The wind had turned cold. There had been a chill earlier, but it hadn’t bothered her so when she left, she hadn’t grabbed her jacket from the counter. It wasn’t winter yet, and the nights had been mild. She was a big girl, she’d grown up there and had lived there all her life, she could handle a little October chill.
And it hadn’t been that cold when she left. Come on Jess, you’re tougher than this, she thought as she tripped over another root. She’d been walking through the woods for a while now, stumbling through the dark forest trying to find her damned boyfriend. Dennis had gone out there earlier and at this point in her search for him she was sure she was going to kill him if she did find him.
Damn! Another root she hadn’t seen, and nearly tripped over. She caught herself, she always had been graced with amazing balance but after the years of boxing and martial arts training, her balance only improved. Now she was not only a well toned fighting machine that people often overlooked due to her smaller stature, but she was also as graceful as a butterfly on a spring morning. Dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
She scanned around her with her flashlight. She was still on the path Dennis had taken. He had told her it was the path to the lake though she thought they were much closer to the lake than this. She’d been walking for twenty minutes and still no trace of it.
Had he lied to her? If so, his ass was grass when she got her hands on him.
She had just left hung out with Lizzie earlier when Dennis had called and said he had made arrangements for them to go to his dad’s cabin for the weekend. They’d never been up there, and Lizzie had never heard of his dad owning a cabin, which she had thought was strange for how long they’ve been together. She would have thought he’d have said something in all that time. He knew how much she loved rustic cabins. They brought back some of her best memories with her grandpa and fishing trips as a little girl.
He knew that. She had told him stories about it.
Then when he picked her up, he had explained that his dad had just bought the cabin. He hadn’t discussed it with any of them, even his mom. So now both his parents were fighting, the big D word, divorce, has been thrown around a few times though Jessica couldn’t imagine it coming to that. Those two were such an amazing couple who normally did everything together.
This trip had been as much as a romantic getaway for them as it was an escape from his parents fighting. Though Jessica didn’t know how much his dad paid for it, she thought that whenever his mom did come to give it a chance, she would like it.
The cabin was clean, much cleaner than she expected after hearing the story of his dad buying it on a whim. She had assumed his dad had gotten it especially cheap which led her to believe it would have been a small shack covered in dust and filled with animal bones. She had expected to walk into a horror film, much like Lizzie had, and was surprised when she had found a well cleaned, nicely furnished rustic cabin home out in the woods.
Dennis had immediately put their bags in the upper bedroom and then had gone outside to start up the wood stove. Okay, maybe it was a charcoal grill… she hadn’t looked it over too closely but knew he had to work to get the fire started and once it warmed up, he had thrown on steaks he had brought with him.
He had done it up, that was sure. He had cooked steaks on the grill, lit the fireplace in the main room of the cabin. Then somehow, he had placed and lit half a dozen candles throughout so that when he brought in dinner, they had cozy firelight, that romantic flicker washing over them as they ate.
If there wasn’t the air hanging over them about his parents fighting, she would have thought he was going to propose to her. He had already asked her to marry him once before, but that had been a shamefully bad attempt and had gone terribly. She knew he felt bad about that and wondered if he was going to do it again now that he had gone all out and created this wonderful setting.
She felt a tingle inside her. No, that tingle was on her arm. She felt something something dancing along the skin, and found herself back in the woods, ripped out of her memory from earlier to look at her arm, shaking it and quickly stepping away from where she had been.
She flashed the flashlight in that direction and couldn’t see anything and she still felt that tingling. She looked, it was getting closer to her body, moving up her arm. She moved the light beam to her arm and…
There was nothing there. She ran her hand along her fingers along her arm, accidentally flashing to light into her own eyes, but couldn’t feel anything where she had felt the tingle. There was nothing there.
Damn she was really starting to hate the woods. What had ever allowed her to think she would like it out there.
This wasn’t anything like when she had gone camping with her parents as a kid. Those places had woods, but it was like a controlled wooded area. Small patches of trees easy to walk through and you never got the sense that you were getting lost. No matter which way she walked, she would have found a campsite within ten to fifteen minutes. Now, she had no clue which way she was going. She wasn’t where she had been coming from. Both ways looked the same. It was all the same and it was so dark out there.
On their drive up she had marveled at how beautiful the moon had been. It had been large in the sky and so bright she was sure that if Dennis had turned off his lights, they’d be able to find their way in that dark brightness.
Yeah, well, where was that moon now because she couldn’t see a thing. The trees reached so high and all of them joined together to blot out any chance of her seeing the sky above her.
She was lost. She should call out, yell, and maybe Dennis could hear her. She didn’t want him to know she was freaking out, but she was out there looking for him, why not call out his name?
“Dennis!” She yelled, not quite at the top of her lungs, not yet, but she still had a booming voice and in the silence of the woods around her, it was loud to her own ears. “Dennis!”
Why had he even left the cabin? He had set the scene, it was perfect. She thought he was going to come around the table and get down on one knee. They had been sharing a moment, just looking deeply into on another’s eyes.
Then he had stood up, said he needed to take a walk down to the lake and that he’d be right back and that was it. A half hour later and he still hadn’t returned. It had gotten dark, and he had left without a flashlight. Jessica didn’t know what to do, afraid that if she left to look for him, he would return to find her missing.
She had started looking through drawers in the kitchen not even realizing she was doing it. She just needed to do something while she waited. It was when she found the flashlight that it occurred to her that she had been searching for it.
What was up with him? This wasn’t like him, and it made those knots forming in her stomach twist to think about what it meant. What if he hadn’t brought her up there to propose again? What if he brought her up there to break it off? Could she have done something wrong? Something that might have upset him? She couldn’t think of anything. Nothing. They had been happy, or so she thought.
But he had walked away from her. No real explanation, he just got up and left.
What the hell!? The path ended abruptly to thorn bushes. She hadn’t been paying attention and walked right into them, and they were tearing into her flesh. As she pulled herself back, she could see the scrapes on her hands as well as something else. There was something white and stringy. It stretched out from the bushes and was all over her arms, clinging to her sweater and hands.
It took her far longer than it should have to recognize the strands of the spider web. It probably had something to do with all the shifting black things that had kept her from fully comprehending what she had stepped into.
“Oh God, what the fuck.” She exclaimed as she took another step back, stumbling as she did. Damn another root, they’re frickin’ everywhere, she thought as she bit back another curse.
She lifted her foot higher and took another step backwards, this time slow so as to not put all her weight when she wasn’t sure of the ground. Her arms still had so much of the white crap, and she kept shaking them, trying to get it off her. Those couldn’t be spiders, she had to keep telling herself that, but she could feel the tickling sensation moving across her arms. Then she felt them getting under her shirt. They were getting everywhere.
Her foot came down on something raised but it was also soft. She shifted her balance; glad she had kept her calm and had moved slowly. It was easy as she felt the dancing devils getting everywhere.
She turned as she moved and shined the flashlight down; glad she hadn’t dropped it.
Dennis was on the ground. A shape just behind it looked like a person hovering over him. If Jessica had continued back, she would have fallen over the person. The person was looking down, close to Dennis as though she was kissing on his chest and neck. She was moving viciously, and it almost looked like they were making out if it wasn’t for how still Dennis was with his eyes open and lifeless.
Then the face looked up at her, blood dripping from her mouth and Jessica recognized her though it wasn’t easy. The woman’s face was mangled, her skull looking like it had been crushed, one eye having exploded out of its socket and had dripped, now dried on her cheek. Her teeth were white beneath the blood splatter and caught in a haunting smile as she spoke.
“Hey Jess, missed me?” Sarah said, her voice on the verge of a cackling laugh as she spoke.
“Sarah..” The name escaped her own lips, though Jessica didn’t know this alien weak sound.
In the woods behind Sarah, others emerged, all mangled, blood dripping from wounds. None of these people she recognized, and she found herself looking back at what was her former friend as she stood up from where she had been devouring Jess’s fiancé.
Jessica wanted to back away and run. She could feel the tingle all over her body, it was electricity in the air and sent sparks to every part of her telling her to run. The dead were there for her, and she needed to escape.
Spiders. That was what made herself tingle. Come one Jess, they’re covering your body, you were trying to shake them off when you stumbled upon the dead.
She shown the light back to the bushes behind her, but they were gone. Behind her was a wide-open clearing, inside of which stood the shadow of a man. She flashed the light to where she saw the shadow, but the light went through him. She had to blink to wonder if she actually saw it, but then a twig snapped, and it brought her spinning back to face the oncoming horror.
Jess, if you want to run, now you can. You saw where the path went now. Through the clearing the path went on. You can get out of here, escape.
She looked down at her fiancé, the mangled mess of his neck was exposed, his trachea stretched out to the side. She could see now that his eyes were gone, their sockets rough from where someone must have fought to scoop them out.
They had done this. Sarah had done this. Sarah.
Inside her, the flame burned and she knew she wasn’t going to run. She knew it from the moment she had seen Dennis on the ground. She wasn’t a runner. She was a fighter.
As Sarah came into range, Jessica took a brief step back and then launched forward, using her full weight and all her training to bring the blow perfect to slam into her jaw. It connected and with a satisfying crunch, she thought it t drove Sarah’s face back. Then she realized to late that her fist had broken through Sarah’s jaw, sinking through the brittle bone into her face. It through Jessica’s balance off. She had made a beginner’s error for any fight. She had over committed her weight and with that mistake, she found herself falling forward.
Within a heart beat she could feel hands on her. Sarah twisted around, and as Jessica fell, she could feel the woman falling with her. Jessica fought to soften her landing, but she could feel Sarah’s hands as they pulled at her. She was trapped, all of them were around her and she knew it, soon they would all be tearing into her.
She briefly wondered how Sarah would be munching on her with her mouth now a crunched, smashed in pulp of bone and dead flesh. As she hit ground, Jess twisted herself and realized her hand was still in Sarah’s face. The resistance of having her hand stuck prevented her from being able to turn with the fall, allowing the blunt force of the drop slam into her shoulder. The air left her. She winced in pain no matter how hard she tried to push it away and stay focused on getting out of there.
She rolled naturally from the fall, but her hand held fast. She could feel something soft and wet suctioning on it, like a muscle around her hand was contracting. She tried to pull away but the feeling intensified, nearly crushing her fingers together.
Jess turned to look, not being able to see to well and not sure where she had dropped the flashlight. What she saw even in the dark light was the shape, what was left of Sarah’s face, around Jessica’s hand. What had been her mouth, had gone inward when she had been hit but was was left of it was now around Jessica’s hand and it was like she was trying to maw on it, using the fractured pieces of her jaw to bite down with teeth that were no longer there.
“Ugh,” escaped her and she pulled harder on her hand. As she did, she was the spiders that had been crawling on her moving along her arm and up her legs. They danced in her hair and along her skin. She wanted to brush them away, but already Sarah was reaching out, frantically clawing at her, pulling at her clothes.
Then there the other dead people. They had surrounded her and now we’re dropping down to their knees reaching out their own hands at her. She didn’t know when, but she had somehow become a victim in some zombie film as the dead surrounded her, grunted and reached to tear at her flesh. When had zombies become real? Had she missed the email on that one?
“Get the fuck off me you mother fucking fuckers!” She wasn’t just talking about the spiders or zombie things; she was talking about all of it. She kicked out and thrashed, trying to keep any of them from getting a good grip on her. When she thought she had worked herself into having room to move, she quickly reached down to push herself up.
Jess was hoping to check the closest zombie and get it out of her way so she could run back to the cabin. She was stopped when she reached down and felt her hand slip in a puddle of something wet and sticky under her.
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it.
She didn’t have time to think about it, just work with it. Maybe it was why these things were having a hard time grabbing hold of her. Now that she realized just how much of it had spread on the ground around her, she noticed how much she was covered in it.
They had also fallen in it. His blood was what keeping her alive as their hands were just as slick as hers. Just she was a fighter and used to reacting quickly, using her weight and her body as a weapon. Even in the dark she had balance and her inner perception. As she moved, she looked inside to find that center and pushed in to find that calm that came to her when the outer rage burned.
She found her balance, twisted, and turned spinning as she stood so they couldn’t grab her and then she was up standing. There was a large man on his knees in front of her. She didn’t even slow her momentum as she shifted her weight, accounting for the slippery ground and brought her knee up to connect with his face. It found its home and his head rocked back and the force of the blow propelled him out of her way.
Then she was running and found herself past him. She was on the path, she knew it was the right one and if she continued to run, she would find herself back at the cabin, safe and able to call for help. All she had to do was keep running. The flashlight was gone, but the moon had re-emerged. The path was lit in the moonlight bright enough for her to see and she knew if she went back, she wouldn’t trip on a single root.
Yet she stopped in the path and turned back around to face the dead.
Jessica was not a runner. She hadn’t run since she was a child and had runaway that first time. That time when he had hurt her mom. She ran then, and her mom had been put into the hospital. Jessica had ran, and ran, and ran until she found a place to run too.
She had only been a teenager when she had found the gym, the small one that was almost hidden in its neighborhood. It was an old building and looked like the gym had been there for a long time though Jessica hadn’t remembered ever seeing it before.
She had stepped into the building crying, unsure of why she was going in. She hadn’t ever been in any gym other than the one at her school and that was for P.E. and cheerleading practice.
Inside it wreaked of sweat, old and new, and while the building seemed abandoned on the outside, inside was a bustle of activity. Upon walking in the door, she was attacked by the noise of clattering weights as they crashed down, and the loud thump from the back of the room as people dropped down barbells. To her left was a line of treadmills currently being used by a couple of old women as they walked, focused on some far destination as though they would ever get there.
She didn’t know what to do, she hadn’t known why she had gone in there. She just stood there in the doorway unsure of what to do. She just kept watching in her mind as her dad struck her mom, throwing her against the wall.
“Can I help you?”
She blinked herself out of her trance and turned to see an older man stand behind the counter. He wasn’t old, old, but she’d guess he was easily over 50. A woman who came in behind her and walked past, tossed down a card on the counter as she addressed the man as “Stone.”
“Hey Rachel,” Stone said to the passerby, keeping his eyes on this crying teenager who had just appeared from outside. “You competing in Strongman this weekend?”
“Not sure. Might have to work.”
“Okay, just let me know and I’ll need your entry fee by Friday.”
Jessica watched as the woman strode across the gym to where there stood a boxing ring in the back corner. A man already stood in the ring stretching. Without pausing the woman tossed her gym bag aside and climbed into the ring.
“You ready to get your ass kicked?” She asked.
The man in head gear and boxing gloves nodded. She gave him a clap on the back and then jumped down to where her bag had landed and started taking out her own boxing equipment.
“Hey kid! Can I help you.”
With a sniff and a wipe at drying tears, Jessica turned from the spectacle in the back.
“Do you teach people how to fight?”
“We do. We offer classes. Boxing, Tai Kwan Do, other forms of self defense. You should have your parents come sign you up.”
“What if it’s my dad I need to defend myself from?”
She saw something cross the man’s face, a cracking of stone she thought as the man had looked as hard as nails. Then he looked down to study the floor and then up to look outside the window. He looked anywhere except to look back at the kid crying before him.
Jessica knew when she wasn’t wanted. It came from growing up and knowing that you were never wanted around. Stone might have felt this way, but it was being better than her dad would have been. He would have flat out yelled at her, telling her to get her lazy, ugly ass out of there.
She went to leave. Stone called out to her before she could do more than set her hand on the door.
“Are you a runner or a fighter?”
Jessica turned back to look at him.
“I don’t want him hitting her.”
“Are you a runner or a fighter?”
“I don’t know.” Her tears returned.
“Go out that door and you’re a runner. You’ll what, runaway in a year or so, end up on the streets. Maybe end up in foster care when they find you if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, you’ll actually get away, maybe make it to some big city and end up doing what to survive? Have you thought about that?”
Her hand dropped away from the door. She felt sick to her stomach. He couldn’t be right, could he? She wasn’t going to abandon her mom, was she?
She turned back to him, finding a resolve forming inside her that she never knew was there.
“I’m a fighter.”
“Are you sure, because it looks like you ran here.”
“He hurts my mom. I want him to stop.”
“Then call the police.” Stone locked eyes with her and Jessica steps closer to his counter.
“Cops don’t care. They’ve come and never do anything.”
“I can call them. I’ve got friends.”
Jessica looked past him as Rachel was climbing back into the ring. She was in full fighting gear now and she had a dangerous air around her. She was electrified with a grace and moved with a confidence.
“There’s other ways to fight.”
“Yeah, Yeah, there are.” Stone looked back to the ring. “Wait until she’s done with her lesson then talk to her. Tell her I’ll pay for your lessons.”
“What do you mean.”
“I mean your going to become a fighter.”
And she had. Years of boxing, followed by various forms of kickboxing and karate turned her into on hell of a fighter.
It took time but eventually her dad stopped hitting her mom.
She was a fighter. She had made that decision. She didn’t run away. She wasn’t going to run now. If she ran to the cabin what would happen. Dennis was dead, killed by these dead things. If she let them go, who else would die by their hands. What if they didn’t follow her. They could go to town or one of the other neighboring communities. What if they got into these residential areas and went on a feeding frenzy? How would she live with herself if other people died and she would have been able to stop it?
She stood on the path and watched as the dead things worked themselves to where they were standing. Jessica wasn’t sure what they were, if they were zombies or ghouls or whatever the correct term was. She knew they could be fast. They had been lashing at her, viciously grabbing at her before.
She had to be faster. They had to be stopped. They killed Dennis; they could kill others. She changed that, repeating it in her head. Then she came at them.
The big one was closest. She struck him first with a round house kick that was timed to keep her moving. Her foot had connected with his already broken face, and it crumpled more of his skull. The momentum of the blow sent him into a nearby tree with a satisfying ‘crack.’
Two more had been behind him. These two were smaller and looked like they had been much younger when they died. These two seemed different from Sarah and the larger man. They weren’t moving fast to get to her, and they looked more at each other than at her. Their hands held each other’s, had these two been lovers?
Jessica wasn’t going to waste time thinking about it. They were dead, their feelings didn’t matter. They were killers and she was going to put them down.
Her fist flew forward, her weight behind the blow as it slammed into his face. He staggered back and like expected, the girl had reached out for her. Jessica grabbed it and twisted, launching the girl over back and sending her to the ground. Jessica followed it up with a kick down, slamming the girl hard in the chest. Jessica didn’t hold back as she would with a living opponent and brought down her weight and she heard the satisfying crunch as ribs broke.
Then she spun around in time to see that the man, and Sarah were both coming for her. Sarah’s face was a mess, nearly unrecognizable, but Jessica knew those eyes though the fury in them was foreign.
In most fights, Jessica would have considered the man to be the bigger threat and have attacked him while blocking Sarah. Something screamed at her that if she did that, she was dead. The man had no life left in his eyes, this wasn’t a fight of passion with him, but Sarah was a beast who had gone rabid. Turning away from her would be a costly mistake.
Her adrenaline was flowing. She could see herself as she moved, and it made her think of an action movie. She wasn’t quite like Jackie Chan and now fights were always so choreographed with chairs and ladders all around him so he could use them as weapons. No, this was bare knuckle. This was a classic Van Damme film. She was a master, a brawler, and she saw it all as she was on the attack for her remaining opponents.
Jessica approached them almost with a strut of confidence, and when Sarah reached forward, Jessica grabbed it. She pulled and used the force to twist and spin into the man. The blow knocked him off his feet and freed Jessica to continue to spin and driving a powerful blow again into Sarah’s already weakened head. There was more crunching as the blow connected and the center of Sarah’s face crushed inward.
If she had been in an action film before, she had just crossed over into the absurd, cheesiness of a bad horror film. One of those films that went over the top with the gore, because as she hit Sarah her fist sunk deeper into her face than Jessica thought it should. Her fist going until she felt the thickness of the back of Sarah’s skull.
What had been Sarah’s brain, the grey matter that had made her a walking corpse was all over Jessica’s hand and it was like a jello mold around her fist. It suctioned around her hand as she tried to pull it back, sucking at it. Sarah wasn’t fighting her and her body had gone limp, but the skull wouldn’t release her. As the body fell to the ground, Jessica was trapped and going with it. She fell, and only had a moment to realize she was going to land next to next to Dennis.
I’m going to marry him… She had come out there to find her fiancé because he had been acting so weird, but they were supposed to be planning the best day of their lives for a future together. There was still a lot to do, they hadn’t even been able to lock down a date yet, but she still could see it in her mind.
It was going to be in the church she had gone to while growing up. It was a beautiful church that loomed grandly in her memories. The cathedral rose high, the bell tower rising higher and ringing those wedding bells announcing that it was her day. Their day really as they were joining their lives together.
She would have a purple dress, having already decided that she would never be satisfied with traditional white. Tradition was for those who invited her family, a mother, and a father. Her mother would be there, she would be giving Jessica away, but her father…
He would never be allowed within a hundred feet of the ceremony. Jessica had the restraining order and had taught him more than once what happened when he broke it. He broke it, she broke bones. Not just one, but multiple. She enjoyed hearing him scream.
So no father to ruin the day, It was going to be filled with only things that would make her happy. Dennis. He made her happiest of all, and as her mother walked her down the aisle, he would be there, standing in front of Father Abraham. He would be in a suit, his friends behind him, his older brother standing as his best man behind him. Tony, the brother, would have the rings hidden away, his irresponsible self, doing something right this time.
She would walk the aisle and once next to him, he would take her hand, and hold that hand until they were married. She would never let him go.
And as she fell, she thought of him, how she loved him, and was never going to let him go. Not in her heart…
She landed hard, no hands available to steady or catch herself. Her balance was off by her hand being stuck so she had no way to prepare, to tuck and roll with the motion. No, all of her weight and the momentum of her punch came down on her and she crashed into the unforgiving earth with the air expelling in a rush from her lungs.
The thing that was Sarah somehow landed on top of her and she immediately felt hands pulling at her. She knew it wouldn’t be long before the things around her pulled themselves close and were biting into her, and really, what did it matter anymore.
She was looking into the dead eyes of Dennis as he was less than a foot away from her. Those dead eyes that killed her soul and twisted the knife buried in her chest. She wanted tears to flow but the cold had already dried them away.
She felt the stabbing pain as teeth ripped into her leg. Then more as something landed on top of her and tore a chunk out of her back. More hands grabbed at her; they were pulling in all different directions. If she wanted, she could turn over, or try to, she wasn’t sure she could do it, and use her hands to fight at them as they made their way onto her. She had done it once; she could probably do it again.
But she didn’t. Instead, she reached out her hand, extending to where Dennis was. His was covered in blood as was hers. Still, hers slipped into his like they were meant to always be holding each other.
Blood was filling her lungs. The pain was shooting through her thoughts making everything around her impossible to focus on, but she fought it. As she gasped, wheezing towards her last breath, she coughed out “I love you.”
His hand slipped out of hers. She felt it but had to blink away the tears to see why. The pain had dulled as the world grew colder. Through her blurry vision, she watched as Dennis was moving. He was a shape coming towards her.
She couldn’t help herself, but she smiled as she coughed up another lung full of blood.
“Den-“ she couldn’t get it out as her chest spasmed. It didn’t matter. She used her outstretched arm to pull herself towards him though she could see he was nearly to her. She thought maybe they they would get their one last kiss. She hadn’t realized just how much to yearned to feel those lips again.
His lips neared her own and she could see the blood splattering his own lips. He had a large toothy smile, and she tried to force herself to return it through the pain. His mouth opened wide, and she had a brief second to mentally question why he was opening his mouth so wide when he was going to kiss her and why did it look like his mouth was full of spiders.
Then his mouth closed over her own, and her scream was cut short as he bit off her own lips. The little bit that had remained of her mind, that had stayed focused on Dennis was ripped away as insanity took her moments before she was lost to the eternal night.