Anthony L. Smith
“I can’t decide what would be worst: getting eaten alive out there or starving in here.”
AJ cracked open his eyes. They hadn’t eaten anything in three days. Everything felt like an effort.
Harry laid across the back seat of the pick-up, his feet kicked up against the door, knees bent. A patchwork of stubble dotted his chin and jawline. Rays of sunlight peeked through the truck’s armor plates, turning his shirt into a jigsaw puzzle of light and dark.
“I’m still going to say getting eaten out there,” AJ replied, his voice more than a little raspy. He took a sip from his canteen, trying to rid the feeling of sandpaper from his throat. At first, they had been scared to speak, thinking the horde would start back up again if they did. Apparently they couldn’t hear them inside the truck, though. Still, the pair kept their voices low just in case.
Hope dwindled even further as AJ stared down into his canteen. He had tried to ration it. If anyone came to rescue them, he needed to be hydrated, ready to run. It looked more and more like that wasn’t going to happen, though, and there were only a few drops left now.
Another zombie stumbled past the truck. Its milky white eyes paid the vehicle a passing glance as it trudged on.
At least they finally stopped banging, AJ supposed.
When they first jumped into the armored vehicle, the zombies had about tipped it over. Unable to do that, they took to banging on the welded iron plates that protected the truck’s windows and windshield. After almost thirty hours, they finally relented. Now, they simply roved aimlessly around it, at least a hundred of them.
Too many to handle without any ammo, AJ thought. Not for the first time, he ejected his pistol’s magazine. It was still empty. He had gone through every last pocket in his pants, every last pouch in his vest and pack. There wasn’t a single round of ammunition to be had. Even the truck was devoid of any bullets. Their machetes wouldn’t do much good against a horde this big either. They’d be overrun in seconds.
“Rachel must be losing her shit back at camp,” Harry said. His voice was fairly hoarse as well, though – to be fair – it had always been pretty gruff. Sweat slicked his chestnut hair back into a pseudo-mullet. Dark stains inked his shirt beneath the arms.
AJ could do little more than nod. Tears might have lined his cheeks if he weren’t so exhausted, so dehydrated. He had gradually accepted he would never see her again.
All thanks to this bullshit mission, AJ thought. And the idiot who volunteered for it.
Of course, in his defense, it was supposed to be a milk run, simple. Carmen scoped out the town. Nestled in the shadow of a nearby mountain range, there were hardly any zombies and the majority of the community looked untouched by scavengers. Doors were still closed and windows intact. They had just enough gas to make it into town before running on empty. Three teams of two. Get in, get the essentials – food, gas, medicine, ammunition – and get the hell out.
AJ wasn’t sure which of the other teams activated the car alarm, but the entire town woke up as soon as it started blaring. AJ and Harry were raiding the pharmacy when they heard it. They grabbed everything they could before slinging their packs and racing back toward the entrance.
The horde met them on their way out. They were forced to retreat out the back into the alley, blasting zombies along the way. Three magazines emptied in a flash. Blood everywhere. Somehow they managed to jump into the truck and close the doors before the horde could overwhelm them.
They had been stuck inside ever since, the truck on empty, no response on the radio. Sasha and Christopher were supposed to be on the gas run, filling up every can they had and dropping them off with the other two teams. They never arrived. Every prayer AJ could think of escaped his lips that first hour after they were attacked, turning the key over and over, hoping it would crank to life. Even if it was just for a hundred yards, it would give them the necessary gap they needed to make a run for it. Anywhere. It didn’t matter.
If God did exist, though, He wasn’t looking at them. The truck was dead and, it seemed, so were they.
AJ shifted in his seat. They had closed the sliding shutters that guarded the front windshield, preventing more than a few thin beams of light from entering the cab. It also turned the truck into a hotbox and prevented any of their stench from exiting. Three days was a long time and, this morning, they had been unable to hold it any longer. They used bags they had grabbed from the pharmacy and emptied their bowels inside, sealing them as best they could. It hadn’t done much for the smell, the feces baking beneath the seat and clouding the entire interior of the truck. More than anything else, AJ just wanted to be rid of that smell. Even a slight crack in their defenses could be what let the zombies in, however, and they just couldn’t risk it.
No matter how much it burns my nostrils, AJ mused.
He reached up with a shaking hand and lowered the sun flap. His reflection greeted him from the attached mirror. Dark, slanted eyes rimmed in red stared back at him. His shaggy black hair was ridden with dandruff, perks of not having a proper wash in months. Wiping down with wet rags and a bar of soap could only take a person so far and they didn’t have the water to spare for a proper shower. Rachel had said he was still one of the cleanest people in camp, though.
Before AJ could think too far on that, Harry interrupted his thoughts.
“You know what I miss most about the old days?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me? You know what that’s made of?” AJ couldn’t help but ask. He swallowed the feeling of dirt that scratched at the back of his tongue.
“I don’t even want to hear it, man. That thing was delicious,” Harry replied, a sad smirk creasing his lips.
AJ simply shook his head. Of all the things he could miss the McRib.
“What about you? What do you miss from the old days?” Harry asked.
AJ wasn’t sure what to say at first. His family? His mom? Harry had thrown out something so simple, something so mundane, he felt like saying his mom would be too easy. Of course he missed her, but what else? He sighed heavily.
“Driving with the windows down,” he finally said after several long seconds.
“Yeah, can’t really do that nowadays. Your arm might actually be ripped off by sticking it out the window,” Harry said. He took a quick pull from his own canteen, tipping it almost all the way over. He screwed the top back on and AJ could see the thoughts turning behind his gaze, the crease of his brow that spoke of much more serious contemplations.
“Do you think they even considered sending anyone?” he asked.
It took AJ several seconds to respond, formulating his answer. “Well, we took the last of the gas. The generators will be out by tonight. The food won’t last much past the end of the week. If Thomas has any sense, he’ll send some sort of rescue mission, but it will take them another day to be certain we’re not coming back.”
Harry managed something like a chuckle from the back seat. It sounded more like a snort than anything.
“Thomas always does take a week to make a decision,” he said. Again, AJ nodded in response. “You ever wonder what his job was in the military was? I mean, he acts like he was some big badass, but he could be a fuckin’ janitor for all we know.”
“I’ve never heard of a Colonel janitor,” AJ replied, fighting the urge to down the last few drops from his canteen. The moment he did, he knew it would be a countdown to his death. Normally, dehydration would take him far quicker than starvation, but, at this point, it was anyone’s game.
AJ’s father had been in the Army when he was a kid. Fortunately, cancer had taken him before this firestorm kicked off. Like many others, AJ never learned what happened to his mother, something he had been forced to live with after the first few months. The irony of that thought suddenly kicked in and AJ couldn’t help but crack the slightest of smiles. He doubted the words ‘fortunately’ and ‘cancer’ had ever been used in such a regard before the outbreak.
Fortunately, my father died slowly and painfully, his lungs ridden with bile and phlegm…
It was the first smile AJ had cracked since leaving camp and waving to Rachel. They never said goodbye. It was always “see you later” or a simple wave. He wished he had said goodbye this time instead of waving like a damn idiot. He wished more than anything he had told her how much he loved her, held her, stayed with her.
“He could have just taken that jacket.”
AJ blinked away the thoughts, the image of holding Rachel one last time, finally having the courage to tell her those three little monumental words.
“What?” he asked.
“Thomas. He could have just taken that jacket off some corpse, claimed he was military so we’d put him in charge.”
“I guess he’s got the attitude, though. Even if he’s not a Colonel, he’s definitely been in the military.”
“And that means we should just put him in charge? Let’s not forget it was his dumbass plan to have Sasha and Chris go for the gas while we drove on empty. We should have all gone for the gas and then looked for supplies,” Harry said, slowly sitting up and leaning against the center console dividing the driver and passenger seat.
“Yeah well hindsight is twenty-twenty,” AJ said. His mind continued to flood with images of Rachel. Her raven hair, always tied up in a ponytail to stay off her shoulders. Her sage-green eyes, pulling him in the first moment he saw her. AJ shifted in his seat, banging his knee against the passenger-side glove box. He mumbled a curse.
Harry said something again, waking him from his thoughts, but it was little more than a murmur this time.
“What?” he asked again.
“I don’t want to starve here, man,” Harry said a little louder this time. His forehead rested against the center console and AJ didn’t have to see his face to know he was fighting back tears.
He could hear it in his voice.
“Me neither,” was all AJ could think to say. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach said that was exactly what was going to happen, though, and his fingers traced around the wooden handle at his side.
“I always thought I’d go out in a blaze of glory,” Harry said. “Even before all this bullshit. I even had a DNR order in my file if I ever ended up in the hospital.”
“Yeah, this wasn’t exactly my first choice either,” AJ replied. His stomach felt like it was eating itself. Hell, it was eating itself.
“What would be your first choice? Besides the obvious of having a heart attack while banging a bunch of Playboy Bunnies?” Harry asked.
“Peacefully in my bed,” AJ replied. He slowly leaned his head back against the seat. “No pain.”
Another headache was forming in his temple, brought on by all the talking. Nausea would accompany it soon enough and he wondered how long it would be before he couldn’t lift himself up anymore. He knew it could take up to two weeks to starve to death, but that was assuming proper nutrition beforehand. He had survived off of nothing but beans, stew, and water for months, so there was really no telling how long it would take for his body to give up.
Angling his head so he could see out the slit in the armor, AJ saw the number of zombies had not dwindled. The sun dipped toward the tops of the surrounding buildings. The Yarn Barn still hosted a CLOSED sign across its entrance, as if it was any other day.
The way the zombies wandered aimlessly up and down the street, surrounding their truck, it could be a Fall Festival. All it needed was a welcome banner.
“At least you still have someone,” Harry mumbled, leaning back in his seat. “Rachel is probably tearing the camp apart right now. She loves you, you know?”
AJ nodded, the thought somehow bringing him more pain than comfort. He hated that he would never see her again, that he had been courageous enough to volunteer for the supply run, but too cowardly to tell her he loved her.
No matter who had activated the car alarm, it was his fault he was here.
“You don’t have to do this, man,” Harry said.
AJ didn’t respond. He closed his eyes again, his head feeling like a balloon floating up into the atmosphere as he gripped the handle. Fear had consumed him so completely for the last several days, he wasn’t even sure if it was what he was feeling anymore. He knew he didn’t want to slowly starve to death, but fear still drove nails into his stomach. Harry groaned from the back seat and AJ kept his eyes closed, biting his tongue. His last thought before sleep took him was of Rachel and the day they met. She had been in the refugee camp with him. They discovered they were both students at the same university and had even been in the same dorm their freshman year, though they never saw each other.
“It took the zombie apocalypse for us to finally meet,” she would always jokingly say late at night.
When the first zombie turned in the camp, it was Rachel who said they had to leave. AJ didn’t argue. They got out with a handful of others, Colonel Thomas among them, and set up a camp at a collection of log cabins in the mountains. That was almost a year ago and the camp had turned into a full-on compound, with spiked wooden walls and its own well, dug by the camp’s inhabitants.
More and more survivors found their way into the mountains, learning it was better to stay well away from society if they wanted to survive. Ten turned into twenty. Twenty turned into forty. Forty turned back into twenty when a fever took many of the elderly and weak.
That was what had spurred Thomas into sending a supply run into an actual town. They couldn’t afford to lose that many again and supplies ran dangerously low. Rachel begged him not to volunteer, but AJ had always been one of the fastest in the camp, and Harry was a good shot. Plus, he couldn’t let Harry go out on his own. They were a team and they’d be back in no time, he told her.
Those words haunted AJ as his eyes slowly opened again, this time to almost complete darkness. He slowly craned his neck around and saw Harry was still asleep in the back seat, laying as comfortably as he could. The smell of feces was still present, accompanied by something else. The late stages of body odor, AJ supposed.
Grabbing his canteen, AJ dumped the last few drops into his mouth. He wondered if Harry had any left and, if he did, how long it would take before he started begging for it. Thirst, hunger, they did strange things to people.
AJ glanced out the slit in the armor again. The moon, crescent in shape, was the only light in the sky, the stars swallowed by cloud coverage. Then, AJ saw it.
A red flare arced over a nearby building. It was bright, a thin trail of smoke following it as it hit its peak and began its slow plummet back toward the ground. AJ’s heart leapt in his chest. That was the rescue signal. They each had a flare gun and they were to launch it if they needed help. One of the other teams was alive, but why had they waited this long to let one fly? Had they been trapped in their vehicle as well?
Twin headlights suddenly pierced through the darkness and that was when AJ noticed the empty street around them. The zombies were all gone. He heard ACDC’s “Back in Black” blasting from some distance off, a distraction to draw the zombies away. He turned in his seat and reached for Harry, feeling a slight twinge in his wrist as he did so. He was so weak. He needed to conserve his energy as best he could.
“Harry,” he said through the coppery taste in his mouth. “Harry, someone’s coming.”
AJ reached for him and shook him lightly across the seat. Harry continued to lay motionless, however, and AJ suddenly recognized the smell that accompanied the feces.
It was blood. They’d been smelling it for months. Blood and death coated their world now.
AJ didn’t have to turn on the light to know what had happened. He could see it as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Harry had gone through with it. He had slit his wrists with his machete. It lay beside him on the floor of the cab. He didn’t want to starve here, he’d said, and he had meant it.
“You’re too late,” AJ said as the impossible happened and tears wet his eyes again.
“You’re too late,” he repeated as the door flung open and Rachel looked inside, hope and desperation painted across her face.
“You’re too late,” he said as he felt the blood across his own wrist, his hand still clutching the wooden handle of the machete.
“You’ve been too late for hours.” She didn’t hear him. She simply covered her mouth and began to sob.
Fiction piece by Anthony Smith