Authors: Bonnie Dee
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror
AFTER THE END
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After the End
Copyright © 2010 by Bonnie Dee
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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After the End
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Through the binoculars, a zombie was even uglier than when seen up close and personal. Of course, when they were near, you didn't generally have time to study them too carefully. There were other things to do—like screaming and running. From a distance it was safe for Ari to let his gaze wander over the creature's rotting skin, its flat, vacant eyes and slack-jawed yokel mouth. Blood stained the lower half of its face, coating cheeks and chin and nearly obliterating the Alpha Kappa Beta logo on the upper half of the thing's sweatshirt.
An "after" then. He could usually tell by the clothes a "before" corpse from one that had been turned after the first wave. Who would bury their beloved Brenda or Beth in a sorority sweatshirt? Most of the first generation zombies wore suits or dresses since they'd come to the banquet from mortuary viewings or funeral services. Or they were naked cadavers straight from the slab at a hospital or city morgue.
The people they'd infected rather than completely devoured tended to wear more casual clothes and generally had a bite or two taken out of them. And wasn't it an amusing sight to see a little girl in shorts and shirt and daisy-decorated sandals munching on an arm held in one hand like a turkey drumstick.
Ari adjusted the binocs, bringing the zombie sorority sister into sharper focus. He immediately wished he hadn't. Her hair remained in patchy, random clumps on her half-scalped head. Bright pink streaks and little sparkling clips decorated some of the long blonde strands. Adorable. She tossed her hair back from her face with a girlish flip and reached for another length of intestine from the body she was eating. Lucky dead guy wouldn't be staggering to his feet and perpetuating the cycle any time soon.
The zombie's milky gray eyes suddenly turned toward Ari and for a second it was as if she was looking directly at him. His heart stuttered and he nearly dropped the glasses.
"Fuck!" He jerked the binoculars away from his eyes as if not seeing her would hide him, and then he snorted at his stupidity. Of course, she couldn't see him from blocks away. He was well hidden in his perch on the fifth floor of an office building. Even if the thing had glimpsed a flash of light on the glasses, she wouldn't be able to interpret it as a pair of binocs. The creatures weren't that smart.
"Hey, Captain!" The voice coming from behind made him jump and the binoculars slipped from his fingers to clatter on the floor.
"Jesus, don't do that!" He turned to face Derrick. The kid was as jittery as a meth junky without a fix in sight.
"What is it?" Ari dreaded the answer.
"It's Mrs. Scheider. We think it's almost time. Can you come?"
Ari picked up the glasses and took a last glance at the zombie girl and her victim. She was on her hands and knees, head down, burrowing into the man's abdominal cavity like a dog with a particularly good treat. He pulled the binocs from his eyes and packed them into their carrying case before rising. "All right, let's go. And Derrick..."
"Quit calling me 'captain'."
As Ari followed the younger teenager from the office, a big, drooping, half-dead plant in the corner caught his attention. "Someone's not keeping up on their watering." He tried to put the kid at ease with a little joke—very little—but Derrick didn't crack a smile.
"Dr. Joe doesn't know what to do. Some of the others are saying we should…you know, take care of her right now. But we have to wait and see first, don't we? I mean we can't just kill her, can we?"
If Joe doesn't know, what makes you think I do?
It was beyond him how the rest of them kept turning to him for answers and trusting him to make decisions for the group. He still believed it had all started because he was wearing his army uniform and he wished he'd never worn it that day he'd gone to meet Billy, C.C. and the other guys. The goddamn camouflage had somehow convinced everyone he was a man who could take charge and they listened to him as if he had some authority. Stranded souls, they'd been desperate for anyone to tell them what to do and suddenly that had been Ari. But he was only nineteen. The army hadn't said jack shit during basic training about what to do in case of a hostile zombie takeover.
His pulse pounded as he followed Derrick down five flights of stairs to the ground floor where the group was camped. In the conference room, they sat around a big table eating Hostess cakes, chips and slices of an apple they'd foraged from vending machines and desks. The office personnel had squirreled away little nutritious food in their drawers, which was too bad, because a diet of candy bars and soda wasn't helping jittery Derrick any.
Joe crouched beside Mrs. Scheider. The sick woman lay on a pile of folded coats and jackets someone had put together.
"What's up, doc?" Ari stopped himself from mimicking Bugs Bunny. Joking over a dying woman's body was harsh, but when he was keyed up he always made smart ass remarks. "How is she doing?"
Dr. Joseph Morgenstern, who wasn't really an M.D. but a dermatologist, shrugged and scratched at the stubble on his chin. "She regained consciousness for a little bit, but now she's out of it again. From her breathing, I don't think she's got much more time." He lowered his voice. "I'm so out of my element here. I have no idea what else to do for her. If we were in a hospital, I'd give her oxygen, but here..."
Ari nodded. Even if they'd administered oxygen a while ago or had an entire medical team working on Mrs. Scheider, he doubted it would have helped. But they couldn't have gone searching for a tank. It was too dangerous. There was no hospital or medical clinic nearby and even if there were, they'd be hopping with revenants.
"Hey, you're back." Lila's touch on his shoulder brought his head up fast. He looked into her unusual indigo eyes and his stomach gave a little flip. Because she'd taken him by surprise, he told himself, but he knew better. It was the way his body always reacted to seeing Lila, a stomach flip usually followed by a low burn in his groin.
"I see you found brunch for everybody," he said.
She tucked strands of her shoulder length, brown hair behind her ear. "Wasn't much to find. The ground floor had already been picked over. We gathered this stuff from the second floor. We'll have to have to raid a grocery store soon. We can't live on junk food."
He nodded and gazed down at the sick woman's face. She looked old, much older than she'd seemed at the beginning of all this. When was it? Only four days ago? Five? He'd nearly lost track. It seemed this had been their life forever, trekking through a dying city on their way to an uncertain future.
When he'd first seen Mrs. Scheider, she'd been one of those brisk, styled and pressed, white-haired women who could be any age from sixty to eighty. He'd looked right past her on the subway, his attention caught by a sexy, dark-haired chick and her friend sitting farther up the aisle. They were the kind of girls who talked and laughed too loud, enjoying drawing everyone's attention. He'd been happy to oblige because both girls were worth looking at.
The truth was, that day on the subway he'd noticed very few of the people he was traveling with now. He sure as hell wouldn't have struck up a friendship with any of them under normal circumstances. But that day on the subway things had veered far from normal.
Now, Mrs. Scheider looked about a hundred years old, or as if she was already halfway dead. Her skin was paper white, her cheeks sunken and her mouth seemed toothless. The once fluffy white hair was flat and dirty, the designer clothes torn and bloodied. Her chest hitched up and down and her breath rasped between parted lips.
"Too late for oxygen anyway," Dr. Joe said quietly. "We're going to have to be ready."
Meaning Ari was going to have to be ready. No one else would want to do what had to be done here—if it had to be done. Ari wasn't the only one who'd made a kill since this begin. Deb, Derrick, even Sondra had taken out some revenants. But killing one of their own was a different matter. Ari was a soldier so everyone assumed he was equipped to handle anything. He'd have to suck it up and do the job.
"Why don't you clear the room," Ari said.
"I'll do it." Lila squeezed his shoulder lightly and when she took her hand away, he still felt the warmth and pressure of it.
Behind him, he was vaguely aware of Lila talking to the others, chairs moving away from the conference tables, footsteps and voices receding from the room. But most of his attention was focused on the wheezing woman in front of him. He'd admired Mrs. Scheider's sharp tongue and dry humor and he'd miss it.
They'd had been scavenging in a diner, when the zombies came. The ax he'd taken from a store had come in useful in slashing a path through them. The blade cut cleanly through gristle and bone, severing heads like a weed-whacker churning through dandelions. He'd managed to escape along with the people in the front of the diner, while the rest of the crew, who'd been in the kitchen, ran out the back. Only when they came together several blocks away did they realize Mrs. Scheider wasn't with them.
Ari had gone back for her, running harder than he ever had on the obstacle course at FortBenning. He'd found the woman hiding in a storage room and carried her back to where the others waited. Julie had cleaned the blood from her trembling body. Joe had stitched and bandaged her wound. And Ari had mentally kicked himself for allowing this to happen. He should've kept better watch. He should've kept them all safe. They were his responsibility now whether he liked it or not.
Lila was back now, joining in the vigil over Mrs. Scheider. She crouched beside Ari, her shoulder bumping his. "Do you need me to help?"
Ari looked into her exotic eyes focused on his like searchlights probing his secret thoughts. He shook his head. "No. I'll handle it. Please, just make sure everyone's staying calm and that Deb has set up perimeters. Don't want to get slack with security."
"All right." She rose and walked from the room. His gaze lingered on her backside before the door closed behind her. What kind of a sick perv checked out a girl's ass when a person was dying right in front of him? Especially when it was very likely he'd have to behead the poor old lady soon after she died.
Mrs. Scheider drew in another rattling breath and paused. Ari held his own breath, waiting for her to exhale. His hand tightened on the ax, and then air whistled out between her slack lips. He glanced at Joe. The other man was pale and looked like he'd rather be anywhere but here.
"Isn't there anything else you can do for her?" Ari asked. "I know we don't have morphine or anything, but…"
The dermatologist shook his head, locks of his gray-shot hair tumbling onto his forehead. His beard was growing in and his hair was shaggy. "There's nothing we can do but wait."
Ari sat back on his heels, the ax lying across his legs, and waited.
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Ten days earlier…
Lila had her textbook,
World Religions in Practice: a Comparative Introduction
, propped open on her lap, but hadn't turned a page for the past ten minutes. Alternate scenarios for how last night could have gone kept playing out in her mind. She could've kept her temper. She could've not yelled stupid things she didn't really mean. She could've refrained from crying. She could've been cool and made the breakup as painless for them both as possible.
It wasn't like she hated Doyle or wished him pain. He'd been a good boyfriend, a good friend for two years. But their time was over. Both of them knew it, had known it for months now, but someone had needed to say the words. Since Doyle avoided confrontation of any kind, Lila had finally done it. Badly.
She stared out the window at the lights of the subway station flashing by, the advertisements on the wall and the people waiting on the platform. The train braked and the lights flickered. When the train stopped, the doors slid open and newcomers shuffled into the half-filled compartment. Lila hadn't needed to make room for anyone beside her yet, but probably would before she reached her stop.
She looked at the photograph of a gold-gilded Buddah on the page of her textbook then glanced at the soldier sitting across the aisle from her. He was looking at the two noisy girls a few seats ahead of them. Barbie and Babs, Lila had christened the duo, who talked high, fast and breathlessly. Maybe she was completely stereotyping and the girls were having a profound conversation about art, politics or the meaning of life, but from the snatches she'd overheard, she doubted it.
At any rate, the fembots seemed to have GI Joe captivated. He was a young guy with a compact build beneath his olive green T. His hair was close-shaven brown stubble. She wondered what he'd looked like before Uncle Sam got hold of him. Maybe he'd been the kind who always went for that shaven look. He had a good skull shape for it. Some guys didn't. And why was she staring at him and thinking about his hair, or lack of it?