Game Design was my dream, survival horror my genre, and video games my obsession. Naturally, I’d kick ass 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 I can be saved.
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.
LEVEL 01: SURVIVAL HORROR
Moans came from the nearby shufflers. As a slave to normalcy, I gave my fellow students full support. Mornings at Milpeg High sucked, and there was no avoiding it. To make matters worse, my locker jammed, opening only an inch.
“Come on, dammit!” I wedged my fingers into the gap and pulled but the groaning door held fast. “Ow!” I yanked my hand back to find a red dot forming on my pinky. “Stupid piece of crap. I need my book!”
I slammed my head into the door 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 said my 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 almost everyone. If the gaming gods existed, they’d made her boss-level fierce.
As far as her personal life, she was part of a group calling themselves, “The Gamers’ Guild” and I knew nothing else.
I scratched the back of my head. “Um, hey Tiff.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t call me Tiff. No one can call me that.”
“Stop. I feel weird even talking to you.”
My heart sank. So much for conversation.
She crossed her arms and scowled. “You’re a survival horror nerd still?”
“I’m not a nerd, per se, more of an aficionado.”
“So, the answer is yes. Follow me. There’s something you should see.” Tiffany pointed at the alleyway doors. A trap after all. Her guild probably 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 my ass.”
“Don’t be a moron. You weren’t my first choice. 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.
Tiffany tapped her foot. “Are you coming or not?”
I grabbed my backpack from the floor. “Fine, but I won’t give you any cheat codes or spoilers.”
She heaved a sigh and rushed toward the exit. “Those idiots better not have touched the stupid dead thing, 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 dead. Dead things don’t crawl.”
“You’ll see.” Tiffany said, and I did my best to keep pace. Running sucked.
She grabbed my arm and pulled me, her urgency unnerving. Without losing momentum, she kicked the door open. I tripped as we exited into the empty alley but caught myself on the wall. 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 has moved into the area?”
Tiffany ignored me, snickering. “Figures. They must have led it somewhere.”
I turned from the odd tagging. “I’m confused. You said something was dead. I’m telling you, dead things don’t move.”
Scraping and a heavy thud came from around the building corner, only several yards away.
“What was that?” I said.
Tiffany seized my arm with a vice-like grip. “This way!”
She yanked me around the corner and right into her friends—Dave Carnby, a heavy-set guy with an affinity for button-downs and dragon tees, Jeff Mason, a tall, tough-guy senior in his trademark tank top, and Jessie Bluefield, the shy, redhead cutie of the whole school—and my crush of six years—She always wore long-sleeved tees and open-toed shoes.
My heart lodged in my throat. Jessie and I made eye contact, but I looked away. How could I face her? Not after an incident at 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 of a piñata stick later, she was out cold and her parents kicked me from the party. We hadn’t spoken since that day.
“Jessie, really? You meant that loser?” Dave scoffed. “Don’t you stalk him?”
“N-No!” Jessie gasped. “I’ve stalked no one. 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 she glanced away, her pale cheeks turning rosy red.
I wanted to say more, but I saw something beneath our feet—a dark, crusty substance like coagulated blood leading to the basement window.
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “You guys threw something dead in there, didn’t you?”
“It was a mushy ball of flesh and blood,” Jessie said. “We followed it from the courtyard. Right before you got here it crawled into the basement.”
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. Will you tell us what it is?”
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. “You’re 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 crossed his arms and 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 growled. “Cowards. Don’t worry, Zach. I’ll be behind you, even if these jerks won’t.”
“Thanks for caring.” I smiled.
She shook her head. “Trust me, I don’t. I’m as curious as a cat.”
Sighing, I handed my backpack to Jessie.
“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!”
With a deep breath, I crawled through the window, but I misplaced my foot, slipped, and 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 stank of mildew or 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 the heck was I doing? The only result was getting a virus. The spooky basement threatened to steal my courage, but I pictured Jessie’s freckled face and my bravery returned. I needed to put the poor raccoon out of its misery.
Grasping the cabinet, I tried to pull it to the side, but it teetered and fell toward us. We hit the ground, pinned underneath it, with Tiffany’s phone sliding away.
“You idiot!” Tiffany said through her teeth.
“S-Sorry!” I said as we struggled, but we couldn’t lift it an inch.
The squishing sound stopped, becoming a scraping. In my peripheral, a grotesque, bloody lump crawled toward us from around a trashcan. The disgusting mass pulled itself using five bony digits. A crushed skull showed its brains through straggled hair, and its eyes gave a soft green, but lifeless glow. It looked too human for comfort.
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 scraped out of its throat as 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 was happening, it 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 at us through the dim light.
“Help!” I said.
“The Hell are you doing in here? Making out?”
Unaware of the bloody thing, he stepped right next to it and kneeled, lifting the cabinet just enough to free me. I crawled out in time to see the creature grab Murph’s ankle and sink 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 said.
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.
“What in the hell?” Tears streamed from Mr. Murph’s eyes.
His wound was already black, and rotting, with green veins climbing his leg, up underneath his pants. I met his terrified gaze, and then his eyes rolled back, and he fell flat.
“Get this off me!” Tiffany said.
The window was across the basement. I needed out. My gut told me Murph wouldn’t stay dead for long.
“Oh, shit!” Tiffany said. “Please Zach, help me!”
Murph’s eyes were opened, glowing a dull green. He looked around, confused. I took the moment to grab the cabinet. With everything I had, 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 edge. 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. Jeff joined her, grabbing my other. They lifted me, but Murph grasped my ankle. I twisted and screamed, kicking at him. He snarled and yanked, but my foot connected with his jaw and he crashed back through a pile of desks. I scurried out of the basement, and they let the window fall shut.
“What happened in there?” Dave said, 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 realization coming over me.
“So, what was it?” Dave said. “Was it a you know what? Tell me it was a you know what!”
“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. Someone pulled the fire alarm, which now blared. In the windows students attacked each other. It was spreading 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. They wore different expressions. Jessie smiled wide, Dave’s eyes were huge, while Jeff and Tiffany each had no emotion.
Jeff’s blank stare turned into a smirk. “Oh yeah, a zombie, huh? The thing looked dead…ish, but that’s bullshit, 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—”
“You on something, dude?” Jeff crossed his arms. “Because if so, I’ll take some… But I think you may have set the school on fire… so nevermind.”
As we argued, the school was full of screaming 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.”
“Thanks, but how did you...?” I said.
She blushed and looked away. “I remember the report you gave on zombies.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That was in fourth grade!”
“Yes, but it was great. You sounded so sure. You even explained plans and scenarios. It was kinda…hot.”
“Anyway!” Tiffany turned to face the school. “Zombies are impossible, but some serious shit is going down!”
How could she not admit the truth? She saw the bloody 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 frown. A guy stumbled from the stampede, fell and skidded to our feet. Tiffany and Jeff pulled him to the grass. Jeff tried to help him up, but the guy seized, and flailed his arms.
Tiffany kneeled next to him, grabbing his shoulders. “Are you hurt?”
Blood seeped from underneath his shirt. He could turn in seconds, like Mr. Murph.
“Tiffany, move!” I said.
Dave backed away from us, holding up his hands. “Listen, get away from that dude!”
Jessie, who had a strange half-smile, handed me 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 t-shirt, leaving him in a white tank top. “Stop using that 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 guy’s face. “Stay with us Stephen. An ambulance must be on its way!”
Somehow, I doubted it.
As the crowd thinned, dozens lay on the ground, dying from their bite wounds. No one was turning as fast as Mr. Murph, which gave us mere moments.
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, Fourth grade!” I sighed. “I didn’t understand what I was talking about. 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.”
“I’m a normal teen, just like you guys!” I said.
“Where are the first-responders?” Tiffany said. “That’s what happens when the fire alarm goes off, right?”
Jeff shook his head. “I think we are the first responders.”
“We need to leave and find a place to hide,” 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 chickenshit!”
“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 turned, and Stephen’s eyes were open and glowing green.
“No!” I said.
He lunged and grabbed Tiffany’s leg, tearing into it with his teeth. I gasped, expecting a blood-curdling scream, but instead she stomped over and over, crushing in his head. When he stopped moving, she shook her leg. It had shredded the bottom of her pants, but her skin was untouched. Baggy jeans had saved her.
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 just murdered him! We might’ve—”
Tiffany blasted Jeff in the face, sending him on his rear. “Call me a bitch again and I’ll stomp your skull!”
From the school emerged the dark-haired Ms. 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, zombies!”
Jessie seized my arm, eyes huge. “Zach, what do we do? You have a plan, right?”
Time ticked to a stop. Jeff stared at Ms. Green slack-jawed, and Tiffany balled her hands into fists. Without a doubt, we now all 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. Why me? I wanted to run home and hide in my bed while my aunt and her husband barricaded the doors and windows.
Ms. Green grew closer as the dead students and faculty rose one by one. There were over a dozen undead. More were coming from both directions. It happened so fast; it had to be airborne—But why did we survive? Dave’s mouth was moving, but I didn’t hear him. I didn’t know what to do—But then Jessie screamed and reality smacked me across the face.
I gave the group a nod. “This way!” I darted around the front of the building. The others followed as I rushed into the courtyard and past the fountain.
Screams came from all the surrounding areas. An invasion was happening. The population dived while the number of undead skyrocketed.
I stopped for a moment. Bungalows spotted the campus. Sure, we could hide there, but it would be temporary. Without food and water, we’d die. Yes, Jessie was right. At one point, I’d devised plans for zombie outbreaks, but now that the zombies had arrived, they seemed idiotic. Go to the pawnshop and steal guns? They’d get taken before we got there.
“Keep going!” Tiffany cried.
Zombies rounded the corner, arms outstretched, hands grasping. The gap was closing fast. On the road ahead, a car horn blared, and I turned. An SUV barreled through someone and smashed through a bus bench heading straight for us. Undead clung to it and for a frozen moment, I saw the driver—a young woman—being tore into by a child.
Time resumed, and Jessie was in danger. I dove, pushing her out of the way. The vehicle flew over our heads and crashed into the fountain, destroying the statue of Amelia Earhart. 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 reached us, and pulled us up 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 they survive? In many they didn’t. What about games? Jessie screeched as a hand grabbed her ankle from behind a bush and I’d never moved faster. I stomped and shattered the zombie’s wrist.
“This way!” 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 get in to feast on the living. Milpeg was lost to the undead. It was too fast—Too damn fast.
An engine revved a few streets over, followed by more popping. Had the cavalry arrived? Had the cops come? Were they organizing an evacuation? If we could get to them, they could help.
I led everyone across the street 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 alley 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.
“But it’s not his fault,” 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 after.”
“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 formulated 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 one toppled, creating a zombified domino effect. I kicked off the face of an undead woman and leaped. I cleared the last of the horde 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 Gamers’ 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? An uncaring aunt and jerk husband?
Go figure—Achievement unlocked: Gain New Friends. And then die.
If only I could manipulate time and space and hit the reset button—I’d prevent the outbreak—somehow.
A revving engine came from nearby. I turned as a motorcycle ramped over the wreckage in my direction. 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. I tilted my head as a black, red-feathered fedora fell at my feet.
The insane 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 and dropped like flies. When the metaphorical dust settled, only one zombie stood.
He aimed the guns, but both clicked. Instead of reloading, he holstered them, his heavy boots clicking as he walked right to the last undead. With an arrogant laugh, he pulled back his fist and clocked the zombie in the jaw. It hit the ground, and then got its skull stomped in, 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 hair fell in his face. “Oops, dropped my zombie killing hat.”
“Zombie killing hat?” I said. “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.”