When Oliver had just turned ten, he heard a siren coming from the bottom floor of his house. He thought it might have been from the television show that his parents were watching. When it kept going off, his curiosity got the best of him. Oliver crept from his room and down the flights of stairs to the bottom floor. On the third step to the first floor, he paused, noticing that the siren stopped beeping and was replaced with a voice coming from the television.
“This is a government emergency. An outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease has begun spreading in Maine,” the voice said, stern and steady, “Scientists claim that it started in deer, then in caribou, elk, and rats. From the consumption of venison, it has also inflicted humans. Do not eat venison, we repeat, do not eat venison.”
There was a long pause. Oliver heard his parents take a deep breath. A quiet murmur came from his mom, but he couldn’t decipher her words.
“Chronic Wasting Disease causes dementia, hallucinations, and slowly makes the brain deteriorate,” ―Oliver heard his mother gasp in horror,― “These are images of the hospitalized patients with CWD. Scientists conclude that they are in the state of ‘in between,’ neither living nor dead.”
The first thing that came to Oliver’s child-like mind was “Zombies?” He felt a rush of excitement run through him, He could be just like his action-figures, fighting off hordes of zombies just like a superhero. He ran back upstairs to his room, no longer caring about what the voice on the television was babbling about. When he got to his bedroom, Oliver pulled out of his toys and imagined saving his mom and dad from a group of zombies.
Oliver’s fantasy turned out to be the exact opposite of what he hoped for, but he didn’t know. Five months later, the entire United States went into a full-fledged panic. The news released information about the infected patients, saying that they had attacked doctors and infected them as well. A small number of people had already been contaminated, but the disease was always spreading. The hoard had begun to make its way out of Maine and down to Vermont. These people had been unofficially named the “undead,” truly being in a state of in between, not alive, but not quite dead. The panic caused businesses to shut down in nearby areas and people lost their jobs. The government raised taxes so they could provide for the army to take down the undead and create safe towns for people to live in.
Oliver had been oblivious of the situation for some time. His parents had kept quiet, but they knew they had to get out of New York.
“Ollie,” his mom said, sitting beside him on their leather sofa, “Your dad and I decided that we are going to move.”
“Why?” Oliver asked, tilting his head.
“It’ s just not safe for us here,” his dad said carefully.
“Is it the zombies?” Oliver asked. His parents shared a look of uncertainty, wondering how their son had found out. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect both of you!”
His mom smiled, but his dad just shook his head and said, “We have to leave soon. Your mom and I already packed some of your clothes while you were at school.”
“Okay,” Oliver said, hopping off of the couch. He seemed unphased. “Can I go play now?”
“I suppose so,” his dad said, frowning. Oliver hurried off back upstairs and to his room. He saw a small suitcase in the corner of his room. Curiously, he sat in front of it and unzipped it open. Inside laid an assortment of his clothes and a small box of bandaids. He was about to close the suitcase when he noticed something gleaming in the corner, almost covered by one of his shirts. Oliver reached towards it and pulled it out. It was a small pocket knife. He waved it around and stood up, jabbing the air with it, practicing fighting off ‘zombies’.
Later that day, Oliver and his family loaded their suitcases and a large cooler into their car, and nothing else. He wondered why they were leaving all of their furniture, but decided not to think about it. He had brought one of his action-figures along, too.
“Where are we going?” Oliver asked from the back seat of the car.
“Tennessee,” his mom replied after a moment of silence.
He saw his mom and dad glance at each other. His dad answered, “Some of our family lives there.”
“Who?” Oliver questioned, fidgeting with his toy.
“No more questions, Ollie,” his mom said, turning up the car radio. “You’ll understand soon enough.”
“Mom, I’m hungry,” Oliver whined, slouching back in his seat.
“I know, we just have to find a gas station first,” his mom said, slight panic her voice.
Oliver stared out the car window. They were definitely not in New York anymore. The roads were lined with trees and in the distance, there were hills that seemed to go on forever. Oliver imagined himself running through the trees with his pocket knife and his action-figure sidekick, fighting crime and saving civilians.
He felt the car turn and he snapped out of his thoughts. His dad pulled the car into a gas station, but Oliver knew instantly that something was off. Nobody was here.
“Where are we?” he asked his parents.
“Somewhere in West Virginia,” his mom replied.
His parents got out of the car and he scrambled after them, climbing over their suitcases to get out the car. He hurried over to the small convenience store and pressed his face up against the window. The lights were turned off, but he could see a giant mess inside. The cash register laid on the ground, half open and broken. Shelves had been thrown to the ground and garbage was littered everywhere. There was no food in sight.
Oliver pulled at the door, and to his surprise, it was unlocked. He glanced back at his parents, who seemed to be quietly arguing, and walked inside. The deeper he went into the store, the darker it got. He searched for something to eat, but found nothing but a pack of mints. He took it anyway. Once Oliver declared that the store was empty, he turned back towards the front doors. But before he could exit, he heard a distant groan come from another room.
The groan sounded strangled. After a moment of silence, Oliver heard struggling and another groan. He looked around and saw an open door behind the counter. Curiously, he walked over to it and peered inside.
The first thing that hit him was the smell, a mixture of rotting meat, body odor, and waste. As soon as it went up his nose, he gagged. The groan was much louder now, but all he saw was an empty room with a desk.
“Hello?” Oliver called out quietly, pinching his nose. The response he got was a low growl. Oliver felt his stomach drop. Something was in there. At first, Oliver considered running back to his parents and staying quiet, but he was only inches away.
He stepped into the room and looked behind the door. Every hair on his arm rose when he saw it. At first, he didn’t know what to think, didn’t know what that was.
It looked human, but also not. The body was wearing an employee uniform, but it couldn’t hide its discolored skin. Some parts of it were a pale purple, other parts were dark brown and green. Its fingers gripped the armrests of the chair it had been tied to with a thick rope. When Oliver’s eyes rose to its face, he almost yelled. The mouth of it hung wide open, as if not being able to be closed. Its teeth were all different shapes and sizes and Oliver could smell its breath from where he stood. Its hair was messy, some parts of it sticking upwards, others being flattened down against its face.
Oliver’s eyes met theirs. The eyes were what stuck out the most. They were the most human part of this thing. He could see life in its blue eyes and the beautiful long lashes that batted every few seconds.
They stared at each other. The creature groaned, fidgeted for a moment, and stamped its feet on the ground. Oliver’s eyes lowered and he discovered a piece of paper by its shoes. He bent down, carefully picked it up, and read it.
I had to do it before they got me.
Thoughts jumbled in Oliver’s mind. The pungent smell grew stronger as he noticed something under the chair.
It was venison.
A small cry escaped Oliver’s mouth. He stumbled back into the desk behind him, slamming his back into it. This wasn’t what Oliver had imagined. This wasn’t what he was supposed to be fighting. This wasn’t a zombie.
It was a human, but not quite alive, not fully dead either. Something in between.
Oliver left the room and closed the door behind him. Haunted by what he saw, he exited the store quickly and went back to his parents, trying to keep his composure. As he neared the car, he heard a glimpse of the conversation his parents were having.
“...Can’t find another gas station!” his mom argued.
“Are you sure you checked all the pumps?” his dad responded, speaking quietly.
“Yes, I’m sure. We’ve checked them a thousand times, Joseph.”
“We’re going to have to walk, Maria.”
If we walk, we’re going to d―”
Oliver rounded the car and stood in front of his parents. They went dead silent. He frowned as the realization hit him.
There was an apocalypse happening. They had no gas. They were miles away from Tennessee.
Oliver frowned. “Are we going to have to walk?” he blurted.
“It is likely,” his mom replied quietly.
“We’ll just use up the rest of the gas in the car until it won’t go any farther,” his dad said, sighing. Nobody spoke for a second. Oliver’s dad looked over at the convenience store and asked, “We should check in there.”
“No!” Oliver said quickly, “I already did. Nothing but mints were left.” He pulled a small pack of mints from his pocket.
“That’s too bad, but alright. We should probably get going,” his mom said, climbing into the passenger seat of the car. Oliver and his dad loaded into the car. Oliver buckled himself into the back seat and picked up his action-figure that he had left in the cup holder. He frowned and dipped his head back, staring up at the ceiling of the car, wondering if they were going to make it to Tennessee at all.
The car started up and Oliver closed his eyes. He pushed all of his thoughts to the back of his mind and let himself relax, eventually falling asleep.
It was dark outside when Oliver woke up. He could see the silhouettes of his parents in the front seats, asleep. Oliver quietly climbed over their suitcases to peer at the fuel gauge. The red bar pointed to ‘E.’ He heaved himself back into his seat and stared out the window, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. For a moment, he thought he saw someone walking outside. Oliver told himself that it was just his eyes playing tricks on him and quickly looked away. He stared at his shoes, the feeling of paranoia crawling on his back.
His hand curled around the action-figure that he had fallen asleep holding. “It’s nothing,” he whispered to himself.
Or is it something? his thoughts replied. With a groan of annoyance and tense posture, Oliver slowly turned around in his seat to look through the back windshield.
There was someone’s face pressed up against it, staring directly at him.
Oliver’s breath hitched as he fell backward out of his seat, every hair on his body standing up straight. With shaky hands, he pulled himself back up and peeked over the backrest of the seat.
It was another one of those things, the undead. This one looked different, though. Both hands were pressed up against the windshield. It barely had any hair and its skin was extremely discolored, covered in green, blue, and purple spots. The undead’s mouth hung open, leaking blood from its tongue onto the glass. But its eyes― big, brown, beautiful, disturbing. It wore a torn shirt, some of its rib cage showing through the tears. Oliver covered his mouth to muffle his gag. The sight was disgusting. He didn’t know what to do.
“Hello?” he whispered. Could these things even speak?
It continued to stare at him.
Oliver slowly turned around, facing his back towards the undead. But as he turned, he noticed something in the window next to his seat. It was another one. Then he looked to the other window. Another. Oliver felt panic rise up in his chest. He looked to the front windshield. Three more. All of them with their hands pressed up against the windows, torn clothes, bruised skin, and shining eyes.
A faint sound came from behind Oliver and he slowly looked over his shoulder. Two more of the undead had appeared, but all three were slamming their fists against the windshield. The sound seemed to multiply. He looked around and saw that the rest of the undead were now banging on the windows.
Oliver climbed over to his parents. Just before he was about to wake them, he noticed a small crack had begun to form at the bottom of the windshield. With every fist the undead swung at the window, it grew slightly.
“Mom! Dad!” Oliver cried, throwing his action-figure to the floor and shaking his parents awake.
“Ollie…” his mom murmured, rubbing her eyes, “What is―”
His dad woke up next. “...Huh… Huh? Oh my God―”
A loud growl escaped one of the undead’s mouths as it swung both of its fists down on the glass, using all of its strength. The crack shot up the window.
“They’re going to break it!” Oliver exclaimed.
“The car is dead. What are we supposed to do?” Oliver’s mom panicked, looking at his dad.
“There is nothing we can do,” he replied, putting his face in his hands.
“We’re just supposed to sit here and die?” Oliver yelled. His parents looked at him with wide eyes. “I don’t want to die! Please, there has to be something.”
Oliver turned back and crawled over to his suitcase, unzipping it. He pulled out the pocket knife and flipped it open.
The windshield crack was growing steadily. It would reach the top soon enough.
His dad put his hand on the car door handle. “We’ll have to run.”
“Joseph, that’s impossible!” his mom stated.
“Oliver, grab your suitcase. You too, Maria,” he said, brushing off his wife’s warning.
Oliver put the action-figure back into the suitcase. zipped it up, and crouched by the car door, trying to not make direct eye contact with the undead staring directly down at him. He watched his mom slowly grab her suitcase from behind her seat.
“On the count of three,” his dad said, grabbing his suitcase as well and unlocking the car doors. “One…”
Oliver grasped the handle, feeling his heart beating out of his chest.
He took a deep breath. He could hear the blood rushing through his ears.
Oliver and his parents burst from the car, using their suitcases to shove the undead away. The undead in front of him clawed at his suitcase, tearing the front of it open. His clothes spilled onto the ground, along with his action-figure. Oliver instinctively moved to pick it up, but realized he already had something in his hand. The pocket knife. He shoved the knife toward the undead. It sprung back in surprise, a flicker of fear in its eyes. Oliver kept pointing his knife towards it as he slowly walked around it. He glanced at his dad, who had thrown his entire suitcase on top of an undead.
“Joseph! Help! Olli―” his mom’s cry for help was replaced with a blood curdling scream. He saw his dad run to the other side of the car.
“Maria!” his dad yelled.
Oliver threw his suitcase at the undead and hurried around the car. He saw his dad grabbing at a cluster of zombies, pulling them away from the crumpled figure on the ground. The body twitched and writhed, letting out coughs and growls.
Oliver watched his dad crouch down on the ground beside the body, but an undead grabbed him by the shirt and sunk its teeth into his arm. His dad yelled in pain, then fell to the ground.
Ringing filled Oliver’s ears as he stumbled backward. He saw the figure of what was once his mother stand up. She turned to face him. Tears welled up in Oliver’s eyes. He thought he would be scared of his mother if she had ever turned in an undead, but he wasn’t. She still had all the same features. Her dirty blonde hair, a smooth, round face, and her light blue eyes. It was just her rapid changing skin tones at her bloody mouth that set Oliver on edge.
Next was his dad, who rose up seconds after. He still looked the same as well. Short, black hair, a small scruff on his chin, and his dark blue eyes, the same color as Oliver’s. His parents stared at him. The other undead had already moved on, stumbling off.
The figures of what were once his parents lingered for a moment, staring at Oliver. Then, one by one, they turned away.
Oliver felt the tears streaking down his cheeks as he watched them limp off into the distance, clutching the pocket knife in his hand.