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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 10:15 pm 
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Test. Test. Is this thing on? Test.

Okay (*takes deep breath*), I'm going to go ahead and post a zombie apocalypse story. There’s nothing much new in it. No zombie-melting peroxide cannons (great!) No tornado-tossed zombies (absolutely brilliant!). It’s built on all the conventional features of zombie apocalypse fiction. Hopefully the characters will make up for my lack of invention.

My goal is to work it into some shape suitable for publishing. Since I’m too close to it to be objective, I’d appreciate any constructive thoughts (see how I cower from the word criticism?), especially regarding any technical details.

Here goes.

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"...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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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 10:22 pm 
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Three weeks after her funeral, he fled a home filled with memories.

The vague outline of the plan had been in the back of his mind for years. Whenever life’s small frustrations became a weight, he would mull it over: a remote mountain cabin, a month or two alone. His wife had been like the light of day to him for twenty-three years, but in his fantasies, it had always been just him going off for some time by himself. Now, with nothing left to stop him, he was going to do it; not just a month or two but a full year. He was going to spend some time alone, sequestered from the rest of the world to see how much of him was left after so much of him had been torn away.

His first step on the road to the wilderness was the internet. He typed the words ‘most remote mountain cabin’ and then spent hours whittling away at the search results until he’d found a suitable candidate offered by a rental company.

“Good news, Mr. Sallow,” read the email, “The property owner has given us the go ahead and we’ll have no trouble writing up a twelve month rental agreement. Because it’s so late in the season, we recommend that you contact the local authorities or the local ranger station to learn what to expect over the winter months. The house is located on private land adjacent to the national forest. The property was originally owned by a software company executive. My understanding is that it was a pet project that was nearing completion when he was forced to sell.”

He made arrangements with his assistant manager, Wayne, to run the store in his absence, to open it on weekends, to accept consignments to keep up inventory, to scan anything important and forward it via email.

Before he set out, he also found a web page that listed all the gear a person needed for a long-term stay in the wilderness. He didn’t intend to get that rustic; the rental house was a fully equipped, totally modern off-the-grid wonder. But, he thought, better safe than sorry.

The internet, he mused as he printed the lists of equipment and supplies; if it ever went down for good it would be like the fall of ancient Rome, with the Dark Ages hot on its heels.

His last act before gassing up his thirteen year-old Ford F150 and hitting the road was to hook up the car trailer they used when clearing out whole estates. He planned to load the truck and trailer full along the way and not have to make any trips into town once he got where he was going. The location of the last wholesale food store on the way to his destination was marked on his map.

He was fifty miles from home before he left the highway and pulled into a megastore parking lot. The ammunition he’d found in the leather bag with his father’s old revolver was decades old, the brass tinged with green and he decided not to use it. He found 525 count bulk packs of .22 long rifle cartridges on sale in the sporting goods department and picked up three of them.

Ridiculous, he thought to himself. How are you going to use over fifteen hundred bullets? He put one box back, then changed his mind and picked it up again. It was cheap, he decided.

“Gonna do some plinking, eh?” said the man with the liver spotted bald head behind the counter. “What range do you use?” Michael mumbled the name of the national forest which bordered the rental property. “Gonna need more than a twenty-two to deal with the bears up there,” smirked the clerk.

Bears? He was pretty sure he was being teased, but still – bears. The image of a murderous, mutated bear from out of an old movie popped uninvited into his mind. In the dark forest behind the monster bear were other imagined threats: lurking mountain lions, insane drifters, rabid raccoons… Glancing up to the glass case behind the clerk, he saw another bright orange sale sign. Stoeger 12 Gauge Side-by-Side Coach Gun, read the tag. Simple to shoot, he figured. Not a lot of moving parts to break. And it was on sale for a lot less than he thought a gun would cost.

The clerk followed his gaze and his smirk grew into a coffee-stained smile.

***

In between towns, where the signal from one radio station grew weak and choppy, he hit scan and listened to other radio stations shift past. Amid the music and the commercials, the content of a news report trickled through his attention like water through a sieve.

“…for weeks now but deaths already number in the tens of thousands. Information regarding the epidemic has been difficult to come by due to the total news blackout imposed by Beijing. U.S. government officials are declining comment on whether the situation in southern China can be directly linked to reports of similar situations emerging in portions of Southeast Asia and parts of Africa but they strongly deny that any domestic cases have been reported. The unusual nature of…”

And it was gone, replaced by a classical music format and a melody he recognized. He couldn’t remember the name of the composer but the name of the piece was easy to recall: “Danse Macabre.”

“Nice,” he murmured, sneaking a peek out the driver’s side window, watching the full moon tear its way through the clouds.

***

The C&Q Express Motel was fifty yards from the highway off ramp, nestled behind a donut shop, in between a pizza place and a tire store, with barely a dozen cars dotting the parking lot. As he exited the motel lobby, a conversation immediately caught his notice. Apart from the presence of the police officer, something about the intensity of the man’s tone held his attention as he rooted through the pile of things on his passenger seat for the duffle bag holding a change of clothes and toiletries.
“No,” the man was saying to the officer, the door to his motel room wide open behind him, “no, I told you I didn’t know her. She had on a pink t-shirt with Greek sorority letters on it, so I’m guessing she was a college girl. Brown hair, ‘bout nineteen or twenty. I only picked her up ‘cause she looked like she was in trouble. I kinda had to stop for her, anyway; she was walking right down the middle of the road. It was either stop or run her over.”

“All right,” the officer said with just a hint of skepticism, “Then what happened?”

“I put the window down and asked her if she was okay and before I’d finished asking, she’s climbing up the side of the cab, tugging at the door. I figured she was in trouble, maybe too scared to talk or something.”

“Uh-huh.”

Michael locked the door to the F150 and, in the dirty glow of the yellow light outside his room, pretended to study the frantic bashing of insects against the motel’s stucco façade as he fished for his key card and eavesdropped a moment longer.

“This was just, oh, three miles west of here,” the trucker explained. “I called 911 the minute I saw how bad she looked.”

“Okay. And how bad did she look?”

“Like I told you, real pale, like she was sick. She didn’t say nothin’, no matter how many times I asked her what was wrong. I let her climb in the cab and, all the while, she’s just shaking her head no. Just no, no, no,” the trucker explained, shaking his own head rapidly from side to side. “Then she started grabbing at my arm, getting right up in my face. I was having trouble driving with her grabbing on like that.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then what does she do? She throws up this black puke all over me. Just bazooka barfs right in my face.”

Michael could see the cop was grinning as he continued to take notes.

“Puked all over the seats and the dash. I took a shower and I can still smell it. Smells a little like chemicals,” he said, offering and arm for the cop to sniff, an offer the cop ignored. “Maybe she’d gotten into something industrial. So, yeah, I hit the brakes and kicked her out – I mean I literally had to kick her out – across from the McDonald’s. Last I saw she was headed up that side street there.” The police officer paused in his note taking to answer the radio on his duty belt, sending a clipped response into the mike on his shoulder. It seemed he’d already lost interest in the truck driver’s story. “Whatever’s wrong with her,” the man concluded, looking out across the parking lot, “she shouldn’t be out and about.”


******************************

When the alarm went off, his hand went reflexively to the TV remote on the night stand. During the weeks he’d spent in hiding after the funeral, he’d grown so accustomed to denying the lure of TV and internet that he had to shake his head in wonder at how waking in a strange place brought back the habit so quickly. As usual, the volume on the TV was jarringly loud.

“…the unusually long incubation and communicability period of stage one the infection and the continued mobility of those afflicted with stage two as the chief factor in the rapid spread of the disease. Meeting in Geneva today, The World Health Organization postponed declaring the disease a pandemic until confirmation can be made that…”

He snuffed out the news report with the stab of a finger. Another disease in a seriously messed up world was hardly news, he thought irritably, and buried his face in the pillow.

Four hours later, driving out of town with his truck bed and trailer full and wrapped tightly in green tarps, he fell in line with traffic being detoured around a section of the town’s main street. In the distance, he could see the bright flash of lights on a police car as a fire truck lumbered along the edge of the road, raising a cloud of dust. Mixed into the scene, a loose crowd of about twenty people seemed to surge back and forth across the road like schooling fish. Stopped in mid-turn at the highway on ramp, he caught the attention of a man in a reflective orange vest listlessly directing cars and asked what was going on.

“I dunno,” was the man’s mumbled reply. “S’a buncha crazies makin’ trouble. Jus’ keep it movin’.”

***

The town of Hellerville was his last scheduled stop before his destination. He coasted down the off ramp and cruised through two intersections before entering the small business district. No less than three small clusters of people stood and watched from different street corners, their heads tracking him as he passed, their expressions blank, wary, even worried, he thought. Brushing it off as small town rubbernecking at his over-stuffed truck bed and trailer, he found a place to park along the curb and walked up to the glass door with White Pines Realty Management Services stenciled on it in large gold block lettering. He tugged at the door and, finding it locked, noticed the note written on a large yellow envelope fixed to the outside of the glass with clear packaging tape. Sorry, Closed, it read, followed by, Mr. Sallow, Call Sherry at home for info. Anxious, feeling that his plan was facing its first real complication, he punched the number written at the bottom of the notice into his cell phone and stripped the yellow envelope from the door.

“Mr. Sallow,” said the woman’s voice over the phone, “I’m so sorry for not meeting you face to face but it’s just that, what with the news today and all, they’re advising people to limit contact with other people until they get this whole disease thing sorted out. I guess you’re covered there, right? A nice mountain home all to yourself?”

“Disease thing?” he repeated. “The stuff on the news?”

“Yes. Gwailo Fever, they’re calling it. They say it’s nothing to worry about, which is good. Who needs another thing to worry about? Am I right? Anyway, you have your copy of the rental contract, the fees and deposits are all taken care of and you’re waiving the initial walkthrough, so it’s really just a matter of getting your signature on the form in the envelope. I put a pen in with the papers. Do you have it? See where you’re supposed to sign? Where the sticky notes are? I drew arrows…” Michael scratched his signature as best he could using the glass door as a writing surface. “Okay. You have the keys then and all the information regarding the facilities?”

He hadn’t had his phone up to his ear as she said it, but he could have sworn he heard the woman’s voice echoing faintly through the glass door. Was she, he wondered, talking to him on the phone from the back room of the realty office? Was this ‘disease thing’ that bad? he wondered.

“Just put the envelope through the mail slot and we’ll file it later. Now,” she said, “your phone will be useless way up there but you can set up internet service through the satellite dish. Rain or snow will interfere with the signal, of course. Rain fade’s an old foe out here in the sticks,” she chuckled. “It’s all in the information packet. You have my email address if you have any questions or concerns.”

He wondered again about ‘this disease thing’ as he took to the highway once more. The sun had begun its descent through the cloudless sky and already the shadows were beginning to flow down the sides of the mountains. He began to scan through the AM radio channels and found ‘this disease thing’ to be quite the topic on the talk radio shows.

“There are some mistakes, deadly mistakes being repeated out there by people,” said the caller. “First, these things are not your friends and family. Not anymore. They are no longer alive. They’re dead. Just something’s got them up and moving.”

“There it is again, Mitch,” the other voice cut in sharply. “This is the kind of abandonment of reason that has us all neck deep in a national panic. There are many medical conditions which can result in manifestations of cerebellar ataxia and many others which can result in the lowering of a patient’s vital signs to the point where they are hard to read. These people have been afflicted with a disease. In a civilized society, we treat the victims of a disease. We do not – “

“You can’t have – obviously you haven’t seen this up close,” spluttered the caller. “These things – “

“I’d be interested in knowing what kind of doctor you are,” the guest interrupted acidly.

“I’m a roofer.”

“Well, I am a doctor and we do not shoot or otherwise harm our patients. We treat them.”

“So, doctor,” chimed in the host of the syndicated radio show in a tone that indicated his interest in wrapping up for a commercial break, “in your opinion this is all some unknown type of encephalitis or meningitis? Maybe something more like Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?”

“Most certainly, Mitch. And, I would add to the roofer from Ocala and all of your listeners that anyone involved in harming someone just because they are a victim of a disease would be guilty of a serious crime.”

He pushed the scan button again, but the surrounding mountains were interfering with even the AM signals, chopping them into crackling, indecipherable segments. As he rose in elevation, he figured he’d hear more.

‘A national panic,’ the talk show guest had said. Could things have gotten so bad in such a short time? He recalled, shortly before her death, hearing about a harsh new strain of some flu-like disease that reportedly caused mental derangement, but it had quickly disappeared from the news and, soon after, from people’s memories. Was this the same thing?

With his self-imposed exile from TV, radio, and the internet over the past weeks, it had been a month since he’d endured a full news report. It had been something he was feeling rather good about: an achievement, an astounding feat of modern hermitting. He peered out at the pine forest on either side of the road. If there was a national panic going on, he considered, it was going on far from here. Still, he wondered if he should contact his assistant manager, Wayne, when he got settled in and ask how things were going with the store.

He topped off the gas tank in the tiny town of Crags, population 393, which he found submerged in the lengthening shadows at the base of the mountain. Looking around as he filled three five gallon gas cans, he took stock of the town: the gas station, a convenience store, a diner, a cinder block VFW hall, a yellow brick school, and a vintage 1960s glass and aluminum municipal building were all he could see. The rest of the town – scattered trailer homes and small mid-twentieth century houses – trailed away down the narrow valley and out of sight around the bend. Apart from the few figures he could glimpse through the windows of the diner and the gas station, there was nobody to be seen.

No national panic here, he thought sardonically.

Back in the truck he shuffled through the sheaf of pages he’d printed off the internet and found the map he needed. Peering up through the windshield at the mountain being bathed in bronze by the sinking sun, he traced the remaining fourteen miles of his route with the tip of his finger and set out to race the sunset to his destination.

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"...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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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 11:05 pm 
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I like the way you're painting the picture so far. Your protagonist is easy to understand, and I really like the way you're showing the ZPAW kick off--it's easy (and a bit cliche) to throw a character right into the middle of things-boom-zombies everywhere; watching events unfold in the background while the protagonist is lost in his own little world is a treat!

So, let me be the first to say it: MOAR!!!
:mrgreen:

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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 11:06 pm 
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A good start. Thanks.

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PostPosted: Wed May 15, 2013 11:53 pm 
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Someone from a more colorful time had seen fit to name it Destitute Mountain; a lonely looking mass of granite and basalt down which flowed Icy Hand Creek. Perched on one shoulder of the mountain were the long, cold, black waters of Grayling Lake, surrounded by dark pines that whispered in the wind.

The Ford struggled at times to drag the fully loaded trailer over the rougher parts of the gravel and dirt road. In between perfecting the art of negotiating the sharp bends of the switchbacks without losing control, he tried the radio again and found another nationally syndicated call in show.

“When they runnin’ at you like packs of dogs an’ bangin’ on yer car an’ front door, you can jus’ shoot ‘em an’ kill ‘em like you would any ol’ person. But, thing is, they never stay down. Then, affer awhile, when they get back up and come at you again, you gotta shoot ‘em again. An’ this time you gotta go for the head. Affer they get back up, it don’ matter if they get shot in the heart or the lungs or, I dunno, the spleen or liver. They ain’t even really bleedin’ no more. They brain’s what’s movin’ ‘em aroun’. That’s what you gotta put a hole through: the brain.”

“Thank you caller,” the host said, his words rapid, his tone deep and serious, “though we must remind all of you out there that we’re not recommending or condoning violent or forceful action of any sort. We just want you all to stay safe and informed. Now we go from Baltimore, Maryland to Nick in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Hello, Nick.”

“Yeah, Chris, I don’t know what these people are smoking, but we ain’t seeing nothing like what they’re talking about around here. My brother-in-law is Highway Patrol and he says it’s a big hoax.”

“’A big hoax’?” repeated the talk radio host. “That would have to be quite a hoax. A little hard to believe given the international situation, don’t you think? So the hundreds of thousands of deaths we’ve seen on the news – “

“No,” the caller replied, “not the deaths. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that Gwailo Fever is real and all. We’ve all seen the piles of dead bodies on the news today. But the whole dead people getting back up, that’s a crock.”

“Despite what you’ve heard from our other callers?”

“All I’m saying is that I ain’t seen none of that around here. That’s all I’m saying. I mean, the guys on the news say it’s all a hoax.”

“Okay then,” the host said, “all is reported relatively well in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Let’s go to Sewickley, Pennsylvania and Rebecca. Hello, Rebecca.”

And it continued in that manner for the better part of an hour: callers from across the country reporting on the conditions outside their front doors, in the streets of their towns, cities, and rural lanes. For every two that related strange and violent incidents, one would report nothing at all unusual in their locale.

“Chris,” said one caller from Massachusetts, “I’m wondering if these horrible stories we’re hearing aren’t just symptoms of that Gwailo disease? Like weird hallucinations, you know, brought on by the fever?”

“Well, that’s what was suggested in today’s statement from the Secretary of Health and Human Services,” the host commented. “Is that what you think is happening?”

“I’m not sure, Chris, but if the government says there’s nothing to the stories, I mean, who are we to go causing a panic by spreading rumors?”

From a caller in Florida: “I was out stocking up on food, when this old guy in front of me started shaking his head and throwing up all over the place. He even had it coming out of his eyes like tears. Now, my question is, am I gonna get it now…?”

From Idaho: “I’ve got my gun in my hand, Chris, and I’m sick. If I get any sicker, like I’m turning into one of those puking, head shaking things, I’m going to…well, I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

From Ontario: “This afternoon, there was a big crowd of them come running down the street, coming from the direction of the university, veering back and forth between the houses and breaking into them through the doors and windows. We could hear the breaking glass before we even saw them coming. We got up on the roof and watched them running together, like wolves in a pack. One of the people from down the street drove right through the crowd of them with their SUV. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was really bad. There were six of them dead in the middle of the street. I know they were dead. We checked after the mob moved on. Two of them had their rib cages squashed flat with the bones poking out. They were stone – cold – dead! We were still on our cells, waiting for the police to arrive when the dead bodies started getting back up...”

Michael was having a hard time reconciling what he was hearing over the radio with his surroundings: the pop and grind of the tires over the gravel road, the towering pine forest that seemed to open on the bend before him and quickly close up behind, the clear sky above now turning to indigo twilight. He felt he was listening to reports from another world. Since he’d left the town of Crags, he hadn’t seen a soul; not a cabin, a camp site, nor had he passed another vehicle. It was like he was a lone astronaut on the far side of the moon, while back home, the Earth trembled with affliction.

***

He missed the turnoff to the house, marked only by a wooden sign nailed to a stump with the name GOODNIGHT carved onto it, and had to perform the delicate operation of backing up a fully loaded trailer on an uneven mountain road at dusk. Around a hundred yards down a narrow gravel lane he found what was to be his home for the next twelve months.

His first impression upon seeing the house was that it looked like a big green topped mushroom.

Ground level was definitely intruder resistant; an important feature, he guessed, for a property that was going to remain unoccupied for months at a time. The walls were textured cement block, interrupted only by a single metal security door in the back, high glass block windows, and a single, windowless garage door in front. A deck and railing wrapped around the entire house twelve feet above ground level, jutting out on exposed steel beams on all four sides from the main living area and creating a six foot overhang. The metal roof was a green pyramid with a squat cupola at its peak. The overall effect reminded him more of a beach house with a ground level designed to keep the upper floors safe from high waters. There would be no storm surges here, he thought to himself, but with the garage level locked up tight, he definitely wouldn’t have to worry about bears. Not unless they could jump really high.

Nightfall was nearly complete as he backed the trailer into the garage, unhooked it, and began unloading the boxes, plastic bins, and duffle bags from the bed of the truck onto the concrete floor. He’d been warned that there would be no electricity until he either started up one of the generators or checked out the solar panel system and batteries. Deciding it was too late to bother, he settled for working by the weak streaks of light leaking from one of the wind up LED lanterns he’d bought earlier that day. When he was finished, he parked the F150 outside and pulled the garage door closed behind him. Holding the lantern in front of him, he mounted the stairs to the main floor of the house.

The chilly air still carried the faint scent of construction materials. As he walked the house, he opened a few windows, swinging open the green metal storm shutters that latched on the inside and letting the pine scented air waft through the darkened rooms. From the mountainside above the house came the distant mingled yips and yowls of a pack of coyotes beginning their nightly prowl.

The main floor was largely one open space comprising the living room, kitchen, and dining area. Small rooms off the kitchen revealed a bathroom, a pantry, and a compact bedroom. The floor above was the master bedroom with a reading area to one side. In the center of the room was a short spiral staircase that led up into the cupola where windows looked out in all directions on the now total darkness.

Michael Sallow retreated to the living room and sat down heavily on the couch, feeling a numbness rising within him.

It was done. He had arrived. He was comfortably isolated and alone with himself; no one but himself. His plan had been realized.

Now what? he wondered.

With absolutely no one else around to hear him, he supposed it was finally time to let loose, to shout out his anguish, his anger, his sense of loss, to purge himself of it all, to join in with coyote chorus outside in the forest and scream a soul-rending primal scream. Instead, he merely laid his head on the couch. His eyes briefly swam with tears but the tennis ball-sized sob he felt in his throat never escaped.

“I miss you,” he whispered into the dark before falling asleep.

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"...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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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 1:14 am 
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Ragers that turn into shamblers when they die? :ooh: :ohdear:

:mrgreen:

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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 7:25 am 
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Ragers turning into shamblers is an idea I used in my own stories. I like the reason for the character's "preparedness" and the tragic nature of his mental state. I also like the fact he has disassociated himself from society as a whole and this is the reason he is somewhat unaware of what is occurring around him. Good story so far and I'm looking for moar!

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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 9:03 am 
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Thanks for the support and the comments. I figured a "Stage One" of the disease where the infected are a little more physically nimble would be a good way to rapidly spread it around. I picture them as a less violent version of the ragers in "28 Days Later" -- kind of herd-like with a deteriorating mental capacity, but still mindlessly intent on latching onto uninfected people and letting fly with the infected bodily fluids.

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And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."


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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 10:48 am 
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He woke on the couch feeling cold and grungy, the gray light of morning flooding through the windows. Finding his jacket and the small cooler in the garage, he walked the second level deck sipping at a bottled coffee drink as the wind roared through the pines on the mountainside above. He made the circuit around the house six times thinking about what he would do next and taking in his surroundings.

The house sat atop a slight rise on the side of the mountain surrounded by thick stands of pine trees above and on both sides. The lot had been cleared for a short distance downhill, allowing a view over the treetops of a meadow filled with summer-browned grasses and a narrow but deeply cut meandering stream. The extreme tip of Grayling Lake was visible to the left, about a quarter mile away.

The leveled lot around the house had three smaller outbuildings: an enclosed wooden shed with windows, a smaller one made of metal, and another larger one open on one side with a concrete floor. Twenty-five feet out behind the garage there was a 500 gallon propane tank covered by a lean-to roof. The most eye catching features of the property were the two pole-mounted photovoltaic solar panel arrays, angled southward toward the meadow, promising a trickle of electricity and a power source for the water supply system, his laptop, and a few lights at night. The diesel powered generator would be reserved for larger electrical demands, like the occasional running of the washing machine. But, with thoughts of a hot shower and hot food, it was the safety checklist for the propane system that he was going to tackle first.

***

He made breakfast, giving the water heater time to do its job, and switched on the radio. The news report that blared at him from the small speakers mounted under the kitchen cabinets was not what he’d had in mind for entertainment, so he tuned to the next station with any signal strength to speak of and was met with another news report. The third and last station the kitchen radio could pick up was also airing news. Slowly, it became apparent that they were all airing network coverage of the same event; the tense minutes leading up to a federal government press statement. The network commentators busied themselves by repeating reports out of Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta and speculating on what they were about to hear as Michael recalled the last time he’d witnessed this kind of nonstop news media lockstep; the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He remembered watching TV that day as the clueless prattling and somber recapping went on all day long without commercial interruption. For years afterward, if he turned on one of the cable news channels and saw a commercial, he could instantly rest assured that there was nothing earth shattering going on.

When the speaker was introduced, it was not the President or Homeland Security Director but the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Thank you,” she began, with much clearing of her throat. “This will be a brief statement and I will not be taking questions afterward. Let me begin by saying that the current situation is under control. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been mobilized to render assistance to displaced citizens and events are being methodically and effectively managed by duly appointed federal, state, and local authorities. Indeed, the only true danger we are facing is the danger of civil disorder and chaos which is being inflamed by irresponsible behavior, including rumor mongering and sensationalism for sake of ratings and monetary gain by certain media outlets. Such conduct is, in the view of this administration, contrary to the public good and is being dealt with in the harshest terms. With the public welfare in mind, a nationwide state of public health emergency has been declared, granting certain extraordinary powers to federally designated branches of state and local government in order to insure that civil order is restored and maintained…”

“Shit, meet fan.” Michael had whispered the words aloud, solely because he wanted to hear himself say them, then returned to his breakfast of instant oatmeal and canned peaches.

***

When the rain came it drifted down over the dark pines in swirls and soon strengthened into a steady pelting.

He’d dutifully performed the safety check of the solar electric system, the list of instructions mostly having to do with the bank of storage batteries arranged in a concrete trough in the back corner of the garage. It seemed to him that the cloud cover had taken its cue from the moment he’d flipped the circuit breakers on the panel above the washing machine. This brought to his mind the generator located in the enclosed shed a few yards away from the house. He found it spotless beneath its protective vinyl cover, appearing to have never been used. There was another smaller generator stored at the back of the garage designed to run on propane, there as an emergency backup.

The rain dragged on through the afternoon, keeping him inside, forcing him to do the housework he would rather have avoided. He hauled his personal belongings into the upstairs bedroom but left them on the floor still in the duffel bags. With countless trips up and down the garage stairs, he filled the pantry shelves with his food supplies. The eighty percent that wouldn’t fit in either the pantry or the kitchen cupboards, he left stacked in the garage.

He found the case holding his laptop and went to work setting it up, following the directions printed out for him by the rental management company. But when it came to connecting with the satellite dish’s service provider, Michael found out what the rental agent had been talking about when she’d said ‘rain fade’s an old foe out here in the sticks.’ He was going to have to wait out the weather before he could once again access the wonderful world of the internet.

Because of the weather, darkness came early. Again he heard the frenzied cries of coyotes in the distance.


***************************


He woke the next morning in the upstairs bedroom to a misty rain that persisted throughout the day. With only the blue, cloud-filtered light shrouding the mountainside, he felt muddled and failed to accomplish much of anything. At midday, he cracked open a can of soup and steadied himself for the twelve o’clock news.

A strange thing had happened to all three of the stations the kitchen radio could pick up: They had all been taken over by the Emergency Alert System. But this was not the familiar weekly interrupter of daytime soaps and late night talk shows, with its attention getting electronic screech and standard message that most Americans could recite by heart. This was a strange and somehow menacing development, and Michael began to wonder for the first time as he listened to the serene and competent sounding voice recording cycling over and over again every fifteen minutes, if events were as out of control as they seemed.

“…to remain calm and conduct themselves with caution and vigilance. If a family member, an acquaintance, or a neighbor is showing symptoms of infection, including persistent high fever, disorientation, combativeness, nausea, vomiting, or repetitive, involuntary muscle movement, or has suffered an injury inflicted by one so affected, it is important to isolate and/or restrain the individual in question and immediately contact your local public health emergency response team. To avoid overtaxing FEMA resources, citizens in good health are advised to shelter in place and secure all doors and first floor windows against intrusion. The following is a list of suggested materials that can be found in most structures and repurposed toward creating an effective barrier…”

Michael stared out the window at the rain and felt every ounce of the isolation he had so craved.


************************************


The next day dawned bright and painfully clear. The headache that had accompanied him to sleep was still with him and the sharp sunlight reflecting off of the lake in the distance drove nails behind his eyes.

The Emergency Alert System was still in full rein over the available airwaves which made setting up a satellite dish internet connection his first act of the day. His second act was to fire off an email to Wayne Garland, his assistant manager.

“Hey, Wayne,” he wrote. “Hearing weird things on the news. Things here are fine. Very isolated but quiet. How are things there?”

After clicking send, he leaned in toward the laptop screen and began to peruse the various news sites. It was well past noon before he leaned back and heaved a deep breath. It was too much to take in, he thought to himself, blinking rapidly to rewet eyes that had gone dry from hours of staring incredulously at the latest news. The situation was not, as the government spokespersons claimed, “under control.”

The president had given a teary-eyed and erratic interview to a cable news reporter and, despite placing the blame squarely on those around him, had resigned on camera. His press secretary had backtracked the statement the next morning only to have the president resign again the day after that – this time officially. His whereabouts were unknown.

The vice president had been critically injured when Marine Two collided with another helicopter upon takeoff at the edge of an Ohio corn field and was currently receiving care aboard an aircraft carrier somewhere off the east coast.

The speaker of the House of Representatives had narrowly escaped an armed attack apparently conducted by several members of the Senate opposed to his impending succession to the presidency. His current whereabouts were unknown.

The entire Executive Branch was facing accusations of concealing the extent of the emergency and of directing aid to areas where their political support was heaviest and away from the districts of political opponents. Most White House officials and Cabinet members had since disappeared.

From what he could tell, the Federal Government was in several pieces; each one still claiming to be in control of the situation. The only bright side Michael could find was that the attempted government news blackout had failed and the internet was awash in information – incomplete, sordid, and sometimes contradictory though it may be.

“The pandemic disease unofficially known as Gwailo Fever has two distinct stages. In stage one, after a prolonged incubation and communicable period, the first flu-like symptoms appear. According to preliminary studies released Monday by the CDC in Atlanta, roughly 78% of sufferers recover easily with no known lasting effects. However, in some 3% of patients, a group comprised largely of the very young and the very old, the disease quickly escalates and becomes fatal. The remaining 19% of victims progress into stage two of the disease, Necrotic Ambulatory Syndrome, which brings with it certain remarkable symptoms…”

Mindful of the average sixty-five watt power consumption of his old laptop and the drizzle of electricity from the solar panels to the bank of batteries in the garage, he decided to set himself a time limit for viewing. It didn’t take him long to appreciate that a time limit might also be wise for mental health reasons.

He watched video clip after video clip and made sure to take a break every once in a while to walk the deck around the house, breathe the crisp air, and witness how the natural world around him was completely unconcerned with what was going on elsewhere.

From San Francisco, he watched mangled figures emerging from the morning fog, moving steadily up a city street towards the camera as city health officials and volunteers attempted to subdue them and bind their arms, legs, and mouths. “We are addressing this problem with the resolve for which our city is so famous,” said the spokesperson from the mayor’s office as the camera cut to a volunteer walking past, blood dripping from a wound on his wrist. “Guns and violence are no way to treat a disease.”

From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, amateur video from a woman caught in her stalled car by five infected people, each one with their faces pressed to the windows and shaking their heads as black vomit erupted in bursts from their mouths, spattering on the glass.

From Guadalajara, Mexico, images of thirty-nine heads placed on a low, blood-streaked stone wall – the latest casualties of the drug cartels – each belonging to a victim who had been purposely infected before being killed, each a fitting tribute to Santa Muerte. The disembodied heads slowly rolled their eyes and worked their mouths, gnashing at the camera.

From Philadelphia, crowds of well armed people darted from doorways and side streets, moving in loose formations through a smoke filled war zone of burning cars and smashed storefronts. Looters in stolen trucks moved behind them, taking everything. “We need to move from our present location,” the reporter said before the sound cut out. “We are being told that it’s no longer – ” The clip didn’t show a single infected person, living or dead, just a prolonged exchange of gunfire between groups.

From Tucson: “They are not supernatural. They are not evil,” said the scholarly looking man in the video clip with a sunlit and peaceful looking campus as a backdrop. “They are simply human bodies, corpses, which have been infected. This infection has colonized them and has preserved a few basic motor functions. They are not super strong. In fact, they seem to be a bit weaker than they were in life. Their senses are no better than those of the living; probably a bit worse. They cannot see you in the dark. They cannot smell you from a distance. None of those stories are true. What they are, however, is unconcerned – no, that’s not quite right – unburdened, I suppose, by any thought of injury. Lacking a sense of self-preservation is perhaps the best way to put it. So they will pound on your door until their hands are bloody stumps or reach through broken glass, or walk through fire to get at you. Doing them bodily harm does not deter them. They are simply focused on one thing: You. They will shuffle through the dark to find you and they will move toward any sight or sound that stimulates the remaining part of their brain. And they will do so mindlessly and incessantly.”

From Calgary, Alberta, video shot from an apartment window of an elderly woman on a pedestrian bridge being attacked and partially eaten by three well dressed corpses.

From New York City, images unsettling not because of what they showed, but what they didn’t show. Except for a scattering of humvees slowly zigzagging down wide avenues of blinking red traffic lights, the streets of Manhattan were completely empty. The same scene played itself out on the streets surrounding the National Mall in Washington D.C.; a ghost town patrolled by armored vehicles.

From Texas, video posted by a camo-wearing Lubbock-area man, showing a half dozen people inspecting a corpse duct taped to a telephone pole. The dead body, missing a great deal of flesh from its face, struggled against the restraints, wriggled its fingers, and snapped its teeth at the living. “See,” said the man cradling an olive green AR-15 rifle, “this one is dead.” The camera panned to focus on another miserable figure roped to a nearby fire hydrant, this one pale and blank faced, pathetically shaking its head no, no, no. “This nasty one ain’t dead but it is infected and the only thing it wants to do is infect more people.” The camera tilted and juggled to keep up with the man’s tutorial. He raised the rifle in a crisp, professional manner and shot the duct taped corpse several times in the chest. “See? Nothin’. It’s still ready and rarin’ to go atcha.” To illustrate the man’s point, the corpse writhed against its bonds, stretching the duct tape thin. “Until…” He shot once more, destroying the bridge of the nose and exploding the back of the corpse’s head against the pole. “…you destroy the center of the brain. Now this one,” he continued, returning to the infected woman bound to the fire hydrant, “can be killed just like normal.” Without ceremony, he shot the infected woman once through the heart, visiting a quick death upon her. “But, as you’ll see, a couple minutes from now she’ll be back up and back at it.”

From Cairo, Egypt, video of streets paved with machine gunned bodies. Then rapid fire Arabic with a voiceover translating, “Ten minutes later and you can see some of them are starting to move. They are rising. There are many more coming from other streets. Here they come.”

From Indonesia, blurry amateur video of a mob executing twenty-six Chinese nationals and hanging signs on the corpses with “Bring Diseased” printed on them in English.

From Shanghai, waves of furious people setting upon anyone who wasn’t Chinese and burning anything foreign in retribution for the alleged international conspiracy to blame China for the pandemic.

From London, city tower blocks infested with the dead, burning unchecked in the night like pyres and riots rippling out from them as their former residents exploded with fear and anger.

From Paris, rampaging gangs, some waving banners in Arabic, burning cars and smashing windows and jumpy video images of swiftly moving infected and slow moving dead wading into them.

From Sao Paulo, helicopter video of a 200 mile-long traffic jam and frenzied commentary as zoom images showed fist fights between drivers taking place mere car lengths away from attacks by head shaking, vomit spewing infected people.

While watching a wild hail of police gunfire being directed at dozens of dead bodies advancing across a bridge in rural Australia – “More for the garbo,” a cop muttered to the camera – Michael’s thoughts turned to his own feeble arsenal.

He had a brand new side-by-side double barreled twelve gauge shotgun with twenty-five BB-size shot shells, ten “double aught” buckshot shells, and ten rifled slugs. He also had a thirty year-old .22LR top break revolver with 1575 rounds, which gave him some comfort, despite the knowledge that ammunition didn’t come much smaller than .22 long rifle. One minute later he had paused the parade of carnage on the laptop and was reading internet articles on his father’s Harrington & Richardson 999 “Sportsman” revolver and the short barreled Stoeger. He watched multiple videos of people talking about them, firing them, and caring for them. Finally, he retrieved both firearms from the shelf in the garage and placed them on the living room coffee table in front of him. He resisted the urge to load them. After all, he told himself as he peered out the window, he was halfway up a mountain, fourteen miles from the nearest town.

He figured he had time for one more video before letting the solar panels recharge the batteries for the rest of the day. It came from Queens, New York; pictures from a rooftop showing a virtual city of the dead. They stumbled over curbs, shuffled down debris filled streets, and paraded slowly along the lanes of jumbled, stalled traffic. At several points, they clustered and surged around building entrances, single-minded in their desire to get in. “Unless those Coast Guard helicopters come back this way,” said a woman’s voice, “we are stranded up here for the night. But we will keep relaying these pictures to you, at least until the battery runs out.”

The sheer number of the dead made his stomach knot. They flowed like a sluggish, fetid river. When the camera zoomed in close enough to show separate faces, each gory one became an individual tragic ending.

Then, a sudden, absurd thought: The world, in great empathy to his sorrow, had decided to end itself. Her life had ended in the violence of a car crash. But compared to the blood fest that he was seeing, her quick passing might have been a mercy. It was as if she had received special dispensation from God, and had been spared the apocalypse.

Before shutting down, he checked his email inbox and found a typically clipped reply from his assistant manager. “Michael, Store okay. Bad here. People freaking. No police. Sit tight. Later, Wayne.”

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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 1:52 pm 
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Lovin' your story. Thank you.


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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2013 1:27 am 
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same here, looking forward to more. Also very glad to see correct punctuation and spelling. I'm no grammar Nazi, but the flow of the story suffers without it.

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Very good. Thank you.


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Thanks for the kind comments and for sticking with the story through its rather slow build up. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the stories posted here, so it’s a treat to be able to offer one of my own.

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The video of the last White House press briefing was weeks old and Michael had seen it replayed a hundred times, at least.

“So, in a nutshell, you get Gwailo Fever,” asked a reporter, “and then you either recover from it or you turn into a nasty?”

“I think we’re talking about the disease progressing into that stage in only a minority of cases,” answered the press secretary, looking pale and pinched.

“Twenty percent, roughly,” the reporter rejoined. “That’s hardly an insig – ”

“And I think,” the press secretary went on, “if I could just inject an ounce of sensitivity here, calling these victims nasties is rather a callous thing to – ”

“And these nasties,” the reporter interrupted, “these victims of Necrotic Ambulatory Syndrome, they run around infecting – ”

“We’ve said before, victims afflicted by NAS are very contagious and need to be isolated until – ”

“They die,” a second reporter chimed in, “but they don’t stay dead.”

“Linda, I’ll get to your question in a minute. First, let me – ”

“We have seen video evidence of nasties being killed and – ”

“Kyle,” the press secretary warned, “I would caution you and the rest of the press corps to remember that spreading groundless rumors during a time of national crisis is – ”

“I was there in the hospital,” replied the reporter. “I saw it happen again and again.”

“This is a newly emerged disease,” said the press secretary, “and certainly it has some symptoms we’ve never seen before, but I don’t think we – ”

Symptoms?” The reporter shook his head. “Symptoms like a dead body coming back to life and attacking a nurse? It was still attached to the monitors. It was flatlined.”

Information emerged over the following days that some major cable and broadcast news networks had received reports about the true scope of the disease, but had agreed to bury the story, downplaying all rumors until the story was crashing through the front windows of homes all across the country. Some claimed they’d acted under government threats. A few of the disgraced on-air personalities apologized to their dwindling audiences before leaving.

“The Administration assured us it was readying a solution to the situation,” confessed a network anchor, “and that releasing certain information would only cause widespread panic and loss of life.” Instead, the public was left ill-informed and vulnerable and the situation had snowballed. Overnight, familiar TV faces fell into disrepute.

“We did what we did for the common good,” one white-haired ideologue stubbornly maintained. “We had to protect people from themselves.”

In their final days, the reporters who took over for them actually acted like journalists. Released from the yoke of politics, they were everything they should have been before the world melted down around them. They shone like stars as their on-the-ground correspondents went missing and they started to suffer visibly from lack of food and sleep in their basement strongholds.

Internet news organizations began dropping, their web sites frozen in place, recording the day of their breakdown or simply missing in action with the screen message Service Unavailable. A few persisted, though their content became a little stale as they alternated between repeating old news and DIY survival tips. One particularly lengthy interview was repeated so many times, Michael could recite parts of it by heart.

The man in the chair was a familiar face, a frequent guest on cable news shows where he specialized in complicated explanations of the medical malady of the day. For the sake of fame or for the sake of his latest book, he willingly played the comic foil, his tongue twister sentences leading to the inevitable cut to the host of the show saying things like “If you say so, doctor,” or “Whatever that might mean, right?”

“Research on the contagion has been greatly hampered by the current emergency situation. We've lost so many resources in such a short time that the data collected so far is...incomplete and…open to…certain…imprecise interpretations. Um…” The man smiled nervously and fumbled for a cup of water. “It seems that the disease has the potential to cause three stages of…um...disorders. The first stage is known popularly as Gwailo Fever and it is spread in the same manner as a cold or flu virus, through touch and inhalation of airborne bodily fluids.

“On an interesting side note, the name Gwailo Fever comes from the Cantonese slang term for a European or western foreigner and was popularized by the Chinese government to blame foreigners for the introduction of the disease into China.

“In roughly twenty percent of cases the pathogen develops, through…um, some unknown process, into a secondary phase of infection causing Necrotic Ambulatory Syndrome with its…quite…remarkable symptoms. We can’t say much as of yet concerning the nature of the infectious agent at this phase, but the effects somewhat resemble transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Such diseases, however, are not known to be passed on through casual contact. So what we have is a pathogen that is transmitted like a virus yet results in a prion-like infection that…” The man’s attention was drawn off-camera. “Yes, okay. I’m being told I should try to speak English,” he said with a sour look.

“The pathogen seems to eat holes in the brain. As this happens, a person will begin to display the symptoms we have all become so familiar with: odd behavior, at first, followed rapidly by combativeness, and degenerating swiftly from there.

“While Necrotic Ambulatory Syndrome is most certainly lethal, those falling victim to it – eh? What?” The man responded to another inaudible off-camera comment. “Yes,” he answered with a sense of distaste, “nasties, as they have, ahem, unfortunately been dubbed by some in the media. These so-called nasties exhibit a singular type of spastic mania upon nearing uninfected people.

“When contact is made, they often begin to vomit bodily fluids. If these fluids are inhaled or ingested, they seem to cause a fast-moving infection characterized by a high fever and acute pain. Strangely, this vector of infection does not itself result in Necrotic Ambulatory Syndrome, though it does seem to inevitably result in death. But it is the next symptom which is the most…um, unbelievable? Fantastic? Impossible? I don’t know.” The man seemed extremely uncomfortable and drank more from his cup. “Let’s just leave it at unbelievable.”

“The most recent bulletin issued by the CDC used the designation Idiopathic Neuromuscular Restoration Syndrome. For the sake of brevity, we’ve just been calling it Reanimation Syndrome or The Syndrome. Actually,” he added around the tic of a smile, “what we’ve really been calling it isn’t fit for broadcast.” He paused and smiled awkwardly, as if waiting for laughter from an audience.

“In any case, reanimation of an untreated corpse can occur within an extremely short span of time. The reanimated dead will bite and claw with an animalistic intensity. They pass the infection on through their blood and saliva as well as their, uh, bilious secretions, so special, um…attention should be given to anyone suffering bites or scratches.

“It has been suggested that the pathogen commandeers the brain, restarting basic motor functions and stimulating the basic human instinct to feed in order to use the human body as a vehicle for propagation.

“They – the post mortem infected – don’t seem to have the ability to recognize that their food formerly came from such places as grocery stores. Put a can of beef stew in front of them and they don’t recognize it as food. That part of their brain is gone. But put a live, warm, moving animal in front of them and they – via the parts of their brains that are still functioning, the primitive parts, you might say – they will see that as food. They will feed on any live animal, but since most animals are too difficult for a human to catch barehanded, I’m afraid we are tops on their menu.

“How long can they operate before they die…eh…die again? We don't know. Their instinct to feed is only a driving force, not a need. We have all seen the videos of reanimated corpses that have lost their lower halves, with no organs remaining below their chests. Their entire digestive tracts are gone yet they still try to feed and are still capable of moving about.

“There is so much that we just don’t know. Are we dealing with a single pathogen or multiple ones? What is it that is slowing down necrosis? We don’t know. We need time to study the phenomenon.”


************************


The thought struck him upon waking: The internet was doomed.

With normal life so disrupted, there would eventually be no one to maintain the countless web servers and related hardware, not to mention the power stations, transmission lines, and transformers that formed the electrical grid. Everything would be breaking down. How soon, he didn’t know, but almost as soon as thoughts of the net’s demise struck him, Michael was at the laptop downloading information and storing it on the hard drive. Wilderness survival, DIY medical information, basic automobile maintenance, the content of a dozen different end-of-the-world survivalist web sites; he worked all morning storing it on the computer with plans to put it all on paper as soon as possible.

He remembered the thought clearly, though it seemed like years since it had occurred: The internet – if it ever went down for good – fall of Rome – Dark Ages. Of course, there were still libraries – sorely neglected for decades and filled with outdated materials – just no easy way to get to them now.

In mid-December, after increasingly long periods of interrupted service, his internet service provider went down and did not get back up again. There was still the one radio station left broadcasting that Michael could pick up on the side of Destitute Mountain, but the station was now being operated by only four people.

“The rest,” the radio voice said, “have either gone home to be with their families or they’ve gone to one of the rescue centers. Personally, I’d rather shelter in a tent in the mountains than walk into one of those death traps. How many were there three weeks ago? Fourteen rescue centers, just within the county? Ten are gone now, overrun from outside or someone went nasty on the inside, I don’t know. But don’t go there, folks. Don’t go there.” From that point, the broadcasts continued to crumble, descending into little more than personal rants, eulogies for the dead and maudlin remembrances of better days.

The last word Michael heard on the government and the military was that the remaining fragments of both had cut their losses and had gone into survival mode, withdrawing from the battle, holing up and hoping to emerge at some future point when the war was deemed winnable.

Michael gazed out the window, watching the snow fall against the dark backdrop of the pines, and thought about the long winter ahead.


******************************


For months, the first cold glimmer of daylight meant it was time for him to rise. His routine was so rigid he could do it on autopilot, his feet and hands moving robotically, freeing his mind for more distant thoughts.

First, hot water; no day started off well without a pot of hot water. Once a week he would even treat himself to a shave and a shallow soak in a tub of hot water. There was a shower, but he felt better conserving what propane he had.

Second, inspect the grounds. It was easier when there was snow. Snow on the ground meant he didn’t even have to leave the deck to check for footprints. No footprints meant no visitors, and there were never any footprints. On those few occasions that winter when a warm wind blew over the flanks of Destitute Mountain and sunlight fell for a day or two in a row, bare patches sometimes opened up on the ground. Then he would drop two shells into the coach gun and walk around the property three or four times until he was satisfied he was still alone. If he had to, he would brush the snow from the solar panels with a soft bristled broom.

Third, he would check his water supply system. Some distance from the house, the original owner had drilled a thirty foot well near where Icy Hand Creek splashed down the mountain. Even in winter, when the surface water froze, the well water trickled down a buried PVC pipe, through a simple filter, and into an underground storage tank. The water was further filtered through sand and carbon before it reached the toilet and laundry area. If it was destined for the kitchen or bathroom sinks, it was sent through an ultraviolet purifier. Twice, the water in the pipe had frozen solid for a week, but the storage tank held a considerable reserve for just one person.

Fourth, he would sit the food for that day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – out on the kitchen counter and cross off the day’s cans, boxes, and bottles from the inventory list.

Fifth, he would spend at least an hour transcribing more of the information stored on the laptop to paper in preparation for the day when the computer would die. Afterward, he would massage his finger joints and think how nice it would have been to have brought a printer with him.

Sometimes he would think about hunting the deer that frequented the edges of the meadow or about making his way down to Grayling Lake to try his hand at ice fishing. But food was not an immediate concern for him and the thought of leaving tracks in the snow kept the ideas from becoming reality. The same desire for concealment kept him from lighting the wood stove in the living room except on dark, moonless nights for fear of marking the house’s location with smoke.

He remembered the stories he had heard on the radio and the second and final email he’d received from his assistant manager, Wayne Garland: “Michael, Don’t come back!!!” He was in hiding and he would stay in hiding for as long as he could.

The radio FM bands were now silent for him. The AM bands merely hummed and buzzed during the day, but at night they ebbed and flowed like the ocean, sometimes washing up tantalizing snippets.

“…in control of the island’s main…” “…out of the Great Lakes region…” “…moving in large numbers…”

On some nights, lonely sounding voices rode the upper atmosphere from the Caribbean and rattled off broken bits of news unintelligible to him, despite his four years of college Spanish.

He crossed off the days on the kitchen calendar and sometimes wondered what was happening in the world over the surrounding mountains.
Whenever the wind was calm, the tangled call of the coyotes always came to him at night like a savage lullaby.

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And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."


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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2013 7:00 pm 
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Sometime during one of the dark days that draped the mountain, he descended the steps to the garage. Outside, another winter storm was beating at his tiny speck of the world. He hadn’t felt like getting out of bed, much less dressing, shaving, or eating. He had lain on his side for hours, listening to the wind raging through the pines and thinking about her.

The wind had driven the snow into a four foot drift against the garage door but it didn’t matter. The once-a-week ritual of running the F150’s engine didn’t involve leaving the garage, just keeping the vehicle in running condition. He turned the key in the ignition and the truck started immediately. With the glass block window vents open to keep the carbon monoxide threat at a minimum, he sat heavy lidded and listless behind the wheel as a headache pounded behind his eyes. Gradually, his attention began to wander around the cab.

In the space between the seats he found a single glove with a glow-in-the-dark skeleton hand printed on the back; a Christmas stocking stuffer from two years back. He also found a tube of lip balm, a quarter, two pennies, and a grocery store receipt listing sour cream, mild salsa, a lemon, and two avocadoes.

He flipped down the passenger side sun shade and rediscovered the CD holder and its small collection of discs. He tugged one out of the black nylon sleeve and read the words she’d written on it in black permanent marker: Super Bloody Cool ‘80s Mix. Too numbed by the winter blues to form a smile, he wondered idly what songs she’d included and, without thinking about it, fed the disc into the truck’s CD player.

He instantly recognized the quintessential 1980s dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, one of the favorites his wife had carried with her out of her late teens, on into her twenties and into her life with him. The name of the song was harder to come by, but it came to him after a moment: “She Will Destroy You.”

“I miss you,” he whispered, the same whisper he sent into the dark every night just before sleep, though he was finding that he missed a lot more.

He missed the simplicity of mourning a single loss. In the beginning, it was all about him; his disaster, his life-wrenching tragedy. It was only about one death, not billions. Not the mass dying of strangers, just the dying of his wife.

He missed the world, as well – all of its beauty as well as all of its ugly bumps. It seemed to him that the bad side of the world was all that mattered back when the world wasn’t really so bad of a place. No one had appreciated the little things the old world had to offer like, he thought, supermarkets, or hospitals, or TV…or other people.

An irrational thought coiled tight at the back of his brain, that all of this – the horror of the dead, the savagery of the living – that all of it had happened because everyone had taken the world for granted.

Numbed in both body and mind, he let the guitar riff circle his head like smoke and thought of her until the song faded away.


*****************************


March 20th. Though the kitchen calendar said it was the first day of spring, the mountainside outside the windows said differently.

As usual, he woke as daylight began to seep down into the bedroom from the windows in the cupola and, as usual, he had to fight the urge to remain in bed. Over the past three months, he had found only one thing that motivated him to get up: fear of the likelihood that he would remain in bed the next day, too, and the next day, and the day after that. As it was, his mood teetered on the brink of depression and tipping over into that dark place, he felt, would surely be a one-way ride.

The hot water he’d splashed on his face turned cold in his ears and around his collar as he walked the deck around the house, inspecting the grounds. The last snowfall had been more than a week ago, adding to the layers underneath for a total depth of ten inches. Not much, he supposed, for the first day of spring at this elevation. The lack of snowpack might mean low water levels downstream over the coming summer, but he guessed that all the farmers were dead anyway.

When he saw the footprints in the snow leading up to the house his breath caught in his throat. He stared at the trail dragged through the crusty snow and immediately wondered if he could have made it. But he had always been careful to make only one short trail leading from the rear garage door straight to the water storage tank and back again. This was a different trail. He traced the footprints back in the direction from which they came and noticed again how the snow on the ground highlighted the gap in the trees where the narrow gravel lane led out to the mountain road. Someone else had noticed, too, and whoever it was remained hidden below by the overhanging balcony.

He crept back inside and reasoned that it was either a living person who hadn’t announced himself for the purpose of trying to break into the garage or it was a reanimated dead body. Aware of the bizarre tilt of the thought, he hoped it was the latter.

He remembered the stories he’d heard on the radio. The living could dish out a million different kinds of horror; the dead, only one.

His hands were shaking as he loaded the coach gun. The tremors were more pronounced as he fumbled for the small .22 LR cartridges, but he managed to load all nine chambers of the break top revolver without dropping any. He took the shotgun with him as far as the rear of the garage, then rested it on the metal shelving unit nearest the door. Next to it, he placed two loose buckshot shells and trailed his fingertip over the other five in the buttstock shell holder. If he was going to have to do what he feared, he didn’t think he was up to doing it with the violent punch of a 12 gauge.

Holding the handgun with his finger outside the trigger guard – the way he had been taught as a teenager by his father – he gingerly turned the deadbolt and opened the door so that a quarter inch of white daylight appeared. He waited and then opened the door enough to peer out. There was nothing to the left, nothing behind the door to the right. The same shuffling footprints, however, passed from one corner of the garage to the other, the packed trail showing multiple trips made around the house. Closing the door behind him, he stepped lightly out onto the trampled snow and made his way toward the corner.

Rounding the front of the house, he saw it in profile; a miserable thing that used to be human. It was looking at the front garage door, as if trying to remember what it was or how to open it. It was wearing filth-caked hunting coveralls that trailed in muddy tatters around its blackened bare feet. Its hands and its face were gray. Michael steadied himself and his foot crunched in the snow. The dead man wobbled, turning slowly toward the sound. When it saw Michael, its eyes grew wide as its mouth dropped open, emitting a croak that was half belch and half ravenous moan.

“Can you understand me?” His own voice was almost an alien sound to him after so many months alone, but he had long since decided what he would do when finally faced with one of the dead ones.

The reanimated corpse took an unsteady step toward him, its shoulder bumping against the garage door.

“I’m going to shoot you if you don’t stop.” His voice was calm, his mouth dry. He’d imagined this moment many times.

The dead man had expelled all the air in his lungs and now advanced toward him silently except for the sound of his ruined feet in the snow.

“I will shoot you.”

Michael backed up a few steps as the man closed on him and he fired from fifteen feet away, hitting the man in the thigh. He saw the small hole open up in the coveralls but the man didn’t stop. He backed up a few more steps and fired again, the crack of the revolver making his ears ring. The shot struck the man in the stomach. This time he thought he saw the body twitch, but it still didn’t stop. He aimed in the area of the man’s heart and fired three times in quick succession. The muzzle lifted slightly after each shot, but the holes appeared in a tight group. Except for a small jerk of his shoulder, the dead man’s shuffling advance through the snow hadn’t faltered at all and he was now nearly within reach. Michael aimed between the corpse’s eyes and fired. One bullet struck its cheekbone. Another gouged a line along the side of its head. The third entered through its right eye socket. Like a puppet with its strings suddenly cut, it slumped to the ground, face down in the snow.

He stared at the corpse for a few seconds then looked around, as if nervous that his act had been witnessed, noticing at once how dark the pines looked against the snow. A rush of wind down the mountain made them whisper around him as he fought the ridiculous urge to feel guilty for shooting the dead body so many times before the coup de grace.

He’d seen countless walking corpses on the laptop and heard countless times how they were dead, dead, dead. But for some reason, he had to see for himself how bullets wouldn’t stop them because they were dead, unless the bullet destroyed the center of the brain. Because the rest of them – heart, lungs, liver – was only so much dead meat. Now he’d seen it for himself. Now it was real.

He used a snow shovel to turn the body face up and stared at it for half an hour, enthralled by his first face to face meeting with the scourge that, for all he knew, might have ended modern civilization. As the minutes passed and he became more and more sure that it was now permanently dead, he bent closer to the corpse’s face, finally squatting down next to it. It smelled dead, but it wasn’t ripe with it; more like the musky sourness of old roadkill on a hot summer day. And there was another component to the odor; an acrid chemical-like smell. The bullet holes hadn’t bled at all. Instead, something thick and black oozed from them. The skin was gray and rough looking, like shark skin. The eyes, still half open, looked crusted over, like something had been secreted to protect them in the absence of tears.

He used the barrel of his revolver to lift the coverall pocket flaps and managed to dig out a mushy book of matches, a pocket knife, four .300 Savage rounds and a hunting license in a yellowed plastic envelope. Darren Ronald Bailey, he read. How long had it been, he wondered, since Darren Ronald Bailey had ceased to be? Had he been alone when he died? More importantly, had his dead body walked the mountain road alone or were there more somewhere close, just out of sight beyond the trees? Why had Darren Ronald Bailey’s corpse come to his doorstep? How many more might follow?

***

He intended only to follow the trail of footprints in the snow and find out where the man’s dead body had begun its post mortem journey. If there was a nearby cabin filled with his undead hunting buddies, Michael wanted to know. But as he loaded his daypack with spare clothes, granola bars, and bottled water, he kept thinking about the world around Destitute Mountain. He supposed it was morbid curiosity, the kind of pull that slowed traffic at the scene of a crash or gathered people in front of a burned out building. He felt himself pulled to the idea of visiting the small town of Crags, just to see it. First, though, he had a shuffling set of footprints to trace back.

The snowshoes on the garage wall had been there when he arrived at the house and were lightweight aluminum framed sporting gear decorated in neon blue and green that strapped snugly around his hikers. He’d briefly played with them before but was thankful for them now. His truck was safely sheltered in the garage and winterized with fuel stabilizer, but he doubted AAA was still in business and he wasn’t willing to risk it on the snowy mountain road.

As he skiffed over the crusty snow and took up the trail, he glanced at the trough that he’d made dragging the body away and downhill from the house. He would bury the remains later, he thought, when the ground wasn’t quite so hard. The body of Darren Ronald Bailey had waited this long to be put to rest. It could wait a bit longer.

He paralleled the tracks down the tree lined lane and out into the road where they lead back down the mountain. Michael felt a strange mixture of freedom for being away from the house where he had been cooped up for so many months and fear for what he knew might be waiting for him around the bend in the road.

The tracks led on for a mile, then two. Every so often a body-sized impression would appear among the footprints where the corpse had fallen as it struggled through the snow. But except for a few animal tracks crossing the road – mostly deer, small birds, and the occasional coyote – the prints of the late Mr. Bailey were the only ones he saw. After an hour, the tracks left the road and Michael followed them into the trees.

What he found could hardly have been called a camp site. The old, snow covered Dodge Neon had been driven off the road and maneuvered through the trees and bushes until it was out of sight. Michael saw no sign of a campfire ring in the snow around the car, no tent, nothing to hint that Darren Bailey had done anything but drive his car carefully into the forest until he was out of sight from the road and sit there. The Neon’s windshield had been smashed by a freshly fallen branch. The crackled sheet of safety glass had been punctured outward and now rested on the hood of the car. Peering inside, he could see a few empty cans and some food wrappers, grime smeared windows and seats, and the remains of a sleeping bag curled around the steering wheel. After studying the scene for a moment, Michael could guess what had happened.

He’d been infected. He’d driven up the mountain without much preparation, maybe in a panic, maybe realizing that he would never be driving back down. He’d hidden himself in the trees and bushes, feasted upon corn chips and diet cola and had succumbed to the virus – or prion – or whatever the scientists had decided it was before they all died. Maybe, with only the lightweight sleeping bag to protect him, he’d first frozen to death there in the front seat.

In any event, Darren Ronald Bailey had reanimated inside his car, his corpse unable to recall how to open the doors, unable to imagine how to use a tool to break the glass. Or maybe, with nothing visible through the snow covered windows, it had been just a lack of motivation. It had taken a smashed windshield to finally free his dead body.

Michael stood staring at the scene for some minutes catching his breath. “Time,” he said out loud to himself in the verbal shorthand he’d grown accustomed to, but what he meant was Time to start acting like a good survivor.

Getting to the keys in the ignition was a delicate matter of removing more of the windshield while avoiding the filthier patches decorating the car’s interior. The driver’s side door was frozen shut but the passenger side had been warmed in the sunlight and opened heavily with a sticky sound.

On the floor of the backseat was what he had expected to find; a long vinyl case covered in nastiness, but in it, a hunting rifle chambered for the .300 Savage rounds he’d found in Darren Bailey’s pocket. It was a vintage Remington Model 722 bolt action with a scope on top. The trunk of the car held nothing of real value, just a few bungee cords, a nearly empty jug of windshield washer fluid, and three ice scrapers. He searched the inside of the car as much as he could, touching as little as he could, but found nothing useful. Dropping the keys onto the driver’s seat, he discarded the rifle case, as well as the gloves he’d been wearing and slung the rifle on his shoulder. Then he began making his way back up the mountain, wishing Darren Ronald Bailey had thought to bring more than four rounds for the rifle when he came up the mountain to die.

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PostPosted: Fri May 17, 2013 9:09 pm 
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Tinderbox wrote:
Michael gazed out the window, watching the snow fall against the dark backdrop of the pines, and thought about the long winter ahead.

Nice metaphor!

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PostPosted: Sat May 18, 2013 2:26 am 
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Thank you. This is fast becomming one of my favorite stories.


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PostPosted: Sat May 18, 2013 9:29 am 
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Excellent.. really enjoying the build up and the fragile sounding nature of his psyche .. hopefully with some good things to come !

Bring it on !! :clap:

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PostPosted: Sat May 18, 2013 4:38 pm 
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:words: :words: :words: :words: :words:


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I'm eagerly awaiting your next post.

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Mr. E. Monkey wrote:
Tinderbox wrote:
Michael gazed out the window, watching the snow fall against the dark backdrop of the pines, and thought about the long winter ahead.

Nice metaphor!

That would be imagery. A metaphor is an implied comparison, such as, "His hair was cunning."


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the BOSS wrote:
:words: :words: :words: :words: :words:


Yeah, I know. In person, I'm not much of a talker, but put a keyboard in front of me and I can get carried away! :wink:

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The routine of the winter months had been broken. Though he still had the same daily chores to complete, now he did them with a certain background anxiety. While indoors, he found himself staring out the windows every few minutes, watching for movement among the pines. Outdoors, he would stop and stand still for long periods, straining to hear every sound.

He’d seen his first reanimated corpse and had survived the encounter. But, he wondered, what about the next one? The next one, he told himself, probably wouldn’t leave footprints in the snow to warn of its presence.

He found himself thinking more and more about the little town of Crags at the base of the mountain. How many of its 393 people were left and how many – living or dead – might come calling in the weeks and months ahead? A sign from above seemed to arrive over the next few days when a steady wind from the south brought above freezing daytime temperatures, gradually thinning the snow pack. Taking the truck down the mountain road, he considered, would no longer be so much of a risk.

He started out at 8:10 AM on March 25th to travel the fourteen miles to Crags. He took along food and water for two days, a change of clothes, flashlight, binoculars, and a short, square point shovel. The coach gun was bungeed to the passenger seat beside him, loaded but with its breech open. The revolver was nestled between the clothes in his daypack with its grips protruding.

He had planned to stop a half mile or so before the gravel transitioned to asphalt and go the rest of the way on foot, but at a switchback in the road two miles short of the highway he found his path completely blocked. Already nervous, he quickly put the Ford in reverse at the sight of the RV lying on its side before him and, tires spinning in the gritty, melting snow, he backed up to where he could turn the truck around. If he had to move quick, he reasoned, he wanted to do it in drive, not reverse. Once a safe distance away, he got out and peered down at the wrecked RV.

Around twenty-five feet long and split slightly at the seams, it looked like it had been there for months. Weathered marks on the slope showed where it had toppled over the edge, rolled repeatedly, and landed on the road below. The roof air vent hung open and every window had been smashed in. With the short barreled shotgun in hand and the revolver stuck in the inside pocket of his coat, he walked slowly around the switchback and knelt down to look through the broken rear window. The absence of movement within made him inch closer until he stood at the jagged edged opening and studied the scene inside.

He counted four human remains: rot-stained clothing clinging to long dead bodies, mostly bones covered in desiccated and decayed flesh. They might have died in the rollover, Michael supposed, but the inside of the RV was encrusted with the same kind of dried gore that he’d found in Darren Bailey’s car, making him suspect that the driver, who was not in the driver’s seat, may have been infected. Maybe they all had been infected, he thought. Maybe the bodies littering the rear of the RV had died of head trauma and had not reanimated. It had happened too long ago for him to know for sure. Oddly, he thought, there was no sign that the bodies had been scavenged by dogs or coyotes or any other animal. They should have been, he figured, given the length of time the wreck had been there. Maybe something in the smell held a warning for an animal’s keen sense.

It suddenly struck him as exceedingly strange that he was viewing this by himself. There should be police, he thought as he glanced nervously around, and emergency personnel and a car with coroner written on the side and even a news van parked a short distance away, setting up for a live report from the scene of the accident. Instead, the reality was that it was just him, all alone with more dead bodies than he’d ever encountered in his life. He’d seen a lot of death as he watched the world fall apart on the internet, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it with his own eyes.

He took a few steps away from the RV and noticed another car just down the road. A small SUV sat with its rear end hanging out over the edge of the road. Its front wheels were a few inches off the ground and its belly rested atop the large rocks there, hopelessly stuck in mid-turn around. Behind a dirty windshield sporting the silver spider web of a bullet hole, he could see no remains of any kind.

The RV roadblock and the abandoned SUV went quite a ways toward explaining his lack of visitors over the winter.

A mile later at the next switchback, the slope had leveled out enough for him to leave the road and cut through the trees toward Crags. The closer he got to the highway, the more on edge he became, scanning his surroundings for danger, stepping with care over the wet pine needles and leaf litter to make as little noise as possible. Even before he saw the smoke, the smell of it caught his attention. With burning plastics and other industrial smells mixed in, he could tell immediately that it was more than just a wood fire. Through the bare oaks he saw the rising column of black smoke coming from the center of Crags.

Less than fifty feet wide and shallow, the Shady River ran between him and the town with a rusty metal truss bridge located up the road. He felt uncomfortably exposed crossing the bridge, but the water was running swiftly with snow melt and he saw no other option. It was while he was crossing and glancing over the side of the bridge that he heard the groaning coming from below. An icy surge of fear flowed down his spine and he braced himself for his second encounter with the reanimated dead.

Leaning over the guard rail, he saw the figure lying between the rocks in the shallows feebly moving its arm, scooping water from the river and dripping it over its head. They were not the stiff movements of a dead person, he thought. Maybe almost dead, he thought as he watched it weakly moving its arm.

The riverbank beneath the bridge was covered in concrete which made climbing down quieter, if not easier. The figure at the water’s edge did not hear him as he approached. When he did finally notice Michael, he jerked his head to glare at him with unfocused, tear-filled eyes and said in a shaking voice, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone, you dead sack of shit! Go die. Just go…and leave me…”

He was a boy, Michael saw, maybe sixteen or seventeen, thin as a rail with matted light brown hair and a fuzzy, patchy beard on one side of his face. The other side of his head was severely burned, the skin blackened in jigsaw puzzle piece shapes with raw, blood-red wounds around the edges. The burns extended down to his shoulder and upper arm. He moaned in pain as he tried to bathe his wounds in the icy river water.

“I’m not a dead sack of shit,” Michael said to him quietly. His whole body shaking, the boy lifted his head a little more, trying hard to focus on Michael’s face. With a confused look, he gave up and let his head fall back. He groaned louder. “Shhh. Quiet!” Michael said to him, feeling guilty for thinking of his own safety when the boy was in such agony. “What happened?”

“The school…burned,” the boy replied, still making too much noise for Michael’s liking. “Everybody burned up.”

“Is that where you all were living?” Michael could see there was nothing he could do for him. Unless the tiny town of Crags had a big city league burn center still in operation, the boy was going to die soon from shock or later from infection.

“Who are you?” the boy asked in a slurred voice. “Are you from the safe haven? If you are, you’re…you’re too late. Everyone’s dead.”

“My name’s Michael and I don’t know what ‘safe haven’ you’re talking about, but you need to keep your voice down. It’s not going to do us any good to draw attention. Was everybody in the school?”

“The whole winter,” the boy said through pain-clenched teeth, “tearing up the…wood floor in the gym…burning everything for…f-firewood. Survived the whole w-winter and then…fire…fucking fire…” The boy’s words gave out, replaced by more loud moans of pain. “Where were you!?” he wailed. “Why didn’t you get here sooner!?”

“So everyone’s dead,” Michael muttered.

“They wouldn’t leave!” the boy shouted angrily, delirium taking him. “We were quiet. We didn’t make a sound. Dead, stinking sacks of shit! Mom, Denny, Mrs. Kane, Pete Halvorsen, Angela…two…two hundred…pounding on the doors!”

Michael glanced nervously around, fearful of the attention that the boy’s shouts might have attracted. Thinking that the boy’s delirium would allow him to leave unnoticed, he took a few steps up the slope but halted when the boy turned his head toward him and said in a suddenly calm and lucid voice that gave him goosebumps, “You may as well take the car. It’s still in the garage at Spit Shine on Mulberry. I put the char-charger on the battery. I was going to take it but…but I can’t see too good and…I needed to get something cool on my face. Gas in the tank should still be…okay but there’s…not much...” More loud moans followed, mixed with sobbing cries that made Michael leave the riverbank, guilt stabbing at his insides for doing so.

The sign for Mulberry Street was visible through the binoculars two blocks over from the end of the bridge. He hadn’t gone far when he saw a figure in a second story window looking down at him and he nearly raised his hand in greeting.

It was an elderly woman in a pink robe, slightly built with a gray, heavily wrinkled face and a wispy crown of white hair. It stood still at first. Then all at once its palms went to the glass, its eyes grew wide and its jaw dropped open. It pressed mindlessly at the glass for a moment before it began striking at it open-handed until the paned window broke and glittering shards rained down on the sidewalk. Michael was already running as he heard the thick sound of the corpse hitting the curb. One glance over his shoulder showed him the body in a heap, one arm working feebly to drag its now broken lower half along, its head lolling loosely to one side.

Rounding the corner, he stopped and doubled over, trying to catch his breath. The street in front of him was deserted with a few older model cars parked along the curb, each caked in grit and trimmed with dead leaves. The car next to him, a 1980s Oldsmobile with faded light blue paint, sat half on the sidewalk, a winter’s worth of windblown trash accumulated around its front driver side tire. His heart skipped beat when the pile of trash moved, revealing itself to be the body of a dead woman gone the same gray color as the street. It was mangled, hardly more than a skeleton and trapped beneath the tire. Yet it made a wheezing sound and clawed weakly at the air, reaching for him.

Jogging from doorway to doorway, edging along walls, keeping close to cover, he reached the Spit Shine Car Wash and Repair Shop without seeing any more horrors. The smoke rising from the still burning school a few blocks over loomed high over the town and Michael supposed that the fire had drawn the dead from the surrounding streets, allowing him some measure of safety. Still, the long, nervous run down the street was his first real introduction to the unsettling, dispiriting, dethroning effect of finding that he had become prey.

He had gone almost all the way around the cinder block building, peeking in the windows and checking the doors before he found one that was unlocked. With his small flashlight held beneath the barrel of the shotgun, he entered and closed the door behind him, leaning a few nearby pipes against it so that the sound of them falling would tell him if it was opened. Michael made his way through a narrow stock room and a small office before coming to the garage. There, the car that the boy had mentioned, a massive white GMC Yukon, sat with a thin coat of dust on the windshield.

Michael took some time to rest and go through the place, looking for anything he might be able to use. He wound up with a few bottles of various fuel additives and sprays, a first aid kit, some rolls of paper towels, a case of toilet paper, a box of road flares, a particularly large crowbar, and three heavy duty tow chains. There were also some foil packages of roasted almonds and beef jerky strips in the front seat of the vehicle. Empty candy wrappers on the floor around a display rack next to the cash register showed Michael where the burned boy had what was likely his last meal.

With the battery charger removed and the car battery reconnected, Michael took the key the boy had left on the dash and started the SUV. It started readily enough but ran rough with a low rumble, quickly filling the garage with fumes so that Michael was coughing before he found the manual release for the roll down door. Able to breathe again as the door lifted, he climbed into the driver’s seat and noted how the fuel gauge needle was just touching the red. Brakes squeaking, he eased the Yukon out into the street. Habit made him glance left and right for oncoming traffic but the three figures walking his way up the street with stiff legged baby steps were enough to make him decide to turn the other way. He was left with the image of them in his mind; naked, hairless, burned black and red over their entire bodies.

At the T intersection where Mulberry ended, another group of naked and grievously burned dead bodies approached from the right. Once again, the approaching dead decided his course and he turned left. The urge he’d felt to witness first-hand what the pandemic had done to the small mountain town of Crags was waning fast.

The left turn took him and the stuttering Yukon through the part of town he recognized from when he’d stopped on his way up the mountain. There was the gas station, now with NO FUEL spray painted in red across its front windows. There was the convenience store, looking like an empty shell even at a distance. There was the diner with its door hanging open, but appearing otherwise intact. There was no glass left in the 1960s aluminum façade of the municipal building and the view into the interior was hollow and dark. The cinder block VFW building was surrounded by a ring of fully dead corpses, the dried out remains looking brittle and mummy-like. Michael could picture the dead being put down by gun fire from the roof, at least until the ammunition ran out. And then there was the school with its yellow bricks scorched black and its roof caved in. Flames still licked at the remains of the collapsed roof and smoke still billowed skyward. The roughly forty reanimated dead wandering the school grounds turned toward the chugging sound of the Yukon as he passed and began to gravitate in his direction. Some moved relatively quickly, he noticed, and some could do little more than drag themselves slowly over the pavement.

He decided that he was done taking in the sights of Crags, population 393 – all dead.

A block down from the school he discovered where the remainder of the town’s undead citizenry had gathered. They were in a park, clustered around a small birch tree about fifty yards from the street.

Most of the dead looked like they’d been that way for months, though there were a few fresher looking ones scattered through the crowd. Some of the dead appeared whole, but most appeared to be without a cheek, a throat, or had been eaten through to the bone in places. Some had large amounts of muscle torn from their legs or abdomens which caused them to crawl or lurch about with gruesomely unnatural movements. He noticed a few uniforms among the crowd: military, fire department, police. The rest wore regular civilian attire, but all were streaked with greenish-black gore.

A hundred grasping hands had pulled down the lower branches of the birch tree and still they were climbing on top of one another, trying to reach higher. The top of the tree shook with the force of their attack and, about midway up the trunk, partially obscured by the bare branches, something hung limply, swaying in a rubber-like fashion as the trunk trembled. He slowed the Yukon and looked around him, seeing the crowd from the school around three hundred yards behind him and advancing steadily up the street. Sweeping the park with the binoculars, he noted four areas of trampled grass stained a dark brownish red.

The boy at the river had been wrong; not everyone at the school had been ‘burned up.’ Judging by the flattened circles of grass and shredded clothing, a few had made it as far as the park before they’d been overtaken and ripped apart.

When he focused the binoculars on the upper branches of the tree, his mouth fell open. Someone was there, halfway up the tree. He saw blue jeans, fair hair and bare skin – pale flesh, but not dead, gray flesh. And if all the attention from the mass of ravenous corpses was any indication, whoever it was just might be alive.

If the reanimated dead from the school hadn’t been so close behind, he might have had time to decide to do the smart thing. But he was rushed and his mind clicked automatically, deciding on the spur of the moment to do the dumb thing.

The Yukon mounted the curb and passed through an open gate in the chain link fence. When he pressed his foot hard on the gas pedal, the SUV shuddered but responded after a few seconds with an unhealthy grinding sound. Fountains of grass and mud erupted behind him as the vehicle accelerated toward the edge of the undead mob. The thudding of dead bodies against the front end of the SUV was at once sickening and exhilarating. His pulse beat hard in his neck and his brain felt under enormous pressure as he forced the reanimated bodies under the SUV’s great bulk, breaking their bones and mashing their muscles. He trimmed the crowd around the edges, braked hard into a spinning turn, and came back to do it again. Over and over and over again.

He didn’t bother to count how many passes he made, but eventually enough of them lay scattered or broken on the ground to allow him to stop next to the birch tree, open the door and ask, in the most conversational of tones, “So, are you alive?”

Looking back at him with unfocused, blank eyes was a girl, her face smudged with black soot, heavy shivers wracking her whole body. She wore worn blue jeans and a frayed and torn bra. She had removed her shirt at some point and had used the long sleeves to tie herself to the trunk of the tree. Her belly and shoulder were scraped raw from clinging to the rough bark. He guessed that she had spent two or three days there, ever since the school had burned and she had been cornered in the park with her less fortunate friends, forced up the small tree to escape the pursuit of the dead. Michael was amazed that she was not yet dead from hypothermia.

In the next second he was acutely aware of the danger of his position. All around him the dead shuffled, stumbled, writhed and crawled, advancing on him.

“Come on,” he said to the girl. “Quick.” But she simply stared back at him blankly and made no move toward freeing herself. “All right,” he said, once more acting without thinking. He climbed from the front seat of the Yukon to the hood, then to the roof. Standing there, expecting at any second to feel the hands grabbing his ankles and tearing him to the ground, he fumbled for the pocket knife from the breast pocket of his coat and drew the blade repeatedly across the twisted sleeve of the girl’s shirt. “Come on. Come on!” he seethed through his teeth as he worked. “I really don’t want to die today!” When the shirt material was cut through, the girl slumped backward off the branch she was straddling. Her sudden weight sent them both crashing to the roof of the SUV, where Michael broke her fall with a pained “Uuuff!”

The dead were so close now that his mind began to spark with panic. Electric white spots formed in his peripheral vision as the dead slid their way silently along the dented and black-smeared hood, their clawed fingers inches from him. He dropped the pocket knife and heard it clatter away over the roof of the vehicle and, shifting the weight of the girl from his chest, he felt for the revolver in his inside coat pocket. It snagged as he tried to withdraw it and a panicked whimpering sound escaped his throat. Finally, the gun pulled free and he managed to aim between the reaching pairs of hands to fire point blank nine times. Of the nine shots, six corpses fell like sacks of dirt and three others merely staggered backward with holes in their faces oozing black. When he jumped to the ground and dragged her after him, he lost his footing on a crawling corpse and fell on its back. He had to stifle a scream as it grabbed at his legs. The roadkill stink of being surrounded by so many of them was overwhelming. At the edge of the stink, the chemical-like tang bit at the back of his throat. On the ground, nearly under the wheel of the SUV, he saw an object – a muddied pink and black nylon backpack – and grabbed it to use as a shield between himself and the grasping fingers and bared teeth moving in on him. He shoved the backpack against the snapping faces of the dead until he could work his way back into the vehicle. When he pulled the door shut, they were both in the driver’s seat and he was sitting on the girl’s legs. “Over!” he ordered as the dead outside started to rock the vehicle. He tossed the pink and black backpack to the passenger side. “Over, now! Move!” Without waiting, he put the vehicle in gear and stood on the gas pedal. The dead in front of the SUV disappeared below the front end and the Yukon bounced crazily as the wheels rode over them.

The dead from the school had entered the park by then and when the Yukon collided with their severely burned bodies, thin sheets of skin stuck to the white hood of the SUV, painting it a grotesque calico.

Despite the tingle of mental shock, he had the presence of mind to detour broadly from the more direct route back to the river, going in a roundabout direction to disguise their trail. By the time they had reached the street along the town side of the river, he had managed to move the girl to the passenger seat. She sat there, half curled and motionless except for her shivering. Michael noticed for the first time how bad she smelled and how stained her jeans were with urine and feces.

“Okay,” he said, tasting the coppery remains of panic in his mouth, “okay, so you’ve been through hell and your brain has shut down. I get it. Believe me, I get it. But if you can pull yourself together long enough to talk to me, I’d really appreciate the effort.” The girl didn’t move and made no sound. “Okay, if you want to get the hell out of Crags, just say nothing.” The girl said nothing. “All right then.”

Michael did one last thing before leaving Crags. He stopped in mid-span on the bridge, got out and peered over the side to where the boy had been. He saw nothing below but river water washing against rocks.

They climbed the mountain road with increasing sounds of distress coming from the engine. By the time they had reached the roadblock formed by the wrecked RV, the Yukon was rapidly losing power. That, plus the fuel gauge needle resting solidly at the bottom of the red made the decision to leave the vehicle behind an easy one.

“I don’t know if you can hear me,” he said to the girl as he dumped the spent brass from the revolver, “but we need to walk to my truck just up the road and around the bend. I’m going to move a few things from here to there.” He emptied his coat pockets of ammunition and sharp things. “While I’m doing that, you might want to put this on.” He took off the coat and draped it over the seat. “You look like you’re freezing.” As he reloaded the revolver, he tried to think of something more to say. “The house has hot water so…so there’s that.”

In three trips, he transferred the things he’d salvaged from the Spit Shine garage to his truck. Then, with a moment’s hesitation, he entered the back of the RV. Working around the skeletal remains, he explored the cabinets that weren’t blocked and retrieved a small plastic-cased 1100 watt generator, a dozen canned goods and some juice drinks, frozen solid in the bottles. As an afterthought, he rooted through the nylon bags strewn underfoot until he found one that appeared to contain clothing for a woman or a girl; he was too rushed to find out which. It had to be better, he figured, than the clothing options he had to offer her. On the way back down to the Yukon, he looked into the SUV and saw that nothing had been left behind in the vehicle.

When he returned to the Yukon he was encouraged to see her wearing his coat. “Ready?” he asked. Though she still said nothing and maintained her blank, unfocused stare, she did step out and walk slowly with him to the truck, staying to the side of him and trailing a little behind. She had his coat zipped up all the way to her neck and he thought the large size of it made her look like a fat caterpillar inching up the road. Michael noticed her clutching the dirty pink and black backpack and only then realized he’d found it under the tree where she must have dropped it.

“I’m Michael, by the way,” he said to her quietly as he gazed up at the mountainside. “I came here to be by myself for a while.”

_________________
"...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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