Her hiking boots pounded into the dry earth as she leaped over rocks and roots on her flight through the forest. Her heart pounded and every breath seared her lungs. She gasped for air, choking, and yet still she ran.
She didn’t need to look back over her shoulder to know it was still there. Or they. She was pretty sure there was more than just one tailing her run through the woods.
Branches supple from spring’s new growth whipped at her legs, clad in blue jeans, and left welts on her cheek. Her red and white plaid work shirt was cool in the early morning mist but now felt hot and constricted as she ran for her life through the forest. A quick look over her shoulder made her lose what little breath she had - it was gaining on her. Close, maybe 20 yards.
Its teeth gnashed as it caught a whiff of her sweat. Its eyes, likely once blue, covered in a milky white film still followed her every move. Flesh hung from its bones like the tattered clothing it still wore. Skin was grey and rotted. It lumbered, dragging its feet yet it moved with speed - that was the most deceptive thing. They staggered and swayed as they moved, looking as if to topple over at the slightest breeze. But they covered distance at speed.
And they were quiet. Sure, you could hear them gurgle and scream and groan but not usually until they were right upon you. The first few weeks were the worst - dead things around every corner, behind every rock, over each hillock. You had to tune your hearing, learn to notice the sounds when they were on the move.
This one - these ones, Hilary was sure of it - had chased her for miles. She was running on pure adrenaline now. The wind whipped tears from her sapphire blue eyes as she openly sobbed as she ran. There was no where to go. She had no weapon, no way to defend herself. All she could do was run and soon she wouldn’t be able to do that.
Marshall stared into the embers of his fire, watching it die down. It wasn’t accurate to say he was lost in thought. He tried not to think too much nowadays. Death stalked him, stalked all of them, now. It was just a matter of time, really, until the zombie virus caught him too and turned him into a hulking, hungry shell. Best not to think on it at all.
“Zombies,” he chuckled. Gets funnier every time I hear it, he thought.
The shiver of leaves and the cracking of twigs brought him out of his reverie. It was hot, humid and the forest he camped beside wasn’t moving in the still air. Sweat trickled down his bare chest as he sat motionless, listening. He heard a faint groan, and boots pounding on the packed earth.
In one swift movement, he was out of his folding camp chair, his rifle stuffed to his shoulder as he crouched slightly to try and get a better look at what was coming. His breath was slow and even, his heart the same, but he could feel the panic in the pit of his stomach threatening to erupt.
Through the trees he saw a girl, running toward him. Her head was down and she was starting to stumble. The dead were almost upon her - he counted two, but there could be more. There always could be more.
He stood in her path, gun to his shoulder, eye on the sight and finger on the trigger. He watched as she ran toward him, her head down. She was almost upon him and the dead almost on her. She looked up at the last second and into the barrel of his gun.
On instinct, she hit the ground, feet first and sliding into an imaginary home plate. A second later, a loud crack echoed through the forest followed by a heavy thump as her first chaser landed in a motionless heap a few feet from her. A thick, viscous liquid poured from the wound in its skull. It was too sticky and dark to still be considered blood.
A second shot rang out, followed by another thump. Hilary lay on her stomach, panting, her unknown hero standing over her with a long-barreled rifle.
“How many?” he said. “How many? Are there any more?” he asked again, louder, commanding her to answer when shock and horror stopped the words in her throat.
“That’s it,” she said, her breathing ragged. Her fingers scratched into the dirt as she laid her head on her arm. The shock of seeing a savior pushed out the sobs, but now they came back, stronger than ever. She allowed herself the luxury of a few tears and a few heaving breaths before she pulled herself to a standing position. She staggered slightly getting up, pushing stray red hairs away from her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, still winded.
Marshall stared at her, simply because he didn’t know what to say. You’d think with death around every corner, it would be easier to talk to women. You’d just say what you meant and be done with it. No embarrassment - hell, you’d probably be dead in a couple of days so why sweat it? “A-are,” he cleared his throat. “Are you Ok?”
She nodded, her chest still heaving. Trying to catch her breath or trying to stop crying, Marshall wasn’t sure. “Thank you,” she said again. Her face crumpled and tears spilled over her thick lashes.
He dropped his gun to his side, and moved as if to comfort her, then stopped. Hilary didn’t see that - all she saw through her tears were his arms open and she bridged the distance, slipping her arms around his waist and pressing her ear to his chest. His right hand still holding the butt of his rifle, Marshall gently place the other around her, his fingers touching the wavy red hair tied back in a loose knot.
They stayed like that for a while, Marshall letting her cry into his shoulder. When the tears subsided, she pulled away and looked at his face. Pale blue eyes stared back at her, shielded by a thin fringe of fine dirty blonde hair. His face was unshaven. “Are you alone here?” she asked.
He nodded. “For now,” he said. “My group is based down the road a bit, near the lake. I volunteered to go out and hunt some game.” He paused. “Where were you running from?”
Hilary turned around, facing the path she came. “I’m camped a few miles back that way with some others.” A choking sob erupted, and Hilary squatted on her ankles, her face in her hands.
“They didn’t make it?” he asked.
Sobs wracked Hilary’s body for only a few moments before she popped back to her feet. “I have to go back,” she said. “I can’t leave them like that.”
Absently, Marshall swung the gun upright so the barrel faced the sky. “Did you see any of them fall, or get bit?”
Hilary nodded, pressing her lips together to stop the tears. “They’re so quiet sometimes. They came right up into our camp before anyone had any idea. I didn’t see or hear anything until the screaming started.” Another couple of sobs, and Marshall waited. “I couldn’t get to my guns. I just ran.” Her pleading eyes looked at Marshall. “What does that say about me? I just left.”
Marshall slipped a hand around her face, his fingers tangling in her red hair, his thumb stroking her cheek. “You couldn’t have saved anyone, not after that.” He looked around, toward the forest. “It’s getting dark soon. We can’t go back for her until tomorrow. You OK with staying here tonight?”
Hilary wasn’t sure if it was the shock or just the basic human need to be near another person but she nodded. Her instinct told her this guy was good. Besides, there were a lot worse things that could happen to a girl in the woods than share a tent with a complete stranger.
“Let’s get some food and water in you,” he said.
Night fell fast, just like Marshall said it would. It got cold, too, despite the heat from the day. He already felt the chill and Hilary had her arms wrapped around herself. A thought dawned on her. “Where’s your tent?” she asked.
A faint smiled passed over his features. “Don’t have one,” he said.
“So … where do you sleep?”
He nodded skyward. “Up there.”
In the fading light, Hilary could just see the outline of a rudimentary treehouse - flat boards spanned the gap between thick boughs of a pine tree. Her eyes were wide. “How …?” she asked, her voice trailing off.
“My group’s been in one spot for a while, so I picked out this area as a way point on my line,” he said. “They don’t climb.”
Hilary flipped through her mental rolodex and couldn’t find an instance where she’d seen an undead climb after anything - stairs they could do, but fences seemed to be beyond them. They just pushed and pulled until the damn thing came down. But this tree looked sturdy. Wonder at his ingenuity filled her face. “How did you think of this?”
Marshall shrugged. “Scrambled up a tree one day to reload,” he said. “Dead just swarmed around the bottom of the tree and I kept pickin’ ‘em off like a sniper.” He nodded toward the woods. “It’s kind of how my group’s stayed together and alive for so long - built a panic room in the trees.”
Hilary pushed the ‘what if’ thoughts from her mind. How many people would still be with them today if they’d only considered climbing a tree? She wiped a tear from her cheek. “How do you get up there?”
Marshall stood up and beckoned her to follow. On the other side of the tree was a rope ladder. “Wind it up once you’re in the tree.”
It was a small platform with no railing. Hilary peered over the edge and gripped the boards with her fingers as vertigo threatened to hurl her back to the forest floor. Marshall placed a steadying hand on her lower back. “Ok?” he asked. She nodded, moving slowly and deliberately helped pull out a second sleeping bag.
“I’m not sure how to say this, so …” Marshall paused as Hilary’s wide blue eyes peered at him. “We should sleep together to, uh, because it’s cold when the sun goes, and, um …” he trailed off, looking at the sliver of pink horizon and hoping his face didn’t match the colour.
Hilary smiled. “I know what you mean.” She untied her boots, setting them off to the side where they wouldn’t get kicked off the platform. She did the same with her jeans, slipping under the sleeping bag while Marshall’s attention was elsewhere. She lay on her side, facing the forest.
Marshall climbed in, too, settling on his back and placing his arms behind his head. He sighed and snuck a peek at Hilary in the dark. Her back was to him. They lay like that long enough for Marshall to start to drift off but he snapped back awake when he felt Hilary turn over and gently place her cheek on his chest, letting her arm drape around his waist. He stiffened, not a muscle moving, as he waited to see what she did next. Slowly he brought one arm down to cradle her.
“I was cold,” she said.
Silence hung in the air as Marshall tried his best to breath evenly. “Your heart is beating fast,” Hilary said.
Marshall smiled despite himself. “Yeah, well, I’m not really used to having a girl this close.”
She pushed herself up and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for saving my life today,” she said, her lips hovering near his ear.
Marshall turned his head, leaning forward for a full kiss on her soft lips. When it broke, Hilary didn’t pull away. She simply looked at him. Despite the dark, he knew exactly what those blue eyes looked like. He rolled forward, his hands tangling in her mass of wavy red hair as he kissed her, pinning her upper body to the floor of the makeshift treehouse. Her hands slid around this lean, wiry body, coming to rest on the waistband of his pants.
He pulled back, his lips still brushing hers, as he nearly held his breath waiting for her to push him away. She didn’t - she guided him toward her and into her. Smiling a little at the hitch in his breathing as their bodies connected. They moved silently and softly, kissing and touching. His hand slid inside the T-shirt she still wore and squeeze her breast and she wrapped her long, thin legs around his waist.
Their rhythm sped up, sweat breaking out on skin. Marshall slid out and kissed her belly as his lips trailed south. His tongue flicked over her clit as he kissed and sucked, his fingers finding her sweet spots, unwinding the knots in her body. She came quickly, a cry bursting from her throat. Marshall pressed his mouth over hers, sliding himself back in, and stifling her cries of pleasure as well as his own.
Marshall held her trembling body, his own pressed into hers. “Do you think any … one heard that?” she asked.
He smiled. “Probably. But they might just think it’s an animal.” A moment passed before they both giggled as quietly as they could.