"Alive"

Written By

Haleigh Diann

The moon shines bright tonight. It casts long shadows I can’t help but make
monsters out of. I tighten my grip on my shotgun and run my thumb across the familiar
chip in the wood stock. I used to love full moons. I’d sit in the fields and watch the rays
dance across the hay. Now I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to notice them. It’s
impossible.

If I don’t allow the dark shapes moving in the trees to be monsters, they will
become them when I'm not ready, And not being ready means certain death. I glance at my companion. She sits undisturbed by the black creatures dancing behind her. I don’t think she’s ever not ready, and I’ve watched the forest and its beasts test her for weeks.

“I wanted to be a pianist. Before the world went to shit, I’d practice three hours a
day, every fucking day. Kinda feels stupid now, doesn’t it?” She leans closer to the fire,

the flames reach towards her like arms. For a moment, it looks like she wants to lean
into their embrace. Her eyes darken and her mouth flat lines. I stop breathing.

She leans back, setting her rifle across her lap. She examines her hands as best
she can with them thickened by hand-made gloves. They are dainty hands, I can see
them floating over white keys with ease, though I will not tell her that. Her fingertips
peek through, brown in the moonlight and dirty-nailed. That is more like the iron grip I
know.

She shivers from the cold and huddles in her thick aviator jacket. I breathe in
again and swallow hard, knocking my knuckles against the barrel of my shotgun.
Crickets sing and the fire flickers, but it is quiet. It is the peaceful moment after sunset,
when everything, even the monsters, are asleep. There’s a stillness that seems wrong
to break, the silence that tugs most beings to unconsciousness. I can’t though. I haven’t closed my eyes for more than a couple hours time since the first zombie tore through my barn and massacred the life I’d known.

“I wanted to raise cattle.”

My words are soft, but other than her the only presence is the night. She snorts,
throwing one of her small hands up to cover her mouth. I smile with her, though I'm not sure why she finds it funny. I know I'm not made for this world; despite callouses that thicken my palms I can’t shoot like she does. The dry, dead grass that crunches
beneath our feet when we walk through destroyed ranches and gardens on a desperate bid for life is quiet beneath her boots, and loud and treacherous beneath mine.

She lowers her hand, her mirth recedes with it. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Not really. I’m just not used to people that want to grow something. Not
anymore.”

“I know, I’m weird.”

She laughs again but it’s gone from her face by the time the sound of it reaches
my ears.

It does that. Happiness doesn’t exist for long at the end of the world. Neither
does peace, so we relish in it. We sit beside the fire, shoulders touching, breathes
uniting, eyes watching the dark pine trees, until the fire embers fade and dawn breaks.
Neither of us sleeps or speaks.

When it’s like this, it’s easy to forget that we’re supposed to be just as wild as the
wolves we can hear howling. That the lone hawk circling above our heads isn’t much
different than us. Fighting and looking for somewhere, anywhere, to rest.

“Come on.”

She doesn’t stretch her hand out, but her voice shakes me from my reverie well
enough.

XXX

It’s snowed. In the night, a light blanket has laid down in the woods and settled in
our hair. We never stopped moving, pressing through the forest like it would save us
from what we’d seen. They are close. A neighborhood carcass greeted us at dusk the
day before, and we are wild things now. Humanity is gone and so we walk away from it, wary and ready for the vestiges to appear.

The rapport of gunfire echoes throughout the woods. She crouches in front of
me, black hair whipping in the winter wind. She’s all she-wolf, a wild animal caught in a
corner. She’ll fight with teeth bared and weapons drawn, I’ve seen it. I believe in it. I
press my back to hers, breath ragged and shotgun shaking. The forest is noisy and I
strain my ears to hear the sounds of death. It comes with the crunching of foliage and
haggard choking gasps, something that could almost be words twisted into snarled
growls.

A figure slumps through the trees and I feel the familiar punch of my gun’s recoil
hit my shoulder before I can find its face. The beast falls in a pile of leaves, they
cascade back down and hide it from view. Barely, but just enough.

It is just a beast. Nothing more and only one.

She looks at me, also breathing hard but the expression on her face, lips drawn-
up, eyes wild, makes her look exhilarated. How she fights them so well, I’ll never know.
But I’m glad she does. She can look at them and see them and not be afraid.

I’ve always been afraid of monsters.

“Did you hear that?”

I can hardly hear her over the sound of my heart. There was a time the forest
was loud, in its own way. Animals are softer than we are, but they’ve always been alive
here. Now their home is more often than not still. Waiting. Life is silent because death
walks on two legs and hunts for noise, foaming at the mouth.

I shake my head and strain my ears.

I hear them then. In the clatter of stumbling steps, warbling wails, I swear I can
smell it, stuffed deep in my throat. It tastes like meat left to boil in the sun. They are
coming, shuffling towards us. I look at her. She looks at me. Together, we check our
ammunition but I already know the answer to the unspoken question floating in the air.

I say it anyway, “If we can spare it, we need too.”

We run.

Heading for silence is almost impossible when it’s your own feet making all the
noise, but we manage. The sun disappears behind the canopy of thick trees, the light
layer of snow kicks up and flecks us but we don’t slow down. I don’t feel the cold
through the pounding in my head and I think she melts the ice on contact.

 

The sounds of the zombies fades behind us. I point towards a tall, bare oak tree.
She doesn’t answer me, not verbally. We’ve been together long enough words are no
longer needed.

 

For one more day, we’ve survived.

 

The tree we are in sways. She settles down on the branch above me, her head
leaned back. Her breath comes in rapid bursts. I don’t need to be a beast to feel the
fear. I just need to have the same emotion coursing through me. I watch the way the
setting sun dances on her dark skin and imagine the warmth she must feel. The same
sun hits me, but I don’t feel it. Not with her so near. Everything she does is fire and heat, everything she touches burns.

Including me.

XXX

“You won’t leave me, will you?”

Her voice is barely loud enough. I roll to my side and look into her steely eyes.
She stares back, pianist hands placed beneath her head. I reach out to stroke her
shoulder, feel a scar. She does the same to me, placing her hand on my face, gloves
and fingers both smooth to the touch.

This is new, the admittance of the hold she has on me. I can’t wrap my head
around it, much less twirl it into measly words. She digs anyway. Every night has a
question and they’re getting darker, just like our days. This one doesn’t leave a bad
taste in my mouth and my reply spills free.

“Of course not.”

Her touch electrifies me and her gaze ensnares. I would no sooner leave her
than I would kill myself.

A cricket screams in time with my heart. It is the wrong answer in these sort of
days. She wants me to be like her, strong enough to carry on alone. But I can’t. I won’t.

She holds onto a frown for a long time. The expression on her face when she
turns sours my stomach. It is a splintered look, worn and angry. The world has tried to
break her. It has tried to break me. Somehow, we both are just bent. I don’t think we can separate without something snapping.

She doesn’t want to admit it and I don’t know how not to. It sounds like
weakness, it is everyone for themselves now, but I’m too shy to tell her that it makes me stronger.

Just when I think my face doesn’t remember how and I have massacred
whatever is between us by using words too heavy, she smiles. I pretend not to notice
the way it shakes. She lets go of my hand, taking all the warmth as she rolls away.

The end of the world happened two years ago but as I watch her, I feel it all over
again.

XXX

I knew it when I first saw her. Blazing fire and strength, she killed the beasts with
a passion I had never seen. I didn’t know why, would only learn of her loss later. But it
was obvious then.

She was on fire and wouldn’t care if the world burned because it was already
dead.

I was ice, unfeeling and not caring, waiting for the end. She lived in those few
moments, savagery and spirit in the strength of her arms and the howl of her voice.
Viciousness glowed as she snarled. She was made for this, for the end of the world and the disease-ravaged creatures that haunt it.

I wasn’t.

I joined her, slipping up behind to guard her back anyway. Her energy was
catching, filtering into me. I didn’t know how she was that alive, but I was drawn like a
moth. She allowed me to stay in the same way a dog will let another join it in times of
duress.

The beasts rued that day.

And somehow, we became a team.

We became us.

It has always been enough for me.

I don’t think it’s the same for her.

XXX

“Are you alright?”

She asks this often, mostly when I have wandered just a bit too far off. Or when I
am just a bit more distracted. We need both of us to scour the land before us, both sets of eyes and ears to listen and see when, and it’s when because there’s never been an if, the zombies come. They always come. Hunger drives them on.

Sometimes, I think they have more to live for than I do. Until she asks me that
and I look into her face. We know each other in a most intimate way, but we do not
understand. I know it is hard for her to talk about why she fights, but I don’t understand
how the fire that courses in her never dims. She knows it’s hard for me to kill, how easy
it is for me to look past the sick-ravaged face and see the human. But I know she
doesn’t understand why it hurts me whenever a bullet flies true.

I know she doesn’t because I don’t understand it myself.

“Yeah.”

The snow glistens in the moonlight. I ignore the cold that bites into my knees and
wade through it. She walks behind me, so close I can feel her breath gust against the
back of my neck. She is there, next to me, and alive.

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

XXX

She walks in front. Her rifle is in her hands and it goes to her shoulder as she
drops to her knee. I follow, pressing in close enough to feel her back rub against my
chest. The touch is all I want, need, in this world. I know why she pulls away, fingers
shaking. We are something, but only in the safety of the night. In the light, we are wild
dogs and nothing more because in the light, when we can see the beasts clearly, we
can’t be human.

That is the way things are supposed to be. But she leans back a fraction, just
enough that her back connects with my chest when she inhales.

Maybe, despite everything, we still are.

Her firing is on target. The oncoming zombies fall. They tumble to the side like
leaves falling from the trees in the autumn breeze, twirling in a way that unsettles my
stomach. They look like children dancing, despite the fact that they are falling. The
sound of them draws more. They stumble and snarl and they are young. Young. My
age, her age, and more youthful still. I lift my gun but my finger can’t find the trigger. I
can only see their faces and hers and wonder what the world has become and if we are the only two in it.

She screams at them, charges forward, fires. Fires and fires again. Again. They
close in. I shake and the rifle wobbles. She leans away as one lunges for her. I can’t
feel her heartbeat now, can’t feel her and the loss stutters me into action.

My own gunfire enters the array. More beasts are enticed by the noise and more
die. We have never been so surrounded.

“The neighborhood!”

She already knows. I don’t know why I said it. Maybe because I forgot. With her
next to me, I forgot about the dead. I can’t forget the cold seeping into my boots, the
rumble of hunger in my stomach, the sting of the wind in my eyes, but I did forget the
reason why. The beasts press on, spill from the treeline and crawl towards us. They are
a never-ending maelstrom of monsters the dark heart of the forest spits out.

She presses closer, her shoulder catches against my knee as she reloads. I can
see the determination in her expression, hear it in her curses. I know her strength, can
see it in her arms as she fires, know she’ll use it with knives if the time comes. This
world has run her down, but hasn’t rubbed her out. She still burns. A lone ember
survives in her.

 

This world burned the heart out of me long ago.

Until she stoked the embers.

I don’t know the time, time is superfluous, time is a marker of the old world. I can
tell it now only in the burn of my lungs, the tremors in my hands, the ringing of my ears.
In the sounds of battle, their snarls, the clatter of precious shells smacking on the
ground. I can hear it too in the sounds of her beside me, her breathing, her cursing, her
satisfied laughs, and it screams that her, that me, that we, are alive, alive, alive.

When the last bullet in her chamber leaves, she uses the butt of her shotgun as a
bludgeon. I give up asking where they’re coming from and how come there are so

many. It was like this in the beginning, so why would the end not be the same? They
have made this place theirs, we are only borrowing it. I take my time, aim, fire, reload,
aim, fire, reload, and ignore the questions that burn my mind.

Who were they before? Do they see me? Are they there behind the eyes
destroyed by illness?

Am I a monster for shooting them or a savior?

When the last of them falls, tumbles down in a flop upon the brown snow, she
spits, “About fucking time.”

I stare down at the body at my feet.

Was he thinking the same thing?

XXX

“What are you thinking about?”

Her question jump starts my heart and I take in the stars that appeared during
the long stretch of time my eyes were closed. She has her head resting on my chest, so I know she must be able to tell. She doesn’t respond. She continues tracing patterns in the material of my shirt. I clench my fingers around her hip, ignore the bite of snow her thin blanket doesn’t hide. When I look up from her to the sky, I can’t find the moon.

“You can tell me.”

She makes it sound easy. I know what she means though, I can pry open my
mouth and tell her. Tell her that shooting them scares me because I wonder if one day
they will be me. Watching her chase after them terrifies me because I know I will not be able to lift my gun if she fell. I can’t do this forever, scrounge and battle and rage war with the half-dead. She can but I can’t, and aren’t I supposed to be the strong one?

“Is this the end?”

She sighs and sits up. It leaves a bigger hole in my chest than just the sudden
cold can give.

We don’t talk about the future or the past. This place in history has time for now
and nothing more. Past is irrelevant and the future is just the very next breath.

“So what if it is?” She says it as if the words are mere whispers.

They settle in my head and thunder around like a caterwaul. This time, it is my
turn to roll over. I can’t shut her out though. I can feel her eyes on me.

“I don’t want it to be either.”

I stare at the snow, study the way the stars glint off the crystals, watch the flakes
close to me melt with my breath as I absorb her tentative sentence. I’ve never heard her voice waver. It makes her sound childlike, breakable. Everything that she’s not.

I roll back over and clear my throat. “Does it have to be?”

“I don’t know.”

It isn’t an answer. I reach for her hands and stare at our interlocked fingers. It
isn’t an answer, but it is the truth. We don’t know. What we are, what they are, what this is, it is all unknown. I only know that her and me together is the only thing I live for. I’m afraid to ask what she lives for.

We stay huddled together until red bleeds into the sky.

XXX

“Where are we going?”

She shoves a low hanging tree branch out of the way and holds it up to allow me
through. Ducking, I study her face. Her jaw is always rigid, mouth always ready to turn
feral and howl. Today it has remained bared, eyes wild and body stiff, she has stalked
the woods like a predator. It took me three hours to get the courage to disturb her march and ask the question.

The zombies she’s looking for must be fleeing from the sight of her. It has been
quiet these last few weeks since the battle in the clearing. Just us and the woods and
the occasional more-dead-than-not monster. My confession has settled between us,
become a giant trap we dance around and pretend not to see. We still don’t have an
answer. She has grown more temperamental since then. I can no longer touch her
without it hurting. I am ice again.

Does this have to be it?

She heaves a sigh. It shakes her body and highlights how the winter has affected
her. Thin, though never weak, her cheekbones are razors upon her face. I know I fair no better, but if she is dimming, I am out. We are tired in a way exhausted doesn’t begin to cover.

“The city.”

Where the people are. Were. Might be.

I stare. Light flares in her eyes and it isn’t from the rising sun. I stare and she
stares back, our breath mixes together into a fog. I haven’t been in a city since months
before the world came crashing down. I knew better than to head that way when the
zombies appeared. The forest, the woods, it’s the only place for us now.

Or, it was.

“Why?”

“We can’t be the only ones that survived.”

“Is this the end?”

Asking why we should go is logical. But logic failed me when the first zombie
walked the earth. Logic has no place here. So I don’t question her. Because, I already
know. It’s there in the way my heart thuds against my rib cage. It’s always been there in her fiery rage, her desire to push on.

I look at her and finally understand.

We are alive. Alive. Not the creatures. We’ve been ghosts of the forests for so
long, I don’t remember what society is like. But neither does she and she stands with
every inch of her stronger than steel.

I reach for her hand and she meets me halfway.

We walk side-by-side, fingers threaded together and hips connecting on every
step, towards the sunlight.

Haleigh Diann is an avid animal lover who has always been enamored with the
power of the written word. She lives at home in northeastern Oklahoma sculpting
stories and caring for her gaggle of creatures.