. There’s a reason there are career military men and mercenaries. The problem with the production of these opiates and the high they produce is the resultant low as your body tries to recuperate from working at such a high level. A half hour had passed, and the howlers hadn’t shown themselves again. I knew there were dozens of them right around the curve of the tank, and I could do nothing about it except sit, wait, and try to stay awake.

It was another ten minutes, my head was beginning to nod. I was spooked awake from John’s air-splitting snores. My head popped up, my heart was pumping, I was pleased to realize that, even in sleep, John hadn’t forgotten his promise. If possible, he had an even tighter grip on my belt.

The snoring did not go unnoticed by those below us. I guess I could add, super hearing to their list of qualities. They were quickly and quietly moving back to the ladder. I said a small prayer to the gods of cloudless nights and bright moons. They were quiet, but not unseen. I would wait until a decent force of them was headed up. I wanted to warn John about the shots, but I was afraid that it would give warning to the attackers. As long as John didn’t push me away, we should be fine.

I couldn’t tell exactly how many of them had gotten on the ladder, but when they reached the halfway point, I figured that to be as close as I wanted them.

“Hope you’re hungry,” I told the lead one.

His head swiveled up quickly, a snarl corroded into his features. I blew him away in a spindrift of facial parts. My shoulder rocked as I sent round after round into them. At first they tried to rush my position, and actually made some decent progress as I changed out magazines, but my withering fire had them once again rethink their frontal assault strategy. I took a breath as they moved away, the void of

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silence was immediately filled in by John’s snores. He hadn’t even awoken.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said as laid my rifle in my lap.

I switched out my half-used mag for a full one and once again waited. Unlike traditional zombies, these ones cared about losses. Maybe not about their fallen comrade, but they were definitely concerned about their own well-being. That showed a whole different level of willingness to survive. I had my doubts that these were zombies at all. Runners were fast, but only as fast as they could run when they were alive. Obviously the stamina aspect of being able to run virtually forever made them a formidable enemy, but they weren’t enhanced in any other way that I knew of. Besides some flashes of thought process, they were generally stupid, mindless eating and shitting machines. Kind of like cats, I suppose.

But these new things in this place. They were different; they thought, they strategized, and they were also on the zombie diet. That, above everything, proved my point. Zombies, the most disgustingly wretched plague to ever walk my planet or this one, weren’t cannibalistic, go figure.

I started to hear some morning birds chattering early. It was then that I thought we might make it through the night; that was the first inkling of true hope I’d had in hours. An hour or so later, without any signs of an attack, the finger rays of sunlight were peeking over the tree line, and I realized we’d lived to see another day. To what end, I don’t know. Even this high up, I could smell the stench of zombies, so they didn’t really care about my new outlook.

“Gonna let go now, Ponch, you alright?” John asked.

“I’m good, man.” I felt his hand unhook from my belt, he stood and stretched. Now that I could actually see where I was, I really wished I could weld myself to the roof.

“I’m going to get some water, want to come with me?” John asked. He was heading back up to the very top.

I stayed low and turned my head to watch. He looked like a mountain goat on a cliff’s ledge without a care in the world. I really wanted to go back down to the relative safety of the parapet in all honesty, but I would wait up on the top to make sure John was safe.

I carefully turned myself around so that I was oriented towards him and mostly crab-walked up to the top. What greeted me was a sight that should greet no one. John was standing there naked, a pool of his discarded clothes at his feet.

“A warning would have been nice,” I told him when I got to him.

Where he stood there was about a seven foot diameter circle that was completely flat. A small hatch with a spinning wheel handle like you see in subs was standing open. An even skinnier ladder led down into the murky blackness of the water holding tank.

“You’re going down there?” I asked, trying to peer down.

“Hell yeah! Even going to take a bath.”

“I’m sure the residents of Amissus will be super appreciative of that, probably going to be giving out contact highs for the next week as they drink and bathe in that water.”

John laughed. “What can I say? I like to spread my joy around!”

He grabbed the ladder and began his descent.

“You sure about this?” I asked as he began to disappear.

His echoed voice rang out in response, “Water’s cold!”

He splashed down there for half an hour at least. I sat down, even thought about dozing. My head kept bobbing off to the side and would jolt me awake. I was awoken to have John standing in front of me, soaking wet, the only small miracle I was thankful for was that the sun was shining brightly between his legs and blotted out his nether region.

“Want some?” John asked, handing me a Phrito bag overflowing with water.

I drank it down greedily. I even have to admit that the slightly salty taste mixed in with the water was heavenly. He handed me another one when I finished. I thought better of asking him how he carried them up, some things were best left unsaid. John grabbed his clothes and began to stroll back down the roof.

“See you down there,” he told me.

I basked a little longer in the sun, thought momentarily about going down into the tank and then decided against it when I would have had to get by at least three phobia’s. By the time I had meandered back down onto the ledge, John had his clothes under him and was sun bathing.

“Again with the nude thing?” I asked him.

He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

I did a once around the perimeter, expecting a howler to pull out from the shadows at almost every turn. But they were gone, both living and dead, they were gone. They’d be back if we stayed, and I wasn’t prepared for another night up here, both mentally or physically. It was with that thought I headed back to John and was about to tell him that we needed to come up with a plan to get past the zombies below.

Then we heard shots.

John sat up. I looked over the railing searching for the source. I hadn’t heard any other humans since the first couple, and that hadn’t ended so well for them.

“I see something,” John said, standing next to me, his wet thigh up against mine.

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all, man.”

“Good to know,” I told him, but he was right. Where he was pointing a man was running in our general direction.

“What’s the fool doing?” I asked. He was heading right into a trap. “Oh,” I said a moment later when I spotted what he was running from. “Son of bitch, we’re going to have a lot more zombies soon.”

He was closing fast, almost unnaturally so, and still he was losing ground. He wasn’t going to make it, not if he had to fight his way through our modest horde. I had a great distrust of humans: living, undead, dead, living dead, they were all assholes in my book. But this guy needed help, and I at least had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I yelled to him and started shooting zombies that were beginning to coalesce on him. He looked up quickly to where the shots were coming from and kept advancing. The guy could shoot, that was for sure.

“Nice gun,” I said aloud.

“What?” Trip asked.

“That guy has a nice gun,” I elaborated as I kept aerating zombies.

“Is it a size thing?” Trip asked.

“I didn’t say his gun was bigger, I said it was nicer. Put some damn clothes on or you’re going to scare him away, and if my eyes aren’t lying I think he has grenades.”

“Wonderful! I love grenades!” John said as he went over to his pile of clothing.

Meeting

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Jack looked up as he scaled the ladder and saw two faces peering down on him. One of the men looked pale, as if he could throw up at any moment. The thought of being covered in vomit almost made him begin climbing down to take his chances with those below. The other man was a heavily-bearded fellow wearing a shit-eating grin, and looked like he enjoyed the Sixties a little too much.

He had no idea what to make of the two as he continued upward. They had saved him, but what exactly was he climbing into? That really didn’t matter at the moment. The reek and moans of the zombies below didn’t provide for too many options. Although, he hoped the one man could hold onto his lunch until he was off the ladder. As he approached the top, one of the men pulled back out of view. Jack didn’t know what to expect, all he could hope for was that his descent was not down the express lane.

“That’s far enough,” Mike said to Jack, leveling his rifle on Jack’s forehead. “I’d appreciate if you’d put your safety on and keep your hands away from those shiny grenades.”

“I would really love a grenadine,” Trip said, hopping back and forth from foot to foot.

“Easy, man. No worries,” Jack replied, reaching down to the M-4 that was hanging from the sling at his side. “There…better? And I’d appreciate it if you’d aim your weapon somewhere else. I’m not overly fond of a barrel in my face.”

“Sorry, man. It’s been a tough road, and friends and people you can trust have been hard to come by.” Mike lowered his weapon. Jack couldn’t help but notice that the man didn’t shoulder it or throw the safety on. “Who are you?”

“I can certainly understand that. I’m Jack. I don’t blame you for being cautious, but do you mind if I climb the rest of the way up? As much as I’m enjoying hanging out on the ladder, I’d feel better if I could get off it. Oh, and just so you know, I left my last two grenades on the ground below,” Jack answered.

“Can you tell my friend that you don’t have any grenadines?” Mike reached down and helped Jack up onto the parapet. “My name is Mike, and this bearded fellow here goes by John the Tripper or Trip, you’ll figure out why soon enough. Okay, next question. Are you from around here?”

“Grenadines? I’m not sure I even know what those are, and I can therefore assure you that I don’t have any. Nor do I have any pocket gnomes if that helps any. Nice to meet you, Mike,” Jack said, sticking his hand out. “From around here? Um, no. I don’t even know where the fuck here is, other than some mention of ‘Amissus’ or some fuck or the other.”

“Lost.” Trip stated, fumbling for something in his pocket.

“According to my learned friend, Amissus means Lost in Latin. Rich right? We found ourselves deposited in this shit hole two days ago and have been dealing with zombies and howlers ever since,” Mike stated.

Jack edged his hand closer to his M-4 as the man going by John dove into his pockets. He didn’t seem overly stable.

“Want a toke?” Trip asked Mike and Jack, producing a perfectly spun marijuana cigarette.

“I thought I smelled that above the reek of t

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hose fuckers below. By the way, thanks and nice shooting,” Jack said, relaxing. Answering John, he said, “No thanks, but it is nice meeting you, John.”

“Glad you’re not the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later type,” Mike said as he released his empty magazine from its well. “And I could say the same about you, some amazing moves, man.”

“It depends on the situation, I guess. But it wouldn’t be overly friendly to shoot someone who just saved my butt. And thanks, I get lucky sometimes. By the way, I have to say it…nice shoes. Do they go with the poncho as part of some outfit?” Jack asked.

“Long story, and I doubt you’d believe a third of it, let’s just say I had some wardrobe help from my friend here.” Mike reached out and squeezed Trip’s shoulder.

“You mentioned howlers. What are those? Zombies I’ve already had the misfortune to become acquainted with,” Jack stated.

“Well, where I’m from, zombies rule the roost. The rest of us are just trying to survive. Then, my buddy and I find ourselves here, and it appears that zombies have made the journey with us. And there’s this super zombie, but not really because my zombies like to eat these new ones. We call them ‘howlers’ because of the noise they make. I’ll tell you what, they scare the hell out me. They made it up this tower like it was a sand castle…that’s another thing zombies can’t do,” Mike said with a shudder.

“Well, isn’t that just fucking peachy? I was hoping you were from here, and I could figure this place out. I’m just looking to get back home to my kids and girlfriend, but I’ll be damned if I know how. Shit, I don’t even know how I got here. I’ll admit that I’m not overly fond of zombies that can run. Fuck that nonsense. So…question. Do these howlers, as you call them, come out during the day, or have you only seen them at night?” Jack asked, trying to get a handle on a situation that seemed to be only getting worse.

“Only at night, and they fry like an egg left on an Arizona sidewalk during the day,” Mike answered. “You know about them?”

“I was going to tell you about some night runners I ran into last night. I’m guessing they’re one and same as your ‘howlers’. That’s the world I come from. They have night vision capabilities, can hear like a wolf, run around in packs, and can detect scent like nothing else. Oh yeah, and they’re stronger and faster. Fucking great, eh?” Jack replied. “What about these zombie things? Are there a lot that can run like that?”

“Shit, man. I thought we had it bad. When the outbreak happened, it was the slow ones that started the whole train. Thing was, they had to die and reanimate so, at first, they were slow. Then, as the virus, or whatever the hell it was, mutated, the human host didn’t die first, so the body was kept intact. So, we have zombie version two-point-oh, and your traditional slow shuffler. More of either of them than is worth counting. Are you guys overrun with these night runners? That’s a more apt (and scarier) name. How are any of you surviving?” Mike asked.

Jack chuckled at the mention of “zombie version two-point-oh” and realized that these two men he had run into weren’t that bad and, if he were to be honest, he rather enjoyed their company; or was at least comfortable with them, even if John did seem a little out there. I guess that’s why he was named ‘John the Tripper.’

“We survive one day at a time. We’ve built a sanctuary against them and we have the day to do what we need. It looks like we have time as we’re not going anywhere soon,” Jack said, looking over the railing. “Where I’m from, most of humanity was wiped out from a flu virus and subsequent vaccine. Seventy percent just died. Less than one percent lived through it; a lot less now. The rest turned into these night runners.”

“We’re from different worlds, but the similarities are too striking to be completely coincidental. Our world got screwed over by a tainted flu vaccine. Nearly all who received it died, most of those turned into zombies. I’ve got to figure ninety percent of the world’s population has become flesh eaters. Of the ten percent of humanity left, we’ve been culled pretty good. We’re holding on by a fingernail, and I’d still take that place over this one. At least I’d be with my family.”

Mike wasn’t sure why he was opening up to the man, but he seemed an honorable warrior, much like he considered himself. Just mentioning his girlfriend and kids had made Mike feel for him.

“My wife once made me watch a movie that had aliens in it. They took men and women from all different worlds and made them into prey for the predators. I can’t remember the name of the movie though,” Trip said as he took a big influx of smoke.

Mike and Jack both looked over at Trip, each deciding how much validity they wanted to put into Trip’s words.

“Yeah. I’m with you. This world sucks, although I’m not overly envious of the one you come from. At least I have my kids in my world. Look, it seems like we aren’t going to shoot each other. You’re going to need these if we’re dealing with night runners,” Jack said, removing his NVGs and handing them to Mike. Replying to Trip, “I’ve seen that movie. I can’t remember the name either.”

“Thank you,” Mike said, looking over his new toy. “Please tell me we’re not in someone’s experiment. Listen, I’ve got a fair amount of ammo, but I’m telling you that staying up here tonight is no bargain. The night runners know we’re here, and the zombies are somewhat of a deterrent. It didn’t stop them last night, and I can’t imagine it will stop them tonight. Me and Trip went through a military blockade a couple of miles away. We could go back and check the rest of the stuff. My last visit was cut short.”

“I hope we aren’t as well. I was really hoping you knew a way out of this place. I have a little ammo as well, and the last place I want to be is out in the open at night. Fuck that. I wish I had more grenades so we could carve a hole through our friends downstairs. Do you have anything that makes noise? We could make a distraction,” Jack asked.

Mike looked over the railing at the zombies that had coalesced around the ladder entrance.

“Want some more water, Ponch. I’m going to get some.” Trip asked, oblivious to the entire conversation going on around him.

“You going back up to the top?” Mike asked his friend.

Trip walked away.

“Excuse me for a sec, Jack,” Mike said as he followed Trip around the parapet.

Trip opened up a small utility access panel, a normal looking garden spigot was recessed inside.

“Jack!” Mike shouted, “I think you’re going to want to see this!”

Jack walked to where Mike and Trip were gathered around an opened hatch. “Well, that’s handy. It will be nice to fill up, but, honestly, I’m not all that keen on staying up here for long, although I haven’t the foggiest idea how to get through the horde below.”

“I wonder if running water would be enough of a distraction. It’s not all that far from we’re we’ll be leaving the ladder, but it’s something. Maybe we take a few pot shots at some of the faster ones and then make a break for it,” Mike said as he watched Trip place his entire mouth over the spigot. “You know other people would like to drink from that, right?” Mike asked.

“Dude chill-lax. There’s plenty of water in there,” Trip answered, tapping the tank.

“Speaking of which, you were swimming in it. I don’t feel so thirsty anymore,” Mike said queasily.

“Seriously? You were swimming in it? How in the hell were you swimming in it?” Taking the pack from his shoulder, Jack removed one of the water bottles from inside and handed it to Mike. “Here, you might like this a little better. It’s fresh from the Arcadia Mountains. Wherever the fuck that is. I’m just curious, how many were in the pack of night runners?”

“Thanks, man.” Mike took the bottle, making as little a show as possible of seeing if the safety cap was still sealed.

He’d only known Jack for a short amount of time and was unsure how many of his psychoses he was willing to share just yet.

“The pack, man. I bet there had to be at least thirty that I saw, maybe as many as fifty total. They fought the zombies tooth and nail just to get to the structure and the ladder. They used tactics as well. I wasn’t expecting that. We knew we weren’t going to be able to defend this position, and Trip found a way onto the top of the structure. There is only one way up there, and I killed them as they came. It got close a few times.”

“Yeah, they’re wily like that. You never know how they’re going to come at you. Looks like you got a few. How many do you think are left?” Jack asked, looking at the blood splashes on the parapet and against the side of the tower.

“I got ten-ish, the zombies…maybe half that. So I’d say this particular pack has roughly thirty really pissed off members left. Is that about a normal pack size? Will they merge with other groups?” Mike asked.

“They’re always pissed off. There isn’t really a ‘normal’ pack size. It’s just how strong the leader is and how many are in the area. An area can have many packs, several large ones, or just one massive one. The ones where I come from have merged into a pack numbering in the tens of thousands. I’m kinda hoping that hasn’t happened here. If it has, I’ll just take a puff of what Trip is offering and enjoy the day, because that’s all we’ll see if we stay here. How did the zombies react when the night runners showed up?”

“You’re just chock full of good news, Jack. I figured they were pissed off because they were former postal employees or some shit. As to the zombies, they fought the night runners tooth and nail.” Mike looked over to Trip, whose stomach was beginning to distend from taking in so much water. “Trip, buddy, breathe!” he shouted.

“Whoa! Sorry, man, I forgot,” Trip replied, pulling away

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from the spigot and wiping his mouth.

“Well, I figure we’ve got most of the day to get out of here, so let’s make the best of it,” Mike said as he reached over Trip and cranked the spigot closed. “I wonder if the water would be enough of a distraction?” Mike asked for the second time.

“There’s too many of them.” Jack looked over the railing.

“Dammit, you’re right. Worth a shot I suppose.” Mike looked over to the spigot a seemingly unquenchable thirst parched his mouth, but he’d be damned if he could drink from that thing now without a high pressure washer and twelve Clorox wipes to clean it first. “Can’t imagine that would keep their interest for too long anyway.”

Mike spun the top off his bottle and drank deeply, reveling in the feel of the cool liquid going down his throat.

“Too funny. Your postal workers go crazy as well? We call it going postal. John, are you going to be able to keep up?” Jack asked.

“Man, I’m hungry. I sure am glad they had some candy bars back at ‘The Man’ blockade,” John said as he reached into his pocket.

“What the hell are you talking about, Trip? There wasn’t any candy,” Mike replied, running his hand through his hair.

John pulled out a silicone-wrapped grey bar. “These look old. Do you think they’re alright to eat?” Trip asked as he pushed it under Mike’s nose to take a whiff.

“Are you seriously thinking about eating a block of C-4?” Jack asked, watching the conversation.

Mike pushed the bar away. “Are you kidding me? You just tried to shove C-4 up my nose?” Mike backed up a few paces.

“That would be handy if we had some fuses or blasting caps. As for how it is now, it might as well be a candy bar,” Jack said.

“So, can I or can’t I eat it then?” Trip asked with a slight pout on his face.

“Are you seriously asking that?” Jack responded, incredulous.

“Trust me, he is,” Mike replied. “Alright, the zombies are pretty straight forward, they’ll follow us forever. Some are slow, some are fast, and they don’t have much in the way of climbing or tactics. These night runners, though. Man, I don’t know anything about them, and they scare the shit out of me. Trip not so much, but definitely me. How are we going to get past them?”

“Yeah. I don’t see that we have that many options really. I guess we could try and use the night runners as a distraction, but that’s iffy at best. Perhaps we could hide out until night, toss down a shirt or something with our smell on it to lure them into the zombies, and make a break for it. I really don’t know. Avoidance was always the best choice and, if you did encounter them, firepower and an effective exit strategy is the best solution. I don’t see that we have either. Do you have any ideas?” Jack asked.

“We can’t spend another night up on the top of the tower. That’s only going to work for so long. I’d love to leave now while the getting is only fucking horrible. The night runners add a whole new wrinkle. I mean, once we toss the shirt, how much time are we actually looking at?” Mike asked. “Because then we have to get the hell off this thing.”

“I agree. I really don’t want to be out and about with night runners on the prowl. If they hold true to form, they’ll go immediately after the scent as long as they don’t see us. If we eliminate our scent as well, that would be ideal, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I’m hoping they may be distracted with fighting the zombies to give us some time to get away. But, if we can carve a hole through the zombies now, I’m all for that. I just don’t see that we have enough ammo to do that.”

“Shit, man, couldn’t you have been from a world that only had pissed off unicorns or something? Yeah, we definitely don’t have enough ammo to get through that horde, and then we have the added bonus that a fair number of them are speeders. I’d say we could take our chances if they were of the slow variety. We’ll give your idea a go. Worst case scenario, me and you become good huddle buddies on top of the tower. And then we figure something out the next day,” Mike said.

“Huddle buddies?” Jack asked with some trepidation

“Sorry. Don’t look at me that way. There isn’t much room. You’ll understand if we go up there.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Jack paused to look over the railing. “You had to go and bring fast zombies that run about during the day into the mix. I was marginally okay with night runners only coming out at night, but shit, man, we have this crap twenty-four-seven. Okay…so we hold out on the tower until night. We toss out a shirt or something close to dusk, hold out, and then see what we see, I guess,” Jack said. “Is John going to be able to keep up?”

“John has at least three friggin’ angels on his shoulders. If any of us make it through this thing, it’ll be him, I guarantee it. The problem is, he won’t know that he did.”

Jack chuckled. “Those are the guys I like to hang next to. Hopefully he can spare one or two to camp on our shoulders.”

“We could hide ourselves in the tower, that wouldn’t be a fun night. We’d literally have to stand on a ladder the entire night, and I don’t know if the hatch actually locks though. We’d have to hold our end of the handle so they couldn’t open it. I don’t know how far his angels’ wings extend, but I guess I’m still alive, so that counts for something.”

“I’ll carry the dude on my shoulders then. Heaven knows I could use an angel or two. I think I’ve used up mine and am having to borrow from others. Okay, so the interior is out of the question. So, we just hang here ‘til dusk and go from there. Do you have any cards?”

“Well, I can tell you’re from a military background. Haven’t met a vet yet who doesn’t play cards during downtime. No cards, no food, plenty of water though,” Mike replied.

“Okay, no cards, then perhaps a story or two. I’d like to know about your world.”

*   *   *   *   *   *

I had my doubts about Jack. On the plus side, he hadn’t shot at me or even pointed his gun in my direction, which was as near to a win as was possible in this new world. The negative was basically my mistrust of all mankind even before the shit hit the rapidly twirling blades of the fan. It seemed much too fortuitous that he had stumbled upon us. I know, I know, not everything can be a conspiracy, BUT, some things can be. To what point, though? He’d proved himself invaluable in a pinch. And what possible state secrets could he hope to glean from me? Who knows, maybe he was sent to pluck secrets from John the Tripper. Lord knows the man had a past. Problem was, he probably didn’t remember half of it. More like a tenth, I suppose. 

Fuck it. We had time to kill, and I’m not sure what I had to lose from letting him know a little of the world I came from. Did I believe his tale? Jury is still out. I did, however, believe the part about the night runners. Those fuckers were all too real. Truth be told, if something seemed a little too fishy about him, I’d kill him. Right now, though, I kind of liked him. We were kindred spirits and, until he proved otherwise, we were good to go. Talk about doing a one-eighty, maybe Tracy (my wife) was right, I do have a feminine side after all—changing my mind at the drop of a hat. 

*   *   *   *   *   *

“Alright, I’m looking at your clothes and your impressive weapon. They seem exceedingly earth-like. So I’ve got to assume you’re not an alien. That leaves alternate realities, which I can relate to as well. We’ve established that in my particularly much better NOW reality, we do not have night runners, just your garden-variety zombies. Who would have thought that would be a good thing?” I asked. He nodded at that statement.

“I come from a relatively long line of survivalist types, I used it as more of an excuse to get my wife to acquiesce to me getting more guns.”

Jack laughed.

“She hates…sorry, hated them. Maybe on some level she realized I was full of shit when I kept telling her that anarchy was only five missed meals away. Then, you throw kids in the mix and what mother wouldn’t protect them by any means possible? I had ten or twelve guns when the thing started and damn near a thousand rounds for each one of them. It wasn’t near enough. It was like three weeks before Christmas, do you have that where you’re from? Because that would make for some fascinating conversation if you didn’t.”

“We have Christmas,” Jack replied.

“Too bad,” I answered. He looked at me strangely. “Oh, I just meant in a philosophical way. I was wondering for a sec what a world without religion might be like. Sorry, I tend to digress at the worst times. I…um…had a colorful youth, though not near as sustained as Trip over there, but I had my moments.”

Jack looked a little concerned that he had hitched himself to my cart.

“Right…moving on. So, I was in the shower of all damn places when the zombies came. I just got back from work and wanted to relax. No sooner did I get in when I hear this blood curdling scream from my wife. I’m thinking, is it bad enough that I need to get out? It was. I ran downstairs almost in my birthday suit. It’s a zombie apocalypse and I’m wrapped up in a towel, go figure. It got real bad, real quick. It went from a few zeds ambling about my shared front yard to an all-out war for the preservation of the human race. Once I made sure my kids were safe, our hope had been to ride the whole thing out in my walled community.”

“How’d that go?” Jack asked.

“Not so well. I knew I should have packed up my friends and family and took off long before they could get in.”

“Why didn’t you?” he asked.

“Duty, honor, morality, stupidity, a combination of any of them. Take your pick, feel free to mix and match. I stuck it out until the bitter end, and my family almost paid the ultimate price for my indecision. Once we

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struck out on the road, I figured I’d head back east and see if my family was alright.”

We had more than a few detours along the way and there were many more variables involved than I was telling him, but he was getting the gist of the story 

“Where were you headed?” he asked.

“Started in Colorado and headed for Maine.”

He took in a big inhalation. “Those are states, right?

I nodded.

“We have the same names for a couple of ours. We may be from the same place. Did you have a plane?”

“I wish. That would have saved us a lot of heartache. I never thought to ask anybody if they knew how to fly. Although I’ve got to hope that it would have come up in a conversation. I was in the Corps, and most of my time involved jumping out of them. I never thought to figure out how to fly them.”

“Colorado to Maine is quite the road trip,” Jack stated.

“Is it the same for you? I’m really having a hard time with this cross-over happening here. I mean, it sounds very much like we are from the same place…and then there’s here. Wherever the hell here is.”

“Twenty-one hundred miles, give or take a few,” he replied.

“Well, that’s the same.” I paused for a moment, reflecting back on all that had happened on that trip. “Lost a lot of good people on that journey. Made it though, somehow.”

“And your family?” he asked with concern.

“Better than I could have hoped. Took some hits, lost a brother and his family, plus a niece.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I appreciate that,” I told him, looking him in the eyes. His response seemed genuine enough and I liked him all the more for it.

*   *   *   *   *   *

I’m not sure what to think about this whole thing. First of all, there is arriving in this place that I’m still not certain is real. Then, rapidly approaching the end of the line, I’m snatched from the proverbial jaws by a pair that is from yet another world. It seems like the quantum world gone haywire. Yet, here I am. 

Mike seems like a pretty good guy and someone you can trust at your back, once that trust is established. I don’t think we’re there yet, for either of us. I’m just not all that trusting right off the bat. However, he did save my life, so there’s that. I’ll trust him to a certain point, but keep my reservations. I’m sure if we lived in the same world and hadn’t met up in this one, we’d probably be great friends. I kind of like his attitude and can certainly understand his reservations. 

Trip is seriously that…a trip. I don’t know what to think about him. He doesn’t really seem all there. He seems like some kind of savant, pulling shit out of thin air. I’ve been snatched from my kids and Lynn and thrown into this. I can’t figure anything out, and I’m surviving one moment to the next in the hopes that this all vanishes in a wisp of smoke. 

Listening to his story, especially about losing part of his family, I have a sort of kindred feeling toward him. We seem to have been through the same kind of thing, albeit in different worlds. If this didn’t seem so real, I’d say he was an extension of me in some way. Perhaps this is all a dream and I’m seeing another part of me. Hell, I don’t know. 

With some reservations, I begin telling a little more of my story. I leave out some parts, such as the changes that have occurred to me. I’m sure he suspects something by the look on his face at times. I’m sure when night falls, he’ll have more of those when I manage to make my way through the dark without goggles. 

*   *   *   *   *   *

I relate how the deaths from the Cape Town virus spurred a quick reaction from the pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine. The live virus vaccine triggered an increased number of deaths, eventually causing seventy percent of the world’s population to simply fall over dead. It then produced a genetic mutation in the rest, creating the night runners; a ferocious, unrelenting new species which hunted the streets at night. Only one percent was left to face this onslaught — either immune to the vaccine or they didn’t take it. By the time I found myself in this strange world, that one percent had fallen even farther.

“There are still some groups that are holding out, but they are spread throughout a small part of what used to be the country. It’s pretty much day-by-day survival, but we’ve built a sanctuary where we hope to stave off the extinction of humankind,” I say.

“That’s pretty fucked up, man,” Mike interjects.

“Yeah. And it’s not just the night runners. We’ve run into more than a few marauding bands as well. We’re trying to scout for other survivors, but we’re finding less and less each day. We do manage to locate a few here and there, but the odds lessen every day; time is running out.”

“And they run in packs like we’ve seen here?”

“Initially, yes. They were in small to medium-sized packs, but we just discovered that they’re gathering in larger ones numbering in the thousands. I hate to think what will happen should they all start getting together into larger ones. If we take the percentages into account, there is something in the neighborhood of half a million in our area alone,” I state.

Mike just looks on. I recognize the expression of someone who has been through very similar events.

“We’ve started hitting them with an AC-130 gunship, but they disperse almost immediately. It’s hard to catch the larger-sized packs, and I have the feeling our effort at whittling them down isn’t really doing much,” I continue.

“Holy shit! You have a gunship?” Mike asks, incredulous.

“Yeah. We just acquired it,” I answer.

“And you have someone who can fly it?”

“Well, I have some experience in a similar aircraft.”

He shakes his head. “We could definitely use something like that.”

“I wish we had one here, but I’m not even sure they have something like that. We also just met up with the crew from an attack sub. Do you have something like that where you’re from?” I ask.

“Yeah, but I’m not sure we do anymore.”

“Well, they left to explore what remains of the coastline and, even though we maintain a form of contact, I’m not sure we’ll hear from them again. I tell you the worst part, there are some very crazy-ass people out there. The breakdown of the rules and structure has allowed them the freedom of their minds to do as they please.”

“Some people, man,” Mike states. “You mentioned your kids before. How are they holding up?”

I pause for a moment. “They’re doing as well as they can. I think it’s me that’s having a problem. It’s that balance between keeping them safe versus giving them experience in order to survive. I still haven’t figured that one out and probably never will. They’ve seen some firefights and have held up well, but it tightens my gut thinking of them having to live in that kind of world. I need to get back to them.”

“You will, man. We both need to get back to our loved ones. How about the rest of your family?”

I pause even longer before looking into Mike’s eyes, my vision blurring. “I lost one of my daughters.”

His expression saddens as he places a hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry, Jack.”

*   *   *   *   *   *

“Is that a loon?” John asked.

The only loon you hear is …Jack thought.

Jack then heard an all-too-familiar shriek in the distance.

Damn, how did he hear that before me ? Jack thought, shaking his head in wonder.

The distant cries of the night runners drifted across the night air, reaching the top of the tower as Mike and Jack stood near the railing.

“It’s getting close to go time,” Mike said nervously. “I sure do wish I had a beer.”

“A beer would go down nicely,” Jack agreed.

“Those sounds make my blood run cold, Jack. Are you we sure that waiting for them to come in is the best move?” Mike asked, questioning the only plan they really had afforded to them.

Mike turned to watch Trip scribble something on the side of the smooth, steel structure. “What are you doing, Trip?”

“Graffiti, man, I want people to know we were here…kind of like Kilroy,” Trip said as he tried to write. “But this pencil I borrowed doesn’t really work.”

“Pencil? That doesn’t really look like a pencil. Jack, you see this thing?” Mike asked.

Turning, Jack saw John trying to scratch the surface of the tower with what appeared to be a fuse pencil.

“Whoa! Dude! Stop! Do you mind if I take a look at that?” Jack asked, reaching his hand out.

“How do you spell ‘Ponch’?” Trip asked as he turned, placing the ‘pencil’ in his mouth in a questioning manner.

“You seriously don’t want to be doing that, John,” Jack stated, slowly shaking his head with amazement.

“He’s eating explosives, isn’t he?” Mike asked, but it was more of a statement. “You have got to be kidding me. John, buddy, could I maybe borrow that pencil?” Mike nervously shuffled closer, his trembling hand extending toward Trip.

“Yeah…he is. Bite down on that hard enough and you won’t have to worry about further dental work.”

“Sure, Mike, not a problem. What’s mine is yours, except for the Phrito’s. Those were pretty much mine,” Trip said with a smile.

He pulled the pencil from his mouth, the end of it catching on his front tooth. His fingers fumbled and the cylinder plummeted towards the ground.

Jack watched as the fuse pencil fell through John’s fumbling hands. It struck the steel grating with a clink and rolled toward one of the openings. Seeing it start to fall through one of the spaces in the grating, Jack dove for the side of the walkway, falling onto the metallic structure chest first. The fuse pencil fell all of the way through. Reaching his hand quickly underneath, he felt the chilled metal of the object land in his ha

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nd before it could begin its long journey to the ground, and to the waiting walking dead below.

Mike had made a move for the pencil as he watched it fall from John’s hand, but Jack had been quicker. There was something here he didn’t understand. Jack had a secret; Mike would keep his eye on him. Thus far, they were allies, but only because of common enemies.

“Damn nice grab, man. Hundreds of zombies and dozens of night runners and we almost did ourselves in. Although, if I had my choice between being eaten or blown up…”

“I just get lucky sometimes,” Jack replied, rising. He glanced to see a look of thoughtful concentration, perhaps a glimmer of distrust, cross Mike’s face.

Yeah, we may be allies, but it’s obvious the complete trust factor isn’t there yet…perhaps for either of us .

“And I don’t think we’d be blown up with this, but it sure would have sucked mightily to lose it,” Jack continued, holding the fuse pencil up to find it still intact. “I think we’ve found our distraction.”

“Alright, let’s get by the ladder and I’ll toss what Trip volunteered.” Mike held Trip’s skivvies as far away from himself as possible. “Oh, God, I think I see some brown on there,” Mike said, trying to hold back some bile.

“Damn, I could have really gone without seeing that. We could use both. The skivvies for smell and the C-4 for noise. If we went partway down the ladder and tossed them, we could wait for the ensuing fight and make our way through the woods. Where we’ll go after that is another story, but at least it’s away from here. Are you going to guide John?” Jack asked as he watched Mike don the NVGs.

“Sounds good, Jack. You lead the way, we’ll follow.” And that way I can keep my eye on you,  Mike thought.  “You tell me when to toss the underwear,” Mike said.

“Toss them?” Trip asked, shocked. “I thought you wanted to wear them. I’ve had those since 1978, man.”

And apparently wearing them ever since , Jack thought.

“Oh, God. I think I’m going to be sick. Jack, get us the fuck out of here,” Mike said.

“Okay. Let’s shimmy down. Weapons ready. And, John, it would be much appreciated if you didn’t launch that thing into my back,” Jack said, nodding toward Trip’s slingshot.

Jack secured his M-4 by his side and swung his legs onto the ladder. Looking down, he saw the milling group of zombies below become agitated as darkness settled firmly upon the land. The distant shrieks carried on the night air, drawing closer by the second. Night runners approached from the surrounding trees. The plan looked a lot different and a lot less appetizing as they descended the ladder with the inky blackness of night all around.

This looked like a much better plan during the day , Jack thought, visualizing the shake of Lynn’s head.

“I wish the moon was out so we could see a little better,” Mike said so softly that no one else could hear. “What is it about the daytime that makes plans seem all that much better? Because right now, I’m heading towards a shitload of zombies and night runners with dirty fucking underwear in one of my hands. How did that ever sound like a good idea?”

Jack looked upward, past John to where Mike was.

Can this fucker read minds ? Mike thought.

“I was just thinking that.” Jack confirmed Mike’s fears.

Jack opened up and casted outward, sensing a pack of night runners closing in. He wasn’t really sure that holding up on the tower for the night wasn’t actually the better option but, here they were, and they might as well give it a try.

“We have about twenty-five night runners about to interrupt our little get-together. Are you ready for this?” Jack asked.

“No,” Mike answered honestly. “Just tell me when I can heave this thing, and we’ll go from there.”

Jack stopped about twenty feet from the ground. The reek of the dead below threatened to bring tears to his eyes, and he felt bile rise in his throat from the stench. Taking a few shallow breaths to calm himself, he sensed the pack of night runners drawing closer. They were still hidden within the dark folds of the trees, but their high-pitched screams mixed with the moaning of the zombies just beneath his feet. Hooking his legs in the rungs, he took the block of C-4 from his pocket. He then took the fuse pencil and held it at the ready.

“They’re close. Anytime will do,” Jack replied.

“Hey, Trip, can I borrow a couple of marbles?” Mike asked.

“Why? Do you just want to toss them, too?” Trip asked, still a little saddened over the prospect of losing his beloved underwear.

When Mike didn’t immediately reply, Trip began anew. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re going to toss my marbles as well!?”

“Trip, man, first off, I think you’re marbles were tossed out a long time ago, and you need to keep it down a bit. We’re kind of in a life or death situation here,” Mike said, trying to placate the man.

Mike felt a hand hit the bottom of his foot. He reached down and grabbed the handful of marbles that Trip had reluctantly handed over. Mike wrapped the underwear around the marbles for weight.

“I swear to God, if I get pink eye or something from touching these things, I’m going to be really angry. Here goes nothing.” Mike hurled the package.

The shorts, carrying the stains from years of concerts, motorcycle rides, and partying, launched into the night air. The ends not wrapped around the marbles fluttered as they sailed. They flew over the heads of the waiting zombies and came to rest just beyond the agitated horde. Night runners broke into the opening, their excited shrieks rising and their pale faces seeming to glow in the darkness. They came to a stop, lifting their noses to the night air. As one, they turned slightly and, with a scream, streaked toward the marble-filled shorts. Jack readied the fuse pencil and C-4.

Mike watched as the shorts arced into open space. The zombies, which had been mostly looking upwards as their meal came to meet them, were now somewhat distracted. They had caught scent of the stained clothing…and also something else. The night runners were coming into range. The zombies seemed torn. The trio on the side of the water tower they could still see, but they could not get. Some of the zombies peeled off, heading toward the underwear. Others ranged farther out trying to get a line of sight on the new food source.

Seeing some of the horde below streak off toward the night runners emerging from the woods, Jack slammed the pencil against one of the rungs in order to activate it. He then placed it into the block of C-4 and brought his hand back, ready to toss it.

“I’m going to get my slingshot ready,” Trip said, not really talking to anyone. With his hand, he reached in to grab a couple of pieces of his ammunition.

Jack threw the block away from the tower in the opposite direction than their intended route of flight. With the strong scent and noise from the C-4 going off, he hoped that enough of the zombies and night runners would be drawn off, allowing them to escape. There were already signs of the night runners and zombies tangling with each other near the pair of downed shorts.

“PULL!” Trip shouted.

“What the f—?” Mike began, hearing Trip shout.

He watched as Jack tossed the C-4 and Trip honed in on it with his slingshot, like it was a clay pigeon

“NO! Trip!”

But it was too late. Mike knew the second Trip released that marble that he’d strike the explosive. The guy was nearly flawless with the weapon. The marble made a solid ‘thunking’ sound as it slammed into the side of the C-4. Mike braced for the explosion he figured was coming entirely too soon. He would count his blessings if a brilliant flash didn’t melt their faces off.

“Damn, that was close.”

Mike watched the fall of the explosive as it landed by one of the support legs for the tower.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Jack said, watching the block of C-4 get knocked out of the air. “Cover yourself,” he shouted, and buried his face in his arms.

A blast shattered the air around them and the ripple of the explosion threatened to tear them from their moorings on the ladder.

“WHOA!” Trip shouted. “What a rush!”

Mike could see little more than a bright flare in his field of vision, but once his ears stopped ringing, the groan and creak of metal stressed to its capacity dominated.

“Jack, man, the tower’s gonna go! We have to get off this thing!”

“Too late. Hang on,” Jack cried out.

“You’re kidding, right? You and Trip think this shit up?” Mike asked. The tower began to lean. It was minute at first and then it became a full-fledged list. “Shit,” Mike muttered. “I always hated those dreams where I fell.”

With a shrieking twist of metal, the tower leaned farther. The support structure snapped with a loud clang. The group wrapped their legs and arms tightly around the rungs as the list became a free-for-all tumble towards the ground.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 7

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The next twenty-four hours for me involved a death and a rebirth of sorts. The last things I remember with any clarity are Jack’s and my hastily laid plan to escape the water tower. Kind of had to like the guy, he ‘winged’ things about as much as I did. We were on that infernal ladder heading down towards a multitude of gnashing mouths. I thankfully swung Trip’s nasty pre-Reagan era underwear as far away from me as was humanly possible. It was just bad luck there was a prevailing wind that let me get one final intake of his crotch area. My last few

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cognizant thoughts, and one of them was going to be this? How bad must I have been in a former life that this was partial payment?

The underwear arced out and then plummeted to the ground where I swear (maybe not on a stack of bibles) that I heard them splash wetly down onto dry ground. Let that visual sink in for a couple of seconds. Zombies and Jack’s night runners were heading straight for it like the heavily-stained cotton cloth was a human buffet and not the accumulated dingle-berries of a burn out. I was vigorously rubbing my free hand against my poncho in the hopes I would be able to wipe off what I undoubtedly ‘caught’ as Jack was tossing the C-4. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Trip stir. It…it just happened so fast I couldn’t react. Maybe I was thinking that it wasn’t possible or that even ‘he’ couldn’t be that close to insane. I was wrong on both counts…all counts really.

I heard Trip yell “Pull!” That stupid fucking slingshot came up, and a ball-bearing was heading for a target I intrinsically knew he was going to hit. I swear I could hear Jack’s expression drop. The C-4, which had been on a trajectory that would have been a safe enough distance away, now dropped faster than a nun’s knees at church. (Oh get your head out of the gutter, I’m talking about genuflecting in prayer!) I stuck my head through the safety bars that enshrouded the ladder to watch. I guess I was either hoping it would hit the ground and miraculously bounce away, or it was a twenty car pile-up happening in front of me and I had to see how it was going to end. The C-4 literally just splatted to the ground and stopped. Of course it didn’t help matters that it was leaning against one of the support legs for the tower.

“No fucking way.” I may or may not have said that out loud.

Maybe it was Jack, I don’t know, things started to get blurry, but he recommended we cover ourselves, and that sounded like a pretty damn good idea. The explosion was deafening and blinding; my senses were rocked. I gripped that ladder hard enough that a casual observer may have thought we were lovers of some metal-human fetish. Even over the voluminous ringing in my ears, I could hear the pops and groans of the stressed support structure beginning to give. We were moving, and not because of any physical activity on our part. The tower was crashing down. John ‘wheeed’ the entire way. The tower first leaned backwards toward us, making it appear as if it were going to land on our ladder. The safety shroud was stout, but not that much. We’d be crushed like ants under boots.

I felt wind rush by me as we began to twist to the side. We were momentarily saved from being flattened, but we sure as shit were not out of danger. You know how people sometimes will be recounting a story of some scary accident and they start with “Oh, it just happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be scared.” That certainly wasn’t the case here. My dangerous mind had done me the great disservice of slowing everything down into easily digestible bite-size morsels so that I could enjoy every fucking terrifying millisecond. My body was pulled so tight, that, if someone had the desire to ‘pluck’ me, I would have resonated with sound. I’d thought the C-4 was loud, but it had nothing on the crashing of that water tower. When we finally struck ground, my head rattled inside that cage like a marble in a tin can tossed off the side of the Grand Canyon. I felt like someone had taken an aluminum bat to the side of my head.

As I write this now, I know what happened. At the time, though, I was unconsciously conscious; meaning that I was still awake, but I had no idea who I was, where I was, or what was going on. The force of the fall had ripped the safety shroud completely clean from the ladder, I was in flight for a few seconds, and then I found myself swimming. The tower itself had ruptured, sending however many millions of gallons of water rushing to the lowest point in the lay of the land and, it just so happens that I was in that path. Zombies and night runners were flowing with and around me. I saw an empty Phrito’s bag or three, then trees and we were all hurtling towards them. Some of the zees in front of me were being crushed and spun around large tree trunks. I was rapidly approaching my demise, and it was made of oak.

I might not have been with it completely wits-wise, but my survival instinct was in high gear. I started jamming my hands down into the surf trying to find a handhold; anything I could to stop my present ride.

Chain link! 

I felt fencing. I was going to lose a fingernail, but that beat getting battered. My right hand found purchase first, and my shoulder popped and groaned much like the water tower had. I was in serious danger of wrenching my arm clean from its socket, so I shoved my left down as well and scrambled to grip something. The tension eased as I distributed the weight. I figured I could ride out the storm until, of course, I saw a zombie heading straight for me mouth-first like a shark. Water was flowing past me, and sometimes over my head. At times, I was struggling to get air as I held on, and yet the damn ‘Great White Zombie’ kept coming. I did the only thing I could in defense—I ran. In this case…that meant letting go of the fencing.

I once again found myself become flotsam in a turbulent wake. I twisted and fought the current as much as I could. I don’t know why I thought it would be better to see the trees coming as opposed to just running into them. I tried to push off just far enough as a large oak dominated my view. It wasn’t enough. My already pounding head took another shot as the top of it scraped bark. I know I cried out in pain and what little grip I had on my present reality was ripped free. It was like my thoughts had been pounded out by the beating. The force of the impact may have saved my life as it swirled my body around the tree and to a low hanging branch, which I clung to like a sailor will a piece of driftwood during a capsizing. Zorca—zombie orca—wasn’t quite as lucky. I didn’t see him hit the tree head on, but I had the unfortunate luck of hearing him do so, and then I got to feel the spray of blood whistle past me on both sides. The water was murky and it was too dark to see that it had turned to whatever grisly color he had tainted it. And then…that threat was past.

I don’t know how I knew, but I realized that wasn’t the only one. I shook my head, hoping that somehow I would unlock whatever door had been slammed shut from my concussive hit. No luck. I was scared, maybe more so than I’d ever been in my entire life, and it wasn’t because of impending death. I’ve been in its presence many times over the years. From my days in the Marine Corps to the apocalypse I had left behind, and even the world I now found myself in. No, it wasn’t death that had me so frightened, it was life. It was the life I couldn’t remember. I did not have any idea who I was. Names meant nothing, occasionally I would be served up the mental imagery of a face, but I didn’t know the person. Was it my wife, a daughter perhaps, someone I had killed in a battle, both foreign and domestic? Was I a good man or a mass murderer? Nothing…nothing meant anything to me other than my next breath.

Like all humans, I value alone time; a time to reset one’s inner workings, a centering of your chi, or whatever your belief calls it. But being alone and being lonely are vastly different. I was soul-sucking lonely. I was so alone that I didn’t even know who my self was. My mother could have come out of the woods to save me, and I would have stared at her trying to ascertain her intentions. I was basking in self-pity, which is actually kind of funny if you think about it, because I didn’t know who I was—unnecessary tangent I suppose. Errant thought aside, the water flow was beginning to ebb. My feet slogged down onto wet earth, and my knees gave out when I attempted to put weight on them. I was on all fours with water running over my bleeding knuckles; dizzy, light-headed and nauseous. Then, I realized it wasn’t my knuckles bleeding but rather a steady stream of blood coming from my head.

I reached up and froze for a second when I felt a large outcropping up there. I’m not going to lie. I panicked a bit until I realized it was some sort of head gear and not some giant lesion or protruding railroad spike—or something equally as nasty.

When I was confident it wasn’t William Tell’s missing arrow, I pulled my hand back down to find it was covered with a fair amount of my life fluid. I looked hard to make sure there wasn’t any brain intermingled within. I used a tree as a support as I rose unsteadily to my feet. I leaned against the thick bark, taking in some breaths. I might have stayed that way for a few more minutes, hours, until daylight, or the end of times, but the fucking howlers had a different idea as they began their incessant wailing.

“Night runners,” I hushed out softly, not even realizing I’d remembered something.

I pushed away from the tree. My first steps looked like I’d just left a bar at closing time with draft beers having only been a penny. I staggered and weaved, then found some semblance of stability as I departed the area. My flight did not go unnoticed. Something was coming my way, but it wasn’t a night runner. It was as pale as death and a large gash oozed blood from the side of its head. A chunk of muscle the size of my fist was flapping on its thigh, part of it having been severed; most likely during the toppling of the tower. That didn’t stop him, though. The anger in his eyes was enough to let me know that if he got within striking distance, he meant to do me bodily harm. I was lucky his attempt at fast locomotion was thwarted by his damaged leg. He groaned as he dragged his useless appendage. His arms came up; his spatial abilities were pretty terrible if

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he thought he was in range of grasping me.

It was sort of humorous in a dark way, right up until his buddies heard his groan for help. Yeah, then it wasn’t quite so comical. All eyes turned toward me, like I was the office intern and I just returned with the boxes of bagels the boss had ordered.

“Uh-oh.”

Yeah I’m pretty sure I said that, and then, I turned and ran. I had completely forgotten about the M-16 I had hanging down on the middle of my chest, held on by my tactical strap. Even as the thing kept repeatedly hitting my sternum, I ran. If I’d had the misfortune of running between two trees too close to each other, the rifle would have bridged the gap and I would have slammed into it like it was a crossbeam. My head ached; every beat of my heart was agony as it sent a pulse of blood into the area. The pain was nearly debilitating. The lack of light and the canopy of the trees made any kind of vision nearly impossible. I was running blind with no direction in mind. I did not know of any sanctuary, no safe haven, no help…nothing. I was running to not die; it was the pursuit of the damned. I stumbled over a root and nearly went down.

Don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip . This became my mantra.

The word ‘trip’ seemed important, but given the circumstances I was in, it held up to its own merits without me having to look for a deeper meaning. I could hear night runners off in the distance. They were a threat, but not as immediate as the one I found myself in now. The thick woods were slowing down those that followed, but it was having the same effect on me. Plus, they didn’t seem to give a shit that they couldn’t see anything. Either they were scent driven, or they could see in the dark. I didn’t know which and it didn’t really matter. They were closing and if I didn’t do something soon, I would die a violent death.

It was a branch that saved my life. At some point in my existence, I must have been a tree-hugger, because the woody plant life was helping out whenever it could. The growth caught the apparatus on top of my head and threatened to yank it clean from my skull. I don’t know why I cared; I didn’t even know what it was, but it was mine dammit, and I was going to do whatever I could to hold onto it. I yanked the thing back onto my head with a little more force than necessary, and it crossed over the top part of my field of vision.

I damn near stopped running when I realized, for a brief second, that I could see. Clearly I mean. Sure, it was this ghostly green, but I could see a patch of poison ivy to my left, a small outcropping of scrub brush I was about to get entangled with straight ahead and, yup, the ugly green-ass zombie coming up on my right. I lost a fair amount of peripheral vision as I dropped the wonder glasses into place, but I could see the hazards directly in front of me, and for right now, that was going to have to suffice.

I quickly weighted my options: Itching for a week, ripped to shreds from thorns and possibly hung up and then ripped to shreds from a man-eating monster or, I could avoid the step of getting shredded by thorns and go right for gruesome death by ingestion. I took avenue number one. At least in this one, I’d be alive to suffer through the insufferable scratching. Odds were I had to know someone that owned enough oatmeal for a bath. Right?

I was getting a bruise on my chest from the object that kept slamming into me. I looked down, but due to the length of the optics, I could only make out a piece of the gear as it swung away from my body.

Stick , was my initial thought, although I couldn’t figure out why I would have attached it to myself in such a way as that it would not come off. Then, the word ‘fire’ began to resonate.

Wonderful , I thought, what a bunch of useless, random thoughts I was having as I struggled to hold on to my life.

‘Fires’ and ‘sticks’ were pretty much one of the earliest thoughts of man. Well, that and bopping a cave-woman over the head with a club and dragging her to their cave. Upon where she would chastise him mercilessly for having a pig-sty for a home and why couldn’t he bring her home a mammoth fur like Ubrach next door? Yeah, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. I was going to die tonight. Then, something wonderful happened as I thought about Nugla and Ubrach’s dysfunctional cave life. I circled back around to ‘fire’ and ‘stick’, only this time I stuck the two words together. At first this meant nothing.

What the hell is a ‘firestick’? 

Then an internal light shone brightly. Firestick equated to rifle. I didn’t know what a rifle was per se . I wouldn’t be able to give anyone a definition, but I started to see pictures of me handling one; of me breaking one down into its individual components and putting it back together, of pulling back on a charging handle, of watching rounds enter the chamber, of rounds coming out of the barrel.

“Holy shit!”

I wasn’t quite sure what I had, but I was positive that it could do damage. I was still running for all I was worth. The things behind and to the sides of me had not dropped off. I had to find a place to make a stand, and these woods weren’t going to be that place. I could see and I had the means to defend myself. I still had no clue who I was or why I was here, but I had hope, and right now, that was the only fuel I needed to spur me on. I found another gear. I was emboldened by my ability to see and not be impaled on the very branches that were doing their best to keep me alive. I ran. My legs were ablaze, my head throbbed, my chest heaved, my lungs burned, and yet…still I ran. At times I shouldered into a tree, always losing that particular confrontation. My momentum would slow for a mere moment before I would press on.

My feet felt like bricks. My knees were protesting the uneven terrain and my back begged for a seat, but still, I ran. Hope is a wonderful thing. It can make seemingly unattainable goals possible. But it is not an infinite well into which you can dip an over-sized ladle whenever you want. Even hope demands fuel of some sort to keep burning. It can be a drop, even a mist of fine spray, but it does need something. My reservoir of hope was beginning to consume itself like the malnourished dream that it was. Then, like that, there was an opening. At first I thought I was having a hard time processing the information being supplied through the green lens, but the farther I ran, the wider the gap became. I was close to getting out of the woods. Open ground wasn’t necessarily advantageous, though. The trees were the only thing keeping those chasing me from dragging me down. At least I’d be able to better see where I was going and potentially increase my speed. I may even be able to tell which direction my enemy was attacking from, although, odds were that would be easy enough to figure out as ‘being surrounded’ came to mind.

I ran out of the woods. It was exhilarating. The air seemed fresher, or maybe it was because my personal body funk wasn’t as entrapped. However, there was no time for joy as more and more of the chasers popped out of the woods at various points. All of their eyes trained on me and the pursuit began anew.

This time I had a place in mind; there was a clusterfuck of cars and trucks up ahead. I didn’t know what they were at that moment, I only saw them as defensible bunkers; a place where I could wield my weapon. One more spurt of energy; I would have had an easier time of wresting a banana from a selfish gorilla. I saw the only thing that looked decent enough to stop at. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the roadway. It looked like a school bus, but it wasn’t; unless it was for the kids attending St. Peter’s school of perpetually deviant little shits. The windows were covered with heavy mesh and the wheels were protected by sheets of metal. It was either a prisoner transport or some prepper’s wet-dream brought to automotive life. I figured it was the former, a prisoner bus. I mean, why would the preppers have left it? Prisoners would have bolted at the first opportunity; a prepper would have died inside that thing.

“Just let the door be open,” I managed to hiss as I made it over the median.

I was threading my way through a tight packing of cars when I literally felt air being pushed past me. One of the snarling, drooling, teeth-grinding hunters had found a faster way through the traffic and was now coming at me after having stepped on a hood and launching himself my way. I turned in time to see my field of vision dominated by a gore-caked hand coming for my face. I twisted just enough that his pinkie finger scraped against the side of my cheek. I might have smelled like I’d taken a bath in a sewer, but that was nothing compared to the aged belly-brine, nose-bristling reek he gave off as he passed. His head hit the grill of the car I was next to and I turned to make sure he got an unpleasant introduction to my knee. He seemed no worse for it. That threw me for a loop. I expected the hard hit to knock him completely unconscious, if not outright kill him.

He might have been a little foggy, but that didn’t stop him from attempting to get up. I kicked out at his elbow, shattering it in at least two spots. His arm folded in on itself and, for the second time in as many seconds, his face met an immoveable object. He should have been screaming in agony. Nothing…not so much as a whimper.

“Drugs?” I asked as I brought the heel of my boot down on the back of his head.

Impossibly, it was still trying to rise. I raised my leg up again and, supporting my body on two vehicles, I drove down hard enough that I damn near gave myself shin splints for the effort. At least he wasn’t moving. I made it around the back of the bus and found two more attackers between me and the door whi

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ch, on one hand, was awesomely open, but on the other, depressingly blocked by two more drugged-up, insane people. They had probably been on this very transport up until recently when whatever events transpired that set them free to ravage the country side. Shit, for all I knew, I was one of them and they were hunting me down because I had ratted out Jimmy ‘the Salami’ Montevez. Nobody likes a tattletale, least of all convicts.

“Firestick, fuck-tard!” Yeah, I yelled those words out.

It was like part of me in the know was trying to gain the attention of the much larger, other idiot part that was still nearly clueless. I brought the rifle up and fired center mass like I’d been taught somewhere, at some time. The man staggered backwards and then started forward again. If I had not had on the night vision goggles, and witnessed the impacts and the stains of blood they had produced, I would have thought I was firing blanks, or somehow had missed a shot that nearly had the barrel of my weapon pressing against my enemy.

“Protective clothing,” I mumbled, even if somewhere within me, I knew that was not the case. They were bleeding for chrissakes.

“Nothing on your neck or head, though.” I was thinking or saying this as I fired higher.

A shot hit the closest being in the Adam’s apple, bisecting the protrusion. It must have severed his spinal column as it blew through the back of its neck. His head fell over to the side like he was a puppy and was just trying to recreate the cutest pose known to the animal.

“Puppy tilt my ass.”

I was horrified. The thing’s head was literally resting on its shoulder and it had not stopped. I fired a burst, not knowing what else to do. The first ripped its lower jaw clean from its body, exposing its palate and top teeth. The second went to the left of its nose. That one seemed to do the trick as the third drilled him just below the left eye. His subsequent fall tripped up his companion, who got tangled and went down hard. I would have finished him off but I was running out of time. I could hear the snarls of more of their kind coming. I had just jumped in the bus and was reaching for the silver handle to close the door when something grabbed the back of my leg. They were squeezing so hard that it felt like a damn vise. I was in serious danger of my muscle seizing up into a massive cramp from their less than careful ministrations. I shook my leg violently, but it wasn’t letting go, like a great white to a seal. I did the only thing afforded to me and just kept pushing the handle towards the driver’s seat, slamming that door repeatedly on the arm until I heard the satisfying crunch of bone. I just kept repeating that while jerking my leg forward. I should have been more horrified when the arm came loose. I was just thrilled that the door shut.

I was leaning against the handle catching my breath while the bus was being jostled back and forth from the ‘undead’ that kept hitting the sides. Another word had come to the forefront of my knowledge. I knew it was important but I just couldn’t find the necessary reference catalog to look up what it meant. I almost recognized what I was looking at. There was a name from my memory, but instead of trying to dance around what a ‘blue shitter’ was, I just went with what I know. Just remember, the bell in my head had been wrung hard and it was still vibrating at this point.

The bus was not a prisoner transport. It was indeed a prepper’s vehicle. Unfortunately, it was someone that was on a pretty tight budget. He’d somehow gotten a hold of a port-a-potty and retrofitted it to fit in the back of the bus. It looked like he’d ripped the top off with a jig saw and then used five or six rolls of duct tape to hold it into place. The door was closed and my first inclination was to blast a couple of holes into it and let the chips fall where they may. There was a sixty-seven percent chance that there was something horrible behind that door. Here’s my reasoning. One, it’s a zombie stuck inside. Two, it’s a person that hid when they saw me coming. Three, the inside is completely coated in blue chemical-infused crap after hitting a series of pot-holes and it all splashed out. Hell, I’d be doing whoever is hiding in there a favor.

“Come out.” I think my voice had a tremor to it. It wasn’t very authoritative. “Come out now or I’ll blow some holes in there.” There, that sounded more certain.

Nothing moved. The latch informed me that the toilet was indeed ‘not occupied.’

“This sucks,” I said as I shuffled closer.

I was as close as I could be without the door hitting me should it pop open and an unpleasant surprise jump out at me. Like a shitty monster. Even I had to shake my head at my horrible pun.

“Last chance,” I called out.

It didn’t help that the zombies outside were rocking the bus enough that the door would crack open from time to time like someone was peeking out. My imagination was in overdrive. I was positive there was some little girl in there with pasty pale features, a tongue half-torn out, and sharp pointy teeth getting ready to launch herself at me. With the barrel of my weapon, I exploited one of the times the door cracked open and shoved my rifle in, and slammed the door to the side. I’d done it so hard that it hit the side of the bus with enough force to come back almost as fast as I’d sent it. I damn near needed to use the port-a-potty myself after that, it startled me so much. What I did notice before I almost crapped myself was that, unless someone was inside the refuse holding tank, there was no one in there.

I just about turned, and was going to scope out the rest of the bus, when I decided I needed to check. I’d read more than one news story in my life where some sicko would bind himself up in plastic wrap and hide inside that blue goo with the hopes of getting some sort of thrill. On a side note, what has to go wrong with your life that Saran wrapping yourself and getting into a human shit and piss-filled chemical tank for hours so you can watch random people expel waste product is your idea of a good time? I mean really, how far off the rails have you gone? Is there any chance of coming back from that? If there was someone in that tank, I may have had to shoot them just out of principal, because I’m not ever going to shake their hand.

“This cannot really be what my life is reduced to. Can it?” I was nervous talking as I slowly moved closer.

I’m pretty sure my gun was shaking as I moved it to point down the hole. There were things that went bump in the night, and then there were monsters, and anything that had the power to hide inside a chem-potty was the latter. My finger, instead of merely resting on the trigger guard, was applying nearly all of the force necessary to give someone a high speed enema. Fitting I suppose, considering where I was. I moved as fast as I could, my weapon pointing straight down to where I was looking. For a moment, I did see the beady eyes of something looking back at me—a white, wide smile plastered on its face, and a thumbs-up just for good measure. My trigger finger tightened an imperceptible amount.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I laughed as I loosened my grip on my rifle. “What kind of sick fuck puts the logo of a smiling man on the bottom of a shit can?”

The potty had never been used, or it had been cleaned thoroughly. Either way was fine with me. It did give a clue that whatever had happened in this place had happened suddenly, because I had to believe that if this person had spent the time retrofitting this thing in here, that he fully intended on using it. Why go through all that work otherwise? He’d had to have fled before he got the chance to fill it. Once the bathroom was checked out, I gave the rest of the bus a looking over. He had moved all the seats on the right side from the traditional school bus configuration to placing them against the bus wall, thus making a very large bench or thin, long bed. I guess it just mattered how you were going to use it.

On the left, he had the aforementioned toilet, then a couple of rows of seats. Some were removed and an old, round kitchen table, that looked like it had been weathered in Minnesota, installed. There were a few more rows of seats and then right behind the driver’s seat, there were two military footlockers secured to the floor of the bus.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Fuck you, wormies!”

I had not yet realized the pale ghostly figures looking in were zombies. I quickly got down onto my knees so I would be closer to the serious cache of weapons I just knew had to be stored in there. I was even more excited by the padlock that was in place and locked. That just meant he hadn’t had the chance to take anything out. I don’t know if an orphan kid just adopted by super rich parents on Christmas morning could have been more excited than I was at that point. I looked around for something to bust the lock, which I found next to the driver’s seat. It was a club, but not the traditional club you might be thinking of. This was an anti-theft deterrent, popular back in the 1980s from where I’d come. It had a U-shape on each end; this was so that you could put one end around your steering wheel, adjust the bar by telescoping it out, and using the other U to go on the brake pedal. In theory, a car thief could still start your car, but could not steer it, rendering it useless for their despicable ends. Thieves had since figured out how ineffectual the thing was, steering wheels bent with surprising ease, letting the club be removed and the car still stolen. I should have realized that his outdated deterrent was a portent of worse to come. He either got this thing at a dollar store or a yard sale. Either way, he’d paid too much.

The second piece of the puzzle came into focus as the padlock took two semisolid hits before the haft li

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terally fell away. I was either really strong or he’d gone the cheap route again. I wasn’t so sure this lock could have stopped a determined toddler. Even as I was opening the top of the locker box, I was reasoning that perhaps he had no money for a lock and anti-theft materials because he’d blown it all on Uzis and hand grenades.

“No, no, no,” I said, staring in disgust at the vast array of cheap weaponry that could be purchased at any mall in the same store you could get a Buddha statue or a soap stone dragon.

I picked up throwing stars, nun-chucks, and knives made from steel hardly thicker than tinfoil. There were swords that I was pretty sure would bust trying to chop a watermelon. It was packed with the crap, like he had somehow intercepted a shipment from this place’s version of China. He would have been better off hammering nails through a bat. The nun-chucks would serve a purpose, just not the ones they were designed for. I grabbed them and walked over to the bus door; the zombies seemed to go into a minor frenzy when they saw me coming their way.

“Do you ass-wipes really think I’m coming out?”

I went down one step and then, at the bottom stair, I wedged the useless batons between the step and the door. The chain that held the two sticks together looked like it was made from low grade plastic. The wooden part, though, seemed solid enough, at least for what I was asking it to do. The zombies had been pushing against the door. Hard enough that, at times, they would crack the seal, and a few unlucky bastards would get their fingers stuck when it snapped back into place. I was convinced that eventually they would get lucky and pop the handle and flood into the opening. The nun-chucks were just a little piece of insurance against that. I went back to the crap-tastic arsenal and picked up a throwing star. What the hell? I had time to kill. I tossed it with some force, flicking my wrist. The star went straight and true for the toilet wall. I was waiting for the satisfying ‘thunk’ of blade sinking into plastic. What I got was the clatter of a star point shattering and falling to the ground with the rest of the apparatus.

“Toilet…one, throwing star …zero. I really hope this idiot wasn’t trying to defend a family. Do I have a family?”

I felt this pang in my chest alluding to that fact, but I could not conjure them up in my mind. Instead, I was left with a wondering hole. I didn’t have too much time to work on the sorrow as I stared at the as yet unopened box. I was sort of debating if I should just let it be and kind of ‘hope’ that something good was inside of it instead of cracking that lock and discovering the lackluster truth. Who knows? Maybe there were Tasers in there, or maybe a big bottle of bell-pepper spray. Shit, possibly even a crossbow with a draw of hundred and twenty-five pounds. It could happen. It was not a sign of good things to come when the lock fell away while I was merely lining the shot up and bumped against it lightly. It was impossible to not get my hopes up as I flipped the lid on that box. Why I wasted the emotion was beyond me. There were boxes and boxes of Burst-Pielets that, except for their round shape, looked surprisingly like their rectangular cousins Pop-Tarts.

Of all the things I was regaining, the memory of Pop-Tarts was one of them. Not where I was, who I was, if I was with somebody, or why there were monsters straight out of a nightmare chasing me. Nope, this is what I got to remember. I didn’t even know if I liked the flat, frosted, pastry-looking thing.

“Guy really liked cherry,” I said as I pulled box after box of them out. “Now the question is, do I like cherry?”

Again, I got a pang in my gut and I had no idea why. Maybe it was the hunger I was feeling. I didn’t know if I’d eaten an hour, or three days ago. The hollowness in my stomach was an indicator it had been a while. I ripped open the foil packet and instead of nibbling around the edges, I shoved half that thing in my mouth. Yeah, I gagged. It wasn’t because they were bad but rather, I indeed hated cherry.

“Oh, fucking gross!” I was spitting out the chewed up bits onto the floor and wiping my tongue free of the offending food.

“Come on, man, there has got to be something in this bus worth the effort of getting into it.” One hundred and six boxes of the mini-pies and one hundred and five were cherry. “What kind of freak is this guy?”

The last was peanut butter. Again, I had no idea if this was a flavor I enjoyed or not and the words PEANUT ALLERGY flashed across my thoughts in angry red letters.

“Well, I’d more likely be concerned about that warning if I knew what it meant.”

I ripped this packet open. However, this time, learning from my earlier mistake, I took a bite a mouse would have been ashamed of. I didn’t immediately spit it out or go into convulsions, so I figured I was somewhat safe. I took a bigger bite. When the peanut butter coursed across my taste buds, I figured this must be what heaven was like. I ate all eight of the delectable delights in record time; my eyes were closed as I savored every satisfying chew. I wasn’t full, and I might have had a little stomachache from too much sweetness, but it was so worth it.

Now, if only I could find some milk, or better yet, a cow so I could wash it all down. 

For the first time since I’d gotten onto the bus, the zombies had stopped beating against the truck. I looked up. A fair number were no longer watching me like I was a fish inside a large aquarium stationed in their favorite Chinese food restaurant while they waited patiently for their order to be filled.

“Something else on the menu, boys?”

I checked my weapon. Maybe there were other folks out there and I could give them some covering fire. I was peeking over the head of an incredibly tall monster. I felt like opening the window and tapping him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Mr. Monster. I realize you probably had a lucrative career playing basketball, but now you’re in my way, and I need to see. So…if you could please move a little.”

Good thing the heavy mesh was in the way. I stepped back from the window when I heard the cries of the night runners, they were hunting. They were close, but not overly so. Who were they hunting? Someone had told me that they had an incredible sense of smell.

“Who?” I yelled. “Who the fuck told me that?!”

I caught glimpses of a face, then I completely stopped when the giant thing in front of me turned. He looked like a clay model man created by Picasso. Half of his face seemed normal enough, but the other side was dragged down. Half of his forehead had sloped down and was covering his right eye. His eyelid on that side, which had completely stopped working, was in the closed position. The skin under his eye had sunk down leaving a veiny red area exposed. His cheek, which was sallow and concave, was pulled down, giving him a Bulldog jowl expression. Another pang, this one almost put me in a seat before I recovered. There was either something about jowls or Bulldogs that threatened to put me in a funk. On the good side of his face, the corner of his mouth was pulled up in an ‘I’m going to eat your spleen’ kind of smile. The left side was pulled down in an ‘I’m going to eat your spleen’ kind of sneer. It was not a pleasant sight. I would have shot him just because, but I was afraid the noise would bring the others and I didn’t need that kind of trouble.

I watched the far side of the road, where the night runner cries had originated. Ten to twelve of them came out from the tree line and were jealously looking over at our party. They appeared to want to crash it, yet they were tentative. A few of my guests peeled off from the bus and pursued the night runners as they melted back into the woods.

It was ten or fifteen minutes later, the night runners returned. I’m not sure if it was the same ones, but the likelihood was high. This time, they were silent as they crossed the road and were now standing in the median.

“What is going on?”

I got my answer soon enough as they started screaming amongst themselves. They came no closer, that didn’t seem to be their motive.

“They’re luring the security away.”

I quickly crossed the bus and was now leaning on the bench, peering out into the woods on this side of the roadway. Most, but not all of my entourage had departed, it was definitely a skeleton crew.

“You crack me up.” I was talking to myself.

Whatever mirth I momentarily felt, left quickly as I watched a half dozen of the sneaky bastards come out from behind cover. A quick count showed about ten of the original monsters, who had absolutely no clue what was going on. My instincts were telling me to let this play out. Then I could deal with the remainder and get out of this cherry overload hell I was in. The night runners were swift and merciless as they descended upon the first of their enemy.

One of the night runners grabbed the female thing from the back, wrapping his arms around her waist, tightly pinning her arms to her sides. Her neck bent as she dipped down trying to get a bite on the forearm holding her. A second night runner came up behind her and grabbed a fistful of hair and wrenched her head backwards until her spinal column popped. The first one let her go and she lost her balance and fell over backwards, landing awkwardly on her lolling head. The night runner that had broken her neck brought his foot down on the side of her head until she looked like neglected road kill. A variation of this went on three more times. I couldn’t tell who I wanted to win. This was like watching the New York Yankees play the Philadelphia Eagles, I wanted them both to lose. Two names I was positive I didn’t like, but had no idea who or what they belonged to.

“Which is the lesser of two evils?” I asked

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myself as I watched the night runners kill another zombie. “Zombie?”

I said the word like my tongue was swollen. It came to my lips long before the meaning came to my mind. I had a funny feeling this happened a lot to me—even before I banged my head. The zombies were much more familiar, and it was clear to me I’d known them longer. The night runners were a relatively new threat. I don’t know how I knew that, I just did. And like any good redneck, I fear change. I grabbed the two latches on the window nearest me and pushed the window down. I placed the barrel of my weapon through a hole specifically designed for a rifle to poke through. I mean, there was even a rubber grommet to protect the bluing of the firearm from scraping against the wire.

“Why didn’t the idiot have a throwing star cut out as well? Jerk.” I said as I lined up my shot.

I put two holes into the base of the night runner’s neck. He went down fast. His assassin partner spun to look up at me and charged my gun emplacement. He grabbed the barrel and yanked me forward. If the dimensions of the gun hadn’t of stopped his pull, I would have slammed my head off the wire. He screamed in unbridled rage, as he wrapped his other hand around the barrel as well and started shaking it like he was churning butter. I could barely get my finger on the trigger. Luckily, he was presenting his chest to me, or I would have never got a decent shot off. I hit him flush in the nipple, completely obliterating this useless appendage on the male anatomy. He staggered back, the fury never leaving his features as he fell to the ground. The zombies finally caught wind that something was wrong, as they came to investigate the loud noises happening on the far side.

There was a brief struggle, but the night runners seemed very uninterested in receiving damage. It was once again me and my old pals. I put the window up more as a defense against the smell; although nothing short of industrial strength fans and a Costco-sized can of Lysol was going to help. They weren’t getting in, and I wasn’t going out—not while it was dark. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but I was fairly certain that the name ‘night’ in night runner held some significance. I pulled off the night vision goggles and lay down on the large vinyl bench. I figured the odds that I was going to end up on the floor were pretty high. By the time the sun came up, I found myself still on the bench though I had yet to find a comfortable position to sleep in.

“What the fuck did I drink last night?”

I had partially opened one eye. Sunlight was streaming in and my right arm was hanging down almost touching the floor. My face was smooshed and, what I imagine was drool, was puddled on the floor below me.

“Well that’s gross,” I said as I trailed my sleeve across my face.

My head felt like an anvil, and I was debating moving at all when I noticed that my drool had pooled into a little recessed area on the floor. In that little recessed area was a pull ring. I didn’t think much of it at all other than I had drooled a lot. Then, my curiosity got piqued. Although, in all probability, it was an access panel for maintenance or tools for changing a tire. Even if it was a secret stash, it was probably something like pickled artichoke hearts or something equally as gross.

“Am I really going to stick my fingers in congealed goo to see a tire iron?” Apparently, yes, as I pulled up on the ring. “Holy…”

I had at least six or seven strung-together swears that would have been absolutely meaningless. I was looking at it, and I still wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

“Movie prop?” I asked as I moved down the bench so I could get off without falling in the opening. “Where did the dude that buys cheap-ass throwing stars by the case get a friggin’ rocket-propelled grenade?”

I cautiously undid the latches holding it in place and gingerly pulled it out. Like most people, I’d seen dozens, if not hundreds, in the movies, but I’d never fired or even held one. I scraped against all the memories I could.

“Yup…never fired one.”

I was pretty convinced on this point. It was lighter than I expected, like maybe it was the prop I’d suspected earlier. Then I got my answer; it was a one-shot wonder. I read the directions that were printed on the side of the tube. It looked like they were written so a three-year-old, or Trip, could figure it out.

“Trip?”

I got that same funny feeling along my tongue, like I had when I said zombie.

“Trip, Trip, Trip.”

And like the third time was the charm it all rushed back at me. The escape from Trip’s home after he had unknowingly dosed me with acid. We had been in his van. I was close to hitting a fuel truck and then…what? We had found ourselves here, wherever ‘here’ was.

“Burning city, night runners, water tower, Jack.”

Everything, I remembered everything. My family, my Tracy, my Henry.

Where were they, though? Any of them? 

My family was back in the fairly normal world I had left. Jack and Trip…were they still alive? 

I hadn’t seen them since Trip took out the tower with a slingshot. With or without them, my mission remained the same; survive until such time as I could be reunited with the ones I loved. Forward, ever forward, I needed to move. There was not much sense in going back to the tower. First off, I couldn’t really use it as a landmark to guide me back considering it was on the ground, and I had no idea the route I’d taken to get here last night. Secondly, if Trip and Jack survived, they definitely didn’t stay around that place. The plan all along had been to get away from there. No, if they were alive, their plan would have to be them coming back to the roadway. It was the only thing that made sense.

Although, where on the road they would come out was a mystery. We could be within a mile of each other on the road and never know it. I couldn’t let that weigh me down. If I waited here for them to show up, there was still a fifty percent chance they’d be ahead of me. I was never one for inaction. Right or wrong, I would be the master of my fate. Normally, that was Tracy’s gig, but she wasn’t here. I stood up, wavered for a second, and looked around. There were still five zombies around the bus; something I was going to have to take care of, and quickly. I let a window down.

“Zombies, hey, zombies,” I called out to them.

I started rapping on the side of the bus to get some of the thicker ones to pay attention. Within the span of half a minute, the five of them were snarling and snapping under my window. I felt like some twisted world’s version of the ice cream man, although instead of frozen treats, they wanted me. This had to happen fast. I once again threaded my barrel through the opening.

“Stay still, dipshits.”

Four shots later, three of them were dead or dying. Two moved out of range.

“Dammit.”

Wherever I moved, they moved away. It was like they were dogs and they thought I was trying to give them a bath. I would have just shot from where I was, but the screening was pretty thick.

Could it stop a bullet? 

I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to keep making noise. More zombies would come, that was a given. I grabbed the RPG, I’ll be damned if I knew what I was going to do with it, but no effen way was I leaving something like that behind. Dumbass probably blew his entire wad on this. Who am I kidding? I probably would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. I moved the nun-chucks from their bracing position and did a quick glance to see if Lucy and Desi had moved to intercept. The female was a red-head, so it seemed appropriate to name her that even if ‘Desi’ was far from Hispanic. He looked like a skin-head, truth be told. The door opened with a loud squeal. I placed the RPG strap over my back, and got ready.

And they’re off , came to mind as I first looked both ways and then stepped down.

I started at a jog, weaving through cars making Lucy’s approach as difficult as possible. When I turned to look, it appeared that Desi was the runner in the family. He wasn’t more than two cars away.

“I always liked you, although I never saw in you what Lucy did.”

The first round hit him in his tattooed arm. I think I’d done some serious damage to his inked-in koi fish. The second caught him in the shoulder, and his arm hung uselessly to the side. He dropped down suddenly. It wasn’t from the damage I’d inflicted, he just didn’t want anymore.

“I hate smart zombies.”

I was about to turn tail and run when I saw Lucy standing still. She was looking at me. I don’t know if hatred even remotely conveys what she was directing toward me. She dropped down as well when I brought my rifle to bear.

“Shit.”

This time I went a little faster. I was not a fan of this new iteration of Lucy, remakes always suck. I’d gone for nearly a quarter of a mile when I turned to look over my left shoulder. Nothing. I was hoping they had gone in search of something easier to eat. It was when I turned over my right shoulder I saw them easily keeping pace with me. Unlike me, they had gone to the shoulder of the road where there weren’t any cars. While I was banging my thighs and bruising my shins as I ran into things, they were out for a Sunday stroll in the clear. I couldn’t even get my gun around fast enough before they ducked down.

I started cutting over so that I could also get in the clear. By the time I did so, they had melted back into the tangle. I got chills at the level of skill their pursuit displayed. They did not seem overly interested in closing the fifty or so yards that separated us, but I knew that I’d have to deal with them later. One of us would screw up eventually. Mistakes in this game ended up in death. I did the only thing I could, I kept moving,

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albeit at a slower and slower pace. It wasn’t that I was winded; it was just that every footfall sent vibrations of pain into my skull that reverberated back in intense pain. It had begun to take over my thought processes so completely that I almost missed the fact that Lucy and Desi had halved the distance between us. If I played this right, I should be able to get a shot off before they could hide.

I slowed down even more so that I wouldn’t fall on my ass when I spun around. They’d yet to see my ruse and had crept even closer. I could have aimed and hit individual shirt buttons at this range. I turned, my rifle was right by my side. Lucy was first to catch on. The gun was about chest level, and she did something wholly unexpected. She grabbed Desi and pulled him towards her while also propelling away. Like most guys, he was completely clueless to his woman’s intentions, at least up until I plugged him three times. None of the three shots stopped him. But it kept him still long enough that I was able to put the fourth into his face and subsequently his brain. I’d like to say he had a look of betrayal on his face, but he probably knew it was coming. After all, he had  paired up with a woman.

I’d just added another clueless male to the long list of men that had been used and discarded by a woman for their own means. Here was a Deneaux in training. Desi always was the dead weight in that relationship. The only reason 1950’s America put up with him was because of Lucy. I debated for a second putting an RPG round into her last known whereabouts and, if I could have been convinced it would kill her, I just might have. I noticed the farther I kept running, the less of the shoulder was clear. More and more, I found myself running on the side of the roadway. More times than not, that was filling up with cars too. These people that were fleeing the city for whatever reason were becoming increasingly desperate in their bid to get away. They may have gotten away, but not in their cars, that was for sure. I was wishing I could kill Lucy so I could stop and look for some water…which I desperately needed.

Soon, I was going to have to go on the active hunt for her or I was going to have to rummage through cars quickly, always keeping one eye on the lookout for the sneaky ginger. In addition to whatever skull damage I had done, the dehydration was adding to the throbbing. I went another tenth of a mile. I knew I had to stop and seek out liquids when I realized I’d stopped sweating. This was a pretty serious indicator of how bad off I was. I pulled up to a mini-van. Odds were there were little kids, and wherever there were little kids, juice was sure to follow.

“Bingo,” I said as I stuck my head through the open sliding doorway.

I did a quick search for an unopened juice bag. When that came up empty, I grabbed one that was on the seat, a straw already poking out of the side of it. I wasn’t a fan of touching anything kids had, because they were Petri dishes for all manner of germs and bacteria, but right now, sun-stroke was of bigger concern than dysentery. The juice was tepid, stale, and had almost reverted back to a syrup state. Yet, in my current condition, it was perfect. I sucked the thing so hard I was in danger of pulling the aluminum packaging through the straw.

Lucy had not yet shown as I tossed the empty container away. I reached down and grabbed two more from the floor. Each only held a sip or two, which I greedily drank down. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d had in a long while.

I had a suspicious feeling that Lucy was sneaking her way to me, I did a quick scan and got moving again, feeling somewhat renewed with the fluid and sugar coursing through me. I would turn every so often and look for my zombie friend…or any sign of Jack and Trip. I did not get a glimpse of any of them. There was a down slope to the roadway coming up, and on the rise on the other side, the traffic jam mysteriously stopped. There was clear roadway for as far as the eye could see. At the meeting point between a tangled mess of cars, trucks, and all manner of motorized vehicles, was once again the familiar olive drab of military vehicles.

“What happened here?” I asked; not for the first time.

There were cars and motorcycles on the shoulders, even on the grassy sections. They looked like they had been trying to circumvent the roadblock and had met resistance in the form of a hail of bullets.

Why were they trying to keep them contained? A virus? A terrorist cell? What? 

Maybe there were some answers up there? More likely, there would be additional questions, but at least I was confident there’d be some water. There wasn’t a soldier in any place I’d ever been that didn’t carry copious amounts of water. Killing others was a parching business. I wanted to believe I’d lost Lucy, or that she’d gotten sick of this game, but I could sense her eyes on me from time to time. Like a lioness patiently stalking a zebra, she was biding her time.

Bodies were everywhere—the aftermath of a heavy battle. Shattered remains were lying in the grass, on the road, across car hoods, leaning out of open doorways. Heavy caliber rounds had done their best to dissuade these poor refugees from their present course.

Did any of them make it?  I thought as I looked at the open expanse before me.

The trees had pulled back, and I was looking at vast fields as far as the eye could see. I wondered how many families had entrusted their safety to these same military men who had haphazardly cut them down. When all was somewhat right in the world, I’d let anyone that would listen, know that, in the event of a crisis, men in uniform were not to be trusted. Their sole mission at that point was the preservation of the government, not the ones governed. Most would look at me as if I were a radical revolutionary, anti-social, paranoid, militia prepper with delusional overtones. Nope, I was just a realist.

I was right about the questions part as I approached the military blockade. I’d seen impressionist paintings make more sense than what I was looking at. It started off innocently enough. A helmet was on the roadway, well not so much on it as in it. It was sunk down about an inch or two like it had been run over by a tractor-trailer. I honestly didn’t think too much on it, even with the leakage of blood coming from the sides of it.

Some unlucky bastard had been shot and lost his helmet. It wasn’t the first time and, unfortunately, wouldn’t be the last. Well…shit…maybe it would be. This world seemed to be running out of regular people as fast as the ones Jack, Trip and I had come from.

I paused. Were they all connected somehow? Was that possible? 

From the limited amount of time Jack and I got to talk, I was pretty sure his and my world was mostly the same. I mean at least the locations, yet his was being overrun by night runners and mine zombies. This place certainly looked like any highway in the states, yet the names were different, and probably whatever was afflicting this place was different as well. Something niggled at the back of my head.

Were the night runners and zombies we’d encountered here indigenous to this place or had whatever brought Jack and me through brought some undesired guests as well? 

This was a path I did not relish going down. If the zombies and night runners were ours, then what was  here? Maybe whatever it was had snagged Lucy. That would solve at least one of my problems.

I was about to travel farther down this mind-path when the next thing I encountered stopped me in my tracks. It was a leg. Now, yes, normally a random unattended leg in the middle of the roadway would be cause for concern, and definitely something you might investigate. But I’d been in the midst of a zombie apocalypse for close to half a year, an arbitrary encounter with a discarded limb was not that big of a deal. I mean, I guess it was for the person that had lost it, but these days it was more of a background prop, relegated to the status of street sign, or tree, or telephone pole. In and of itself, it generally held no value. This one was different, though, and not because the person who it had belonged to was wearing camouflage pants and black military boots, but rather the way it was planted in the ground. The leg was sticking straight up and down, the knee on the ground the booted foot up in the air, as if someone were trying to grow a human.

I was looking around as I came closer to the leg. I lightly touched it with the toe of my boot. When it didn’t immediately fall over, I applied a little more pressure. It didn’t budge. I did a quick three-sixty around my perimeter. If anyone was around, they were doing a damn good job of hiding themselves.

I got down on my haunches to get a closer look at the leg. It was seamless where the pavement met the leg; it was not broken up or dug out. I looked completely around the leg. There was no reason this thing should be standing like this; at least, none that I could discern. I poked it with my barrel. Besides disturbing a squadron of flies, it did not move.

“Super Glue?” Was all I could come up with as I stood. “For what purpose?” I was going to stick with the glue theory for a little while longer. My alternative was that it was imbedded in the ground. That just wasn’t going to fly.

Getting to the military vehicles was not as easy a task as one might assume. There had to be two or three inches of brass casings on the ground. I wasn’t a fan of making so much noise, but I had no choice other than to kick them away, giving me a relatively clear spot to put my foot down. Falling over with a twisted ankle would have been worse. The civilians had fought back. The truck I was heading for was peppered with ineffectual divots in i

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ts armored hull.

Hunting rifles and handguns versus machineguns and armored transport is not much of a fight. That they’d even tried showed just how desperate they’d been. What was on the other side of this that made it worthwhile, or worse, what was behind that drove them to it? If I looked hard enough, I could still see smoke from a distant burning city.

How long could a metropolis burn? A few weeks I guess. 

Yet I’d seen no living humans besides the ones that had been dragged into this mess for some reason. I could only hope I would get some answers, but right now, I was preoccupied with survival as I rooted around the trucks. I found a little more ammunition, which I gladly took, and more water than I could possibly drink, although I did my best as I bloated my belly with the wonderful wet substance.

Then I hit pay dirt, sort of. A brown, nondescript box was in the back of one of the Hummer-like vehicles. It was stamped with ‘FTE’ and then, in typical military fashion, it felt the need to spell out the acronym.

Why bother with the acronym to begin with? 

No time to question it. Now that I’d slaked my raw thirst, I had another powerful need to take care of. My stomach was twisted in knots from lack of food. Two force-fed Phrito’s from Trip nearly two days ago and the sickly sweet Pop-Tarts knock-offs wasn’t going to cut it.

FTE stood for ‘Food To Eat.’

I tore open the package like I was expecting filet mignon. The heavy plastic was gray. My guess, it mirrored the food. Right now, I didn’t care. As I tore into something called Protein Mass, I discovered that it was like beef stew, but without the catchy name, actual flavor, or taste. I ate that one and one just like it. I then grabbed a couple more and stuffed them in my pockets. I wasn’t full of hope and confidence, but I felt better. I’d eaten and drank. Taking care of those base needs had greatly improved my disposition.

“Time to follow the yellow brick road I suppose.”

I shielded my eyes to look at the grand openness ahead of me.

“Lucy, you coming?” I shouted behind me. “Maybe I should have called you Dorothy. What’s that make me?” I asked, looking down at my pink sneakers and poncho. “I’m guessing I’m the Scarecrow. My geometry teacher was always saying how I was lacking in the brains department. Betcha that fat fucker got eaten on day one. This one is for you, Mrs. Weinstedder.” I looked up and flipped her the bird.

I maybe should have turned that gesture towards myself as I brought my gaze down, I saw a giant blue road sign:

Atlantis              25 miles

“You have got to be kidding me. Right?”

Was this where the fabled city had gone? Had ancient visitors from my world somehow found a portal that had brought them to this strange place? 

“What is going on? And can I make twenty-five miles before dusk?”

I didn’t think so, but I was going to Atlantis. How could I not? That would be like someone asking if you wanted to see the center of the earth. I mean, you were sort of compelled to go, weren’t you?

I was a good half mile away from the tangle of cars. The day was beautiful; a deep blue canopy overhead with some wispy clouds. The sun was bright but not hot. A stirring breeze kept it cool enough that I was in no rush to shed my heavy-knit poncho. My guess was that, wherever I was, the fall season had just started. Birds were chirping, and some of the more industrious ones were migrating. Bugs were minimal to non-existent. If I had some beer and some decent company, it would altogether be a really great day. I turned to look back to Lucy, who was just emerging from the line of trucks.

“I was wondering where you’ve been,” I said.

She paused when she saw me. I raised my rifle. Five hundred yards with iron sights for a head shot was not mathematically impossible. Highly improbable, though. I was a fairly decent shot, and if I had unlimited ammo and time, I think I’d set myself up to take a crack at it. She was not an immediate threat, and time was definitely not on my side. The sun had already made its apex and was on the decline. That meant my other buddies would be coming to the party soon enough and I was about as much in the open as one could get. My priority was now going to be to find a place to hole up for the night.

Easier said than done , I thought as I looked around.

I walked another mile or so and I’d seen nothing bigger than a grassy knoll as a means of defendable position for the evening. It was looking a lot like Kansas, minus the corn stalks and billboards proclaiming that ‘I’m loved.’ If you’ve ever been to Kansas, that would make way more sense.

Jack Walker — A Night Hike

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With a shrieking twist of metal, the tower leans farther. The support structure snaps with a loud clang. I wrap my legs and arms tightly around the rungs as the list becomes a tumble toward the ground.

I’m thankful the tower twists and begins falling away. If it were falling in our direction, this little escape plan would be over before it really started. Of course, this isn’t exactly the plan. It might be John’s, but I’m pretty sure the plan Mike and I came up with didn’t involve riding a crashing water tower to the ground. Huddled close to the rungs, I feel the tower begin a free fall.

I’m glad we decided to climb lower down before attempting our escape. If we were still on the walkway above, we’d either be thrown for a mile, or hit the ground like we were being beaten against the side of the cliff. As it is, this isn’t a fun theme-park ride and will more than likely leave a mark when the tower smacks into the ground.

My worry is that we’ll be stunned, and this is the exact wrong time for that with zombies and night runners about. I’m sure they’ll forget their differences in order to get to us. I hear John above me shouting in glee like he’s enjoying himself. I wish I could partake in his enthusiasm and still can’t believe he shot the C-4 down like that. Not only because of his uncanny accuracy, but that he even did it in the first place. I just hope his angels are close by on this one.

I hear the top of the tower rushing through open space. It sounds like a heavy wind blowing across the treetops of a densely packed forest. I grip the rungs tighter as the angle steepens and the speed of the fall increases. Above the rush of the tower dropping and the groaning of thick metal being twisted in ways it wasn’t designed for, there is the groaning of the zombies and shriek of the night runners only scant feet away.

The tower hits with a loud crash. The vibration from hitting so hard resonates through the metal structure, instantly deadening my hands and knocking me from my perch on the ladder. My teeth clack together and it rattles my brain. I see the ground rushing up, and I am now on a path to meet it just like the tower. I suppose the silver lining is that the tower cleared the ground below.

I hit the solid earth hard, luckily missing the concrete slab the tower was bolted into. Grass and dirt are forced into my mouth and nostrils. My brain scrambles and I try to gather coherent thoughts. All that I manage to do is to lay stunned upon the surface. The feeble thought that there are the walking dead and night runners about is the only thing that gets me to my knees.

I roll over, spitting dirt from my mouth and get to my hands and knees. My brain is still reeling and I feel like I’m in a haze with my head stuffed with cotton. Confusion reigns. I stare down at the torn up ground under me, hearing faint groans. The sharp sound of metal popping enters my foggy consciousness. I rise unsteadily to my feet, checking my gear to affirm I still have everything.

Looking around, in the grays of my night vision, I see numerous zombies stumbling about unsteadily. Several night runners are attempting to shakily rise to their feet as well. The blast from the C-4 and the falling tower appears to have stunned everyone. We need to be the first to recover if we’re to have any chance of getting away.

In amongst the twisted remains of the tower legs, I see John rolling to his feet just a few feet away. He rises and dusts himself off as if we haven’t just taken a ride on a falling water tower and hit the ground like running into a brick wall. He shakes dirt out of his hair and looks in my direction. I know he can’t see in the dark, but he looks right at me.

“That was fun. Can we do it again?” he asks, digging dirt out of his ear.

“No, John, we have to get out of here and we have to do it now,” I answer. “Where is Mike?”

“Who is this John everyone keeps asking about?” Trip replies.

I shake my head and feel the anxiety of needing to get out of here before the zombies and night runners fully recover.

“Forget him, where’s Mike?” I ask.

Trip looks around in confusion as if Mike should be right there with him.

“I dunno. Maybe he’s off retrieving my skivvies that he threw to the ground,” Trip answers.

Ignoring Trip, I look quickly around for Mike but find no sign of him. Grabbing Trip by the arm, we make our way through the twisted metal structure. Mike may have been thrown from the ladder when we hit and may be lying nearby. Time is not on our side, but it would be way uncool to just depart without knowing what happened to him. After all, he did save my life.

Near where the top of the tower impacted the ground, the ground is churned like a river ran through, which, in fact, it did. The top of the tower itself broke open like an egg upon smacking into the hard ground,

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spilling its contents. Grass lays on its side from the tidal wave that swept over it. Following the flow, just inside the edge of the trees, I see prints with a tread similar to the pink shoes Mike was wearing in the muddy ground. The faint trail snakes farther into the woods. There is no other sign of Mike but, by the tracks, I take it he is okay. A loud shriek rises above the groans of the undead. It’s time to be off.

Trip reaches down quickly and whips out his slingshot. He pats his pocket and pulls out one of his marbles, muttering, “Oh good, I still have some of my marbles left.”

No, those left some time ago, my friend , I think, watching him place the marble in the slingshot pocket.

He pulls back on the elastic bands as he rapidly raises the weapon, pointing it at my face. I have no idea how he is doing this in the dark, but I don’t question it as he obviously is. I duck quickly as he releases. My only thought is that the fall has addled him even farther. He may think I’m one of the others in the dark and means to plant one of the steel bearings in my brain.

The elastic travels forward, propelling the steel bullet with a snap. I both feel and hear the zip of the projectile go over my head. It immediately hits something behind me with a solid thud. I feel a liquid spray against the back of my head and neck. Turning, I see a zombie fall to the side, coming to rest against a twisted metal beam carried by the flow of water. The steel marble took the zombie in the eye and it fell to the side, its arms resting over the pillar. It slowly slumps, hitting its chin on the metal before sliding to the ground.

I turn back to Trip. “Thanks, man. How did you see that in the dark?”

“I didn’t. But it’s a good thing you ducked or I might have missed,” Trip answers.

Not really knowing how to respond to that one, I just shake my head, wishing I had that kind of luck.

“Mike went this way,” I say to Trip, pulling him by the arm.

Relieved by the signs that indicate Mike made it out, Trip and I start off into the woods. We need to put some distance between us and the recovering zombies and night runners. Once they become fully alert, they’ll be after us. I’m hoping they’ll just resume their confrontation rather than chase us down, but we can’t count on that. With Trip unable to see in the dark, we’ll be substantially slowed.

“Where are we going, man? I’m not fond of night hikes. Can we just wait until morning?” Trip asks.

“We’re going anywhere that’s away from here. And no, we can’t wait a moment longer,” I reply.

“If we have to do this, I’ll just light up and then I’ll be good to go.”

I stop and round on Trip, gripping his arm tightly. “We don’t have time for that. Do you understand what’s going on?”

“Chill, dude. I was just askin’.” A single shriek echoes across the field with the fallen tower.

“Shit. That was one of those howlers,” Trip says, looking anxiously around in the dark.

“Yeah. We need to go.”

“Wait, where’s Mike?”

“He’s ahead of us. Let’s go.”

“Hmmm…I didn’t know he liked hiking,” Trip says, allowing me to guide him into the pitch black under the trees.

We begin to walk quickly through the trees. Their density prevents much undergrowth which makes our going much easier. Of course, that means it will be the same for any pursuit. Nighttime just arrived, so we have a long time until we are safe from the night runners. And we are never safe from the speeders. I’m not so worried about the slow walkers unless we happen to meet them head on. I’m guessing though, that any in the area were gathered at the tower but I can’t fully rely on that.

We aren’t very far into the trees when I lose Mike’s trail. There isn’t time to search the area to pick it up again, so we plunge on into the forest. So far, I don’t hear any indication of pursuit, but shrieks and screams echo faintly within the trees. It’s difficult to tell exactly which direction they’re coming from. Perhaps the ones we left behind are once again engaged in their struggle and may not have seen us slip away. The smell of the undead could be masking our scent, but it only takes a single night runner catching wind of us for them to break away and streak after us. With Trip’s night blindness and our inability to run, we’d be quickly caught.

We trudge onward. I guide Trip with one hand and have the other resting on the M-4 at my side. He manages with only a few stumbles on tree roots or occasional imbedded rock. I don’t have a coherent direction or destination in mind as I have no idea where anything is in this messed up world. My only goal is to get as much distance as we can from the water tower and the horde that was there.

I check my compass every so often, trying to keep us moving in the same direction. I have no idea what the needle is actually pointing to. North in Amissus could be something entirely different, but it does provide a way to keep us aligned more or less in a single direction. To march through the night only to walk in a circle and arrive back at the water tower would totally suck.

The screams faded some time ago as we make our way under the dark branches. The silence is almost complete with only our soft footsteps on the forest mulch and occasional scuff as John earns his moniker and stumbles over some small obstacle. I have no idea where we are headed, seeking only to make it through the night, and will attempt to orient ourselves with the coming dawn. At that point, I intend to find our way back to the highway and try to find out what happened to Mike. I assume he’ll also try to make his way back to the road. I wish I had another radio which I could have given him.

That sure would have made things easier , I think, pondering the situation.

I’m walking through a dark forest in some land named Amissus, which, according to the man at my side, means ‘lost’.

They certainly have that right .

My traveling companion is some hippie, from yet another world, whose mind has become addled from years of drug use but has some uncanny abilities which show up at the most unusual times. He hit a falling block of C-4 out of the air with a slingshot while hanging from a tower ladder. I shake my head at that one. Not only because of the shot, but because I can’t figure out why he did it. Those out-of-the-blue actions could jeopardize us, but I can’t very well just leave him out here alone. Plus, we did get away and he did save me while we were still recovering. I’m wondering just how exactly those angels on his shoulder work.

As we move along, I keep thinking this nightmare will end and I’ll find myself back at Cabela’s, hearing a chuckle from Red Team as a story is finished. So far, that’s not to be. I’ve never had a dream as detailed as this one, nor one that has lasted so long. I can’t understand, and am beginning to seriously consider that this is more than just a dream. It’s too real and lasting too long. I need to figure a way out. I really miss my kids and Lynn. I feel a deep ache in my heart at the thought that I could be trapped here forever and never see them again. I think that maybe I could have entered into another coma and that my mind may be lost in this place. The worse possibility, the one that scares me even more, is that they were the dream and this is reality.

A faint shriek drifts through the trees, penetrating the stillness of the woods. Other screams follow from behind. It’s hard to tell how far away they are within the densely packed trees, but I can only assume our scent has been picked up. There isn’t any breeze to speak of so our smell will linger along our path. It may dissipate some to the side but the night runners behind will eventually home in on us.

“We need to run, Trip. Do you think you can manage?” I ask. I’ve stopped calling him John as he just looks around when I do, looking for another person.

“I suppose I could use my flashlight,” he answers.

“Wait, you have a flashlight? Why didn’t you say so to start with?”

“You didn’t pull one out, so I thought you wanted to hike in the dark.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” I say, incredulous.

We could have made much better time and been farther away had he just said something. I guess I could have asked and note that I’m going to have to be very specific when talking with him.

“Why would I do that?” Trip asks, fumbling in his pocket and looking around. “Where’s Mike?”

“We lost him when the tower fell. You remember the tower falling, right?” I ask.

“A tower fell. I bet that would have been fun to ride.”

“You did. We were on it. You don’t remember that?”

“So, did Mike get in line for a second ride, then?”

“No, Trip, he left to find another ride,” I answer.

“Oh. And he didn’t even say goodbye. That was kind of rude. Is that where we’re going, to find the other ride?”

“Yeah, that’s where we’re going and we need to beat cheeks there. Do you hear those behind us? They’re trying to get there ahead of us, so we need to hurry,” I state.

“Then we need to get going,” Trip says, switching on his flashlight. “There, that’s better. Now maybe you’ll stop trying to pull my arm off and leading me over every obstacle. I see we’re still in the trees. I can’t believe they’d put a ride in the woods.”

The shrieks grow louder as the night runners grow closer. There isn’t a real clue as to which direction we should take. I have a feeling the highway is to the left but I don’t have a clue of how far away it is. There is still a lot of night left and we need to find some defensive location soon. The road is our best bet for locating one. Tangling with night runners in the dense forest will only end in tears.

Quickly removing my T-shirt, I toss my shirt off to the side, opposite the way I intend to escape.


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>

“Why are you and Mike constantly throwing clothes away,” Trip says, heading over to where it landed. “I’ve kept my clothes since ‘78.”

“Trip, leave it. We need to go.”

“Okay, fine,” he says, returning. “If you didn’t want it, why didn’t you just say something? I would have taken it. It looked like a mighty fine shirt to me. Do we have time for a toke?”

“No, we don’t. You don’t want those behind us to get there first and for us to have to wait in line, do you?” I ask.

“No. You’re right. We’d better hurry,” he answers.

And with that, we turn and begin running through the night under interlaced boughs.

Jack Walker — Ghostly Faces

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We race through the trees…well…race being a relative thing. I’m not in the shape I was once in and Trip, well, he’s just Trip. I think the only time he ever runs is if he sees something to munch on. We slow to a fast jog when I hear him start to pant heavily. The night runners are virtually tireless when they catch scent of prey and I know for a fact that they’re faster. My only hope is that they are thrown off by the scent of my shirt and we can gain a little more separation. I carry no illusion that it will fool them for long and that they’ll be on us again soon. We will need to evade long enough for the sun to rise, or until we find shelter.

Trip pulls up a short time later with the screams of night runners resonating off the trees around us. He leans over on his knees, wheezing. The night runners have found our scent and are on our trail once more, gaining by the minute. I don’t know how much more Trip has in him. We may end up having to stop and make a last stand.

“I need to stop, Jack. I haven’t done something like this since I was young and running from the cops.”

“We stop…we die, Trip,” I counter.

He rises, taking in gulps of air. “Well, I guess that doesn’t leave us much choice then. I’d like to see my wife again. I just hate that Mike made it there ahead of us and is already enjoying himself. I’m ready.”

“Give me your shirt,” I say.

“What? Missing yours already? You shouldn’t have tossed it away. See, that’s why I keep mine. But, what’s mine is yours,” he says, stripping it off.

The odor that drifts up when I take it nearly waters my eyes. I look for and spot a tree still sporting a stub of a lower branch — one high enough that it’s out of reach, but not overly so. I toss the shirt up. It takes a couple of tries, but I manage to catch it on the knot of wood.

We change directions and again start across the forest ground. My breaths are deepening. Our time before having to face the numerous night runners on our tail is growing shorter. No matter how many times we distract them, it is only a matter of time before they catch us. I have no clue what time it is, but I do know sunrise is still hours away. An armored truck would be handy right about now. I also wish that I still had some of my grenades and a claymore or two.

Trip is putting forth a gallant effort, but he is flagging nonetheless. There just comes a point in time when the body says ‘no more’ and stops. He is slowing and I know his time is about there. Mine is not far behind. If the trees were climbable, that would limit how they could come at us and make our situation more survivable. However, that’s just not the case. I could really use a little luck like that right now.

Where in the hell are Trip’s angels? We could really use them. 

Screams, which were once only echoing from behind us, now begin from somewhere ahead. Hearing them, I feel my strength ebb. Now, it seems, an escape from the ones behind us will only push us closer to ones ahead. I don’t have a clue of exactly how many are behind, nor ahead, but it won’t take too many to overwhelm us in our current condition. The trees prevent decent lanes of fire and they can come at us from multiple directions, using the trunks for cover. Even an open area would be beneficial, but it looks like we are close to our ‘last stand’ moment.

The one hope I have is that, if I find my demise here, I will be transported back to my kids and Lynn. Of course, there is the alternative in that, if I die here, I won’t ever find my way back. That is unacceptable. Either way, I’m not going down without a fight.

“Trip, we’re about out of options and may have to fight our way out of this one,” I state.

“They made it ahead of us?” he asks.

“It appears so.”

“I’m tired of running anyway. I really would have liked to go on that ride, though.”

“Me too, bud…me too.”

I take a position near one of the larger trunks giving one of the better avenues of fire through the trees. Trip crouches just behind me near another tree and readies his slingshot. I don’t know how fast he is at reloading with it, but I know of his accuracy. I bring up my M-4, moving the selector switch to auto, and wait.

I’m hoping the shrieks bouncing off the trees are amplified and that there aren’t nearly as many night runners as the screams indicate. It seems there are just as many in my direction as there are in Trip’s. If the sounds are any indication, this could be a very short fight indeed.

The woods fill with noise, to the point that the limbs high overhead have to be shaking with the intensity. The laced boughs above keep the sounds confined and it’s difficult to tell exactly where the shrieks are coming from. Soon enough — too soon in my opinion — ghostly faces appear among the trunks, flashing in and out of existence as they streak toward us and are momentarily lost behind the giant boles.

“They’re coming,” I tell Trip.

“I don’t see anything,” he states.

I glance behind. His light is streaming through the trees but doesn’t reach very far. He is poking his head forward, attempting to see farther into the forest. Although his light affects my vision to a degree, I see several speeders as they flash between the trees. Their appearance is almost the same as the night runners except for having a slightly different kind of glow.

“I see some heading your way. I’ll take the uglies to my side, you take the ones in front of you as they appear,” I say. He merely nods as he continues staring into the darkness.

An increase in the volume of noise directs my attention back to my side. The night runners have made significant headway. I peer through my scope and place the crosshair in an open area, waiting for a night runner to appear. It’s going to be hard to get a shot in due to the limited time any of them is actually in view. My heart is pounding and adrenaline is coursing through. I take a few calming breaths.

Come on, Jack. You can do this , I think, watching faces appear, vanish, and appear again.

A light goes off in my head. There aren’t two enemies in these woods, there are three. The speeders aren’t working with the night runners and may not be overly particular about who they take on.

“Hey, Trip, do you have one more sprint in you?” I ask.

“I don’t like Sprite,” I hear him say behind me.

I mentally shake my head. “Can you run just once more?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with that nasty beverage, but I think I can manage one more.”

“We aren’t done for yet, and I think I may have a way out if you can,” I say.

“I can try, but I’m not drinking any Sprite, no matter what happens.”

“You won’t have to if we make a run for it. If not, then all bets are off and you may have to choke some down,” I say.

“Okay. Anything to keep that vile sugar water out of my system. I like to keep it pure, you know.”

“Whatever. Okay, we need to head just to the side of the speeders on your side. Follow me.” I stand.

Trip rises with me and I begin running at an angle through the trees. I head just to the side of where the speeders are rapidly drawing near. I know Trip is just behind me by the way the flashlight beam flashes up and down across the ground. The speeders change direction to intercept us, but we are by them in an instant, with the night runners close behind.

I hear the shrieks change in both intensity and tone. I open up and sense that the ones behind us are surprised by the appearance of the speeders. Apparently, they were too focused on Trip and me to notice that others shared the woods. Quick flashes of images flow through. Some indicating danger while others still focus on the prey they are chasing — us.

Growls, snarls, and screams fill the air between the trees. The sounds of bodies colliding and the noise of a full-scale fight develop behind us. We run, the direction of our flight unimportant at the moment — only that it carries us away from the two groups. I hear Trip panting again, but we can’t stop now. The images from the night runners are now fully focused on the fight with the speeders, with us being forgotten for the moment. I sense several night runners vanish from my mind.

I glance behind to see if any speeders are still after us, but there is nothing in sight. I shut down the part of my mind that is attuned to the night runners and we continue on through the dark. No one is on our tail. I slow to a jog in order to allow Trip to regain a measure of his wind. It’s important to put some distance between us and those engaged behind us. At the very least, if we are pursued again, their numbers should be diminished. The other added bonus is that anything chasing us will be coming from the rear — from one direction instead of multiple. I can’t imagine the night runners will stay and tangle with the speeders for long; zombies just aren’t a food source. They will be eager to continue th

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eir hunt and will more than likely try to disengage and follow after us. However, at the moment, we are safe.

Jack Walker — The Smell of Twinkies

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Shrieks from the fight fade as Trip and I push farther into the forest, away from the battle. Screams still occasionally echo faintly behind, but the trees block most of the sound so that it’s just an indistinct noise in the woods. The beam from Trip’s flashlight wavers across the ground as we try to extend the distance from the night runners and speeders. The dense boughs overheard prevent any star or moonlight from filtering through, making the area beyond the splash of light a blanket of darkness.

The world under the trees is cast in varying shades of gray for me, but I’m sure Trip would be living up to his name if it weren’t for the flashlight. Leaving the screams behind, hopefully for good, we slow to a walk in order to regain our wind. Trip’s heaving breaths tell me that he’s almost reached the end of his rope. He was close to it before we made this last sprint and I’m surprised he hasn’t just collapse to the ground.

Walking between the wide tree trunks, I lead along a path as straight as I can…or at least I imagine that it’s a straight one. Within the densely-packed trees, without the sun, moon, or stars to guide us, even I’m not exactly sure of our direction. I’m hoping that we don’t end up circling around and come upon the fighting or roving packs. That would be pretty fucked up.

I check the compass in an attempt to keep a fairly consistent course but it swings in large arcs each time I look at it. Something within the woods is messing with its ability to point toward whatever magnetic pole serves this world. The symbols would serve to keep a consistent direction if the needle would just hold still. As it is, we could be zig-zagging our way under the trees and not actually putting any distance between the fight and us. Eventually, the groups will finish their fight, with one either losing or fleeing. They will then spread out and resume their search. I don’t plan on being around when that happens. With that in mind, Trip and I alternate walking with jogging.

“You know, I’m not really sure that hiking is supposed to include running. You’re not really fun to hike with,” Trip says, as I ask him to jog again. “I bet Mike wouldn’t be running through the trees at night.”

“I think we can make the ride if we hurry,” I reply.

“I thought you said they beat us to it.”

“Well, there’s another one I know of that they might not,” I state.

“Why didn’t you say so to begin with?” Trip runs past me, his light splaying in large arcs on the ground and the trunks of trees.

“Whoa, slow down, bud. We have to pace ourselves or we won’t make it at all,” I comment.

With that, Trip slows and we resume a casual trot. Tree after tree moves past as we resume our trek. The screams faded to nothing a little while ago and it’s completely silent under the dark limbs; the only sounds are our feet hitting the soft ground cover and our exhalations.

Trip’s light behind casts my body in long shadows that merge with the darkness ahead. The wavering light and our movements make the shadows seem spectral. The beam pauses momentarily before resuming its arcing motions. A very distinct aroma drifts from behind. Turning, I see a flare of orange from near Trip’s face as he inhales from a joint he managed to extricate from somewhere. I’m about to say something when I think that perhaps that may be the best way to deal with this world.

“Want a toke?” he asks, extending the joint toward me.

“No thanks, but I appreciate the offer.”

He shrugs and takes another puff.

“I wish I had some of those Phrito’s,” he comments, not really talking to anyone in particular.

We plod onward. I pause every so often to listen ahead. With the denseness of the woods, we may not get much warning before running into something. There isn’t a breeze, so our scent shouldn’t carry too far, but that will also create a very definite trail for those behind if they pursue. The sounds from the fight should have garnered the attention of all those around, but we left that some time ago, and there’s no telling what may be in our area of the woods.

Slowly, a small amount of light begins to penetrate the dark forest. It’s not much, but it’s enough to know that daylight is approaching, or has already come. The trees don’t show much, if any, of the sky above, and it’s still quite dark underneath. Even though daytime may be upon us, it is still dark enough that night runners could still operate in the woods during the early and late hours of the day.

In my experience, they make for their lairs as soon as there is a hint of light. I’m not sure if that’s the case here or not, and I don’t want to assume anything. I haven’t heard anything further since we left the scene of the fight, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out here. It’s imperative that we exit the trees. And we need to reach the road.

The light improves and I pause to try and get a sense of direction. Trip is stumbling more often as we’ve been up and on the run all night. Plus, we didn’t get any rest during the day. I’m flagging as well, having had little sleep since arriving in this fucked up place.

It’s not easy to figure out directions as I’m unable to see the sky to determine in which direction the sun is coming up. The compass still swings in wide arcs, making it more or less a paperweight. Unless the trees are made of iron, I’m not sure what is causing the interference. It’s just another aspect of this place that I can’t explain.

Having hopefully traveled in a semi-straight line during the night, I get the feeling that the highway is off to our left. That’s provided it hasn’t turned off in some random direction. There aren’t any defining landmarks and, at this point, we could travel through the trees for all of eternity and not find a way out. Looking between the trunks, I half expect to see a gingerbread house.

None of this seems to matter to Trip. He plops down by the nearest tree and pulls yet another joint out of nowhere. It’s little more than a gloom where we’ve halted and I’m not sure if it’s enough to keep the night runners in their lairs. There is, however, still a danger from the speeders. I’ve adopted Mike’s name for them in order to better differentiate between them and the night runners.

The smell from Trip’s personal little party drifts on the still air. I would be concerned over the odor if it weren’t for us reeking even worse. I haven’t changed since arriving and I’m surprised the trees aren’t picking up their roots and fleeing in outright disgust. I take out some of the bottled water that remains and watch Trip down most of it. I reach out to put a hand on the container and push it down. If I hadn’t, I think he would have actually drowned himself. He gasps as the top clears his mouth. Checking to make sure he hasn’t drooled all over, I down the rest of the little remaining, stowing the bottle. While I pack it, Trip rises and begins walking in the direction that I feel the highway is.

“Trip, where are ya going?” I ask.

“I smell Twinkies and I want one,” he answers.

“What the fuck? You smell Twinkies?” I ask, wondering if this is really happening and, if so, then how in the hell it is.

“Yeah, you can’t? Come on, they’re this way,” he states.

With a shrug, I follow. One direction is as good as another, and it’s the one I would have chosen anyway. His oddness seems to be one of those where things just work out. I don’t know, perhaps he can truly smell Twinkies. He seems to have an uncanny knack for doing the impossible, even if it does fuck things up at times.

My senses are dulled from the lack of sleep. There’s nothing I’d like more than to lie on the forest floor and get some rest. It looks so inviting. My head feels like it’s filled with cotton, but I try to stay alert for any sound or movement. Trip plunges ahead, stumbling over the occasional root rising out of the forest floor. He’s on a mission and making a beeline for whatever it is that he identifies. Now, I have a good sense of smell, especially since the changes came over me, but I’ll be damned if I can catch a whiff of whatever he claims to detect.

As we march through the forest, I start to catch an occasional movement of things scurrying in the branches overhead. The lighting improves as the sun rises higher and there is a periodic chirping of alarm from small animals.

I start to worry about our direction when I notice lighter patches ahead and blue sky appearing through the trees. It looks like we are coming to the edge of the tree line. It could be the highway or just a clearing.

“Trip, slow up,” I say, catching up to him. “We don’t know what’s ahead.”

He looks at me quizzically. “It’s the highway.”

I have no idea how he would know this, but I’ve stopped questioning whatever goes on inside his head. On one hand, completely blinded by darkness, he saved my life by shooting one of the creatures. On the other, he shot a block of thrown C-4 out of the air and damn near killed us. In the end, we managed to survive, so I can’t really say it was a bad plan. Who knows, maybe we would have all met our end if we would have followed through with our original one.

“Yeah, but there could be creatures out there and we don’t want to stride into the middle of a group of them.”

“Oh, yeah…those. I completely forgot about them,” he says, worriedly looking in all directions.

I shake my head, which I seem to be doing a lot whenever he says something. I me

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an, with what we’ve been through, even just the past night, how could you forget about that? I tell Trip to stay in place and make my way closer to whatever lies ahead. Approaching the end of the trees, the line of sight improves, allowing me to make out the shapes of vehicles.

How in the fuck does he do that?  I think, pausing to listen and watch for movement.

I don’t see, hear, or smell anything, so I creep closer, moving slowly so I don’t bring any attention to myself. Near the very edge of the trees, I look up and down the highway. There is nothing out of the ordinary that I notice — of course, ordinary here is a matter for discussion — except for the same tangle of vehicles that was prevalent earlier.

“Are there any out there?” I hear a whisper in my ear.

I come as close as I ever have to having a heart attack. Jumping at the sound, I turn quickly, barely noticing the knife that appears in my hand. My mind recognizes Trip’s startled face just before the point of my blade enters his neck.

“Whoa, bud. It was just a question,” he states.

“Don’t ever do that again,” I state.

“What? You don’t like questions?”

“No, I mean sneak up on me like that.”

Trip tilts his head to the side and looks at me in askance. “I wasn’t sneaking.”

I’m still not sure how, even with my enhanced senses, that he managed to steal right up behind me. If it weren’t for him being with Mike, I would take him for one of the strange things of this world. There are very few people who can sneak up on me like that. I wonder, truly, if he’s real at all.

Replacing my knife, I turn to scan the area again. Seeing nothing and eager to be out of the woods, I rise and make my way across the strip of grass that separates the tree line from the tangle of cars. Smoke still stains the sky overheard, being whipped along with stronger winds aloft. It’s fainter than when I first appeared, but I’ve also been moving away from its source — the burning city. The movement is in direct contrast to the stillness surrounding the log jam of vehicles. The morning sun, casting its rays along the highway and cutting through the forest, is painted with a tinge of orange-ish-brown.

Curious, I take the compass out. The needle steadies immediately toward the magnetic pole.

What in the fuck is it in those trees?  I think, wondering if it’s only local or something more widespread and having to do with the forest.

A metallic squeaking sound draws my attention. Trip has opened one of the doors and leans into the vehicle. Making sure the area is clear, I walk over.

“A-ha! I knew it,” he says, backing out of the car.

I look and see that he has pulled a wrapped Twinkie from inside. I look on, stunned.

How did he smell a friggin’ Twinkie? And a sealed one at that? 

I would ask, but I’m afraid of the answer. Looking closer at what he has in his hand, it looks like a Twinkie. However, the name on the wrapper identifies it as a Spongie.

I shake my head. Of course .

Turning, I conduct my own search of nearby vehicles, looking for water, food, and ammo. I come across a couple of water bottles and a few snack items, but no ammo. I still have some remaining, but the close calls over the past couple of days have depleted the little I had to start with. I’m most likely good for one firefight, but after that, I’ll be down to making spears. Of course, there’s always Trip’s slingshot of magic.

Trip opens the wrapper and his expression betrays his ecstasy as he bites into the cream-filled cake. Chewing, and with half a Spongie in his hand, he looks to me. I can tell he’s hesitant to offer me any as he wants to enjoy it himself, yet he doesn’t want to be rude.

“I’m good. It’s all yours,” I say, forestalling his having to make a decision.

He smiles and crams the rest of the goody into his mouth. Seeing the area clear, I think about holing up in one of the vehicles to get some rest. There’s no way we’ll be able to keep going without it. My concern is that we’ll become surrounded should any of the zombies or speeders show up. I’m out of grenades which could clear a path, but we’ll also be no use in our current condition if we should run into any up the road.

Spying another motor home a short distance away, this one upright, I guide Trip to it, telling him we need to rest and for us to trade off keeping watch. I’m not overly confident with his ability to stay focused and not forget what he’s supposed to be doing, but fuck, I’m just flat worn out. I don’t see any alternative.

The side door is unlocked and swings open. Stepping into the interior, wrappers, food containers, and dishes are scattered everywhere. Whoever left did so in a hurry. There’s a slight odor of decayed food but it’s otherwise clear of anyone — dead or alive. I tell Trip that we’ll hold up for a few hours and get some rest, further stating that I’ll take the first watch.

“Good. I’m kind of burnt out, man,” he says.

Lying on a couch against one wall, he’s instantly asleep; his soft snores filling the interior. After locking the doors, I settle into the driver’s seat, leaning my M-4 against the dash. I prop my feet on the console and survey the area, using the rearview mirrors to keep an eye behind. The elevated position of the motor home gives a decent view over the surroundings. At the first sight of movement, we’re out of here.

The sun slowly climbs higher into a sky devoid of clouds. I feel my eyes begin closing on their own and have to move several times to stay awake. Two hours pass and I wake Trip, telling him it’s his turn. He rises slowly and stumbles to my former seat. Lying down, I catch a whiff of a joint being enjoyed. I would rise and say something, but I fade into dreams before another thought comes.

Two hours later, the alarm on my watch chimes. I jerk out of a deep sleep, the sudden waking causing my heart to jump start. Momentarily confused, I’m not sure what I’ve woken into, nor where I am. Slowly, consciousness clears and I hear snores emanating from the front of our hideaway. A measure of panic takes hold envisioning zombies surrounding us while Trip slumbered. I don’t hear any of the groans that usually accompany a horde but, in my tired state, my mind doesn’t take that into account.

Rising, I peel back the curtains a touch. It’s the same as when we began our rest; cars stretching to the sides, front, and back, for as far as I can see but no movement. Feeling a little better about our situation, I head to the front to wake Trip. I knew deep down that he would sleep, but I was exhausted and had reached my limit. Trip jumps into wakefulness at my touch.

“Dude, why did you have to wake me? I was with my wife on a peaceful motorcycle ride.”

“It’s time we get going,” I state.

“Where are we going? I kinda like it here,” he replies.

“Mike is still out there somewhere, and I assume that he’ll make for the highway. Regardless, though, we have to keep moving. It’s only a matter of time before zombies show and we need to find a more secure location before nightfall,” I answer.

“If you say so. I still like it here better.”

Without another word, we make our way outside. The sun is almost directly overhead and the tangle of cars stretches beyond our line of sight. I cram a few food items that hadn’t spoiled into my pack. As Trip chews down some of his food, I notice that he found another shirt from somewhere. I don’t bother asking. After downing a water bottle between us, we set out.

Maneuvering through the vehicles is more difficult as they are parked every which way without clear lanes between them. We clamber over and around the stalled cars, slowly making our way along the highway. I keep an eye out for anything that might serve as a safe haven for us, but there’s nothing more than a lengthy line of traffic with trees marching along the sides. The couple of hours rest we gathered wears off, and it’s with a numb mind and body that we traipse forward. I would like to find someplace soon that would allow us to get some true rest before the sun sinks below the horizon.

I only notice a few bodies scattered here and there, some in the vehicles, with others on the little pavement that shows. They all show signs of being mauled and are in a state of decay. Not like the zombies or speeders, but they have obviously dead for some time. As we progress, the remains become more numerous.

Trudging is the best way to describe our progress. With our lack of sleep, I’m surprised we haven’t collapsed, but there’s always one more car to climb. Scaling one vehicle, I notice a starred windshield under a covering of grime. Wiping some of the dirt away, it looks suspiciously like a strike from a bullet. It could have been from anything, even a thrown rock or maybe it occurred before the car’s arrival, but a bullet is what immediately comes to mind.

More alert, I scramble over the next vehicle and there are more starred windshields and a few broken out windows. I tell Trip, who has been mostly silent during our trek, and hasn’t lit up another of his seemingly endless supply of joints, to stay put. He sits on the hood of one car and collapses against the windshield. Climbing to the roof of the car, I look in the direction we’ve been traveling. I’m not feeling great about exposing myself like this but, with what appears to have been gunplay, I need to get a better picture of what we’re venturing into.

From my higher vantage point, I see several military-style vehicles ahead that are surrounded by the mass of cars. Pulling out my binoculars, I scope out the scene. In the magnified view, I note that the vehicles closer to the military unit in the middle are riddled with bullet holes. Bodies are draped over and lying around the vehicles. Many of the cars are mi

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ssing windshields along with their side and rear windows. Past the concentration of military vehicles that look a lot like Humvees, with subtle differences, the log jam continues.

It looks very much like whatever served as the military here attempted a blockade to stem the flow of cars out of the city miles behind. The panicked people attempted to run through the blockade and the soldiers opened up. From the sight of the vehicles stretching past the barricade, it is apparent that the flow of people was too much for the soldiers to contain. They people managed to overrun them, but not before suffering more than a few casualties.

I continue to scan the area, but there’s nothing moving. Gathering Trip, we move through the wreckage. Bullet-ridden cars line the area in front of the military ones with bodies lying everywhere. The forms have been dead long enough that there’s only a faint, lingering smell of death. Some are decayed, but many have been torn apart and eaten — a sure sign that night runners are around. All of them have indications of injuries from bullets — bones shattered from the forceful impacts and more than a few with shattered craniums.

The thing I notice as we maneuver through the wreckage of vehicles and bodies is that none of the figures lying in cars, across hoods, or on the ground, have uniforms on. Perhaps the soldiers withdrew when they found they couldn’t stem the tide and saw the futility of their actions. Although, why they didn’t drive away is anyone’s guess. At first, Trip stares at the bodies, shaking his head. He then purposely looks away, maintaining silence as we continue past the blockade. It may be that he, like me, is too tired for conversation.

I keep expecting to run into Mike as we make our way along the highway and wonder what happened to him. He seemed, or seems, like a good man, and I hope that nothing bad happened to him…that he was able to make good his escape from the tower.

A short time later, we are confronted by the burnt out remains of vehicles. The traffic jam turns into burnt hulks as if a line was drawn. Inside of the cars, bones lie scattered. And then, the wreckage of cars just ends. That’s it — a snarled mess of cars, then burnt ones, and then it ends. A hundred yards away from where the traffic jam terminates, there’s another barricade of military vehicles. These are different from the other ones we passed in that they are a combination of the Humvee-style vehicles and armored ones.

Scanning the blockade, I don’t see any signs of the soldiers that once manned the position. The windshields are covered in the same grime as the miles of cars we’ve passed. It becomes apparent that this line stemmed the tide of people pouring out of the city.

But then what? Did they abandon their positions afterward? Where did they go? 

The trees that have lined the road since the beginning begin to widen out, and then, they too, end. Beyond the barricade, the highway remains clear and begins a descent to a plain with fields of tall grass stretching to either side. In the far distance, across the wide plain, there is a barely visible, purplish line of mountains.

Trip and I carefully walk past the last of the cars to the military vehicles. At the first one we come to, Trip steps up and opens the door. Reaching under the seat, he pulls out yet another wrapped Spongie.

“I thought I smelled another one,” he says, opening the wrapper.

Shaking my head, I walk around and through the blockade, checking the vehicles for any signs of life…or death, whichever. There is no indication of what happened to the soldiers. Just behind the barricade, I see a helmet stuck in the pavement. Looking closer, I find no indication that it was hammered into it or forced into the road. It really looks like it just grew out of the asphalt.

Turning to see what trouble Trip might be stirring up, or really, more interested to see what he’ll come up with next, I notice a boot sticking out of the tread of one of the vehicles. Shaking my head to clear my mind, I look again. Sure enough, there is the bottom part of a boot growing out of the tire.

What in the serious fuck! ? I think, giving the boot a tug. It remains firmly embedded.

Unsure of what is going on, as if this place couldn’t get more weird, I cautiously make my way to the far side of the blockade. A blue road sign, partially covered in soot, sits beside one of the last vehicles. On it reads:

Atlantis              25 miles

Of course there would be a town with that name. 

Looking off to one side, along the tree line where they halt abruptly and give way to plains below, I see a thin, dark ribbon that may indicate another highway emerging from the forest. I haven’t found any sign of Mike and, given that he fled the water tower ahead of us, I should have. Assuming he lived through the night, that is. The road isn’t that far away, perhaps a little over a mile away.

“Hey, Trip,” I call out, finally locating him.

He turns, his cheeks full from yet another Spongie that he found. White cream is smeared across his upper lip and yellow cake crumbles fall from his lips as he chews.

“Whas uh?” he mumbles, more cake falling out.

“There’s another road off to the side we should check out.”

“Wha? I’s lie ih her,” he states, well, I think he does.

His mouth is so crammed full that I can’t tell what he’s saying. It’s not like I can really understand him any other time, though. So, we’re kind of about even with our communication.

“There might be more Twinkies hidden over there,” I reply.

Without another word, he starts marching in the direction I indicated. I pause only a moment to write a quick note and leave it weighted, but plainly visible should Mike happen down our path.

Jack Walker — Food Baby

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We trudge through the tall grass. The sun is out and I catch a faint whiff of the smoke that’s been following me ever since I arrived in this hellish nightmare. The stalks covering the fields bend in waves as breezes pass, creating ripples across the plains like incoming waves on a beach. Although it’s a nice day, or as nice as one can get here, it’s still a little on the chilly side.

Approaching the far highway, I see another road block similar to the one we just left. I caution Trip behind me. How long he’ll stay there is anyone’s guess. When he gets something in mind, no force of nature will stop him. I halt a distance away from a line of several Humvee-style and armored vehicles. Only the swish of the wind brushing across the tops of the grass and the nearby trees can be heard. I don’t see any movement except for a few birds flittering across the fields, the first I’ve seen since arriving.

Cautiously, I make my way closer. I catch a flash of movement just inside the tree line near the blockade. It isn’t much, more of a hint of movement. I stop, tense and alert, holding my hand behind me to keep Trip where he is. I don’t turn, hoping he understands my signal for what it is and doesn’t think I mean ‘please rush forward and shout something.’ The darkness within the folds of the forest is complete, even for my ability to see in the dark. Looking from the bright light of the sun into shadows makes everything within nearly invisible.

I go to my knees and peer into the area where I saw the movement. My experience has taught me that, if I saw something move, there is something there. A lot of people will look for a few moments, see nothing else, and think that it’s their imagination. I have learned that lesson the hard way. There, another hint, almost like a darker shadow moving with the gloom of the forest. Movement, or a sixth sense, is usually the first indication that others are near.

The shadow resolves itself. Moving out of the shadows, someone, or something, steps into the small amount of light penetrating the forest’s edge. They halt just inside the first growth of trees. From what I can see of their body position, they are looking in my direction. Turning quickly to see what mischief Trip is up to, I see him standing just behind me, stuffing something he found into his mouth.

“Get down,” I sharply whisper.

“Why? I thought we were going to the road to find Ponch,” Trip says, bits of food falling from his mouth.

“There’s someone in the trees,” I state. “Now, get down.”

He leans forward and squints his eyes, peering into the forest.

“Oh, so there is. Is that Ponch?”

“Not unless he switched out his poncho for a dress. No, please, get down,” I say, whispering.

“Why would he do that? That was one sharp poncho.”

“He wouldn’t. Now fucking get down,” I say, reaching back to grab his shirt and pull him to his knees.

He gives me a look of disgust but doesn’t fight me. Focusing back on the trees ahead, I see that the person has moved out from within the forest and is standing at the very edge. I was correct with my first assessment, the one standing is wearing a dress, but it’s tattered and deeply stained. The grayish skin is in contrast to the dark stains that cover her apparel. I don’t have the benefit of long distance vision, but my eyesight is fairly keen, and it’s easy to tell that the person staring at us is no longer one of the living.

I can’t figure out why she isn’t coming at me like the other zombies I’ve run across. Her steady stance tells that she isn’t a shambler, and she isn’t sprinting like Jesse Owens. Both of those types seemed to be as relentless as the night runners and would immediately pursue anything living. I notice more movement within the t

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rees as more join her. They stop behind, still partially hidden in the shadows. I can’t tell their exact number, but it seems there are close to five of them; at least, those that I can see.

Oh well, a zombie is a zombie , I think, raising my carbine.

The woman quickly, and I mean quickly, turns and vanishes into the trees.

What the fuck?! 

“Hmmm…smart ones,” Trip says from behind.

I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. As far as I know from what Mike told me, there are the slow ones and what he called, version 2.0 ones. Those, I thought, are the speeders. Although they can run and are more agile, they still seem to pursue relentlessly. Yet, here is one that is reacting with a degree of intelligence.

Is that part of his world as well? Or, are we dealing with something completely different, and something that is only part of this world ?

Whatever it is, I don’t like it. The implications are too drastic to think about. The woman reappears at the edge of the trees. I don’t see any of the moving shadows behind and immediately worry about where they are.

“Well, one less can’t hurt things,” I mumble, sighting in on her.

When my barrel centers on her, she steps behind a nearby tree.

Fuck! 

I’m not feeling very comfortable sitting in the open like we are, but I’m less so with the idea of venturing into the trees. Glancing around, there isn’t any concealment except for tall grass growing farther out in the fields. The woman ahead, well…zombie — call it like it is — is peeking around the edge of the tree. This doesn’t give me warm fuzzies. There’s too much intelligence at work.

I rise and shuffle farther away from the tree line. I don’t know where those that were with her are but, with the intelligence being shown, I can make an educated guess. I think about just leaving them here and forgoing the road block to make my way through the fields. However, the tall grass, which is growing taller than I am in places, will limit my field of vision, and that’s not a good thing.

The drafts of wind are blowing from the forest into the fields. On the slight breeze wafting through the area, I suddenly pick up the faint smell of decay.

“Oh no you don’t. I know that trick,” I mutter, orienting myself toward the trees but keeping the woman behind the tree in sight.

Three figures materialize in the trees at the closest point. Breaking into the open, they begin sprinting directly toward Trip and me. The zombie peeking around the tree is to my left, the three directly in front and, to my right, I see two other speeders break out of the tree line and run into the fields. It’s a classic, tactical move. The very nature of it and that they are using it gives me the absolute creeps.

Well, that’s not good. 

There’s no time to contemplate it further. The three racing toward me are the immediate threat. They aren’t screaming or moaning, just running full tilt. Shifting slightly to orient more directly toward them, I bring my M-4 to my shoulder, center the reticle on the one to the left, flip the selector switch to ‘semi’, and fire.

I select semi because I need headshots and I don’t want the barrel dancing around. Their heads are bouncing and moving, but the distance is close. The subdued sound of a round leaving the barrel rises slightly above the sound of their feet pounding across the ground. The projectile rapidly closes the distance, impacting high upon the first one’s forehead. A splash of dark liquid sprays outward from the forceful connection of bullet and bone.

The speeder’s head rocks backward and it nearly tumbles backward from its continued forward momentum. Recovering with a stumble, it resumes it dash, only to meet up with the second round I sent flying. This one sails through its open mouth, knocking out the lower teeth before hitting the upper palate and rocketing into the brain tissue. Its motor skills suddenly cease and it’s driven to its knees, sliding forward for a foot before falling onto its face.

I quickly shift my aim, targeting the next. My first round bounces off the side of its cheek, taking a large chunk of skin and gouging out a huge crevice. It doesn’t even flinch from the injury but crashes to the ground from the second round entering through the nostrils. The third, seeing its partners go down, veers to the side. It only manages to turn its head slightly before a round takes it just below the temple. It falls so quickly that my second round sails over its head, impacting a tree along the edge of the forest with a solid thunk.

Seeing the three down, I wheel around searching for the other two. I’m thankful their timing is off. They should have attacked along with the other three. My sight takes in Trip, who is crouched behind me and eating a cracker while staring at the woman behind the tree.

“I don’t think she likes you,” he comments, taking another bite of the wafer.

“It’s a good thing I’m not trying to date her, then. Now…could you please move? I’m expecting company from behind,” I state.

“They’re over there.” He points off to the side without even looking. He shifts to the side a couple of feet, all the while not taking his eyes from the woods.

How in the fuck does he do that?  I think, not doubting him and orienting in the directing he is pointing.

Sure enough, I hear the sound of someone moving through the grass a couple of seconds later…exactly from the direction Trip indicated. The two speeders that exited from the woods previously emerge from the tall grass on the run.

“You’re a little late,” I mutter.

My sight was almost centered on one of them, so I barely have to move the barrel before firing. Four rounds later, the two join the other three in whatever afterlife zombies have. I turn toward the woman, who is still peeking out from behind the tree. I had expected her to join in on the fun to make it a three-sided game, but this appears to be a spectator sport for her.

I slip my zoom to the 4x setting and her face rushes into more clarity. She has one hand on the side of the trunk while looking around the massive bole. Her eyes are glazed over, but her expression is…what? Thoughtful? It’s also apparent she doesn’t think I’m a good aim. I can’t imagine an intelligent zombie showing only its head. It’s the only vulnerable part, but here she is presenting me with a stationary target. Who knows what is going through that dead mind of hers?

Well, I know what will be in just a second .

I center the small crosshair and pull the trigger. Compensating only a little for the anticipated bullet drop, after all, she’s not that far, but sub-sonic rounds aren’t known for their ability to accurately reach long distances. The carbine bucks slightly, but her head doesn’t entirely leave my field of view. I’m awarded with a spray of dark blood which splashes across the tree trunk. Her head vanishes from view as she falls to the side from her cover. I keep my scope on her, but she doesn’t move.

I rise and cautiously advance toward the barricaded road, wary of any zombies that might still be hidden. Arriving near the military vehicles, near where the woman lies at the edge of the woods, I halt. I don’t move for some time, until it becomes apparent that there isn’t anyone else around. Unlike the roadblock we just left, cars are crammed close to the barricade of the military-style vehicles. However, they are shot up in the same manner as the first one we came across. The vehicles are bullet-ridden with bodies lying in all positions, some draped out of windows, others lying on the pavement or grass. I can’t see what shape they’re in and I’m not really interested in doing so.

The sunlight reflects off spent cartridges that litter the ground, inches deep in places. Gazing out over the plains, I wonder where the people were headed and why the military was trying to stop them. It could have been that the people were just fleeing, but I’m not sure why they would be stopped here. Was the military hiding something, or preventing something? I’ve wondered if the creatures we encountered were brought in with Mike, Trip, and me, or whether there were some here to begin with. Mike certainly seemed acquainted with the zombies, and the night runners are like the ones from my world, so that’s entirely possible. However, something certainly happened here that the people were fleeing.

Without seeing anything that warrants halting any longer, we make the rest of our way to the blockade.

“Yack, you should come here,” Trip stated.

“Did you just call me, Yack?” I ask, exasperated. Trip might have an angel on his shoulder, but he’s a devil to deal with sometimes.

“Why would I do that, Jack?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Is there a reason I should come over there besides you showing me that you found another Twinkie? I’m not sure I could stomach watching you eat another one,” I comment. Even though the wrapper says different, I still think of them as Twinkies.

“There’s FTEs,” Trip says, pulling a heavy cardboard box out of one the Humvee-style vehicles.

“Those look a lot like MREs,” I say, approaching. “It’s not fine dining, but I’m starving.”

“Hey, man, I found them.” Trip declares, shielding the carton.

“It says there’s twenty-four in there. I’m pretty sure not even your endless stomach can handle that much.”

“There’s only eighteen, and I’m pretty hungry.”

I walk over and snatch one of the meals before he has a chance to protest further. He’d probably tear into them and devour them before I could get one otherwise. The only thing left would be a confetti of plastic wrapping drifting slowly down and carried away with the breeze. I hear him snort in derision but ignore him.

“Not cool, man. I already had to share w

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ith someone else,” Trip says, pulling out two empty plastic wrappers.

I sit on the side rail of the vehicle and pull out one of my knives to cut into my package. Making a slit in the gray plastic, I scan the area. Seeing one plastic wrapper Trip discarded, I rise to take a look; more out of curiosity than anything else.

“Hey, wait a minute. This one has been opened, and not that long ago,” I state, now alert and looking around for more signs of someone around.

I note the second empty wrapper which lodged under one of the wheels. Setting my container down, and making sure Trip doesn’t abscond with it, I circle the area with my M-4 at the ready. Whoever feasted here not long ago may still be around. It could have been Mike, but then again, it might not have. Nothing else in this land has been pleasant to deal with, and from the looks of the blockade, I don’t want to meet any of the residents. I’m dressed in a military fashion, and from the scratches and dents along the sides of the armored vehicles, they may not be well-liked at the moment. And from the looks of the dead bodies and torn up vehicles, the military doesn’t like anyone else. That kind of puts me in a rather difficult position. Assured that no one else is nearby, I make my way back to Trip, who is rifling through the cardboard container.

“Fine, you can have another one. This one doesn’t sound good. Here,” Trip says, thrusting a package into toward me.

“Liver and onions? Yeah, um, thanks. However, that’s not what I meant. One of the packages was opened and eaten a short time ago.”

“You think they’re still around? I mean, I found this box fair and square.”

Exasperated, I run my hand down my face. “Let me see if I can explain this in ‘Trip’ terms. We’ve been here a couple of days and we’ve seen no one else except Mike.”

“Who?”

“Ponch.”

“Oh yeah. Where is he by the way?”

Talking to Trip is like throwing a Super Ball against a wall and watching it bounce around at high speed. You never know where it’s going to land, and it’s hard to keep up with it, but you know it’s going to be interesting whatever it does.

“I’m trying to get to that. I’m thinking that he may have been here and ate those packages,” I say, hoping something I say sinks in.

“Ponch took my food? That’s not cool, man. I’ll have to talk to him. It’s clearly labeled as mine.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?” I ask, watching as the ball bounces randomly.

“FTE. It stands for Food Trip Enjoys.”

I just shake my head, wondering how he’s managed to live alone this long. I set down the liver and onions Trip handed me and grab the package I originally opened. It’s shepherd’s pie which is only marginally better. Spooning the food into my mouth, I walk around looking for any other clues that Mike may have been here. It’s good to find some sign that he might have lived through the night, but I’m still not positive it was him. It really could have been anyone. I search the tangled wreckage of cars and then look out into the wide open expanse.

“Whoever it was, they had to have gone that way. I just hope there’s a place where we can find shelter before night hits,” I murmur, looking into the sun.

Something catches my eye. It’s one of those things that is out of place, but I can’t put my finger on it. Then, I see what it is. There’s a leg sticking straight out of the pavement with a boot in the air. It’s embedded into the asphalt; as if the helmet and boot at the last blockade weren’t enough. I nudge it with my toe and it stays in place. The pant legs have fallen down slightly and it looks like I can see the healthy pink skin of a shin underneath.

Nope. Just nope. There’s no way I’m checking that out , I think. I’m not sure my psyche can handle it .

The sun winding its way across the sky into early afternoon, and the fact that I don’t see anywhere that we can shelter when night falls, is reason enough to leave this place. The leg seals the deal.

Whatever forces are at work here which could cause that is beyond me. Perhaps they did something here that bent space and time. It could have been the same thing that yanked the three of us, along with our lovely zombies and night runners, into this place.

“What in the fuck happened here?” I mutter.

The odd thought arises of placing a baseball on the bottom of the boot and playing T-ball. Yes, my mind goes in strange directions at the oddest of times.

“You ray romething?” Trip says, squeezing bags of food into his mouth.

Trip is eating squished bags of spaghetti-like paste. I turn away, not wanting to see anymore. I’ve seen awful things in war but this is somehow a lot worse.

“Are you about ready?” I ask, checking my gear.

“One, maybe two more,” Trip answers.

“How many have you eaten, Trip?”

“Five or eight. Tough to say.”

“You may  have eaten eight FTEs? Trip, that’s like thirty-two thousand calories. You’re going to be in a fucking food coma soon. We have to get on the move and see if we can catch Mi…Ponch.”

“Ponch is here?”

We leave the carnage and mystery leg behind, striking out on the open road. Although I don’t like being in the open, I like being in the confines of the snarled mass of cars and surrounded by the trees even less. There’s something liberating about no longer feeling constrained.

I would like to put some distance behind us, but all Trip can manage is something similar to a pregnant waddle after his record-breaking eating marathon. After a couple of miles, I take a few steps along the pavement before I realize that Trip has stopped. I’m feeling a little irritated at our pace. After all, night will be upon us at some point and I still don’t see anywhere that we could hole up in for the evening that would provide for a margin of safety.

Turning to see what the hell he is up to now, I ask, “Trip, what are you doing? We need to push on.”

“I need to make a food baby,” Trip answers.

“You need to fucking what?”

“Food baby. It’s gonna happen soon. I can feel the contractions! I’m going to need some hot water.”

“No…no…no! Oh, fuck no!” I say, watching Trip begin undoing his belt.

I do know the feeling, when you gotta go, you gotta go. But he brought this on himself. And, besides, feces are the one thing I could never really handle well. I did, but I didn’t like it one bit. I walk a few more steps and turn my back, giving him some privacy, and myself some as well.

“This is NOT happening. Lynn and my kids are God knows where, and I’m babysitting a stoned out hippie who hasn’t had a real thought since Jimmy Carter was in office,” I mutter.

Behind me, I could hear Trip grunting heavily. “Can you keep me steady, man? I’m going to fall over.”

“Fuck no!”

“Not cool, man,” Trip says, panting heavily. “Ooooh, it’s coming!”

There’s a fifty-fifty chance I end up with Mike or Trip and I get Trip. Fucking Mike must be a saint that he hasn’t left this one behind yet , I think, trying to ignore the sounds Trip is making.

“It’s twins!” Trip shouts.

“For fuck’s sake, Trip, just hurry up. You’re going to attract every night runner and zombie in the area.”

“You can’t rush the miracle of food-child birth,” Trip puffs.

There are a few moments of silence before Trip speaks again. “Good thing I saved those moist towelettes from the food packages. Hey, Flack, can you come over here. Their color isn’t right.”

“It’s Jack!” I declare, and, in a moment of not thinking, look back while replying.

On the pavement, there is impossibly colored offal lying in a huge pile.

“What’s the matter with you?” I ask, more than a little alarmed. “They’re mustard yellow. Are you sick?”

Trip sat down on his haunches, his face not more than a foot from his release. “Smells like feet and Phrito’s. Feetos!”

“Fuck me. You are one sick bastard and get stranger by the minute,” I say, turning to continue our journey down the road. “And we’re picking up the pace.”

My hope is to try and catch Mike by nightfall, assuming he is the one ahead of us. I open up my mind in an attempt to see if there are night runners about. Where they would hide from the sun in this open expanse is beyond me, but I check to see if there are any lairs in the area. I sense a few some distance behind us in the forest. We’re not out of danger at the moment. Although, having their company is almost preferable to Trip’s road-hazard nightmare.

I begin alternating jogging with quick-paced walking. We start making better time with Trip having lightened up a bit. However, I don’t think it will be enough to catch up. Mike is unencumbered — in more ways than one — and can make better time. But, Mike also has to realize that he needs to find a place for the night and may hole up if he finds one. That may give us a chance.

“It’s true what they say,” Trip states, looking a little morose.

We’d been walking for a little more than an hour, and Trip hadn’t said more than a handful of words, which was more than fine with me.

“I know I shouldn’t, but I’ll bite. What’s true, Trip?” I ask, cringing for what the answer might be.

“Post-partum depression.”

“I don’t even know why I asked.”

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 8

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“There you are.”

I’d been walking for miles when I came across a bridge that crosses over the top of the highway. Sitting in the shade and eating a meal sounded like a splendid idea. I just had to make sure nothing was hiding behind the huge cement stanchions. After a quic

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k perimeter check, which didn’t even yield graffiti, I got behind one of the columns and opened up a meal. I ate a reasonable facsimile of tuna casserole and some sort of sponge cake that would have been more aptly named ‘brick loaf’ instead. I took a big swig from a canteen I’d pilfered and peered around the edge. Lucy was coming. She was a good five hundred yards away. She would walk a little bit and then stop to look at the bridge. She could sense the inherent danger lurking in the shadows. I just hoped the pull of her stomach would bring her in closer.

She was moving agonizingly slow, her hesitation was causing me precious minutes I didn’t have. I moved slowly, getting into the prone position, resting my rifle on the ground, and clearing some grass right in front of me. She was somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred yards now. I’d feel a whole lot better if she got within a hundred. I couldn’t afford to spend too much time playing this game, and Lucy needed to die. Even though I had goggles, she would still have the advantage over me at night, and that just wasn’t going to do. Plus, I’d yet to prove it, but I was fairly convinced zombies had some sort of telepathic means of communication, and I did not want her friends Ethel, Fred and maybe Desi Jr. showing up.

“Come on, Lucy. I’ve got a pie with your name on it.”

The closer she got, the slower she went.

Does she hear me? Smell me maybe? 

Lucy started looking around for a place to hide, I think.

“Screw this.”

I pulled the trigger just as she collapsed to the ground. I saw a puff of her hair blow away from the top of her head.

“Did I get you?” I asked, looking over my sights. She seemed to have been falling before I’d even got the shot off. She was still moving and staying low to the ground as she started crawling towards the grass.

“Are you kidding me with this shit?”

I got up quickly and started running with my rifle.

Jack Walker — I Spy

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The plain is mostly flat but breaks into a series of small, rolling hills at times. The highway traverses in a nearly straight line but follows the undulations of the land, rising to crests and descending into small valleys. Trip and I are currently walking through one of those series of hills, which limits our visibility until we come to one of the hilltops.

“Did you hear that?” I ask, halting near the bottom of a dip in the road. “That sounded like a gunshot.”

“How could I? You were talking,” Trip responds.

“It was close. Maybe if you weren’t lip-smacking your food down, you would have heard it.”

“That could be Ponch.” Trip takes off at a run.

I reach out and grab him by the shoulder as he passes by, my fingers closing around a section of his clothing. He is brought up short, causing his packet of food to upend. He frowns as he looks from the spilled food to my hand still gripping him.

“Look, all we know is that it’s someone that’s armed. It may or may not be Mi…Ponch. I agree we should move quickly, but we also need to be cautious. Remember those military vehicles we left? I don’t think we want to run pell-mell into them.”

Trip continues to stare at the food and my hand holding him.

“If I let you go, you aren’t going to just start racing up the hill, right?” I ask.

He says nothing in reply, which I decide to take as a yes. Releasing him, I half, well more than half, expect him to completely ignore what I said and start running again. I just never know with this guy. He doesn’t and smoothes out his jacket where I grabbed him.

Like that’s going to help , I think, starting up the hill.

I move off the edge of the road and closer to the fields should we suddenly find the need to hide. Starting cautiously up the hill, with my carbine readied, I glance quickly behind to see Trip following. Near the crest, I hear a second gunshot which seems to come from just over the rise. I crouch lower, crawling the last few feet so that I don’t silhouette myself against the skyline. The landscape slowly unfolds before me until I reach a point just before the top.

Ahead, the road dips slightly and almost immediately runs under a bridge; the crossing highway seems to be the road Trip and I were on before trekking to the other roadblock. Bringing my M-4 up, I peer through my optics down to the structure. Below, not very far away, an armed man is standing over a body. I can see him clearly, but it’s the pink shoes and poncho that first gives him away.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 9

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Lucy had stopped crawling as I came near her. She looked up and snarled. I felt a momentary wrench of pain for the humanity she’d lost, but she was the enemy, plain and simple. If I let her live, she would never stop her pursuit. I don’t know if zombies feel pain, so I made it as quick and pain-free as possible. The bullet struck in her temple and blood jetted out in a driving stream. Her head dropped to the ground.

“I’m sorry, Lucy.”

And I meant it. A flash of light caught my peripheral vision. I turned and realized I was caught in someone’s scope. I was about to raise my hands in the universal symbol of ‘I surrender’, or the alternative of ‘I need to buy some more time to figure out how I’m going to get out of this mess before you shoot me.’

“Hey, Ponch!” Trip shouted.

“Trip? Jack? Is that you guys?” I called out.

I don’t even have the words to describe the relief that flooded into me when I saw two figures rise from the hill nearby and begin walking toward me. I’d been operating on pure survival mode, desperately trying not to let just how fucked I was creep into my psyche. I may have cried if it had just been Trip, but since Jack was there, I had to appear as manly as possible.

As they arrived, I noticed Jack look over at Trip. “It’s good to see you made it through the night. Was she giving you trouble?” he asked, looking down at my fresh kill.

“More like keeping me company. It’s good to see you guys.”

“Likewise,” Jack said. “I wasn’t sure you’d made it until we came across the military blockade, and even then, I wasn’t entirely sure it was you.”

“Did you see…?”

“The anomalies? Yeah,” Jack said tersely. “I’ve been thinking on that. That is, when Trip gives me more than a minute to reflect.”

“I guess anomaly is one word. Jack, there was a fucking leg sticking out of the ground, and I don’t mean like it was planted there, but like it was part of the roadway.”

“There’s another roadblock on a nearby highway where there was a boot sticking out of a tire,” he said.

I spent the next couple of minutes telling him my thoughts on the zombies and the night runners, and he in turn let me know what he thought about the burning city and the anomalies. I was having a difficult time at best calling that errant leg an irregularity.

“Do you want to hug me?” Trip asked.

It’s sort of funny, because I did…so I did. I maybe would have stayed that way a little longer, but Trip started discussing his latest bowel movement. Jack walked away. Now, normally, I would have found a way to get out of this discussion, but I was still basking in the glow of having them back and I’d soak it up a little longer even if it meant I had to listen to his very colorful description. The hug, however, was over.

Jack was about a few paces away, shaking his head. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen, Mike. There’s not enough bleach that can wipe that image from my mind. I think I might be having Post-Traumatic Shit Disorder. I can’t fathom why you even listen to him.”

“That’s actually pretty funny, man.”

When Trip was done recounting his story, I called over to Jack. “Hey, man, come over here. I’ve got to show you something.” We walked back to the bridge.

“I’ve heard that before, and didn’t much like the results,” Jack replied.

I saw the look of concern on Jack’s face, so I clarified. “I promise, it’s nothing like that.”

Jack bent over and picked up the RPG that I had taken off so I could get in a better position to take out Lucy.

“This looks a lot like an RPG-7,” he said, turning it over.

I nodded at all the appropriate times.

“It’s not quite the same, though. There are some differences, though. Still, it’s a one and done piece of equipment. Did you get this from one of the military trucks?”

“School bus,” I told him.

“It must have been a rough neighborhood,” he responded. “Do you know much about these?”

“I’ve seen them in action, but never shot one. I don’t think my commanding officer would trust me with one. I know they’re useless past three hundred yards or so. Maybe you don’t want to see the whites of their eyes but the closer, the better with this thing.”

“Could someone please make sure the door to the grow room is shut?” Trip said.

I looked over. He was about twenty feet away, out from under the shadow of the bridge and lying in the center of the roadway in the spread eagle position. Luckily, he was fully clothed. It was not too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe he would undress in this situation.

“Does he always talk like this?” Jack asked.

“He does, and sometimes you have to find the underlying message he’s trying to get out.”

“It’s called getting high too many times,” Jack stated.

“On most occasions I’d agree wi

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th you, Jack. Trip, why would I want to make sure the grow room door is shut?”

“Don’t indulge him or he’ll start talking about his pet pterodactyl.”

“Wait, he told you he had a pet pterodactyl?”

“Not you too, Mike. Please, man, I can only take one …and I’m not sure even take.”

“Company,” Trip said so casually that I wasn’t even sure as to what he was referring.

I think the light clicked on in mine and Jack’s head at the exact same moment. We both ran to Trip and grabbed an arm, pulling him up and heading back towards the bridge.

“WOW! I was thinking about levitating, and now I am!” Trip was praising Jesus like he was in a revival tent.

“Trip, you’re not flying. Jack and I carried you here.”

“I know that,” he said softly out of the corner of his mouth. “But they don’t.”

I didn’t want to know who ‘they’ were, or what realm ‘they’ were from as the approach of engines could now be heard. We needed to get hidden.

“What do you think?” I asked Jack as he was readying his weapon.

I knew he didn’t have an answer. I guess I just needed to know I could ask that question of somebody.

“I don’t know, but prior experience has been mixed at best,” he replied.

Apocalyptic times brought out the worst in people; even the good ones were usually stressed to the breaking point and couldn’t be completely trusted. Desperate people do desperate things.

“Motorcycles.” My head sagged down as I saw a couple of them crest a small hill behind us.

“Is that necessarily a bad thing?” Jack asked.

“Ever watch Mad Max ?”

“Yeah, so?” Jack said.

“Only arrogant assholes who feel like they have nothing to fear ride in something that open during a crisis.”

“They’re wearing something over their faces,” Jack said, peering through his scope.

“Like clown masks?” Trip asked as he began to sit up and attempt to get a better look. “Once saw a clown named Timothy, came to my nephew’s birthday party, meanest jester I ever saw. I was afraid he was going to eat the kids.”

“Sit down, Trip.” I grabbed his shirt and pulled him back.

“Hey, Ponch, when did you get here? Want a hit?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you. How does he do that?”

Jack had not pulled his gaze away from the gang of bikes, whose numbers were beginning to swell as more and more of them appeared.

“Hollow leg is all I can figure. Any idea what’s on their faces?”

“If I were a betting man, I would say gas masks,” Jack commented.

“I’ve got seven gas masks,” Trip blurted out.

“What?” Jack asked, incredulous and finally looking away from his lens.

“Really, Jack? You don’t know better yet? I’m sure they’re hooked up to a bong or something.” Trip was nodding as I spoke. “Gas masks, though? Why? Is there something in the air we shouldn’t be breathing?” I was now getting pretty self-conscious about every breath I took. “Is it something biological going on here?”

“That doesn’t explain legs growing out of the asphalt. Some of them are dragging…” Jack hesitated. “Things.”

“Things? What kind of things?” I asked, squinting in an attempt to get a better look.

He turned away from his scope. “It looks like torsos…human torsos.”

I was going to ask him if I could look through his scope but decided against it. I took a moment to think on it. “Any chance it’s zombies or night runners?”

“It’s possible, I suppose. They’re too mangled to really tell, though.”

“No help on that front.”

We hadn’t proved that the men coming were necessarily evil, but anyone who dragged their enemies behind them were not high up on the trust chart. I hated zombies, and now, night runners. A case could be made against cherry Pop-Tarts and ham, but I wouldn’t spend an extra second tying any of them up and pulling them behind me, letting them slowly disintegrate on the rough surface.

The group had stopped about midway from the top of the hill to our location under the bridge. They were gathered around Lucy. Her being a zombie would make figuring out just how long she’d been there difficult, even the blood that did leak out was a thick congealed mass that was more semi-solid than liquid. Unless they traveled these roadways every day, my guess is they wouldn’t be able to tell if she’d been there an hour or a week.

“They sure do look anemic.”

Trip had got with the program. He’d done his best to scrunch between Jack and me and was looking at the bikers, who numbered close to forty or fifty. I’d been so focused on the damned gas masks that I had not really looked at their black leather-swaddled bodies. To a person, they were all incredibly thin. Even with the bulky clothing, they looked little more than scarecrow skeletons.

“Jack, they don’t look right, and it’s not just the gas masks.”

The starkness was plainly laid out for all of us to see as the one in front got off his bike. It looked like a moth landing on his shoulders would have driven him into the ground.

“They could be malnourished,” Jack suggested.

“That could be. Look at the leader, he has to be way over six feet. Could it be some sort of wasting disease maybe?”

“That’s possible and might account for the gas masks.”

Trip was about two inches away from me; we could have just about been kissing when he spoke. “What? No funny comment?”

I was taken aback. The things in front of us had completely taken up my focus, I’d missed an opportunity to compare a ‘wasting’ to Trip. Although, under the current circumstances, I’m pretty sure it would have fallen flat, given the likelihood that we were all being exposed to whatever had put those poor individuals in their current state. I guess what was funny was that he’d caught it. I’d figure him out at some point.

“Not this time,” I told him honestly.

“I’ll wait.”

The one that had gotten off the bike first was now standing and surveying the area. His gaze lingered the longest on the only place that afforded some cover for miles. It just so happened to be our location.

“This isn’t looking too promising,” Jack said. “I don’t see any weapons, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hiding some.”

“Jack, I can’t tell if it’s the heat mirage coming off the pavement, but is that leader guy walking funny? I mean, it looks like his leg is bending too far back when he steps, like he doesn’t have a patella or he’s got some crazy stretched out ligaments. His gait just looks bizarre.”

“Yeah. His arms are doing the same thing, like he can swing his elbow both ways. I thought I was just seeing things. I really hate this fucking place,” Jack whispered.

“That’s creeping me out,” Trip said, even though he wasn’t looking. He had rolled over and was looking at the bottom of the bridge eating what looked like a Twinkie.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked him.

“Don’t,” Jack pleaded. I let it drop.

Lucy had been a zombie. Once, she’d been human, a sister, perhaps mother, daughter of someone. She did not deserve what happened to her next. She was to become a dragging victim as one of the things hoisted her up and another tied a rope around her chest underneath her arms. Lucy wasn’t a big woman. At five foot something-ish, the things towered over her, but even her diminutive body was nearly twice the width of the thing holding her up.

“We need to move,” Jack said.

I was watching them as they let Lucy fall hard to the ground.

“Mike, Gumby is pointing this way. We need to move.” Jack had tapped my shoulder as he crawled back and behind one of the large pillars.

“You should listen to him, he knows what he’s talking about,” Trip said as he pulled back as well.

“Bullshit, how would you know what anyone is talking about, Trip?” I grumbled. “Where to now?”

“Up.” Jack pointed.

It would be an easy enough climb, provided we could do it undetected. We were already off the roadway and over the guardrail. Now, we just needed to traverse a sloped cement pad which led all the way up to underneath the bridge. From there, we could get onto the bridge beams. They were massive ‘I’ beams and would afford us nearly two feet of metal to lie down on. We’d be extremely vulnerable if we were seen, so the key would be stealth. Jack, I had complete faith in, Trip not so much. I could see him dropping a lit joint down right into the midst of the gang.

I was looking from the slope to the bikers. Trip didn’t bother with the precaution and just headed up. Blind luck, cloak of invisibility, and/or blinding light from guardian angels, I don’t know which, but he made it up without attracting any attention. Jack was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger, shaking his head. There really wasn’t a more apt way to show what we were both feeling.

“You’re next,” Jack said.

I grabbed the RPG and decided to pull a ‘Trip’ and just go for it. No sense to stopping and seeing if they were watching. If they caught my movements, I would hear the cries of alarm and then the revving of engines soon enough. I looked back after I got to the crux. Jack was doing the same pained expression. I shrugged my shoulders.

I had to stop Trip from crawling onto the side of the I-beam that was directly exposed to the oncoming bikers.

“Yeah, that makes more sense,” he said as he got onto the side of the beam I directed him to.

I looked back to Jack, who was watching the bikers. They were all back on their rides and getting ready to come our way. There was no way he could make it without being spotted. He waved to me with his hand to move. I quickly got behind Trip who had wriggled a good ten feet out onto the beam.

“That’s far enough,” I told Trip.

If I didn’t tell him, there would be a good chance he’d cross the entire structure and come down the other side.

“Where’s Mack?”

“Jack?” I assumed that’s who

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he was talking about, considering there were only the three of us, and I guess maybe all the others that lived in Trip’s head as well. “He’s going to have to stay where he is for now.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Yeah, me either, Trip.”

I could just make out the back of Jack’s legs as he pivoted around the bridge support as the bikers neared. The reverberations off the steel became almost unbearably loud as the multitude of motorcycles approached. The steel vibrated from the sound. For a moment I could sympathize with Quasimodo as he sat in the bell tower of Notre Dame. I expected a crescendo of noise that would eventually start to tail off as they came through and passed on by. In a perfect world, that is what would have exactly happened. Not this world though, no. The group of bikers bunched together under that bridge and revved their engines even louder before shutting the machines down.

“Oh no,” I said, letting my head tap against the rusted metal.

They were stopping to take a break. Jack was in a world of hurt if any of them decided to check things out. I suppose even we would be screwed if they went past our beam and looked back and up. At least Jack had the ability to fire effectively. I’d be hanging my rifle over the side firing wildly.

Trip hadn’t moved or spoken in a minute or two, which was approaching a world record for him. I then heard a rhythmic breathing. He was asleep. I wasn’t sure if I was alarmed that he might become startled and roll off, or become startled and blurt something out loud, which would get us seen, or if I was just plain thrilled that he was asleep and quiet. It was a fine line with him. I just had to hope whatever unseen force kept him alive was working diligently now.

The things below us were getting off of their bikes. They were not fanning out; they were, however, starting to coalesce on Lucy. Some were taking off their masks. What I saw was horrifying. If what I was looking at had been human once, that certainly wasn’t the case anymore—at least, not from my angle anyway.

I could see the tops of their heads, which were a wrinkled mass of white. Skin folds large enough to lose a cigar in dominated. Tufts of hair stuck out at odd angles and in random places. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but the sounds of animalistic grunts and the rending of tissue from bone combined with the lip smacking crunch of matter was all I needed to know. They were eating Lucy. Humans, night runners, and even zombies didn’t eat zombies; this was something altogether different. That they didn’t like sunlight was evident from their skin tone and the heavy clothing they wore from head to foot to block out its harmful rays.

Were they experiments gone terribly wrong? 

I didn’t think so, the changes to their physiology were just too fantastic for the human body to have endured or sustained. We were dealing with a whole new threat here. Trip snored on, oblivious to it all.

Jack Walker — Prime Real Estate

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I’m half a step from following Mike and Trip up the embankment when I glance over at the riders. They are coming down the road, and coming fast. Mike is looking down at me, and I wave him off. My options at this point are extremely limited. I hope that the bikers just drive on through, but my gut tells me that it isn’t going to be that easy.

Glancing from Mike to rapidly approaching motorcycles, I wonder if Mike will help if I’m discovered. Do I really even want him to? We’re grossly outnumbered, and the only thing we have going for us is that I didn’t see them carrying any weapons. Again, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any, only that I didn’t see them. If I am to die in this God-forsaken place, I want Mike to survive in the off chance that he could somehow get a message to Lynn and the kids. At the very least, that would give them some closure. How he would do that is beyond me, but then again, so many things are. And having spent days in this world, I’ve come to realize that anything is possible. If I do manage to make it through these next few moments, I’m going to make sure that I trade more information with him in the unlikely event that he can let them know.

I angle around the stanchion to try and stay out of sight as they draw nearer.

Keep moving, you bastards , I think. The ground trembles from the sound of their approach.

As much as I would like to keep them in sight, I don’t dare show any of myself. However, if I do get discovered, the leader is going to be the first to go down. That’s always a risky move as it could either throw them into disarray or spur them on. It’s been my experience, however, that it will cause a measure of fear in the ones following. After all, they’re the leader for a reason.

The thunder of their approach is damn near deafening, especially with my hearing. I’ve learned to tune that down to an extent, but there is only so much you can do about a volume of noise such as they are creating. The sound of advance changes. Even without seeing them, I know they are slowing down. This is the absolute worst thing that could be happening.

Fuck you, world , I think. I hate this miserable, rat-infested cesspool .

Sure enough, they come to a stop not more than twenty feet from where I’m standing, their bikes idling in the underpass, echoing off its concrete and metallic structure. Then, all goes quiet as they shut down their bikes, leaving only the faint whisper of wind above as it blows through the bridge’s superstructure.

Did they spot us? If so, they don’t seem overly cautious with their approach .

It could just be a coincidence. After all, it is a shady place to rest. I wait to see what transpires, hoping to hell that Mike can keep Trip under control. It would be just like him to yell “hi” from his overhead perch.

Holding my M-4, my finger resting on the trigger guard, stroking the selector switch with my thumb, I risk a peek. The leader quickly comes into view. He’s pulls off his mask and my finger tightens at what is revealed. I’ve been dealing with night runners for seemingly ever, and even zombies for the past few days. Dealing with those aberrations couldn’t prepare me for what I’m seeing; and I think it would be preferable to dealing with either or both of them. At least I knew them.

He has the skin the color of copier paper, with huge folds of skin from his head to partway down his face. It almost completely covers where his eyes should be. The thing’s nose is pushed flat against his face, leaving only a small opening in the center. The ears are non-existent, the skin pulled tight where they should have been, leaving nothing to indicate it ever had them.

As if that isn’t enough, below those changes, the skin turns from an alabaster white to a charcoal black. Looking at him, I think shooting him would be the most humane thing I ever did.

Is this creature this world’s equivalent of the night runners or zombies? Did something happen across all worlds to create creatures of their own? 

Pulling back out of sight, with my pulse racing and my heart pounding, I take a deep breath to ward off the panic threatening to rise up. Here is yet another creature, and I sincerely doubt they’d want to buy the first round, or any round thereafter; unless it was as a toast over my dead body. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the thought of meeting my end only to be strapped to the ass end of a bike and pulled down the highway. Of course, I guess I wouldn’t care a whole lot — I’d be dead — but the thought of it sickens my stomach.

If the things on the other side of the pillar were once human, they certainly aren’t anymore. The disjointed way they move argues against their ever being human.

Shit, I bet they’re faster than a snake as well. That would just be par for the course .

I sneak another look. As if things couldn’t become more surreal, the thing’s black maw of a mouth opens, revealing rows of tiny, yellow, serrated teeth. It picks up the zombie Mike had killed with ease. That lets me know that, even though the creature looks sickly, that isn’t necessarily the case. It has strength. The zombie must weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds, but he picks her up like she was some kid’s discarded toy.

Great! They’re strong, too. This just gets better and better .

I should probably have guessed what was going to happen, but I wasn’t prepared for it. The leader’s mouth opens even wider, like a snake unhinging its jaw. It brings the dead creature closer, covers half of the zombie’s face with its mouth, and rips the flesh and muscle off. The sight and sound of the flesh being torn off is enough to almost empty my, what was it, oh yeah, ‘Food Trip Enjoys’ onto the ground.

Fuck me! Did they drag those torsos as a form of tenderizing the meat? 

I’m pressing hard on the trigger guard with enough force to damn near bend it. The leader is eating this zombie’s face as if he might be eating a lollipop. I mean, aside from all of the weird shit going on just a few feet from me, who in the hell eats zombies? I mean, fuck! Really!? I swear that if Mike hadn’t carted off the RPG, I would use it and take my chances.

Of course, they’re probably shrapnel-proof .

The rest of the things begin clamoring for position as they tear into the zombie. Some of the others retrieve the carcasses they had been dragging behind. Watching them tear into the bodies, it isn’t hard thinking they are some kind of land shar

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k that has been whipped into a feeding frenzy. Several times, one of the creatures is shoved or punched away from what they must consider a succulent portion. The snarling and sick sound of flesh being stripped from bone is almost too much to bear. But, I have to endure it. I mean, it’s not like I really have a choice.

I still haven’t seen any weapons, which is a good thing. These things already know how to operate machinery, or at least a motorcycle. That means they have coordination. Those teeth and their apparent strength mean close quarters is a no-go. Feeling the weight of my M-4 is a comfort. I still have the advantage of range. Of course, I still don’t know how they would react to a bullet tearing into them. The night runners go down easily enough, and the zombies do with a head shot.

What will it take to put one of these things down?  I have no clue.

Two of the things start fighting over a zombie calf. I watch as this will be a learning lesson; giving me a clue of how they fight, their strengths and weaknesses. Ribbons of muscle hang down from a larger creature, his slightly smaller adversary just recovering from a punch that sent him sprawling to the pavement. The rest of the group isn’t paying any attention to the brawl happening just a few feet away.

The larger one suddenly folds over as if it had been punched in the stomach. The smaller one, upon rising, hadn’t moved a muscle. An impossibly darker stain forms and runs down the front of the larger one’s jacket.

Blood? Is it bleeding? 

I quickly glance at the others, expecting to see one of them holding a weapon. They are continuing to feast on the corpses, growling and tearing flesh. I hadn’t heard a thing and, slowly moving my head so I don’t attract attention from a sudden movement, begin searching the bridge and surrounding area. There isn’t a sign of anyone around or a tell-tale wisp of smoke that would indicate a weapon had been fired.

Looking back to the two brawlers, I see the smaller one’s hand is upraised. I don’t see it holding anything, yet it must have shot. I don’t have the slightest clue how. The larger one collapses to the ground after being struck in the head with some kind of projectile.

Is it possible these things have the ability to produce a projectile like that? That’s some scary shit if they can. 

The smaller one steps over the fallen one, pulls the calf from its chattering teeth, and begins eating. Twenty minutes later, having finished with the food they brought with them, they turn and begin tearing into the remains of their traveling companion. That’s worse than the night runners or zombies, neither of which eats their own. My only hope at this point is that lunch is over and they’ll continue on their way. Nope.

Of course not , I think, watching them move about to find spots to settle into. Is it nap time? 

Looking around at the sparse cover, my position looks to be one of the more prime locations for a nap.

Dammit!  I think, not relishing the idea of going into a fight without having a clue about my adversary.

I had to learn about night runners the hard way, the different kinds of zombies as well. I’m just not in the learning mood at the moment.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 10

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“Fuck.”

They wouldn’t leave, and the sounds of their wet eating were enough to make me want to shoot them. I dared a small look over the edge and saw one of the monsters on the ground. It was dead; the hole in the top of its skull was all the indication I needed to as confirmation. Lucy was gone. All of her clothes, bones, teeth, jewelry (if she had any) were now resting comfortably in the digestive systems of the nightmares below me. Zombies were a horrible affliction that plagued at least my reality of the world.

What had the poor bastards of this realm done to deserve this fate? Were these some ancient creature unearthed from the depths of the world by a mining exploration gone too deep? 

That would explain the striation of color and their adverse feelings about the sun. They had no eyes or ears that I could see, yet they had to have some form of navigation if they were riding motorcycles around.

Echo-location maybe? 

Their food was just about gone and I hoped they would be as well. When I didn’t hear the motorcycles start up, I dared another look down. Like a grandfather after Thanksgiving turkey, they were looking for places to lie down. Jack was in a world of shit. He was standing in soft grass and in the shade with a bridge support that would be ideal to rest against. His spot would soon be compromised. I thought about reaching out and letting Trip know what was going on, but I didn’t have that kind of time. I had to strike while the iron was hot. I inched my way back and felt much better when my feet touched the concrete pad. I’d never been a fan of heights. I hadn’t taken more than two steps when I heard this high pitched whistle that was almost beyond the range of my hearing. I knew the cry of an alarm, no matter what language was being used.

Jack Walker — Timing is Everything

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So, if they decide that my current position is prime real estate, I only have a few choices. Remain here where there is a semblance of cover, make a run up the pad to get into the under-bridge structure, or head out into the fields. The bridge is out as that would mean that Mike and Trip would get caught. If that happens, they’re as good as dead. That leaves the fields, where I might find some concealment and the ability to maneuver freely, or here, where I’d have some cover against whatever it is they shoot.

Glancing to where I know Mike and Trip are concealed, I see Mike’s legs swing down.

What in the fuck are you doing?  I think. Is he getting the hell out of here? I can’t say I’d blame him if he is. The least I can do is provide some cover fire for him to make his escape. Where in the hell is Trip? 

My head suddenly threatens to explode as I hear a piercing whistle-like sound race through my skull.

“Thirty yards, Jack. I need thirty yards!” Mike shouts.

It takes me a moment to figure out what in the hell he means. Then it hits me harder than the whistle-like sound. The RPG he’s carrying needs thirty yards in order to arm itself and Mike needs time to gain some distance. It’s one of those idiot-proof devices meant to keep a soldier from firing into a nearby wall and blowing up his squad. Trust me, it’s there for a reason.

I whip around the corner of the stanchion, bringing my M-4 to bear. One of the things is not more than five yards away, focusing all of its attention on Mike. Not knowing what it takes to bring down one of these creatures, but also understanding that there are quite a few of them, I flip the selector switch to auto, and fire a burst. It’s hard to miss anything when my barrel is damn near in its face. The three suppressed rounds hit in quick succession. The thing’s head vibrates around the bullets like I’d fired into a bowl of Jell-O, and a black liquid sprays outward, obscuring my vision for a split-second.

Behind the creature, more of the viscous substance jets out from its head, coating another that is following closely. The creature in front drops straight to the ground like I’d cut its legs off. I don’t have to move my barrel more than a few millimeters before triggering another burst into the second one. The bullets seem to be absorbed into its head rather than actually impacting. However, it too drops to the grass. I don’t care how it happens as long as that’s the result. The black liquid, which I assume is their form of blood, soaks into the ground, leaving a mark like someone poured a bucket of oil on the spot.

Seeing the creatures can be brought down like others, I select ‘semi’ on the selector switch. I can’t imagine it’s going to take them much longer to figure out I’m here, suppressed shots or not. The underside of a bridge isn’t exactly conducive to containing noise to a minimum. Placing my small red crosshair on the third closest creature, who was looking for its napping blanket. I fire, sending a round into its head. It falls to the side as the round passes through and ricochets off the pavement.

Pieces of concrete splinter near my head as projectiles slam into the support structure, letting me know that I’ve been noticed.

“That’s thirty! That’s thirty!” I yell.

I honestly can’t spare the time to measure it correctly, but, glancing quickly, the distance looks about right. The monsters have given up their search for a place to rest and are now racing toward my location, and, as I suspected, they are doing so rapidly. It’s now or never.

The shots coming my way escalate, forcing me to duck behind cover. That’s not my favorite move as I like to keep fire superiority to keep their  heads down. However, I don’t have much choice. When you duck behind cover, that only serves to allow the opposing forces to maneuver freely. At that point, unless you decide to run, it’s all over except for a large lady singing the final aria. My philosophy: If you’re not firing, you need to be moving. I would have kept firing in order to try and gain the upper hand had I not known Mike was about to fire an RPG into their midst.

Co

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me on, Mike
 , I think as pieces of concrete continue to be chipped away from my cover.

I wait for several long seconds and wonder if he has been hit or decided it was time to get out of Dodge. He doesn’t seem the type to run, and would hang in there until the last, sunset-filled, heroic stand, but it seems like it is taking forever. Suddenly, there is a ‘whoosh’. He fired the rocket.

Waiting for the explosion that is about to happen, and ready to round the corner to finish off those who remain, I hear only a metallic clang, followed by nothing.

Where is the earth-shattering ka-boom? There’s supposed to be an earth-shattering ka-boom. 

One of two things had happened. Either I am a horrible judge of distance and the rocket hadn’t travelled more than thirty yards, or…it was a dud. I suppose, seeing where he found it, it could have also been a prop.

Well, fuck this! I’m not going down like this .

I round the corner, my carbine coming up, ready to take out the first target that comes into view. I’m met with a brilliant flash and percussive explosion which sends me hurtling backward. Something hard and heavy whips overhead, brushing against my forehead before it rockets past.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 11

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Something was flying past me, many of them in fact. I could see the ground tearing up where they made contact. It was obviously projectiles of some sort. I felt a searing pain in my shoulder as one scraped over the top of my arm. I heard Jack’s cry of “thirty”. It seemed too close to me, but who was I to argue? I was being shot at and, sooner rather than later, one of them was bound to catch up with me. I was getting ready to spin around when I was pushed into the ground. I’d been hit. The pain was manageable and, from what I could tell, all of my extremities still worked. Maybe it was a neurotoxin, and I only had a few seconds left. Fine, I was going out in a blaze of glory.

I spun, dropped to one knee, took a second to line up on a motorcycle, and fired. One of the beings that was closest turned to watch as the rocket shot past him. I was still thinking this was close for thirty yards as the grenade lodged itself into the chassis of the motorcycle.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I sighed.

My heart was racing and only a little bit from the run. The monster-thing was right in front of me, and I needed to deal with it before it realized I was still in front of it. Outrunning it was not going to be an option. I dropped the RPG to the ground and was just pulling my M-16 around. A couple of things happened at once. The first was that I realized why I wasn’t dead. My rifle was split in two, it had taken a shot right where my butt stock met up with the business end and severed the rifle neatly in two. The second, and this would have been hard to miss, was the massive explosion that sent me to the ground with pieces of my pursuer raining down on me. My ears were ringing from both the blast and from the scream-speak of the ‘whistlers.’ That was what I was going to call this newest beast that would forever haunt my thoughts.

When I was confident nothing more was going to crash down on me, I began to check my rifle to see if it would still shoot without exploding in my hands, finishing off what the whistlers had started. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack getting up. He looked to be bleeding from a half dozen spots. There was no way I could tell if any of them were lethal, but he was firing his weapon, and he still needed help. Out of the forty-something whistlers, the RPG had killed more than half of them. There were still more than enough left to kill us a few times over.

Jack Walker — Dazed and Confused

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Two things come to mind. The first is that Mike did it. I didn’t think it was going to work. I had hoped so, but I wasn’t really sure. The second is my incredibly bad timing. There are burning and stinging sensations all over my body. It feels like I have jumped into a nest of fire ants and am rolling around in them. I do a quick mental check and am reasonably sure most everything still works. The things that don’t…well…I’ll find and deal with those later.

Rising into a sitting position on the concrete pad where I’d been thrown, I notice scraps of metal lying about. Below, most of the monsters are dead, dying, or wandering around in a daze. It looks like the blast has taken more than half of them out. That is the good news. The bad, there are still some alive, more than enough to overwhelm us.

The concussion from the blast, magnified under the bridge, has them stumbling around like drunks at Mardi Gras. They will recover in a short period of time. I need to make sure that’s a luxury they don’t get.

I wonder if Mike knows about Mardi Gras? 

Thinking of Mike, I look back. He’s on the ground covered in gore and blood; most of it is that black substance pumping through the creatures. In the midst, I see spots of red and know that he’s been hit. He sits up and grabs for his M-16, staring down at it as he realizes that he’s holding the butt stock in one hand, and the rest of it in the other.

Well, hopefully he can get the hell out of here. I’ll take down as many as I can to give him and Trip a chance. 

Turning my attention back to the monsters, it is time to get to business. I rise and sight in on the nearest creature, sending two rounds out on a delivery. It stumbles one more time and falls over like a drunk trying to pass a sobriety test. I advance down the pad, firing at one target after another. There are still a lot of them on their feet and it is only a matter of time before the shooting gallery turns into a firefight.

The high-pitched scream erupts again. It is like someone dragging a needle across my eardrum. I keep moving and firing, hoping to hit whoever, or whatever, is making that god-awful noise. If I can just shut that up, I won’t care what happens afterward. I just don’t want that sound to be the last I ever hear.

I’m not going to be able to take them all down in time,  I think, changing my mag.

The leader is rallying his troops, and they are responding in quick fashion.

Well, I just hope that I buy Mike enough time .

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 12

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I never was a fan of pistols. I always liked the comforting feel of a butt stock firmly entrenched in my shoulder for control. Right now, I didn’t have an option as I fire my unwieldy weapon. The 5.56 isn’t a heavy round by any stretch of the imagination, but when you’re firing on fully automatic without proper technique…well…enough said. Although, my first spray did disintegrate the leader’s head into a fountain of gelatinous mass. I held down the trigger, blasting through my magazine in a couple of seconds at most. I had scattered all my rounds into as many whistlers as I could. I’d fallen several short. It was nice to have back-up as Jack moved among the whistler survivors like a black plague, dispatching unmitigated justice until they all lay on the ground unmoving. My head was pounding, and I felt light-headed. I reached a hand behind me and pulled it back in front to find it coated in blood, and not of the black variety.

“I’m hit,” I said.

Jack put a couple more rounds into a few of the whistlers that were still moving before coming over. He skidded to a stop behind me.

“Yeah, you’re shot. I’m going to need to take this damn poncho off so I can see what I’m dealing with. Does it hurt much?” Jack asked.

“Did you really just ask me that question?” I responded, disbelievingly.

“Sorry, I’m just trying to figure out what in the hell the monsters are shooting.”

“Whistlers.”

“What?”

“I’m calling them whistlers.”

“Fair enough. What is that?” he asked as he carefully pulled my garments over my head.

“Please tell me it isn’t moving,” I said.

“Why would it be moving? No, it looks kind of like an industrial staple, or something like it.”

“I got shot with a staple gun. Are you kidding me?”

“That staple gun would have killed you if not for a lucky hit on your rifle. I mean, look at it. It’s completely sheared through.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I’m going to have to pry it out. There a part that’s sticking out. Hang on.”

“Jack, just give me a sec…OWWWWWW…motherfucker!!!!!”

“Fuck me! And here I was about to call you a baby until I realized this thing has two prongs, and they’re each about two and a half inches long. That’s a nasty little bit of business,” he said as he handed me what did look like a staple. Albeit maybe the world’s largest staple ever created. That I’d survived the attack was a miracle, and I told him as much.

“You getting a tattoo?” Trip asked. He was a few feet away, stretching and yawning. “Looks like a rager of a party. What’d I miss?”

“It’s not a tattoo, Trip, I’ve been shot.”

“Cops?” He looked around.

“Sometimes, Trip, I don’t know if I wish I viewed the world like you or not,” I told him.

“You should put something on that so it doesn’t get infected.” Trip pull

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ed out a small first aid kit. I didn’t even question the fact that he had one.

Jack did some field dressing and proclaimed me fit for duty. I stood gingerly. My back ached, but I hadn’t suffered any lasting damage.

Jack Walker — Aftermath

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I finish with bandaging Mike’s wounds and make sure that he’ll live to see another day. Well, he wasn’t hit that hard, so perhaps that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration. Of course, I can say that. I wasn’t the one hit with a king-sized staple. But, I’m making it sound like I brought him back from the dead. There are enough of those around without my adding to it. He stands with some groaning, which I can surely relate to.

The fight and events over the last days have taken their toll on me. I can feel the post-adrenaline sensation settling in, and along with it, an incredible tiredness. My face, neck, shoulders, and forearms are stinging from the blast and accompanying debris. The grass nearby looks inviting. Perhaps the whistlers — as Mike started calling them — had the best idea. I can certainly use a nap. I rise and seat myself on the turf, relishing the feel of sitting on the soft ground.

Refilling my empty and partially empty mag with rounds I found at the blockades, I look down to the wreckage. Tendrils of smoke still rise from the heaps of scrap metal that were once motorcycles. A few to the sides appear relatively unharmed and look like they can be ridden. That will be a help. I can’t help but wonder where the group of monsters was able to get so many bikes. I didn’t check every vehicle along the way, but those I did wouldn’t even turn over.

Perhaps they always had them , I think, feeling the coolness of a soft breeze flow past.

That brings far too many other questions to mind. Were these creatures, these whistlers, were they always around? Did they start this mess or come afterwards? Were they a by-product of a disaster like the night runners were? 

Staring at the bodies of the whistlers, some lying in the open road in the sunlight, some lying in the shade of the bridge, I’m amazed that we came through it relatively unscathed. They were fast and strong, and whatever they were shooting isn’t anything I’d like to feel the full force of. I’ll have to search them before we leave and see what that’s about. Right now, I don’t have the energy to move. Looking up at the afternoon sun, I know we’ll have to move out shortly, but right now, I’m good.

It’s not the night runners that I’m overly worried about. The packs that I felt are miles away and back in the woods, and I haven’t seen a thing that even remotely looks like it would serve as a lair out here on the plains. Sure, there’s some town named Atlantis about twenty more miles up the road, but night runners don’t travel that far in a night. The zombies…yes. Those are always a worry. These whistlers now, they seem the greater threat. I know I shouldn’t be lazing around near the scene of a battle, and we’ll move on shortly, but I need a moment to collect my thoughts and rest. Who the fuck knows what we’ll find up the road? I’ve pretty much found my limit of learning new things for the day.

I think on my newfound comrades, Mike and Trip. The world is a very strange place. Well, this one specifically, but I mean in general. Both Mike and I aren’t really the trusting types, yet here we are, doing just that. Our recent encounter dispelled any remaining doubts I might have harbored, and I actually feel closer to him than some of those I have known for years. We’d probably be sitting around a bonfire, having drinks and sharing lies if we lived in the same world. Well, not either of our worlds as they exist today, if they still do.

I wonder how that works? Is time the same for us all? Is time passing in the world I come from…in the world Mike and Trip are from? Is it even the same time? Have I been born yet, or have I already died in my world? 

Fucking random thoughts. I’m tired and my mind is wandering. I wonder if we would have even met. For some reason, if we lived in the same world, I don’t doubt that we would have crossed paths.

Mike didn’t have to climb down off the beams in order to help. He could have stayed up there, remained unseen while I was discovered, and carried on afterward. What did he owe me after all? I would just have been another stranger whose path he crossed, and I came out on a losing end. He could have pushed on afterward and no one would have been the wiser. Yeah, he’s one of the good guys. And in this world…well…any world, that’s rare.

And Trip, wow, he is still something else. I haven’t figured him out, like anyone could. I don’t know where my trust lies with him. He’s just as apt to take off, or shout something at the wrong moment. He hasn’t yet, but he definitely possesses the ability. Of course, his uncanny abilities have saved us as well…and me personally. A shot in the dark, so to speak. I still can’t fathom him shooting the zombie in the head in the complete dark as if he were standing in a lit room. And his shooting, expecting me to duck…perhaps knowing that I would.

What if I hadn’t? Did he know with a certainty that I would? If so, how did he know? Was his surety so complete that he actually caused me to duck? 

And again, here. I have exceptional hearing and I didn’t hear the motorcycles coming until after he mentioned something. The tower thing, I’m calling that a wash. We came out of it alive, but had to ride a falling water tower in order to do so. Yeah, that’s a wash in my book.

And this place. I mean, fuck! A motorcycle gang from outer space. No, I don’t think they actually are, but it sounds kind of cool. Their weapons, though? I didn’t see anything like those in the wreckage of cars, or near the roadblocks where gunfire was exchanged. Everything I found, both there and in the automobiles, was something I knew. And I can’t even begin to explain their features. The two-toned skin, their double-jointed nature, their…shit, I don’t want to go any farther. They die, that’s what really counts.

I hear footsteps behind me. Mike takes a seat on the grass next to me where we sit in silence. He is still carrying the broken M-16.

We’re going to have to find something else for him , I think, staring for a moment at the broken pieces.

Another breeze floats by. If it weren’t for the stench of the dead below, it would be a rather nice day. I can picture sitting on my back deck, having a beer or glass of wine, doing nothing but staring off into the trees and letting my mind wander to wherever it wants to go. Kind of like it is now.

“How’s your shoulder?” I ask, breaking the silence.

“Sore as shit,” he answers, rolling his arm and wincing.

“You don’t feel like there’s poison coursing through your system and about to turn you into one of those, do you?”

“You’re funny as shit, Jack.”

“Not many people think so,” I reply.

“Do you know what would go down real well and be perfect? A beer. I could really use one about now,” Mike states, his face taking on a dreamy expression.

“You’re not shitting. And why settle for just one,” I comment.

“Now you’re talking. I wonder if this town of Atlantis has any stores,” he muses.

“I don’t know, but if they do, the first one is on me.”

“You have yourself a deal.”

“Thanks for helping, yet again,” I say.

He pauses, looking sideways at me with an expression I can’t read very well. “Why wouldn’t I?’

“Well, there are plenty who wouldn’t have. You could have just sat up in the girders and never been seen. Then you could have climbed down after they left, my body being towed behind one of the bikes, skipping along the pavement. No one would ever have known.”

“I would have. The guilt would have killed me. Besides, who would buy me that first beer?” Mike responds.

“Thank goodness for beer, then.”

“Amen, brother.”

“Look, I made myself a promise that I’d share everything with you should I live through this last fight,” I start.

Mike’s expression is priceless. I guess he’s been with Trip too long for a statement like that to be remotely comfortable.

“Wipe the look of horror off your face. I’m not going to share everything. I’m not Trip. You won’t hear about the masterpiece of my last bowel movement. Although, I have to say, what he did back there on the road can’t even remotely be classified as human,” I state, the horror of what I saw coming fresh to my mind.

I shake my head of the image as Mike chuckles.

“He’s something else,” Mike says, turning to look back at Trip, who is currently sitting on one of the girders smoking a joint.

“What I mean is, if I don’t make it out of here, and you are somehow afforded the opportunity to tell my kids and Lynn what happened here, then you’re going to need something that will prove you were with me. Plus, there are some things you should know. I haven’t been entirely forthcoming.”

“Dude, are we going steady?”

“No, and you can quit puckering up. I’m not going to kiss you either.”

“I don’t know, man. It sounds like you’re about ready to ask me out on a date.”

“You have Trip, and he seems be the jealous type.”

“Well, you couldn’t afford me anyway.”

“That, I’m pretty sure of.”

I proceed to tell Mike of my being scratched, the subsequent coma, and how I came out on the other end. I mention how I can hear better; although how Trip heard the bikers before me still has me amazed. I let him know about my night vision and how I can see better in the dark than if I were we

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aring night vision goggles.

“And here’s the doozy, I can sense and talk with night runners,” I say, wondering about his reaction to that.

“Wait, you can talk with them? Like, they can still speak?” he asks.

“No, not quite like you would think. They communicate telepathically through the use of imagery. Like…well…picture messages. I can understand that to an extent, and even send them messages,” I answer.

“That’s…well…I don’t know what to say, other than, if they can communicate telepathically, that’s kind of fucked up. I guess that explains how they were able to coordinate their attacks. Why don’t you tell them to just back off, then?”

“I’ve tried. They don’t seem to like me much and won’t listen. It confuses them, but just for a moment. Then it’s all, like, dinnertime again.”

“So, you can tell where they are at all times?”

“Pretty much. It depends. For some reason, I have a hard time while airborne. And, in the area where we’re based at, it’s kind of sporadic,” I explain. “The problem is, they can sense me as well. So, it’s not quite the advantage it seems. I’ve learned to shut it down and do so for the most part. They really don’t have much to share other than what prey they’re after. Oh yeah, there’s also the chance that I may be a little stronger and perhaps a touch faster, although I’ve yet to experiment around with those and don’t feel any different.”

“It seems you could use that communication thing to your advantage somehow,” Mike comments, pondering.

“Maybe. If there is, I haven’t figured it out,” I say. “Besides, I haven’t had these abilities that long and haven’t worked with it much. The ability to see in the dark seems to be the most helpful. And the hearing thing, that’s kind of a break even deal. That fucking noise those assholes put out just about drove me into the ground,” I state.

“That was messed up, man.”

“I’m also going to also have to alter what my idea of thirty yards looks like,” I say, smiling.

Mike chuckles. “I would say that bike was exactly twenty-nine yards away. I think the rocket pushed it a yard, and then, when it fell over, that made it thirty.”

“Luckily, or we’d be having this conversation floating on a cloud and holding harps,” I comment.

“I seriously doubt I’ll be going there,” Mike says, his face clouding over.

“Well, with some of the things I’ve done in life, I’m not sure I have a ticket either.”

“So, what do you think happened here?” Mike says.

“I don’t have a clue. I’m thinking some space-time experiment that didn’t go as well as they planned. Other than that, I couldn’t hazard a guess,” I answer.

“What the fuck was up with that leg? I kicked it, but the fucker didn’t move.” Mike shakes his head.

“Fucking oddest thing I’ve ever come across. Did it seem fused into the road to you?”

“It seemed like the road was growing a leg, it was that embedded. I almost felt like watering it,” Mike says.

“Did you see the actual leg part?”

“No, did you actually touch it? I couldn’t bring myself to.”

“No way. Who knows what would have happened? The pant leg was down a little bit. Just enough to see part of the shin…although it was hidden in shadow. Man, I tell you, the skin seemed healthy,” I reply.

“You mean, like…”

“Yeah, like healthy. It was pinkish like it was still…well…fuck…living. It wasn’t the gray of someone who died.”

“Whoa! I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“I think I’ll do the same…pretend I didn’t see it.”

We fall into silence, each of us fading into our own thoughts.

Michael Talbot — Journal Entry 13

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After a few moments of sitting in silence, we both know that we should to be moving on. The day wasn’t getting any younger, and we still hadn’t found a place to hole up when night came around. Without a word, we both rose and walked down to the road.

“What are these fucking things?” I could barely look at them to formulate the question.

“I’m not sure, but I can’t help believing that they’re the reason this place is screwed up.”

Jack was kneeling by the one I was looking at. He had pulled off a glove and its jacket. Skinny wasn’t even the word that I would have used to describe the thing I was looking at. Its forearm wasn’t much more than two of my fingers wide. I knew immediately what Jack had been looking for; we were both looking at the weapon strapped to its arm. It appeared that the triggering mechanism was activated when the wrist bent upwards. Kind of like Spider-Man. There was a black box about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes attached right below its wrist. Protruding from one end, and running up the length of its arm, was a piece of what looked like aluminum shaped exactly like the staple that had been yanked from my back.

“Is that a rail gun?” I asked him.

He surprised me when he picked up the whistler’s arm. Personally I wouldn’t have touched it. He aimed it to the far side of the bridge and then moved its wrist. We could hear the whine of the ricochet as the round struck concrete.

“I have got to have me one of those!” Trip was heading towards another whistler.

It took twenty minutes of cajoling and promising that we would get him one once we could eventually figure out a safer way to use them.

“You’ll send shots down range every time you make a toking action.” He seemed alright with that explanation.

There were four motorcycles that were still serviceable. I had not ridden anything with two wheels since I was twelve and rode my friend’s mini-bike — which I had blown the engine of not a half mile into my tour. I had two options. Ride double-bitch (Trip did not know how to ride) or take a crash course, I hope the ‘crash’ part was just a saying. I put it on the ground a couple of times until I felt more comfortable.

“We should get going,” Jack said, looking up to the sky and the dipping sun.

Trip was directly behind him blowing smoke from a joint past his face.

“Do you mind?” Jack asked him.

“I don’t, man, I don’t.” Trip was all smiles. “Giddy-up!”

“This ought to be fun,” Jack said, rolling his eyes.

“Where should we go?” I asked him.

“Atlantis, of course.”

“Of course,” I echoed.

# # #

About the Authors

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Mark Tufo


Mark Tufo was born in Boston Massachusetts. He attended UMASS Amherst where he obtained a BA (and an advanced degree in partyology) and later joined the US Marine Corps. He was stationed in Parris Island SC, Twenty Nine Palms CA and Kaneohe Bay Hawaii. After his tour he went into the Human Resources field with a worldwide financial institution, after beginning his climb up the corporate ladder he found himself laid off. His wife, Tracy, who was desperate to keep him out of her hair, dared him to write a book, and the Zombie Fallout series was born.

He wrote the first installment of the Indian Hill trilogy in college, it sat in his garage until July 2009 when he published it on Kindle. Mark is currently working on the continuation of the ZF series and a new book due out in August of 2014. He lives in Maine with his wife, three kids and two English bulldogs, Henry and Riley.


John O’Brien


John O'Brien is a former Air Force fighter instructor pilot who transitioned to Special Operations for the latter part of his career gathering his campaign ribbon for Desert Storm. Immediately following his military service, John became a firefighter/EMT with a local department. Along with becoming a firefighter, he fell into the Information Technology industry in corporate management. Currently, John is writing full-time on the series, A New World.

As a former marathon runner, John lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and can now be found kayaking out in the waters of Puget Sound, mountain biking in the Capital Forest, hiking in the Olympic Peninsula, or pedaling his road bike along the many scenic roads.

Connect with the Authors Online

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Mark Tufo

I love hearing from readers, you can reach me at:

email

[email protected]


website

www.marktufo.com


Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mark-Tufo/133954330009843?ref=hl


Twitter

@zombiefallout


All books are available in audio version at Audible.com or itunes.

All books are available in print at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com


Zombie Fallout

https://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Fallout-Mark-Tufo-ebook/dp/B003A022YO/ref=la_B002I7PJ68_1_1_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1408747013&sr=1

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John O’Brien

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorJohnOBrien

Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/JohnOBrien

Web site:

https://anewworldseries.com

Email:

[email protected]

Merchandise Store:

https://www.zazzle.com/anewworldsupplies/gifts

https://www.cafepress.com/anewworldseries


A New World: Chaos

https://www.amazon.com/New-World-Chaos-John-OBrien-ebook/dp/B004W0CL2Y/ref=la_B005IDEPP0_1_5_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1408747046&sr=1-5

Other books by Mark Tufo

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Zombie Fallout Series

Zombie Fallout 1 

Zombie Fallout 2: A Plague Upon Your Family 

Zombie Fallout 3: The End… 

Zombie Fallout 3.5: Dr. Hugh Mann 

Zombie Fallout 4: The End Has Come and Gone 

Zombie Fallout 5: Alive in a Dead World 

Zombie Fallout 6: ’Til Death Do Us Part 

Zombie Fallout 7: For the Fallen 

Zombie Fallout 8: An Old Beginning 


Lycan Fallout Series

Lycan Fallout 1: Rise of the Werewolf 

Lycan Fallout 2 (Fall 2014) 


Indian Hill Series

Indian Hill 1: Encounters 

Indian Hill 2: Reckoning 

Indian Hill 3: Conquest 

Indian Hill 4: From the Ashes 


Timothy Series

Timothy 

Tim 2 


The Book of Riley Series

A Zombie Tale Parts 1 thru 4 


Writing as M.R. Tufo

Callis Rose 

The Spirit Clearing 

Dystance: Winter’s Rising 

Other books by John O’Brien

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A New World Series

A New World: Chaos 

A New World: Return 

A New World: Sanctuary 

A New World: Taken 

A New World: Awakening 

A New World: Dissension 

A New World: Takedown 

A New World: Conspiracy 

A New World: Reckoning 


Companion Books

A New World: Untold Stories 

Copyright

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Copyright © 2014 Mark Tufo, John O’Brien

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in review, without permission in writing from the authors. You may contact the author at [email protected] or [email protected]

Cover Art by Jason Swarr at Straight 8 photography

https://straight8photography.com/



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