Take a few pew, horror fans! Only the one submission this week, based on my concept from a fortnight ago of having a story that opened with the line…
“Tina pressed her foot down on the accelerator and didn’t look back.”
…but boy, what a story we’ve got. The ever-excellent Mike L Lane has, in Through Red Flaked Holes, delivered what I think is one of his best short stories to date, and I think you’ll agree.
And to finish off, parts eight and nine of Nick Paschall’s awesome zombie horror “Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest”. See you all here tomorrow!
Through Red Flaked Holes – Mike L Lane
Tina pressed her foot down on the accelerator and didn’t look back. She hovered over the steering wheel and white-knuckled around another curve, spraying gravel and dust into the scorching summer air. She didn’t dare take her eyes off of the dirt road with the speedometer pushing past ninety and the tires struggling for traction. Even if she wasn’t driving like Danica Patrick in the Indianapolis 500, she wouldn’t sneak a peek into the rearview and risk seeing the horrors behind her, steadily working its way over the back of her seat and into her hair.
It had been Brian’s idea to go to the clearing and she cursed the day he was born, even if she did love him. Brian Bedlam was her boyfriend and son of Craig Bedlam of Bedlam Oil and Refineries. He was captain of the varsity football team, or at least he would be come fall and he was one of the most popular kids at MRH. Being the son of one of the wealthiest families in town had its perks, but Tina had never been interested in his family’s money or how many quarterbacks he sacked per season. It wasn’t about his good looks or even his carefree and devil may care attitude all of his loser friends adored. Tina loved him because when it was just the two of them, he was the sweetest boy she had ever known. She would have followed him to the ends of the earth as long as life allowed it, but the night he decided the “crew” needed one last summer outing before three-a-days began, she wasn’t sold on the idea.
“We’ve hung out with them all summer, Brian,” she protested, summoning her best pout and praying he would change his mind. Once school began and he got wrapped up in his own growing popularity, their relationship was doomed. They were the “it” couple in everyone’s eyes and had been for the last two years, but college was barreling at them like a runaway car with no breaks and she had stared defiantly into those oncoming headlights and seen the future. He would get a football scholarship and chase his dreams north. She would cut roots with the sleepy backwoods town, shake the dust off and flee the state as far as she could go. Life would drift them apart and though she loved him, she knew their time was inevitably short.
“I know, bae, but Connor and Sue are heading off to college next week and we won’t get to see them again until Christmas break,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist and looking into her eyes with a sad, little boy expression he knew she could never resist. She hated being called “bae”. It reminded Tina of her part-time job at Kmart and the huge bay doors in the back of the loading dock, wide open and ready to take in whoever or whatever got shoved inside. Most of the so-called “baes” she knew were that way, including Sue, but not her. “Just one last camping trip with the crew and then I’m all yours until practice starts. I promise.”
Of course she had agreed, her nose crinkling beneath her wire framed glasses. She always did. He plotted the course for their lives, she protested a tiny bit, then fell in line, just like all of his friends did. He had an undeniable charm people were powerless against and for now, she let him have that. He believed she was following him to Fayetteville at the end of their senior year, oblivious to her own personal plans. Her guilt let him have his way more often than not.
On a normal Saturday night, Brian and his friends liked to party at the Number 19 oil derrick on the outskirts of town. They had been known to throw a keg party or two at the 19, mostly because Brian had copied his father’s key to the gate and it was the least monitored rig among the hundred or so spread out across the southern part of the state, but the local cops had busted a group of teens there two weeks ago. To make matters worse, Carl Franks, a local dropout and all around idiot, was busted carrying a pharmacy load in his pick-up and arrested for selling booze and pills to minors. Brian and Tina had escaped the scene just in time, but Brian’s father changed the lock and all parties at the 19 came to a complete halt. As a back-up plan, Brian located a secluded place for their weekend getaway. It was a brand new field his father had just bought further north, deep in the woods and safe from the prying eyes of the Malum Rose police force.
Tina had allowed Connor to drive her mother’s new Honda Civic the forty-five minute trek into the backwoods and regretted it the moment he turned off of Highway 67 and onto an old logger road. The lane departure warning system sounded with no pavement lines to guide it and Brian switched the feature off. Dust and gravel flew up behind them, spraying the hood of Connor’s Chevy 4×4. Marcus and Brenda watched from the back windshield as Connor gave them bird. Tina was glad the couple had rode with them instead of Zach and Trevor. Those idiots were annoying and she hated the way Zach undressed her with his eyes.
Brian stuck his arm out the window and returned the favor to Connor. Wind whipped through the interior of the Toyota, messing up Tina’s hair and tangling the roots. She started to protest, but the guilt got the best of her. She wanted to make the most of her time with Brian and fussing over wind-blown hair seemed trivial. Instead she tied her hair up in a ponytail, snatched up Brian’s white ball cap from the console and took care of the problem.
“Do not mess up my Panther’s hat,” he said sternly. “Luke Kuechly wears one just like that one in the off season and I’ll be pissed if you get it dirty.”
Tina didn’t care about football, much less the Carolina Panthers, but Brian talked obsessively about his idol, Luke Kuechly, and she knew the hat held major importance to him. If Brian were forced to choose between her and the hat, it was iffy she would win. Still, she liked the way it looked on her and kept it on.
“Are we close yet?” she asked, checking her reflection in the mirror. She inadvertently caught a glimpse of Marcus’ big hands groping Brenda’s oversized breast and darted her eyes away just as Brenda shoved the defensive lineman away from her. Tina liked Brenda. She was a big girl, but she was tough and never took any shit from anyone.
“Almost,” Brian said turning down another gravel road. Pine trees lined the road and every once and a while a low branch would tap the side or the roof of the Civic.
“You are washing mom’s car when this trip is over,” she said, cringing from a metallic screech down the passenger side door. “You’ll be the one to explain the scratches to her, too.”
“Your mom loves me,” Brian laughed and Tina knew he was right. Her mom thought he was perfect. She had even tried to convince Tina to follow him to the U of A after graduation. She had gritted her teeth and held her tongue. Both her mom and Brian were in for a big shock next summer.
The Civic bounced up and down the road like a rowboat at sea and just as Tina couldn’t take much more, Brian pulled the car into a large field where the dirt road ended and the grass began.
“This place is perfect,” Connor exclaimed, jumping out of his truck and clamping a heavy palm on Brian’s shoulder. “We could run around buck naked, screaming our lungs out in a full-on orgy and no one would ever hear us out here.”
“Don’t count on it,” Sue said voicing Tina’s opinion before she had the chance. “No one wants to see your little grub worm anyway.”
This brought a chorus of laughter from the entire group, including Connor. He slung Sue over his shoulder like a caveman and playfully slapped her on the ass. She kicked and laughed, demanding to be let down.
“You weren’t complaining last night,” he said. He sat her back down on the ground and pulled a Miller Lite from the ice chest.
“There wasn’t much to complain about,” she laughed, holding her thumb and index finger close to one another barely an inch apart.
“Grub worm,” Brian said. He shook his head as if he were confused. “And all this time I’ve been calling you Butter Bean.”
Another burst of laughter echoed in the clearing and Connor chased Brian around his Chevy 4×4 threatening to pummel him. Connor could have, too. He outweighed Brian by nearly fifty pounds, but Brian was a whole lot quicker and eventually they both tired out, settling to share a beer on the tailgate.
“How did you find this place?” Marcus asked. He and Brenda were leaning against Tina’s Civic and looking out across the field. “We’re so far out in the sticks, I bet no one knows about this place.”
“Another one of dad’s big finds,” Brian said. “He’s got a nose like a dowsing rod when it comes to oil. They start prepping sometime next week so enjoy it while you can.”
The clearing was huge; a flat, grassy area the size of their high school football stadium, parking lot and all. A thick grove of pines circled it like ancient guardians keeping watch over the last patch of land untainted by humans. Tina stepped away from the group to get a better look. There was a peaceful tranquility about the area she loved. A gentle breeze passed through the pines and tickled the hair on the back of her neck. She closed her eyes for a moment and let the wind dance around her. It was a shame the area would be just another oilfield by the end of the year. She chalked it up to life in general. Just like her relationship with Brian, eventually all good things must come to an end. She sighed and took another look around, noticing a peculiar pattern on the ground.
Near the outer edges of the clearing the grass was a brilliant green and matched the color of Brian’s eyes. In an almost swirling pattern, the green gradually faded from a vivid emerald to a dull olive as it neared the center of the clearing. Closer to the center, the grass had turned a sun dried yellow, withering away into a solid circle of bare soil directly in the center of the field. The odd pattern reminded her of crop circles she had seen once on an episode of Ancient Aliens. She tried to imagine what the pattern would look like from a plane and figured it had the appearance of a spinning whirligig. She called the others over to check it out.
“The bare spot will be perfect for a bonfire,” Trevor said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Zach agreed. He thumped his Skoal can, pulled out a packed pinch of fine cut and placed it in his lower lip. Tina cringed and was thankful Brian hadn’t picked up the filthy habit. He surveyed the area like a landscaper, stopping briefly to gawk at Tina’s tits and pointing out where everyone could set up their tents. “Connor, pull your pick-up over here and we’ll unload those pallets Trevor and I stole from the hardware store.”
“Do you guys not see how weird the design is?” Tina asked. When no one answered, she looked to Brian for backup.
“I guess so,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders and gave her a look she knew too well. Just like the rest of them, he didn’t see nor care about it. She glared back at him, but he hid his face beneath an upturned bottle. It was Brian’s way of saying he was through talking about it. She supposed it wasn’t important, but it was strange and she couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong about it. She didn’t know what exactly, but it was definitely giving her bad vibes.
Connor pulled his truck into the center of the clearing and all five guys unloaded the pallets while Tina, Sue and Brenda unloaded the tents, coolers and groceries. Each couple had brought their own tent, but Trevor and Zach opted to “rough it out” in sleeping bags. Tina didn’t like this at all. If a downpour came in the middle of the night, they would try and climb into the tent with her and Brian. This would end up in a huge argument where Brian would defend his friend and she would end up pissed off and sleeping in her car. Both Trevor and Zach were too scared to pull this stunt with Sue. She might joke about Connor’s “grub worm” but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to get her fill of it. Marcus and Brenda was a plus sized couple and could barely fit in their pup tent, let alone make room for two more people. Besides, Brenda would throw a fit even if there had been room.
“Make sure those idiots know they can’t sleep in our tent,” she said, pulling Brian to the side. He stared back at her blankly and she let out an irritated sigh. “It will probably rain tonight and those two dingleberries are not cuddling with you and me.”
“It won’t rain,” Brian said. The answer wasn’t what she had hoped for.
“Trevor snores like a freight train, Brian and Zach has a tendency to get touchy-feely after a few beers. They are not sleeping in our tent,” she said putting her foot down.
“Bae,” he said in a smooth voice. Tina turned her face away and hid the disdain for the pet name. Brian wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “You wouldn’t let them sleep out in the rain, would you? I mean look at them. They’re like children.”
Zach had just doused the pallets with gasoline and Trevor was throwing lit matches around Zach’s feet. The fire ignited with a whoosh setting Zach’s sneakers on fire. He jumped out of the fire like a cat thrown into a bathtub full of water and Trevor howled in laughter as he stomped around, trying to put the flames out.
“You better pray it doesn’t rain,” she scowled. “I mean it, Brian. They can grope you in the dark, but I’ll be sleeping in the Honda if it comes down to it. They both give me the creeps.”
He kissed her on the cheek, practically dismissing everything she said and joined his friends by the fire.
“Children, my ass,” Brenda said, lighting up a smoke and offering one to Tina. She declined. The sticky, burnt chemical scent fouled up the crisp pine air and Tina wished she hadn’t been standing down wind. “I don’t blame you, girl. If Marcus acted that way, he wouldn’t be getting in my damn tent either. Setting one another on fire and spitting tobacco juice all over creation. They’ll be lighting one another’s farts by the end of the night, mark my words.”
“God, I hope not,” Tina laughed. “I’m not driving all the way back into town just because some dumbass got third degree burns on his puckerstring.”
Brenda laughed so hard she nearly choked on her Marlboro and Tina joined in. She looked up at the clear, blue sky and figured she was probably making a big deal out of nothing. It hadn’t rained in the past month and it didn’t look like it would anytime soon. She was sorry for even bringing it up, but Brian’s friends were notorious for messing up a good time. They could have him until bedtime. All she wanted was some alone time with her man and once the zipper went down on the tent, it was only going to be her and Brian. Maybe then she could explain to him how short their time together really was. She could explain how their lives were headed in opposite directions and before they came to the split in the road, they should make the most of their time together. He would take it hard, the little boy inside of him unable to understand at first, but in the end he would accept it. He might threaten to end things now and as much as it would hurt her, he certainly had the right. But she thought maybe… just maybe he would see it as an opportunity to make the most of their last year together.
As she looked into the sky another strange thought occurred to her. She hadn’t seen one bird the entire time they had been there. She adjusted her glasses and scanned the surrounding pines. No flocks flew overhead and no birds stirred within the trees. She couldn’t even hear one singing for that matter; a common occurrence in the woods she had almost always took for granted, but the absence of these sounds disturbed her. The booming laughter from the boys and the crackling of the fire rang dull and hollow in the clearing like shouts at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Nature was cautiously silent, lying in wait like a spider stalking prey. No locust hummed the ever present serenade of summer. No frogs croaked at one another from afar and nothing stirred in the forest. No rustling of leaves or the crack of a falling branch. Nature was completely and utterly still… deathly still. An uneasy feeling fell over her like cobwebs.
Before she could point this out to the others, nature broke the silence with a rumble, shaking the ground in fury. Fissures raced out serpent-like from beneath the fire and out across the grass. The pleasant pine smell was devoured by a nostril burning scent Tina could only describe as soured root beer. She clutched the bed rails for support and steadied herself against Connor’s truck. The body of the 4×4 jumped up and down on its shocks like a lowrider with hydraulics. Brenda bounced on her ass and her forearm raked across a jagged rock. A line of blood streamed from her elbow down to her fingers. She ignored the pain and scrambled back to the truck in a drunken crawl, her fingers digging into the soil. The earthquake collapsed the tents and Marcus, who had slipped inside his to roll out their oversized sleeping bag, rose up from the pile of poles and ripstop canvas like a kid in a bright yellow, poorly made ghost costume, his arms flailing wildly and his feet struggling to find purchase on the unstable ground. Connor and Sue were flung into the side of their tent like ragdolls and Brian tripped on a bag of groceries and flew across the cooler, sacking an invisible quarterback and dumping ice and beer bottles onto the grass.
The bonfire was sinking into the earth, its towering flames a small flicker above the ground. Zach’s leg was stuck in one of the fissures, buried up to the knee and he couldn’t find enough traction to pull it out as the crater grew in the center of the clearing. Trevor had the worst of it. He was actually in the hole. He scrambled up the embankment on all fours like a man climbing up a runaway escalator on its way down. The earth was caving in on itself behind him, sucking up soil and clumps of grass to feed into the bonfire now smoking deep from within.
“Somebody help me!” Trevor screamed, sinking lower and lower into the earth. He caught hold of an exposed root with one hand and lurched forward, his feet kicking away from the flames. Zach managed to free his leg and rushed to the edge of the hole, thrusting his hand down to Trevor.
“Yeah, yeah! I got you, Trev!” Zach yelled, but the distance between Trevor’s arms and Zach’s outstretched hand was growing further and further apart even as he spoke. The earth crumbled beneath him and he felt himself sliding into the hole. Trevor found a foothold strong enough to kick off from, yanked on the root cutting into his hand and leapt as high as he could, raising his free arm in an Air Jordon pose. Zach felt their fingers brush for a split second and watched his friend topple backward into the sinking bonfire. His back struck the center of the blaze emitting a shower of glowing embers and smoke. The flames engulfed his body and Zach watched in horror as a blaze of yellow and orange erupted from Trevor’s screaming mouth. He scrambled away from the edge, fearful he would be sucked into the hole as well.
“Trevor!” Brian yelled, rushing toward the shrill cries screeching from the pit. Zach tackled him before he reached the collapsing ledge and pinned him to the ground.
“He’s done for, Brian!” Zach yelled over the rumbling earth. “You get any closer and it’ll suck you in, too! Yeah, yeah! We’ve got to go!”
Sue and Connor skittered around the edge of the sinkhole and shot past them hand in hand in a beeline for the truck. Marcus had ripped his way out of the tent and was making his way towards them as well. He shambled in bursts of runs and trips Tina would have found comical under different circumstances. Brenda hadn’t been able to get to her feet and held a death grip on Tina’s calves, her eyes clamped tight. A stream of curses and prayers fled from her mouth in an undecipherable chant. For a moment, Tina believed the clearing would swallow them whole.
The world stopped trembling and settled. Complete silence sifted over them save their heavy panting and the steady drumming of their hearts. Tina’s heart tried to escape through the narrow passage of her windpipes and she choked back the strain to speak.
“Is everyone okay?” she asked. She knew it was dumb, especially considering Trevor’s fate. He was not okay at all. Two loud pops crackled from within the hole and she envisioned Trevor’s eyes bursting under the extreme heat. She wiggled her numb legs to break free from Brenda’s grip. “Brenda?”
Brenda looked at her with a confused stare, her plump arms refusing to let go. Tina bent down and gently tugged at the girl’s forearms. Finally taking the hint, she released her hold and collapsed all the way to the ground in a sobbing heap. Marcus came to her aid, the front of his shirt and pants stained by the grass and soil he had wallowed in. A deep cut ran across his forehead where a tent pole had struck him. Tina ran over to Brian and wrapped her arms around him. It was a cruel and heartless thing to cross her mind, but as she put her head on his chest she was thankful it had been Trevor.
“Trevor’s dead,” he said. There was no emotion in his voice and his eyes stared blankly past Tina and at the hole, stunned. He sounded like an AI bot reporting the weather. The horrible reality of his own words slowly registered on his face and his eyes flickered back to Tina. “Dead.”
“I couldn’t save him!” Zach yelled. His face burnt a deep crimson and he paced back and forth like a caged animal. “Couldn’t save him! Yeah, yeah! Couldn’t save him!”
He kicked a package of marshmallows at the hole and it flipped end over end into the abyss. In a rage, he randomly picked up the spilled groceries and flung them into the hole. The bottle of ketchup followed the bottle of mustard, then he snatched up the cooler, lifted it overhead and threw it in with a primal cry of fury and heart wrenching loss. The sound hung dull in the air and a shiver ran up Tina’s spine. Behind her, she heard the passenger side door of the truck shut. Sue was inside the cab, urging Connor to go in a frantic high-pitched squeal Tina could barely understand.
“We can’t just leave him!” Zach yelled. Connor had walked around the truck and was about to climb inside when the words stopped him dead in his tracks. Zach rushed over and slammed the truck door so violently Sue cried out with a whimper. He stood face to face with Connor and although Zach was much smaller than him, Tina could see the fear shimmer in Connor’s eyes. Zach was losing it. “She can sit her sorry ass in that truck all day, but you and all of the rest of you are going to help me get Trevor out of that fucking hole or I swear I’ll kill every single one of you with my bare hands! Yeah, yeah motherfuckers! You’re going to help me!”
“Easy Zach,” Brian said, snapping out of his daze. “No one is leaving Trevor behind.”
He eased in between Connor and Zach, taking him by the shoulders. For a moment, it looked as if Zach would punch Brian. His eyes were wide and his nostrils flared. He jerked free from Brian’s grasp and backed away.
“Let’s get to it then,” he said, whirling around and marching back to the hole. He kicked a foot out at Marcus and added, “You, too, fat ass.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Marcus replied, mocking him with a deflated sigh and looking at Connor and Brian. All of the guys fell in line, slowly walking to Zach’s command. Sue stuck her head out of the window and screamed at Connor.
“Fuck that! I want to go home!”
Connor stopped, caught between his friend and his girl. He looked like a mouse with its tail caught in a trap. Zach was standing at the ledge and about to descend. He whirled around at the sound of Sue’s voice. Fire blazed in his eyes and his mouth opened to curse them all, but it was as far as he got. A gnarled, tangled root shot up out of the hole, whipped around his throat and yanked him back in one swift pull. One second Zach was there and in the next he was gone, his gargling gasps trailing down the chasm. Another tendril lashed out and caught Brian’s ankle, pulling him to the ground and towards the ledge. He dug his hands into the soil and ripped up tufts of grass in an effort to fight free from the root’s hold. Connor and Marcus grabbed his arms and pulled. The root cut into the flesh around Brian’s ankle and he screamed in pain, terrified the creature would either pull him into the pit or severe his foot. Marcus grappled Brian in a bear hug and Connor lunged to his outstretched legs. He produced a knife from his back pocket, flipped the blade open and sawed at the root snaring Brian’s foot. He came free at once, but a howling roar issued from deep within the earth. The three boys scrambled backwards in a frantic crabwalk, the noise producing a bone jarring ache within their limbs.
“Run!” Tina screamed. Connor and Marcus obeyed without hesitation, but Brian crumpled beneath his own weight. She rushed across the field to help him before anything else slithered from out of the hole and claimed her boyfriend for its own. A small tremor slowly shook the field and began to intensify.
Tina watched in horror as a geyser erupted from the hole in a crimson stream. In the split second this registered in her head, she thought it was blood; a fountain of blood to put Old Faithful to shame, erupting from the ground like a volcano and covering everything within the clearing. She had just enough time to think this when it pelted her in the face, knocking her to the ground.
She wiped the red from her glasses. She expected it to smear across the lenses, but it fell away like dry flakes, writhing and wiggling on the ground like thousands of tiny maggots. In a panic, she brushed all of the flakes from her body, her skin itching and crawling from their touch. A line of red marched across the white bill of her ball cap like ants and she slung it to the ground. Confident she had removed most of the creatures from her body, Tina ran to Brian, sheer terror overpowering the burning sensation on her face. Brian shrieked, wiping the red flakes from his eyes and blubbering. She brushed as much from him as she could. A quick pass over his hair, chest and back was all she could manage before another crack opened up in the ground beside them and forced her to get moving. She took his arm and slung it over her shoulder, urging him to stand.
“Let’s go!” she screamed over the rumble of shifting land. His head jerked towards the sound of her voice and she nearly dropped him. The red flakes were dissolving into the whites of his eyes, bubbling and steaming like water on the verge of boiling. The mixture of his green eyes and the writhing red flakes made them look like shattered Christmas ornaments. In the distance, Connor’s 4×4 roared into life.
The fissures in the ground grew wider, racing past the truck and out towards the dirt road where Tina’s car was parked. The dark, soil stained streaks were like lightning in a clear sky. The ground beneath them seemed to roll back towards the hole in mighty tugs. The entire clearing was folding in on itself several yards at a time creating a steady incline down into the gaping crater where the bonfire had once been. It was as if the world had opened its mouth and decided to eat everything around it, starting with the bonfire and one barbequed Trevor. The more it ate, the wider its mouth opened. The toppled tents slid past its lips and vanished. The overturned coolers rolled backwards and down its throat, followed by packages of wieners, beer bottles and ice cubes. Root tendrils lashed out by the dozens, whipping and groping blindly for anything they could grab hold of. One zipped across Tina’s hip, drawing blood. She pulled Brian up with all of her strength and pushed them forward. They had to get to the truck.
The 4×4 rolled forward as Marcus leapt onto the tailgate and into the bed. He stood up and beat on the roof like a bull rider signaling for the gate’s release, ready to hang on for an eight second eternity. In his haste, he had left Brenda completely behind. She clung to the ground, unable to move and hanging onto the crumbling earth with all of her might.
A fissure raced instinctively at the truck and opened up beneath the passenger’s side tires. The truck leaned into the earth and came to a complete halt, its free wheels spinning ruts into the ground. Marcus flew out of the back of the truck and onto the ground in a broken heap, blood streaming from his mouth and nose. He tried to crawl towards the Chevy, but his legs drug behind him like limp noodles. Root tendrils burst from the ground around him, wrapped around his large frame and pulled him screaming into the hole.
Connor stumbled out of his truck like a drunk driver trying to pass a field sobriety test and failing miserably. Sue had gone completely through the front windshield and was sprawled out face first in the grass; her arms and legs in an awkward contorted pose the cheerleader had never attempted before and never would again. Connor called out to her lifeless body, begging her to get up despite the fact her pelvis had twisted around like a corkscrew.
“Get to the car!” Tina screamed at the top of her lungs. Her muscles burned under the strain of Brian’s weight and his efforts to keep moving had dwindled. He mumbled incoherently into Tina’s ear, but she ignored him. “Get to my car!!!”
Brenda was the first to hear her. She looked up at Tina like she had been dreaming of falling and had been startled awake right before impact. She grappled her way to shaky limbs and made a hobbled run for the Honda Civic.
“Connor! Help us!” she screamed, certain she couldn’t pull Brian much further. Connor only shook his head, standing over his dead girlfriend and denying the crumbling world around him. A root lashed out and looped around Sue’s leg, dragging her back to the hungry crater. Her limp body zipped through the grass past Tina and Brian. Red flakes jumped from the grass like fleas, infesting Sue’s corpse and hitching a ride back home. The sight was an immediate wakeup call for Connor. He rushed to help Tina, picking up Brian and tossing him over his shoulder. The three raced to catch up with Brenda.
“Get in the front!” Connor ordered her. Brenda adjusted her route and fled to the front passenger’s seat. “I’ll get me and Brian in the back! Get your keys ready!”
Tina fumbled around in her front pocket as they ran. Panic dug its claws deeper into her when she found her pockets empty.
“We need the fucking keys, Tina!” Connor shouted, setting Brian against the hood. He slid for a moment in a dead faint and Connor grabbed him again before he fell to the ground.
“The keys are in his pocket!” she shouted, the memory striking her like a lightning bolt. Brian had driven them to this God forsaken place. He had to have the keys on him!
The crater widened behind them as Connor fished around in Brian’s blue jeans. Brian continued to mumble in sobs, his head hung low and rolling around on his neck like a swivel. He raised his face for a moment and Tina caught a glimpse of his eyes or rather what was left of his eyes. His gaze was nothing more than hollow, red-flaked sockets. Tina started to cry, her world literally crumbling around her, but the sharp beep of the car unlocking was like a slap across the face. Connor pitched Tina the keys and drug Brian into the back seat, Brenda helping from the front. Tina jumped in and shut the door. She cranked the engine and took a look back at Connor and Brian.
“Quit gawking and start driving!” Connor yelled in her face. There was more terror in his voice than anger. It was clear he had seen the damage to Brian’s eyes. She started to do just what he said when something caught her eye. Behind them, the crater was sucking in giant pine trees from the clearing’s edge. A wave of tree trunks toppled into the hole and completely vanished in earsplitting cracks. Gnarled tangles of roots came out of the hole like giant hands, digging mounds of earth and forest into its open mouth, never seeming to get enough. The tendrils lashed out at the Civic, their woody vines thumping on the hood. Connor grabbed her by the throat.
“FUCKING DRIVE!!!” he said shoving her forward into the steering wheel. Red flecks speckled his angry face. They marched in lines toward his soft brown eyes.
The engine hummed into life and the car leapt forward onto the gravel road. Brenda was sobbing uncontrollably at her side. Without taking her eyes off of the road, she stretched her hand out and placed it on Brenda’s arm for comfort accidently grazing the infected wound. The flesh of her meaty arm gave way in an audible rip and Tina jerked her hand back like she had touched an open flame. Brenda screamed in agony and Tina couldn’t help but look. A multitude of red flaked spores scurried from the open wound and raced all over her arms and chest. The girl beat fiercely at the flakes dancing across her skin, her scream a constant wail like a police siren. Waves and waves of spores covered Brenda’s body from head to toe, eating away at her flesh and climbing into her open mouth.
“What the fuck did you do?!” Connor yelled, swatting at Brenda’s infested body. A swarm of flakes marched up his arm and he started flailing wildly to get them off.
“I didn’t do anything!” Tina cried. “Those things came from inside of her!”
Connor leaned over the front seat, opened the passenger side door and tried to push Brenda from the moving car. Tina slammed on the brakes and the Honda slid sideways across the gravel road in a flurry of dust and rock.
“Don’t stop!” Connor screamed, pushing Brenda backwards. The girl grabbed the door with one hand and the doorframe with the other, her screams never missing a beat. Tina could see the terror in the girl’s eyes as the red brigade popped and danced into her eyes and the root beer smell filled the car. “Oh shit!”
Tina looked back at Connor who had stopped trying to push Brenda out of the car and had started swatting at his own eyes. The forest of pine trees lining the road behind them was falling in waves into the earth, steadily gaining ground on the idling car. Tina made a hard call in her mind and before she could reconsider, she set a plan in motion.
“If you hurry, you can drag her out!” Tina shouted at Connor. “I’ll push! We have to get her out!”
Connor flung open his door and raced around to the other side of the car without hesitation. He wrapped his arms beneath Brenda from behind and Tina shuddered at the sight of her eyeless sockets and screaming mouth. Her face was full crimson and she fought desperately to remain in the car, fully aware of what they were doing to her despite the agony she was suffering. Her voice gargled with the invading red army marching down her throat and into her bulging stomach. Tina leaned over and pushed Brenda in the chest, her hands submerging in slimy, melted breasts. Brenda’s body fell backward and landed on top of Connor. Tina gunned it.
“You bitch!” he screamed, shoving Brenda’s writhing body to the side, but his cry faded under the roar of spinning tires. He ran at the car as fast as he could, but the Honda’s wheels pelted him with gravel before catching traction and slinging the vehicle further down the road. Tina watched in the rearview as Connor fell into the crater, his body smashed to bits by the falling pines and the grappling roots. The crater was gaining circumference at an alarming rate.
Looking into the rearview, Tina caught the first look at herself. The bridge of her glasses had melted and bent, the rims fused to her flesh. They looked like a pair of safety googles, shielding her eyes from the hungry red spores. She quickly looked away, unable to bear the sight. If not for her glasses, she would have looked just like Brian and Brenda.
“Lucky me!” she shouted into the car. Mad giggles trickled from her lips and turned into hysterical gales of laughter and tears. “The world is eating itself behind me and I’m worried about my new complexion!”
Her mind turned to Brian. He had been silent the whole time and based on what she had seen so far, she knew he was dead. She chanced a look anyway. His body was unrecognizable. It was now a misshapen mass of writhing red flakes, popping and fizzling like the world’s largest flea circus. Brian had been eaten alive by the little red army and now the little bastards were multiplying in her backseat. She could see trails of them crossing down the upholstery, onto the floor mat and up the back of the driver’s seat. The Brian meal was done and they had new marching orders. An alarm went off in the car and she whipped back around.
It was the proximity sensor alerting her something was too close to the rear of the car. She glanced back up into the rearview and understood. The collapsing world was closing in. More trees plummeted into the growing canyon where the dirt road had once been. The massive ball of roots whipped out at her like streamers, eager to pull her into the darkness. She had originally thought the whole ordeal had been a sinkhole of some sort, but now she didn’t think so. Now she truly believed the world was eating itself and before long, she wouldn’t be able to outrun it.
Red flakes popped on her shoulder, just a few at first, but enough for her to move up to the edge of her seat and as far away from the growing concern sneaking up behind her in the car. It wasn’t enough for the world to collapse in on itself. These little red bastards wanted to eat her, too. She was running out of time and she knew she had a good ten minutes of dirt road before it merged into pavement. Not that it mattered, dirt road or asphalt, she was certain the hungry hole behind her had no preference and ten minutes was just enough time to learn what it felt like to be devoured alive. The hot burn of spores was already needling and threading through the skin on her shoulders in sharp pricks of pain. They popped on her neck and tugged at her loose ponytail.
She gripped the wheel with one hand and brushed away as many of the invaders as she could. Her only hope was to get to Highway 67. Traffic was never bad on the sleepy highway and of the few cars she might see, she could easily pass them. Once she was on the asphalt she could increase her speed and if she could get far enough away from the dissolving world behind her, maybe she had a chance to get to a hospital before the little red army took hold and ate her from the inside out. Her eyes were protected, regardless of how painful it felt and as far as she could tell, the only other way in was through her mouth or an open wound. Her mind thought of the cut across her hip, but there was little she could do about it. She cinched the cloth of her shorts tight around the leg and prayed it would be enough to keep them out.
If she could get to a hospital, maybe they had a cure for this. It was a small hope, but the more she thought on it, the more her hope grew. Perhaps the red flakes were something new, but medical technology was advancing by leaps and bounds. Maybe they could have a cure whipped up in no time. Maybe they were already aware of the problem and the CDC was on its way. Maybe it was something as simple as a few antibiotics. Take two of these and call me in the morning, she thought. That is, of course, if the world doesn’t eat its way to you in the meantime.
She threw the thought from her mind, her survival instincts kicking into overdrive. In the far distance she could see the highway; black shimmers in the summer sun. She pressed down on the accelerator and edged past ninety on the speedometer. The car weaved from side to side across the gravel before righting itself. A new wave of heated pain pricked at her scalp and shoulder blades and she quickly brushed the flakes away. They were gaining ground, too. More and more of them popped past her and landed on the dash, but they hadn’t completely swarmed her. Not yet. There was still time.
Tina sped toward the highway. Once she hit the blacktop she could be at the hospital in Malum Rose within ten minutes if she floored it. She had ample time, she just had to get there and the intersection was only a few hundred yards away. She braced herself to swing onto the road and the double yellow lines leading her home.
Everything happened all at once and her mind couldn’t process it until the car was at a complete stop. A semi crossed the highway directly in her path and the car jerked, its tires squalling and smoke rising from the hood. The diesel passed by, a good three car lengths in front of her. The truck driver was oblivious to the collision he had narrowly missed. The Civic’s auto brake feature had sensed the impending danger and saved her from her own reckless driving. The car sat idling at the end of the dirt road, proud of itself for a job well done and Tina sat inside it, stunned. Her flesh-caked glasses lay across the dashboard, the lenses shattered. The sudden stop had thrown Brian’s lifeless remains across the console and with him the entire red army. She stared blankly out at the highway, the world coming down behind her and a sea of red spores covering her entire body. She had just enough time to wonder what the world would look like through the red flaked holes of her eye sockets before her sight fizzled away.
Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part 8 – Nick Paschall
Centipede howled, clicking through the screech that caused Jaime’s bones to shiver from the flint-like strikes of teeth sliding against each other.
“Okay,” Jaime said, taking off at a gentle trot, “time to go. Keep up Kale, I may have saved your ass once but I’m not dying for it!”
“Yes ma’am!” Kale replied, running alongside her, knife held inverted in her left hand. They ran down the parking lot and onto an overgrown sidewalk that led deeper into downtown. When Jaime scanned ahead she didn’t see any zombies ahead of her, just tall grass and broken concrete, but knew too well the follies of assuming nothing was there. Kicking a chunk of cement up she snap-kicked it as if it were an old soccer ball and sent it tumbling into the weeds, where a loud crunch was heard, followed by several clicking rotten.
Kale stopped next to Jaime and listened, shaking her head. “There has to be a different way!”
Jaime pointed down a different road, one not clogged with weeds, an old rusted sign illegible beyond this point. “Know what’s down there?”
“No, I’m not from here,” Kale replied.
Jaime frowned. “Neither am I,” she said, “let’s learn together!”
They broke into a run as two rotten, both devoid of teeth and crawling with large spiders, began to slither out of the weeds, their bony limbs perfect for pushing them against the rocks slowly. Jaime looked back and saw Centipede standing with six rotten in the parking lot, clacking at them orders in the devil tongue that she was growing to hate. Every time she heard someone click their silverware against a clay plate or tap their teeth when around others, she thought of the zombies.
Made her happy to be alone, most of the time.
She winced when she heard Kale grind her teeth, and glared at the young girl as they jogged between and old gas station and past the peeled golden arches of an ancient McDonalds.
“What?” Jaime asked, “what are you thinking?”
“Huh?” Kale said, breaking from her reverie, looking over at Jaime, her eyes darting around at the lightly wooded area they were running into, “I was just wondering where this path led.”
“Okay then,” Jaime said, “like I said, we’ll find out. I know how to get back to where I need to be. I think I’m not going to be able to get what I originally came out here for, but maybe some lucky looting will win me some brownie points.”
“Brownie points?” Kale asked, confused.
Jaime shook her head. “Old world saying, means to have people look favorably on you for actions you performed in the past.”
“Oh,” Kale said, going silent as they continued their trot.
Jaime looked up just in time to duck beneath a branch as it swung in a lazy arc, a growl coming from a tree that with the speed of a crumbling wall, lurched from its place in the woods, plodding with heavy footsteps as it ran between Jaime and Kale in a mad attempt to gore them on leafy branches.
“What the fuck?” Jaime cried out, drawing an arrow to take aim, the she didn’t know where to aim for certain.
That’s when she heard the clicking.
Coming from high in the canopy, she could make out the vaguest outline of an upper body, suspended by branches and vines, which were intermingled with dried out strands of intestine. The zombie perched high above clicked high and loud, calling for others Jaime assumed. She fired off a wild shot, the arrow getting caught in foliage some five feet from the actual corpse.
“Shit,” Jaime said, “this plant crap is getting old! How are they bonding like this?”
“I have no idea, please, let’s just run!” Kale cried.
“Run ahead a good distance, watch out for more like this one,” Jaime ordered, “I have to kill this one before it calls down the rotten and others onto our trail. The others are slow, but this one can outpace us.”
As if wishing to demonstrate its abilities, the tree swiped down, forcing Jaime to roll backward into a crouch, the dirt and concrete where she’d been standing now torn up by the might of the bough. The zombie clicked a few times, before croaking in a low grinding fashion.
“God, I hate that noise,” Jaime said, drawing an arrow, “and I wish I had my old pistol, the one time I wouldn’t mind making some noise…”
Kale screamed as the tree swiped in a backhanded manner at her, slamming into her body, throwing her back ten feet amidst the rubble of the road, where she lay still.
“Kale!” Jaime screamed, raising her bow and firing into the side of the tree. She smiled when she saw an inky ichor well up from the wound, dribbling out like maple syrup from the strange tree. Running up, Jaime leapt onto the trunk and grabbed on for dear life before doing something she hadn’t really mastered until she was an adult.
Scaling the side of the rough bark was easy for someone who was used to urban environments. While she didn’t have any of her climbing equipment on her, this wasn’t a sheer surface by any stretch of the imagination. Pulling out a spare knife, Jaime sank it deep into the pulpy wood, tearing away a good chunk of meaty fiber before propelling herself above the three large branches that could grab her.
The zombie low croaking grew in intensity as its intestines wriggled, the arms waving in a mad dance at its sides, possibly in a mad attempt to manipulate the tree into shaking Jaime off like she was a bad case of fleas.
But she was worse than any bloodthirsty mite, and persevered, reaching her original arrow that’d been lodged in the twigs around the zombie. The twigs seemed to pulse and breathe around her, and the zombie hissed in anger as she grabbed onto slim branches, pushing her way into the canopy with a mad fury possessed only by someone who’d witnessed a child being slain mercilessly.
The zombie slammed her with a weak, bony fist when she came within reach. She ignored it, instead grabbing onto the front of the creature’s sternum, yanking herself up to the perch. In one fluid motion, she came within inches of its face, as if she were allowing herself to be pulled into lovers embrace.
Then she sank her knife into the side of its head, the same soft wooden texture that the tree was composed of marking the zombie. It fell limp and the tree groaned out as the limbs fell stiff. As if in slow motion, it began to topple. In a mad rush, Jaime grabbed the cadaver and gripped it hard enough to squeeze out a gallon of blackened slime from the creature on the ride down, finally crashing with a splintering of wood and snapping of bone.
Climbing out of the corpse tree, Jaime wiped off her jacket in disgust, before looking over at Kale where she lay. Heaving a sigh, Jaime walked over to the body to retrieve her knife.
“Maybe I can open her up and use her as bait for Centipede and his buddy, keep them off my trail?” Jaime muttered, spitting out an errant twig that’d found its way into her mouth.
Jaime jumped when Kale coughed, her body heaving up. “I’m not dead yet!” She cried, clutching her stomach, “though I kind of wish I was.”
Jaime ran over to Kale, looking her over. Her sweater was torn in a hundred places, revealing she was wearing a green tee shirt underneath. Jaime was about to say something when she noticed something poking from beneath Kale’s right sleeve. Grabbing her arm, much to the girl’s protest, she pulled up the shredded sleeve and looked at a fresh scar of a human bite. Stunned, Jaime didn’t even flinch when Kale yanked her arm back and scuttled ab few feet away, brandishing her borrowed knife at Jaime.
“You’re infected,” Jaime said, slightly dazed. She couldn’t believe she found someone like her, her own scar feeling like a brand at that exact moment, “you survived the bite wound.”
“Yeah!” Kale said, her voice wavering as she panted, “now leave me be! I can make it out of town on my own, I don’t need you. No need for you to put me down, or show me mercy. I’d rather see this life out to the end, thank you!”
“Kale, calm down,” Jaime said, holding her hands up in a placating manner, “I don’t care that you’re infected, alright?”
“Liar!” Kale spat, waving the knife as she scuttled back over the damaged road.
“Kale, listen, we need to get moving. The ghoul howled, and likely was heard. We have maybe two minutes before this area is swarming…” Jaime said.
“And you think I want that?” Kale demanded.
“No!” Jaime growled, “I think you want to live, just like I do!”
“I do! So, leave me be and let me go! You don’t have to kill me!” Kale said, tears welling in her eyes.
Jaime waved her hands in defeat. “Fine. Go then. I’m not going to kill you, but leaving will result in your death.”
“I can make it on my own!” Kale said, rushing to her feet.
Jaime snorted. “Yeah, you did great against the pack that had you and your grandfather, and the tree!”
Kale began crying at that, and Jaime felt a pang of regret for bringing the dead old man up. “You suck! Grandpa mean the world to me, and I know its my fault he died, but you don’t have to throw it at me!”
“Yeah, well, the truth hurts kid!” Jaime said, standing up from her crouched position, “Now I’m headed out. You’re free to join me, or free to wander in the most infested part of town on your own. Your choice.”
Kale lowered her head. “Grandpa said I’d better be smart and stay with him, but he’s gone. You did save me, so I guess you aren’t going to just try and kill me.”
“Of course not,” Jaime said, “being infected doesn’t make you dangerous. It just means you rise after you die. Guaranteed. And with the way this town is, that seems like it’s a high possibility already.”
Kale snorted, her tears slowing. “Lead the way then,” she said.
Jaime was about to say something when she heard it.
Laughing. No, not laughing…
“What the fuck is that?” Jaime asked, looking around. Kale, however, was already tugging on Jaime’s hand to get her to move.
Child of the Apocalypse: The Harvest Part 9 – Nick Paschall
“Oh no,” Kale said, eyes going wide. “He’s here! Quick, we have to run!”
“He? Wait, Derek mentioned someone like that. Who’s he?”
“You know Derek?” Kale asked, grabbing Jaime’s hand and tugging her towards the ruins of a gas station, the signs all worn from sea spray and detritus while the inventory was all looted or rotted away. “Never mind, we have to hide!”
Never ignore sage advice, Jaime thought, allowing Kale to tug her into the ruined shop, running behind the counter to hide. Kale was crouching behind the counter, hands over her head and eyes clenched shut, but Jaime was peering over it, just to get a glimpse of what had Derek, and Kale, so frightened. Whatever it was, it had to be terrible.
What she saw shocked her.
Climbing over the trunk of the corpse tree like a spider was a large man, his arm and leg sockets rolling as if they weren’t connected. His bare back was littered with large knives, stuck deep enough to pierce old organs and bone. His face was atrocious, a permanent leer shaped from some sort of plastic over most of his head that created smiling red mask. The eyes were blocked, as were the ears, but the nose holes had been torn open by long, dexterous fingers. Racing over the rubble, giggling like a clown of old, the creature came to a halt over the spot where Kale had been knocked to. It adjusted its head, lowering its face until it was flush to the ground.
A long, slow rattling could be heard, and it took Jaime a moment to realize that was from the knives clacking against each other as the creature took a prolonged sniff. Worried, Jaime looked down at Kale and back at the monster, only to find that the freak had vanished, the giggling fading off in the distance.
She was about to speak when Kale grabbed her arm, squeezing tight. She glanced down and saw Kale shake her head no.
Suddenly, the roof shuddered, dust falling from the ceiling, and the rattling of rusted metal knives sliding along each other could be heard. The giggling had returned tenfold, and the creature was stomping up and down the roof, racing along the edges and across the middle for whatever mad purpose.
Jaime stared at the dust coming down, wondering if the structure could take this much abuse for long.
Guess it’ll have to see if it can, Jaime thought, a bitter taste in her mouth, no way am I coming out with that lunatic stampeding about!
The giggling continued, the knives slicing along each other’s blades hard enough for sparks to rain down from up high. No other zombies were attracted by the noise, however, which Jaime found strange. Around six minutes passed of this loud assault before the monster calmed and fell silent, stopping at the middle of the roof. Jaime gazed up at the ceiling, wondering what the insane creature was doing, but she didn’t have to wonder for long.
Landing with a crack of pavement in front of the store, the creature reared to its staggering height, the red-capped face blocked from view by the ceiling. The broad chest and thick muscles were scarred, with moss growing over them like the rest of the zombies of this town. It started to giggle again, this time as if it had an idea. Holding up its mammoth right fist, wielding a butcher’s cleaver that was easily three feet long, it began hacking into the wooden structure of the building, splinters raining down onto Jaime and Kale as the register and counter shook.
Still Kalwe didn’t scream, and Jaime didn’t budge at all, staring at the creature with morbid curiosity. What had made it? This was intelligent, like the others, but none of them were following it. It was almost as if it kept other zombies away from them!
Like the opposite of a Preacher, Jaime thought, remembering the two-day siege she and her companions had withstood from the bible obsessed undead.
It’d claimed the life of her lover Amy, after she fled, and they’d never been able to kill it. By the time Jaime had returned to the mall to look in on her cache of goods, the old brick-and-mortar store she’d used as a refuge had been transformed into a temple for the dead, the zombies having constructed nine pillars around it out of materials pulled from the surrounding buildings. The insides of the bookstore were victimized by a fire, which had been washed out by rain, and her remaining ammo supply had been destroyed.
Now, staring at the giggling monster that was cheerfully chopping into the building with a tool designed to murder cattle, she couldn’t help but wonder what the connection was. How had it grown into this monstrosity? The mouth could open, albeit barely, so how did it eat? Most bulls tore at their meals like a wild dog, while this one looked like it would have trouble eating anything solid due to the plastic encasing its skull.
Another three minutes died to the hacking, until the metal of the butcher’s cleaver began hitting the stone steel framework of the building, causing the whole store to quiver and shake from the force of the blows. It continued for a few moments, giving two more whacks as if it really didn’t want to stop, before it relented. Lowering its arm, the Giggler chuckled and sheathed the cleaver into its back with a meaty slicing noise. The large, calloused hand came back, shaking, and the Giggler dropped to all fours again. It crawled over to the tree and stayed there for a few minutes, reaching in and crushing and crunching on the branches with excited laughter, before crawling away.
Kale’s white-fisted grip let up on Jaime’s arm, allowing the woman to let out a sigh of relief, “you have one hell of a grip kid…”
“We some time now…” Kale said, looking up at Jaime, “the others won’t come by since He was here.”
“Yeah, about that… the fuck?” Jaime asked, waving in the direction the Giggler had crawled off in.
“I don’t know, he’s always been here,” Kale said.
“Uh-huh,” Jaime said, crossing her arms under her breasts, “and I thought you were passing through?”
“Um, yeah… about that…” Kale said, looking away.
“Save it,” Jaime said, “I’m not someone who cares why you would lie. You lied to me and that is some grade A bullshit. I know you’re just a kid, but no more of that, okay? We stick together we have to work on our trust.”
“Okay,” Kale said, still averting her eyes.
“No tell me about the Giggler,” Jaime asked.
“Giggler? We never really named him, but it fits… he’s really twisted,” Kale said, whispering almost, “he can hear really well and tracks by smells you make. He probably smelled my blood, and was trying to scare us into making a noise or running out of here so he could pounce on us.”
“Why doesn’t he have any zombies around him? We were stuck here for ten minutes, and you just said we’d be fine to rest a few,” Jaime asked.
Kale shook her head, He doesn’t kill people to eat them. He kills them and nibbles on them, to make them infected. Then after they’re a zombie, he starts to hunt them. That’s why they roam in packs, and use the old ones like dogs. They’re trying to keep him away and stay alert.”
“Oh,” Jaime said, thinking about it, “so he eats other zombies?”
“Yeah, one of the doctors where I was living said it had something to do with the plants that grow outta them,” Kale said, looking up at Jaime, “He can’t chew that well, Dr. Knoll said, ‘cause of the plastic. But it can eat the rotten meat after the plants have softened it up.”
“And the, um, knives? What’s the deal with those?” Jaime asked.
Kale shook her head again. “I don’t know. Most of the people around here came after the Darkness, but legend has it that he was someone who used to work on a ranch, where meat used to come from, and he turned there. Somewhere along the way he got his head dunked in the plastic and it settled, but he broke through what he could and now he just runs around, killing people and eating zombies.”
“That… sounds like a nightmare,” Jaime said, looking out across the corpse tree again, the broken branches highlighted in a new, disturbing fashion, “he, he wasn’t just messing with the tree, was he?”
Kale hummed. “He was probably eating the zombie that was controlling it. He likes them fresh, so he probably settled on eating it instead of killing us.”
“I’m going to just settle for the letdown for now,” Jaime said, “now, I know you said we can relax for a bit, but I’m nervous if I stay anywhere that isn’t fortified for more than five minutes. Let’s get a move on.”
“Okay,” Kale agreed, walking ahead of Jaime with confidence, stopping to look out around the ruined wall, “looks clear over here.”
“Good,” Jaime said, stepping over some shattered wooden boards that’d once made up the doorway, “I think the path the Giggler took will be zombie-free, but call me a risk taker when I say this, let’s head the other way.”
“That’s leading towards Lincoln’s Grove,” Kale said, sounding hesitant.
“Oh?” Jaime asked. “That’s where the library is, right?”
“That’s where me and grandpa came from,” Kale whispered, looking at her feet, “they don’t like me there.”
“Because of the surviving-the-bite thing?” Jaime asked. Smiling when Kale nodded, Jaime reached up and pulled her vest off enough to lift her tee shirt up her body, up to her shoulder blades where her own bite wound was. She waited until she heard Kale squawk out in horror, “there it is! Yeah, you can live for a good long while with the infection in you. I got it when I was younger than you.”
“Really?” Kale asked.
“Really,” Jaime said, adjusting her clothes back into place, “the bite is really only dangerous because the human mouth is so filthy. When we get bitten, we develop nasty infections while the zombie disease lowers our immune system temporarily, getting a foothold in our nervous system. I was treated with antibiotics, strong ones at that. How about you?”
“Grandpa bribed one of the night watchmen to smuggled him some medicine, which he made me take three times a day when I first got sick,” Kale explained.
“Sounds about right,” Jaime nodded, “I’ve heard of people like us making it out of the sickness despite everyone claiming we’d die. Be careful who you tell after all of this, just say a dog gave it to you.”
“Because people will be afraid?” Kale asked.
“Yeah,” Jaime said, trying not to sound sad about it, “people are going to fear you at first, may even try to hurt you like your former friends in Lincoln’s Grove might have done.”
Jaime’s soft smile creased into a frown when Kale straightened up at that, her body going rigid as a board.
Monsters… Jaime thought, and I’m not just thinking about the fucking zombies.
Special Bonus Marvelesque Post-Credits Scene
You may remember a little while back when Stitched Smile’s resident Poet Laureate set us a picture challenge. Well, what should drop into the Stitched Smile mailbox today but another poem inspired by the picture to the left.
It came with the explanation “Don’t know if I am late to this, but just scribbled something inspired by picture 1.” – There’s always time for new horror, so as a bonus, here’s the poem by Neil D’Silva…
The gnarl of the bark beckons;
Swept windward, bent like a hag’s tit
Lies the knot — bare, abscessed, exposed unto me
Hiding secrets in its belly, hidden to all but me
For I know what lays within—
A sad travesty, a pain yet not overcome,
Within that gnarl of the bark.
And I reach out
With a hand outstretched
Trying to unbark that knot
To claw into the pain, to take it away,
To rip it apart
Or to make it mine.
It resists though, the gnarl of the bark,
Splintering my nails, splitting my skin;
As it always does, it shuts me away
From the pain that lies within
The gnarl of the bark.