- Author: Kari Gregg
- Genre:LGBT, Fantasy & Paranormal
- Cover Artist: Scott Carpenter
All that's keeping Riley from the man he's falling in love with is the ruins of a city filled with half a million dead cannibals.
Strangers, Riley and Graham sheltered together in a basement storage unit when the zombie outbreak slammed into the world three months ago. They lived through the first blast of the plague, but they may not last much longer among survivors scrambling for dwindling resources. They agree to hike from the city and to the safety of the mountains.
They don't count on the storm they hoped would cover their exit developing into a Nor'easter, though, and they sure don't think their visibility will shrink so badly that they'll have to hike into the leading edge of a zombie swarm, either. In the chaos of escaping the ravenous horde, they are separated, with Graham racing toward feral dog packs to the east and Riley sprinting to hostile survivors hunting them to the west.
Nobody said finding and keeping a quality guy (alive) during the apocalypse would be easy.
Sometimes, Graham huddled with him under the blankets. As the days got shorter and colder, Graham wasn’t in a rush to exit a warm tent any faster than Riley. Spooned together, they shared body heat. The basement storage unit that sheltered them was insulated against the worst of mid-January’s arctic blast, so Riley and Graham were better off than other survivors in the city. As conventional heat sources ran out, people had foolishly and fatally risked exposure in search of scarce supplies to fight off hypothermia and secondary illnesses. None dared to build fires; smoke would draw zombies for miles. The emergency radio that consumed precious battery life to monitor every day had nonetheless crackled with pleas for medical supplies and fuel. Meanwhile, Riley and Graham snuggled together under toasty warm layers of sleeping bags.
It was three months after the plague. Neither of them talked about how little the radio chattered anymore.
And Graham lingered longer and longer in the cocoon of their bed.
This was the first morning Graham nuzzled Riley’s neck, though.
Riley squirmed, earning Graham’s open palm and splayed fingers at the top of his neatly trimmed treasure trail to hold him in place.
“You smell good.” Graham resumed sniffing Riley’s throat. “Why do you always smell so good?”
Because Riley made it his business to look good and smell fantastic, that’s why. As soon as they’d secured their shelter and acquired a source of fresh water on the roof of the building, Riley had started hoarding. Recon missions to forage supplies were fertile with opportunities to feel human again. A bottle of nail polish wasn’t much weight to carry, and once Graham acclimated to his survival buddy being gay, he’d tolerated and then indulged Riley’s quirks. That first sly bottle of nail polish had been followed by lotions to soften his dry skin, eyeliner, and shower gel that smelled like spice. What else was he supposed to do to fill the hours except shiver?
Graham read. For a blue-collar construction worker, the guy plowed through books like crazy—everything from spy thrillers to romance novels. Whatever books they’d found in the building, Graham read. And read. And read.
Riley invested his time in manicures, pedicures, and whatever else might consume the quiet hours. Anything to feel normal again.
“It’s the new shower gel,” Riley said. “You can use it too, if you want.”
Graham snorted, his hot breath tickling Riley’s neck.
Yeah, Riley hadn’t thought so either. Graham was the cake-of-soap kind. While Riley had been ecstatic at the home waxing kit he’d discovered in the apartments in the building above them, Graham had skipped shaving altogether. The bristle of his beard scraped Riley’s hypersensitive skin in the most delicious ways.
“You going to let me borrow your nail polish next, Riley?”
Graham wasn’t mean about it. Even in the beginning, his voice had never been cruel or cutting. He didn’t sneer like other men—especially gay men—had, even before the world went to hell. He’d been alternately fascinated with and mystified by Riley, and that was exactly how Riley liked it. “No. The nail polish is mine.” Smothering laughter, he elbowed Graham’s stomach. “Get your own.”
Graham grunted and continued those slow, steady strokes across Riley’s abdomen guaranteed to make Riley’s morning erection leak. He just petted Riley and held him, never pushing it further. Though Riley had repeatedly offered Graham his mouth and his ass, the man didn’t grope. Disappointing but not entirely surprising. Graham was straight, after all.
Riley never stopped hoping.
“I was up earlier,” Graham said. “Heard movement on the street when a crowd of them went after a stray dog.”
Riley shuddered. Abandoned by their owners when the plague hit, dogs were more dangerous than zombies these days. Packs hunted the streets for rats and other vermin after dark when the undead were less active, taking down whatever prey they cornered. Riley and Graham hadn’t dared leave the shelter after sunset in weeks. One less dog was great news. “Okay.”
“Walkers are slower now that it’s cold. They aren’t decomposing anymore, so most are still mobile, but even the newer zombies can’t run. I watched them take that dog down. A month ago, no problem, but they wouldn’t have managed to corner the dog today if it hadn’t been injured.”
Anxiety coiled in the stomach Graham caressed. “We’re too close to the harbor,” Riley said, returning to the same tired arguments. “There are too many of them between us and the suburbs.” Which would be worse. At least in the city, they had more places to hide. “We’ll never make it.”
“We can’t stay here.” Graham sighed into Riley’s neck. “If zombies don’t get us—”
And Riley did know. He’d spied the city with Graham from upper-story windows and watched occasional roaming herds of undead pack the streets below. He too had seen zombies swarm a shelter two blocks away. He and Graham had realized other survivors were nearby weeks ago, just as those survivors had doubtlessly been aware of them. They’d known, for instance, that those survivors had included kids, because a mom-and-pop grocery a block east had shelves denuded of crayons and cheap toys. Though Riley and Graham had searched, they hadn’t pinpointed the survivors’ location until zombies had massed around a bakery storefront last month. More and more infected had lurched from surrounding neighborhoods until they’d gathered hundreds if not thousands deep. Wood had cracked under the relentless pressure, and the sharp rat-a-tat of gunfire had joined the thunderous moaning of the infected. Then the screams.
That could’ve been him and Graham. If they stayed in the city, one day it would be.
Graham and Riley had learned to stay quiet. Neither of them had recognized how lucky they’d been when they’d scrambled down the basement stairs in the alley last fall. Riley had initially joined a group of survivors sprinting toward the harbor in hopes a boat might carry him out of the city. He hadn’t crossed more than a dozen blocks when he’d spotted columns of smoke billowing to spoil the sky above where the docks should be.
The harbor was lost.
Staying with that group would’ve only gotten him dead faster. The others made too much noise, attracting zombies like a clamoring dinner bell. So he’d split away, fleeing down a side street. Riley had squeezed into a skinny opening between buildings to escape, and once the horde had cleared, he’d shuffled side to side in the tight space until the opening widened.
A six-and-a-half-foot mountain of a guy had crushed the skull of a lone zombie while Riley stumbled from the narrow gap into an alley. That man—Graham—had pivoted at the new threat, crowbar already swinging.
Unlike other survivors whose clothes had been splashed with blood and gore, Riley’s Sweet & Sassy work T-shirt had gleamed white, and that was what had saved his life. Zombies weren’t clean. Zombies were bloody, gruesome, and gross. Survivors too. They fired guns and pummeled with weapons, which spattered blood swimming with contagion that seeped into the slightest paper cut. Graham avoided infection by wearing countless layers of clothes, hats, and gloves that covered him from head to steel-toed foot, and he stripped off any contaminated layers as soon as he destroyed a zombie he couldn’t flee from. Riley was smart. He didn’t fight. He ran, and because he was quick, he hadn’t been infected by a bite or spattered in gore battling the undead.
Graham had shifted off-balance to deflect the blow he’d directed at Riley. They’d both winced at the clang of metal hitting the brick building inches over Riley’s undented skull. The racket was sure to attract zombies moaning on the main thoroughfare.
“Here.” Graham had jerked his chin at a pair of Dumpsters partially blocking a set of gritty steps leading down.
They’d scrambled for the stairs and hunkered there. Panting, hearts pounding, they’d waited, but easier prey on the street kept them safe. Graham had used the crowbar to pry open the door at the bottom of the stairs, and they’d crept warily into the dark of the basement.
They’d never left it.
Why leave? The basement was dirty and dank, but also defendable. The space had been sectioned into compartments accessible by a hall with all the doors locked with sturdy dead bolts. The section they’d found was the storeroom of a bar. Cases of beer and boxes of liquor reached as high as Riley’s shoulders, and at six feet, Riley wasn’t short. A narrow path through the boxes led to a walk-in cooler. Someone—something—pounded on the door to get out, but the door to the bar upstairs had been barricaded. All was quiet on the other side. No zombies streaked down the hallway leading to the other rooms after they’d pried the door wide to explore the rest of the basement either.
Best of all, the few windows and doors to the dangerous outside world had been boarded up, an oddity Riley had puzzled over until they’d cracked open the residential storage unit at the center of the basement. Armed with a baseball bat fetched from the bar’s storeroom, Riley had swung at the flash of motion that emerged. The unit’s thick, insulated walls had hidden a family of five, each of them infected. He and Graham had fought for frantic minutes, but no matter how close they both had come to dying, Riley had been grateful for that doomed family for three solid months. Their disaster preparations had saved his and Graham’s lives. Once they’d caved in the family’s heads and taken care of the zombie in the walk-in cooler, they’d stripped and disposed of the clothes they’d fought in. Better safe than sorry. Then they’d examined one another for contagious blood spatter. They’d doused their hands and splashed their faces with liquor from the bar.
They’d both already learned the wisdom of paranoia.
But they’d avoided infection. The area was secure—better than secure. They had a fortified shelter. The family’s storage unit had been outfitted with camping gear to operate as an inner bunker. They had cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater with cases of bottled water as backup. They had an emergency radio and food. They even had a gun and boxes of shells. Noisy gunfire attracted zombies for miles, of course, but Graham still kept the 9 mm tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Just in case.
They’d lasted three months thanks to that infected family’s small stock of supplies, but also because they’d stayed quiet. Deathly quiet. When herds of zombies shambled into their block, climbing through broken windows in the bar and the souvenir shop occupying the building’s street level, he and Graham closed the door on the storage unit and waited the swarm out. Same for the survivors who’d broken in to steal liquor last month.
They were surrounded and outnumbered.
So they stayed silent and invisible.
It was the only way.
“Leaving the city is our best shot,” Graham said.
Riley knew that too, but he wriggled against Graham’s crotch anyway.
Graham’s grip halted him. “You gotta piss?”
Riley scowled over his shoulder. “No.”
Graham’s lips curved. “Then stop.”
When Graham smacked his ass, Riley jerked. “Hey!”
“Always thinking with your dick,” Graham grumbled, but he didn’t move away. He never did.
“Focus, Riley.” Graham snickered. “We need to leave the city.”
Riley scowled because Graham also looped his arm tighter around Riley’s stomach. How could the man expect Riley to be capable of rational thought while those fingertips played with the springs of hair that he had left after painful hours of manscaping? Graham hadn’t toyed with his body hair until Riley had removed most of it, so the temporary hurt had been worth his trouble, at least. The man was attracted to him. Just not attracted enough. Trying to distract him too. Trying? No, succeeding. Graham was no fool. He knew how to sway Riley to get what he wanted.
Too bad Riley wouldn’t make it that easy. “If we wait another month,” he mumbled, arching into Graham’s warm hand, “when it’s colder—”
“The others will find us by then.” Graham patted Riley’s abdomen. “They’re foraging more thoroughly and in our direction now, building by building.”
Riley’s breath caught.
“They don’t accept intruders in their territory. Or squatters. You saw what they did.”
No, Riley hadn’t seen. He’d refused to see. He’d slapped his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut when a blond just a few years older than him had been tossed, bound and naked, into the street—their street. He hadn’t heard the taunting catcalls and shouts to draw the zombies to the fresh prey either.
He most definitely had not heard the blond’s agonized screams.
He would go right on not hearing it for the rest of his life.
“So,” Graham said, fingering the hair on Riley’s stomach, “you’re going to pick your favorite nail polish and lip gloss. Stash them and one other luxury item in your pack. You’ll dress in formfitting layers, nothing loose that zombies can grab. We’ll leave in half an hour. All right?”
Riley gulped. The last thing he wanted to do was hike open ground. What if Graham was hurt? Killed? What if they met friendlier survivors, and Graham decided Riley was too much trouble and didn’t want him anymore? But life had stopped asking what Riley wanted when the plague struck three months ago. They’d done well to make it as long as they had in the city, where other survivors competing for dwindling resources had become as dangerous as the undead. No matter how much his gut knotted at leaving the basement that had sheltered them, Riley knew Graham was right. Leaving was their only chance.
Copyright © Kari Gregg
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