You could cut the tension in the air with a butter knife.
Ryan was craning his neck right and left, expecting to see a dead-looking man charging at him at moment now. But all he saw was people hurrying off quietly and they too were looking over their shoulders nervously over and over again. Many heads turned to what looked like smoke on the horizon. ‘That’s where we’re headed’ he thought, and glanced at Irij to see if he was troubled as well. His face though, was impassive and calm. He either has nerves of steel, or has one hell of a poker face.
They found most roads clear, surprisingly. There were a few cars that were obviously left there in a hurry, but otherwise there were no signs of accidents or carnage Ryan had been expecting to see. Not yet.
There were no fires either, and Ryan felt as if filmmakers the world over had missed a trick when depicting a zombie outbreak. But, they could almost constantly hear a siren. It reminded Ryan of a horror movie he once watched but he had no time to think of which one. He was in a horror story himself. The near-constant sirens had created a still silence in the air about them. Irij had not said a word to him since leaving the apartment, Ryan noticed, but this was just like the Irij, he knew, so he wasn’t concerned.
His brain was reeling from all that happened that morning. Since they had been jogging the entire time, he felt like he was being rushed into things without really being able to process all he had seen, or really come to terms with the full extent of this situation. There were zombies about. His life and everyone else’s was in danger. He had seen a man covered in blood holding the body of his—
“It doesn’t really look like what I thought it would look like…” said Irij, halting Ryan’s train of thought.
“Er… Yeah. But I bet there’s something going on in the city centre” he replied.
“A fire it seems, from all the smoke…” he pointed “And a large one at that…”
“Well, we’re headed right towards it. We’ll see just how big it is soon enough, won’t we?” Ryan said wryly.
Irij chuckled lightly. It was remarkable how breathy his chuckle sounded. He understood why as soon as Irij pulled out a small blue inhaler out of his pocket and put his hand up asking Ryan to slow down. Asthma, Ryan remembered. This was the reason Irij sucked at running so much, and declined all his invitations to go to early morning jogs with him. He always forgot about it, somehow, being much more impressed by the incredible bursts of speed and energy Irij displayed in some of the sports they played together. They were always quite evenly matched in all their squash bouts.
It was a minute before Irij was walking again. He let him walk ahead, letting him choose the pace. Irij soldiered on in front of him, keeping pace till they started steadily going uphill.
Irij put his hand up again three minutes into their uphill jog. Ryan thought it was because he needed to use his inhaler again but instead he was completely still like an animal suddenly aware of a predator, surveying something far up ahead. Ryan tried to focus, but before he realized what he was seeing Irij had ducked down behind a car and he ducked down right beside him.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“Stay still. There’s a pickup” said Irij, whispering back.
“So, I don’t know why it’s travelling so quickly… Best to stay out of the way”
Ryan stayed quiet and held his breath waiting for the pickup to go past them. Society and its laws tend to crumble away during times of calamity and disaster. Such times bring the worst out of some people. He had been fortunate enough never to experience anything of the sort during his life, but he was not naïve. It was always best to be cautious.
The pickup came up to them blaring music. And then WHAM!
Both of them shook and ducked down even further a few bits of glass came flying over them and the car they were ducking behind shook. There were a few cheers as the pickup tires screeched and accelerated away from them. Ryan looked up just in time to see it turning around a corner, nearly throwing off one of the group of teens standing at its back. They were holding cricket bats and iron pipes and one of them had smashed whatever they were holding into the windshield of the car as they went past them.
Once they had made sure they were safe they started back on their way to Giantmart. It was the only place guaranteed to have everything on their list and they now felt the need to get back with their supplies as quickly as they could. Irij started jogging again and didn’t stop to breathe even when he could hear him wheezing.
They arrived at the parking area in front of the gigantic shopping area a few minutes later and met a scene that finally drove in the reality upon them: That chaos had order over a barrel.
There were a quite few people running away hurriedly from stores either side of them. A few cars were on fire, with no fire fighters in sight. In the distance, they finally saw smoke billowing out of the roof of the largest mall in the city. The sirens appeared to be coming from a few fire engines parked close to it but they were all unmanned. A van was parked in front of the mall doors, with a man putting televisions and electronics in it. Another man ran past them cradling hundreds of smartphones in his arms.
Thankfully, Giantmart was relatively safer. There were fewer people about, as most looters were concentrating on the more expensive items in the mall instead. The few of those coming out of Giantmart were mostly carrying food. A police car was parked right in front of the main doors of the store, but the two officers seemed to be stocking up on supplies themselves and one of them gave them a sheepish smile as they went past him.
The glass doors opened up automatically to greet them into the store like an enormous beast opening its mouth to welcome them into its belly.
“Do you remember what we need to get?” asked Irij.
“A bloody lot of it, yeah. It’s still probably better if you go through the list once again, though. And I think we’re gonna need these” said Ryan, scanning the area and grabbing a couple of shopping carts.
Irij gave the entrance a quick look as well for signs of danger and then somewhat satisfied, took a small notepad out of his pocket.
“Mostly you just need to remember that we are not taking any food that would go bad outside a refrigerator. No fresh fruits, no vegetables. No meat or frozen foods, or anything that needs to be cooked, really. Go for canned food, cooked and canned meat. Don’t get canned soup, ‘cause that stuff is low calorie and we’d go through two carts full of them before—”
They were interrupted by a crash as a whole stack of cereal boxes came crashing down onto a woman and her shopping cart, nearly burying them both. Ryan rushed over immediately to help, and Irij followed, somewhat hesitantly.
She was young and Ryan thought she was rather cute as she eventually emerged from under the boxes, looking sheepish and somewhat frightened.
“Are you all right?” he asked, pulling her out of the boxes.
“Yes, thank you so much! I am so embarrassed…” she said, pushing her brown wavy hair out of her reddening face.
“No. It’s fine… really. Everyone’s confused right now with the reports. But I guess, sometimes you just need to take your time…” said Ryan, flashing a smile as the woman’s face blushed furiously. There was a small awkward silence and both of them looked like they wanted to say something but Irij had had enough of this romance. They had no time for that nonsense.
“Well, do take care. And try not to crash into any more piles!” he said, with a smile much wider than his natural smile, gently pulling Ryan away from the woman.
“Wait!” she said, as Ryan managed to free himself from Irij. “I was wondering, if you could help me with my supplies. I have a cart right here, but I’m afraid of wandering around on my own in this… this…” she trailed off into silence, looking expectantly at Ryan.
“Sure, no problem. We’ll help as much as we can.” said Ryan, not noticing Irij’s annoyance.
“Thank you, so very much. I have a list, but mostly I just need to find lots of food for my 2 year old son.”
“Oh. Well, no problem. We can help you find most of these things.” said Ryan though with much less excitement than before.
Having made a mental note of the items on the woman’s list they went off into the children’s section with the woman and quickly helped heap things into the woman’s cart. She thanked them profusely after they were done, and left after giving both of them a hug.
Ryan felt a sharp pain as Irij elbowed him in the stomach.
“Can we get on with it, or are we spending the rest of the day helping old ladies cross the street?” he said.
“What. She wasn’t old. Must’ve been what… 22? And anyway, you have to admit it makes you feel good when you help others every once in a while.”
“I bet it would’ve felt better if ‘A’, she wasn’t a mom, and ‘B’, she wasn’t probably married”
“Was she married?” said Ryan, turning his head towards the entrance as if expecting to see her there. “Did you see a ring?”
Irij completely ignored his question and waved a list in Ryan’s face.
“Remember this? We’re here because there are zombies about. We’re preparing for a major catastrophe. Get you head back in the game!”
“Alright, fine! What’s first?” said Ryan.
“First, we go two floors up to the sports section.”
Ryan was confused for a while as they took the escalators up to the top floor but understood what Irij meant as soon as they got to the nearly deserted sports corner. They were getting themselves some weapons.
“Baseball bats?” he asked Irij.
“Sure. Get a metal bat if you can find it. I’ll be surprised if you can find one, though. We’re not in America, remember.” He replied.
As it happened, he was right. They could not find a baseball bat anywhere and gave up on finding one after only five minutes of searching, given that they were pressed for time.
“What are we getting now? I think I will take this instead.” asked Ryan, pulling a particularly meaty cricket bat out of a rack.
“They could work temporarily yeah. I think I’m getting a hockey stick” said Irij, his eyes still searching.
“You do know a hockey stick will probably break long before it breaks a zombie’s face?” said Ryan, still examining the cricket bat he’d chosen.
“You watch far too much ice hockey, Ryan. I’m talking about a field hockey stick.” Irij said, finally finding one and pulling it out. It was quite meaty on the end as well and made a handsome whoosh sound as Irij swung it downwards to test it.
“I like it.” He said, nodding slowly and taking out two more sticks out of the rack. “Let’s go get our stuff.”
They were soon on the ground floor again. Ryan noticed that it was visibly more chaotic that it had been only ten minutes ago. Someone was screaming outside. Two men were shouting at each other on the far end of the counters and most people were running instead of walking.
They had already decided to be organized about their shopping on their way back downstairs. Their plan was to only have one person shopping at a time and to have the other one guarding. And so, Irij was walking up front, holding his hockey stick as Ryan filled their carts. Irij kept shouting things off the list to Ryan and soon their carts began to fill up with canned food, packs of nuts, fruit and nut bars, biscuits and a heap of chocolates. It was when Irij shouted ‘Granola bars’ though that he seemed to have crossed a line with Ryan.
“Hey, I’m not taking any granola bars” said Ryan taking the list from Irij.
“You may not like them but—“
“But, we have so many other things we can get!” said Ryan, sweeping his hand towards the rest of the aisle.
“These bars are lightweight and full of energy”, argued Irij in his usual cool and composed voice.
“Come on. If Frodo can live off lembas for months, you can eat some granola bars”, said Irij, smiling.
Ryan laughed heartily and for a moment the two of them forgot how tense they had been all day. They were brought quickly back to reality though, as they heard a horrible crunch followed by a man screaming. They stared at each other with wide-eyed terror as images of a bone being crushed formed in their head. Not really wanting to see who –or what- had caused that scream they moved as stealthily as they could away from the direction the scream came from. But, given that they were pushing carts, they were nowhere near as quiet as they had hoped to be. Ryan’s heart was thudding louder and louder as he gripped his bat with one hand, checking every corner twice. He noticed a few other people were crouched next to shelves as well. The scream had been quite loud.
“There’s no point being quiet with this many people here”, said Irij, nodding towards the other people. “We need to get out of here quickly before things turn ugly. Uhhh… uglier. Let’s move off to the pharmacy section and finish things quickly.”
Things were no quieter in the pharmacy section though. As they approached the shelves full of medicines they saw that a scuffle had broken out between two people. They were at each other’s throat and rolling around the floor. Ryan wondered if he should stop them, but hesitated to interfere. Irij observed the two wrestling around on the floor for a few moments before calmly moving over to have a look at the medicines stocked on the shelves.
“MOVE!!” he heard and turned just in time to see Ryan jumping at him and pushing him into the shelves. Irij hit his head against something hard and felt sharp searing pain at the back of his head, losing his vision for a few seconds. He recovered just in time to see Ryan struggling against one of the men who had been fighting on the floor. The other man lay writhing on the floor, clutching his throat yet completely unable to stop the fountain of blood rushing out from where it had been ripped.
“HELP!” shouted Ryan, as he got pushed against a wall. They had failed to notice that one of the struggling men had been a zombie. It had launched himself teeth-first at Ryan, face soaked with blood but Ryan had managed to stuff his face in its face just in time. He heard a very satisfying crunch as several of the zombie’s teeth broke biting at the bat. Unable to giain any ground, the zombie opened his mouth and moved back, preparing to attack again. The attack never came, though, as Irij’s hockey stick made solid contact with the zombie’s temple. It made a soft thunk against the zombie’s head as it collapsed onto the floor like a lifeless marionette.
“Is it…dead?” said Ryan, kicking the zombie’s head to see if it moved. It didn’t. Irij didn’t respond either. He had already gone back to looking at medicines.
“I think most of the antibiotics and inhalers are behind the counter” he said, after a bit of searching. Ryan nodded and Irij quickly jumped over the counter to look at the medicines stocked there. He could not have been searching ten seconds when he called to Ryan.
“There is a dead woman here” he said, calmly.
“What?” Ryan thought he must have misheard him.
“Oh. There’s also a zombie” replied Irij from behind a shelf. His voice was still disconcertingly calm and for three full seconds Ryan simply stood there wondering if he had been joking. A hiss from behind the tall shelf Irij was behind answered his question quickly enough but even before he could move to helpj, the shelf came tumbling down, with the zombie on it. This was a particularly large zombie, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. Even if it did not have wild darting eyes, its shaven head and tattoos would made him look particularly terrifying.
He leapt towards Irij but he managed to get out of his way easily. Not only that, he tripped the zombie as he flew past him and it smashed right through the wooden wall at the back of the section.
Ryan was already halfway over the shelf but Irij stopped him.
“Stay there. Get your bat ready” he said, not keeping his eye off the hole the zombie had made. Ryan was hoping the crash would have killed the zombie, but already there were sounds of shifting and scurrying behind the wall.
The wait was mere seconds, but it felt like hours. They knew the zombie would attack, but it was making them wait, hiding in the shadows behind the hole. As the focused, they could make out his outline in the dark. He had settled himself right in front of them and from the visible reflection off his eyes he was staring at them intently, and unblinkingly.
The attack came without any sort of warning and Ryan was caught off guard by the mere speed of it.
Irij had been preparing, though. His hours of kendo had not gone to waste. With all the efficiency of an arist, he tripped the zombie, yet again, onto the wooden shelf. With speed no lesser than that of the zombie himself, he hopped onto the zombie’s back, pinning him face-down against the shelf. This was the moment, Ryan knew. He swung the bat with all his strength and smashed it into the side of the zombie’s face.
He saw it all happen as clearly as if time had slowed down for him. The zombie’s head tilting sideways as his skull fractured and the neck broke. The bat left a huge dent in the zombie’s face and left him motionless.
What he had not expected was what the sight would do to him. As the reality dawned on him, his head spun and his vision swirled. He had to hold himself upright against a shelf to avoid collapsing under the weight of his actions. He had just killed. For the first time in his life, he had killed. The image of the fractured skull would not leave his mind. As his head spun faster and faster he began pouring the contents of his stomach all over the floor.
Irij was just about done picking up medicines and a ton of his inhalers. After sliding back over the counter he came over to Ryan and put up a hand on his shoulder.
“You had to do it. It’s kill or be killed right now. It has become that sort of a world for now”, he said.
Ryan merely nodded. He agreed with Irij and also realized that the quicker they were finished there the quicker he would be able to get away from all this. So he got up, and started pushing the carts making the way back out of the store, stopping only to wipe his face against a towel. They were both silent and tense, making sure to watch their corners. The tills were all empty as they reached them, not that they had been expecting to see anyone there in any case.
“First time stealing as well, then?” winked Irij, trying to cheer Ryan. He did not reply, still afraid that he would puke if he opened his mouth. But, in his head, he agreed. It had been a day of many firsts.
He followed a few feet behind Irij as they came out back under the sky. The air was heavy with smoke and fumes. The fire engines were gone, and so were the deafening sirens. The Mall in the distance was still burning, thought so they assumed the fire engines must have simply given up and left. There were other horrific explanations forming in Ryan’s head as well, but he quickly pushed them out. No. They merely left he told himself firmly. On his side Irij reached for his inhaler again.
There were tens of zombies in plain sight now. One was attacking a man, who was doing quite well fending it off with a stick that looked like it was once a mop. Ryan looked to his right just in time to see a tall black man smash a zombie’s face with a sledgehammer. He seemed to be running from zombie to zombie, shouting as he went. Other people were not doing so well. A man got attacked and buried under a few zombies right in front of their eyes.
They could not linger, so they picked the safest path they could to avoid engaging anyone, or anything. They were not too lucky though; soon they caught the attention of a couple of zombies. Irij pushed his cart ahead and planted his hockey stick right in the face of the first male zombie that approached him. Ryan turned to help him but Irij shouted at him telling him to keep pushing the carts just as the second zombie, a female one, attacked him.
Ryan saw her face just long enough for recognition to hit him in the gut with the force of a sledgehammer.
“NO! IRIJ, NO!!!” he shouted, but Irij had already swung his hockey. It did not make full contact, though, but the contact was still good enough to send her reeling. She groaned and hissed and tried to get back up to attack. But the hit seemed to have addled something in her head and she kept stumbling in her attempts to get back up on her feet.
“Let’s go Irij!” shouted Ryan, half-commanding, half-pleading. Irij looked from the woman to Ryan.
“Every zombie we don’t kill is a zombie that can come back to bite us” he said.
“Well, we would deal with her when that happens…” Ryan pleaded “Please!”
Irij gave the woman another look and shook his head. “Let’s hurry” he said and jogged back to him.
Ryan was relieved, but their little exchange had not gone unnoticed,. They had attracted the attention of a couple of other zombies as well, who were now prowling towards them.
They did not wait to fight this time, though. They pushed the carts into running speed and never looked back. It was much easier than their jog to the Giantmart had been. They would be steadily going downhill the entire way back, and Irij was already riding the back of his trolley, shouting at him to do the same.
Ryan’s head was still on the zombified woman, though. Her wavy brown hair had looked pretty even after she became a zombie. But her ghastly face was not easy to forget. She had a two year old who would be waiting for her to return, he remembered. Irij had nearly killed her, but she probably never would return to her child, anyway.
Sadness gripped Ryan’s mind, so he never really thought about it as he jumped onto the back of his cart as well. He gave himself to gravity to carry him home, and tried hard not to think of a hungry two year old waiting for his mother to come back to him.
‘Survive’ Chapter 4
Salman Shahid Khan
Copyright : : Salman Shahid Khan. All Rights Reserved