Authors: Ryan Casey
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olly Waterfield ran
The taste of sweat and blood covered her lips. A crippling stitch knotted around the right side of her belly, but she couldn’t give in to it—she just had to keep on pushing, keep on running away. She couldn’t stop, not for anything.
The people who stopped never made it.
Holly didn’t look back as she paced across the muddy field, her white dress clinging to her grimy skin with sweat and dirt. But it wasn’t the sight of their mangled, distorted corpses that scared her or the sound of their raspy throats.
It was the smell. That putrid smell of decay, undeniable and unavoidable. The smell that worked its way into the linings of your nostrils and stayed there, clung on and scratched its way into your senses, permanently embedding itself into memory.
Sometimes, Holly worried whether she might miss an attack by the dead simply because she couldn’t shift that damned smell out of her mind. When she went to eat, she got a whiff of that smell and it put her off her food. When she drank, she didn’t taste the cool freshness of water, she just smelled the stench of death—the smell of people she’d been with, people she’d lost. People she’d had to move on from, again and again and again.
She ran further into the darkness, into the night. The hard, frosty ground scratched at the soles of her feet, which had already been worn down by the endless running she’d had to do. She hadn’t had time to put shoes on. She hadn’t had time to scramble for clothes beyond her white dress. From a distance, she figured she’d look bizarre—like some kind of twisted Cinderella out of a nightmare.
Only she’d lost her beauty. She knew she’d lost her beauty, just like everyone lost their beauty in this world.
But still, she ran.
Ran across the frozen grass, past the tall, dark silhouettes of the trees, further and further away from the echoing cries and footsteps of the undead.
She thought about the people she’d lost. Adrian, Beth, Sanji. Good people. People that had helped keep her spirit and resolve right from the start of the downfall, but people she’d lost. As she ran further into the dark, the cold night enveloping its frosty arms around her, Holly wondered whether she’d outlive everybody. It was something she’d always wondered, right since losing her little sister in a road accident four years ago. She says little—she was eighteen at the time, but to a twenty-six-year-old big sister who has lived all their days of immaturity, eighteen feels practically childlike.
She remembered receiving the news that Tiff was dead. Walking the pet Bichon Frisé, Robbie, down a country lane. Land Rover hit some ice and swerved into her, killing her sister instantly (mercifully) and leaving Robbie in a painful state that only putting him to sleep could cure.
Holly sunk into a numb state of midlife—or “third-life”—crisis after that. She stopped going to work. Stopped showing up for social gatherings. Her relationship with Andy, a lovely man who was in his early thirties and inherited a fair share of wealth after the death of a close relative, crumbled to ashes, partly because he decided she wasn’t enough for him and found some new model. But partly because of her distance, too. She knew that now. Accepted it.
But Holly wasn’t allowed to stay in a state of misery about either of those events for long because the death of her mother from a sudden heart attack followed just weeks later.
Holly kept on running through the trees, kept on running through the darkness. The only light came from the stars that peeked through the tips of the trees and the moonlight that split through the clouds. She didn’t allow fear to invade her thoughts. Not that she didn’t
fear—if she focused, she could drown so deep in collective fear that she’d never resurface for air—but she was good at compartmentalising fear. It was a life skill that she’d learned through her experiences, most of which had come in the last four years.
Mum, healthy Mum, out jogging and running quicker than Holly had ever dreamed of, so fit and agile and nimble, lying on the pavement clutching her chest, the paramedics pronouncing her dead at the scene.
And then there was Dad. He didn’t last much longer than Mum. Six months, maybe. They say adults who have been in long-term marriages go through two kinds of reactions to the death of a loved one—they become more pro-active, or they slip even further into inactivity. It was safe to say that Dad fell firmly into the latter camp. He’d need reminding that his fridge was empty even though the sour remnants of milk in the carton told Holly he’d needed shopping for days. Subscription newspapers stacked up by the letterbox, as Dad worked his way through the news of two weeks ago, not really reading it but just staring glassy-eyed at the images, like he was playing a part in some morbid play. Holly wondered what he did when he was alone. A part of her hoped that maybe he’d spark up. Maybe he’d call an old rugby friend or pop round to a neighbour’s house.
She found him dead in his favourite chair with a glass of whisky and a box of sleeping pills beside him.
It was the happiest she’d seen him for months.
She kept on running through the woods. She swore she heard noises to her left, to her right, in the darkness. The cracking of fallen branches underfoot. The whistling of trees in the wind. A crackling. A crackling, like …
She slowed down. She didn’t want to stop because she knew how dangerous stopping was. But she eased her run so she could hear into the distance.
She smelled it before she heard it.
And then the crackling of what could only be gunfire.
She heard the footsteps and the gasps following her through the trees and her body told her it was time to run again.
But before she ran, she looked down at her bare left forearm.
She looked at the bloodied bandage. Through the bandage, in her mind’s eye, she could see the blood. The raw flesh like steak tartare. The tooth marks, like the piercings of a hole punch.
She looked at the bandage, and she took a deep breath and let fear fill her body for a few torturous seconds.
Remembered the dark cabin.
Remembered the burning, searing sensation of teeth ripping through her skin.
Remembered the taste of blood that filled the air.
And then she exhaled and let her fear go.
She started running faster again, away from the zombies, through the trees and into the night.
Towards the gunfire. Towards the smoke.
Towards something new.
ou see them
“See them clearly.”
“Yours or mine?”
“I’ll take it.”
A blast from Hayden’s right. One second, the zombie outside the walls of Riversford Industrial Estate was there, the next second, its head exploded into a bloody firework.
Hayden pulled away from his gun and glared at Gary, who had a wide grin on his chunky face. “I said I had it,” Hayden said.
Gary reloaded his rifle. “Well, actions speak louder than words. I’ll let you have the next one if I’m feelin’ generous.”
Hayden shook his head. He couldn’t deny the frustration he felt about someone else hijacking his kill. In the ten days since they’d locked down Riversford and made it their own, killing stray zombies from the safety of the rooftops had become a friendly competition. Gary, the former CityFast employee who was forever wearing the green oil-laced slacks that his old job required, was the only person who gave Hayden any real competition.
“Considerin’ you’ve no gun trainin’, you ain’t so bad,” Gary said, patting Hayden on his shoulder.
“I told you. Lightgun games like House of the Dead. All the training I need.”
Gary chuckled and shook his head. “Who’d’ve thought zombie lightgun games would end up legit training?”
“Certainly not me,” Hayden said. He looked out over the sunlit expanse of the wider Warrington area. Ahead of him, the icy fields were thawing out more and more gradually as January segued into February. The mornings were getting lighter, day by day, and the nights were holding off for a few extra seconds. It was still damned cold—so damned cold that Hayden had forgotten what it actually felt like to be warm—but the gentle glow of the late winter sun offered a temporary reminder as it brushed its rays against his goose-pimpled neck.
“Close your eyes and you can convince yourself it’s just muck spreadin’,” Gary said.
Gary had his eyes closed. He was stood a few metres from the edge of the hangar, the highest point in the Riversford Industrial Estates that they’d safely locked down. He rested his rifle over his shoulders and took in a deep audible breath through his nostrils. “The smell. Completely friggin’ hanging, yeah. But close your eyes and it just smells like some farmer’s out spreadin’ muck through the fields. All about perspective, boss. All about perspective.”
Hayden knew which smell Gary was referring to. The constant stench of death and rot that lingered in the air. He wasn’t a rigor mortis or decomposition expert by any means, but he knew that the bodies of the undead were rotting away right now. And as the sun rose a little earlier and set a little later every day, as the temperature ramped up and sweat replaced goosebumps, the smell would only get worse.
Hayden closed his eyes. Took a deep breath through his nostrils. Almost heaved.
“Cow shit, I think,” Gary said, his eyes still closed. “Don’t think they use bullshit to spread … Oh. I get you now. I get you.”
Hayden tutted and shook his head. “Gotta shoot, anyway. Need to speak with Matt and Karen about Tim.”
“About damned time someone did,” Gary said. “And who better than Sheriff McCall?”
Hayden felt his cheeks warm up. He knew Gary was taking the piss. But he had inadvertently become something of a diplomatic figure in the ten days since the Great Fire of Riversford, as he was now aptly coining it. People looked to him for answers. And sure, there were only seven of them aside from him—Sarah, Gary, Martha and Amy (Newbie’s ex-wife and daughter), and a family of three: Matt, Karen and their kid, Tim. And they hadn’t exactly elected Hayden leader, anything like that. But they seemed to respect him, weirdly.
And he meant “weirdly” because he couldn’t remember a single time in his life when anyone outside his blood relatives came close to respecting him.
Often, even his blood relatives didn’t respect his layabout ways either.
“You alright on watch?” Hayden asked.
Gary smiled and saluted. “Right as rain. Gives me a good chance to get my kill tally up anyway. Now go give that little shite a bollocking.”
Hayden turned away and climbed down the ladder that crept up the side of the CityFast hangar. The bulk of the inside had been burned beyond repair, but the rusty metal ladders at the side of the building remained. There were two other bunkers, one of which they slept in. They’d locked up the CityFast hangar and boarded as many windows as they could. As Hayden descended, he heard the occasional creak inside—swore he heard a gasp or a growl. There were still zombies inside no doubt. Ones that they hadn’t been able to clear out on floors that had been made inaccessible by the fire. But inaccessible to the survivors meant they were inaccessible to the zombies, too. And it wasn’t a major problem. Touch wood and all that, but there couldn’t be many of them in there.
They acted as a deterrent too, in a way. Just in case any larger group wandered past and fancied a piece of Riversford. They’d approach, see the burned out remains of the CityFast hangar, perhaps hear the groans of a zombie, and then they’d move on.
And if they didn’t move on, they’d die.
Hayden’s group would make sure of that.
Hayden climbed further down the ladders. He could hear a girl’s laughter somewhere on the ground below. Amy, Newbie’s daughter. Cheery, pleasant girl, ten years old. Her brown eyes were so much like her dad’s that it looked like they’d been snipped out of his body and stuffed into her skull.
Which made looking into them hard. Looking into them reminded Hayden of what the group had lost. A good friend. A companion.
And remembering any kind of loss just brought the loss of Dad, of Mum, the beheading of Clarice to his mind …
Blood spurting onto the floor.
Tears rolling from her terrified eyes.
Hayden tasted copper in his mouth. His heart started to pound. His head grew dizzy, and he had to grip onto the ladder and make a conscious effort to ease his breathing.
She’s gone now. She’s not suffering anymore. It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.
Hayden reached the ground below and took a few more steadying breaths to rid the tingling nausea from his stomach. He turned and looked at the sun-soaked grounds of Riversford. There was a large parking area in front of him where the main fire had spread. Debris and charred remains had covered the ground just days ago, but they’d made a massive effort to clear it up. It wasn’t easy—there were a few close calls with some of the zombies that had burned and melded with the concrete, and the stinging dust from the charred flesh of things that used to be
… that could take its toll on a person.
Hayden walked across the concrete. The walls that they’d rebuilt towered twenty feet high around Riversford. The original metal fences had been destroyed by the mass of undead that had invaded this place ten days ago, but the group had pulled their infinite time together to use whatever loose sheets of metal, debris, rocks, and anything they could get their hands on to make something solid and sturdy. And so far, it had done the trick. It was always going to be a work in progress—as was everything nowadays—but it was a start.
Amy’s voice brought a shiver through Hayden’s body. He forced his best smile and turned to look at her. “Hi, Amy. You okay?”
She was wearing a red hoodie and ripped trackie bottoms. She had that look that everyone had nowadays; the bags under the eyes, the chapped lips, the bony physique. She looked at Hayden with those eyes that could so easily have been her dad’s and she nodded. “Fine. Just … just playing around.”
Her gaze dropped to the ground, and Hayden knew right away that she was hiding something.
“Seen Tim anywhere?” Hayden asked.
Amy lifted her head and shook it way too enthusiastically. She held her hands together in front of her, slumped her shoulders. “No, I haven’t seen him. If he’s doing something wrong, I … I haven’t seen him.”
Hayden was about to say something in return to Amy when he caught sight of movement in the corner of his left eye.
When he saw what it was—who it was—his insides burned.
“That little shit …”
Hayden rushed past Amy towards the wall. Tim was a quarter of the way up it. He looked back at the ground with fear on his face. His arm was caught underneath a loose piece of rubble.
“I didn’t know he was there!” Amy shouted. “I swear I didn’t know he was there.”
But Hayden disregarded her. He ran towards the wall and ran towards Tim.
Kids. Frigging annoying kids. Who needed them anyway?