Terror in the Darkness
The hallway was barely lit by the blue glow shimmering up the stairs from the TV in the living room. The light flickered along the walls and ceiling, providing just enough brightness to make out her path. Groggily, Jenni walked toward her youngest son's bedroom, near the top of the stairs. She shoved her long dark hair out of her face and glanced down the staircase. Through the railing, she could see her husband, Lloyd, in his usual seat in the living room, staring at the plasma-screen TV. She could clearly discern the black silhouette of his head against the brightly lit screen.
Warily, wanting to avoid alerting him to her presence, she hurried into Benji's room.
The Mickey Mouse night-light illuminated the room, revealing the form of her sleeping three-year-old in his racing car-shaped bed. His little hand was thrown over his dark blond curls, his lips parted as he softly snored. Smiling, Jenni knelt down and tucked his Winnie-the-Pooh blankets closer around his body. He was just recovering from a cold and she wanted to make sure he didn't get chilled. Her fingers gently caressed his soft, full cheek, then smoothed his curls back from his face. He looked like Lloyd, and every day, Jenni prayed that Benji did not have his father's violent temper or cruel streak. She wanted him to grow up to be a good,strong man who would love his family and protect them, not brutalize them and make them fear him.
A noise from downstairs startled her. She tensed, listening intently for the sounds of Lloyd's footsteps on the stairs, but heard only the distant hum of the TV.
Lloyd hated it when she "coddled" the boys. He grew annoyed when she checked on them at night and accused her of using that as an excuse to spy on his late-night habits. Frankly, she preferred it when he stayed downstairs, watching porn, calling his girlfriends, and leaving her to sleep alone in their bed.
"I want you not to be like him," she whispered to Benji as he slept. "Don't be like him."
She kissed Benji's forehead and breathed in his sweet baby smell. She loved him so.
Standing up, she looked at the remains of Benji's bedtime snack on the side table. There was one oatmeal cookie on the plate, but the milk glass was empty. Both the boys enjoyed a nighttime snack before bed. She didn't see the harm in it, even though Lloyd said she was spoiling them. To pacify her health-freak husband, she used all-natural ingredients in the cookies, and they were delicious. Feeling a little hungry, she grabbed up the cookie and started to nibble on it.
Don't grow up to be like him, she wished again.
He won't grow up, a voice echoed in her mind.
She frowned as she chewed. What a horrible thought. Where had it come from?
He doesn't live past tonight. You know that.
"No," Jenni whispered, pressing her hand to her forehead. "No."
Images flashed in her mind: bloody, chaotic, and terrible.
"No," she moaned. She closed her eyes, stuffed the rest of the cookie into her mouth, and chewed vigorously, hoping to banish the thoughts.
"What the hell are you doing?" Lloyd's sharp voice startled her.
Jenni looked at him, trying to swallow before he could see that she was eating outside the strictly regimented diet he had created for her, claiming that it would keep her thin and beautiful.
"What the hell are you eating?" Lloyd's dark form in the doorway terrified her.
"Nothing ... I--"
"What did you do to Benji? Oh, God, Jenni, what the hell is wrong with you?"
Jenni stared at her son. His tender belly was torn, and his intestines were strung across the bed. One of her hands clutched the glistening flesh tightly. Slowly, she raised her other hand to her mouth and felt that her lips were slick with blood.
"Jenni, what did you do?"
She began to scream ... .
She woke and sat up sharply, her heart thundering in her chest. In the dim light leaking in around the edges of the makeshift tent, she could see the sleeping form of Juan, her tall, sexy Mexican-American boyfriend. Laying her forehead against her drawn-up knees, she took deep breaths and tried to calm her wildly beating heart.
Juan's hand gently touched her back, then withdrew. Jenni was glad that he understood she didn't want to be touched or soothed when she woke from a nightmare. It often took her several minutes to gain full control of her senses and convince herself she was truly safe and far away from her dead family.
The blue tarp that made up their tent rippled gently in the night breeze. She held up her hands, inspecting them in the narrow beam of light that came into the tent through a tear in the tarp. Her hands were clean. There was no blood on them. Outside the tent, she could hear people softly talking, snoring, coughing, and sneezing, as they, too, dealt with the night terrors that came with sleeping and dreaming. The familiar noises were an anchor that she used to pull her mind free of her nightmares.
Pushing her damp hair out of her eyes, she took calming breath. She was slowly accepting that this was reality. Why did her mindkeep trying to convince her that she had not escaped the morning the dead took over?
That morning, it was Lloyd who had eaten Benji's tender flesh, Lloyd who had become one of the undead, who had destroyed their family and home forever. She barely escaped the house. Had it not been for Katie, Jenni probably would have joined the ranks of the zombie hordes. Katie had heard her screaming and driven up in that battered white truck to save her. Together they escaped into the Texas Hill Country, rescued Jenni's stepson from a state park, and found safety with a group of survivors holed up in a construction site in the town of Ashley Oaks. To her surprise, she had found love with one of the construction workers, and now, free from her dead husband's reign, she was strong and living her own life.
Taking a last deep breath that did not feel forced or ragged, she slowly relaxed. After letting herself fall back onto the cot, Jenni curled up on her side, facing away from Juan. Sleeping on twin cots that were bound together with bungee cords was uncomfortable, but she liked feeling him near her. In the gloom, he slid his arm around her waist and she smiled.
In silence, they lay side by side and waited for sleep to come again ... sleep that would hopefully be free of the past.
A Moment of Peace
Juan listened to Jenni's breathing become deeper and deeper until he knew she was asleep once more. He didn't move, even though his arm had grown numb. She was holding on to his wrist tightly. He didn't draw it away. He wanted her to feel his presence even in her slumber. She was his passionate little Irish-Mexican firecracker and it was hard to see her struggling with nightmares. It was especially hard knowing that he could not give her any real comfort.
Jenni kept her dreams to herself, mourning in ways he could not understand. He was convinced that her evolution into a woman who could dispatch zombies with eerie efficiency was her way of coping with her children dying. As far as he knew, she didn't even talk to Katie, her very best friend, about the death of her children. In Jenni's waking moments, she was loving, outgoing, and funny. But in her dreams, she was afraid and emotionally shattered. It broke his heart.
His long body pressed up alongside hers, he could feel the softness of her black hair against his chest. He was sore and tired from all the work he was doing on the fort. The survivors had to get into the old-fashioned hotel that loomed over the construction site. Unfortunately, neither of the hotel's entrances were accessible from the construction site without the risk of being out in the open. The construction crew would have to break through the wall of the hotel. Also, Travis and Juan had no idea if the hotel was zombie infested. Travis kept postponing breaching the hotel, for fear of compromising the security of the fort.
Juan's first major task had been to construct a secure passage into the fort for the vehicles they were sending out to salvage supplies and find survivors. He had created the "Panama Canal," two gated enclosures leading into a walled-off area where they parked the vehicles in the garage of an old newspaper building. The rest of the building was completely uninhabitable and would take months to clean out and repair. The construction site was quickly becoming crowded as more survivors found their way to Ashley Oaks. There was only one shower and one bathroom--both in city hall--for everyone in the fort, and it was increasingly more difficult to keep things safe and sanitary.
Jenni's grip on his arm lessened as sleep caught her completely. He kissed her shoulder, hoping and praying that her dreams would be pleasant. Closing his eyes, he tried to block out his body's aches and capture what little sleep he could before the next day's hard work.
He was so tired in both body and mind. Jenni brought himhappiness, but he wanted a respite from the daily terror they had all experienced since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. He wanted to sleep in a real bed with Jenni and not to feel afraid. Was it wrong to hope for a little peace for both of them? He hoped not, because that was what he prayed for every night.
Beyond the walls of their little fort, the world was still dying and the dead were walking, but all Juan wanted was a moment when he and those he loved could feel alive and good. Maybe that was too much to hope for. Perhaps this moment, listening to Jenni breathing as she slept peacefully, was all he could truly wish for.
With a long sigh, he tightened his deadened arm around her waist and closed his eyes.
The Lurking Past
On the roof of city hall, Katie sat in a plastic chair with her arms folded over her breasts and her head tilted back to stare at the stars. A cigarette dangled from the fingers of one hand. Katie was done with sleep for the night. One more nightmare about her dead wife, and she would start screaming and never stop.
She raised the cigarette to her lips, took a long drag, then exhaled, watching the smoke unfurl against the backdrop of a stunning black sky shot through with the pinpricks of stars. She quit smoking when she met Lydia, though she'd never even considered doing so before. Lydia had hated smoking with a passion, and after one look into Lydia's amazing eyes, Katie would have done anything for her.
A tear slipped free and traced down her temple. Sniffling loudly, she took another drag on the cigarette, desperately seeking some sort of satisfaction in the ritual.
Katie had barely survived her morning commute. Thankfully, she was rescued by a minister in a white pickup, but her saviorhad been dragged down by the zombies. Katie raced home in his battered old truck and found her beautiful wife gorging on the body of a fallen postman.
Her life with Lydia had ended in that terrible, brutal moment. She would never hold Lydia's soft, delicate hand, kiss her sweet lips, or feel her gentle caress ever again. The greatest joy she had ever felt had ended. The reality that Lydia was still out there, one of the many undead hordes, tormented Katie.
Another tear slipped free and she blinked hard.
How could she still love Lydia so much and yet feel drawn to Travis? How could she betray Lydia's memory like that, with a man she had met only a few weeks before?
Nearby, the guard on the roof coughed and stretched. It was Bill, the deputy sheriff from a little town where she and Jenni had taken refuge during their initial flight from the city. Like the majority of the survivors in the fort, Bill was a local of German-Czech stock. Bill was a good-natured guy with sandy hair, a big ruddy friendly face, and a beer belly that was always fighting with his belt. He was watching the street for any sign of the zombies. Recent operations had cleared the majority of zombies from the town, but many still lurked in the streets and the nearby countryside. Caught in bushes, trapped in buildings, wandering through the hills ...
Who could ever have imagined that the dead would walk the earth outside of a George A. Romero film? Not Katie. She had functioned in the real world. She had worked hard as a prosecutor, doing her best to achieve justice while living a simple life with Lydia. And then it had all ended.
This new world confused her. It was full of the walking, hungry dead. Surviving from one day to the next was everyone's top priority. But worse, there was little time to mourn before you were forced, by that drive for survival, to make new connections, new friends, and even new loves. She saw it all around her. Families torn apart by the zombie rising were forever gone, but new familieswere being born all around her. Strangers were becoming brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles to one another. The elderly in the fort were now everyone's grandparents. The thought of Old Man Watson brought a smile to her face. Although he could barely hear, he was everyone's great-grandpa now, who always smiled, who hugged and kissed them all, happy to be one of them, a survivor.
Jenni was her new sister. Jenni's stepson, Jason, felt like a nephew; Juan was her annoying new brother-in-law; and Travis ...
Katie rubbed her nose with irritation.
Travis was the man everyone loved. Everyone listened to him. Everyone believed in him. He was calm strength in the midst of chaos. He was humble and kind. Despite herself, she smiled at the thought of him.
From the moment she met him, she had known he was important to her life. She had believed in him instantly. And as they got to know each other, it became more than apparent that he had fallen in love with her.
Travis believed his affection for her was a lost cause. As far as he knew, Katie was a lesbian and therefore unattainable. Katie had encouraged that belief, since she was afraid if he realized she was actually bisexual, he would immediately pursue her, and she knew in her heart that she could not resist him for long. Her strong will--which her father had once dubbed her "Nordic ice"--was all that was keeping her from giving into her emotions.
Katie hated this new world where everyone seemed to be living at an accelerated pace. Life was so precious and short, and there was no time to mourn the world they had lost. They had to seize whatever small moments of happiness they could find, or else the life they had fought so hard to preserve would be meaningless. But she wanted to mourn Lydia. She was not ready to move on.
"Oh, God, Lydia," she whispered, wiping tears away.
"Huh?" Bill looked toward her.
"Nothing, Bill. Just talking to myself," Katie answered with aforced smile, and sat up. She put out her cigarette on the roof and sat with her elbows resting on her knees.
"Gotcha. I find myself doing that, too." Bill's big, round face beamed at her before he returned his gaze to the street.
Katie stared down at the lace-up boots she wore. They had been given to her by Ralph Toombs, the sweet old man who had run the hunting shop where she and Jenni took refuge that first terrible night. Clad in jeans and a tank top, Katie felt completely unlike the tailored and perfectly coifed prosecutor persona she had cultivated for years. She had to admit that her attire fit who she really was: a no-fuss woman who liked to wear comfortable shoes and casual T-shirts.
Standing up, she ran her hands through her blond hair and walked toward the edge of the roof. The hotel loomed over the construction site, which was full of makeshift tents. The elderly and the few surviving women with children were asleep in the city hall, but most of the younger people were tucked into the blue tarp tents. The nights were growing warmer as summer unfurled.
"Got one down in the far corner, but I can't get a bead on it," Bill stated sorrowfully. "Poor old bugger."
She eyeballed the location he pointed to and caught sight of a figure swaying near an empty building on the far side of the fort walls. A lamppost and tree partially blocked it from view.
"I think it got its foot caught in the sidewalk cracks. It's really uneven there," Bill said.
Katie didn't say anything. There wasn't much to say. A lone zombie was a pretty sad thing, at least from a distance. The mutilated form always spoke of a terrible ending to a person's life. But she knew the second it saw a human, it would become the most horrible thing anyone had ever seen. Its eyes would flash wide and its mouth would open to reveal broken teeth; it would reach toward its prey and let out a horrible shriek.
"Hey," Travis said from behind them, and Katie turned to see him exiting the stairway onto the roof. At the sight of him in a dark T-shirt and jeans, Katie felt a pang of desire. She tried to ignore it,but his broad shoulders, tanned skin and brown curly hair made her want to touch him. Setting her lips tightly together, she looked away from Travis, still unwilling to betray Lydia's memory.
"Hey, Travis. What's up?" Bill stood up and tugged his shirt down over his beer belly.
"I think we're going to try to take the next street tomorrow," Travis answered. "Time to take the territory closest to us."
"Taking the Dollar Store over?" Bill waved toward the buildings lining the side street that they had yet to claim into the fort.
"Yeah. Can't put it off anymore."
"Why didn't y'all take it over right away, anyway?" Bill asked.
"We figured it was better to get supplies from the outskirts of town and beyond first and stockpile before going into the buildings around us. It's kinda like going to the store and buying new food instead of using what's stored in the pantry." Travis shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea when this all started."
"Guess that makes sense," Bill conceded.
"There's no telling how long canned and dry goods will be available out in the deadlands," Katie agreed. "I'm sure there are other survivors out there looking for food and supplies."
"Like those damn rednecks that killed Ralph," Bill muttered angrily.
Katie inhaled sharply, the sting of Ralph's violent death adding to the ache of her heart. "We haven't seen them around. Maybe they moved on."
Travis furrowed his brow as he shook his head. "I would bet they are still out there. Who knows what the hell they are up to. We gotta think about ourselves. Time to expand the fort and make more room."
Katie could feel Travis studying her expression. She folded her arms over her breasts to try to steady herself. She was feeling so lonely; she wanted him to hold her, but she feared what that might lead to. She had given in to temptation before. The feel of his lips against hers was a memory that brought her both pleasure and guilt.
"I figure you'll want to be part of that, so if you want to go get some sleep, I can take over," Travis said to Bill.
Bill mulled over the suggestion before asking, "Did you sleep, Travis?"
"Yeah. I'm good for tonight." Travis paused, then added, "We'll head in around nine or ten in the morning."
Bill glanced at his watch. "Gives me about four hours to sleep." He handed his rifle to Travis, who took it awkwardly. He wasn't very comfortable with guns, but he was trying to learn.
"Catch you later, Katie," Bill said, patting her arm as he headed off.
"Sleep well, Bill!" she called after him.
Then she was alone with Travis.
"Did you sleep?" he asked, scrutinizing her.
Finally, reluctantly, she looked at him and nodded. "Did you? Or did you lie?"
"I slept enough," he answered, shrugging. Moving closer to Katie, he looked at the spot Bill had been studying and immediately spotted the tangled-up zombie. Realizing he didn't have a clear shot, he frowned. "Is everything okay with you?"
"I'm fine. Really." Katie stepped away from Travis. She knew it was time to go, because she wanted to cry again and she wanted him to comfort her.
"Katie," he said softly, reaching toward her.
"I'll catch you later," she said, and briskly walked away.
When she reached the stairs, she hurried down the steps and quickly put as much distance between her and Travis as she could. Down in the hallway, she leaned against the wall and gave in to her pain. Tears streamed down her face as she wept.
The Lonely Guard
Travis wanted to follow Katie, but knew he couldn't. Guard duty was a serious commitment. Glancing over the construction site, he could see the other five guards at their posts along the wall. In the last few days, they hadn't seen many zombies, but he knew that was a temporary condition. Sooner or later--and probably sooner--more of the walking dead would come wandering out of the landscape to screech and moan outside the walls.
Rubbing his face with one hand, Travis yawned. He had seen the torment on Katie's face and had wanted to comfort her, but knew she wouldn't let him. That kiss a few weeks ago had changed things between them, much to his regret. Before the kiss, they had been friends, and maybe a little more. After, she had withdrawn from him. Now there was nothing he could do but wait and let her work things out for herself.
If he couldn't fix his relationship with Katie, he could make sure that the small haven they were carving out in the world of the dead stayed safe. Tomorrow they would secure the road next to the fort and take over the Dollar Store. The shops on either side of the discount store were empty, so the fort's residents might be able to use them as well, if they weren't in bad shape.
He glanced over his shoulder at the hotel. Soon, the fort survivors would have to occupy the structure. But Travis and Juan were extremely nervous about risking the security of the fort to take the hotel. The fort was as safe as it got in the new, dead world, and the thought of breaking through the hotel wall made his chest tight with anxiety. The hotel could be empty of all life: undead or otherwise. But what if there was a door open somewhere and zombies had wandered inside? Juan's crew had built a special enclosure flush up against the back wall of the hotel to providesecure entry into the building. It seemed like a good idea in theory, but Travis had his doubts.
Hell, he had his doubts about everything. He couldn't help but second-guess himself when so many lives were on the line, including his own. The mere thought of being mauled to death by one of the undead kept him sufficiently paranoid.
Travis narrowed his eyes as the zombie staggered free from whatever had temporarily trapped it. Raising the rifle, he fumbled with the safety, then aimed for the zombie's head using the sight. He felt uncomfortable using the weapon, but they needed to keep the area as zombie free as possible.
The zombie stopped walking, and he could see a skirt flowing in the breeze around its crooked legs. It slowly raised its hand. Before it could issue its horrifying screech, he pulled the trigger. It collapsed onto the sidewalk as the echoes of the shot faded away.
With a sigh, Travis lowered the rifle.
Tomorrow was a new day.
A new beginning.
And that was all any of them could hope for anymore.