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Book 5 of The Zombie Chronicles.
*This series is available in print and audio.*
This is the longest book in The Zombie Chronicles. It is almost 80,000 words.
My name is Dean Walters and I'm eighteen years old. We had saved Val, Jackie, and Claire with the precious vials in our possession, but they weren’t 100 percent effective. Those who had taken the serum, the so-called miracle cure for zombie-itis, were easy enough to spot, since they had glowing green eyes and were suddenly equipped with night vision that would have made the average bat jealous, but that was only one side effect. Much to our dismay, the other side effect wasn’t quite so tolerable. Some cured people turned back into zombies but retained control of their reasoning, logical minds, virtually turning them into cannibals capable of thinking, calculating, stalking, and killing their victims. We’d decided to call them hybrids, and I feared that my sister, my girlfriend, and my potential future cousin-in-law were about to morph into just that. Is it only a matter of time? Does that happen to everyone who takes the serum, or are some immune to that side effect? Our only hope for answers was to go to the lab, and I hoped the answers we’d finally get would be honest—and good news.
I gripped the steering wheel and glanced out the rearview mirror to make sure the long caravan of cars behind us had managed to keep up. The window was all the way down, allowing the morning air to whip my hair into a bed-head frenzy.
Jackie, my girlfriend, didn’t seem to notice my disheveled hair as she sat in the passenger side next to me. “You haven’t said a word since we left,” she finally said, looking at me with pain evident in her eyes. “What ya thinking about, Dean?”
“After everything we just went through, I just…” I blew out a breath and managed to keep my eyes focused on the road. “Well, all kinds of stuff, I guess.”
She glanced out the window. “I get it. It seems like it’s a battle just to live through every single day. I guess we’ve learned the hard way that tomorrow isn’t promised. We just have to keep fighting.”
“Welcome to the zombie apocalypse,” I said, only half-joking.
She squeezed my hand. “At least I’m not alone in all this madness.”
I felt such a magnetic pull to Jackie, this amazing unspoken connection. I shot her a half-smile before she turned her attention back to the book she was reading. Nick, my brother, was all snuggled up next to Jackie’s cousin in the back seat, Claire, both of them exhausted and trying to sleep off the nightmarish memories of the horrible ordeal we’d been through. We’d only left the nursing home an hour earlier, but it felt as if we’d been driving forever, trying to get as far away as possible.
So many thoughts rushed through my head that they almost made me dizzy. I couldn’t stop thinking about the black bag of vials that were finally in our possession. They had saved Val, Jackie, and Claire, but they weren’t 100 percent effective. Those who had taken the serum, the so-called miracle cure for zombie-itis, were easy enough to spot, since they had glowing green eyes and were suddenly equipped with night vision that would have made the average bat jealous, but that was only one side effect. Much to our dismay, the other side effect wasn’t quite so tolerable. Some cured people turned back into zombies but retained control of their reasoning, logical minds, virtually turning them into cannibals capable of thinking, calculating, stalking, and killing their victims. We’d decided to call them hybrids, and I feared that my sister, my girlfriend, and my potential future cousin-in-law were about to morph into just that. I glanced over at Jackie and then in the rearview mirror again. Is it only a matter of time? Does that happen to everyone who takes the serum, or are some immune to that side effect? Our only hope for answers was to go to the lab, and I hoped the answers we’d finally get would be honest—and good news.
Larry and Sam from our group saluted and laughed as they suddenly sped in front of us in a red pickup. Two other cars followed with the gang I’d met previously when they accompanied me to the restaurant to stock up on guns and ammo and rescue Carla. I still harbored ill feelings toward Larry and Sam and couldn’t possibly get over the fact that they’d shot Mike in cold blood back in that abandoned, flooded house. As for the rest of the gang, I didn’t trust them as far as I could throw them. There was something eerily unsettling about how they talked about shooting the entire family back at the restaurant just so we could steal all their bullets and weapons; it was as if they were proud of it, and I found that disturbing. I told Nick my thoughts about that, but he just shrugged it off.
Halfway over the bridge, they slowed to a halt, and I had no choice but to stop and see what was wrong. I thought maybe they’d spotted a herd up ahead and thought we should turn back. I glanced once again in the rearview mirror to see if Val and Lucas were getting out of the vehicle to discuss what was going on. They didn’t, so I decided to wait and see what would happen. “Hey, Nick, wake up!” I said. “They’re stopping.”
“Huh?” he asked in a groggy voice.
“Larry, Sam, and the gang up ahead,” I said. “They just stopped, and I’m not sure why.”
He opened his eyes and shot me a questioning look. “What? What for? And how did they get ahead of us in the first place? Why must you drive like a ninety-year-old woman all the time?”
Rolling my eyes at my brother, who seemed to always find occasion to insult me, I opened the door. “Lemme go see what’s going on.”
Just as I started to step out, I heard the squealing and screeching of tires as one of the cars spun around in a hurry and came back our way.
“Whoa! Something’s wrong!” Jackie said. “They’re running from something. Turn around, Nick! Quick! Step on it!”
Claire gripped the seat like a terrified kid on a rollercoaster. “Yeah, something’s not right.”
I tried to swallow the sudden knot in my throat. I didn’t see any zombies, but I wasn’t about to stick around to see if we had any undead, hungry company. The others were panicking and trying to get out of there, and that was good enough reason for me to get the heck out of Dodge or wherever we were. Still, no matter what was happening, I knew we needed to stay calm and focused.
Just as I began to shut the door, their engine revved up, and the red pickup bolted straight for us, then rammed into the side of our vehicle with a jolt. My head snapped back forcibly from the collision, and our SUV spun sideways, crashing through the guardrail with a loud bang.
A second later, when I came back to my senses, I realized our SUV was hanging precariously over the edge, creaking and moaning like it was about to give way. When I glanced out the back window, I noticed the smug, deliberate, sinister grin on Larry’s face, and I knew it was no accident. The hairs on my neck rose.
“Wh-what’s going on?” Jackie screamed, clinging to the seat. “Why’d they do that?”
The words remained frozen in my throat, and I could only shake my head in shared disbelief.
Claire looked out the window and gasped, then stifled a scream with her hand.
Another crash echoed in the air as another pickup, careened into the vehicle next to us, sending Val, Lucas, Asia, and Kate over the edge.
I could only watch in helpless terror as the car toppled off the bridge and crashed into the river. “Val!” I shouted. I tried to open my door, but it was jammed against the guardrail and wouldn’t budge more than three inches. I suppressed a shudder.
When the relentless red pickup truck rammed into us again, my door finally sprung open, and I was thrown from the vehicle. I clung to the open door for dear life as I dangled over the roaring river, our SUV teetering on the edge. My fingers wrapped around the metal, and I hung on with everything I had.
Hissing and moans caught my attention, and when I dared a glance below me, I saw a herd of zombies dotting the riverbank, presumably trying to figure out a way to retrieve their screaming meal from the bridge. We had to get out of there, and fast.
“Dean!” Nick shouted. “Hang on!”
“Larry, you’re such an idiot!” Sam scolded. “I told you not to hit ‘em that hard the first time, and then you go and hit ‘em again. What the heck’s wrong with you? Don’t you dare do that again till we get our hands on that ser—”
“Sorry,” Larry said. “I guess I just got carried away.”
“I don’t want your apologies or your excuses, man! Get your head in the game!” Sam roared.
The car slid a few more inches and creaked. When I gazed down again, I was rendered speechless. My heart thumped against my chest; I knew the truck could fall on top of me any second, and even if I did survive the fall, I’d just become an easy catch for a bunch of starving, undead cannibals. I wasn’t sure whether to be angry, sad, or terrified. How could Larry and Sam turn on us like this? I wondered as my fingers began to burn. I-I can’t hang on much longer!
“Nobody move!” Jackie yelled. “Keep the weight distributed.”
“Let’s trade seats,” Nick suggested. “I’ll get Dean.”
“No! I’m not leaving him!” she shouted.
“He’s my brother, Jackie. Besides, can you pull him up by yourself?”
“I-I don’t think so.”
“Well, if I have to help you, we’re all gonna take a dive into that river.”
Jackie knew he was right and complied, and the two slowly exchanged positions. As soon as Nick was seated near me, he threw out his hand and heaved me up.
I crawled inside, my heart pounding like it might break out of my ribcage.
“You ready to make a deal, oh great leader?” Larry asked.
“What’s gotten into you, Larry?” Nick yelled at him.
“Give us the vials,” the traitor demanded.
Nick fumed, “You tried to kill us for that? For those vials?”
“Don’t do it, Nick! Don’t give them to him,” I said. “If those vials get in the wrong hands again and those hybrids start multiplying, we’ll be facing a far worse epidemic than zombies.”
“Lucas went overboard in the other car,” Larry announced, “but we’re not monsters. We pulled the girls out. Isn’t one of ‘em your sister?”
“Yes!” I shouted. “Don’t you touch her!”
“Touch her? Boy, I’ll do worse than that. I’ll put a bullet in every one of their pretty little heads if you don’t cooperate and give me those vials.”
“How can you do this?” I yelled. “We saved your butt that night on the roof, Larry.”
“Kid, that’s sweet and all, but this isn’t about friendships and gratitude. This is all about saving mankind.”
“You can have the bag,” Nick finally conceded, “but first you’ve gotta let Dean, Claire, and Jackie out of this death trap.”
“Hmm,” Larry said sarcastically, scratching his chin and looking down into the ravine, where the zombies were surrounding the smashed vehicle. “I’ll need a minute to think about it.”
“Please!” Jackie begged. “We’re no threat to you.”
“As a show of good faith, we’ll get the girls out, but then you give us the bag.”
I held my breath as the truck creaked, groaned, and shook while Jackie and Claire carefully climbed out the back. I was sure the thugs had no intention of letting us go; they didn’t seem to have any problem sending Lucas to his death. I was just glad they had enough heart to let Jackie and Claire live.
Jackie leaned over the wide metal guardrail, her eyes wide with terror. “Don’t worry, babe. We’ll get you outta there somehow,” she said, trying to sound brave as she consoled me.
“Give us the bag!” Sam demanded.
“Come and get it, boys,” Nick dared.
In a huff, Larry began to make his way closer to the doomed vehicle.
“No, Larry, don’t. It’s suicide,” Sam said, nodding down to the horror below. “You get in that car, and you’re all going to be flat as pancakes.” He then directed his attention to Nick. “We’ve got all your ladies now, son. I suggest you hand the vials over, before we have to waste a lot of ammo on them.”
“Like I said before, if you want the bag, come and get it,” Nick said.
“You little…I knew you’d never give it to us that easy,” Sam said. “You wanna play hardball? You might not care about dying, but maybe you’ll be more willing to cooperate if I threaten to shoot your girlfriend in the head.”
“No!” Nick shouted, uncharacteristic terror dripping from his voice. “You don’t wanna do that, Sam.”
I glanced up and saw them standing at the edge.
Larry grabbed Claire and held a gun to her head. “This gal’s been shot before, but I assure you she won’t survive this time. If you still won’t hand the bag over, your sister will be next to go.”
“Nick,” Claire yelled helplessly, “please just give it to them.” She frantically gripped the strap of her purse that was hanging on her shoulder.
“Don’t you dare hurt her,” Nick said. “You can have the bag. It’s yours. Just put the gun down and let her go, man.”
“No!” I yelled. I didn’t want any harm to come to Claire or Val, of course, but I didn’t understand how Nick could give up so easily after all we’d been through. “Nick, we’ve risked our lives to save those vials. How can you just—” I tried to plead.
“Vials or no vials, Dean, I always do whatever I have to do to save the ones closest to me,” Nick said.
Sam laughed. “Smart kid, listening to reason when it comes to your family and your little girlfriend. I’m sending Jim in through the back, since he’s lighter than either of us. As soon as he gets in arm’s reach, hand the bag over to him, or your girlfriend gets it in the head.”
Jim was the scrawniest of the bunch, weighing in at only about ninety pounds. As soon as the skinny man maneuvered his way inside, Nick held the bag out, and he snatched it in his bony fingers. “Give me all your weapons now!” he shouted.
“Look, slim Jim, that wasn’t part of the deal,” Nick argued. “I’m not gonna—”
“Sam, they won’t hand over their weapons,” Jim tattled over his shoulder.
“Do what the man says,” Larry said, nudging his gun up against Claire’s temple.
Having no other choice, we fumbled around for our weapons and handed them to him.
“That’s it,” Nick said.
“Heh. You think I’m dumb or somethin’?” the man asked.
“Well, now that you mention it—” Nick began.
“Give me the one on your waist and the one on your ankle,” Jim said, “and I know Dean has one in his holster.”
I sighed and hesitantly handed over my gun, and Nick pulled his remaining two guns out and handed them over as well.
“That’s it. You’ve got our whole arsenal and the vials,” Nick said. “Happy now?”
“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” Jimmy said, then inched his wiry frame out the back as his entourage cheered, whistled, and hollered.
“We got the bag!” Larry shouted, lowering his weapon.
While they were all distracted, I started to crawl over the seats so I could escape through the back, hoping it wouldn’t throw the truck off balance.
“Careful, man,” Nick whispered.
“They gave you the bags as promised,” Val’s voice rang out. “Let my brothers out, and we’ll all go our separate, merry ways.”
“You’ve got what you want, you monsters. Please let them go!” Jackie shouted.
“They’re not gonna hurt you, Larry,” Claire pleaded. “You’ve got the vials and all their weapons. Can’t you just let us all go?”
Larry loosened his grip on Claire.
“See? Was that so hard?”
I heard the men’s taunting laughs, and then one of them said, “When the others show up, we’ll just tell ‘em it was a horrible accident.”
“No!” Jackie screamed. “Don’t you dare!”
“Nooooooooooooo!” Claire cried. “Please don’t do this.”
“Just let the boys out, and we’ll leave on foot,” Val begged. “You’ll never see us again, so there’s no need for you to commit any more murders today. It’s as simple as that.”
I swallowed hard as I crawled over the seats to climb out, trying to make a quiet escape.
“The others will be here any minute to see what the holdup is,” one of the men argued. “We’ve gotta get rid of them and make it look good.”
At that point, I knew the men were not going to leave us alive, and that meant I was going to have to fight. I was ready to face all of them if I had to. I’d cared about the vials before, but now I just cared about getting away with our lives.
“Girls, just calm down,” Larry said, looking right at Jackie. “A promise is a promise, and we’ll let your little fellas go.”
“Oh, thank you, Larry. I knew you’d—”
Larry held his hand up to silence my girlfriend. “Okay, Ed, let ‘em go…right into the river!”
The girls screamed and begged them again to stop, to no avail. The men rammed into us one final time and with a screeching groan, we flipped once and then plunged into the raging waters below.
Stuck in the SUV, Nick and I were swept downstream, at the mercy of the current. Water sloshed around my feet, and I gulped hard as I looked around for any overlooked weapons.
“They didn’t get all the guns,” Nick said. “We need to find them if we’re gonna survive out here.”
I glanced out the back window and gaped in horror as the men threw flailing bodies off the bridge. My stomach clenched. “Nick, they’re throwing people off!”
“What!? Do you see Val?” he shouted, desperately searching the flooded floorboards for any kind of weapon, waterlogged or otherwise.
“I-I can’t tell.”
“At least she can swim,” he said, “and so can the other girls.”
“If Val and the girls weren’t thrown off the bridge, I’m sure they’ll get away and meet us at the lab.”
“Where are those extra guns?” my brother shouted.
“I don’t know. I don’t see any.”
He sighed as he felt around on the floor. “Forget it. If we don’t get outta here now, it’s gonna be our coffin. C’mon!”
The vehicle slowly sank, filling up with cold water faster than I thought possible. My pulse shot into overdrive, and it became difficult to breathe. I remembered that the first trick to surviving such an incident was to open the door. If we waited too long, the pressure differential would make that impossible. I tried the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge, even when I shoved it hard with my shoulder, sending pain coursing through me. My heart raced, but I knew I needed to stay calm and focused and keep my head straight. I knew panic would only make things worse, but it was hard not to panic when gallons of water were gushing in, already up to my knees.
What about the power windows? I wondered. Will they still work? In an episode of Mythbusters, I’d seen that automatic windows don’t immediately short circuit underwater. I hoped that was the truth; our only other choice would be to smash our way out, and as strong as we were, neither one of us were Houdini or the Incredible Hulk.
Nick must have had the same idea, because he somehow managed to get his window to work and rolled it down. “C’mon!”
I followed him out the window as the deadly, cold water pounded against me. In seconds, the current swept me downstream. The roar of the river echoed loudly in my ears, even drowning out the sound of my own breathing. I gasped, almost inhaling a mouthful of water. I finally managed to turn over on my back, and I floated with my legs straight out, positioning myself to absorb the impact of debris or rocks or anything else that might be in my way. I didn’t want to be eaten by a zombie, and getting knocked unconscious during my little impromptu, raft-less white-water rafting trip would have made that a sure thing. I had no intention of drowning either, so I refused to let myself get pinned between any obstacles or to be pulled under and trapped by the underwater vegetation.
Tumbling, cold river water gushed into my mouth, pulling me under the surface. I fought the sensation to breathe, even though my lungs were on fire and my whole body was screaming for oxygen. With deliberate, long pushes of my legs and arms, I broke the surface and spewed the water out. There was no way I was going to let the undertow drag me down. I tried to break free of the fast-spinning, churning water, but vast jaws of swirling foam swallowed me up. I felt the tremendous force of the water washing over me, pulling me in, deeper and deeper. I twisted and fought again, and finally, I burst through the surface.
I sucked in desperate gulps of wonderful, glorious, awesome air. Roots and rocks grabbed at my feet, and branches and twigs scraped and poked me seemingly from all directions. My hands moved around me, frantic to grasp onto something—onto anything—but there was only water. The violent current pulled me under once again for a few seconds, but I found my way back up to steal another breath of air. My heart drummed harder against my chest, and more water rushed over my face. My eyes burned, and my vision blurred.
Then, finally and much to my relief, the river flow began to slow down. I had a fighting chance, so I grabbed at overhanging branches to stop my momentum.
My heart leapt in response to the familiar voice, Lucas’s voice, and through blurry, drenched eyes, I saw him rushing toward me on the riverbank. I forced my burning muscles to propel me through the water. Gasping for breath, I swam toward shore until my feet touched the ground beneath me. The sand felt thick as it oozed over the top of my boots. I waded through the waist-high current that continued to tug at my legs with a violent undertow. My arms felt heavy and numb, and the pain in my legs intensified with the stifling weight of my wet clothes. Pebbles and sand shifted under my feet. Spluttering and coughing, I pushed the tangled hair out of my eyes. I climbed out, shivering as a cold breeze ran through my hair.
Piercing pain radiated across my chest and back. I bit my lip and held back a moan; finding my friends and my brother and sister was far more important than focusing on a little discomfort—or a lot of pain. I took another deep breath and forged ahead. “Lucas!” I called, stopping midstride.
Shadows stretched and shifted in the trees. Squinting, I peered closer to make sure the area was free of zombies, then leaned against a boulder to catch my breath.
Lucas clapped my shoulder as I doubled over, gasping for breath. My wet clothes and jacket clung to my skin and hung wet and heavy, weighing me down. Trying to stay warm, I absorbed every bit of sunshine I could.
“I-I’m so glad you’re alive,” I said.
He shot me his easygoing grin. “Meh, I’m pretty hard to kill. We should’ve never trusted those idiots.” Lucas held his shoulder with his hand as blood gushed steadily, then glanced at the river. “Did they throw Nick in too?”