Read Hollowland Page 1

  – 1 –

  This is the way the world ends – not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door.

  When the lights first went out, filling the former classroom with frightened gasps, I hadn’t thought much of it. With almost constant blackouts, we were lucky to have power at all.

  Then the emergency sirens started wailing.

  Even though it was well after midnight, I laid wide awake on my cot, still fully clothed. I jumped up and ran to the large windows. Armed guards and barbed wire lined the perimeter, but when I looked out the window into the night, I couldn’t see any soldiers. Bright flashes lit up the darkness as guns fired, but I couldn’t hear anything over the sirens.

  Chaos enveloped the room behind me. Once, not that long ago, this had been an ordinary high school. Now the government kept the uninfected stashed here, quarantined off from the zombies.

  I shared the room with twenty-five other girls, ranging in age from ten to twenty. To prepare us for the possibility of an attack, some government officials had set up weekly training with arbitrary safeguards. Now the girls did as they had been taught, propping the army regulation cots on their sides to block the windows and doors.

  A girl pushed me out of the way and shoved her cot towards the nearest window, as if it would protect us any better than the glass. It’d do about as much good as the “duck and cover” method against a nuclear bomb, but it was better than nothing.

  A loud crash echoed over the sirens, and the building actually trembled.

  “They’re inside!” Someone shrieked, and my heart skipped a beat.

  My little brother was in another part of the building, set up in a makeshift medical center, and I had to get to him. Private Beck might be with him, but I couldn’t bank on that.

  At the thought of Beck, my heart wanted to panic further, but he could take care of himself. Max, on the other hand, needed me.

  I grabbed my messenger bag, containing the few earthly possessions I still had, and ran towards the door.

  “What are you doing?” Sommer asked. Even though she barely stood five feet tall, she had been chosen to guard the door.

  “Getting out of here. ” I pulled the cot away from the door. It moved easily for me, and I couldn’t imagine what it would do against intruders.

  “Where? Why?” Her voice quivered, and her eyes darted around the room.

  I glanced back at the room, full of girls without any real way to protect themselves, and I grimaced. Leaving them stranded like this made me feel guilty, even though I couldn’t do much for them. Part of me wanted to stay, to help if I could, but my brother Max was my top priority.

  “I have to get my brother,” I said simply. “Just stay here. Lock the door behind me, and don’t let anyone in. ”

  When I opened the door, there were a few protests, as if I might let zombies in along with the draft. Nobody tried to stop me, but they were too busy blockading the room. I didn’t blame them.

  The dark hallway appeared deserted. Every room on the floor was full, mostly with kids like us, but no one else ventured out. By the sounds of far off screaming, it was for good reason. I heard noises, but the echoing halls made it impossible for me to tell where they came from.

  Guns fired, men yelled, things crashed, and – most disturbingly of all – I could hear the familiar death groan the zombies made. Like a low deep rattle and a desperate howl mixed together.

  The lights flickered for a moment, then shut off again completely

  “Wait!” Sommer said behind me.

  She crept out of the room after me, with Harlow trailing at her heels, and I glared back at them. Sommer contained all the nervous energy and usefulness of a chipmunk. Harlow was only thirteen and slept on the cot next to mine, which is probably why she followed me out.

  “What are you doing?” I asked.

  “We’re going with you,” Harlow replied.

  Blond hair fell into her frightened eyes, but her voice stayed even. She was loyal to a fault, and I didn’t want her traipsing after me and getting herself killed.

  “Go back inside. ” I gestured to the door. “You’ll be safer in there. ”

  “No, I don’t want to be a sitting duck,” Harlow said, barely audible over a distant scream. It sounded human, blood curdled and terrified. Sommer paled.

  “Fine. ” I shook my head. “But run if I tell you to run, okay? You gotta listen to me. ”

  Harlow nodded, and I turned and walked down the hall. I should’ve stopped and made them go back. Leaving the safety of the room could get them killed, but then again, so could staying behind. At least this way they could run.

  An emergency light flickered dimly in the stairwell, so I went that way. The death groans only got louder as we got closer, but it would be better to run into the zombies in the light than having them sneak up behind us.

  The battered lockers lining the halls were plastered with posters, all of them reminders about how to protect against the infected. Most of them were just graphics explaining the emergency procedures – board up the windows and doors.

  That was the only real advice about dealing with zombies. Just keep them away, because if they bit you, you were as good as dead. Getting infected was far too easy, even if the zombies didn’t kill you.

  When we reached the stairwell, I leaned over the rail. The landing below had three dead zombies and one dead soldier. They had already made it this far into the quarantine.

  Harlow gasped when she saw the bodies, but I’d learned to keep my reactions to myself. The coast looked clear for the time being, so I went down the stairs, stopping at the landing. The zombie bodies were mangled with bullets, their weird blood splattered all over everything.

  The zombies weren’t really zombies, at least not the kind that rose from the dead and wanted only brains. They were regular people who had been infected with the lyssavirus genotype 8. A mutation of the rabies virus, it only infected humans, and it turned them into something completely monstrous.

  Within a day of being exposed, people would begin having symptoms. Headaches, fever, nausea. Then they’d start hallucinating and getting paranoid and aggressive. Within three days, they’d be angry and violent - incapable of rational thought.

  The virus overdosed them with adrenaline so they were crazy strong. Worst of all, they’d be insatiably hungry and eat anything, including dirt and other people.

  The plan was to quarantine all the uninfected and let the virus run its course. If nobody else got sick, within a month or two, every infected person should be dead. That’s what they promised when we moved in here.

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  I had been here for over two months, and some people had been here even longer than that. So much for that theory.

  The dead zombies on the steps hardly resembled people anymore. Two of them were very thin and clearly at the end stages of the virus, but the third one was fat, almost bloated. Froth covered their lips from , and their skin had gone almost gray. Their jaundiced eyes had dark rings around them. Zombies tended to attack and eat each other, so they were covered in bruises, scratches, and bite marks.

  The thing I hated the most about zombies was their blood. It was thicker than human blood, as if always coagulating, and it had a weird greenish tint to it, making it look darker and alien.

  I crouched down next to the dead soldier, glancing behind me to make sure a zombie wasn’t about to spring to life and grab my ankle.

  Harlow and Sommer waited a few steps up as I started searching around the soldier’s corpse. I kept my eyes fixed on the dead zombies, pretending to watch them, but I just didn’t want to see the soldier’s face. I was afr
aid I might recognize him.

  The thick ooze of zombie blood covered my hands, and I grimaced. I finally found the clip, along with his service revolver. He’d been using a semi-automatic shotgun, and it was still in his hands. I pulled it free, hating the way it felt to loosen a dead man’s grip. I stood up and turned back to Harlow and Sommer.

  “Do you know how to use a gun?” I asked them.

  Sommer was too busy staring down at the dead soldier. I understood her horror, but it didn’t do any good to let it take over, so I pushed it back. Harlow didn’t answer, either, but at least she managed to make eye contact with me when I spoke.

  “Aim and pull the trigger. ” I clicked off the safety and handed it to her. “And don’t shoot me. ”

  Harlow nodded and took the gun. I wiped my hands on my jeans. I didn’t need them slippery, and zombie blood is hella gross.

  Shoving the extra magazine in my back pocket, I stepped over the corpses in front of me. The stairs were slick with blood, and I gripped the railing.

  I’d only made it down a few steps when the gun went off behind me, and I ducked. Plaster dropped from the wall, and when my heart started beating again, I looked back at Harlow. She was half-sitting on one of the steps, and her wide eyes were apologetic and terrified. She’d slipped on the blood and accidentally pulled the trigger.

  “I’m sorry,” Harlow said, and she righted herself and stood up straighter. Presuming she learned her lesson about being careful with firearms, she’d do more good with a gun then without one.

  “Well, at least we know you can take care of any zombies on the ceiling,” I said, then turned and hurried down the stairs.

  Civilians were housed on the second floor, and the first floor was for army personnel and government officials. The medical facilities were in the gymnasium, and I had to get there for Max.

  Blood covered the stairwell door-frame, and I leaned against it, looking down the halls of the main level. Zombie corpses littered the floor, but I saw enough swatches of green camouflage in the bodies to know that they weren’t the only fatalities down here.

  Even with dead zombies and soldier on the steps, I couldn’t really believe the zombies had made it in this far. I had thought that the infected would be too crazed to formulate a real attack plan. I was probably right about that, but if there were enough zombies charging, then it didn’t really matter how well thought out it was.

  The lights on the first floor flashed red. Things looked deserted, so I stepped out into the hall. I noticed movement a few meters down, something crouched on the ground. My stomach turned when I realized it was a zombie gnawing on a dead body.

  I raised the gun and pulled the trigger mid-bite. Its head jerked back, blood sprayed, and it collapsed. Sommer screamed, and I cringed. She wasn’t cut out for this, and I wondered if I’d made a mistake letting her come with. I didn’t want to get her – or the rest of us – killed.

  “Sommer, maybe you should go back to the room,” I said, looking back at her. “I can’t have you screaming every time something happens. ”

  “I’m sorry!” Tears welled in her eyes. “Maybe you could give me a warning. ”

  “As soon as the zombies let me know when they’re about to attack, I’ll make sure to pass the message along to you. ”

  “They’ll never let me in. ” Sommer gestured to herself. Infected blood had gotten on her clothes, and I knew she was right. None of us would be allowed back in that room. The virus was transmitted the same as rabies, through blood and saliva, but people got paranoid whenever they saw zombie blood anywhere.

  “You have to be quiet, alright?” I told her as gently as I could. “I don’t want you attracting any more attention than you need to. ”

  Biting her lip, Sommer nodded quickly, and I turned and walked down the hall. The ground squished under my feet, and I had to look down without really looking. I didn’t want to step on something that would bite me, but I didn’t want to see what we were walking through. I especially didn’t want to see the soldiers. A lot of them had been my friends, and they died trying to protect us.

  Gun blasts echoed from around the corner, and I heard men shouting. I took a step back, pressing myself against the wall so I was hidden behind a trophy case. Harlow followed suit, but I had to physically push Sommer to get her back.

  Something was happening, and I couldn’t see anything. I just heard a lot of yelling, death groans, and gun fire.

  When the guns fell silent, I leaned forward so I could see around the trophy case. About a dozen or more zombies lurched up the stairs. They moved in a pack, something I’d never seen them do before.

  But that’s not what made my stomach twist up. They had gotten past whoever was shooting at them, meaning that the soldiers we’d heard yelling were already dead.

  “They’re going upstairs!” Harlow whispered frantically. “Everyone is hiding up there!”

  I pursed my lips but didn’t say anything. The gun felt heavy in my hands. If I fired at them, I might kill one or two, but I couldn’t kill them all. The soldiers hadn’t been a match for them. A couple kids with guns wouldn’t stand a chance.

  “They’re going to kill everyone!” Harlow looked at me, and I shook my head. We were lucky they were going upstairs and not down here after us.

  “Getting ourselves killed won’t save them,” I said thickly. “Besides, they locked the door. They might be safe. ”

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  Once all of the zombies had disappeared up the stairs, I walked the opposite way down the hall. I didn’t want to hear everyone upstairs dying. And everyone up there was dead. They didn’t have any guns or any real protection. Eventually, the zombies would break down the doors. They always did.

  I felt sick but I kept walking, stepping carefully over the bodies. I’d never seen a massacre this bad.

  When the virus popped up almost a year ago, it spread like wild fire, but I had never seen so many zombies together. Even the ones that had gotten my mom and dad had only been in a group of three. This had to be hundreds. Something different was happening.

  We had to round another corner before we made it to the gym. I heard one gun shot, and then silence. I raised my gun and slowly turned the corner, afraid to find another pack of the infected.

  Instead, I saw a single soldier. He stood in the middle of the hall, his gun pointed down at the zombie corpses. He watched to see if they were still alive, and then he killed them if they were.

  I lowered my weapon and stepped out.

  “Hey!” I announced myself before he shot us.

  He turned to me, automatically pointing the rifle at me, and my heart surged. Even at that distance with a gun in front of his face, I’d recognize him anywhere.

  “Remy?” Beck asked, sounding just as relieved and surprised as I felt, and he lowered the gun. “What are you doing?”

  “I heard the zombies knocking, so I thought I’d come down and let them in,” I said with a wry smirk. I walked down the hall, fighting the urge to run to him, and checked behind to make sure Harlow and Sommer were following me quickly.

  “Your brother’s fine,” Beck said, knowing exactly what had drawn me out. “They already evacuated him. ”

  “What do you mean they evacuated Max?” I asked, not sure if I should feel relieved or anxious. This wasn’t the safest place anymore, but the open road wasn’t that great either.

  “As soon as the quarantine was compromised, they got all the medical out,” Beck said and looked uneasily at Harlow and Sommer. “You shouldn’t be out here. You should’ve stayed in your rooms. ”

  “The second floor has been compromised too. ” I lowered my eyes. “We just saw the zombies rush up there. ”

  Beck stared down the hall towards the stairwell, debating whether or not he should go help them, or if he should stay to help us. If I’d been a more selfless person, I would’ve sent him up there. But I needed his help, and I didn’t w
ant him on a suicide mission.

  “You’ve got to get out of here,” Beck said. He nodded in the other direction and put his hand on my back to usher us away.

  “Where are they taking Max? I need to go with him. ” I looked up at Beck, but he didn’t answer. He was too focused on getting us out of the school alive.

  Three zombies stood by the exit. They hung out there, as if they were waiting to stop people from escaping. Since there was only three of them, Beck shot them down quickly.

  “What are they doing?” Harlow asked, referring to the zombies’ unusual behavior.

  “I don’t know,” Beck said, his voice cracking.

  I looked up at him, sensing something more than the trauma going on around us. In the months I had known him, I’d never seen anything rattle him.

  The glass doors had been broken in, blood staining the remaining shards poking out from the frame. Beck leaned out first, but I heard the death groans. I looked past his shoulder, and I could see them, massed around the outside of the school, moving like a very slow mosh pit.

  “What the hell is going on?” I asked.

  “It’s like they were drawn here or something. ” Beck straightened up and looked at me. “They’ve trampled the fence for the most part. If I distract them, you can make a run for it. ”

  “You can’t stay here,” I said. “Zombies have overtaken the place. ”

  “It’s my job,” Beck brushed me off. “I’m not entirely sure where they took your brother. There is another quarantine near Wyoming, so maybe there. If you keep going north from here, you’ll find something. ”

  “I don’t even really know where north is. ” I was only half-lying. I wasn’t great at directions, but I didn’t want to leave Beck behind to die here.

  “When I open these doors, I’m going to run towards the zombies, shooting,” Beck said, ignoring me. “The three of you need to run for an opening in the fence and keep running. You can’t stop, no matter what happens. ”

  “No, you can’t do that,” I shook my head.

  “I have to stay here. ” Beck eyed the zombies outside.

  I could hear soldiers, somewhere on the lawn outside of my vision, and a lot of the zombies were busy trying to take them out. The rest kind of wandered around, occasionally fighting amongst each other.

  “They might not even notice if we’re real quiet,” I said.

  “No, I can’t go with you. ” He looked down at me gravely.

  I still didn’t understand, so he pulled up the sleeve of his shirt, revealing the crescent shape of teeth marks in his arm. My heart clenched but I tried to keep my face blank.

  I stared at him, trying to reconcile this. He’d been invincible since I met him. Without him, Max and I never would’ve survived. He made sure we were both safe and helped us as long as we’d been here. And through everything he’d seen and done, he always had an easy smile.

  “They’re getting restless. ” Harlow pulled me from my thoughts. The gaggle of zombies seemed to be making their way towards the door.