[INTRO] The Blasters-Dark Night

When the doors shut to the elevator in that burning hotel, that's when it hit me. This whole damn zombie apocalypse bullshit was my own personal hell. Bad karma for all the of shit I had done wrong in my lifetime was finally catching up to me. Like I'm the main star in my own personal sitcom watched by God, while he points and laughs as I struggle my way through a flaming building crawling with ravenous dead people. He probably even had t-shirts with my face on them, pillows embroidered with the name 'Nick' in fancy swoopy lettering, only fifteen bucks a pop. I bet even all of the angels had them. And now a key plot twist, I'm suddenly surrounded by three idiots I would have never associated with in my previous life. A hot-headed bitchy woman, a preachy fat man, and a bright-eyed hillbilly. Perfect. My uneasy alliance with these people wasn't anything I had anticipated, and at the time, was one of the last things that I wanted. I had always been the kind of guy to look out for number one, and that's me. Anything that needed to be done to get on top of my game, that was what I did. I won't list, or even attempt to count, the various shady deals or the people I had stepped on along the way. If I had a heart, it would be green. The color of money, the color of greed. Eventually I didn't even blink at my actions, I was a stone cold man, any sort of emotion or sentimentalism was nothing but mindless nonsense lurking in the darkest depths of my brain. If anyone had tried to tell me what my life would turn out to be a few months later, I would have laughed until I was dead. And then laughed some more. Even now, the whole thing seems so ridiculous, but day by day I'm becoming more and more comfortable with it.

[DEAD CENTER]

The first part of our day together was a complete disaster. I found myself searching for an exit, looking for any excuse to just disappear and head back off on my own and find a way out of this inbred backwoods garbage pit. But I didn't. See, I always had trouble trusting anybody but myself, and I considered myself just as untrustworthy as I thought everybody else to be. A dog eat dog world. We spent the day running, tripping, stumbling, and falling all over each other. Cuts, bruises, blood...but miraculous as it may seem, none of us broke any bones. And none of us died. But I damned near shot all three of them, wavering back and forth in front of me like a bunch of drunkards. And I'm pretty sure Coach nailed me in the back of the head with a baseball bat once, though he'd never admit it. Needless to say, by the time we reached the safe room, collapse was imminent.

We each found a corner of the hole-in-the-wall room to call our own, patching up wounds and avoiding any in-depth conversation.

Rochelle produced a small digital camera, walking around the room snapping photos of various writings on the walls and pointless inanimate objects.

After about two minutes I lost my patience with the beeping flashes, "The hell are you doing?"
She shot me an icy look, narrowing her eyes, "Well somebody's got to document all of this. I plan on making it out of this ALIVE and from the look of things, I'll be next in line for a full-time reporter job. What do YOU plan on doing once you make it out of this mess, Mr. Gamblin' Man? Pop a few more registers, maybe rob a bank or two?"

I snapped back, "Anywhere will be better than here, trapped in this closet with you three idiots."

Coach raised his voice, towering over me in my little corner, "I don't like your attitude, Mister. You may not like it, but we're a team now. We gotta stick together. Talkin' down to her won't do you or anybody else no good, you best mind your mouth."

I snarled.

Rochelle ignored me, continuing her way around the room, eventually snapping photos of the ceiling. I rolled my eyes, folding my arms in front of me.

Every so often I would catch glances with Ellis, he'd have this curious puppy-dog face on him, like some invisible barrier was keeping him from saying whatever it was that he wanted to say to me. As soon as our eyes would meet, he'd quickly turn his head away, pretending to adjust his hat or clean his guns. At the time I figured he just had a short attention span, nothing but a backwoods hillbilly that gets distracted by shiny things. A hillbilly that just happened to have obnoxiously attractive features, it was like some paradox, the universe was folding in on itself and nothing made sense anymore.

I must have nodded off, because the next thing I knew the mall lights had kicked off and there were zombies tearing at our safe house door. On the count of three we had set our differences aside, bursting out, guns blazing. Eat your heart out, George Romero. We made our way through the shit that was Liberty Mall, getting pounced, clawed, burned, and puked on along the way. Tripping alarms, breaking glass, running up and down escalators...this was worse than running from the law after a particularly bad heist.

I guess I started to warm up to them a bit (though it would take me a long time to admit it) around the time that Ellis came up with the stock car escape idea, particularly when we argued over who would be driving the thing. That kid could be a real spitfire when he wanted to be, I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from smiling. When the elevator opened and we ran for the gas cans to fill up the car, we actually started working in unison, watching each others backs like a real team. I started to think, these guys aren't so bad after all, as we exited the mall by crashing through one of the large front windows, glass and zombie splatter spraying everywhere. We went screeching into the streets, and damn, that kid could really drive. Seemed like he really was having the time of his life, yipping and yee-hawing all the way to the highway. As time went on, I found his attitude more and more infectious. Eventually I stopped biting the insides of my cheeks, allowing myself to smile freely from time to time.

[DARK CARNIVAL] Garbage-#1 Crush

This strange feeling of optimism that had been hovering around me quickly vanished once we reached the pileup on the highway, forcing us to abandon the stock car and walk again. Ellis' voice, for the first time ever, fell into a sort of morose tone. He literally lamented over that car. I smirked as he whispered sweet nothings to it as we walked away, Coach giving him words of encouragement. And then suddenly his melancholy attitude disappeared just as fast as it had arrived, his eyes lighting up like Christmas. I turned to see what he was looking at, a giant billboard for the amusement park Whispering Oaks looming over us, a creepy peanut mascot grinning and staring into our souls with giant eyes. Perfect. A carnival. Ellis lead the way, following searchlights on the horizon like a bear cub to honey, bowling through zombies with rediscovered enthusiasm.

After fighting our way through a cheap roadside motel, sloshed our way through a deep gully and got trounced by a tank, we were finally there. For what it was worth. There was that creepy peanut guy again, he was plastered all over nearly every sign in the park. I felt my face twist further into a sneer as we went through the gates, a distant honking sound coming towards us in the dusk. Goddamn zombie clowns. You have got to be shitting me.

Ellis hadn't seemed to notice, or care, that the place was crawling with the infected. He bounced his way through the park, excitedly yelling out the name of every attraction that we passed. I could almost envision him with a tail, wagging back and forth so fast he'd take flight into the sky like a helicopter. Or 'whirly bird' as he liked to call them. He begged us to stop and make cotton candy. Begged us to stop and ride just ONE ride, telling us how we wouldn't be back anytime soon, sweetening the deal by pointing out the obvious lack of lines.

And I'll be damned if he didn't make me want to ride one with him. There was that infectious enthusiasm again, it almost made me forget about those nasty clowns and eerie peanut dude.

As the night crept further in, a thin layer of frost formed on everything, tiny miserable crystals reflecting the moonlight on all of the rooftops and tree branches. I would have stopped to enjoy the beauty of it all if I wasn't seriously afraid that my balls were going to freeze off. We unanimously decided to crash in a safe room for a few hours to get our energy back, barricading ourselves in one of the carnival office buildings. We all found our respective places on the floor, Rochelle taking refuge under a desk. Coach insisted on taking watch, clutching a shotgun in his giant hands as he stared out the barred window on the door, a sharp icy draft wafting its way through the bars. I could see my breath every time I exhaled, and every time I inhaled it felt like my lungs were going to solidify and shatter. So naturally, I couldn't sleep. More worn out than a five-dollar hooker on a Sunday morning, and I couldn't sleep. I just laid there, forcing my eyes shut, fading in and out of a pseudo hallucinogenic nap. Shivering.

What was that noise? My eyes flying open, I froze (almost literally) in place, holding my breath. If one of those bastards had made it INSIDE of the safe room, I was going to be pissed. Jesus. No rest for the wicked, I thought.
And there it was again, softer this time. A sniffle? Where in the hell is that coming from? I slowly raised my head up off of the cold, hard floor. And there was Ellis. He had scooted his way over to me, about an arms length away, his back facing me. He was holding himself, curled into a fetal position, little muffled sniffling sounds escaping him in jittery spurts. Christ. Is he crying? I hesitated a bit before I whispered, "Ellis?"
The instant he heard my voice, he sent himself scooting further backwards towards me. Before I could say or do anything, he had his back pressed up against my chest.
My eyes widened, I had never been good at this emotional bullshit and I had no idea what this kid had been through, and I wasn't about to ask.

Ah what the hell, what could it hurt? I wrapped my arm tentatively around his chest, sending him snuggling into me like a small child, his head resting on my other arm like a pillow. He smelled faintly like sweat and sunshine.

And I'll be damned if I didn't fall asleep. Right there spooning that hillbilly, soaking up his body heat. I was woken up by the shouting of Rochelle, demanding we 'wake our asses up' and get moving, the distinct sound of claws and screeches just outside of the door.

Groaning my way into a seated position, it felt like someone had beat me half to death with a tire iron. Ellis stretched and yawed, sporting a strange grin on his face. He offered his hand to me, helping me to my feet, "Y'all right there, Nick?"

It was still dark, it was still cold, and the infected seemed more ravenous now, a more desperate and depraved sense about them. Maybe I was just getting sick and tired of their bullshit. We had to shoot through the bars of the window on the safe room door before we could even open the damn thing, a thick collection of bodies pressing up against it, reaching and clawing blindly in at us.

We almost literally had to swim our way through bodies before we finally made it to the Midnight Riders stage. Coach and Ellis took ridiculous turns singing into the mic (I had to question their sanity at this point) as Rochelle and I turned on the stage lights and spread gasoline cans alongside boxes of fireworks. Part of me (most of me) expected us all to die right there in a ball of fiery death, ass rock sending us to our graves.

Two songs, three tanks, and about a million zombies later a helicopter swooped in to rescue us. We pushed, pulled, shoved and carried each other across the area before finally reaching our rescue. As the helicopter flew away from the arena, I could still see the fireworks going off onstage. Golden light and sparks flaring out and illuminating hundreds and hundred of zombies. I looked to Ellis, perched in the seat next to me. Well, sort of perched. He was one ass cheek off his seat, nearly hanging out of the helicopter to gawk at the scene below. I reached for his arm and tugged, pulling him down into his chair, he looked at me, wide-eyed with his crooked half-grin, "That was awwwesome!"

[SWAMP FEVER]

I must have dozed off again, because the next thing I knew our helicopter was losing altitude, and fast. Ellis was asleep on my shoulder, warm drool creating a little wet puddle on the white material. Rochelle and Coach were looking startled too, and our unspoken questions were answered as the pilot left his seat, lunging out at us with a crazed look on his face. "Well shit, it's just one giant pinata of surprises around here." I unloaded five handgun shots into him before he fell, hitting the floor of the helicopter with a loud thud, blood spraying everywhere. Coach, Rochelle and I worked together, kicking and pushing with our feet until the body went tumbling roughly into the forest below. Ellis was looking at me like I had just shot his parents, or won the lottery, the expression he wore was pretty hard to read, a sleep crease from my suit running down the left side of his face. Coach was already bracing himself, "Hold on to your shit everybody, this is going to be one hell of a ride."

The remainder of our helicopter trip was 'merciful' in its landing, dropping us onto a small patch of concrete roadway, surrounded by shacks and large ponds of putrid green mess. Any hope of my suit, all three-thousand dollars of it, being clean and wearable ever again was gone. I was ready to just lie there and give up the ghost, "Just let the bastards eat me. Or better yet, I'll throw myself in with the crocodiles, that would be fun."

Ellis corrected me, almost in a whisper, "They're gators, Nick."

"Fine, whatever, same damn thing." I laid on the southern accent as hard as I could, "I'm sure 'THEM GATERS' could eat me just the same, put me out of my misery." A headache pounded like a thousand foot-stomps in my brain, my own little bastard army marching through my skull. Ellis nudged up to me, delicate fumbling fingers using his health kit to fix up my wounds, his touch had an amazing calming effect. He hesitated afterward, awkwardly staring at me and standing a little bit too close. I smiled, placing a hand on his shoulder, "Thanks, Killer." That seemed to please him, a twinkle blinking in those giant happy eyes.

First it was clowns, now it was mudmen. Freaking unbelievable, swamp people mudmen and zombie clowns with honking red noses. I kept waiting for the guy behind the camera to hop out, a cue for everybody to start laughing, all of it being a big trick for the massive TV audience to sit on their fatasses and enjoy my misery. And I knew when that guy popped out, laughing and pointing at his secret cameras and revealing my teammates to be actors, I would beat his ass.

When we went walking through the shanty town, it seemed like it really wasn't such a bad place. Take away the boarded-up windows and trailers and it might have actually be a nice place to live. They even had an ice cream parlor, which Ellis promptly hurdled through a window to get to, coming back pouty-faced and empty-handed. What am I saying? That place was shit hole, like a giant goddamn redneck convention chewed it up and spit it back up again.

The purring of a Hunter was suddenly very close to us, muffled, but close. And there was that puppy tail again, I could almost see it tucked in-between Ellis' legs, his ears folded against his head. I swear I even heard him whimper. I have never ever seen someone so trigger-happy turn so inward on themselves the way that he did when a Hunter came around. Complete and utter terror would glaze over his face and he'd freeze up. Can't say I blame him, seeing as he was almost ALWAYS the one to get jumped on.

And sure enough, no sooner had that Hunter pounced on him and Ellis went to screaming, all three of us shot the shit out of him, I swung a baseball bat at its face, bones crunching and blood spilling out as it went sailing through the air, landing in a dead heap about ten feet away. Coach helped Ellis to his feet as I snarked, "Those Hunters sure seem to have a problem with you, Ellis. Ex-boyfriends or something?" I winked at him as he maliciously stuck his tongue out at me. I had to muffle a giggle.

By the time we made it to the plantation, which I had no idea those things still existed, I was covered in all sorts of swampy muddy garbage and was developing a seriously bad attitude. We were all running low on energy and food, and not a single one of us had any idea what in the hell we were doing anymore.

I don't know what it was about Virgil (or how he had survived that long), but none of us seemed to have any reservations about climbing onto his boat and sailing away with him into our questionable future. Of course, part of that might have been thanks to the massive wave of infected on our asses.

[HARD RAIN] Depeche Mode-I Feel You

I'm not sure if I felt more relieved when Virgil picked us up, or when he dropped us off. On our suicide mission for diesel we made our way through a maze of pissed off Witches and a broken-down sugar mill before agreeing on a bit more down-time in a safe room.

"I cannot believe this, we finally have a safe room with a goddamn shower. I'm claiming first dibs on that bitch, I saw it first."

Coach protested, "That's a bunch of bull, Nick. We're all equals here, we should draw straws or somethin'."
I raised my eyebrows in false curiosity, "Oh really, and where are we going to get the straws from Coach? Should I just make a run down to the supermarket and grab a pack? Tell you what, I'll even grab a case of chocolate for you while I'm at it."
Coach sneered at me, throwing his arms up in defeat as he marched off to the kitchen area, or at least what was left of it.

Ellis chimed in, a hint of sarcasm in his voice, "Ain't you ever heard of 'ladies first', Nick?" He stood there smirking at me, both hands on his hips.

"Ellis, at this point I think Rochelle would go last if that was the case, and you most certainly would be first. But that's not the case, now is it? I'm going first, I called it. It'll only take me a second, I don't want any of you lousy shots stealing all of the hot water." I can be a real dick sometimes. Well, most of the time. Filthy dirty, beaten up and bruised, and not to mention hungry, I can be a downright raging asshole.

Rochelle had her camera back out, snapping shots of various pointless crap scattered around the room, a tone of amusement in her voice, "No complaints here sweetie. I know I don't smell half as bad as you do, Nick."

As Ellis gigglesnorted, I rolled my eyes so hard that I'm surprised they ever came back down again. I stomped my way back upstairs to the bathroom, peeling off my jacket as I went.

The hot water seared its way over my naked body, stinging its way into about a hundred different cuts and scrapes. I couldn't remember the last time a shower had EVER felt so good and so painful at the same time. The massaging streams relaxed my horribly tense muscles, yet pulsated like little poking fingers at all of my bruises. With my eyes shut, I breathed in a heady lungful of steam. As I exhaled, I heard the door to the bathroom gently click shut. Shaking the water off of my face, I squinted through the haze and could just barely make out the form of Ellis.

"Ellis, I don't care what you do or how much you try to embarrass me, I don't even care if you steal all of my clothes, I'm not getting out of here until I'm damn ready."

I didn't even know that he was naked until he had confidently climbed into the shower with me, sporting a 'Keith story' face, with that crooked grin and raised eyebrow.

He looks like a different person without a hat.

"I swear to God Ellis, if you come in here, stand butt-naked with me in the freaking shower and start telling a damned Keith story, you'll be picking your teeth up out of the drain."

He moved in closer to me, causing me to back up against the shower wall, the cool ivory shocking and violating against my bare skin. He moved closer in until he was pressed up against me, wet skin on wet skin, staring deep into my eyes. Deep intoxicating pools of green, threatening to pull me in and swallow me up. He paused for a moment, almost like he was waiting for me to do something, daring me.

I felt dizzy, my arousal becoming more than obvious in spite of my best efforts.

I managed to stutter out a somewhat slurry, "Ellis, what are you..."

"Shuddup, Nick." His mouth covered mine, warm and demanding. Desire replaced my shock and took over my body as I let him in, hungrily greeting his tongue with mine. I found my hands exploring their way over his smooth wet skin, fingering over his cuts and gashes, clutching at his perfect ass. He tasted like chocolate cupcakes. Sugary and sweet, the kind with the frosting in the middle. So THAT'S where his renewed good mood came from.

In my mind I could see my ex-wife standing there, pointing, laughing, and then finally yelling. Screaming a blood-curdling, 'I told you so' and throwing something large and painful at my face. I quickly banished her to the deepest darkest pits of my mind, secretly hoping her appendix had been eaten away by a particularly ugly disgusting zombie.

We kissed and groped and slid around on each other until the water turned cold as ice. We spent another twenty minutes warming each other back up, dripping water all across the floor as he gave me the best blow-job I had ever received, gentle and desperate. And I returned the favor, muffling his moans with my hand as he came hot and fast down my eager throat.

Ellis practically floated down the stairs on a little white hazy cloud, his cheeks flushed a healthy satisfied pink, and I floated down right behind him. Coach stood glaring at me from behind a counter top, an empty box of individually-wrapped chocolate cakes sitting in front of him, cellophane wrappers scattered all around like a dessert graveyard. "I didn't save you none, figured it was an even trade for taking all of the hot water like a selfish jackass."

And naturally, as soon as we had rested up and marched our way out of that safe room, we were greeted by a massive torrent of filthy dirty rainfall and all sorts of mud and gook.

So much for that shower.

[THE PARISH] Downtown Harvest-Rattle On

After a day of running around the confusing dirty streets of New Orleans, we found ourselves at our final night together, and that was probably the best night of my entire life. Though, of course, none of us knew at the time that this would be that last few hours we'd all be together. But I think somehow, somewhere deep inside, we all knew that the end was near. Whether it was rescue or death, this army of four couldn't possibly hold up much longer, the odds were just simply against us.

So we celebrated as if tomorrow wouldn't come, as if tomorrow couldn't possibly exist.

Coach had just started a fire in an old oil barrel when Ellis poked his head out from the loft area, grinning like he'd just found his big brother's porn stash. "Lookie lookie here!" He hanged his arm down, dangling a single long-neck from his hand. I hopped to my feet and rushed towards him (half expecting to save clumsy Ellis from falling), Coach and Rochelle right behind me. "Oh shit, Overalls. Tell me you've got more up there."
He grinned wider, excitement lacing its way through his voice, "Oh man, there's got to be at least fifty cases of this stuff up here. I don't think anybody's gonna mind if we borrow a few."

The louder the zombies got outside, clawing, groaning and screaming at the door, the louder we turned up the jukebox. I was about one beer away from being real good friends with the floor. I slurred my way through a confession, "You guys know what? I gotta say, you're the first three people on Earth that I have ever trusted."

It felt awesome.

Rochelle looked at me and smiled, and then started laughing, "Well, we love you too, Nick." And then Coach was laughing too, projecting his voice in loud obnoxious bellows. Ellis joined in, laughing so hard that noise had stopped coming out of his mouth as he clutched at his sides, tears welling up in his eyes. His voice finally found him again in gaspy little giggles, his cheeks turning a familiar rosy pink.

I felt embarrassment flood its way into my face, red hot blood rushing to the surface of my skin. While I was in the middle of trying to think of a way to back-paddle my way out of this emotional mess, a Midnight Riders album ended and switched over on the jukebox, a real swanky song kicking in to take its place. Rochelle and Coach started to dance their way around the barrel fire, their hands clasped together, it looked like they were about to play 'Ring Around The Rosie', and in spite of myself, I forgot my embarrassment and couldn't help but smile.

Standing up, I steadied myself against the wall as the room took a quick spin. Ellis sat perched on a crate, he legs swinging off of the floor, his boots tapping against his wooden box to the beat of the music. He was smiling that smile at me. I bowed over slightly, offering a hand to him, "Can I have this dance?" I could have rolled my eyes at myself for being so goddamned cheesy.

He took my hand, throwing a strong arm around my neck. We danced together like an old romantic couple, until I got greedy. I wanted to feel him close to me, to feel his skin. With a quick spin, I twirled him around, putting my hands on his hips and pulling him close. My fingertips grazed the slightest amount of bare skin as I guided him to the sound of the music. He leaned back into me as I wrapped my arms around his chest, resting my head on his shoulder. I kissed my way gently over his neck, along his jawbone, and up to his ear. A soft little moan escaped his lips as I continued to hold him, rocking him to the music. I took a quick glace over at Coach and Rochelle. They were still dancing, hadn't seemed to of noticed us, and if they did they didn't care. I felt like this was my family now, no use trying to hide anything anyway. I made all sorts of private promises in my head, I promised to be honest, promised to stop conning people, and about half a dozen other things that I can't remember now. I felt like a sappy little bitch, and for the first time in my life I didn't care.

We danced a few more songs, drank a few more beers, and then danced some more.

[THE PARISH LOFT] Sister Machine Gun-Burn (alt: Maroon 5-Harder to Breathe)

Ellis and I shared the loft upstairs, while Coach and Rochelle dozed off next to the fire. Making my way up the ladder had been a ridiculous affair, I went up first, Ellis pushing me from behind, staggering and slipping before I finally pulled myself up and rolled across the floor, stopping next to a row of lockers. I felt slightly nauseous, I had to close my eyes to keep the room from spinning like a carnival ride. What was this, college all over again?

I barely had time to lay there and get my bearings when I felt Ellis yank firmly at my coat, pulling me over onto my back. There was a moment of fumbling as we both went to grope around on each other, pulling at clothing. He wrestled me out of my shirt and jacket, busting one of the buttons. He hovered over me, our mouths meeting wet and warm, sharing the taste of beer between us, our tongues ravenously exploring. Pent up frustration oozing out of our pores, we moved as one machine with one single goal, tongues against tongues, skin on skin. Pulling his shirt over his head, I focused on his nipples, hard like little pink candies almost sweet under my tongue. As I teethed at his delicate skin, he made beautiful syrupy groans, pulling at my hair. I licked my way up from his chest to his neck, pressing my teeth gently into his soft skin, his pulse beating hard and fast through thick veins just below the surface. He fell into me as I rolled him over, our mouths reuniting as I blindly struggled with his coveralls and boots, messily kicking them off to one side. I pulled away and just long enought to sit there for a moment, naked and on my knees, just to look at him. The fire from the room below us made the shadows dance over his body, painting his skin an orange hue, his tattoo a dark splash of color in the dim lighting.

Ellis winced as my cock slowly pushed into him, tight hot muscle surrounding me as I went in deeper, his moans coming out in quick bated breaths as I thrusted. The room spun as I leaned over him, his mouth clasped onto my neck, sucking my skin into thick dark purple bruises, his fingernails digging into my shoulder blades.

Ellis pressed his knees into my sides and squeezed, forcing me over, and not missing a beat as he roughly straddled me. He ground into me so hard I thought we would break right through the floor, his eyes gazing down into mine, glazed over and nearly closed. I wrapped my hand around his cock, pumping over the length of it in time with the movement of his hips. As his body tensed, louder, more desperate dizzying noises escaped from his mouth. As my name spilled from his lips, jagged and breathless, he coated my hand and stomach with thick hot cum. A spew of obscenities escaped through my clenched teeth as his body tensed around my cock, and I quickly followed in on his ecstasy, climaxing deep inside of him in long hot waves.

Time stood still as we laid there in an embrace, wet and sweaty and breathless. I could still hear the jukebox downstairs, distant and unimportant as I listened to Ellis' breath flow past my ear, slow and lazy. Content. Happy.

Thankfully we had the presence of mind to at least put pants back on before collapsing into a sleepy dirty mess of flesh and blood and grime. We laid together like we had that night at the carnival, wrapping my arm around his chest and pulling him close.

"Hey, Nick?" His voice was sleepy and quiet, and he didn't wait for me to answer. "Did I ever tell you about the time Dave got so drunk, me an' Keith duct-taped him to a tree outside the mall? Oh man, we was all laughin' and takin' pictures and stuff until this security guy came an..."

"Ellis?" I took a deep breath, smiled, and then shook my head, "Never mind."

The words that I wanted to say died right there in my throat, I simply exhaled and settled for nibbling gently on his ear before fading into a deep and comfortable sleep.

[THE PARISH BRIDGE] Blue yster Cult-(Don't Fear) The Reaper

My desperately needed rest abruptly ended as the sound of an explosion pierced my ears and rumbled the foundation of the building, I opened my eyes to blaring sunlight, miserable and blinding, forcing me to squeeze my eyelids back shut. The pang of what felt like a thousand knives dug into my head, prodding and pulling at the seams, my brain threatening to crack the skull right open and come spilling out onto the floor like a coconut that had fallen from its tree. A burning bile sensation stung at the back of my throat as I pulled Ellis close to me, burying my face in between his smooth naked shoulder blades, curses grumbling their way out of my mouth, under my breath. The shit had just hit the fan again, and for the first time in ten years I was hung over. Perfect.

The four of us put on our best faces, suited up, and walked out onto the bridge in silence. That warm buzz of happiness and comfort from the night before had been replaced with that cold familiar feeling of dread and insecurity. Between the bombing wreckage and the massive amount of zombies, this was by far the hardest thing that we had faced yet. It seemed like I'd barely take a few steps before having to back-track and help someone up, the gaping holes in the concrete looming and daring to send us into the dark mossy green water below.

When we had finally made it, the miles of destroyed bridge and highway behind us, I could see the chopper sitting on the helipad, our rescuer yelling at us over the loudspeaker to hurry. I had Ellis pulled into me, his arm thrown over my shoulder as we hobbled along together, each of us depending on the strength of the other. Blood ran down his face, fresh and fast, adding bright new blotches of stain to my already soiled suit. He stumbled, putting nearly all of his weight on my shoulders, tugging me down with him as I struggled to keep him moving, "I don't mean to be cursing myself Nick, but I think I'm gonna die."

"Shut up, Ellis. We're almost there, we're all going to make it."

We hadn't even heard the Tank coming at us. That big bastard sent us sprawling in opposite directions, nothing but concrete and blood and confusion. And then, blackness. As I opened my eyes I found myself surrounded by chunks of cement and rubble, the sound of the helicopter blades coming blaring back to me as the ringing in my ears dissipated. Coach and Rochelle were suddenly above me, pulling me to my feet and practically dragging me to our rescue. One of the last things that I remember seeing is that Tank headed towards Ellis, a boulder held high over his head and a horde of infected closing in on him. Laying on his back, he had both guns blazing in all directions, horrible screaming sounds of pain breaking through the deafening blades of the helicopter. I remember shouting mindlessly and trying to claw my way out as we flew into the sky, the image of Ellis and the surrounding infected turning into tiny little ants way below us. I would have surely fallen to my death in desperation had a medic not sedated me into a dark, black stupor of unconsciousness.

[RETURNING MEMORIES] Soundgarden-The Day I Tried To Live

I woke up aware of a distant numb pain coursing through my body, my complete and utter confusion, the faint scent of formaldehyde and disinfectant stinging at my nostrils. Was I really awake? Was I dead? I had trouble coming to my senses, it was like running through a swamp of cold sloppy muck in the pitch black of night. Slowly the sounds of the environment around me started to seep in, growing louder and louder, that distant pain growing deeper, confusion turning into panic. Trying to open my eyes felt like the hardest thing in the world, I was starting to convince myself that someone had scooped them out of my skull and glued the lids shut. That's when I finally squinted and blinked my way into full conscientiousness, white light burning into my retinas. Was this Hell? I bolted upright, straining to utter words, my throat felt like I had swallowed a box of thumb tacks and chased it with a nice tall glass of battery acid. What came out of me was a desperate sounding slur of randomly strung-together words, I found myself screaming at no one in particular. Ordering, demanding answers, confusion and fear hanging on every word.

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? WHERE AM I?"

That's when I noticed a startled Rochelle, sitting frozen in her seat, her mouth gaping open and shut like a fish, trying to form words. Had she been watching over me?

"Ro, where the fuck are we? What's going on?"

I violently yanked a long needle from a vein in my arm, hissing as I threw it to the floor. Hazy memories started to flood back, slinking their way in like dusk on a lazy Summer day. I remembered fire, screaming and pain. And then blackness.
Despair crawled its ugly nasty self up into the pit of my stomach, I violently dry heaved, but unable to throw anything up.
Then I was tearing at whatever the hell else they had hooked up to me, detaching patches and wires, causing machines to beep and screech.

Rochelle was standing next to my bed now, she had her hands wrapped around mine, her voice coming out soft and slow, "Sweetie you're in a hospital." She hesitated, staring into my face all twisted up in confusion and panic. When she spoke again, her voice broke a little, her grip tightening around my hands, "Do you remember anything?"

An exasperated nurse rushed in, she was wearing dirty street clothes with a face mask and rubber gloves, she looked like she hadn't had a wink of sleep in about 10 years.
She dislodged Rochelle from her death grip on me, "Move back, please."
Then she was trying to force me to lay back down, flipping off the various machines around me, silencing the irritating beeps and warnings. I fought back, demanding answers, cursing in-between my dry heaves.
She unenthusiastically told me that I was in a small medical center just North of Toronto. Once I convinced her that I didn't plan on dying anytime soon, she shuffled out of the room, leaving me alone again with Rochelle.

My temples were pounding, I shut my eyes and squeezed my head in-between my palms as Rochelle quietly explained to me how the infection didn't make it very far North, how we were finally in a safe place.
I told her there's no such thing as a safe place.

"About five hours ago, an official report came across the TV and radio stations. The infected are thinning out, they're dying. Their bodies are shutting down, the virus is killing them. CEDA is going in, city by city, cleaning out any remaining infected and allowing us to return. We'll be able to go home soon. We can start over, re-build."

I felt a goddamned tear burn its way down my face.

I make myself ask.

"Where's Coach?" Not so much interested in the answer, but more-so feeling required to show concern before having a complete and total freak-out.

Rochelle pulled her chair up closer to me, reaching her hands out for mine again, "He's fine. You know, he has such a way with children. He's been a real miracle worker here, can you believe he reads stories to them practically all day? So many of them are orphans now..."

I cut her off, staring my bloodshot eyes clear into her soul. "Cut the bullshit, Ro. You know what I want to know, tell me everything."

(After we first arrived at the hospital, Coach and I spent the thirty-six hours that followed taking turns watching over Nick. As anyone would expect, doctors and nurses were few and far between, we had to do what we could to help. An exhausted but knowledgeable doctor told us that Nick would be fine, that there were no traces of infection, and no apparent reason as to why he wasn't waking up yet, it was as if he just simply didn't want to.

I was half-asleep when Nick came to, bolting up and gargling in a confused mess, his face twisted into a torturous miserable state. He nearly sent me into cardiac arrest, I had to choke down a startled scream, I couldn't even imagine the sort of mental trauma he was experiencing and the last thing that I wanted to do was make it worse. I felt such an overwhelming urge to help him somehow, I felt like holding him in my arms like a small child.

But that was no child, that was a violent, angry, confused animal. I settled for nervously holding his hands, trying to extend any sense of calmness that I could into what would surely turn into a broken man as his memories started to return to him.)

[ONE MAN ARMY] Marilyn Manson-The Reflecting God

There wasn't anything that she could tell me that I didn't already know. We had left him. Left him to die alone. The sound of his screams tortured their way through my brain, loud sobbing godawful sounds. I felt like reaching my bare hands into my chest, digging my way passed the rib cage, and yanking out my worthless beating heart just so I could stomp all over it until nothing was left but a pathetic spot of battered meat. It had to feel better than how I was feeling at the time.

I swung my legs over the hospital bed, steadying myself on bare feet, little painful electric pulses running their way up my legs. Rochelle was back up again, pawing at me and talking gibberish about me getting my rest, I pushed her aside as I tore off that stupid hospital gown. Now completely naked, she left me alone. I couldn't help but notice how thin I had become, poking around at my stomach and running my fingers over sharp pointy bones, surprised at how fast I had lost weight. But then again, I couldn't remember the last time I had eaten a solid meal.

And I put that suit back on. That stinking, nasty, filthy dirty suit. Not that I had much of a choice.

I found Coach as I passed by a playroom, he opened his mouth, no-doubt in protest, but then closed it again. A solemn smile spread over his face as he gave me an acknowledging nod. I nodded back and found my way out of the hospital, zig-zagging my way around the debris and the playing (likely orphaned) children, it was like some sort of grim anti-smoking ad.

Finding someone willing to escort me back into the infection zone proved more difficult than I had planned, money didn't seem to hold much value anymore. I found myself succumbing to a deep and dark helpless feeling, and it was really starting to piss me off.

And then he showed up. Out of nowhere, he silently threw an armful of riot gear at me and motioned for me to suit up. I pulled on the pants and bullet-proof vest over my suit, trading in my expensive loafers for a snug pair combat boots. He was an older guy, looked like he had been through just as much, if not more than we had, an exhausted and somewhat defeated look in his eyes. He motioned to a helicopter, and we were on our way.

He wouldn't take me any further than the edge of the last known infection zone, dropping me just outside the city after a few hours of uncomfortable silence. I could see a billboard in the distance advertising Liberty Mall, and I knew the general direction I should be headed in. My silent new friend gave me a solid handshake before I hopped out of the chopper, and then he took off again, never even coming to a complete landing.

I found myself losing sight of the highway, piles upon piles of wrecked-up and abandoned cars, overturned semi trucks and downed power lines made navigating nearly impossible to begin with, but now entire pieces of the road were just...gone. Had they been bombing here? It was hard to believe that so much had changed in a matter of a mere week since I had last been here. Since WE had last been here. It was shocking how few zombies I saw, and the ones that I did see were on their pitiful last desperate moments of life. Or un-life. Whatever. Where had all of the bodies gone? A violent hissing noise made me stop cold, I followed the sound until I found the source. There it was, a Hunter laying sprawled out on his side under a car. His eyes glared out at me, little glowing orbs reflecting the light of my flashlight. He was moving slowly, his lips pulled back over his bloody teeth, scratching his fingernails onto the concrete. The bastard could barely even move and he was still trying to kill me. I couldn't find enough mercy in my soul to kill it, I left him there writhing around in his own misery. "I'll see you in Hell, you evil piece of shit."

A sense of urgency sent me sprinting when my legs would allow, I'd stop to breathe, and then start back up again, every muscle in my body burning in protest. That's how the majority of my day was spent, until I realized I had no idea where I was anymore. As dusk started to settle in around me, I noticed a soft light in the distance.

The shrill, familiar sensation of panic crept up my spine as I wandered towards the glowing light, mud holes and tree branches threatening to eat me alive, pulling at my boots in giant sloppy sucking sounds, branches and twigs scraping the bare skin on my face. I fought my way through, stinging cuts and aching bruises antagonizing my every step. What I found when I arrived at the light was a large campfire set up in the center of some backwoods town. The place looked abandoned, most of the shops had boarded up windows and not a single light was on in any of the houses. The likeliness of having a real-life 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' danced its way into my head, and I couldn't help but suddenly feel very paranoid. Anyone left alive out here in the boonies would probably sooner eat me than help me.

Before I knew what had hit me, both feet had shot out from under me and I was staring up at the night sky, millions of tiny white stars winking down at me. I heard a voice with a thick southern accent break the silence,

"I dunno, Dave. He don't look like no CEDA agent I ever seen."

Blood running warmly down my chin, lip busted wide open, a figure appeared over me, blotting out the little specks of light in the inky blue-black sky. He had a mop of wild blond hair peeking out from underneath a camouflage hunting cap, looked to be maybe in his late twenties, or mid forties...it was really hard to tell. The guy looked like he had been in a brutal fight with a flaming lawnmower, and lost. And that's when it hit me.

"Holy shit, you have GOT to be Keith."

[NEW FRIENDS] Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-Night of the Lotus Eaters

He still had his shotgun pointed at me as I slowly got up to my feet, holding my hands above my head. My voice came out a lot more firm and confident than I felt, "I'm not with CEDA. The name's Nick, I'm...I'm a friend of Ellis."

He lowered the gun, his face softening a bit. Another figure emerged out of the darkness, a guy appearing to be in his late teens, stringy black hair falling over his smudgy face. He stood in silence next to Keith, glaring at me with bright blue eyes. Awkward silence fell between the three of us, I had no idea where to even start.

Keith went on to explain to me how Ellis went missing, his truck was just up and gone the day they had all first heard about the infection. They went to search for him, finding his truck abandoned about a mile away. Keith was dramatic and full of gestures and sound-effects as he talked, "No signs of no blood or nothin', it was like he just vanished. It ain't like Ellis to up and leave his truck like that, he loves that beauty more than he loves..." He pondered for a moment, "...candy."

I hadn't even thought to ask Ellis where he had come from or how he had ended up in that burning building that we met in, I hadn't thought to ask any of them. I guess that's what you call living in the moment. Or being an uncaring selfish asshole.

He went on to tell me how he and Dave drove the truck back to town, running into all kinds of action-packed trouble along the way. The picture they painted for me sounded like something that would be on the cover of a bad action movie at the rental store, explosions and bad CG all around them as they went flaming back to town, fireworks and rockets going off behind them.

And I still couldn't believe it. Keith. The walking, breathing, human pin cushion. From the way Ellis talked of him, he was a magnet for disaster, but I didn't have anyone else. And at that point it wasn't like I had much of a choice about it, they were going after Ellis with or without me, and I sure wasn't staying behind.

Fighting our way back to the collapsed bridge was an all new sort of hell, a breed all its own. Thankfully, the monster truck cut our travel time in half, climbing its way over toppled rocks and abandoned cars. The closer we got to the extraction point, the harder it was to navigate. Road blocks were set up by CEDA, quarantining every known access point for about a five-mile radius from the last place that I had seen Ellis. We had no choice but to climb out to walk, slowly making our way through think underbrush and ravines. The closer we got, more and more fresh (or at least fresher) infected started to show up. It was like an assorted chocolate box filled will all sorts of horrible sticky, gooey shit. We passed a particularly foul-smelling dead Spitter, split open and rotting, seagulls pecking at its eyes with slurpy vomit-inducing sounds. We had to step on and over bodies, crushing skulls like frail candy under our boots, a disgusting slop of brains and bone and whatever other kinds of nastiness I didn't that even want to think about.

By the time we reached the river, we were all cold. Blood and all sorts of muck and bile stuck to our boots, our breath coming out in heavy puffs of steam. We found a lone ancient fisherman standing guard near what was left of a boat ramp, he was missing nearly all of his teeth and one eye. I had a hard time understanding a damn word he said, but that's where Keith came in handy. He was one smooth talker (if you want to call it that) and somehow managed to swindle the old man into taking us across the river. We all three sat next to one another on an old plank, silent but for the occasional THUD of our captain's oars hitting one of the the no-doubt hundreds of bodies floating in the water. It took us the better part of an hour, I spent most of the time it took us to get there just staring at the floorboards, about an inch of murky water sloshing back and forth around our ankles.

When we finally reached the other side of the river, I had a difficult time getting my legs to work properly. Keith and Dave wobbled alongside me until we got the feeling back in our limbs, the old man pushing his way back into the water. I hadn't even wondered how we were ever going to get back across.

As we marched up the embankment, kicking various scrap metal, tin cans and god knows what else, more infected started to run at us in small waves. Blind fury lead my hands, I chose to split heads open with a fire axe, I needed that satisfaction that you can only get from a melee weapon, it was more personal. One after another I hacked their skulls open like watermelons, thick wet chopping sounds severing their heads from their shoulders, gore peppering the cement in all directions as the guns of Keith and Dave went off loudly next to me. Pure natural aggression went flowing through my veins like so many drugs, kicking harder than an adrenaline shot. My vision consisted of nothing but sporadic flashlight glow and the brief flashes of light as Keith and Dave emptied clip after clip into the rushing infected, it was like a bad acid trip at one of those trendy rave clubs. Only with a bit more blood.

And then there was silence. Eerie silence. Nothing moved, not the even wind in the trees, or the crickets in the grass. The river seemed to of gone quiet. I found myself holding my breath. When I finally exhaled, I looked to Dave, who gives me a satisfied nod. Keith broke the silence with a loud whisper, "Damn, man!" His wide eyes reflecting my flashlight, he reminded me of Ellis.

[AND ALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN] Nine Inch Nails-And All That Could Have Been

Squinting my eyes into the darkness, I started to recognize our surroundings. The helicopter extraction point was just ahead, piles of dead bodies and rubble surrounding the area. He had to be close by. My feet carried me in a desperate dash towards the helipad, I stood in the center of the giant reflective white H painted on the concrete, straining to get my bearings in the darkness. And then there was that colossal piece of meat, that damn Tank sitting there dead and rotting and smelling like a sewer, it's little face all bloated and disgusting. Pointing my flashlight opposite him towards an alcove, the beams caught a glimpse of something lying on the ground amongst a ring of decaying bodies.

Stomping over broken pieces of concrete and chunks of arms and legs, what I found was a crumpled piece of cloth lying there, blue and white and crusted with dark crimson. It was a hat with the image of a little tow-truck on the front, a long dark streak of blood trailing away from it for about ten feet. I collapsed to my knees, crawling desperate and pitiful towards the hunched-over body of Ellis. A large pool of blood was spread out from under his body, a rainbow of bright red fading into maroon, and then to black, coagulation collecting on the surface. He had his forehead pressed against the wall, with his neck sitting twisted at an uncomfortable looking angle. His eyes were open, staring out into nothingness, unblinking and unseeing. "El?" I reached a shaking hand towards his arm, my fingerprints leaving indention marks where I touched his cold clammy skin. Tears started flowing down my face, cutting hot streaks through the dirt and grime on my cheeks. An irrational twisted smile curled at the corners of my lips, "C'mon buddy, this is no place for you to be, let's get you up on your feet." I pulled him in to me in an embrace, his head peeling away from the wall, leaving a patch of sticky blood and skin on the bricks. The right side of his face was so completely covered by gore he was nearly unrecognizable, his hair matted down and tangled in a mess of crimson and black. I held him. I stayed there on my knees, kneeling in his cold rotting blood as I held him. So tight, it was like I was trying to merge our bodies together, praying under my breath to a God that I didn't believe in, trying to will the soul right back into his body.

I didn't hear anyone approaching us, but suddenly I was being violently torn away from Ellis, rough gloved hands clutching at my shoulders and pulling hard. I punched and kicked and scratched until I felt the sharp burning prick of an injection. As my body went involuntarily limp, we were roughly handcuffed and thrown into the back of a black CEDA vehicle. I didn't care if we lived or died anymore, sitting there in a slump with my forehead pressed up against the cool window, gazing out into darkness. Bonfires burned hot and massive in the distance, the orange flames licking up and attacking the darkness of the sky. They were burning bodies. Massive piles upon piles of both infected and not infected, thrown faceless and nameless into the pits of ashes and bone, the smell of charred skin and blood and guts carrying on the wind for miles. I knew they'd take Ellis there, and I couldn't tear my eyes away from the orange pillars of flame as they forever burned their images into my brain.

We were released, or rather, thrown to the wolves with about as much sympathy as a spider for a moth. Keith and Dave had to carry me most of the way, whatever those CEDA bastards had injected me with rendered me not much more than a rag-doll. I have vague memories of the two of them standing over me in the dim light of the sunrise, shotguns exploding and blood splattering in hot messy spray. Garbled voices and screeches, more pushing and pulling and shoving, not much of it made sense to me, everything muffled and fuzzy. And the more I protested, the harder they drug me along.

[A NEW LIFE] Filter-Fades Like A Photograph

I woke up slowly to a familiar smell of sweet sweat and sunshine, blinking my eyes in lazy uneven increments. Pulling in a deep breath of the wonderful warm muggy air, I gazed around at my surroundings, noticing first a giant blue cloth banner hanging down across the entirety of one wall, sporting the "Budweiser" logo. A roughed-up candy apple red bass guitar sat in the corner, two slightly crooked Midnight Riders posters tacked to the wall above it. I'm was in Ellis' room. It was like being in his heart and soul, a fingerprint of his very aura. I slowly pulled myself up into a seated position, tossing back a set of heavy sheets sporting pictures of little race cars and checkered flags, revealing a canvas of purple-ish black splotches of bruise all over my bare chest and legs.

I took my time walking around the room, delicately running my fingertips over the surfaces of everything, my bare toes enjoying the soft feel of the carpet. That's when I noticed that someone had washed my clothes. They laid there on the floor near the door, a small messily folded pile of three-thousand dollar suit. No sign of the riot gear. I slowly got dressed, aches and pains and sore muscles throbbing as I pulled on my pants and buttoned-up my shirt over the catacomb of bruises and scratches.

As I picked up my jacket, out fell a package, softly landing on the floor. Inside was a small collection of photos, all printed on and cut out of computer paper and delicately wrapped in a plastic baggie with a torn piece of paper reading, "Look at these when you are ready. ~R." She must have slipped them into my pocket while I was in the hospital, I had never even taken the time to notice. The first photo showed Ellis and I, curled up on the safe room floor. It was that freezing-cold night at the carnival, my arm draped over his body, a content look on his face. As I thumbed through, it became obvious that she probably had a hunch about us early on, another one showing us posing with our guns in front of a brightly-colored 'Welcome To New Orleans!' sign, Ellis giving his best 'tough guy' face as I gave him rabbit ears. The last photo, probably my favorite, is of the two of us. We're smiling like the world outside didn't exist. We're hand-in hand, dancing in the warm glow of the barrel fire on our last night together. I spread the photos around me on the floor and allowed myself to sob like a lost child, deep and raspy snotty sobs until the tears just wouldn't come any more.

That's when I met Vern. A tough old man with a strange sense of humor and a straight-laced lifestyle. He must have heard me, waiting until I had calmed down before he came barging into the room and making demands. He didn't even ask if I wanted to stay, he simply laid out the rules and informed me that I would be staying in the gun room across the hall, provided that I'm up with the sun to help him and do whatever odd jobs he wanted me to do.

[THE INEVITABLE FUTURE] U2-Bullet The Blue Sky

Over time the old man and I have become more comfortable with each other, though I don't think he fully trusts me yet. He never ever asks about me and Ellis. Instead, he'll ask me questions that I don't even know how to answer. What's the difference between a Harley and a Hoover? What's the difference between a porcupine and BMW? The fruit cake never tells me the answers, either. I could actually see where Ellis got a lot of his quirky characteristics, hanging around an oddball like this. Funny how I'm feeling closer to this old man than I ever did to my own parents. I give him a hard time, and he gives me one right back.

I earn my keep by helping where I'm needed, breaking down scrap cars from the highway or cleaning up the town. I've found surprisingly pleasant (even if a little strange) friendships in Keith and Dave, and I've even taught them how to play poker. They owe me about ten-thousand dollars a piece now, but who says I'm keeping track? We make ammo and food runs into neighboring towns, some people understandably more welcoming than others. Most of our bartering is done in trade, rather than cash. More than once Dave and I have had to hold back Keith from getting into fist-fights, he's even more hot-headed than I am. He got stabbed in the stomach with a pitchfork the first time we made a run, the pointy prongs narrowly missing his vital organs thanks to a pack of Skittles he had been hiding under his shirt, duct-taped right to his skin. No lie, this kid's invincible or something.

We'll stay up late on Saturday nights, drinking warm beer by candlelight and playing cards, telling stories. Well, Keith tells most of the stories, Dave still doesn't talk much. I'm even starting to get to where I can tell them about some of the stuff from the time that I got to spend with Ellis and the others, they especially love the part about Whispering Oaks and running along the roller coaster tracks. They tell me stories about him, too. It's almost like getting to know a ghost, learning things I hadn't known about him during our brief time together, like assembling a puzzle. They tell me Ellis lost his Dad when he was young, some freakish accident involving a monkey and a can opener. Trust me, I couldn't make this shit up even if I wanted to. Since then, his Grandpa had taken him under his wing.

The two-story house I share with Vern is lined with your typical redneck paraphernalia, various stuffed and mounted heads, archery trophies, and gun racks. Some photographs, mostly all black and white, are scattered here and there across the walls, lots of them of people that I don't recognize. There are a few of Ellis when he was younger, looking about the same, with his bright eyes and crooked grin. One in particular makes me laugh, an adolescent Ellis standing there in tears next to a dead deer held up by the feet by his Grandpa, who is obviously laughing at the poor sensitive Ellis. It somehow doesn't surprise that me he didn't like to kill animals but had no problem slicing a zombie head off with a machete.

Eventually I've found myself forgetting to miss the majority of my old life, the casinos and bars, the lies and dirty money. Soon enough, the lack of clean water and air conditioning didn't even bother me. I don't even know if TV stations are back up broadcasting yet, what could they possibly tell us that we don't already know? Maybe I should take a look, I might catch a glimpse of Rochelle.

Still, on some restless nights I find myself standing outside of Ellis' closed bedroom door. I stand there and stare at nothing in particular, sometimes for a few seconds...sometimes a few minutes, maybe even hours. I stand there long enough and I start to expect him to come wandering out, yawning and stretching, padding down the hallway to the bathroom, giving me a sheepish look with his hair fashioned in a bedhead cowlick. Other times I imagine him crawling in under the covers with me in my room, his familiar smell of hay and sunshine filling my senses. Usually I'll still be standing there at his door when I hear Grandpa Vern moving around downstairs, frying pork chops and cleaning his guns, humming a song that was no-doubt meant to be played on a banjo. And then, the purple-yellow of sunrise breaks its way over the horizon.

None of us say it, but we're all secretly preparing for another inevitable outbreak. Setting traps, stocking up on guns and guarding the town like Fort Knox. And when they come, we'll be ready. They'll all pay for what they did to Ellis, and what they did to me.