‘I didn’t even know this place existed.’ I said to Gemma as we turned into the narrow tree lined dirt track.
The road was littered with broken branches and deep, rain-filled potholes, jolting and throwing the little car around. Gemma was doing a good job of braking at the right time and swerving to avoid the bigger holes, almost a natural, but even so it was a bone-jarring ride that lasted well over five minutes. She had been driving like a rally driver since we’d got off the A34 and her mastery of this dirt track unnerved me slightly. Still, at least it had stopped raining. I had foolishly decided to wear my brand new trainers and I wasn’t keen on running around with soaked trainers and soggy socks. There’s nothing worse than having soggy socks. I’d definitely put too many layers on though, the weather, for March, being unusually mild.
‘Have you been here before or something?’ I said, unzipping my waterproof jacket and throwing it in the back.
‘No, why?’ she said quickly.
‘No… no reason’. Gemma was acting oddly, on edge, I wondered if she was nervous about the run.
‘So have you done much training for this? I haven’t really, bit nervous actually, you?’
‘Nervous, yeah. Yeah, anxious I’d say.’ She was frowning with concentration.
The track seemed to go on forever and I wondered if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I looked at the GPS again, but it was convinced we were in a field, not a track. Useless thing, I knew I should have bought the map updates, but at £85 I had better things to spend my money on. Like this 5k zombie race that Gemma had convinced me to do. Yes, lugging my size 14 ass through the woods, trying to outrun ‘zombies’ was a brilliant way to spend my Saturday and hard earned cash.
What was I thinking? Wait, I hadn’t been, that’s right. In a weak moment of inebriation last New Years’ eve, forgetting that actually I was not invincible, I had agreed to take part in this. At the time it had sounded like a ‘right laarf’ as Gemma had so eloquently put it. And I guess I was feeling a little bad about what had happened a few months before, not having seen Gemma since. Even though she had appeared to be taking it well, I had conceded to her pleas, not to mention the unrelenting Jägerbombs, thinking this would be a good way to get our friendship back on track. When did anything good ever come from drinking nine Jägerbombs?!
So anyway, here we were, on the bumpy road to nowhere, getting shaken around like a baby’s rattle. I was starting to get motion sickness when Gemma braked suddenly causing me to almost face plant the dash board. She had a smirk on her face, as if she’d deliberately meant to do that.
‘Shit Gem, what the heck?!’ I enquired, annoyed.
‘I think it’s down there, I can see something,’ she said, pointing through the dense wood and sticking the car in reverse. She backed up a few metres and took a left down an even narrower track, barely wide enough for the car.
‘Let’s hope so, cos I’m starting to feel a little sick from this crazy joy ride!’ I said looking through my side window. Not much to see there other than tightly knitted trees.
‘Is this an ancient woodland?’ I asked Gemma, absently.
‘You what? I dunno!’ she replied, irritation evident in her tone.
‘Hmm… I think those are silver birch trees.’ I continued, thinking how appropriately creepy they looked.
‘Really?! That is just so fascinating…’ Gemma said distracted. She seemed weird, a bit off with me and I racked my brains to think of why. Could it be to do with… no surely still not THAT? Probably stupid, I thought, but I thought I’d better broach the subject.
‘Hey erm Gem…we are cool with, you know the Steve thing aren’t we?!’
She gave me a side long glance which I struggled to read. I awkwardly continued.
‘I mean that was like six months ago-’
‘Five’ she said abruptly, gripping the steering wheel hard. I noticed that her knuckles had gone white.
‘Right, but we’re good, right? I mean, he was a dick, you know that? I did you a favour.’ She stared straight on, silent. Feeling that my tact was now like a distant ship on the horizon, I tried to lighten the mood.
‘At least it was me and not some skank… so we’re good… right?’ I prompted. I needed closure on this, I know what I did was low but he had come on to me. And she and Steve had only been together for less than a year. Harsh I know but the girl needed to move on.
‘Yeah we’re good.’
‘Chicks before Dicks!’ I said jovially. I knew she’d come round. There was an awkward silence, which I needed to break.
‘Oh, how’s that new job going by the way? You’ve been there a few months now haven’t you? I said, trying to seem genuinely interested.
‘Yeah, yeah great.’
‘What’s it like working for, you know… the Government,’ I asked, leaning in and trying to make it sound appropriately sinister.’
She didn’t bite. ‘It’s different…’ she said, trailing off. ‘Anyway!’ she braked abruptly, slightly skidding on the mulch, ‘Get your stuff, we’re here.’ she announced.
We had arrived in a small clearing where two other cars and a 4×4 were parked. The foliage was so dense here that hardly any daylight was seeping through. Although I knew this was just a run with people pretending to be flesh eating zombies, a chill went through me nevertheless. I shuddered slightly and Gemma looked at me, her eyebrow slightly raised.
‘Come on wuss, let’s do this!’ she urged, exiting the car with an excited hop and heading towards an unmarked wooden cabin.
I didn’t share her enthusiasm and reluctantly stepped out the car in my pristine white trainers. At least, she seemed to have gotten out of her foul mood.
As we approached what we later discovered to be the HQ of Z Games, I scanned the area around and beyond the clearing to see if I could detect a trail or signs for our running route. In my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of movement so I turned to get a better look. There was nothing there. Weird, I thought. I shook my head and followed Gemma into the HQ, feeling apprehensive about what I would find inside.
The cabin looked smaller than it did from the outside and dark wooden panels only exaggerated this. On the wall directly opposite the door was a huge ornate mirror that looked a little out of place. I didn’t take much notice of it as we were greeted by a ridiculously muscly man, who came across as military to me not only because he was dressed in combat trousers, but by the way he barked at us to ‘read this’ and ‘sign here’. I didn’t care much for his tone, it wasn’t bloody boot camp after all, so I quickly signed the disclaimer and took stock of my fellow ‘escapees’. Only four other people so far, two lads who were excitedly chatting to each other, comparing previous 5K PB’s and stats, and a thirty something couple, seated on benches by the wall. The woman was too skinny and very pale looking. Even in the low light of the cabin I noted her pasty complexion. She seemed even more anxious than I was. Her mousy eyes finished the look off perfectly. The boyfriend, on the other hand, was gorgeous. Muscly, well groomed with stunning blue eyes. How she’d landed him lord only knew. One thing was clear though, she was very obviously punching above her weight.
A sensation like someone running an ice cube down my spine chilled me suddenly, snapping me out of my bitchy day-dream. I felt convinced that I was being watched. I scanned the cabin and then looked back at the skinny woman but she was whispering into her boyfriend’s ear. I shuddered and tried to shake the feeling off.
‘So is this it then?’ I asked Gemma, raising my eyebrows. The small amount of participants did strike me as a little strange.
‘Guess so,’ she said flatly, looking at me then quickly adding ‘It’s a new run, you know, low key, kinda cool right?’ playfully punching me on the arm. I didn’t have time to dig further as we were already being gathered round.
Combat trousers man introduced himself as Ben and after taking in our valuables to look after, gathered us round. He went through a quick safety briefing then went on to explain the nature of the run. Before I knew it we were outside, nervously awaiting the start siren.
‘RUN IN AN EASTERLY DIRECTION AND TRY NOT TO GET BITTEN!’ Ben shouted, his booming voice making me and one of the lads jump. The fright was almost enough to cause me an IBS moment, but thankfully I managed to retain control.
As we anxiously awaited the siren, the tension growing, it was obvious that nervous anticipation had gotten to us. Even the lads looked decisively on edge, their chatter having now grown silent. Gemma, however, looked strangely calm, considering her earlier mood. She gave me an unnerving grimace, elbowing me enthusiastically with her pointy arm. She had a predatory look in her eyes, almost as if she had already formulated a plan of action. Before I could ask her about it, the siren blared across the clearing, startling me. Immediately everyone scarpered. I swallowed hard and started running. I was slightly annoyed at Gemma for legging it so quickly, but I did my best to run after her into the woods.
The temperature in there was a lot cooler and there was an earthy, damp rotting smell not too pleasant on the nostrils, I must admit. As I negotiated the uneven terrain of tree roots and tree stumps, whilst also avoiding low hanging branches, I could barely see Gemma anymore. I don’t know how she’d managed to get so far ahead. A thought occurred to me that she might have been here before but I knew that couldn’t be possible. The location of this wood had been kept top secret until that morning. To create more tension, Gemma said. Nevertheless, the others were long gone and I estimated we’d only been running a couple of minutes. My breathing had already become labored and I could feel a side stitch developing. I don’t stand a chance, I thought to myself. I ran deeper into the wood, cuts already on my hands from fending off numerous branches.
A few minutes later I began to hear a guttural, animal sound accompanied by snapping twigs and fast rustling. I manically scanned around me, slowing my pace to a jog.
‘GEM?!’ I called out in a panic, but she was nowhere to be seen.
‘MMEeerggh’ the noise was coming from my left. I did not like the sound of that, not one bit.
I hastened my pace again and could make out, more feel, something running parallel to me about fifteen metres away. With trepidation and adrenalin rising within me, I tried to run even faster, my body already dripping in perspiration. Whatever was there it was easily keeping up with me and traversing the space between us. I wished that I’d done more training for the run as I was struggling with my breathing. I caught a clear glimpse of my predator and saw that of course it was a ‘zombie’. They really did go all out on the makeup, I thought, because this guy looked awesome. The eyes were bloodshot and dull looking, his face contorted into a grotesque, blood covered sneer. The hair was clumpy with the scalp partly peeled away to reveal a bloody skull. I inadvertently let out a small yelp and felt a sudden pang of nausea. The sensation distracted me such that I only narrowly avoided a branch, ducking just in time.
‘Shhiit’ I exclaimed, feeling a bit disorientated.
I cunningly decided to run to my right in an attempt to widen the gap between me and the ‘zombie’, hoping I wouldn’t get completely lost. I glanced behind me but could no longer see him. Must have found an easier target, I guessed. After a minute or so, I stopped and leaned against a tree, trying to catch my breath and to rub my side, the stitch now like a dagger in my ribs. My heart was in overdrive and my lungs on fire. A moment later I forced myself to jog again, taking care not to trip or worse, twist my ankle. I wondered how the others were getting on. As for Gem, how’d she get so fast?! As if in answer to my question, I suddenly heard a pained moan ahead of me, sending shivers down my spine. I was really starting to hate this run and wished that I hadn’t drank so much last New Year’s Eve. Gemma really owed me one!
I cautiously approached the area where the noise had come from, slowing down to walk. I saw the skinny woman lying on the floor next to a tree stump, fake blood splattered all over her t-shirt and hands. A figure was crouched by her side making squelchy, chomping sounds. Intrigued, I quietly squatted behind a nearby tree to get a better view. I held my breath whilst I watched. To my horror and repulsion I noticed that the woman was being ‘eaten’. The ‘zombie’ was delving into her stomach and pulling out her intestines, biting into them like a rabid dog with a steak. Even though I have never been squeamish, I was struggling to keep my lunch down. The special effects and makeup were truly remarkable. And the smell! How did they get the smell… My train of thought was broken when the woman slightly lifted her head and locked her lucid eyes on me.
She lifted a bloody hand and gurgled ‘RUu-nnnn…’ letting out a long, squeaky breath.
Her hand fell to the floor and before I could tell myself to keep silent I let out an audible gasp. The crouched, bloody decaying figure suddenly turned its head and stared right at me. The face, if you could still call it that, was so disfigured it was hard to recognise but it did look familiar…it was her boyfriend! Or at least it had been. I managed to stifle a scream, but I was rooted to the spot, unable to move. Blinking and with terror rising within me, I realized the entirety of what I had just witnessed. He was already coming at me, teeth gnashing, by the time I managed to will my legs to move. I turned and ran in the direction I had come from. The irony of a gorgeous man chasing after me for once was mildly annoying. But this thing hunting me now was no longer a man.
‘HEEELP!’ I yelled, in a pitch so high I hardly recognized it as my own.
‘Uunnhhhh’ came the gurgled reply.
As I panted, sheer terror making my breath uneven, I daren’t look behind me. I could hear a wet sounding growl and uneven footsteps at my heels, closing in on me. I twisted and turned avoiding the natural obstacles in the wood but I knew the zombie was very close, I quickly glanced over my shoulder and before I had a chance to identify its position I felt the ground go from beneath me.
I was falling and as I did, I remembered thinking, before promptly passing out, I hope I don’t get eaten by the pale skinny girl. Though she really could do with a good meal.
By the time I came to, the light in the sombre wood was fading. I surmised that I must have been out for at least an hour. Dazed and shaken by what I’d seen earlier, I did a quick body inventory, making sure all my limbs were still attached and guts still in their rightful place. Incredulous at the intactness of my body, other than a graze on the back of my head from the fall, I took stock of my surroundings. I was in a pit of some sort, an animal burrow maybe, I wasn’t sure. The stench in there was triggering my gag reflex. I quickly concluded that it couldn’t have been a burrow, it was just too wide and too deep. I needed to get the hell out of there. My pristine new trainers were caked in a claret red substance, I daren’t look closely as I would have surely puked. I somehow managed to heave myself out, using a long thick tree root as a foot hold and cautiously peaking over the hole’s threshold before swinging my legs over the side.
The coast looked clear so I ran in what I hoped was a westerly direction, aiming to get back to the clearing where hopefully Gemma would be waiting for me. This was so messed up, if what I saw before I passed out was real then I hoped to God the car was still there. Deep down I was still optimistic that the big joke would be revealed and everyone would later laugh at how gullible I’d been. Of course they weren’t real zombies, stupid.
My glimmer of hope dwindled quicker than a flame in a tempest, when I stumbled over what I concluded was a limb of some sort.
‘Oh sweet Jesus!’ I spluttered, really hoping Gemma was OK. Goosebumps prickling my skin, I tried to keep a clear head and my breathing steady as I tried to retrace my steps, not easy in the fading light.
Eventually I stumbled out of the wood and into the clearing, just as the sun was setting. All the cars were still there. The door of the cabin stood open, and with my legs now like jelly I staggered in and flicked the switch on the wall. Nothing. Typical! I was dismayed by the banality of the situation. The cabin was dark except for a faint glow emanating from the edges of the mirror. There was something odd about that mirror… In a flash I understood what I had to do. In the twilight I managed to make out the shape of the chairs and with shaky hands I picked one up, throwing it as hard as I could at the mirror. There was a massive crashing sound as it exploded into hundreds of shards. Light streamed into the cabin. Beyond where the mirror had hung was a narrow room with a small desk in it. I knew it! It was two-way! I pulled myself up and through the entrance, careful not to cut myself on any stray shards of glass and approached the desk. On it was a lamp and a document folder labelled ‘Z GAMES-Stage 2’. With a knot in my stomach and growing exhaustion I quickly opened the file. Scanning the pages as fast as I could, I learnt that this run was actually an ‘experiment’ that had been sanctioned by the MoD and the military in an attempt to determine how an outbreak of the gamma virus could be contained. The next stage, if this was unsuccessful, would be to ‘manage’ the potential outbreak using the existing ‘samples’. Anger swelled within me. I was a fricking ‘sample’?! I felt sick. I got as far as a page entitled ‘The Role of Facilitators’ but I’d read enough. Knowing that it was only a matter of minutes before I’d have company of the flesh eating variety, I quickly rifled through the desk drawer to find a weapon or anything I could use to protect myself. Instead I found a set of car keys with a fob, which I grabbed.
I headed out of the HQ and into the clearing and clicked the button on the fob. The 4×4 flashed its response. My whole body trembling, I climbed in, locked the car and flicked the headlights on. My heart skipped a beat and I shrieked when I saw Gemma running out of the woods directly in front of the car, the headlights creating long shadows behind her. She was frantically waving her arms in the air and her face was stricken with pure terror.
‘OPEN THE SODDING DOOR’ she screamed.
Startled, I hesitated a moment before unlocking it. She climbed in and I swiftly locked the car, fired up the engine and stuck it in reverse. I glanced over at Gemma who was visibly shaking and covered in a dark substance, blood I assumed.
I sped off toward the narrow path glancing in my rear view mirror every so often. The adrenaline was pumping so hard I was unable to speak until we were almost at the junction with the main dirt track. Gemma was still breathing heavily, slumped in the passenger seat.
Eventually I spoke. ‘I’m so glad you made it… I… I thought everybody had d-died.’ I said, my voice trembling.
‘They were supposed to,’ croaked Gemma, now glaring at me, ‘including you!’ She grabbed the back of my head and smashed it onto the steering wheel before I had time to absorb what she’d just said. Stars flickered in front of my eyes and darkness took over as I blacked out.
When I came to for the second time today, my head pounding, I noticed I was back in the HQ cabin, lying on the floor.
I am so hungry now, all I can smell is…blood. It’s on my trainers and oh my god it smells so… g-good, it… tastes so good.
As I sit here, looking at the gash on my arm, aware of the sudden raspiness of my voice and urgent desire for human flesh, I do have to wonder if Gem was being sincere when she said that we were ‘good’.
Miriam A Averna asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work