Mankind was doomed from the beginning. Our existence was a poorly written tragedy. I never imagined humanity would be wiped out by a plague of the walking dead. But that was the strange thing about life; it never played out how I expected. I couldn’t find any eloquent words to describe what had happened, even if I tried. We were fucked, pure and simple.
“The area is secured, Jesse,” Neil said as he approached me. We stood on Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge, overlooking downtown Beaufort.
I kept my eyes trained on the river that, after a few miles, opened to the Atlantic, and nodded to my second in command. In civilization’s silence, I could hear the distant crash of waves, profound and heart-stopping. We had been sent to do a sweep of the area, clearing any Infected or Mutated who had shuffled in. In groups of four, multiple reconnaissance teams were dispatched to ensure Salvation wasn’t overrun.
During a meteor shower back in February, something had been unleashed. It was turning us into zombies. Some blamed a virus; others said it was the meteorites themselves that peppered the United States. I had even heard someone say nuclear waste had contaminated the water. Maybe it was God’s wrath. Maybe we had fucked up one too many times.
All I knew was we were dying, and our souls were being dragged back up from hell. The world, as far as I knew, had been separated into three races: humans, Infected, and Mutated.
I could speculate what had started it, I could even try to reason with God, but it wouldn’t do me any good. The only thing that would keep my loved ones alive was shoving my arms elbow-deep in the gore and shit.
Survival was the only thing that mattered.
“Don’t you think it’s been a little too quiet?” Bailey asked.
I turned to face her. Copper strands of hair had begun to escape her ponytail and trailed across her freckled forehead.
Neil rubbed the back of his head, tousling his blond hair. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“No, it isn’t. So keep your guard up,” I ordered and tightened my grip on my Winchester 1912, a pump-action shotgun. “Now let’s move.”
Neil trained his gaze on me, but he didn’t argue. He wasn’t much older than Sawyer, still so very young. I frowned, my exhaustion itching across my skin, calling me back to Salvation. God, how I wanted to see Sawyer and Topher. The ache in my soul felt like a rotted tooth. It was a constant, stabbing pain piercing my entire body. The nine-day stretch I had volunteered for no longer seemed like such a bright idea.
Even though I came home every night, I only had the energy to wash up and go to bed. It felt like I just kept missing Sawyer and Topher.
I had traveled to South Carolina from Ohio with my partners, Sawyer and Topher, along with Sawyer’s best friend, Chloe, and her little brother, Jaden. We had clung to the pipe dream that the coast would be different, that somehow, the ocean air would purify our sins. Things got worse the farther south we went.
In our dying moments, when we’d failed to find purchase on our existence, we had stumbled upon Salvation, a survivors’ town built on the refusal to lie down and accept the hard screw fate was dealing. The townsfolk of Beaufort had eliminated the Infected and Mutated and barricaded themselves in the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station. It had become a sanctuary for hope, and it had become our home.
Now I fought to protect it.
“They were crawling all over the place not too long ago,” Daniel mused as he approached us. The wrinkles in his sun-weathered face had deepened since the few weeks I’d known him.
“Which probably means we’ll run into one on the way back. I doubt Team Charlie exterminated the entire pack,” I replied.
The zombies had started off as Infected, your average-running cadaver with a vicious hunger for human flesh. They could have walked off any horror movie set. It was the Mutated we had to worry about. They were the evolved forms of the Infected, grotesque nightmares that were faster and stronger. Mutated were hard enough to kill on their own, but occasionally they would travel in a pack. I hadn’t known anyone to walk away from a Mutated pack.
“Do you think the other recon group is okay?” Neil asked as we began to head back. Cars siphoned of gas clogged the road and were left to rust on the bridge. The entire city was a looted trash heap, raped of every last shred of resources.
“Have you heard any gunshots?” Bailey asked.
No one said anything. I watched every shadow and braced for the distorted figure of a Mutated to come prowling with its unhinged jaw wide open. Sweat stung my eyes and soaked my back, sticking my soiled T-shirt to my skin. Beneath the August sun, heat waves rose from the asphalt. The baked-over stench of rotted intestines became thicker the deeper we moved into the city. Bodies were littered everywhere, discarded like pieces of garbage, disfigured to the point of being unrecognizable. Most of them were missing heads; some were nothing more than bits and pieces of limbs, while others stared with unblinking, milky eyes.
I trained my gun on the ones with their heads still intact, double-checking to make sure they didn’t move before I walked by. Somehow we had crossed the line between living and dying, and I had learned how it felt to take a life. After six months of killing, I still couldn’t get past how easy it was to put a bullet through another man’s head. Blood shouldn’t have been as bright as it was, innocent, like candied apples and youth.
A dry wind rustled through the palm trees and the oaks, blowing the Spanish moss that draped over the gnarled branches.
“You’re finally getting some time off, aren’t you?” Neil asked as he stepped up beside me. He kept his hold on his gun relaxed.
I didn’t look at him. “Yeah.”
“Man, General Faust has been riding us hard for the last few weeks.” Neil screwed up his expression.
I shrugged, not sure what he wanted me to say. If we wanted to stay safe, if we wanted to keep Salvation alive, we had to keep fighting. That meant no rest.
“Keep your eyes open,” I finally said.
He rolled his eyes, and Bailey joked, “I don’t know why you’re complaining to G.I. Joe. The guy is a walking super soldier. He’ll probably be back on guard duty in a couple of days. Anyway, stop bitching. We have to do what we can to ensure Salvation’s safety.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t a soldier. I never had been. I’d been a bookstore owner, one who’d lived a quiet life surrounded by John Grisham novels.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” Neil groused.
Down the road, a car had been driven into the side of a brick building, creating a large aperture. I tried to see inside from where I stood but couldn’t make anything out from this angle. Tension stiffened my shoulders and formed a queasy ball in the pit of my stomach.
“What do you want to do?” Daniel asked.
“Keep tight and your guns up.” No one moved. I focused on calming the heavy staccato rhythm of my heart and then took the first step toward the blue sedan. Rust covered the roof of the car, the hood was crumpled in, and the windshield cracked outward in a large spiderweb pattern.
A body was in the front seat, collapsed over the steering wheel. I aimed my shotgun at the cadaver and inched around the rear of the car. The passenger door was open, dried blood caked on the upholstery.
“Jesus, it never gets easier,” Bailey whispered.
I stopped to study the body. Whoever she had been, she wasn’t coming back. Bits of her brain were splattered across the dashboard and passenger seat. Rot had begun to set in, and it wasn’t pretty. Then again, nothing about the new world was pretty.
“We can’t stop,” I said and carried on, leaving the car behind us.
The humidity felt like it was being painted over my skin. I wiped the sweat from my brow and scratched at my beard, ready to be back home, where I could wash and change into some clean clothes. Topher and Sawyer would be there, along with our neglected bed.
“What are you smiling about?” Neil asked with a knowing smirk.
“Up ahead,” Daniel warned.
Neil’s smile disappeared. I slid my shotgun into my back holster and slipped my bowie knife from where it was strapped to my thigh holster. Three Infected stood listlessly at the corner. I crouched behind an empty car and motioned for the others to follow.
“We’ll go in for a swift kill. Stay close, and no one separate from the group. There are only three, but more might be around the corner.” I waited for confirming nods.
I took the lead with Neil and Bailey flanking my sides and Daniel at the rear. We had each swapped our guns for knives. Blood pounded in my ears as I rushed the Infected. In small groups, Infected weren’t hard to kill. Take out the brain, and it was game over. It was when there was a horde of them that things got ugly.
My knife split the woman’s skull with ease. I told myself it was better this way; that if she could, she would thank me. They weren’t alive. Killing them was an act of mercy.
So why did it feel like I lost a piece of myself every time?
I kept Sawyer’s and Topher’s faces at the front of my mind. They were the reason I did this. They were the reason I hunted Infected and Mutated like they were rabid wolves.
The woman crumpled as I removed my bowie knife, small bits of her gray matter clinging to the blade. Neil and Bailey took out the other two Infected just as quickly. I crouched and cleaned the gore off my weapon, then strapped it back into my thigh holster.
Bailey tapped my shoulder. “Uh, Jesse?”
“What?” I asked and looked up.
She pointed to a Mutated a few yards away. Like all Mutated, he stood on all fours--limbs elongated and jagged--with amber puss leaking from his melted face. Mutateds resembled giant, grotesque human-spiders, a horrific transformation of twisted bone and exposed muscle. Everything the mind could conceive as nightmarish came to life in a Mutated.
We weren’t too far from the rendezvous point on Boundary Street, but the only way we were going to get there was through the creature in front of us. The road was narrow enough we couldn’t sneak by. Our only options for cover were some forgotten cars and alleyways where more Infected could be lurking. Given the Mutated’s keen sense of smell, I didn’t want to risk getting caught against a wall.
It was their dead pewter eyes that got to me; a gunmetal gray that swallowed the pupils. I reached back and grabbed my Winchester. Taking aim at the Mutated, I stared down the length of my barrel. My hand shook, and I forced myself to steady my grip. One mistake and it could all be over.
The Mutated turned his head, and his jaw unhinged so it opened inhumanly wide. I pumped the gauge and pulled the trigger. The shot cracked in the silence. Concrete exploded as the Mutated jumped out of the way. I cursed and pumped the shotgun. The empty shell tumbled to the ground.
“Take cover!” I shouted and crouched behind a truck. The Mutated released a foghorn scream. My first instinct was to cover my ears.
“Oh God,” Neil stammered beside me.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. It was an empty promise, but the most I could give him at the moment. I swung up and fired off a second round, blasting the Mutated’s shoulder and knocking him back a few feet. Bailey followed behind me, blowing off the Mutated’s head in a clean shot.
“Fuck.” My adrenaline rush felt like a bad high. I collapsed against the hood of the truck and glanced over at Bailey. “Good shot.”
She smiled and gave a two-fingered salute. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“You okay, Neil?” I offered him a hand. He had gone green around the edges. With shaking fingers, he gripped my hand and lurched to his feet.
“S-sorry, I guess... I just, every time I see them...” He spread his hands like the answer was in the empty air between his arms.
“Maybe you should see about doing something else,” I suggested. He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t push it.
Daniel walked past me toward the Mutated, his gun trained on the lifeless body. “He went down pretty easy. You think they’re slowing?”
“No. He was still as fast as the others,” I said. “We got lucky.”
Daniel responded with a snort. The air reeked of spoiled blood and meat well past the expiration date. People say it goes away after a while, that you stop noticing, but I hadn’t. I still could smell the stench off every new corpse.
“We’re almost there. I want to get the fuck home,” I said. The dispatch crew would be at the rendezvous point, waiting for the teams to return, and I didn’t want to miss our ride home.
* * * *
The sun hung low in the sky when we returned to Salvation. Team Charlie had returned with only two remaining members and haunted looks in their eyes. I tried not to think how close my team had come to the same fate. As soon as the Humvee pulled to a stop, I swung out of the vehicle. A nurse had already looked over us on the ride back, confirming no one had been infected.
“Any word yet on the scavenge teams?” I asked as I passed my shotgun off for storage in the armory.
“No,” the guard said and turned away.
I frowned, quelling the paranoia that began to eat at my stomach lining. Sawyer was part of the scavenge group and made regular runs outside Salvation for supplies and gasoline. Every time he left my protection, it felt like a waiting game. I’d hold my breath until he returned to my arms.
“You heading home?” Neil asked. He had lagged behind as the others left.
I nodded. “Yeah, after I pass on my report to General Faust.”
Neil slapped my shoulder, offered a weak smile, and said, “See you later.”
“Think about it, Neil. There’s always something else you can do.”
He walked off, and I didn’t press the issue. Whatever internal dilemma he had going on wasn’t my problem.
I walked down the street, taking note of the men lighting the torches. What generators were at Salvation were conserved for limited use. The hospital was the only place continuously using them. At one point, General Faust had toyed with the idea of going to the power plant to restore electricity to the area. He had dropped the plan quickly, though--it was too much of a risk. Going into the labyrinth of corridors was a death warrant for any man.
There was enough fuel left in the base’s pump to keep the generators going, and the scavenger teams made sure to bring back siphoned gas during their runs into the city. There was no reason to risk innocent lives on something Salvation didn’t need.
General Faust kept his original office on base. It was located in a red-brick office building with a colonial flare, the marine and American flags flying high in the air. When I got there, he was already gone, so I hitched a ride with a passing Jeep and headed to the base housing.
I pushed open the door to the home I had been assigned. It was a two-story town house with an open-floor plan and enough space for the five of us to live comfortably. The former tenants had been gone when we arrived, leaving behind their furniture and memories.
“Hey,” Topher said from the dining table. He set down his pen and stood, then stretched his long arms over his head until I could hear a series of pops. The faded tank top he had on inched up his stomach, revealing a hint of a defined six-pack. A broad grin split his handsome face, lighting a fire that spread through my veins as if my blood was made of gasoline.
“Where is everyone?” I asked as I nudged the door closed with my foot.
“Chloe took Jaden to the commissary to get supplies. Sawyer hasn’t come back yet.” He walked around the table, his long legs quickly eating the distance between us. He dominated my six feet three by a solid two inches, and every inch was mouthwatering, tapered muscle. Topher was part-Korean, and it showed in the almond-shape of his molten eyes and the sharp contour of his narrow features.
“Did Sawyer leave late? They seem to be taking a long time getting back. The sun is practically gone.” I rubbed my stiff neck. The tension had yet to dissipate, and I knew it wouldn’t until Sawyer returned, completing our trio.
Topher brushed my fingers aside, working his skilled digits deep into the muscles of my neck and shoulders. I groaned and leaned into his touch. Topher hummed, and the twin silver hoops pierced through his bottom lip trembled. He didn’t say anything. He continued to massage my shoulders, his brows pulled into a thoughtful line.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“That you stink and need a bath.” He flashed me a wry grin and pinched his nose.
I shoved his shoulders and grumbled, “Fuck you.”
He chuckled and dropped his hand to take mine, tangling his long fingers with my own. “Come on. I’ll give you a sponge bath.”
Showers were regulated by a tight schedule at a communal bathhouse that had been set up in two of the barracks. To fill in the days between our scheduled times, we had resorted to storing rainwater and river water in tubs, which we then purified by boiling over a fire.
Regular showers were on my list of the top ten things I missed. That and steak. I really wanted a nice porterhouse.
Topher led me into the bathroom connected to our master bedroom. Chloe and Jaden had taken the two bedrooms and the bathroom on the top floor. I worked on the straps of my holsters, dropping them to the floor as I trailed behind him. It felt like I was shedding the weight of the world. I placed my knife on the nightstand along with my gun and toed off my boots. Topher vanished long enough to retrieve a bucket of water and a washcloth.
“How’d things go at the hospital today?” I asked as I worked off my shirt and popped the fly to my jeans.
“Same as always,” Topher said with a sigh.
Before the apocalypse, Topher had been a pharmacist in Mansfield, Ohio. He now helped at the hospital, but his focus had turned to research and finding a cure. Each day I could see a part of him breaking under the stress of the responsibility.
He grabbed the soap and dipped the washcloth in the water, all the while watching me strip off my jeans. His gaze had darkened to a smolder. I shoved my briefs off and stepped over to him, keeping my stare trained on his.
“What were you doing, rolling around in the dirt?” he asked. I let him adjust me into the position he wanted, moving so I had my back to the wall.
“Something like that,” I said with a smirk.
Topher rolled his eyes and lathered the damp washcloth before starting at my neck. His touch was firm; he pressed the cloth against my skin and scrubbed away a day’s worth of filth and misery. I leaned my head back as my muscles loosened, and a moan bubbled up in my throat. It felt like every part of me was unraveling beneath his hands--the strength, the desire, they held me up and pulled me apart. I could let go and give myself entirely, stop bracing the world for a few moments.
He moved down my arms, my chest, and then my stomach, caressing muscle, taunting me with low dips of the washcloth. Warmth pooled in my stomach and overflowed, swelling inside me like a great wave. I sucked in a sharp breath and watched him work. He rubbed my hip, then pinched my side and gave me a sassy smile.
“Turn around and let me get your back.”