I’d been running for so long that the days began to bleed together in a mess of tangential memories. It felt as though I’d been on the same bleak road for as long as I could remember, the endless procession of potholes and abandoned cars the only reminder that I was still moving forward. Fellow travelers came and went like the wind, making their presence briefly felt before slipping through my fingers.
Everything felt gray, even the fall maple leaves that lay strewn about.
* * *
It was two weeks ago when people first started to turn rogue, and within days the city had been on the verge of anarchy. I didn’t go outside after the third day, when the mayor declared martial law. There were reports on the radio that people were piling up husks and burning them. The smoke of the burning bodies obscured my window, but told me everything I needed to know about what was going on outside. It was all quite unexpected, and I felt infinitely small stowed away in my tenth floor apartment above it all.
I sat on my couch, listening to the sounds of gunshots and screams of people getting eaten alive on the sidewalk below, just trying to make it all feel real.
The meager amount of food I had in my kitchen disappeared far faster than I expected, and it became apparent that I needed to leave the city on the fifth day when the local news anchors got devoured before my eyes on TV. The pressure was immense, and I had more than a few mental freakouts.
I knew I would have to make the trek on foot, and for the first time I was thankful that I didn’t have any close family members to weigh me down.
I packed my backpack with some clothes and the few items of sentimentality that I had, grabbed the largest kitchen knife I could find, and strapped on my beloved Timberland boots. I made sure to take extra care and triple knot them, my only companions for the road ahead. Then I left my apartment for the last time, not bothering to close the door as I plunged into the unforeseen chaos of beyond.
* * *
I think I’m losing my mind.
The streets were a junkyard of despair. There were overturned and burnt out vehicles all over, leftover from the mass exodus that had been occurring for the past week. The wind smelled like gasoline and gunpowder. Dissonant screams and ghastly growls floated in the air side by side. There was so much going on- I struggled to comprehend the shock of my surroundings.
“HELP ME! OH GOD PLEASE, SOMEONE HELP ME!”
I turned from the doorway of a ransacked coffee shop to see three figures pursuing a terrified woman. My mind was immediately entranced by their faces, with eyes like black holes that longed to pull all into their orbit of never ending hustle. Their skin was dry, and droopy, like a band of disheveled elves surrounding a forest of jagged teeth. They ran with a gaunt that was like that of an army vet who had lost one of his feet in the war, and was now struggling, but succeeding, to run at a marathon pace from his own government. A wave of primordial anxiety ran through me like lightning- there was no doubt that these were the ‘husks’ I had seen in grainy videos on TV.
I finally managed to fight my eyes away from the husks, and back to that of the frantic female running like hell away from them. She wore a pink tracksuit, and carried a sizable black Coach bag.
My conscious told me I should intervene and save her, by performing some heroic act of courage. But every time I tried to focus, my mind locked up with the fear and shame of a coward. I couldn’t utter a word.
Through her freneticism, the old Coach bag suddenly spotted me. There was a sheen of desperation in her eyes that was almost pitiful. I’m such a piece of shit- my first thought was whether or not the husks would start chasing me too if she ran my way.
Then her legs buckled beneath her, and she slammed forward into the pavement. My jaw dropped in horror, realizing she had stepped into a pothole and twisted her ankle garishly. Before I could think, the husks were upon her and tore her to pieces.
Haunting, dissonant notes emanated from her as she died. Their horrific tenor followed me as I turned and ran as fast as my Timbs would take me.
* * *
I narrowly ducked behind an overturned semi as a pair of gun-toting maniacs came around the corner ahead of me. They had mullets and wore cargo shorts, looking as if they had just robbed a gun store.
“WHOOOOOOP WHOOOOP WHOOOOP! Let’s kill all of these husk motherfuckers Jimmy! Send ‘em all to the Hell their damned for! WHOOP WHOOOOP! We taking this city back one goddamn block at a time!”
Jimmy whooped in response and shot his gun off haphazardly into the air. They continued taking pot shots at whatever god they believed in, yelling about how they were going to single-handedly exterminate the husks themselves. They disappeared around another corner, as quickly as they had appeared.
I somehow doubted they would have much success in their endeavors.
* * *
About an hour later, my composure somewhat regained, I came upon a trashed alleyway with an overturned dumpster in the middle of it. It was narrow, but it would allow me to cut directly through the waterfront district. I didn’t want to have to go the long way back downtown.
I began sneaking down the alleyway when a husk with a slackened jaw descended upon me from behind a dumpster. I had no time to react before it knocked me to the ground, and my steak knife flew out of my hand. The fear of death jammed a cold tire iron into the machinations of my mind. My arms were pinned under the weight of the husks, and I began preparing myself for a communion with the damned. I wondered if Jimmy would have to send me to Hell himself.
The husk was just about to tear into my jugular, when the tip of a Bowie knife suddenly punctured through the dome of his forehead. I laid underneath it, motionless, as blood and brain matter began to spill onto me.
“What the fuck..?”
In hindsight, maybe I didn’t move for so long, because in that moment, I had accepted my fate, and wanted to die. Rational thought struggled to fight its way back to the forefront of my consciousness. My heart beat like a punching bag, adrenaline still coursing through my body.
“Damn dude, are you still alive under there or what?”
The carcass was lifted off of me and discarded to the side. Air rushed back into my lungs. Before me stood a woman, maybe in her late twenties, with bleach blonde hair that was cut above her shoulders. In her hands, she brandished the punk-ass knife that had just saved me from certain death.
“You’re damn lucky that I happened to be coming down this alleyway when I did. That husk was ugly as hell, but he was about to eat your ass real good. C’mon now, get up quick, or you’re still going to be cold lunch.”
Ms. Bowie helped me up, and I did my best to wipe off some of the brain matter that had stained my shirt.
“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but shit is kinda crazy out here right now, so we gotta get moving ASAP.”
It turned out that Ms. Bowie was also trying to escape the deteriorating situation in the city, so we decided that it’d be better if we stuck together. Relieved to have found a companion who could take care of themselves, we quickly set out, continuing to make our way through the desolate streets and an otherwise sea of faceless people.
* * *
After a few hours of careful movement and close encounters with undesirables, Ms. Bowie and I made it to the outskirts of the city around dusk. The city-block maze let out onto the brown banks of a river, and promenades normally teeming with tourists. Tonight, the waterfront was desolate. The only signs of life were on the bridge that stood stoically across the river, where soldiers had erected a hasty blockade around the burned frame of an inner city bus.
Bowie and I stepped out onto the cusp of the bridge, waving our hands to show we still lived. After a few seconds and some yelling, one of the soldiers standing guard waved back with his gun to show that our message had been received. In that moment, I think Ms. Bowie and I both let out a sigh of relief, happy to have finally made it through the worst of the city.
We were no more than fifty yards from the blockade when a chorus of horrid screeching came from behind us. I looked back to see a horde of twenty or thirty husks rounding the corner of the last city block, charging down the bridge at breakneck speed. The soldiers began firing at them in salvos, and I dove to the pavement as quickly as I could.
I covered my ears with the palms of my hands and squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the husks to descend upon us.
The gunfire ceased, and I opened my eyes. The husks lay cut down on the bridge behind us. I sighed in relief- I was still alive, for better or worse. I smiled in that moment, and turned to crack a joke with Ms. Bowie about not needing her help this time around.
My eyes fell upon her body next to me, gored with bullet holes.
I sat there for a long time, staring at her splattered brains on the pavement. Thinking about how I never did get the chance to ask what her real name was.
* * *
I had been on the move ever since with a who’s-who cast of individuals, chaos seeming to follow us everywhere we went. The road was becoming bleaker and lonelier- new companions were lost as frequently as they came. The husks were ruthless, continually bearing down upon us. It became essential to not get attached, to focus only on keeping my soles to the pavement. There was no choice but to press on or succumb- lost souls just became a part of the shadow pursuing us. It felt as though the whole world was sliding in the same direction, off a cliff, the release of some primal tension that had been building since the advent of our existence.
After a particularly nightmarish stretch of two days with no sleep, myself and a few others finally managed to pull away from the mayhem. In a twist of fate, Jimmy was now among our group. I’m not even sure when he joined us, but we picked him up in the shuffle somewhere along the way. He was alone now, and noticeably quieter than before.
We were terribly low on food and medical supplies, most of us having lost our packs to the claws of the husks. All that remained of my old life were the Timberland boots I had been wearing the day I left my apartment. However unfortunate a choice they were for running, my Timberlands were warm, and the superficial pride they once filled me with became all I had left in the world’s newfound madness.
Our ragtag band came upon an abandoned apartment building on the side of the road; we seized upon the chance for temporary shelter, and entered.
Not knowing how long this opportunity would last for, we collectively decided to search for supplies before resting. As the others searched for food on the main floor in the cafe, I made my way up to the apartments on the second floor seeking antibiotics. The clothes I had worn as I left the city had been ruined weeks ago, so I also intended to continue my practice of wardrobe pilfering. On my way up the stairwell, I snagged an axe from a firebox, not knowing what I’d find.
* * *
The wood splintered as I broke down the door of Apartment B18. I peered inside for signs of movement- just an empty minefield of trash and knick-knacks. Judging by the scattered mess throughout the unit, the previous inhabitants had either been vagrants or abandoned it with haste.
Before entering the seemingly vacant abode, I unlaced my Timbs and set them just inside of where the door had once stood. Blisters and rash plagued my sore feet after weeks of hurried travel. An opportunity to let my feet breathe would make the incursion all the more worthwhile.
I pushed into the apartment unit, looking for the bathroom. I held my breath, axe in hand, waiting for someone to jump out at me from around the next corner. My paranoia proved unwarranted, however, and I found the bathroom near the back of the unit with a well-stocked medicine cabinet.
Although there were no antibiotics, bandages and Vicodin made sure that the excursion was not a waste. I grabbed a tote bag from the kitchen, and filled it with all of the medical supplies I could find. Then I sat on the edge of the bathtub and wrapped the wounds on my feet, popping a fistful of pills to take the edge off.
A dozen moments later, I was in the living room eating a bag of stale Doritos. They were nacho cheese, so they went down easy. The couch was old but comfy, not unlike my couch that I had back in my apartment. It felt good to sit in front of a TV again like it was the old days. My thoughts felt lucid, the horrors that had enveloped humanity gone. Memories of my childhood flooded over me, and for a moment it felt as if I was back at my Grandma’s house again. I could almost see her face, eagerly waiting for me to savor the freshly baked pierogies in her hands. I smiled to myself, reaching out for her warm embrace-
* * *
Suddenly a gunshot rang out from below, followed by panicked shouting. It was time to leave. I quickly took one last handful of chips, and grabbed the tote bag. I moved to the door with my axe in hand, blade sharp and at the ready.
As I went to exit the apartment, I froze. My Timberland boots were gone. I frantically searched around the mouth of the doorway.
Panic began to set in as they were nowhere to be found. Where were my Timbs? Did someone from my group take them while I wasn’t looking? Had there been someone else in the apartment building and I hadn’t noticed?
My mind swarmed with anger and paranoia as I moved down the hallway. I NEEDED those boots. They were MY boots. My bare feet pounded down the stairway as my vision flickered red.
* * *
I threw open the door into the lobby of the apartment building. There I found the other four members of my group. A pair had barricaded the window, and were struggling to hold back the cries of the dead. The other two moved about the room frantically, looking for anything to push in front of the door that looked ready to cave-in.
Tommy saw me as I entered the room.
“There you are chap, goddammit we need to get the hell out of here! Julia says she thinks there’s a door out back through-“
* * *
He never got to finish as my axe sliced through his neck, blood spraying everywhere. The boots he wore weren’t mine, but I had decided at some point that I didn’t care.
Jimmy stood in utter disbelief, still in shock. He moved to reach for his shotgun, but as my blade split into the top of his skull, he thought better of himself.
The other two stood holding the barricade, not comprehending what they were seeing and torn between what to do. I moved towards them, blade glistening in the light for vengeance.
* * *
Before I could cross the room, the door gave way, and the hollow figures of what was once humanity poured through.
My axe swung wildly in front of me as I held my ground without feeling. I gazed into the empty eyes of those before me, accepting that whatever humanity had once existed was gone. As the legions of husks overcame and began to consume me, a moment of solace washed over before everything went black.
◊ ◊ ◊
A special thanks to Catherine Nouhan and Lou Finazzo for all of their help during the editing process. Hallows of Feeling wouldn’t be what it is without their gracious input.