A/N: Wrote this in 2011 for a creative writing class I was taking. I've cleaned it up some in order to post it, though there's definitely an older version of this floating around on the internet somewhere. Hope you enjoy.
We're out on patrol, close to what used to be the Seventh Avenue mall and shopping center, when my rifle jams in the middle of a deserted intersection.
Well, it doesn't so much as jam as splinter into a hundred pieces when a zombie jumps out of freaking nowhere and tackles me to the ground. I yelp in surprise like a little girl, both at the slobbering mess of once-was-a-human-being trying to take a chunk out of my face and the shock of my freaking gun breaking beneath my own weight. I get a second to wonder if I'm really that fat before I'm fighting to keep the zombie's rotting mouth from latching on to any part of me.
Then there's the sound of a gun cocking and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to keep all of the undead guts out. The weight gets dragged away a moment later, and I sit up, blinking past the blood dripping down my brow and into my eyes. My savior, Jacey, is wiping gunk from his face with the collar of his shirt. Meg is standing nearby, hovering over the stinking zombie corpse. Now that it's not trying to eat me, I can get a good look at it. Pink flowery sundress, stringy blonde hair. Probably was a really pretty lady, back when she was alive.
Jacey extends a hand. His fingernails are crusted with dirt and blood.
"Thanks," I say, grabbing it and levering myself to my feet. Once I'm standing, I take a look at my gun where it has landed on the asphalt. It's busted to hell. Last time I go to Walmart for my weapons. "Let's get out of here," I say, glancing around. It looks quiet, not even the wind rustling the tumbleweeds. But quiet is never a good indicator of safety; we all know that.
Jacey takes a moment to reload, the sound shocking across the empty street. He checks his gun and nods his head. "Let's go."
When we get back to base, a hollowed-out high school repurposed for our needs, we are almost immediately ambushed by James, the little prick.
"How was patrol?" He asks. He's Jacey's kid brother, so he's got a reason for following us around all over the place, but I really wish he wouldn't. I can't stand him.
"It was fine. Bryce got noogied by a girl, and she broke his gun," Meg answers. She always thinks it's funny when I get attacked. It's happened to me loads more times than anyone else I know, and everybody likes to make fun of me for it. You'd think I'd get used to it after a while, learn some new ninja technique for knocking the baddies off of me, but every single damn time it's all I can do to keep them from scooping my eyeballs out of their sockets. I don't have time to think and strategize, I just do, and wait for someone to come along and blow their brains out.
James is chortling. The prick. "Yeah? Why's that always happen to you? You think the zombies are attracted to your pretty boy face?" He reaches out, still laughing like a d-bag, and pinches my cheek. I slap his hand away, moving out of his reach. He just keeps cackling. I hate him.
"Bryce, where's your gun?" Someone asks from behind us. I turn to see Renee, followed by Sophie, strolling out from the mess hall. I try to catch Sophie's eye, but she skillfully avoids eye contact.
James answers Renee, of course. "Smashed it to bits on patrol, ma'am."
I want to smack him in the face. "'Was a piece of shit, anyway. I'll just have to borrow someone else's gun for patrols until I can get a new one-"
"We don't have the weapons to spare, Vogler," Renee says in that tone of voice that turns my blood to ice. My mama would use that voice on me when I and my brother did something real bad. I hate that it reminds me of my mom, and my life before.
"I'm sorry," I bite out. There's really nothing else you can do when Renee is staring you down like you're the cockroach she's just scraped off the bottom of her shoe. Just apologize. Apologize and grovel. "I won't let it happen again."
She narrows her eye at me. I can practically feel my shoulders hunching under the force of her glare. After a long, tense moment, she says, "See that it doesn't," And moves on, leaving the rest of us standing there.
James, of course, is the one to break the silence. "She does not like you right now, Bryce."
"Shut the fuck up, Foreman," I mutter, and stalk away.
Renee finds me sometime later that night. I'm sitting on the roof, keeping an eye on the fence for any sign of undead. She appears out of nowhere, plops down right next to me, and steals the cigarette right out of my hand.
"You're too young to be smoking that," she says, taking a long drag and blowing the smoke to the wind. I snort in response- Carlos has been smoking for three years now, and he's eleven. She glances at me from the corner of her eye. "Or are you?"
I sometimes forget that Renee knows everything about everybody. It makes her the perfect leader, to know things about her soldiers that even they don't recognize, but it also makes it a bitch if you want to forget stuff. "I dunno," I mumble, suddenly avoiding her gaze. I try very hard not to think about the scar on my leg, a wound that healed ages ago but still bothers me occasionally, on nights I can't sleep.
Neither one of us says anything for a while, but we're both thinking the same thing. My birthday's coming up, and it's the big one-eight. In a perfect world, I'd be legal. I could vote and have sex. In this shithole, it's the worst thing that could happen to me.
"It might not happen," I blurt. "I mean, I don't really remember much of that day. I could have cut myself on some broken glass. It could just be that, not…"
Renee puts a hand on my shoulder. I feel sorry for her. She's got to be forty or older, and here she is, looking after a bunch of teenagers in the post-apocalyptic cesspool of zombie-fied Earth. She probably had plans to get married, have kids, settle down. Instead she gets an eye gouged out and twenty unruly kids to watch over. I feel sorry for her, but I feel even worse for me.
"You're a good kid, Bryce," She says, and that's it. It sounds just so cliché and stupid, but it's enough to make me start crying like an idiot. Renee pats me on the back, but it's not much of a comfort.
After all, in a few days, I may be dead. Or I may be undead. I'm not sure which is worse.
I was twelve the day my brother and I came home from school to find our mother bent over the mailman's body, covered in blood. Kyle was only eight. We'd come in through the back door, because the two of us had made a pit stop at the 7-Eleven down the road, and we climbed over the back wall to take a shortcut. I remember throwing a chair through the living room window to get out, because our mom was in front of the door, and letting Kyle climb out first. My mom had got a hold of my ankle before I'd made it all the way out. After a bit of a struggle, I got away, the bottom half of my leg bruised and bleeding.
My brother and I got separated after a few weeks. I don't remember feeling sad about it, and I don't even remember how it happened. One minute he was there, by my side, the next he was gone. I don't even know if he's still alive, and it scares me that I don't even care that much.
After a good long emasculating cry, I leave Renee on the roof to go back inside. James and Meg are playing poker and bickering playfully while Jacey sits at the table, fiddling with the knobs on our two-way radio. Someone found it on a raid a couple of years back, and people take turns searching the airwaves for other survivors. No one's found anything yet, though we're not sure if that's just because none of us know how to work the thing. I stay away from it mostly, because I'd rather be uncertain about the fate of the world than sure of its doom.
I head to the kitchens to see if there's any food. We've got this huge pantry that we've stockpiled with canned goods and other non-perishables. You can tell it used to be a classroom because it's bleak and windowless, except for the single rectangle of glass set in the heavy wooden door. There may have been desks, tables or chairs at some point, but now there's just a bunch of crates and boxes, a bunch of debris no one can really be bothered to drag out. Sometimes I sit in there and wonder about the kids who would come to class here, before the world fell apart. I wonder about what my high school experience would have been like, if I had had the chance. Would I be the nerd? Would I be a jock?
I grab myself a can of baked beans and take a seat on a stack of empty crates. The door opens.
If I had any sort of guts for anything other than killing zombies, I would have told Sophie how I felt four years ago, when we first met. And I would tell her now, if courage had come with my growth spurt and deep voice, but I don't even think she likes me. It's like she barely tolerates me, most of the time.
But even though she treats me like crap and she doesn't even bother to give me the time of day, I still like her. I still want to count the freckles on her nose, smooth away the worry lines in her forehead. I want to make her smile and laugh. I want her to be happy.
"'Sup," I greet her, raising my spoon in a half-hearted wave.
She's paused in the doorway, looking unsure of herself. "Do you-" She begins. Taking a breath, she continues. "Renee told me to come talk to you."
"Oh. Um. You don't have to…?"
Sophie closes the door and takes a seat next to me. "Look, Bryce. I know."
I shovel some beans into my mouth. "You know what?"
She gives me a look. "I know."
"Oh. Oh! Ohhhh." Shit. She knows about me, and about what may or may not happen in a few days, and if Renee made her come and talk to me, then, well, I don't know, maybe she's going to put me out of my misery, which makes some kind of weird, sick sense that the girl I love is going to kill me-
"I mean, anyone with eyes knows you like me."
"What? Uh, I mean-"
"I'm sorry I've been such a bitch to you this whole time. I think you're a good guy, but I just…" Her face is red and her eyes are fixed on her lap. "There's something you don't know about me." She looks up. Her eyes are the most stunning shade of green. I don't think I've ever noticed that before.
"Bryce," Sophie begins. Her voice is suddenly small and weak, smaller and weaker than I've ever heard it. "I… I'm going to turn eighteen in a few months."
I blink. "Okay…? I'm going to be eighteen soon, too."
"No!" She glares at me, suddenly angry. "It's not going to be a normal birthday for me."
The sudden realization sinks my stomach.
She continues without waiting for me to respond. "I was bitten early on, by some guy on the street. I thought I was fine, when I didn't change for a month, but that was before people started realizing that kids aren't affected until, until…" She gets to her feet and paces the room. "It's like some fucked up form of puberty- I've been walking around with this weight on my shoulders, knowing that eventually, someday, I'll be exactly the kind of thing we've been killing to survive, and I'll have to be put down like an animal, and it's just not fair!" She kicks the side of a cardboard box, breathing heavily.
I don't move. I feel like if I even try, I might shatter into a million little pieces. Just like my gun, just like my normal life. Sophie comes and sits next to me, much closer than before.
"Do you understand, Bryce? Why I tried to push you away? I was trying to be strong, to keep you from being hurt. But I…" She begins to cry, her face pushed up against my shoulder.
I look down at her. I want to wipe her tears away, I want to make everything better, but most of all I don't want this world to be anymore. That these kinds of things can happen and do happen, to kids who don't know any better than to try and live and move on until the day they become something worse than adult and less than human. It's not fair. It really isn't.
Sophie is still crying, her tears soaking my sleeve. I run a hand over her back. It takes me a while to find my voice, stuck somewhere between my stomach and my throat, and when I do, it's all I can bear to just say, "I understand, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
I am so sorry.
A few days later, I'm sitting on the roof of the school, keeping watch on the surrounding neighborhood. Renee sent Jacey, Meg, and a bunch of others out on patrol, but made me stay here and keep a lookout. Zombies tend to travel alone, so they can be hard to spot until they're right under your nose and in your face.
It's nearly ten o'clock when I spot one, ambling along in a three-legged run. I keep my eyes on it as I head for the ladder. I can't tell if it's heading over here or not, but I can't be too careful.
"James, Sophie. There's a zombie about a quarter-mile that way. I'm going to head out," I tell them. Sophie nods.
I grab James' gun from the table. I still haven't gotten around to replacing my own. "See you in a bit, yeah?"
Sophie waves me on, not even looking up from what she's doing. We haven't spoken much since what happened. It's mostly me. Every time she tries to start a conversation, I clam up, unwilling to share all of my deepest, darkest secrets. I feel like an asshole every time, too. I see the way she pulls back, hurt, and I can't do anything to keep that hurt out of her expression. I'm a coward.
I head out beyond the perimeter, my worn-out sneakers squeaking across the torn concrete. I should look into getting new ones, but it's just so hard to find the time sometimes.
I round a corner onto what used to be a staff parking lot, stepping over overgrown weeds and a broken cement block to see the zombie shuffling about, making funny little grunting noises. Surprised to find it so suddenly and so close to the base entrance, I take a step backwards, shoes catching on some loose pebbles and sending them flying across the pavement.
The two of us freeze. I pull the gun up, fingers fumbling for the trigger. Shit. Maybe I should have asked Sophie to come with me, even if things are awkward between us. I don't think I've ever taken out a zombie on my own; there's always been at least Jacey there, or Jacey and Meg, or hell, even Renee once. My index finger finds the trigger as I pull the gun up to aim.
The zombie stands stock still, its breaths coming out in rattling wheezes that I hear in my nightmares. It stares at me with the sort of singular focus you see in wild animals that haven't had anything to eat for an entire winter, gaze hungry and ruthless.
I'm frozen, watching it. This is probably the first time I've taken the time to notice these little things- the way its eyes, though sunken in and bloodshot, are still alive and somewhat intelligent. I always thought of them as animals, not even human. The thought makes me pause, and I lower the gun slightly, curious.
The zombie bares its rancid, cracked teeth, and takes a single lurching step forward. It's enough to break me out of my reverie, and I pull the rifle back up, fingers bearing down on the trigger. In two succinct shots, the zombie is dead, splattered all over the principal's parking spot. I sigh, check the area for any others, and head back to base.
On the way there, I wonder why the zombie hadn't just attacked. I've never met any undead that just stared, rather than lunging. The idea that they may be somehow evolving makes my spine crawl, and I push it away as I pass through the steel gates and into the school.
"Took care of it?" James asks as I approach.
That's when I feel it. All morning there's been an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, almost like hunger, but now the emptiness creates a cavity. I hunch, bent over from the sensation. It doesn't hurt, but it feels like it should. I let out a groan as it sends a shiver rippling through the muscles of my back.
"Bryce? You okay?"
"No, I—" My voice dries up, and all I can do is make weak keening sounds, like I'm gasping for air. It suddenly becomes hard to breathe, and every breath I take is an effort, unbelievably so.
I turn to face James. He's staring at me like I've grown a second head. Maybe I have. I should want to reassure him that I'm fine, nothing weird is going on even though there totally is something weird going on, but I don't. I don't want to do anything like that at all. I'm still staring at him when I realize my vision has gone black and white, and sounds- all sounds- are strangely muffled and distorted.
James turns his head. "Bryce?" He asks again.
Without thought, I lunge forward and sink my teeth into his shoulder. I don't know what possesses me to do this, I only know that if I do, maybe I'll be able to breathe easier, see clearer, hear better. He screams in pain, and I drop him, turning towards the other one. I need more. I crave more.
Sophie grabs the shotgun off of the wall, points it at me. I take a step forward, feeling James' blood dripping down my chin and all over my shirt.
Something barrels into me from the side, pulling me down. An arm circles my throat, cutting off my air. I claw and kick and screech, trying to break free. My struggles loosen the hold on me, and I take advantage of that by biting into the exposed wrist below my chin. Their blood spurts warm and heavy over my tongue, and I know that I've never experienced anything better than this. Whoever it is yells in pain, but, if anything, their grip tightens. I try to fight more, to be free, but the arm, bleeding all over my face and down my chin and across the front of my shirt, is like a band of steel keeping me in place.
"Do it," The voice is Renee's, and it's directly by my ear. I try to twitch to get away from it, but the chokehold prevents me from getting anywhere. I make a noise, desperate and whining.
"But-" Sophie says. I look up at her. She still has the shotgun pointed at me.
"Do it," Renee growls.
Sophie nods, sniffing.
"Bryce, I'm sorry," Renee whispers. "I should have never let this happen."
There are tears in Sophie's eyes. She aims.
Her finger pulls back on the trigger. There's a loud noise. I flinch back reflexively, and
I'm sorry, too.
A/N: Thanks for reading!