The world I knew is gone, lost to a darkness that I've seen parodied my whole life. Books were written speculating the fall of man and the fight for survival that would precede it, but these tales of fiction were always shelved under fiction or turned into big-budget gore-fests. There were no grounds to take them seriously; no science to pose them as probable.
What I wouldn't give for the credits to roll and for this to have just been one long, brutal movie.
It's been almost five months to the day since the start of it all. My hometown, a small Long Island suburb known for its proximity to the sound and spectacular beach views, was decimated within hours. The unnamed affliction spread rapidly from patient zero, whoever it may have been. There never was a clear reason for the outbreak. Nobody had the time to come up with one.
The speed of societal collapse was astonishing. Never had I thought that we would break so easily. Terrorist attacks, government shutdowns, flu epidemics—we were always able to bounce back somehow; but not this time. It tore through us mercilessly, collapsing our perfect little existence into a pile of unrecognizable rubble. We were forced to think about our survival above that of others. What we would do to make it from one day to the next became our greatest concern; no longer did we care about inconsequential annoyances. Today, it seems foolish that the color of our neighbor’s home or the length of their grass was ever a bother.
The devastation spread throughout the world, inevitably touching on my insignificant little life.
Recovering from my roommate’s New Year's soiree the night before, I was in a daze that left me questioning if I were still asleep. I struggled through heavy grogginess, and my head pounded in ways that aspirin and coffee simply couldn’t cure.
I remembered reading on the internet that the real cure for a bad hangover was to think of something terrifying—the worst fear—and just focus on it. The chemical reaction induced by fear was thought to balance out whatever lasting effect the alcohol had. Of course, I thought it was nonsense, but I found myself proving it to be true not long after I awoke that New Year's morning.
Focusing heavily on my mild claustrophobia, hoping to rid myself of my alcohol-induced discomfort, my mind started to notice the eerie silence that coursed through our two-story rental. Lack of sound was a luxury I rarely knew thanks to a pair of roommates with conflicting schedules. It was that morning, in the thick of this quiet, that I realized the creak of the floorboards echoed obnoxiously throughout the house; without the background noise of Jake and Daryl to drown the hideous noise out, every step I took rang within the old building.
My room was closest to the carpeted stairs that lead to the main level, a fact that I cursed when either of my housemates decided to trip down the stairs for a late-night snack. Though I often prayed for it when working on school assignments, the silence that morning wasn’t pleasant. There was something unsettling about it, and with each step I took towards the common living area, the silence seemed to grow brutally louder.
When I reached the landing and I no longer had the groan of the stairs to distract my senses, my ears picked up on a minute sound that, even today, haunts me to my core. At first, it was too soft to be distinguishable. Maybe it was the dripping of a leaky pipe or a roach scuttling across the floor? Drawing closer to the source, I started to pick up the nerve-grating sound of lips smacking. Beneath that, a guttural groan emanated, sending painful chills down my spine.
Rounding the corner wall that separated the hallway from the living area, I spotted the crimson liquid pooling around the edge of the large throw rug. The comfortable beige material was a matted mess splattered with ruby droplets and unidentifiable scraps. A streaking trail of gore stretched from the rug and disappeared behind a far wall that sectioned the living area and kitchen. It was at that moment I learned that, yes, a hangover can be cured by fear.
I stood still for a minute, my brain processing the images my eyes were sending. Flashes of a wild animal tearing into Jake or Daryl's body crossed my mind. It was an illogical thought considering Long Island’s ecosystem, but it was all my terror-fueled thoughts could fabricate. While trying to make sense of what awaited me around the corner, I must have made a noise. The lip-smacking stopped and the groaning cut off. Seconds later, something shuffled across the floor in my direction
Despite having been clear across the room from Daryl, I distinctly remember every minor detail of his distorted facial features. Even months later, I can crudely sketch the pale skin as it hung loosely off bones. A milky white haze coated his eyes, but I could still feel his gaze burning through me. He took a liking to my presence instantly. Daryl's jaw, which hung slightly to the right off its track, snapped in my direction. I had once been caught up in Hollywood's fascination with the undead and knew what stood before me. The bloodied, zombified figure was no longer Daryl and I was no longer its friend.
The creature’s lifeless frame slowly moved toward me, and with each lurching step forward, I backed up toward the main entrance across the living room. My hand touched the cold metal of the door handle and my fingers fumbled with the latch while my eyes remained locked on the shambling, grotesque monster. When his throat gurgled a groan, thick crimson liquid gushed to his feet and I felt the bile start to rise in my throat. Its outstretched fingers clawed at the air with each determined step forward but my own gripped cold metal as my back pressed against the front door. With one last persistent moan from my former roommate, I twisted the handle, pushed back, and felt a momentary relief from the warmth of the sun.
It was a respite immediately shattered by the screams that cut through the air. Though the street was littered with the decay of Mother Nature, I couldn't help but focus on the dark splatters and pools of blood that coated the landscape around me. There was an unfamiliar odor, one so thick that it overpowered the crispness of the winter air. I only had a moment to try and place it before a gunshot in the distance jerked me to attention. That’s when I started picking up on the chorus of the apocalypse that surrounded me.
To my right, a window shattered followed by a plea for help. Beyond that, a loved one begging for mercy as someone familiar to them ripped into their flesh. Then a pounding so hard that it shook the door I escaped from. On the other side of the thick wood, I could make out the pained groans as the monster that was Daryl fought for its next meal. I couldn’t help but think of its cold, dead hands tearing into my body, but the thought dissolved when my eyes glimpsed two distant figures limping towards me. Their faces were a blur, but I had no difficulty seeing the missing arm of one gripped tightly in the hand of the other.
Already shaken by the insanity surrounding me, my will completely broke as the kind mother that lived next door came screaming through my front yard. Running up and down her calf was a large, fresh gash that gushed blood with each hobbled step. Trailing behind were her cherished twin boys, shrieking inhumanly as they slowly gained on their mother.
I felt a moment of helplessness and considered letting the madness of the world consume me, but the door behind me splintered on its frame and the creature’s desperate grunts became crystal clear. When my feet touched the cold grass was when I realized I was barefoot. No level of discomfort could trump my sudden need to escape, so I kept moving, leaving my paralyzing fear and the life I once knew behind. I dodged through the carnage of my neighborhood, ignoring cries for help as I pushed toward to a future I couldn’t even fathom.
On the first day of the outbreak, you couldn't go twenty feet without seeing carnage. The constant screaming was unbearable, but I knew each fresh cry for help bought me another few seconds of life. It was chaos, but I knew I could use it to survive.
Like many others that had fled their homes, I didn't have a plan. People flocked to grocers and bigger retailers to stock up on non-perishables and anything that could be used as a weapon, but things were always worse where the crowds congregated. It wasn't long before big retailers were completely overrun, their aisles splattered with gore. I knew enough to stay away from high-density areas, but that didn't mean I had any idea of where to go.
Initially, I stuck to my town thinking it was small enough to keep the population of zombies low. It didn’t seem to matter. Every corner I turned I was witness to people I knew succumbing to the shadows of the human race that shuffled through the streets. Moments later, they would stand back up and repeat the process ad nauseam until I felt as if I was completely alone in the engulfing darkness. Within just a few hours, there was little left not coated in a slippery layer of blood.
I tried to leave in hopes of finding safety somewhere, but with no transportation, navigating the infested streets was arduous. I sought shelter where I could find it, but there was little not already claimed by the undead or the few living. When I asked for help, I was either met with threats or polite refusals. It was the latter that I considered taking by force, but I couldn’t blame their unwillingness to help. I also knew there would be others stranded like me that wouldn't be so understanding.
The world had changed so much in such a short period of time. All of that patriotism that surges after national tragedies were nonexistent. It was simply about not being the next to fall, no matter who had to take your place. It made me realize how alone I was. My parents were long gone and the only friends I had succumbed before I even woke up, but not having someone to worry about was an advantage that kept me grounded and focused.
After three days of trying to survive on the road, already somehow forgetting what the world was originally like, I remembered a shred of my former life. It seemed foolish that I hadn’t thought of it sooner, but my attempts at not dying clouded my memory. I was the manager of a small retailer, a strip store not ten minutes from where I had found temporary shelter. It was somewhere familiar, a place with a large steel shutter and thick plexiglass windows.
Unfortunately, in my haste to escape my infected home, I had left the keys to the store behind. I needed a refuge from the new dangers of the world, and it seemed like the most logical of options. I survived to this point by sticking to the shadows, but it was only a matter of time before even the shadows weren't safe. It took little deliberation before I decided that I needed more permanent shelter, and so I returned to face the demons I had escaped only days earlier.
It was the light of day when I reached my old neighborhood. Sticking to nearby forestry and cutting through backyards kept me off the main roads and away from hordes of the infected. Across the street from my former home, I cut through the yard of Ted and Denise Welkes, a quiet young couple I would see for a few minutes a week, mostly only at their mailbox. They didn’t seem like survivalists, but the gruesome scene in their yard spoke differently of them. A stack of bodies was thrown in a heap at the bottom of a drained pool, the stench of decay filling the air around. A few distorted faces I recognized, including one that gave me a hint of relief.
For Christmas, I had bought Daryl a clever frat boy tee that pointed out his crotch as "The Legend.” Heavy spots of blood and other thick liquids threatened to mask it, but I could still make out the font. I couldn’t keep my mind from thinking back to that morning and watching as remnants of Jake dropped from Daryl’s maw. Thanks to the Welkes, he was released of this curse and I didn’t have to worry about running into him.
I bid my old friend the final farewell I was initially robbed of and scanned the rest of the Welkes' property, peering into windows to see if the couple was still around. They were, laying side-by-side behind a destroyed barricade of personal items, an old revolver in Ted’s hand. They were embraced, neither one showing signs of infection, and outlined in blood that rushed from two gaping wounds in the back of their heads. I contemplated joining them, but I urged myself to survive for reasons I still can't comprehend.
It had only been days, but the two-story structure I once called home seemed like an unfamiliar place. The front door hung off its hinges, reminding me of the horrors that could wait for me inside. I couldn’t be sure if there was anything left of Jake to turn or if a small horde passed through, leaving scattered infected to linger in all corners. It didn’t matter—I needed those keys.
I could smell the rotting flesh before stepping through the doorway. My keys were hung on the kitchen wall, meaning there was no way of avoiding the grisly scene I nearly walked in on mornings before. There was something about seeing Jake's body scattered across the floor that nauseated me. Death and gore was a part of life now, but I couldn’t stomach looking at him. Cautiously, I moved passed him, glancing only momentarily. In that split second, I caught his eye, nearly ripped from its socket, following my movement. Even when I turned away, I could feel his eyes on me. Uneased by the sensation, I quickened my pace, grabbed my keys, a few bottles of warm water, and reentered the world of the living dead.
In my time alone, I often contemplated the end of the world. I survived the Mayan apocalypse of 2012 and the rapture of 2011, was prepared for Rasputin’s 2013 prediction and watched as people panicked over Comet Elenin. Those end of days scenarios were now preferable to this nightmare. On the quieter nights, when screams and gunshots didn't break the silence, I would let my mind wander to what wound up being simpler times. I had more free time than ever, hidden behind a steel gate, tucked away from the madness in the rear of the store. I missed the days when the end of the world was just theoretical.
I lived like this for a little over a month, sitting in silence, occasionally leaving the safety of my shelter to scavenge nearby residences. It was a lonely existence. To say I didn't contemplate suicide would be a lie. The thought was always in the back of my mind. During food runs, I considered letting the darkness take me, let it rip me open until I felt nothing, but I always kept moving. I always kept surviving.
There were times I thought about responding to cries for help or responding to the infrequent small groups that rattled my gates, looking for shelter, but groups were noisy and clumsy and always fell to small swarms regardless of how well-equipped they were. On one night I recall, I came across a group of six or so people. They were ransacking a deserted gas station, stuffing nonessentials like Playboy into already over packed duffle bags. From a safe distance, I watched as three ghouls mindlessly stumbled towards the station’s entrance and devoured the disorganized group. Their cries echoed as I turned away to return to my safety.
Solidarity was my key to survival and it remained as such. That is, until I met him.
He was maybe in his mid- to late-50s and in good enough shape to crack the skull of a freshly turned corpse with one blow of a 2x4. I was glaring up at the monster that shambled towards me, cursing myself for the momentary lapse in judgment that made me so vulnerable. It was supposed to be a quick supply run, but I had carelessly overlooked a deadly detail. As I shoved antibiotics and a first-aid kit into my bag, my eyes caught a glimpse of the creature moving behind me in the medicine cabinet mirror. I don’t remember reacting in any way or slipping on the rug beneath my feet, but I know I wound up on the ground. As the bruised and bloodied figure moved towards me, the old man struck, causing the corpse to collapse onto me. It was the closest I’ve ever been to one and the first time I noticed the putrid scent of their thick, blackened blood.
Before I could get to my feet, the old man tossed me a bottle of water, silently noting my cracked lips. He was kinder than his gruff appearance let on. Instead of taking my supplies and running off, he sat with me and offered a protein bar. For a moment we sat in silence as if just to enjoy the physical presence of another person. When he did start asking questions, if I wasn’t comfortable answering, he didn’t push. I didn’t have much human interaction over the past month, but I didn’t suspect people were chatting casually. After inquiring about where I was holed up and if I were alone, he changed to more lighthearted talk about life before the outbreak.
I was admittedly wary of his kindness and I'm sure he could sense my unease, especially as the sun started to dip and unfamiliar shadows cast across the room. Most of the few amicable interactions I previously experienced ended with me returning to my shelter, alone. The old man wasn’t as willing to let me wander off. “I have a place not far from here. There’s enough food, water, and space for the two of us.” The suggestion took me by surprise and he could sense it. “Alone is no way to live and we both need someone to watch our backs.”
The idea of being alone pained me, especially after the brief reminder of what it was like to have some form of companionship. I must have sat for a minute, contemplating every scenario before remembering that he could have left me to be a meal and pilfered my supplies after.
Without another moment’s hesitation, I agreed.
In the cover provided by the pitch black night, he led me to his hideaway, a Cold War bunker that belonged to his neighbor. It had been outfitted with a cot and a sleeping bag and the old man clearly had done some legwork to add necessary provisions. Blood splatters painted one wall as a sign of a darker story I didn’t dare ask about. He didn't carry himself like one that would willingly kill the living and that was the image of him I wanted to keep.
Those first few days with him I kept mostly to myself, sticking to one corner of the bunker, waiting for my punishment for being complacent and joining him. I observed him as he tended to supplies, wondering if he, too, was expecting his generosity to go awry. We spoke minimally as we grew accustomed to each other’s presence, but after three days of complete silence, I broke. It occurred to me that, even during our initial meeting, neither introduced themselves. While he read through a stack of worn magazines, I extended a hand and finally thanked him.
"My wife taught me never to press someone in an uncomfortable situation," he returned my handshake warmly, "it tenses the situation and pushes them away. This is no time to be pushing people away."
Once the silence had been broken, we spent hours exchanging stories; not of our lives over the past month, but the ones that had been torn from us. His wife, Marla, had passed the year prior when a drunk driver jumped the curb in front of their home while she was gardening. There was still sorrow in his eyes when he spoke of it, but I could also tell he was relieved she wasn’t alive for this. When I asked about children, he became silent, clearly hoping to avoid a still painful topic.
I came to respect the old man and found myself caring more for his welfare than my own. I watched his back, making sure he got the last of the water or was the first one to eat when rations were slim. Being more than twenty years my senior, I felt a growing concern for him. Never did he seem weak, but it was an instinct I could only assume a son feels for his father. Deep down, I knew it was dangerous to have in this new world, but it was something I couldn’t ignore.
Despite my compassion for him, I remained cautious around others. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a quality we shared.
"We can’t let go of our humanity," I recall him telling me shortly before his kindness nearly got us killed. “Once we turn our back on others, we become no better than those things.”
The months had worn us down and had diminished our supplies greatly. Supplies in the area were growing thing, forcing us to expand our search to unfamiliar territory. About five miles east of our shelter, we came across a grouping of homes that barely looked like they’d been picked through. Chances had it that we weren’t the only ones to find it that day. They were a group of four, seemingly in worse condition than we were.
A young woman had an arm thrown over one of her companions, blood from an unseen wound dripping down the front of his shirt. She trembled when they spotted us and they were quick to get defensive when we approached, equipped with just our backpacks and rebar. They outnumbered us, but they still begged for help. Something seemed off, but the old man didn’t sense it. Instead, he took to them immediately. They spouted something about a serious injury and needing medical supplies. It wasn’t a bite, they assured. Just a gash from a scuffle. Though I normally trusted the old man's judgment, I couldn’t shake my unease.
"My wife, she’s bleeding bad," the man carrying the woman pleaded. His wife’s face contorted with pain, as if on cue.
The old man agreed to help. We didn’t have bandages on us, but he offered our assistance in clearing what we hoped were abandoned homes. I knew I should have, but I didn’t question him. I should have, but his kindness was, in a way, refreshing. So I kept my mouth shut and we started working through each home.
We were picking through the third or fourth house when two gunshots rang out. Two pops to break the silence. We listened for the screams that so frequently followed, but all fell quiet again. Another moment later, two more shots rang out, this time closer. I hadn’t noticed a gun on them earlier, but it didn’t occur to me until we were already rushing back outside to help. When we stepped outside, the old man dropped to the ground, the force of a metal pipe to the back of his knee bringing him down quickly. My stomach sank when I felt the hot barrel of a gun press against the back of my neck.
"Where are you holed up?" The husband pressed the gun harder against my neck. He was almost inaudible beneath the thumping of my heart. "Tell us where and you're free to go."
It was bullshit. The gunshots weren’t just to get our attention. They wanted to alert the dead to the two-course feast about to be left writhing on the warm asphalt.
The old man choked through his words, disappointment in himself evident in his brief response. "Tanner Road. 432."
"Bullshit," The barrel pressed harder, "Tanner is a graveyard. Every house is empty."
"We have a bunker in the backyard. Beneath the shed."
The gun dropped from my neck as he questioned whether to believe his captive. I had a fleeting thought that maybe we would escape, but it vanished when he returned the gun to my neck. Nobody spoke as he considered his next move, and it was in the eerie hush that I heard a series of familiar and chilling noises. From the building we hadn’t finished clearing came the guttural groans and snarls of the undead. There were five that stumbled from the shadows and directed their attention to our attackers. The weight of the firearm left my neck and shots were fired, giving me the chance to pull the old man to his feet.
The first of the screams came as we cleared the chaos and rounded the end of the street. I took a quick look back and saw a small mass of undead shambling from the woods behind the end lot. Before the commotion fell out of earshot, the wife let out a blood-curdling scream, likely the last sound she ever made.
That was our last run together. I could see the defeat in his eyes every day, as if man’s true nature was finally revealed to him. Our supplies continued to dwindle, and as much as I tried to make solo runs, I never could bring back enough to sustain us for long. He grew more despondent and I found it increasingly difficult to care for him. The relationship we had spent months cultivating started to fall apart and I felt myself growing more selfish. On some of my last runs, I hid the bulk of what little food I had found. There was a part of me that blamed him for the near-fatal carelessness, and it birthed a resentment I couldn’t shake.
We were both weak when I knew I needed to act. He had slept for two days, his mental and physical state keeping him from leaving the bunker. I felt myself on the edge of starvation the night he popped up from a deep sleep as if awakening from a jarring dream. "I'll finally see my Marla again," he muttered before his head returned to the cot. The old man was asleep again within seconds and I was left to think, to wonder if he had decided his fate. If he had, it wasn’t one I could accept for myself.
I apologized quietly to the old man as I wrapped my hands around his neck. My fingers squeezed tight and his eyes flashed open wide to stare up at me. There was sorrow in his gaze, but he didn’t try to stop me. He remained motionless. As life started to slip from him and his body convulsed for the breaths it wouldn’t get, I realized that the sorrow in his eyes wasn’t for him.
He pitied me. He pitied that I chose to continue living in this dark world.
It’s been three days since I killed the old man. I mourned him but was more thankful that he helped me regain my strength. As I pick the meat from his hand, I struggle to fight off damning thoughts. Am I any different from the undead? We’re both driven by our primal instincts, a need to survive and press forward. It’s all I feel anymore.
I know I’ll have to leave the shelter soon. It won’t be long until there is nowhere left to scavenge. I remember overhearing other survivors on my last run, talking of heading to the coast, that it was quieter on the outskirts. They sounded disorganized and scared and were just looking for shelter. They sounded weak. Maybe I can use that to my advantage. Maybe they’ll let me join them.
They won’t know what I’ve done to survive. They won’t know that I would do it again. Without hesitation, I will choose my life over another.