Kris could feel the undead hot on his heels as he jogged behind Sky and Arthur. Kris ducked as Mr. Caldwell turned mid-stride to fire two rounds from his pistol, dropping the zombies that were about to overtake Kris.
He felt like peeing and crying, but with no other choice, he continued to run.
Mr. Caldwell stopped at the edge of the roof and turned. He crouched and readied his sniper. “Go! Jump!” he yelled to Sky as she sprinted toward him. She didn’t stop to consider. With one mighty leap, she cleared the six feet of space between one building and the next, landing in the gravel with a grunt.
Kris felt the air warp beside him before he heard the deafening crack of one of Mr. Caldwell’s shots. He felt the warm splash of blood on the back of his neck. He could sense the zombies behind him, snapping their jaws as they ran after him.
“Let’s go, kid!” Caldwell screamed as he ejected an empty shell, fired, and dropped another runner. “Jump!”
Kris saw Sky waiting for him with an outstretched arm. She was waving him on and shouting something. All Kris heard now was the blood pumping in his ears and the sound of his own panicked breath. He got to the edge of the roof, tensed his legs, and…
…skidded to a halt.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Mr. Caldwell screamed as he switched to his pistol. Two more shots, two more dead zombies—deader, anyway.
“I-I-I can’t,” Kris said, looking at Sky. Her face was a mix of terror and disappointment. Kris turned to face the horde. Arthur had taken care of the fast ones, but the slow zombies were still stumbling in their direction. It’d be only seconds before the undead overtook them.
“Here!” Arthur said. He tossed his rifle across the gap where it landed in the gravel, scattering pebbles off the roof’s edge. Sky picked it up and held it to her shoulder. Arthur took three steps back, ran, and leapt. He cleared the gap gracefully. “Gimme that,” he demanded as he pulled the gun from Sky’s trembling hands.
“Kris, you gotta jump!” Sky pleaded. She stood on the edge of the roof and held out her hand as if she, a 120-pound girl could “catch” Kris’s 230 pounds of falling fat.
“I can’t,” Kris said again, staring down at the concrete ground that seemed hundreds of feet below him.
Arthur grabbed Sky’s arm and whispered something in her ear, looking like he was trying to pull her away. She shook herself free and looked at Kris. “I’ll find you something. Just hold on!”
“Sonuvabitch,” Arthur muttered. He holstered his pistol, slung his rifle over his shoulder, crossed his arms, and waited.
The zombies crept closer. Kris saw their lifeless eyes, their rotting faces, their bloodstained teeth. He closed his eyes and wondered what was worse: being eaten by a zombie, or becoming one.
He heard some clutter behind him. “Here! Grab the other end!” Sky shouted. Kris turned and saw she was holding out a wooden ladder. Kris gripped the other side and helped her lay it between the rooftops. It was just long enough to cross over. He gulped.
“Don’t look down,” Sky said. “Cross on your hands and knees. Just look at me, okay?”
Kris felt like passing out just glancing at the ladder, so he followed Sky’s instructions. He kept his eyes only on her soft and inviting face as he crawled across the ladder like some overgrown baby. When he made it to the other side, Sky and Arthur grabbed him, pulling him safely onto the roof. Sky retrieved the ladder before the zombies could use it. The three of them watched as the undead piled up on the edge of the opposite roof, their mass pushing those closest to the edge six stories to their gruesome demise.
Arthur stared at his camp, his leftover ammo boxes sitting just beyond the horde. “Well, ain’t this gonna be fun?” he grumbled as he walked away. Sky helped Kris to his feet, and they followed.
Kris resolved to bring the ladder with. It turned out to be a good idea, considering they had several more roofs to cross, all of them too far apart for Kris to leap. Mr. Caldwell and Sky would jump before Kris laid down the ladder. Then, carefully, looking at nothing but Sky, Kris would crawl his way over while Arthur absentmindedly smoked looked down at the street.
“Where are you leading us, anyway?” Arthur growled after fifteen minutes of jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Sky had taken point and was leading the group west.
“There,” Sky said, gesturing.
Kris followed her finger and saw it: a grocery store. The stalls outside had been overturned, the bananas and apples and oranges sprawled into the street where the zombies had trampled them to pulp. He put a hand on his stomach, suddenly aware of how empty it was. It had been more than twenty-four hours since he’d had a decent meal.
“My roomies and I went there every week,” Sky continued. “Tons of good food.”
“Are you shitting me, woman?” Arthur mocked, the cigarette at his lips bobbing with every word. “The place is crawling with zombies.”
“Look, we all have a weapon. We go in through the roof, kill everything inside, barricade the place, and hold out.”
“You wanna stay in there?” Arthur asked in disbelief.
“You got Alzheimer’s, sarge? You left all your supplies on a rooftop a mile back.”
“Bah.” Arthur threw his arms up and put a heavy boot on the roof’s raised edge. He took a drag and sighed. “We do this, we do it right. Quick, quiet, clean. No guns, no noise. They’re attracted to it.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“That’s what you think, sister.”
Kris raised a hand speak.
“This ain’t grade school, boy,” Arthur said. “Speak up.”
“Um, well, we only have two melee weapons, so—”
“‘Melee weapons’?” Mr. Caldwell repeated. He looked at Sky, then back to Kris. “This ain’t one o’ ya computer gizmos, kid. The girl—”
“Sky,” Sky corrected him.
“Sky will stay on the roof with the gun, and she’ll only use it a zombie’s about to chomp her face off.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Sky began saying.
Arthur ignored her and continued speaking to Kris. “You and me will go below and secure the area.”
“Uh…” Kris scratched the back of his head.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” Sky said. “Maybe I sh—”
“Don’t even finish that thought. Kris here,” Arthur said, jabbing a finger in Kris’s chest for emphasis, “needs help crossing a rooftop. Maybe clearing a building will put some fuzz on his sack. Let’s go.”
Arthur turned and started toward the grocery store. Sky gave Kris worried smile. Kris felt like he was about to pee his pants.
It took another five minutes to cross three more buildings, laying down the ladder for Kris to crawl across each time, before the trio reached the grocery store. Arthur pulled his sniper from his shoulder and laid it on the rooftop. Kris did the same with his bags. Arthur slipped his pistol into Sky’s hand and pulled her knife from its sheath.
“You know how to use that thing?”
“Uh, yeah,” Sky said with a nod, holding the gun between both hands.
“Well, don’t—unless, ya know, you’re about to get chomped.”
The three stood beside a big skylight over the store’s stockroom. It was too dark to see inside, but that didn’t give Mr. Caldwell any pause. “Well, kid? Smash it.”
“S-smash?” Kris said.
“Break the window!” Arthur barked.
With trembling hands, Kris lifted the bat above his head and brought it down upon the glass. Pain shot through his limbs as the force from the strike traveled through the bat and up his arms. He’d barely cracked the pane.
“Again,” Arthur said.
It took several more hits before the skylight finally shattered, raining shards into the stockroom below. Without the glare of sunlight reflecting off the glass, Kris could see the room below was empty. He hoped for the same for the rest of the store.
“Looks like you’re not totally useless after all!” Arthur declared. With that, he hopped from the roof onto a shelf to a crate to the floor, Sky’s knife held in an offensive position in front of his face. “It’s clear!” he called up.
Kris gave Sky a parting glace.
“Good luck,” she whispered as Kris squirmed over the edge, dropping safely onto the shelf.
It took Kris almost a minute to shimmy his way to the stockroom floor, Sky peering over the edge from above. When he reached the bottom, Arthur placed his free hand on the stockroom door and looked at Kris.
Kris, already winded from his descent, tried to calm his uneven breath. He gripped the bat tightly in both hands and nodded.
Arthur kicked the door down. With a battle cry he charged forward, driving his knife into a zombie’s eye, dropping it instantly. He ran down an aisle while Kris emerged from the stockroom and veered left.
An undead shopper shambled out from behind a shopping cart. Kris sucked in, raised his bat, and…
He couldn’t do it. Kris lowered his arms and took a step back as the zombie stumbled toward him. Out of nowhere, Arthur appeared and stabbed the undead creature in the temple. It crumpled to the floor, and a pool of crimson blood leaked from its wound.
“The fuck you doin’?” Arthur yelled.
“You could and you will!” the veteran yelled, stabbing another zombie in the brain. “I can’t take ‘em all myself!”
Kris’s breathing got heavier. He felt adrenaline coursing through his veins, but he couldn’t bring himself to bring his bat down into anymore zombies; the one in the apartment was more than enough. He backed into a corner and slid to the floor, watching as Arthur single-handedly cleared the room, one at a time. At some point, Arthur came over and pulled the bat from Kris’s hands, dual-wielding the weapons like some undead-slaying maniac, but Kris hardly even noticed. Arthur shouted something, pulling Kris from his trance.
“Barricade the doors!” Arthur yelled as he pushed one zombie back with the bat while simultaneously stabbing another with the blade.
Kris shook his head and stood. He might have been useless when it came to fighting, but he could still help defend. He ran to the front of the store and saw a horde of the undead just outside the entrance. The commotion inside would alert them soon.
He frantically ran his hands along the frame of the glass doors. To lock the doors required a key. He scrambled, looking for something that could barricade the entrance. Behind a cash register he found a stool. He grabbed it, raced back to the doors, and jammed the stool’s legs between both push bars and the glass panes of the doors, making it impossible to open either. As the horde became aware of his presence and began piling against the doors, he hoped the glass wouldn’t break.
“That’ll do for now,” Arthur said from behind. Kris turned and saw the old man smear chunks of blood and flesh from the knife and bat onto a nearby roll of paper towels. “We’ll secure it later.” The veteran reached behind a register and fished out a pack of Winston cigarettes. He pushed them into his front shirt pocket and made his way back to the stockroom, Kris behind him.
“All clear!” he called up to the broken skylight.
Sky’s face appeared, then her feet. She tossed Kris’s bags down before leaping to the floor, landing with a grunt. “You guys okay?” she asked, brushing herself off.
“Yeah,” Arthur mumbled. “No thanks to this guy.”
Kris looked at his feet.
“What happened?” Sky said. Kris could feel her gaze boring into him.
“Nothing,” Arthur answered. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Together, they barricaded the front entrance with a large shelf. They did the same to the stockroom door. The last thing they needed was a horde dropping into the store from above while they slept.
They split up to comb the shelves for leftover food. Kris found bread, snack cakes, orange juice, and way too much candy. He met the others in the back corner. Arthur had a basket full of fruit and Lunchables, and Sky had scavenged some cereal. They sat and silently dug in.
Kris couldn’t get enough. He ate half a box of Cocoa Puffs, two Lunchables, a Kit Kat bar, and an apple. He savored every bite.
“I can’t believe how much food is left,” Sky said between chews. She bit off another piece of bread and spoke with her cheeks stuffed, making it less than easy to understand her. “I mean, don’t you think people woulda looted this whole place?”
Mr. Caldwell leaned back against the wall, stretched his legs out in front of him, crossed his ankles, and lit one of his Winstons. “Nah. The smart ones grabbed what they had in their homes and got the hell outta dodge ASAP.”
“The smart ones, huh?” Sky said. “What does that make us?”
“The lucky ones.” Arthur sucked on his cigarette and blew the smoke into the air. “Thing is, smarts don’t run out. Luck does.”
“Full of optimism, aren’t you, sarge?” Sky mocked. She looked around. “If this place holds up, we could hold out here for days.”
“Days?” Arthur said. “What do you plan on doing, spending the rest of your life in grocery stores in some abandoned city?”
“What, do you have any better ideas?”
“Yeah. Get out. Find a nice, quiet place in the woods. Hunt. Fish. Farm. Live how mankind was meant to before Mother Nature decided to punch humanity’s ticket.”
“You’re on your own there,” Sky said. She hugged her knees. “I’ve already lost people. I need to see if my family is okay.”
“You think I haven’t lost people?” Arthur said.
Sky looked guilty. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
They finished their food without another word, their meal accompanied by the groans and moans from the undead outside.