The timepiece on Joel’s wrist hadn’t worked for years but that never stopped him from giving it the occasional glance. Although the hands were forever frozen behind the broken crystal, he knew the hour of day almost instinctively, and right now he figured it was sometime between six-thirty and seven. The growling of his empty stomach concurred.
They were now standing within the stone walls of a hill-top cemetery. Before them rose an arched gate shrouded in ivy, a single row of three tombstones on each side. At the far end of this narrow section stood an iron gate hidden in the corner, but more prominent to the eye was the heap of smoldering bodies nearby.
Bill led the way toward the gate, moving with haste, ignoring the pile of human remains before them. Ellie jogged to the mound and stopped, with Joel following closely behind, his nostrils filled with the ragged, throat-clenching stench of charred flesh.
Ellie’s response to the grotesque spectacle was simple and childlike. “Oh, man…”
“C’mon,” Joel chided gently. “You don’t need to be looking at that.”
The teenager snorted. “I’ve seen worse.”
“All right then,” he said, but the words were meant more for himself than anyone else.
Bill stood waiting impatiently by the open gate. More stone steps were visible descending to a lower section of the cemetery hidden from view. He sighed heavily.
“Past this gate, it’s all new territory to me.”
“I’m on it,” Joel said as he led the way down the narrow, ivy-covered steps.
Here lay another section of the cemetery, covered in a blanket of ivy, surrounded by more stone walls. The grassy vegetation was much more prominent, with yew trees and honeysuckles lining the paths.
In the center stood two tall crypts a few feet apart, pushing their way out of the earth like decayed teeth, each topped with a heavy stone cross. The well-worn stone path led the way toward rising steps at the opposite end. Perched beside the overhanging trunk of a fallen tree loomed a marble angel with a broken wing, her innocent face bowed in prayer.
Joel hadn’t taken his third step before his ears pricked up at the first sound of danger.
“Hey hey,” came Ellie’s breathless whisper from behind him. “You guys hear that?”
“Keep quiet,” he said, making a back-handed slash while dropping into a crouch.
He edged toward the rising steps, a few feet beyond which lay an open gate, and heard a second gutteral click, this one a bit closer. He sucked in a deep breath. Clickers, more than one, roaming the area just beyond the next gate.
It wasn’t until he had reached the top of the stairs that he saw them. Two fungus-headed clickers in rag-tag clothing, probably female based on their slight frames. Their frail figures bowed and dipped as their limbs clawed at empty air in unnatural, spastic gestures, their cauliflowered heads bobbing up and down, jerking left and right.
Joel took a knee to quietly slide his backpack off his shoulder. Digging in it, he found what he was looking for: one of his homemade molotov cocktails. Meanwhile, Bill moved around him and took a position just to the right of the gate, shotgun primed to explode. Ellie, following Bill’s lead, did the same, moving to the left side of the gate.
Joel now had a brick in one hand and a lighted molotov in the other. He lobbed the brick in an high arc, hoping to hit an imaginary target somewhere between the two clickers.
As the brick landed and broke, the clickers reacted, standing straight up, frozen in time. A split second later they were screaming and darting to the sound.
“Fucking scary,” Ellie gasped in awe of their prey’s unnatural reflexes.
Joel swapped the molotov to his right hand and hurled it with the same motion.
The bottle smashed between the huddled clickers, spewing flames and setting the infected ablaze. Screaming in agony, before them now were two writhing wraiths wrapped in flames. It didn’t take long before their smoldering corpses collapsed and dropped to the ground.
“Holy shit,” panted Ellie as Joel crept past her through the gate, followed closely by Bill.
Continuing to crouch, Joel stepped over the remains and rounded a large, rectangular chest tomb. In the opposite corner of this walled-in enclosure was another open gate, with steps leading down. The sound of multiple clickers could be heard just ahead.
Joel stopped at the head of the steps and snuck a glimpse of what lie ahead. This was a larger walled-in section, with several taller chest tombs spaced evenly apart. Roaming aimlessly around them, like mourners paying their final respects, were a handful of clickers.
From his perch above, he decided to repeat the same tactic again. Grabbing an empty bottle from the ground, he fetched another molotov from his pack, ignited the cloth wick and repositioned himself for the best angle possible.
He tossed the bottle.
It broke, and three clickers gesticulated into a huddle, coming to rest over the broken shards. He lobbed the second molotov and as before, screams ensued as the infected writhed and withered into a smoldering heap upon the ground.
“That’s how you do it,” Bill said with an approving nod. “Just like that.”
Joel kept to the wall and crept around the tombs, finally spotting a much larger section of the cemetery beyond and below them.
Just how big is this fucking place? Joel cursed, as he approached yet another chorus of clicking noises.
Stopping just behind the wall where the steps met, he peered around the edge and looked down into what was a large circular courtyard. There were no grave markers here, just a lonely fountain in the center where the ground was paved in alternating rings of white and red bricks. Several large stone benches faced the fountain, along with a statue of a praying angel. Beyond the courtyard he could see a large iron gate: Finally! The exit!
The entire courtyard was overrun with thick vegetation and milling aimlessly around were two fungus-headed clickers.
The situation called for another well-tossed molotov, but Joel knew he was down to his last one, with no telling what lie ahead. He readjusted the strain on his knees and carefully appraised the danger. The two clickers were at opposite ends of the courtyard and there was no guarantee a broken bottle would draw them close enough together.
No, he nodded to himself, the challenge confronting him now required a bit of stealth.
He removed the shiv from his back pocket and gripped it tightly in the sweaty palm of his right hand. He descended the stone steps in silence, moving cautiously behind a creature standing solemnly at the bottom of the steps.
His left hand whipped around the neck, catching the throat in the crook of his arm and in a flash of fading sunlight against brandished steel, he drove the blade deep into the jugular notch of his unsuspecting prey.
Blood sprayed out in a thick red mist as the clicker sank into Joel’s arms and he lowered her gently to the ground. His eyes went immediately to the other clicker a mere ten feet away who, although suffering undulating waves of paroxysms, seemed none the wiser to what had just occurred.
With his adrenaline at full-throttle, Joel moved catlike to his final unsuspecting victim, and within seconds, the infected was writing and moaning at his feet, its hands around its throat, as bright red blood gushed between the pale fingers.
Slowly, Joel rose to his feet. “I think that’s it,” he said wearily.
“Clear,” pronounced Bill, who had quickly circled the perimeter, shotgun at the ready.
Ellie’s eyes shone bright with admiration. “Good job.”
“We’re not clear yet,” Joel warned.
He waited a minute to catch his breath. The afternoon breeze cooled his sweat-beaded neck and he took a moment to relish it.
Wiping away the sweat from his forehead, he walked across the courtyard to the wooden gate which he immediately noticed was locked.
“Hold up,” Bill said, pushing his way forward and tugging at a chain on his belt. “I got a key for that gate.”
He unlocked it and swung it open. “I suggest we move quietly,” he whispered, leading the way out of the cemetery.
Ellie followed as did Joel, and now the three were crouched low behind a blue dumpster in a dusty neighborhood alley with tall wooden fencing.
“Runners!” hissed Bill.
Joel, stealing a glimpse beyond the dumpster, could see two men in the alley just a few yards up ahead. They were hunched over, gripping their stomachs and moaning in agonizing pain.
He didn’t want to waste a molotov and their limited cover made a stealth attack out of the question. He slid the bow from his shoulder and, grabbing an arrow, nocked it. Pulling tight with his right hand, he slowly straightened until target and arrow aligned and the bowstring caressed his cheek. He let the feathered arrow fly into the back of the man to his right, downing him in silence.
“Keep doing it like that!” Bill hissed.
With the threat of detection reduced, Joel made a wide circle and snuck up behind the other unsuspecting victim, putting him into a choke hold before squeezing the life from his lungs.
He let the body fall silently to his feet.
As Joel moved to the first victim to wrench his arrow free, Bill spoke up, almost on cue: “Make sure to search the bodies… don’t leave anything behind.”
Down the alley to their left, a man stood groaning, his back to the trio. Joel dropped him without a sound, another well-placed arrow between the blades.
Staying low, they approached an opened gate in the fence; beyond it snaked a stone path leading up to a multi-leveled backyard. They could each see the rear entrance of a wood framed house some thirty yards away. The sound of clicking and moaning was all around them.
Joel shot Bill a sidelong glance. “You weren’t kidding about this place, were you?”
Bill’s eyes were black smoldering coals filled with contempt, so Joel wet his dry lips and sealed them, deciding not to press his luck. He swallowed hard and headed up the path, toward the sound of the infected.
He hadn’t taken two steps before bumping into a runner, who seemed just as surprised as Joel. In the next ten seconds, shotgun blasts exploded in his ears, followed by Ellie’s muffled screams. Acting on reflex, he drove a shiv into the neck of an attacking clicker and when his hearing finally returned, three of the infected lay dead upon the ground under a thin gray cloud of gun smoke.
“Jesus Christ,” he murmured, catching his breath.
The three took a moment to take stock of themselves and each other. Trading nods, they decided to carry on.
Moving silently up the sloped backyard, Joel could see the open sliding glass doors at the rear of the first house. Inside they might find some much needed supplies. He paused to listen and was thankful his eardrums were met with silence.
Following Joel’s lead, Bill and Ellie slipped inside. Ellie threw her arms wide and sighed with exasperation. “If you guys would give me a gun, I could help you kill some of these fuckers!”
“Shut up!” Bill hissed. “Just shut up!”
The three scoured the house quickly in routine fashion. Joel led the way into the garage and the trio quickly scuttled out the back.
The next house had a wooden playground in the backyard and the backdoor appeared fully-boarded up. Joel was just getting a lay of the land with a runner across the yard spotted him, screamed, and raced forward.
With no time to think, he drew his revolver and fired two shots into the chest. No sense in being quiet now! Behind the runner came two more, one being a clicker. It took Joel and Bill firing in unison to down them.
The three had reached the end of the alley which was now completely blocked by a storage truck covered in vines. Nearby stood a standalone two-car garage with one of the doors open. Inside the garage, a possible way through: a door leading to the opposite side of the alley.
Joel’s spirits rose. “This way,” he said, placing a hand on the door, trying to push it open.
The door budged only inches, and it was obvious to them all what was keeping it closed.
“It’s tied on the other side,” Joel sighed with exasperation.
“What about going through here?” Ellie asked, and when Joel turned to look at her, he could see where she was pointing.
“What?” exclaimed Bill. “The doggy door?”
Joel scratched the back of his head as he thought it over. Finally, he sucked in a breath, took a knee, and grabbed the nailed board with both hands. It resisted but he managed to pry it free.
“Be very careful,” he said quietly but firmly, setting the board aside.
“Of course.” Ellie dropped to her hands and knees and crawled through the narrow exit on all fours.
“Maybe you should’ve given her a gun.”
“Okay, Bill,” Joel said, fixing him with a look, his patience wearing razor thin.
Ellie released the rope and opened the door, grimacing as it made a loud creak. Her face was pale and there was a large V-shaped sweat stain on the front of her shirt. As she stepped back to let the men through, she whispered, “There’s more of those clicker things inside the house.”
“Oh, shit,” replied Bill.
In the backyard, a trellis covered in vines enclosed a patio, and Joel nodded to himself as he glimpsed the open sliding glass doors to the right leading to the kitchen. That was their way through. He dropped behind a sofa that had been abandoned outside and was now under a slimy blanket of mold.
“They ain’t seen us yet,” Joel said, his voice calm and collected. “Just stay down.”
It was time to put that last molotov to use. He couldn’t see the clickers standing behind the terrace in the patio, but he could hear them. He used a brick to bring them out into the open, then launched the molotov he had ready in his other hand.
It worked, better than expected. Two clickers roaming the interior of the house emerged and stood stupidly in the flames engulfing the small patio. With the help of pistol fire and buckshot, the others were quickly leveled and all that was left was a smoking pile of infected flesh.
“How far is it, Bill?” Joel panted as he shoved cartridges into the empty chambers of his pistol.
“We’re gettin’ close now,” Bill replied breathlessly. “We’re gonna have to be quick about it. Go in, grab the battery, get the fuck out. I don’t wanna get trapped over there.”
“All right, I get it,” Joel replied, snapping the chamber closed.
The trio ducked inside the empty house and quickly tore through it, scooping up everything of value, which wasn’t much. Joel was relieved to discover he had the material for two more molotovs. When they exited the house through the opposite end, they found themselves in a narrow section of the backyard, staring up at a large Winnebago RV parked adjacent to the house.
“All right, c’mon,” Bill commanded. “Let’s get up. On the RV and over. We should be clear.”
Joel climbed to the top and noticed a six-foot wooden plank extending from the RV to a treehouse in the neighboring backyard.
Without hesitation, Bill traversed the plank and descended from the treehouse, dropping into a yard where a puddle of green slime brewed at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.
Upon witnessing Bill’s sudden and eager assumption of the lead, Ellie asked, “Who the hell left this here? You got friends in town?”
“No!” came the sharp reply. “Although I got some idea who mighta come through here.”
Bill motioned for the two to hurry. “School’s on the other side of this house. Let’s get inside.”
“C’mon, Ellie,” Joel said, offering her a hand to help her down.
Having returned to solid footing, Joel paused to listen intently. Nothing but the evening chirp of crickets filled his ears. He followed Bill into the empty house.
“All right,” exhaled Joel. “I think we’re good.”
“For now,” Bill replied. “Goddamn those things. Nobody’s bitten, right?”
“Nope,” answered Ellie. “I’m good.”
“We’re all fine,” Joel said impatiently. “Let’s just keep going.”
They swept through the house. Joel saw a flight of stairs leading to a second floor and decided it was worth the extra time to take a look. He ducked into one room and then another finding nothing of interest. The third room made him hesitate…
He saw a pair of bunk beds. The walls were covered in faded, once-colorful wallpaper featuring race cars. A movie poster teased the unlikely alliance between a young boy and a panda. This room could’ve been his when he and Tommy were kids. His bunk would’ve been the top one and Tommy’s…
He paused as his eyes spotted something lying on a wooden chest under the window. An open journal. Almost against his will, he found himself bending down to pick it up. He looked at the entries on the open pages, neatly written in print, his parents surely proud of their son’s penmanship…
The open pages chronicled the last fleeting days of childhood innocence before the ensuing chaos hit. As Joel read, a strange sensation crept over him. Funny how surreal it all seems now:
It's official, school is closed indefinitely. I guess this outbreak is good for something. No school = no homework, which is fine by me. Now what do I do with all this free time?
Mom and Dad were fighting. They were somehow yelling at each other while whispering at the same time. It sounded like Mom wants to leave - go to her sister's. Dad says it's safe here. That the outbreak won't reach our town.
Dad yelled at me for listening to the radio. He says that the news is bullshit. Mom agreed with him while putting on a brave face, but I can tell she's scared. They both look scared.
I think Dad felt bad about yesterday. Gadget was asleep in my bed and Dad didn't say anything about it. He came in, petted him, sighed, and walked out. I've never seen him like this.
Dad was consoling mom last night. Aunt Karen is dead... at least that's what I think I heard. When we sat for breakfast, everyone was all quiet, as if nothing happened. I played along.
Officer Jones stopped by and chatted with Dad. More like whispered with Dad - lots of that going around these days. Afterwards Dad told us that we have to leave town. We have to go to a new home. That the military will protect us. I'm only allowed to bring one bag with me. Mom just sat there.
Where we're going, there are no pets allowed. We drove to the edge of town with Gadget. I took off his collar and let him go. On the drive back Dad kept talking about how he'll be fine. "He's meant to be free in the wild."
And then this, the final entry:
It's time. Dad says we'll be back before we know it...
I think he's full of it.
Suddenly Ellie appeared, jolting Joel from his reverie.
“Hey, you got a second?” she asked.
She sucked in a deep breath, as though it were oxygen mixed with courage. She looked up at Joel and said with hint of a stutter: “I - I just want to say I’m sorry. About Tess. That’s it. I - I won’t bring it up again.”
“Ellie,” he began, his tone surprisingly calm, the boy’s diary still in his hands, “you don’t need to worry about me.”
He let the words take a moment to settle and then with a jerk of his head he motioned to the stairs. “We should go check on Bill.”
“Okay,” came the soft reply.
Just then, Bill’s voice boomed from below: “Hey, Joel!”
Joel followed the voice and Ellie followed Joel and eventually the two ended up in the garage where Bill waited impatiently. The metal garage door was partially open, allowing a long stretch of golden sunlight to sweep across the floor.
Bill went to the door and without turning, said, “Gimme a hand with this.”
The two men bent at the knees and hoisted the door upward. The wheels in the rollers screeched loudly and the bright yellow light of the setting sun caused them all to squint.
They crouched in unison behind the trunk of a car parked in the driveway. When his vision returned, Joel was relieved to find himself facing the parking lot of Lincoln High School, with a good half-hour of setting sun left in the purple sky above.
“What’d I tell ya,” Bill announced triumphantly. “There’s the truck, sticking outta the school right there. C’mon. There’s a bunch of ‘em up there, so try not to make a sound.”