They’ve done it. Despite your best safeguards; your potholes, your traps, and all your weapons, the dead have gotten into your house.
You take the high ground, the stairs, and their swelling numbers still drive you backward. One of your comrades falls and he is immediately snatched into the mass of knotted limbs. There comes a nervous intake of breath where he disappeared just before the pealing of flesh and the cracking of bone. He had no real opportunity to scream. The rest of your group redoubles their efforts, fighting even harder, more than enough to make up for the fallen man. They surge forward and you retreat deeper into your home. When the doors broke open half of the group chose to flee into the basement, counting on that as a last stronghold, although you’ve already stated your case that this is a deathtrap. Although your own situation hardly seems any better with the sheer numbers you are confronted with.
You stumble, but shrug away the flash of the entirety of your life as you fight back to your feet, thrashing a lone zombie reaching for you. With each head that is bashed in or lopped off it becomes apparent you are not fighting a mob or even a hord, you are fighting a hydra. The dead come at you as one massive body, their numbers becoming greater by the second.
“Get back,” you say, the reason why as obvious to anyone else with eyes and ears. The situation is hopeless at present and even though giving up this high ground would seem the worst possible move an idea has struck you. “We have to get to the roof.”
As you crest the top of the stairs one of your compatriots chances a sideward glance at you.
“The roof?” he says incredulously. He doesn’t question as you break away from the fight, though, and dash down the hall, merely following just as the rest of the group and the dead shortly behind. The last person in doesn’t bother locking the door as dead hands won’t bother with the knob. In milliseconds after they reach the door it will be torn apart as they crowd in. Instead, you go for the window, shoving at it to get it open. Then you see the latch and flip it.
“Hurry, they’re coming!” someone says as if you already didn’t know. You tug on the window again and it still doesn’t budge. You quickly look around the window frame and see that it has been painted shut.
Then you take a step back, not bothering to announce what you are about to do and everyone follows suit as you smash the glass and quickly yank out as many of the tiny shards at the edges as possible before ushering the others out ahead of you.
Just then the moans grow loud, the door seeming to bulge before it splinters in the center and folds open. The dead pour through the door like angry bees from a hive. You look back at the last person wiggling her way through the window and you tap her back, hurrying her along.
You toss pillows, knickknacks, a television to trip them up, slow them down before turning to the window, practically diving through as undead stink fills your nose again.
Steady hands grab hold of you, help you to your feet. Your body automatically reorients to the slanted roof as you look around.
“Where’s <insert name here>?” you ask, noting your group is now a second body short.
“He fell over,” the thin woman whose name you never bothered remembering says. Sometime during all this chaos, names became superfluous, faces interchangeable, the people surrounding you transient.
<insert name here> wasn’t your friend, a neighbor before the apocalypse you knew well enough to say good morning to you by name, but not a friend. Even the ache you feel at the loss has grown cooler.
You nod and turn to face the window as the first one of the undead pops its head out. The skinny woman lops it off with one fell of the meaty sword she said she scavenged from a flea market and it falls away. Two more replace it and the other woman and a teenage boy move in and begin swatting at them with hammers, the woman’s blows falling with pinprick precision until her zombie drops hanging halfway out, the boy’s falling all over the place on its neck, arms, head and back.
An arm reaches out and grabs his wrist, the boy squealing and dropping the hammer inside the house. He had been full of piss and ready to take on the world until his best friend was torn open right in front of him and you had to step in to save him and what was left of Darren.
That name and that particular pale face begging for sweet death you wish you could forget.
You step in and pump a bullet into the brain of the zombie that has a hold of Darren’s friend. It lets go and you force the boy to allow you to examine his arm. By some wicked irony, God has allowed a slim miracle to slip free–the boy is unbitten. His flesh must have passed near at least three or four hungry mouths like a hot ear of buttered corn on the cob and all missed the opportunity.
The boy snatches away and retreats close to the edge. You want to tell him to watch his step and with one glance at the street below your breath is taken away.
There are thousands of them.
If you had any hope of getting past the zombies in the house and outside it dies. There is nowhere to go. The dead are packed tightly together, butts to nuts as someone might have said a year ago, before this nightmare, and to leap from this roof would be like leaping into a live blender.
Dry-mouthed, you turn back to the work at the window. The skinny woman is actively attempting to extract her sword from the skull of a thick-bodied, male zombie. It must be even thicker-skulled as it is still reaching for her, mere inches away with its jagged, talon-like hands. You step forward again and rather than wasting another precious bullet, grab it by its tattered collar and yank it the rest of the way through the window. The sword is pulled from the woman’s hands and as the zombie stands you casually step forward and deliver a Leonidas-style kick to the its chest, pitching it backward and into the sea of dead flesh awaiting below.
You briefly wonder how the people in the basement are faring, no doubt the five who decided on an opposite route from you must have been pushed back just as you were. One advantage the basement has that the upstairs doesn’t is actual hardwood doors. They won’t hold up forever, but perhaps they may fare a bit longer than you.
You don’t know which option to prefer.
“C’mon, let’s keep this up,” the other woman says, tucking her hammer into her pants. They begin grabbing zombie arms and pulling them out the window, propelling them toward the edge and either falling or taking no more than a gentle nudge to finish the job. Even the teenager joins in. After about ten minutes the bigger woman is beginning to tire and you switch with her. The skinny woman is a workhorse and is either not tiring or not interested in complaining.
“I’m ready,” the other woman says after a while, but the skinny one shakes her head. “C’mon, I’m ready.” Another shake. You give the waiting woman a look as if to say ‘What can you do?’ And continue your grueling work.
Shortly after, your rhythm is thrown horribly off. A tall and fat zombie jams its way into the window, big enough to crowd out all others. If you could just kill it and let it hang there you just may be able to get a breather for a while. You take a small step back and reach for your gun, holding out your hand to ward off the skinny woman. But she is set on her work and has not noticed you.
She pulls on the slovenly arm, a good deal of greasy, sallow skin slicking back in her hands, exposing rotted grey-brown muscle and yellowish tendons. She digs in at the wrist, pulling so hard she actually lifts the zombie herself. Then the foul creature’s arm detaches from the shoulder with an audible, sloppy –pop- and she stumbles back a step or two in surprise. She steps forward and in front of you just as you’ve drawn your gun when it springs its legs and comes out of the window like a jack-in-the-box from hell and lands squarely on top of her. Your shot isn’t clean and the other woman is struggling to get her hammer out. The boy is squealing and you seem paralyzed in the interminably long few seconds it takes for the zombie to dip its head and tear out a significant chunk of the skinny woman’s neck like it was putting its lips to a cool river for a drink.
A single kick rolls it off of her and she struggles to her feet, clutching her throat. Her eyes roll but she manages to power through it and saunter to the window again. A zombie about half her size slides through and stands, maybe a child of about eight when it had been living. She shoves it by the face and it rolls off the roof then she punches another in the chin, dislocating something vital enough that it collapses.
The skinny woman pauses, shutters, readjusts her grip on her own throat and seems to be attempting to swallow. Blood pours off her fingers like a waterfall. She sits heavily, barely out of reach of zombies half out the window. You take your mallet and break the arms closest before smashing three heads in quick, efficient blows, effectively stoppering the open window for the moment.
You and the others rush to her side and it is clear she is dying. The woman’s eyes roll slowly around to all three of you. She opens her mouth to speak and a gob of blood spurts out. Her face contorts in frustration and for one brief moment seems to lose control, arms and legs kicking as if they could fight off the inevitable.
With tremendous effort etched in her features she brings herself under control. You get it. She wants to die with her own measure of dignity. You don’t know from where or how she summons the strength but she calms her rapidly failing body until she looks serene.
She looks to you and nods. Before you can process what she means, she takes her hand away, the ragged hole at the side of her neck showering your shirtsleeve in red. It is quick and her eyes remain on you the whole time.
“I wanna go,” the teenager says. You look at him, still in awe of what you have just witnessed. He’s crossing his legs and hugging himself like he needs to pee, the way a three-year old would do.
“So go,” you say flatly. He rattles his head up and down and turns, walking toward the peak of the roof.
“That’s not going to last much longer,” the other woman says. You agree, thinking about much more than the window full of zombies. You’re tired and hungry and the thought of the boy relieving himself makes your burgeoning bladder squeeze. You wonder what’s the point and consider flinging yourself over the edge. It would be quicker and much less torturous.
“Don’t even think about it,” the woman says, fixing you with a hard stare. “We didn’t come this far to quit. I don’t care what the odds.”
“But where do we go?” You gesture to the waiting dead below. “How?”
“God will find a way.”
You grumble something about how The Man Upstairs has had over three hundred days of absenteeism since the dead arose and you doubt He’ll show up for work today.
“Hey, guys, I think I’m gonna jump,” the boy says.
“Todd, no!” the woman says. You don’t bother looking, let him.
“No, I mean across. Mike Powell has the world record at twenty-nine feet, four-and-a quarter inches. I’m about the same height and build as he was, I could do it, probably.”
“You’re just a teenager, Todd, that was a grown man!”
“I know, but what is that, about nineteen feet from edge to edge?”
She turns to you, eyes pleading as you lay the skinny woman’s body gently down, careful not to let it roll.
“I don’t have the strength to fight him and them if he wants to do it.”
“No,” she says and is about to go to him when you hook her by the arm.
“What’s the harm?” you say. “Look at us–look at where we are. Where are we gonna go? What are we gonna do?”
She sags in your grip and the groans of the multitude refills the air in the silence between the two of you.
“Go, son,” you say. The teen nods again and jogs lightly back and forth until he finally settles at the other side of the roof. He stretches his hamstrings and back, rotates his upper body left then right. The whole exercise looks ridiculous given the circumstance, although the last thing any of you need is him tearing an Achilles’ tendon and pitching helplessly into the awaiting dead below.
He kneels and plants the thumb, index and middle fingers on the roof. He sucks air rapidly in and blows it out, his lips in a cartoonish ‘O’. Then he explodes from his crouch, arms like blades, stabbing into the air in front of him as if he is cutting it out of his way, legs thrusting his body forward like he is kicking into higher and higher gears.
“Go,” you hear yourself chanting, fists clenched. The woman’s nails dig into your arm. At first it doesn’t appear as if he is going fast enough. And then he kicks into another gear in the last ten feet and when he leaps your heart sinks. His arms and legs are pinwheeling like he’s falling and then you realize he is. He’s poured all his energy into the jump and he is now at the mercy of Newton’s Law and gravity.
As he descends in a maddening arc your eyes are locked on him. You are convinced he is dead at the same time praying to that absentee God that his feet find purchase on the other side. And then, the slim miracle occurs: he lands. But his forward motion stumbles him several feet farther and he loses his feet.
“Oh no!” you scream and the woman screams too, her nails piercing your skin. You watch him flip butt-over-teakettle before rolling helplessly toward the roof. His legs fall over before his momentum is suddenly stopped. You aren’t breathing and for a second can hear only the throbbing pulse in your ears. The boy seems hurt, but definitely alive. Carefully, he touches everything around him, orienting himself.
“Careful,” the woman says, more for her own ears than Todd’s.
“Get up, Todd. C’mon,” you say. You find yourself believing in something for the first time in what seems like months. The boy rolls over, his shorts snagged on the gutter and tearing, revealing a butt cheek. The woman and you both laugh nervously as he rises and examines himself. He does his best to cover up and as he walks closer to the edge, your heart falls again.
So he’s on the other side. So what?
“Are you okay?” the woman asks. Todd nods.
“See if they’ve made it inside,” the woman says. The boy nods again and walks over to a window.
“I don’t think so,” he says.
“Good. Break the window.”
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Trust me,” Carol says. You remember her name for some reason. Carol.
“Todd, you’re going to find your way to the master bedroom, maybe an adjacent bedroom, look in the closet and find the attic access. There may be insulation up there and a lot of times that’s made with fiberglass. Try not to touch it too much, but once you’re up there find the garage access. There may be a ladder in there.”
“A ladder?” you say, astonished.
“Yes.” Carol looks at you. “I’m not a high school track star. I can’t jump across.”
You nod furiously, remembering your bum knee and wave to Todd. “Go on, hurry up.”
Todd disappears inside as soon as he’s busted open the window. You wait for what seems like ten, then twenty minutes before his head pops out.
“I can’t find it,” he says.
“Check all the bedrooms then, honey,” she says.
“Okay.” He ducks back inside.
The dead have finally dislodged from the window and two have come out. They stand unsteadily and Carol calmly walks over, ducks a lunge and gives the creature a light shove that sends it down and off the roof. The second takes a step and falls of its own accord. Others begin coming out and instead of attacking she allows them to come. Two, then three, then four.
You open your mouth to ask if she’s lost her mind when you get it. The dead already balance precariously, on a slanted surface they may as well be babies just learning to walk. More than half fall before they reach either of you and others require minimal effort to push off the roof. The two of you take the high ground and see the windows on the back of the house have been broken and waving arms and heads hanging out. As you stand with your feet to either side of the roof’s ridge you easily fend off the dead no matter their increasing numbers.
You lose track of time and the sun is near setting when a voice calls out to you.
“I found it!” Todd says, smiling. Carol looks over and so do you. The boy lacerated his scalp at some point, dried blood has tracked down the center of his face.
“Careful with that,” Carol says as he brings out the ladder, but it slides out of his grip and halfway off the roof before he catches it. It is made of aluminum and you’re not sure how much weight it can support the way you’ll be using it.
“We’ll go one at a time–you first,” you say to Carol.
She nods and makes her way toward the edge, stepping over the chimney delicately. A zombie that has been rooted to one spot for the last half hour finally makes its move and dives for her leg. Carol lifts it out of the dead man’s path and it crashes into the roof, bouncing harmlessly away and to the ground below.
You keep the zombies clear as Todd steadies the ladder and Carol attempts a few tentative steps.
“As silly as this sounds,” she says, “I’m afraid of heights a little.”
You grunt in assent, growing impatient as the sun sets. You aren’t sure how well you can move in the dark up here, what you might trip over or what you might not see. As she crosses you continue to fend off the dead and realize yet another problem. How will you cross and prevent them from disturbing the ladder?
Carol bobbles on her first step and you are certain she is about to fall. Then she rights herself, puts her arms out, and quickly manages her way across without incident.
It comes to you how you get across without the dead bothering you, literally falling on your head. At first the rain is a light drizzle, then it picks up, quickly soaking you. The walking corpses that have so far managed to keep their feet on the slanted roof suddenly find the job impossible.
You find yourself sliding some and have to adjust your footing to keep from sliding right into them. But one by one they all begin falling and then falling off the roof.
“Come on!” Carol says, laughing and you laugh too, whether it’s the entire ridiculousness of the whole situation or that you may have found a pinhole sized pathway out of Hell, you don’t know. You turn toward the ladder, ready to crawl across on hands and knees if you have to when you hear the chalky moan.
The corpse of the skinny woman seizes you by the wrist and it is by pure luck alone that you snatch your hand away in time before she bites you. The two of you topple over, her on top, teeth gnashing, reaching for your throat just as the fat zombie did hers. You get your forearm under her chin in time, although it is a struggle. Whereas she was strong in life, she appears even stronger in now. You know this is not true, that actually the single-mindedness off the dead allows them to focus their energy more intensely than the living, ignoring all else around them. This is of absolutely no comfort for you in this moment.
Add to your dilemma you’ve begun sliding to the edge and it feels like you may have broken a rib when you fell. Carol and Todd are shouting and you do your best to ignore them, wishing they would be quiet so you could figure out what to do. You try to dig your gun out but the corpse is pressed so firmly atop you it grinds the weapon painfully into your hip.
This is it, either fight or die. You set your mind, mentally laying out a short list of tasks to survive the next few moments. You have to stop sliding. You aren’t in a position to dig your heels in, your shoes would just be pulled off your feet. So you decide to do something even riskier and let the zombie’s face come closer to yours. It takes some effort but you manage to turn its head away and wrap your arms around its shoulder and neck, tucking your shoulder beneath its chin as you hug it tightly. It scratches at your clothes and the roof, tearing out tiles futilely. You take a deep breath, bend your knees and slap the soles of your shoes onto the roof and pump your hips as hard as you can, throwing the zombie’s lower body off yours.
Its legs sail into view, its neck cracking a second later. The body slackens and collapses and you let go, turning over to watch it tumble onto the sea of still moving bodies below. You’ve come close enough that your head and arms hang over the edge and you take a moment to look at them as they absently pull apart the woman who had been Sheila.
Sheila had been her name. And she had been the strongest woman–person–you had ever met.
You hear Carol’s voice over the rain like a million drumming fingers on the roof. You rise from your reverie and carefully trudge back to the ridge. You are beyond exhausted and simply watch as more zombies pour out of the window and immediately slip and fall off the roof. It would be comical if you hadn’t lost so many today.
“Are you okay?” Carol asks. You look at her, give her a weak thumbs up and collapse to your hands and knees. The crawl across the ladder is slow, but intentional. You are certain not to miss a rung, grasping each fully with either hand and centering it on your knees as your traverse to the other side, all the while looking down at the mass of writhing bodies and reaching hands until you feel Todd and Carol pulling you to your feet.
“Dad, we made it,” Todd says, smiling broadly at you. You look at him as if you need a moment to translate what those four words mean. Carol gently squeezes your arm and points out something in the distance in the dying light. It takes a moment, but you see the fence, still intact, and know what that means.
“They can’t smell us in the rain. They can’t hear us, either, honey.” Carol speaks as if she knows a secret. She pulls your face close and kisses you passionately, unintentionally scratching you with the downturned diamond of her wedding ring. Her positive energy slowly energizes you until you can stand on your own. Todd slaps you on the shoulder and smiles.
There are a dozen houses between the three of you and that fence and the dead appear to be thinner there.
“Well, if the ladder holds,” you say, sounding weak still but stronger than you felt five minutes ago.
It’s probably impossible, you think. We’ll probably die. Carol will fall off the roof, I’ll probably fall with the ladder and Todd will try to jump again and fall short. Despite these dark and doubtful thoughts, you find a wellspring of something inside you have long been in short supply: hope.
* * * * *
The stench of frozen flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Winter of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 40+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of November.
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