Reckoning in an Undead Age
Their mission was to save the world. Will they be able to save themselves?
In Portland, a crisis looms—and Miranda stumbles upon a secret. It might be the key to avert catastrophe, but only if she gains the trust of an unreliable ally.
Mario’s journey to San Jose is complicated by an unexpected discovery that brings what he’s lost into stark relief—and reminds him of what he still has to lose.
Faced with a reckoning, Miranda must make things right, while Mario risks everything, even the people he loves. Can they finish their mission and find their way back to one another, or will they become another casualty of the Undead Age?
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: ZBZ-1 press
Print pages: 675
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Reckoning in an Undead Age
“It never stops being eerie.”
Doug nodded. He knew exactly what Skye meant, for Eureka was a ghost town.
There were lots of human skeletons, falling down buildings, and disintegrating roads in varied stages of reabsorption by the natural world, but so far, very few zombies. They’d seen foxes, bald eagles, a pack of wolves that had melted back into the trees, and even a fleeting glimpse of a mountain lion. Doug half-expected to cross paths with a Grizzly bear. Before the zombie apocalypse, grizzlies had been extinct in California for over a hundred years, their existence acknowledged only by their inclusion on California’s State Seal. Doug knew that Grizzlies had reclaimed their place in California, even though they were not the same subspecies. He’d never seen one himself. This far north, he reckoned his chances were higher. He also hoped that if it happened, it would be at a distance.
“Should we keep going or call it quits?”
“I don’t know,” Skye said, squinting up at the clear sky, then back to him. “We’ve been gone a good three hours, and we lucked out at the hospital.”
“Yeah,” Doug said. “It was weird there were hardly any zombies, all those meds.”
Skye’s eyes held a warning. “Don’t look a gift horse and all that. You’re lucky I agreed to check out the hospital in the first place.” She paused, then said, “The animals we’ve seen haven’t seemed spooked by anything but us. Let’s go a little farther.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t press our luck.”
She smiled at him, the make-his-heart-flutter-in-his-chest smile. “You love pressing your luck.”
Doug shrugged, unable to refute it, but also knowing that this truth didn’t fit him quite as well as when they’d met. He had loved to push the envelope, to balance on the edge of what was prudent and what was foolhardy, even dangerous, for as long as he could remember. He still did. But he didn’t enjoy it with the same abandon as before, when it had just been him. Skye could handle herself. No one survived this long who couldn’t. They were good together beyond the protective walls that sheltered what was left of the human race. Not like he and Miranda, who were almost one organism after the years they’d spent partnering on missions and patrols, but that would come in time. He could tell already. They anticipated one another’s moves, noticed what the other overlooked, instinctively understood when the risk was worth it and when it wasn’t.
But the idea of returning to the world before Skye, to a life that had felt so full until—abruptly—it hadn’t, that had become gray and flat until she breathed life into it with her laugh and resilience and the way she moved, tempered the thrill. He didn’t know how to tell her this, didn’t have the language to parse this feeling of temperance, to distinguish it from hovering or lack of confidence in her capabilities. Maybe one day he would, but not today. Today he had to live with the emotional dissonance and trust in them both. He had to take that leap of faith.
“You know me too well,” he said. “Let’s give it another hour and head back.”
They continued south, continually scanning the wide, flat street, buildings, and parking lots. After a few minutes, Skye stopped in front of what had once been a charming, green cottage turned dentist’s office but now was a ruin.
“Maybe we should go back,” she said. “It’s just going to be more of the same, and you’re right. We’ve already found a lo—”
Doug’s mind raced as he tried to identify the threat that had caused her to stop speaking mid-word. His heart jumped into this throat for a moment when he didn’t see her, before he realized she’d crouched down. It looked like she was pretending to tie her bootlace.
“What is it?” he said, keeping his voice low.
Never raising her eyes she said, “Don’t look or I think he’ll bolt.”
“What? Who will bolt?”
“The kid on that balcony.”
Doug felt his eyes go wide but stayed still. “Where?”
“The building on the corner behind you, same side as this one.” She pointed to the green cottage, the movement of her arm casual, then looked up at him. “Gray, with blue gutters. Looks like apartments on the second floor.”
Irrationally, Doug felt eyes on the back of his neck when the moment before he hadn’t. “What the hell is a kid doing out here?”
Skye shifted onto her other knee and raised her foot that had been tucked behind her. She began to fiddle with its shoelace, too. “Doesn’t look well cared for.”
“Only one way to find out.”
Doug held his hand out to her. “Kiss me. We’ll hold hands and keep walking so he won’t figure out that we’ve seen him.”
Skye took his hand, a grin splitting her face as he helped her up and pulled her to him. He could feel her distraction while they kissed in the tilt of her head, the angle not quite right since she was trying to peek over his shoulder. When they parted, she kept hold of his hand.
He kept his gaze straight as they continued down the road, but held his head a little higher. The building Skye had described was so near that they reached it in seconds. Darkness framed by the jagged edges of broken, plate glass windows that lined the building’s lower story. Rusting cars were parked, bumpers touching, parallel to the building’s edifice to block the entrance. In the periphery of his vision Doug saw the balcony, which ran the length of the long building. Tucked in the corner at the near end, the top of the boy’s head peeked over solid wall of the balcony. His tight, curly hair looked matted and ratty, and his face was covered in dirt. Even though he only caught a glimpse, Doug thought the kid looked too thin.
“What about that blue building down there?” Skye said, voice raised. She pointed to a building farther down the road. “That pharmacy.”
“Okay,” Doug said.
It really was a pharmacy, but half burned down. Between the pharmacy and the building where the boy was hiding sat a large parking lot.
Dropping his voice again, he said to Skye, “The balcony stairs are on the end, by the parking lot. Dash over when we reach them?”
A few moments later, a door slammed. They looked at one another, then dashed for the stairs. Skye pulled ahead, both of them knowing by unspoken agreement that a woman might be perceived as less threatening. Doug took the steps three at a time. He turned onto the balcony a few seconds behind Skye. She was already half way to the other end.
“Wait for me, Skye!”
“We don’t have time. We spooked him.”
A muffled whimper stopped Doug in his tracks. Skye whirled around to face him.
“Did you hear that?” she asked, only mouthing the words.
Another whimper, louder, and more distressed than the last. They crept along the balcony toward the end, where they’d seen the boy. At the second to last apartment, a loud groan was followed by a body slamming against the closed door; definitely a zombie there. They reached the last door, the zombie next door moaning and snarling as it thrashed and pounded. Underneath the noise made by the zombie, Doug could hear whimpers, louder and more distressed than before.
Skye looked over to him, eyes excited. He nodded and she turned the knob.
The door didn’t open. From its other side came an anguished cry.
Doug kicked the door open. Two voices, one crying, were coming from one of the bedrooms. They raced to the back of the apartment. Doug reached a bedroom door just as two small, dark hands let go of the windowsill.
“Wait!” Skye cried.
A lower roof extended from the back of the building about eight feet below the window. Two small figures ran across it, the larger of the two pulling a smaller, howling figure along.
“I’ve got this,” Skye said, already halfway out the window. “Go around!”
Before Doug could answer, Skye disappeared. Racing from the apartment, he sprinted down the balcony. He leaped down the staircase in three soaring strides that left him stumbling on the uneven concrete walk, but the tactical soles of his boots found purchase. He sprinted alongside the building’s short end, skidding around the corner. A burst of adrenalized energy propelled him forward, to Skye’s calming voice that was competing with high-pitched screams.
“It’s okay, it’s all right,” Skye said.
Another voice, with a child’s high-pitch, shouted, “Let her go!”
Doug saw the boy ahead, down on the ground. He was looking up at Skye, who was still on the roof. She was trying to hold on to a struggling tangle of arms and legs—and lungs. They had to achieve two outcomes at odds with one another as quickly as possible: get the kids to trust them and shut the howler up.
The boy tensed, his brown eyes filling with fear when he finally saw Doug approaching. Dirt was smudged over a nose broad across the nostrils that hugged close against his face. His dark, brown skin was dirty, hair matted and tangled, his frame on the scrawny side. He backed up a few steps, as if to run, then stopped, unwilling to leave the screaming, squirming girl Skye was wrangling on the roof.
“I want Bunbun!” the girl shrieked.
Doug slowed and held his hands out, palms up, about twenty feet from the boy.
“Hey,” he said, trying to keep his voice low, but needing to be heard over the other child’s shrieks. “It’s okay. We won’t hurt you.”
“Let her go,” the boy demanded, fear and fury swirling over his pinched face. “Let her go!”
“Where are your parents?” Doug asked.
At Doug’s question, the boy's lower lip began to quiver. So, no parents.
“Let her go,” he cried again, but now he sounded on the verge of tears.
Skye seemed to have a secure grip on the now sobbing girl, whose occasional hiccups sounded like b-b-bunbun.
“What’s bunbun?” Doug asked the boy.
Tears suddenly filled the boy's eyes. “Violet’s rabbit. You were coming and we had to leave him.”
“A rabbit?” he said, taken aback, feeling pretty sure that the apocalypse had finally thrown every weird thing it could at him. Aloud, he said, “Is Bun Bun back in the room?”
“Mister Bun Bun,” the boy said, his voice quivering.
He looked small and frail, and so vulnerable that Doug’s heart ached. The boy’s chest began to hitch hard as tears trailed down his dirty face. Doug walked closer, waiting for him to spook and run. When he was five feet away, Doug dropped down to his knees.
“How about we go get him? Will you let us help you get Mister Bun Bun?”
The boy began to cry in earnest. Doug could see his relief that maybe this adult was someone who could be in charge. Someone who could take responsibility for him and the still distraught girl from his too small shoulders.
He nodded, wiping at his face, smearing the tears and dirt together into a muddy smudge.
“Skye,” Doug called, partially turning his head so that his voice would carry, but not wanting to take his eyes off the boy. “We’re going to get Mister Bun Bun. Okay?”
“We’re going to get Mister Bun Bun?” Skye echoed, clearly bewildered. Immediately, the little girl’s crying began to subside. “Okay,” she continued, her voice becoming a soothing sing-song. “We’re going to get Mister Bun Bun.”
Doug returned his full attention to the little boy.
“What’s your name?”
The boy looked at him, wary, but the doubt and fear lurking in his eyes was quickly giving way to exhaustion. He looked like a scared kitten, the kind that startles and runs from a leaf blowing on a breeze. Doug would not have been surprised if the kid said his name was Kitty.
Doug smiled and held out his hand. Slowly, Silas extended his own. Doug took hold of his small, grimy fingers.
“It’s nice to meet you, Silas. I’m Doug.”
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