Jamar Cooper licked his lips and stared into the bright sky, the cloudless expanse an intense blue. Looking up, it was easy to forget how the world had fallen into chaos overnight.
After pulling the straps of his backpack tighter, he tested the weight of the hatchet in his hand. Satisfied, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and pushed on. His red track pants swished with each calculated movement. His walk was fast and deliberate, but he didn’t take any chances, not even with a single step.
Moving his way up to closest zombie, he sunk the head of his axe into its skull. He held the handle as the body collapsed to the pavement. If Jamar was inconspicuous before sneaking out of the shadows and downing one of the creatures, the undead were onto him now. Heads turned with curious groans as the zombies that filled the street sensed fresh meat in their presence. It was time to split.
Jamar saw his goal: a ladder beside a garage that allowed access to the roofs, safe from the horde. He quickened his pace, splitting the brains of the husks that got in his way with his axe. When he spotted a clear line to the ladder, he broke into a run. Without using his hands, he jogged up the ladder rungs as one would a staircase and leapt to the garage’s roof.
He was sick of carrying the axe all the time, but he refused to put in his backpack in the event he needed immediate access to it, which, as it turned out, was often. Maybe there was a belt at his home base he could use. He patted his waistband to determine his pistol was still there and looked ahead.
To get higher above ground required more superhuman feats of strength and agility. He climbed from one building to the next, never slowing or faltering. Inside corners were his best friend; with them, he could easily jump back and forth between the two walls to reach higher points. In only a few minutes he stood three stories above the street, giving him a good—and safe—view of the neighborhood.
He wasn’t familiar with the west side of town. He’d grown up in the suburbs to the south. Still, survival meant knowing one’s surroundings, so Jamar had taken the time to learn them. He guessed he stood no more than a mile from his safe haven. He’d be there before noon.
Jamar fished out his wallet. He hesitated before unfolding the leather crease and pulling out an aged photo. He stared at it, a sad smile on his face. The picture displayed a younger version of Jamar sporting the same ink-black soul patch and idiotic smile—though his once-voluptuous afro had since morphed into thick dreads over time. He held his wife, Kurisu, by the shoulders, and in her arms she hugged an oversized, stuffed, purple octopus, her favorite animal. Jamar had just won it at a carnival game. He forgot which one. All he remembered was how happy giving it to Kurisu had made her.
Jamar put the photo away and looked at his bare right arm. He traced his finger over the white ink tattoo of the octopus that covered the length of his arm, the creature’s tentacles wrapping and weaving their way down to his wrist. Kurisu, an accomplished freelance graphic designer, drew it for him. It was the last piece of her he had. Jamar rubbed the octopus’s head affectionately and moved on.
It had been forty-eight hours since the zombie outbreak had begun, but it felt like an eternity since Jamar had seen a living soul. He wondered if he remembered how to talk—he hadn’t said a word since telling his wife he loved her before leaving for work that fateful day. Sometimes he wondered if he was truly the last person left alive. Other times he thought maybe Chicago was the only place affected and he was caught in a quarantined zone that would be nuked any second. But most of the time he pushed any thoughts from his mind and concentrated on finding Kurisu.
It took the better part of an hour before Jamar saw his camp in the distance. He hopped effortlessly across the rooftops, his trusty Nikes—also red—giving him sure footing. He rounded a corner and spotted a zombie fifteen yards away.
The undead woman stood topless, her bright yellow bikini bottoms sagging around her decaying hips. At one time, she’d been beautiful, but Jamar couldn’t help turning away in disgust. He put his hand over his mouth and counted his breaths, fighting back the taste of bile that rose in his throat.
Turning back, he saw dead swimmers, their heads obliterated, floating in the red water of the nearby rooftop pool. He grimaced, tested the weight of the hatchet in his hand, and threw it. It twirled as it arced before catching the woman in the forehead. She stumbled backward with a guttural groan and collapsed. Jamar suddenly remembered what game he won that octopus at: the milk bottle toss. He couldn’t help smiling—whether for fond memories or hysteric disbelief, he couldn’t tell.
Jamar had to step on the woman’s neck to retch the axe free from her skull. He dipped the weapon in the clearest part of the pool to get the excess chunks of flesh and brain matter off. He wondered how many zombies he’d killed. Five? Ten? A couple dozen? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The last two days had been a blur. He longed for his cot and a good night’s sleep.
The sun was directly overhead by the time he reached his base of operations. He didn’t know the name of the place, but it was a retail giant filled with all the tools and equipment he needed: flashlights, grills, tents and sleeping bags, knives and hatchets, and, of course, guns—lots and lots of guns. Between the redneck store and the grocery only a few blocks down, he could hold out for weeks and look for Kurisu when he wasn’t scavenging. It was a solid enough plan, by his account.
Jamar made sure the alley was clear before descending the fire escape. He leapt to the ground and cautiously approached the back of the store. The front entrace was far too invested to approach. Only an idiot would think to enter that way. He rounded the corner and saw the loading bays, two semi trucks parked into docks. The third dock was closed, just as he’d left it that morning.
Jamar hopped up onto the bay’s cement lip, crouched, and pulled the bay door up. He stepped into the stockroom and closed it behind him. He was safe for another night with a backpack full of food. He hoped Kurisu was warm and full, wherever she was.
It was difficult to see in the murky dark of the stockroom with only a few grimy skylights providing any visibility. Jamar flipped on a flashlight and wound his way toward the store’s shopping area. He pulled off the rubber band holding his dreads up as he strolled, allowing the thick, black locks tipped with golden brown to fall and brush his shoulders. He pushed the doors open and stopped.
He heard something. A voice. Two voices. He ducked behind a boat display and caught his breath. His mind raced. Were they infected? Survivors? Scavengers? Thieves? He gripped the axe in his left hand and silently pulled the pistol from his waistband. He wasn’t letting anyone take over his camp.
Jamar crawled forward. He heard at least two voices: a man’s and a woman’s. That was a good sign. Jamar’s gut told him a female wouldn’t typically run with a group of outlaws, but this was the apocalypse, after all; “outlaw” wasn’t exactly a term that applied to a world without laws.
Lights danced along the ceiling. Jamar couldn’t see them, but based on the intruders’ sporadic flashlight use and the sound of their voices, they couldn’t have been far from the entrance. What would he do when he saw them? Politely ask them to leave? Threaten them? Shoot first, ask questions later?
Jamar took a deep breath and stood, his axe down and his pistol up and out. He saw a fat kid by the entrance doors, a toppled soda machine in front of the doors holding back a barrage of zombies outside. A blond girl beside him saw Jamar first.
The girl called a name before Jamar had a chance to tell them to freeze. He felt cool metal press against his back as a low voice grumbled, “Drop it, buddy.”
Jamar uttered his first word in two full days: “Shit.”