My mother laid on this exact floor, screaming while they feasted on her body. I remember how relieved I felt once she finally fell silent. Death wasn't the worst thing. Not anymore. This was my first time back at the convenience store since it happened. Grief and loss filled every corner of the place with a suffocating heaviness that dulled any urge to keep fighting. I couldn't ignore the thoughts that the fading bloodstains on the tile belonged to her or that I hid in the back room, listening to it happen. Her screams still filled my nights, and sometimes my waking hours too. We were all buried under the weight of our losses. It was the price of survival.
I felt stuck in a recurring loop of panic attacks, which started two months after. I didn't just lose my mom. I lost hope that we could find happiness again. Meanwhile, my younger sister Tess still thought that it would end and that my father was coming back from what he promised was a short run into Toronto. After three weeks passed, it was fair to make assumptions. Hope was a dangerous luxury we could no longer afford. He was gone. Mom was gone. Some days I wished I was too. I couldn't keep morale up when I was shattered into a million pieces. I couldn't protect what was left of my family when I was only sixteen.
I glanced over at Nate, hoping his calm composure would help quell my emotions. He reached out and squeezed my hand. His palms felt sweaty, the only indication that he knew what this place meant. For months he did the food runs with my father, and he even offered to go alone. Neither wanted me to return and relive my worst nightmare. Nate wasn't just a friend, though. We formed an unbreakable bond in the darkest of places. We both lived, or we both died. Together. No exceptions.
We crept further into the store. My eyes scanned the room, looking for Biters, but all that remained were their dead bodies. I could hear flies buzzing as they circled around them. Maybe six or seven scattered across the floor, probably killed by my father and Nate. I felt ashamed that I let them endanger their lives every few weeks, while I remained hidden at home, simply because I was the weak link.
I pushed my bandana up around my face to mask their smell. A combination of body odour and unwashed infected wounds accompanied them, all compounded by the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh trapped in an enclosed area. There was also spoiled food from trampled bags and broken jars that seemed to seep into every crack and crevice. The Biters created an obstacle course to the remaining shelf, which held a disappointingly small amount of food. The responsibility that I never wanted or should have been trusted with weighed me down. I had to figure out a better, more permanent solution for food. It seemed every day more biters wandered into town, forcing us to hide in silence and fear of an attack if spotted.
I took a deep breath and clutched my chest, not realizing that I'd been holding it since we first walked in. It was a coping mechanism. It's hard to cry or scream when you can't breathe. Nate offered me one of his rare smiles to tell me that we could get through this. I cautiously stepped over one of the dead bodies to reach the remaining cans on the shelf. I avoided looking too closely because I couldn't ignore the fact that these were once real people from my community. What if one of these Biters was my best friend from school? What if the Biter chasing me happened to be my history teacher? It was not just horrifying, but a distraction from my survival.
Suddenly I felt a cold hand grip on my ankle. One of the corpses lying motionless on the floor was actually a live Biter. It moved quickly and pulled my legs out from under me. The cans in my hands were sent flying in all different directions, slamming into the tin shelves and echoing across the store. A yelp escaped me as I fell back and landed on my tailbone. I saw the Biter's face. A young woman who, Before The Virus, had her entire life in front of her, knelt before me with matted hair and a body covered in weeping sores. As I stared into the empty black orbs of a Biter, I felt a cold feeling settle over me. She snarled once, showing her cracked and rotting teeth, before throwing herself onto me. I grabbed her neck and tried to keep her head as far away from me as possible. Nate swiftly grabbed her matted hair and stabbed her in the eye with my dad's knife. As he removed it, her blood splattered across my face. I frantically wiped around my eye with the sleeve of my sweater; we were still not sure if the infection could spread through blood.
He carefully helped me to my feet, a concerned look on his face. The Biters had shown no intelligence up until now. Nine months in, and I'd never heard of one hiding on the floor, or anywhere for that matter, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. If I had stood even one-inch closer, she could have bitten and infected me. Could they be evolving?
Nate started to ask if I was okay, but was interrupted by a shrill scream. Another Biter, likely hearing the commotion, found his way into the store. This time I was more prepared. I held up my sword. It once hung above our family's TV in the living room, an old family heirloom, gifted to the oldest born son. The Kincaid Motto, this I'll defend, was inscribed into the handle. I waited until it was just close enough. With one swift swipe, I decapitated it.
I still needed both hands to fully wield my sword, but was I getting better. Nate didn't understand why I insisted on using it. He would say, "You're letting your attachment to a stupid family heirloom slow you down and putting your survival at risk." But we didn't have many options when it came to weapons. A knife is easier to use in tight spaces, but I prefer something less up close and personal—something where I don't feel their dying gasp of breath on my face.
The Biter's body, now detached from its head, dropped to the floor, her dark blood, pooling across the tiles. The way the blood moved across the floor was a trigger.The last memory of my mom or, more specifically, what the Biters left behind of her filled my vision, melding reality with memory. There was so much blood. It coated the floors, parts of the shelves, my hands. I could feel my body temperature rise and sweat beginning to coat my back. I could only get short quick breaths in. Almost like something blocked my airway. I looked around the store, hoping to find an exit. I needed to escape.
It wasn't until I felt Nate suddenly pulling me to my feet that I realized I had dropped to my knees. He dragged me into the back room and shut the door. The small amount of light from the window verified that the place was Biter free. He held me up as I tried to sink back to the floor.
"Scarlet," he whispered, "I know you're in there. I need you to stay present." It was the way his voice slightly trembled that got my attention. He needed me to help him get through this as well.
My voice shook, but I responded, "I'm here."
"I can hear more biters coming."
I heard the shuffling too. I took in a deep breath, worried if I released it they would hear us. I kept my body pressed firmly against the door and wished I could stop shaking. I regretted coming. He was better without me. They all were.
More sounds filled the store. Their awful moaning, scratching, hissing made them seem like feral animals. The scent of rotting flesh and unwashed bodies grew as they moved towards the door. Closer to us. I looked up at Nate, trying to appear as he did. Calm and in control. Nothing phased him. I wish he would talk about his fears, so I could feel comfortable to talk about mine. Pretending I was okay was exhausting.
Suddenly the door jolted towards us. Don't scream. I dug my feet into the slippery tile as leverage, but we couldn't keep them all out. We had seconds before they all became interested in what was behind the door. I just gave Nate an intense stare, and he knew what to do. We were a good team that way. He braced himself to take on the extra weight, and I sprung into action, climbing up onto the cabinet and opened the small window, sliding it to the side. Would Nate even fit through it?
I pulled myself up and out onto the street. Nate followed right behind me. The convenience store was directly across the street from the clothing store we called home, but crossing the main road, which currently contained hundreds of Biters, was nearly impossible.
Nate waited until the first Biter was halfway out the window before killing it to create a brief roadblock to the rest of them. We then took off running through a trail of back allies and traps made of wooden stakes that we had carefully set up. It added minutes to the journey and required us to complete a long loop around downtown Whitby, but the Biters tended to congregate in the middle of town together. We wondered if they seeked companionship- maybe they were just as scared as we were.
As we reached the back alley to our home, Tess, my thirteen year old sister, began lowering the ladder that we used. Even from below, I could see the worry lines across her face. Early on we heavily barricaded the front entrance to the store and took up residence on the second floor. All of the older buildings were physically connected or separated no more than a few feet. About a month ago, a herd of Biters wandered into town and now congregated in the streets. We used the roofs to get to most places. It was not always possible, though.
Once we reached the top of the ladder, I flopped onto the flat roof, and I laid down on the rough shingles, feeling the anxiety slowly flow from my body, taking with it my remaining energy. Everything we did was exhausting, and it would only get worse. With a dwindling food supply, limited iodine tablets to continue purifying our water and a growing number of Biters right outside our house, it was only a matter of time before someone else died. Probably Nate or me trying to get supplies.
"Did you get the food?" asked Tess once I finally stood up to go inside. I didn't want to answer because I lost most of the cans during the attack. She asked again on the stairs and once more when we reached the living room, before changing pace and saying, “Dad always came back with bags of food.” Some days it felt like I couldn't do anything right and Tess was a constant reminder of how much better dad was at everything.
"We got some," answered Nate as he placed his gun on the coffee table. He gave her a pointed look and she rolled her eyes. The only person Tess disliked more than me was Nate. I searched the room for Kendal. She was sitting on the couch, drawing something. She was only seven. Too young to be of any help, but old enough to be affected by our circumstances. My mom was really good at creating activities that would distract us all. I tried to think about games we could play together, but I just didn’t have it in me.
As I began washing my hands in the small basin we kept in the kitchen, I noticed we also barely had any soap left. If I was more on top of things I would have remembered when we were at the store, but my brain no longer stored information.
"I think we need to leave," whispered Nate.
"We can't," I answered, knowing he was right, but also aware of the painful fact that I lacked the necessary survival skills or even life experience to make such important decisions.
"Are you waiting for your dad?" He questioned. All I could do was stare at the floor because I didn't want his harsh reality check to follow. He did so anyway, "You know he's gone, right? We can't be making decisions-"
I finished the sentence, "based on our emotions." He said it often, "I know." I swallowed back the lump in my throat. How could he talk so casually about my dad? They had grown close within the past few months too. I couldn't cry in front of Nate, though. Nate didn't dwell on the bad stuff. He said it's the only way to get through it.
"We could go to the castle," I suggested. In the middle of the town Whitby, there was a castle that operated as a private school that Nate and I previously attended. The irony was not lost on me. Society collapsing into archaic times, and my family seeking refuge in a towering castle, a sword as my defence. It was a good idea, though, and it likely had other people there who could maybe help us. Or hurt us. I pushed that thought down though.
"It's nearby. It's what my dad wanted anyways. Large fence. A huge lawn for crops. Rooftop garden." We should have gone there first, but the clothing store was closer to the pharmacy and grocery store. We never thought this would last six months though and figured it was better to avoid people for the beginning. Everyone assumed that the government had a plan, and the army could help carry it out. Maybe too many of us caught The Virus, though.
Nate nodded his head, "Now you're talking. We can leave today. We got to distract the Biters an-."
The deafening sound of a gunshot echoed through the house. I was so startled I knocked the water basin over. A feeling of dread filled my stomach, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I turned around, just in time to see Kendal drop to the floor, blood spurting out of her foot. How could Nate leave the safety off?
"Kendal!" screamed Tess as she ran over, grabbing a cloth off the table to cover her sister's foot with. Blood quickly began to soak through the cloth. Tess looked at me, "Do something!"
I froze, knowing we had mere minutes before hundreds of Biters, drawn by the noise of the gunshot, knocked down our door.
"Rhys!" Her scream rose above the moaning and hissing that came from below me. As the fingers of one hand tenuously grasped the back of the shelf to support my shaky legs, I shone my flashlight downwards onto the mass of Biters with the other. The sheer number of them completely overwhelmed me. My gun sat in my holster, empty of bullets while my knife was unfortunately, my only weapon. A gun was fast, comfortable, clean and often distant, whereas, with the knife, I felt every jarring impact and was slower. Not to mention that I had to be within arm's length to stab. More Biters were starting to push towards me, and my arm grew numb. Within a minute, I'd be dead if I didn't find some way out of this.
"I’m here!" I shouted, knowing that that scream must have come from Kate.
"Where are you?" She shouted back. I could hear that she was even closer than before.
"I don't know!" Another Biter reached for me. I drew my knife and thrust it into its chest before kicking the body away with my foot. This was supposed to be a soft target, a food and supplies distribution warehouse for a small grocery chain, in an industrial area near downtown Whitby. None of this was supposed to happen.
"I'm coming, Rhys!" She screamed, followed by a gunshot. The hands of the Biter gripping my ankle released as it fell forward with most of its face blown away. The blood and brain matter spattering my jeans and boots at least confirmed that Kate was determined to help me escape. Judging by the direction the gunshots came from, she was on my left, so I wanted to move in that direction before the Biters found her as well.
I took a long deep breath to remind myself that I couldn't let the fear consume me. Panic killed. I reviewed my options. I couldn't go back because my poorly chosen shelf fortress was up against a wall. If I went to my right, I'd be leading most of them away from Kate, but would probably die. I could go to the left, but there is no way I'd be able to outpace them to the edge of the shelf, climb down and then somehow continue without any of them reaching me. The only option was to go right over them. The best defence is a good offence and all that.
Before I could change my mind, I took a deep breath and jumped, trying to leap out and over most of the Biters pressed two or three deep against the shelf. I plummeted to the floor; the impact of the landing jarred my entire body.