The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Zombie or Post Apocalyptic themed fiction/stories.

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Tinderbox
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Tue Aug 08, 2017 2:13 pm

Liam waited as long as he thought it was humanly possible for him to wait – two whole days. Then, realizing that Miles was never going to help him with his plan, he secretly packed and left the camp, climbing down from the wall where he knew he wouldn’t be seen by the night’s first watch and retrieving the small cache of food – enough for three days – from where he’d hidden it in the surrounding trees.

The clouds moved in a thin layer through the moonlit sky, looking like broken sheets of ice on a pond. The light was enough so that he could make his way without stumbling over too many obstacles. He took the most straightforward course through the forest; less a path and more a route where the trees didn’t grow together quite so thick. He walked with his Kel-Tec carbine folded in half and stored in its carrying case on his back. Even a single gunshot would ruin his plans. Besides, it was too dark to shoot with any accuracy. Instead, he held his war hammer in his hands. He stopped every once in a while to look and listen for danger, but all he heard was his own breathing and all he saw was his own breath in the cold air before him.

He realized why Miles wouldn’t help. The guy didn’t understand. All he cared about was having a nice sturdy wall to hide behind and what was for lunch. Miles Curvey had no good reason to leave. But Liam thought he had a good reason to leave – a very good reason. All he could think about was Katrina Van Kooten. He would find her and tell her that. Maybe, he hoped, she would like the fact that he left the safety of the camp to find her. Maybe she would feel the same. And if not, he thought, at least he’d be there to help keep her safe.

As he made his way through the forest he felt an exhilaration rising in him. This, he thought, was what he should be doing. He should be out in what remained of the world. He should be out doing things, not hiding behind the walls with the others, hoping that danger wouldn’t find them.

It was a good plan, he thought. He was going to the Nevers’ house. It was set back in the trees and out of sight from the road. He’d played there often with his childhood friend, Jordan Nevers. They spent hours hanging out in the family room where one whole wall was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. He remembered seeing all of the books on civil aviation Jordan’s father kept there. Dozens of them. He and Jordan used to browse through some of the larger books, the ones with all the pictures of the planes, picking out which ones they would choose to own if they could. Sometimes they would run out to the barn where Jordan’s father kept his own plane and duck beneath the tarps to look at it. Liam’s plan was to hole up inside the Nevers’ house and, if necessary, read all of those books. Then Miles’ refusal to teach him to fly wouldn’t matter. He’d get Mr. Nevers’ plane ready to go and then he’d fly out to find Katrina. Glossing over the many, many unaddressed details of the plan, Liam got to the part that he liked to imagine most; how impressed Katrina was going to be with him when he found her.

The broken layer of clouds slipped across the sky making the moonlight rise and fall. He moved slowly when the moon shone bright and very slowly when it was obscured. By the time he finally made it to the edge of the highway, he figured he only had a few hours before dawn would break along the mountain peaks to the east. By the time the sun rose, Liam wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and the camp. His father would come looking for him, probably dragging Ryan along. Miles would probably tell them that he’d headed for the highway, but they wouldn’t know which way he’d gone. Hopefully his father wouldn’t spend too much time chasing him. Hopefully his father would follow his own advice. "Some things we can help," his father had often said, "and some things we can't do anything about." Hopefully, Liam thought, his father would see that he couldn’t do anything about his decision to go.

Only one thing bothered him about his plan. With the exception of Voletta, every member of the Nevers family was dead. He remembered what Jordan’s mother had said the day she’d come to their home for help. She had to shout through the front door because Liam’s father had refused to open it for her but, from what she’d said, it was plain that the Nevers’ house was filled with dead people. And from the bite wound on the side of her head, it was clear that it wouldn’t be long before Mrs. Nevers would number among them. “Go home and see to your family,” Liam remembered his dad telling her after he agreed to take in Voletta. And it was entirely possible that she’d made it back home before the infection killed her. That put the number of dead people in the Nevers’ house at four, including the corpse of his best friend, Jordan. Liam was going to have to shoot them all in the head and that bothered him. But it couldn’t be helped.

“Some things we can help,” he whispered to himself, thinking about how good it felt to leave behind the stifling confines of the log fort, “and some things we can’t do anything about,” he concluded, thinking about how far his crush on Katrina Van Kooten was going to take him.

He'd sneaked out of the camp a total of twelve times before and he’d traveled up to three miles on this stretch of highway on a few of those occasions, but only during the day. Now the moonlight made the landscape into something wholly unfamiliar to him. He knew there were two abandoned cars up ahead. He knew there were three trees that had fallen and partially blocked the way. He knew where the shoulder of the road had washed out during the winter leaving the asphalt to slump into a bowl shaped depression. But the moonlight took those things and made them into strange and threatening blobs that didn’t become familiar objects until he was very near them.

As the moon dimmed behind a particularly thick patch of clouds, Liam found himself at one of the fallen trees he recalled from before. He was walking along at a good pace, bypassing the various things that littered the road and the islands of dead leaves that had collected around them when a clump of what he’d thought was simply tangled branches suddenly moved. Liam whirled about, his war hammer gripped tightly in front of him. He backed away from the corpse as it slowly rolled to its knees. It staggered as it rose and Liam backed closer to the edge of the road. The moon found a gap in the clouds and increased in brightness, revealing details on the face of the dead body in front of him. He’d been a middle-aged man once. Now his white hair was spiked upward on one side of his head and the hollowed features of his face were filled by deep shadows. The corpse stumbled toward Liam somewhat hesitantly, the remaining portion of its brain trying to gather enough information to decide whether he was food or whether he was like himself, just another collection of slowly rotting reanimated parts. Liam glanced to his left and right, making sure he had enough room to maneuver around the dead man and bring his war hammer down upon its skull. That was when the moonlight revealed the other corpses gathered just off the edge of the road.

They stood just under the overhanging trees where the moonlight dappled the ground, unmoving, their brains robbed of stimuli by the near darkness and quiet of the night. But the corpse from the road was now only yards from him, close enough to decide he was one of the living, warm blooded and good to eat. The remains of the middle-aged man with the white shock of hair opened its mouth and belched out a croak of delight. Behind Liam, the six other dead people stirred from their stupors and began to shuffle about.

“Shit,” he said, forming the word with an involuntarily breath of air.

Resisting the urge to run – not wanting to have to worry about being followed by seven hungry dead people – Liam swung his war hammer at the white haired corpse, but the moonlight made it difficult to judge the distance and he only succeeded in striking the man’s nose which partially detached and hung there by a flap of flesh. Liam moved to the dead man’s side and brought the hammer down upon the corpse’s skull. The impact made a sickening sound and the man’s remains fell to the debris covered road.

The other six corpses were now stumbling toward him, their arms reaching, their mouths gaping wide.

“The trick,” Liam said to them in a barely audible voice, “is to not get surrounded.” He backed up a little, watching them advance. “’Cause one-on-one, I’m going to win.” He’d learned that not all corpses were equal. Some were more damaged than others. They were the slower ones. “Come on,” he said to the six of them as he backed up a little more. One of the corpses did prove faster than the others. Liam let it get within reach of his war hammer and with a high arcing swing, sent his hammer smashing through its skull. He repeated the tactic again, retreating a little down the road, letting the next fastest one get close enough and then destroying its brain with a hard blow. The last four were a little more difficult. They approached at more or less the same pace, practically shoulder to shoulder. Liam circled and picked off the one on the left. Then he did the same to the one on the right, sending his hammer through the back of its head.

The two that remained came at him at a steady, lumbering pace, even as Liam realized how exhausted he’d become. He retreated from them and paused doubled over and breathing hard in the middle of the highway. That, he thought, is how they get you. They don’t get tired. They just…

“Just keep coming,” he finished aloud. He summoned his strength and swung his hammer like it was a baseball bat, first to the right where it connected with the side of a dead woman’s head, splintering its parietal bone, and then to the left where it caved in the skull of the last corpse, a skinny dark haired teen whose remains walked with a twitchy, jittery gait.

He turned and walked a few yards down the highway before he stopped and got down on one knee to rest. He’d won. He’d done it. He was still alive. But if there had been seven or eight of them, he wondered, would he have fared as well? For just a second he saw himself as anyone else would have seen him; as an eighteen year-old kid heading out alone into a world of the undead with just the thinnest notion of a plan to guide him. But the picture lasted only a second. It was replaced by image of Katrina Van Kooten’s face and the smile he hoped he’d see on her lips as she saw him appear.

“Of course it’s crazy,” he said, addressing his doubts. But, he thought, I can’t help it. Even if he could, he decided, resuming his journey down the road, he wouldn’t want to.




******




“Well,” Rory said, entering the cabin with an armful of Hyacinth’s freshly washed clothes, “you were right. That Liam kid is gone.” The clothes were hand-me-downs that she’s gotten in trade from some of the parents around the camp. None of them were a perfect fit for the little girl, but they were clean and free from holes and tears. Miles stopped chewing his lunch – a thin venison stew – and looked at her, worried about what might come next. “You said he had some harebrained idea to take off after Katrina,” she continued, placing the clothes on Hyacinth’s cot. “Now no one’s seen him since last night. Mrs. Gladston says Liam’s dad came around looking for him and his mom said a lot of his things are gone, stuff a person might take if they were going to be gone for a while.”

Miles finished chewing and swallowed. “Can’t figure people,” he mumbled, fishing around with his fork for any sign of more meat in his bowl.

“Yeah, well, they were asking if anyone had any idea where he might have gone,” Rory continued, smoothing Hyacinth’s hair. “I told them I didn’t, but that I’d ask around.” She sat and took the small plate off the top of her bowl that was keeping her stew warm. “So,” she continued, her eyes on her lunch, “I’m asking.”

“Liam’s going out to look for Katrina?” Hyacinth asked from her seat at the table where she was copying sentences from a tattered and creased paperback edition of Charlotte’s Web that Rory had borrowed from the Stein’s daughter. “Why? She left a long time ago. She’s probably with Mundy.”

“Could be, Hya. Could be,” Rory said to her.

“So why would Liam go out too?”

“Well,” Rory told her, “I think Liam…just wants to help.”

“If Katrina and Mundy are together,” Hyacinth concluded, “then they don’t need any help.”

“That’s what I tried to tell him,” Miles mumbled, spooning broth from his bowl.

“So,” Rory said to him, “if you have any information, you might think about letting his parents know.”

“I told you everything he told me. He said he knew where there was a small private plane and he wanted me to teach him to fly it. I told him I didn’t know how and that he was crazy to even think about doing it. That’s it. He didn’t tell me where it was, so I have no idea where he might be going.”

Rory thought about it as she stirred her stew. “You notice how things are in camp? The closer winter gets, the more…on edge people are getting. I heard the Crafts were arguing that we should head out and find someplace at a lower elevation to spend the cold months.”

Miles shook his head, dismissing the idea. “It’s too late now. And anyway, the lower you go, the more the dead become a problem, generally speaking.”

“I know,” Rory agreed, “but it shows how nervous people are getting. You know what’s holding this place together? As much as I hate to give it to the crusty old bastard, it’s Sean Weeks.”

“Yeah,” Miles said, “I suppose. People go to him like he’s the leader, even though he denies he is.”

“Yeah,” Rory agreed, “and these people need that. You know he’s going to go out looking for Liam.”

“He said he was going to?”

“He doesn’t have to say it. He’s a parent. He’s just going to do it.”

“Understandable,” Miles said into his cup. He swallowed a gulp of water, already knowing what Rory was getting at.

“Yeah, well, understand this: If Weeks goes out after his son and gets chewed up by a bunch of dead people or shot by some no good scumbag or just falls in a hole and dies, this place will likely break apart. No more unity, no more shared meals, no more cooperation.”

Miles thought about the Craft’s chickens, Mrs. Beers’ acorn bread, the way the some of the others produced and repaired things and the way Dr. Yang was always available to keep people’s small cuts from becoming deadly infections.

“Okay,” Miles relented, “so I’ll tell them about the plane. They might know where it is and where he’s going.”

“Look,” she said, dropping her fork and resting her forehead against her hand, “I know you don’t like the idea of going back out there – ”

“Because I’m sane,” he interrupted. “You know how many times I almost died the last time?”

“Yes, yes, I do know,” she said with a touch of exasperation, “because you’ve told me about every single one multiple times.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And I’m not telling you to go. I’m just…suggesting that you going out to find him would be better than Weeks going out to find him. You’ve got more experience dealing with what’s out there.”

“Which is why I’m so much more interested in staying here.”

“But what’s going to happen to this place if Weeks goes out and gets himself killed?”

“I’ll tell them about the plane and that’s it,” Miles said firmly. He’d only raised his voice a little, but for someone who normally spoke in soft mumbles, it was like a shout.

“Okay,” Rory told him with a nod, “okay. Just think about it.”

“Everyone keeps telling me to think about it,” Miles said, rising from the table. “I am thinking about it. I have thought about it. And you’re all friggin’ crazy.”




*****




After delaying for as long as he could, Miles crossed the compound dodging mud puddles and muttering under his breath. “Perfectly good place,” he said of the camp. “Safe as it gets.” The two Gladston kids ran across his path, kicking at a soccer ball that had completely lost its black and white colors and looked ready to come apart with the very next kick. “No idea,” he said. “They have no idea.”

It was bad enough that Liam Weeks had gone blundering out into a horror show of a world all because of a pretty girl he would never ever find, but now Sean Weeks was going to go out after him and most likely wind up dead. Miles shook his head, unable to understand why some people seemed so eager to get themselves killed. He glanced up at the watchtower and saw a blanket-wrapped Amanda Kern looking down at him. He had nightmares of the time he’d been shot at from the top of the tower and the view filled him with unease.

The wall that once separated the inner compound from the outer one had been taken down and some of the logs used to rebuild the top of the watch tower. The rest had been used to construct a large blockhouse at its base. Nearly two-thirds finished, the new structure would provide better shelter during the coming winter than an inner wall. The new configuration didn’t partition the camp as much as the old one did, but Miles was sure the blockhouse would be solely under the proprietorship of the Weeks and the Kern families, just like the inner compound had been.

The ground around what people had begun calling the Weeks House was particularly muddy due to all of the activity. Miles made his way around the RVs and cargo containers and was about to cross the final few yards to the door of the new structure when he found his way suddenly blocked. A girl about Katrina’s age with dark bushy hair pulled back into a ponytail had stepped out from behind the Weeks’ RV and with the obvious intention of stopping him. She kept her head lowered in a timid way, but looked up at him with huge dark eyes that dominated her heart-shaped face.

“Uh, hello,” he said to her uncertainly. “You’re, uh, Vio…”

“Voletta,” she corrected. “Um, sorry, uh…do you know where Liam went? It’s just, I saw you and him talking the other day out by your broken car. I thought he might’ve, you know, told you something. That’s why I thought maybe you were coming here, to tell his dad where he went.”

“I’m here to tell his dad that I don’t know exactly where he went,” Miles replied in an agitated grumble, sidestepping to make his way around the girl, “just that he’s planning on flying there.”

“Flying?” Voletta said, looking at the ground in thought. “A plane?” Her mouth formed a little O and she raised her big, dark eyes to meet his. “He didn’t mean the Cheetah, did he?”

Miles halted his attempt to slip past her. “Wh…what’s the Cheetah?”

“My dad’s plane,” she explained. “It’s in the barn, our old barn. Liam and Jordan used to get in trouble for playing around in there. My dad didn’t like any of us going near it.”

“So-o-o,” Miles said slowly, “the plane Liam was talking about is back where you used to live?”

“Where is he going to fly…” The girl seemed to deflate as she realized the answer to her own question. “Oh. He’s wants to go out looking for them. For her. But he doesn’t know how to fly a plane. You do, though. Is that what he was asking you about the other day?”

Miles put his palm to his forehead, as if trying to keep his thoughts from bursting out. He felt a sudden headache coming on along with the certainty that, despite everything he was sure he knew about himself, he was about to do something both dangerous and stupid. “Why,” he asked himself out loud, “are people so hell-bent on dying?”

Voletta, lost in her own thoughts, shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“How…” he heard himself asking “…how far would you say it is from here to your dad’s old barn? Like, how long would it take going on foot?”

“Two or three days, I guess, if he was walking,” she answered quietly. “His dad is going to go out after him, isn’t he? Only Mr. Weeks…he’s…kind of old and he’s been a little sick, though he doesn’t want anyone to know. He really shouldn’t go all that way.”

“Listen, uh, Voletta,” Miles said, “let’s…let’s wait a little while to tell Liam’s dad about this, okay?” It was just like Rory had said, he thought; Weeks was the figurehead holding the camp together. If he went out after his son, the cracks wouldn’t take long to begin forming. And if he went out and didn’t come back… “Which way is this old barn from here?” he asked her. “I mean, can you draw me some directions?”

“’Cause you’re going to go out after him? ‘Cause you don’t want Mr. Weeks to go?”

“Well,” he sighed, “he is kind of in charge around here. If he goes out there the people here might start to, you know, worry about things.”

“And you’ve been out there,” she added. “You know what to do to…not die.”

“I guess,” Miles muttered with a slight shake of his head. “I mean,” he caught himself, straightening his shoulders and putting on a more self-assured front, “sure, yeah, I know how to...how to not die out there.”

“I know where there’s a map,” she said. “I can mark the way. I can, um, also come with you to find Liam.”

“Oh, no, no,” Miles told her vehemently. “You stay here. Someone’s got to tell them – after I’m gone, I mean – that I’ve gone to get Liam and bring him back. Otherwise, everyone will go charging outside the walls like a bunch of idiots. It’s bad enough,” he added under his breath, “that one idiot is going out there.”



An hour after Voletta had handed him the roadmap with the way marked in red pen, Miles was repacking his backpack for the third time. There were only three things he was absolutely sure he wanted to take with him: the .38 Special revolver he’d inherited from Dr. Grant Blevins and two relics he’d taken from the museum such a long time ago – a sixteenth-century flanged mace and Spanish parrying dagger.

“Still not done?” Rory asked upon entering.

“It’s like you’re eager to see me go or something,” he mumbled in reply, finding a place in the backpack’s side pocket for the mace.

“No, I’m not eager to see you go,” she told him. “I’m eager to see you get out there, get that kid and get back here.”

“Who says he’s even going to come back? I mean, if he’s dead set on being stupid…”

“He’s an eighteen year-old kid. You remember two or three years ago when you were one of those?”

“I was never stupid.”

“Right,” Rory replied, unconvinced. “Well I remember being a stupid kid. At that age, we jump into things without thinking them through all the way. By the time you catch up to him, I think he might be in a more reasonable frame of mind.”

“Okay,” Miles grumbled, “assuming that’s the case, how am I supposed to catch up to him? He’s got a day’s start on me and I’m pretty sure he’s a faster walker.”

“I got you some wheels,” Rory told him. She motioned him outside where one of the camp’s mountain bikes rested against the cabin wall. Someone, probably Mrs. Beers, he suspected, had fashioned a webbing that stretched across the open space of the bike frame. It featured multiple pockets, each one stuffed with small food items and survival gear. “You’ll have to walk it through the forest, but when you get to the road you’ll make some good time. Probably catch up with him pretty quick.”

Miles recalled the good thing about travelling by bike. It was quiet and if the dead didn’t see you coming, you could get around them pretty easily - if there were only one or two of them. But he was in no mood to be conciliatory. “I wish I had my humvee back,” he complained as he began walking the bike toward the gate.

John Gladston was guarding the main entrance to the camp, the way he did most of the time. Since being wounded, it was one of the few duties he could manage with the use of only one arm. “Miles,” he said in greeting, eyeing the bike with a slow nod. “You going out for a while, chief?”

“Not because I want to,” was his sullen reply. Miles handed him a folded piece of paper addressed to Mr. Weeks. Inside was a brief note explaining things, just in case Voletta Nevers got the details confused.

Gladston took the note and gave him another slow nod. “Yup,” he said, opening the gate with his good arm. “Well, someone wiser than me once said ‘The first rule for being a man is you gotta spend your life doing crap you don’t want to do.’”




*****



Lucas slowed the Forester to a stop in the parking lot outside the building. The bullet riddled sign above the storefront read Horsted’s Home & Farm Country Store. Outside, a soft drink machine sat empty and riddled with birdshot, its door hanging open and moving gently in the afternoon breeze. True eyed the broken out windows with undisguised apprehension and adjusted her grip on the carbine angled against her legs. She jumped and shot Lucas an angry look when he gave the car horn a single sharp tap.

“Shit!” she hissed.

“It’s to – ” he began.

“I know,” she interrupted. “I know what it’s for.” She inhaled deeply and let it out slowly, trying to settle her nerves.

“I got the last one,” Lucas told her.

“No,” she admitted, “you got the last three. It’s my turn.” But her uneasiness was still plain to see as they both got out of the car. The asphalt parking lot was broken into jigsaw puzzle pieces with dry stalks of foxtail barley growing from the cracks. “Okay, so I’m new to the whole looting thing. Besides food, what am I looking for?”

Lucas shook his head and scanned the area around the store for danger. Gasoline, he said to himself, naming the top item on his wish list. Ammunition, he thought, naming the second. But there was no real chance that she’d find either one. “If you find any food in there at this point,” he told her, “you’ll be the luckiest person alive. Even the animal feed will all be gone. Just look for anything that might be of use: tape, rope, tarps, sheets, even clothing. Even if we don’t need it, we might be able to trade it with other people for something we can use.”

True thought about the total lack of other living people they’d seen since leaving the mountains. “So,” she asked doubtfully, “survivors trading with each other is big business these days?”

Lucas looked out at the empty landscape around them and was forced to reassess his words. “No…I guess. Not…not really.”

“I mean,” she said, “when’s the last time you traded stuff for other stuff?”

Lucas thought back to his first month on the road. “Not since…probably a year ago, back when people had only just been forced out of their homes, back when they still had hope of finding a safe place to ride it out. The next town, the next military base, the next FEMA camp; each one was going to be it.” The memories swam into focus in his mind, making him almost nostalgic. “Most people were still behaving themselves because they thought they’d have to answer to some authority when they got there. We traded with each other. You know, a pair of flip flops for a pocket knife, a can of beets for two D cell batteries. Matches and lighters and stuff. But when it became clear there was no place to go and no one was in charge, people went from trading to taking.”

“No more barter,” True said, popping the carbine’s magazine for the fourth time to check that it was full.

“No, just lots of bullets.”

“So don’t bother looking for things to trade?”

“No,” Lucas admitted. “I guess…I guess I was just thinking…”

“Just thinking of the good ol’ days,” she said wryly, “when people would only think about killing you for a can of beets rather than actually doing it.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

She eyed the country store’s shattered display windows. “What if there are dead people in there?”

“If there are any in there and they haven’t already heard us, then they’re either deaf or they’re trapped under something heavy.” He picked up his makeshift spear and gestured at the carbine she held tightly in her hands. “Don’t use that unless you absolutely have to. Just watch yourself.”

“Sure you’re not coming?” she said as she took her first step toward the open doors.

“One person always stays outside,” he answered.

“Yeah,” she muttered, looking at the open landscape around them. Besides the store, the road and a string of power lines marching out of the high hills in the distance there was little to see. “At least you’ll be able to spot anything coming from a mile away.”

The Forest Service roads had snaked their way through the mountains for what seemed like forever before they’d finally hit a paved road. They’d passed campgrounds and trailheads and scattered houses, but they had seen no one alive. Nineteen corpses had watched the car pass along the way – eleven of them shuffling along by themselves and one group of eight clustered around the burned out ruins of a home with the painted message HELP US still visible on what remained of the roof. The mountains around them gradually lost their jagged peaks and had become more rounded as the miles wore on. The pines clinging to them thinned until they only decorated the washes and ravines that draped down their sides. When they’d arrived at a highway junction they consulted the maps they’d found in the car’s glove compartment and decided to continue driving the back roads as long as they could. They stopped to relieve themselves, to stretch their legs, to eat and refuel the car. They checked each abandoned vehicle they passed, but found no additional gasoline. They spoke very little, but Lucas could see True’s anxiety rise as they left the isolation of the mountains.

“What do we do when the gas runs out?” she’d asked at one point, knowing the answer.

Lucas glanced over his shoulder at the last half full gas can nestled among the things they’d scavenged from the Daley ranch. “We walk.” And, he added to himself, leave all of this stuff behind for the next scavenger who comes along.

“With winter coming,” she muttered, realizing the danger. The nights were already dipping down toward the freezing mark and the sun, when it wasn’t hidden by clouds, took longer every day to warm the air. Travelling by foot meant an increased risk of getting caught by the season’s first burst of winter weather. “I’d rather not.”

I’d rather find some place to leave you, Lucas had thought at the time. Some place safe would be good, he added, some place with other survivors who hadn’t gone completely wild. But he wasn’t sure such a place still existed. Some place, he concluded, getting to the core of the matter, where I won’t have to watch you die – because he remained convinced that she was going to die in some way, just like all of the others. And as he watched her step cautiously through the doorway of Horsted’s Home & Farm Country Store, he wondered if this would be the place.

True peered into the dimly lit interior of the building, letting her eyes adjust. The place smelled like mold and mildew and rodent droppings, reminding her of the old shed behind her house where she would sometimes get high at night before stumbling back to her bedroom. It was a jumbled mess of toppled shelving units and caved in ceiling tiles. She looked hard into every shadow and tested her grip on her carbine. Fuck Lucas, she thought, and his “don’t use that unless you absolutely have to” bullshit. She stepped forward over the broken glass and trampled trash resolving that if anything inside so much as moved, she was going to completely empty the gun’s eighteen rounds of 9mm at it and damn the noise.

The daylight from the front of the store faded to near nothing as she investigated the back few aisles. She took the flashlight from her jacket pocket and shined it into the rear of every shelf and display case, looking for something, anything to justify the risk of entering the place. She thought about Lucas standing outside. She knew why he’d let her do it, even though he was far more experienced at scavenging. It was all part of her crash course in surviving the end of the world. He probably knows there’s nothing to find in here, she thought. He’s just using this whole waste of time as part of some lesson plan. The idea made her intensify her search. She wanted to find something to show Lucas she wasn’t useless.

Her search took her to rear wall of the building where a line of refrigerated cases – the glass doors now black, empty and spotted with mold – were interrupted by a closed door leading to a back room. She placed her small flashlight between her teeth and reached for the doorknob, ready to open it and step back in one motion, but her hand stopped an inch away from making contact. She took a step backward and stabbed the muzzle of the Beretta CX4 Storm against the door, making two sharp sounds against it. Three seconds passed, then six. Just as she decided it was safe and was again reaching for the doorknob a heavy weight fell against the other side of the door. The dull thump made her jump back as electric sparks ricocheted against the inside of her skull.

There was one in there.

On the other side of the door, she told herself as her heart pounded, was a dead body, one lacking the good manners to fall down, stay still and decompose. She recalled the only other dead one she’d seen with her own eyes. He’d been scuffing his way up Coffee Street: an older guy, big pot belly, looking pretty normal except for his ash white face and the large bloodstain on the back of his shirt. But the one on the other side of the door would be a horror compared to the freshly dead one she’d seen the year before. She was sure of it.

“Hell with this,” she said around the flashlight clamped between her teeth. She whipped around to make her way back to the front of the store, but she’d taken only three steps before she stopped. She thought about Lucas standing outside and how much she wanted him to see her as an equal, not as a burden to be carried. He was a survivor, she reasoned, and as a survivor he’d want to rid himself of a burden. But an equal – an equal was an asset, someone who earned their way, someone to keep. The few words Lucas had said about his girl – Lux – made it clear she was not a burden, but a partner. And when he finally realized that his girl was gone, True thought, she wanted to be his partner. She wanted to be a suitable replacement.

Without thinking any more on the matter, True took the flashlight and held it in her support hand so that it shone down the length of the carbine. She stepped up to the door, turned the knob with her right hand and shoved at it with the sole of her shoe. The door connected with something on the other side, something that fell back, allowing her to retreat to the nearest shelving unit to brace herself.

The thing that emerged from the black stink of the back room had once been a young woman with dark roots showing at the base of her bleach blond shoulder length hair. The skin on one side of its face was missing from temple to chin. The flesh and muscle that had once kept its right eye in place was gone, allowing the eyeball – wrinkled and deflated like an old grape – to hang free of its socket. Its mouth gaped, revealing gray teeth. As it lurched toward the glow of the flashlight with strange, rubbery movements, True aimed the carbine at the thing’s head and squeezed the trigger. She squeezed again, harder, until realizing that she hadn’t disengaged the push button safety above the trigger. She struggled to find it with her fingertip as the corpse dragged itself closer and made gagging sounds from deep within its throat. The dead woman reached toward the glow of the flashlight and caught hold of the tip of the barrel just as True disengaged the safety and pulled the trigger. The dead woman’s hand exploded, leaving behind bits of flesh and exposed bone.

The sound of the shot in the store’s enclosed space sent ice picks into True’s ears, but she was too panicked to be much affected. She fired three more rapid shots, only one of which struck a glancing blow to the side of the corpse’s head. Cursing herself, she took a step back and made the next shot count. The dead woman’s skull fractured as the bullet exited and struck something in the back room with a metallic ping. The body of the young woman with the dyed blond hair and dark roots fell sideways to the floor, leaving True to wonder if she would always remember the look on its face; like it was relieved, she imagined. She knew the idea was nonsense but, damn, she thought, it had looked like she’d been relieved as she fell with that bullet hole just above her empty eye socket.

With the sound of the gun shots still pulsing in her ears it was difficult to hear anything except the sound of her own pounding heart, but something caught her attention, something coming from the complete darkness of the store’s back room. It was a shuffling sound accompanied by a delicate metallic clink. True took a backward step and raised the carbine to her shoulder, trying to calculate how many rounds remained in its magazine.

A second corpse emerged from the back room, this one wriggling toward the glow of her flashlight, using its elbows to move in place of its missing lower half. This one had also been a woman, but now it was only half of one and it trailed ragged bits behind it as it crawled. True took aim at its head, trying to calm her nerves, telling herself that the thing was no real threat. But with her hearing coming back, she heard more sounds coming from the unlit back room. Two more dead bodies crowded the doorway, followed by a third and a fourth, all looking like extras from a horror film. Only, she thought numbly, these were a million times more realistic. As they lurched and dragged themselves forward, they made sickening sounds not only from their throats, but also from their slowly rotting body parts grinding together in gruesome ways. As they shuffled, their feet struck empty brass rifle casings littering the concrete floor of the backroom, making a musical tinkling sound. The smell that they brought with them hit her like a wall, adding another dimension lacking in all of the scary movies from her youth.

She disregarded the dead body crawling toward her and raised the carbine at the ones coming through the doorway, her mind strangely recording how they all were dressed: lots of denim and leather with wallet chains dangling here and there from belt loops. Just like a bunch of bikers, she thought. Aiming by the light of the flashlight, she fired thirteen more hurried shots, emptying the weapon’s magazine and filling the air in front of her with smoke. Two of the corpses fell, causing the two behind them to stumble over their now immobile bodies. But the glow of her flashlight revealed more corpses behind them – at least three by her count. It didn’t occur to her to reload the carbine. In opening the door, she felt like she’d opened a catacomb filled with restless and vengeful death. Her mind fixated on the thought of fresh air and daylight outside and she turned, determined to make it back outside and never enter the ruins of another building again. Rushing down the back aisle of the store she skidded to a halt and let out a small yelp as one of the cooler doors opened in front of her. Another corpse, too impatient to wait its turn at the doorway, had crawled out between the empty metal racks that had once held bottles of soft drinks and other refrigerated items. It looked up at the flashlight in her hand with a fascinated look on its mutilated face and swiped at her leg with one three-fingered hand.

Out in the parking lot, Lucas had heard five muffled gunshots from within the store followed shortly by thirteen more. Seventeen plus one in the chamber, he thought; that was the capacity of the CX4 Storm. As the seconds ticked by and turned into minutes, he stared at the shattered front windows and began to wonder how difficult it was going to be to get Lux’s gun back before he moved on alone. He flexed his fingers on his makeshift spear and stepped toward the store, figuring that sooner would be better than later. If he went in before True’s body reanimated, he would only have to deal with the corpse – or corpses – that had killed her. Anyway, he thought, now he could stop wondering how True Brewer was going to die. But he stopped short as True emerged at a rapid walk from the store’s dim interior with the carbine slung over her shoulder and carrying a single cardboard box.

“We need to go,” she reported, her throat constricted and her voice dry. “We need to go now.”

He watched her as she passed him, noting her taught, panicked expression and how her arms were trembling. “What’s that?” he asked, looking at the box in her hands.

“Now,” was her only reply as she tossed the box into the back of the car and jumped into the passenger seat. “We need to go now.”

He followed her wide eyed glance at the front of the store just as the first few corpses emerged from the gloom. They swayed and staggered through the doors and fumbled their way out of the shattered windows. They were all dressed in a similar fashion and their bodies were similarly chewed up by multiple gunshots. “How many are there?” he asked, moving toward the driver’s side of the Forester.

“More than I wanted to stay and count,” she answered, her voice breaking. “Could you just fucking drive?”

The car spat gravel at the corpses that had followed True out into the parking lot. As they veered out onto the road, Lucas looked at the crowd of them in the rear view mirror. “Ten,” he counted. “Twelve.” He gave up counting as they came upon a mass of brown tumbleweeds spilling out onto the highway from where they’d lodged against a barbed wire fence. “What happened?” he asked as he steered around it.

“They looked like bikers,” she said, her voice trembling, her hands working nervously to find a resting place. “The floor of the back room was covered with shell casings. I bet they were forced in there and shot. I bet they were. Who knows why? I sure as shit don’t. I don’t care. Fucking St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and I don’t care why. I only…” She stopped babbling long enough to unscrew the top from her water bottle with shaking hands and take a sip, half of which spilled down the front of her jacket. “That little honk on the horn when we got here didn’t make them come out. They were shut in the back room, in the dark. They didn’t make that croaking sound when I banged on the back door.” She turned her head to look at Lucas with an angry expression. “They didn’t fucking do that. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to fucking know they’re there?”

Lucas shrugged and stared ahead down the road. “They don’t always. If they were all shot enough times, maybe they couldn’t hold air in their lungs.”

True shook her hands in the air, letting her fear turn into fury. “How the fuck, then, is anyone supposed to learn how to survive out here if there are no fucking rules to how things are supposed to fucking be?”

“You made it out of there alive,” Lucas said lightly, as though he didn’t care much about it. “Now you know.” He turned the wheel left to avoid the remains of a destroyed camper shell blocking the right lane. “Now you know how things can go.”

“What,” she replied, fighting back tears, refusing to let them come, “all to shit?”

“Yes,” Lucas said, “all to shit.” They spent the next half mile in silence. “What’s in the box?” he finally asked.

“The what?” she said in a soft, tired voice.

“The box you carried out of the store.”

“Oh,” she said, having forgotten it was even there, “that.” With events still swirling chaotically in her head, she couldn’t quite recall why she’d taken the box from the store shelf on her way out. The dead were coming out of the back room like a nightmare from some deep, dark level of hell and she’d slowed her escape long enough to grab it. She didn’t really know why. It was like someone else had done it and now she had to guess the reason behind it. Maybe, she thought, it was just to have something in her hands when she came out of the place, something to show for her effort, something to show Lucas. She twisted in her seat and reached into the back, retrieving the box and opening the top flaps to reveal a full case of white spray paint.

“What’s that for?” He’d seen a few examples of cars spray painted to better camouflage them, but never the color white. Then he considered that maybe she was thinking of spraying it in the eyes of the dead, but he would have counseled her to not get her hand so close to their mouths.

“You said your friend Bundy might be coming up behind us, right,” she answered, making up a reason even as she spoke, “trying to find you?”

“Uh, Mundy,” Lucas corrected. “Yeah, it’s possible. I gave him the other GPS direction finder. He said not to be surprised if I saw him.”

“Well, these are for marking our way,” she said, proud of being able to invent such a plausible reason so quickly. “You can’t always rely on electrical devices. Batteries can die.” She removed a can from the box and shook it. “Highway signs, overpasses, whatever; we can leave arrows pointing the way we went. Anyway, it’s the only thing I found in there.”

Lucas considered it, weighing the pros and cons. Pro: It would make it easier for Mundy to follow them. Con: It might make a trail for bad guys to follow. “Okay,” he finally said, “but you can be the one who climbs up on the highway signs and overpasses.”

“What,” she replied, forcing what she thought was a halfway convincing grin onto her face, “like you never vandalized a water tower before?”
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by teotwaki » Tue Aug 08, 2017 5:35 pm

Nice. Nice. Nice.

A great way to end the day at work!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Boo Randy » Tue Aug 08, 2017 9:24 pm

MOAR!!!!!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Zimmy » Tue Aug 08, 2017 10:27 pm

I'm happy now. Thank you.
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Sheriff McClelland » Tue Aug 08, 2017 10:44 pm

Saved this all day for tonight 's bed time story . Thank you !
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by 2T2-Crash » Wed Aug 09, 2017 4:01 am

AWESOME! :clap:

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Hunt4lyf » Wed Aug 09, 2017 7:30 am

Awesome TB!!!!! Thanks!!!!!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Spazzy » Wed Aug 09, 2017 8:25 am

Good work!
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Halfapint » Wed Aug 09, 2017 1:55 pm

late to the party here! This MOAR was delicious! Thanks TB!
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by 91Eunozs » Wed Aug 09, 2017 6:33 pm

Thank you!

Tried to save it for tonight but couldn't resist! Another great couple of chapters...when's this available to purchase?
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by bodyparts » Thu Aug 10, 2017 9:43 pm

:clap: woo hoo :clap: thank for the update :clap:

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by akraven » Sun Aug 13, 2017 4:47 pm

Thanks TB!! Great update.

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by SamAdams » Sun Aug 20, 2017 2:10 pm

Need moar to escape this political stupidity that's inescapable in daily life. Update please!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by teotwaki » Sun Aug 20, 2017 3:34 pm

Tinderbox, we want MOAR

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by D_Man » Wed Aug 23, 2017 10:26 am

Happy to have an update, but I want MOAR!!!!!
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Nature_Lover » Sun Aug 27, 2017 11:36 am

Thank you Mr. Box!
Love this story. :)
I wonder how Lucas will encode messages to Mundy without having every bad guy pick up their trail?
Something like "HEY MUNDY, remember that truck at Goodnight house? The second one you come to will have a message hidden where we always carried the spare gas cans. Try to keep up."
Thanks for your story, tinderbox.

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Halfapint » Sun Aug 27, 2017 12:03 pm

Finished my 3rd read through of this story. Thanks again for writing one of the best stories I've ever read. You've got such a wonderful talent I'm grateful for every update we get.


Also MOAR..... please.
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Hunt4lyf » Thu Sep 21, 2017 1:10 am

come on TB, we're waiting!!!!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by 91Eunozs » Thu Sep 21, 2017 7:55 pm

I'll join the chant!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Halfapint » Thu Sep 21, 2017 9:15 pm

Moar!!!!!!
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by bodyparts » Fri Sep 22, 2017 7:26 pm

Moar!!!!!!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by seandeville » Sun Oct 01, 2017 9:40 am

You should write a book
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Chad1387 » Tue Oct 10, 2017 7:52 pm

Excellent. Awesome.

I just love this story. Not only the story, but the dynamic of reading it.
At first, it was a bit of an obsession, reading this glorious discovery as though it were a necessary nutrient (and somehow also one that had to be consumed as quickly as possible without regard for anything else...actually- I suppose, in a distant way, similar to the dead’s obsessed need to consume the living when they see them...)
And then tragedy struck- I had caught up with the other MOAR readers. Impatience. Withdrawal...quickly causing the need to find inferior stories, just to get my fix...
But now, over time and through sheer lack of options, I’ve become accustomed to just forgetting about the story... and every couple months, checking back in to see if the amazing TInderBox has left another update.

I’m truly thankful.

(Also, nice to get an update on Lux... and intriguing to see that we may be keeping up with Liam...)

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Tue Oct 17, 2017 10:21 am

Liam walked until the sun was halfway up the sky and then slept for three hours in the back of the first vehicle he found that had all its windows intact, a 2004 Dodge Caravan. The inside of the vehicle smelled of stale urine and he found it had sheltered more than one survivor since being abandoned. On the back of the driver’s seat three messages had been written with the same indelible black marker. "Pete G. Olson was here," read the first one. "Cold and rainy out. Dry in here. Trying to make it back home to Blackfoot. Mom and dad, hope you’re OK." The second one read "Christine York and Zoe Ochoa stayed here two days. Snowing. Heading south where it’s not freezing." The third just said "Alyssa, Please be alive when I get there. Brad". Liam tried to add his own message to the minivan’s guestbook, something like “Can’t stop thinking about Katrina Van Kooten. Going to find her and tell her,” but the marker he’d found stuck between the seat and the headrest had dried out and would only make the faintest of marks on the vinyl.

He dreamed of the corpse with the white shock of hair. Starting as a blur in the moonlit distance, it slowly approached him in the moonlight, shuffling closer and closer with a reproachful look on its gaunt, craggy face. When it was close, it spoke to him, saying “Can’t help it. Look at me,” while its teeth fell from its mouth like cracker crumbs. When he forced himself awake, the day was half over and the sun was a bright spot behind a haze of clouds. In the oven-like heat of the car, Liam rolled over on his back and discovered one more message left behind by some long vanished visitor to the back of the Dodge Caravan. On the ceiling they had scrawled the message "Tired. Can’t do it. Everywhere the dead". He lay still for a moment, contemplating the words and wondering about the fate of the person who had left them. They sounded defeated and hopeless and Liam pitied them for not having the kind of guiding purpose that he had.

He peered out through the minivan’s dirty windows in all directions before opening the door and tumbling out. Feeling footsore and fatigued, he hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders and with a smear of thoughts in his head, began walking again.

It was a mistake, he thought, to have let himself get so tired. This is how people die, he scolded. They let themselves get so worn out that they make mistakes or they can’t run from danger or defend themselves. He was going to have to find another place to shelter long before the sun started to set and make sure he got enough rest before the next day dawned. It didn’t help, he supposed, that he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since leaving camp the night before. When he came across the A-frame house on the roadside he figured it was as good a place as any to stop and prepare some food.

The large windows off the front deck showed no sign of ever having been boarded up. Now entirely shattered – even the ones on the home’s second level loft – they permitted a good look at the interior before he stepped inside. All of the furnishings still seemed to be there: couch, rugs, chairs, entertainment center, eighty inch flat screen TV. Everything, though, had been ruined by exposure to wind driven rain and snow and carried a moldy smell. Liam felt foolish as he opened the first of the kitchen cabinets and, sure enough, they were all completely bare.

There was a red clay chiminea on the rear deck. Roughly half of the balusters had been forced free from the deck’s railing and used for fire wood. Liam kicked out a few more and lit a fire inside the chiminea using petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls to get things going. Ten minutes later he had just started heating a cup of water to pour into a pouch of dehydrated Thai curry when the first corpse clomped its way onto the wooden front deck of the house. Moving in a rubbery, drunken fashion, the dead man was wearing what had once been a red plaid shirt and a puffy navy blue down vest. Now its soiled and ripped clothing was nearly as gray and grimy as its torn and ragged flesh. It staggered toward the broken out windows with a lost, perplexed look on its face before catching sight of the bright flames licking the inside of the chiminea on the back deck. Its eyes grew wide and its mouth fell open as it squeezed the putrid air out of its lungs in a drawn out belching sound.

With exhaustion weighing him down, Liam took up his war hammer and filled his lungs with air. He stepped through the back door to the house even as the corpse of the man came stumbling in through the smashed front window. They met in the living room and Liam swung his hammer at the side of the dead man’s head. The blow, however, was poorly aimed and only the upper part of the handle struck the corpse’s head, knocking him to the side. Liam, too, was knocked off balance. His heart raced, partly because of the danger and partly because of the realization of how tired he was.

“Okay,” he said aloud, “no more games.” He jabbed the head of his hammer at the dead man’s face. If the man had been alive, the pain and shock of a broken nose would have taken the fight out of him, but the corpse didn’t care about pain or disfigurement. It rebounded almost immediately and lurched at Liam, threatening to close in to where the long handled war hammer would be next to useless. Liam backed up a few steps and nearly lost his footing on a pulpy layer of old magazines that had melted into the living room rug. “Shit,” Liam breathed, becoming agitated at his own fatigue. “No more.” Drawing up a reserve of strength, he brought the hammer up and then down upon the top of the corpse’s skull. The mask of excitement and ghoulish hunger on the dead man froze in place as the body dropped to the floor, splashing the back of the couch with greenish black fluid.

Breathing heavily and relieved that the fight was over, Liam took a few backward steps and rested against the dining area table. The fire on the rear deck crackled and he thought about the cup of water he’d set to boil, but his appetite was gone. Instead, he suddenly wondered how badly damp and mildewed the upstairs loft bedroom was. But all thoughts of sheltering in the roadside A-frame house for the night instantly disappeared as a second, third and fourth corpse stepped up onto the front deck and croaked the air out of their lungs.

“Oh…you’ve…got to be…kidding me,” Liam said to himself. He pushed himself away from the table and headed out to the rear deck. It was too much, he thought. He was too tired. He’d handled three corpses at once before, but he didn’t think it was wise to try it in his current state. His Kel-Tec carbine was still folded in half and stored in his backpack, but the sound of gun shots… “Who knows how many more…” he breathed, unwilling to advertise his presence to every other corpse within a mile. Giving up on the idea of a hot meal, he quickly grabbed the few items he’d unpacked and stuffed them into the pockets of his backpack. Leaving behind the metal cup of steaming water, he left the fire to burn itself out and headed for the steps that led from the rear deck to the ground below. He was halfway down when a glance to the side showed him four more dead bodies dragging themselves up the slope from the house’s wooded back lot. They croaked wretched sounds from their lungs as they spotted him and changed course.

“You can…get past them”, he whispered to himself as he descended, adding, as long as there aren’t too many more. He reached the ground and began an uphill jog back to the highway. When his feet hit the debris covered asphalt, he looked ahead and saw a group of five more dead people lumbering at him. “Twelve,” he breathed. “That makes twelve in all.” He could probably run through the five ahead on the highway, but they would surely turn and follow. They would follow, he told himself, and so would the other seven. And they wouldn’t stop. Even when he collapsed from exhaustion, they would still keep coming. He was going to have to lose them. He was going to have to lead them back the way he’d come and then double back once he was out of sight. It was going to take much of his remaining energy. And it was going to take time. He wondered if he’d find shelter again before nightfall.

He thought about the 2004 Dodge Caravan he’d slept in earlier that day and hoped he would find something as warm and dry before it got cold and dark. He also thought about the words he’d seen written on the car’s ceiling by that unknown someone: Tired. Can’t do it. Everywhere the dead. Though his thoughts of finding Katrina were still a bright, guiding star in his mind, the presence of so many corpses appearing from out of nowhere had put a spike of fear through his heart. As he jogged back down the highway, retracing his path in order to draw the dead in the wrong direction, he tried to swallow the lump of panic rising in his throat and thought he might be beginning to understand the author’s state of mind.




*****




Miles was uncomfortable riding the bike. It was a little too small for a person his size and he felt unbalanced, like he might go flying over the handle bars if he hit a big bump or braked too suddenly. Still, he thought, even though the seat was poking him in all the wrong places and the weight of his backpack kept threatening to throw him to one side or the other, it was faster than walking. And speed was what he needed most if he was going to overtake Liam Weeks and get him back to the fortified camp beside the Craving River.

“Crazy, stupid kid,” Miles muttered of Liam who was only a few years his junior. Sure, he thought, Katrina was pretty, but it was insane for Liam to think he’d be able to find her. And even if he could somehow manage to meet up with them, the kid was definitely not considering the possibility that falling to his knees in front of her and pledging his love might reveal Garrett Mundy and his two shiny revolvers to be of the slightly jealous kind. He hoped Rory was right. He hoped that by the time he caught up with him that Liam would be fully disenchanted with the idea of heading out into a world stripped of all comfort and humanity.

It wasn’t long before he came upon seven heaps of human remains littering the road. From the look of the fluids spilled from their smashed skulls it was clear that it had only been a short time since they had been permanently put down. “You and your war hammer,” Miles sighed. Even if he hadn’t had Voletta Nevers’ map he would have known he was heading in the right direction.

The change in season and the fall of leaves allowed him to see some distance into the trees at the side of the road. So far he’d counted three cars driven or pushed as far as possible off the highway as the fuel in their tanks ran out. He wasn’t much tempted to stop and search them. He’d come across a dozen such sites in his travels, all abandoned except for one where a reanimated dead woman in the backseat of a Honda Civic clawed and smacked at the window glass, trying to get at him. Most of the time, he figured, the cars’ former owners simply started walking after eating their last bite of food.

He was concentrating on the highway before him, being careful to avoid fallen tree limbs, windblown mounds of food wrappers and plastic bottles and the occasional discarded suitcase lying open in the middle of the road. It was because he was looking down that he missed the appearance of a crowd of dead people at a bend in the road trudging up the highway in his direction.

“Shit,” he said as he braked. There were a lot of them, forty or so by his quick estimate. And the ones in front had already seen him. Even from a hundred yards away, he could hear the air croaking out of their lungs. The corpses in the back raised their heads at him and echoed the sudden excitement of the ones in front. Their languid, swaying movements intensified and their pace increased. Whether or not to try riding a bike through a mob of necros required quick calculation. Too many packed into too small of a space and an outstretched arm could easily knock a rider to the ground. “All right,” Miles said to himself, “too many to go through.”

He was tempted to turn around and forget the whole thing. Here he was, he considered, on a mountain highway and there were four dozen dead people in his way. What, he wondered, was he likely to encounter farther on down the road? But though the temptation to turn around and go back to the camp was strong, he figured it was a little too early to give up. He’d been in similar situations once or twice before. Either you outrun the dead, he told himself, hide from them or outmaneuver them.

Turning the bike to the left hand side of the road, he chose a gap in the trees and headed for it, hurriedly trying to figure if he could cover enough distance to get around the mob of dead people and return to the highway without them seeing where he went. They didn’t have the brains to know what he was doing, he told himself. They would waste time going to spot where they’d seen him disappear into the forest. They wouldn’t notice his tire tracks. They wouldn’t try to cut him off. They would just continue off into the woods until they saw something that registered in what was left of their brains as promising a mouthful of food. As long as that something wasn’t him, he thought, he would be okay.

He found the merest suggestion of a path through the trees and bushes. Probably a game trail, he figured. Pedaling fiercely, he swerved to the right to avoid a three inch wide deadfall pine resting at an angle against another tree. The corner of his backpack, however, caught against some of the spiny branches, causing him to fight for control of the bike. He was still trying to regain his balance when his front wheel struck a rotting log half submerged in the damp, loamy earth. The impact catapulted him over the bike’s handle bars and he landed in a patch of osoberry bushes. He lay there with the wind knocked out of him, his glasses gone from his eyes, staring up at the daylight shining through the blurry tangle of tree limbs. A shower of yellow leaves spiraled down and fell around him, making faint pitter-patter sounds as they trickled through the bushes. Stunned and teetering on the edge of shock, his mind drifted to a different place and time.

“We’re going to the museum. You coming?” The voice belonged to Stan Zitzer, one of the few people at school who ever talked to him. Stan had spoken the words the day they’d closed down the campus and told everyone who hadn’t already left to go home.

“The museum?” Miles had replied, looking over the tops of the trees at the green copper roof of the hundred and fifty year-old building in the distance. “Why the museum?”

“It’s got big, thick stone walls,” Morgan Nang said from behind Stan.

“And,” Stan had replied, gesturing to the dorms behind them, “we can’t stay here.” A girl had walked past them, crying, being led by a frightened looking parent toward a waiting car. Neither Miles nor Stan nor any of the five others with him were lucky enough to have family close by. On the other side of the dorms forty-three bodies lay in the grass of the quad, covered in white sheets and bound with multiple layers of rope, twine or packing tape. They’d been there for two days waiting for the authorities to come and take them away. Students who had once stood and stared in fascination as the first two or three were put in place now hurried past them, trying to ignore the sight of them writhing and bucking in their bed sheet shrouds. “The roads are parking lots,” Stan had continued, “the airport’s a mess and those shelters they’re setting up downtown – no way. Being jammed in with thousands of panicky people? No thanks.”

“We got our key cards,” Morgan Nang had said, looking around nervously. “We can get into the museum break room and just wait there until they get the situation under control. There are vending machines.”

“Come on,” Stan had told him. “Anyone who picks going out into this shit storm over staying in a secure place is a total dumbass.”

The words echoed dully in Miles’ brain. A total dumbass. That was him.

Lying there in the bushes with a warm buzzing in his head, he lost track of the minutes. His heartbeat returned to normal and he felt the overwhelming urge to sleep until the sound of leaves crunching under foot reached his ears. The dead, he thought. The dead! Heart pounding once more, he tried to roll to his feet, but his backpack and the bushes around him hampered his efforts. Finally succeeding in getting to his hands and knees, he looked wildly at the surrounding trees as he felt around for his glasses, fervently wishing he hadn’t given up wearing them secured to his head by surgical tubing. Why, he asked himself, had he given up doing that? Because he thought it looked stupid and he’d become tired of people thinking he was stupid. Now he was paying the price for concerning himself with appearances over survival.

The forest was a collection of blurry shapes. A chilly breeze spilled through the bushes and tree branches and set the blurs in motion, mixing in more swirls of yellow leaves that confused things even more. Indistinct shapes moved against the mottled backdrop of tree trunks and he knew these were dead people moving in his direction. Had they seen him? Should he freeze in place? Should he curl into a ball and hope they would stagger on past him? Panic was threatening to paralyze him. There, he said to himself, squinting at the movement among the tree trunks, there’s one! And another over there! The rest, he told himself feverishly, would be right behind. He forced his arms to move and swept his hands over the ground around him, but his glasses were nowhere to be found.

It was Darwinism, said a voice at the back of his head, pure and simple. Once upon a time, people with bad eyesight were supposed to be eaten by cave bears and dire wolves. Now with civilization gone, natural selection would be back in the driver’s seat. And people like you, the voice said, are as good as dead.

“Fuck it,” he whispered, giving up on finding his lost glasses among the fallen leaves and twigs covering the ground. He had two spare pairs of eyeglasses secured safely inside his backpack, but as he grappled with the shoulder straps and let the pack slip to the ground he couldn’t remember just where he’d put them.

Now there weren’t just two pairs of feet crunching through the leaf litter and pine cones, there were three – no, five – no, ten pairs of feet, all shuffling and limping and dragging in his direction.

“There’s…no…time,” he breathed, forming the words behind his clenched teeth as his fingers felt around inside his pack for his spare glasses. He made the mistake of glancing up and saw blurry motion everywhere through the trees. Now there were twenty of them with thirty more coming up behind. One of the ill-defined shapes was making a gagging, choking sound as it grew near. The breeze suddenly delivered the smell of them to his nostrils and he lost all control of his thoughts.

Forget the glasses. Where was his gun? Where was it? And how was he going to aim it without being able to see? Where was his antique mace? Where was the dagger? He looked up at the blurs now very close to him, so close he could just begin to make out the grotesque ruins of their faces.

The decision to run was made for him at the very core of his brainstem where a human’s most primitive, reptile-like instincts still resided. One moment he was a perfectly good example of a homo sapiens fishing around in his pack for a miracle of modern technology – his eye glasses – and the next he was little more than an unthinking, frightened animal; prey fleeing from predators. He left his backpack behind and crashed wildly through the osoberry bushes, oblivious to the feeling of the woody stems lacerating his hands and face. The forest became a maze of boulders and thickets. Stands of pines warned him away with their dense, ground hugging shadows and low hanging branches made him veer left and right like he was a rabbit zigzagging from danger.

You, he said to himself under his breath as he ran – you – are – so – fucked.

Without his glasses every dark, dead, mossy tree was a gnarled, reanimated body reaching for him. Every patch of uneven ground tried to knock his feet out from under him. He ran until he stumbled into a five foot cut in the forest floor made by a cold, clear running stream. He landed in water up to his ankles and fell to his knees. The splash of icy cold to his face took away what little breath he had left, but like a slap on the cheek it broke him free of his blind panic. He scrambled from the water and fell against the steep bank. Squinting at the dark shapes before him, he recognized one as the upended root system of a large tree that had been undermined and felled by the meandering water. Ready to go to ground like the frightened rabbit he was, he shouldered his way into the narrow gap between the stream bank and the tree roots, all but burrowing into the loose sandy soil. He let the dirt fall over his head and shoulders. Heart pounding, he worked to slow his gasping breaths and tried to make himself invisible.

Two minutes passed. The chilly air, the cold soil and his water soaked clothes set his teeth chattering – or maybe it was just fear; he couldn’t say for sure. He began to wish that he’d had the presence of mind to grab one or two smooth rounded rocks from the water’s edge to use as weapons. For that matter, he thought, it would be nice to have his dagger and his mace. But, he recalled, they’d been attached to the bike with bungee cords – where he could easily get to them if needed, he thought bitterly. He became aware of something poking him in the small of his back and after thinking about it, decided it must be his revolver. Stupid, he chided himself. It had been there tucked inside his waistband all along. But it didn’t matter much. Still can’t see for shit, he thought. Plus, there were too many of them to shoot with Dr. Grant Blevins’ brushed stainless .38 Special.

Suddenly they were there, scuffing and plodding along the forest floor above his head and behind him. He couldn’t see them, not even their blurry shapes, and he dared not turn his head, but he could hear them. All forty of them would be there soon, he knew, blundering through the trees and bushes looking for the live, warm food they last saw moving this way. From what he could hear, most of them were turning as they encountered the obstacle of the stream, trudging along the top of the bank, passing just inches away from the top of his head. But a few seconds later he heard one of them off to the left topple down into the water. Another followed the first, then another and another. They uttered no sounds. They simply worked their way to their feet and continued their mindless search for food, sloshing through the ankle deep water of the stream bed. One of them entered his peripheral vision and he saw a blurry image of a thin man with short curly hair and a goatee. He could just make out that it was missing one arm and seemed to have something – perhaps a knife – sticking out of its chest before the corpse disappeared behind the mass of tree roots. Another staggered into his field of vision, a large blob of a man – or woman; without his glasses he couldn’t be sure. Two more followed, one with long stringy black hair and one that appeared to have lost all of the hair – and the flesh – from its head. Not moving an inch, Miles kept himself pressed his back against the stream bank and tried to rid himself of the notion that they could surely hear the sound of his heart as it thumped painfully, threatening to burst inside his chest.

Eventually the sound of them tramping through the woods around him faded. Still, he waited through five minutes of silence – nothing but the sound of trickling water and his pulse throbbing in his ears – before he gathered the will to move from his hiding place. Every muscle in his body was tensed as he crawled out of the stream bed. He stopped at the top of the bank and looked in all directions, eyes wide, searching for any sign of movement in the collection of blurs that was the forest landscape.

He doubled back, trying his best to retrace his path through the trees. He would have to find where he left his backpack. And when he’d found his spare glasses and could see again, he could make his way back to the highway. With the mob of dead people still wandering through the forest looking for him, he could get away without them following. He was almost out of it, he thought, almost safe. Well, he told himself, not safe, but safe from this particular danger. Another would come along soon enough.

With that thought still fresh in his mind, Miles stepped around the fuzzy tangle of a fallen tree and was startled to see sudden movement. The corpse of a woman with a gray, wrinkled sagging face and only torn fragments of flesh where her lips should have been croaked the air out of her lungs and grabbed his arm. He let out a cry of surprise and fell backwards, but the dead woman held on and fell with him. She landed beside him and immediately began to crawl upon him, her teeth snapping, her mouth moving towards the exposed skin of his hand. Miles grabbed her by the loose skin of her neck and held her face away from him. The dead woman’s fingers clawed at his face. Though her fingernails had long since broken off, she tried mindlessly to rip his skin, to work her fingers into his eyes and tear them out, to hook them into his mouth and pull. With his free hand, Miles was just able to reach behind him and draw the brushed stainless revolver from his waistband. He aimed it at the dead woman’s face just inches from his own and pulled the trigger. The sandy grit from the stream bank, however, had worked its way into the gun and the revolver’s hammer and cylinder seized up. Overcome by desperation, he pounded the gun on the ground beside him three times, shook it and thumbed the hammer back. This time the revolver cycled and the side of the dead woman’s head exploded in a thick fountain of black goo. But firing the gun so close to his own face nearly cost him dearly. Hot gasses from the burning gunpowder escaped the cylinder and seared his cheek. As the corpse went limp, he squirmed out from under it and rolled onto his stomach, hands over his eyes, fearful that he’d blinded himself.

Deafened by the shot, blinking away at the sensation of having cooked his own eyeballs, Miles gradually regained his senses. Looking closely, he saw that the dead woman’s tattered clothes had snagged on the fallen tree, trapping her in place while her dead companions had lumbered onward. But the shot, he told himself, the sound of the gunshot… He pictured them, the forty or fifty of them off in the forest, slowly turning at the sound of the gunshot and coming back this way.

It took him two precious minutes to find the right clump of osoberry bushes and locate his backpack. He dug into it and quickly found a spare pair of eyeglasses. The bike lay nearby, thankfully not too damaged and still in working order. Walking the bike back to the highway, he pushed it up the shoulder of the road and got on. He was tired, hurt and dazed, but he managed to keep his balance and begin pedaling his way down the road. With his vision once more corrected to 20/20, he clearly saw the first few dead bodies emerge from the trees at the edge of the road. He heard them squeeze the air out of their lungs at the sight of him. He knew they would begin walking in his direction, following him down the highway, but he didn’t care. He’d just scraped his way out of too much and, at the moment, he just didn’t care.
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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