— A discovered note —
Game Design was my dream, survival horror my genre, and video games my obsession. So, I’d kick butt if the zombie apocalypse came, right?
AND THEN IT DID.
Now the virus rushes through my veins. I can smell my friends’ flesh and blood. I’m infected, and they know. It’s only a matter of time, yet they won’t let me end my crumbling existence. They think they can save me.
MY FRIENDS ARE WRONG.
There are no extra lives, no continues, no cheat codes. One bite and it’s over. The world now belongs to the corpses.
THIS. IS. NO. GAME.
— Zachary Star
LEVEL 01: SURVIVAL HORROR
Moans came from the shuffling corpses. They stumbled along—eyes lifeless, jaws hanging, and almost-dead brains. The stench was real—Many of them forgot to brush their teeth. Yes, mornings at Milpeg High sucked. We all suffered as slaves to reality.
To make matters worse, my locker jammed.
“Come on, you stupid piece of orange sheet—”
“Watch your language, Mr. Star!” Mrs. Green shook her head, long dark hair flopping as she walked past, boot heels clicking. Her gray skirt was shorter than the school board liked—I was sure. Being twenty-four and gorgeous, a lot of students had crushes on her—and it didn’t help she asked everyone to call her an in formal name J.J.—Standing for Janice Justine. Amongst others, I had to remind myself she was married.
“Sheet metal!” I called after her but she didn’t look back. “Fine!” I slammed my head into the locker and sighed.
Game Programming class made my Junior year bearable. The joy of creating and manipulating a world was enthralling, but without that textbook I’d fall behind—again.
“Hey, Zach!” a girl said.
I froze. Girls never addressed me, let alone by name. A trap. Caution to the wind, I turned. The blonde gamer-girl bombshell, Tiffany Gainsborough stood a few feet away, hands on hips, cheeks red, and breathing hard. Every day she wore baggy jeans, a shade of violet t-shirt, and a black baseball cap turned backward. The only thing longer than her hip-length hair was her list of reasons she hated most everyone. If the gaming gods existed, they’d made her boss-level fierce.
She was part of a group calling themselves, The Gamers’ Guild. They played games like D&D—Which the cool kids said it meant they sacrificed chickens. Ridiculous—I hoped.
Nervous sweat dripped down my neck. “Um, hey Tiff.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t call me Tiff. No one can.”
“Stop. It’s weird even talking to you.”
My heart sank. So much for a heartfelt conversation.
She crossed her arms, scowling. “You’re a survival horror nerd still?”
“I’m not a nerd, per se, more of an enthusiast.”
“Good, you‘re a nerd. Follow me. There’s something you’ll wanna see.” Tiffany pointed at the alleyway doors. Like I thought—a trap. Her guild wanted to torture me for my beta-tester knowledge of the new Dark Dayz game.
I cocked an eyebrow. “Why should I trust you? You might kick shove my face in a toilet.”
“Does it look like we‘re going to a bathroom? Don’t be a moron—And you weren’t my first choice, but she said you’re the expert.”
Two things piqued my interest. One: Tiffany said she—meaning another girl. And two: she called me an expert. An expert at meticulous Excel sheet lists, yes. An expert in the alley, no.
Tiffany tapped her Nike-wearing foot. Another example of her being a class above me—Attractive and rich. My parents shopped at thrift stores.
“Are you coming or not?”
I snatched my backpack from the floor. “Fine, but I won’t give you any cheat codes or spoilers.”
“Where’s the cheat code to give you brains?” She heaved a sigh and stomped toward the exit. “Those idiots better not have touched the roadkill, otherwise it might leave.”
“Wait.” I followed her, confusion filling me to the brim. “What do you mean?”
“You know, it might have crawled away!”
“You called it roadkill. Dead things don’t crawl.”
“You’ll see.” Tiffany said, and I did my best to keep pace.
She grabbed my arm and pulled me, her urgency unnerving. Without losing momentum, she kicked open the door, and I tripped as we entered the empty alley. I caught myself on her shoulder, and she shot me a glare—I let go fast.
Nothing made a sound, not even the chirping birds that nested nearby.
The wooden fence across the alley had graffiti, which was unusual for Milpeg. Spray-painted in green was an omega symbol with a large V overlapping.
“That’s weird,” I said. “Do you think a gang did this?”
Tiffany snickered. “Figures. They must have led it somewhere.”
I turned from the tagging. “I’m confused. You said something was dead. I’m telling you, dead things do not move.”
Scraping and a heavy thud echoed from the corner, several yards away.
“What the heck?” I asked.
Tiffany seized my arm in a vise grip. “This way!”
She yanked me around the corner and right into her three friends—Dave Carnby, a heavy-set guy with an affinity for button-downs and dragon tees, Jeff Mason, a tall tank-top clad senior who cared too much about his hair, and Jessie Bluefield, the shy, redhead cutie of the whole school—my crush of six years. She always wore long-sleeved tees and open-toed shoes no matter the weather.
My heart lodged in my throat. Jessie and I made eye contact, but I looked away. How could I face her? Not after her tenth birthday party. It was Halloween, and she dressed as a pink hedgehog. I’d known of her costume beforehand, so I dressed as a blue hedgehog. One accidental swing at a piñata later, she was out cold and her parents kicked me from the party. We hadn’t spoken in six years.
“Jessie, are you serious? You meant this loser?” Dave scoffed. “Don’t you stalk him?”
“N-No!” Jessie gasped and pursed her lips. “I don’t stalk people. Why would you say that? I asked for Zach because he knows his stuff.”
“Wait, what?” I cocked my head.
Jessie locked eyes with me again, but glanced away, her fair cheeks turning tomato red.
I wanted to say more, but that’s when I saw it—a dark, crusty substance like coagulated blood led to the ground-level basement window.
I slapped a hand over my face. “Real mature, guys. You threw something dead in the basement.”
“No!” Jessie’s raised voice shocked me. “It was a mush ball of organs and blood. We followed it from the courtyard. Right before you got here it crawled through the window.”
Jeff shrugged. “A dying raccoon. There was no need to get you.”
I turned to leave. “This is a sick prank. I’m leaving.”
“This is serious, Zach!” Jessie grabbed my hand, sending tingles through my whole body. “You’re brave, right? You play survival horror games in the dark!”
“How do you know—”
Dave shoved me. “Go look, but hurry, I’m hungry and the cafeteria is calling my name.”
“Food has you on speed dial.” Jeff chuckled.
“Shut up, asshat.”
I stared at the window. “Why me?”
Dave snorted. “Like Jess said, you are the survival horror expert!”
“In video games!”
Tiffany kneeled next to the window, pulling it open. “We’ll be right behind you.”
“Hell no.” Dave took three large steps back. “This isn’t my genre.”
Jeff turned away. “No, thanks. I don’t want rabies.”
Jessie kicked a pebble and lowered her head. “Zach’s brave. He’ll be okay.”
Tiffany grumbled, “Cowards. Don’t worry, Zach. I’ll be behind you, even if these jerks won’t.”
“Thanks for caring.” I smiled.
She cocked a brow. “Trust me, I don’t. I’m a curious cat.”
I handed my backpack to Jessie, sighing.
“Be careful.” She squeezed my hand and the tingles flowing through me tripled. I never wanted her to let go.
Tiffany motioned with her hand. “Go, dammit!”
A deep breath later, I slid through the basement window. I tried to step onto a bucket, but my foot, slipped, and I landed on my tailbone. A sharp pain shot up my spine, and I almost screamed, but the sticky substance my hand landed in turned my stomach. I found my feet and wiped my palm on a nearby tarp.
The dark basement reeked of mildew and something fouler. Strewn around were ancient desks along with old white boards and flat sports balls. The window provided the only light source.
Tiffany landed beside me, and held up her phone, using it as a flashlight. She handed me the cell. “Drop this and your dead.”
I believed her threat, so I held onto it tight. We followed the blood trail across the room, near to the hallway door. The coagulated gunk led under a tall steel cabinet. I sucked in my breath as something squished nearby.
“It’s behind there,” Tiffany said.
I inched forward, adrenaline pumping. What in the heck was I doing? The only result was getting a virus and the spooky basement threatened to steal my courage. I pictured Jessie’s expectant, pout and my bravery returned. At the least, I needed to put the poor raccoon out of its misery.
Tiffany stood next to me as I grasped the cabinet, trying to pull it to the side. It didn’t want to move. I tried again, and this time it teetered—and fell toward us. We hit the ground, pinned underneath it, with Tiffany’s phone sliding away.
“You idiot!” Tiffany gritted her teeth.
“S-Sorry!” I said as we struggled, but we couldn’t lift it an inch. What did they keep inside it? Bricks?
The squishing stopped, becoming scraping. In my peripheral, a grotesque, bloody lump crawled toward us from around a trashcan. The disgusting mass pulled itself using five broken fingers. A crushed skull showed its brains through straggled hair, and in two dark sockets on its face were glowing green eyes. This was no racoon.
The creature gripped something in its other hand—a twitching rat. Entrails hung from the animal’s body as its captor tore away a chunk of meat. It chewed with an open mouth, revealing jagged teeth. A long airy groan wheezed from its throat and its eyes landed on us. It dropped the mouse and pulled itself forward.
I set my jaw and put all my strength into pushing the cabinet. “We’re in trouble!”
“I-Is it there? I can’t see!” Tiffany tried to twist but couldn’t.
“Yes! We have to get out of here!”
It hissed, and its clawed hand came within inches of my face. Whatever it had was worse than rabies.
The basement door opened, and Mr. Murph, the janitor, stepped beside us. He held a broom in his hand and squinted through the dim light.
“Help!” I said.
“The hell you doing in here? Making out?”
Unaware of the bloody thing, he stepped next to it and kneeled, lifting the cabinet just enough to free me. I crawled out as the creature grab Murph’s ankle and sank in its fangs. His blood-curdling scream reverberated off the walls.
The cabinet landed on Tiffany again and she grunted. I crawled backward and stared as the blood creature’s head whipped around like a starving dog. Although strong, and muscular, Murph couldn’t pry it free.
“Help me, moron!” Tiffany shouted.
Next to a sink was a propped aluminum baseball bat. I grabbed it, and swung at the vicious creature, crushing its head until the bat hit the floor.
“The hell?” Tears streamed from Mr. Murph’s eyes.
The bite wound was already black, with green veins climbing Murph’s leg, up underneath his pants. I met his terrified gaze, and then his eyes rolled back. He fell on his back with a thud.
“Get this off me!” Tiffany said.
The window was across the basement. I needed out. My gut told me this wasn’t over, even if Mr. Murph was dead.
“Oh, crap!” Tiffany cried. “Please Zach, help me!”
Murph’s eyes opened, glowing the same dull green. He looked around, confused. I threw my hands under the cabinet and it took everything I had, but I lifted it, allowing Tiffany to escape.
Together, we ran to the opposite side. I held out my hands and boosted her to escape. I jumped but couldn’t reach the window. The reanimated custodian stood and moaned, eyes fixated on me.
“Help!” I jumped again, still coming up short.
Jessie appeared in the window and saw Mr. Murph. She screeched and caught my hand. Tiffany joined her, grabbing my other. They lifted me, but Murph grasped my ankle. I twisted and screamed, keeping from his mouth. He snarled and yanked, but I kicked his jaw, sending him crashing through a pile of desks. I scurried out of the basement, and they let the window fall shut.
“What happened in there?” Dave asked, eyes wide. “If someone died, I’m outta here!”
“That bloody thing bit Mr. Murph!” Tiffany said.
I scrambled to my feet, eyes darting. Were there more of them? My heart thundered, a dark realization coming over me.
“So, what was it?” Dave asked. “Was it a: you know what? Tell me it was a: you know what!”
Jeff crossed his arms and shook his head.
“It was—It was—” I fought for words. It couldn’t be possible. There was no way it was possible.
Dave threw down his hands. “Spit it out!”
Screams erupted from within the school building, doubling and tripling as panic ensued. Blaring rang out inside the building—Someone had pulled the fire alarm. In the windows students attacked each other. It was spreading fast—Too fast.
“Dammit, man!” Dave grabbed my shoulders. “What the hell was it?”
I swallowed hard, shaking my head. “It was a zombie!”
LEVEL 02: FIRST ZONE
As the alarm blared, I looked between each member of the Gamers’ Guild. Dave’s eyes were huge, while Jeff and Tiffany looked hesitant. Jessie smiled wide, but why—I didn’t understand.
Jeff’s stare turned into a smirk. “Oh yeah, a zombie, huh? The thing looked dead—ish, but that’s BS, man.”
Dave threw out his arms. “I heard the scream from inside and I knew! It all makes sense now!”
I shook my head hard. “Jeff, it sounds crazy, but this—”
“You on something, dude?” Jeff crossed his arms. “Because if so, I’ll take a few—But you may have set the school on fire—so nevermind.”
As we argued, the school filled with the screaming of students and teachers.
“You weren’t down there! You didn’t see Mr. Murph get bitten and turn. Tiff saw it, too!”
Tiffany groaned. “Don’t call me Tiff!”
Jessie swatted her bangs from her eyes and grabbed my arm. “Zach, I believe you. You know your stuff about zombies. Isn‘t this crazy?”
“Thanks, but how do you know about my knowledge?” I asked.
She blushed, looking away. “I remember the report you gave on zombies.”
“That was in fifth grade!”
“Yes, but it was great. You sounded so sure, explaining survival plans and scenarios. It was hot.”
“Anyway!” Tiffany turned to the school. “Something serious is going down, but zombies aren’t real!”
How could she not admit the truth? She saw the dead thing bite Mr. Murph.
The school’s back doors exploded open, slamming off the walls. Screaming students poured out covered in blood, many tripped, and were getting crushed under thundering feet. More than half held bleeding wounds on their arms and legs. Tiffany’s jaw dropped as dozens rushed by in full terror. Even Jeff’s expression morphed into a grimace. A guy stumbling from the stampede, fell and rolled to us. Tiffany and Jeff pulled him to the grass. They tried to help him up, but he had a seizure, shaking and jerking his limbs.
Tiffany kneeled beside him, grabbing his shoulders. “Hey man, snap out of it!”
Blood seeped from underneath his shirt. A bite victim—He could turn any second like Mr. Murph.
“Tiffany, move!” I said.
Dave backed away, holding up his hands. “Listen to the zombie expert! Get away from the bit dude!”
Jessie still wearing a crazed smile, put on my backpack. I pulled her away as more screaming students hobbled by, chased by others with glowing green eyes, and bloody mouths.
“He’ll become a zombie like the others!” I said.
Jeff pulled off his shirt, leaving him in a white tank top. “Stop using the Z word and watch my back so I can get pressure on Stephen’s wound!”
“You know him?” Tiffany glanced at Jeff, then snapped her fingers in the Stephen’s face. “Stay with us Steve. An ambulance must be on its way!”
Somehow, I doubted it would ever make it.
As the crowd thinned, dozens lay on the ground, dying from their bite wounds. No one was turning as fast as Mr. Murph, but they would soon.
The corner of Jessie’s mouth twitched, and she tugged on my arm. “What do we do? You didn’t cover this scenario in your report.”
“Again, fifth grade!” I sighed. “It was all make-believe.”
“Well then, why are you here?” Jeff glared at me, his hands on Stephen’s stomach. “Jessie said you knew your stuff.”
“How are you so blind? They’re all becoming zombies!”
“Where’s the first-responders?” Tiffany asked. “That happens when the fire alarm goes off, right?”
Jeff shook his head. “Whatever is happening, we are the first responders.”
“We need to find shelter!” I said. “Then try to contact our families. Does anyone have a phone?”
“I did until you lost it.” Tiffany narrowed her eyes. “Why don’t you get one from the injured?”
Jeff tied off Stephen’s wound. “You’re such a chicken!”
“No, the loser is right!” Dave said. “Let’s go. People who get bit don’t stay dead long.”
I pointed to the basement window. “Tiffany Gainsborough, you know what you saw. What do you think happened to Mr. Murph and the creature?”
Tiffany shrugged as a cold wind blew past, allowing me to see her breath. “Super rabies or something? Zombies don’t exist.”
Jeff stood. “The next person who uses that word—”
Dave cleared his throat. “Um, guys, you might wanna move. Stephen’s a zombie.”
We all looked, and Stephen’s eyes were open and glowing green. He lunged, grabbing Tiffany’s leg, tearing into it with his teeth. I gasped, expecting a blood-curdling scream, but she stomped his head over and over, crushing it. When his skull caved in, he stopped moving. Tiffany’s face turned pale, seeing her brain covered shoe. She shook her leg revealing the truth. Stephen had shredded the bottom of her baggy jeans, but hadn’t reached her leg.
Tiffany threw her hands in the air. “Fine. They. Are. Zombies! Are you happy?”
“Then why are we standing here?” Dave whimpered.
Jeff’s nostrils flared as he glared at each of us, then locked onto Tiffany. “Stupid bitch. You murdered him! We might have—”
Tiffany blasted Jeff in the face, sending him onto his butt. “Call me a bitch again and I’ll stomp your skull!”
Another figure emerged from the school—Mrs. Green, my Game Design teacher, skirt torn and bright green veins running up her pale legs. Blood squirted out of a gaping hole in her throat as a long airy moan escaped.
Dave cried, “Guys, they got J.J.—she was so hot. Why did they get J.J.?”
Jessie seized my arm, eyes enormous. “Zach, what do we do? You have a plan, right?”
Time ticked to a stop. Jeff stared at Mrs. Green slack-jawed, and Tiffany balled her hands into fists. Without a doubt, everyone believed the undead truth.
So much for normalcy at Milpeg High—Normalcy had pissed its pants and fled. Did this group need leadership? Someone to tell them to run? Zombies in games were my thing, not real-life ones. I wanted to run home and hide in my bed while my parents barricaded the doors and windows—My parents might even be dead already.
J.J. Green grew closer as the dead students and faculty rose one by one. More came from the alley’s ends. The school wasn’t ground zero. It was already through the rest of town. What caused it—Who caused it? How did this happen?
Dave’s mouth moved, but I didn’t hear him. The alarm. The zombies. We were so dead. Reality smacked me across the face when Jessie screamed as one lunged for her, but missed.
“This way!” I darted around the building, and down the stairs leading to the courtyard. The others followed as I ran to the fountain.
Screams came from all the surrounding areas. This was an outbreak—A viral invasion. The population plummeted and the number of undead skyrocketed.
There were two bungalows before me—the ones used for art classes. Sure, we could hide there, but it would be temporary. Without food and water, we’d die. Jessie was right. At one point, I’d prepared plans for zombie outbreaks, but now that the zombies had arrived, any plan seemed idiotic. Go to the pawnshop and steal guns? They’d get taken before we got there.
“Keep going!” Tiffany said as the Guild reached the fountain.
Zombies appeared from the west side of the courtyard, arms outstretched, hands grasping. They would block the path between the bungalows in moments. From the alley, a car horn blared, and I turned. An SUV barreled through the zombies and swerved, coming down toward us. Undead clung to its sides, and for a frozen moment, I saw the driver—a young woman—being torn into by a child.
Time resumed, and Jessie was in danger. I tackled her out of the way. The vehicle bounced over our heads and crashed into the fountain, destroying the statue of Fredric Milpeg, the city’s founder. From there the SUV flipped, careening into a brick wall. The destroyed wall opened to the city streets where scores of the zombies lumbered.
Jeff, Tiffany, and Dave pulled us to our feet as the sound of chaos reigned. Car horns blared, sirens rang, and loud popping gunfire corrupted the once peaceful morning.
In zombie movies, how did people survive? In many they didn’t. What about games? Jessie screeched as a hand grabbed her ankle from behind a bush—I’d never moved faster. I stomped and shattered the zombie’s wrist.
“Follow me!” I once again took the lead, taking them to the street past the school. Somewhere had to be defendable, but my hopes sank as we made it to the road and the full devastation became known.
We turned in full circles, staring at the smoke plumes all over the city. Cars were wrecking into each other, forming barricades. Many had zombies stuck inside, trying to get out—others had zombies trying to break in to feast on the living. Milpeg was lost. It was too fast—Too damn fast.
An engine revved a few streets over, followed by more popping. I led everyone across the wreckage-blocked road and cut between two buildings that led to Main Street. Halfway down, a horde of zombies appeared, barring our path.
“Go back!” I said.
“W-We can’t!” Dave pointed a shaking finger.
Zombies were filling the path from the other direction. They’d trapped us.
“You got us killed already, dumbass!” Tiffany lifted her fist to punch me, but Jessie got between us.
“Have faith,” Jessie said. “Zach’s an expert on zombies. He’ll get us out!”
I appreciated her belief in me, but there wasn’t a way out. In front were zombies. To the left a building. To the right a building. And behind us another horde. My bad luck had doomed us.
Jessie took my hand and smiled. “What grade did you get?”
I swallowed hard. “On the report? I got a C.”
She pouted and hugged me. “It’s all right. I thought it was an A+.”
Her pity made me more upset than the looming certainty of zombies ripping us apart. No, I couldn’t give up like a coward. There was a way. Only one.
I spun to Jeff. “Let’s boost everyone to the roof.”
He cocked a brow. “Dude, what about us?”
“They can pull us up next.”
“We don’t have time!”
Jeff cupped his hands, giving Tiffany a boost to her jump. She grabbed the lip of the roof and pulled herself up top. She reached back for Jessie and together Jeff and I boosted her. It took all of us to lift Dave.
The groaning zombies were within ten feet from both sides. Jeff met my eyes.
I shrugged. “Jump!”
Jeff didn’t need told twice. With his height and a good jump, the girls and Dave saved him. The envelope of fate sealed with me between two zombie walls. I set my jaw, glancing back and forth.
“No, Zach,” Jessie cried. “We can’t leave him!”
“He made his choice,” Jeff said.
I didn’t look to see, but a drop of liquid fell on my head. It might have been a rain drop, Jessie’s tears, or Tiffany spitting on me. It didn’t matter.
Dave said, “Don’t be a loser. Fight!”
“Right, fight,” I muttered.
A meager plan forged in my mind. One horde had to be thinner. On came the moment of truth.
Zombies grabbed for me and with a deep breath, I shoulder rushed the thinner group heading back toward the school. The first monster toppled, creating a zombified domino effect. I kicked off the face of an undead, leaped. I cleared the last of the group and landed in the street.
My plan reached its end. I stood on a blocked off street. Burning cars were on each side. I backed into a pileup of cars and watched as zombies came from both alleys. From above, the Guild gawked. I tore my gaze away and swallowed hard. For all my gaming and planning, I’d lasted ten minutes in a real zombie outbreak. I always thought I’d be ready, but then what did I have to lose? Parents who were too afraid to tell me the truth? They adopted me. I’d found the paperwork in Dad’s desk.
Go figure—Achievement unlocked: Gain New Friends. And then die.
If I could manipulate time and space and use the reset button, I’d prevent the outbreak—somehow.
A revving engine came from nearby again. I turned as a motorcycle ramped over the wreckage. My mouth fell wide. It was like a game cut scene. The sun’s glare blocked the rider, but I could see he held two oval objects. He flicked each with his thumbs and tossed them to the sides. Both bounced into the hordes. I sucked in my breath as they exploded, sending zombie bits everywhere.
The rider leaped from the bike and it flew over my head. A black, red-feathered fedora fell at my feet.
The insane action guy landed in a crouch, but he had trapped himself, for the dozen remaining zombies locked onto him. Before one even got close, he whipped dual pistols from hip holsters and burst into action. Gunfire raged as zombie after zombie fell to his bullets. They didn’t experience fear, so they didn’t run, instead dropping like flies. When the metaphorical dust settled, only one zombie stood.
Action guy aimed the guns, and both clicked. Instead of reloading, he holstered them, his dark combat boots clicking as he walked right to the last undead. With an arrogant “Ha ha!”, he pulled back his fist and clocked the zombie in the jaw. It hit the ground, and then got its skull stomped, sending brain matter spewing. Without skipping a beat, the insane badass approached me.
A walking weapon if nothing else, the guy wore a black trench coat with four knife scabbards lining the sides. He had a shotgun strapped to his back, and the two empty handguns belted on his hips.
Scooping the fedora into his hand, his long red hair fell in his face. “Oops, dropped my zombie killing hat.”
“Zombie killing hat?” I asked. “Who the heck are you?”
With a cocky smile, he extended his hand. “Who am I?” He chuckled. “The name’s Wesley James, and you better remember it!”