People who watched Donnie and me together as little kids often commented to my parents that we were closer than brothers. When I got old enough to hear those stories related to me, I understood that they were right. I have...had...a relative who fit the biological definition of a brother, but Donnie and I were much closer than that. We had a motto between us. More like a vow, really. I know that's something that kids just do, and then forget about as life takes hold, but we meant it.
"Beyond the end." We'd always be there for each other, no matter what. The end of school, a relationship, even death itself, we truly believed with the innocence of children...none of those things would keep us apart.
And we held to that vow. Even as those walking nightmares turned our town into a slaughterhouse and ate (or worse, turned) everyone we loved, we held to that vow. I was there with Donnie, holding his hand, telling him that we wouldn't be apart long, as the blood, too much blood, pooled beneath both of us on the frigid tile floor of the restaurant kitchen. I was there to help him along to the next step, whatever that might be, and I closed his pale blue eyes after he was gone.
And I was there when those eyes popped back open and he lunged for my throat. To my credit, I didn't run right away. I tried to help him. Then I tried to kill him, because I knew that he wouldn't want to be like that. I just didn't have anything to kill him with, and he wasn't giving me the time to look.
So I ran, coatless but fortunately wearing good boots, into the freak October blizzard, with Donnie on my heels.
There was almost no hope. I knew it then, I know it now. But instinct compelled me to try. No weapon to kill him with meant none for me, either. The best-case scenario was that I would freeze to death before Donnie could get to me.
I could live with that. That thought was okay with me. Even though Donnie was gone...far, far gone...I just couldn't let the thing that wore his face feast on his best friend. That's an insult that I refused to allow.
The first few minutes weren't too bad. I moved through the snow pretty well, putting some distance between me and him. Mind you, I was still aware that, though I was running from him, I was also running towards the same abominations that had taken the neighboring town. Again, it didn't matter. As the saying goes, I was headed nowhere, but making great time.
Then the cold hit me.
And, because God or Mother Nature or whatever thinks he/she/it is hilarious, the snow intensified to the point where I could only see a few inches in front of my face. The wind whipped up, too, but that, at least, was at my back.
I could feel a gentle numbing in my ears first. I rubbed them as I powered through the increasing snow cover, but that only served to numb my fingers even faster. The numbness traveled inward, taking my forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck.
But my feet? Good as ever.
I looked behind me. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like Donnie was gaining little by little. Even if he wasn't, even if my slowly-freezing head was playing tricks on me, it was only a matter of time. I didn't have to be a scientist to figure out that he didn't feel, couldn't feel, what I felt. He had a good half-inch of snow on him, whereas I only had a dusting. My otherwise-unoccupied mind theorized that was because, frankly, he was dead, and gave off no body heat to melt the snow from him. I imagined that the coating would be the only way that an observer would be able to tell which one of us was living and which was not.
The end was getting close. I didn't even try to deny it; I long-jumped over the first four stages of grief and landed right on acceptance. The best plan I could come up with was to get someplace inaccessible to Donnie so I could save both whatever was left of his soul and myself some serious hurt. Maybe, if I was lucky enough and there were survivors somewhere (please, God, let there be survivors), I would present something suitable for burial.
Even near death, it was important to have a goal in mind. Otherwise, what was the damn point? Of anything?
I willed myself to look around at my surroundings, at the woods I grew up playing in. Hide and seek gave way to pseudo-camping to paintball to our unsuccessful attempt to start smoking to making out with Gwennie Barber in...
...in the cave.
I was close.
It wasn't the cave proper that I was actually interested in, but rather the steep incline in front of it. I just didn't think that Donnie, whose coordination was shot to shit, could handle it. I wasn't entirely positive I could, either, but it was my best bet.
I looked back again. Now there was no doubt. He'd closed the gap. I hooked as sharp a left as I could manage and concentrated on my march: lift left foot, push, stomp. Lift right foot, push, stomp. Repeat.
I was there.
The incline looked intimidating to me. In my youth, after Donnie and I had figured out the path of least resistance, we'd take whatever girl we'd been dating at the time here. Or try to, anyway. The seclusion was a big part of the attraction, of course, but so was the climb. Any girl who'd be willing to climb it with us, well...there would be no mistaking their willingness. Neither Donnie nor I ever failed to, at bare minimum, get boob. Twice, I actually scored. Regardless of outcome, as I got a little older I realized that it was nice just knowing that they'd all trusted me enough to lead them, hand-in-hand, up a hill into a dark cave in the middle of nowhere.
Gwennie had been the last girl to make that climb with me. Then I got a car, and the world opened itself to me and my libido. For all I knew, the candles that we burned that night were still there. I had no matches, but it was comforting, to a degree.
I wanted Gwennie to be okay. I knew she almost certainly wasn't. Still, I hoped.
You probably don't care about any of this.
I reached the bottom and grabbed onto the first branch. This same branch had been the only starting point for every successful climb. Start anywhere else, and you'd end up at the bottom again (and not necessarily by choice). Donnie learned that the hard way, and still had the scar on his knee to prove it. I just about died laughing that day.
I couldn't feel the branch. I...I looked at my hand and saw that I hadn't even grasped it. It was just sort of resting there, Donnie's blood sticking out as the only colorful thing against a whitewashed background. I willed my hand to close, but no movement.
So that was it.
I turned around. Donnie was just too close now.
I collapsed onto my ass in the snow and rested my back against the tree.
All I wanted now was to hold him off long enough to die. Then, Donnie could do...what those things do best.
I heard the sound of snow crunching underfoot. I turned my head as quickly as I could (not quickly at all), and saw another human shape. I had a momentary burst of hope that I'd been rescued, but the frozen blood that had a turned a white button-down shirt almost entirely crimson dashed those thoroughly. Maybe someone else had found themselves in a similar situation as mine. I'd fared a little better, for whatever that was worth.
It made a snarling noise and moved for me.
Donnie was on it immediately.
I'd seen this kind of behavior before. These things wouldn't eat each other that I knew of. They were, however, territorial as all Hell. At that moment, I was the territory, and I did something that I'd never done before in my entire life: I rooted against my best friend. I wanted the other thing to put Donnie down for good and, if it had to come to that, be the one that finished me off. Two birds, one undead stone.
Donnie, curse him, showed the same indefatigable resolve that I'd seen so often on the basketball court. He tore that thing apart. Quite literally. A severed arm landed close enough to me that I could have reached out and touched it. Or it, me.
He turned to me, all business again.
I tried to raise my arms in front of me, protect my face, my neck, anything. Nothing was working right.
Except for my feet. Still toasty warm.
I tried to focus on that feeling as Donnie dropped to his knees three feet in front of me and leaned in, teeth bared. He moved slowly. Even though he couldn't feel the cold, it was still doing a number on his body. Unless the weather broke soon, he'd eventually freeze, too, right next to whatever remained of yours truly.
I summoned every last bit of me to whisper something. I don't know how successfully my lifeless lips relayed the message, but what I was going for was, "Beyond the end, buddy." My eyelids drooped, and I began to slip away.
He was close enough that I could smell him. There was no smell of decay; he hadn't been dead that long. He smelled like cheap light beer.
He twitched, then sat back on his heels.
I already know what you're going to think. That the cold had finally broken him down, as it had me. Or maybe he smelled the death on me and decided that I would be unpalatable. Or a host of other reasons. All or none of the things that pass through your head may have been true. But whatever else you may think, I don't really care.
I know...I know...what I saw in his eyes. A spark of recognition. Momentary. Instantaneous. Unrecognizable to anyone who wasn't at the edge of oblivion.
My mouth curved into what I think was a smile.
We win, Donnie. One last time, we win.
Feeling strangely protected, I closed my eyes, embraced the end, and went to see what waited beyond.