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Polsi

Christopher Polsi should not have been alive.

Six days ago, maybe (with how little he had managed to sleep and how often his body had pumped itself with floods of adrenaline, the minutes and hours had begun to blend together), everything had gone to shit. It had been like any other Friday; after a week of grueling studies coupled with 5 am swim practices, the freedom of a meet-less Saturday and two fresh bottles of Jose Cuervo were calling his name. The top floor of Harris B’s building was packed solely with his teammates — the half-interested, perfectly lenient RA being one of them — and they’d all made an executive decision to get wildly drunk.

Alexis Moore’s screams, the next morning, were all the more horrifically skull-splitting as she twisted beneath a red-knuckled Evelyn Beguirstain pulling her very entrails through her ribcage.

Turns out, a viral outbreaking of the zombie apocalypse didn’t go well with his hangover.

They had all just starting running, scattering like panicked insects with little to no regard for one another, and she caught him: Evelyn’s fumbling fingers found a hold on his calf with a thick, wet slap. Her palm had been too slippery, slicking gore down the length of his leg as her hand slid clumsily to refasten exponentially tighter about his ankle, with a sudden vice grip that suggested her nails sought to borrow holes through the flesh and down to the bone.

And she might’ve, had the brown, jagged end of the broken Longboard bottle Ryne swung not crunched itself so easily through the space between her clouded eyes.

Both swim captains were out the back door and vaulting over the dorm balcony just as Alexis’ disemboweled torso shifted to turn itself over.

Christopher Polsi should have been dead.
At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.

The grass was damp, seeping through the knees of his jeans from where he crouched impatiently behind Ryne. It was only dewy leftovers of yesterday’s rain, but the viscous chill of it still drew goosebumps up his spine as he furiously rubbed his fingers through the blades, cleaning away the blood that had stuck up between them. His breath was hot and scalding in the center of his chest but he kept his mouth glued shut, sucking slow, deep lungfuls of air through his nose as he strained his ears against the black of the night.

Being quiet was important, but listening was even more so.

“Anything..?” came a baited whisper from behind him, and he snapped back a pair of narrowed, blue eyes with a silent warning for the usual culprit. Kalya flinched back from his abrupt movement, her look of panicked curiosity evaporating as the angular planes of her face hardened with a flash of defiance. His lips pulled back to let loose the agitated reprimanding he felt pushing its way through his teeth, but he rolled his eyes and turned away when saw the way her two shaking hands grasped so desperately for Alec’s. How exactly the two of them had made it out of the hell in Harris and tracked him and Ryne down, Polsi couldn’t figure out.

Shh..” hissed Ryne, creeping ahead and motioning feverishly with one hand, pointing up at the gaping square of darkness that was an open window. “Here, gimme a boost.”

Polsi slunk forward, leaning his back up against the rough, building wall and offering out his interlaced palms; he tried not to think about what kind of dead shit might’ve been dried to the bottom of Ryne’s shoes as he heaved him up, bracing his co-captain’s weight on his right shoulder as Ryne peered in through into the Spot.

“Shit.”

“How many?”

“Just one,” Ryne’s feet lifted from his shoulders then, momentarily scraping for the purchase needed to pull himself higher. “I’ve got it.”

Polsi sucked in a breath and held it, his lungs tightening with exhausted protest as he rolled his eyes up just in time to catch the last of his teammate disappearing over the windowsill.

Four, five, six seconds, and he heard it. Not the muffled thump of Ryne’s hammer finding a target, or the familiar, ragged whistling of oxygen being drawn through a dead esophagus, but the short wisp of drawn breath, live breath. Followed too closely by a heavy crashing, the loud blunderings of multiple bodies.

“More than one, oh God, holy shit, I-, shit, Alec, help me up, Alec,”

Kayla had her hands in his again, but she was tugging at them now, trying to pull him back the way they had come. She was shaking her head, chewing her bottom lip and pleading with him in breathless murmurs; Alec stood flighty and uncertain, almost as though he was trying to silently coerce Polsi into going as well.

The two of them hesitated only half a minute longer when his voice cracked out in a biting whip, partially fused with the fear of what else his escalating voice might attract. “Are you guys kidding? He’s kept you both alive this entire time and you’re just trying to leave? Fuck the both of you, seriously, help me up now!”

He saw Carsen first, and smelt Ryne’s blood second.

Jae

She knew something was wrong. She had always had intuition for that kind of thing. But even still, seeing Eric and Jasen come crashing into Hoover 100 with Ryne Spejcher painted red and braced between them was far worse than anything she had been anticipating.

The dread slicing through her stomach lessened fractionally when Carsen finally came skittering in behind them — high-strung and bristling like a startled cat — only to multiply exponentially when Gabe thrust another three new shivering people in after her.

Despite the growing tightness in her chest, she forced out words to cut through the gathering storm of voices clouding the room.

“What in hell happened out there?”

No one said anything. They were easing Ryne’s thin body onto the ground; Jasen’s quick fingers pulled at the tattered remains of his shirt while Eric just stood, holding out his crimson-stained hands with nowhere to wipe them. Carsen skirted her way around both boys, gathered Ryne’s head in her lap and pushed the sweat-slicked hair from his forehead, paused for a moment before reaching hesitantly to explore his shoulder’s gaping wound. The blood flowed heavily, endlessly, slithering out across his bare skin like thick, dark snakes that spilled off to sprinkle carnal constellations on the carpet. Jae felt a light-headed haze weigh against the backs of her eyes, felt a sudden surge of nausea crawl its way up the back of her throat. She fought to swallow it back.

“Is anyone listening? What –”

Chris Polsi’s all-too familiar voice interrupted. “It was an accident, we thought–”

“Shut your damn mouth,” came a snarl from Gabe, the rugged curve of his axe now delicately kissing the paling skin of Polsi’s neck. With the three newcomers lined up along the lecture hall’s long whiteboard, his darting eyes furiously examined the each of them; he jerked his head at Alec, instructed him to take off his jacket, his shirt. “Nobody talks, nobody does shit til we know who’s bit.”

“None of us–” Kayla tried. The axe’s wooden handle spun in Gabe’s hand, its head making a slow turn to search for the throb nestled just beneath her chin, but a cracking interjection from Carsen stopped it halfway.

“Jase. Help Gabe look them over, y’know, without taking anyone’s head off. We have enough to clean up here already.” She looked up at Jae. “We hit the Spot at the same time, they must have thought I was a Walker,” A fresh pulse of blood gushed over the leg of her pants. “Shit, oh shit,” One of her hands swiped itself under her left eye to still its nervous quivering, unintentionally smearing sticky, red warmth over her cheekbone. “The, uh, the first aid kit that’s usually in the Spot was already gone, we didn’t have anything, we couldn’t just leave him, we–”

“What do we do?” Jae somehow found a voice again. “What can we do, they’re going to smell him–”

Then Haley was hovering beside Carsen, her dark-brown eyes picking over the damaged muscle and disrupted tissues having pulled open over Ryne’s clavicle. She might’ve only been majoring in pre-physical therapy, but her kinesiological knowledge was enough; her brows pinched together with intensifying dismay. “He has to be stitched,” she said, with a solidifying certainty in her words that was much stronger than she had been just a few days ago. “It can’t heal otherwise obviously, but it has to happen soon, like now, otherwise he’ll bleed out eventually, if it doesn’t get infected before that. If we could get up to the athletic center.. the trainers’ room would have what we need, more than enough.”

Breaking abruptly from his tranced silence, Eric nodded to himself, the gears visibly shifting and turning in his head as his deliberating gaze shifted from Jae, to Haley, to unconscious Ryne in a repeating circuit. “We’ll need a distraction, a big one, if we’re going to try and move all of us, and him, up the hill to the gym. Kyle and Kevin and I–”

“They’re gone.” Haley said. “They left, two hours ago.”

“Fire alarms.” Jasen’s words came rushing out before the heavy blanketing of shocked silence that threatened to spill could spread itself over the lecture hall. “In the freshmen dorms, you can hear those all over campus. They like noise, right? I could go set them off, it’d get them all crowded on that side of the upper quad, and you guys could take the back side of the Science Center.”

“Fuck that, Jasen,” barked Gabe, turning on his roommate. “You’ll set them off, my ass. You’re not going without me, turtle.”

“No. No, I’ll go,” Carsen broke in. “Eric can’t carry Ryne fast enough by himself, Gabe, and we’ve got to get the rest of the group up the hill fast.  I can go with Jase, we can set off alarms in Stauffer, Johnson, and Ball–”

“We’ll go too.” This time, Kayla’s voice startled the rest of them — pointed, sharp as glass. “We’re the only freshmen here, we’ll know the buildings better. If you two take Ball and we take Johnson, we could get it done faster, then split the two sides of Stauffer and get all of us out of there before too many of them crowd us in.”

“Take what you need, and go now,” Eric decided, tossing Carsen’s baseball bat to Alec with a stern nod. Gabe passed his axe to Jasen, the two of them exchanging some mumbled words. “Twenty minutes and we’ll leave, when you guys make it out, meet us on the athletic center bridge.”

Suddenly Carsen’s lips pressed together into a thin, white line and her arms held themselves out poised and dripping with red.

“Eric …?” the sound that creaked out of her was low and thick, heavy with the weight of unease. “Tell me you cleaned that.”

“What?”

“The knife, your knife! You killed that Walker on the way to the Spot, did you clean it, wipe it off, anything?”

“No, why would–”

“You cut him open, with that stuff on your knife, you cut him.. oh my God..”

Carsen’s lashes stretched back, her cerulean irises clashing sharply with the whites of her eyes. And in the last second before she erupted with a panicked yell, Jae managed to put all of the pieces together: infection. Her body thrust itself into motion, her hands ripping open one of Gabe’s black backpacks in search of the half-full, square bottle she had once criticized him for carrying along.

“Gabe, GABE! The whiskey, I need the whiskey, now!”

She was fumbling with the black plastic of the cap, scraping at it furiously as Carsen and Haley shifted Ryne’s arm away from his torso, letting the wound gape wider, exposing the stark white collarbone underneath.

“How much?” Jae barely managed a breathless gasp. “How much!”

Just pour it!”

In her hands, the bottle tipped almost too generously, the sickly sweet sting of the alcohol burning her nostrils. Golden brown whiskey sloshed over the skin, pooled down alongside the bone, melted together with the hot blood. Ryne’s sea-glass green eyes flashed open.

His body arched with an involuntary writhing as an agonizing scream tore through his lungs.

Carsen

Ball Hall’s second floor was dead.

Not the occupied with hordes of ravenous, reanimated students kind of dead, but rather filled with a pressing sort of noiselessness that set Carsen’s teeth on edge and made her skin crawl. The first floor had been something of the same, with the exception of a pair of legs left behind, having lost their upper half.

She and Jasen had started there, moving quietly from door to door, checking any that had been left open to assure the majority of the building was clear before they planned to pull each alarm from the third story down, and make their break for Stauffer out the narrow back doors. Moving as quickly as she dared, she tailed after Jasen on the balls of her feet; the too-tight laced boots she’d lifted from an empty dorm room allowed her to run quietly enough, (though they were already rubbing a blister on the inside of her left heel). Once they reached the opposite end of the hall, Jasen dipped his head to the stairwell, gesturing for her to follow with a thin finger touched to his sealed lips.

He’d heard something.

Carsen was shadowing step for step, keeping pace with his long-legged stride, and so she nearly collided headlong into him when they loped up the last of the stairs and Jasen came to an abrupt, dead stop, rooting himself in place.

“Jasen, what the hell?”

“Cars.” One of his hands locked onto her elbow, pushing her back, insistent. She glared at him, not understanding, tried to shake him off. “Cars, don’t…”

Then her eyes flew past him and found what he was trying to hide.

He laid half-sprawled in the hallway, unmoving, with his legs propping open the door of his room as though he’d tripped on his way out and forgotten to get up. One arm draped itself out along the carpet, the blanched fingers laid open too precisely, almost reaching for her. His choppy, bronze hair was tousled and unkempt, with random patches pushed up in mismatching spikes by some dark substance she internally refused to acknowledge. A sweeping tide of moonlight had crawled in from between the broken shades of a dorm window, illuminating the gradual paling of his once sun-kissed skin in a strangely placid, ghostly glow. The leftover, splayed patterns of freckles stood out awkwardly on the gaunt, hollowing angles of his face, too many of them drowning in scarlet brushstrokes unevenly smeared along the bridge of his nose. He looked up at her with a verdant gaze that had fallen flat, that was not his own, because someone had fixed a pair of dead eyes in place of the ones she remembered.

Carsen’s mouth fell open, her shoulders hunching forward as her lungs suddenly found the availability of oxygen to be a limited resource, while her esophagus simultaneously fought to force back the bile rising up from the knots of her stomach. The backs of her eyelids seared, ears only partially comprehending Jasen’s muffled repetitions of her name as she pitched sideways into the wall. Her legs threatened to buckle and her fingers snatched out for a hold on Jasen’s tattered sweatshirt.

“It’s not, tell me it’s not,” her words were drawn out thin enough to break. “Jase, it’s not him, it’s not Damon, it’s not–”

A pair of ashen, jerking hands crept up over Damon’s chest and drug the rest of a Walker from where it had been hidden on the other side of the door, repositioned themselves to stretch back his head and allow its teeth to sink into his throat. When it tore away a mouthful of stringy flesh and turned its silver eyes up to see them, Carsen went rigid.

“You’re fucking kidding…” Jasen breathed.

Because it could have been anyone, but it was her. Long drapes of thick sandy hair framing soft, rounded cheeks, mousy eyes lined with black where mascaraed tears must have streaked, pouty lips lathered with blood: Laura Vaine.

“Jasen. Give me the axe.”

Somewhere far off, the echoes of Johnson Hall’s fire alarms began to thrum.

“Carsen–”

She snatched viciously for the handle’s wood, trying to pry it from his hold. “I need to do this. Let me do this, Jasen–” He was shaking his head, his eyes darting back and forth between Carsen and Laura rising unsteadily to her feet. “Let me do this! LET ME!

“No, we have to go!”

Carsen had never been one for patience.

Her boot lashed out, snapped one of Laura’s narrow legs into a new, skewed angle. Fingers curled into feral claws at the ends of her arms, catching the dead version of the girl she had never even liked alive under the chin as it reeled uncoordinatedly toward her. She thrust it up against the corridor wall — each heated breath she spat fueling the rise of her fuming, incensed rage — found a firmer grip about the porcelain throat and cracked the back of its skull against the wallpapered concrete. One, two, three, four times, foul-smelling, soured blood sprayed, vertebrae resounded with a sickening symphony of popping fractures. It was still wheezing at her, the uneven exhales of air pushing out its lungs blistering the insides of her nose with a combined reek of festering wounds and dried-out roadkill. The thing that used to be Laura took a fistful of her hair, its joints clicking in protest when it pulled, trying to bring her face to meet its gaping mouth; Carsen’s lips pulled apart and she bared her teeth, her chest rending open as she shrieked, howled back at it, animalistic. Her hands inched up the lifeless gray of its face until each of her thumbs sunk deep into the cold, rubbery eye sockets and crimson oozed out down her forearms.

Then she was heaving with the effort breathing took, dropping the limp body to the carpet and swaying on the precarious balance her rapidly weakening knees provided. Adrenaline seemed to rush out of her all at once: it ran fleeting from her bones and drained too hurriedly from her veins, leaving her hazed and light-headed as she turned and saw the argent eyes of a second Walker lurching for her.

The head of Gabe’s axe came whistling past her nose in Jasen’s hands. Without the energy enough to flinch back from the wicked proximity, Carsen blinked fluttering lashes at the cleaving open of a dark-haired, doe-eyed face that some tiny part of her was convinced she should recognize.

“Oh my God, oh my God, Kaylyn,” Shaking his head, Jasen staggered back from the three bodies, tugged a hand through his tangled hair. “Gabe, he told me, Gabe said she would be here, he asked me to look for her, Gabe, he–”

“We didn’t find her.” Carsen said, words unsettlingly frigid. “She wasn’t here.”

Her hand reached for the bright plastic of the third floor fire alarm and pulled.

Eric

“What the fuck happened?”

His arms were aching with the effort of carrying Ryne, sweat had slicked sticky paths down his chest and between his shoulder blades, and he could see the glistening of it across Gabe’s forehead. Jasen and Carsen had already been waiting when they came sprinting onto the bridge; Haley, Jae, and Polsi had raced ahead to meet them. The axe dangling from Jasen’s left hand was dribbling fresh, hot scarlet. Carsen’s arms were slicked clear up to the elbows with the same metallic ardency.

“Minor complications.” drawled Carsen. Jasen looked down at his feet and nodded.

“Where’re Kayla, Alec?”

She shrugged halfheartedly, unconcerned.

“They never met us in Stauffer,” offered Jasen, prickling anxiety flaring in his eyes when they flicked up to momentarily meet Eric’s. “We waited as long as we could, but Walkers were coming in everywhere…”

“They’ll get here,” Eric said, trying to convince himself as much as the rest of their group. “Just a little behind, maybe they got caught up. We’ll wait for them inside, take turns standing guard–”

“Can’t.” Carsen interrupted. “Doors won’t open. We already tried. They’re barricaded.”

Polsi and Jae piped up simultaneously, both pointing in unison. “There! It’s them, look!”

Alec was running for two, supporting a limping Kayla with on his right side and squinting with eyes that had lost the glasses he usually wore. The both of them were gulping desperately for more breath, stumbling as fast as they could from the frontside of Wanburg until they rounded the edge of the bridge and nearly collapsed. When Kayla tried to brace her full weight on her own two feet, a pained yelp jumped from her throat and she fell against Alec again.

“She twisted her ankle,” he managed between each pull for more air. “She couldn’t run, we had to loop around past Turner, couldn’t risk meeting in Stauffer–”

The pounding of Carsen’s closed fist on the tinted glass doors of the athletic center cut him off. There was one shadow, then two, hovering just on the opposite side, looking back out at her. People, Eric passed his half of Ryne to Jasen. More people alive, they’ll help us, they have to help us. When he stepped forward and attempted to tug one of the doorhandles beside Carsen, the remainder of their wearied group pressed in close behind them. 

“Open up! Hey!” Carsen leaned her forehead against the glass, slapped the flat of her palm repeatedly, furiously against the door. “I can see you in there! Let us in!

This time, when he dug in his heels and pulled, it yielded.

Broad-shouldered Kevin Marquez stood stoic on the other side, blocking their way in.

“Holy shit, Marquez,” relief drenched Eric’s words. “It’s damn good to see you man, look, you gotta help us, Ryne was hurt and we barely made it here–”

“No.” The serrated command came from behind Marquez. “They don’t come in.”

“You can’t keep us out here! You know us, please–”

No.” More insistently steeled. “We don’t take any bitten.”

“Ryne wasn’t bitten!” Carsen snarled back, trying to move past Eric, though he caught her with one arm and held her back. “Take a fucking look, it’s just a cut–”

“She’s right, just look at him,” Eric tried to step ahead, holding out a cautious hand to Marquez. “Please–”

The long, dark barrel of a hunting rifle suddenly leveled itself with Eric’s forehead, the blonde hair and glacial eyes of Melanie Peel standing at the other end. “I said, you don’t come in. The freshmen’s bit, she’s with you, we won’t take that.”

“It’s just her ankle, it–” Alec’s strained voice broke off when Polsi darted forward and tugged up at the leg of Kayla’s pants, revealing the telltale torn skin and purpled marks of human teeth.

“Like I said, you don’t come in.”

“Then we’ll leave her.” Everyone faltered into a complete lack of words when Carsen spoke up again. “Or you can put her down, your choice, Peel.”

“Cars,” started Jae, talking over the breaking of Kayla’s terrified sobbing and Alec’s weak promise that he would stay with her. “We can’t just leave them–”

“There isn’t a choice, don’t you get it? She’s dead already.”

Eric sat up that night on first watch, keeping his eyes trained on the moon’s gradual arch across the charcoal sky as Alec’s blood-curdling screams blended with the gurgling and slathered ripping of Kayla picking him apart.

Through it all, Carsen slept.

Mattie

Ragged, guttural growling disrupted the stringy songs of the dusk’s crickets, an unpleasant sound that stole her focus for but half a moment before it fell away into unnoticed white noise. It was nothing she hadn’t grown used to.

She wrung out her drenched clothes with bare, calloused hands, nose wrinkling up as she drew in a long breath to relish the faint smell of chlorine through the musky stench of rotting flesh and split blood.

Chet’s throaty wailing started up somewhere back in the shadows.

“Keep that up and they’ll never leave, and you know what that means,” She warned, wagged a scolding finger as she stretched on to her tiptoes and hung her shirt to dry. “You don’t want to make me do that, do you?”

A scalding hiss answered in agreement with her singsong voice and Chet sputtered out into a quiet whimpering.

Mattie smiled into the dark.

… to be continued
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