Copyright 2016 Anthony Izzo
Frank Harding snapped awake.
He had been dreaming of Ashley, of the last time they had made love before things changed. The warm summer breeze had blown through the open window. She had smelled of fresh sweat and vanilla, her breasts soft in his hands as she rode him to climax. After, they had curled up, her head on his chest. He liked to nuzzle her curly chestnut hair.
How he missed her. It had been the last summer before the world died.
Currently, he was curled up behind the counter of an abandoned drug store, a wool blanket wrapped around him. He had caught a few hours sleep and managed to keep himself out of sight.
It had been quiet.
He was somewhere in what remained of Chicago. The Windy City. All the wind brought now was the smell of rotting bodies, spoiled food, garbage, and burning metal.
He got to his feet. The pharmacy counter stood on a platform. It gave him a good vantage point.
The store was empty, save for a few cans of Ensure rolling around on the floor.
He patted the .357 that rested in a holster on his hip. Then he picked up the scoped M-4 rifle that had become his main traveling companion. In addition to the guns, he carried a machete tucked in a side pocket on his pack. It came in handy for chopping branches and busting rotter’s skulls. Their bones got soft after a while. Not enough Vitamin D in the diet.
His stomach growled. It seemed safe to take some time to eat. He went to the end of the counter, where he’d fastened a trip wire tied to some empty soup cans. It was an alarm meant to give him a few seconds’ warning.
He picked up the cans, wound the string around them, and placed them in his pack.
While he had the pack open, he dug out some dried apricots and popped them in his mouth. What he would give for a strip steak from Russell’s Steaks and Chops. That had been the last place he’d taken Ashley for dinner. She’d eaten her entrée and half of his steak. He didn’t mind.
He chewed the apricots while sitting on his haunches and listening for approaching intruders. A breeze whistled outside. An empty milk jug rolled down the street.
Frank had volunteered to come out here. There were reports of hordes of the dead growing and moving east. His people wanted to be prepared, so Frank volunteered to take one of the scouting missions.
It wasn’t too bad out here, minus the zombies trying to chew your face off. The Territories grew boring after a while. He’d frequented brothels, as it hadn’t taken long for them to crop up, even during the end of the world. The women there made him feel good, did things that would make some people blush. But he always returned to an empty house. He’d moved into the abandoned dwelling, the owners gone or dead.
The people in charge liked that he was a soldier. Or had been. Fought in the Syrian conflict and the Second Great War. He was a good shot and liked to think he could manage not to get killed out here.
When his snack was gone, he rolled up his sleeping bag, tethered it to his pack, and shouldered the whole thing. At the front window, he watched the street.
A sleek, gray rat skittered past. It stopped and sniffed the air.
From behind a burned-out Pontiac across the street stepped a zombie. It burst into the street, lunged, and snatched up the rat. The Z bit down on the rat and tore away a hunk, the rat screeching.
They were getting desperate for flesh. The Z took a few more bites before tossing the rat’s carcass aside.
The zombie looked up and saw Frank in the window.
He’d have to be quick. He shouldered the rifle, then reached back and grabbed the machete from the pack. He stepped outside and the zombie came at him.
Frank swung the machete and buried the blade in the zombie’s skull. Momentum carried the dead thing forward, shoving Frank back into the window.
The Z’s jaws worked up and down, teeth clacking. Blackish fluid dripped down its forehead.
Frank had heavy gloves and forearm pads on to protect against a bite. He grabbed the Z’s chin with one hand. With the other he grabbed the top of its head. He twisted, bone cracking as the head turned and nearly separated. The zombie twitched and he managed to knock it to the ground.
When the zombie was on the ground, he stomped the skull into jelly and took back his machete.
“Damned messy, that one,” he said.
He wiped the machete on the zombie’s tattered pants. Then he returned it to the sheath on the pack.
There could be more of them around, and his kill might have attracted unwanted attention. Frank hurried down the street, scoping out buildings, hoping to find a tall one where he could get the lay of the land.
He spotted a ten-story building that housed a deli and a shoe repair shop at street level. Like many of the buildings, the windows at ground level were smashed out.
After removing the rifle from his shoulder, Frank went to the door. He opened it and peered into the dim interior.
When nothing jumped at him, he slipped into a lobby, the deli to the right and the shoe shop to the left.
A sign on the wall advertised various businesses on the upper floors: attorneys, insurance agencies, financial planners.
He spotted a door marked stairs, visible in the low light coming from the street windows. He took a flashlight from his pack, wary of using up batteries. But he was going up a dark stairwell, and a fall out here could be fatal, even if the initial impact didn’t kill you.
Frank eased the stairwell door open and it gave a terrific squeal. Hopefully that didn’t alert every Z for blocks around. A musty, old smell wafted out.
After shining the light end and finding the stairs unoccupied, he climbed, making it to the fifth floor. A heap of desks, office chairs, and filing cabinets blocked his progress. It appeared someone on the upper floors had made a barricade as part of a desperate last stand.
He entered the fifth floor, where the stink of rotting flesh hit him. He shined the light and found the source: a dead woman in a gray skirt and matching blazer sat in an office chair. A .38 revolver lay on the ground at her feet. She had a blackish exit wound on her temple. Nearby was a dead Z. Dead as they could get, anyway. The back of its skull was blown out.
He’d have to live with the stench. At the window, he set down his pack and took out a set of binoculars. He had a good view down the boulevard. In the distance, he saw the hot glow of a fire. Thick smoke rose into the air.
He wanted to find out what was burning.