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Waking Up Dead
By Emma Shortt, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Emma Shortt
All rights reserved.
Without a doubt the house with the pretty green shutters had food inside of it. Pasta, canned vegetables, tinned meats, hell, it could have a five course, good-to-go, gourmet meal in there for all Jackson Hart knew. Crouched down behind an overturned SUV she could practically hear it all screaming from inside the pantry, and she narrowed her eyes as she assessed the best way to get at it.
Not through the front door. It was probably barred tight with planks of wood, or barricaded with piled-up furniture. Maybe through the back? But the skinny, shadowed alleyway that ran between the house and its fence screamed, horror movie showdown, and for all Jackson knew she'd be risking it only to find a blocked-up back door too. The shutters then. How thick were they? Was the glass behind them intact? Jackson hefted Mandy-the-machete and considered the possibilities.
"You're looking thoughtful there. For the record it doesn't suit you."
Those words came from Tyrone, her friend, her only friend, if you wanted to get right down to it. He joined her behind the SUV, swinging his ax as he did so, and making absolutely no attempt to stay hidden.
"I was being stealthy," Jackson said with a sigh. "You totally just ruined it."
"Stealthy for who?" he asked. "The rats? There's only them and us. We checked the street. It's all quiet."
Jackson frowned as she looked away from the house and down said street. A backpack, probably a child's by the size of it, caught her attention, and she frowned as she noticed what looked like a rusty toy truck sticking out of the zipper. The things people had thought to take when they tried to run ... it still baffled her.
"Quiet or not, they're here somewhere," she said softly. "It's been almost a day since we saw any of them."
"Let's hope for another day and then maybe another." He paused. "Better yet, let's hope for a week."
Jackson almost laughed. "Might as well wish for a working car."
"I do, sweetheart. Daily. We're surrounded by wheels and not one of them worth a damn."
"Two years and then some pretty much kills everything."
"Everything but us," Tye said.
Jackson nodded slowly at the truth of those words, tore her gaze away from the truck, and pointed her machete at the shuttered house. "Enough with the reminiscing. Take a look at that."
Tye's gaze followed the line of the blade. A frown spread across his face as he assessed the building from top to bottom. "It looks ..."
"Like it probably did two years ago?"
"Weird isn't it?" Jackson said. "I don't know about your end, but down there," she tilted her head to the south of the street, "the rest of these million-dollar houses are rocking the post-apocalyptic-makeover vibe. Broken glass, doors hanging off their frames, trash all over the place."
"And this one stands alone," Tye said, his frown deepening. "Could be Obama's. I heard he has a house around here."
"Had, had a house," Jackson said. "And I'm pretty sure the dead do not make dining distinctions based on fame, or," she added when Tye opened his mouth to speak, "government office."
"Unless he went rogue in the beginning. He could still be hanging around." Tye paused and shook his head. "That's a weird thought."
"Weird but not outside the realms of possibility," Jackson said. "Hence the stealth you just ruined. Something is off, and we can't ignore it. If there's food anywhere, it's hidden in that house. The rest have been picked clean, and this one looks like it's been protected."
Tye shot her an incredulous look. "You're seriously not suggesting there are actual people inside?"
She snorted. "Yep, I'm betting there's a whole family just waiting to open their arms to us. They'll have a meal all laid out, hot baths running —"
"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, Jack."
Jackson shook her head. "You goad me into it. Seriously though, I'm thinking there were people still living in there. Not for a while and not now," she added, holding up her free hand to halt whatever words Tye had been about to say, "but maybe they lasted out longer than the rest of the street. It'd explain why things look different. Better yet, it might mean food."
Tye stomach gave a grumble. It was far louder than it should have been and Jackson caught his eye.
"Keep it down. That was loud enough for a pack to hear."
"Can't help it," he said. "You keep talking about food. When was the last time we ate, for fuck's sake? I still can't believe the university campus was picked clean."
"It's crazy," Jackson agreed, thinking of all those dorm rooms they'd crept through. Each had been viler than the last, full of blood and pus and a million other unidentifiable fluids. Worse, they'd stunk of teen sweat, though how that could be two and more years after those rooms had last been occupied, Jackson didn't know. "Took a brave person indeed to wander those rooms and clean them out," she added. "End of the day though, it doesn't leave us much choice but to hit up Creepyville here. We need some calories in our system as soon as possible, and I'd rather not chow down on rat again."
"There's nothing wrong with rat."
"There's so much wrong with it I can't even begin." She swung Mandy in the direction of the biggest window, forcing Tye to lean back to avoid the super-sharp blade. "I'm thinking we go through the shutters there. We'll chop through them and then the glass too if there's any left."
"That'll make a bit of noise."
"Less noise than trying to go through the front door. You know it'll probably be barricaded up, and besides, didn't you just say we were okay?"
"I said we are okay for the moment. Let's not push our luck any more than we have to."
"So we'll be quick."
He hefted his ax, giving it a swing of what Jackson assumed was agreement. "I'm always quick, sweetheart."
"You're not funny."
They made their way out from behind the SUV, around a Prius that seemed to have collided headfirst with a Dumpster, and across to the sidewalk. It was slippery and Jackson swerved to avoid what looked like a splatter of vomit. It was probably just decomposing vegetation but she shot it a nasty look as she passed.
"Waist-high grass and weeds," Tye said with a scowl. "Does any look trampled to you?"
She shook her head. "You're thinking zombie hide-and-seek? They'd have been on us already."
"That they would. Bastards have no subtlety."
"Amen for that."
It took just a few moments to wade through the scraggy vegetation and approach the biggest window. Up close Jackson could see that the house did not look as pristine as it had from the street. The white of the stone was discolored in places by mold, and the wooden slats of the shutters were showing signs of wear and tear. She gave them maybe another year or so before bugs ate their way completely through.
"They're starting to rot," she muttered. "Should be easy enough to get through."
"Along the vertical?" Tye asked.
"Yeah. You take the top hinge. I'll take the bottom. One swing each should do it."
The left side shutter came off easily enough, with minimal noise, and they lowered it to the ground, propping it up against the side of the house. Once it was safely out the way they stepped forward and peered through the window frame into the house.
"No glass," Tye said softly. "And no pieces or shards of it either. At least none that I can see."
"It's like someone just carried them away ... or cleaned up the mess." Their eyes met and Jackson frowned. "This is creepy."
"Creepier inside. There's no fucking light."
Jackson tightened her grip around Mandy as she looked into what would once have been a living room. Tye was right; although strips of light came in from the shutters, it was nowhere near enough to illuminate everything. She could make out a couch, a table, and what might be a TV stand, but nothing apart from that. "I wish I still had my flashlight," she whispered. "I'd sell you for it right now."
"Who are you selling me to?" Tye asked as he ran his hands along the ledge, probably making sure there were no slithers of glass they'd missed. "If we're talking a curvy Latina I'll go happily."
"Curvy? On the post-apocalyptic diet?"
"Good point. Now stand back and I'll go in first."
"It's probably my turn. Wait for the signal."
Jackson nodded as she turned to keep a watch on the street. That damn backpack was still in her line of vision and she scowled at it, unsure why it bothered her so much. It certainly wasn't the only evidence of abandoned belongings. There were other bags scattered around, most empty, but some full of moldy clothes and useless electrical items. One thing was for sure, none of them had food or bottled water inside. Stuff that precious was hidden away. It took creeping around, braving places no sane person ever wanted to visit, to find the good stuff.
Places like this. Jackson let out a slow exhale before turning slightly so that the empty window was in her peripheral vision. She could hear Tye tiptoeing through the eerie room and tightened her grip on her blade, waiting for the damn signal. He'd insisted when they met — almost a month or so ago, though it was hard to keep track of dates any more — that they have one, and they'd debated for hours over what it should be. Not because it was so important, but because it gave them something to talk about beyond the depressing nothing. In the end she'd agreed to Tye's suggestion of a whistle, one note for all is well and two for start fucking running. More often than not she got the two, and was surprised, was always surprised, when just one came.
Jackson took a deep breath, gave the street one last look, then dropped Mandy-the-machete into the room. She felt naked without her weapon and hurried to lift herself on to the ledge and pull herself up, dropping a moment or so later onto the carpeted floor.
The squelchy, stinking, carpeted floor.
What was that stench? A combination of mold and ammonia? It was strong, almost overwhelming, and Jackson clamped her lips shut as she looked around the room. Shadows played across every surface, tiny dust motes swirled in the horizontal shafts of light, and almost immediately a feeling Jackson did not like hit, and hit hard. Over the last two years she'd learned to listen to those feelings. They'd kept her alive when so many other people — hell, practically everyone — was dead, and she picked Mandy up quickly, the feel of her smooth wooden hilt immediately comforting.
"Looks all clear," Tye said, his voice hushed. "On this floor at least."
"Something's not right here," Jackson whispered, unable to put her finger on what exactly was bothering her. "It feels ... off."
"Then let's hurry."
They crept into the darkened hallway — Tye leading the way — and followed it the length of the house. It opened up into a kitchen, a large one, and the light was a little better, the gaps in the shutters wider from where the rot was making better progress. Still, the weird feeling remained, enough that Jackson tightened her grip on Mandy.
"That's gotta be the pantry, and the door is closed," Tye said, his voice hushed. "Check it out, and I'll keep watch."
Jackson approached the door slowly, her heart beating a steady tattoo in her chest. She gripped her weapon in her right hand as she turned the doorknob, holding her breath without even meaning to. The relief that hit when nothing jumped out seemed oddly out of place, and Jackson lowered the blade only slightly, her gaze taking everything in, because whoever had lived in the house had clearly planned for a rainy day. The metal shelves were practically overflowing with food, and for a moment she just paused to look at it all, her heart racing at the sight. Beans, vegetables, even tinned potatoes. How long had it been since she'd eaten a potato? Not since that farm in Indiana and most of them had been rotten.
"Jesus Christ, take a look at this," she whispered. "There's enough food here for weeks."
Tye leaned back slightly so he could peer in. Even in the dim light Jackson saw his eyes widen, but a moment later he shook his head. "We can only take what we can carry, you know that. Unless you wanna eat here and then take more with us?"
"I want to stuff my face immediately, but," she looked around the darkened room, across the shadowed work surfaces, the sink and the oven — something like a chill slithering down her spine as she did so, "this place give me the heebies, not to mention the smell. I don't like it. It feels wrong. Let's take what we can carry and find somewhere else to eat and rest."
"Back in the direction of the campus?"
"Might as well. We need to go back that way to pick up the interstate."
"Get a move on then, sugar pie. I'll go after you."
Jackson pulled her small pack off her back and unzipped it. The sound was unnaturally loud in the quiet of the room, more so than their hushed voices. She shook her head as she caught Tye's eye. "I know. I know."
There was enough space in the pack for maybe a half-a-dozen cans. Any more than that would slow her down, and despite the spooky vibe of the house Jackson narrowed her eyes as she read the labels, wanting to make sure she picked right. After a moment or so she took two cans of beans, a tin of potatoes, and a packet of pasta. Then carefully, so as not to disturb the shelving unit, she lifted herself on her tiptoes and reached out for a tin of ham. The moment her fingertips found the first of them she paused. Tye froze too, his ax head glinting off one of the vertical shafts of light.
"Did you hear that?"
She nodded. A sound, a sort of creaking. Jackson lowered herself slowly, her feet hitting the floor with the smallest of noises, her pack held tight to her body.
Tye took a step back, so that he was closer to her, and looked upward. Jackson followed his gaze, swallowing against the sudden lump in her throat as she realized what he meant.
He gestured toward the hallway they'd snuck through, but Jackson shook her head. The stairs were there and whatever was now making its way across the roof, or maybe even inside the attic, would cut off their escape. She touched Tye's shoulder and pointed toward the French windows instead. Or rather what used to be the windows, they were just closed shutters now, but they closed from the inside, meaning they would be able to unlatch them, and slip out.
Cautiously they stepped across the floor. Like the carpet, it didn't feel right, not squelchy this time though, but sticky. Jackson shuddered inwardly as she imagined exactly what might be coating the hardwood.
"We need to be quick," Tye whispered, his mouth next to her ear. "I'll kick it through and we'll head for the alleyway on the right. It'll follow the noise and come down thinking to trap us. Don't lose that food."
Jackson nodded and slowly, carefully, put her backpack on.
Another noise from upstairs, this one sounding suspiciously like something was walking. Jackson's heart raced as she imagined one of them already inside the building. And where there was one there were three or four more. They traveled in packs, never alone. Food or not, it simply wasn't worth the risk to hang around.
"Now," she hissed.
Tye kicked the shutters through, and maybe it was the rot, or perhaps just the force of his muscles, but they exploded outward, shards of wood going everywhere, light filling the gloomy kitchen. A rattling groan sounded from upstairs, and where before the zombie had been stalking — trying to find a way inside, maybe not even sure there was a meal close by — now it bashed against something, the ceiling, one of the doors? Jackson and Tye did not wait to find out. They burst into the garden — as overgrown as the front lawn — and veered right, toward the alleyway that ran the length of the house.
Horror movie waiting to happen ...
The words echoed in Jackson's mind as her feet pounded the ground, and she gripped Mandy so tight the bones in her hand should have ached. Should have, but didn't. Adrenaline was flooding her system, her heart was racing in her chest, and everything came into sharp focus ... including the four zombies that were heading straight for them.CHAPTER 2
Luke Granger could hear them pounding on the ceiling of his underground bunker. The noise was constant and unrelenting, edging its way into his consciousness, pulling him from a nap that had been far too brief.
He lifted his head from his arms, glanced around the empty room, then reached for his — now cold — mug of coffee, downing the remains in one long swallow. The taste was vile, but then instant beans with powdered milk was never gonna win any medals, was it?
He scowled into the empty mug, remembering the hot lava java he used to drink, before shouting, "Give it a fucking rest."
They pounded again.
Jesus Christ. What the hell was wrong with them? You'd think that after weeks and weeks of trying to get through the thick metal they'd realize they couldn't. But no, they had to interrupt what little sleep he could get. He looked up and sent the ceiling the foulest glare he could muster. "I'm going to kill every last fucking one of you when I come out there."
They pounded some more.
Excerpted from Waking Up Dead by Emma Shortt, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Emma Shortt. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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