Somebody shine a light
I’m frozen by the fear in me
Somebody make me feel alive
And shatter me
– Lindsey Stirling, “Shatter Me”
At first, there was only the flicker of burning fires and the smoke that wafted across the heat-cracked street. The sound of the dead came on a wind that felt too warm for the early December air. It came from dozens of throats, first as scattered moans and hisses, then slowly joining together to create a cacophony of sound. From the time Katie and her dad exited the shelter until she saw movement in the smoke, only a few heartbeats elapsed.
They came slowly, lurching through the smoke and into the dancing firelight. They were men and women, but Katie knew without even seeing their wounds that they were infected. It was something instinctive, a survival mechanism buried deep inside that told her these were predators and she was prey. Those feelings were quickly confirmed as they emerged onto the street. Some wore the body armor of the National Guard, guns still hanging from dead hands, while others were people she knew. Janet Athens had been her biology teacher in tenth grade. Now she stumbled into view with her jaw missing, a black tongue swinging in the cool air. Her dad made a signal with his hand towards her right, telling her to fall back into cover.
Katie kept low and hurried to a position further along the ruins of the school to her right. She ducked into deepest darkness she could find and took cover behind a two foot wall of rubble, covering her dad while he hurried to her. The group of infected was large, two dozen at least. The part of her brain that was still focused on her task made a quick scan for Lindsay’s mom, but didn’t see her. The other part, the one that was just seventeen and scared out of her mind, found herself shaking at the sight of them.
Focus, Katie. You can do this.
They moved back, reaching the rear of the building and then crossed the street, trying to keep as much distance and real estate between them and the infected as possible. Her dad spoke to her with hand signals, getting her attention with a tap on the arm or a quick wave of his hand. This was one thing they’d practiced every summer, but until now Katie always thought it was annoying. Why signal when they could just talk? Stealth didn’t seem so important in those warm summer days.
She took the lead at the next corner and at her dad’s direction, turned left back toward the street. Her eyes were focused on the far corner and she hurried towards it at a crouch, her gun held at the ready. It was that focus that made her miss the open doorway.
The infected was a ten year old boy. The only thing that alerted her to his presence was a sharp, hungry hiss, making her turn just as he leapt at her. Katie fell back, her feet falling out from under her. Her finger slipped through the trigger guard and squeezed. Once. Twice. Both rounds struck the boy in the chest as she hit the ground on her back. The chambered .22LR rounds were not the most powerful round but had enough power to stagger him. That likely saved her life.
The boy let out a screech that made Katie’s insides go cold. She froze up, eyes wide with fear as he reached for her with hands blackened and burned. The fingertips were white where the bone showed through. His teeth were yellow and caked with viscera. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything. In an instant she thought of all the stupid things she’d done in her life. Why did she have to make this one little mistake now? When she woke up earlier that day, she’d never imagined her life would end. She never even got to say goodbye to Lindsay or to tell her dad about her.
A burst of blood and brain sprouted from the side of the boy’s head a moment before Katie heard the crack of her dad’s rifle. A second shot exploded his right eye and carried the bridge of his nose and left cheekbone with it. Katie was unable to stop the shriek of fright from escaping her lips as the boy fell onto her legs. She kicked frantically until her dad was able to drag her away. With her dad’s strong hands lifting her up, she stood while he checked her over for wounds. Only a few seconds had passed but it felt like hours until she’d composed herself.
“Are you okay?” her dad said, leaning close enough for their masks to touch. His breath fogged a the bottom of his faceplate and hid his eyes from her. Katie wished hers would do the same. She felt like the world’s biggest idiot. And the most incompetent daughter ever.
“Now’s not the time,” he said and pointed behind her, back at the street. She turned and, despite the darkness, she saw that the infected were moving their way now. She could hear their moans and screeches. They sounded like a pack of wild animals.
“They’re on the hunt now,” he said. “Are you good to run?”
She nodded. There was no choice, even if her legs felt like jelly and her nerves felt like live power cables. Her rifle still hung by the tactical sling and she took it up again, the heavy weight reassuring in her hands. It was a good, solid tool that made her useful. It made her feel secure, even if just a little bit. Sometimes, that’s all she needed.
They moved to the edge of the building, keeping as close to the shadows as they could. It didn’t matter. The infected had heard the shots, heard her scream. They lurched forward like a wave of broken marionettes, picking up speed as they crossed the distance toward them.
“The snowmobile, now! Run!” her dad shouted and Katie ran. She pounded across the street, slipped once on some loose snow but turned the fall into a clumsy shoulder-roll. Her dad reached down a hand as he rushed past and pulled her up. Together they crossed the street, but the fastest of the infected were only twenty feet behind them. Her dad turned and fired off a few shots. One dropped, another had its legs cut out from under him.
“Go! I’ll cover you!”
“Take this,” he said and shoved the paper they’d found in the shelter, the one with the possible evacuation location on it, into Katie’s hand. Then he shoved her away towards the hill and woods. “Go!”
“Not without you!”
Her dad fired again, backing up towards the hill as he did so. Another infected dropped, but it wasn’t dead. It began to crawl towards them, pulling itself along with just its hands. Katie brought her rifle up and looked down the holographic sights. She remembered to keep both eyes open and centered on the closest infected, a middle-aged man she didn’t recognize. She squeezed the trigger and saw a small black hole appear in his throat, but he didn’t fall. She aimed a little higher and this time took him in the forehead. The corpse fell forward without any further movement. It didn’t jerk or spasm when it fell. It just simply went still.
More of them were coming around the corner of the nearest building. Katie and her dad had backed halfway to the hill but there was no way they were going to make it in time. Her dad pointed up the hill towards the woods.
“Go, now!” he said and began to sprint to the left, firing his rifle at the infected and shouting as he did so. The infected began to turn to give chase, drawn to the sound of his rifle’s report and his voice. She stood there for a heartbeat, caught between the horror of watching her dad being chased and the command he’d given her. She couldn’t leave him here, she couldn’t!
She knew it was a stupid thing to do, but she couldn’t be responsible for this, could not leave her dad here with those… things. Bringing the rifle up to her shoulder, she aimed and fired. One, two, three. Two of the infected fell. The whole world seemed to go still for her. In those moments, all she had was a target. A finger pull. Crack. The metallic clang of the next round being chambered. The infected fell. Next target. Pull. Crack.
Before she knew it, the chamber resonated a hollow, empty ping, signaling that her magazine was empty. The modified magazines held roughly 30 rounds of the .22LR ammunition that her dad favored for hunting. Had she really unloaded that many?
She didn’t have time to find out. Half of the infected peeled away and began to chase after her. Some of them tripped over the bodies of other fallen infected, but quickly scrambled up again. She lost track of where her dad was and turned to run towards the tree line. They were right behind her, the sound of their feet slipping and crunching the snow was just feet away as she crested the hill and found the tree line.
She leapt over the small hedge of bushes and zig-zagged her way through the trees, hoping to confuse or trip some of them up. As she ran, she fumbled for a second magazine but couldn’t get it out of her chest pocket. Shit, shit, shit! All that training and she couldn’t even reload her weapon when she needed it!
A cold, dead hand grabbed her sleeve but she twisted away and turned hard again, her boots keeping her sure-footed on the snow-covered ground. A woman in a tattered parka and business skirt reached for her from around a tree. Katie brought up her rifle and slammed the butt of it into her forehead. It didn’t kill the infected, but it knocked her back enough for Katie to slip through. Almost there… She spied the group of trees where the snowmobile was parked. Ten more long-legged strides took her straight to it.
Only to find that the snowmobile was gone.