In the end, no one survived – that’s the thing about the apocalypse. It was easy to think of the end of the world as one event, a singular occurrence that came barreling through time and obliterated everything in its path. And for some, for those who did not make it, that was exactly how it happened. For them, the end came quickly. But for the others, the end was a slowly-progressing story illustrated with abandoned city streets and the crumbling husks of old brick buildings and slow-creeping vines that twisted and wrapped around the wreckage – nature’s first act of reclamation. That story would be told over the next several years, as time claimed the post-apocalyptic stragglers who clung desperately to all that remained of humanity.
But these were still the earliest days of the end of the world.
There were those who’d always lived like the end was right around the corner. They spent their lives planning ahead, keeping their pantries stocked with tins upon tins of food, honing their gun skills and sharpening their knives in an attempt to stay several steps ahead of certain doom. They operated under the belief that only the prepared would stand any chance of survival – and they would be half right – the prepared stood the best chance of survival, but sometimes others got lucky.
Some people would succumb quickly.
But others would take a much longer time fending off the inevitable.
Benedict Cumberbatch was about as prepared for the zombie apocalypse as anyone else. It was something he’d only considered in a playful context, like choosing the person with whom he’d most like to be stranded on a desert island. And he assumed, as most do, that he wouldn’t be around to see the end anyway, that the inevitable final days of humanity were fixed far into the future. He imagined a swollen blood-red sun obscuring the sky, fire-tailed comets raining down upon the earth, the screams of the fearful drowned out by the din of the end of the world.
He’d heard the warnings about what the media playfully called the “zombie virus”, just like everyone else did, but he and Martin Freeman flew out to L.A. for the premiere anyway. Even when the tone of the news on the televisions and the radios and the live feed on his mobile went from bemused disbelief to gravely serious: everyone stay inside, board up your windows and doors, stay away from cemeteries and if you’re bitten may God have mercy on your soul because the CDC sure as hell won’t, he and Martin still decided to take their chances and go out on town together. (“One last hurrah before the a-fucking-pocalypse?” Martin had joked. And Benedict grinned in response. Anything for a bit of Martin’s attention, really. Even taking a chance on dinner at a posh L.A. restaurant with the threat of a zombie apocalypse nipping at the world’s heels.)
And they’d enjoyed their night out too. There were drinks (a few too many) and laughs (countless laughs, and still there were never enough). Benedict was well-practiced in ignoring the things he adored about Martin and there was plenty to ignore that night: the way Martin liked to lick his lips and the way he idly twirled the cocktail straw with his tongue or the way his entire face seemed to glow with mirth every time Benedict said anything even remotely amusing.
For a moment, everything was exactly as it should have been.
Just as Benedict and Martin were playfully bickering about who was going to pick up the check (Benedict offered to foot the entire bill but Martin was staunchly opposed: “It’s not like it’s a date, Benedict").
Some say it started at the hospital morgue, with the sound of undead hands pounding against the doors. Some swear (incorrectly) that it all began at the cemetery when the recently buried clawed their way through their caskets and dug through the dirt and took snarling, hungry gasps of air. Some didn’t even know it had started until they felt teeth tearing away at their flesh and realized that the media had been right – the dead were rising. It was happening. And within the span of a few hours, the streets were flooded with them, some whose mouths were already soaked with blood. Cars either screeched and stopped or kept on driving, running down the reanimated corpses and leaving them severed and twitching and bleeding in the street.
“What do we do?” Martin had asked from across their table at the disgustingly ostentatious restaurant Benedict had chosen (partially because of its proximity to Benedict’s hotel since he’d been toying with the idea of asking Martin to stay the night – in the event of an apocalypse, please locate the nearest object of your affection and cling to him like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do even though you know it’s wrong so wrong and you’re not supposed to be this in love with him and you were supposed to be over this ages ago and stop looking at him that way he’s going to know how you feel if he doesn’t already.)
“What else can we do?” Benedict replied. “We get the hell out of here.”
So they ran.
They pushed through the crowd and made their way to the rear door of the restaurant down the street, dodging the hordes of the risen and ducking behind buildings, slipping undetected through the back door to Benedict’s hotel. It was safe, at least for the moment. Even against the hollow echo of the stairwell and in the long, windowless hallways they could still hear the groans of the undead and the screams of the living who’d be joining the ranks of the undead soon enough. And even when Benedict slammed the door to his hotel room, bolted it shut and shoved the sofa against it for dubiously good measure, he felt as if he was still inhaling that thick, acrid stench of necrotic flesh and blood.
Martin immediately tried the phones – first his mobile (you’ve reached the voice mail of—) and then the clunky old land line phone (your call could not be completed as dialed).When he couldn’t take it anymore, the land line phone met a violent end and the gilded hotel wallpaper suffered a nasty gash as a result. Benedict didn’t even bother trying to pretend that he didn’t understand why Martin was fuming – if his wife and children (provided that he had them, of course) were on the other side of the world and humanity was starting to crumble beneath the weight of the living dead, Benedict knew he’d act the same way.
Already, Benedict knew that separating from Martin wasn’t going to be an option, and the idea wasn’t broached by either man. They were both aware of the same fundamental truths:
It was the end of the world.
They were all they had.
Benedict and Martin did not sleep that night. They watched the city below them fall to pieces, witnessing the carnage and the bloodshed from their (hopefully) untouchable perch.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” Martin asked, shaking his head.
“We’ll go out tomorrow,” Benedict replied. “We’ll check for survivors in the morning, sneak down to the hotel kitchen and find food, maybe see if there’s something in the basement that we can use as a weapon. It’s too dangerous to go out there right now and we can’t defend ourselves without a plan.”
“Do you think this is it, Benedict? Do you think this is—it?”
They watched L.A. bleed and burn before their eyes and felt the undead teeth tearing at the flesh of civilization. The distance did nothing – their hearts still ached on behalf of the fallen.
“Yes,” Benedict said, and he fought the urge to reach for Martin’s hand. “Martin, I really think it is.”
Has it really only been three days? Benedict couldn’t believe that he and Martin had managed to live like this for three days now, sequestered in the relative safety of the hotel. They knew all along that eventually their meager stash of supplies would run out and their hastily-constructed barriers would break down and they’d have to set out on their own in search of safety – they just hadn’t counted on it happening so soon.
Benedict had to admit that the idea of spending an extended period of time holed up in a five-star hotel with Martin you have no idea how smitten I am with you, you stupid foul-mouthed tosser Freeman had crossed his mind, but definitely not within the context of a zombie apocalypse. His mental images involved a lot more sweat-damp skin and breathless moaning and don’t you dare stop and fuck that feels amazing and no threats of being devoured by the living dead, but survival took priority over lust and for the most part, he was able to compartmentalize his stupid, misguided, completely inappropriate and absolutely fucking desperate longing.
He had to. Martin had been an absolute wreck. He’d gone off on a destruction spree worthy of Keith Moon, trashing nearly every item in the hotel room. Benedict let him. He understood. Although he did have to ask Martin to keep it down a bit. As the days passed and the number of survivors dwindled, the streets grew quiet and it was easier for the zombies, with their remarkably acute auditory abilities, to hear the sounds of the living.
Right now, Benedict was taking slow, tentative steps down the hallway, sledgehammer held aloft and gripped between slightly clammy fingers. He’d found the sledgehammer in the hotel basement on the morning after the uprising and had kept it at his side ever since. It wasn’t the most ideal weapon in this sort of situation but with a nice firm thwack he could send a zombie doubling backward and then finish it off before it had a chance to lunge toward him again. Plus, it did not require reloading and skulking about a fine hotel with a large weapon made him feel quite a lot like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
It was amazing how easily he’d been able to adapt to life among the undead. The hotel had proven to be a respectable fortress of sorts but what they had not been counting on was the threat of previously infected humans dying and rising within the confines of the hotel. And, much to his chagrin, Benedict was the one with the responsibility of loosening their tethers to the mortal world. It was barely killing, or at least that’s what he told himself when he first raised his sledgehammer and watched it smash open the skull of the zombie before him, sending bloody bits of flesh and bone flying in every direction. He took no pleasure in the destruction of a soul but he reconciled his unease with the idea that the zombie’s soul had been claimed long before his sledgehammer finished the job. There was nothing human left within it, only the vaguest shadow of motor skills and insatiable appetite for flesh.
Benedict pressed himself against the edge of the wall and waited. He could hear that telltale shuffle of bare zombie feet against the carpet. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Not now. He’d been lucky so far, but quick thinking was nothing without skill. He was pleased to find, however, that he was rather good at dispatching the undead. He had no idea why it came so naturally to him, but he had a knack for survival and on top of that, he was mostly able to disconnect himself from the act of zombie-killing: pretend you’re acting. Pretend you’re getting into character. Pretend this is all one big zombie film and soon the director is going to yell “cut” and you’ll get to go home and take a nice, long shower and curl up with a good book and a cigarette.
But pretending wasn’t always easy, especially as the zombie drew nearer, its bloody snarl growing louder and louder. Benedict knew he was running out of time.
Wait until it gets a bit closer. Dart forward. Swift blow to the head to stun it. Repeat until—until I kill it.
He pursed his lips and took a broad, long-legged step away from the wall. He was exposed now, but the zombie was facing in the other direction and he suspected that he’d be able to take a few more quiet steps before it—
It turned, sniffing, and Benedict winced. He’d forgotten about the keen sense of smell possessed by the undead.
The zombie staggered towards him, slow but menacing, and Benedict brandished the sledgehammer. When the zombie was in striking distance he cracked his weapon against its temple, and it stumbled backwards before it smacked against the ground. The zombie looked up at Benedict and bared its teeth, preparing to bite but before it could, Benedict swung again and with a snap and a crack that made Benedict’s chest ache in sympathy, he split the zombie’s skull in two and the hotel walls received a nice fresh coat of blood and brains.
He watched the zombie bleed out on the carpet and tried to desensitize himself to the sight. With a grimace, he took another swing at the zombie’s skull. He didn’t enjoy the gratuitous violence but he also knew that it was better to be cautious than squeamish.
Benedict continued down the stairwell toward the hotel kitchen. They’d been living off of the leftover hotel food since the uprising began and although he was certain that the majority of it would have been picked off by scavengers and the other stranded occupants residing within the hotel, he figured that it would be worth a shot. Besides, he and Martin would need a decent meal before they moved on.
He opened the kitchen door. Just as he suspected, the kitchen was almost completely empty. He pushed aside a few pots and pans and managed to locate a sack of nearly-fresh oranges – a spectacular find. Carefully, he ventured further and managed to get his hands on a half-empty box of cereal and a few bottles of water. He tucked it all into his backpack. It wasn’t much, but it was something and he hoped Martin wouldn’t be disappointed with his meager offering.
“We can’t keep doing this.” Benedict said after he’d finished his mercifully zombie-free trek back to the hotel room he and Martin had been sharing. He locked the door behind him and dumped the contents of his backpack on the bed. (They shared the room but not the bed – Benedict didn’t even try to come up with an excuse for them to bunk up so he’d been sleeping on the floor for the past few nights.)
“Doing what?” Martin asked quickly. “Oh. You mean—”
“—It’s getting rough out there,” Benedict said, taking an orange from the sack and passing the rest to Martin. “Other people have been raiding the hotel kitchen besides us. I’m guessing some other people had the same idea we did – hide out in here. And now they’re either dead, undead, or too scared to make a sound. And, I ran into another zombie. Looked—new. And we need better weapons. I can’t keep beating them over the head with this thing.” He nodded in the direction of the bloodied sledgehammer.
“Phones are still out too.” Martin said, gesturing toward his mobile. Benedict didn’t say anything, but he knew that they were sharing the same thought. Martin hadn’t been able to get in touch with Amanda and the children since the night of the uprising. After the second day, when Benedict caught Martin wiping away tears and flipping through the photographs in his wallet, he made a solemn vow to stay with Martin under any circumstances.
“I see you took care of the zombie, then.” Martin said, getting an eyeful of Benedict’s bloodied clothes.
“Wasn’t too bad,” Benedict said. “But we have to remember that they have a really good sense of smell, though. Hearing, too. They’re not too fast so taking on one or two at a time is fine but we need to be really careful and not get cornered by more than three. I can’t handle more than three.”
And I can’t handle the idea of getting infected by this zombie plague and leaving you.
Martin nodded and reached into the box for a handful of cereal.
“Where are we going to go?” Martin asked as he chewed.
“Don’t know,” Benedict said. “Somewhere relatively remote, I should think. We can’t stay in the city, I know that much. It’s not safe.”
“What about hospitals?” Martin asked. “Lots of medical supplies, lots of food. We could probably hide out in one of those for a day or two, don’t you think?”
“Lots of medical supplies, lots of food, lots of recently deceased people who were infected with the virus and can’t wait to rise up and kill us,” Benedict said with a sigh. “It’s a good idea in theory, but we’re better off in a less populated area.”
“Sorry,” Martin said. “Just—just trying to help, I guess. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t either.”
“You’re better at this than I am,” Martin said, shaking his head. “I’m glad that—well, I’m glad one of us seems to know how this works. Fucking zombie apocalypse, Ben.”
Benedict smiled out of the corner of his mouth. If anyone told him that he’d end up stuck in a hotel room with Martin Freeman at the veritable end of the world—well, he wouldn’t have believed him.
“Fucking zombie apocalypse.” Benedict said, raising his water bottle as if he were toasting to something. Martin raised his in return.
They showered (separately, much to Benedict’s dismay), dressed and packed up what remained of their belongings. Martin didn’t have anything – all of his clothes were off in another L.A. hotel. He didn’t ask Benedict if they’d mind stopping to get them and for that, Benedict was grateful.
“Ready?” Benedict asked as he placed his hand on the door.
“We’ll take my motorcycle.” Benedict whispered as they started down the hallway.
“Now hold on just one second,” Martin said. “You mean—me. And you. On your—” he let out a loud laugh and Benedict whirled around, placing his hand over Martin’s mouth.
“Shh, Martin, they’ll hear you. The motorcycle is all I have. I had it flown out here with me for a reason and—” his lips curled into a mischievous grin. “—unless you want to drive, that is.”
“Hilarious,” hissed Martin. “Bloody hilarious, thank you.”
“So, wait a minute,” Martin whispered as they continued down the hallway. “It’s going to be, what, me riding on the back of the motorcycle with you? Arms thrown over your shoulders? Hands around your waist? Fucking hell.”
Benedict cleared his throat.
“Zombie apocalypse and here I am riding off into the suns—sunrise with Benedict Cumberbatch.”
“Shut up.” Benedict hissed.
The careless stream of words spilling from Martin’s lips were making Benedict think about things that did not involve obliterating zombies. He needed to stop thinking about how perfect Martin’s hands would feel around him. He needed to stop thinking about Martin digging his nails into Benedict’s skin. He absolutely without question needed to stop thinking about Martin, wind in his hair and a devilish smile on his lips, leaning in and covering Benedict’s neck in kisses as they zipped down the highway together, ready to take on whatever disgusting undead creatures the apocalypse hurled at them.
“Hear anything?” Martin asked. “See anything?”
“Nothing.” Benedict said.
They were working their way down the stairwell now, their footstep echoes layering upon one another and making a dreadful racket despite their grave attempts at relative silence.
“Almost there,” Benedict said. “I don’t know how many there are going to be outside. It sounds quiet, but they might just be waiting.”
“What do you want me to do?” Martin asked.
“Stay clear of the sledgehammer and don’t let them bite you.”
“Cheers, Benedict.” Martin said, rolling his eyes.
“You don’t have a weapon,” Benedict said as they reached the exit. “Unless you’re looking to take them on with your bare hands. Just stay behind me. I’ll deal with whatever’s out there. My motorcycle is parked on the street about thirty feet away. At least it was the other night. If it’s not there—well, I guess we’re going to have to come up with some other plan, won’t we? But for now, stay back.”
Benedict leaned forward and pressed his hand to the door.
The similarities were what got to him. There were still buildings and cars and sunlight and blue sky. There was still just enough humanity for it to feel like a bad day instead of the end of the world. If not for the bloodied bodies lying in the street, some still twitching with faint glimpses of life and some completely still, everything would have seemed just as it had always been.
“It—how could—I thought it would be more—” Martin whispered.
“They weren’t prepared,” Benedict whispered back, still processing the sight before him. “They didn’t listen. We didn’t even listen. We were just lucky. All these people, Martin…”
“They’re dead.” Martin said.
“They’re dead now,” Benedict corrected. “But something tells me not all of them are going to stay that way.”
He peered out around the doorframe and surveyed the damage, which was considerable.
“Is your motorcycle still there?” Martin asked.
“I can’t see it.”
He leaned out a bit further.
“It’s there,” Benedict breathed. “I can’t believe—it’s there. All right. We need to think this though. The sound of the motorcycle is going to raise hell. Literally. If we can walk slow enough and stay quiet enough, Martin, we should be able to make it to the motorcycle without attracting any attention. Once I rev it up it’s all over and they’ll be pouring in from all sides so—just hold on to me, okay? Whatever you do, don’t let go of me.”
“All right.” Martin said, nodding.
Benedict opened the door a bit further and stepped onto the pavement.
Everything was covered in bodies and everything reeked of rotting flesh and blood. Crushed cars, stained and streaked in red zigzagged across the length of the street. Benedict shook his head as he stepped through the carnage, taking care to avoid stepping on a stray limb or some other disembodied bit of human that littered the ground.
“All this in three days,” Martin whispered. “Can you imagine?”
“Imagine?” Benedict whispered back. “Look around. It’s all right in front of us. Now hush.”
They continued at their slow but purposeful pace. Benedict tried to keep his eyes on both the motorcycle and the ground and tried not to think about how tantalizingly close he and Martin were about to be.
“Benedict!” Martin screamed.
Benedict spun around. One of the dead on the ground was apparently not as dead as they’d assumed. It had grabbed a handful of Martin’s leg and looked as if it was about to wrap its blood-encrusted mouth around it.
“It has my leg!” Martin grunted, attempting to free himself from the zombie’s grasp. “Benedict, it has my fucking leg!”
Benedict twirled the sledgehammer in his hands and held it high above his head.
“Do something!” Martin yelled.
“I—I don’t want to hit you by accident!” Benedict stammered.
“Just kill the fucking thing!”
Benedict took a deep breath and swung.
The sledgehammer narrowly missed the zombie’s head, slamming into the pavement instead. The impact separated the head of the sledgehammer from the handle and for a moment, Benedict was convinced that this was how it was meant to end. The zombie would tear a chunk of Martin’s leg then crawl toward Benedict and feast upon him as well. They’d die together and un-die together and spend the rest of their undead existences consuming the flesh of the living.
“No.” Benedict said aloud. He couldn’t bear to think of Martin dying like this. Not Martin. Not the man I fell in love with the moment I met him, who is everything I’ll want and will never have, not sweet perfect beautiful gorgeous Martin who, right now, needs me to save him—
And with that he gripped the handle of the sledgehammer and drove it straight through the zombie’s eye socket. The handle met with resistance at first but then slid through and punctured the brain. Upon impact, the zombie twitched and shivered and loosened its hold on Martin. Benedict stooped down, dropped the sledgehammer handle, grabbed the zombie’s head with his bare hands, spun it until he heard its neck snap and then slammed its skull against the pavement.
“Bloody fucking hell, Benedict,” Martin panted. “That was close.”
By now, several zombies were aware of their presence and were beginning to shuffle toward them, their slack limbs swaying as they marched toward Benedict and Martin.
“You can thank me later,” Benedict said. “And forget about sneaking. For now, we have to run.”
He reached for the sleeve of Martin’s shirt and pulled him along toward the motorcycle. He reached into his pocket for his keys, mounted the bike and nodded his head in Martin’s direction, implying that he ought to do the same.
“Now remember, just hold on,” Benedict said. “And whatever you do—”
“—don’t let go of you, yeah.” Martin said. “Don’t worry. I’ll probably be holding on for dear fucking life.”
He dug his fingertips into Benedict’s shoulders and Benedict prayed that Martin didn’t feel the pang of desire that burned beneath them.
As you should, Benedict thought as he turned the key in the ignition. As you very well should.