Blood, blood everywhere. There was a tangle of limbs and appendages flying everywhere. Cold sweat ran down my back, my face, my neck. My breathing was heavy, and everything felt like it weighed over a thousand pounds.
I scrambled to grab my gun as they came at me. The wheezing sounds escaping their gory mouths was enough to make me want to puke.
Their eyes were glassy and dull, the pupils looking flat and dead. Hands outstretched, they reached for me with desperation. I could smell their stench; rotting flesh, blood, and pure terror flooded my senses.
I went to cock the gun. It was my most faithful one, the one that had gotten Dad and I out of Chicago alive. It hadn't failed me yet. Until….
Pulling the trigger, I almost started screaming. Nothing came out. The bullets refused to leave the barrel, it seemed.
They were getting closer, too close. I tried to sprint away, into an dirty looking building. If I could make it to high ground, or find a room to lock myself in, there was some chance for me. I could figure something out, so long as I had a little time to think of a plan.
But no, that side was full of them, too. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the undead.
Oh, God, I thought. This is it. This is the end. I'm done for.
Then, out of the crowd, I saw her.
She looked the same as the last time I had seen her, when she loaded the emergency escape train. After being pushed around in the line for being checked and admitted onto the train, her hair was mussed. The high pony tail she had been wearing had slumped down to her lower neck, and her eyeliner was smudged just a little.
Her eyes didn't look like the rest of them; there was blood on her, and she had discolored skin, but she looked… human.
"Hayden!" she said, her voice exactly like I remembered it. "You're still alive!"
It seemed like she didn't realize there were tons of undead around us, swarming, just waiting to rip me to shreds. None of them had seemed to notice her, either.
I rushed towards her, swept her into my arms. With tears of joy and relief, I hugged her tighter than I thought I ever could.
"I never thought I would see you alive again," I whispered into her hair.
There was a chuckle.
Then, I felt it. She pressed her nails into the small of my back and ripped. I could feel my skin and sinews tear apart.
"And you won't," she said, cackling. The smell of blood overtook me, and I passed out.
"Hayden, calm down!"
I woke up to a pair of arms tangling around me, fighting to keep me still. From what I could tell, I had been thrashing about, and this person was trying to restrain me,
"Sorry," I murmured, trying to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. "Bad dream,"
As the figure became more clear, I could see that it was my father. He looked concerned but worried at the same time.
"Are you okay?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. It was just a bad dream, like I said."
"Are you sure?" he asked, pulling out a thin pen light. He flashed the light at my pupils, seeing if they would dilate. It was one of the most basic ways of checking if someone was infected or not; first the person's eyes don't dilate, then they get red rings around their mouth and eyes.
His mouth a thin line, he shut the light off. "You're fine."
"I told you so," I muttered under my breath.
"Well, since you're not sick or anything, is there anything I can do to help you?"
I shook my head, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. With the things that I had dreamt, there would be no going back to sleep. Not anytime soon, that is.
"I just… I don't know. Give me something to do. A job. I can't stand sitting around here all day with nothing to do."
He sighed. "Hayden, it's four in the morning. I could hear you
screaming and I came to check on you. Everyone was worried as
hell. We thought there had been an invasion!"
I noticed the piles of weapons he had with him; I could hear angry comments being made in the hallways. Everyone had woken up over a false alarm. It was all my fault.
"I'm so sorry." I said, looking at the ground. "It won't happen again,"
I could hear Dad go to say something, but he stopped himself mid-breath. He took a deep breath in, then said, "It's fine. Just…. I don't know. Try not to do it, if it can be helped."
I nodded. "Okay. Go back to bed. I'll keep busy."
The following morning, I got a lot of dirty looks from everyone. No one could really believe that I had had a nightmare bad enough to deem screaming. Even though some of them knew well enough that it couldn't be helped, they still were angry.
I was angry at the hypocrisy of these people. It wasn't longer than a few days ago that the pilot from my last Mission had woken up screaming and crying for his dead parents. But did anyone bring that up? No.
There wasn't anything I could do, though. I didn't want to fuel fires or cause any problems, so I kept my mouth shut. Causing drama wasn't going to get me anywhere, except maybe in Tartarus for a day.
I shuddered at the thought of that place. If that wasn't enough to make a person never want to do something wrong again, I didn't know what was.
It had never happened to me personally, but I knew that those who had been forced to endure it were changed people. The punishment was only for those who needed it, or so we were told.
Anyone who had strongly violated the rules were taken out to a small fenced in area that was a few miles away. Only the Elders had the keys to the enclosure, and they were the only ones who could also decide when the person was ready to be let out of it.
That might not sound too bad, but here's the catch. You're left out there, all alone, with no weapons, food, or water. After a few hours of being there, an undead is sure to find you. Eventually, they pile up and surround the enclosure, which is only just barely big enough for you to stand without having to worry about being touched by one of them. So you stand there for almost an entire day, surrounded by monsters that want to kill you, and you can't do anything.
It's enough to drive a person crazy. Actually, that's happened a couple times. I had only ever heard tales of it, from people who had been in the Guard with the first version of the Alley. They had also lost some members to carelessness. Some of them had gotten too close, and by the time the Elders came to collect them, they were gone. Other times, they were in a state almost just as bad; they had gone psycho overnight.
It was named Tartarus for good reason; one of the original founders of the Alley had been a big fan of Greek mythology and decided that it was the perfect name. the reason being, in the myths, Tartarus was the place of punishment in their equivalent of Hell. All bad souls would go there to rot for all of eternity. There was no escape unless a god or goddess decided to save you, and that was extremely rare.
Obviously, none of us had ever wanted to be subjected to something like that. There was enough fear of the undead within the Alley walls; I couldn't fathom what it would be like to have to be out there for so long. And if I could help it, I never intended to find out.
Eventually, my father arranged for a temporary job for me.
The only bad thing was, it wasn't exactly what I had in mind. In fact, I would have preferred not having any job.
He wanted me to plan my own wedding with the help of some of the Elder's wives.
Mrs. Radley, the wife of one of the Head Elders, held up a silky fabric that was the color of old gauze.
"This could make a really beautiful dress, you know."
Another wife who's name I had forgotten held up another scrap. This one looked heavier and was a dark shade of green. "I think she would be better in this. I know, I know, it isn't traditional. But then again, in these times, who could expect us to uphold traditions?"
"Traditions are all we have, at this rate," piped in Jacquelyn Hill. She was the only one out of this group that I could stand. "But, I have an idea. Why don't we let her pick?"
I smiled, glad that she at least knew that this was technically my wedding. The others had seemed to have forgotten that; none of them had even asked my opinion once. I just sat there in the center of the circle like a mannequin, letting them hold things up to my skin or letting them play around with my hair, trying to figure out different fashions that would look good.
Personally, I didn't understand what the fuss was over a wedding. I didn't even want to have one, not that anyone knew that. They all thought that I was silently excited and didn't want to make any of the other single girls feel bad. After all, I was only getting an "elaborate" wedding because I was an Elder's daughter.
But I knew they all wanted something to look forward to, and I wasn't about to rob them of that. They were excited for the wedding, and glad that they could finally do something normal. Zombies didn't really effect this, other than the lack of having a budget to actually have a full-out wedding. Sure, there wouldn't be fancy flowers or mailing out invitations, but were those even really essential to a good wedding?
Jacquelyn smiled back. "What do you like best, dear?"
"I like the green, to be honest," I said sheepishly. "The white thing has been overdone, plus it would be nice to have a little bit of color in here. It reminds me of grass and leaves, like the forest my dad used to take me to when I was little."
Everyone smiled, like it was a touching story or something. Then again, maybe it was to them. They could remember what life used to be like, too. It was stories like these that kind of kept us from forgetting; everyone liked the happier things better than those that we didn't really mind forgetting. And I didn't hate talking about the good things, either. Sometimes it was all I could do to keep from losing my mind in here.
"That sounds wonderful," said one woman. "Now, where did that rope go? I don't have a tape measurer, but I don't want to estimate your size."
A couple of hours later, after the other women had left to go start sewing the dress, Jacquelyn and I sat in the middle of the common area.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" she asked me.
I had to keep from spilling out the truth. She knew me better than most in here, and I knew that I could trust her. But that wasn't why I didn't want to tell her. I wanted her to believe that I was truly happy.
It's weird, I know. But no one really had any reason to be happy anymore. I was playing a lot of different roles for the Alley. A good daughter, the happy bride, a dutiful wife, and in a way, a makeshift savior. There were too many people to disappoint, and I didn't want to be the cause of so much more unhappiness.
"I'm sure." I said, giving her a fake smile. I had to press my tongue behind my teeth, give her a real dazzler, to make her believe it. "Jackson's so perfect for me. I can't wait until we're actually husband and wife."
She smiled, although she didn't look like she fully believed me. "If you say so. I just want you to know that you don't have to do anything that you don't want to do, okay?"
"What do you mean?"
She took in a deep breath. "Honey, I know times are hard. Everyone knows. But you don't have to feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and quite frankly, I feel like that's exactly what you're doing. I can see it in the way you carry yourself. It's like you're too afraid to even make the wrong step, for fear that you'll let someone down. And I just wanted you to know that you shouldn't have to feel that way."
It took me a minute to process all of what she was saying. Not that I didn't understand it, but I didn't know how she knew all of that. I hadn't told anyone, hadn't written it down. There was no way that she would have known unless what she was saying was…. Well, true.
"Jacquelyn, you don't have to worry," I said after a long pause. Clenching my jaw and fighting back tears, I gave her an incredibly weak smile. I couldn't keep the lie from tumbling out of my mouth, and I knew that once I said it, there was truly no going back. I had to keep up with this act for the rest of my life.
But I knew in my heart that this was all I could do for them anymore. This was all I would ever be good for to them, and I had to deal with this if I wanted to stay alive. And so I said it.
"I want to do this."