“TIME TO GET UP,” HARRIS SAID.
Joey opened his eyes to the dark surroundings, jolted forward in his seat and grabbed his gun on the dash. He scanned the surrounding area but nothing moved. He relaxed and holstered his gun.
Poly stretched and yawned as she woke up. The rest of them rustled from their slumber.
After drinking some of the bottled water, they left their spot next to the mountain and drove back to the main road.
“Drive slower as we get closer to the city,” Harris instructed.
The sun rose behind the distant mountain range, giving off a faint glow, enough light for him to see the sprawling city and the roads leading to it. As they got closer, the cars lining the road grew denser. Arriving at the bottom of the hill, the road clogged with rusted, aged cars. Poly drove on the dirt shoulder when she had to, which made for a bumpy ride.
He recognized the large pyramid casino, even with its dust-covered glass façade, its white peak shined like a diamond. The morning sunlight spilled over the city, lighting up the massive glass structures, putting life into it. If he narrowed his vision to the reflecting towers, the city seemed normal, as if he could pull into a casino with his friends and turn over the keys to a valet.
Poly stopped the car and Joey jerked his attention away from the towers. Ahead, rows of cars blocked the shoulders and median with no easy way around. It stretched this way for the remaining mile into the city.
“Where do we go now?” she asked, lifting up in her seat and trying to see past the car pile.
“We’re in a Hummer. We off-road,” Lucas said.
“I’ve never off-roaded.” Poly tightened her hands on the wheel and gazed at the open field next to them.
The car roared and the rear tires spun in the dirt. Joey grasped the grab bar over the glove box and gave Poly a sideways look. A small dirt berm on the side of the road became a speed bump as she launched it into the barren desert that surrounded Vegas.
“Yeah!” Poly cheered.
The car bumped wildly as she navigated around the bushes and rocks. The smaller obstacles she disregarded. Joey braced his body for each impact. He searched the dash in front of him until he saw the airbag symbol.
“Take it easy,” Julie warned.
Poly hit a large dip. The Hummer jumped out of it, locking his seatbelt tight against his body as he bounced around in his seat.
“Yeah! Go, Poly!” Lucas yelled from the back seat. Julie punched him.
Poly, with a wide grin, didn’t respond but did slow down. Joey glanced back and saw Harris smiling.
“Poly, you see that house with the pink-painted stucco?” Harris asked, looking at his Panavice.
“Take us over there please, and get on Olive Street.”
She saluted. “Yes, sir!”
Joey spotted the house as well. It was hard to miss a pink house in a sea of beige. As they got closer, he saw the windows were broken out and sand had piled up against the house. He adjusted his guns at his sides. Nothing moved around the houses, but nothing did in Ferrell’s town at first, either.
Getting closer to the house, Poly slowed to a crawl. He felt the pressure in his chest come back, the danger sensors in his head making their statements. Poly hopped the curb and drove onto Olive Street.
Houses lined both sides of the street. Some had broken windows and graffiti while others appeared untouched beyond the dirt and weeds that grew over them. The desert sand covered a lot of the street, but he made out the yellow line in the middle here and there.
“They spread everywhere,” Harris explained. “Most people weren’t even aware of it until it was too late.”
There was spray paint on some of the houses, an X or an O. Others had slash lines on the front door. He stared at a turned-over Big Wheel in the middle of the driveway. He owned one just like it, but his was red.
“Sometimes they stay in houses, kind of like what you saw in that one house; a lot of them went into hibernation when the food supply ran out. While others never quite rest and roam at all hours. You have to always be vigilant while on Ryjack.”
“How much farther?” Julie asked. She wrung her hands as her head swiveled to each window.
“A few miles, make a left on Tulip Street, coming up.”
The sign below the dead stoplights listed Tulip Street. Poly turned left.
The corner gas station’s windows were all broken, but one displayed No Power, No Food, No Gas in faded paint on the glass. Parked cars filled the gas station’s parking lot, hoses still sticking out of cars.
A skeleton lay on the hood of a blue sedan. It was the first body he’d seen in the city. He gripped his gun. With only a few bullets left, he would make them count.
“Look,” Poly said.
Joey took his fixation off the skeleton to look ahead. A clear lane in the middle of the road opened in front of them, all vehicles pushed to the side. At the end of the street, the backs of the huge casinos lined up along a strip.
“Keep on this road until we get to the strip and then make a right,” Harris said. “And make sure you’re quiet, one loud noise and . . . well, let’s just not find out. I can drive if—”
“I got this.” Poly slowed down and put her hands at the ten and two position. She leaned closer to the wheel and moved her head from side to side. The path appeared narrow for a regular car but for a behemoth Hummer, it seemed impassible.
Joey leaned forward as she approached the first choke point. If she scraped anything, the screech might awaken the terrible things he knew lurked about. Joey held his breath as Poly closed in on it. He winced as the front bumper came within inches of hitting an overturned car. She avoided the crushed, upside-down cars jutting into the cleared path. A tractor must have come through and pushed through the cars like a snowplow.
With each car Poly passed with ease, Joey relaxed more. He gazed at her and shook his head. She surprised him at every turn. They made the next few miles without a scratch. The cars lessened as they got closer to the strip and Poly gained some speed.
Harris spoke up, “Take a right on the strip.”
Sand covered much of the strip’s wide asphalt road. Weeds dominated the medians, with a few palm trees hanging on for their lives.
“Where to now?” Poly asked after a few blocks.
“Just up here, on the right—Venice Hotel. The Alius stone is inside.”
To the right, another hotel lay in a heap of ash, with parts of its steel structure sticking out of the remains. Hotel Venice, though, remained intact. Its dusty glass could not stop the beauty forcing its way out. The marble pillars lined the entry to the driveway. Statues of angels and pipers spread with vigor. A gold valet sign welcomed them as Poly pulled into the covered entry.
“Same rules apply in here as they did in the town. Stay close. Don’t make a sound,” Harris said.
“You okay to walk, Julie?” Lucas asked.
“I think I can put some weight on it.” Julie tested it out by pushing her foot on the floor.
Joey opened the door and pulled out one of his guns. Even in the shade of the hotel, the heat hit him and he instantly felt the sweat glistening on his face. He ignored the heat and stared at the broken glass from the front doors lying in front of them. At any second, a wave of zombies could crash through those doors and block them in.
“Lead the way, Joey,” Harris said.
Joey winced at the words, but nodded and gripped his gun. He wanted to be first. If a zombie attacked, he would have the best chance to stop it.
Joey stepped through the broken front door. The grand entry hallway looked like something he had only seen on shows about Italy—scenes of people picking grapes or gathering water, all displayed on large tapestries. Stained-glass windows let in an array of colors that shone off the marble floors. The dust and weeds had not infiltrated the foyer yet. A reception desk across the hallway sat unattended.
“It’s beautiful,” Poly admired. “I’ve dreamed about coming to Vegas.”
“Incredible,” Lucas echoed her sentiments and ran down the marble walkway, sliding on his feet to the reception desk. “Excuse me, Garçon. I would like to request your best suite for me and my friends,” he said in his mock-British accent. “Oh, a comped room? Why, thank you.”
“Lucas, cut it out,” Joey yelled in a forced whisper.
“Dude, we’ve got the place to ourselves,” Lucas said. “Look, a mall.” Lucas pointed up. At the end of the entrance hall, there was a large marble staircase with escalators and a sign at the top read Venice Shops.
Joey didn’t think about shopping, but Lucas, Poly, and Julie laughed as they stepped on the bottom marble stair. Lucas bounded to the top and jumped in a circle with his arms raised in his best Rocky impersonation. Poly shook her head and kept an arm around Julie to help her.
“I don’t like this.” Hank walked sideways to the stairs, eyeing the dark casino.
Joey smiled. He didn’t like it either, but he couldn’t stop his friends from having a little fun. They needed a distraction, even if for a few minutes. Joey ran up the stairs to help Poly with Julie. He took Julie’s right arm and walked with her the rest of the way up.
At the top, he released her arm, amazed at the mall in front of him. It looked untouched with windows still displaying clothes and jewelry. Crombie & Mitch, Gianni’s, Coco’s & Louis Malletier, and many more stores filled the sides. A canal carved into the middle of the mall drew his eye. With the water gone, the canal had a brown, dirty substance on the sides and bottom.
“Oh my god, look at that dress!” Poly said, running into the Gianni’s store. A black, sleek dress was on display on the storefront mannequin.
Joey wanted to tell Poly not to go into the store, but the door had already swung behind her. He grimaced at the noise his friends made. He scanned the mall, searching for any movement.
“She likes dresses.” Julie shrugged. “Ooh, look at that.” Her shaking finger pointed at the cellphone store displaying a human-sized cellphone in the window. Julie hobbled toward the store.
“What are the chances they have a gun store?” Joey asked.
“About zero, I’d imagine,” Harris answered.
“Dude, look at that store.” Lucas ran to its window display.
The store’s sign said, Hooper’s Top Hats. Behind the storefront glass stood a mannequin holding a cane, dressed in a black tuxedo with, of course, a top hat.
“I’m so getting that.” Lucas disappeared into the store.
Julie, holding a white box, hobbled up to him. “Guys, this phone has a charge!” she said and dropped the white box. She held the phone so they saw the display lit, then took it back and slid her thumbs across the screen. “Boo. No coverage.” She frowned.
Joey watched her fumble with the new phone. He thought of the time he spent playing with the menus and features preloaded into his own phone. It was the first time he had seen Julie happy since leaving Earth. Her eyes lit up under its dim light. Her fingers flew around the screen.
“Whoa, this has totally different games preloaded.”
Joey caught movement from his side and spun, drawing his gun. He lowered his aim and exhaled as he saw it was just Poly exiting Gianni’s. The mannequin stood naked in the window. Poly twirled when she saw him watching. The black, sleek dress with embroidered designs at the fringe, formed tightly around her body. He gawked at her for an inappropriate amount of time, jerked his head away, and looked at the empty canal that once carried romantic couples in fake Venetian boats. He snuck another glance at her as she sauntered to him.
“What do you think? Isn’t it amazing?” Poly said with her hands on her hips. “And look.” She lifted her dress up, revealing her bare thigh and the knives strapped to her leg. “You can barely see my knives through the dress, right?” She caught his lingering eyes and smiled as smoothed her dress out.
Joey cleared his throat. With heat in his face, he said, “Yeah, barely notice them.”
“Top o’ the morning, chaps,” Lucas announced as he promenaded from Hooper’s Top Hats, decked out in a black tuxedo and a white shirt with no tie. A black top hat, kicked to one side, sat on his head and he clasped a black cane with a crystal ball on top with his right hand. The only thing throwing the outfit off was the bow and quiver strung across his back.
Poly laughed and ran over to Lucas.
“Well ’ello, m’lady.” He tipped his hat and held out an arm. She looped her arm through his and they skipped in a circle around Joey, Harris and Hank.
Joey chuckled as Lucas paraded around with Poly in tow. The smug expression he imitated made the whole thing hysterical. Harris cracked a smile as well. Lucas slapped his cane on the marble floor and began to tap dance around it. Poly danced around Lucas, laughing.
The sound of a chair falling behind them made everyone stop their antics and turn to face the dark casino.
BEYOND THE MARBLE STAIRS AND the first row of empty chairs and blackjack tables, darkness filled the casino. Joey stepped to the edge of the stairs and squinted into the blackness. Please, let the sound be a bird, a dog, or anything but the black-mouthed dead.
A chair scratched against the floor, past the edge of their vision. Another chair moved and made the scratching sound mixed with a slap, like some patron slapping a bar top for another drink. A chair next to the roulette table shifted. Something on the ground moved the chair.
He gripped his gun.
“Harris, where’s the stone?” Julie asked.
“Down in the service basement, well below the casino.” Harris pointed to the casino floor.
“What is it?” Lucas used his cane to point into the casino.
“I don’t know, but it’s coming our way,” Joey replied, as another chair shifted and fell over, only a few rows back from the edge of the casino floor.
Lucas pulled an arrow from his quiver and adjusted his top hat. He cocked the arrow and held it there. Poly held a throwing knife in each hand.
A chair in the last row fell over and a hand reached out beyond the chair. It slapped the marble floor and pulled its body into the sun-lit entry. Then it repeated the movement and pulled out further, showing its legs dragging behind. A paraplegic zombie out to kill them—great.
Joey watched the thing, hoping it didn’t spot them.
Using the one arm to lift its body, it made eye contact with Joey. The disfigured remnants of a human let out a loud hiss and began flailing and screaming, making its way to the bottom of the stairs. The sounds echoed off the marble floors and bounced around into the recesses of the casino.
“Lucas.” Joey nodded his head toward the slapping zombie.
Lucas nodded, never blinking as he drew back an arrow. He fired into the creature’s head and its hand fell for the last time on the bottom step.
“That’s disgusting.” Julie turned her back from the scene.
They heard another sound from deep into the dark casino, more chairs moving—a lot more—and it grew in volume.
Joey’s eyes went wide and he took a few steps back. “Oh crap.”
Hisses, hundreds of them from the sound of it, spilled out of the casino at them.
“Come on!” Lucas fired an arrow into the darkness. “Let’s put down a few of these things.”
“No we need to run, now,” Joey searched the mall for an escape path.
“There are stairs at the far end of the mall,” Hank pointed out.
“Okay . . . let’s go.”
They ran sideways away from the casino. Chairs fell and pushed across the floor. The blackjack table came into the light and crashed down, knocking over a row chairs. Zombies pushed their way through the chairs and into the light coming through the massive windows. Some stumbled over the fallen chairs, but most filled the spaces in between the last row of blackjack chairs and into the light.
Julie limped, trying to keep up, but fell to the ground. Joey slid on the marble floor as he stopped and ran back, but Lucas got to her first.
“Grab my shoulder,” Lucas said, leaning over her.
She wrapped her arm around his shoulders and he helped her to her feet.
“Don’t leave me behind,” Julie begged as she glanced back at the zombies running to the top of the stairs.
“Never,” Lucas said.
Joey grabbed Julie’s other arm and they picked her up and ran down the mall.
She slipped on his shoulder and Joey slowed down to adjust her, but Lucas had not, and they fell in a tumble. Glancing back, he spotted a couple rotting bodies nearing. He looked ahead and saw Harris standing at the doorway of the stairs.
“Go, Lucas. Get Julie to the stairs,” Joey said. He had to give them a chance to make it.
Lucas helped Julie to her feet and they moved as quickly as Julie’s ankle would allow. Joey spun to his feet with his gun in his hand and stumbled backward as a zombie reached for him. Jogging backward, he shot the thing in the head. It fell to the ground and another stomped over its body and staggered toward him. He glanced ahead to see Lucas and Julie reach the stairwell. He stowed the gun and made a run for the door.
Harris held the door for him and Joey ran in, knocking into Hank. The door slammed shut behind him, the sound vibrating through the stairwell. He stopped to give his eyes time to adjust, and something began thumping on the door behind him. A crack of light escaped through the top of the door with each blow.
The stairwell lit up as Harris held up his glowing Panavice.
“Now what? The stairs only go up,” Julie said, sitting on the bottom stair and rubbing her ankle.
“We go up,” Harris said.
“How do we know more of those things aren’t up there? They could be everywhere.” She glanced around as if expecting them to come through the walls.
“We don’t, but I’ll stay in front as added security.”
Julie seemed half convinced and took a small hop toward the stairs on her good ankle. “Anything is better than being right here.”
“Julie, I’ll help you.” Lucas took off his hat, bowed and held out his hand. “Oh here, you can use my cane.” He pulled a cane out of his quiver.
She took the cane and stood. Leaning on it, she found she was able to climb the first few stairs. “Thanks,” she replied with a small smile.
The zombies continued their assault on the door. With each thump Joey jerked back, as if the door would come crashing in. “I’ll take lead,” he said, bounding up the stairs until he reached the first door labeled Floor 4.
“If we can get to the top floor, there’s a service elevator that can take us to the basement,” Harris said, looking at his Panavice.
Joey nodded and walked up more stairs until he stood in front of the Floor 8 sign. Past the door, in the middle of the stairs, a steel plate stood like a monolith, blocking the path. He breathed hard, waiting for the others to see the block. Poly arrived next to Harris.
“Great . . . is there another way?” Poly asked.
“No, but I think I can get through this.” Harris moved next to the plate with his Panavice. He held it up and a red light shot from the end of the Panavice, striking the steel, sending sparks to the ground.
“Oh, come on. That thing can cut through steel?” Julie gawked at Harris’s device.
Julie crossed her arms. “Someone put that there. What if they were keeping something in?”
“Maybe they were.” Harris continued cutting the steel. He made a hole large enough for them to crawl through.
Joey climbed through first. A jagged edge jabbed him in the rib and he winced. He slowed down and made sure the edges of steel didn’t scratch him. The smell of urine was the first thing that assaulted his senses. He jerked his arm against his nose and tried to breathe through his jacket sleeve. Searching around the dark stairwell, he noticed boxes and chairs pushed on each side of a walk path.
He turned back to the steel opening and helped the rest. Harris picked up the steel he cut, put it back in the hole and spot-welded in a few places.
“Dear God, what a horrible smell,” Lucas said.
Poly covered her mouth and nose while holding a knife in her other hand. Julie seemed to ignore the smell, but Joey saw her eyes watering.
Joey jogged up the next flight, trying to escape the smell. Light from a partially open door on floor nine spilled into the stairwell. He pushed the door, and it opened a few more inches. He shoved it until a mattress moved and knocked over a dresser. He climbed over, then stepped off the dresser and landed on the carpeted floor of the hallway. The hall smelled of old, musty laundry and burnt carpet but anything was better than the smell of the staircase. A window at the end of the hallway glowed with sunlight.
Hotel mattresses and chairs filled the hallway, leaning on the walls. Trash and furniture piled up on each side, creating a path of sorts.
The others climbed through and piled into the hallway.
“You think someone’s still here?” Poly asked.
“Well, someone did this.” Julie stepped off the dresser onto the carpet and avoided a nearby mattress.
“I doubt they’re still here,” Joey said. The hall felt stagnant, stuffy. The furniture hosted a thick layer of dust. He thought it would take years to collect dust like that in here.
The defined path led to a closed door marked 932. Poly moved passed him and he nodded as she took a stance on the opposite side of the door. They did this type of entry several times in Ferrell’s town. He put his back on the wall next to the door. Joey held his fingers up. Three, two, one. He pushed the door open, gun drawn.
Two decomposed bodies laid on the floor near a bed. The largest, wore jeans and a button-up shirt, while the smaller figure, had a dress on, bones sticking out from the clothes. The one with a dress on would have been the size of a young girl. Joey kept his guns on the two long dead corpses, unsure if they were going to rise from their stupor.
“Oh my god,” Poly said, pointing to a pile of bones.
Human skulls and assorted bones lay in a mound in the corner of the room. Next to the bones, a large skillet with a black smoke stain streaking up the wall.
“You don’t think they. . .?” Poly looked sick.
“I think when things get bad, they can get real bad,” Joey said.
Poly backed out of the room, holding her mouth. He stared at the bone pile and the two bodies. He wished he had stayed in the foul-smelling stairway. He could forget a smell. Lucas and the others peeked into the room, but left quickly. Joey’s stomach felt sick and he pulled his eyes away from the horrors in the room.
“I hate this planet.” Poly had her back turned to them.
“You can’t blame them.” Julie pointed to room 932. “This world, this reality, was delivered to them from Isaac, Marcus, and MM. They did that to these people.”
Harris rubbed his chin and nodded. “Julie’s right, but we have a saying on Vanar. ‘You are truly judged when the world stops looking.’ This man thought the world had stopped looking. He felt free to break the rules that kept this world civilized. Beware of men like this.”
“‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ – Martin Luther King,” she replied.
“Smart man,” Harris said.
“I have a saying.” Lucas used his British accent and adjusted his top hat. “He who loiters on a floor of dead cannibals, shall be named stupid.”
Joey chuckled. “Agreed.”
He climbed to the next floor. The door was open and the hallway beyond looked similar with beds and chairs filling the halls, but Joey didn’t want to enter any more rooms.
Floor after floor the same thing, burning, rotting, and mildew smells mixed with human waste. Joey swallowed, trying not to think about it. They hadn’t seen any sign of zombies though.
After what seemed like a million stairs later, his legs screamed at him to stop. Hank breathed hard, helping Julie walk up the stairs. Joey stopped at the floor thirty-one landing, glad for the closed door.
“This hotel blows,” Lucas said. His shoulders sunk and sweat dripped down his face.
“How many more floors are there?” Julie asked.
“I think we’re near the top,” Harris said.
“Let’s just keep pushing then,” Joey suggested and started up again. He stopped, gazing at the end of the stairs and a door marked Floor 32. This door looked different from the rest, wood inlayed into the steel door, a digital keypad next to the door handle. Hammer marks pocked the door around it.
It had a ten-key pad, with a small digital screen above. With the buttons worn, none of the markings remained. The once square buttons were worn smooth, rounded on the edges. He imagined the people here trying for months if not years to get past this door. So much so, they had warn each button to a nub trying to guess the combo. Had that little girl’s fingers touched these keys, hoping for some kind of chocolate factory behind it? He pressed a few buttons, but nothing responded.
“Let me see if I can get it open. My Panavice can possibly charge it,” Harris said.
Julie suddenly looked pain-free as she again tried to study the device in his hand. “That thing can power other stuff?”
“If you can get within range.” He held the Panavice close to the lock and slid his fingers across the screen. The keypad next to the door beeped and a green light blinked. Then they heard a satisfying click. Harris motioned for Joey to open it. He felt wrong opening it. As if it wasn’t his right to access it with such ease, but the feeling fleeted and he grasped the handle.
NO FLOWING RIVERS OF CHOCOLATE but a large room with intricate furniture, hanging lights, stone floors, TVs on the walls, and windows around the whole floor.
Lucas pushed him into the room.
“Whoa, it’s freaking MTV cribs in here,” Lucas said and jumped onto the couch.
Poly rushed to the windows.
The room appeared untouched. The granite counters were clean and the windows unbroken. Joey looked at the door holding back the foul smells and took deep breaths of the clean, stale air. His stomach rumbled at the sight of the kitchen.
“Guys, look at this,” Poly said. She opened the sliding glass door and stepped onto the balcony.
He followed her outside. The hot breeze hit his face, but the pure air felt amazing. Poly stood at the edge of the glass railing. Standing next to her, he looked out at the city of sin. Thirty-two stories up, they could see the whole city. It almost seemed normal from some angles.
Down the strip, about half the hotels had burned to the ground and he saw the piles of cars lining the streets. Cars clogged the freeway. Residential districts lay in ruin, partially burnt.
“You see it?” Poly said, pointing down the strip.
He shook his head.
“On top of the . . . the one with all the fountains,” Poly said.
Joey had seen enough shows about Vegas on TV to know what she meant. “The Bellagio?”
“I see it. How’s it possible?” Julie said.
Then he saw it as well. The roof of the Bellagio had green plants all across it. There must have been acres of them. He squinted and thought he saw broken-out windows with green growing out of them. Then he saw the sign, painted black in contrast to the white hotel. Sanctuary spelled out in huge letters on the side of the building.
“There are people in there?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s one of those hold-outs I was talking about,” Harris said.
“Think they could help us?” Julie inquired.
“Them? No, I don’t think they could.”
“You know them?”
“I spent some time there,” Harris said. “It’s best if we stay far away from them.”
The sign made Joey smile. It was a small victory over MM. He wondered if anyone on the planet knew the truth about what happened. Would they come to the stone with them and help them fight against MM? Would anyone believe the truth? He laughed at his thoughts and walked back into the hotel room. If someone told him a few weeks ago, there were other Earths, Arracks, and zombies; he would have thought they were crazy.
“So where’s this service elevator?” Julie asked, as the rest came back into the room.
“It’s on this floor, in this suite, somewhere,” Harris said.
They spread out and searched the sprawling suite. Joey walked to the other rooms—an office, a bedroom, a bathroom. Then, he opened a door that led to a short hallway with an elevator door. “Found it,” he yelled.
They came to him and he walked to the elevator door.
“Should be able to pry it open,” Julie said.
“Here, let me.” Poly stepped forward, pulling a knife from her leg sheath. She wedged it between the two elevator doors, opening them an inch.
Joey stuffed his fingers in and pulled the door open.
“Holy moly.” Lucas peered down the shaft.
Joey glanced down and reactively stepped back. It went down farther than he could see, and then the hole disappeared into darkness. Steel cables ran down the middle of the shaft.
“See these cables? Maybe we can rig something to them to get us down,” Julie said.
Harris looked down the elevator shaft, then up, and took a step back. He placed his hand on his chin and took his Panavice out. He didn’t seem happy with it and stuffed it back in his pocket.
“We’re over thirty floors up. There’s no way we’re going down that shaft,” Lucas said.
“I can’t control the elevator from here, but if I go down, I can get it going and send it up to you guys,” Harris said.
“You’re okay going down those cables?” Poly asked.
“I think I can handle it.” Harris took something that looked like a wallet from his inside jacket pocket and jumped into the elevator shaft, grabbing onto the cable. “When the power is back on, press the call button.” Then he slid down the cable, disappearing into the darkness below.
Lucas shook his head. “Wow.”
“What a frickin’ lunatic,” Julie said in awe.
“I think the guy is pretty incredible,” Hank added.
“You think he’s pretty?” Lucas teased.
Hank pushed him.
Joey looked at the black hole. The cables jostled with Harris attached somewhere below. What if the elevator wouldn’t run after sitting for so many years? Could Harris get back up those cables? “I guess we have to wait.”
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Julie asked. “What if he dies down there? We’ll be stuck in this hell. I mean, do we even know who this guy is, really?”
Joey paced near the elevator door, listening to her concerns. They quickened his steps, as well as his breath. They didn’t really know much about Harris . . . but he had saved their lives, probably several times now. Plus, his dad seemed to trust him taking them away. “He’ll be back,” he said and looked back at his friends.
Julie crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. She slid down to her rear and Poly took a seat next to her. “You okay?” she asked Julie.
“No. This whole time we’ve been hunting down the secrets of our past, I’ve wanted to believe what my mom told me. But look at this . . .” She flung both hands up. “She freaking lied.”
Joey grimaced and rubbed his chin. He’d felt the same way since the first zombie skidded across the bedroom floor. He always knew there was more to the story, but this was too much. They weren’t just hiding a lie, they were hiding a whole different world.
Lucas sat against the opposite wall from Julie, laid his bow at his feet and adjusted his top hat. “They all lied to us, true. But what was the alternative? I’m sure they all thought this was behind them. Plus, would we really have believed them?”
Hank shook his head. “My dad would tell me stuff so outlandish I never believed him. Even when I heard the truth, I thought he was lying. In fact, I wish he had lied to me.” He took a deep breath blew it out. “It’s not fun living alone in a house when you think your dad is going crazy.” He laughed halfheartedly. “But he wasn’t . . . this is real.”
Joey thought of his house and his parents’ refusal to say anything. Living in a house of secrets felt like the walls were moving in on you. For over a year now, they had eaten in near silence. He would slide his fork against the plate because he knew it annoyed his dad. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his parents; it was more about the pink elephant in the room crowding out the spaces of comfort. He almost felt he owed his parents an apology.
“Well, I can’t wait to get home and have a talk with my mom,” Julie said.
“I forgive my mom,” Poly chimed in. “I’m with Hank. I think it would have been worse if they told us the truth.”
“If I have kids, I’m telling them everything,” Joey said, but he felt as if he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone.
“Same here,” Lucas agreed. “The stuff we’ve seen will make for the awesomest stories ever. We’ve freaking world-jumped, fought off zombies, and now we are in some super suite in what has got to be the fanciest abandoned hotel in the world. And did you see the headshot I made on that slappy zombie down below?”
“Not to mention your sweet outfit.” Hank smirked.
“Thank you, Hank. You’re right. This hat is the topper of my head and of my future stories.” He slapped the top of the hat.
Joey glanced over to Poly and her new dress. Her position on the floor revealed her high upper thighs. He turned and looked at the open elevator doors.
The distinctive sound of electricity and motors came to life and the doors slid shut. Joey ran over to the call button and pressed it. It lit up and the number above the door changed, counting up until it stopped at floor thirty-two. The bell dinged. He brought his gun out, ready for anything.
The doors slid open, revealing an empty elevator. He relaxed and lowered his gun.
Lucas sauntered in first. He turned to face them with his tuxedo and top hat and bowed before them, spreading his arms out, inviting them into the elevator. Joey didn’t think Lucas would be changing out of his ridiculous outfit anytime soon.
“Bottom floor I guess.” Julie pushed the button marked B3 and the elevator began its descent. It creaked and moaned the entire trip down.
“This thing seems to be in excellent working order,” Lucas said sarcastically.
Joey watched the numbers fall and concentrated on that, instead of the creeping fear of entrapment in a tiny elevator. He felt a hand on his and looked over to see Poly smiling at him. He tightly laced his fingers through hers and watched the numbers until they displayed B3 and came to a hard stop.
Julie let out a cry of pain. “Well, that sucked.” She hopped on one leg.
The doors slid open, and the cab lights filled the immediate space in front of the elevator, but beyond ten feet—darkness enveloped. Joey gripped his gun, scanning for anything in the darkness. Something cloaked in the shadows moved. He took a step closer and pulled the hammer back on his gun.
AT THE END OF JOEY’S sights, Harris stepped into the light.
“Took longer than I thought,” Harris whispered. “Come on. It isn’t far from here.”
Joey let everyone out of the elevator first. The elevator clicked as the lights went out. He stepped out quickly, catching up to Harris’s Panavice light.
“We really need to be quiet this time and watch your step. I’m keeping the light at a minimum,” Harris said quietly.
A musty smell of dirt and waste filled the basement. Harris led and Joey stayed in the far back, behind Poly. Pipes ran in every direction and large, metal boxes lined the walk paths. He relied on his ears as much as the faint light from Harris. He listened for the soft steps in front of him and the soft breathing of Poly next to him.
He bumped into Poly. “Sorry.”
Harris stopped ahead and shared close words with Lucas. He waved his hand for them to come up to the front. The soft glow from his Panavice lit Lucas’s worried face as he huddled close with them.
Harris whispered, “Look ahead.”
Joey followed the light as Harris pointed his Panavice and saw why they had stopped. Ahead on their path, a zombie leaned face-first against a wall with its back to them. Harris pulled the light back.
“Hibernating,” Harris said.
Joey cringed and shook his head. If one found its way down there, a hundred could have. He reached for his gun and glanced down the hall, into the darkness.
“Can we sneak by?” Joey whispered.
“Too risky,” Harris said.
Joey nodded towards it. “Lucas, shoot it in the head.”
“No problem,” he said with a smile and nocked an arrow.
Harris illuminated the thing again. Lucas pulled back his bowstring and let go. The arrow flew into its head. It slumped to the concrete floor without a sound.
Lucas fist-pumped his bow. “You see that shot?”
“Can we just keep moving?” Julie asked through gritted teeth. “And shut up, you idiot.”
Lucas stopped congratulating himself and joined the group as they walked by. They centered around Julie and Harris’s lights and stayed near the middle of the walkway. Harris lifted his light every few feet, just enough to check ahead of them, but not enough to give them away.
Joey whipped his head around, thinking he heard something in the darkness. Maybe it was a scratch on metal, or a heavy footstep or a creak of the building. It was as if every sound in the basement was a zombie. His foot caught on a crack in the concrete and he stumbled forward. His foot skidded on the concrete as he stopped himself from crashing into Poly. She spun around with a knife in her hand. Looking at him, she shook her head and lowered the knife.
“It should be right here,” Harris whispered, shining his light around the hallway. There was a concrete wall on one side and rows of metal containers on the other. Harris paced around the small space, searching every crack.
“There might be a door somewhere.”
Joey looked around, but it looked exactly like the rest of the hallways.
Harris stepped on the gap that had made Joey trip. He dropped to his knees and passed the light over it. “Here. It’s below us.” He pointed at the crack. Jumping to his feet, he looked around the room. “Hank, grab that steel bar.”
Hank took the metal bar leaning against the concrete wall and brought it to him.
“We’re going to have to punch a hole through this.”
“That’s going to be ridiculously loud.” Julie shook her head. “All of the freaking zombies in a fifty mile radius will be running here.”
“Can’t you use that laser thing and cut through it?” Lucas asked.
“No, not through concrete.” Harris sighed. “It is going to be loud. They will be coming.”
Hank stared at the crack in the concrete and shook his head.
Harris placed a hand on his shoulder and looked at him. “Hank, you’re going to have to quickly break a hole big enough for us to get through. There’s already a hole started, you just need to hit the edges and build on it. You can do this.”
Hank nodded and gripped the steel bar with both hands.
“Joey, you take the west hallway with Poly. Julie, you light the way for them to see what’s coming. Lucas, you and I will take the east hall. Make sure each shot counts.” Harris paired with Lucas and stood on the other side of the room, shining his light down the hall.
Joey spent a moment looking at Poly. She gazed up at him with a hint of fear in her eyes. He felt the same way. He wanted to hug her, but she turned to face the dark hall.
Julie walked in between them, her cellphone light guiding the way. Joey sighed, took out his gun and followed Julie. He glanced back at Hank and had the horrible feeling they were about to do something incredibly stupid. The bar shook over his head as he glared at the floor.
Joey held his breath.
“Go,” Harris ordered.
Hank slammed the bar on the concrete. Joey flinched. It echoed around the metal boxes and bounced off the concrete walls and floor. Hank slammed it again and got into a steady rhythm.
Joey stared down the hall, trying to make out the deepest regions the lights reach. He felt his pocket, feeling the two speed loaders. He sighed and gripped the gun.
The sound pounded into his head. He strained to see the ends of the hall—searching for the first signs of movement. Something moved. He took a small step forward.
“You get the far, I’ll get the near,” Poly said. She held a stack of throwing blades in her left hand and one in her right.
Joey gave a slight nod and didn’t lose sight of the dark figure. It moved toward them and its wrinkled skin took form in the light. Julie gasped and the light wobbled as the cellphone shook in her hand. The thing opened its mouth and hissed at them.
“I got this one,” Joey called. He trained his sights on the things head. He waited until it shuffled close enough for a sure head shot. The gunshot boomed through the small space. It fell to the floor.
“Another one,” Julie said.
The light shook, bobbing the zombies head in and out of the darkness. A second one moved faster. It squealed at the sight of them and shuffled its bare feet quicker toward them. Joey timed his shot and killed it at the same spot as the first. He waited for another slower zombie and shot it in the head.
“See? No problem.” Joey gave a nervous smile.
Poly glanced at him but turned her attention back on the hall. “Four more,” she said.
He turned back to the hallway. The zombies stumbled toward them. He took out his second gun. “I got ‘em.” He shot the first three in the head but the fourth, hit in the neck. Black blood dripped from the hole, and it kept moving. With one gun empty, he switched the loaded gun to his right hand, dropping it on the floor. When he darted to pick it up, he stood up to see the creature falling, a knife sticking from its head.
“I told you, I got the near.”
He slipped a speed loader into the empty gun and locked the cylinder in place. A zombie staggered over the pile of bodies. He shot it in the head and it fell backward on top of the heap. Between the loud clanking from Hank and his rod, Harris fired his gun.
“I’m getting low on arrows,” Lucas said loudly.
“Joey!” Poly said.
He squinted into the darkness. A group of zombies filled the hallway. A few opened their black mouths and hissed as they entered the light. He fired into the front line. They fell, only to be replaced with a fresh group. Joey looked at Poly. She stood with her stained throwing knives in hand. He fired into the next row.
There were just too many. “How’s that hole coming, Hank?” he asked.
“It’s not big enough,” Hank said between heavy breaths. “Maybe Poly could fit.”
“Poly, get in the hole.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Harris’s gun blasted several shots.
Joey emptied his gun into the advancing horde. He reloaded by feel as he watched them struggle to get past the dead. The hallway filled with zombies, pushing against the slowing front line.
“Get in the hole and if we’re not there in a few minutes, just type in any code, anywhere is better than here.”
She shook her head with her mouth open, looking hurt. “We’re in this together.” She reared back and threw a knife.
He emptied his gun again. They fell on top of the others and for a second he thought their bodies might form a barrier, but they stepped and stumbled over the bodies. Holstering one gun, he held the other. The last bullets he had were in it.
Hank’s thumps were sounding less powerful and less frequent.
“Hank, they’re coming,” Joey shouted.
The steel bar resumed its heavy hits and the sound of Harris’s gunshots blasted through the basement. Zombies slowed next to the pile of dead and Joey shot a few more. One crawled over the pile and staggered toward them.
“He’s yours, Poly.”
Joey saved his last few shots for the pile. The horde pushed against the bodies. He fired his last shots and plugged a few holes with the falling bodies. The front zombies struggled to get over or through the dead pile.
Poly threw a knife at the approaching zombie and it struck it in the head.
“That’s not going to hold them back.” Julie’s voice shook with fear.
He stuffed his guns back in the holsters and turned to Hank, who was grunting with each hit.
“Can you fit in that hole?” Joey asked.
“I don’t know,” he said between hits. “You guys get down there first.”
Joey glanced back at the pile. It was holding them back but the middle was pushing out and soon the dam would break. He pointed at Poly. “Either you get in the hole or I’m throwing you in.”
Poly shook her head, looked at the pile, and brandished her dagger. “You first, I can kill them still.”
“Get out of the way, you two.” Lucas pushed Joey aside and climbed down into the hole. He hung from his fingertips before falling into the blackness below.
Julie sighed and got in the hole behind him.
Harris fired a few more shots and then ran back with his light. He shone the light on Joey’s hall just as the pile collapsed and the zombies began to claw their way over the heap. “Time to go,” he said.
Poly dropped into the hole.
Joey climbed down right behind her. The sharp edges of concrete felt like broken glass as he scraped through. His hands slipped off the concrete and he fell backward. He landed hard on his side and felt a sharp pain through his ribs. Groaning, he rolled onto his knees.
Julie’s light lit up the dome and the stone in the middle of the room.
“Go, Hank,” Harris said.
Hank dropped the steel pipe into the hole. He fell through and landed on the floor. He grabbed his leg in pain, but got to his feet.
Footsteps of the zombies sounded overhead. Harris fired many shots in rapid succession and then jumped down into the hole, landing on his feet. He rushed to the stone lit by Julie.
A zombie fell through behind Harris. Joey rushed to the zombie and kicked it. Another fell right next to him, then another. He stepped back as a steady flow of zombies flooded into the room.
Hank yelled and grabbed the steel pipe off the floor. He swung it and struck one in the head and it fell in a heap. He swung wildly around, hitting any zombie close to him.
Joey pulled out his gun and held the barrel, ready to use it as a club.
Hank rushed toward the group of zombies, yelling and swinging his pipe. They converged around his body as he struck them.
Joey moved toward Hank when the room hummed and exploded in gunfire from above.