(Guys, I'm so sorry this took so long, but thank you for bearing with me! Updates will be coming much more regularly from now on. Heads up, this chapter contains violence, horror elements and swearing, which I'm sure you all expected coming from a zombie fic anyway...)
Chapter 4 – It was Dark, It was Cold (and I was scared)
Three Weeks Ago
A small convoy of vehicles made its way across the long empty stretches of road. Their destination was a secure base on the other side of the continent, a place that could offer safety and supplies for those who had yet to settle in one of the small towns clear of the undead. One of the trucks carried supplies and was being protected by several soldiers.
Travelling with them was a group of civilians, as much as anyone could be counted a civilian those days – all of them had fought against and survived attacks by the infected masses at some point or another. Amongst them was Jack Frost, trying not to draw any more attention to himself than his white hair and age already had. The group had introduced themselves and made small talk, but over the days of travelling it had petered out slightly. Jack had found himself either sleeping or hanging around the soldiers to get away from the boredom however momentarily.
So far the convoy had passed a few small towns and a few vehicles going in the other direction. They'd stopped to trade goods and information including a warning about bandits lurking around Burgess City where they preyed on any unsuspecting travellers. Despite being less than an hour out from the city limits the convoy had yet to see any sign of either bandits or undead.
The attack caught them all by surprise. The bandits approached from the west just before dusk, letting the low sun hide their approach. Motorcycles and pick-up trucks swarmed around the convoy, forcing them to slow down, the sound of gunfire splitting the air as they fired upon the drivers. The soldiers scrabbled for their weapons and returned fire as best they could, but they were outnumbered and caught off guard; within moments two had been shot dead and the others began firing blindly.
Jack had dropped at the first sound of trouble and tucked himself against the floor of the van he'd been riding in, several other passengers doing the same. Gunfire punched holes into the metal above his head, and the soldier that had been riding shotgun swore as bullets pierced the windshield and struck the driver. The van swerved wildly and Jack raised his arms to protect his face as shattered glass rained down on them. One of the other passengers screamed in fear.
The hoots and hollering of the bandits that crowded around the convoy drowned out the sounds of the soldier struggling in front. Over the gunfire and terrified screams and shouts from the other vehicles Jack could make out the sound of a door being opened, and he glanced through the gap in the seats in time to see the soldier shove the dead body of the driver out through the drivers-side door before seating himself in front of the wheel, keeping low to avoid a similar fate.
It took a few heart-stopping moments for the soldier to regain control of the vehicle, the door slamming shut when it hit one of the bandits that had been driving alongside them. The soldier slammed his foot on the accelerator and the van lurched forward, slowly gaining speed. There were several thuds and the vehicle shuddered as it ran over something. It took Jack a moment for his stunned brain to realise that they'd probably just knocked down and run over several bandits.
The soldier didn't pause, hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. The sound of revving and other vehicles roaring behind them told Jack that the bandits weren't giving up so easily, and he bravely lifted his head enough to glance out the back window and see a small gang pursuing them. Further back he could see flames from one of the other vehicles of their convoy, silhouettes darting around it like moths drawn to the light.
A few motorcycles and an intimidating armoured truck were still following the escapees. Jack watched, wide-eyed, as a dark black car roared past the bandit's vehicles and began to quickly catch up with the van. Jack barely caught a glimpse of the horse insignia and the dark-clad driver before he was forced to duck as more gunshots were fired at the van, startling another shriek from one of the women ducked down next to him. The soldier glanced back and swore again, groping about with one hand until he found his gun and held it behind him.
"Shit! Return fire! Grab the fucking gun and shoot!" The soldier hollered, van swerving across the road to prevent the black car from overtaking. An older man crouched behind his seat grabbed the gun, glanced out the broken back window and began to fire. His hands were shaking and most of his shots missed, but the black mustang was forced to back off slightly.
The pursuit continued until they reached the edge of the nearby city. Even as the bandits slowed and fell back the van continued barrelling down the road, slowing slightly and jerking about as they crashed by a few scattered cars.
"Slow down! They're not following!" One of the women yelled, her face white with fear. The soldier began to slow and looked into the shattered remains of the rear-view mirror to check that they were safe; and it was at that moment that their luck ran out.
With a shriek of metal, the van hit a concrete bollard and flipped over, rolling over onto its side until it skidded to a stop. Smoke billowed out of the engine.
Everyone inside made sounds of pain and shock. Jack had been knocked loose from his spot in the foot well. He shakily sat up with a pained groan, clutching his head where he could already feel a lump forming. His body was littered with small cuts from the broken glass but he didn't seem to have any serious injuries.
The same could not be said of the others. In the front seat the soldier was unmoving, trapped between the steering wheel and the seat when the front of the van had crumpled in. The older couple looked beaten up, one of them with blood beginning to pour down the side of his face, and the red-haired young woman who'd been screaming lay limp, one of her legs twisted at an odd angle.
Jack's ears were ringing and his head felt heavy, but he dragged himself over to the injured couple and shook them to see if they were awake. The woman jerked up, eyes darting around wildly before landing on the man next to her, and she shook him roughly.
"Bill! Wake up! Bill!" The woman gasped out. It took a minute but eventually the man gasped and regained consciousness, limbs flailing briefly until his eyes settled on the woman as she cradled his head, tears streaming down her face.
"Sue," Bill slurred, "It's okay, darlin'." He sounded as though he could fall back into unconsciousness at any moment, but Jack had heard something else that caught his attention, and he turned to try and see out of the shattered windshield.
In the growing dark Jack could just make out something moving closer, its motion jerky and slow. He struggled to think through his pounding headache. There was something about the cities, about why they were dangerous… Jack's heart leapt into his throat as the shape stumbled closer into view.
It was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Around them the undead drew closer. The noise of the crash was drawing them in and Jack could see more gathering. Suddenly the crash was the least of his worries and he turned to the others in the destroyed wreckage of the van.
"The infected are coming! We've got to hurry!" Jack whispered furiously. The couple stared at him for a moment before comprehension dawned on their faces and they struggled to get up. Jack scrambled over to the other woman and shook her hard, not caring for her injuries in his haste. "Wake up! C'mon! Wake up!" Jack snapped under his breath. It seemed to take forever for her to wake up, but once she had Jack waved the couple over. "Help her up, I'm going to see if that guy's okay!" He said, already moving to try and yank the soldier out of his trapped position.
Around them the hungry groans and shrieks of the undead grew closer. Jack pulled hard at the steering wheel, and although it gave a little he was unable to free the soldier. Gritting his teeth, Jack pulled hard, just as the man – Bill – limped over to help, grabbing the soldier and hauling him free.
Bill slapped the soldier awake and the man came to, looking far more aware than the others had. The soldier looked up at Bill and Jack but his eyes went to something over their shoulders. Before the soldier had time to cry out a warning, a gunshot split the air, and the zombie behind them collapsed backwards with its brains blown out.
A shaky Sue stood nearby, with the redheaded woman up and leaning on her for balance. In Sue's hands the gun was perfectly steady, although her grip faltered a little as the two women stumbled over.
"Let's go," Bill muttered urgently and gestured them all through the broken remains of the rear window. The small group escaped the torn up remains of the van and found themselves surrounded by a growing horde of undead. The soldier seemed to have shaken off the worst of his concussion and was able to stand on his own, taking the gun from Sue and holding it at the ready. Bill reached out and wrapped one of the redhead's arms over his shoulders to help her walk.
"We're going to have to break through 'em," the soldier said, his voice shaking slightly although his hold on the weapon was steady and sure. "See if you can find something to use as a weapon, anything at all," he continued, his voice calming slightly as his training kicked in.
The other four quickly cast through the wreckage to see if they could spot anything of use. Luckily a few scraps of metal that had been torn off were small enough to wield as basic weapons. Jack managed to find a piece of twisted metal pipe half-buried under the rubble their crash had torn up and he hefted it in his hands, read to swing it like a baseball bat.
As soon as all of them had something to hand – including the redhead, although she was clearly in a lot of pain from her broken leg – the small group began to move, heading for a narrow gap in the approaching crowd of undead. Several of the infected noticed them and with hungry snarls rushed towards the group, arms reaching out to claw at them, but they were able to beat them back.
It seemed to take a lifetime but eventually the group broke through and, fighting back the few undead that were still approaching, the five survivors moved down the street as quick as they were able. Past torn-up buildings and boarded up houses they fled, all of them trying to spot a possible safe place to hide. It wasn't until they'd reached the edge of what looked like a small but ransacked shopping district that Bill noticed a good location.
"Over there," Bill said lowly so as to avoid attracting more attention, "That old, boarded-up building." He gestured to the run down building just ahead, and the others gave it a quick glance before making a split second decision when they noticed another pack of undead lurking nearby.
"Good enough," the soldier said decisively. As one the group headed towards the building, and Jack noted the cracked and worn sign declaring 'Big Yellow Storage'. Some of the letters were so worn they were almost unreadable.
The small group ducked through a gap in the chain fence surrounding the building and made their way to one of the side doors. The soldier tried the handle but the door was locked; however, over the years it had rusted badly and with a solid kick the soldier broke it open. Once they were inside the group squinted through the gloom and began making their way further into the building.
Metal storage racks were arranged in long rows and cast eerie shadows over them. Most of the windows at ground level were boarded up, but a few thin glass panels set higher up the walls let the low red light of the sunset slip in, giving the survivors just enough light to see by. Eventually they came to a small stairwell. The building had no power so the large industrial elevators were useless.
As the adrenaline faded the pain from their recent injuries began to set in, and the redheaded woman passed out, going limp against Bill who struggled with the dead weight before lowering her and propping her up on the concrete steps of the stairwell. Jack watched with worry, noticing the woman's sweat-lined brow and shallow breathing.
The soldier frowned in concern. "We need to make sure the rest of the building is clear and get her upstairs if possible," he said. With a jerk of his head the soldier indicated to Bill. "You come with me, we'll go check out upstairs. Kid," he continued, looking at Jack, "you stay here with the girls. Shout if you spot anything."
Jack nodded his agreement, looking over at where Sue was crouched next to the injured redhead and tightening his grip on his improvised weapon. He watched as the soldier and Bill disappeared up the steps. A tense silence fell as they waited, broken only by the pained cries and whimpers of the redhead, unable to escape the pain even in unconsciousness.
For several long minutes the three sat together, the light gradually dimming as the sun made its final descent. Jack leant against the wall, eyes and ears straining to pick up any sign of movement. His whole body ached fiercely and his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat but he couldn't let himself relax.
When the two men returned Jack let out a sigh of relief. Sue struggled back to her feet and gave Bill a quick hug. The soldier bent down and with a bit of a struggle hoisted the redheaded woman over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
"It's all clear," the soldier informed them, turning and beginning to make his way up the stairs. Jack quickly moved to follow, Sue and Bill behind him.
"We managed to find a few old mattresses in the storage bays on the third floor, thought we'd set up there. See what we can see in the morning," Bill said as they ascended.
"Won't that be too hard for Mary?" Sue asked quietly. Jack made a note of the name, wondering the same thing – but with Mary's broken leg it was unlikely she'd be going anywhere even if they made their base on the ground floor. Bill just shook his head.
The upper floors had a few unbarred windows but the sun had finally set, casting everything into a deep gloom. Once they'd laid them out the five survivors fairly collapsed onto the thin mattresses. Mary was lowered as gently as possible onto a mattress, but the pain still brought her back to consciousness. Jack and Bill were ordered off to try and find some wood to splint her leg with, and Jack heard the muffled scream that indicated the other two had tried to set it back in place. When he and Bill returned with a strip of plastic, some thin wooden boards and some duct tape, Mary's face was sickly white and sweaty. Sue looked almost traumatised herself.
Jack sat and watched as Sue and the soldier splinted Mary's leg as best they could with what was available. The soldier had a small penlight on a key-ring attached to his uniform which was giving them just enough light to see by. Eventually they were done, and moved to sit back on their own mattresses.
A bone-deep weariness filled them, the events of the day catching up. Despite their tiredness they were unable to sleep. Every time they closed their eyes their minds brought up images of bandits and undead hordes.
Eventually the soldier sighed and broke the silence. "It's been nice escaping with you all. I'm Lieutenant Olman Winters."
Jack laughed before he could stop himself, although it came out a little shakier than he'd hoped. "Old man Winters?" The soldier – Lieutenant Winters – gave an annoyed sigh at Jack's comment, having clearly heard the joke many times before.
"It's Olman." As the other survivors chuckled Lieutenant Winters rolled his eyes. "What's your name then, kid?"
Jack shrugged. "I'm Jack Frost. And I'm hardly a kid. I'm almost seventeen."
The redhead, Mary, gave a pained laugh at his words. "That still means you're a kid, Jack," she said with a bit of a gasp. "I'm Mary Wilson, though Sue and Bill already know that." It was only now that Jack noticed she had an accent. It was a little faint – she'd clearly been living in America for some time – but Jack thought she sounded Irish. Before he could ask, the couple spoke up from where they'd shoved their two mattresses together.
"I'm Bill Pecos, and this is my wife, Sue," Bill said.
"Wish it was under better circumstances, but it's nice to meet you all," Sue added.
"Thanks, everyone," Mary spoke softly, "you could have left me there, but you didn't. So…thanks." Her breathing was still laboured, but she was dealing with the pain of her broken leg remarkably well. Jack could just about see her face silhouetted in the dark and thought he could make out tears running down her cheeks, but he didn't mention it.
"We're gonna have to stick together to survive," Lieutenant Winters said. "And we're going to have to try and find some supplies tomorrow. For now let's all try and get some rest." The others made noises of agreement and tried to get comfortable enough to drop off.
"Night, guys," Jack said into the quiet.
"Night, Jack. See you in the morning," the others responded in hushed voices. The silence fell once more, but Jack could just about hear the sounds of the undead shuffling in the city around them. It took all of them a long time before sleep finally claimed them.
By the time the morning came around, Jack had managed to get a few hours of sleep between bouts of wakefulness. His whole body ached and felt twice as heavy as usual, but the sound of furious whispering nearby made him struggle up and open his eyes.
The sight that greeted him made Jack immediately come awake. Bill, Sue and Lieutenant Winters were all gathered around Mary's bed, talking in hushed whispers but clearly distressed. Worried, Jack got to his feet and headed over.
"What's up?" He asked in concern. The others turned to look at him, and by the looks on their faces Jack known something must be wrong. "Is Mary okay?"
Bill sighed. "She's dead, Jack. Must've happened in the night." His eyes were sad.
Lieutenant Winters carefully lifted Mary's green silk shirt up enough to reveal her stomach. It was heavily discoloured, purples and blues replacing a normal skin tone. The colour was in sharp contrast to her white face.
"Looks like internal bleeding," Lieutenant Winters stated the obvious. He moved one of her arms, testing its rigidity. "Probably died only a few hours ago."
"I can't believe we didn't notice," Sue said, in shock. Bill gathered her into a hug.
Winters sighed. "We'd best move her, find someplace to leave her. Shame we can't bury her, but we can at least try to keep her away from the infected." He glanced over at the other three. "Bill, give me a hand with her. Jack and Sue, you two see if you can find anything useful in this building. Best to know what we need before we head out."
Jack nodded, already running a list in his head of what things to look out for. Everyone who had survived the initial infection and had struggled through the time afterwards had a good idea of the basic necessities. In the light of day it would be much easier to spot any possible supplies.
Sue gestured to him, and together they headed deeper into the building after a last look at Mary's body. The small group had set up in a corner of the building, and the floor they were on had several rows of large lockers against the far wall, each fitted with a combination lock. Another wall was taken up by storage bays with rolling shutters, one of which was left half open, with more mattresses inside. The rest of the room had several thin walls which split the space into different areas: one had moth-eaten chairs scattered around a rickety table; another was full of old, half broken-down cardboard boxes; and the section they had settled in looked as though it might have once been an office-type area, with a few metal desks and filing cabinets.
Jack followed Sue over to the shutters and looked them over while Sue checked the open one. Several had padlocks locking them shut, but Jack tried the others and looked inside. One of them had boxes all stacked on shelves, archiving information that probably went years back. There was another that had a few scattered parts in it, some half-removed from their packaging, and Jack guessed they might have been replacements for computers or machinery. Unfortunately neither he nor Sue found anything there of use and turned to examine the lockers.
The lockers were probably for staff members Jack thought as he tested a few of the handles. A couple swung open but were empty. Jack was tempted to try putting his ear to one and trying to figure out the combination like he'd seen in movies back before the virus, but decided it could wait until later as there were plenty of other rooms to search.
With the third floor checked, Jack and Sue headed down to the second floor, which was full of rows of metal shelving. Most of it was empty but the two of them split up and began walking down the aisles, checking any boxes and plastic bins they came upon. Jack grinned when he pulled out one box and opened it to find it packed with torches, all still in their plastic packaging.
"Hey, Sue! I found some torches!" Jack called out; Sue walked over and they pulled some of the torches out. "Guess we'll need some scissors first, huh." he added, knowing how hard the plastic wrap was to open.
"And batteries," Sue said, looking at the back of the packaging, "since it says they aren't included."
Jack gave a frustrated sigh. "I think I saw some scissors upstairs with the office supplies, but batteries?" He left the box out and open so it would be easy to find and collect after they'd finished checking the rest of the room.
"We'll carry on looking. Give me another shout if you find anything!" Sue said, walking back to where she had been checking. Jack nodded and continued down his row, but in the end they had checked all the shelves and found little else, although Sue had managed to find a few loose batteries for the torches. Jack had also found a heavy worn-looking hammer and several bags of nails a few inches long which he thought could be useful to fix up some of the boarded-up windows on the first floor.
There was a small room tucked into the corner of the second floor, which Sue had tried to open and found was locked. She was about to turn and leave it when Jack smirked at her, then gave the door a forceful kick near the handle. The flimsy door cracked loudly, and with another kick it broke apart, allowing the two of them inside. It was dark, and the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling was useless without power, but with the light from the main room trickling in they were able to look around the small room.
Jack and Sue were delighted to find a small generator packed into the corner, with a jerry can sat next to it, half hidden behind a collection of mops and brooms. There were also two clear plastic drums – the kind used for water coolers – and both of them were full of water. A set of keys were lying on one shelf, and next to them was a medical kit, in a square metal box with a red cross on the cover. Sue pulled out the generator and looked it over, but the fuel gauge said it was out of fuel, and when she lifted the jerry can she realised that was empty as well.
On the shelf above the generator was a box filled with cheap plastic cups. The two were both desperately thirsty and quickly opened one of the plastic drums, carefully tipping out the water and drinking it with relish. Once they'd had several cups worth they closed the lid and left the room, just in time to bump into Lieutenant Winters and Bill who were on their way back up.
"Find anything?" Lieutenant Winters asked as soon as he saw them. Jack and Sue both nodded.
"We found some water containers and a generator," Jack said eagerly, "but the generator is out of gas." He gestured the two men into the room, where they gladly poured themselves some water to drink.
"Jack also found some torches and I've found a few batteries that should fit them," said Sue. "There are some keys here too, but we'll have to try them out to see where they go."
Lieutenant Winters leaned against the wall of the small room and drank from his cup of water a little slower once his thirst was quenched. "I think I might know. Bill and I had a look around the bottom floor after we…" he trailed off awkwardly, seeing their downcast expressions at the reminder of Mary's death. "…Anyway, there's a loading entrance at the back of the building with large rolling shutters and a locked metal door next to them. The keys might be for that. Did you find anything else?"
"I found a hammer and some nails."
Bill nodded, pleased. "While we were down there we noticed some of the boards 've come away, and there's another entrance that could use boarding up."
"Is there some wood we can use? Sue and I didn't find any here," Jack asked.
"There's some wooden pallets and a few big wooden transport boxes we can break down and use," Lieutenant Winters assured. "Getting some fuel for the generator is the big problem. And, of course, coming up with a plan to get out of the city."
Sue looked worried at that. "What about the bandits? Do you think they'll still be nearby?"
"Not for very long. It's too risky, they'll probably expect the infected to finish us off." At Sue's upset face and Bill's sharp glance, Lieutenant Winters quickly added, "Not that I'll let that happen. If we stick together, we'll be fine."
Jack picked at the tears in his clothing, barely glancing at the cuts and scrapes underneath which had already scabbed over. "If we're going out, we could do with some better clothes. All of ours got pretty torn up yesterday and it's pretty cold out." The others nodded their agreement.
"Some better weapons would be good too. We'll get everything sorted out upstairs, clean any cuts we have, and then head out. Agreed?" Lieutenant Winters gave orders out as though they were soldiers under his command, but at last minute seemed to remember that they were, technically, civilians. Even so, Jack, Sue and Bill all nodded determinedly; all of them were aware that they were in what amounted to enemy territory.
Once they were all ready with makeshift weapons in hand the four survivors headed out. Lieutenant Winters had been correct in his assumption about the keys, and they were able to slip out of the metal door at the back of the building, moving slowly and checking that it was all clear.
Burgess city in daylight was no better than Burgess city at night, except that the rot and decay was more visible. In the cool air hung the ever-present scent of death. Jack gripped his piece of pipe tightly as the four moved as quietly as possible down the nearby street, checking the cars and shops for possible supplies. Bill carried an empty plastic container that had been lying around on the lower floor of their storage building; on the way back they had plans to siphon fuel from some of the abandoned vehicles.
They weren't far from a small shopping district. Most of the frontages carried signs of the panic during the initial breakout: windows were cracked and doors were broken in; fire damage distorted plastic logos; goods were scattered out into the street. The years of abandonment had taken their toll as well, weeds growing up through cracks in the concrete to ensnare deflated tyres and rusted signposts.
After a short while they spotted a small clothing store that seemed to have escaped mostly unscathed – the window was covered in cracks but seemed to have held, protecting the things inside from the elements – although on entry it looked as though it had been ransacked. The clothing that was left, some of it half falling from hangers, was dusty and had signs of damp; but before the others could give up on finding anything of use, Jack checked out the back of the shop and noticed a few boxes with clothes still sealed in their plastic packaging.
"Guys, come check this out! Looks like we might be able to find some stuff after all!" Jack called out to the other three, rummaging through some of the boxes until he plucked out a blue hoodie, still sealed. When he tore it open it smelt a little musty but was otherwise okay. Eagerly pulling off his ruined top, Jack pulled on a plain long-sleeved top from one box – it was too large, but that hardly seemed to matter – and covered it with the blue hoodie, delighted at how warm it was.
The others quickly followed his example, all of them opening boxes and pulling out clothes, just as eager as Jack to be out of their sweaty, grimy clothing. Each of them layered up to protect against the cold but also to minimise the chance of being bitten if the infected got too close.
"Well, we certainly smell better, even if we're hardly model material," Sue said lightly once they were all set to go out again.
Lieutenant Winters stood at the entrance to the shop, checking left and right for any signs of the undead. "There's a few shamblers up ahead we'll need to keep an eye on," he said to the other three as they gathered behind him, "but I think there's a hardware store there too, so it might be worth the risk."
Jack shifted his grip on the twisted piece of pipe he'd been hanging on to. A hardware store meant a possible source of better weapons, something that all of them would welcome. Even Lieutenant Winters felt the need for a melee weapon because his gun, while great for killing the undead, had limited ammunition and would make too much noise, drawing more attention their way.
"I'll cover our backs," Bill volunteered, and the four of them began moving once again. Jack tensed at being back outside – for a moment, inside the shop, it had felt almost like old times, rummaging through piles of clothing during shop sales – but amongst the obvious signs of the outbreak reality hit him once more.
The store they were approaching had once been a hardware store and it showed; the windows had protective grating behind them and the door was a sturdy piece of solid wood with a small, reinforced glass window. Unlike most of the other shops in the area it looked as though it hadn't been ransacked. Jack watched as Bill gave the door a hard tug but it was clearly locked as it didn't move an inch.
"Maybe there's a back entrance?" Jack suggested, keeping his voice low. Several undead were loitering nearby and he didn't want to alert them.
"Might as well see," Lieutenant Winters agreed. Unfortunately, the hardware store was part of a long line of shops, and they would have to get to the end of the street – past the undead shuffling about nearby – and then hopefully down a back alley. "Stay close, everyone. Move slow." His words were unnecessary: Jack, Sue and Bill were moving just as quietly and carefully as he was.
However, luck wasn't with them and one of the undead perked up, its movements becoming more purposeful as it headed in their direction. Jack shuddered as it approached. No matter how many times he'd seen them, the infected were the stuff of nightmares. The one approaching them might once have been a shopkeeper, or a woman out visiting the shops, but now what little of its face still remained intact was twisted with hunger. Only one eye seemed to function, darting about wildly in its sunken socket, and strips of flesh hung down from its torn up cheek, occasionally catching on its gnashing teeth. Its ragged stump of an arm dripped black fluid as it moved about and Jack caught a glimpse of off-white bone shifting within the gaping wound.
The four survivors had frozen and ducked down behind a rusted wreck of a van, its white paint yellowed in the sun. As they listened to the zombie approaching their eyes met in silent agreement. All of them held their breaths until Lieutenant Winters nodded the go ahead. As one they leapt out of cover and started running.
The sudden movement instantly alerted the nearby undead, who let out savage snarls and began to pursue. Lieutenant Winters, Bill and Sue quickly reached the corner and turned down the adjacent street. Jack moved to follow but at last second noticed motion in the corner of his eye and turned to bring his metal pipe down onto the undead that had been approaching the van moments ago. It's shoulder crumpled where Jack had struck it, and without hesitating Jack brought the pipe back in a return swing that slammed it into the side of the zombie's head. It split open, skull cracked apart, and the zombie collapsed to the concrete, dark blood oozing out.
For an instant Jack stood there, chest heaving with shock and exertion as he stared at the body.
"Jack!" Lieutenant Winters shouted, having doubled back to check on him, waving him over.
Hefting his makeshift weapon and ignoring the bits of flesh stuck to it – some with hair still attached – Jack raced over and followed the Lieutenant down the side road and back along a wide alley that allowed entry to the back of the shops and the apartments above them. Behind them echoed the sounds of the undead giving chase. The two quickly approached a fenced off area. Bill and Sue were already on the other side, looking back at them worriedly.
"I'll give you a leg up!" Lieutenant Winters said as they approached the high metal fence.
"I'm fine!" Jack called back without breaking his stride, taking a run up and jumping with all the force he could muster, flinging his arms forward for momentum and catching the top railing of the fence, swinging his legs over to one side before dropping and landing in a roll to ease the impact on his legs.
Safe for a moment, Jack paused to catch his breath, ignoring Bill and Sue's surprised looks to check on Lieutenant Winters, watching the older man clamber up and over the fence, dropping heavily to the ground on their side.
All of them backed away from the fence as several infected ploughed into it, bony hands and arms outstretched and clawing through the bars in a desperate bid to reach the survivors.
"Let's hope we can get in this way or else we're trapped," Bill said darkly as they turned and hurried towards the building's rear entrance. It was unlocked, and the four of them entered cautiously; their caution paid off as with a low groan a rotting zombie hauled itself up from where it had collapsed near the counter and lumbered towards them. Sue was closest and swung her piece of scrap metal with all the force she could muster, burying it into the zombie's head. She let the makeshift weapon go and the infected collapsed backwards with the metal piece still protruding from its face. It didn't move again but the others remained on high alert for any others lurking nearby.
They quickly spread out and checked the rest of the store but it looked as through no other infected had broken in. Jack thought it was more likely that the one Sue had killed had been the shop owner or an employee who'd been left behind in the store rather than one that had wandered in. Either way, they met back up to decide what their next move would be.
"Okay, all of us need a weapon. Place like this should have some blades we can use," Lieutenant Winters began.
"We need more batteries, for the torches and anything else we find," Sue said. "And some pliers? Something to cut through padlocks or metal gates, maybe." Jack nodded.
"Some nails, hammers, saws…stuff for fortifying the place," Jack added.
"Keep an eye out for a portable cooker. Might be some other camping goods around that could be useful too," Bill said, a bit of enthusiasm in his voice. "Alright, let's see what we can rustle up." They spread out and moved through the aisles, this time checking the shelves and workbenches. It didn't take them long to find the things they were looking for, and Bill had found a backpack left over in the staff room.
Jack swung his new machete through the air, glad to have a more practical weapon in his hand. Lieutenant Winters shouldered the backpack once they'd loaded it up with supplies and Bill hefted a plastic bin he was using to help carry a small portable cooker. All of them had bladed weapons of some kind but although Lieutenant Winters had checked carefully the only ammunition they'd found was useless with his weapon.
"Man, I'm starvin'," Bill muttered as they approached the main entrance to the shop, unlocking it from the inside.
"We still need to siphon some fuel too," Sue added. Jack nodded in agreement. The mention of hunger had drawn his attention to his own growling stomach.
Lieutenant Winters checked the street outside briefly before turning to the others. "We'll see if we can find a place that might have some cans or dried food. Looks like most of the zombies were drawn away by the little chase earlier so the street looks clear for now."
Once again the small group was moving carefully back down the street, heading back towards the storage building that had become their unspoken base. They checked a few more shops including a small supermarket, but the building had been almost completely cleaned out. Luckily Jack had spotted a small vending machine in what had once been a newsagent. It had taken them half an hour of tense tries to pry the machine open but they had been rewarded with several bags of crisps and a handful of chocolate bars.
They'd also stopped by a few of the cars nearer to their building to try and siphon some gas from the abandoned vehicles. Jack had stood guard with Lieutenant Winters while Bill and Sue struggled to get as much as they could from the half-empty tanks. They'd only managed a couple of litres before some approaching undead had forced the group to move on, Sue lugging the plastic container with the gasoline.
By the time they arrived back at the storage building it was already getting late. Jack figured they must have slept most of the morning away due to their exhaustion; he could feel it creeping up on him again, the stress of remaining constantly alert on top of the little water and lack of food making him feel half asleep. Even so, he and Bill checked out all the floors of the building to make sure it was still secure while Sue and Lieutenant Winters set up their supplies.
Once the small group of survivors was settled back on their mattresses and had tucked into their food - the snacks just taking the edge off the hunger – Jack found himself starting to nod off as they sat deciding their plans for the next day. Sue noticed him starting to drift off and with a small smile suggested they call it a night.
"Sounds good," Bill agreed, trying to get comfortable and allowing Sue to cuddle up next to him.
"We had a good run today, " Lieutenant Winters added. "Tomorrow we'll see about getting out of here, maybe finding some transport."
Jack had intended to add his agreement but sleep had taken him before he could. The success of the day's finds helped stave off most of his nightmares, but even so the image of purpled skin against green silk, gnashing teeth and a bloodied pipe lingered.
The next day found the group once more looking for supplies whilst heading towards the city outskirts. Sue had snatched up a map of the area from the newsagents the previous day, which they were using to get their bearings.
The number of undead shuffling around grew steadily as they crept through the city, until they were unable to go any further for fear of alerting the hordes. The group ducked into a nearby shop to consult the map once more and plan their direction.
"It must've been the crash that drew 'em in," Bill muttered unhappily.
"Yeah," Jack agreed, "A horde this size is pretty unusual."
Lieutenant Winters sighed in annoyance. "They'll probably disperse a bit over the next few days, but this is the most direct route out of the city. We'll have to try and go around."
With that decided the group doubled back, trying a few other routes with little success. Defeated for the moment, the four began moving back towards the storage building.
"If we can't break through now we should focus on getting enough supplies to last a few more days, " Sue said as they moved carefully down the back streets.
"We could start checking the flats and houses near the shop," Jack volunteered, keeping an eye out for any undead lurking nearby. The others stopped for a moment and it took Jack a minute to figure out they weren't alongside him. He turned to look at them in confusion. "What?"
Lieutenant Winters shook his head and they started moving forward again. "Why didn't we think of that?" He muttered to himself in annoyance. "Not like anyone's going to notice anyway. Nice going, Jack."
Jack shrugged self-consciously. "I broke into a few places for supplies back when the infection first hit," he confessed. "Although by that point most people had packed up and left."
Sue smiled at him. "At least we won't have to worry about any alarms. They'll all be dead by now."
"We still have to be careful not to make too much noise," Lieutenant Winters cautioned, "Unless one of us knows how to pick locks, we'll have to break windows or doors to get in."
"If we stick together we'll be fine," Bill said determinedly as they approached a small park area. It had become overgrown with weeds and dead leaves were scattered about without anyone to clean them up. Several drains were clogged, but there hadn't been rain for a few days so the leaves crackled underfoot as they moved alongside the greenery.
Jack noticed a peculiar branch lying amidst some debris where a car had crashed into the fence surrounding the park with enough force to jar a tree over slightly and knock down some of its lower branches. "Hang on a second, guys," he said as he picked his way over, checking around for any undead that might be nearby.
"What is it?" Sue asked as Jack bent down to pull something from the mess. It took a few moments but eventually he was able to free the branch that had caught his eye.
"Check it out!" Jack smiled as he held the branch aloft. It was smooth enough to hold, but what had caught his eye was the shape of one end, almost like a shepherd's crook. "Could be useful for grabbing stuff or opening high windows or something," he added, seeing the unsure looks on the other's faces.
"Oh, I see," Sue nodded in realisation. There was the sound of a rattling moan from nearby which the set the four on alert as Jack hurried back over to the group, holding the branch like a staff.
Bill located the undead, lying half-collapsed across a car dashboard, where he quickly beheaded it to prevent it alerting any other zombies to their location. Hearts hammering in their chests, they strained to listen for any other undead, but there was nothing else nearby. With relieved glances they set off once again, ready to check the residential buildings around their temporary base for supplies.
Breaking-and-entering was slow going. They had to check each flat and each building to see if they were unlocked, and many of them had doors that were too sturdy to break down without a great deal of noise; however they did find a few unlocked flats and ones with opened or broken windows they could sneak through, which yielded several tins of food and a few other, smaller supplies – spoons and forks, another backpack, some bottled water – that made the task worthwhile.
Despite still being trapped in the city, the group kept their hopes up – aided by some hot soup thanks to the portable cooker – believing they would survive and find a way out.
Several days without any success at finding a path through the horde quickly dampened the group's spirits, and then the worst happened.
During their scavenging and exploring the city, waiting for the hordes to disperse enough to let them pass, the group had experienced a few close calls with small groups of undead pursuing them until they could fight them off or reach safety. However, as time drew on and the group became more desperate to escape the city, they began to slip up and make small mistakes.
They had been sneaking along one of the smaller roads several blocks away from where the crash had happened. Several smaller groups of undead had been roaming around, so the group had been careful to keep low, ducking behind cars and dumpsters, moving slowly to avoid attracting attention.
And then, as they were about to head back, Bill's foot had caught an empty can and sent it skittering out into the road.
The sound had been too loud and echoed off the nearby buildings, and almost as one, all the undead in the area had turned in their direction. All four held their breath, not daring to move, but it was already too late; the undead nearest them had already started to move, the usual absent groans growing into loud snarls of hunger.
Jack's breath caught in his throat and he stood frozen to the spot for what seemed like far too long, watching the undead draw closer.
"RUN!" Yelled Lieutenant Winters when it became clear that the growing horde was aware of their presence. Not needing to be told twice all four took off as fast as they could, heading back towards their base, uncaring of the noise they made in their haste.
The sound of pursuit picked up behind them as the undead began lumbering forwards in a jerky, desperate motion, picking up as much speed as they could. As the hungry growls followed them down the street even more undead were drawn to the commotion, and far too soon all four survivors were having to fight their way through.
Jack was lashing out with his machete in one hand, using his staff in the other to knock away those ahead of him. Adrenaline was pouring through him and he could feel the sweat beginning to drip down his face, his breaths coming in gasps as he fought forwards, vaguely aware of Bill and Lieutenant Winters nearby. The soldier had pulled out his gun; the gunshots cracked through the air, far too loud, and ahead of them several infected dropped, heads exploding with gore.
"Shit!" Jack heard Lieutenant Winters swear furiously as an approaching undead managed to knock the gun from his hand, forcing him to fight off the terrifyingly strong grip of the starved infected using his machete. Bill raced forwards and snatched the gun up from where it had fallen; Jack had to lunge forwards and lashed out, decapitating one of the undead as it attacked Bill while he was distracted. The three of them broke through into a small area clear of the undead, giving them a second to catch their breath.
"Sue?" Bill asked, voice hoarse, and that was when Jack realised he hadn't seen the woman nearby. "Sue! SUE!" Bill began bellowing, looking around desperately for his wife. Jack spun, trying to spot her as well, but all he could see were more undead quickly approaching –
"BILL!" Sue's terrified scream cut through the sound of the starving undead. Bill immediately turned towards her voice and began moving in her direction, calling out her name again. Sue screamed once more, and that was when Jack spotted her, surrounded by a hungry pack of undead that were clawing at her, tearing into her skin.
"NO! SUE!" Bill cried, lashing out and trying to reach her, but Jack knew it was already too late. Sue let out another scream as one of the infected sank its teeth into her shoulder, brutally ripping out a chunk of flesh, blood flying. Jack couldn't tear his eyes away, not even registering Lieutenant Winters tugging him forwards, away from the scene. Bill made a sound of devastation at the sight, and Jack glanced over at him just in time to see him raise the hand holding the gun.
Time seemed to stretch as Bill took aim and pulled the trigger.
Sue's head flew back at the impact, her pained screams abruptly cut off. Within moments she was buried under the hungry pack of undead as they tore into her. Their hunger was so great that they would leave nothing left of her.
The gunshot had drawn yet more of the horde and they fell upon Bill like a wave, dragging him forward and tearing into his skin, flaying him open even as he struggled to raise his arm once more, this time to his own head.
Jack clenched his eyes shut as Bill pulled the trigger.
"Jack, snap out of it! Move!" Lieutenant Winters snarled at him, yanking on his arm furiously as he struggled to get the two of them away from the approaching horde.
With a choked sob Jack turned and followed the soldier, both of them lashing out with their weapons. The undead seemed never-ending; they were barely given a chance to catch their breath before another was lunging towards them, their rotten flesh and congealed blood soaking their weapons, splattering on the ground.
"Hurry! Move!" Lieutenant Winters snapped again, and Jack was forced to focus on nothing more than surviving, ignoring the pain in his limbs as they fought on. Finally the two of them broke through the worst of the horde and they charged on, seeing their escape just ahead.
And then Jack could only stare in shock as another pack of undead surged out of an alleyway to slam into Lieutenant Winters, knocking him to the ground and tearing into each other in their frenzied attempt to reach living flesh. Teeth and nails tore through the soldier's clothing and even as he fought back, clenching his machete in his faltering hand and trying to kill as many as possible, the undead simply ignored their own wounds and bore down on him.
Between the mass of flailing limbs Jack could just make out Lieutenant Winter's wide-eyed face, terror and agony twisting it almost unrecognisably. Jack couldn't look away, frozen in fear.
And then, using the last of his strength, Lieutenant Winters managed to choke out, "RUN, JACK!"
And he ran, faster than he ever had before.
Terror tore through him. The wails of the starving undead grew louder as they approached, stumbling closer as fast as they could, bloodied arms outstretched and clawing at him. Jack spun around, trying to find a clear path through the mob, lashing out with his staff and his blade, barrelling forwards as soon as he saw a gap. Torn up hands grabbed at him, catching on his hood, but adrenaline gave him the strength to tear away and run as fast as his feet could carry him.
The shambling mass behind him gave chase immediately. From all around Jack could hear more approaching. Desperate, he raced onwards, almost tripping over the debris littering the street. Turning down an alley he nearly ran straight into an infected, ducking just in time and his momentum carrying him forward, faster, faster. His heart was pounding so loudly he could have sworn the undead could hear it.
More of the creatures appeared at the end of the alleyway. Head swimming with adrenaline and fear pounding through his veins, Jack spotted a fire escape raised off the ground nearby. Without thinking, without slowing his speed, he leapt onto a nearby dumpster and then threw himself towards the rungs of the rusted latter, just barely catching it with the crook of his staff, arms and shoulders flaring in pain at the abrupt movement. The infected nearest to him began reaching up, clutching at his feet as he scrambled to haul himself up his staff onto the ladder, arms protesting at the strain.
Finally curling his body up and getting a foot on the bottom rung, Jack fairly flew up the ladder onto the metal deck, not stopping as he continued to ascend until he was high enough to make the jump onto the next building. He was so focused on his escape the possibility of falling never even occurred to him. He just barely cleared the gap and kept running, crossing over several buildings before collapsing between two air conditioning units.
His entire body was shaking. It didn't even register that he was crying, the shock catching up with him as he tried to stifle his chocked gasps, lungs burning for air. Wrapping his arms around his legs, his staff clenched tightly in his hands, Jack curled up into a ball and trembled. He clenched his eyes shut and grit his teeth. Adrenaline was still pumping through him but his body could no longer keep up. Nausea bubbled in his throat. His head felt like it was shrinking and expanding at the same time.
He had never been so terrified.
Jack remained there, curled up on the rooftop until the sun reached its highest point.
He was alone, stranded within an infected city with little or no hope of rescue.
The shrieks and moans of the undead echoed in his ears long after the hoard itself had dispersed.