We walked the same barren roads we’d been walking for years. The road and the few houses still standing never regained any of the colors they once had.
The world still carried the dull grey tones from the war. It touched everything around us. Even the trees bore the scars of a more violent time.
Our boots crunched on the gravel path on the outskirts of the burnt-out village. We walked with a purpose; it was a journey we’d been looking forward to for a long time. Our parents were both away working on the walls for the new settlement. And it finally gave us the chance to sneak out and try to find him. Neither of us should have been far from the center of town, but no one had seen any of them in years. They still built the walls though.
And Del and I still carried long knives on our belts. We were more afraid of a wolf or mountain lion, but the fear still existed. Even if we were young when the war ended.
We knew he lived out here, somewhere. He didn’t come to town. Most people believed he either died or moved on. Some thought he couldn’t handle the idea that the wars were over. Del just thought he might like being alone.
We heard a rustle in the woods. I slipped the long knife out of its sheath, and Del had hers halfway out. We waited a few minutes, but the time lasted far longer than it should have.
“We should have brought a gun,” Del said.
“I didn’t think we should risk breaking into the armory and skipping work duty,” I said.
“That’s a good point.”
“That’s why I’m the brains of the operation.”
“You aren’t the brains of any operation.”
“Well, I don’t get why’d you’d date such a dumb guy,” I said.
“That has much more to do with the severe lack of people left.”
“I know you didn’t mean that as a compliment but I’ll take it.”
“You really don’t have much of a choice,” she said.
Wewalked some more. I had never been this far from town without my father. Del claimed that she used to sneak out here all the time, but I had my doubts. She was the only child her parents had left, and they watched her like a hawk for most of our childhood. Only recently, we were allowed to go anywhere by ourselves. And, we were supposed to keep the town in sight.
Soon the old road turned into the woods leaving the ramshackle remnants behind.
“Are you sure you want to go out there?”
“I’ve heard about this guy my whole life. I need to see him.”
The path went from broken concrete and gravel to complete dirt. It was hardly a road a and more a path between trees. Each step took us farther than either dreamed we’d be on our own. Del’s father was a hunter and would be gone for days, and he’d go deep into the forest in search of food, but that wasn’t a profession Del nor I would be getting. Our woods skills were subpar at best.
“What are you going to ask him?” I asked.
“I want to know if he really killed a hundred zombies on his own at Pine River.”
“I heard it was two hundred.”
“My dad was there. He said the number gets higher every time he hears it, but it can’t be more than a hundred.”
“That’s disheartening,” I said, “I want to him say what Blood Winter was like.”
“God that must have been awful.”
“But you know what I really want to know?” I asked.
She smiled. It was what every kid wanted to know growing up, “how he survived the bite.”
I had a witty reply about how she was wrong. But something felt wrong.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“I think we’re being watched.”
“What?” Del asked.
“Don’t you feel that?’ I asked, “I swear it feels like someone’s watching us.”
“Who’d be out here?”
“I don’t know but I just got a chill.”
“You’re just a wimp.”
“I know. Eric would be disappointed.”
“Is that what we’re supposed to call him?”
“Mr. Once Bitten sounds a little formal.”
“Well yeah, but it seems weird to call someone you’ve never met by their first name.”
“Does he have a last name? That’s not in any of the stories I’ve heard. Have you?”
“No. They all start the same way, with him losing his family. He has to kill his wife to put her out of her misery after they lost the children.”
“I heard she was pregnant,” I said.
“Yeah, they say that’s why he snapped.”
“Makes sense I guess,” Del said, “except most people snapped back then.”
“But most people didn’t become Eric Once Bitten.”
“I think that’s because most people don’t survive the bite,” Del said.
“That logical thinking is going to get you places Delilah.”
The punch to the arm was swift, but not unexpected. “I told you not to call me that.”
“My mistake,” I said, “it’s such a good name. You should use it more often.”
“If anyone,” she said looking at me right in the eye, “calls me that. I will break that person’s nose.”
“What if I survive a zombie bite?”
She smiled, “if you survive that. If you become Jake Once Bitten. You can call me that all you want.”
“What happens if I become Jake Twice Bitten?” I said winking at her.
“You’d probably die.”
We both laughed. I nearly stumbled in the dirt road. Just as I regained my balance, I was sure I saw something in the woods. It was just a hint. An extra shadow maybe.
“Are you alright?” Del asked, “this is why they don’t let you in the woods by yourself.”
“Yeah, but Del I swear I saw something out there.”
“Whatever Mr. Twice Bitten. Let’s move. We need to be back before dark.”
She was right. Despite our cavalier attitude, and the relative safety we’d enjoyed for a while. There was no way either of us wanted to be out after dark. Only a few people, like Del’s father, were allowed. They held the title Nightscout.
The feeling never left the whole time we were on the trail. I kept bugging Del about it. But, she kept calling me a wimp, which wasn’t that far from the truth.
Then we heard a stick break in the woods.
My mind raced. It could be any number of things; wolves, coyotes, mountain lions. Bears had mostly been hunted for food the last couple years, but there was still a chance. There were even rumors of zoo animals that made their home in the woods.
As long as it was alive. That’s all I hoped.
We both breathed a sigh of relief when a deer bounded across the road.
“We’ll have to tell your dad where we saw it,” I said.
“We can’t. Then they’ll know we were out here. We’d get in the way more trouble than the food would be worth.”
The ability with which she pointed out my mistakes was annoying sometimes, but it was one of the reasons I liked her so much.
I walked over to the point where the deer crossed. I was never able to track anything, much to the disapproval of Del’s father, but I wanted to see if I could find tracks. It seemed like the best opportunity I would get.
“Come on,” she said, “we need to hurry.”
“Just give me a second.”
I looked along the edge of the woods, but it was nothing but a wild menagerie of plants and shadows, and I couldn’t tell where a single foot had fallen.
“Oh god, do you smell that?” Del asked. She had to yell. We’d heard so many guns when we were kids that both of us were already hard of hearing.
“Smell what?” I asked turning towards her. I started to yell for her to run. I could see it over her shoulder.
And it definitely wasn’t alive.
It was tall, with grey skin and yellow eyes, and a dark circle around its mouth.
Del turned as soon as I started screaming. She reached for her knife but it was too close. Luckily, she turned and ran. She grabbed my arm and pulled me from my dumbfounded state. Survival training started to kick in. The rules drilled into us as kids.
Don’t try to fight.
There’s never just one.
The only problem was we were far from home and running in the other direction.
“Should we get off the road?” I asked.
“No. Too much cover. We need to be able to see them coming.”
We kept running. Finally, I quit, with my hands on my knees. My feet ached. It was hard to find shoes that fit. And, the homemade shoes were usually terrible.
“Just wait a second.”
“You really should be in better shape,” Del said.
“That was creepy. Have you ever seen one before?” she asked.
“I mean when we were kids. I saw a few when they would find the way to town. I hardly remember.”
“Yeah,” she said, “hopefully that was just a rogue.”
She didn’t say more, but I knew what she was thinking. A single zombie wasn’t much. But when they massed in numbers, they could take out groups of survivors, or cities, even countries.
“I think we can still look for him,” Del said.
“Are you crazy? We need to get back home.”
“Relax we have the rest of the day. If it gets too late we can double back.”
“Double back? What about the thing in the road? What are we supposed to do about that?”
“We can handle it. It’s just one. There are two of us,” she said.
“First and second helpings. Great.”
“Shut up. Get a move on.”
We walked with a purpose, and going over our favorite Eric stories. He saved her dad and his group of hunters once. They said he was like a moving shadow. That he was the deadliest thing they’d ever seen. People said that he wasn’t a man but a ghost that haunted the woods.
We stopped jogging, but we did keep the knives out. Though, I was just as likely to trip and stick myself with it. The sun was past its highest point. We had a couple hours.
“Del, it’s starting to get late.”
“Just a little longer. He’s out here. Somewhere.”
Well, now there was no way I was going to say no. We walked some more. Her hair glistened with sweat. She caught me staring.
“Would you get that dumb look off your face,” she said smiling.
She somehow found the same spot she punched earlier. It hurt exponentially worse the second time. I was rubbing my arm when I heard her.
They were coming out of the woods, at least ten, with more and more visible in the trees.
All sorts. Tall ones. Short ones. They were all pale and thin. They walked with such an eerie gate. They sauntered and shambled. Most had visible leg injuries. Some were missing arms. And the blood. There weren’t a single clean corpse among them.
They just kept coming.
There were three in front of us. Del took her knife and jabbed one right under the chin. It went down immediately as if it’s plug was pulled. But, it was larger than her and she wasn’t prepared to hold the weight up. It crumbled on top of her.
“Jake, get it off me.”
I pulled on one of its arms. It was soft, and the skin broke and I nearly vomited. Between the two of us, we got the body of her. She kept tugging at the knife firmly lodged in its skull.
“Leave it, we have to go.”
The road was blocked. We ducked into the woods. I had no idea where we were going. I just knew we had to run. We had to be safe. Del had to be safe. Dead things were coming from all directions.
We’d run to an open area we could find. They were closing in.
She wasn’t on the ground for more than a second but she was surrounded. I did the only thing I could think of.
I rushed the group and plowed into the group, and I sent the zombies sprawling. We crashed to the ground, but it gave Del enough room to escape.
They were under me. On top of me. I heard teeth snapping together.
Del’s horrified face told me everything I needed to know. I slashed at anything that moved. At one point I hit side my side I was swinging so hard. I wasn’t going to make it. Del was screaming. I tried to tell her to run, but my mouth filled with blood.
Suddenly I saw a light. The furious maze of infected bodies suddenly went still. I heard the dull crack of rotten skulls. Someone much stronger than Del grabbed me and pulled me to my feet.
He was tall, broad-shouldered with greying brown hair down to his chest, as wild as the man wearing it. He hardly noticed me, as he continued to dispatch the zombies. He wielded a spear, and it whirled around with more force than I could ever muster, as I watched nearly decapitate anything it touched.
“That way,” he said, pointing to the path he cleared. We ran, avoiding the new zombies showing up.
At least an hour went by, and we finally stopped to rest.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” Del said.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked.
“I have no idea. I’m pretty sure we’re farther from the settlement than earlier.”
I heard footsteps ahead of us.
“Do you have the knife?” Del asked.
“I dropped it somewhere,” I said.
She picked up a rock, “This will have to do.”
I breathed an audible sigh of relief when he stepped out.
“How’d you get ahead of us?” I asked.
“You’re not very fast.” he said, “I wanted to scout the area ahead. It’s safe if we keep going this way.”
“So you just left us to run for our lives?” Del asked.
“I always knew where you were,” he said, “these are my woods.”
“What makes them yours? I asked. No one really owned anything anymore.”
“Any woods with the dead in them are my woods,” he said, “my name is Eric, come with me.”
It finally dawned on me who was helping us, and I followed the mythical man, hoping he wouldn’t notice the bewildered look on my face. I was walking with the legend himself, Eric Once Bitten.
We walked for half an hour. Even though we were deeper in the woods, I had never felt safer. Finally, Eric came to a stop.
I don’t know what I expected Eric’s home to look like, but it did not disappoint. There were ropes tied ankle high between most of the trees we passed. As we got closer, it turned to steel cables tied several times between trees. forming a rudimentary fence. But, it gave the person in the cabin options to get out.
I heard stories of people trapped in fenced-in areas. The fence would initially save you, but it would soon entomb you as the zombies surround the camp. It’s why our town had so many exits.
Inside the several layers of fence, there was a small stout cabin. It wasn’t exactly what I thought my hero would live in, but it was effective. It had an escape route built from the roof to the trees above. If it was ever overrun, the person inside would be able to walk over the threat and find safety. It was also probably only one of a few safe locations Eric had. He led us inside. There was a rudimentary bed with a sleeping bag, and that’s where Del and I sat. Eric took a chair across the small room.
“What were you two doing in the woods?” he asked.
“Looking for you,” Del.
“Why in the world would you go looking for me?”
“We wanted to know if you were real,” I said.
The big man’s face flattened. It was then I noticed the scars on his face. They were old but still noticeable. He had one long one that crossed his face from temple to chin. “The fact that you two have hardly seen a zombie, and that town you live in is still standing wasn’t enough proof for you?”
“No one had seen you in years,” Del said, “the only thing people know is the stories. It’s been so quiet. I thought it was safe.”
“It’s safe because, for the last five years, I’ve killed every shambling corpse I could get my hands on, and leading the larger groups away. Did you think you could walk around unarmed?”
“We weren’t unarmed. We had knives. That’s the rule. You have to have knives,” Del said.
“The rule is supposed to be spears. If you’re close enough to use a knife, you’ve already messed up,” Eric said, his hands balled into fists, “I swear if Governor Calvin didn’t have the talent for stretching resources he did. I would kill him myself.”
“Why do you live out here? Why don’t you live in town?” I asked.
“Once you’ve been out here a certain length of time there’s no going back. There’s only work.”
“You don’t have to do it on your own,” Del said.
His face tightened. “Yes I do,” he said, “this is something only I can do.”
“Why?” Del asked.
There was a palpable silence.
“He’s not afraid of getting bit Del,” I said.
“Ahhh, I see my reputation exists,” he said, “am I still called the Once Bitten?”
“Eric the Once Bitten, sometimes others, Eric the Unkillable, the Grim Reaper, the Ghost of Greyhallow.”
“Ha,” he said, “the legend grows.”
“There’s a song too.”
“It’s called the Ballad of Eric Once Bitten,” I said.
‘We learn it as children. The man of myth and gore, he rid the dead from wood to shore…stuff like that.”
“I’ll see if they can add a verse about spears.”
“Were you really bit?” Del asked.
The big man paused and lifted his shirt. His torso was all knotted muscle and scarred skin. On his stomach, he had a bite mark.
“I got it the night my family died. I went crazy. I decided that I wasn’t going to make it and I would take as many as I could. But I was able to keep going and going. I thought each night would be my last, but each morning I’d wake up and keep going. Then the wound healed and I’ve been going ever since. A doctor told me when we were first starting the town that there’s a small group of people immune when a disease starts. So far, I’m the only one anyone has heard of being immune to the virus.”
Finally, the adrenaline was wearing off and I realized how much my side hurt. Eric noticed me grabbing stomach.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, “I hit my side with the knife before you saved me.”
Eric stood and moved to a cabinet near the door, “well let’s see what we can do about it.” He knelt next to me setting a medical bag down. He lifted my shirt, “Don’t look bud. There’s a lot of blood.” Eric’s tone was comforting but he looked much more concerned. Del grabbed my arm. She was trying to keep from crying. I heard Eric grab something from his belt.
She looked me right in the eyes, “Call me Delilah one last time.”
And it all went dark.