PG-13 - mild language and zombie violence
When the bar dropped on the barn door's lock cradle, the force of the mass of leaning bodies behind it heaved and made the doors creak, made the hinges and bolts scream. For a moment, Douglas Payne felt the bolts would shoot from their holes in the old wood like champagne corks and release the flood of clawing and chewing zombies. He saw them filling the small barn, shuffling their ravenous way around him, over him. Through him. They would wash over him and bring him into their flood. They would change him, destroy him, and make him one of their own.
The bolts screamed in protest but they did not break. The red-brown, crackled wood popped and moaned under the mass of bodies – was it forty zombies? Fifty? – but it held. The doors bowed inward and the four by four he used as a lock bent toward him. He squinted into the tension, expecting it to snap like a rubber band and thrash him in the face. Like a limb pushed too far, the bone could break at any second. He waited. He waited for the break.
Doug scrambled to his feet. He hadn't even noticed going to the ground, but he'd been watching and waiting for his end from a loose pile of hay, scooting backward on his side. As he rose and backed away from the barn's front door, the sounds of the barn finally registered in his ears. A cow mooed and shifted back and forth in its pen. A horse reared up and neighed wildly. When it came down, the crash of its hoofs on the wood planks sent a deep, hollow crash throughout the barn. The bowing of the door slowly ebbed. The mass of black-eyed death walkers heard the crash and were adjusting their path. They would walk around the side of the barn and press their hands and chests and faces and lips and teeth and tongues and eyeballs against the red wood, looking for another way in toward the smell of fresh, sweaty meat.
Doug watched them circle slowly around the edges of the barn. Having failed at the main door on the north side, they circled slowly around to the east. The viewing windows for the horses had been closed and locked by whomever owned this farm. The horse's passage out into the south field was also closed, hopefully locked tight. Doug ran to it, crouching low for no good reason, just an automatic response. Instinct.
When being pursued, get small.
At the south end of the barn, the horse run was closed and locked, and the window in the cow's pen had also been secured. Doug sat on a small platform made for setting down tools, or the milk bucket, next to the cow's stall. He breathed in slowly and deeply and held it. He had not taken a slow, deep breath in many days. Whoever owned this barn were good people in his eyes. Whoever they were, they saved his life without knowing it. He said a prayer for them, thanked them for their barn and its sturdiness, and wished them well wherever they might be. He imagined his words traveling up and out of the barn, over the moaning, limping horde of death and out into clean air. He knew there had to be clean air up there somewhere, the air above the smell of pained screams and rotting death that now spread like a low mist across the Central Oregon valley.
As he breathed out, wet flesh hit his neck. He ducked his head and jumped away, screaming, swinging with his uninjured left arm. He turned and fell back against the wooded horse pen, panting and wild-eyed, only to stutter a few obscenities and sigh relief as he realized it was the wet tongue of the Jersey cow that had touched his neck. The cow was looking at him now with a blank stare, rhythmically gnawing on its cud.
Doug righted himself and checked the horse pen for damage. It had held fine. Well done, farmer. His right arm talked to him, though. He clutched at his right elbow over a wide stain in his plaid button-up. Yesterday morning when he put the shirt on in his craftsman-style 3-bedroom vacation rental, it was fresh and clean. There were no blood stains, no mud or dirt, no rips or tears from branches and rocks and crazed, grabbing hands. The elbow was clean, and he buttoned it up with no intentions of sprinting toward a kitchen window before lowering his head and crashing through the glass elbow-first into the bushes below. Given the choice of choosing his clothing for the zombie apocalypse, he didn't really own anything better. The shirt had done well to protect him, but some of the glass got through, tearing into his flesh in multiple places. He hadn't had time to look at the extent of the damage. He'd been busy since then.
Much of the blood was dry now, but as he withdrew his hand, his fingers and palm glistened wet and red. He would have to take care of that soon. This barn, its security, might give him the time he would need to take stock and regroup. He knew he would need to clean his wounds for himself, for his health, if he hoped to survive this. He hadn't thought that the smell of fresh blood might be what was keeping the horde on his trail.
The horse whinnied and blew hot air from its lips. Doug felt the wind of it and turned. The snort was definitely directed at him. The horse's eyes, unlike the cow's, were alive and alert. They had questions. Who are you? Are you safe? Doug felt as though the horse wanted a conversation to establish some ground rules, maybe a plan for escape, or at least an explanation of what the hell those smelly human-type things scratching around outside were doing.
Also, something else, something simple and urgent.
“Are you hungry?” Doug asked. The horse's ears went up and it sputtered again. Doug turned back to the hay pile he'd been thrown into from the door. As he scooped up two handfuls, the horse walked to the edge of the pen so he could crane his neck over the fence. He did want food, and now.
Doug held out the hay and the horse snatched it with greedy lips, pulling it quickly into his crushing jaws. The handful was gone in seconds, as was the second, third, and fourth. After the fifth, Doug saw a shovel leaning against the western side of the barn, and he made things simpler by shoveling over a great pile of hay directly into the horse's stall. He sent two shovel-fulls into the cow's pen, as well. The horse's eyes livened, but the cow kept her glassy-eyed look as she began to eat.
Doug looked around the barn for other animals. He hadn't heard a dog bark in awhile. On the first day, every dog in every neighborhood was barking wildly at the changed state of the humans around them. They were not pleased about the people who were attacking other people. No barking here on the farm. Doug hoped the farmer took the dog when he escaped to wherever he escaped to, and unless there were sneaky cats or hidden rats, the cow and horse were it.
A loud crack from one of the side boards on the eastern side of the barn brought Doug back to reality. The horde seemed to have noticed the horse and were eager to test the strength on the annoying obstacle blocking their way.
Do zombies eat horses? Doug wondered.
Live flesh, I guess they would if they could.
Other than the shovel, the barn seemed pretty bare. It seemed secure, which was most important. He'd discovered its living inhabitants, which was also important. Now his scanning intended weapon acquisition. A shovel would be a decent weapon. What he really wanted was a good-sized hammer or a small ax. Maybe something long and thin he could jam between the boards, kill a few zombies without even going outside.
Would he be able to get to the roof? Could he drop something heavy down on top of the black-mouthed bastards?
Horse gear, a saddle and reins, a half a dozen horse shoes and some shoeing nails. The sight of the nails made him hopeful for a hammer. Please, Mr. Farmer... please tell me you kept your shoeing hammer with your shoeing nails and horse shoes.
No luck, not yet, anyway. Horse brushes, fly mask, blinders. A milking bucket for the cow. Some spare pieces of wood, two-by-fours.
Something told him to look up.
Above him, mounted on nails on the central support beam, was an old hay scythe. The curved handle, nearly ten feet long, ran like a snake across the wood and attached to a rusty hook blade about three feet long. It was obviously a decoration, a throwback to older times.
Doug was happy for the first time in three days.
A small ladder climbed up to a landing above the animal pens. He could access the scythe from there, and there might be other weapons, as well. As he climbed, the first slat popped under his foot, clattering in two pieces to the ground. The horse looked up from his meal. Sorry, Doug thought, slowly, carefully... right.
The second step held, the third step held but cracked and creaked. He would need to do this very carefully. It would be no good to honor the beauty of this secure place by breaking his legs because of clumsy stupidity. Doug made the last four rungs slowly and carefully, pressing himself over the threshold with his arms more than his feet.
Once up, the landing felt very secure, very sturdy. There were a few hay bales stacked neatly at the end, in a position where they could easily be dropped off of either side of the platform and directly into the cow or the horse's pen. Smart, Doug thought, that will make feeding time easier.
If I choose to stay, he reminded himself.
A narrow plank, two ten-foot-long two-by-sixes, made a sort of sky bridge from the first landing to a second platform at the back of the barn. A door on rails could be slid open, probably for hay to be thrown out to the field below. Doug stepped on the small box that served as a step up to the platform. This was no sturdy staircase, no solid catwalk. The farmer had laid a box on the landing and laid two boards as a bridge, two nails securing the end of each board.
As he stepped up the boards creaked. He stayed there at the end, a child clinging to his mother's leg. If he fell, there would be no one to help him. He looked down over his right shoulder. The cow was chewing, chewing, chewing, his brown eyes hypnotized by the hay-covered floor. Doug looked to his left. The horse had stopped eating and was looking up at him. The horse liked his new human friend. He liked this stranger who could throw food into his pen. He was worried now that his new friend might fall and break on the hard boards or cement below. Then who would serve up the hay?
Doug slid one foot a few inches out onto the board. He shifted his weight out to it, slowly, waiting for any sign the boards were weak or might give out. The boards creaked at their nail joints, but they felt firm beneath his feet. He slid the foot farther. Still seemed stable. He slid his other foot out to join the first and the boards barely bowed at all. Doug stood upright, breathed deeply. He realized he'd been holding his breath and he laughed at himself.
The next few steps went a little faster, then a slow walk, and at last he lunged for the wooden window overlook and caught himself, breathing out his fear and breathing in relief. He was shaking and he could now feel the sweat from his palms soaking up the dirt from the wood he grasped.
“Ha! You see that, horse, did you see that?” he yelled. The horse's ears perked and he stiffened, but upon hearing the maniacal laughter that followed, his ears relaxed and he returned to his hay.
Still unsure of the security of his high lookout, Doug kept a hand on the window frame while the other hand pulled at the sliding door. It jangled, the runners having gathered some rust and grit over the years, but in a few seconds it was open and swinging quietly in the dusty air. A few torn strands of spiderweb hung from it's edges, defeated, the spinners cursing Doug from their dark corners.
He looked out.
Fifteen feet below him, five of the death walkers had made their way around the barn to the back, most likely drawn by the clamoring of the sliding door. They pressed their faces into the wood and pawed at it, their voices a low grumble. They scratched at the walls and blew hot, rotten breath through the cracks.
Cow and horse didn't seem to mind.
Doug looked around him. He was standing on a narrow platform, maybe five feet wide and three feet deep. To his right the boards dropped off into the emptiness of the barn's belly all the way to the floor. To his left, the same, except...
Except for a stack of small red bricks.
The farmer probably had a use for them, maybe counter-weights for a pulley system, maybe weights to hold down boards for solo nailing. Maybe he liked throwing bricks down at things. Doug thanked him, again, for whatever the reasons were and picked up one of the bricks. He bounced it up and down in his hand, feeling the rough edges, liking the weight of it. They were heavier than they looked. Or maybe Doug was hungrier and weaker than he thought.
When had he eaten last?
Doug stopped and turned. Was that a voice? It sounded like someone said something, and it sounded like the voice came from inside the barn.
“Hello?” Doug called. He held is breath to listen for a reply.
He blocked out the scraping and moaning of the zombies. He blocked out the shuffling of the horse and cow, the pounding of his own heart.
Doug looked down. The cow was looking up at him. He wasn't chewing his cud, but his mouth did move to speak.
“Be careful up there,” the cow said.
Doug shook his head and laughed.
“Okay, Douglas, okay. Pull it together, man. The cow isn't talking to you, just take a deep breath and focus. Focus, Douglas, focus!”
“Careful, don't hurt yourself again.”
“Shut up!” Doug yelled. When he looked back to the cow, its back was turned and it was scraping hay off the ground and chewing it. The horse was watching him with its ears up, confused.
“Okay, so it's been awhile since you had something to eat, yeah. Yeah, you're tired and stressed and hungry, just relax, Dougie. Just relax.”
He took a deep breath. He took another. The brick was shaking less now. His hands slowed their trembling. He took one more breath and blew it out the barn window and into the evening air. Then he gripped the brick, looked down, and made his first choice.
The first target was easy. One of the zombies had been, in his previous state, a classic American stereotype: large and in charge. The man had been in his late forties or early fifties, balding, and at least three hundred pounds. As the hulking beast pressed his swollen, pale arms against the side of the barn, Doug could see the bite marks. Both forearms had teeth marks and chunks where flesh had been bitten and torn clean. His right hand was missing a finger, the ring finger. The left was missing the ring finger and the pinky.
He'd had little chance of outrunning the flesh-eating bastards, but he'd put up a fight in the end, it seemed.
Something about the wide body – that big round bald head, like a bulls eye – was too good to pass up. Doug had his first target. The brick felt good in his hand and he leaned out over the ledge. He wondered about the proper technique of trying to crush a skull from above with a brick. Should he drop it? Should he throw it down hard, or toss it gently for better aim? Would it crush a skull if he didn't throw it down hard?
He decided it might and it might not, and with only about two dozen bricks he wanted to be sure.
He would huck it downward with maximum force. The aim, he decided, would get better with each brick. Plus, with the other zombies gathering around, missing one might mean hitting another.
Doug held tightly to the ledge and raised his hand high out over the expanse. He heaved the brick down. But his feet weren't set, and under the torque of his throw, his left foot slipped on the dusty boards of the narrow platform. His body heaved forward and down, his chest and chin slamming into the side of the barn. With the brick away, his right hand came back to the barn and scrambled madly for something to hold. His head hung out over the death walkers and he screamed. He didn't mean to, but his brain registered falling and his eyes saw the fifteen-foot drop into a zombie party below him and he yelped without thinking.
His right leg saved him. That foot stayed put, and when he went chest first over the ledge, his right hip and thigh stayed tight against the inside of the barn while his upper body banged into the outside. It created a little pinch, and had both feet slipped, even a little, he'd have missed his chance to grab anything to hold himself up and he would have fallen to a certain and toothy death.
He continued grunting wildly while fighting to get his feet back down on the planks and hoist his torso and head back into the safety of the barn. He got his left foot back down and pushed with both arms. The wound in his elbow sent electricity up through his shoulder and into his neck. He could feel fresh blood running down his forearm when he finally righted himself and stood up. He gasped for breath and his hands grabbed for solid ground, solid wood. They would grab a spot, then grab another spot not believing the first spot was safe enough. After clawing across the different boards and picking up half a dozen splinters, he stopped. He was safe. He was secure, on his feet, alive.
“Be careful,” came the voice again.
“Shut up, you're not real,” Doug hissed through a clenched jaw.
In his panic and mad scramble to not fall to his death, he'd completely missed the path of the brick. While leaning out over the window ledge and crying out, he'd missed the sickening hollow crunch of a skull caving in under the accelerating force of hurled stone. Now, having recovered physically, on his way to recovering mentally, he slowly pushed his chin out over the ledge and peered down.
Four zombies clawed on the barn's wall. Doug let out a sudden rasp. Then a short chuckle. Then a full on laugh that grew into a mad, wailing cackle. He gripped the window ledge and laughed downward, laughed at them, threw his laughter down on them like so many more bricks, “You like that?” He screamed and laughed. “You like that?”
The four remaining zombies were looking up at him, their mouths opening into snarls and biting mindlessly at the air. One arm up the wall, then down, then the other arm up the wall, then down. They looked like they were gulping in air. They looked like they were swimming.
“Swim, you bastards, swim up here and get me!”
Their chewed, bloody, rotting arms were swimming toward him, a labored, jerky freestyle stroke. They were now looking upward at what made that delicious noise above and what caused the carnage below.
Only four now.
The fifth, Mr. Fatman, lay splayed out on his back. From Doug's angle, he looked to be standing in between all of the swimmers, his black eyes open, his mouth dark and hollow as a hole in an oak tree. The coach, Doug thought, tell em to swim, Mr. coach. Tell your stupid swimmers to swim now!
The brick had hit its mark. Above the laid out fatman, a pool of blood was forming, black on the dirt in the low light of sunset. Coach wouldn't be getting up again. He'd lie there and rot forever.
Doug went back to his pile. He counted them out now, to be sure. Twenty-one more bricks. There were a lot more than twenty-one death walkers out there. He knew that, and he was okay with that. This would be a good start. And it would be fun. He could use some fun.
Doug placed his feet in what felt like a more stable position. This time he'd be careful. This time he wouldn't throw quite so hard. This time, he'd watch the brick whistle toward its mark and watch as it crushed the gnawing face below it.
One of the swimmers was taller than the others and could reach higher. He'd probably been in his twenties before turning. He was the next biggest, so he was the next best target. Doug raised the brick and settled his feet and his free hand. Even as he loosed the brick, the zombie below didn't change its clawing freestyle, didn't change its biting face. It kept its face upward, hungry. The only change in its face came when the brick slammed into it. It slammed into the right eye, creating a crater and twisting the zombie's head violently sideways. The brick strike made the noise a watermelon might make if dropped from the same height, and the twisting of the neck let out a deep snap. The zombie fell backward, next to the fatman, and his gnawing and clawing ended.
Doug laughed again. A memory of the fair shined into his mind.
Do I get a prize?
One more brick to the head and I'll get the large Tweetie Bird.
Maybe the huge Spongebob.
His next brick found its mark, as well, picking off an older woman on the far right. He got her while she was looking through the boards into the barn, distracted by something she saw or heard or smelled there. The brick caught her in the top of the head, more near the back, and she crashed forward face-first into the side of the barn before her legs gave out and she slumped straight down. She knelt there, relaxed and hanging in near perfect balance. Slowly, though, inch by inch, she tilted to her left. Once the head tilted far enough to the side, the neck gave out and the head swung sideways and dragged the rest of the body to the dirt.
Three for three... damn, I'm good.
“Hah! I'll take the Spongebob, thank you very much!”
His laughing continued as he picked up and heaved each new brick. The other zombies were drawn to the commotion and were slowly making their way around the east side of the barn. After seven bricks were gone, five zombies were down, leaking their vile black poisons into the dust and straw.
The swim team was down, resting next to their fat, stupid coach.
Doug took out two more using three bricks. One brick struck a female zombie in the shoulder, jarring her off balance but not damaging the skull, not taking her out. You had to destroy the brain to take them out, Doug knew that much. As she caught her balance and recovered, a second brick found its target. The top of her forehead caved in with a deep, wet crunch and she fell face first into the small, exposed shelf of the barn's cement foundation.
Doug snickered and reached for another brick. His hand felt the dusty old boards. Two piles were gone, two more to go. Twelve more bricks.
On the dirt below, four more zombies continued to grab at the delicious, living, impossibly out of reach man standing and laughing above them. Twenty or thirty more were making their way around the barn. Doug briefly considered the thought of throwing one brick that magically ricocheted from skull to skull, taking every zombie out in one go, a wild pinball game of zombie death. It would have been great, especially with the jingle of a pinball machine as accompaniment. The scores would light up above the zombie heads as they were killed – 100 points, 200 points, 400 points, doubling with every new smashed skull. What would his top score be if that happened? He wondered. Two to the fortieth power? Fiftieth?
No, he would wait on these bricks, he would save them. As he placed the one in his hand back down where it had been, the weight of it brought the boards back down against their baseboard. Apparently, the bricks had been a bit of a stabilizing factor for the small platform. The boards still felt secure, so Doug put it out of his mind. Instead, he went back to thinking about weapons, and his mind flashed back to his view from the barn floor.
He shuffled his way back across the plank bridge, a little faster than before, and it still held. The scythe was hanging at the edge of the raised platform and he knelt down to haul it up with both hands. It was lighter than he thought it would be. Being decades old, the wood was probably dry and brittle. He wondered about its strength. Would it hold up being swung into the skulls and throats of a few dozen zombies?
He went back to the bridge. He lined himself up and held the scythe out to the sides, like a tight-rope walker. This time, he kept his right foot on the right plank, his left foot on the left. In the middle, for a split second, he thought he felt the right plank bow a little deeper than before, thought he may have heard a pop. He froze, then scolded himself for getting cocky.
“Pay attention, Doug,” he told himself. No excuse for being careless, a simple mistake out here could get him killed.
He made it across. The boards popped one more time, but they held, and Doug grabbed the edge of the window and took in a few deep breaths of relief. He wondered how many more trips across that bridge until he was comfortable?
Outside, the horde was growing. A few dozen zombies were now staring up at him, moaning and hissing into the air, reaching their bloody fingers up to him like the fallen to their messiah. They wanted him, needed him. His flesh would be the answer. His flesh would set them free.
Near the back of the pack, Doug caught the sudden flash of sunlight on metal. The glare shined for a second and then was gone. He looked again, squinting, but could see only the twisted limbs of three zombies pressing into each other while trying to force their way closer to the sounds and smells of fresh meat. Two were women and one was a man. All three had long hair, but Doug couldn't see anything shiny in their hair, around their necks, no bracelets or watches, nothing that should catch a glint from the late afternoon sun.
There, again, a glint. This time, farther to the right, four or so zombies down. Again, Doug squinted and searched but could see nothing metallic on the wide-eyed zombies there. Until...
There, another sparkle in the sun. And another. Shimmering hot yellow bolts into the cooling evening air was a jeweled tiara. A fancy hair clip with gems and shining gold. It drifted in the back of the group, going dim behind a head or body, then shining brightly again, then disappearing, then sparkling. The tiara sat on shining brown hair pulled tight into a high ponytail. Doug laid the scythe against the barn window's sill and squinted again, tracking the shining tiara as it bobbed and weaved around the back of the zombie mass. The sparkle, the way it moved, the way it shined on that brown hair. It couldn't be.
It couldn't be.
Doug saw her face, imagined it in his mind. He imagined her smiling in the park, smiling with her mom, Claire, three days ago. Claire had decided to take Sylvia to the little park across the street from their vacation rental. There were a few other kids around Sylvia's age already playing, and the thought of making some friends on the first morning of a two week vacation sounded really good to both Doug and Claire.
Claire had decided to wait with Sylvia and watch her play. They knew Bend was a safe town, a friendly town, but she wasn't ready to trust the people there on the first day. Sylvia was ready to trust immediately. She found a group of girls playing tag on the play structure and she jumped right in. Claire had smiled at this. It put her at ease, and she was soon talking to other kids and parents, too.
Doug had been watching. He stood at the kitchen sink of their rental looking out a wide window while he finished the dishes from breakfast. He couldn't hear what was being said, but he could tell the ladies were starting to enjoy themselves. He watched Sylvia get instructions from a few other girls and then cover her eyes as they ran to hide. She seemed to be counting out loud. He watched Claire laugh with another mother as they watched the girls play. His eyes dropped to the dishes he was working on for a few seconds. He rang out the sponge, turned off the faucet, and dried his hands on a towel.
When he looked up again, the mothers' attention had shifted. They weren't looking toward the playground anymore. They had turned to look at something happening behind them.
And they weren't laughing anymore.
Up the road, just barely in view of Doug's window, an older woman was stumbling down the sidewalk toward the park. She walked with a heavy limp, one of her legs not seeming to want to work. Her head hung and her arms writhed and twitched at odd angles, out of sync with each other, and seemed to be moving for no apparent reason. There was blood in her hair and on her face, and she seemed to be leaving a trail of something dark behind her dragging leg.
Doug had watched from his front window as the adults at the park reacted to the bloody, obviously insane and dangerous woman. Some got between her and their children. Some stepped away, taking out their phones, either to call 911, or for many, to record her. Something like this could get a lot of views on YouTube. But Claire decided to leave Sylvia with the other kids and their guardians and approach the woman, speaking to her, offering help. She didn't touch the woman immediately. Doug had watched her trying to decide. She could see how messed up the woman was, bleeding and gurgling, hissing and moaning the way they do when they've turned. She got close and talked, then flinched as the old woman swiped wildly at the air between them. Doug could see that Claire was yelling something. He couldn't hear her from the kitchen, but she probably asked if the woman needed help, or if she was okay.
Claire turned back to the crowd to ask someone to call for help. As she turned, the woman leaned forward and fell, arms out, as if she were collapsing into an embrace. Claire caught her. She caught her and immediately started pushing her away. She was screaming. That is the one thing in it all that Doug could hear. That screaming. The woman had leaned in to bite Claire, and sank her teeth into the exposed flesh of the connection between neck and shoulder. Claire screamed and then the children screamed. One of the other adults ran in to help pry the woman off of Claire, but he was immediately bitten, as well.
At that point Doug was running, out the front door and across the sprinkler-soaked yard toward his wife. He was yelling something, thinking of it now he doesn't know what. Just yelling, yelling and running, the only other sound being the sound of terrified screams crashing together in the morning air. When he got to his Claire, she was lying on her back. She was staring up into the blue air, the early screams and terrified panic running quickly out of her. She was calmly saying his name.
“Doug,” she said, “Doug, where is she?”
As he slid in beside her and cradled her head he could see the wound. The woman had taken multiple bites out of Claire's neck and upper back. The blood had run immediately out and over her white t-shirt, soaking down both front and back. But now, as he looked at it, the wound wasn't really bleeding. It still looked fresh, moist and bloody, but it had already stopped actively spurting blood. Instead, the edges of the wound began to harden and turn a dark brown, an instant scab. The blood vessels that had been surging white blood cells and platelets to the injured site now turned dark brown beneath the skin. The darkness spread through the vessels, creating crawling tendrils of brown and black as if the wound were a lake sending out a delta of twisting waterways down to the valleys below.
“I'm here, Claire, I'm here,” he said.
“Did you... see that?” she asked, smiling.
Claire stared up past Doug, smiling into some unknown beauty thousands of miles beyond him. He screamed for help, screamed for someone to call 911. But there were two other people now on the ground nursing their own bite wounds, and soon they too were lying down and staring into a place from which no one could bring them back.
The crazed woman began targeting the children in the park, but they were too quick. A few ran back to their houses, screaming all the way to their front lawns. They were scooped up by frightened parents and rushed inside for explanations.
“Where is she, Doug?” Claire said.
“She's gone, don't worry, Claire, she's gone. You're safe now.”
Two of the children scrambled up to the highest point of the park's pirate ship-themed play area, hoping the woman wouldn't climb up after them. She ambled to the base of the structure and reached for them, hissing and clawing and pounding on the industrial plastic. She left blood-splattered hand prints, and she would have kept scratching at the screaming children had a local man not slammed a lawn ornament into her head. It was a rod-iron rooster, a decoration in one of the house's front gardens. The impact made the children scream louder for a few seconds before becoming very quiet.
As the man struck the woman, the black metal sang like a tuning fork. It went silent when the old woman fell face-first into the bark chips.
The children clung to the high bars of the play pirate ship. The man called to them and they slowly slid down and jumped into his arms. He carried them both under his arms and ran to a house across the street where they disappeared inside.
“No, no, where is she?” Claire asked again. “Where is... Sylvia?”
Doug looked over his shoulder. He didn't see Sylvia immediately, but his attention went back to Claire. He scooped her up and ran her back across the street to their rental house. When he'd sprinted out at first he'd left the door open. He quick stepped up the front steps and twisted sideways at the last second to scoot Claire sideways through the doorway into the living room.
He laid her on the larger of the two couches and ran to the kitchen. He grabbed a towel and brought it back, pressing it into the darkening wound.
“I need you to hold this here,” he said. “Sylvia?” he yelled. “Sylvia!!”
He placed Claire's hand over the towel to hold it in place and ran back to the door. He didn't see Claire's hand slide limply off the towel and down off the edge of the couch. The black threads of the sickness were already twisting their way down her knuckles and under her nails. He wasn't there to see the lifeless hand suddenly surge and spasm, or hear the gurgle in her throat as she jolted upright on the couch.
“Sylvia!” Doug called into the streets. He was going to yell again but his attention shifted. More screams like Claire's were rising into the early morning air. The man who tried to help Claire was no longer lying in the street. He was up, running toward a couple who were pushing a baby stroller. Another man was scratching at the windows of an SUV, smearing blood streaks in red-brown arcs. The woman inside was fumbling with her keys and screaming. A female zombie was suddenly at the passenger side door, also scratching and biting at the glass. The keys found their home and the engine roared to life. The woman shifted into reverse and stomped the gas, knocking both crazed zombies to the ground. They rose and gave chase. They didn't have to chase far.
The woman, in her panic, backed into the main street where a truck was speeding away from zombies of its own. The truck hit the SUV square over the rear wheel, shattering the windows on that side and spinning the smaller SUV into the curb where its wheels caught and it tipped onto its side. The truck was knocked left and continued over the curb, across a lawn, into the garage of the house next to Doug's. The impact sprayed splintered wood and glass across Doug's lawn and onto the porch. His hands went up instinctively to protect his face. As he brought them down and looked into the cab of the truck, he could see the driver being bitten and clawed at – no, torn apart – by two zombies inside.
“What the hell?”
Too much, it was all too much too quickly. Doug couldn't manage it all, couldn't sort out what was happening. What street am I on? he thought. Where is my house, this isn't my house?
Another crash, across the street, a car hit two zombies before hitting a light pole.
Strange street, strange town, why am I out here?
Crash. A woman screaming.
Why am I...
He saw her. Her beautiful brown hair emerging slowly from a tube slide on the playground. Her jewel-studded hair clip, a recent Christmas present, shined in the sunlight.
“Sylvia!” Doug screamed, running into the street.
“Daddy?” she mumbled, looking around. When she saw him running for her, her mumble became a scream.
“I'm coming, honey, I'm coming!” Doug yelled, bounding over the small fence surrounding the playground. He ran to the slide as Sylvia slid down, and caught her up into his arms as she began to wail.
“Ssshhh, sshhhh, you're okay, honey, you're okay. Here we go.”
With Sylvia in his arms he was slower, but only slightly. He wouldn't be able to hop the fence so he angled toward the small gap for entry. From the bushes to his right, a pair of growling women stumbled after him. He didn't slow down.
“Here we go, honey, close your eyes, sweetheart!”
The two zombies from the crashed truck were done and looking for their next victim. They scrambled out of the truck's shattered back windows and zeroed in on Doug and Sylvia. They were on one side of Doug's house, and from the house on the other side and man, woman, and a child limped out onto the sidewalk and made their way toward the new commotion.
Doug didn't look at them. He didn't look side to side to check for cars as he sprinted across the street. He ran straight through the reaching hand of one of the truck zombies and bounded up the wooden steps and through his front door. In one movement, he placed Sylvia's feet on the floor, closed the door, and locked it.
The zombies slammed into the door, their heads sending a sickening boom through the house. They hit it again, more with their hands this time, and began scratching at the door and its frame.
Doug backed away slowly, watching to be sure the door could hold them.
Doug turned. He'd forgotten about Claire. Sylvia would see her mother bleeding, possibly dying on the couch.
“No no, sweetie, don't look, mommy needs to rest.”
He stopped. His eyes had been prepared to see Sylvia standing before the couch, Claire's body stretched out, unconscious, with a bloody towel on her neck. A figure was standing behind the couch. As soon as he saw the figure and began registering the shape as Claire's body, he heard the raspy gurgles rise in her throat. He heard the hiss he'd heard out in the street. Claire was gone, her eyes black and primal, scanning, searching, like a lizard watching flies. The bite was hollowing her out, making room for something else. Her mouth opened wide, her lips curled back into a snarl, and those black eyes twisted toward Sylvia.
Claire lunged at Sylvia, grabbing for her hair and face. The couch caught her high on the thighs and she sprawled forward, still reaching and clawing and biting at the air. She was back on her feet and had Sylvia nearly in her grasp when Doug brought one of the dining room chairs down on her head. Claire fell hard most of the way to the floor, but before her body could fully sprawl out, her head caught the bottom of the low wall separating the living room from the kitchen. The impact silenced her hisses, replaced by low moans as she writhed and tried to regain her balance.
Doug took Sylvia's hand and took three steps toward the back sliding door when the image out through the glass changed. The sunshine and green grass and hedges were eclipsed by tall shadows. Doug stopped and Sylvia stopped with him. He pulled her in and covered her mouth.
“Don't move,” he whispered.
The two zombies in the back yard hadn't seen them yet. They were headed toward the sliding door and rammed their heads into it. Their hands went out to investigate the barrier. Their jaws opened into long yawns before chattering shut again.
Behind Doug, the growing group of zombies out front were still banging on the door.
Doug's heart caught. The zombies were pressing their faces against the glass of the sliding door, but at the closed side. The door was open, and only a screen was there blocking access to the house. Claire must have opened it earlier for the cool morning breeze.
The banging continued, louder. The impact seemed to be making progress on the front door. A crunching sound was now growing with each thump of a zombie's head or fist, and by the sound of the growls and hisses, there were more and more gathering.
Doug hadn't even been into most of the house. They'd arrived last night and he didn't know the layout, didn't know any of the rooms down the hallway to his right other than the master bedroom. He couldn't know what would be waiting for them out that way. The backyard had at least two zombies. The front yard had... a dozen? More?
One of the zombies at the sliding door stopped suddenly. His head twitched to the left toward the screen door. He caught their scent. He and his friend would be in the house in seconds.
The front door crunched again, this time changing the volume of the groans from the zombies outside. They'd broken through.
Doug knew he couldn't trust the front or back yards, and he didn't know what lay down the back hallway. The side of the house seemed clear. Two six foot windows allowed for a view of the neighbor's side fence, and there weren't any zombies over there.
The screen door began to rip.
“Daddy?” Sylvia cried.
The front door was being ripped apart by a dozen bloody hands.
“We're going through the window, honey, okay?” He cupped her face in his hands. “Daddy is going to go first and then you need to run as fast as you can right after me, okay?”
“Me too, honey. Me too.”
One leg was through the screen door. They had seconds.
“What about mommy?” Sylvia asked, her chest wracked by sobs.
Five seconds, Doug, move it.
He kissed her forehead.
“It's just you and me now.”
He ran to the window and leaped. His hands came up to shield his face and his right knee and elbow were the first things to hit the glass. His 190-pound frame at that speed were enough, and the glass shattered , tearing into his elbow. He stayed airborne and brought much of the glass with him as he slammed into the neighbor's fence.
He'd closed his eyes and was stunned by the fence impact. When his legs met the ground he wasn't prepared, and he crumbled under his momentum and slumped forward into a bush. It took a few seconds to remember where he was and what was happening, but he came back. As he stood and glass shards started to fall from his hair and back, he looked back in to Sylvia.
“Come on, Sylvia!”
Both zombies from the back yard were in the living room. They were fighting the furniture to get to Sylvia. From the entryway, two more zombies appeared, reaching and clawing and crazed.
Sylvia put her head down and took a step. Then she stopped.
“Sylvia, run!” Doug screamed.
Then he saw it. She was trying to run, but she was caught. Down at the ankle, a bloody and pale hand locked its blackening fingers around her pure white socks. It was Claire.
What was left of Claire.
Sylvia looked down at the hand holding her and to the twisted face of her mother. She glanced at the two zombies lunging over the couch, then back to Doug. In her eyes, he saw her hope vanish. He saw it swallowed up in a firestorm of fear, and with her realization she pushed her tongue to the roof of her mouth to say it one more time.
The front door was in pieces and the swarm hit her from the right side at the same time the two zombies hit her from the left. She disappeared into the flood, a single hand the last thing to slip beneath the churning waves.
“No!!” Doug screamed out onto the gathering horde, out into the fields and trees beyond. Long, loud, as loud and long as he could hold it until his breath gave out.
“You should've saved her.”
Doug looked down into the cow's pen. The glassy eyes were clearer again, sharper, and looking up at him.
“You let her die,” the cow said.
The horse walked to where he could look up at Doug, too.
“You let them take her.”
“Shut up, both of you shut up!”
“What kind of man leaves his wife and daughter like that?” the animals asked together.
“Shut up, you're not real.”
“You're here and they're out there...”
“You're not real, you're not REAL!!”
Doug grabbed another brick and hurled it down at the cow. In his rage, he misjudged the angle and missed, and the cow and horse both spooked and began to crash side to side against their pens.
“You're not real!” he screamed again, “you weren't there! You don't know!”
He grabbed the scythe and braced himself against the edge of the barn window. He leaned down and began to swing. At full arm's reach, the blade slashed at head and neck level, depending on the zombie's height. His first swing missed everything. On the second swing, the old metal sunk into a male zombie's neck, jarring the spine and sending him permanently to the ground. Another swing caught a female zombie in the side if the head, and her head slammed into the head of the zombie next to her and they both went down.
“I tried!” Doug screamed. “I tried, I tried!”
Slashing left, then right, back and forth. Each slash harder and more crazed than the last.
The blade was starting to bend. When it collided with a neck there was little resistance. But every skull contact weakened the thin crescent hook a little more.
“I'm sorry!!” Doug screamed, slashing the head clean off of a tall male zombie, “I'm sorry!”
The muscles in Doug's back seized. No food and little water were taking their toll, but he couldn't stop. Hacking and chopping, he screamed into the setting sun and ripped through zombie flesh until a small foxhole started to form. Each body fell onto the bodies of the others. They were stacking up, to the left of the scythe, in front of it, and to the right, a horseshoe-shaped stack of bodies. His shoulders were failing, his lungs wheezed and burned, pleading with him to stop.
He didn't stop.
The scythe stopped.
During the frenzied melee, the scythe handle popped under the stress of one of the strikes. Doug could feel the change but kept swinging. Another crack, deeper and more severe, loosened the blade from the wooden base. The next swing met a male zombie's face, and the blade slipped through his open lips and sank into the skull through the roof of his mouth. The force separated the blade from the handle. The loss of the blade changed the weight of the weapon, and the next swing was easier than Doug expected. He nearly lost his footing and fell from the platform again, but he righted himself. His rage righted him.
It demanded that he keep going.
Once the blade was gone, he swung even harder, enraged that the instrument of his vengeance had been taken. He brought the scythe handle down on zombie's heads, slamming skull after skull into the side of the barn, until that, too failed. The wood broke and shortened the handle to the point that it was useless. He flung it down on the horde with a scream.
“I don't need it, I don't NEED IT!!”
The bricks, the dark clouds of his unquenchable rage parted just long enough for him to remember... the bricks.
“Come on, I'm right up here,” he hissed, throwing the first brick. It hit the back of one zombie's head and ricocheted into the face of the zombie behind it.
“Yeah, you like that? Come on, I'm right here, I'm right up here!”
“I'm right here, right here...”
“I'm right here!”
Brick after brick whirled down. Doug, in his frenzy, grabbed and threw, grabbed and threw, without keeping track of the bricks. With four left, the boards which had been weighed down by the bricks were now free to rise and pull against their nails. Doug would have heard the creaking and popping, would have felt the boards rising and loosening, if he hadn't been so manic.
Three bricks left.
“Come get me!”
Two bricks left.
“I'm right here!”
One brick left.
A board shifted and popped under Doug's weight. It might have held, but the final brick was thrown so hard that Doug's planted feet shifted the board sideways and tore it free from the barn wall. The platform shuddered and spilled dust down onto the barn floor. By the time Doug realized what was happening, he was already falling.
It was ten feet to the horse's stall door. Doug's flailing body crashed through it, snapping the three main two-by-fours in half, and it was another five feet, and one more broken two-by-four, to the cement, dirt, and hay beneath.
The horse reared up when Doug's body crushed his pen gate and hit the floor. The cow shifted nervously in her pen, and Doug lay still, every muscle rigid, his breath gone. Hot pain zapped him in the side. His ribs were broken, and maybe his back. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, and he wondered if this is what it felt like to die.
The horse jumped to the far corner of the pen when Doug landed. He wanted to stay as far away as he could, but now, with each wild rear and buck, his hooves crashed down closer and closer to Doug.
“Whoa,” Doug sputtered. He started to move again and his breath slowly came back. “Whoa now.”
He raised a hand but the horse didn't settle.
“Whoa, boy. Easy.”
Doug put his hand back to clutch his ribs. His body was coming back, and the pain was coming with it. Now he could feel multiple broken ribs, he could feel their splintered edges. At least one was trying to stab into his lung. The wound on his elbow was wide open now, longer and deeper than before. As he looked to see what could possibly be causing that level of pain, he got his answer: broken, exposed bone.
The horse's frantic neighing filled the barn, bouncing off the walls and ceiling.
“Now just, wait... just, wait a minute...”
The horse wasn't going to wait anymore. He reared up and slashed his hooves out into the dust above Doug's head before bringing them down with a crash.
Doug jumped back, wincing.
“Just wait, wait!”
The hooves rose and fell again, closer now.
The hooves charged forward, on top of Doug, over him. The horse ran through the broken pen gate and into the open barn. He'd had enough of barns and pens. And zombies.
The platform collapse brought hundreds of pounds of wood down. Some of the wood hit the top of the sliding barn door leading to the horse's run. The impact jarred the door loose from the slide rail. Now all it would need to open is a little kick.
The horse reared up again and slammed his hooves into the sliding door. Again, and again. When it shifted and nearly fell, he pushed forward and rammed his head into it. His hooves gripped, his legs tensed, and his neck extended like a battering ram. The last connection popped. Metal fell to the cement and chimed.
Light rushed into the barn. The sun shined through the dust and lit up the whole room. Doug squinted his eyes against the sudden shine, keeping them open just long enough to see the black silhouette of a horse charging out through the zombie horde.
Out to open fields.
Out to freedom.
“I'm sorry,” Doug said, quietly. The light pouring in broke for a moment. Something was blocking it.
“It's fine,” he said, crawling out from the pen. He wasn't wincing anymore. He wasn't holding his ribs as he crawled. He simply let his one good arm pull him toward the cow's pen. Viewing it from the floor, he realized the gate to the cow's pen was high enough at the ground that he could climb under it and be safe for a little longer. But he didn't crawl under it. He crawled to its support post and pulled himself up. He reached for the latch.
“I know, I know,” he said.
The latch clicked and the door creaked open. The sunlight hadn't been completely blocked out by the approaching zombies, and the cow followed her horse friend out into the open air. The zombies grabbed lazily at her sides as she trotted by, but any that got too close were knocked to the ground. A few got trampled.
“There,” he said.
His pain was gone. His arms were weightless, his chest was light. The broken ribs did puncture his lung, he could feel it. They also severed an artery, and the loss of blood was causing his blood pressure to fall. He waited, floating, for the flood to rush in.
“It's okay,” he whispered.
He waited for the deep, thrashing waves to take him.
The dust rose and darkness filled the barn.