In the Year of Our Death (Chapter 16)

An Excerpt from In the Year of Our Death

In the Year of Our Death is set two years after In the Lone and Level Sands and follows seven groups of people across America. Some of them are alone, some of their stories intertwine, and some of them are sworn enemies. Most of them are just trying to survive—but so are the zombies.

 

16
Outside Hoover Dam

The rusted frames of cars lined US Route 93, some missing glass, others with bodies in them. Nelson didn’t have to be able to see to tell; after the first few he took a bandana from his pack and tied it around his head and over the lower half of his face. It didn’t help with the smell much, but it did keep the sun off him.

Nelson realized he was panting, and decided to be quieter. That zombie that had broken in had to have come from somewhere, after all.

He put his hand against a window and leaned into it for a rest. The glass was warm, and with the sun behind him he could see inside faintly. A corpse, mostly decomposed, stared back at him. It was mostly a gray blur, but he could see the teeth, and his brain put the rest together: A fiendish grin, mocking him from beyond the grave. Or car seat.

Nelson set to walking again. The whole thing was absurd; it was a straight shot from the dam to Henderson, but not one he could navigate without being to see, or else he risked getting lost in the desert. Of course, if he could see, he wouldn’t need to make the trip at all. So here he was, walking along the interstate with the sun beating down on him, stopping to listen every time he even thought he heard a sound, drifting past blurry rusted cars.

A dirt road joined the highway, spilling dust onto the pavement, never to be cleaned. Nelson skirted a few cars, walked among the dirt beside the road, then tripped and fell. Sharp rocks scraped against him, and Nelson cursed as he sat up. His left hand was trickling blood; he grabbed another bandana from his pack and tied it around him, sat still for a second, and used every ounce of strength he had not to scream into the desert sky.

Nelson pulled at the corners of his eyes, which made his vision very slightly better (in one eye, at least) and saw he had tripped on a little mound of dirt. Nearby was a car bumper with dirt caked on it. He almost laughed; his entire life had led to him wandering blind through the desert and tripping over someone’s shallow grave. Macabre as it was, he was sitting atop the dirt right now, not lying below it, and that was reason enough to stand up and press on.

US 93 only passed through Boulder City for about a mile, but it took Nelson the rest of the day to cover it. Set in a little valley, he wouldn’t be able to go completely around the town. The road only crossed the outer parts of the city, but it was too close for comfort, and Nelson traversed the whole thing crouched low, hoping no zombies were close enough to see him or figure out how to get onto the highway if they did.

He kept in the middle of the road, so the cars were on either side. Every time the wind blew from the town, he smelled decay. For a small stretch of the road, he could hear thousands of moans in the distance to his left, and always he watched for any motion in the blobs of color ahead of him.

When the moans finally faded, the sun had gone with them. His legs and lower back were screaming at him, but the evening finally brought cool air and took the sun off his skin, and he pried the bandana from his face and drank it in. The going was smoother, tired as he was, but he knew it couldn’t last long; he wouldn’t camp close to Boulder, but he couldn’t keep going in the darkness. The moon lit the world only enough for a person with better vision than he.

Nelson set up camp under a little overpass, in case it rained during the night. He lit no fire, and he watched as the night went from dark shapes to utter darkness, hoping the sleep he had missed last night would catch up on this one. He found he was far too anxious to sleep well, but he did catch a few hours in the late morning.

The underpass was cool and shady, and out there was sun and worse, but he was almost to Henderson. Nelson tried to think of how easy the trip back would be, with the benefit of eyesight. He didn’t expect an optometrist to have many prescriptions on-hand, but if he didn’t find something good enough, he would rip the lenses right out of the test machine the doctor used and make them into glasses himself. The days of luxury were long gone, though he knew of a certain guitar that sang otherwise.

Nelson crawled into the sunlight and started along the interstate again. After a while he passed a strip mall, crouching low as he skirted the parking lot. Something was moving between the cars over there, and he couldn’t tell which way it was facing, so he kept low and crept by the little cement barrier by the road. Eventually it was far behind him, and ahead the horizon was a dotted line, the smudgy beginnings of civilization.

****

This was a bad idea.

Henderson was no different from Boulder City. The wind brought the smell of corpses, and as difficult as it was to see the houses and buildings on the outskirts, he could tell some of those blurs were moving. How was he supposed to find an eye doctor? He supposed Wal-Mart probably had one, at least he could look for one of those. That was a good plan. So why wasn’t he moving?

Because I’m going to die in there.

The odds of him making it to a Wal-Mart, making it through the place, getting what he needed, and getting back out were low. Honestly, how bad could a life of no vision at Hoover Dam be? Then again, he’d come all this way, and any large stores would probably be right off the interstate. He was so close he could taste it. Just not see it or smell it.

Nelson stood in the road pondering his dilemma when the answer presented itself in the form of a zombie roaring right behind him. He threw a glance back at it as he ran forward instinctually, and then another popped up from where it had been squatting a few yards to his right.

As he ran he mostly watched the ground; he could make out the road from the cars, so anything likely to trip him up would be low, almost out of sight. He weaved in and out, sometimes climbing over hoods and trunks, and looked back again, but couldn’t tell if the zombies were still following. Now and then one took notice off to the side of the road and started toward it, so Nelson kept moving forward.

He took the gun from its holster, but his hands were sweaty and he didn’t want to drop it, so he put it back (but kept a hand on the handle as he ran). He was panting heavily, which probably only drew in more of the creatures, but most of them reached the interstate and tripped when they hit the cement barrier, leaving Nelson to blaze past them. Others ran into cars and couldn’t think to go around them, instead beating at the rusted metal with their fists. Those ones were easy; Nelson could hear when he left them in the dust.

Nelson lost his footing on a crack in the pavement, leapt forward to keep from falling, and dove head-first into a zombie. He grabbed his gun and knife. It would’ve been so easy and so efficient to lunge forward and stab the creature in the brain, and if he could see that it was facing away from him and was totally oblivious to his presence, maybe he would have. But Nelson was already deep within instinct’s grasp, and he lifted his gun and fired. The zombie’s head rocked forward, coughing brain matter onto the desert road, then back again from the force, splattering blood across Nelson’s shirt and face. Then the zombie hit the asphalt, and the echo of the gunshot bounced off of the hills. As it faded Nelson heard a hundred moans and cries rise all around him.

Nelson dove over the zombie’s body as he ran. Creatures came in from all sides, most tripping or stopping, but some were ahead of him now, and they were on their feet by the time he passed. Nelson charged at a zombie, thrusting it onto the hood of a car so he could squeeze by. It grabbed his sleeve, but he yanked it free and kept running.

Ahead another zombie shambled toward him, through a narrow gap between a truck and a sedan. With little other choice, Nelson raised the gun and fired. He wasn’t sure what the bullet hit, but it definitely wasn’t the zombie, who continued toward him in all its fuzzy glory. He fired again, then again, and the third shot finally caught it in the face, below its eye. He had gotten so close, he was able to push the body as it fell and keep going over it.

An unclear world blazed by, sweat drained into his eyes and burned, but he had to keep them open. As bad as his vision was, it was immeasurably better than being unable to see at all. His legs were sore and the sun was beating down as hard as ever, daring him to slow down.

The interstate was blocked by a bus, but the back door was open. Nelson hopped on and slammed the door shut behind him, then ran through the aisle. A beam of brilliant light stabbed through his vision ahead, and he could only assume the bus’s main door was open. He headed for it, but something caught his foot and he tripped and fell hard. Nelson looked back and saw a zombie that had been lying on the ground beneath one of the seats, like it was taking some respite from the sun inside the bus. It was too weak to drag Nelson’s foot toward its mouth, but it could still pull itself toward his feet, and was inches away. He aimed down and fired, and his previous leg pains became a distant memory as a sharp stabbing sensation entered his foot. He screamed, staring at the new bullet hole in his shoe, aimed a little to the left, and fired again. The zombie’s head exploded, Nelson yanked his foot free, then stood up.

He couldn’t put much weight on his foot, which was bleeding through the hole in his shoe. He limped down the aisle of the bus, this time checking for motion in the seats, but the only movement he saw was through the bus’s windshield, heading toward it.

Nelson reached the front door just before the zombies did. With no time to go through it (and his foot keeping him from getting very far if he did), Nelson did the next best thing that occurred to him: He grabbed the handle of the door and threw it sideways, slamming the door shut (or, thanks to the tattered and unkempt layer of rubber lining the door, squishing it closed). Not even a second later, the first of the zombies slammed against the glass, then the second, and then they had the bus surrounded, slamming their fists against its doors and hood and sides.

Nelson heaved in air and spat it back out, trying to fill his lungs. His foot was aching and he could feel a migraine coming on. He counted his bullets; it was a rough count but he already knew he didn’t have enough to escape the bus, even if he got a headshot with every one, which he thought impossible even if he could see.

Already a plan was forming. He could open the door just a crack, stab the nearest zombie, and then lure the next in. Nelson stared through the glass at the one closest to the door, and more were pressing against it. More likely, as soon as he cracked it, they’d tear the door open, mosey on in, and eat him.

Nelson was on the verge of forming another plan when the glass in front of him cracked from the zombie’s head hitting it. The zombie slid down, leaving a trail of blood, and then Nelson realized he’d heard a gunshot. The next zombie’s head exploded toward him, and the bullet went through and smashed the glass, shattering it and leaving a gap big enough for the zombies to get through if they tried hard enough.

Nelson dove into the aisle as gunshot after gunshot rang out, now and then denting the metal hull of the bus. He flinched every time, hoping the bullets wouldn’t pierce through and hit him. Was he being saved or attacked? He kept his hands over his head, not sure what good that would do.

When the last gunshot faded, there were no more moans, but there were shouts, and they were getting closer. Nelson scrambled to his feet and drew his gun, then sat in the seat nearest the door, hunkered low so he wouldn’t be seen.

Footsteps approached, he heard something being dragged and shoved, probably bodies. Then the voices were right outside.

“Quiet down, will you?” one of them said. Then, louder, “Come on out, friend. We know you’re in there, we know you’re armed, we watched the whole thing.”

Nelson was still for a second, as though he expected someone else to go forward with their hands up, and then the uncomfortable reality that he was the only person present sank in. “I—I don’t want trouble!” he shouted.

“Neither do we. Just come out slow, keep your hands where we can see them. You’re safe now, we promise.”

Nelson stood, slowly, staring through the window. Years of dust covered it, but he could see people out there, normal-looking and standing a few yards from the door. Nelson went to the front, turned the crank and opened the door (shaking little bits of glass free from its frame), then stopped at the top of the steps. He could see a middle-aged man standing on the other side of a trail of bodies, smiling with his hands in his pockets.

“I don’t want trouble,” Nelson said again.

The man frowned, raising his eyebrows, and shrugged. “I won’t give you any.”

Nelson limped down the stairs, and as soon as he reached the last one, someone came from around the corner, grabbing him by the shirt and ripping him from the bus. The assailant swung him out and downward, and Nelson landed on his back on the asphalt. He reached for his gun, but the same man kicked it away.

The man from before appeared above him and jerked his head at the one who had attacked him. “Guess he might, though.”

Laughs came out. Nelson tried to sit up, but the man with his hands in his pockets put a foot on his chest and pinned him back down. He sized Nelson up, looking from bald head to bloodied foot, then shook his head and drew a gun from the back of his pants.

“Wait!” Nelson cried.

“For what? You have friends coming? We’ll kill them and take their shit, too. Nothing personal of course; we got a nice hideout going, lights and warm water, very clean. Takes supplies to keep it all together, though. You just happened to get too close.”

More laughter, people moving around in his periphery. The calm man raised the gun slightly, aiming it right between his sweat-soaked eyes, and Nelson shouted the first thing he thought of.

“You can’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”

Nelson tried to judge their number by the laughs, but it was as fruitless as trying to judge the zombies by their moans.

“I run the dam. Hoover Dam. Without me, it shuts down, and you lose your power.”

For the first time, the calm man’s smirk faded. He kneeled down, almost close enough that Nelson could make out his features. He pressed the gun against Nelson’s temple.

“That so?”

“I swear,” Nelson said.

“He swears, boys.”

“See for yourself. It’s locked, but I have the keys, they’re in my—”

The calm man tore into Nelson’s front pocket, found nothing, and shoved him onto his side. He checked the other pocket and took the keys, then stood. He put a foot on Nelson’s side, and Nelson moaned, but that made him press harder. The calm man looked the keys over.

“These could go to anything.”

“But they don’t. They go to Hoover Dam. Inside you’ll find a lot of hallways, lots of equipment, and the rest of my shit. A guitar, my coffee maker, a broken pair of glasses. See for yourself, that’s why I’m out here, I need glasses. But if you kill me, the dam shuts down, along with all power in the southwest, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

The man tore his foot from Nelson’s side, and Nelson sat up, tentatively, watching the man the whole time. He was blurry, but Nelson was pretty sure his face didn’t move at all. Nelson worked his way to his knees. “Unless you have another scientist around.”

The calm man smiled, then stared from one of his companions to another, and they laughed, though it sounded forced.

“Turns out we don’t,” he said. He offered Nelson his hand. Nelson wanted little less than to touch it, but he did, and the man guided him gently to his feet. “All right. I believe you, for now. We’ll see soon enough whether you’re full of shit, and if you are, we’ll replace it with some lead.”

“It’s no lie,” Nelson said, although part of it was. The dam was mostly automatic, though they’d have no way of knowing that—unless they killed him and were pleasantly surprised to find their electricity still on.

“Well then, let’s go!”

The others started walking, with at least two of them behind Nelson to make sure he couldn’t run. The calm man put an arm around Nelson’s shoulder.

“Go where?” Nelson asked.

“‘Where?’ To get you new glasses, of course!”

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