After You

It most certainly wasn't always like this, the city I mean. It had once been a spark of life and lights, flashily dressed people with the newest electronics; bickering couples and teenage giggles. There was laughter and lots of warm homes with even warmer food. Lonesome nights were spent with whores or alcohol, whichever you preferred — oh, and studying. Now, there are rundown buildings everywhere. The streets are empty, besides the beat up carcasses of brand new Mercedes' and BMW's that once were the pride and joy of their owners. The pavement is cracked, street lamps hang about like molten chapstick and the polluted sky seems to be closing in on us each day. The water is a murky black, the trees are dead and the animals have long scattered to safety. . . but there is none.

It all started with the reports of small outbreaks that no one was worried about. The police in each city had it under control, so they said. Soon the media flooded newspapers, news channels and magazines, though. All you ever saw on television stations were people eating other people. The pictures weren't very pleasant. Everyone had their own theory of what was happening, the most popular one was it being Gods divine punishment; closely followed by radioactive contamination, some new drug going wrong and viral infections. Congested highways and overcrowded emergency rooms were the easiest targets. Once the world goes to hell, most of the people go with it.

When the outbreak finally hit our city, I was sitting in a college seminar. Our teachers went berserk and ordered an evacuation, which only ended up with half of the campus being attacked on the spot and the rest being locked in classrooms. I was one of the students locked in the teacher's lounge; funny story how that happened. . . The police tried to set up barricades and quarantine zones but those too died quickly. Vast majorities flocked to churches praying for salvation, while everyone else just panicked. They thought it was the end of the world and technically, it was.

Before we knew it, everything started to fall apart before our very eyes. There are no doctors, no police. . . The natural resources have been either looted or destroyed. People started turning against one another. The city shattered like broken glass and it has been exactly fifty-nine days since I have last seen a survivor. It was not really something I had wished for —seeing as my last encounter had ended up with me being tossed to the streets as bait— and I dare say I don't really aim to trust another being on this planet, anymore.

Not that I was very fond of them while everything was okay to begin with.

My name was Jay Stark and I was once a student at our local community college two streets down the block from where I lived before it too crumbled under the weight of military issued explosion, and all the jazz I once found very much exciting in video games. I studied art and design, as lame as that may sound, but. . . Now, I am nobody. It no longer matters. Not my name, not my existence.

Sitting cross-legged on a rooftop of some lone store that somehow managed to go unscratched even the slightest by the blasts of the explosions and gun fires, I stare down at the road that was once always filled with cars rushing about this hour of time. The breeze feels great compared to the usual sting of hot air against cracked lips. It chills away the heat of the scorching sun above me as I adjust my rifle scope. Survivors are scarce, yes, but the fucking undead aren't. Unlike the usual clichée of old flicks, these guys are not slow. I do wish they were because I have never been a good runner to begin with. My lungs aren't really made for such activities.

They are the main reason innocent people were blown to bits and pieces as the military issued a code black on our city. They didn't even think about sending help. . . we were meant to grovel. How the virus broke out, I don't know. It just happened. Maybe a month went by before people started falling victim to bites more often, only to awaken again a minute or so later. It wasn't much fun having to shoot the woman who birthed you, neither was it amusing to come face to face with anyone who has half his throat torn out and a missing arm.

The stench wafting through the city makes everything worse.

Ms. Walters had talked about it in class once, how Florida was a long-lost cause since it had hit there first. The government claimed they had it under control. . . If it spreading worldwide meant under control then they were doing one fine ass job. Having more than half my city blown to a pile of burning ash is a wonderful excuse for things being under control. A scream from far off echoes in the stillness of this sunny day and efficiently stops my train of thought, breaking the brief quiet time. I cringe at the eerie pitch of it and quickly load more ammo into my gun. Staying in one spot for too long isn't smart. I should have left here hours ago.

The screaming grows and a woman with tattered clothing comes into view. She's hurt along the edges of her slim face and her black hair clings to her skin, more than twenty rotting bodies are on her tail. For a moment I fear she is going to fall as she stumbles, but somehow she manages to stay upright and continue her sprint down the road. "You! You there, help!" she shouts as she spots me, flailing her arms above her head. She's out of breath, struggling to keep up her pace and the look in her eyes stings.

I have learned three very important rules while trying to stay alive. One: people will betray you once they see a good chance. Two: thus, you are better off alone. Three: when someone screams for help, turn around and walk away. I play by those, I survive.

You should never play the hero because you are just human. . . However, I can't turn now that she has seen me. I've been travelling alone for too long now, but not enough to enjoy the loneliness and I am exactly that: human. So the pitch of her plea, the very sound of her asking for my help makes me rethink those rules. "Please. . ." she begs.

I don't like people very much. I do not trust them. However, my mother tended to say 'if you are able to help when someone asks for it, you should do so' and that woman's life is worth just as much as mine. So, I lift my rifle and aim at the closest one behind her, ready to shoot him down in just a few seconds. A lot of the ones following her writhe together like a single entity; men and women, children too. Their flesh decaying more in the summer heat as they rush about behind her in disorganised packs. The woman's legs carry her closer to the building I'm on.

She screams again, waving towards me and I nod. As I do so, I can see the small smile of hers. The male behind here —who happens to be missing half of his lower face— gains speed just as she does.

Just a little closer and. . .

Before I am able to lift my finger from the trigger a shot rings through the air from my right. The woman who had just begged for my help topples over, the scream dying on her tongue as she lays motionless on the ground before the undead. Not even a second passes before they're surrounding her, biting into her sweaty flesh and ripping parts of it out. I watch the scene play out before me and choke on the gasps forming in my throat.

My head whips to the side as I quickly scan the crumbling rooftops for anything suspicious. She was alive. . . her heart was beating and her sun kissed skin wasn't marked with any bites, just the scratch on her jaw line. She was harmless. My glance continues to flicker towards the mob of undead people fighting over a piece of flesh from her arm. I jump to my feet and whip around — turning on the spot to take in every inch of the area. There isn't anyone standing on a roof with a gun.

A kid catches my attention just as I turn towards the earlier scene again. The boy runs by the mob that still lingers about the fallen woman and dashes behind a car a few feet away. The action disturbs me. Alarming bells ring in my mind and I can not shake the feeling that there is something dangerous going on in close proximity. Something is off, completely so. Before I can manage to make my way down the building and towards the child, I watch it take off towards the crowd.

Everything seems to slow down as the distinct metallic clink echoes through the dulled sounds suddenly surrounding me. Small, nimble fingers pull at the pin of a grenade. In between the moment of panic and disbelief, a figure rushes from the scene and runs down an alley and out of sight.

Without hesitation I follow, counting the seconds until the explosion and as soon as it hits I throw myself behind an old truck, down into a dent in the ground. Somewhere on the way of rushing away from a blast that could have killed me, I lost my rifle. "Fuck," I mutter under my breath. How I actually managed to lose a Savage Model 16FCSS Weather Warrior.22 is beyond the knowledge I'm familiar with. It's not like the thing is small enough to be forgotten.

I struggle back onto my feet, not without pulling the .45 from the back of my jeans. The feeling of danger rose significantly within the past few seconds and I am not about to let my guard down. Down the alleyway, just before my eyes, someone else gets back up. It's near impossible for me to miss the fluttering of the strangers jacket as the person disappears around the corner. Without missing a beat I take off after them. Whoever it is, is fast, I'll give them that. However, there is no way in hell I am about to let them get away. I dash around the corner, vaulting over a knocked trash can and weaving around more buildings. The person's shadow never leaving my sight.

I know my city, seemingly better than the stranger for the figure turns right into an alleyway with a dead-end and I follow immediately, drawing my gun and aiming. With the sun beating down on us and the sudden standstill of our bodies, I can finally make out that its a woman with short jet black hair and a stare that would have sent me running some time ago, before I found all this gutless courage within me. What I didn't expect to see was her making a quick hand motion by curling those slim fingers into a fist and knocking me right into my abdomen with it.

Toppling over and coughing up a bulge of much-needed air is enough of a distraction for her to whip around and climb the wall up to the rooftop.

Another cough escapes my lips before I am able to follow her steps. The chase continues its previous pace with her leading the way from one building top to another. She jumps over alleyways, going from rooftop to rooftop without stopping once to take a breath. But as she jumps to a lower one, landing in a roll and coming up to her feet, she's dumbstruck by the distance of the next building. I am already in mid-jump with my gun aimed at her forehead.

That's when I realise just how many mistakes I was going to do in a day as I underestimate her reaction time. She has reached behind her so quickly that before I even land on my feet and am able to get ready to press the trigger if needed, a flash of steel shimmers between her hands and a sharp pain strikes my arm. I bite back a cry and push every ounce of strength into shutting out the pain enough to keep ahold of my weapon. The woman, however, doesn't wait for my efforts to take effect as she aims a kick to my shoulder that efficiently knocks me on my back. My .45 lays forgotten by my side and all I can do is try to breathe.

My head buzzes and my vision is fuzzy. "She was still alive," I mutter between gritted teeth. The city was overrun, hell the whole world was. Everyone is dead, dying or joining the living world once again after being bitten and here this woman goes shooting off survivors.

"How many times can you stand to hear another human being —a survivor just like you and I— scream in agonizing pain while they are being eaten alive?" she asks matter-of-factly. I have to squint to see her without her image parting into two, my mind is still swirling about. The anger is clearly etched into her features and the frown upon her lips only adds to the image of her displeasure. "Run. Eat. Sleep. This life isn't much different from those corpses walking around," she states. I blink a few times and once my vision returns to normal she's holding my gun, pointing it at me and sighing. "I hate to break it to you, dear."

"Shooting her didn't do shit for you! Something just has gone terribly awry, and you shouldn't turn your back on everyone. I was going to help her!" I protest in a shout, leaning up on my elbows and glaring at her. She snorts in disdain. Her expression dancing on the line of rue and disgust. After watching bits of skull fragments and brain matter hit brick walls and splatter about the pavement so many times it stops having shock value. You have to get used to the violence real fast.

When someone happens to be under such extreme circumstances for so long they eventually become numb. I too sometimes ask myself, what is the point anyway? To shoot someone who is still alive is different, though.

"Boy, did you nail that one Captain Obvious. You know how you help? Put a fucking bullet between their eyes. End of story." I shift to sit up as she speaks, but she kicks me in the chest and I fall back again. "You are quite good with a gun, I take it?"

"Paintball does that. Still. . . how can you murder someone like that? And the kid?" Her eyes shift at the mention of the child with the grenade and something clicks in my mind. "How did a child get a grenade? He was barely six."

"I am not very proud of my methods of distractions, but they've kept me alive."

The cold tone of her voice goes deep. It burrows itself in my mind and causes a chill to spike upon my skin. As the initial shock of her words wears off, rage takes over. Without thinking, I aim a kick at her thigh and she spins away, trying to counter with a hook kick as I get to my feet. I jump back to avoid another blow of hers and deliver a hard side-kick to her stomach. She buckles.

I make a mistake of letting her recover, which I am fully aware of as she wraps her arms around me and tackles me to the ground. The wind's knocked out of me yet again and is replaced by a trail of blood and pain as I'm slammed into the cement of the rooftop.

I cough, struggling to breath and my vision swims. A second later I feel the woman take a full mount position on me, then the distinct edge of cold steel against my neck. She laughs. "Now, this is unexpected. I'm surprised you let yourself get taken down by someone much smaller than you," she says once the laughing ceases. At the close range of her face hovering above mine, I can see that she isn't at all what I figured. She has small scars along her face and purple bags line the eyes that hold a certain kind of sadness. Her hair seems sticky with blood.

"Why would you give a child such a task?"

"Isn't the answer simple? To live." Her reply makes me struggle against the hold she has on me, but my damn mind is still spinning from the impact and just the slightest of movements causes a surge of pain to break forth. I squeeze my eyes shut for a moment and when I open them again, she simply grins, presses the knife into my skin and drags it just the slightest bit — enough to remind me of the position I'm in. Then she parts her lips to speak, "I would like it if you'd remain calm as this process will go much quicker. You see, I really have no interest in killing you right now."

"You didn't have a problem killing that woman and giving a child a suicide mission!"

"She was running towards your building with a mob behind her. Neither of you would have survived" —she pauses to roll her eyes in a dramatic manner— "and seeing as I was in a building right besides yours, she was harming my way of an escape. You had the luck to be sitting on a nice rooftop. I did not. I want to make sure that you will take me seriously when I give you your choices." Ever so slowly, the knife leaves my throat and she points the .45 at me again. She pushes the blade back into her black combat boots. Moving away from me, she gives me my personal space back again, yet never stops aiming at me. "Your name?" she asks.

During the moment of my opening my mouth and her raising a brow, a woman with a missing eye, gouged out stomach and a smell wafting from her that would put a troll to shame appears on the scene. I struggle to get to my feet, but there is no need for me to try to defend myself anyway. Raising the .45 she smashes it into the back of the undead's skull in one swift move. The sound of bone cracking rings in my ears, and I can't help but cringe. I hadn't even seen her move towards the door yet alone noticed the door itself, which the rotting female corpse came from. A thick black substance oozes from the impact site.

I try moving away, but there is nowhere to go. "Well, that was unexpected," she mutters and turns towards me again, unfazed by the entire ordeal. "I'm pretty sure I asked your name."


"Welcome to paradise, Jay. You can call me Jeeps, my friends used to." She gives me a soft smile, pointing the gun in my direction again. I don't know how she manages to look innocent and terrifying at the same time. "I think you know by now that no matter how safe you think you are, there are about twenty others coming after you if you happen to stumble upon one of them," she says pointing at the corpse at her feet. The stench hits me with the breeze that swims through the air. "They don't get tired and they don't stop."

"I'm aware," I say straightening myself. My vision is returning to normal but the pain resides, and I am pretty sure I'm bleeding somewhere besides my arm and the cut on my neck Jeeps left behind. "My choices?" I remind her. She chuckles and takes a step closer.

"The thing I noticed around here is that no one is very observant or good at fighting. Especially children, hence why I did the boy a favour by asking him to run towards the mass and pull the pin when he does. If I were a child, I'd rather be dead than lost in a world where your own mother starts gnawing on your flesh," she explains.

"My choices?!" I demand again in a growl.

"Patience, Mister Jay—"

Almost in a blind rage, I rush towards her —my body trembling as the gun dances before me— and immediately disregard caution or any means of logic. "You know I've met your kind," I snarl. "People like you who rob and kill other survivors. I've seen raiding parties do more damage than any amount of the undead could. You flourish in this chaos. People like you know exactly what you are doing and still don't care!" I spit at her feet, pointing accusingly.

"Extenuating circumstances bring out the worst in everyone. Some use the apocalypse as an excuse to go absolutely insane. You should remember the biggest difference between the two of us, Mister Jay. I am not afraid to shoot the living." I stop at her words.

There is a clean stillness that follows, like the abrupt calm after a vicious hurricane. My heart is beating at an unusual pace. Another breeze turns my sweat cold and I shiver while she just stares at me with her hair caressing her cheeks as she cocks her head. This situation somehow reminds me of when I was still locked in the teacher's lounge. My mind rummages through those memories as I wait for her to decide on whether she should just shoot me or finally give me my choices.

The room had been frozen and everything around me had been silent. I remember seeing the first corpse I had ever seen. The impact of the image had me trip backwards. The body was laying face down in a puddle of red; a jagged, gaping hole sat where its head and left shoulder should have been. The first thing I did was vomit the chunky contents of my stomach onto the ruined carpet and then I was suddenly sobbing, pushing myself towards the door while tripping over debris, fallen pieces of furniture and other bodies.

I had cried like a little girl because I was not just scared, but terrified. I had searched in the dim light, frantic for a hint of another survivor. The normally crowded hallways were deserted of life and bustle, and the contrast of it had paralysed me with surrealism. A girl known for her strength had found me and extended her hand to help me up. I thought of her as a soldier. She had steered me through the halls, down the stairs. . . She moved with such grace and swiftness, easily sidestepping every bit of destruction. "We have to keep moving," she had whispered to me, pulling at my hand to move faster. Just a few days later I had to shoot her with her very own gun. My first kill.

My mind snaps back to the current situation as the all too familiar sounds of shuffling feet and moans break through my thoughts. Jeeps seems to have heard as well for she moves to the edge of the roof to stare down. "Well, let's get to your choices then, because there's about to be a small celebration up here with the main casts of our little situation. I can either shoot you, leave you behind or you can travel along with me?"

"You'd actually take my gun and just go? Leaving me with nothing?" I question in panic.

"Well, yeah. You were too stupid to hold onto that rifle, who says you won't lose this one? Guns are pretty precious to me, easier kills. If I'd not sacrificed the kid back then, we could have an easy escape right no—"

"You are a fucking lunatic!"

"And you are pretty clever. You have some fight in you, I like that. You have about a minute," she says. The sounds grow louder and feet pounding leisurely against metallic steps rattle through the open door. I take my time glancing from her to the door, and then to my gun which is resting within her palm as if it belongs there.

"You won't shoot me on the spot if I say I'll go with you? It's been quite lonely," I say in doubt. After months of hunting alone, running from building to building and trying to find a safe place to sleep in. . . I actually feel alive again. She smiles at me.

"I'm going to try to keep us alive for as long as I can, but you have to meet me halfway."

"In other words, agree to your fucked up tactics?"

"Survival is slim, Mister Jay. I have your back, you have mine."

". . .and you won't betray me?"

She smirks at me, turns and shoots a kid with a hole in its abdomen right between the eyes before looking at me again. "I will not," she says and tosses me my gun. Within a second of doing so she has her own in her hands again and gestures to the wall leading to the rooftop we had jumped down from in my earlier chase after her. I stare at her, bewildered at how quickly her aura seems to have changed. I think about the situation, about having a companion I can rely on. . .

No longer having to worry about waking up with rotting fingernails clawing at your ankles. A rush of the undead step out into the open air and onto the rooftop, joining us. I think she's right. . . to survive one has to give up certain things.

She grins as she rushes by me. She tucks her gun away and pats the brick wall of the building beside ours. "They don't climb, yet. This is the only way." The mass grows and so does the stench. I hurry towards Jeeps and watch her bend her knees to support her weight and make a net with her hands. Somehow the gesture makes me smile and I can't help but trust her for this simple show of her actually hoping for me to lend her a hand to climb the wall herself once I am up there is. . . touching.

"After you, dear," she says in a happy tune and laughs.