The Zombie Chronicles – Book 7
Copyright © 2013 by Chrissy Peebles
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
“Run, Dean!” Nick shouted.
“Hurry!” Val chimed in.
Flesh-eating zombies shambled behind me, their creepy moans echoing through the hallway. My footsteps clicked and clacked as I ran down the long corridor, faster than I’d ever run before. It was dark, spooky, and downright eerie, but I could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Nick, Val, Claire, and Lucas beckoned to me, so I pumped my legs even harder. I was just about to step into the light when something grabbed my legs. I fell on my stomach, reaching out for my brother.
“Dean!” Nick screamed.
Something sinister was pulling me away from them, dragging me to Hell. I kicked and flailed, to no avail. It had too tight of a grip on my ankles and was taking me back to be devoured alive. I could hear the others shouting for me hysterically. I reached out for them, but as I was dragged away, they grew smaller, their cries became quieter, and everything became darker. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a maniacal choir of snarls and moans.
Suddenly, a dim light flickered to life, and I frantically rolled onto my back. I stared into countless sets of white eyes as the zombies leaned over me. They inched closer, reaching out for me, ready to sink their teeth into my flesh. Pain exploded in my shoulder when one bit into me. “Nooooooo!” I screamed.
Gasping and sweating profusely, I sat straight up in bed. My shirt was stuck to my clammy skin. My heart was racing faster than a horse hooves at the Kentucky Derby. I wiped my face with my sleeve and took deep breaths, trying to calm down. It was just a dream, just another nightmare, I told myself. I wasn’t really back in that terrifying lab. I jumped down from the top bunk and opened the window. The cold air felt good on my face, cooling my skin as well as my nerves. It was cloudy outside; a storm was fast approaching.
I got cleaned up, then dressed. We’d survived the nightmarish lab and had triumphed, but in spite of our victory and our survival, I was haunted by those dreadful memories. The room began to spin, then grew smaller and smaller, and I felt a hot flash. Am I losing my mind, or is this just some kind of panic attack? I wondered, horrified. I grabbed my gun and rushed into the living room where the others greeted me.
“Well, well. Look who finally decided to join the living,” Lucas teased.
“Dean,” Val said, “are you all right? You’ve been sleeping for twelve hours.”
“It’s morning?” I asked.
“Afternoon,” she corrected.
“How are you feeling?” Nick asked.
“Like…driving down the highway and popping a tire. I mean…like I’ve lost control of the vehicle, have crossed into the opposite lane, and am lookin’ at an eighteen-wheeler barreling toward me at some ridiculous speed.”
Val came over to hug me, but I gently pushed her away.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said.
“Well, talking or not, you gotta be starving, little buddy,” Lucas said. “You haven’t eaten since before we went to the lab.”
I sucked in a deep breath. “Don’t mention that lab to me.”
Claire walked over with a plate of orange slices. “Wanna share?”
“Nah, I’m not hungry.” I was still so freaked out by the nightmare that my hands were shaking, but I tried to hide it. “I’ll be back,” I muttered.
“Dean, what’s wrong?” Val asked. “Where are you going? Why can’t you just—”
“I just need some air, all right? Is there some crime against a guy needing to breathe?” I screamed back at her in a nasty tone she didn’t deserve.
Val stood. “At least let me go with you.”
I shot her a look. “No. I need to be alone.”
“Please, Dean,” she pleaded.
When she tried to follow me, Lucas pulled her back. “Look, Val, Dean’s been through a lot. He just needs to be alone and deal with all this in his own way,” he said. “I can respect that, and so should you.”
“Yeah, just let him go, sis,” Nick agreed. “It’s how we Walters brothers handle things.”
As they kept talking amongst themselves, whispering about me, I walked out and shut the door behind me. I hurried down the corridor and climbed down the rope ladder, then headed outside. The sky was gray and cloudy, and droplets began to sprinkle down on me. Still, there were kids outside, bouncing a ball and laughing in delight. So naïve, I thought. So clueless to all the dangers that surround them. I’d give anything to be that carefree again, to smile and laugh and not be plagued by all the horrible memories I can’t seem to get out of my head.
A woman named Jan ran over and straightened out a large tarp, then placed it at an angle to catch the rain. “Dean,” she said. “Grab the buckets.”
I obediently walked over and grabbed the buckets, the perfect water filtration system: holes in the bottom, with layers of sand, charcoal, then sand again. We also boiled the water to kill any bacteria. It was a lot of work living off the land, improvising ways to survive in a world devoid of modern conveniences and technology, and everyone was much too busy to be too disturbed about the losses I’d suffered and all I’d gone through. It felt as if, while my life had taken a turn for the worst, everyone else just wanted to ignore it and continue living theirs.
I’d seen the atrocities firsthand, up close and personal. Horror had a very distinctive, unforgettable face, and I’d met it. We don’t live in a perfect world anymore,” I muttered, trying to accept it. The apocalypse had swept in like a hurricane, given birth to hordes of flesh-eating monsters, and left a path of destruction in its wake. We could never relax; we were always running from the all-consuming, big, black hole that seemed to gobble up everything we’d ever loved, including my Jackie. We tried to stay one step ahead of it, fighting, but it just pounced on us, kicked butt, and left us to pick up the pieces of everything we’d once cherished. Like everyone else, I had to rebuild my life after all the losses, all the tragedy, because I didn’t want to sink into hopelessness. That small sliver of hope, which seemed to be shrinking all the time, was all that kept me going. Life goes on, whether we want it to or not, I finally concluded, watching as Jan rigged up the rain buckets.
Jan looked up at me and smiled. “We’ll have fresh water soon.”
“Don’t look so sad,” she said, her brown hair whipping around in the wind. “You got your happy ending. You survived that horrible place, that Frankenstein’s lab.”
I met her gaze. “There’re no such thing as happy endings—only survival and pain.”
“Dean, you can’t let the zombies take away what we have left. You still have friends and family to love, to laugh with, to talk to. Dance! Enjoy every moment with them. Enjoy life.”
“I want to, but I have so many regrets, so many things I wish I could change.”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Look, hon’, I’m not here to judge. I’m here to listen.”
“Okay. Well, I have so many regrets I don’t even know where to start—just a lot of what-ifs or what-coulda-beens.”
“We’ve got no time for regrets. It might sound cliché, but life really is too short for that.”
“That sounds good on a bumper sticker or coffee cup, but it’s hard to live by when the burden is so heavy. I killed a man in self-defense, Jan. How can I not regret that? It will always haunt me. I guess…well, this whole thing has changed me into someone I don’t recognize, made me do things I never thought I’d do. Maybe everything’s just catching up to me.”
“You need to let go of all the blame, anger, and pain. Don’t worry about past mistakes or failures, sweetie. Nobody can judge us for acts we’ve done while trying to survive in this new world. Heck, I had to shoot my mother, father, and sister the first day. I mourn their loss every day, but I also know they’d want me to go on, and I’ll tell you what. That zombie virus might’ve taken my family, but I refuse to live like a prisoner. I’m gonna enjoy my kids every chance I get.”
“Mommy! Mommy,” a little girl said. “Are you gonna dance in the rain with us?”
“Yes, baby,” she said. “I most certainly am!”
The rain began to pour down in sheets, and I watched Jan and her children laugh and dance. In all that darkness and gloom that surrounded us, I finally saw a shining light. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I shouldn’t regret the past or fear the future. Then, for just a quick moment, I felt my lips curl into a tiny smile.
I wanted to go back to the lab, but Nick insisted that I wait until things settled down. I waited for a week, and even though the snow had come, I was still determined to go.
Huge snowflakes fell as I stared at the monstrous pile of rubble before me. The smell of concrete and metal filled the air when the wind blew in our direction. I was dressed in a brown coat, a white shirt, ripped jeans, and scruffy black boots. My feet crunched in the snow as I slowly walked over to the ashes of had once been the lab, all of it destroyed in the explosion Jonathon had singlehandedly caused in the fear that if any of us lived, we’d expose the entire world to the virus. He’d gladly triggered the self-destruct mechanism and was happy to die a martyr. Luckily, he didn’t take most of us with him. Still, Steven was mourning his death and had even insisted on holding a funeral for him. I’d attended, but only because I didn’t believe he was involved with the tortuous experiments in the basement of the lab.
“This place brings back so many painful memories, Dean,” Claire said. “We were drowning in lies. I was locked up in that jail cell, used as a human pincushion, Jackie was killed here, and mad scientists did horrible experiments in their evil laboratory hidden deep underground.”
Really, Claire and I just wanted to go back to the site where Jackie was buried, so we could grieve properly, maybe get some sort of much-needed closure. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words would come out. I was pretty numb inside and didn’t even know the right words to say. I glanced over my shoulder at some of the guys who were standing guard, with their Glocks and rifles ready to go, since Max had insisted they come with us; we had plenty of firepower in case any zombies decided to show up at the party uninvited. The zombie herd had left, though, so for the time being, it seemed the city was safe. No zombie would cross the perimeter of the greater part of the city due to an explosion a few months back. I was packing some serious firepower of my own, with my trusty rifle slung over my chest. In that new world of ours, strapping on a gun every single day was the new reality.
“Just pretend like we’re not here,” one of the guys called. “I know Claire said she’d rather be by herself, but you shouldn’t go anywhere without somebody havin’ your back.”
I nodded. “Yeah, we know. Thanks, guys.”
“Take all the time you need. We got you covered!” he shouted back.
Claire said a few words for all those who had lost her lives. During the following moment of silence, she let out a sob, knelt, and placed a bouquet of artificial flowers on the debris-scattered remains of the floor. “This nightmare will never be behind me,” she said, “but I’ll never forget you either. You were more than just my cousin. You were my best friend, and you’ll live in my heart forever.”
I then set down some artificial red roses, and they showed up brilliantly in the snow. “Jackie,” I said, “not a day goes by when I don’t wish I could have one more kiss or hug from you. I know you want us to go on, and I’m sure you’d hate all this mushy stuff and all this fuss. We’ll move on, Jackie, for you. We’ll never stop trying to make this world the place you would have wished for, and one day, it will be. Ultimately, zombies are just dead humans, and they’ll continue to rot. If we can survive four or five more years, we’ll get our world back. They’ll die out, but we’ll still be here, making the world you loved as beautiful as you were.”
“We will get our world back,” Claire promised. “It’s just gonna take some time.”
I took a step closer and laid down a second bouquet of flowers that Val had made. “This is for all who were lost on that tragic day. May you rest in peace.”
We stood there, holding each other. Claire cried in my arms, and I held her close for a long time. We didn’t even care about the cold or the snow. I could think of no more words to say. I tried to hide my hurt, but deep down, my heart ached. Jackie had touched me in a way I was sure no other girl could ever could, and she’d always be in my heart.
“I didn’t want this to be Jackie’s final resting place,” Claire said. “I tried everything to find her body, but I guess my best just wasn’t good enough.”
I touched her back. “You have every right to be upset, but we can’t change the past, Claire.”
“No, we can’t,” she whispered.
“Jackie is at peace,” I said. “She’d want us to go on.”
She stood. “I know. She always used to say, ‘Tomorrow’s a new day.’”
I gripped her hand and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
She stood and met my gaze directly, her blue eyes shining in the bright sunlight. “But I’m gonna make sure that Charlie pays for betraying us.”
“Another name for your hit list?”
Her lips pressed into grim lines as the wind swirled her hair around. “Yep. I’m gonna destroy him, trash his face, then feed him to the zombies.”
“Geesh. I hope you never get pissed at me.”
She walked over and hugged me, long and tight. “You’ll never be on my list, Dean, but I can’t say the same for your brother. Why isn’t he here anyway?”
“The others had to go with Max. It was an emergency, and—”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. A zombie threat to check out.”
“You know how Nick is. He lives and breathes zombie-bashing. Plus, he feels this intense need to protect us and keep us safe.”
“He cares so much about us,” she said.
“Yep, and he fights fiercely for those he cares about,” I said, glancing over at Claire. She was so beautiful, so loyal, so sweet. I watched her red hair blow in the wind as her blue eyes shimmered. She was so tough and refused to be that timid girl we’d met in the woods. She was brave, determined to make her own path in life. She was broken, but hope brought her strength and courage. Or maybe she’s just fueled by revenge. I figured it was really a little of both. Claire had vowed to move forward and to keep Jackie’s memory alive, and she’d done just that by facing so many obstacles. She never lost her balance, even when the tide turned against her. She just fought harder, and I had to admire that. In the dog-eat-dog world, survival of the fittest was becoming the new norm, and Claire was proving herself quite fit. My brother’s an idiot, I thought. How can he not see the beauty of what’s standing right in front of him, right within his reach?
“I don’t know if we’ll last a week, a month, years, or forever, but I do know one thing, Dean.”
“I’ll never figure Nick out.”
“Heh. Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. He’s my brother, and even I can’t figure him out,” I said.
“But it’s just not Nick I’m frustrated about. It’s just…I wish I had more answers. At least we figured out the animal thing, and it’s good to know we don’t have another epidemic on our hands, but I wanna know who was in charge. Who made
Kate, Sam, Larry, and the others go through those horrible experiments? Who’s
the lunatic behind all that?”
“We’ve got nothin’ but time,” I said, wrapping my arm around her as we started walking back to my car.
Max had given cars to both of us for our undercover work, though they were nothing fancy. Claire’s was a Honda Civic, and mine was some kind of black Mazda. Nick and the others had secured their own transportation. There were plenty of vehicles to choose from, as long as someone could figure out how to make them run and provide enough gasoline. Luckily, there were a couple of fantastic mechanics in the complex who were more than happy to help anyone with any car repairs. We walked for the most part, but we go for a spin every once in a while, especially in cold weather or when we had to go too far to travel on foot.
“Dean!” one of the men called.
“Yeah?” I said, spinning around.
He peered through his scope. “Get in your car! We’ve got unidentified company.”
My first thought was zombies, but then I saw a black truck cruising down the street toward us. I had no idea who it was; it could have been anyone, from one of the locals to a new person in town, or maybe even a gang member out house-shopping, ready to stake their claim on the city.
I grabbed Claire’s hand and pulled her toward my Mazda. If there was a problem, I was sure the guys could handle it, and I knew Claire didn’t need the headache with the emotional torment she was already going through. My goal was to get Claire home and make her lunch—nothing fancy, but some kind of canned food and a few fresh vegetables from what Rachel had brought from the greenhouse. Only in a post-apocalyptic world could I ever have been considered a chef, because I couldn’t cook to save my life. Opening a can came naturally to me though.
We hopped in, and I started the car. When I saw one of the guys approaching, I rolled down the window. “You got this?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“Yeah. Just get back to the apartment,” he said. “We’ll talk to these guys and see what they want. I’m sure they’re just passing through.”
I nodded, then sped off.
Claire leaned back and buckled herself in.
I turned left down the next street and started cruising back to the apartment.
“Thanks for coming, Dean,” Claire said. “It means the world to me.”
“Of course I’d come. I loved Jackie too.”
“I know you did. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have gone into zombie-infested territory at three a.m. to dig up Jackie’s body.”
“Yeah. Only we’re nuts enough to do that,” I said, “because we loved her that much.”
“Yeah, we did, and I know we’ll always cherish every memory we had with her.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Hey, Dean, that truck we saw back by the lab is following us.”
I swallowed hard and glanced into the rearview mirror, wondering why the guys hadn’t handled it. It was then that I realized that the men in that truck weren’t just random survivors. My gut told me it was a gang of troublemakers, and I wondered if they’d made quick work of killing those we’d left behind to fend them off.
“Whoever it is, they’re speeding to catch up with us,” she said.
Continuing to look in the rearview mirror, I pressed the gas. The menacing black truck continued to pursue us, but no matter what, I wasn’t going to let them hurt Claire. She’s been through hell already, I thought. She doesn’t need this crap…and neither do I.
“Dean!” she screamed. “Floor it! We gotta go faster!”
“Are they gang members?” I asked, gripping the steering wheel till my knuckles were white, wishing Max had hooked me up with a Ferrari instead of a Mazda.
“I-I think so,” she breathed out. “I don’t wanna have a run-in with them out here, Dean,” she said. “It’d be nice to surprise them on their own turf, with a good plan and lots of backup, but not here. We’re outnumbered, probably six to two.”
“I know,” I said. I hit the gas, but I didn’t know how long I could keep up that reckless pace in all the ice and snow. The tires spun, and we fishtailed every once in a while, and I was worried about flying off the road. When I hit a rut, the car rattled. I gritted my teeth, fighting to keep control of the automobile as we swerved left, then right. The tires squealed, but I accelerated and drove like a madman through the slush and snow. The speedometer shot up to sixty, but I continued to floor it. A cold chill ran through me when I felt the car skidding around the turns.
Speeding rapidly in pursuit, the truck continued to gain on us, likely having a lot less trouble since it was probably a four-by-four with rear-wheel drive.
I took a deep breath to calm myself and wiped the beads of sweat from my brow. The car suddenly jolted when the truck slammed into our back bumper. I gasped and jerked my head back around.
“They’re trying to run us off the road!” Claire shouted, horrified.
The tires spun, and the wet brakes squealed. My stomach lurched, and white-knuckled panic flooded through me when we hit a patch of ice too fast and completely spun out like some crazed amusement park ride gone wrong. With no traction in the snow, we swerved violently to the right, then veered off the side of the road and flipped over into the ditch. I shuddered as the car filled with smoke from the radiator. My vision was blurry, and I was a bit confused, but I saw Claire’s airbag deploy; mine, on the other hand, didn’t. Pain exploded in my head from slamming my skull into the steering wheel. Stars spun in my vision, and I wiped blood off my forehead, but my only concern was my passenger. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked, releasing my seatbelt and leaning down to look at her.
“Yeah. How about you?”
I helped Claire unbuckle her seatbelt so we could make a quick escape, but we had no such luck.
“Get ready! They’re coming,” Claire said, letting out a long breath and reaching for her gun.
“Hold on now, Dirty Clairey,” I said. “Like you said, we’re outnumbered, and if you go on a shooting spree, telling everyone to make your day, it will only make things worse.” The whole brutal scene brought back horrible memories of when I’d killed a man in self-defense. I was a survivor, not a murderer, and his death would always haunt me, even if he had tried to cause mine. I knew I’d have to shoot to kill again if the gangsters left me no other choice, and that was a reality that was difficult to face. Killing the undead was a far cry different than killing a living, breathing person, no matter how vile.
“Okay, I’ll hold off, but I’m not gonna surrender!” Claire said. “If we do, we’ll be eating bullets.”
“Let’s just calm down and see how it all plays out,” I advised. “We may not have to go out in a blaze of glory after all.”
“You honestly think we can talk our way out of this, Dean?” she retorted. “I’m sure they killed our comrades back there, and we’re gonna be next if we don’t take ‘em out first. I say we shoot first and let God sort ‘em out.”
“Geesh, Claire. You sound like every eighties action movie I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah? Well, Rambo lived through all those sequels, and I plan to do the same.”
I shook my head and held my gun steady. I really didn’t want to fire at them, but dying wasn’t on my itinerary any more than it was on Claire’s, and I would fire if I had to. “If they start shooting, I say it’s game on, but let’s wait and see what happens first.”
She nodded. “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
“We just wanna talk,” yelled a man with a deep voice. “Drop your weapons and get outta your car.”
“No! Giving up our weapons is suicide. We’ll be unarmed, and they’ll slaughter us,” Claire said.
“We blew up the lab!” I yelled. “We even saved some of your friends and family.”
My heart thundered as sudden gunfire erupted like we were in some kind of warzone. We both instinctively ducked down as glass shattered and we were sprayed with a cascade of glittering shards. Once all the windows were shot out, I was sure they were going to exterminate us once and for all. Claire and I had escaped the warehouse after they’d set it on fire, and they didn’t seem too keen on gratitude for saving their friends and relatives from that crazy lab.
Claire took careful aim and positioned her gun out the window, then started firing. If I wanted to live another day, I knew I also needed to fight with everything I had. It really was all about survival. As much as I hated firing on humans, I refused to die like that, trapped in a Mazda in a ditch. If I had to go, I was going to take some of those jerks out with me. I exhaled as I squeezed my trigger, letting off several shots. Another spray of bullets came at us, bursting our tires, so loud that it sounded like someone was beating the car with a
slugger. Almost in slow motion, I
saw a bullet fly beside my head, and I ducked and gasped. Louisville
“I’m not in the mood to die today, Dean!” Claire said. “If we stay here, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen. We gotta distract ‘em somehow so we can make a run for it. I’m sure we can lose them in those weeds and that brush over there, but we gotta move fast. Got your steel-toed sneakers on?”
“I’ll cover you,” I said as more bullets rang all around me, dinging the car. I returned fire and let out one shot after another. My ears were ringing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before one of those bullets pelted my head.
“No, Dean! We’re both going. I’m sick of being a damsel in distress.” Claire slammed another magazine in. “I’ve got the better weapon, so don’t argue with my plan. I’m gonna go full force. Open the door, get to those weeds, get low, and start crawling. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Fine,” I conceded. “On the count of three. One—”
Before I even got the chance to put the plan into action, a man’s voice echoed from my right. “Cease fire, John!” he said. “Tell ‘im, Marla.”
Marla was the name Claire had used when we spied on them at the warehouse.
When I turned, I gasped at the sight: One of the thugs was holding the barrel of a gun up to Claire’s temple.
“My name is not Marla,” she snapped.
“I know, Claire,” he said with a smirk. “Just havin’ a li’l bit of fun.” He looked at me harshly, and the smile from his sick joke left his eyes. “Now drop the gun, boy, or she’s dead.”
I pondered my options for a second, wondering if I could take the guy out. Before I could contemplate any further, I felt the cold barrel of a gun against the side of my own head.
“Hand over your weapons,” the thug said.
Glaring at him, I handed my gun over.
“Get out!” he shouted in my ear.
Due to the tumble we’d taken, the door was dented and wouldn’t open. The next thing I knew, several men were brutally jerking and tugging me through the shattered window, then pulling me through the snow by my hair and jacket.
“Get up!” a bearded man commanded like some kind of angry drill sergeant. “On your feet now!”
Claire screamed when they pulled her by her hair, dragging her next to me.
The presumed leader approached, his footsteps crunching in the deep snow.
Pain exploded in every nerve of my face when he pistol-whipped me, and the last thing I heard as I slipped into darkness was Claire’s long, shrill, helpless scream.
As I slowly came to, I could hear snapping and a thudding sound. My ankles hurt, and my feet felt numb. My eyes fluttered open, and I glanced around as they slowly focused. It was dark, and the stench of death made me want to vomit. I noticed I was tied up by the ankles, bound and gagged and suspended upside down in the air. When I glanced at the floor, I gasped. Dozens upon dozens of decapitated zombie heads lined the ground below me. What kind of butchers are we dealing with here? This takes a special kind of sick.
Gruesome, cut-off heads thrashed and chomped, lunging for me, desperate for a bite of fresh meat.