Short Story: Till Death Do We Part.

For Charlie the Zombie apocalypse was just another stop on the ride to failure his life had become.

Till Death Do We Part

Chuck awoke with a start as the last vestiges of the dream he'd been having faded to the periphery of his consciousness. In the other room his yellow lab, Brutus, barked again, driving him the rest of the way awake. He threw back the covers, and climbed out of bed. His back reminding him once again that he was no longer a youngster as he shuffled across the floor to see what all the commotion was about. Passing his desk he saw that he’d missed a call and was about to pick up the phone when Brutus barked again. This was no ordinary bark reserved for the occasional car passing by on the country road where they lived. This bark was deeper, a growling vocalization reserved for those moments when someone knocked at one of the doors.

Rounding the corner into the laundry room he found Brutus, his hackles up, as he snarled viciously at the back door.

“Easy there, boy, what’s wrong.” He said as he approached. Brutus looked at him briefly before returning his attention to the back door. He barked again, the sound loud in the narrow room.

Bending over Chuck looked out the rear window and saw his neighbor standing at the back door.

“What the hell’s wrong with you,” he said to Brutus who backed away, his hackles still forming a line down his back as Chuck reached for the door knob. From the other side of the door came a weak knock, a listless slap that momentarily stayed his hand. There was something wrong. Something was out of place. But he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

He looked out the window again and his fatigue gave way to panic when he saw the blood staining the front of his neighbors shirt. Something terrible had happened and he hurried to open the door as Brutus barked in a loud, throaty, voice.

“It’s okay, it’s just Virgil” Chuck said as he attempted to calm his dog.

Brutus barked hysterically. As if he were trying to keep him from unlocking the door, and Chuck glanced at him annoyed as he pulled the door open. Thankfully there was a storm door still between them for at that moment Virgil lunged forward, his mouth open, as he came against the glass of the storm door.

“What the fuck.” Chuck shouted, half terrified by Virgil’s actions. Virgil lunged again, his dentures snapping closed as his lips smeared saliva across the window. It was then he noticed that Virgil was missing an arm. In fact he was missing almost his entire right side from the shoulder to his hip.

Brutus lunged at the door, forcing it open, and darted outside where he drove Virgil to the ground. His front paws pinned Virgil to the ground as the wounded man slapped feebly with his remaining left arm.

Chuck stepped onto the patio, fully intending to pull Brutus off the old man, when he noticed the neighbor who lived behind him. He didn’t know his name yet as he and his wife had only recently moved in, but he was wandering around his front yard wearing only a pair of underwear. His thin white chest was smeared with blood that dribbled down his chin from the object he was chewing on. Chuck reached for Brutus to pull him inside when Brutus yelped. Returning his attention to his dog he saw that Virgil had managed to sink his teeth into Brutus’s flank, yanking his head back he tore away a chunk of flesh to expose the dog’s ribs beneath.

Brutus yelped again and raced across the yard to escape Virgil who slowly rolled over and pushed himself up with his remaining arm. Quietly Chuck stepped back into the house and locked the door.

Brutus barked again, the sound high pitched and Chuck struggled with his emotions as he rested his back against the door and slowly dropped to the floor. He was stunned by what he’d seen. It was like he’d just walked into a nightmare in progress.

It wasn’t really happening. Chuck tried to convince himself as Virgil slapped at the window above his head, reminding him that what he’d seen was real.

Then he remembered his phone. Pushing himself up he returned to his office where he retrieved the phone. He had one voicemail from his wife, and guilt flashed through him over the fact that she had caught him in a lie. He’d told her he was going to work on his resume this morning while she had insisted that he would probably go back to bed like he always did. This time he’d been serious about getting his resume done but a restless night filled with worry over how he was going to make the house payment pretty much put the idea of sleep to rest.

He dialed his voicemail number and waited for the prompts. Soon his wife’s voice was coming through the handset, filled with a fear he could almost taste.

“I don’t know what’s going on. There are people all over the place. They won’t let me through. Oh my God.” She moaned before the message clicked off.

He was a simple man. Not given to flights of fancy, or wild imaginings. A man who knew how to work with his hands. He understood the concrete concepts of cabinetry, and joinery, so that which had turned his world upside down lay outside the realm of his understanding. To him the world beyond the walls of his wood shop was a mystery.

The failing economy had robbed him of his dignity. When he’d been laid off from the cabinet manufacturer south of town he’d assumed it would be a temporary set back. After all he was skilled with his hands and was one of the most dependable people out there. In his twenty year career as the plant he’d only ever missed one day. That being the days his only daughter was born.

Eighteen months later he was still unemployed.

They took his truck once the unemployment checks stopped coming in and he could no longer afford the payments. There were several judgments against him, and they stood a good chance of losing the house unless something happened, soon.

His phone rang and he glanced at the small screen. It was his wife and he quickly punched the button to accept her call.

“Rachel, where are you? Are you all right?” He said. His only response was a soft moaning sound and a measured scraping that was familiar, yet foreign in its obscurity.

“Rachel, is that you?” His voice rose several octaves as fear squeezed his guts in an icy grip.

When there was no response he hung up the phone and pushed himself to his feet. Moving from room to room he looked out each window at the nightmare images that lay beyond. Something had happened while he slept and he felt the first nagging suspicion that he’d seen this before. Not in real life. But in a movie his daughter had insisted he watch with her at the theater. Something to do with the dead coming back to life and feeding on the living.

But that wasn’t possible. Dead was dead and the living had nothing to fear from them. On the East side of the house, through the picture window that looked out upon a field, Ginny, his neighbor from down the street, hobbled across the field between with her walker. Her face was a mask of terror as she struggled to outdistance her pursuers.

Chuck recognized the three people chasing her in a hobbling slow motion race she was destined to lose. There was Bobby who had come around the neighborhood the year before proudly displaying the Arrow of Light award he’d earned from the local scout pack. With him were two strangers, adults, one dressed in the uniform of a Scout master, the other in a long dress. Bobby’s parent he supposed as he’d never met them. At the sight of the three chasing Ginny across the field he was struck by an odd thought. The family that feeds together stays together. There wasn’t a creative bone his body to account for this sudden insight.

Unable to look away, he watched helplessly as Bobby caught up with Ginny who spun around and swatted at him with her walker. Bobby ignored the strike across the crown of his head as he reached out for her, catching her nightgown in one clawed hand, stopping her forward progress just enough for his parents to surround her. Chuck had to look away as they fell upon her. Closing his eyes to block out the sight, yet he couldn’t completely block out the screams of agony that came through the double pane window.

Holding his hands over his ears he recalled his wife’s message and on the black screen of his mind he saw her struggling to escape an approaching hoard of the undead.

Twenty five years of standing on concrete, eight hours per day, five days a week had taken its toll. Rachel had to wear a brace on one leg in order to walk. It was physically impossible for her to run and the realization of what must have happened to her awakened a primal rage that boiled at the center of his soul. She had never done anything to anyone. She didn’t deserve to die like that. The rage sent him to his gun cabinet where he retrieved his thirty-ought-six deer rifle.

Back at the picture window he opened one of the side windows and sighted through his scope at the three things he could no longer consciously refer to as people. They were hunkered over Ginny’s steaming remains. Bobby looked up, and Chuck imagined he could sense his presence on some primitive, instinctive, level. Through the scope the features of his face came into sharp focus. Gone was the boyish innocence of a young child. In its place was an animalistic rage that twisted his features into a caricature of its former self. His once brown eyes were covered with gray cataracts,  adding to his sinister appearance.

Chuck gently squeezed the trigger and rode the recoil with his eye glued to the eyepiece of the scope. Bobby’s head exploded as the one hundred and eighty grain slug found its mark at the center of his forehead. Bobby’s mother and father looked around, and died within moments of one another.

Breathing heavily, his ears ringing from the sound of the shots trapped in the living room, he watched as Ginny struggled to sit up. Sighting though the scope once more he zeroed in on Ginny’s forehead and quickly dispatched her.

Through the ringing sound in his ears he heard his phone ring and he raced into the kitchen where he’d left it. He expected to see his wife’s name displayed, but what he saw awakened a cold ball of terror in the pit of his stomach.

It was Nathan, his oldest grandson.

Chuck pushed the button to accept the call and held the phone next to his ear. He heard a heavy breathing, a soft sobbing as Nathan cried into his phone. Nathan lived in the south side of town with his mom and her boyfriend.

“Paw, is that you?” Nathan’s terrified voice came through the receiver.

“Nathan, hey buddy, are you all right?” Chuck said.

“Mommy’s trying to hurt me, there’s something wrong with her, there’s something wrong with everyone.” Nathan sobbed with a hitch in his voice.

“Where are you buddy?” Chuck was clenching and unclenching his hand, the rage smoldering in the pit of his stomach. He grabbed the edge of the table so tightly the muscles of his arm stood out in sharp contrast.

“I’m in my bedroom. They’re trying to get through my door.”

“Is your door locked buddy?”

“Yes, please, Paw, don’t let them hurt me.”

Chuck could hear listless slaps against the door of Nathan’s room.

“I’m coming, buddy. You stay right there, I’m coming to get you.”

“Please hurry, Paw. I love you. Please hurry.”

“I love you too, buddy, I’m on my way.”

The connection went dead and he looked at his phone. He still had a full battery so either Nathan had hung up or his phone had died.

He didn’t know what to expect once he got into town so with a pistol on his hip, and a twelve gauge pump shotgun slung over his shoulder, he stepped onto his back porch. Over his other shoulder he carried a backpack filled with ammo.

Brutus raced across the yard towards him, his hackles up, his normally yellow coat stained with blood. Chuck saw that his once soft brown eyes were now clouded with gray cataracts and he leveled his pistol at his approaching form. The thirty two caliber slug cleaved his skull and Brutus, driven by momentum, plowed nose first into the ground where he came to a stop with his hind legs still trying to push him forward. Chuck hated having to do it. He loved Brutus almost as much as he loved his wife, he’d been a faithful companion, and he didn’t deserve what  happened to him. His only consolation was the hope that Brutus would find peace in death and play for eternity with an unlimited supply of tennis balls.

Virgil came at him from the right and Chuck stuck his pistol under his chin then pulled the trigger. Drawn by the sound of gunshots his neighbor in back staggered down the road towards him.

Throwing his gear into his pick-up he slipped behind the wheel and twisted the key in the ignition. The starter caught, then disengaged. The truck was a piece of junk he picked up after losing his good one so it came with its own set of problems he’d been slowly working through. The starter being one of them. On his third try the engine roared to life and he looked into his rear view mirror to see his neighbor directly behind his truck. Without hesitation he dropped the lever into reverse and stomped on the gas, sending the vehicle back and crushing his approaching neighbor under his rear end.

In the suburbs leading to town, the roads were deserted, and he made good time. Instead of driving through town he used the industrial boulevard bypass and skirted what he knew would be the areas most populated by those still alive and otherwise. Elm street where his grandson lived, came to a dead end at Industrial boulevard and he pulled to the side of the road at the junction. Shutting off the motor he was amazed at how quiet it had become. There were no other cars on the streets around him. Nor were there any other people. The town, for all intents and purposes, appeared deserted. But he knew looks could be deceiving.

Leaving his backpack in the truck he walked down Elm street with his shotgun over his shoulder. His head was on a swivel as he watched in every direction for the slightest movement. A dog barked to his left, reminding him of Brutus, and sadness washed through him.

The phone in his pocket rang and he pulled it out to look at the screen. It was his wife and his heart climbed into his throat as he pressed the button to accept her call. Placing the phone next to his ear he listened.

“Are you all right, Babe?”

A ragged breathing answered him, that and the steady sound of footsteps on pavement.

“Please,” he whispered, “please say something, anything, let me know you’re all right.”

The only response was that ragged breathing. He knew it was too much to expect an answer but he persisted. Sacrificing reason to hope. To accept anything less would be unbearable.

He hung up and stuffed the phone back into his pocket, suppressing the urge to just throw it away. For the time being everything still worked, but he knew in a short period of time it would all start breaking down. The lights would go out and he would become truly alone. He wasn’t looking forward to that moment.

When he worked in his wood shop everything beyond the walls vanished in his mind, he was still aware of his wife’s presence. She would be upstairs cooking or reading, or playing on her computer. But the rest of the world would fade away to nothing as he focused on intricate joinery. Almost like the world he had awakened to this morning, with one little exception. When he left his work shop the world would be right where it was supposed to be. 

Reaching his grandson’s house he gazed up at the two story structure. Empty windows, devoid of life, gazed back at him. The front door stood open, inviting him to enter, and he didn’t hesitate to cross the threshold into the main room.

“Nathan.” He shouted into the empty room, “it’s Paw.”

Nothing stirred in the house.

Was he too late? The thought of anything bad happening to any of his grandchildren stoked that churning rage. They had done nothing to deserve what befell them.

Taking the steps two at a time he raced to the second floor, his shotgun at the ready, as the shadowy corridor on the second floor came into view. There were three bedrooms and one bath. Two bedroom doors stood open, a third remained closed. After verifying that the other rooms were empty he went to the closed door and pressed his ear against the dark surface. He thought he heard breathing on the other side, or maybe it was just his imagination trying to stave off the inevitable.

Turning the knob he pushed into the room.

“Nathan,” he whispered. From the other side of the bed, pushed against the far wall, came the sound of movement.

“Is that you, Nathan.”

No answer. The bed moved, legs scraping across the hardwood floor with a faint rumble.

“Nathan?” Chuck said as he approached the bed, his shotgun at the ready.

Nathan jumped out at him, his eyes a mottled gray. Chuck instinctively brought up the muzzle of his shotgun and fired blindly. As he backed out of the room he jacked another shell into the chamber. Reaching the hall he turned and fled.

On the stairs where the shadows were thickest he encountered his Granddaughter. She reached for him with thin arms, wanting him to pick her up as he’d done so many times before. He stuck the muzzle of the shotgun in her face and pulled the trigger. He raced down the stairs and crossed to the front door.

It was all over. Everything he held dear had been taken from him. First his job, then his dignity, and now the last two people in this world who loved him unconditionally. He was alone. As he reached the street he realized how alone he really was.

Drawn by his gunshots the undead were filling the street, a shambling crowd of men, women, and children covered in blood. In various stages of undress, their bodies marked by  an assortment of life threatening wounds.

They had him cornered. Thinking fast he fired at the rear of several vehicles parked along the street. Gas splashed onto the pavement from ruptured fuel tanks. He fired into the spreading pool with his pistol and was rewarded with a muffled whoosh as the gas ignited.

The fire drove the approaching figures away, opening a narrow path for Chuck who raced the flaming gas down the street. Behind him, as he ran, he heard an explosion as a gas tank went up. Looking back over his shoulder he saw that the house next to his grandson’s had caught fire.

Let it burn. He thought. Let it all burn. Leave them a world of ash. It was all they deserved.

As he drove back across Industrial boulevard he came to a gas station as an idea formed. Pulling in he found the station empty. Next to it was a convenience store and from there he retrieved several cases of wine. Pouring the contents onto the ground he filled each bottle with gasoline and stuffed a rag into the neck.

In the store he had also procured a lighter and as he pulled away from the gas station he tossed a Molotov cocktail at the pumps. He watched in his rear view mirror as the puddle of gas from the open handle erupted in a fireball that quickly consumed the remaining gas pumps. Half a mile away he heard the thump of an explosion behind him and stopped to watch as a black mushroom cloud rose above the trees.

Without the local fire department to control the flames Chuck was confident the entire south side of town would be engulfed in no time. Not that he’d be around to see it. He had no desire to live in this world without those who loved him and he set out to find his wife.

Several times he came upon a crowd of shambling figures blocking the roadway. A single cocktail was usually enough to clear the way as he backtracked the path his wife would have taken that morning on her way to work. At the corner of Valley and Center he found her abandoned Kia, the door standing open, the inner panel stained with dried blood. He struggled with his emotions as he looked around at the deserted streets. She didn’t deserve that, she’d never hurt anyone in her life, and he imagined what it must have been like for her as she struggled to escape. Unable to run, hobbling away from that approaching horde.

His world had been turned upside down. Everything that he loved and cherished was gone and he stood alone against this wicked thing. His presence drew several of the staggering dead and a small crowd of them approached him as he worked to drive away the images that crowded his mind.

The soft sound of dragging feet intruded upon his sorrow and he spun around to find six of the fearsome creatures trying to sneak up on him. The sight of them awakened a rage that drove away all sorrow, replacing it with a cold desire for vengeance. He wanted to destroy them. It was no longer a matter of survival, it became a burning need to wipe their presence off the face of the earth. They didn’t belong. This was not their world.

He waded into their midst, unmindful of the possibility of becoming infected. He no longer cared what happened to him. Everything he cherished had been taken by these despicable things and he was going to get his revenge. They were no longer people, simply objects that had wronged him, and years of suppressed anger boiled over as he waded into the small group.

When he was done, panting as he stood alone in the middle of the street with dismembered corpses scattered around him, his clothes covered in a thick layer of putrid fluids, his phone rang. Pulling it from his pocket he saw it was from his wife and accepted the call.

Again all he got was heavy breathing and the steady footfalls of someone, or something, walking with a resolute pace.

“Is that you, Sweetie? Can you hear me?”

No answer save that ragged breathing that awakened all manner of horrific images in his mind. Was she tied up somewhere? Had someone taken her phone? Were they teasing him with the promise that she could still be alive even though she was dead? The questions chased one another through his mind. Circling the truth like two hungry dogs vying for the same bone.

He returned to his truck and slipped behind the wheel to continue his search. After hours of following vacant streets and avoiding the roaming groups of the undead, he decided to return to home. There were preparations to me made and he didn’t know how much longer the electricity would stay on. Surely it would go out for good within the next day or two. With no one to maintain the system a simple event could trigger a region wide blackout that would never get repaired.

As he was driving up the road to his house he came upon a single dead person plodding up the hill. From this angle he knew immediately who it was and his heart broke as he pulled alongside his wife. Blood covered the front of her jeans. The tee shirt over her stomach had been shredded. Beneath the bloody fabric he saw the white ends of bare ribs poking through torn flesh. Muscles filled with clotted blood expanding and contracting with each step she took.

Her attention remained fixed on some distant point, her cataract covered eyes shimmering with a strange light in the waning day. In her hand was her cell phone and as he watched she pushed several buttons with her thumb and lifted the phone to the side of her head. His phone rang in his pocket, responding to her call, and his rage collapsed into an empty sadness that consumed his soul. Some part of her remained and it was trying to reach out to him, whether in warning, or in search of her next meal, no one would ever know, but that simple, humanizing act brought the truth home for him. He no longer belonged here. The world now belonged to the dead. He had become an exception to the rule.

He pulled ahead of her, watching her in his rear view mirror until she vanished around the turn. She would be home soon, and he now understood what he had to do.

Reaching the house he ran into the basement and knocked the supply line from the gas furnace. Back in the living room he stood at the picture window and watched for her approach. She soon appeared around the turn as the smell of natural gas filled the house around him. She held her phone to her head and he looked at his own phone, suddenly full of a heavy sadness when he saw that his phone was as dead as the world around him.

Soon she was at the back door he’d left open. Whether from memory, or following his scent, she entered the house and came into the dining room where he waited for her.

He didn’t see the blood staining her jeans as she walked towards him, nor did he see the animal like fury that twisted her expression into an evil sneer. Instead he remembered what she had looked like on their wedding day as she came down the aisle on her father’s arm. He thought only of the good things that had happened in the past they shared together. She crossed the room and he put out his arm to wrap her in a loving embrace. She closed with him, opening her mouth at his neck and as her teeth sank into the soft flesh of his throat he lit the lighter he’d been hiding behind his back.


Till Death Do We Part appears in my short story collection 9 Dark Tales.

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