A toast to Death. (A short story by Baileigh Higgins)
Copyright Baileigh Higgins
“It’s the zombie apocalypse, huh?” Ryleigh asked as she pushed her empty glass across the bar counter. “For real?”
“I guess so,” Gretchen answered, her eyes glued to the TV screen above their heads. She reached for the empty glass and tipped in a measure of whiskey on auto-pilot. Some of the golden liquid sloshed over the side, pooling onto the polished wood beneath.
Ryleigh pursed her lips and reached for a napkin. “Don’t spill. We don’t know how long we’ll be trapped in here, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on sobering up any time soon.” She couldn’t afford to be sober. Not when worry and longing for her husband, Brandon, and the rest of her family, ate her up inside.
“Sorry,” Gretchen said, still not looking away from the screen above her head.
Ryleigh glanced up and immediately regretted it. Gruesome images of dead people eating living people were being aired on all the news channels. Criminals ran around looting and killing while the government tried to keep order. Troops were being deployed, schools and community centers barricaded, and panicked citizens evacuated to so-called safe zones.
“Switch that off, why don’t you? It’s depressing,” Ryleigh said.
“No more depressing than them,” Henriette said with a slur in her voice, pointing an empty tequila bottle at the front doors of the bar.
Bodies were pressed up against the frosted glass, and blood was smeared across the gold lettering that read “Gretchen’s Pub.” Security gates added a much-needed layer of protection but couldn’t shut out the moaning and groaning. The sound was a constant reminder that they were trapped.
Ryleigh looked away and sighed. “I wish there was some way to get rid of them. They’re killing my buzz.”
“I know,” Gretchen said, switching off the TV. She reached for her phone and dialed her husband. Again. After a few seconds, she shook her head and tossed down the phone. “Damn it! Still no signal.”
“Told you so,” Henriette said, her body slumped across the counter. She burped, and at the same time, her eyes went wide, and her cheeks paled.
“No hurling on the counter,” Gretchen shouted. “Move!”
Henriette lurched off her chair and stumbled toward the bathroom. Even so, they could hear her heaving into the toilet as she brought up the better part of a bottle of tequila.
Ryleigh frowned and took a sip of her whiskey. “What a waste. Now she’ll have to start all over again.”
Gretchen slumped against the chest freezer behind her, clutching a bottle of beer. Not one for hardtack, she preferred lighter brews and ciders. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
“We’re all starving,” Henriette said as she made her way back onto her stool. Her breath smelled of the mints Gretchen had placed in the bathroom ever since hurling became a regular part of their routine.
“Is there nothing left?” Ryleigh asked, referring to the snacks they’d been living on for over a week.
Gretchen shook her head. “Nothing. We finished it yesterday. All we’ve got left is the mints.”
“She ate the last cupcake,” Henriette said, pointing an accusing finger at a snoring bundle of humanity in the corner. Lee-Anne. The youngest of them all at a tender nineteen years of age.
“They were going off anyway,” Gretchen said. “The last one I had was green, and not because of the frosting, trust me.”
“God, I can’t believe this is happening,” Ryleigh said.
“Then you’re not drunk enough,” Henriette said. “Drink faster.”
“So I can puke it all up like you?” Ryleigh asked. “No, thanks.”
“Hey, don’t start your shit with me, Ryleigh. I’ll knock you so hard your own mama won’t recognize you,” Henriette said.
Gretchen stepped in between them, holding out her hands. “No fighting in my pub. You want to fight; you take it outside.”
Ryleigh eyed the zombies blocking the doors. “Uh, no thanks.”
Henriette shuddered. “And end up like Cherise?”
Ryleigh looked at their former friend, Cherise, scratching at the glass with bloody fingers tips. Her fake bunny ears still sat on her head, the left ear drooping sadly. Cherise was the reason they were all at the pub when Z-day hit. A bride-to-be celebrating her bachelorette party at Gretchen’s pub.
Z-day. That’s what they’d named it. The day the dead rose and trapped them all inside the pub. Or should it be Z-night? Ryleigh snorted. It didn’t matter what they called it. Not really.
It’d been a fun night at first, filled with shots, cupcakes, rude games, and more alcohol. By the time midnight rolled around, the other girls had left, drunkenly making their way home to their grumpy husbands. It’d been just the five of them left, stubbornly stretching out the party until Cherise wandered outside for a breath of fresh air.
Ryleigh could still remember her screams as the crowd of zombies drawn to the pub’s music and lights surrounded her. Shocked into a semblance of sobriety, the remaining four girls stumbled outside only to be confronted by the sight of Cherise being ripped to shreds.
The zombies hadn’t taken long to notice them either and left the unfortunate bride-to-be bleeding out on the asphalt as they made their way up the steps to the pub. Gretchen, not one to waste time on dirty bums and murderers, quickly slammed the doors shut and locked them tight.
The girls were safe but also trapped. The only other exit, a wooden door leading to the storage room and kitchen, opened onto the parking lot next to the main entrance. They’d never get past the zombies in time.
Shocked and horrified, the four girls had watched as the undead filled the lot, soon joined by a zombified Cherise who added her moans to the rest. And there they stayed, refusing to budge no matter how much time passed.
At first, the girls tried to call their husbands and family, then the police, the fire department, the hospital. Hell, they even tried the veterinarian up the street—all to no avail. The networks crashed almost immediately, and not one of them got a call or message through except Gretchen. She received a garbled voicemail from her hubby, Gideon, that help was on the way. They just had to stay put. That was eight days ago.
The Internet followed not long after as the local networks gave way, and the television soon began playing on a loop. The same footage aired over and over, and nothing new was coming through.
Stuck, the girls decided they had no choice but to stay inside and hope that Gretchen’s husband followed through on his promise. Bored and frightened, they started drinking and haven’t stopped since. It numbed the worry over loved ones, the knowledge that death had come for them all.
Ryleigh stared at zombie Cherise for several minutes before turning back to her glass. Confronted by the awful truth of their situation, she pushed it away. Her stomach rumbled, an empty pit that would soon lead to starvation. It was time to face facts. “No one is coming for us.”
Silence fell as two sets of eyes swiveled her way.
“You don’t know that,” Gretchen said.
“Yes, I do. It’s been more than a week. Gideon’s not coming. No one’s coming,” Ryleigh said, raising her chin.
“So, what do you suggest?” Henriette asked.
“We save ourselves. We need food, or we’ll starve to death,” Ryleigh said.
“Did someone say food?” a croaky voice said from the corner. Lee-Anne.
“Awake, at last, I see,” Henriette said.
“Huh?” Lee-Anne asked, her blurry eyes indicating she was still very much out of it.
“Ryleigh thinks we should try to get out,” Gretchen said, folding her arms. “She thinks no one is coming for us.”
“Well…are they? It’s been so long,” Lee-Anne said, earning her a death stare from Gretchen.
“Come on, Gretchen. You know it’s true,” Ryleigh said.
Gretchen stared at her with quivering lips before bursting out. “I know, okay! I know. I just didn’t want to admit it before. If I do, that means he’s dead.”
Ryleigh sighed. “I’m sorry, Gretchen. Maybe he is dead. Maybe all our families are gone, but maybe not. There’s only one way to find out, though, and that’s not by sitting around on our asses all day.”
Gretchen nodded slowly. “All right, fine. What’s the plan?”
After sobering up with the last of the coffee, the four girls put their heads together and devised an escape plan of sorts. They got everything ready and lined up at the front doors, their faces pale but determined.
“Okay, Gretchen. You open the door a crack while Lee-Ann blocks it with the chair. Henriette and I will kill them with these,” Ryleigh said, hoisting a broken beer bottle.
“Deal,” Gretchen said, positioning herself off to the side. “Ready?”
“Do it,” Ryleigh said.
Gretchen unlocked the safety doors and slid them aside before turning to the glass front. Her hand trembled as she pushed the key into the lock, her knuckles white as she twisted the handle.
Immediately, the door swung inward, the frosted glass groaning beneath the weight of so many bodies. Gretchen screamed as she pushed back, trying to keep it open only a crack. Lee-Ann pushed her chair into the gap, blocking the lower half.
A foul smell washed into the pub—the rank smell of rotting flesh and unwashed bodies. Excited by the possibility of fresh meat, the zombies pushed harder against the barricade, with Gretchen and Lee-Ann struggling to keep them out.
Panicking, Ryleigh jumped forward with her broken beer bottle and thrust it into the closest zombie’s face. The jagged edges cut deep, popping an eyeball like it was made from jello. Putrid fluid sprayed from the wound, and she pushed harder to reach the brain. The infected stiffened and sagged but didn’t fall away, propped in place by his brethren.
Henriette moved in next to her and killed the next two zombies with wild yells of abandon. Blood sprayed into the air as the razor-sharp glass cut through flesh and flayed the skin from bone. She was smiling, her teeth white against her tanned skin, now speckled with crimson.
“Are you crazy?” Ryleigh cried over the chorus of groans. She thrust her weapon at Cherise, who had reached the front of the pack.
“Maybe!” Henriette shouted back, throwing herself at the next infected. “But who cares? We’re all gonna die anyway.”
Ryleigh choked as a wild laugh that bordered on hysteria bubbled up her throat. She cut and slashed at Cherise’s once beautiful face. The bunny ears the girl had worn for the party were soaked in blood and barely clung to her torn scalp.
Finally, Ryleigh scored a solid blow on Cherise’s temple, and the jagged glass cut into the brain. Cherise fell onto the other dead bodies that blocked the door but was soon torn away by the zombies behind.
Fresh infected thronged the opening, eager for the kill. Lee-Ann and Gretchen shrieked as they began to lose ground, pressed back by sheer numbers.
“I can’t hold them,” Gretchen cried, her lips bleeding where her teeth had cut into the tender skin.
“Me neither,” Lee-Ann said, her expression strained.
Henriette renewed her efforts, screaming like a banshee as she hacked and stabbed at anything without a pulse. Her bottle broke, and Ryleigh passed her a new one, scooping up a metal pipe when her own shattered as well.
With the pipe, she killed two more zombies, stabbing the end into their eyes. Gradually, the crowd thinned, the corpses falling away and giving them breathing room. Encouraged, Ryleigh stabbed another infected, only to hear Lee-Ann scream in pain.
Looking down, she spotted a zombie that had wriggled its way around the chair. It had a hold of Lee-Anne’s leg and was chewing on her denim pants, trying to tear through the thick material.
With a deep breath, Ryleigh lifted the pipe and brought it down onto the infected’s skull. The iron rod skewered its head like a chicken kebab, spraying brains everywhere. The sight and smell were enough to push her over the edge, and she turned away just in time to spew all over the floor.
The bitter tang of alcohol stung the back of her throat as she wiped her mouth. Straightening up, Ryleigh stared at the scene with watery eyes. Silence had fallen. Henriette stood heaving for breath, her face and arms covered in blood. Gretchen was wide-eyed and shivering. Lee-Ann cried while holding her leg, but a quick examination showed she was lucky. The zombie’s teeth hadn’t managed to cut through her denim.
Ryleigh caught a glimpse of her own blood-spattered and frightened face in the mirror opposite her. She looked just as bad as the rest did. “So…what now?”
Gretchen stood up and dusted off her pants. “Now we get the hell out of here. We can use the pub’s delivery truck.”
Ryleigh nodded. The truck was big and sturdy. “Smart.”
She helped Lee-Ann to her feet, and together with Henriette, they edged through the open door. The infected corpses lay dead still, their eyes milky, and their stench as powerful as ever.
“Man, they stink,” Henriette said, her short red hair sticking into the air.
“Poor, Cherise,” Lee-Ann said, looking at their former friend’s body, splayed out like a broken doll. “I feel so sorry for her.”
“We’ll be the sorry ones if we don’t move,” Gretchen said as she pushed past them, her lips set in a determined line. “Come on.”
Ryleigh and the others followed, tired and bloody.
The night air was cool against her skin, and Ryleigh shivered as she looked around. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere safe, but first, I need to find my husband,” Gretchen said, heading for the truck. “We all do.”
“What if he’s…what if they’re all…” Ryleigh faltered, unable to finish the sentence.
“I’ll bet Peter is dead already,” Henriette grumbled. “Dumb-ass wouldn’t last a day without me.”
Ryleigh stared at Henriette, wondering how the woman could be so unfeeling.
Henriette noticed and shrugged. “I don’t mean it. Not really.”
“Okay,” Ryleigh said, knowing Henriette’s prickly ways were just a front. She trudged along, her mood low, until she became aware of a deep rumbling. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Henriette asked, twisting this way and that with a combative look on her face. “If it’s a zombie, I swear, I’ll squash it like a bug.”
Ryleigh shook her head. “Not zombies. Vehicles.”
A set of headlights appeared at the end of the street, followed by another set, and another. The girls pulled closer together, raising their weapons in readiness for trouble. The first car, a huge army truck, pulled to a stop in front of them, the engine rumbling like a big cat in the night.
Ryleigh tried to shade her eyes against the blinding light but failed to make out any details. “Who’s there?”
“Babes? Is that you?” a voice called.
“Brandon?” Ryleigh called. Could it really be him?
“In the flesh, babes! We came to save you,” Brandon called.
“A bit late, aren’t you?” Henriette said, her hands on her hips. “Where’s that lousy man of mine, Peter?”
“Over here, darling,” Peter said, waving her over. Henriette made her way over to him with a harumph, still clutching a broken bottle in each hand.
Ryleigh turned her attention to her own husband and spotted him jogging toward her. He swooped her up into its arms, and she breathed in his familiar scent. Tears formed in her eyes, dripping onto his shirt. “I’m so happy to see you. I thought you were dead.”
“I came close a few times, but we guys stuck together, and then we found this lot,” he answered, gesturing toward the army trucks bristling with soldiers.
Gretchen grabbed Brandon’s arm. “Where’s Gideon? Is he here?”
Brandon nodded. “He’s over there.”
“Oh, thank God,” Gretchen cried, relief and happiness chasing away the dread from before. Without another word, she ran off to find him, followed by Lee-Anne.
Brandon looked at Ryleigh. “Are you okay? Ready to go?”
“The army has strict instructions to deliver all survivors to the safe zone. That includes us.”
“Is it really safe, though?” Ryleigh asked as hope flared in her breast.
“It is. I’ve been there, babes, and the commander is a good guy. I know him from my days in the service,” Brandon replied.
Ryleigh looked at the pub that had been her home for the past eight days, at Cherise’s crumpled body, and shuddered. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
South African writer and coffee addict, Baileigh Higgins, lives in the Free State with hubby and best friend Brendan and loves nothing more than lazing on the couch with pizza and a bad horror movie. Her unhealthy obsession with the end of the world has led to numerous books on the subject and a secret bunker only she knows the location of.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”