Zombies saved my life today.
I had spent some time moving eastward from Zelenogorsk, hoping to leave the dreadful events there behind, though I had no particular destination in mind. After a long while, I found myself moving down a slope in the forest. Stopping to catch my breath, I began to make out the roofs of several housetops and other buildings on the valley floor; there, ahead of me, was Nadezhdino.
There wasn’t much worth exploring in the small village, but I knew somewhere hidden within its grasp lay a water pump. As the sloshing in my canteen had grown fainter and fainter over the past several hours, I thought it wise to take this unexpected opportunity to refill it before continuing on, and I moved toward the road ahead of the town.
I had been running steadily with few breaks until this point, but now I slowed to quick rushes between trees as I kept my head low. Already I could see several creatures stumbling around and across the solitary street which cut through the town and, as I was running low on ammunition, I didn’t want to risk startling any of them.
Soon I had reached the bottom of the ravine. It had been so easy, I thought, and, against my better judgment, I allowed a sense of cockiness to take root; soon growing to unabashed arrogance. Most of the zombies had moved off in the other direction, and the few remaining weren’t even facing me. Almost mockingly, I stood fully in the open by the side of the road, and any sense of caution I should have felt was banished to some corner of my mind.
The pride almost proved my undoing. Just as I started to cross the road in a sprint, gunfire rang out from somewhere within the trees which lay behind me. The bullets struck me first across the arm, then solidly in my leg as I tried to spin and defend myself. The effort was useless, as the sudden impact of metal against thigh pushed my legs out from beneath me and I fell, my body tumbling to a rest in some deep grass beside a large pine.
I cursed myself for being so foolish, and waited for the death I was sure would come.
Death came, but not for me.
The gunfire had alerted most of the zombies in the town, and they rushed frantically toward my position from the village, their howls and moans reaching an unearthly furor as they approached. I found fear growing in my heart now; if I had to die, I’d rather it be from a quick bullet to the brain than from my body being torn apart by these creatures.
Just as they reached my position, though, and I closed my eyes awaiting the first strike, they rushed past me into the trees toward the direction of whomever had pulled the trigger. Somehow, whether from fury or apathy, they hadn’t even noticed me! The sound of gunshots, more frantic and staggered this time, again split the air, and the groans changed in pitch as they greeted them. Within the trees, another fight for lives was now taking place.
After the creatures had passed me, I forced myself to crawl under the pine, hiding myself as best I could under its pointed branches. The shots continued, and each one seemed to result in one fewer groan from an unfortunate beast. After a few minutes, the final groan fell silent, and a strange quiet returned to the scene. I knew that if the creatures were dead, my attackers must not be, and I dared not move for fear that my surprising good fortune would abandon me.
Within seconds, I saw a bandit move out from behind a tree further up the road, and I held my breath instinctively as I watched him appear. Soon, another bandit stepped out beside the first, and together they began to move cautiously toward the village. Two of them! I held still as a corpose while I watched, knowing if I didn’t my effort would cease to be a pretense.
There were several moments when I felt sure they had seen me, only for them to look away again, and my wounded limbs continued to bleed, draining precious slivers of life away from me. I knew if I didn’t tend to them soon, it wouldn’t matter whether these villains had found me or not.
After what felt like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, I heard one of them shout to the other. “He probably ran off when the zeds attacked,” the voice reasoned, “so let’s just forget it, man. I need water.” If his companion gave any response, I couldn’t hear it, and soon both men disappeared out of sight beyond the southern edge of the village, leaving me alone.
Blood had stained my pant leg around the hole within them. The sight of it, and the excruciating throbbing emanating from it, told me the bullet still remained somewhere inside. My arm had only been grazed, luckily, and could wait, for now.
In agony, I pulled myself to a seated position and slid my pack from my shoulders, pulling my hunting knife and a long bandage from one of its pockets. Then, pikcing up a short stick which lay beside me, and setting the bandage on the ground, I chomped the wood between my teeth, biting down as hard as my teeth would allow. Before I could psyche myself out of it, I forced the point of the knife into the hole near my knee.
Though there were times when the pain almost forced me from consciousness, I managed to stay lucent long enough to dig the remnants of the small bullet out of the muscle and skin.
The vicious pain let up some after I had extracted the blade, and I poured the rest of my water across the skin before quickly tying the bandage around my tight. Only now did it seem I allowed myself to breathe, and I rested in place for a moment before gripping a branch above my head and pulling myself to my feet. Even if the bandits were gone for good, there was no guarantee someone, or something, else had heard teh battle and grown curious.
With straining difficulty, I put most of my weight on my good leg, and pushed myself back into the woods, moving up the inclinde I had so foolishly raced down only minutes before.
As I moved away from Nadezhdino, I constantly glanced behind me to see if I was being followed. My vision seemed grayer with my loss of blood, but as best I could tell the path behind me remained clear. I wandered for some time westward, but soon lost my path. Each rock, each tree, each field looked identical to the one which came before it and my compass, though true to its northern loyalties, provided no help since I recognize no landmarks by which to gauge my whereabouts.
It seemed even the gods were cursing my existence, as, with a flash across the sky, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour fell to greet me. Exhausted, I forced myself to a spot between some bushes I thought would be safe, and collapsed in a heap. I didn’t awake for several hours.
When I had, I felt a bit stronger, and the gray which had clouded my eyes earlier seemed to have lifted somewhat. But I was still lost and, though I had food enough to keep me alive for now, I was still thirsty. I tried catching some of the rainfall, which had continued to pour, in my canteen, but it was a useless endeavor. It wasn’t quite heavy enough to fill the metal container, and I felt like a man chasing a thousand flies in trying to direct any of the raindrops into it.
Exasperated, I stumbled for some time in this manner, until I came through the trees and spotted a road sign ahead. Being much more cautious than I had allowed myself before, I crept up to it. I couldn’t make out the Cyrillic scripting of one of the names, but I recognized the other as “Bor”, with its accompanying arrow pointing north. I had no desire to travel back to the north, but at least I knew now where I was.
I turned south.
It didn’t take me long to find myself within view of a large barn across from a smaller shed, between which rested a worn and rusted pump. Though my lips were kept moist by the constant companionship of the storm, the inside of my mouth felt sticky and hot, and I pushed myself toward the structures.
Another canteen was lying beside the pump, splattered with the blood of some unknown victim, perhaps the previous owner, and I took it. Filling and draining my own canteen at the pump several times, I heard what seemed like voices in the distance, and I dropped to the ground instinctively. But after a while I could tell the voices were neither gaining nor fading, and every so often they would cut out altogether. A radio!
I searched inside the burn, and found it resting on one of the landings. By the time I had reached it, however, it had gone silent, and I shook it out of frustration, willing it to speak. Soon the silence was broken by a faint voice which broke through the static in stuttered phrasings. “Help me,” it pleaded, “anyone. Near Cherno. The gas station. Please.”
Only a day ago I would have ignored such pleadings out of a fear of all other life, the man himself must have been mad to broadcast his position so readily for anyone to hear, but the events with my bandit companions earlier forced me now to stop. Would I allow myself to become one of them now? Would I allow this dead and decaying world to seep the last remnants of humanity out of my increasingly cold heart?
Suddenly, a strange sense of peace came over me, and I realized it no longer mattered whether I lived or died, if living required the destruction of my soul. I switched off the radio, placing it in my pack, and crept back out of the barn.
This time, I headed east.
When I grew within range of the threatening metropolis, I direct myself to the hill which I knew ran along the road on which the fuel station could be found. By now, the hour was growing late, and it became increasingly difficult to make out anything between the trees. Still, after some time spent squinting and glancing toward the road, I saw the station. Behind it crouched a man, who was doing his best to avoid detection from the half dozen zombies which surrounded it.
He failed miserably. I had no sooner found him then one of the creatures spotted him, and sounded a gut wrenching moan to the heavens, alerting the others. I started to run toward the pumps as they descended on him, and though his shooting betrayed his panic, he managed to kill three of them by the time I came within range. Now, though, he was forced to reload, and the terror of his approaching doom slowed the attempt, the clip fumbling in his hands.
I dropped to a knee, and swung my Remington off my back. Just as they approached this unknown victim I fired, striking the first, then the second, in rapid succession. It took only a shot each to send them tumbling to the ground, and the fresh meat I had presented so openly spurred the third to turn on me. Too late. A third shell from my weapon hit him full in the face, and he fell to join his companions.
I stood and approached the station now, and the unknown man watched me. He had reloaded by now, and both of us kept our weapons trained on the other.
“The radio?” I shouted, “Was that you?” He nodded slowly, and I dropped the barrel of my shotgun. He did the same with his pistol, and we stared at each other uneasily. “My name’s Maverick,” I continued, “I’m here to help.” The panic in his eyes subsided, and it seemed for a moment as though it would be replaced by tears of relief.
“I’m Reno,” he whispered slowly. I nodded in return.
“Let’s get out of here, Reno,” I invited. “This close to Cherno, it’s likely someone would have heard all of this.”
The rain had stopped now, and I turned, beginning the ascent to the ridge line again, my new companion in tow. When we reached the top, we ran in the rapidly draining light for almost a half mile, before stopping to rest behind two large pines. I lifted off my pack, and reached inside, handing Reno three or four cans of food, and my flashlight. My shotgun had one attached to the barrel, and I could afford to rely on it for the time being.
Reno mouthed silent gratitude as he tore into the first can of food. It was clear he had not eaten in some time.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you any ammo. I’m down to only three shells in this thing,” I apologized, patting my shotgun with one hand. He stopped between bites and shook his head. “That’s all right,” he said, “I have three or four clips left for my Makarov.”
We sat in silence for a while longer, Reno continuing to force the last few spoonfuls of beans into his mouth as the last rays of sunlight disappeared into the West. Soon we found ourselves draped in the thick black of the night. “We can’t stay here,” I warned finally. “It’s too close to the cities.” Reno agreed, and we began to move northward and away from the coast.
I had stumbled across another Remington in a deer stand somewhere in my stretch of lost confusion, and I thought with some searching I could find it again, giving Reno access to a weapon superior to his Makarov. Following my compass, we moved from landmark to landmark back toward Drozhino. Though we could barely see, we somehow had felt safer the further away from Cherno we traveled, but now, as we moved through a clearing between the trees, a sudden dread gripped me and I switched off my flashlight.
“What is it?” Reno asked, seeing me stop. I moved my eyes around suspiciously, finally recognizing a rooftop contrasted against the sky only yards in front of us. “We’ve come too far,” I whispered in a panic. This close to buildings, I knew we were sure to be neck deep in the undead. “Back,” I whispered again, “move back.”
But it was too late. Moans and howls began to split the night, and we could hear the creatures’ footsteps approaching our position, though we could not see them. They must have seen us well, though, for soon they were upon us. Silence and caution meant nothing now, and I yelled at Reno to drop a flare. In a moment, the small world around us was flickering and dancing in red light, sending large silhouettes of beastly creatures against the trees.
We did our best to fight them off, but I my scant shotgun ammo was quickly depleted, and I had only a single clip for my pistol to rely on. Reno had more, and though he fought admirably, soon tumbled to the ground at the feet of several zombies. Aiming carefully, I used my remaining rounds to drop one after the other to the cold earth, then ran to where my new companion had fallen.
Though I appeared to be too late, suddenly he moved, and pushed himself back to his knees. “That was close,” he moaned, and I almost wanted to laugh out of relief when I suddenly saw several open wounds which had been torn across his torso. They weren’t deep, but they were steadily bleeding, and had to be dealt with soon.
“Can you move?” I asked hurriedly. He shook his head as if to clear his mind, then nodded slowly. “Let’s go,” he replied.
As we moved from the small village – I didn’t know its name – to the trees above it, we both soon realized Reno was weaker than we had thought. Though I moved slower, he was barely managing to keep with me, and his vision was so faint from the loss of blood that I think even in broad daylight he would have struggled to place his footsteps. I took his arm, and we managed to force ourselves to the other side of the trees, where we saw a deer hut standing at the edge of a field.
The area around it seemed clear, and Reno sat to rest beside it as I bandaged his wounds as best I could before moving to start a fire. As I did so, I glanced back casually to check on him when I suddenly saw movement out of the corner of my eye from behind the hut. A zombie in the tattered clothing of a hunter was stumbling toward where Reno sat, and I yelled, too late, to warn him. The creature latched on to Reno’s neck in a heartbeat, and he screamed, the sound echoing across the field.
I had only one round remaining in my pistol, and I used it now to send the zombie’s body sprawling backward into the darkness. Reno lay gasping on the ground, and I rushed to his side.
“Reno!” I yelled, not caring who or what could hear me. He could only look up at me with dull eyes, unable to even so much as move an arm to meet mine.
“Thanks, Maverick,” he whispered, blood starting to drip from his mouth down his cheeks. “Thanks for getting me this far.” I gripped his shirt between my fists, and tried to pull him back to his feet, but even as I did so I knew it was too late. I could only watch as the last light faded from Reno’s eyes, and I let his body rest again on the dirt near the fire, voicing my rage to the dark skies above.
Stumbling backward, I let myself fall into the darkness away from the flames. Everyone I had joined with was now dead, even those I tried to save, and I cursed myself for being only an angel of death to those around me.
I started to move from the scene, but then went back, pulling the last few Makarov clips out of Reno’s pack, like some sort of human vulture. I looked down at him only once more, then moved into the trees.