Anders had been running for too long. His calves burned with strain every time his feet hit the asphalt, but he had no other choice. His gun was out of bullets, and just behind him, four corpses shuffled after him with inexhaustible stamina. One had been his friend. He tried not to think about that.
He came upon the city an hour earlier, and spent that hour searching for pockets of resistance. Boarded up buildings sometimes meant survivors, as did smoke and the smell of gasoline from generators. Cities were the best places to find these, but they were also often havens for large, hungry masses of undead. Meeting a hoard larger than the one following him was a chance he had to take. He hadn't eaten in three days, and if he stopped anywhere without four walls and a ceiling, he'd be dead before he could even doze off for a much-needed nap.
That was when he heard it, the dry-throated, rattling groan that meant one of the hungry dead was near. It was too close to be one of the pack following him, and despair sunk into his gut as he realized he had walked right into a dead city--one entirely inhabited by zombies. There was another groan to his left, and he stopped though he knew he couldn't, bending at his waist to brace his hands on his thighs, trying to catch his breath and muster up another burst of speed. But he was hungry, and his muscles ached from constant exertion, and for one long moment, he contemplated giving up.
Then, as he lifted his head to see what had once been a woman bearing down on him, empty hollows where her cheeks and eyes once were, a jeweled brooch glittering obscenely on the remains of a neatly cut business suit, her head exploded in a shower of blood, bone, and rotted brain. It fell like macabre confetti, and Anders choked down his gag reflex before looking up. Damage like that only came from high-caliber rifles, and since he hadn't heard the shot right in front of him, it had to have come from up high. Sure enough, on top of a building across the street there was a man sitting on an air conditioner. He held a sniper rifle, the sight pointed in Anders' direction.
"Are you bitten?" the man shouted down as Anders approached. Anders examined the building. Much like others nearby, it seemed to be apartments above a strip mall. He saw the darkened, but still instantly recognizable sign of a 7-11 convenience store on the ground floor. His stomach roared at the thought of hot dogs rolling under heat lamps that no longer worked, and ice-cold slurpees from once frosty machines.
"No!" he yelled back, cupping his hands around his mouth. "I came from Rainier Valley, and I'm out of bullets. I've been running for days." He paused, then sucked in a deep breath. "I need help!"
The man atop the building stood, and even from the street Anders could see him limping. When he reached the edge, he fiddled with something outside of Anders' view, but when a fire escape ladder clattered down the building, Anders almost jumped for joy.
"Make it quick!" the man said, but encouragement was unnecessary. Anders scampered up the ladder with the second wind he hadn't known he had in him.
Once on the roof, Anders looked his benefactor over. He was short and thin, and had a long braid of reddish hair hanging down his back. He had a delicate face with wide light eyes, although, like everyone else Anders had seen since the blight hit, he looked exhausted. Perversely, Anders thought that before the world went to hell, this man would have been exactly his type.
Though limping, the man was in good shape, and Anders’ stomach growled again as he contemplated what food he might have stashed away in the building. "I can't thank you enough," Anders began, and the man cut him off with a heavy shrug.
"You're the first living person I've seen a long time, and I've been watching for weeks." He indicated that Anders should follow him as he walked to a roof access door. "It's bad inside," he warned, "but the blighted can't get in, so it's the best we've got."
They descended the dark staircase together by the light of a dim, flickering emergency lantern. "Vegetable oil," the man explained. "One of the tenants was a big cook. They had gallons of it."
"Are any of the tenants--"
"No, and there are some rooms you don't want to go into. The...bodies are gone, but there's nothing there but rot." They walked into a hallway and Anders saw a door with a big red x on it. He thought he saw scratch marks on the door jamb, and he shuddered. The smell emanating from under that door was horrific.
"What happened to them?" Anders asked, though he was pretty sure he knew.
"I don't know. I don't live here...well...I...guess I do." He sighed. "I was heading north, up to Vancouver. I heard they can't handle the cold, you know?" Anders nodded. "But I hurt my leg and I've been stuck here ever since."
"And this place was abandoned when you found it? With the convenience store downstairs and everything?"
He nodded. "I think there was an outbreak in here. But I didn't find any of the blighted alive--so to speak." The man stopped in front of a door with no x and opened it. Inside it was semi-lit, the blinds open and another lantern flickering near an enormous sectional sofa. Compared to most of the places Anders had seen recently, it was downright homey outside of the smell of cigarette smoke and oil. "The people here were obviously changed, but they were just...gone. No walking, no biting. It was like they just dropped after a few days."
"That's not possible...is it?"
"I don't know what's possible anymore," he replied. "The name is Theron, by the way. Are you hungry?"
"God, yes. And I'm Anders. I'd say pleased to meet you but..." Theron laughed, and the sound made Anders smile.
In the kitchen, Theron grabbed a couple of individually wrapped sticks of beef jerky, obviously taken from the convenience store downstairs. Anders took them and tore one open, the scent of spicy, salty meat making him salivate. "Can you get into the 7-11 down there?" he asked before shoving the jerky into his mouth.
"Yeah. It's still full of food. Mostly candy and snacks though. Everything in the refrigerators is long spoiled, but in between the store and all the apartments, I've got enough to last me a year. Two if I go out and scavenge. There's a Bodega down the street that's pretty much untouched."
Anders whistled, impressed. "Are you still planning to head north?"
Theron shrugged. "I don't think I'll make it with my leg like this. And I'm just tired, you know?" His voice cracked, and he shook his head. "It's like this everywhere. I just don't see the point in moving on. I still get electricity here sometimes, you know."
"You're shitting me!" Anders said through a mouthful. "How the fuck?"
"I figure someone must be trying to fix the grid. It keeps kicking in for a few minutes." Theron opened the window. "You mind if I smoke?" Anders shook his head and Theron used a long fireplace lighter to light a cigarette from a near full pack. He put it to his lips as he sat by the window, looking out at the dead city. "You don't have to ask--you can stay. I would recommend staying in this unit with me though. Safety in numbers an all."
"Makes sense. It's good to see someone with a pulse anyway," Anders said with a lopsided smile that grew into a genuine one when Theron returned it.
"You can take the bed tonight," Theron said. "The couch is comfortable enough and you probably need the rest more than I do."
"I owe you one--a bunch, really." Anders opened another jerky. "I could take a look at your leg if you want. I'm a doctor, well, was. It may just be a bad sprain. How'd you hurt it?"
"Bad fall" Theron flicked the ash off his cigarette out the window. "I was climbing down a fire escape and the ladder went out on me. I hit the ground hard, the ladder fell on top of me, and I haven't been able to walk right since."
"You might have broken it," Anders said with a frown. "If it wasn't a serious break you could have still walked on it just fine. Would have hurt like hell though." Theron shrugged again, listless as he stared out the window.
"It's over with, either way. Still hurts a lot, especially when it rains, but I can handle it."
The room fell silent as Anders ate and Theron smoked. After finishing the jerky and downing a bottle of water, Anders took Theron up on the offer of the bed and shuffled, exhausted, into the bedroom. Despite the fact that society had been basically nonexistent for months, the room was clean; the bed was even made, and Anders smiled, wondering how fastidious his new companion had been before the blight began. He didn't think on it long because as soon as he lay down, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"So what did you do before?" Anders asked, sitting on the sofa with an open can of spaghettios and a spoon. Across from him, curled up against the arm, Theron looked up from his book. He had explained when Anders awoke that he thought one of the tenants had been a teacher, and their apartment was still stuffed with books, most of which were now sitting in neat piles against the wall with the useless TV.
"This and that. I was never really cut out for a 9 to 5 job. I traded stocks, worked at a target range--"
"That explains your shooting."
Theron nodded. "My husband brought in the real money though. He was a mechanical engineer."
"Oh, shit." Anders stuck his spoon into the can and left it there. "I'm so sorry. Was he...?"
"No, thank god." Theron close his book around his finger, holding his place as he turned his gaze skyward. "He got cancer years ago. It hit him fast. He was gone within months." He paused and pressed his lips together, sighing through his nose. "I was so angry for so long, but when the blight came, all I could think was how happy I was he didn't have to see this."
"I'm sorry, I really am."
Theron shook his head. "It's done. That's my sob story. What yours?"
Anders frowned. "I lost my lover. He got bitten."
"See, that's worse," Theron said, then opened his book again. "It's been hell for everyone," he added, and stretched out his legs near Anders'.
"More like purgatory," Anders said with a snort. "Like we're all just waiting."
"For what, though?" Theron asked, and Anders had no answer.
"What did you like to do before?" While Anders slept, Theron had gone scavenging and come back with cans of chunky beef chili, bags of pre-cooked rice, and several six-packs of beer. The rice tasted a little too much like plastic, but otherwise the meal of cold stew over rice was like a feast to Anders. He'd had three beers when Theron asked, and he blinked at him through the comfortable alcoholic buzz before dredging up an answer.
"I loved traveling," he said with a sardonic snort. "I went to Europe, Japan, Africa... I loved backpacking and hiking. It sounds so stupid now."
"Probably prepared you, really." Theron had finished his food and was working on his fourth beer. "I liked target shooting and hunting, that’s come in pretty handy too."
"Well, I had pointless hobbies too. I danced, I watched movies, I went out for dinner...had a lot of sex," he said with a laugh, then waved his hand dismissively as Theron broke out into snorting laughter. Anders laughed with with him, and for the night, it was almost normal.
It had been raining for three days when Theron crawled into bed with Anders, alcohol thick on his breath, his tongue clumsy. "I just need someone," he mumbled. "I'm so fucking lonely, Anders, everyone's gone and I just..." He trailed off, and slowly, gently, Anders took him into his arms. He was warm, and smelled like sweat and beer and cigarettes, but that unlikely perfume was oddly pleasant to Anders as he stroked his back.
"I'm not going anywhere," Anders said quietly, hushing him. Theron tucked his head under Anders' chin, snaking his arm under his neck and pulling him close. Anders felt him press against his leg, and with embarrassed heat, noticed the stiffness of his cock against his thigh. Anders pet his hair, closing his eyes and burying his face into it. His cock stiffened with far more gusto than he expected as he dragged his fingers down to toy with the waistband of Theron's jeans. "How much have you had to drink?"
"Just two beers," Theron murmured. "It's been so long--I'm sorry--I just want to touch someone, and you're the first person I've seen in months, and I just don't want to be al--" Anders cut off his rambling by hushing him gently, his lips on his cheek.
"You don't have to apologize." Anders ran his hand slowly up Theron's back, under his t-shirt, and the warmth of his skin was enough to send his pulse racing. Gently he eased Theron onto his back and peeled his shirt over his head. Theron tossed his head back against the pillows, eyes closed while Anders stroked his stomach, the tips of his fingers grazing his small, pale nipples as his hand traveled higher. "What do you want me to do?" he asked, softly coaxing him.
"Fuck me." Theron's reply was breathless and instantaneous.
"I don't suppose you have any lube?" Anders asked with a kind laugh, sliding to the side of the bed to get to his feet, unbuttoning his jeans along the way. He hadn't even thought about sex in the past months, couldn't even remember the last time he jacked off, but now with Theron on the bed, pulling down his jeans, his pretty face flushed and needy, Anders couldn't remember wanting anything more.
"There's olive oil in the kitchen still," Theron said sheepishly. Anders went for it, and when he returned, Theron was propped up on his elbows, nude, his cock stiff and flushed against his stomach. Anders set the bottle on the nightstand and pulled down his boxers before climbing back onto the bed.
"Can I kiss you?" he asked softly, nudging Theron's cheek with his nose. "Or do you want this to be casual?"
"You can kiss me," Theron whispered, and deep in his throat he groaned when Anders did.
For a while, Anders rested beside Theron, slick fingers inside of him, massaging the hard bump just reachable by the tip of his middle finger, smiling when Theron's hips twitched and he whined urgently into his shoulder where he still tucked his head. Anders kept his free hand under him and around Theron's back, trailing absent patterns down the raised bumps of his vertebrae and ribs. He thought briefly--it was impossible not to--about the situation, about how not even two weeks ago he was starving and on the run, and now he had a warm bed, plentiful food, and a friend--now a lover.
Anders rolled onto his back and coaxed Theron atop of him, using one hand to hold to base of his cock to guide it against his slick ass. "I normally use condoms," Anders said as a half-hearted apology, but Theron only rolled his eyes and with slow, careful pressure, lowered his body down the length of his cock until his ass was flush with Anders' pelvis.
"I normally don't have sex with people I've known for less than two weeks," Theron said softly. He leaned forward, taking a deep breath as he raised up his hips to work on establishing a slow rhythm. "I normally don't do a lot of things I've done lately."
"I think that's true for us all," Anders said, squeezing shut his eyes for a brief moment at the perfect, tight heat wrapped around his cock. They didn't speak after that, but it wasn't silent. Theron groaned and whimpered as he rode him, and Anders praised him with murmured nonsense, sucking air through his teeth whenever he felt so close that he had to grab Theron's hips and steady him. When every thrust brought him to the tingling edge of orgasm, Anders pulled out and flipped Theron onto his back, holding his legs apart by the knees as he pushed into him again, hard and deep. He loved the shudder of his body underneath him, loved the tense and release of his balls as he emptied himself out into Theron, emptying his brain along with them for a long, blissful moment of panting, sticky ignorance.
"You can get in bed with me anytime," Anders said softly once they'd cleaned up and tossed off the damp top sheet. Theron lay quietly next to him, not cuddling, not really close enough to touch, but in the morning, Anders woke to find he'd wrapped his arms around Theron in his sleep, and Theron had taken his hand.
"Anders!" Theron's voice was frantic. "You need to get in here!"
Anders jogged up the stairs from the 7-11 where he had been scrounging around for something to drink other than beer and water. "Are you alright?" he shouted back, his chest tight. They had only been there together for a month, but he was already more concerned about Theron than he was about himself.
"The power's on!" Theron shouted back, and Anders stopped in the stairwell, glancing up, only now noticing the exit sign burning bright and red at the top of the stairs.
"Son of a bitch, it is," he whispered. He hadn't seen electric lights in over six months, and he stared for a moment in awe before taking the rest of the stairs. "What's going on?" he asked as he joined Theron in what he had come to consider their apartment, offering him a bottle of what was undoubtedly flat soda.
"It came on just a minute ago. Scared the hell out of me because TV was on the last time it went off, so when it came back all I could hear was static," Theron put a hand to his lips. "But listen. I think there's a broadcast."
He and Theron sat silently together in front of the TV, and though there was no picture on any of the channels, there was a muffled voice behind the static. It wasn't until they found the public access channel that voice of a woman became clear enough for them to understand.
If there are any survivors left in the Seattle, Washington area, we implore you to head north. Seattle is lost. Repeat. Seattle is lost.
Theron chewed his dry lower lip, and when Anders turned to him, blood was running down his chin. He lifted his hand, sleeve wrapped around it, and gently wiped it off. He then pulled Theron into his arms and held him close as they listened.
No help is coming. Repeat. No help is coming. If there are any survivors left in Seattle, head north. There is food and shelter in Shoreline. Repeat. There is food and shelter in Shoreline.
"That's a four hour walk, at best," Anders said, excitement pounding in his ears. "We could get there before dark!" He looked at Theron. "Do you think you can do it, with your leg?"
"Maybe. I don't know. It still hurts." Theron swallowed and stared at the static snow on the screen. "It's safe here," he said warily.
There is food and shelter in Shoreline. If you have not been bitten, head north. There are patrols along 99 to help you. Repeat. There is food and shel--
The broadcast cut out as the room was plunged again into early morning darkness. Anders hugged Theron near. "We need to try. We'll run out of food here, you know that. I don't want to die here, Theron." He cupped Theron cheeks carefully. "I know this isn't how anyone wanted things to be, but we've got a chance at a future now." Theron nodded, but he still frowned. Anders kissed his forehead gently. He pulled back when he felt Theron begin to shake, his brows furrowed in concern.
"You can't leave me," Theron said, his voice wobbly. "You can’t leave me behind again!"
"Shh, shh." He carefully pulled Theron into his lap and rocked him. "Who left you?"
"My family!" Theron took a deep shuddering breath. "When I got hurt they left me here and said they'd come back with a car but I knew they were lying." Anders crushed Theron close, rubbing the back of neck while he continued to rock him in his lap.
"I'm not going to leave you," he whispered. "I'll carry you if I have to, but I'm not going to leave you anywhere, you hear me?" Theron's body shook and Anders felt his shoulder grow damp from silent tears. "I'll take care of you, okay? I promise. It's you and me, okay?"
For a long moment Theron was silent, but when he nodded they got to their feet and gathered up his gun and the backpack he'd been carrying when he was left there. They spent the next ten minutes stuffing the backpack with bottled water, jerky, and energy bars from the 7-11. Before stepping out into the empty street, they grabbed a map from behind the counter, unfolding it in the dim morning light. It had rained the night before, and the city smelled as clean as it was ever going to. Theron glanced up again at the building they'd been occupying. Following his gaze, Anders saw, for the first time, a body hanging half out of one of the windows of the quarantined rooms.
"Come on," Anders said gently. "It's going to be better soon. We'll get some hot food and have a bath and get some clothes we haven't been wearing for months."
Theron turned his gaze away from the building and to the open street in front of them. "Okay," he said quietly. He tentatively reached for Anders' hand, squeezing it when he took it, and together, in the eerie silence, they began to walk.