The woods were quiet, peaceful. Birds called to neighboring trees, squirrels scampered to and fro in their search for acorns in the sweltering north central Florida summer heat.
Out of no where, a loud bang resounded through the forest, shattering the peace like so much fragile china.
After a few seconds of silence, a voice whooped loudly, "Aw, yes! That's right, baby!"
A young woman popped out from behind a thick live oak tree, her ecstatic face streaked with dirt and soot. The dark honey eyes sparkled with barely contained glee as she watched the smoldering pile of dirt waft thin fingers of smoke into the afternoon air.
Kathryn 'Kat' Lyonesse scrambled to the bare patch of earth twenty feet away, pulling her safety goggles off and stuffing them into the pocket of her military canvas jacket. Her thick brown ponytail practically touched the ground as the teen got on all fours and prodded the few scraps of plastic left in the center of the smoking pit with a pocket knife.
"Daaaymmm." Kat whispered to herself, pulling a small notepad from the back pocket of her camouflage cargo pants. "So that did work. Take that, Jackie! I knew the powder would work!"
Kat was NOT your normal teenager. Instead of calling her friends on Sunday to spend the last scraps of a three day weekend at the mall or playing games, she spend it out in the middle of the deep woods.
Just as Kat was gathering her data and putting everything into her backpack, her phone vibrated in her pocket, making her jump into a fighting stance. The second vibration came, followed by the Tetris theme song, and Kat laughed at her usual reaction as she pulled the iPhone out and answered.
"Hello?" Kat asked with a chipper lilt to her voice.
"Hey Kat, it's Kin."
Kat's smile widened as she hefted her pack onto her free arm and started the trek home. "Kin! Sup, love? I got the cherry bomb to work."
Kindra 'Kin' Moswen was one of Kat's best friends. The band director always commented that they were joined at the hip on trips, and Kat would never leave Kin's side during their same period classes. Kat often proclaimed that she was Kin's 'shadow,' at which the other girl would sigh and shake her head with a small smile.
"Awesome! Well, I wanted to remind you about that project for Mr D that's due tomorrow."
Kat's mind raced, trying to wrack her brain for any recollection of a project in her language arts class. 'Project?' "Ehh, what?"
Kin sighed on the other end of the line. She had long ago come to terms with the fact that she was at least half of Kat's memory. "The joint project with Mr D and Ms Luther. They told us to look up the progress of the Herf-Colins Flu and write out a paper on its symptoms and our predictions on how it would manifest if it got to the States. Remember?"
"Oh! The zombie flu paper. Yeah, I did that weeks ago for fun." Kat pushed a branch out of her way with her machete and stepped over a rotting log. "You'd better be getting ready for it, after all I've told you about zombies and the like."
Kin laughed, bringing a smile to Kat's face. "Right. The zombie flu. You tracked it since Asia, how could I forget. I gotta go finish mine up, so I'll see you tomorrow, love. Bye!"
"See ya, love! Watch out for the Asian zombies!"
Kat clicked the end call button and settled the second strap of her pack on her other shoulder and winced. The canvas rubbed rumpled scar tissue under her jacket and tank top. The rough oval shaped scar was about the size of a baseball, and old, but it still caused Kat discomfort every once and awhile.
Trying to ignore the slight ache, Kat glanced up at the sky. It was nearing dusk, and it wasn't exactly the best of ideas to keep her Dad waiting or stay out in the dark so far into the woods. So, with haste in mind, Kat shifted her way of walking into a smooth sprint, letting instincts guide her.
It was almost dinnertime after all. And with the mysterious HC Flu spreading across Asia and the rest of the East, Kat wasn't exactly willing to be in the woods, what with the possibility of the flu being a zombie virus.
At least, Kat thought it was a zombie virus.
As she dashed past one of her survival cache clearings, Kat swore she saw a pair of human eyes following her.
They looked hungry.
Kat stepped into her workshop that was connected to the house, setting her pack down with a huff and pulling her army jacket off. The humidity was starting to set in, and it promised a hot, steamy summer.
"Dad, I'm back!" She yelled as she unclipped her machete belt and placed it, the connected medical pack, and the ammo bag full of smoke and cherry bombs on top of her olive green Alice pack.
Jason Lyonesse leaned his balding head of salt and pepper hair around the corner of Kat's workshop door. "Hey Kit-Kat. How was your run?" He came in and hugged his daughter, who let out a cat meow and rubbed his remaining hair. The fifty-six year old man towered over Kat like a protective lion over his cub.
"It was alright." Kat said lightly, pulling away and kissing her father on the cheek. "Did you make anything for dinner?"
The two soon sat down to a dinner of steak, mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus. As Kat tore into the steak like a starved animal- she rarely ate anything during the day,- Jason began telling her about the recent news.
"That Herf Collins Flu keeps eluding the CDC." He said, his laptop resting open on his round belly. "It looks pretty crazy from the satellite pictures over Hong Kong."
Kat mumbled something with her mouth full, then swallowed and said it again. "I still think it's the T-Virus or the Green Flu." Her father threw back his head and let out a loud laugh, making Kat smile. "Oh come on, Dad! After all this secrecy you have gotta take into account the classic zombie cover up!"
"Alright, alright." Jason was still grinning from ear to ear, the crow's feet around his eyes showing. "If it's zombies, I'll owe you fifty bucks."
"I take that bet!" Kat leapt at the opportunity, jabbing in her father's direction with her fork to make her point. "If it's a cover up by the government, it's eighty, at least." She added slyly, a devilish smirk on her face.
"Yeah right, and I'm married to the queen of England."
At the mention of marriage, Jason caught himself and his expression sobered quickly. Kat knew what was coming. She had heard it every night and every morning without fail for the last four and a half years, and she immediately fell silent and adopted a blank expression.
"Your Mom loved you, Kat. You know that, right?" Jason said quietly. His eyes watered with unshed tears; ones that Kat knew decorated his cheeks at night when no one was watching. "I know she would do anything to be here right now, and I would have traded places with her if I could have. She would have done so much better at raising you."
Kat pushed away from the table and crawled into her Dad's big lap, curling against his chest as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Dad, you're doing better than ever. I don't think Mom could have been better at this."
Jason was silent and held his fifteen-year-old only child to his chest. "Thanks, Kat. I love you."
"I love you too, Dad."
After dinner was over and Kat had washed the dishes, the teen retreated to her bedroom with her Alice pack and belt, closing the door behind her and flicking on the light.
"In peace, prepare for war." Kat murmured as her hooded eyes scanned her room.
Unlike many teenage girls, Kat did not layer her walls with posters of boy bands or anime books. The brown haired teen's gaze raked over the humorous posters detailing how to escape from a zombie attack, the shooting targets peppered with holes in the center three rings, and a bookcase shoved full of zombie books of fact and fiction. A rack of swords sat in one corner, while a modified tool board and a basket held her extensive knife collection.
As Kat lowered her pack to the ground, she opened the top and began packing a few pairs of underwear and a tank top or two, trading out the now too small t-shirt and faded jeens. Her fingers ghosted over the contents of the pack, the MRE, the raincoat, the facemask and fire starter. Twenty-eight point zero six pounds of survival equipment and basic necessities, which had been collected for over four years.
At the thought, Kat crawled onto the bottom bunk of her bed and flopped onto her back, staring up at the pictures, knives, and general oddities that she had pinned to the top bunk mattress. With nearly reverent, timid movements, the girl unpinned a single picture and held it in front of her eyes, trying to etch every detail into her memory. She knew that once she woke in the morning, she would have forgotten what the faded picture looked like, and the memorization process would start all over again.
A woman in her forties was laughing, the smile reaching milk chocolate eyes as her blond hair, beginning to fade to the color of sun bleached straw, practically glowed in the lighting. A man, Jason, sat beside her, arm around her shoulders as his eyes held a look of such deep, helpless love that Kat swallowed a rare tightness in her throat.
In the woman's lap sat a little girl no older than five. Brown hair was cut only just past her ears, one side sticking out wildly in a small side ponytail. The child's cheeks still hold the pudginess of baby fat, but the chin and shape of her face were familiar enough. Her front teeth were missing, but it didn't stop her from giving the camera a large smile.
'It's weird...' Kat thought to herself. 'Knowing someone, but not being able to recall them.'
Kat's mother, Samantha Lyonesse, was dead. And that was just about all Kat knew about her. Four and a half years ago, after waking up in the hospital with injuries to the top of her left shoulder and the back of her left calf, Kat's mind began purging itself of all memories having to do with her mother. The process finished nearly a year later, and since then, Kat couldn't recall a single thing about the woman that had raised her for ten years.
Frankly, Kat didn't really mind the loss much. How could you mourn someone you no longer had any recollection of? She never asked anyone how her mother died, and people avoided the subject. The doctors said it would derail her fragile psyche if someone tried to reintroduce the memories before she had begun the unconscious process of filtering in scraps by herself.
After a few more moments of examination, Kat slipped the picture back into its place and pinned it down. She needed to focus, get back on track.
The next half hour was spent doing stretches and basic strength training. Push ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. Next, a long shower to wash away the sweat, dirt, soot and the smell of sulfur from her hair. She rubbed Vitamin E oil into the scars on her leg and shoulder, and brushed her teeth while making funny faces at her Dad as he watched the nighttime news.
As Kat lay down in her bed and turned out the light, she took a last look at her survival pack. It sat waiting by her bedroom door, a constant comfort that reminded Kat that she was ready for anything.
"Night stalkers don't quit," Kat whispered. The lamp clicked off, and her world was plunged into blackness. "For death waits in the dark."
No one knew the nightmare was just beginning.