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Read the PROLOGUE here.
Read CHAPTER 1 here.
Chad studied the last two playing cards cupped in his palm, fighting a smile. Taunting the fates would cost his edge.
Drake, a notorious bad winner, had already crushed him during the evening's two previous games. If Chad lost this hand, the sacred law of three-out-of-five took effect. Drake would spend the rest of the night gloating and Chad would have to wash the dishes piling up in the sink. And of all the chores, Chad hated dishes the most. The nasty cold, soapy water chilled the bones in his knuckles.
Chad couldn't decide if he wanted to pair the queen or hearts or the six of clubs.
As a large vanilla scented candle flickered beside them, Drake scraped a can of deviled ham with a bent spoon.
Chad squinted, trying to block out the irksome clatter. "I hate when you do that."
"It's almost gone." Drake raked the spoon against the bottom of the can. "You can make all the noise you want to when it's my turn."
Chad snorted, locking eyes with Drake.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Drake rang the inside of the can like a bell with the spoon. "You have only two left to choose from. Call."
"Do…you…," Chad savored the moment, "have any…queens?"
"Go fish." Drake, beaming, tossed the can and spoon aside and picked up three cards lying face down on his lap. "After I win, you can clean that can up, too."
"Damn." Chad reached for the pile between them. "I thought I had you that time."
"Guppies can't catch tigers." Drake reorganized his cards. "It's one of nature's edicts."
Chad drew a two of spades from the deck.
To hell with Drake's uncanny good fortune.
Before the plague, he dominated video and board games. Neighborhood kids who gambled with him lost lunch money and baseball cards, refusing to come over after they realized that the oldest brother could not be beat. When the power went out for good, games were all Chad and Drake had left. Backgammon's appeal ebbed early on, and chess proved fruitless. Drake always snuck in for the kill with his knights. Even if Chad took out the horses early, Drake would checkmate him with pawns and then revel in winning with the game's weakest pieces.
Lady Luck preferred Drake.
Chad, on the other hand, excelled at athletic activities. Drake would be out of breath long before Chad ever broke a sweat. He could knock baseballs to the next block from the neighboring roof where the brothers often swung golf clubs and wooden bats scavenged from abandoned garages and sheds.
Over the past two years, Chad had become a better shot with guns.
"I'm getting tired of games, Drake. Why don't we go out?"
"This is just an excuse to get out of losing." Drake leaned back on his elbows, holding his cards close to his chest. "Didn't you get enough yesterday?"
"Could have been worse."
"Yeah, and it could have been better. You didn't listen to me when I told you to stop shooting. If we ran out of bullets, we'd still be in there."
Chad, not in the mood for a lecture, huffed.
"What do you need?"
"Lighter fluid." Chad flicked the lid of a dull chrome Zippo open with his thumb. "How about you? Low on anything?"
"No, I'm good." Drake set his cards down, tapping their backs with his fingertips.
"I also wouldn't mind looking at the stars."
"And where do you plan on stargazing, Galileo? On top of Old Lady Scott's house."
"That place still smells like cats."
Drake snickered. "It could smell like your bedroom."
Chad ignored the fight bait and returned all the playing cards to the pack. The stink around Old Lady Scott's cottage had nothing on the death that poisoned the air inside the Megacenter.
After closing the worn flap on the cardboard container housing the deck of cards, Chad returned them to the stack of board games beside Mom's brown recliner. He couldn't stand a mess. Putting things in their place kept the world in order.
Drake yawned. "Ready?"
Chad blew out the candle, turning on a flashlight. The beam pierced the dark room, reflecting floating dust motes. Mom called them spirit flowers when Chad first discovered the translucent specks wafting about, telling him that they were the souls of their ancestors watching over them.
Did her soul watch as Chad followed Drake up the stairs, to the hallway dividing the master bedroom from the two smaller ones?
In the center of the hall, Drake reached for a dangling thread and pulled down the attic door, unfolding an access ladder.
He pointed up. "You first."
Chad grabbed the wooden rail with his free hand and climbed, the ladder's joints squeaking under his weight. Drake followed, pulling up the trap door behind them.
Stepping on the crossbeams as not to fall through the ceiling, Cad followed a pathway cutting through boxes filled with the family's holiday decorations and toys the brothers had outgrown but were too sentimental for Mom to throw away.
Past the oblong box containing the fake Christmas tree and plastic wreath Dad hung on the front door every year, a plywood flap attached by hinges covered a jagged oval hole in the roof. Chad flipped off his flashlight, swung open the cover, and poked his head through the opening.
Suspended like a jewel among the cloudless, starry night, a waxing gibbous moon illuminated the pavement and overgrown grass below. Thankful for clear visibility, Chad tucked the flashlight into his pocket.
Though their stockpile included plenty of batteries, conservation remained crucial. Finding high priority supplies randomly buried in the houses dotting their neighborhood took longer and longer before paying off, forcing deeper treks into the surrounding blocks.
Chad wasn't naïve.
One day there would be nothing left worth pillaging, and they would have to leave the nest. Outside of monthly camping trips, vacations to Disney World, and school field trips to Tallahassee's soaring capital building, Chad had never left Port Wallace. Leaving their sanctuary and striking off into the world frightened him as much as the reanimates.
In small numbers, the corpses were easy to kill, but there was no telling how many flesh-hungry packs wandered the uninhabited streets. Equally dangerous, a starving traveler might kill for supplies as fast as the herds could strip the skin from your bones.
Chad envied the night sky's simple serenity.
"See anything?" Drake asked.
"Just Orion making a run at the sky again," Chad said. "The lawn needs a mow."
"That's not happening. It matches the rest of the block anyway. Come on, climb up. Let me out of here."
Chad pulled himself out of the hole, his blue jeans scraping on the shingles. Standing on the hipped rooftop, he scanned the dark houses lining Lister Avenue while adjusting his holster.
A southern wind wafted in the peaceful crashing waves from the Gulf of Mexico.
A second later, Drake was standing beside him, checking his revolver's bullets. "Where do you think we'll find fluid? The Robinsons'?"
Chad hung out with Timmy Robinson a lot before the change. An only child, Timmy told a million dirty jokes and was the first kid Chad ever saw smoke a cigarette. Once he went door-to-door, collecting donations for the TR Foundation, a play on his own name so he could buy a new bike from the Megacenter. Chad shot Timmy while searching for Robotech comic books in the Robinson house, once in the chest before putting him down for good with a shot between the kid's clouded red and yellow eyes. Drake disposed of Timmy's parents in their upstairs bedroom.
"No," Chad said. "Think we cleaned it out."
"Stop and Shop?"
"Beach Mart is closer."
"Yeah, but Double S has more crap inside."
Drake walked to the far left of the roof and picked up one of three metal ladders from a pile on the roof's edge. Chad grabbed the other end of the ladder and pulled—a sharp click echoed down the street as the ladder opened and locked.
Chad checked the empty street again.
A single sheet of newspaper twisted along the pavement.
"Like a mouse." Drake heaved the ladder to the edge of the roof, bridging the six-foot gap to next door neighbor's mansard roof. "We should ditch the bikes and boost a car."
"Drive?" Chad knelt before the makeshift catwalk. "You never got your license.
"The learner's permit doesn't count."
"Does so. It's not my fault no one ever showed you how."
"And where would we go?"
"I don't know. Anywhere. Nowhere."
"Doesn't sound fun to me."
Drake sat on the base of the ladder as Chad got on all fours and crawled between the buildings.
Chad turned around and held the other end for Drake while he crossed.
The adjacent rooftop lodged their collection of bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets. Balls filled several plastic milk crates, and he noticed they were low on tennis balls—something to keep an eye out for. After Drake traversed the gap, the brothers carried the ladder to the other edge and repeated the process, this time creating a bridge between their neighbor's house and Old Lady Scott's.
The breeze stirred and Chad shivered.
"Next time, I'm wearing a sweater. You can really feel fall coming in." He wrapped his bare arms across his worn Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, covering Donatello's faded sneer. "I bet it snows this year."
"It never snows here. You should be thankful we're not someplace like Philly or Chicago. I bet whoever's left is dick-deep in snow right now."
"Think the rots freeze up there?"
"If they did, it'd be like a statue garden."
"People would have a fighting chance. You could walk up and blast them. Pick them off one by one. They could sweep in and clear the streets with those big machines they use to plow snow."
"Jesus, the smell when they thawed… Remember when Dad's fridge broke and all the deer meat went bad?"
Once the brothers reached Old Lady Scott's flat, L-shaped roof, they wheeled their beach cruisers to the pediment overlooking the driveway, listening for movement in the streets.
"I tell you, this house stinks," whispered Chad. "Cats. I smell cats."
Drake chuckled. "It's all in your head."
"No, it's not."
"We can make it top priority, spend a day down there cleaning it up."
"Are you serious?"
"Hey, you're the one acting like a pretty, pretty princess."
"I was just saying."
"Yup. I heard ya. Look at your damned stars so we can get on with it."
When they started making runs two years ago, the brothers attached a pair of hemp ropes to a red brick chimney on the right-hand side of the roof. Drake picked up one of the loose ends and tied it around the frame of his green beach cruiser, lowering the bike over the edge of the house. Chad affixed his end to a matching black bike. Drake's bike touched ground, and he used the rope to climb after it. Chad joined him, making as little noise as possible.
They untied the bikes and wheeled them to the street, searching again for any movement.
They mounted their bikes and peddled towards Bearden Circle, a winding, S-shaped road leading to Cappo Drive and the Stop and Shop convenience store.
The riskiest leg of the journey, dangerous shadowy areas blanketed feral trees and shrubs taking over the tall, tightly-spaced houses lining Bearden Circle.
Chad peddled harder, putting as much distance as possible from the edge of the pavement by riding on the double yellow lines.
"There hasn't been too many of them lately," said Chad after they made the curve. "Even less than three months ago."
"Doesn't mean anything. I think they're all inside the Megacenter."
Remembering the suicide in electronics, the hairs on Chads arms tingled. Looking towards the road's inky shoulder, the shadows suddenly seemed more ominous.
"Stop a second," Drake said when the brothers reached the bent stop sign at the intersection of Bearden Circle and Cappo Drive.
Before them, the Treasure Ship, a towering Spanish galleon rising high above one of the many marinas dotting Wallace Bay, stood sentential over Cappo Drive. In another time, the immense building served as a restaurant, gift shop, and bar. Chad's tenth birthday party was held in the third floor's main restaurant. A man dressed as a pirate twisted two hot-dog balloons into an orange sword and a red parrot that sat on his shoulder.
He couldn't recall how Mom's voice sounded anymore.
Drake panted. "Think it's empty?"
"I loved watching the boats pass under the fishing bridge from the upper deck."
"One day, we have to go in there."
"I still say it's a giant trap. Once inside there would be no way out." Chad turned the bike's handlebars from side to side, digging the front tire in the sandy gravel. Movement out of the corner of his eye pulled his attention left, towards the two-lane bridge bisecting the Grand Lagoon from Wallace Bay. "We should fish tomorrow."
"Instead of casting lines from the fishing bridge or the Dolphin Pier, we need to find some kayaks and cast lines on the open water."
"What happens if we hook a shark that wants to eat us?"
"We'll get a spear or a harpoon or something. Stick it in one of its eyes."
"A hammerhead would pull you in."
"I could take him."
"It would be easy." Drake's words grew faster and louder. "We could—"
Chad shushed him and pointed towards the shadows underneath the fishing bridge.
A lone figure staggered towards them. It reached out towards them and groaned.
Chad clenched the handle bar's rubber grips. "It's seen us."
"We need to get to the Stop and Shop before it does."
Chad peddled as hard as he could, heading in the opposite direction of the approaching corpse. Slow and awkward, rots took a while to cover any real distance, but that didn't leave them all night to shop. It wouldn't be long before it was pounding on the store's windows, hungry and relentless.
At the end of the Treasure Ship's parking lot, they skidded into the Stop and Shop's dive.
Frozen in time, the rectangular convenience store's broken neon cigarette signs dangled behind dark, cracked windows. An overturned trash barrel blocked the front entrance, Drake's solution to prevent intruders—living and dead—from climbing through the front door's missing windowpane.
They leaned their bikes against a white Chevy Malibu rusting at the gas pumps. The first time the brothers raided the store, they found a skin mag in its glove box—Drake won the issue after a three day game of Monopoly.
They huddled against the car, panting.
"What are we going to do now?" Chad asked.
"I don't know, man."
Not visible from the road but parked next to the building, a beat up truck waited, motor idling.