“It looks like burgers. But like if they got left on the grill too long.”

“It sure doesn’t smell like burgers.” Trace coughed and stepped back. “And how can you even think about food?”

Dan rubbed at his stomach, “I’m hungry, dude. What was the last thing we ate?”

“I don’t know, those beets yesterday morning? I have another can in my pack. I don’t think I could eat anything right now, though.” He shifted his bag as he leaned over to toe at the source of the smell.

All around them, flies buzzed, angry to be disturbed from their feeding frenzy. The open wasteland was dotted with bodies. Though it was hard to call them bodies by now, they were so rotted away that only pieces remained drying in the sun.

That scene wasn’t anything new. That’s what it looked like all over. After the dead rose up, it was chaos for a long time. But eventually, it got quiet. Trace and Dan had been together for three years at this point. Wandering and foraging and waiting to see if the world would get better.

The movies don’t prepare you for that. What happens after the apocalypse is over? The ruins that used to be cities still dotted the horizon, but the skyscrapers were beyond even what you might call disrepair. Years of weather and scavengers ravaged them. The cities weren’t coming back, not anytime soon.

But the quieter it got, the more hope Trace had. If every day wasn’t a life or death run from the dead, they could make a plan. He had been thinking about it for a while now, to himself, but he had a plan. Dan didn’t know it, but they were already working on it. Trace wanted to find other people. He had been in a sizeable group at first, hundreds gathered at a university. It had worked, more or less. But as time went on, people gave up, they got tired of the hellish life; they died. It was hard to see a future, but it was finally materializing in front of them.

He hadn’t seen a fresh zombie in months. No half-bodies crawling their way across the gravel to devour him with their lipless mouths. Trace had hope. He wanted to go back, see if anyone was still there, but he didn’t mention it to Dan. They had met after; on the road. Dan had been alone most of the time. He didn’t like to trust people, but when he was out of food with nothing in sight, he had let Trace help him.

Trace had thought the tent was abandoned. It would have been a great score. And when he opened the zipper and pulled back the yellow fabric, he thought the emaciated body inside was just another goner. He almost cracked the guy over the head when he moaned and turned over, but his eyes were still bright and Trace stopped just in time. It was Dan. He raised up his hands to stop the blow. Trace didn’t kill people. He never let himself go that far. There were times it was close, but he always took the option to run if he could.

They shared a can of beans and when Dan tried to offer him something in return; Trace asked for a partner. Dan definitely took some time to warm up to him, but Trace’s bag full of canned goods worked magic. Now Dan was his best friend and unknowing accomplice on his mission to find out what happens next.

The chunk of rot flipped over as he kicked at it. This wasn’t good. This was fresh, and by the scent of it, it used to be human. Dead twice over now, but too fresh.

“I don’t like this,” Dan crouched down investigating another bloody chunk. There was a noise behind them, a rusted out bus was flipped on its side and there was something moving beyond the broken window panes. Dan stood and stepped closer to Trace. They assumed the back-to-back position that they had perfected over the years.

They shifted closer and made their way around the side of the bus. The sounds of broken glass crunching with slow footsteps had Trace on edge. Something was off. The zombies weren’t like what they had always shown in movies, and yet they weren’t too far off. One thing was certain, though: they didn’t walk neatly over anything. It was always this horrible dragging shuffle.

“Hello?” He called out and Dan partially turned to face whatever was coming around the bus.

Silence. The crunching stopped. Trace froze. It had been so long since they had seen anything alive other than wildlife, he didn’t know what to do. People he met on the road were 50/50. They were just as likely to kill you as anything else.

They continued to inch their way around, leaving plenty of space as they arced around the bus. When they rounded the corner, she was just standing there. Clean and fit and looking as if she came out of some catalog from all those years ago.

“Hello?” It was disbelief in his voice now. Was he seeing things? Dan elbowed him in the ribs. If this was a hallucination they were somehow sharing it.

As if she just noticed them, she threw up her hands. She had no weapon in them, just clean, un-callused hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s alright,” Trace put down his bludgeon. “Where did you come from?” He could hardly get the words out fast enough. Just the sight of her nearly made him fall over as his brain tried to process what it could mean.

She stared at them in silence a moment longer. “You’re clear then?” She looked around the area. Nothing else moved except the flies enjoying their dinner.

“Uhh,” Dan looked at Trace, “yeah?”

Trace shrugged, “Yes. I mean. We’ve been out here a long time. A really long time. You look—you look as if it hasn’t been a day.” He wasn’t making sense, but his brain felt murky, still working to understand.

“Oh, yes. It’s been a bit now. We’ve been fixing. We haven’t been out in months. Just today though, to…” she trailed off. Her eyes landed on the pile of body pieces that had caught Traces attention in the first place.

He raised an eyebrow, “that have something to do with you?”

“Unfortunately, yes, we thought it was eradicated. Gone, when we re-opened the hospital it seemed that way. But someone slipped through. And when they passed. Well, you can see we had to get them out of our limits.”

Limits. Hospital. They had something going, and it didn’t sound like the makeshift groups that Trace had been part of. She didn’t look like anyone in any of those groups. And if that’s who they sent out, what must it be like inside. “You have a community?”

She stifled a laugh, and he wasn’t sure what could be funny. He looked between her and the stinking pile. “What?”

“Oh, community feels so.. small. We have 20 blocks refurbished. A hospital, a farm, running water. Nearly all the necessities.” She was watching them now, as if deciding something. “You two look like you were looking for something.”

She was good. “Well,” Trace looked at Dan, “I was hoping to find some people. Get something started. It seemed, seems, like the worst might just be over. I always wondered what would happen next.”

She waved a hand to them, beckoning them closer. “We have quite a few people if that’s what you’re after. I think you might just be a bit late to your idea. There are other places like ours. All around, actually. We are in near constant contact with a dozen or so. It’s all happening rather quickly, actually.” She stopped, looking worried for a moment, as if she’d said too much. “There is an intake exam. Physical and mental. Unless you’re infected, you can’t really fail. It’s more for cataloging purposes. You are clear, right?”

Trace nodded and Dan stepped forward, “Yes ma’am. Clear as the sky.” He looked up at the overcast day, “well you know what I mean.”

She let her laugh ring out this time. “Alright, then, let’s get you processed.”

Trace started forward and opened his mouth to ask where they were going, but she beat him to it. “I’ve got a vehicle just over here. It’s not a looker, though. We have mechanics but not much is ready to drive again yet.”

Dan pulled Trace’s sleeve and raised an eyebrow. Of course, this was out of his comfort zone. “I think we can trust her,” Trace whispered. Dan gave a slow nod and kept up.

It wasn’t a long ride and as they traveled, everything got brighter. It was as if the weather wanted them to get a good view. The sun broke through the clouds and the clean streets came into view. It felt like looking back in time, and Trace couldn’t help the wetness in his eyes. This was it.

They were welcomed in on the bottom floor of a tall building. Everything was clean and someone offered them warm bread and clear cool water. There was no rush, and Trace thought that he could relax here. For the first time in countless years, he had found a place to call home.