Someone with the virus showed up at an airboat tour dock and started biting people. Within minutes, one infected turned into two, two turned into four, and so on, the math quickly starting to work against those still human.
Those lucky enough to evade the swarm of crushing people, infected or otherwise, piled into the nearest available airboat, the crowd mere inches behind. Four people made it onto the boat before the pilot sped off, another airboat operator taking shots at the many infected as the boat zoomed away into the Everglades. While the roar of the giant propeller at the back helped dull the screams of those still stuck on the dock, it couldn’t stop the occupants from watching in horror at what occurred to those left behind.
The remaining uninfected wailed for assistance, their cries for help dying along with their bloodcurdling screams as the growing number of zombies took them down. Many flailing bodies fell into the water, some voluntarily and others less so. Futilely, a man tried to chase after the departing airboat, a clump of bobbing zombies quick to drag him beneath the surface while he clawed at the water.
Soon enough, the dock mercifully vanished from sight, and the pilot stalled the airboat in a shaded waterway. Compared to the wailing and splashing and snarling from minutes before, the near-silence that permeated the natural space around the survivors felt almost alien to behold.
The pilot, Billie, released a heavy sigh, eyes wide and breath labored as she stood up from her chair at the back of the boat.
“Jesus Christ,” she whispered. She pulled off her noise-cancelling headphones, eternally grateful that they and the propeller had served to muffle the sound of panic even slightly.
Hunter, her coworker, kept the shotgun drawn, still aiming in the direction the boat had traveled. “The hell do we do now?” he asked. When he spoke, his voice was loud, like he was still trying to catch the previous crowd’s attention.
“Hell if I know,” Billie muttered, dark eyes scanning the airboat’s surviving occupants. A young couple clung to each other, still sitting tight in their chairs. A little boy, maybe no older than five, began to cry, quickly consoled by his equally terrified mother. Billie sighed, turning back to face Hunter. “Put the gun down. We’re gonna need to save as much ammo as possible in case those things come back.”
Hunter nodded his head, tucking the shotgun under the pilot chair.
“What are we going to do?” the young man of the couple spoke up, voice wavering in the poor fellow’s terror.
“We’re gonna call for help,” Hunter said, raising back to his full height. “Probably get the Coast Guard to come and pick us up.”
“How long will it take for them to get here?” the mother asked, pulling her child into her lap.
Billie swallowed the growing lump in her throat. She didn’t want to tell the woman that it could take a while. “Not very,” she said instead, catching Hunter’s equally worried gaze as she did so. She pulled out her phone, holding it up for a moment so that the other survivors could see that she had it, before making the call.
She stifled a sigh of relief when the call went through. The orders from the Coast Guard were simple. Stay put as long as you can, and stay calm.
That, Billie thought, was easier said than done.
The group quickly discovered that the expanse of mangroves and brackish, green-brown water failed to stop the oncoming horde.
“Holy shit,” Hunter gasped, pointing down the waterway.
Billie looked up, eyes widening in horror as she spotted the zombies.
There must have been thirty of them, all groaning and snarling. Their graying damp skin clung to their already bloating, decomposing bodies like wet tissue paper. With how many there were, they seemed almost like a living, bleeding, wave of rot and viscera. The stench wafted across the stretch of water, making Billie gag and bring her shirt up to her nose.
Hunter went to grab his gun, but Billie held up a hand.
“Don’t,” she said, climbing into the captain’s seat and starting the airboat back up. “Remember, we need to save ammo.”
Reluctantly, Hunter put the gun away, and the group sped off again.
They did this for what felt like hours. Time would pass, the zombies would arrive, and the survivors would retreat deeper and deeper into the winding waterways. The mangroves they took shelter between began to feel less like a sanctuary and more like a prison, their gnarling, thick roots reminiscent of iron cell bars.
The woman of the couple shifted in her chair, agitated and paranoid. “Why aren’t they here yet?” she asked. “You said it wouldn’t take long!”
“There’s a lot of people in Florida they’ve probably gotta rescue!” Hunter pointed out, voice raising. “They said they’d get to us, these things just take time!”
“We don’t have time!” the man of the couple said, earning a glare from the mother. “I wanna get the hell out of here!”
“We all do,” Billie snapped. “Just sit down and let me do what I need to do until the Coast Guard gets here!”
Once more, the horde came, paddling and thrashing through the water. Billie grimaced, reaching down and flicking on the gas. The propeller whirled behind her, roaring to life and spinning wildly. Before it could push the boat any further into the waterway, however, the humming petered into silence, the propeller’s blades slowing until they were stationary.
Billie’s heart leaped into her throat. She let go of the steering stick, flicking the gas off and on again. This time the blades didn’t even move. Another series of flicks with the same result. She looked over at the oncoming zombies, and then to Hunter.
“Get the gun,” she ordered. “Get the gun, now.”
Hunter seized the shotgun from behind the chair. With one hand he motioned to the floor of the airboat. “Get as low as you can!” he shouted to the passengers, sans Billie. “This thing isn’t very forgiving!”
The four other occupants dropped to the floor, mother pulling her child to her chest and the couple hugging tight to one another. Hunter aimed the shotgun, eyes narrowing as he stared down the advancing horde.
He squeezed the trigger. A zombie’s face blew open, grey matter spewing out the back of its obliterated skull. It sank as the operator reloaded, slipping another bullet into the chamber before taking aim again. While Hunter reloaded, the zombies quickly swam over their fallen comrade, unperturbed by the shotgun’s presence. Once more Hunter took aim and fired, the spray catching another infected in the face, blowing off its jaw with the force.
While Hunter continued to fire at the wave of decay, Billie distributed more headphones to those on the ground. Airboats were loud, but so were shotguns, and the less people panicked, the better they’d be by the time the Coast Guard showed up.
One by one Hunter picked the zombies off. Thirty turned into twenty turned into ten, until finally the bullets stopped coming, but the zombies didn’t.
“Son of a bitch,” Hunter hissed, grabbing the shotgun and wielding it like a baseball bat. He marched to the bow of the airboat, beginning to beat the still-advancing zombies in with the butt.
A zombie grabbed onto his shoe and yanked him in. Hunter hit his head on the side of the boat and blacked out on the way down, silent as the grave as he slipped beneath the brackish waters and into the awaiting undead’s grasp. While Billie screamed, she knew being unconscious made her companion’s end far more merciful than it would have been otherwise.
Billie leaped over the still-prone passengers, snatching up the discarded shotgun and taking up Hunter’s post. She slammed the end of the gun onto a zombie’s head as it attempted to climb, cracking open the thing’s water-softened skull and sending it back into the waves. Another zombie took its place and she missed the swing, staggering back and nearly toppling over as the undead beast took a swipe at her leg.
She stomped on the zombie’s hand, the creature’s fingers splitting off from the palm as she ground her boots into the flesh. She lifted her shoe and let that one fall too, kicking the discarded fingers into the water after it.
“Help!” the mother wailed, and Billie’s head whizzed around.
The five zombies left shook either side of the airboat as they started to climb up each end. Their dead gray arms lifted into view, bodies beginning to scramble right behind.
Billie stormed over to the one making the most progress, stomping on the monster’s head as it poked into view. The force of her boot against the zombie’s skull split the thing clean in two, spilling the viscera onto the deck, much to the mother’s audible horror.
The pilot turned her head, eyes widening as she spotted another zombie cresting the starboard side. It clamped onto the man of the couple’s leg and began to feast, blunt teeth tearing into tendons and muscle. The man wailed in agony, using his remaining strength to release his partner and throw himself off of the boat, taking the zombie with him. As he landed in the water, the space he vanished into bloomed with a cloud of red-brown, and the woman of the couple continued to cry.
The four zombies left managed to pull themselves halfway up the port side. The one with the most progress swiped at the air before suddenly slipping back into the waves. Billie gasped, confused, daring to lean closer as the other zombies followed suit, finally freeing the boat of their menace.
A group of alligators had arrived, beginning to feast on the undead flesh in their waters. One reptile grabbed onto a zombie and clung tight with its jaws, spraying murky water as it rolled, twisting and breaking the beast open with the force of its death roll. The other alligators chomped down on the still-wading, thrashing undead, tearing at the decomposing bodies until only scraps of hair and clothes remained.
Billie watched, awestruck, as the satiated alligators dispersed, their work done and the boat’s lives saved. She sank to her knees, panting and gasping for air. She chuckled, and then she laughed, grabbing either side of her face in her panicked exhilaration. Safe. Safe. She was safe. They were safe now.
Eventually the Coast Guard arrived, piling the survivors onto the boat and leaving the airboat behind.
“How the hell’d you manage to survive all those zombies?” one Coast Guardsman asked, scratching his head as the boat coasted by the remains of the struggle.
Billie laughed, shaking her head. “In the most Florida way possible,” she answered, looking out over the mangrove forest as they sped off. For a moment, she thought she saw the long, dark head of an alligator lift its head from the waters to regard her.
Ariana Ferrante is an #actuallyautistic college student, screenwriter, playwright, and speculative fiction author. Her main interests include reading and writing fantasy and horror of all kinds, featuring heroes big and small getting into all sorts of trouble. She has been published by Eerie River Publishing and Soteira Press, among others. On the playwriting side, her works have been featured in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and nominated for national awards. She currently lives in Florida, but travels often, both for college and leisure. You may find her on Twitter at @ariana_ferrante, and on Instagram at @arianaferrantebooks.