"Jasper, get your ass over here," Toby said. I was checking out a burned out car and he had moved ahead to a gas station across the street. Running over to him, I noticed he was digging through some drawers in the manager's office. "Ha!" He said, holding up a box of shotgun shells. "No gun, but new ammo is cause enough for celebration I'd say." He plopped down into an office chair and took a swig from his flask. His weight caused one of the plastic wheels to break, tilting him backwards. He didn't seem to mind.
The chair was like most everything else, old and unused. Untouched since before the outbreak. That was eight years ago. I was young and Toby and I were living in an apartment outside of Chicago. It started slowly, as most viruses do, leaping from person to person. I heard something about a defective protein that replicated itself in the brain. It damaged the cells, causing people to lose higher brain functions like reason, emotion and critical thinking. But the worst part was what it didn't touch. Infected people still had animalistic instincts, aggression and the desire to survive.
Toby's eyes closed for moment, his metal flask resting on his chest. I returned to the doorway, watching and listening. I heard some commotion a few streets away, but couldn't make out what it was. It was probably just a patient looking for food. That's what he called them, patients, because the first wild ones we saw were all wearing hospital gowns. Most of them were naked now, dirty and long-haired. They looked like homeless hippies, but they would rip your throat out in an instant.
"Time to go." Toby said, slinging his satchel over his shoulder. Making our way deeper into the city we ducked back into an alley behind a bank. We were being extra cautious. We rarely went that far into the city. It was too dangerous, there were too many patients and they traveled in packs. Crossing a four-lane street, we passed into a suburban neighborhood. All the houses were dark and lifeless. The streets were littered with broken furniture, burned out cars, papers and scraps of clothing. All the debris of a population running from the inevitable.
One by one the virus found them. A drop of blood, a bead of sweat, a spore drifting on the breeze, they all found their intended target and ended lives. They didn't die, they just slowly ceased to be human. Memories, love, lust and happiness slowly scrubbed from their brain. There was, however, a small percentage of the population that was naturally immune to the virus. Most of those people were quickly overtaken by the infected and now only a few human settlements exist.
We came upon a house at the end of a side street. Toby held his hand out and I stopped in my tracks. I knew the smell. It was so strong my nose felt like it was buried in it. Human feces. The front door was open and the porch was covered in it. I couldn't make out any noise coming from inside.
"Pack house," Toby said. "They're probably out hunting. Let's get out of here before they decided to come back." We turned around to leave but something caught his eye. I stared at him.
"Jasper, look there," He said, pointing back toward the house. "In the upper window." The window was broken and the remains of a body draped over the sill. Shreds of clothing did little to cover the missing limbs and what was left seemed to be attracting flies. And there, still slung around the torso, was a rifle. I gave Toby a look that said this is a bad idea.
"Relax," He said, reassuring me. "We'll be in and out quickly and quietly, and then we'll drop from the second story roof and get out of here." It was getting late and we should have been finding a place to spend the night in, but apparently Toby had other ideas. He slowly approached the house. I hesitated.
"Come on," he said, hissing the words. "Hurry!"
I reluctantly followed Toby as he walked up the stairs, the boards creaking beneath his feet. Reaching into his satchel, he pulled out a flashlight and a machete. We slowly walked into the foyer. We could see the living room, furniture broken and filthy beyond recognition. If the stench outside was bad, it was unbearable inside.
Making our way down the hallway, I could see a few picture frames still hanging on the walls. A happy family once lived here. Children played in the backyard and cars were washed in the driveway. I could hardly recall those times. I remembered playing ball in the summer, swimming in the lake, but they all seemed like dusty pictures barely hanging on the walls of my own memory. Toby points down to a dead body, and we step over it. The floor is caked with dirt and mud and who-knows-what. Reaching the base of the stairs, Toby pointed the flashlight up into the second floor. There was no movement.
We made our way up the stairs and headed toward the bedroom. Something crashed in the kitchen downstairs and we both spun on our heels, expecting a pack to come running at us any moment. Nothing. We were both frozen in place and breathing heavy. With a quickened pace, he walked toward the door to the bedroom, it was closed. Toby held up his blade, ready to strike and turned the doorknob. He flung the door open and prepared to swing.
Shining the flashlight in the room we saw it was unoccupied. It was a child's room, with old toys decomposing in the corners of the room. There was the rifle. I walked up to the body and looked it over. At one point, this man was a soldier. The tattered clothing used to be army-issued fatigues. I could see the sun was setting out the window. Toby began to remove the rifle from the body, but the strap was embedded in the soldiers dried out flesh. I heard something. I wasn't sure where it came from. I heard it again. It was a faint scratching, and it was close by.
I hadn't noticed the closet in the room. Walking over to it, I listened closely and an infected patient burst through the door, knocking me over and causing Toby to drop his flashlight. I managed to jump on the patient, who was on all fours hissing and growling.
"Jasper!" Toby yelled. The patient tried to throw me off, but I hung onto its neck. "Jasper, keep it still!"
Toby had regained his flashlight and was dodging gnashes trying to land a blow. Black teeth and long black hair, she was naked and her body was covered in sores. I held my grip, but she was able to carry me on her back without effort.
She lunged at Toby and he fell backward and onto the floor. I tightened my grip and pulled her back.
"Now!" He yelled.
I let go and was flung across the room, slamming against the wall. Free from my grip, she darted at Toby. I heard a single gunshot and she slumped to the floor, black blood draining from the hole in her head. We sat there in stunned silence. There was a small stream of smoke coming from the barrel of the rifle. Toby checked the magazine and reloaded. He looked at me.
"You alright?" He said, standing to his feet. I walked over to him limping. My leg was hurt pretty badly. "Okay," Toby said. "We need to get you out of here. Let's go." We started to climb out the window and onto the roof when we saw them coming.
There were easily twenty of them, and they were running on all fours down the road. Most of them were naked, and the ones in the back were carrying various body parts. In the fading twilight, I couldn't make out if they were human or animal. Toby pulled me back inside the bedroom. He slid a dresser in front of the door. Coming back to the window, we both crouched down and watched them.
"Alright, here's the plan," Toby said whispering. "We'll wait till they get in the house and then we'll climb out onto the roof and jump down and make a run for it."
They barreled into the house, sounding like apes at the zoo. They were growling and stomping and making guttural noises. We slipped out and onto the roof. The noises inside the house stopped. There was a slight bang on the bedroom door, followed by another one, even louder. Toby helped me to the edge of the roof. The banging grew louder and the growls and screams began a fever pitch, the whole pack was trying to push through the door.
"Ready?" Toby said. We were about to jump off the roof, when three patients burst through the front door and out onto the lawn. They spotted us. We retreated back onto the roof. Behind us the bedroom door was splintering and the dresser was scraping across the floor. Fingers were grasping through the cracks. "Shit, shit, shit!" Toby quickly looked around the roof. He ran to the opposite corner and the patients on the ground mirrored his movements.
He ran back to me, and helped me up. "Time to go, buddy!"
We ran to the corner of the roof and he bent down. "Mind if I borrow this?" He said, removing my leather collar. A loud bang came from the bedroom as the dresser toppled over. They poured into the bedroom. They hadn't yet reached the window when Toby shouldered the rifle and took three shots, killing the patients on the ground. I whimpered as he picked me up and held me under his arm. Toby looped the collar over the electrical line attached to the house and jumped.
We zipped down the line and crashed through the living room window of the neighboring house. Quickly taking cover, we looked out the window. The pack had reached the roof and were running back and forth, gnashing and growling. After a while they retreated back to the house. Toby brought me down to the basement, locking the door behind us. We collapsed on the floor and I laid my head on his lap. He scratched between my ears and I wagged my tail.
"Ya know Jasper," he said. "You may be man's best friend, but you gotta stop saving my life. You know I won't live long enough to repay you." I ignored him and licked his face. I knew when we made our way back to the settlement he would buy me a steak.