They stood in the middle of an old pizza parlor with a brick wall decor. Sagging posters, like a portly chef tossing pizza dough, hung above a row of wooden booths with cracked and discolored green vinyl padding. An old jukebox aged stoically by the front entrance. The floor was littered with debris and the windows facing the street were mostly broken. The place smelled of rotted wood and decay but nearby, just outside, the promise of something more refreshing beckoned.
Tess moved heedlessly toward the doorless front entrance, to the open air beyond.
“Be careful,” Joel reminded her.
They lived in a world where terror lay hidden around every corner waiting to pounce. There was no such thing as being too careful.
“When am I not?” Tess quipped over her shoulder.
Joel snorted. For a woman, Tess was an interesting dichotomy: delicate features with a deadly physique. When it came to his partner however, caution wasn’t a quality that sprang readily to mind. And so it was with a hint of sarcasm that Joel asked, “Is that a trick question?”
As Tess approached the exit, the late afternoon sun cast a long shadow of her slender body behind her. Joel followed her shadow out of the parlor, out into the real world.
He stepped into the open air and sucked in a deep breath. The sensation of clean air filled his lungs. It was a good feeling and long overdue.
Relieved, Joel looked around. He stood in the middle of what was once a quaint neighborhood now overgrown with thick vegetation. Nearby him, an iron parking meter rose incongruously from the shrubs, and across from him sat an old rusted pickup truck cradled in a bed of lush ivy. Everywhere you looked, the natural earth was in the midsts of consuming the things of man.
The street before them had collapsed into a sinkhole and the passage of time had turned the once suburban setting into a miniature green valley. Just beyond the surrounding ivy-covered fence to his right loomed empty buildings of brick and mortar, aging in the waning sun. Directly across was an abandoned four-story tenement building with half its roof missing. The walls of the building were war-torn; pockmarked with gaping holes where vegetation had successfully taken root.
Sagging power lines crisscrossed overhead.
“Ain’t been out here in awhile.”
“It’s like we’re on a date,” Tess replied jokingly.
“Well, I am the romantic type.”
They walked around the sinkhole, heading for the abandoned tenement building.
“You got your ways,” she conceded.
Joel threaded his way past a fallen brick chimney and a rusted pickup truck, his eyes scouring the ground around them.
“Where’s the ladder?” Tess asked impatiently.
“It’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Joel replied.
Tess pointed to a patch of high grass off to his right. “Hey, try that area over there.”
Joel spotted it lying in the thick grass. “Got it!”
“Great,” Tess said, her tone brisk. “Bring it over.”
Joel bent down and scooped up the ladder in his hands. The twelve foot ladder wasn’t light by any means and Joel grunted from the effort as he headed toward the wall where Tess stood waiting.
He carefully placed it up against the brick wall just under the gaping hole in the second floor of the tenement building and stood aside.
“Lady?” Tess snorted as she ascended the ladder. “You must be thinking of someone else.”
Joel chuckled to himself. “It’s all relative,” he said, following her up the ladder and into the apartment.
“This way,” Tess said, turning toward the interior of the building.
They had emerged into what was once a lounge, with a billiards table, loveseats, bookcases. Bricks and plaster and grime covered the mildewed carpet punctuated by stained upholstered furniture.
The floor was uneven as Joel traipsed across it. Tess led him into a kitchen area where a countertop was littered with even more refuse. By force of habit, Joel quickly went through the kitchen drawers looking for anything useful. He scooped up a few nuts and bolts and dropped them into his pocket. Light from the outside made it easy to see, but after they turned from the kitchen and made their way deeper inside the abandoned dwelling, the place grew dark and cold.
Joel flicked on the flashlight affixed to the strap on his backpack.
Now they were in a room that had recently served as sleeping quarters for a dozen or so souls. Bare mattresses, some on double iron bunks, sat worn and stained. A half dozen more partially covered the wooden floor. Vegetation fought its way into the room past the broken windows. On one of the walls, Joel spotted a pair of red spray-painted wings: the familiar Fireflies symbol. Glancing around, he caught a glimpse of a silver pendant on a nearby desk: the Fireflies dog tag. He concluded a contingent of Fireflies had taken up residence here not long ago. But now the place looked as though it had been abandoned for some time.
Tess was standing patiently at the top of a broken stairway leading down to the floor below them. “Down through here,” she said.
Joel followed her down, jumping a short distance to the ground.
Almost immediately his senses went into high alert as he detected a stark change in his immediate surroundings.
Darkness closed in around them. The smell of rot and mildew clogged his sinuses. There was something else in the air, something dangerously familiar, but he tried not to focus on it.
“You think Robert’s still got our guns?” Tess asked, her focus still clearly on the task at hand.
Joel was temporarily grateful for the distraction. “For his sake, he better.”
He was following her through the ruins of the apartment, past sagging wallpaper soiled with mildew, past the aged remnants of upholstered furniture. The flashlight cast a circle of light around Tess as her shadow flickered before her as if it had a mind of its own.
“Look, once we get our merchandise back,” she reassured him, “it should be easy to unload.”
“Speaking of merchandise, when’s that next shipment due?”
They continued down a long hallway, past a pale rusted radiator. Large chunks of plaster from the ceiling overhead covered much of the carpeted flooring.
“Well, we’re meeting Bill next month. More pills. Lots of ammo. Supposedly.”
As Tess reached the end of the hallway she froze in her tracks and her body went rigid.
“Hold up!” she whispered, and then a word escaped her lips, a single word that conveyed the terror of the world they lived in. “Spores,” she said simply.
In a flash, the two intrepid explorers swiped the gas masks off the lanyards hanging from their backpacks. In the next instant, they were adjusting them to the contours of their faces.
Joel released a disgruntled sigh. He didn’t like having to put the thing on. It pulled his hair out by the roots and restricted his vision. It was suffocating, like wearing a catcher’s mitt.
They were in a small section of the building surrounded by brick walls where a large wooden door at the far end lay open. Spores gasped out of the doorway like the thick hot breath of some giant demon.
Joel approached cautiously and entered through the doorway.
As his flashlight beam darted around the room, Joel saw the various canvas clothes bins and realized they had entered the laundry room. He noticed the air was choked with thick motes of green bacteria hanging in the lifeless air.
On one side of the room stood a few bare tables and against the other, a bank of coin-operated dryers. To his right, a small gaping hole had been ripped through the brick wall.
“Where the hell are all these comin’ from? Place was clear last time.”
“They’re coming outta something,” Tess said. “Stay alert.” Although she didn’t need to say it, the words sent a chill down Joel’s spine. He felt a bead of sweat edge down the inside of his mask.
Looking around the laundry room, Joel eyed the gaping hole at the base of the wall to his right. Beyond, the air was thick with floating bacteria. He had to crouch to make his way through.
At the sight of his approach, a few rats cursed him and scurried out of the hallway. Joel saw the source of the spores right away: the decaying figure of a dead man sitting upright with his back against the wall.
“There’s our culprit,” Joel said in a cursed whisper. The ceiling was low here and the two of them had to remain crouched with their knees practically against their chests.
Joel regarded the source of the bacteria. An odd growth sprouted from the man’s shoulders and hips, ripping through the worn fabric of his clothes. The unnatural substance merged with a splatter of thicker bacterial growth on the wall behind him. The growth was flesh-colored; dense with dark purples veins pulsing through it. Joel forced back a growing revulsion from the pit of his stomach.
He felt Tess’s sudden presence as she came up close behind him to get a better look.
“Body’s not that old,” she whispered. “Better keep your eyes and ears open.”
Joel nodded. Tess was right. Although she hadn’t said it, the implication was there: Where there was one infected, there were likely to be more, like the pair of rats that scurried away at his approach. He knew they were likely entering a nest, a hive of the infected. He was sure Tess knew it too, although she didn’t state it, and they both knew there was no way they were turning back now.
With his heart pounding in his chest, Joel continued on…
He led the way around a corner, keeping himself crouched, moving with a slow but fixed determination. The passage was blocked by a wooden beam crossing their path.
“We should be able to fit through here,” Joel said, taking the beam into his grip with the notion of pulling it aside. But as soon as he nudged it he realized he’d made a mistake: the ceiling above him collapsed, raining debris down upon his head and ears. He reflexively curled up tight to shield himself. As the dust settled, he opened his eyes and realized there was no harm done. He silently cursed himself for letting his emotions get the better of him.
“Yeah,” Joel replied. “Damn ceiling’s falling apart. Be careful.”
He rose to his feet, regaining his senses. “This way,” he said, turning his body sideways and edging through a long but narrow gap between a set of gray file cabinets and the wall. “Easy.”
Joel heard a man’s cough and felt something grab his foot. He jerked away reflexively. “Jesus!”
As Tess made her way into the room, Joel guided her past the man lying on the floor. “Watch it! Watch it!”
With Tess safely behind him, Joel took a moment to focus on the man at their feet. He pointed the light of the flashlight down.
He was a bald man, trapped under a heavy metal filing cabinet, wearing a hooded leather jacket and a gas mask with a missing eye piece.
“My mask broke,” the man declared in a calm and steady voice.
With the light of the flashlight on the man’s shiny skull, Joel confirmed the man’s assessment was accurate.
The man struggled under the weight of the cabinet. “Don’t… Don’t leave me to turn. Please.” He let out another rasping cough and Joel knew the man’s lungs were now full of the deadly bacteria that hung in the air.
He heard Tess take up a position behind him. “What do you want to do?” she asked in a hushed whisper.
Joel knew there was only one thing to do. He applied the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He pulled the revolver out from its resting place against the small of his back, pointed it at the man’s skull and pulled the trigger. The gunshot rang in his ears and reverberated throughout the room.
“Poor bastard,” lamented Tess.
Joel nodded. It was time to move on.
They entered a narrow hallway and moved slowly. Without warning, one of the wooden planks blocking the far doorway fell.
“Up ahead, you hear that?” Tess asked in a strained whisper.
Joel shushed her as the hairs on the back on his neck stood at attention. He had a fair idea of what lie waiting for them just around the corner.
He glued himself against the wall, placing his ear to the surface to listen. What he heard sent chills raking down his spine. He made out the distinct moans of at least a half dozen infected. Their bodies jerked and spasmed, and with each painful twitch, they released an agonizing cry of torment.
He heard footsteps of the insane racing past and then abruptly halting to a stop. This was followed by more of their agonized panting and screeching.
“How you wanna handle it?” Tess asked.
Joel knew the advantage he had in sneaking up on his prey and that was precisely what he intended to do. Strength and stealth were on his side, so long as the odds remained one on one.
He left the cover and safety of the hallway, entered the room slowly, keeping his head low, and approached one of the infected, a tormented man whose body twitched and spasmed uncontrollably.
Quietly he approached, and when he gauged the distance to be accurate, Joel rose to his feet quickly, wrapping an arm tight across the man’s windpipe.
Joel dropped to one knee, bringing the infected down with him, squeezing with every ounce of strength he had, crushing his victim’s windpipe, using his other arm as additional leverage. The man’s body jerked in response as desperate hands flailed at Joel’s head trying to find a grip, but Joel was careful to keep his head back and out of reach of the man’s hopeless grasp.
In a matter of moments, it was over. Joel let the lifeless corpse slide from his arms to the floor where it remained motionless. Its suffering - for now - had ended.
He turned another corner, saw a pair of stalkers in the dense mote-laden air feasting violently upon the flesh of a recent victim.
“Jesus,” he heard himself gasp. Deciding to leave well enough alone, he crept quietly past them, the blood-soaked carpet sinking like mush under his weight.
Up ahead to his left was a staircase, the stairs leading down negated by a blockade of metal filing cabinets. Up was the only option, and so it was up he went.
The wooden stairs were clear so as he reached the landing he quickly rounded them and proceeded to the next floor. He found himself in a room with light coming in from a broken wall leading to the outside. Large planks covered a gaping hole in the floor and the room showed signs of lush vegetation taking root.
This was the way out but it wasn’t time just yet to exit the building. To his left Joel noticed a closed door. Years of survival had taught him the importance of searching his surroundings for anything useful and so it was now his instincts led him to the door.
On his left stood a water cooler and a pair of file cabinets, their drawers all ajar. He approached the door, still crouched, still moving slowly. He entered and found himself inside a small office containing a pair of cubicles, a worn sofa and a small table. It was there he saw the folded, stained letter sitting on the table:
We were so close. I’m sitting outside the walls knowing I’ll never see the inside of the zone. While waiting for the smuggler to show up, we heard a squad of soldiers approaching. In our panic, we ducked into this building in hopes of hiding from them. None of us noticed the spores until it was too late. We’re all infected - we have a few hours, maybe a day at most. I hope the smuggler is still coming so that I can at least pass this note to you.
I should’ve listened to you and come to the zone with you when I had the chance.
Now it’s too late.
Joel read the letter and understood. The only way to enter a zone nowadays was to be smuggled in, and once inside, pray you were never asked to show your identity papers. He also knew soldiers were ordered to shoot on sight. There was no way to play it safe, not in the world they lived in. You took your chances with every passing day, and prayed like hell your luck would hold. In the case of the man who wrote this letter, his lucky streak had ended. That was all there was to it.
A fleeting thought crossed Joel's mind: was this the poor devil whose windpipe he had crushed? He wondered...
With Tess close behind him, Joel left the office and made his way quietly across the planks leading to the outside. He could see just below him through the gaping hole in the floor the pair of infected ripping the flesh from the bones of their victim. Any noise now would cause them to look up and see them.
The outside wall was covered in vines, like the opening of a jungle cave. Joel jumped the short distance from the wall and landed back out in the open air. A moment later, Tess landed beside him. Together they removed their masks.
“Alright,” Tess said. “That’s all of them.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Tess scurried across a shallow pond of green scum bracketed by broken cement. An ancient basketball hoop without a net hovered near a twisted metal fence.
“Let’s head back to the city.”
Joel followed her through the open gate, leaving the dilapidated tenement building behind.