Authors: Lee Dunter
Crowded Yet Desolate: A Zombie Novel
By Lee Dunter
Copyright © 2015 by Lee Dunter
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Photo Cover provided CC0 Public Domain. Its use does not imply endorsement
As Ryan stared down at the city, the comforting wave of nostalgia he expected was held back by a feeling that the familiar sights were somehow off, that somehow the backed-up traffic and the tall city lights were facades for an unseen madness. He studied the view, this monument to human triumph over nature, and found nothing out of order. Yet still the feeling persisted. It was not until the plane began to shake with turbulence that he was able to reassure himself. The turbulence ended, and Ryan released his grip on the armrest. Perhaps this feeling was in his imagination. Perhaps his fear of flying was deluding him.
The pilot announced that the stewardesses would walk the isles and prepare the cabin for landing. Ryan followed the instructions, raising his chair and ensuring his seatbelt was fastened, though at no point had he undone it. The flight had been brief, yet uncomfortable. In addition to coping with his fear, he had spent the flight critiquing his interview performance. He and Deborah had been making plans to soon expand the family, and she insisted that Midtown Atlanta was no place to raise a child. Ryan agreed and went in for the job interview and, now, with its result being an important factor in his family’s future, he couldn’t stop remembering all of the stupid things he’d said.
The stewardess walked by and woke the man to Ryan’s right, who had slept the entire flight, and asked him to raise his seat. The fat, mustached man grumpily obeyed her request as Ryan absentmindedly threw his cup into the bag of trash she held. The man dozed back to sleep, but not before he got a good look at the backside of the stewardess.
Ryan tried to concentrate on the positives: every second in this machine slicing unstably through the air was a second closer to Deborah, and one farther from the loudly snoring man next to him. Ryan looked out the window and watched the city’s approach through the clouds. The lights of the cars and buildings shone in the fading sunlight and somehow seemed more beautiful than all the nature passed over during the trip. Ryan noticed for the first time that the cars were lined up head to tail along the highways, traffic that would surely be stalled for hours. This sobered Ryan’s excitement. If he and Deborah did end up moving, he would not miss Atlanta’s traffic.
Ryan imagined that by squinting he could see the festival, which was surely responsible for the traffic, taking shape: the mass of people moving here and there, stages set up with lights and stereos and fog machines, vendors crowding the busy streets. His memory filled in the details impossible to make out. The Downtown Music Festival was one of Atlanta’s biggest annual events, and it always packed a large portion of Midtown. The stages would soon be set, and the musical artists, amateur and professional, would soon take their assigned stages, and vendors would be there intent on selling band merchandise, beer, and many artery-clogging goodies to people determined to have a good night.
Deborah was down there at the festival, and Ryan couldn’t help but feel jealous, as this was the first year he hadn’t accompanied her. Then, an even more sobering thought came: Deborah would not be there when he got home; she would still be at the festival.
The altitude dropped suddenly, and again Ryan gripped the armrest, preparing for the worst. He slowly let go as he noticed the plane was nearing the landing strip. The man on his left woke as the plane touched ground, now looking determined to remain awake. He looked around and met Ryan’s eyes and nodded politely, as of trying to say that surviving this flight together had sealed a friendly bond between them. Ryan smirked and returned the nod. The plane dropped its velocity along the landing strip, and once slowed, moved towards the terminal. Many of the passengers clapped, and the pilots voice came over the intercom: “Thank you, folks, for flying with Delta today. We hope you enjoyed it and fly with us again soon.”
Ryan stood, gathered his belongings, and made his way into the airport. It took him almost thirty minutes to get to his car and almost two hours of sitting in Atlanta’s fine traffic– weaving in and out of pedestrians and taking a few detours–to finally pull into his parking garage.
Ryan gathered his bag from the back seat, threw it over his shoulder, and walked into the street. It was surprisingly crowded, and Ryan had to squeeze along the edge of the building to fit his luggage through. At the end of the street hordes of people blocked his progress like a wall. It seemed as if the entire southeast had all crammed into midtown Atlanta to attend the festival, making it impossible for him to cross Peachtree Street.
Ryan stood there, watching the crowd go busily back and forth in front of him, trying to find an opening, and noticed that the people were moving in packs. A small amount of space would appear in between the groups of friends and then another group would quickly fill it. Ryan waited for a large enough space then weaved his way through it. Eventually the plan broke down, and he became crowded with hot, sweaty-smelling bodies on all sides; he shoved his way towards his apartment, ignoring vendor’s offers of food, t-shirts, and a sundry collection of other items. Once he reached his road, he veered right off Peachtree into a comparatively empty, although still noisy, road.
He reached his apartment building, and after he slipped in and closed the door behind him, the sounds of the festival muffled to a dull roar, as if he had just put on headphones. Deciding he had sat still long enough for one day, Ryan took the stairs and raced to the seventh floor, his heart beating at a brisk pace, droplets of sweat beading at the edge of his brow just as he reached his exit.
The gold numbers
had never looked as inviting as they did now. Ryan unlocked the door, walked in, and threw his luggage down. He turned to lock the door, hesitated, knowing that his wife would be home at some point, and decided to lock it anyway. Always better to be safe than sorry, he thought.
Except for the faint light seeping through the blinds, the apartment was completely dark. Ryan flipped the switch and light flooded both the kitchen and living room, which were separated by a wall with a small take out window. The kitchen was small, but not so small that it hindered Deborah’s amazing cooking skills. The only furniture in the living room was an L-shaped suede couch on the opposite wall of the television. A hallway led away from the living room, branching out into two rooms at the end: the bedroom and Ryan’s workroom.
Ryan went to the window, moved the blinds, and stared out over what he could see of the festival. Normally he would want to be down there, listening to some of his favorite artists and discovering local talent, but tonight he was too exhausted and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep where he stood
Ryan dropped onto the couch and turned the television on, without paying attention to the screen. He took out his phone and texted Deborah, “Hey Lovely, I’m home. Exhausted and going to take a nap on the couch. Wake me up when you get here. Love you have fun.” He was asleep in minutes.
Drops of water slowly woke Ryan as they splashed against his face. He opened his eyes and smiled as he saw Deborah kneeling beside him in nothing but a towel, shaking her wet hair above his face.
“Wake up sleepy head,” she said in a soft voice. “Welcome home.”
More water fell on his face as she bent over and kissed him on the forehead. Being woken like this, Ryan felt like the luckiest man. He told her to take the stupid towel off, and she playfully slapped his face and stood, slowly dancing the towel across her skin as it dropped to her ankles. Ryan watched.
Deborah said, “I’m gonna get my P.J.’s on and go to bed. I’m exhausted to shit.”
“I am too,” he replied, yawning. He glanced down at his watch and noticed that it was two in the morning. “Was the festival good? I didn’t expect you to be home this early.”
“Ya, It was great. Not as good as last year.” She clearly averted her eyes, and for a moment Ryan thought he saw something wrong, but then she smiled and got that playful glint in her eye that Ryan loved. “Probably because you weren’t there to protect me.” She poked his nose and laughed. “But me and the girls had a lot of fun.”
She disappeared into the bedroom, and, watching her go, Ryan got up from the couch and walked to the front door. He locked the door again and slid the chain to its protective position. Exhaustion couldn’t make him forget this nightly ritual. He walked back to the bedroom, hoping that his wife wasn’t slipping into pajamas at all, but into something a lot less comfortable and a lot sexier. Exhaustion couldn’t make him not want that either. But when he arrived at the door, she was sitting up in bed, fully clothed and ready for sleep
“Ready for bed?” she asked with a fake smile.
At first, Ryan couldn’t believe that she was actually going to go to bed. They had been apart for four days, and she didn’t want to make love at all? Ryan could tell she knew what he was thinking, but he pushed his own desire aside. “Of course. The trip exhausted me. All I can do is sleep.” Right before he turned the lights off, there was something in Deborah’s eye that made Ryan uncomfortable. He stared at her, and she smiled back. If she didn’t want to say what was bothering her tonight, Ryan knew there was nothing he could do about it. She was too hardheaded for that. Besides, it was probably nothing; this would not be the first time he had seen something in nothing that night.
Ryan closed the door to the master bathroom. He got into bed without changing clothes and fell asleep almost instantly. After a few minutes, Deborah drifted off into sleep as well, and they both lay there in the dark, each facing a separate wall.
Ryan woke suddenly. He convulsed to an upright position, his chest heaving as he took quick breaths, his heart beating like a piston. He stared wide-eyed in front of him. He was unknowingly gripping the brown comforter, but as he slowly came around and felt his pulse beating in his hands, he lightened his grip.
Ryan took a deep breath and exhaled. Why had he woken with such a start, and even now, why could he not calm his body? Looking for answers, Ryan scanned the bedroom. He found nothing suspicious on either of the brown walls or the ceiling, but when he looked at the other side of the bed, he found it empty. His stomach clenched nervously, and dozens of paranoid questions popped into his head. Where was Deborah? Why was she gone? Did someone take her? Was she hurt?
He calmed himself. There was no proof that anything had happened or was out of the ordinary. He had just woken from a bad dream.
Yes, that’s all
? he thought.
These new thoughts calmed him but did not encourage him enough to call out Deborah’s name. If someone were in the house, it would be better for the intruder to think Ryan was still asleep. Just as a precaution, he snuck quietly out of the bed, trying not to make a sound, and tiptoed lightly to the bedroom door.
Holding his breath, he stuck his head out into the hallway. Nothing. Although not feeling any braver, he made his way down the hall and cautiously approached the doorway of his study, creeping his head in. There was nothing but his desk, printer, and office supplies.
None of this comforted him; he wouldn’t be satisfied until he saw that the front door was still locked and chained. He knew that he had bolted and chained the door the night before: he always did, without fail. Forgetting his discretion, he quickly walked into the living room and noticed it was empty–so was the kitchen. He went to the front door, where his suitcase was still sitting from the night before. The bolt was still in the lock position, and the chain was still in the holder. Everything was normal.
A warm sensation filled his cold gut, freeing him from the terrible images that had been running through his mind. What a relief! There was no way that anyone could have entered or exited the apartment. No one would have been able to get in without snapping the chain, and if Deborah had left the room, she would not have been able to chain the door back.
“Hey, Deb!” Ryan yelled.
There was a brief silence, and then a scream echoed in the small apartment. Except it wasn’t exactly a scream. It was more of a growl. And surely that growl couldn’t have come from Deborah. There was a sudden crash in the bathroom, sounding like the mirror over the sink shattering, glass falling like sleet onto the tile bathroom floor. The warmth that Ryan had recently welcomed evaporated through his skin as he ran back to the bedroom. He entered it at a full sprint, pivoted off his left foot, and halted right outside of the bathroom. It was closed. The white door looked back at him, where he was certain he had left the door open the night before. Ryan reached out, grabbed the handle, and, only by the force of willpower, pushed open the door. He watched as it slowly swung open, creeping on its hinges.
The first thing to hit him was a putrid stench, like rancid flesh set on fire. It burned his nostrils and watered his eyes, and Ryan, suspecting that Deborah was the source, had to fight back the urge to vomit. He put one hand to his mouth and reached out with the other to turn the bathroom light on. Then he saw her: Deborah, standing in a small pool of her own blood, her hands cut where she had attacked the mirror, glass scattered all over the floor around her. It wasn’t really Deborah, though. Something seemed wrong with her. Ryan stared into the face that had once belonged to his wife. It was completely white and sunken, as if she had been ill for a long time. Her eyes, completely bloodshot, stared back into his. These were not the eyes Ryan had fallen in love with. There was anger in them. Hate. Hunger.
Ryan tried to ask, “Deborah, are you okay?” but he could only mutter the first syllable of her name. He coughed to clear his throat, and the noise caused Deborah to screech again. She lunged towards him, reaching a dead sprint in seconds. She swiped her long, sharp fingernails at Ryan’s face, and he stepped back to avoid them. She brought the other hand forward to grab his throat. Ryan jumped back, tripped over the bed, and, falling backwards, thought:
Where in the world did she learn to move this quickly?
As he crashed onto the bed, panic rushed him. He realized she was not playing; she was honestly trying to hurt him. She followed him onto the bed, but Ryan was too quick. He rolled off and grabbed the baseball bat from under the bed he kept for defense. He pointed the bat directly at her face, while slowly backing away from the bed, towards the door.
“Deborah. Stop. I’m begging you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Ryan realized his voice was quivering and shaking, and he knew she didn’t believe him. Hell, if he didn’t believe what he was saying, why would she?
“But–but–I will, Deborah. I will hurt you if I have to.” This time he sounded more confident.
He was now at the bedroom door, still pointing the bat at her face. Unmoved by his words, Deborah launched herself at him again, and Ryan turned and sprinted into the living room. She followed closely behind, screaming furiously, pounding her feet clumsily on the ground. Just as he reached the end of the small hall, she grabbed the back of his shirt and tugged hard. It all happened instantly, without any thought. Tripping backwards, Ryan was forced to spin towards her, and as he did, he brought the bat around with full force and smashed it against the side of her right shin.
The crunching noise was piercing and disgusting. Ryan felt the vibration of the bat penetrate into his bones. Deborah stumbled on her shattered leg, allowing Ryan to shake himself free. Once far enough away, he spun to inspect her leg and watched as blood gushed where a bone was sticking through the skin.
Shit, what have I done?
Guilt filled his heart, and tears flooded his eyes. Ryan stepped forward to catch Deborah, but she didn’t need the support; she began walking towards him on her broken leg, taking a step, putting her full weight on the hurt leg. There wasn’t an ounce of physical pain on her face, just that same anger and hate. As she took another step towards him, Ryan realized that this was not his Deborah. This may be her body, but she wasn’t in there. This was some horrible monster, as if Satan himself had taken control of his loving wife and was now coming for him.
Deborah was on him again, and he had to act immediately if he didn’t want to get hurt: scratched, bitten, eaten. Whatever her goal was, Ryan had no intention of finding out. Tears in his eyes, he raised the bat over his right shoulder and swung it as hard as he could at her right kneecap. There was another loud snap, reminding Ryan of a tree he saw snap in half when lightening struck it. Blood shot across the room, splattering the floor and the couch, Deborah crashing to the floor.
Ryan jumped over her and began towards the door, but then he hesitated. He couldn’t just leave her like this. Glancing back at Deborah, he saw that even now she still chased after him, crawling towards him with blood-shot eyes and a cold, evil face.
It’s not Deborah, It’s not Deborah
, he thought repeatedly. He fumbled for the bolt, but his shaking fingers couldn’t grasp it. Deborah crawled closer. He looked over his shoulder and saw that she’d closed half the distance. All of her fingertips were bleeding as she dragged herself across the tile, leaving bloodstains where she had gripped the ground. Ryan winced away and finally grasped the lock and turned it. He yanked on the door, but the chain snapped it closed again.
The chain! How could he forget the chain? Every night he remembered to lock the chain, yet now when his life was at stake he couldn’t remember to undo it. Ryan tried to shut his mind down, for thinking had only disabled and stalled him so far. Ryan continued to fumble his sweaty fingers over the chain as Deborah closed in. Ryan, noticing that her fingers were bleeding, noticing that her bones were jutting through her shaved fingertips, felt himself waver on his feet. He took a deep breath, calming himself, and gripped the chain between his thumb and forefinger. He slid it out of the hook, yanked the door open, and slammed it shut behind him. He lost control of his legs and slid down the door into a sitting position.
A loud slam issued from the other side. Deborah had reached the door, and she was drumming on it thunderously. Ryan listened to her scream and growl through the thick door, terrified and appalled that it was his wife making those terrible noises. As she delivered a powerful blow against the door, the golden numbers
fell on top of his head.
She’s going to break through
, he thought. Not wanting to be here when that happened, Ryan used his remaining strength to push himself up, one hand pushing against the wall and the other leaning on the bloodied baseball bat.
He began walking away, but his conscience held him back. Had he really just beaten his wife with a baseball bat? He was losing it, going completely insane. He had almost committed murder. Another bang on the door and a scream brought him back to reality. No, that was not Deborah, not his wife, not his lover. She was gone. That was a monster, and he did what he had to do. But what should he do now? Go to the police? Would they understand that he had to beat his wife’s legs with a bat, even though he clearly outweighed her by fifty pounds? Of course not.
He could go get a doctor; he could be at Emory Hospital in twenty minutes, and convince a doctor to come back here. Maybe a doctor could help her.
He walked down the hall with his baseball bat dragging against the ground, leaving a thin trail of blood behind him. He decided that he was far too shaky to take the stairs and took the empty elevator to the bottom floor. There was no one in the halls or in the lobby, and as he made his way across it towards the doors, he noticed for the first time that the hall was filled with chaotic noises. He wondered if these noises were what caused him to wake in a panic. Pushing this eeriness to the back of his now completely blank mind, Ryan made his way through the front door.