The true nature of the infection was unknown but the survivors did have an understanding of how and when the illness took hold. John White and his children were the first in the village to become sick. Since John was a hunter, it was believed that he fed his family meat from an infected animal. The small children were the first to become feverish and weak. They refused to eat and thinned quickly. Then, they started to lose their hair in clumps and eventually lost consciousness. They remained feverish and comatose for several days before they were pronounced dead and the screams of their father could be heard throughout the village. It wasn’t until the children left the house that the villagers realized that John White’s screams were not the result of his mourning. They were screams of terror. His dead children had risen and dined on his left arm. The infection took John quickly once he’d been bitten and the cycle of infection changed. Seemingly healthy people died in their sleep and left their beds to feast on the flesh of their families and friends.
Michael Billings, a shaky little man, was the next to speak, “I would just like to sleep with both eyes closed for a change and that tower was built for just that purpose. Wouldn’t you like to sleep through the night without fearing that you will turn into some kind of a monster by morning?”
Troy replied, “Yes, of course I would, but sleeping in the tower would not offer me that peace of mind. Just because no one in this group has been spontaneously infected yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I will remind you that we still don’t know how this infection spreads. Would you really sleep well knowing that one of your companions may change during the night?” He didn’t want to confess to them that he’d often considered sneaking off in the night. That he still might leave them behind as he embarked on a solitary journey to the tower. He longed desperately to know if his true love had survived the initial outbreak. He prayed she would be in the tower scanning the surrounding terrain for some sign of him and he hoped she hadn’t given up on him. It would be easy for him to give in to the will of the group and travel with them under the pretense of seeking shelter in the tower fortress but he feared that this large group might act as a moving target for the undead leading them to the tower and dooming his true love. It was a risk he was not willing to take. How could he be expected to lead these people when he was so willing to sacrifice them all in the name of love? They may be better off without him but he felt a sense of duty to them.
*****Rapunzel and her mother were busy covering the windows so they could light the oil lamp before the sun went down. The tower was damp and cold but the governor feared the smell of a fire might attract the undead so they spent their nights huddled together in blankets. Just twelve days after the outbreak they were running low on food. The governor set out at noon, shotgun in hand, and had not yet returned. Rapunzel and her mother were concerned but neither would speak of it. They lit the lamp and sat together on the floor wishing they could sneak a glance out the window.
*****Troy covered his head with his blanket and was sleeping in a matter of minutes. He found himself drifting up off the hard ground and floating slowly through the air. He opened his eyes and scanned the terrain just a few feet below him. Though he was moving at a snail’s pace, time moved swiftly. He had traveled from the base camp to the tower in just a matter of minutes. He wanted to lay his feet on the ground and make a run for the door but he had no control over his body and found himself moving up the side of the tower toward a window above. The window was covered with dark fabric. ‘That’s why there’s never a light” he thought. Stirred by the sounds of shuffling feet and muffled voices, he tried desperately to remain asleep if only to catch a fleeting glimpse of his beloved but the sounds were drawing closer and he awoke in a frenzied state.
“Undead are in the woods.” Someone whispered.
There was no light save for the dull illumination filtering through the trees from the full moon. The group slept in a tight formation and his was the only bedding that still contained a body. He stood up and joined his companions. He listened hard to determine what noise, if any, had generated their fear. At first there was nothing, then, a soft moaning came from the north.
“Do you have your weapons?” He asked quietly.
“We do, but it will be difficult to take aim with anything but a bat or an axe without lighting our torches. They’ll need to be right in front of us and we have no way of knowing how many there are.” The man who Troy could now identify as Michael Billings was incapable of masking the terror in his voice.
“Let’s just try to stay calm. Make sure the children are close to their parents and for God’s sake keep them silent.” Troy responded, as the moaning grew louder and closer. Then, the snapping of twigs beneath the weight of a body caused one of the women to gasp loudly. Troy held tight to the breath within his lungs and waited. The woods stood silent for an instant then sprung to life with the clamor of horrifying groans from trotting corpses.
“Scatter and head to the east!” Troy screamed. He did not have a large weapon and had no choice but to flee. If he were to be attacked, he would have to rely on the nine inch knife on his hip for protection. The group had prepared for this scenario and knew to fan out in a wide formation. They screamed loudly back and forth so the sounds would come from several directions and, they hoped, confuse their mindless pursuers.
“They got Billings!” Someone screamed. “They’re right behind us!”
“Just run! Don’t look back, don’t stop for anything!” Troy called back. He was running at a good pace. He knew that he would reach the first clearing soon and would try to take a quick headcount when his companions were visible again. He feared that some would fall behind, particularly those who were carrying children. The moon shone brightly in the clearing and seeing it caused him to quicken his pace.
The last of the living to come forward was an eight year old boy. His chest rose and fell hard as he wept and gasped for breath. He stepped toward the group and was thrust into the air at the hands of a tattered, grey corpse. Troy threw his knife with swift precision and caught the monster square between the eyes. It staggered backwards and dropped the child who scurried on hands and knees to the arms of his screaming mother. The battle was on and the unmistakable popping of gun fire echoed and bounced off the trees as a precession of undead slithered into view. Men with axes ran at the writhing corpses and they were all separated from their heads.
*****Rapunzel woke with a start and shook her mother fiercely. “Mother, wake up! I fell asleep too. Did father return?” Her mother looked up at her as the reality of things slowly washed over her expressionless face. “Oh God, I don’t know.” She muttered.
Rapunzel moved toward the window praying that she would see the moon when she removed the rag tag curtain but rays of sunlight danced across the room and glistened on the stone wall behind her. “We’re going to need to check outside.” She said with hesitation. “He may have come back while we were sleeping. We might not have heard him at the door.” They were certain to bolt the door from the inside after he had left and they would have had to let him back in.
“I don’t think I can go out there.” Her mother said as tears began streaming down her pasty face.
“We have to, Mother. He may be asleep in the doorway.” Rapunzel demanded.
“Father is there!” She shouted. “He’s sleeping under the tree.” She threw the door open and took flight bounding down the entry stairs. Her mother was on her heels and the two reached the figure under the tree in tandem. They were standing before him when Rapunzel noticed his grey complexion. He hadn’t been stirred by their cries and her mother dropped to her knees and wept.
“Mother, move away from him. He may not be dead. It might be the infection.” Rapunzel said, placing her hand on her mother’s shoulder.
“He’s your father.” Her mother pleaded.
“I know, but it’s not safe. We need to go back inside. I’m sorry.” The girl said and wiped her own tears.
She helped her mother to her feet but her progress was halted by her mother’s cries. She felt the woman’s hands slip from hers as she tried desperately to cling to her. Her father pulled his wife to the ground and climbed on top of her. Rapunzel reached for her outstretched hand but it was too late. Her father had already sunk his teeth into his wife’s exposed throat.
“Run!” her mother cried and Rapunzel obliged. Low on food and missing her father’s weapon, the girl returned to the tower alone. She would spend the next desperate hour attempting to bolt the door.
“There’s one over here.” Someone said, then another and another. The grass was thick with them. Robins, jays, starlings, and crows were all lying together as if they had just fallen from the sky and the thought of them caused Troy’s sorrow to inch closer to despair.
“She looks like she’s changing. Don’t go over there!” He said.
“She may just be hurt.” Troy replied pulling himself free of the man’s grip. He took another step toward her and the man shouted, “If you go over there I’ll shoot you where you stand. It will save us the trouble of having to use the ax later.”
She descended the stairs and the group cocked their weapons. They were ready to fire when Troy cried, “Wait! You want to know if she’s infected, right? Rapunzel! Rapunzel let down your hair!” He screamed.
She tilted her head trying to clear the ocean sounds that filled her throbbing ears.
“Rapunzel, if you’re still human, let down your hair!” Troy begged and this time she understood. She reached up and tugged at her hair pins. Her long, golden locks fell free and ran down her back to her ankles. The men lowered their weapons. Troy ran to her and she fell in to his embrace.
“Do you think we can survive this?” She asked. “Will things ever go back to the way they were?”
“I don’t think things will ever go back to the way they were, but I have faith that we will be safe again.” He replied.
“What gives you faith?” She asked.
“A few things cause me to have faith. First, we both managed to escape the infected, and though we started out in opposite directions we ended up together here. Second, look over there.” He said, pointing to the meadow lark that had landed just a few feet away.