The following is a short story called “The River” and is the first story in After the Bite, a collection of short stories about zombies. You can read a longer preview on the book’s Smashwords page, but I’m posting the first story here for convenience.
If you enjoy this story, please visit the book’s page and check out the full preview, and if you enjoy that, please consider buying a copy of the book. Whatever you decide to do, thank you for taking the time to be here, to read my work, to share this post with a friend, what have you. It means a lot to me.
He pulled the trigger and a split second later the shot rang out, deafening, like thunder. The zombie had stood, mouth gaping and dripping with blood and spit and flesh, but almost concurrent with that simple, one-fingered motion, its head was gone. Bits and pieces of it exploded in all directions, droplets of red and pink left a stain upon the white wallpaper, a permanent mark of the event that had just transpired, never to be undone or taken back. All it had taken was a movement of his finger.
“Take that, you zombie bastard!” Jack said. He was usually much calmer, but he was currently injured, close to death even, so he was feeling tense.
Then, it happened. He had gotten careless. When he had entered the small room, he had headed straight for the zombie (whose entire existence could now be summed up by a red stain on the wall), but Jack had not checked the corner, where a second zombie had been standing in the shadows. Upon hearing the gunshot, it took note of Jack and attacked him from behind, slamming its fists into him, biting him, thrashing about him. Before Jack could turn around to confront the zombie, he succumbed to his wounds and fell to the ground, dead.
“God damn it!” Jack said. He let the controller fall from his hands to the floor. His character on the screen before him lay motionless, blood pooling around his lifeless body. The camera circled in a taunting fashion, the zombie that had brought his demise wandered off as though it was bored, and then virtual blood ran down the screen, transparent in some places, forming a simple message: “You Died!” as though Jack had not already noticed.
Better luck next time, he supposed.
He’d finished the game countless times before, but still had difficulty with it on Expert Mode. A lot of people in the community did.
The community was the Zombie Apocalypse Preparation Society, or Z.A.P.O. It was an online forum Jack was a high-ranking member of, and they did everything zombie-related imaginable. They posted news on upcoming films and books, help with various zombie-themed video games, they organized zombie walks (and Jack had been on his share of them), and a few members out in New York had even made their own zombie film, which was currently in post-production.
And all of it, in the eyes of Jack’s brother Henry, was absurd.
Jack and Henry were close. They had always been brothers, but they had become very close one day, years earlier, at the river.
The river wasn’t far from their house. It was across the back yard, through the woods, and then down a small hill. Their parents forbade them from playing in or by the river, despite how shallow it was, but the boys were not to be stopped. Eventually, their father gave in and set up a tire swing by a tree overhanging the river. The boys couldn’t have thanked him enough, especially since the resulting argument had ended with dear Father sleeping on the couch for a week.
The boys were young, then. Jack was only seven, and Henry was nine. Henry’s feet could touch the bottom of the river, but Jack’s couldn’t; he was just barely too short, and he would push off against the floor of the riverbed and bob up and down to keep his head above water. They would go to the river at least once every week, especially during the summer.
One day, in the middle of July, they went out to the river. Jack went in first, bypassing the rope swing and hopping right into the water, then bobbing up and down as he always did.
“Come on in, Henry!” Jack said. Henry dipped a foot into the water, then the other, and then stood there for a moment.
“It’s too cold,” Henry said. “Let me get used to it.”
“Don’t be a baby!” Jack replied.
“Who are you calling a baby? You can’t even keep your head up.”
“Just get used to it already. Like this!” Jack grabbed Henry and yanked him into the water. When the two emerged, Jack was laughing, and Henry was freezing.
“You jerk!” Henry said.
“Oh come on,” Jack said. “I want to play sometime before we get old.”
“You still didn’t have to drag me in.”
“What are you going to do? Tell Mom?” Jack laughed.
Henry climbed out of the river.
“Ah, come on!” Jack said. “Don’t be like that!”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Henry said. “I’m just getting out to use the swing.”
Henry walked over to where the long rope hung from the tree, then climbed into the tire before pushing off with one leg. The swing went back and forth, over the river and then back onto the bank, where Henry would give another push.
“Show-off!” Jack shouted. “Just jump already!”
“I think I can go higher!” Henry said, pushing off again.
“Just jump, Hen!”
There was a loud noise, and the branch snapped. Henry landed on his back, just barely in the water. His head slammed against the shallow part of the river, and then he slid forward into the water.
“Henry!” Jack screamed. He lost sight of Henry, and saw only a trail of red water. He bobbed up again, trying to get a better look. He called out for help, knowing nobody could hear. Jack looked for Henry and saw him emerge, floating face-down, slowly moving down the river.
“Henry! Get up!” Jack said. He moved, awkwardly but as swiftly as he could, toward his brother.
Jack caught up and did his best to turn Henry face-up. It was difficult because he couldn’t touch the bottom, and the river was deeper out here; he had to push even harder to get his head above water.
“Henry, wake up!” Jack pleaded between bobs and gasps for air. Henry didn’t respond.
Jack tried to move Henry toward the bank, but found it difficult. He would push off the floor of the riverbed and surface, then grasp Henry and quickly jerk him toward the bank. Doing so threw off his bobbing, and he would go under far too slowly, reach the bottom later than he was used to, and have to bob back up and down several times just to get enough air and balance to give Henry another shove toward the bank. Jack couldn’t even tell how long he had been crying, and the bank of the river seemed farther than it ever had.
Finally, though it offered him little comfort, Jack felt his feet touch the bottom of the bank, and he could more easily move his brother toward it. Jack dragged Henry and nearly collapsed onto the bank, laying Henry’s top half down on the edge, his lower half still in the water.
“Henry! Hen, wake up!” Henry didn’t respond. “Help!” Jack screamed into the trees nearby. “Somebody help! Mom!”
No reply came, and Jack knew none would. Henry was bleeding from the back of his head, and he didn’t appear to be breathing.
Jack had seen CPR on television, and had learned a little bit about it in some of his classes, but he didn’t think he could actually do it. But there was his brother lying there, calling out to him in his stiff silence, begging him for help. Jack cleared Henry’s mouth of water, and then pressed his own to it.
Jack did his best imitation of the examples he’d seen, but Henry didn’t appear to respond at all. The tears streamed down his face, and between breaths into his brother’s mouth, he continued to call out, until he no longer called words but screamed into the sky.
And then, in the middle of a breath, Henry threw up. Water gushed from his mouth, and he began coughing, sitting up and nearly knocking Jack over in the process. Finally, he gasped for air. Jack, overcome with disbelief, jumped forward and wrapped his arms around his brother.
“What happened?” Henry asked.
“You fell,” Jack said. “You hit your head.”
“Did you save me?”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “I guess I did.”
The two shared a hug, and a certain closeness that stuck with them for years to come. From then on, it was them versus the world. They had each other, and needed nothing else. They played their make-believe games, and they told each other stories about worlds where children grew up to become heroes and go on quests, where the world didn’t expect anything of them but to do what they wanted.
As they got older, they went through school together, and became well-known as two great friends who couldn’t be separated; brothers until the end. “Brothers until death,” Jack would say. “And kill me if I ever wear a suit and tie,” Henry would reply, and the two would laugh.
They never played by the river again.
Jack turned the TV off, and then the phone rang. Jack looked at the caller ID and saw the name illuminated by green LED light: Henry Williams. Excited, he answered it.
“Hey, Hen! What’s going on?”
“Jack, is that you? Is Mom or Dad home?”
“No, they’re out,” Jack said.
“Well, I’m about to head out. I’ll be there in about two hours. Let them know I’m coming.”
“I’ll see you soon, Jackie.”
“Can’t wait,” Jack said. The phone clicked, and Jack put it down.
Henry had moved out at the age of nineteen. He had been offered a job at a law firm, and taken it without so much as a thought, even though it meant leaving the state. Jack had always been hurt by the speed at which Henry was willing to leave it all behind, and he felt he’d never be ready to leave.
What made it worse was that Jack had been offered the job first. He had gone through most of the schooling, decided it wasn’t for him, and then been offered a job. He turned it down, and soon Henry, who was a law school prodigy (which Mother had always joked meant he was very good at lying), had been offered the job.
Jack stayed at home. He went to school and studied other things, but had yet to find his calling. Except, of course, for the zombies.
Zombies had become his life. Posters and decorations adorned his bedroom, stacks of zombie movies were piled on every available countertop, and he didn’t own a single video game that didn’t have a zombie in it. He even had a novelty gun case; inside was a fake shotgun and the glass read, in bright red letters, ‘In Case of Zombies, Break the Glass’.
In the meantime, Jack worked at the nearby gas station. He usually had the night shift, and he made minimum wage. He lived at home, in his parents’ basement. That was how he had found himself, 23 years old, still trying to find a calling that could put food on the table. He had ventured into the world of writing fiction a few times, but found himself not quite able to make money off of it, despite how much he enjoyed it.
Regardless of the distance between them, Jack and Henry remained close. They called each other every week, and kept in touch through e-mail, even as Henry became busier and more successful as a lawyer.
Jack wandered the house. He straightened things, dusted off counters, made sure everything was neat. He knew it didn’t matter, Henry would hardly care what shape the house was in, but it also made Jack feel like less of a burden if he helped out around the house.
Finally, his mother called. Jack hurried to the phone.
“Hey, Mom,” he said.
“Hi, honey. Has Henry called?”
“Yeah. He’s on his way. He’ll be here in an hour, maybe less.”
“He’ll likely make it home before we do, then. There’s a lot of traffic out here, I think there must be a show at the theater or something.”
“Well, just get home when you can. Henry’s not going anywhere.”
“Did you tidy up?”
“Good boy. Gotta go. Love you lots!”
“I love you too, Mom,” Jack said. The two hung up.
Once the house was cleaned up, Jack waited eagerly on the couch. Finally there was the knock at the door. Jack rushed to answer it, and as soon as the door was open he flung his arms around his brother. Henry, a little more hesitant, hugged him back.
“Hi, Jack,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“How was the flight?” Jack asked, letting go of his Henry.
“Awful, as always. You know how much I hate planes.”
“Well, you’re safe now. Come in!”
Jack motioned for Henry to enter the house, and he did so. Jack helped him with his bags.
“Honestly, I don’t know why you knock. This will always be your home.”
“I don’t live here anymore, Jackie.”
“And what’s with the suit? You don’t have to get all dressed up just for us.”
“Yeah?” Henry said. “And you didn’t have to clean the house or hide your zombie nonsense for me, but you still did.”
Jack shrugged, and smiled. “Guilty as charged.”
Henry checked his watch, as he often did. He usually didn’t even make note of what time it was, nor care, it was more of a way of organizing his thoughts.
“Are Mom and Dad home?”
“Nope. They’re stuck in traffic. They shouldn’t be long.”
“Is the guest room set up?”
“Yeah, you can put your stuff in there, if you want. It looks just like you left it.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.”
“Something wrong, Hen?”
“If I wanted to be reminded of my old room all the time, I wouldn’t have left it,” Henry said. Jack was confused.
“Sorry, Henry. I just wanted you to feel at home.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry. I’ll only be here a few days anyway.”
Jack didn’t feel comforted at all, but he knew his brother well enough to know that he was trying to make him feel better, despite how the words had actually come out.
Jack helped Henry unpack, and then the two sat down in the living room to talk. They chatted for a while, just catching up.
“So how are things in Pennsylvania?” Jack asked.
“A nightmare,” Henry said. “But, it’s home.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. He couldn’t imagine calling anywhere else his home. “Want to watch a movie?”
“One of your zombie flicks? No thanks.”
“Come on, Hen. You can’t just write off a whole genre like that.”
“Sure I can,” Henry said. “They’re preposterous. They’re not real.”
“A lot of movies aren’t real.”
“I have better things to do, Jack.”
“Work?” Jack laughed. “You came here to take a break from work.”
“Yes, well unlike some people, I have a lot of it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Hen?”
“You know what it means, Jack.”
“I do work!” Jack said.
“What, at the gas station? You don’t make enough to move out.”
“I don’t need to move out.”
“So you’ll what? Live in the basement forever? Play your video games and fantasize about this zombie nonsense until you’re old?”
“I’ll move out eventually,” Jack said. “I just need to find what’s right for me.”
“Sometimes we don’t ever get what we think is right for us,” Henry said.
“Like you would know! You got out of here the first chance you got!”
“Because I couldn’t stand it!” Henry said, and stood up. “Every minute of every day, it’s ‘Let’s watch Night of the Dead this,’ or ‘Let’s play zombies and survivors that!’”
“Night of the Living Dead—”
“Or it’s planning stupid dress-up games with your internet friends, or making plans for some event that can’t possibly happen, or doing anything but actually having a life!”
It was silent for a moment, and Henry sat back down.
“I have a life,” Jack said. “I just didn’t force myself to like it, like you did.”
Henry sighed. “Jack, I’m sorry. It’s the flight… You know I didn’t mean—”
Jack stood up.
“When did you become everything we hated, Hen?”
Jack left the room. Henry couldn’t see his eyes. He heard footsteps go down the hall, and then the door to the basement opened. Henry turned around and called down the hallway.
“You know I didn’t mean it, Jackie!”
The door slammed shut, and the footsteps faded away.
“You know I didn’t mean it,” Henry said to himself.
It was the ringing phone that put the two brothers in the same room again. The call was from their mother. Henry answered it in the kitchen, and Jack entered the room soon after.
“Hey, Mom,” Henry said.
“Henry, do you have the television on?”
“Turn it on, sweetie.” Henry looked into Jack’s eyes, telling him there was something wrong, then made his way to the living room, and Jack followed. Henry turned on the television.
“—how to explain what’s happening, other than people all over the country, perhaps the world, are turning insane and violent in mass numbers, attacking each other, reportedly with nails, teeth, and sometimes even eating other people. It is heavily advised that everyone stay at home and lock the doors, and don’t answer them for anyone. If anyone around you becomes unresponsive, violent, or sickly, it is advised that you lock them in another room and don’t go near them. Again, this is not a test, we are facing a countrywide catastrophe…”
“Hen, what’s going on?” Jack asked.
“Mom, are you and Dad all right?”
“We’re fine, honey. But we’re stuck in traffic, it’s only gotten worse. There are people on the sidewalks, and in the streets… So many people, some are running, so much blood…”
“Mom, don’t get out of the car!”
“Don’t worry. We aren’t going anywhere. A few of them are trying to get in, though. We can hardly move at all, there are wrecks everywhere!”
“Hen, put it on speakerphone!”
Henry put the phone on speakerphone, and the sounds from the other end of the line filled the room. There were horns honking, screams, and occasional bouts of broken glass.
Jack flipped the television to the local news, and the chopper was aiming the camera at the downtown streets.
“Hen, look!” Jack said.
The streets were grimmer than their mother had been able to describe. There were bodies strewn about, and wrecks everywhere. A line of vehicles stretched to either edge of the television set, most of them not moving at all.
“Again, we want to warn our viewers that the following images are extremely disheartening,” a male anchor was saying, “but also extremely important. We aren’t quite sure what’s going on, but there seems to be some kind of event sweeping the nation. We’ll keep you posted from our news chopper anchor. Dave, what do you have for us?”
Another voice broke in, this one distorted somewhat, as though it was coming through a telephone.
“Well, Marty, as you can see, traffic has come to a halt, people are basically sitting ducks in their cars… oh God, I don’t even know what to do. They’re not safe there, but they aren’t any safer outside their cars. This is… this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Oh my God.”
“Look, there’s Mom and Dad!” Jack said, pointing at a little blue car on the screen. It was in the middle lane, safe from the crazy passersby, but wasn’t going anywhere.
“Mom, we can see you on the TV.”
“Your father and I want you to know that we love you both very much. If anything happens out here—-”
“Mom, don’t talk like that,” Henry said. He was starting to tear up, and that made Jack follow suit.
“… If anything happens, you boys take care of each other, do you understand?”
“Of course, Mom.”
The chopper anchor came back on in a hurry. “Marty! Oh God, there’s a plane coming in low! I think it’s going to hit! Christ Almighty!”
The camera panned up, and a blur of motion went by.
“Mom, Dad, we love you!” Jack shouted at the phone.
“We love you too, swee—”
The phone went dead at the same moment the anchorman on TV screamed, and the picture showed little but a fiery mess of crumpled metal. The camera cut back to Marty in the studio, muting Dave’s cries.
Henry let the phone fall to the ground. The two brothers found themselves in each other’s embrace, where they always had when they didn’t know what else to do.
Jack sat on the ground, a hammer before him, between his legs. The window above him was neatly boarded up, along with the other windows and the doors. He rested his head on his hands, staring off into nothing, thinking.
It had been several hours since the event had come into their lives. Within the first two hours the television had stopped broadcasting, and phones and radios stopped working, as though something was jamming them. The two brothers had finished boarding up the house and gotten used to ignoring the screams and moans and explosions coming from the outside world. Morning would come soon, yet neither could sleep.
“So,” Henry said from the chair where he sat, across the floor from Jack. “What do we do now?”
“How the hell should I know?” Jack said.
“Well… you’ve been waiting for this, right? You have to know something about it.”
Jack looked up for the first time in several hours.
“Waiting for it? What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not trying to be offensive,” Henry said. “I know how absurd this all is, but you have to admit, whatever’s going on… it’s pretty similar to your zombie fiction.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Those are just movies and games. They aren’t real. Whatever’s going on out there, that’s real. I wasn’t waiting for this. I didn’t want this.”
“Yeah.” Henry sighed. “Yeah, well, we need a plan.”
“And you think I have one?”
“Isn’t that what you and your friends were up to?”
“I don’t think anyone could’ve prepared for this,” Jack said. He stood up. “I’m going to try to get some sleep.”
“I’ll stay, you know,” Henry said as Jack began to walk away. Jack stopped. “At least until this all clears up. And for a while after.”
“Thanks,” Jack said, and then he headed for his room.
One sleepless night was followed by another, and another after that. Jack and Henry didn’t talk much, but when they did, it was just like old times. They spoke only of casual things, rarely mentioning their parents or the world outside or their lives before the event.
One morning, as Jack came up the stairs out of the basement, he found a note on the kitchen table.
I needed some air. Don’t worry, I went somewhere nobody can find me. I’ll be safe. See you soon. Don’t come look for me.
Jack froze with terror. He hadn’t even comprehended venturing outside unless it was necessary, let alone finding himself without his brother. He wondered where Henry could’ve gone, and then a feeling came over him. Jack peeked between boards out a window to make sure the back yard was empty. It was, and he headed out. His feeling turned out to be correct. He found his brother by the river.
“Hen! What are you doing out here?”
Henry looked up at Jack from the bank of the river.
“I told you not to come look for me,” he said.
“I was afraid something would happen to you.”
“So you came out to find me unarmed? You could have at least grabbed Dad’s old revolver from his closet.”
“Dad kept a gun?” Jack said. Henry looked up at him, confused for a moment, and then laughed. Jack sat down on the ground next to him.
“I envy you, you know,” Henry said. It took Jack by surprise. Why should Henry envy him? Henry had a job, and a lot of money. He had gone out into the world and gotten everything he wanted.
“Because you’re still innocent. The world never got to you.”
“Why’d you let it get to you?”
“I said it was your fault, didn’t I?” Henry said. He tossed a rock into the calmly flowing water before him. “Well, it wasn’t. I was jealous, I guess. I saw the way the world was for you. You could’ve had a good job, you could’ve moved out on your own, but you chose not to. You decided to wait for something better.”
“You could’ve done the same,” Jack said.
“I didn’t think I deserved it,” Henry said. Jack looked at him.
“So you’d settle for something you didn’t want?”
“I thought I could have both. I thought I’d go down this path and find a better one along the way. That it was better than being a burden.”
“Which is all I am?”
“No. But both of us would have been.”
“So you left,” Jack said, fighting back the tears that tried to well up in his eyes, “so that I wouldn’t have to.”
“It doesn’t matter, now. We’re both here. That’s what matters.”
A little while passed. There was the occasional crack of a twig somewhere nearby, but no one came to bother them.
“I should’ve died, here,” Henry said.
“No,” Jack said. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I wonder sometimes, what things would’ve been like if you hadn’t been there. If I had just gone down the river and disappeared.”
“Why would you want to think about something like that?” Jack said.
“Because the world finally caught me, I guess.”
“You really think it would’ve been better if you had died?”
“I can’t help it, sometimes,” Henry said. Jack could fight the tears no longer, and he wrapped his arms around his brother.
“You’re stupid! Don’t you understand that I need you?”
Henry hugged his brother.
“Yeah,” Henry said. “And that’s why I’m still here. Why I didn’t go down the river.”
“Brothers until death,” Jack said.
The electricity stayed on for a while, but Jack had given up on his movies and games. He spent most of his days just trying to get by. He and Henry made a few trips out to the local store for food and supplies, and because they lived in a quiet area, they did so with relative ease, defending themselves with a baseball bat and a shovel they had found in the garage.
On one of their trips, Jack’s baseball bat broke when he clubbed a zombie in the head. He and Henry made it home safely, but the bat was useless.
“Maybe it’s time to get the revolver out,” Jack said in the living room. He looked out the window to make sure nothing had followed them, and saw only the empty street.
“It’s pretty old,” Henry said. “I hope it still works.”
“It probably works better than a broken baseball bat,” Jack said. They made their way to their father’s closet.
“It’s on the top shelf,” Henry said. “In a little black box.”
Jack found the box, barely reachable, and lowered it from the shelf. He opened it, and there lay the revolver, as well as a few boxes of ammo.
“Know how to load it?” Henry asked.
“I think so,” Jack said. He took the gun from the box and opened the chamber, which was more difficult than it looked in the various TV shows or movies or games he’d seen. He loaded it with six rounds and tried to close the chamber. It didn’t move at first, so he pushed harder. The chamber snapped shut, and the gun fell from his hand and onto the floor. It fired, and Jack flinched at the deafening sound and kept his eyes sealed shut as he felt drops of warm liquid splash his face.
The next few seconds were a blur.
He opened his eyes, unable to breathe, unable to hear, wishing he was unable to see. There lay Henry with a large chunk of his head missing, slumped against the wall. One of his eyes was gone and the other was open, staring forward at nothing, to Jack it looked permanently accusing. A trail of blood ran down the wall from a splatter where the bullet had entered Henry’s head, and bits of blood and bone and brain were everywhere.
Jack screamed. He couldn’t hear himself for the longest time, but it didn’t matter. He cradled his brother’s body, hated himself for this thing, this stupid, pointless thing. He wanted everything to be all right; he wanted to gather the bits of brain and bone, scrape them back up and put them together, to believe that Henry would be okay if he held it long enough. But he knew it was too late, and in a way had always been too late. His brother was gone, his family and his hope and his life and that day at the river and the closeness that had followed were all gone, left summarized by a stain on the wall of his parents’ bedroom.
Jack grabbed the revolver and put it to his head. He didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger and be with Henry, but nothing happened. The fall had broken the gun, the hammer wouldn’t move and the trigger wouldn’t pull all the way. Jack threw it across the room, still screaming. He held his brother’s body, rocking back and forth, and screamed until he couldn’t, and then he cried, and then he sobbed, and eventually he fell asleep.
A few days went by before Jack felt like he had gotten a hold on himself, though he knew deep down that he never really would. He made no sound, he ate very little and drank even less, and he thought about everything.
He wrapped Henry’s body in the bedsheets that had adorned Henry’s bed for as long as he could remember. Very carefully, he carried his brother’s body out of the house, across the yard, and all the way to the river.
When he got there, he stepped into the water. It only came up to his waist, now. He let Henry’s body float on top of the water, holding it with an almost taunting ease.
“Brothers until death,” he said. It was his final goodbye, and he stood in the water long after he could no longer see that angelic white figure floating on it, long after his brother had gone down the river and disappeared.
“You won’t,” he said. “You won’t disappear.”
When Jack got back home, he found an empty notebook and a pen, and he began to write. Finally he had something worth writing. He wouldn’t let Henry disappear, wouldn’t let the bloodstain on the wall be the summary of his brother’s life, or of his own.
At the top of the paper, he began.
The River: The Story of My Brother
It didn’t matter that what he wrote wouldn’t make him any money. He had finally found his calling. He would write volumes, and he would set them beneath the stain on the wall, and then he would leave. The world had finally gotten to him, and he would leave home, leave his paraphernalia and collectibles and everything else behind. But the story would be there, so anyone passing by could read it and know more than just a stain on a bedroom wall. They would know that somewhere in time, two brothers played in a river, and the world could never catch them.