It started in the summer when the heat rose up off the pavement in hazy waves of steam. The air was filled with the sound of children’s laughter and the sweet scent of barbeque on the grill. Time seemed to pass slower because the days were long and the runs were short. The club had more than two hundred members at the time, and life was good. No one expected the horror that hovered on the horizon. The first reports blasted across the country and were met with disdain and disbelief. Summer was supposed to be filled with laughter and redneck slip ‘n slides, not death and destruction.
Infection, that’s what they’d called it in the early days. It was a word used to describe the horror that caused friends to murder friends and strangers to become families. Those were the days when everyone thought there would eventually be a cure, but that was only a pipe dream. It couldn’t be stopped and none of the experts expected the infection to get out of hand. They didn’t expect it to morph and travel so easily from area to area, they thought they could contain it, but they were wrong.
Now it was a game of survival and the Crimson Blades MC had always been good at surviving, even when shit hit the fan and the world went to hell.
He’d lost count of the number of times that he’d wished they could go back to those long summer days when the world was normal. He would have laughed at anyone who told him he’d miss dealing with club rivalry bullshit or getting harassed by the cops. After two years of living in the shit storm he dealt with on a daily basis, looking back he could definitely say those days seemed idyllic and easy. How had they gone from riding hard and playing even harder, to barely surviving?
Jebidah “Jeb” Blackwell didn’t know, but he wanted things to go back to the way they’d been before the infected had started popping up all over the country. As his eyes scanned the sky above him, he let out a long sigh as he leaned back into the support behind him. The porch creaked under his feet and he jerked while glancing around his immediate vicinity with his hand resting on his gun. Realizing it was just the wood settling, he let out a sigh and relaxed. He still couldn’t believe that this was his life now. When the first reports started playing on the radio, he’d ignored them. It had seemed like bullshit when they’d talked about people going crazy and attacking each other in the streets.
He wasn’t the only one, the whole fucking club had ignored those reports. What did they care, as long as it wasn’t affecting their family, or their way of life. Well, Scoot, their very own conspiracy theorist, had paid attention to those stories. Of course, most of the club had thought he was nuts—running around, yelling about preparing for the zombie apocalypse. Nobody had listened, they’d just laughed and teased him about taking his anti-psychotics and went right on living life just like they always had. Jeb glanced over to the wall—made from steel sheets and reinforced with heavy struts—that enclosed the clubhouse and surrounding houses. That wall was thanks to Scoot, and every man in the club was now grateful that he’d been a crazy old coot who’d started collecting the sheets of fifteen-foot metal by liberating them from a construction site about ten miles from the clubhouse just days after those first reports.
Jeb rubbed a hand over his neatly trimmed beard, letting out a groan as he shifted, still thinking of the past. One night after a run, he’d turned the TV on to find an emergency broadcast on every station, even the ones that weren’t typically stations for that type of story. Hell, even the sci-fi channel had the broadcast on. It had been eerie and a little disturbing seeing all those stations playing the same thing on a loop. He’d thought that maybe it was some prank one of the boys played on him so he’d walked over to Hobbs place to bitch at him because he was the one most likely behind that shit, being as Hobbs was the resident computer expert.
Jeb had found sixteen of his brothers camped out in Hobbs living room watching the same broadcast with varying degrees of alarm on their faces. That was a freaky fucking sight, because fear was not a part of a bikers’ vocabulary. Riding with people allowed you to get to know them, and he’d known that shit was real the moment he’d stepped into Hobbs place because of the expressions on their ugly mugs. Fuck, that night seemed like a lifetime ago. Watching that widescreen TV with seventeen bikers who were all shitting their pants because they couldn’t figure out what the fuck to do with the information they were watching.
Jeb dug the pack of cigarettes out of his pants pocket. He shook one out of the pack, realizing it was the last one. Damn, he’d known that he was going to run out, but he’d hoped to make it till they went into town to scavenge. He pulled out his lighter and held it to the end of his cigarette, taking a long drag. He flicked his lighter closed and shoved it back into his pocket along with the empty pack. Looking up at the sky again, he noted that the stars seemed brighter tonight. Every night the sky seemed to be clearer and less polluted, with more stars coming into focus. He’d never thought that cleaner, fresher air would be something he found depressing, but it was. It must be nearing summer because it was hot out and it had been dark for at least an hour.
After taking another long puff, Jeb jumped off the porch and started his nightly perimeter check. Not that he needed to check the perimeter, it was just something useless he did every night, mostly out of boredom. He realized as he walked towards the wall that he’d forgotten his radio back at his cabin. Jeb shrugged it off—he didn’t need it inside the walls anyway. He looked up nodding to Kicker, who was positioned on the wall above him, keeping an eye out for trouble. Jeb headed down the south wall checking for any weak spots by shaking the supports, not that any of the steel supports had ever moved. Twisted had been a construction worker before he was part of the club and knew what he was doing when he’d laid out the plan for the wall.
Jeb kept walking down the row checking the struts, his mind torturing him with thoughts of the night he entered Hobbs living room as shit hit the fan for the world. He’d sat there perched on the arm of the couch listening to the broadcast with ice flowing through his veins.
The man on TV, a slightly balding overweight guy wearing a lab coat, who had large bushy brows and wore a serious expression, had begun talking about what he’d called an epidemic. Baldy had explained in a monotone voice that nobody should panic about what he had to say—as if that was going to keep anyone from panicking—he then started explaining that they were close to a cure for the disease. After it was explained with a lot of medical mumbo-jumbo—Jeb hadn’t understood—Baldy had started listing off the symptoms at the onset of the infection. Going on to say that if they knew anyone with the symptoms he was describing, they should be isolated and muzzled whenever possible. Jeb could remember thinking muzzling a human was fucked up.
The list of symptoms was odd to say the least, starting with bloodshot eyes—which half the club sported daily—aggressive behavior—which described every man in the club—deadening nerves, jerky movements, greying skin, profuse sweating, jaw clenching, and his favorite—loss of senses. Baldy went on to explain that the disease was highly contagious, but that approximately seventy-five percent of the population was immune to the airborne virus, although if bitten by an infected person, the infection rate was one hundred percent.
Jeb could remember thinking what Baldy was saying was bullshit, but then the videos began playing. Videos of the infected—where they watched, as seemingly normal people transformed into crazed animals, who snapped their teeth at people and tried to attack anyone close to them. People were wearing muzzles and were tied to beds with restraints. In that same monotone voice Baldy had talked about vectors and other medical bullshit, he talked about the government researchers getting ahead of the infection and that they should have a cure before the infection could get out of hand. Jeb snorted, because that wasn’t what had happened. Fuck no, what had happened was the infection spread across the country like wildfire.
The infected wasn’t your typical Hollywood undead. They were alive, but they were so far gone they weren’t able to reason or talk. They were nothing but infected cells that burned out the human who’d been contaminated, leaving behind a mindless killing machine. It was hard to think of half dead humans who attacked anything that moved, as anything except zombies. Not that they were what Zombie films made them out to be.
They weren’t dead people with their guts hanging out, or decaying flesh that was falling off the bone. They were people with infected cells that basically changed the persons brain chemistry, making parts of their brains shut down and only re-activating the parts that made them violent and cabalistic. It somehow extended the life of the infected person, but they were just as easy to kill as any human. Gunshot to the heart or head worked every time, but if you missed, you’d better run like hell or keep shooting, because they didn’t feel pain. Only catch about killing them was if you got the blood of the infected on you, it was as dangerous as HIV had been before the world exploded. The change was sudden when infected blood got into your bloodstream and the alterations of your brain chemistry lasted only hours, instead of days like the bite did.
Jeb continued around the outside edge of the perimeter remembering his first encounter with the disease. Old man Davies, who’d been with the club for years as an accountant, was the first person he’d watched change. The transformation had been sudden and the change in the mild-mannered man’s behavior had been shocking. He’d killed Break and Happy before Jeb had put a bullet in his head. He’d stood there staring at the carnage with a sense of disbelief, not that carnage was anything new to him. He was a fucking biker after all, but somehow the shit that had gone down right in front of him felt like it should have been in a Sci-Fi flick.
Back then he’d just been a club enforcer, just another cog in the wheel. It never occurred to him that he’d one day be a leader of the club, as he’d stood there that day looking at the ripped open throats of his brothers and the friend who’d been with the club for years. He never wanted to be anything more than a cog, and yet here he was the vice president of the Crimson Blades MC. Fuck, that day seemed like a lifetime ago, but it had only been two years. Two long hellish years of fighting for survival. If only he could go back to the time before the world went to shit, he’d liked his life when it was simpler, when he wasn’t the one responsible for the safety of the club. Only when Toke died a year ago, that left the Club with a vote for vice, and he was the lucky son-of-a-bitch they elected. Fuck, it was more than he’d ever wanted. Jeb wasn’t a fucking leader, he was just a man trying to survive. He grunted as he walked around another strut, wishing he wasn’t worried about how they were going to make it through the winter.
“Hey, Jeb,” Bow called out from his place on the wall above him, interrupting his thoughts. Jeb glanced up, Bow was manning one of the eight towers they’d built to make sure all the walls were secure from the deadheads. Calling them zombies made shit seem too real, and after a while they’d started calling the infected, deadheads. Not that deadheads were the only problems they had to deal with. Hell, ninety percent of their issues came from normal people who wanted what they had and thought they could take it from them—then there were the crazies who just wanted to watch the world burn. If Jeb had learned anything about the world since it had gone to hell, it was that some people were assholes, even when the world was imploding.
“You hear anything from Scratches and Bleak’s group?”
“Nah, they radioed in a few days ago, but they were headed out too far to communicate. They should be back in a few days.” Jeb took another long drag on his cigarette before tossing it down and stomping it out.
“I was just wondering if they’d found Clair and Rhonda.” Bow muttered, staring out into the darkness.
Jeb winced, he wanted to tell the man they’d find his kid and wife alive and well, but the likelihood of that was slim to none. Bow was one of the stragglers from another club they’d found a few months ago. He’d gotten separated from his wife and daughter and had been searching for them when he’d suffered a broken leg trying to escape from some deadheads. If the club hadn’t found him, he’d likely be one of the deadheads.
“If they did, you know they’ll bring them back.” Jeb didn’t add that it was likely to be their bodies, and not living breathing humans that Scratches and Bleak would be bringing back. Bow already knew that, but he just wanted to hold out hope that it wasn’t true. He’d given a beat-up photo of his wife and kid to Scratches when he’d heard that they were heading over to Scottsbluff where they’d found him a few months ago.
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Bow said, his voice slightly shaking, letting Jeb know he wasn’t holding out much hope that his wife and daughter were still alive, just that they weren’t roaming around eating people. That was the hard part about this disease, it wasn’t that it had stolen so many people from everyone who’d survived, it was thinking about your friends and family running around eating people that twisted your stomach into knots and it made Jeb damned glad he didn’t have any. His mother was long dead and he’d never met his father.
Jeb waved to Bow and kept walking, his mind now filled with all the deadheads he’d killed. The majority had been strangers, but some were friends. Hell, even a few of the sweetbutts that had warmed his bed on a cold night. It was a fucked-up existence they were now forced to live. Sometimes he wondered if it was even worth fighting for anymore, not that he was ready to lay down and become one of the deadheads trying to rip the last of humanity apart, but fuck, what was the point of surviving if it was only going to end with you ripping the throat out of your friends and family at some point.
Fuck, he was a little morbid tonight, maybe he just needed to get laid. With that thought in mind, he headed towards Francine’s place, with his hands in his pockets and his mind swirling around all the people he’d been forced to kill over the past few years. He was almost there when the bells began ringing through the cold silence of the night, making him spring into action as he ran towards the gates, wishing he hadn’t said fuck it, when he realized he’d left his radio on his kitchen counter an hour ago.
Running had become a way of life for anyone who’d managed to survive in this crazy new world. You either ran or you died, it was that simple. Jeb had learned those rules a long time ago, so he was breathing heavy by the time he made it to the gatehouse, but he wasn’t out of breath. Jeb snorted, apparently the end of the world was a great exercise program. He jumped up the few steps and entered the gatehouse door behind Harry and Hog.
“What’s going on?” Jeb demanded.
“It’s those stupid cult assholes again. They’re chasing Scratches and Bleak’s group, they’re about five miles out and coming in hot. Fuck, those bastards need to die already.” Viper grunted from the expensive desk chair he sat in. Jeb could still remember the night they’d been at a warehouse searching for supplies and Viper had found that chair. He’d nearly shit his pants in glee because it was some kind of butt-cradling, five-thousand-dollar office chair that he’d insisted they bring back with them. Jeb shook his head, hell he supposed that the end of civilization needed to have one or two perks.
The cult Viper was referring to called themselves, “The Grinders”. They were a group of men and woman who thought this disease was god’s way of killing off the unworthy. They had some crazy ideas that they were the pure one’s, and anyone else was meant to die. They shoved people into large pits filled with deadheads and laughed as they were ripped apart. It was sickening to think how insane those fuckers were. The club had been trying to kill the cult off for the last year, but they always seemed to slip away without too many losses, and it was frustrating the hell out of the whole club.
“Fuck, we need to kill those sons-of-bitches.” Jeb grunted to the other nine men who were inside the clubhouse. “How many bikes do we have charged and ready to go?” Jeb asked Gravel.
Gravel was their mechanic and he was in charge of making sure the bikes and other vehicles were gassed up and ready to go. Most of the bikes and cages had been modified to take homemade fuel after gas had started to become scarce. Thank fuck they’d found Trey a few years ago and he’d come up with a shit ton of ideas and gadgets, everything from making their own gas, to filtering rain water, the man was a damned genius.
“Not enough if you guys are out there very long. Ten bikes are nearing full, but most of the others are going to take at least an hour to get going. It’s not like pumping gas into a normal tank man, you know that. We only have thirteen that take regular fuel now and we’re running low on that again too,” Gravel muttered, his face grim.
“I hate these assholes, they always ruin our day. You know, we were always a bunch of self-centered dicks before the deadheads showed up, but at least we don’t want to murder what’s left of humanity.” Viper muttered, earning nods and head shakes from the men.
“Alright, no time to debate this bullshit, let’s get our asses in gear. Jeb what do you think? How do we take these dumb fucks out?” Grit questioned.
“I’ll take Harry and Len with me to get a look at what we’re dealing with, and the rest of you set up about half a mile from the start of the blocking along the highway. Don’t forget that these Grinder idiots aren’t the only thing we have to deal with, so watch each other’s backs. We don’t want any deadheads making this harder than it has to be by biting one of us. Now let’s get a move on it.” Jeb watched as the men piled out of the gatehouse heading towards the garage where the bikes and the trucks were stored before turning to Grit.
“Grit, you know you can’t come with us. We need one of us here to keep an eye on things,” Jeb commanded.
“I know, but it still ticks me off that I have to stay here while you go off and risk your hide.” Grit muttered, looking grim.
After a vote six months ago, either him or Grit—the club’s president—had to remain safely behind the walls so they weren’t left without a chain of command. They’d learned the hard way that being left without any leadership caused mayhem in the ranks. Grit understood why it was necessary, but he hated sending them out on dangerous runs without him. He’d offered to be the one who stayed behind most of the time, mainly because he knew Jeb well enough to know that being cooped up too long was a bad idea for him.
Jeb had some issues with walls after his stint in prison a few years before the deadheads made their appearance. It was hard for any man to feel pinned in or locked up, but for men like them it was even harder. Bikers had the open road in their blood and not being able to ride, even if you did have to fight off deadheads, was as close to hell as any biker could get. Jeb knew that Grit felt that pain more than he did because of his forced confinement and it made him feel a little guilty. He knew he should offer to stay behind more often, but at his core, he knew he was a selfish bastard. Jeb reached out and clasped Grit’s shoulder in a brotherly hug, which Grit returned before he pulled away and started out the door.
“Play it safe brother,” Grit cautioned, as Jeb let the screen door slam behind him.