zombies in the woods, illustration for zombie short story Oxygen

Eric stopped at the corner to rest, just for a moment. His lungs burned. The lab tech had given up chasing him after just a few blocks, but these things were relentless. He held himself up against the streetlight, shivering in its sickly glow. There was no point in staying in the darkness. They could smell him.

Behind him, the sound of shoes scraping across the blacktop. Getting closer. “If they see you,” he thought, “they’ll start howling again.”


“Where the hell is the river?” he thought. “Crossing water hides your scent from bloodhounds, doesn’t it? Maybe it would work on these things.” He ran across another street, and stopped to check if he was still being followed. Four blocks back, dark shapes drew closer. Pale moonlight revealed a crowd of twisted forms, tattered clothes and tearing skin barely covering the muscles beneath. Heads held high, noses sniffing the icy, autumn air.

“Oh, god! Run!” Cross the street. Down an alley. New road, potholes. Sidewalk broken, don’t fall. Just. Keep. Going.

A few blocks later, he found himself walking through a small shopping center, listening to the hollow echo of his footsteps. Not a person on the street. At this hour, almost everything would be closed. The only sign of life was a small sign across the road, the words “Dirty Diversions” flickering in purple neon. He considered his options. “The windows are barred, and it doesn’t look like there are any customers around… This might make a good place to hole up. If nothing else, I’ll at least have a few minutes in from the cold.”

When he pushed open the door, distant bells jingled. The inside of the shop looked like it had once been a book store, possibly as recently as that morning. Rather than remodeling, the new owners had simply thrown out all the books and filled the shelves with adult novelties. Eric grabbed a bookcase and pushed it in front of the door, a rainbow of “massagers” tumbling to the floor.

A voice from behind him. “Um… Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” It was the store clerk, a ninety pound man with a hundred pounds of jewelry and piercings. Every inch of skin had a piece of steel running through it or was tattooed with an image of an actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age. His name tag said “Rolland.”

“I’m sorry,” Eric said. “I’m being followed. These… people… are after me. I have to get off the street, and you’re the only place that’s open! You have got to help me!”

Rolland laughed. “I don’t got to do shit, man.” Reaching into his jacket, he produced a yellow, plastic electroshock gun. “Now move the shelf and get the fuck out, before I zap your ass. Actually, I’ll probably still do it anyway…”

Eric thought quickly. What to tell him? What would make him sympathetic? Being pursued by drug dealers? By the police? At the last moment, he decided to go with the truth. “I’m being chased by a crowd of of people… It doesn’t matter who they are. The only thing that matters is that… they’re dead. They’re dead, and they’re after me.”

Rolland tucked his electroshock gun into the large loop on his carpenter jeans. “Oh, is that so?” he laughed. “And I suppose they want to eat your brain?”

“No. worse.”

“What’s worse than eating you alive?”

Earlier that day, Eric came home from work to find his girlfriend, Kali, sitting on his couch, waiting impatiently for him. It looked like the same, old argument was starting all over again. “Do we have to do this now?” he said. “I need to just relax for a while.”

“That’s the problem,” she said. “How long do you expect me to wait?”

Sighing, Eric pulled off his coat and tossed it over the back of the couch. “I’m twenty-six. You’re twenty-four. What’s the problem?”

“We won’t be young forever,” Kali said. “Everyone grows old, and everyone dies. Even us. While I still can, I want to send a piece of myself out there into the world.”

“Look, we’ve discussed this before. Children demand an enormous amount of money, time, and energy. I don’t know if I can give a child everything it needs.”

She gestured around the room at the bookshelves filled with action figures, tiny replicas of characters from comic books and movies. “I don’t know why not!” she laughed darkly. “You’ve already got plenty of toys! No, sweetie, your real worry is that having a child means you don’t get to be one.”

“That’s not fair,” he said. He dropped his coat by the door and leaned against the living room wall. “You aren’t thinking about the sacrifices people have to make for a child. What about my brothers? They were very different before they had kids. Tom wanted to be a painter. Rick wanted to be a photographer. Having kids left them with no time for their art. It smothered the spark in their eyes.”

“So, having a child kills your dreams and leaves you dead inside. Real nice, Eric. Real nice.”

Rubbing the back of his neck, Eric glared down at her. “Maybe if you worked a little harder, you wouldn’t need to make your mark on the world through a baby. You could do it with your job. – Oh, right, you work in a cosmetics lab. I’m sure everyone will remember you fondly, the woman who invented Tasty Peaches Perfume.”

“Screw you, Eric! You think you’re any better? You work at a book store!”

“I own a book store!” Eric snapped. “I help people find great works of literature. You help people smell like fruit.”

Kali stood and sighed. “Forget it, Eric. I don’t care anymore. Can we just watch a movie?” A kiss on the cheek convinced him she was right.

She let him pick the film. As usual, he grabbed a low-budget horror movie. This one was called “Wages of Sin.” A priest with anger issues hunted down the members of his congregation and introduced them to a knife named Penance. Around halfway through the film, she grew bored of the lackluster acting and laughable special effects. She leaned in to her boyfriend and nibbled his neck.

“Stop it,” he laughed. “I’m trying to watch. I want to see who gets vivisected next.” She slipped the tip of her tongue into his ear. “On the other hand…”

The two made their way into the bedroom. Clothes flew to the corners of the room. She knew there were always people outside, walking to the park or nearby stores, but Kali opened the windows wide. She didn’t care who saw. She wanted to be Lady Godiva, riding through the city streets. Two bodies slid under the cool sheets.

The moments slipped away. The wall clock scowled down at them, twenty till nine. Eric felt the water straining against the dam. “Is this a mistake?” he thought suddenly. “Did she take her birth control today? Or this week? Think! She keeps her pills on the kitchen counter! How many were in the container?” Unconsciously, he slowed his movements.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she said. “Did you want to try something different?”

“No, I…”

Smiling, she tapped him on the forehead. “I know what you’re thinking, little boy. I was using your computer, and I saw that you’ve been reading some very naughty stories about asphyxiation. Well, I did some research, and I think I know enough about it to give it a try.”

“What? Wait a minute…”

“Breathe deep,” she said softly. “Air is a rare and precious thing…” Her fingers wrapped around his neck. Her skin smelled like lilies.

Eric woke up on his bedroom floor. Next to him on the carpet was his wallet. There was a deep bite mark in the leather. He grabbed the side of the bed and slowly pulled himself to his feet. “Where is she?” He searched the apartment, but he was alone. His phone was sitting on the kitchen table, buzzing with a new message.

“Eric,” Kali’s voice gasped, “I’m so sorry. I guess I didn’t know what I was doing. You passed out, and started having a seizure, and I shoved your wallet in your mouth and waited for it to stop, but you just kept shaking. I went into the living room to grab my phone and call for help, but when I came back, you were on the floor. I was afraid I had… That they would think… I was scared, and I had to get out of there. Please call me.”

The phone fell from his hand, clattering to the table. “Holy shit. She almost killed me, and she just walked away. For all she knew, I was dying, and she left me to rot!”

Later that night, Eric set out to ruin his girlfriend’s life. He grabbed the extra security card and set of keys she kept at his apartment and took the subway across town. Star Quality Labs was a skeleton of stainless steel covered in skin of shining glass, more a sculpture than a building. As he stepped up to the front door, his hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses concealed his face from the security cameras.

Star Quality had signed an actor named Ricardo to promote their newest cologne. He was the charming, easygoing lead of numerous romantic comedies. In real life, however, he was short tempered and fussy. A series of creative disagreements had delayed the project and strained the company’s relationship with the actor. Star Quality had spent millions, and had yet to even introduce a product. Finally, Kali’s team developed a cologne that satisfied his demands. The lab techs said the scent was irresistible to women, and could make any man as desirable as chocolate-covered diamonds. The product would be going to production on Monday – unless something happened to the samples.

“I wish I could be there in the morning,” Eric laughed, “when Kali has to tell her boss that her multi million-dollar formula is missing. If it wound up in the hands of their competition, it could put the company out of business! I’ll take one bottle to sell, and dump the rest.” He let himself inside and made his way to the back of the building, to the fragrance section. His girlfriend’s keys got him in to the immense, steel cabinet where the samples were stored. “There are hundreds of them!” he moaned. “This is going to take all night!”

He slipped one bottle into his jacket pocket and started dumping the others. He grabbed an armload of bottles and stepped over to the sink, pouring them all down. A second load, and a third, and a forth. After forty-five minutes, he still wasn’t done. He decided to go a little faster. Faster. Faster. Suddenly, he was falling, glass exploding on the floor. He crashed to the tile, covered in the white, sticky liquid.

A man’s voice came from the hall. “What the bloody hell was that? Hey, is someone in there?” A key rattled in the door.

Frantically, Eric scrambled to his feet. “Shit! Shit! Shit! Of all the nights for someone to work late…” In an instant, he was out the window and on the street, escaping into the darkness. Behind him, the lab tech yelled futilely at the night. Eric ran for an eternity, ran without thinking, ran until he collapsed.

He landed in a large field covered in rocks and weed-choked wildflowers. At the far end of the field was what looked like an ancient cathedral. Thick vines climbed white stone walls, nearly covering the large, clerestory windows. A rusty weather vane squeaked as it slowly turned to the south. There was a light on in front. Apparently, even at this late hour, someone was inside. “I should see who is about. Maybe they can tell me where I am, and the direction of the nearest bus stop.”

As he walked closer, he realized that the light was actually outside the building. It was coming from a silver pillar standing about eight feet tall. At the top of the pillar, eight inches of blue flame penetrated the darkness. There was a bronze plaque mounted to the side: “This eternal flame is dedicated to Saint Mary of Edessa, who appeared before Mother Mary Anne McTavish and told her to build this convent.”

“Well, great. There’s nobody here to help. I guess I’ll pick a direction and keep walking…” Hidden behind the convent was a small clearing ringed by woods. In the clearing were rows and rows of large, white crucifixes. Taking a deep breath, Eric decided to pretend he was walking through the park on a warm, sunny day. “I am not in a cemetery.. I am not in a cemetery.. I am not in a cemetery..”

He walked down the center row, listening to the wind rattle the skeletal trees. At the edge of the clearing, there were four small, grayish buildings, like miniature cathedrals. Mausoleums. As he reached the edge of the woods, he heard a strange sound, almost like a door opening.

He flew across the grass into the woods. As he ran, he could hear something behind him crashing through the trees. The air filled with piercing howls, like a thousand dying animals. The hideous noise squeezed his heart and pulled the air from his lungs. For a moment, he considered stopping, letting whatever was chasing him catch up and rip him to pieces, just so he wouldn’t have to hear that sound anymore.

He ducked under a low branch and turned sideways, slipping between two tree trunks. Standing at the edge of the woods, he faced a four-foot-high, barbed wire fence. Tree branches snapping, something moved closer. He pulled off his jacket and threw it across the fence. It was just thick enough to protect him as he climbed over it.

An icy breeze convinced him to risk a few moments to rescue his jacket from the tangled wire. The wind carried a smell like rotting meat. As he stood there, pulling on a sleeve, he saw something moving between the trees. A thing with yellow eyes. This time, the screams were his own.

Decaying frames staggered out of the trees. Deformed hands reached for him. As they tore themselves open on the rows of barbed wire, he suddenly realized what they were after. They didn’t want to hurt him. What they wanted was much, much worse.

“What’s worse than eating you alive?”

Eric sighed. “It doesn’t matter. You don’t believe me, anyway.”

Rolland grinned. “You’re right, I don’t believe you. But I’m a nice guy, and you seem pretty convinced that there’s something after you. If you help me set up a store display, I’ll let you stay for a couple of hours.”

“Fine, fine. What do you want me to do?”

Rolland gestured to a large, plastic tub near the register. “See that? It’s full of condom boxes. Stack ’em.” He walked into a room behind the sales counter. Eric unpacked the condoms, which were apparently French, as they were labeled “La Petite Mort”. There were multiple colors, so he decided to make a design – a skull.

“Hey, guy,” Rolland called. “The security cameras outside are picking up something weird…You’d better take a look at this.”

Eric joined Rolland in the back room, which turned out to be a cramped, wood-paneled office. Rolland was sitting in front of a row of computer monitors. The glowing screens showed a crowd of people shambling towards the store. Gray skin like damp newspaper, barely hanging on to the bones.

“They’re all women,” Rolland muttered. “Why are they all women?”

Eric didn’t answer. He just locked the office door and pushed a filing cabinet in front of it. He walked to the far corner of the office and sat on the floor, wrapping his arms around his knees.

“They’re at the store,” Rolland said. “They’re here!”

The crowd of women crashed against the front of the building. Their fists pounded like a hailstorm against the walls and doors. The door started coming lose from its hinges. Rolland tapped a key, switching to an inside view. The bookshelf Eric had used to barricade the main door collapsed to the floor, followed by the door itself. The crowd rushed inside, shrieking like a cloud of bats.

They shoved the sales counter aside and hurled themselves at the office door. The wood splintered, tiny shards scattering across the room. The cheap, interior door snapped in half, and the women tossed the pieces aside. At last, they were in the room.

The men screamed. Rolland dived behind his desk. The mob washed over him. The women stepped around and over the desk, but ignored him entirely. They knew what they were after.

“No, no, no!” Eric cried. “Just kill me! Kill me!” But they didn’t want his life. They wanted his body. They wanted to love him.

In an instant, he was drowning under a sea of rotten flesh. They had been dead for years, but he had awakened their appetites, and they would not stop until they were satisfied. The women tore off his clothes and attacked his body. One of them tossed his jacket aside. Something slipped out of the pocket and rolled across the floor.

Rolland reached down and picked up the bottle. It had a label on the side: “Love Potion #9 – Sample – Not for sale”. Tucking the bottle in his pocket, Rolland slowly walked out of the room. He covered his ears and hummed, but he couldn’t block out the screams.

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