When it started they'd been together, sharing a case of Miller, buffalo wings, pepperoni pizza, and mozzarella sticks on a Saturday night, crashed out on Luke's couch watching Near Dark, Nick's favorite movie ever, for the zillionth time.
It was 10:30 or so and the film was winding up. Nick would probably want to spend the night on the couch, having gotten into a fight with his dad again over God knows what this time. And since Luke's parents were around, he couldn't let him stay in his room.
The door banged open. Luke lived in a safe neighborhood and people rarely locked their doors. It was late though, so a visitor was out of the ordinary.
"Uncle Pete - what is it?" Nick stood up and Luke paused the DVD.
"We have to leave. Pack up your things. Luke, get your folks down here. It's not safe. Your Dad's in the truck."
"Is this about that virus thing they were reporting on the news earlier? I thought it was just in Georgia."
"Did you hear me? I said get your folks and pack up your things now! And bring any guns you have in the house. And some food and water."
So that was how they'd left home, late at night with pizza boxes and chicken bones sitting on the TV table and a vampire western on pause.
Their families were long gone now, and it was just them - Luke and Nick - best friends since first grade, with benefits since junior year of college.
Just them and the other survivors of the zombie apocalypse they'd met along the way, most of whom didn't last very long.
It bothered Nick how no one called it the 'zombie apocalypse,' or the reanimated ex-humans zombies at all. Not even undead, or living dead. No, they were 'walkers', which sounded ridiculous. What even the fuck is a 'walker', anyway? Everybody walks. His fucking late grandmother used a walker, for chrissakes.
Luke was just tired of hearing it.
"I know you don't like the word, but that's what everyone's callin' 'em, so we may as well call 'em that, too."
"Then everyone's stupid. What, are we supposed to call ourselves 'breathers', now, too?"
Luke sighed and didn't say anything. He tried to think of something else to talk about.
"See any sign of anyone passing through here?"
"Still no," Nick replied. They had gotten separated from the others during the escape from Carver's compound and hadn't run into anyone, living or dead, for the past fifteen minutes.
"Let's just keep walking then." They had weapons and meager provisions. If they headed into the forest they might be able to find fruit, berries, nuts, edible mushrooms, spring water, or animals they could hunt. Hunting would be a risk though, as the sound of gunshots could alert nearby walkers.
Luke decided to turn in that direction and Nick didn't voice any objections. After they had cleared the herd they hadn't seen a single walker. Most of the ones in the area must have clustered into the herd, he figured.
They walked for several minutes in silence, stepping over twigs on the dry ground so as to make as little sound as possible. Then Nick spoke up.
"Why couldn't it have been a vampire apocalypse? That might have been kind of fun. I mean, if we got turned into 'em."
"What? There's no such thing as a vampire apocalypse." Luke rolled his eyes - not that Nick could see them. He was looking straight ahead, cap pulled down low.
"Sure there is. Didn't you see that episode of Buffy where the vampires took over Sunnydale?"
"Guess I must have missed that one." Luke's knowledge of pop culture paled in comparison to Nick's. But then, Nick couldn't tell a Rembrandt from a Renoir.
"There're no werewolf apocalypses, though," Nick continued. Pointlessly, Luke thought.
"There aren't any zombie apocalypses, either - outside of fiction," Luke said. "Till now."
"It's like we're living in a simulation or something," he added.
"We could've been living in a simulation all along."
Luke couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he didn't.
As they walked further into the forest, Nick thought about the past. He remembered telling Clementine, when they'd been trapped in that shed with all those jars of moonshine, about the business venture Luke had urged him into. They had recently graduated and neither of them could find jobs. Both of them had been helping out on the family farms and were growing bored and restless, till one afternoon, Luke, after a few beers, came up with the ridiculous idea that they could make a living giving people art-themed tours of the surrounding towns.
Nick had told him it wouldn't work. Repeatedly. "People come here to drive through the cornfields and learn horseback riding, not go art gallery hopping."
"That's why this'll be so great, buddy. Our thing'll be unique - we'll be the only ones offering these kinda excursions."
"Plus there's a bunch of public sculptures commissioned by town councils around here nowadays, and street art is getting popular even in these parts."
"I haven't seen any."
"Because you don't know where to look, man - and 'cause you've never been interested in that sort of thing." Luke had always tried to get Nick more 'cultured', as he put it, dragging him to exhibit openings when he'd rather have been checking out the latest hard rock shows at the clubs in town.
"Exactly. Most people here aren't. Rural Tennessee isn't quite Paris, in case you hadn't noticed."
"People are gonna go for it, Nick. It's gonna become a hidden gem. We'll get on TripAdvisor, just you wait. Folks don't know how much they're gonna enjoy something till they give it a try."
"Plus, it's not like you have anything else going on right now."
Nick was tired of arguing with him. When Luke got an idea into his head, he could be relentless. Often it was easier to go along with him and let him see for himself why his plans were unfeasible. But it had taken Luke less than half a day to tire of jumping rooftops. Setting up an art tours business would consume vast more time, effort, and money. Still, Nick would once again come along for the ride. Luke needed him. His art history degree had given Luke the knowledge he needed to explain works of art to laymen, but Nick had studied economics. He knew something about how a business needed to be run. He would contribute to the backend, organizational side of things, while Luke would design and run the tours.
They poured all their meager savings into Art Trips (Luke had come up with the somewhat bland sounding name), and somehow managed to break even for the first few months, probably due to Luke's enthusiasm and likeability, Nick's organizational skills and desire not to let his best friend down, and the novelty of it all. But soon afterwards they were in the red, and had to shut down after about six months.
It had, as he'd told Clementine, been fun, though. They'd brought art appreciation to people who otherwise would not have known they could appreciate art (including himself), they'd brought business to struggling artists and galleries far from Soho, and they'd built something, however short-lived, together. Nick relished the warm glow he'd felt whenever Luke introduced him as his partner.
Luke interrupted his thoughts. "Up ahead, on the ground. Two of 'em."
Nick looked up, pushing his cap back a bit. Lying by the side of a large oak to the right of the trail in front to them were two bodies. "Holy shit," he breathed.
As they got closer, their hands tensely clutching their weapons, they were able to determine the bodies were those of an adult male and female, their corpses almost thoroughly mangled. The smell made them gag. Luke scrunched up his face and covered his mouth, while Nick turned away, swallowing hard trying not to spit something up.
"Ugh, they smell fifty times worse than we do," Nick said. The walker guts they had slathered their shirts with in order to get through the herd unharmed had dried and become less pungent than they'd been earlier. Plus, they had sort of grown accustomed to the stench.
"We should still search 'em," Luke muttered through gritted teeth.
"Yeah," Nick sighed. He grimaced as he pulled a knapsack off the female, the less mangled of the two. It was bloody but left untouched by the walkers, who were solely focused on consuming human flesh.
Luke gingerly pulled the male corpse's backpack out from underneath him. It was soaked in mud and bloody guts, which he shook off as best he could, one hand pinching his nose.
They didn't find much inside. Some rotten bananas and a couple soggy pieces of bread, which they discarded, a half empty jar of peanut butter and two half empty bottles of water, which they kept.
"Guess we should check their pockets too," Nick said glumly. Bending down and scrunching up his nose. he reached into the front pockets of the dead woman's jeans, while Luke did the same with the man.
"Hey, I got something," Luke said excitedly. He held out a keychain. It had a yellow Lego character on the end of it, and a couple keys on the ring.
"Which means there could be a car around here." Nick smiled. Perhaps the universe was giving them a rare break.
"We should get back onto the road," Luke said, returning Nick's smile. "Looks like we might have a chance at staying alive a little longer."
They found the car, parked off the side of the road near the woods, seemingly untouched. It was a rusty, old gray thing, but had two thirds of a tank of gas, which was all they cared about.
"I wonder why they got out," Nick said, settling into the driver's seat.
Luke handed Nick the keys and shrugged. "Call of nature?"
"Fuck, maybe the car just wouldn't start." Nick suddenly grew worried.
"C'mon, turn the key, man." Luke put a hand on his shoulder. "And calm down, alright. You're goin' looking for problems as usual."
"Not everyone's like you, Mr Sunshine." Nick took a breath, closed his eyes, and turned the key. The engine sputtered, once, twice, then rumbled to life. "Phew." Nick exhaled shakily, then shifted into gear and put both hands on the steering wheel.
"What'd I tell ya," Luke grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. "Fretting for nothing."
"You should get some rest," Nick said, trying not to let Luke's hand on him distract him from the road. "I'll need you to take over in a few hours."
"Will do." Luke pulled the lever at the side of his seat to recline it and folded his arms around himself, closing his eyes. Nick glanced at him every now and then, looking so peaceful. It felt like they could just be going on a cross country drive, with none of this having happened. He wanted to reach out and stroke Luke's face, hair, run a hand down his chest, but he couldn't, not now. They had to drive, to get somewhere relatively safe, before they ran out of food and fuel.
The light was fading and Nick's eyelids were beginning to droop. He switched on the low beams and patted Luke's forearm. "Hey, can we switch seats now? I'm almost falling asleep."
Luke blinked awake. "Mm, sure," he said blearily. "Pull over."
Nick brought the car to a stop at the side of the road and unbuckled his seatbelt. They hadn't seen anything for miles. According to the map Luke had brought with them, they were heading northeast through Virginia, but it was hard to be sure. Since they weren't on any major highway, signs were infrequent and didn't often refer to places they could find on the map.
Luke climbed over Nick to get to the driver's seat, while Nick slid himself under Luke to the passenger's side. He turned to his side and curled against the door, expecting to fall asleep in minutes, but getting caught up in a memory instead.
He was back at home, sitting in his basement listening to Rocket From the Crypt when Luke came down the stairs carrying a couple DVDs. He hopped onto the couch next to him and pushed his headphones down around his neck.
"Stop what you're doing and let's watch these," he said, plonking the plastic boxes onto his lap.
"Art movies?" Nick made a face. "No thanks. You already forced me to watch that Andy Warhol one where the whole thing's this bored guy getting sucked off."
"Thought you liked that one," Luke chuckled. "Anyway these are different. About artists, but not avant garde." He picked up one of the boxes. "This is about Vermeer."
"Girl With a Pearl Earring," Nick read. "Is this the guy who cut his nose off?"
"No, and it was his ear. You're thinking of Van Goth. That's the other one I brought." Luke held up the box. "Vincent and Theo."
"Yeah, can we just watch The Thing instead? It's already in the player."
"How many times can you watch that movie?"
"I dunno. I'll let you know?"
Luke sighed. "I give up."
"Or we could just make out instead."
Nick felt himself being shaken. He opened his eyes.
"Hey, check it out." Luke's eyes were bright and he pointed at the windshield to something in front of them. There, overhead, was a sign that read "Richmond - 50 miles".
"Yeah!" Luke pumped his fist. "Fuck yeah!"
"Alright, settle down, we're not there yet, and we don't know what it's gonna be like."
"Always a killjoy." Luke was grinning. "Y'know, this has been a good day."
Nick nodded. "It has."
"It's, uh, today's my birthday," Luke said, a little shyly. "It's fitting, I guess."
"Oh shit. Yeah, that's right. You're a few months ahead of me." Nick clapped him on the back. "Happy birthday, buddy."
"Thanks. Glad I could spend it with you."
"Likewise." Nick leaned around and pulled his backpack from the backseat. He unzipped it and rummaged around. "Guess it's the right time to give you this."
Nick pulled out a jar of clear liquid and handed it to Luke. "Wait, let me pull over," he said, passing it back to Nick.
Once the car had come to a stop, he switched on the light above them and held the jar up to it.
"I saved one from the shed. It's...not bad, actually. Gets the job done."
"I'm driving. It'll have to wait." He placed it in the space behind the gearshift. "Thanks, though. It'll be good to have later. In Richmond, I hope." His eyes sparkled in the low light.
"I also got you this." Nick pulled out a dogeared paperback and handed it to Luke.
"Wow, where'd you find a book?"
"Swiped it from Carver's before we left. It was on one of the shelves in that basement they kept us in."
Luke laughed when he read the title. "Burning Daylight by Jack London. Nice."
"Yeah I thought you might like it."
He put it on the dashboard. "Once we're settled in somewhere, I'll definitely start reading it."
"You do that."
Luke started to turn the key in the ignition, but Nick put a hand on his wrist, stopping him. "There's one last thing."
"Uh huh." Nick unfastened his seatbelt, leaned across the seat, and put his hands on Luke's shoulders. He pressed their mouths together, and after a moment Luke's hands came up to cup his face. He dragged his fingers down the front of Luke's faded orange sweatshirt, pressing a finger in the little hole just above the ribs on his left side, making him gasp.
Nick slid his fingers underneath the sweatshirt, running them back up Luke's chest. He shivered and pulled away, gazing at Nick intently as the night grew darker. "You have the most beautiful eyes."
Nick smiled but said nothing. He moved his hands back down, hitching his fingers in the top of Luke's jeans, which were loose now, after he'd lost so much weight during the past several months. He popped open the metal button and edged the zipper down. Luke had moved his hands down to his shoulders, and when Nick cupped his erection through his underwear he dug his fingers into them hard enough to leave a mark.
He pulled his hat off, placing it on the dash next to the book, and bent his head down, his breath hot against Luke's navel. Luke put a hand in his hair and kissed the top of his head. It had been so long since they had last done this. In the cabin, the night before Pete had died....
After he was finished, Nick kept his head in Luke's lap, arms around his waist. Luke rubbed the back of his neck. "Gonna fall asleep down there?"
"Maybe for a little while."
"Alright." He mussed up Nick's hair, already in need of a good combing. At least he could cover it with his hat. Luke's own unruly hair had formed stiff, oily clumps and itched like crazy. If they could just make it into Richmond, maybe they'd be able to find a shower and wash all this muck off. What he wouldn't give to feel clean again. "I'll let you know when we get close to Richmond."
Luke pulled back onto the road and sped away. He had lived to be 27, survived seven months of the apocalypse, and had Nick half asleep in his lap. Despite all the brutality and death they had experienced since the world had fallen apart, he felt glad to be alive.
"We're burning daylight," he said.