Dead Men Walking, by Christine Alves

Winner: Third Place
Arisia 2013 Student Writing Contest

“Run, Xavier! Don’t look back!” I kept hearing my mother’s scream of fear as I ran for dear life. The visions kept replaying in my head; father letting out a yowl of rage as he swung at the monster while my mother sat on the floor cowering in fear. I pushed myself forward with all the energy I could muster.
Ignore the throbbing pain in my legs.
Ignore the tears blurring my vision.
If I gave in, that thing would get me for sure. I had to be brave if I wanted to survive. Mom told me to run- if I got caught, I couldn’t save her, could I? I had to turn back to make sure my parents were alive, but two red eyes in the shadows caught my attention.
Another one?
I skidded to a halt in an attempt to steady myself, but the sight of that unmistakable beast kept me frozen in place. It was the same exact monster that had attacked my parents, and it was coming right at me! The thing let out a sinister growl that eventually became inaudible by the pounding of my own heart. It lifted an arm, took a swing at me, and I flew through the air…
Only to wake up gasping and covered in sweat in the safety of my room. That same dream had been playing in my head for the past ten years, and nothing about it was made up. They came out of nowhere about a decade ago. They were known as Tainted Ones, and they were the source of my fear of the dark. They never came out in the sunlight, which was a plus for me since I desperately needed to maintain my day job to pay for my pathetic existence.
Ever since the day my parents were killed, I’ve been fending for myself and hiding from the night. I got out of bed and got dressed for work, being as quick as I could. I worked at a nearby coffee shop that took me no more than five minutes to walk to. After I was ready, I headed out to start my day.
As usual, the town looked abandoned except for the occasional car passing by. Nobody ever visited this town; even its residents didn’t seem to want to stay here any longer than they had to. The arrival of the Tainted Ones had turned my home into a forgotten ghost village.
It didn’t take me long to reach my destination. I looked through the shop’s windows to see what awaited me; not a single soul was there, as usual, seeing as how nobody ever wanted to leave their homes. I let out a sigh as I walked through the door and I laughed to myself as I realized that my boss probably paid me for my company rather than my work.
My boss was already hard at work behind the bar counters by the time I stepped in. He took one look at me before grunting in amusement.
“Comin’ in for another day of hard work, eh, Xavier? Don’t know why you keep comin’, lad. Ain’t no need to run a broke coffee shop now, is there?” he said.
He always said something to that effect every time I came into work, but I couldn’t help suppressing a sigh of annoyance.
“Gotta have some sort of normalcy in this town, wouldn’t you say?” I replied.
“Well, that certainly isn’t normal.” He said, nodding his head toward the entrance of the shop. Surely enough, a man in a long trench coat was outside, walking straight towards the shop.
A customer? At this hour? The strange man walked in and took a seat near the back of the shop, and I cautiously made my way over to him.
“Good morning, sir. May I get you something to drink?” I asked.
“A coffee will do, thanks.” He replied as he ran his fingers through his light hair.
“Sure. Coming right up.”
“Hang on, now. Why don’t you take a seat here? By the look of it, you don’t get very many people to talk to.” The man said.
I narrowed my eyes at his blatant insult, but I didn’t reply. I looked over my shoulder to see my boss already making the coffee.
“No harm in a simple conversation, I suppose.” I said.
“Yeah. Just go get my coffee first.” The man said.
Who was this guy? He had no right to be so rude! I nodded and quickly walked over to the bar.
“Make sure ya’ keep offerin’ him more drinks. As soon as that guy empties his wallet, we’ll have enough money for a year!” The boss snickered.
I grabbed the coffee from the counter and rolled my eyes as I turned around. My overly friendly customer eyed his coffee enviously as I handed it to him.
“Sit! I don’t bite,” he said as he took a sip. “Ah, you never taste coffee this good anymore! It’s a wonder you don’t have more customers!”
I sat down across from him and shook my head. “In this town? Yeah, right.”
“The name’s Dante. And you are?”
“Xavier. Just a common everyday man trying to make that extra cent.” I said.
“Nice I meet you, Xavier. So,” He paused as he took another sip. “You know about the Tainted Ones?”
“Only that they killed my parents, and that they ruined this town. And, for some reason, they only come out at night.” I said.
“I’ll bet you’ve only heard of zombies being in sci-fi movies. Although I wouldn’t exactly call them zombies, but they’re pretty close to it, wouldn’t you say?” Dante remarked.
“I dunno. I’ve never gotten close enough to know.” I replied.
“Well, I have.” Dante reached into his trench coat and pulled out a gun.
“H-Hey! You can’t just pull out a weapon in here!” I stammered.
“Relax, will you? Besides, I’m a certified hunter. It’s normal for me.” Dante said.
“Yeah. This thing is pure silver. It only serves one purpose only, and that’s to get rid of the Tainted Ones.” He replied.
“You hunt Tainted Ones for a living? How do you obtain a job like that?” I asked.
“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”
“Do you think this is normal? To cower in fear because of monsters that go bump in the night? These are things of stories, but we live it, Dante!” I said.
“I know! I should know more than anyone!” He replied.
“Oh yeah? How do you figure?” I almost snarled.
Dante’s face broke into a morose smirk as he leaned back in his chair. “The epidemic broke out a decade ago. Only a few people know the truth; that is, only my father and I. You see, Xavier, my father is a doctor. Ten years ago, this town broke out into a severe, unknown disease. My father, being the perfectionist that he is, attempted to create an antidote. I remember how he’d be in the basement for days, concocting all kinds of experiments,” He let out a nostalgic laugh that turned into a sigh shortly afterward.
“But one experiment went extremely awry,” He continued. “The house exploded, chemicals were everywhere, and my mother had turned into the very first Tainted One. It wasn’t her by then, though. It had her body but it didn’t have her soul. I was only a kid, and I was scared out of my mind. My dad told me that the explosion polluted the air and would turn more people into zombies. Man, I blew up at my father. I blamed him for it all. I wanted mom back, but not even dad had an antidote for that.”
I stared at Dante wide-eyed as he reminisced. “So, how did you become a hunter?” I asked in awe.
“Well, as you may have guessed, the Tainted Ones grew in number. Father and I stuck together, and we made two observations. One, they do not come out during the day. And two, pure silver ended them. So, my father got to work. He created this gun and taught me how to use it. ‘I’m too old for this job,’ He had said. ‘But maybe you can hunt them and correct my mistake.’ So, that’s how I became a hunter.” Dante said.
I realized that I had my hands clenched into fists during his story. “Your father created this mess.” I muttered.
“He was trying to help people. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He won’t even show his face to society anymore.”
“They killed my parents! Your father’s mistake ruined lives!” I shrilled, knocking over the coffee in a fit of rage.
“Then will you help me do something about it?” Dante said.
“Become a hunter, Xavier. I can’t do this on my own. Plus, I’m sure my father will offer you more money than you’ve ever seen in your lifetime.” Dante replied.
My heart skipped a beat. “Well, I could use the money. But, Dante…I’m terrified of the Tainted Ones.”
Dante let out a laugh of amusement. “Gotta admit, I’m a little freaked out by them myself. But I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ll turn you into the best hunter this town has ever seen. After me, of course.”
I could see my boss listening intently to our conversation. Was he interested? Or did he just want to finally get rid of me? “What do I have to do?” I asked.
“I like your spirit. Come on.” Dante said as he stood up. He laid out a wad of cash for my boss and said, “I plan on taking him from you, so will this amount do?”
“Oh, it’s more than enough! What’d I tell ya’, Xavier?” Boss laughed.
“Can’t I work two jobs?” I asked.
“My father will pay you, I promise. He’s been so depressed over his mistake and the only help he’s ever gotten was from me. Plus, I’ve never met anyone with as much spunk as you. You’ll do fine.” Dante said, flashing me an enthusiastic grin. With that, he pushed me out the door.
He led me through the town, showing me places where he’d slain monsters. “I’m guessing you’ll start tomorrow, after I tell Dad to make you a weapon. We’ll be like partners!” He said.
I instinctively stopped walking when I heard the crack of a branch a few feet away. “What is it?” Dante asked. I carefully took a step forward, unaware of what might be hiding.
“It’s probably nothing.” I muttered.
“You can’t be that jumpy when you’re hunting. It’s a serious job, obviously not for the weak of heart.”
I jumped as soon as I heard the shrill of a hellish beast, and I was tackled to the ground before I got the chance to yowl a warning. I stared up at the face of evil incarnate; a Tainted One had appeared before my eyes, its red gaze burning into my skin and its rancid stench drowning my senses.
“Xavier! What? In the daylight? What in the blazes?” Dante said, almost at a loss for words. He ran toward me, but the Tainted One took one swing at him, slamming him straight into a tree.
My breath came out in gasps as I tried to crawl away. Sensing my movements, the beast pinned me down and let out another shriek. “Dante! Help!” I yowled.
Dante struggled to stand, and I realized in horror that I had to fight this thing alone. I punched it across the face with all the strength I could muster, but that only infuriated it. I let out a yowl of anguish as it sank its teeth into my arm.
“Dante! It got me! You have to shoot my arm!” I shouted.
“Are you insane?”
I looked down at my arm to see that it was already turning purple with the disease. “If you don’t, the disease will spread and I’ll turn into one of them!” I pleaded.
“But you,” Dante started.
“Just do it!” I shouted. The next few moments were a blur to me as Dante shot my arm and I gave in to the blackness overcoming my reality.

* * *

I awoke on a bed in what appeared to be a hospital room. As my eyesight started to adjust, I noticed that I was in the room with a very old man who was regarding me as if I’d just performed a miracle.
“Dante! Is he alright? Where am I?” I asked.
“Please, calm down. Dante is alive, and he brought you here. He said you’re worthy of being a hunter.” The old man said.
“How can I be a hunter if I passed out on my first encounter?” I sighed.
“I’m Dante’s father, and I know a hunter when I see one. I had to thank you for accepting the job. Take a look at your arm.” He said.
I lifted the arm that had once been infected to see that it had been replaced by a prosthetic.
“That there is pure silver. It will be your weapon.”
I examined the arm with wonder. “I can’t even find the words to thank you with, sir.” I said at the same time that Dante came running into the room.
“Xavier, you’re okay!” He said, breaking into a smile.
“I’d hate to ruin this reunion, but isn’t that Tainted One still out there? Perhaps you both should work together to take it down.” Dante’s father said.
“Shouldn’t he heal first?” Dante asked.
“I have confidence that he’s ready. Go on!” His father said. I was skeptical, but the old man nodded to assure me that everything would be okay.
I thanked the old man again before walking outside with Dante. I noticed that it was already dark out, but for once I wasn’t afraid. I could finally put my nightmares to rest!
“Let’s try the forest. They usually dwell there.” Dante said.
We entered the woods and quietly crept into the shadows. I noticed a dark figure almost at once, and I felt the adrenaline rush through me. The Tainted One noticed us and lunged at Dante, but I was ready. I took a swing at it with my silver arm, sending it to the ground with a loud thud.
“Thanks, man.” Dante gasped. To my astonishment, the sickly purplish hue in the beast’s skin began to fade, and it started to rise to its feet.
“Ugh…w-where am I?” It mumbled. I gasped as it slowly transformed into a human, perhaps to who it had been before the outbreak of the disease.
“How did you do that?” Dante asked, pointing to the newly formed human man.
“I don’t know! I hit it with my arm and it just changed!” I said.
“Do you know what this means? We don’t have to hunt them anymore! We can heal them!”
“I feel so sleepy.” The former beast remarked, staring at the forest as if he were a blind man seeing the world for the first time.
“Come on, I’ll take you to a doctor. Wait until Dad hears this!” Dante said happily, lending the man a hand.
As Dante began to lead the way to the city, I felt a rush of pride at my sudden discovery. I could put an end to my nightmares by saving others and restoring this town to the way it once was! Healing others would be an adventure in itself, but at least now I had the courage to do it.
“Coming, Xavier?” Dante called.
“Yeah, let’s go!” I replied. With an added boost to my stride, I followed Dante and the former Tainted One back into town.
* * *

Dante and I were able to heal the town of its Tainted disease. Dante’s father passed away a few days after the epidemic had been fully cured, but he died happily knowing that his beloved town was thriving once again.
Dante ended up becoming the mayor of town, and right now he’s in the middle of constructing a museum dedicated to his research as a hunter.
As for me, I found happiness being a counselor to those whom I had cured of the disease. It’s good to be able to say that everyone is now alive, well, and free of nightmares.
The End