The campsite was about as good as we could hope for under the circumstances, especially when considering how quickly we had fled Phoenix. I had always heard that if any trouble went down, the big cities would be the worst places to be. In theory, I agreed, but I never truly thought I would ever live to the see the day that I would ever have to worry about such things.
The zombie plague changed all that.
In the end, only three of us made it. More were invited and, in some cases, begged to join us, before the cell phones went dead. Our friends and loved ones knew where we were going. We had given them directions, but so far no one else had shown up. I hoped they were okay, but as the days passed we grew more worried.
With me were my wife, Maureen, and my old school buddy, Kent. Maureen and I had been married for six years. She was a petite beauty with a cascading mane of lustrous chestnut hair. Kent was a bit older than me, but that hadn’t faded his head of thick blonde hair and robust Nordic beard.
Me, I’m taller than most. I’m a… well, I guess I used to be a bartender. Not really the type of profession that did much to prepare me for this crap, other than breaking up a a few fights once in a while. Oh yeah, my name is Lyle.
We made it out of The Valley as fast as we could. Others thought that the National Guard would contain the situation, but all they seemed to be doing was shutting down the roads and keeping people trapped within the undead, feeding frenzy the city had quickly become. As we fled, we saw many people were hitting a grocery store in a last ditch chance to gather supplies before the apocalypse closed its cold hands around them. It was eerie, almost as if the zombies had anticipated this move, for I saw them circling the supermarket in the hundreds. No one would be getting out of there alive.
After gathering every lick of food we could find, from both our houses, we headed out to a remote spot on the eastern face of the Four Peaks mountain range. It wasn’t too far from the city and not particularly defensible, but it had the one essential anyone trying to survive in the desert needed. Water.
We made it there without mishap, only seeing one lone RV along the road. The last quarter mile was pretty rough going, but I hoped that this would help deter others, because I had no illusions about the friendliness of the other people still breathing. They were just as likely to shoot me for my food, or even beautiful Maureen, as give us any aid.
As darkness fell that first night, we could still hear the sounds of gunfire in the distance. It was the last dying gasp of civilization, but even that wouldn’t last long.
* * *
Days went by and, despite our best intentions; our meager food supply slowly dwindled. Kent and I set ourselves to making whatever traps we could. Mostly deadfalls. So far we had experienced only minimal success.
On our sixth day out, Kent and I went to check our traps. One of our deadfalls had been triggered, but, more times than not, this didn’t mean we’d had any luck. Leaning over, Kent pulled up the head sized boulder.
“Hey, we got one!”
“Sweet, what is it?”
“You won’t believe this, it’s a quail.”
I laughed. “Who would have…?” My voice trailed off as we each heard the garbled echo of an approaching vehicle. “Shit, Maureen’s down there alone!” We sprinted down the rocky hill, but even as we went, I wasn’t sure what I would be able to do against a hostile force with my sharpened staff and a few throwing knives.
Reaching the campsite, I found Maureen crouching behind a boulder. She wore a pained expression and was clutching her walking stick in a fierce grip.
Kent moved a few yards down the rugged dirt road, while I checked on my wife. “Hey wait,” he called out. “I think that might be Mark’s truck!”
Good fortune had again smiled on us for it was Mark and his little family. Although, as soon as they exited the vehicle, we could tell something was wrong. At once, we realized that both his wife and daughter were missing.
Only his three sons, Travis, who was eighteen, and the young boys, Rich and Josh were in the truck with him. The absence of his wife made the greetings subdued, but once he caught his breath, we drew Mark aside while his sons set up their giant tent.
“Tell me what happened,” Kent demanded more forcefully than I liked.
Mark sighed, stealing himself. “You were lucky to have escaped when you did. We kept hoping things would get better, that Phoenix could be saved. Now, I realize how stupid we were. If only we had left with you…”
For a moment, just the sounds of the insects were heard.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to get out.
“Thanks,” he said, while quickly drawing an arm across his eyes. “I…I had decided to make a run to the warehouse, where I worked, to gather more supplies and had taken Travis with me. I couldn’t believe how quickly everything had turned to shit. All the stores were looted, controlled by gangs, or swarmed with those fucking undead bastards.”
“While I was gone, June’s friend, Marci, had showed up at our house. I never got the whole story from the kids, but I think her husband had tried to get food for them and had gotten bit. When he turned, he must have bitten Marci because when Travis and I returned to the house, she was… oh God!”
“You don’t have to tell us now.” Maureen said softly.
“No, no. I want to because once I do I never want to speak of it again!” A deep inhale shook his wide frame. “Marci had killed June and my daughter. The only reason the boys survived was they were able to lock themselves into the bathroom, while the thing Marci was busy eating…”
“You don’t have to go on.” I said putting my hand on his shoulder.
He panted for a moment. “I know. I know. After killing that bitch I grabbed my boys and headed out here. The barricades had been overrun, but somehow I made it past the hordes. Phoenix is gone man, just gone. The only good news is that we gathered a bunch of supplies. It should help us last for a while.” He looked up at us with his eyes rimmed with red. “Because I can tell you one thing. I intend to kill every last fucking walking corpse I can. I don’t care if I have to bash their heads in with a rock, but besides keeping what’s left of my family safe, I’m dedicating my life to putting down every zombie I can get my hands on!”
* * *
The days blurred into a stream of weeks. Soon, we were living off the land as best we could. It was really only Mark’s hunting rifle that saved us, for he was able to bag a deer every week or so. We always tried to hunt on the other side on the main ridge so the sounds of gunfire wouldn’t bring anything down upon our camp. Even with that help, rations were scarce and we slowly grew thin, then gaunt, and before long, I wondered how different we looked from the zombies we hid from.
Not long after that, the first zombie showed up. Little Rich spotted him first, but despite only being four, he was smart enough to start screaming at once. The shambling form looked like it had once been a clerk of some kind, although the front of his turquoise shirt was now stained with streaks of matted gore.
Mark went to shoot it, but I quickly shouted, “No wait! Don’t waste the ammo and besides gunshots can be heard for miles, it could bring dozens down upon us.”
He blanched and ensured his kids were behind him. Kent had my back, but I was the one that snatched up the axe and buried it in the center of the thing’s skull. It went down surprisingly easy and I was a bit proud of myself.
If only everything had remained so simple.
Then they started coming in twos and threes. One time a half dozen wandered into our camp in the middle of the night. Only the strategic use of keeping the roaring fire at our backs had keep anyone from being bit. After that, we kept a watch.
We started rigging trip wires with old beer cans that we had filled with rocks. This usually gave as a little more warning. And of course we made weapons.
By then, we each had at least ten sharpened staffs leaning against every tree in camp. We had developed a special technique, which we called the ‘Trip and Trap.’ When they came at us we wouldn’t try to kill them. First we would do our best to knock them off their feet. The uneven ground and loose rocks helped us a lot here. Once they were down we would just keep stabbing them in the face until we scored a lucky hit to the eye or just broke through their skull.
This style of fighting was even easier when more than one of us could gang up on a zombie, because then one person could be ‘bait’ and the other could easily knock a zombie over from behind.
Despite our adversity and general lack of food, morale began to grow. We had killed almost forty zombies now and none of us had been bitten. Things were going pretty good until winter set in.
I know what some of you northerners are going to say. Poor desert dudes, what a tough winter that must have been. However, when you’re living in a tent, things get rough pretty damn quick. It was snowing by Thanksgiving, for we were nearly a mile above sea level. Not only was food becoming scarcer, but firewood was also a problem. Sure, we could gather it along the sides of the little stream, but what once might have taken one man an hour to do, now took four of us several hours each. We also dreaded leaving the kids with less of us there as we trekked further and further upstream.
We weren’t too far from Christmas when our youngest member, Josh, became ill. We hoped it would just be a normal cold, but it clung to him. An icy sleet hit our camp and it was all we could do just to keep the fire going. Everything became hopelessly soaked and Josh grew sicker and sicker.
My soggy sleeping bag chased me out of my tent early the one morning and I joined Kent hovering over the fire with the faint hope that our sodden clothes might somehow dry. Grey clouds owned the sky and dumped more snow upon us. The whole camp was covered in two inches of wet slosh and I have to admit I was feeling pretty damn low.
Mark slipped on the way out of his tent, which brought forth a fury of cursing. He stumped over to us like he was ready to start throwing punches and we quickly moved to make room for him around our struggling fire.
“Rich is sick too.”
“Oh shit,” I said.
“Well, kids are tough, I’m sure they will get better,” Kent said.
“Bullshit! No one is going to get better out here in this crap. Maybe I should just take them back to phoenix and try our chances there.”
“What? You wouldn’t last a day.”
“They might not last another day out here. I have to do something. They need medicine. They are just little kids.” He covered his face with a dirty hand and trying not to let us hear his sobbing.
For a moment, only the crackling of the smoky fire could be heard and then I said, “There was a little town I passed through, not too far to the north. I’m sure their general store has some basic meds. Yeah, it will be dangerous, but there could be food, maybe even bullets, and who knows what else.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kent began. “Even a small town could have hundreds of those Walkers.”
“It isn’t really the zombies I would be worried about,” I said. “A little place like that might have held out against the plague and I doubt they would be too keen on us stealing from them.”
“If they held out, there might not be much left to steal,” Kent added.
“I don’t care,” Mark was quick to say. “It’s a chance. Any supplies we can get will help. My kids aren’t going to get better eating a few pieces of venison a day. Who knows, maybe if there are people we could join them. If there aren’t, perhaps we should move there. Either way I’m going to check it out. Who’s coming?”
“I think just the three of us should go, then Travis and Mo can take care of the kids and keep them safe.”
“I agree. I’ll tell Travis and you had better talk to your wife, I’m sure she won’t be thrilled.”
* * *
Our tent had become a wet nightmare as each day, despite all our tarps the condensation reached further into our bedrolls until we only had a three foot circle of dryness in the center of our sad home.
“I really wish you wouldn’t go.”
I held her hand as we talked. “Come on, baby. You know I have to. I can’t let those guys go alone.”
“Then I want to go with you.”
“Someone has to stay here and protect the kids. Besides you’re the closest thing to a medic we have.”
We were kneeling, facing each other, and I gave her a tight hug. It didn’t help things when she started to cry. “Why did this have to happen? Why does everything have to be so hard?”
“If this works out okay, then things could get easier. We could get all sorts of supplies.”
“But there’s still a city full of walking corpses just on the other side of these mountains. Everything we worked for our whole lives, our dreams. It’s all gone.”
“We can have new dreams. Maybe we can move into this town or something set ourselves like kings.” I tried to smile. She didn’t return the favor.
“I just wish you wouldn’t go.”
“If they’re going, I have to.”
She sighed. “I know, but please just hold me a little longer first.”
* * *
Mark’s monster sized truck was our choice and we slammed over the dirt without incident. Once we made it to 160, the paved road felt like an undeserved luxury. Pumpkin Center was only about thirty miles away.
It wouldn’t be taking us long and we rode in silence until Kent said, “Does it strike anyone else as funny that we are doing this on Christmas Eve. Not to make light of things, but getting medicine for children, this is almost like some sort of zombie Christmas story.”
“I thought it was the twenty-third.” I said.
“Nope,” Kent countered. “I’ve been keeping careful track. Tomorrow’s Christmas.”
Mark’s voice was stern. “I don’t see how it makes any difference, unless the people still there are kissing under the mistletoe. One thing for sure, the zombies won’t give a shit.”
We fell into silence again and as I listened to the truck glide over the pavement, I reviewed our meager weapon situation. Mark had his rifle, but refused to tell us how many rounds he had left. He also had a pistol, but that had been left with his eldest, Travis. Kent had an old revolver which had seen better days and his machete.
By traditional standards, I was the most poorly armed. Sure I had a few throwing knives, which I practiced with daily, but besides that there was only my wood axe and a heavy club I had been working on. I might hold up alright against a few zombies, but angry survivors with guns could leave me seriously screwed.
Before we had even reached the outskirts of town, a row of parked cars stretched across the road. Mark decelerated.
“Slow down. Don’t even park near it,” I said. “We should sneak up there.”
“Are you nuts?” Mark countered. “The shorter we travel on foot the better.”
“I have to agree with Lyle,” Kent broke in. “We don’t know what we’re facing. I don’t see zombies up there, but even that could be a bad sign.”
In the end, we talked him into parking and the only zombies we found were dead ones. A lot of dead ones.
“There must be fifty of these fuckers out here.” Mark said.
“Points in favor of there being survivors, I’d say.” Kent rubbed his beard as he searched for any movement on the wall of abandoned autos.
Crouching down near one of the corpses, I said, “I’m not so sure. It’s hard to tell with people that are already rotting, but these wounds look like they are at least a week old, probably older. I don’t see any fresh bodies around. They could have lost after putting up a good fight.”
“Yeah, it isn’t like the zombies can’t just walk around this wall.”
Kent said, “But wouldn’t there be more zombies milling about?”
“Let’s just do this,” I said and then as one we moved around the left side of the short abandoned auto wall.
There was no movement between the houses, but we were still on the edge of the small town. I read a sign. “Population twelve hundred. Not too many, or an insane amount, depends on how you look at it.”
“But where is everyone?” Mark said in a low voice as we continued, seeking cover where we could. The town was mostly modular homes each claiming their square of sparse desert sand. The lucky ones had a caucus or two.
It was almost a relief when we spotted a pair of zombies. They lumbered towards us groaning. “No guns,” I said while advancing. “Trip and trap.”
That was when shots ring out.
We dove for cover, with the zombies drawing nearer. The groaning had attracted more and I could make out a second wave of at least a dozen gathering.
“Crap, what now?” I said and then winced when a thorn from the Palo Verde I had leaned behind found my neck.
“I’m not sure they were shooting at us,” Kent said. When we asked him why, he went on to say, “It were three shots, which can mean help and I didn’t see the impact of bullets anywhere around us.”
“Well, anyone that has bullets to waste like that, I might be inclined to help, especially if they have medication with them.”
“Are you sure of that?” I gasped, as I finally made out where the shots might have come from. Maybe an eighth of a mile away there was a fortified general store with several figures waving from the roof. But what shocked me more was the three hundred zombies that had surrounded the store and more importantly the fifty that had broken off from the mob and were heading our way.
“Hey guys look!” Kent yelled pointed east out across the lake. On the water three giant speedboats were racing toward shore.
“What the hell?” Beyond the racing boats some kind of flotilla had been created in the middle of Roosevelt Lake. “It’s like a small town out there.”
“More like a big one,” Kent said.
“What did we get ourselves into the middle of?” Mark said, as the first zombies drew near.
* * *
“Save your bullets,” I said, while I baseballed half a zombie’s head off with my axe. The others followed me.
Kent pointed to a few cactus covered gullies to the north. “If we could attack them and then lead the Walkers into those canyons, the ‘wait-a-minute brush’ will slow them down and then we can circle around back to the store.”
“But there will still be over two hundred around the store!” I yelled while a smashed off the front of another face as we weaved through the growing horde.
“That’s why we have to get them all to follow us.”
* * *
Thirty minutes later, the three of us were lighting small fires and shouting. Our plan had pros and cons. It was working well enough as far as attracting them to us, but they were so spaced out, that we were forced to fight the closer ones while we waited for the others to make it into the canyon. Still, we had position. I broke out with my lighter club and when any zombie reached the top of the steep hill, we were perched on, I pushed them ass over elbow back the way they had come. This rarely killed them, but usually I knocked two or three more over with its body.
“The people on the boats were holding back for some reason.” Mark said, as he lit another creosote bush on fire. The bright flames also helped keep the growing horde of zombies at bay.
“Why aren’t they coming to help us or the people at the store?” Kent asked.
“It could be because they’re enemies.” I said. “I think we had better move guys. Even with these fires they will overrun us soon.”
Kent smiled. “Time to play a little fox and the hare. Let’s go!”
We rushed away just as they came over the lip of the hill by the score. Almost at once we had put a dozen yards between us and the shambling mob. Where we ducked under the clinging thorns, the zombies would stumble straight through getting caught up by both their clothes and their rotting flesh.
We led them on a merry chase and as we went Kent began to sing. “Over the river and through the cactus, to grandmother’s store we go. The heroes know the way to lead the sickening zombies through the grasping catclaws.”
“Hey, look,” Mark said, while pointing at the store. One of the doors had opened and a good percentage of the lingering zombies began to pour into the building. “I’ll never be able to get any medicine now!”
“Wait, check it,” I said. “They are using boards to cross over to that roof covering the pumps. I bet they are going to try to reach those vehicles they have parked there.”
Shots rang out.
“What the hell,” Kent called. “The people from the boats are shooting at them. This is insane.”
“I say we help the people in the store.”
“You don’t even have a gun,” Mark reprimanded.
“They do.” I said, pointing as the first people that had gained the roof over the pumps began to shoot back at the people rushing from the boats. Their shooting caused another problem, for it was drawing some of the Walkers back out of the store.
Meanwhile, an all out firefight had erupted between the men on the roof and the boatmen. The latter we using what cover they could and slowly advanced on the store, while our little group was coming down from the foothills on the opposite side.
“Mark, find some cover up here and use that rifle to even the odds. Kent watch his back.”
“What do you think you’re going to do?” Kent nearly screamed.
“I’m going to try to talk to our new friends.”
* * *
At least thirty zombies were clustering below the people on the gas pump roof and they were too busy fighting the boatmen to think about killing the zombies below. We had to hurry, because besides the boatmen and the these thirty zombies, over two hundred more Walkers would be pouring out of the foothills before too long.
I swung my axe in the back of a zombie’s skull. I was fighting two handed and my club pushed one back and he lost his footing knocking two over with him. I killed two more before they noticed me.
I started to shout up to them. “Hey, hey! Who are you people? Who are those people in the boats?”
An older grizzled face peered over the western lip. His face was quickly followed by three others who were all certainly children.
The old man shouted down at me. “Who are we? We live here! Those bastards in the boats are just a bunch of upper class pukes from Phoenix that think, since they ran out of their caviar, they should be able to steal what little we got. Last I heard, they were waiting for us and the zombies to kill each other then they were going to come in kill whatever was still moving and steal all we‘ve worked for.”
“We just need some medicine for some sick kids.” I called up to him as my arms swung my weapons in manic arcs in order to keep the Walkers at bay.
“We got plenty of medicine along with our best gear in these rides. If you help us get out of here, we’d be happy to help those kids.” He shouted something to the men with guns and then returned his attentions to me. “Try to shut the door to the store if you can, that’ll keep the rest of them in there and then we’ll have less to fight.”
Looking across the decayed faces of the twenty zombies that were now focused on me and stood between me and the door, I figured that this would be no simple task.
I tried to do it anyway.
Almost at once, I realized the error of my ways. And soon the walking dead had surrounded me on every side. My axe took down one after another, but then got stuck in the neck of a zombie. Before I could put it free, hands were grabbing it out of my fingers. With a curse, I let it go. Then grabbing my club, two handed, I laid into them as quickly as I could. Hands were clawing and pulling at me from every direction.
I probably wouldn’t have made it if Kent and Mark hadn’t run around the corner of the store just then. Kent rushed up to a zombie then shot it in the head at point blank range. Mark hung back a little and made each shot count. With their help, I was able to make it to the gas station’s door and I slammed it shut. The zombies were all over my back now, clawing and looking for a bite of me, but at least a good forty or fifty were locked inside of the place now.
I swung out with my club just trying to keep them back. Kent was attempting to work his way to me, while Mark was doing everything he could, but I had been there too long, They were all over me. Teeth clamped down on my shoulder, but I tore my leather away from the attack before teeth found my skin. But now I was off balance and a giant whale of a zombie was before me. There was no way I could keep that one at bay with just a club.
That is when my face was suddenly sprayed with gore and I heard a hoot from the old man on the pump roof. “I got em!” The old man had a rifle now and was helping by blasting the head off of the ones closest to me.
Between the gore, snapping teeth, and gunfire smoke, it was hard for me to see what the boatmen might have been doing, but I did see the men on the roof tossing ropes over the side and climbing down to their vehicles below. One of them was shot during his decent and fell from his rope with a scream.
Just when I was starting to think that we had some handle on the zombies lingering outside of the store, Mark came sprinting forward. “We have to go now!” After seeing the look on my face, he added, “the first zombies are making it out of the canyon. There’ll be a hundred of them on us in a minute.”
“We need to get out of here!” I screamed, while I two handed my club onto a zombie’s skull.
“No shit,” the old man said from above. He was lowering child after child into the back of a Suburban with its roof taken out. Many of the zombies were going for the vehicles and my friends and I did what we could to keep them at bay.
I heard Mark scream and quickly asked, “What is it?”
“I ah, ran out of ammo.”
The vehicles were pulling away and I leap on the sideboard of the Suburban, yelling, “Around this way. Our vehicle is on the other side of that wall!”
The boatmen were still firing at us, but once we had the zombies off our back our return fire kept them behind their shelters.
Kent pointed, “Looks like the zombies are heading their way now.”
“The cowards,” the old man that had talked to us said. “They thought they would have an easy picking on all that was ours just waiting for us to die instead of helping. Hah, we showed them. They’re probably too scared to even check on the store now. Filthy backstabbers.”
I just held on while trying to take in how many people had survived and figured we had twenty.
“So where you taking us, sonny?”
* * *
It was a bittersweet reunion with Mark and his family. Yes, the survivors had the medicine that could save his children, but it turned out that Mark had been bitten. He only lasted three more days.
Old man Mitch and the other survivors were more than happy to move into the site with us. Sure we had our problems and issues, but having them along sure made a lot of things easier and certainly safer. Soon log walls and deadfalls surrounded our growing camp. Tarps draped over larger kitchen areas.
We had already made a few raids into their little town to get more supplies. Whenever this happened the men on the boats always eyed us. One day they might come for us, but that day would not be today. And as I looked around at the big New Year’s feast we had prepared for ourselves, for the first time since the plague had begun, I let a small sliver of hope enter my tired heart.
Although I had no idea how they knew the right time, the kids were all counting down the New Year and as it drew close, I put my arm around Maureen and pulled her in for a big kiss.