He had the unwashed, unhinged look that only an author pushing a deadline can attain, all twitchy movements and bleary vision. Disposable coffee cups were stacked like sentries around his workstation and the stark white of a Word document from his laptop barely cast a glow in his darkened room. At the moment, Derek Hale was tapping impatiently with his pen and staring at the corner of his computer screen.
“Come on,” he growled, staccato and biting.
He… did this a lot. Not the forgetting to shower part – that was pretty normal. But he always started Self Control, the program that cut off his internet for him (all the better to resist temptation with, my dear), intent on writing until his fingers and eyes burned.
Except he usually ran up against the research wall, where his essential plot point hinged on information he no longer had access to, and his life devolved into a social experiment to see who would lose it first, him or the countdown. Hint: it was always Derek.
The timer still read 1:42:11. One hour, forty two minutes and eleven seconds until the key to the universe unlocked.
Derek snatched his phone – a cheap flip phone that had lived better days, but he was too lazy to replace it while it still worked – and jammed his finger into the #2 button, a discordant beep intersecting the stagnant silence until it clicked off and rang.
“Beer me,” Laura, his ever-classy sister, answered.
“Laura,” he said breathlessly, as if he were in the middle of a kickboxing class instead of participating in indoor computer sports. “You at home?”
“Yes...?” she said.
“I’m coming over.”
Laura heaved a long suffering sigh, a sound Derek was only too familiar with. It was how most of their interactions ended. And started, for that matter.
“What do you need to know now?”
“What kind of generator could support a server for an indefinite period of time.”
“You seriously need to stop using that program, bro,” she said and hung up.
“You seriously need to… stop using that face,” he mimicked at the phone. Stunning comeback, not like he was a professional writer or anything. He was just glad she wasn’t on the line to witness it. He grabbed his car keys, flipped his laptop closed, and failed to lock the door behind him.
“Cheers,” he nodded to Laura, barely glancing at her before he was propping himself in front of the laptop, the back of his computer chair tipping because it was missing a few screws.
“Oh god, take a fucking shower,” she said, but he ignored her in favor of clicking open his Dropbox – installed on her computer for his convenience – and toggled over to the internet, immersing himself in the magic of search engines.
He barely noticed as Laura slung her purse over her shoulder and closed the door, calling, “My shift starts now. You better be gone by the time I get back!”
“I need a shower,” Derek muttered, surfacing from the darkest realms of the internet two hours later. Some things weren’t meant for casual eyes, and internet forums were close to the top of that list.
He was availing himself of Laura’s array of junk food, waiting for coffee to brew, and generally procrastinating when his phone vibrated.
“I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message,” his phone said, muffled by his jacket pocket.
He frowned at the offending pocket and stuffed the rest of the brownie in his mouth. But Barack Obama continued to approve his message so he jammed his thumb against the back of the phone, fumbled it out of his jacket, and somehow managed to answer it.
“Hello?” he asked, voice low and dangerous. Sometimes he hated technology. Or maybe he just hated being accessible. Mostly he didn’t like being bothered when he enjoyed a stale brownie.
“Is this Derek Hale?” the voice asked. Derek flicked a few crumbs off the counter and grunted.
“Err… okay, I’m gonna take that as a yes. My name is Stiles and I’m a RedRidingHood.com representative. First, I would like to tell you that this call might be recorded for training purposes.”
He paused but Derek remained silent, idly rearranging the brownies so Laura couldn’t tell he ate four of them.
Stiles’ voice was not robotic, per say, but practiced and distant, like he was reading from a script he’d long since memorized and didn’t need to devote his attention to anymore. “I see you recently purchased your first domain name through RedRidingHood.com and I was checking to see that you found everything to your liking and to ask if you had any questions.”
Again, he paused and again, Derek didn’t answer. People found him disquieting. He dispensed with conventions that didn’t make sense to him. He never spoke of the weather. He didn’t apologize for his opinions; in fact, he rarely offered them up for scrutiny in the first place. He shied away from the noncommittal noises that served no purpose than to prove another human being was there and, perhaps, listening. And he demanded complete, unvarnished truth from himself and from others.
“Do you… have any questions?” There was hesitance in his voice, but he hadn’t given up yet and Derek offered him a smidgen of respect for that.
Frankly, Derek didn’t have the faintest idea how to get started with his domain and website building. His computer capabilities were limited to using the internet and Microsoft Word, but he was such that a frustrating three day Google binge was preferable to admitting his lack of knowledge to a complete stranger. While he demanded the undistorted truth from himself, he didn’t have to share it with others.
Thrown, Stiles said, “Oh, good, I was hoping I didn’t have someone die on me again. There was this one time where someone choked on a chip, that wasn’t fun.” He chuckled a little but quickly turned it into a cough when he realized Derek wasn’t laughing with him. “Er, well, to better customize your service I have a few questions. The domain you purchased was zsurvivor.net?”
“Why did you purchase it?”
“For a novel,” he answered. His eyes moved longingly between the computer, where his unfinished paragraph hung and the coffee pot, where his unfinished sanity hung.
“Oh?” Stiles asked, a subtle upward tilt to the word. “In what way? I mean, is it going to be an online novel?”
Derek resisted the urge to sigh, loudly and pointedly. It seemed the fastest way to get off the phone and back to writing was to answer his questions. “I bought it mostly for copyright purposes when the novel is published. But I hope to get some content on it eventually that supplements the book.”
There was a moment of silence and the faintest hint of keyboard keys, then a distracted, “Great thanks… The z – that wouldn’t happen to stand for zombie, would it?”
The retort slipped out before he could think. “No, it stands for zoology. It’s about a mauled zoologist support network. Very hairy stuff.” Remembering he was on the phone with a stranger and not sassing his roommate, he added (only slightly) repentantly, “Yeah, it stands for zombie.”
“Dude!” Stiles chuckled, glossing over his sarcasm, breath quickening over the line in Derek’s ear. “That’s so awesome! This is embarrassing, but I’m kind of a huge zombie nerd. What’s your book about?”
The most dreaded of questions. How to sum up a complex project that would in all probability take two or more years to reach a bookshelf? He was usually a man of few words, but nothing quite got him going like a conversation about literature, especially his own. If left unchecked, his summary could end up a four-hour dissection of the thematic elements and how he used a post apocalyptic setting to highlight the importance of history and literature.
Sucking in a breath, Derek responded, “It’s about the internet and the zombie apocalypse. The main character thinks she’s the only one left and travels the country, running a website called zsurvivor.net that used to connect with people. But now she’s the only one posting on it.”
He could pretend to be as highfalutin and snobby as he liked when it came to literature and his profession, but there was no disguising that he was writing a novel about the zombie apocalypse (or Z-Poc, as the internet liked to call it). He was past the point of shame.
“Man, that’s so cool! I’m totally bookmarking your website. How long ‘til you finish?”
“A few years, probably.”
“Oh wow. Just curious, you can tell me to stuff it if you want to… Ah shit. Listen,” Stiles said. “My supervisor is looking at me funny. If you want to keep talking, you can email me. I’d totally love to be a consultant or something. It’s email@example.com.” Then, loudly and pointedly, “Thank you for doing business with RedRidingHood.com. Please contact our 24 hour customer service line if you have any more questions.”
“Er, thanks,” Derek said, but the line was already dead.
The coffee was cool but still drinkable so Derek grabbed his “don’t be such a grumpy gills” Finding Nemo mug and plopped down. His first draft blinked at him resolutely from the screen and he raked a hand across his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Something niggled at the back of his mind.
He was having a hell of a time figuring out how to run the internet in a post apocalyptic world, especially since his main character was so mobile. And also the only one alive. He’d discarded so many different ideas by this point (satellites, a gas generator, a rewired laptop) as too far fetched, and through it all, Derek wasn’t sure he even knew what a wi-fi network actually was.
His difficulties with the schematics of his story aside, he was finding he just... didn’t like his protagonist. Her name was Lizzie Burton, a kickback to Pride and Prejudice. He’d even named her love interest Fletcher Davis as an homage to Mr. Darcy. But something about Lizzie wasn’t working – she was too good at surviving, too badass. She wasn’t an underdog, not by a long shot, and maybe (as his agent told him over and over) that was what he needed.
On a whim, he opened a new word document and began to write.
By Derek Hale
Stiles. The name was intriguing, as was the man behind it. Derek wondered... an enthusiastic computer geek, pitted against a world of zombies. It could change the whole perspective of his story.
For one, it allowed for a more dynamic surrounding. Lizzie’s motivation for traveling the contiguous United States was nothing more than survival instinct and curiosity, the drive to find at least one more human. She had no long-term goals so the narrative rambled with her.
But a Stiles character... he would have a love of history and a drive to document humanity’s last days. He would have the technological know-how to pull off a mobile internet, to accomplish what Lizzie was doing but with more believability. Derek saw him clearly, a tall, gangly young man with a buzz cut. He wouldn’t use guns. All his equipment was jerry-rigged to work in his failing world, all his possessions stuffed in one backpack. He coveted his copy of the complete works of Walt Whitman.
Derek spent another few minutes trying to think of a name for his new protagonist, but his brain had already fixated on Stiles. Trying not to think too hard about his motives, Derek shrugged and started to type.
Stiles snapped the backpack to his waist and wiggled to make sure it was secure. He raked his fingers roughly through his short hair, flinching when he encountered a rising lump near his ear. He made a vague mental note to buzz his hair again soon; it was starting to grow out. Satisfied, he turned the camera lens of his phone towards him and hit record.
“Vlog number… who knows. Like 200? Anyway,” he said, voice low and firm, “I don’t have long, on the move again today. Hope to make it to Ames by tonight…” He hesitated, then tacked on, “Be safe, everyone.”
A few button presses and the video was off into the data ether. Without waiting for an upload confirmation, Stiles slid the keyboard open and typed out a message.
‘Morning. Didn’t sleep well. Would kill for caffeine. Update coming later.’
He hit send, then tucked the phone into his pocket.
Padding silently across the tile, Stiles walked over to the covered window. He didn’t dare open it, but risked sliding the top corner over. The sliver revealed the sun peaking over the horizon, barely breaking through the blue cast of night. Still time, then.
He returned to the middle of the room and lay down, his body falling into an easy rhythm, moving from pushups to squats. The movement stretched out his sore muscles while his mind slipped into the sort of floating meditation that accompanied long practiced exercise.
“Right,” Stiles said, voice ghosting through the empty room as he levered himself from the floor. He ran through his mental checklist: high boots, two pairs of leggings under tight jeans, long-sleeved black under armor topped with a fitted black tank. Gloves. Belt with full water bottle, crowbar on the left side, machete on the right.
Summarily armed, Stiles boosted himself out of the window and onto the roof. The sun had cleared the tree line and spilled across the ground in a sharp glow.
His bike still leaned against the tree. There were a few Amblers shuffling across the road to the south, but if he were quiet enough, slipping down to the ground and onto the bike would be no problem.
Inhale, exhale, repeat – then Stiles launched himself at the big maple tree, stomach bottoming out for one adrenaline-filled moment before his arms grasped the branch and he used the momentum to swing up and hook his legs around it. He paused a moment to make sure the rustling hadn’t attracted any attention. From there, it was easy to swing down and hang, gently lowering to the ground.
Just a few months ago, he would have fumbled and flailed his way out of the house, face planting into the grass as a grand finale. His newfound grace was the product of necessity, nothing more.
The rattle and click of spokes was just loud enough to draw the Amblers, but he was well on his way down the road from the farmhouse, their low moan fading behind him.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself.”
During long bike rides down abandoned, destroyed, and debris-strewn roads, Stiles recited Walt Whitman. It was important, of course, to always be aware of his surroundings but constant paranoia was so tiring. His store of Adderall was long gone, lost somewhere at the bottom of the Snake River. Something about the ebb and flow of the poet’s words calmed him, centered him, kept his thoughts from skittering away like ash and wind. His ragged Whitman collection had half a cover from being stored next to his hunting knife, but he knew all the poems by heart, even the massive and meandering Song of Myself.
“Perhaps you have been on it since you were born. Perhaps it is everywhere,” he said, weaving through empty cars.
‘No toilet paper,’ Stiles typed. ‘Using leaves again. At least I can identify poison ivy now.’
His least favorite part of the day was night, and not just because it was when his overactive imagination heard zombies around every corner. It wasn’t even the lack of safety that came with inky darkness and no electric lights to chase it away.
It was scouting out places to sleep. Finding un-infested, undamaged houses was increasingly and increasingly harder.
The first viable candidate he found, a two-story renovated barn, was far enough out of central Ames that it wouldn’t get city “traffic.. The heavy door stood intact, and his walk around the perimeter revealed barricaded windows with whole glass. It was a good sign – nothing had forced its way in or out.
Stiles leaned his bike against a crabapple tree, boots crunching on its fallen fruit as he approached the door. He’d just rested his hand on the knob, poised to turn, when he heard it.
It was faint, but life had taught him to listen. Well, life or the zombie apocalypse, but it was hard to tell the two apart. Not audible as he was moving, it was only as he stopped that he heard the rhythmic scratching low against the door, as if something were on the floor, clawing at it.
He was back on his bike and cycling down the road within the minute. That was another apocalypse lesson: move on quickly.
‘Sleeping in a tree. Killed four Z’s today. Sleep safe, everyone.’
His phone blazed in the dark, a risk – but the only one he allowed himself, and only occasionally at that. He avoided using his battery-operated items at night, when his solar backpack couldn’t charge them.
Early on in the disaster, before things really got fucked up, the internet was alive with information. Twitter feeds spread how to kill zombies and safe places to go. Where Tumblr was once ruled by silly cat gifs and Sherlock, it became overrun with info about the undead. The most followed blog was effyeahheadshots where people posted pictures of their best zombie kills.
For every true fact on the internet, there were at least twelve false ones. That’s how zsurvivor.net was born.
Stiles was not a survivor. He was not athletic, despite a brief stint with lacrosse and the swim team in high school. Where marines and assassins perished, he remained. And while he couldn’t roundhouse kick the head off a zombie, he could gather information – true information – and put it on the internet for others. Stiles had mad Google skills and a history minor that made him a discerning researcher.
The problem with the apocalypse was that as the plague spread, more and more websites started to go down. Servers crashed. Wi-fi hotspots failed. Stiles was constantly on the move, and each time he was able to log on, fewer and fewer people were posting.
Now… there was no one.
The harness anchoring Stiles to the tree was tight around his waist. He loosened it a little, shifting in an attempt to get comfortable.
“Ha,” he muttered, ghostly and unfamiliar. “Like that’s possible.”
Maudlin days numbered more and more lately. Every empty city tolled the inevitable for him – he was the last one left. No one else. Why was he doing this? Why did he bother to document anything? Humanity had its time, but with all things, it too must end.
In a rare display of self-pity, he logged onto the zsurvivor.net website. Fingers trembling, he typed out ‘Am I alone? Is anyone out there?’ and held the phone, knuckles whitening. It was a question he’d typed out before, many times, fear and panic and loneliness and hopelessness spiraling through him, crackling through his marrow like a sickness too deep to root out. He’d never posted it before, though. It was like looking into a pit – the answer was at the bottom, he knew, but he wasn’t sure if he’d survive the fall. So, every time, he backspaced over his words.
Stiles was tired of looking over the edge.
He breathed a centering inhale-exhale-repeat and pressed send, tucking the phone away, as if pushing it out of sight would push the dry burn of his eyes away.
It was only desperation a week later that found Derek typing “stilinskied” into the TO: space in Outlook.
His research concerning the internet within the scope of an apocalypse was officially a dead end.
Apparently it wasn’t feasible for a wireless network to run self-sufficiently enough no matter how many artistic licenses he tried to work in. His week long research rampage was worse than the ‘Can You Drown in Pudding’ debacle of ’07. Lydia, his leggy, red-lipped roommate, had taken to wearing earplugs or headphones at all hours of the day to drown out Derek’s admittedly excessive cursing.
So. He needed to email Stiles. Stiles, the person he spoke to on the phone that one time. Stiles, who offered his help and didn’t seem immediately crazy, like so many of the people posting in forums.
Hello, he typed out.
Hello!, he tried and immediately deleted it. Too perky and not professional enough. Derek wasn’t really an exclamation point man.
Derek stared at the blinking cursor for another few minutes before he decided he was completely delusional. He almost called Laura, but the teasing would be in no way, shape, or form worth the pep talk.
This is Derek Hale, owner of the domain name zsurvivor.net. I spoke to you on the phone a few days ago?
God, that was awkward.
Remember that offer you made? Well, I fail as a researcher please help me salvage my plot before I lose my mind and slit the throats of everyone I know. Derek stared at it a moment. Seeing the truth, even dramatized as it was, written so starkly always gave him a thrill, but his ring finger was already backspacing over it. Reverse creation. Did it count as destruction when it remained true even if it wasn’t extant?
I was hoping your IT expertise (he wrote sardonically, but suspected Stiles wouldn’t detect it) could help me work through some issues with my novel. Feel free to contact me via this email or skype (derek.h) whenever is convenient.
In between refreshing his email and uselessly patrolling the internet for alternate ideas, Derek fleshed out the non-problematic portions of his book, rewrote five chapters with Stiles as the main character, and cranked out a few press releases about weight loss pills to pay rent. He was in the middle of gushing about new advancements in a sports drink when Lydia threw a bundle at his head.
Derek batted it away and pounded at the keyboard.
“Put that on,” Lydia said, looming. “You have a research addiction. Stop hoarding knowledge.”
Derek wrinkled his eyebrows at her and pointedly turned back to the computer.
He could practically feel her cocking her hip, hands on her waist. “Put it on or I steal your laptop charger again. No, don’t try to argue. I did it last time; I can do it again.”
“I’m writing, not looking up stuff,” Derek grumbled, shaking out the bundle. It was a deep blue v-neck. He didn’t need to check the tag to know it was American Eagle. “I am not clubbing with you and even if I was, I would never wear this. BUT,” he said loudly, cutting off Lydia, “it is all a moot point anyway because I am not clubbing with you.”
“It’s cute you think you have a choice. Wear those really tight jeans that make your ass look awesome.”
An hour and a half later, wearing the tight shirt, ass-hugging jeans, and a leather jacket – a tip from Lydia’s go-go dancer friend Allison because “it adds mystique” and will “make chicks want to bang you” – Derek stood in Click, waiting for Lydia to bring back drinks. He felt momentary guilt for not offering to get them himself, but since he didn’t want to be here and also lacked the necessary décolletage to get prompt service, he didn’t feel that guilty. Click was so hot, they apparently didn’t need chairs so Derek rested against the wall and tried to avoid the eye of the dark-haired girl making pouty lips at him across the floor.
“I’m checking my email,” Derek grumped when she returned, hand already closing around Lydia’s fancy smart phone stuck in her cleavage.
Lydia and Allison were grinding on the dance floor by the time he fumbled his way into his account.
An email. He had an email. From stilinskied.
Heart pounding unaccountably fast for something so silly, he tapped it open.
Hi! It said. I can totally help! What r ur Qs? -Stiles.
He could write 1000 words in fifteen minutes on a good day, but it took Derek the better part of three hours to write his email back to Stiles. The desk near his laptop was riddled with rings from his mug, each slightly off the other until they created a dizzying swirl. Derek traced them absently with his middle finger while he thought.
The email was a masterpiece. As if compensating for his perceived failure, there wasn't a single word out of place. What the missive boiled down to was this: help me, you strange, ungrammatical man, the internet doesn’t have answers and the whole of my novel hangs in the balance.
Stiles' reply was so enthusiastic, it wiped out all his misgivings. Despite his questionable spelling, he proved to be knowledgeable.
1 option, he wrote, is a satellite phone. Ur main chara could connect on the go. he wouldnt have to be connected all the time. plus, z's wouldnt be able to bust up the equipment. Once they’re up they’re up until a human brings em down.
Derek read the email out loud to Lydia.
"Sounds cute," she muttered, chewing on the ends of her hair and flicking her pink highlighter across her Differential Equations textbook.
have u read the zombie survival guide? Stiles texted him. Derek was on the toilet. Texting on the toilet felt like a violation of common decency.
No. But I read World War Z.
He finished washing his hands when his phone buzzed again and he snatched it, smearing water droplets across the screen and keys. They blurred the words.
read it, its got so much info on strat. & tools, cut ur research time in half.
Derek typed out "hmmm..." and after a moment, tacked on a smiley face. Then he freaked out, because Derek didn’t do smiley faces on account of the fact that he was a serious writer and not a preteen girl. But it was already done and no amount of blushing or tripping would take it back. Wiping the phone on his pant leg, he slipped it into his pocket, ignored it when it buzzed again, and popped his computer open, clicking over to Amazon.
Derek stayed up for three days straight and wrote most of the middle of the novel with just Monster and hummus in his stomach. His conversations with Stiles gave him plenty of nightmare fuel, grotesque images and situations that crept up on him as soon as he closed his eyes.
Slowly, zsurvivor.net was shaping into something he could be proud of. Even his agent, a forceful woman named Kate, was pleased with its new direction when he sent her sample pages.
Stiles jerked awake, skin crawling in concert with the unearthly howl below him. A zombie must’ve sniffed him out – time to move on, before more followed its call.
He grappled with the harness but his fingers were numb and bloodless, stiff from cold and sleep. He groped at the buckle, skidding uselessly against the strap. Shifting to get a better angle, Stiles heard, rather than felt, the branch give. There was a nauseating snap, he was weightless and plummeting, reaching out, scraping his fingers against bark, too fast to grab. The cable pulled taut, jerking him up like a doll then flinging him down. Black edged his vision.
Sunlight tickled his eyelids.
Stiles came to awareness slowly, as if he’d fallen asleep on the beach, coated with sun. But his limbs weren’t languid with relaxation, and as he forced his eyes open, the reality he was confronted with was far from the ocean roaring in his ears.
A swarm of Z’s right under him, at least twenty undulating and shifting, clawing and moaning. The force of their hands against the tree sent it swaying. Their faces were smeared with red. The red, he realized, was blood, dripping slowly from a gash in his head.
Stiles stared uncomprehendingly at the multitude, mesmerized by their movement. Kaleidoscope, his mind told him, far away like an echo, fixating and reiterating the word. The sun was sinking low, low enough to cast a beam directly into his eyes. He fluttered in and out of awareness.
Night had almost fallen when he finally felt panic, trickling into him until he was full with it, until his heart beat a bloody crescendo with it. Stiles spent terrifying minutes trying to swing his way up to a branch, head spinning and stomach churning with each movement. He finally hooked his legs around and heaved himself up – it was only his vast amount of experience climbing trees that allowed him to even do that much. He belted himself in with quaking fingers, then pulled a bandage from his backpack and stuck it to the wound on his head. No time to cleanse it, yet.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
“I missed my update,” Stiles whispered, voice like hot coals. If he could speak, he was still alive. If he was alive… well, that remained to be seen. When he logged onto zsurvivor.net, there was a message.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Somewhat,’ he managed, shuddering.
A cadenced thumping against the tree woke him.
He still felt muzzy. His head throbbed with each fist against the tree trunk. He forced his screaming body into motion, leaning over the edge of his branch cautiously.
Stiles assessed the group below. Sixteen Zs. His machete and crowbar were still attached to him. His muscles were stiff and his head hurt. It would be risky, but he knew he couldn’t make it to the bike fast enough to elude them. The longer he waited, the more would come.
Time to fight, then.
Stiles grappled his way to the other side of the tree, unhooking the harness and his backpack. Then he jumped the few feet to the ground, hit a clear patch and rolled, coming to his feet with only a little residual dizziness. The Z’s were slow. Old ones, then – Shufflers. One solid hit to the head was all he needed.
Apocalypse lesson: always breathe. He sucked in a mouthful of stale air, let it slide out. He hefted his machete in one hand and grinned at the Shufflers slouching toward him.
“Badass Stiles took an axe and gave the zombies forty whacks,” he chanted, swinging his machete steadily. “When he saw what he had done, he gave them another forty-one.”
Zombies fell easily under his practiced swing, the beat of the poem helping him pace himself, keeping him grounded. Reminding him to breathe.
“Take that fucker!” he yelled, splitting one straight down to
her its nose, putrefied flesh yielding with ease.
Pain flared in his shoulder, an abrupt spike that sent his nerves blaring and his heart throbbing. A rotted hand, green with infection, ragged nails embedded in his flesh, slipping where blood pooled on his skin – oh god. Fighting down dread, he pulled away from the weak grip and thrust the machete through the middle of its forehead, then through the neck for good measure.
Stiles scrambled away from the slick zombie fluids, retching once, twice, nothing in his stomach to ease a burn he felt through his whole body.
“Fuck,” he breathed. “Fuck fuckfuck fuck.” With trembling fingers, he pulled aside his shirt and under armor.
He was clean. The fingernails hadn’t made it through to his skin.
In a rare move, Stiles bypassed Ames entirely and continued to head east. He made good time, despite stopping constantly to check zsurvivor.net.
From a real person.
His leg muscles were pleasantly sore from biking, so he propped his bike against the kickstand and made himself comfortable on the ground. Interstate 80 through Iowa wasn’t safe so he was off the beaten track, enough so that he was sure no Zs would sneak up on him.
‘Why didn’t you contact me before?’ he wrote. The message posted in a bubble right under his earlier “somewhat.”
He tipped his head back, letting his eyes roam the tree line. The Midwest in fall was beautiful, a riot of burning reds and oranges, the bite of cold carrying the lightest scent of earth. But the chill just served to remind him that winter was coming. He’d ditched his heavy coat somewhere in Arizona.
Winter was a mixed blessing. The cold and snow made travel difficult; grueling, exhausting, nights where he shivered in trees or piled blankets on barn floors. But zombies were bags of fluid and meat – dead meat – with no natural defenses against the cold. They froze solid.
A mixed blessing. Stiles froze his nuts off, but at least he didn’t have anything trying to bite them off.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, he woke his phone up. There was a message, right underneath his.
‘Too risky. My family thought you might try to find us. The only reason we’re still alive is complete secrecy.’
‘Why’d you break it? They decide I wouldn’t screw you over? Because I won’t.’
‘They don’t know.’
The sun had started to slip behind the tree line while they wrote back and forth. Stiles needed to get moving and find a place to camp out for the night.
It was enough that they existed. It was enough that he wasn’t the only one.
Derek wrote the final part of chapter seven in what could only be called a trance, hands trembling from too much energy drink, eyes squinted and burning from the electronic glare and not sleeping in over sixty hours. It was the only excuse he had when he proofed it three days later, cheeks flushed and jaw slack.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Derek Hale.’ The reply was almost instantaneous. All his replies were timely, from which Stiles deduced he lived in a stable, self-sufficient community. He wasn’t on the move constantly, like Stiles was.
‘Where are you from?’ Stiles wanted to ask Derek everything, wanted to call him first thing in the morning and last thing right before he went to bed, wanted to confirm to himself that he wasn’t just a hallucination. Mostly, Stiles just wanted to wrap him up in a hug; an actual, real, physical human being that he could touch and never let go.
‘Originally New York. I went to college at Bradley in Illinois. You?’
‘California. Went to school there too, for computer science and accounting.’
After five minutes, Derek didn’t add anything else. Stiles decided to ask the question on his mind.
‘How long have you been following me?’
‘…About six months. I like your vlogs.’
‘Thanks,’ he replied. ‘You should tell me more about yourself… I haven’t talked to another human in a long time.’
Stiles was surprisingly similar to what Derek pictured – his hair was brown, though it wasn’t as short, messily styled with some gel. It looked like Stiles had been running his hands through it since then so it stuck up a little more on the right side. He was lanky but sure in his movements, bright eyed and exuding happiness. A natural flush tinted his cheeks and the tips of his ears, but it was his mouth that drew Derek’s eye like a bullseye, red and lush and open.
Ten minutes before their meeting, Derek tossed his leather jacket over his white tank and week old jeans. His hair was styled, but only because Lydia got bored last night and played with it while he watched zombie movies. That Stiles recommended. For research.
To sum up: Derek looked homeless, or like he was in a biker gang, while Stiles looked edible in a teal button up, the cuffs rolled to his elbows and unbuttoned at the collar. His legs looked long and slim in fitted kakhis, stretched out under the table. All in all, he made a much more attractive picture leaning against the booth, arms crossed, than the dorky kid that was Derek’s protagonist.
Stiles stood up, probably because the weird homeless biker was staring at him. "Derek?" he asked in a voice too clear in quality to be familiar – but the intonation and pitch confirmed what he already knew.
"Hi." He thrust out a hand to shake just as Stiles stepped closer and ended up brushing his chest instead. "Uh, s-sorry."
"Nah, it’s my fault!" he said. "It's cool to meet you finally! Put a face to your voice and emails and all." He laughed awkwardly, a dry sound, and gestured to the table.
Derek sat, the vinyl crunching.
"So..." Stiles said.
“How’s the writing going?”
There was silence.
"I'm going to get some coffee," Derek mumbled and fled to the counter. While the barista made his drinks, he berated himself. It was in Lydia’s voice that he told himself to be more sociable, to smile, and to ask questions. Like a real, actual person, not a robot.
Although he did have very communicative eyebrows.
He came back with two lattes, setting one in front of Stiles. Questions. He needed to ask insightful and engaging questions to facilitate conversation, but all he could focus on was the pink tongue lapping a stray drop of coffee off the lid.
“What’s your last name?” Derek blurted.
“Oh, it’s Stilinski.”
“Your name is Stiles Stilinski?”
“No, Stiles is just a nickname. My first name is horrible.” Stiles wrinkled his nose at him. “And no, I won’t tell you what it is.”
Hours later, the coffee was stone cold and they were still discussing the merits of different weapons against zombies. The barista kept hovering uncomfortably near them, like she wanted to tell them to be quiet or leave, but Stiles didn’t notice and every time Derek tried to bring the conversation down to normal levels, Stiles baited him back into it.
"A sword only has one function!" Derek said loudly over him. “And modern swords are shoddily made and the upkeep is unreasonable!”
"Yeah, but you can’t behead a zombie with a crowbar!" Stiles replied hotly. Two students in the booth next to them, obviously on a date, stood and left. Stiles had a habit of talking with his hands. Their movement drew Derek’s attention back to him. “I think you’re missing the point of zombies!”
“Yeah? What’s the point then?”
Stiles snorted. “Not realism, that’s for sure.”
“But the point of writing is verisimilitude,” Derek replied. He was sure in his words, in this topic. “It’s meant to reflect yet distort the world, hold a mirror up to it so you see yourself, and from that mirror, expose your parallels and differences.”
While he spoke, Stiles furrowed his brow at him, eyes tracking the movement of his lips. He was the picture of intent, listening carefully although his face said he didn’t agree with Derek’s words. It was heady – by now Lydia or his sister would have told him to shut up.
“That’s a good point about the role of literature,” Stiles said. He leaned forward, buttons ticking against the plastic tabletop. “But zombies are a cultural phenomenon. We like zombies because of the primal violence it involves. The undead are finally an enemy we can vilify and kill, often gratuitously, in video games and media, without dehumanizing anyone. During the cold war, the Russians were our villains. Then Nazis and terrorists. But our cultural conscience shifted. Zombies are an enemy we can kill without guilt, without moral consequence.”
That was when Derek realized he was maybe a little attracted to Stiles.
“You should be a lawyer,” Derek said stupidly and Stiles flushed, looking down at his coffee.
“Thanks. I’m actually studying for my LSATs right now.”
Derek fretted with the bottom of his disposable cup, methodically ripping off the decal and piling it by the saltshaker. Stiles just gave him the perfect opening to steer the conversation away from work and into more personal territory.
Personal questions, Derek, he reminded himself. And not about his lips. Or his relationship status.
“So…” Derek said and Stiles looked up from his own coffee cup construction, a bit of hair flopping in his face. “Besides zombies, what do you like?”
Stiles smiled, a ruddy splotch on his cheekbones. “Er, well, I’m kind of a gigantic nerd, if the zombie fixation didn’t tip you off. I like video games. Bad sci-fi movies. I read a lot too.”
“Bad sci-fi there, again, it’s a theme. A theme and a problem.” He smiled, jiggling his leg. His knee bumped against Derek. “But that’s not all! I mean, I’m nerd but I do like non-nerd things!” Stiles scrubbed a hand through his hair, long fingers catching in the locks. “Oh god, I sound like a loser, don’t I.”
Derek swallowed a smile, smirking at him. “By all means, tell me what your non-loser interests are.”
“Oh my god.” He thunked his head against the table, scattering sugar packets. “Okay, Stiles, you can do this.”
The table rocked as he levered himself up, face blazing. He looked Derek in the eye though, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I like history, like the big disasters. Things like the Titanic or Hindenburg. And yeah, this is going to sound totally morbid, but we just discussed the best way to behead someone, so I think it’s okay. I like reading about the last moments of famous disasters, like the last words the people on the Titanic and what they did as the boat went down. I mean, the accounts aren’t 100% accurate and it can be difficult to tell where there’s embellishment and what’s been fabricated. But I like the psychology behind disasters and death.”
“What’s your favorite?” Derek asked, propping his head on his hand and tilting it in what he hoped looked like a flirtatious gesture. Flirting was hit or miss with him. Most of the time he just added a bit of inflection to his voice and hoped that his face wasn’t too frowny.
Stiles laughed, mouth wide, and his entire torso shook with the sound. “This is hard for you, isn’t it? I didn’t think it was possible but you’re even more socially constipated than me.”
It wasn’t Derek’s favorite part of himself. He started to protest, but for once, it wasn’t malicious. Stiles wasn’t making fun of him. His sister, his roommate, his friends – it was always fun for them to rib him about his disposition.
But Stiles was still grinning at him with the same doofy grin and Derek’s figurative hackles went down. “How did you know?”
“Well, I did talk to you on the phone that first time. I was ready to start grunting at you caveman style to get you to answer some simple questions. Also, you look really uncomfortable right now.”
Stiles reached across the table and patted him on the shoulder, hand coming to rest in the crook of his elbow. Stiles didn’t seem to notice. “No worries! I mean, you have met me, right, I practically whored myself out to you just to be able to talk zombies with someone. I have no stones to throw and all that.”
Derek stared at him. Stiles was an enigma wrapped in a pita wrapped in a tortilla. Without tearing his eyes away, he brought his cup to his lips and took a sip. And then tried his best not to spit it out again, because the coffee was cold and unpleasant.
Choking, he said, “So whose final words are your favorite?”
“Hmmm,” Stiles said, dragging a finger across his lips. There was a crinkle of barely contained amusement around his eyes. Obviously, Derek wasn’t subtle about the coffee. “One woman, this one named Lottie, didn’t want to go on the lifeboat. So they literally dragged her away from her husband, and he told her, “Go Lottie! For God’s sake, be brave and go!” And the band, they played until a wave swept them away. The violinist Wallace Hartley told them: “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell…”
Heavy silence strung between them, Stiles faraway in thought. Derek couldn’t seem to stop staring, studied every line of his face. He knew it was creepy, knew Stiles couldn’t be that oblivious to miss it, although Derek did give off an intense vibe. Maybe he chalked it up to that.
Stiles brought his palms to the table suddenly, and even though he hadn’t felt the touch through his jacket, Derek still bemoaned the loss. “So what do you like to do? Besides working out, obviously, since you look like the love child of Hugh Jackman and Captain America on steroids…”
Later, walking back to the apartment, Derek whistled the entire way, in the shower, and while he pounded out 7,000 words of chapter eight, until Lydia sprayed her Marc Jacob’s Daisy perfume in his face.
The week Derek spent in Mexico with his family was the worst. Forbidden a laptop, he found himself scrawling on notepads from his hotel room by the beach, fighting the wind for possession. His fingers itched to email Stiles about his latest idea – waterborne zombies, trudging from the waves and setting upon unsuspecting and sun-addled tourists, an idea hatched from his balcony one night when he contemplated the moonlit ocean. It was serene and horrific at the same time.
He flirted with a few people (practice, he told himself, but specifically didn’t think about why he wanted to practice), sat one night at the bar alone when Laura brought a beach volleyball player back to their shared room. A blonde Canadian named Francois bought him two drinks and kissed his hand. Derek left as quickly as he could and sat on a beach chair until Laura texted him.
Stiles would be able to tell him if zombies would float or walk along the ocean floor.
“I think I’m going to propose to my girlfriend,” Stiles said over Chinese and beer upon Derek’s return.
“I got you tequila from Mexico,” Derek replied. “I didn’t know if you liked tequila, but it’s the good stuff.”
“So your birthday is coming up."
“It will be tasteful.”
“You can wear sweatpants."
“… Tempting, but no.”
“I’ll invite that Stiles guy.”
“What? No. Lydia! Stop planning. I can see it in your evil, evil eyes.”
His birthday party was neither tasteful nor was he allowed to wear sweatpants, but on the other hand, Stiles was there.
“I,” Stiles said, drawing the vowel out into a long “y” sound, “have a legitimate zombie plan. And I practice it.”
He was speaking towards the space behind Derek’s right ear, but considering the amount of alcohol consumed during their game of Ring of Fire could fell a dinosaur, it was forgivable. Derek drew an eight early in the game and paired with Stiles. Whenever one drank, the other had to drink as well. Unfortunately, Stiles’ short attention span made him exceptionally bad at the game. Or good, depending on if your goal was to get hammered beyond belief.
Derek snorted. Attractively. “That is quite possibly the nerdiest thing I have ever heard,” he enunciated. If he enunciated, he was lucid. And if he was lucid, he was not intoxicated. Except he was exceptionally verbose when he was inebriated, and verbosity patterns were presenting themselves in his inner monologue.
Logic made his head hurt.
“You’re thinking things, I can tell,” Stiles said, turning more toward him so he was not so much as sitting on their floral print couch as perching half-off of it. He leveled brown eyes at him.
Lydia placed a shot glass in his hand like some sort of alcohol fairy and gestured for him to drink it. He tipped it back, not noticing the burn. Stiles did the same with his, squirming until he was back on the couch. “I shall try my damnedest to stop thinking things,” Derek said seriously.
They were close, he realized. Arms and shoulders pressed together, angled toward each other, Stiles’ knees hooked over his and sprawled across his lap. Stiles’ head was lolling on his shoulder, the graceful line of his neck bared as he studied Derek’s face.
“Derek Hale, you are a nice person. You are supermodel hot and act all frowny but you’re squishy inside. I like squishy.” He poked Derek’s cheek for emphasis.
“That sounded suspiciously like a compliment.” Derek squinted at him and then ran his hands across Stiles’ kneecaps just because they were there and he had hands and he could use those hands to touch Stiles. “Did you just compliment me?”
Stiles’ whole body jerked and when his limbs settled, he was collapsed against Derek, his weight pressed in hot sparks against him. “Well, fuck me sideways and call me Patrice, as I appear to have fallen over.”
“That does appear to be the case.”
“Your hair smells like lavender. I am going to pet it.”
By pet, Stiles apparently meant nuzzle, because his entire face rubbed against the side of Derek’s neck. Derek arched into the touch, his entire body igniting with bright bursts of arousal. A low rumble started in his chest.
He bit back a moan as Stiles nosed his way to the shell of his ear, breathing hotly against it. “I am going to tell you a secret,” he whispered. Derek allowed his eyes to flutter closed, leaning into the touch. He thought for just a moment he could feel the burning press of a tongue, but it was gone too quick to tell for sure. Stiles giggled. “I am drunk.”
Derek struggled to get his breath under control, fighting the urge to grab Stiles and press him into the couch until his sinful mouth was open with his moans, his tongue, his cock.
“No way,” Derek bit out, opening his eyes when he felt Stiles draw away. He went cross-eyed trying to meet Stiles’ gaze as he resettled his limbs against the back of the couch.
“Good sir!” Stiles laughed, saluting him with a sharp whoosh of air. The act was joking, but he remained uncharacteristically serious. A rare silence stretched between them, dry and budding and bursting, until even the lines around his mouth evened out.
“I didn’t ask her, you know. I didn’t ask Erica to marry me.” He tapped his feet against Derek’s leg, a habit he’d come to know as a nervous one. “It’s… fuck, I can’t even think of the words.”
Stiles chuckled, a cracked sound so different from his full body spasms. “It’s because of, of – because of bricks. You don’t understand because you have never met bricks and if you did, it wouldn’t even matter because you would plow over them and smirk and ask if they were supposed to be doing something. But I am not good with bricks, I – I am good with soft rocks. Like shale! Shale is a perfectly good rock! I like shale! But soft rocks break so easily and they’re not as interesting as bricks and do you see my problem?”
Derek did not see his problem.
“And bricks. They don’t get it. Bricks don’t understand non-brick stuff and so they just keep doing their brick thing, not even knowing. I hate bricks,” Stiles said vehemently. “Anyway, I’m not making sense anymore, I think that metaphor kind of got away from me but we can’t all be writers so I think it’s time for me to leave…”
Stiles stood, tilting and unfolding his legs like a praying mantis. Tipping an imaginary top hat, he announced to the room, “I must take my leave. Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.”
“Apoca-Vlog number whatever.”
Stiles brushed a few leaves from his hair before pulling out the camera. He even wiped some mud off his face. It was different, knowing he had an audience.
“Welcome to the illustrious Iowa City, where you can see such sights as the charred remains of the Coralridge Mall, or the Reservoir, home of the floating ghost city. And don’t forget the Ped Mall.” He panned the camera around to catch part of the area on film. He was perched on the roof of the Old State Capitol Building, allowing him the perfect vantage point. “Here, you can see hipster zombies participating in many of the same activities they enjoyed before undead-hood.”
Before he left, he spray-painted “ZSURVIVOR.NET” across the building’s façade.
‘You know what I miss most?’ Stiles mused one night. Their thread on the website was almost twelve pages long. Stiles had taken to using his solar backpack to charge his phone anytime he wasn’t on it, scared he would lose his one connection to Derek. Derek, who not only existed, but had an entire family with him. Even better, Derek had admitted that they were in Illinois, and that was the first bit of good news Stiles has gotten since he found out the cast of Jersey Shore ate each other.
Some nights he fantasized about convincing Derek to come with him.
‘Baths? A bed? Electricity? Toilet paper?’ Derek guessed.
‘No. I miss school, and learning, and reading. I miss culture, and civilization. I miss museums.’
He carefully doesn’t think of his dad.
‘Only you,’ Derek wrote and under normal circumstances, he might have included a text smiley face.
But these weren’t normal circumstances and there wasn’t much to smile about.
On the outskirts of Muscatine, fishing in the river on a clear morning, Stiles got a message from Derek.
‘S.O.S. Breach. Rock Island. Arsenal Island 60.’
And underneath it, unfinished.
‘I love y'
Stiles couldn’t think, didn’t need to. He pulled his 2006 U.S. map out of his backpack, extremely conscious of the rustling it made. One skill the apocalypse honed was map reading, yet another thing he was shit at before, so it wasn’t long before he had a route following the Mississippi River planned out.
He discarded all vestiges of caution when he saw the amount of ground he needed to cover, swinging onto the bike and pointing northeast, pedaling much faster than normal. His muscles would scream at him in an hour or two, but he already felt useless, futile.
There was no way he could make it in time.
“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,” Stiles recited, his whisper caught and whipped away by the wind. “Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Stiles jerked suddenly and almost ran straight into an open Ford Focus door.
But he hadn’t imagined it - under the car, a hand groping, fingers scrabbling at the asphalt uselessly.
Getting to Arsenal Island wasn’t easy. He braved the Davenport Zombie Hoarde, using the bridges as choke points to slow them down, only to find all the roads across to the island blown.
“Fuck,” he said, wiping his bloody crowbar against a patch of grass.
The river was calm and it wasn’t too far to swim, but water was the most dangerous. He didn’t know the depth and Zs didn’t float. Picking up a mid-sized piece of rubble, Stiles tossed it out as far as he could and booked it up the nearest tree. The splash attracted a few Rotters and a Crawler but Stiles focused on the water, watching for churning.
Nothing, although that didn’t mean it was safe.
He turned his attention back to the sparse zombies on the ground. He didn’t have time to take care of them, but he needed them out of the way. Because there was no question – Stiles was going to get over to Arsenal Island. He just needed a distraction.
His brain, whip smart under pressure, soon provided him with one.
Pulling out his phone, he pointed the camera and started speaking.
“I’m attempting something stupid. If you never hear from me again, it’s been a good run. I… never expected to make it this long, you know. Never thought I’d be one of the last ones.” His throat closed on the last word, eyes burning, then flooded his lungs with a gasp, but the sound was lost to the wind. “I mean, there were people who deserved to live way more than me. Although fuck if I know, cause this kind of living isn’t living at all, so maybe it’s me being punished.”
He must’ve made quite the sight, hair a wild mess, dressed in all black. At least a week’s worth of grime crusted onto his skin and dried blood around the still bandaged wound on his forehead.
“It’s so STUPID. I don’t want to die. I live with nothing but death. Every day I wake up thinking, ‘This is it. This is the day it ends.’ But now that it’s almost certain…”
He paused, letting the silence stretch. When he spoke again, his voice was thick.
“This is what you shall do; love the earth and sun and animals… and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
He let his eyes slip shut, face upturned to the sun. “And Derek, if you see this… you too. I love y-”
Stiles turned off the video and stashed the phone in the tree.
Stiles’ distraction was quick and dirty. He dumped his last three bullets (the gun wouldn’t survive the trip across the river and he never used it anyway) onto a wood plank he scavenged from a collapsed building. He built a fire on the board and set it floating away from him.
It took a few minutes, but the resulting explosion of gunpowder drew the attention of all the land zombies, and with any luck, all the waterborne ones. Stiles sucked in a deep breath and scrambled down the tree.
The water was frigid and it felt as if his limbs were seizing. It was only terror – fear of something in the water, fear of what was happening to Derek – that kept him going. Every stroke, he felt ghost fingers sliding down his skin. But in mere seconds to his panicked mind, he was scrambling to find footholds on the concrete embankment.
Arsenal Island was clear. No bodies, no zombies, no debris. The streets were open. Stiles soon saw that the number in Derek’s message must correspond to a building, and from there it was easy to find their safe house.
The door to building 60 was hanging on its hinges, splintered down the middle and smeared with blood.
Stiles palmed his machete in one hand, the crowbar in the other, and kicked the door aside. “Resist much, obey little,” he whispered, and stepped into the dim beyond.
They met at Noodles the day after Derek finished the last chapter. The building was one story, squished between a bank and a subpar brewery that one local newspaper claimed actually served Budweiser under their own brand name. But it was cheap, and it was next to an equally cheap eatery, making it very popular with college students Wednesday through Saturday. And for the especially hearty, Sunday as well.
“The first draft,” Derek said, throwing a hefty manilla folder on the table. He was twitchy and nauseated from too much caffeine and not enough sleep, frowning at the smell of Stiles’ curry.
Stiles flicked the folder open to the first page, the one page Derek hoped he wouldn’t see. Who actually read the acknowledgements anyway? Derek should have known better anyway – Stiles’ insane thirst for knowledge led him to read everything, up to and including the user manual for his new camera and the terms of service for every website and application he used. Derek desperately wanted to be somewhere else when Stiles read the dedication, but he couldn’t force himself up, couldn’t force himself to look away.
Stiles mouthed the words as he read them, forming them unconsciously. This book is dedicated to my best friend and consultant Stiles Stilinski, without whom this novel would be a bloated, clumsy, rotting zombie instead of the fresh, fast, gnawing one it turned out to be. Deepest thanks and love go to him.
Stiles’ eyes flickered slowly to his, head tilted to the side and voice quiet. “You dedicated it to me?”
“How could I not,” he said, with unvarnished truth, and it tasted cloying on his lips.
Stiles stood, and Derek focused on his chair scraping across the faux wood because his nerve endings were panicking and he couldn’t look at Stiles and he had never wanted to be somewhere else more in his life, but then Stiles’ Hufflepuff Quidditch Captain shirt was in his vision and he had to look up, either that, or stare right where his nipples were.
“Stop thinking,” Stiles mumbled, bending over until their foreheads were almost touching. A hand snuck through his hair, resting behind his ear.
“Oh,” Derek said. “I’m bricks.”
Stiles chuckled, low and lovely, right up until he slotted his lips to Derek’s, the sound swallowed between them.