The sky had become a void of utter blackness. The once comforting and dazzling stars had been swallowed by the clouds that sprawled across the cosmic canopy. Their shapeless forms spreading, moving, devouring the night. The moon, the white luminescent globe that hung overhead, had been hidden from view, leaving blackness in its absence. The world grew darker as the evening drew on. The weatherman had lied; a brisk, cloudless evening was in his forecast but his silver tongue had misled the trick-or-treaters into a false sense of security. It was promised that light was to exist on that Halloween night as the full moon was supposed to be perched high in the sky, casting its brilliant white light across the sleepy town of Woodsmill. Instead, darkness ruled.
The pervading night only added to the gaiety that parents and children shared during the Halloween celebration. The local news was buzzing about parties and hayrides and Halloween attractions. Children and parents gathered at each venue and laughed and screamed together. However, during the lesser celebratory breaks, other news managed to slip through the collage of frightful merriment.
One story in particular involved two missing hikers in nearby Portland, Oregon. A young couple had gone into the forest for a hike, the local ranger told the press, but they never returned. After several days the rangers formed a search party and set out to investigate the disappearance. When the party reconvened, two of the members had gone missing as well. When interviewed by the police, the other members of the search party noted a peculiar smell in the air; though it was strong, no one could name what it was. Afterwards, the police department advised that no one was to enter the woods.
As usual, no one listened.
On that Halloween night, when the town was surging with activity, Caleb stumbled his way through the forest listening to the music that played in the distance. Like a child to the Pied Piper, he followed it unquestioningly. Of course he hoped there would be less disastrous results. A smart man would have brought a flashlight with him into the woods, but Caleb was not a smart man. He was a hormone-driven sixteen-year-old whose only focus that evening was on getting drunk in the woods, and hopefully disappearing into the darkness with one of the ladies his friends had brought.
It was his friend Billy’s ingenious idea to have a campout on Halloween; he suggested they take some beers and some girls into the eerie darkness and have some trick-or-treating of their own. For Caleb the prospect of getting laid was more than enough of an incentive to traverse into the forest in the middle of the night. Part of him thought this could be the perfect evening. The other part, the part that actually considered risks and consequences, was warning him to run like mad back into the safety of the light.
At home, his mother was handing out candy to the neighborhood children, his little brother was stuffing his face with sugar until a diabetic coma set in, and his father was watching horror movies on AMC. They were all tucked inside their warm and cozy home, while Caleb was stumbling in the darkness, barely able to make out grey and black shapes ahead of him.
The music he followed was from the stereo that Billy and his friends brought with them. The sound grew louder as he drew nearer to their site. The tune sounded like something from Lady Gaga. Clearly, Billy was not the one in charge of the music—or else he was a closet Lady Gaga fan. The closer he got to the campsite however, the more foul the air grew. He didn’t notice it at first because it was so faint that it simply had been covered up by the foliage and trees. But now he could tell it was a rotten stench. On weeknights he worked with his father, the town’s butcher. Some children mowed the lawn for allowance, he carved rump roast. Caleb was quite familiar with the odor and quickly recognized the smell of rotting meat. His mind quickly associated it with a dead squirrel or maybe a deer. Something must have been shot by a hunter and not picked up, or it simply died from natural causes. At least, he hoped that was the case.
As he coped with the churning of his stomach, his memory sprang into action and his mind replayed the newscasts that had been on the local TV stations for the past few days. That was what gave Billy his idea. With the news reports fresh in their minds, the chicks would want the men to hold them nice and close and keep them safe. Caleb obviously agreed with the suggestion while the sensible part of his mind screamed at him to stop thinking with his lower brain. Those cries went unheard.
The smell grew worse, but now he could see the small campfire that Billy had made. It was dim but it stuck out against the encroaching darkness just enough to guide Caleb. Several times he tripped and fell over hidden roots or rocks. The brush and trees pulled at him, as if pleading him not to go any further, yet he pressed on, still ignoring the growing stench.
The campsite was almost entirely shrouded with shadows. Only the objects closest to the fire pit were visible by the light of the smoldering embers. The stereo sat next to an upturned log which must have acted as a chair. Music emanated from the speakers as Billy’s iPod continued to play. Several beer cans had been tossed here and there and a box of Trojans lay open.
“Guys, where are you?” Caleb called. His voice broke through the eerie quiet, echoing into the pitch black sky. There was no response. Caleb bent down, muted the stereo and called once more. Again, silence. The lack of any erotic ambiance meant that his friends either were being very quiet or were passed out in a post-coital snooze.
“Come on guys, this isn’t funny,” Caleb shouted. That time there was a response. It was a moan, but not the kind he was expecting. This was low, guttural. The sound sent a chill up his spine and he felt his stomach churn wildly. Then he heard footsteps approaching. The crunch and shuffle of fallen leaves was easy to hear and he could trace their origin. His breath hitched as he heard more moans and realized that there were multiple footfalls moving towards him. They were slow, dragging, clumsy steps.
Caleb’s hand shot into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He woke it, the screen casting light against his face, but as expected he saw he had no reception. He was too far out from any cell towers. However, for once, he thought about his actions and instead of returning it to his pocket as a sign of defeat, Caleb used the flashlight app. The light was dim and barely cast several feet ahead of him but it was enough to find his footing. He turned the light to the forest floor searching for a weapon of some sort. The wind rustled behind him shifting the fallen leaves and for a moment, he half expected something to jump out from behind and grab him.
His eyes darted wildly, desperately searching for a weapon, but as he cast his beam ahead of him, that was when he saw it. His stomach acid churned and threatened immediate evacuation. His mind raced as he struggled to cope with the sight. The urge to scream was there but all sounds failed him. In the dirt lay a hand. Two of the fingers were missing and the skin was covered with a dark tacky liquid. As his eyes exained the mutilated appendage, another grim realization struck him. As the son of a butcher, one notices how knives cut into flesh and bone. There is usually a clean cut edge to flayed meat. This hand did not possess those crisp, purposeful cuts. The fingers and the wrist had not been cut with any blade. From what he could best guess, it had been chewed.
Finally, sense and reason had found claim to the rest of the body and Caleb turned to run, but was immediately frozen by the man who stood before him. His skin was pale, bloodless, and his eyes were blank as if there was no life behind them. What should have been nice clothing was tattered and soiled with mud and grime. The scent of death drifted from him like some horrific cologne. The most notable feature was the man’s neck, which appeared to be shredded, as if some animal had torn out his throat with their teeth.
Caleb could only stare, dumbfounded, his feet rooted to the ground. In that moment, he felt sudden warmth in his crotch as his bladder released. Never had he been so terrified in his life. The man lunged and sank his rotted teeth into the side of Caleb’s neck. The pain was excruciating and he could feel a warm liquid slide down his skin. The man’s weight bore down on him and Caleb fell to the ground with a lung-draining slam. Caleb struggled against the man’s hold, trying to force him off, but the man’s teeth had sunk too deeply for him to merely be pushed away. Then, as if tearing apart a piece of jerky, the man ripped a hunk of flesh from Caleb’s neck and lazily chewed the stolen meat. His dead eyes fell back upon his prey, desiring another bite.
With all of the strength he could muster, Caleb threw the man aside and watched as he went tumbling to the dirt. Not wasting another second, Caleb scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could. He wasn’t sure if the man was in pursuit, but at that moment his most prominent thought was to flee. His neck burned as his synapses fired, telling his brain that he had suffered massive damage, but there was nothing he could do about it at that moment.
Caleb’s mind reeled as questions mounted, but no matter how many questions he asked himself, there were no answers. All he did, all he could do, was flee back home where he would be safe, where light was abundant, where doors could be locked.
When he arrived home, it was well after midnight; he found his brother had passed out on the couch, still wearing his Halloween costume. His father probably considered it a good idea to let him sleep in the living room rather than try to haul him up the stairs. His mother and father had gone to bed, leaving the house eerily quiet. Caleb double-checked and triple-checked every door and window and ensured they were locked. Satisfied that the house was secure and that he wasn’t followed, he went to into the bathroom to inspect his injury.
He examined the bite in the mirror and was relieved to find that it looked worse than it really was, though it still hurt like hell. There was a lot of blood and a hunk of flesh missing, but it was not near his jugular and he was grateful for that. He could clearly make out the man’s jagged teeth marks in the abated area of his flesh. He knew it would forever be a gruesome reminder of that awful night. Fortunately, the bleeding had stopped, for the most part, so Caleb cleaned it up as best he could.
The entire process of cleaning was excruciating and with each step, Caleb wanted nothing more than to stop and head straight to bed, but the pain from the injury continued to throb with each heartbeat. He rinsed it with hot water and that almost was enough to send him into fits of swearing. The alcohol/iodine cocktail he had concocted almost brought forth a scream that would have woken the entire neighborhood, but the towel he shoved into his mouth muffled his cries and sobs. Tears ran down his cheeks as the pain flared until finally, he bandaged himself up, deciding to seek proper medical aid in the morning. After all, he didn’t want to explain to his parents where he had been all night—especially since he told them he was going to the movies. Afterwards, he stripped off his muddy and blood-stained clothing and went to bed, certain that in the daylight, he would be safe from all things that go bump in the night.
Caleb’s mother gently rapped on her son’s door. She already called him down for breakfast three times, and still received no answer. Partly annoyed but mostly concerned, she went to check on him. His mother didn’t relish having to go into his room to wake him. She and Caleb had numerous fights about privacy and trust, but his uncharacteristic silence left her very little choice in the matter. After all, he didn’t come home until late and with what the newscasters were saying, her maternal instincts were in overdrive.
In spite of an impending argument, her concern was too overpowering. She wrapped her hand around the doorknob and gave it a gentle push. In the back of her mind she expected to hear the hinges creak and moan as the door opened. That was how it always happened in the movies. Of course, that was not the case for her. All she heard was silence.
The room was dark. The blinds were drawn and did well at keeping the morning sunlight at bay. The light from the hallway fell across the darkened bedroom floor, casting her shadow across what appeared to be soiled clothing. It was not uncommon to find clothing strewn about his room; it was often a hot button topic between her and her son. However these appeared to be covered with mud and something else, but she couldn’t tell what.
“Caleb?” She called quietly. There was the sound of sheets rustling but in the darkness she could only see a darkened blob shift on the bed. “Caleb, sweetie, are you okay?” She paused for a moment, waiting for his reply. A moment later she heard him grumble something, but she was unsure if he had actually said words or just moaned.
His mother felt a sense of relief as she heard his feet find the carpeting and then the soft sound of shuffling as he moved. But as he came into view, as the light fell upon his face, her heart sank and her relief was replaced by utter terror.
Caleb’s skin was gray and his eyes appeared glazed over, almost empty. On his neck was a bandage where it appeared that blood had soaked through and turned a grisly brown. His jaw hung slack as if he had forgotten how to keep it in place. His movements were disjointed, clumsy, and appeared to have stiffened almost to the point of immobility. As he came within a foot of her, his empty gaze shifted up towards his mother.
“Caleb?” She said in a choked whisper. Only a moment passed before Caleb lunged at her. His hands gripped onto her shoulders with a force that she never suspected him capable of producing. The sudden influx of weight and momentum had caused her to fall to the floor with a muffled thud. Then, as if he had done it many times before, Caleb sunk his teeth into the soft tissue of her neck and tore the meat away, with all of the ferocity of a wild animal. His mother’s screams of pain and fear were cut short by the gurgle of gushing blood. The beige carpet became a dark crimson as the precious fluid drained from her body. His mother convulsed for only a few moments before going limp. Caleb proceeded to take another hungry bite.
Caleb’s father called from the foot of the steps, having heard the sudden commotion upstairs. He simply assumed that Caleb had frightened her, some belated Halloween prank, no doubt. He shouted up the stairs at his son and wife but received no response.
His words were lost on Caleb as they meant nothing to him now. What did matter was that there was live prey nearby. Caleb’s attention shifted from his meal towards the sounds drifting from the stairs at the end of the hallway. Clumsily, he rose to his feet to investigate, leaving the body of his mother behind. He descended the stairs with a slow, awkward gait. As Caleb approached, his father asked him what had happened, but as before received no answer. As Caleb came into view, he saw the blood on his son’s lips and chest and his father’s words faded into nonsensical stuttering.
Caleb’s father screamed and shouted for his youngest son to stay away, just as his wife’s body began to move on the second floor. As she became aware of her surroundings, the nearby shouting and screaming caught her attention. Standing was problematic; if it weren’t for the gaping hole in her neck, one would think she was merely drunk. However, once she gained her footing, she started to shuffle down the stairs to investigate the sounds. Upon her arrival, her husband’s screams were cut short by not one pair of teeth, but two. Caleb’s brother watched, only for a moment, as his mother and brother ripped the flesh from his father’s body, before bolting from the home.
That was how it all started in the small town of Woodsmill. Within two short days, the infection spread throughout the entire town; by the end of the week, it had spread throughout the state. Before anyone realized what was happening, it had infected all of the major cities and it was far too late for anyone to stop it.
The undead had arrived.