I deserved to be the first to die. The dead breached our walls and now roamed freely as members of my community ran for safety. I looked down at the bloodied knife in my trembling hands. Did I really just do that? I could hear people running wildly in all directions outside; their maddening screams as they fled the ravenous creatures made me shudder in horror. The barn that sheltered me was quickly filling with smoke, making it hard to breathe or even see. The woman who found me in the corner was yelling something I couldn’t make out. She was shaking me violently now, urgently trying to get my attention. Even though I desperately tried, I couldn’t move my head to look at her. I couldn’t even blink. The fear was back again, seizing my entire being as I stared blankly ahead. She was screaming in my ear now, as I finally understood her words: “The barn is on fire! We need to leave right now!” She yelled, standing me on my feet, ambling me toward the barn’s entrance. An unholy chorus of lifeless grunts rang in my ears as we approached the barn’s large, wooden doors. There had to be thousands of them outside these thin, flaming walls. The fear ensnared me again as my knees buckled. My head was spinning as I uselessly fell to the ground.
The woman who saved me just looked at my crumpled body and pitifully shook her head. “I’ll come back for you!” She shouted bravely, as she carefully opened the barn doors. She ran outside, and horrifyingly, began screaming at the top of her lungs frantically. She quickly ran back inside the flaming barn, as two of the dead were close on her heels. She tried her best to outmaneuver them, but it was futile; one of the lifeless monsters grabbed a fistful of her hair and violently wrestled her to the wooden floor as she struggled free. With both creatures on top of her now, she shrieked like a dying animal as they tore and bit her exposed flesh. She kicked and punched hysterically as the dead lacerated chunks of skin off her body. I just watched in horror as my heart pounded out of my chest, completely frozen from what I saw. I couldn’t do anything, and she desperately needed me, the coward, to save her. It was all over now; she laid motionless as dark, red blood pooled near her body. I knew what was going to happen next; she was soon to become one of them: A godless beast that was mindlessly hellbent on killing the living. I closed my eyes as the fear controlled me again, awaiting my turn for the dead to rend me. I was startled by two loud gunshots, though. I kept my eyes tightly closed, as I heard bodies hitting the floor. I slowly looked up, and to my utter relief, it was our fearless leader, Jasmine, with a smoking pistol in her deft hands.
It was shortly after the fall when I met Jasmine, and she had saved me then, too; I was running through an abandoned building, trying to escape the dead that had me surrounded, after my last group exiled me for cowardice, when she and her group stepped in and saved me. Jasmine was my lifeline. She was the one who gave me a second chance at life, and I was determined to prove my loyalty. One thing led to another, and they, through her encouragement, accepted me into their community after gaining their trust. The problem, unfortunately, is that I'm a complete coward around these people who are nothing but courageous in the face of danger. I was completely worthless dealing with the dead under any circumstances. My last group knew it and they punished me for it. Whenever I saw a lifeless body roaming, searching for food, the fear would take complete control over me, freezing me in my tracks entirely. The dead got too close to our encampment? It was one of the brave members of my new community to save me, to save all of us. The dead were in a building that had supplies we needed? Again, it was someone else who cleared them out, making it safe for us to resupply. In reality, the only thing that this new community trusted me to do was stand watch, looking out for any sign of danger that came near the wall. That was my life.
Jasmine was above me now shouting as I sat speechless on the floor. I could see from the corner of my eye the woman who was just killed starting to rise again. She had a lifeless look in her eyes as she slowly got to her feet. She was completely covered in blood, her left cheek chewed off, teeth gruesomely exposed as she snarled. With my mouth agape, I pointed to her silently as Jasmine turned around to see what was happening. With a look of shock on her face, Jasmine skillfully unsheathed her dagger, as the woman growled and ambled closer to us. She raised her dagger above into the air and brought the tip down hard into the dead woman’s forehead, going deep into her skull. With a satisfying schwick, Jasmine pulled the dagger from the woman’s head as she hit the ground lifeless yet again.
“What happened to Jackie?”, Jasmine asked, while sheathing her dagger and gesturing to the lifeless corpse on the floor.
“She got attacked when she opened the door.” I sheepishly replied.
“And what did you do to help her, huh? She had two kids y,know? Did you even do anything at all?!” She was pissed now, her face reddening as she spoke.
I stayed silent as I avoided her gaze; Her words dawned on me as my hands started to tremble again. She had two kids? She saved me when she didn’t have to, and I couldn’t do anything to save her. Now her kids won’t have a mother. She didn’t have to die! I could taste bile in my throat as Jasmine forced me to my feet.
“You’re kind of a chickenshit y’know that? Get your ass outside and help put out this barn fire. Someone must’ve sabotaged our wall. Follow me and HURRY UP!”
To my own surprise, I was outside of the barn now, running at full speed as Jasmine led me to the others. I could hear the flaming barn’s roof behind us collapse as we desperately ran. I could see the hole in the wall where the dead were pooling through. Perfect. We reached the other community members who were setting up a bucket brigade next to our purified water system to quell the barn fire. People tried to remain calm under the stress of the conflagration and wailing dead. I saw Jasmine’s right hand man Roderick giving commands to the others manning the brigade. As Jasmine and I got closer, he ran directly up to her with a grave look on his face.
“Jasmine, we need to talk right now”, he said in a hushed voice, leading her away as he took her by the shoulder.
I could see Roderick turn his back and lock eyes with me before they walked off into the distance. Strange. I grabbed a bucket and started to fill it with water, passing it to anyone who was nearby. I could hear gunshots in the background as members of the community did their best to stave off the swarming dead. I looked back at the hole in the wall as more and more lifeless bodies entered our encampment. The barn fire was raging now, our combined efforts insufficient in halting the spreading flames. Suddenly, someone grabbed my shoulder from behind and yelled, “We need to get to the shelter now! We need to regroup! Get to the shelter, now!” At this, the whole brigade ran to the underground bunker located at the other side of the camp. An older man tripped, falling to the ground as we ran; someone in the group stopped to help him to his feet, but the dead were upon them seemingly in seconds. I ran faster as their cries for mercy filled the air behind me.
The underground bunker was made of concrete and could easily fit 45-60 people inside of its thick walls. The door to the shelter was flush with the ground and difficult to distinguish through the smoky air. As the group approached, a soldier from the camp impatiently ushered us inside while holding open the heavy, metal door. Once in the shelter and down the stairs, I found a corner and sat down, waiting for someone or something to save us from the dead. The other people inside the shelter looked shell shocked and exhausted. I could hear children hopelessly crying as their mothers soothed them. A few people were coughing from smoke inhalation, while others drank water and downed scraps of food. There was no sign of Roderick or Jasmine, and I wondered if they were still amongst the living. I saw two little children by themselves looking lost, crying, seemingly confused by everything. As I watched them, my mind jumped back to the woman who saved me. The memory of her ripped flesh and exposed maw made my blood turn cold. I stayed in my corner trying my best to not be seen.
There was yelling as the door to the shelter opened again, interrupting my thoughts and stillness. I could hear the voices of Roderick and Jasmine arguing about something incoherent. They both walked down the stairs to address the group as a whole. Jasmine stood in front of us, arms akimbo, as Roderick stood off to the side with his hands behind his back. Everyone had their eyes fixed on the two leaders of our small, endangered settlement. Jasmine cleared her throat and spoke:
“So, as far as we can tell, this is what happened: Someone, or a group of people, sabotaged one of our walls with an explosive of some kind. Once the bomb detonated, this person set the barn on fire to distract us from the dead getting inside. As you can see, we have failed to contain the dead, but we are still trying our best to get everything under control. Roderick, while investigating the explosion, found one of our watch standers, Jones, dead. His throat was cut.”
She paused as she looked around the room. I kept my head down as her eyes passed over me.
“Now, there’s someone who was supposed to be watching the wall that’s missing.” She spoke, as everyone in the room started murmuring to one another.
“This person who’s missing is also one of the new people we accepted in. I sent Jackie to save him from the barn fire, and now she’s dead too. We need to find this guy now; he’s a real chickenshit with the dead but be careful.”
At this, my heart began to sink. Everyone inside the shelter started to look at one another. Most were silent, as others whispered amongst themselves, wondering who the saboteur was. I kept my eyes to the floor, wondering what would happen when they found me. Would they torture me? Gouge out my eyes for betraying them? Feed me to the dead as I screamed for mercy? The trembling came back to my hands again. The shelter seemed to smother me under the pressure of everyone’s confusion and wandering eyes. The taste of bile was back in my throat. It seemed as if no one breathed as they searched. Then suddenly, piercing the silence like a knife, someone yelled, “There he is! In the corner! He's one of the new guys! He's trying to hide himself!”
Roderick was the first to reach me, his massive frame forcing a path through the others. The look he gave me before walking off with Jasmine at the bucket brigade made total sense now. With all his strength, Roderick roughly pulled me to my feet and put my hands behind my back. Jasmine quickly handed Roderick a pair of handcuffs from one of the soldiers. He cuffed my hands so tightly my wrist started to bleed. He threw me in front of Jasmine’s feet, as I hit the ground with a thud. I looked up at her, as she glared down at me with hate in her eyes. “Who the hell are you really?! Tell us what happened, now!” She demanded, as she unholstered her pistol, aiming the barrel at my face. I was silent for a moment until she started to kick me, her boots going deep into my sides. “Fine! I'll tell everything!”. I screamed in pain. “Just please don’t kill me!”
I cleared my throat as everyone looked at me expectantly.
“I’m … I’m from another group. A group that kicked me out for well, well, being too chickenshit with the dead. They … They told me the only way I could come back is if I do something to hurt your group. So, they … they gave me these homemade bombs, told me to use it on the wall and then burn down the barn as a distraction.”
Roderick punched me in the mouth and grabbed me by the collar. “Tell me what happened to Jones!”
“Who is Jones?”, I asked, as blood started to pool in my mouth.
“You know who! Jones was the man you killed on the wall, chickenshit, Now tell me what happened!”
“Right, Jones … Jones saw me plant the bomb at the Northgate wall, so I had to kill him so he wouldn’t … raise the alarm. I slit his throat before he could tell anyone what I was doing. I had no other choice … I'm … I'm sorry.”
“Hold on, you can’t kill the dead, but you can kill an innocent man keeping us all safe! You slimy piece of shit!” Roderick roared as Jasmine looked on in disgust.
Jasmine walked towards the both of us, cut Roderick off and said, “wait, wait, let me get this straight. You’re telling us there's more than one explosive? Why did we only hear one explosion?”
Suddenly, like clockwork, a loud boom was heard from outside the bunker’s walls. Everyone looked at me anxiously, as the realization of the second bomb set in. The lights flickered, dust and dirt fell from the concrete ceiling as people shielded their eyes from the debris. We could all hear the grunts of the dead and random gunshots of the surviving soldiers still trying to stop the horde.
“See, that should be the last one. Now please, let … let me go.”
Jasmine gave Roderick a look, as he nodded in agreement. Before I could even protest, he was pulling me up the stairs to the heavy metal door that kept us safe from the dead.
“We aren’t going to do anything for you, chickenshit,” Roderick whispered in my ear. "We’ll let the dead you brought in take care of your disloyal ass!”
He shoved me hard into the dirt outside the shelter’s entrance, as the dead started to amble towards our location. Before I could stand, Roderick slammed the heavy door shut. I could hear a loud locking mechanism behind me, and I knew right then my fate was sealed. I looked up at the damaged settlement: an even bigger hole in the wall from the second explosion, barn completely in flames now, the dead everywhere as the last remaining soldiers scrambled for safety. I slowly got to my feet as the fear began to take hold again.
Then suddenly, I could hear a staccato of gunshots coming from the exterior of the damaged wall. The dead that neared me turned their heads, distracted from the sudden commotion. I could hear a vehicle swerving through the dirt, as the gunshots got louder. I looked at Northgate’s wall, where the first explosion was located. There weren’t any dead entering from the hole anymore, and to my disbelief, a baby blue, technical pickup truck barreled through the hole into the sacked encampment. I immediately recognized who it was and jumped up and down, yelling for their attention.
The driver of the truck saw me signaling them and b-lined for my location. The shooter in the back of the pickup had a mounted, .50-caliber M2 Browning and completely mowed down the dead that neared me. I couldn’t believe I didn’t get hit. With all the dead gone now, the truck pulled up in front of me as the tinted passenger window automatically rolled down. I was now face to face with the leader of my old group, the one who decided to exile me.
“Looks like you did good, man. You did a bang-up job with the explosives we gave you.” He pointed to the barn as he spoke. “Shit man, you even burned down the barn like we asked you. Very nice touch!” He said, as the ashes from his cigar fell on his bulletproof vest and bandoliers.
“Thanks … They, they almost killed me for what I did. They found out everything.” I said, as I looked at the ground ashamed of myself.
“That’s A-okay my friend, no need to worry. We wanted them to know the truth. Shit man, they even put you in cuffs too? Hop on in, and we’ll take you back home. The group has been missing you for quite some time now.”
I couldn’t believe his words. I was finally going to come back to my group, to my friends. A tear rolled down my face as I thought of my son, Simon. The shooter in the back of the pickup made room for me as I jumped in. The pickup screeched forward through the dirt, and we were outside of the walls as quickly as they had arrived. I took a deep breath as the shooter looked at me and smiled. It was finally time for me to head home … or so I thought.