The Blood That Binds by Madeline Sheehan
We were just kids when it happened, with barely a foothold on life before Mother Nature made up her mind to sucker punch the world.
The Vaal Fever.
An infectious disease born from poverty and strife had crept its way out of the third world and into the hustle and bustle of the privileged, where it slowly but surely began to decimate humankind—first with fear, then with the disease itself.
Whole families were wiped out, entire cities burned to the ground. The government had all but imploded, and free, functioning societies became a thing of the past. The world we knew was gone, our simple lives eviscerated.
Humankind fell in near totality, the dead eventually far outnumbering the living. A new breed of humans, a never-ending army of the dead, stalked the streets, clawing their way into our homes, quickly rising to the top of the food chain.
What remained of our battered species turned feral, desperate to survive, desperate to once again thrive, and willing to do whatever it took to claw their way back to the top. It was every man and woman for themselves, survival of the fittest, a race to the finish line where the only prize that awaited you was even more horrors greater than you could ever imagine.
These were our formative years—we came of age in a broken world, headed toward an unfathomable future. The rules had been obliterated and rewritten.
Living was a thing of the past.
Here and now, we simply survived.
Approaching a darkened doorway, loose floorboards creaked beneath my feet. At least a quarter of the entranceway was covered in thick spiderwebs, their eight-legged owner paying me little mind as I ducked beneath it, finding myself inside a master bedroom of what had once been a large and impressive home. It was still impressive—how else could you describe the sight of two worlds colliding?
The roof had caved in, causing considerable damage to the entire front of the house, this room especially. A nearby tree had grown in through a broken window, a branch as thick as a man jutting halfway across the room. The skeletal remains of two people lay tucked neatly into a four-poster bed, the large, ornate structure heavily covered in moss. Nature hadn’t just taken hold here, it had claimed this space as its own. It was a familiar sight these days—man struggling while the earth flourished.
Passing a partially open closet, I peered inside, finding a nest made up of sticks and bits of fabric, with at least fifteen baby opossums wriggling inside it. All fifteen were happily clinging to the back of their mother, oblivious to my presence. The mother, however, had begun hissing at the sight of me. The longer I stood there, the more aggressive she grew, until her hisses had become growls.
I could kill her quickly, using the trusty piece of pipe dangling from the heavy pack on my back. She’d be the first real meal we’d come across in months. It was only the beginning of summer, but it was gearing up to be the hottest to date—game was scarce, and everything edible was quickly withering and dying under the unrelenting sun. The earth didn’t seem to care that those of us still breathing had been existing in crisis mode for years now. She just kept on turning despite us… or maybe even to spite us.
Sighing, I backed away from the closet. “Don’t mind me,” I whispered to the still growling opossum.
Sure, I was hungry—starving actually—but I wasn’t knocking on death’s door… yet. I’d been managing my daily hunger pains with what roots and vegetation we’d been lucky enough to find. And I’d have to be quite literally dying before I’d consider ripping a mother from her babies. I’d had my mother ripped from me at the age of sixteen; never would I wish that kind of pain on another living thing, let alone be the cause of it.
Ducking beneath the jutting branch, I approached a half-collapsed armoire. A long sundress still hung over the doors, its straps trapped between them. Once white, it was now stained in varying shades of brown and green, the hem tattered and frayed.
Once upon a time, I would have balked at the idea of ever wearing something like this—I’d always been a fishnet stockings and combat boots kind of girl—but now that beautiful dresses had become a thing of the past, serving no purpose in this new, cruel world, I couldn’t help but wonder if I might have missed out on something. Touching it gently, lightly rubbing the fragile material between my fingers, I tried to envision what I would look like in something similar.
Catching a glimpse of myself in a nearby mirror—my sweat-stained tank top sagging at the neck and dirty cargo pants blown out at the knees—I nearly laughed out loud. I hadn’t had a decent meal in months and here I was romanticizing over a dress. One hard tug and the dress ripped free from the armoire. Tossing it away, I moved to the dresser, prying the top drawer open after several hard pulls on the wet and swollen wood. The entire structure was soggy and rotting, the clothing inside covered in mold, and home to several species of insects that scattered in all directions as I peered inside. With a frustrated sigh, I slammed the drawer shut.
The farmhouse had been the first semi-decent structure we’d come across in a long while, offering us a much-needed chance to rest and regain our bearings from the constant walking in unrelenting heat… I supposed it was too much to ask that it have a few other offerings as well.
Lucas brushed the webbing out of his way, sending the spider scurrying to what remained of its silken tapestry. Meandering through the bedroom, Lucas paused at the tree, tucking his dirty-blond waves back behind his ears. Even unkempt and with several weeks’ worth of grime caking his clothing, Lucas almost always appeared well rested and refreshed while the rest of the living tended to look more like me—with dark circles ringing their eyes and more than a few leaves stuck in their hair.
“Nope. Just some moldy undies and this lovely tree.” Patting the branch as I ducked beneath it once more, I eyed the closet over Lucas’s shoulder. I didn’t dare tell him about the family of opossums inside, fearing he’d have them roasting over an open fire in five seconds flat.
“And our hosts, of course.” Lucas gestured to the skeletons in the bed. “Nice way to go, right? You don’t see that anymore.”
A vision of my mother tucked in her bed surfaced—the whites of her eyes turned yellow; the rasping grate of her labored breathing echoing around an otherwise silent room. My breath hitched and shuddered, and I quickly shoved the memory away.
“True,” I replied dryly. “It’s hard to stay dead in bed when you’re busy trying to eat your neighbors.”
Lucas laughed, as I’d known he would, and the happy, soothing sound of him was an instant balm to my somber mood.
“Oh, come on, Willow. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have loved the chance to tear Mrs. Pickering’s face off?”
Mr. and Mrs. Pickering had been my neighbors once upon a time, an elderly couple from Asheville—our hometown. They’d never liked my family—mostly because we’d been a mixed-race family in a predominantly white town, but also because we didn’t keep up with the Joneses. Oftentimes my dad would go just a bit too long without mowing the lawn, and my mom’s idea of gardening was letting the weeds grow in abundance.
“You’ve got me there,” I said. “Still, the very last place I want to die is in a bed.” I stuck out my tongue. “How fucking boring.”
“I know, I know—you want to go out in a blaze of glory. How does it go again?” Smiling, Lucas leaned back casually against the tree branch.
“Well, I’m surrounded by Creepers,” I started. “And they’ve got me cornered. There’s no way out.”
“Mhm, mhm.” Lucas nodded exaggeratedly. “But are we talking about Runners or Shamblers?”
None of the dead could actually run, but some were faster than others. Their level of agility and speed depended on how far along they were in their decomposition. Though the Vaal Fever didn’t stop decomposition altogether, it certainly slowed it down.
“Runners, duh.” I scoffed. “I can’t claim glory if I’m taken out by a bunch of half-rotten slowpokes.”
“Of course not. Whatever was I thinking? So you’re surrounded by Runners and there’s no way out. Then what?”
“Hundreds of Runners,” I corrected. “Maybe even thousands.”
“Oh, so now it’s a mega horde?”
“You and Logan have been killed already—early on, actually.” I flashed Lucas a saccharine-sweet smile. “I mean, I tried to help, but you know what you guys are like.”
“Jeez, Will—why not tell me how you really feel.”
“Listen here, this is my glorious demise, not yours.”
“You’re so right. Please, go on.” Lucas made a twirling gesture with his hand.
“Thank you, I will. So I’m dodging Runners, shoving one into another, jumping over the bodies of the ones I’ve already killed. I’m karate chopping, high kicking—”
“Karate chopping? Last time you told this story, you’d jerry-rigged a lawn mower into a chainsaw and there was blood and guts raining everywhere. Now you’re karate chopping?”
“Excuse me? Can I finish my story?”
Laughing, Lucas pushed away from the tree branch and slung his arm across my shoulders. Tugging on a handful of my braids, he planted a soft kiss at the corner of my mouth. “I love you,” he said fondly.
Relaxing against him, I ran a fingertip down the full length of his aquiline nose, flicking his nose ring. Kissing each of his prominent cheekbones, my fingers found the straight shape of his mouth, bumping over each of his matching lip rings. “I love you, too,” I whispered.
My boyfriend since middle school, my best friend, too—my only friend, actually—Lucas had been my entire world for as long as I could remember.
“You two plan on being useful today?”
We broke apart to find Logan standing in the doorway, the remnants of the spiderweb hanging in tatters around his hulking silhouette, the spider crushed beside his boot. His narrowed gaze was fixed on us, his heavy brows pinched tightly together. Who knew how long he’d been standing there—Logan, despite his size, was as quiet as a cat and as stealthy as one too. He could move in and out of places with no one the wiser. Meanwhile, Lucas and I couldn’t seem to take two steps without the whole world taking notice.
That wasn’t the only difference between the brothers; almost three years Lucas’s senior, Logan outsized Lucas in every way. He was taller, bigger, bulkier, and what was only a smattering of hair across Lucas’s cheeks and chin was a full-fledged beard on Logan. Even their shared features were noticeably different—Lucas’s blue eyes were light and guileless while Logan’s were heavy and hard; Lucas’s long locks usually hung free, while Logan kept his pulled back wound into a tight knot. Tightly wound… just like the man himself.
Lucas sighed. “We’ve been looking—we just haven’t found anything yet. What about you?”
Logan continued to eye us both, his expression as stony as ever. “The garage is barricaded,” he growled. “Sounds like there’s a couple of Creepers inside. Who’s going to help me clear it?”
“Willow is!” Lucas exclaimed.
“Traitor!” I sputtered, stomping my foot.
Lucas shrugged. “You snooze, you lose, Wilbur.”
“Don’t call me Wilbur, Lucifer.”
“Don’t call me Lucifer, Willard.”
“Don’t call me Willard, shithead.”
“Oooh, shithead. Real classy, Will, real classy.”
“You know they say that people who curse are more intelligent than those who don’t, right?”
Lucas chuckled loudly. “Who says that? More importantly, where are they now?” His chiseled features went comically slack as he let out a deathly groan—a near-perfect imitation of the dead.
“Hey,” Logan snapped. “If you two are done fucking around, can one of you get your ass downstairs?”
Lucas and I shared a glance. Logan rarely relaxed; he was all business all of the time. In his mind, every day was a new battle he had to fight where he was the general and Lucas and I were his unwilling soldiers. And with the current heat index, lack of water, and subsequent food shortage worsening his mood, Logan was only going to grow grumpier.
But truth be told, Logan had always been this way. He had never been able to simply “sit down and take a load off”, and the end of the world had only made his compulsions that much worse.
First, the farmhouse would need to be cleared—checked for both threats and supplies. Then it would need to be secured—locked up tight so nothing could sneak up on us. Only after that could camp be set up; a camp that was both defendable and escapable—Logan’s two favorite words. And only after camp was set up could we even begin to think of relaxing. Any sort of deviation from the plan and there was a good chance Logan would lose his shit. Scratch that—any sort of deviation and Logan would definitely lose his shit.
“Coming,” I muttered. Flipping off Lucas behind my back, I made a dramatic show of trudging into the hall after Logan.
“Could you walk any slower?” Logan bit out.
“I mean, I could,” I quipped. “But since you’re like Grumplestiltskin on crack today, this is my quick walk.”
Logan shot me a look chock-full of disdain and increased his speed, forcing me to jog just to keep pace with him. “Have you always been this much of an asshole?” I muttered.
It was a rhetorical question, because, yes, Logan had always been this much of an asshole. Especially to me. Back before the world had gone crazy, he’d been the shining star of our small town. And in a town where Friday Night Lights had been the main pastime of nearly every single citizen, Logan had practically been a local celebrity, especially after being awarded a state football scholarship. After that, there’d been no reining in his holier-than-thou ego.
Descending the broken staircase, we wove through a maze of decrepit hallways and crumbling rooms, emerging inside a kitchen—a once striking black and silver room equipped with stainless steel appliances that were now tarnished with rust and coated in filth. My eyes immediately found the eyesore in the center, where furniture had been piled up in front of a door, beyond which I could make out the faint sound of shuffling. The stench of rot tinged the damp air, increasing as we drew closer to the barricade. My nose wrinkled—I might’ve grown accustomed to sharing my world with the dead, but I would never grow accustomed to the smell of them.
Logan headed for the barricade and began dismantling it. The shuffling from behind the door grew louder and more agitated with every piece of furniture he dragged aside.
“They’ve been in there a while,” I murmured, running my fingertip over the countertop, drawing a line through the thick layer of dust. Pausing in front of the refrigerator, I looked over the faded collection of the things hanging there—school photos, a candid family shot, and a business card for a lawn service. TAMING NATURE IS AN ART FORM, it read, causing me to snort. Judging by the current state of things, I thought nature might be inclined to disagree. Continuing my trek through the kitchen, I stopped in front of a wall calendar, opened to the month of April, seven years prior.
“What month is it?”
“May… maybe June. Who the fuck cares?”
I tried to recall the last time I’d known the date. Living the way we did—on the road and in the wild—the only calendar we followed was nature’s.
“You should suit up,” Logan said.
“I’m good.” Tearing my eyes away from the calendar, I joined Logan at the door. Grabbing the length of pipe from my pack, I wrapped both hands around the base and planted my feet.
Logan, having just finished with the barricade, straightened and stared at me. “Suit up, Willow,” he growled.
I met his pointed look with one of equal measure. “I said, I’m good.”
“I’m not opening that door until you’re suited up.”
“You’re not suited up.”
“I’m not the one wearing a tank top, practically begging to get bitten.”
“It’s nine hundred fucking degrees out—what else would I be wearing?”
“We don’t know how many are in there. Even Shamblers can get the drop on you if there are enough of them. So-suit-the-fuck-up.” He said the last part slowly, deliberately punctuating each word.
Knowing that fighting with Logan always proved pointless, I dropped my pipe and jerked angrily out of my pack. Digging roughly through my belongings, I pulled out my gear—a worn leather jacket, a battered pair of leather gloves, and a hockey mask. Only once I was fully suited up did Logan pull his crowbar from his belt. Scooping up my pipe with a snarl, I readied to swing.
“Stop being pissed at me and pay attention,” he commanded.
Stop being pissed at me and pay attention, I mimicked silently.
Logan twisted the knob; the door groaned loudly in protest. He continued twisting and pulling until it flung open with a POP. A blast of hot, putrid air rushed out to greet us as a snarling Creeper stumbled through the open doorway, tripping over Logan’s waiting foot. The Creeper, little more than a bag of bones, broke when it fell, its bones splintering and splitting through its paper-thin skin.
“I wouldn’t be pissed if you’d stop treating me like a kid,” I countered, swinging my pipe. “I’m twenty-three, for fuck’s sake.” The steel collided with the back of the Creeper’s skull, the brittle bone easily giving way. Thick black sludge oozed from the gaping wound, revealing white-gray brain matter. The Vaal Fever, once you were infected, worked quickly to kill you, only to reanimate your brain, even as the rest of your body eventually turned to dust. Despite the working brain, the dead retained no memories of who they’d been; they were nothing more than simple-minded monsters, driven by a singular need—hunger.
“Would it kill you to act like it?” Logan said, just as a second Creeper lurched into the kitchen, taller and larger than the first. Quickly met with Logan’s crowbar in its eye socket, its shrunken, spindly arms reached fruitlessly while Logan shoved the crowbar deeper into its head; the moment the steel punctured its brain, it ceased moving. With a grunt, Logan wrenched the tool from the eye socket and the Creeper’s body dropped to the floor. When nothing else appeared in the doorway, I flipped my mask up.
“Two? I suited up for two sacks of bones? I bet they didn’t even have teeth.”
With an agitated sigh, Logan moved inside the garage. Glaring after him, I quickly stripped out of my leather gear, stuffing it haphazardly back into my pack before following him in.
The smell of rot and decay doubled inside the dark, dank room, made worse by the stifling heat. Two vehicles sat side by side, both in various states of disarray; on the back wall hung a vast display of neatly hung tools, and on the far wall were several heavy-duty metal shelving units packed full with plastic tubs. Ignoring Logan—who was busy inspecting the wall of tools—I pulled my neck gaiter over my nose and headed for the shelves.
Countless tubs lined the shelves; large sporting equipment hung nearby—a set of golf clubs, a pair of kayaks and matching oars, and a disassembled soccer net. Perusing the shelves, I dragged down a heavy tub, finding it packed full with camping gear—some of which we could use. Setting it aside, I dragged a second tub from the shelves. Wiping the dust from the top, I lifted the lid, revealing a container stuffed to the brim with Christmas decorations. Staring down at them, I found myself lost in a memory.
Dad dressed in his red and green plaid pajamas, mistletoe clutched in his hand, his eyes twinkling as he stares…
… as he stares straight through me, unseeing. A trail of blood runs across his forehead, dripping onto the floor.
I blinked rapidly, forcing back the tears that threatened, and slammed the lid shut on the holiday decor. Shoving the tub away, I reached for another, this one labeled: HALLOWEEN.
“Now that’s more like it,” I said, holding up a decorative skeleton with glowing yellow eyes.
“Willow, what the fuck are you doing?” Logan demanded. “You’re supposed to be looking for shit we can use, not playing with toys.”
I scowled at the skeleton in my hand before tossing it aside. “Yes, Sir Dick-a-Lot—right away,” I growled softly.