Authors: Richard Murray
“Zombies don’t eat people though,” Gregg said. “Sure, they might take a few chunks but when you die they stop.”
“No,” Pat said. I looked at him and found him staring off into space, eyes closed as he worked on recalling a memory. “When we first found the apartment building at the ferry port.”
“What about it?” Gregg asked. His own face was screwed up in thought.
“We opened it up and found blood and bits of bone all across the floor,” Pat said and I nodded as I remembered that day. “Some zombies had been trapped in there and at the time it looked like one of them had eaten all of the others.”
“I don’t know mate, that was a long time ago,” Gregg said. “Maybe you’re not remembering it right.”
“No, he’s right,” I said.
“Okay so some zombies eat people,” Gabby said. “Not pleasant but not especially relevant.”
“Unless these weren’t people,” I said quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Just thinking out loud. Let’s keep going, it’ll be dark soon.”
The vet looked at me strangely for a moment before nodding and taking the lead. The others I noticed with some real amusement, walked around the clearing rather than through it.
I let the bone I held drop to the ground and wiped my hands against my jeans. I suspected that perhaps a group of the undead had found themselves in that clearing during the worst of the snow and when it cleared, only one walked out.
That would tie in with what I had already been considering and it would explain quite a few things. I’d wondered why some of those undead that seemed, less corpse like than the others. Were able to repair some damage and maintain their bodies when the others were slowly rotting.
To do that would require energy and that needed to come from somewhere. In the living we’d eat, sleep and slowly the body regains lost energy and heals. For the undead, they didn’t have that option. The one’s I’d been cutting open had shown me that their bodies no longer worked like the living did.
If they could gain some energy from actually cannibalizing the living or other undead… well, that would explain a great deal. Why they could heal to some extent, why they retained agility and some animal cunning.
For the first time in weeks I felt a growing excitement. I wanted to get back to the house and unlock the cellar to find out if I’d been right. That would be the clear proof I’d need to show that some of the zombies at least were changing, becoming challenging.
I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn’t realise I was lagging behind the group and I chastised myself. To be distracted out in the open was beyond foolish. I hastened to catch up with the others.
Night had well and truly fallen by the time we found a house where we could spend the night. It was situated in the woods and a long broken trail led towards the road. It was likely far enough away from that road though that we wouldn’t be bothered.
Two stories high with ivy climbing the grey stone walls and a door hanging open with suspicious stains spattering the stained wood. It was pretty much what you’d expect to find in a cheesy horror film and I couldn’t help but hope there’d be something inside that needed killing.
We moved through the house with practised ease to clear it. Pat and Gregg went straight up the stairway that stood opposite the front door while Jenny followed me through the ground floor. It took all of five minutes to realise the house was empty of everything but mold and memories.
Pat shook his head as he descended the stairs and called Gabby in. I left him to organise some way of blocking the front door as I rooted through the kitchen cupboards. The few supplies we’d brought with us all fitted into the one rucksack that Pat carried and contained more water than food.
The cupboards bounty was poor and I guessed someone had found the house already. I did find a pack of rice that had been abandoned and a few soft biscuits that crumbled as soon as I touched them.
“Anything?” Pat asked as he set down the rucksack on the counter beside me.
“Rice if you want it,” I said as I proffered the packet to him.
“Great,” he said with a sigh. He wasn’t a tall man but he was perhaps overly muscled and had a great appetite. Since I’d first met him, much of the thin layer of fat he’d had was gone. Our limited diet over the winter had left little excess weight on any of our people.
“Front doors blocked,” Gregg said. “Any others need blocking?”
“Back one’s locked,” I said and he nodded as he sauntered over. He eyed the meagre offerings Pat had pulled from the rucksack and his sigh echoed his friend’s earlier one. “Bugger all to eat as usual then.”
“Afraid so mate,” Pat said.
“We really need to get more food, or take less people in.”
“Don’t let Gabby hear you say that,” Pat said. “She’s as eager as the rest of the council to invite everyone to the island.”
“Where is she anyway?” I asked.
“Living room with Jen,” Gregg said. “They found a fireplace and want to get a fire going.”
“As long as they keep it low, should be fine. Anything upstairs we could use?”
“Nah, just the usual stuff. All the bedding and clothes are damp and musty.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
I left the two friends to argue over what they would cook for the shared meal and wandered through the house. I had no real desire to go look for anything but it gave me an excuse to get away from the others for a while.
Jenny was marginally less irritating than the others but that was due to her ability to stay silent and not try to ‘chat’ with me. The others, well I liked them. They were my friends as strange as that sounded even to me, but I had a strong need to be alone most of the time.
Quite simply, I wasn’t a social animal. I’d never needed friends or family and had always been perfectly content on my own. During the apocalypse even I would admit that I’d need some friends to help stay alive but I’d not realised how much work that would be.
Lily wanted me to be more engaged with other people. I had the notion that she thought that if I spent more time with people, I’d grow to like them and not want to kill them. In actuality the opposite was true. For the vast majority of people I met, the more time I spent with them the more I wanted to end their lives.
I sank down against the wall in what had been a dining room and let the darkness swallow me. The glow from the living room didn’t illuminate the corner where I sat and I could enjoy the peace and quiet while imagining I was alone.
Perhaps it was time to leave, time to move on and take some time alone. I didn’t think Lily would leave her friends or the community she was building though.
The thought hit me a moment later. Even when I was imagining going off alone, I expected she would be with me. I marvelled at how entwined with my life she’d become. The idea of going off truly alone and leaving her behind was troubling.
I rested my head back against the wall and listened to the sounds as they drifted in from the living room. Pat and Gregg had joined the others and were chatting quietly. Even Pat who spoke so little he appeared mute, could be heard.
It pained her that I couldn’t join in with the rest of them. I know it did and I’d tried, though often failed. It just wasn’t in me to care about the inane things they seemed to constantly talk about. Again and again, over and over, the same subjects.
What did you do before this happened? What do you miss most? What do you want to happen next? Do you miss your family? Did you see this film or that TV program? It was all so dull.
None of them seemed to grasp that the world they knew had ended. It was over, finished with. They should forget about what the world was once like and adapt to the new. Reminiscing about the past was pointless and wasteful of your energies.
“You there mate?” Gregg said softly. I turned away from him and hoped he’d leave me be.
When I didn’t speak he slowly walked into the room, peering into the shadowed corners. His face was hidden but I heard his exhalation of breath as he noticed me. He crossed the room to join me, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor.
“Fine,” I said.
“Nah, it’s not is it?” he said. “Talk to me if you need to.”
I gripped the handle of my knife in its sheath on my belt, my fingers ached with the force of my grip. The sudden urge to draw it and slice it across his throat was almost overwhelming and I silently waged a war within myself.
“Just need some time alone,” I said.
Go, go, go away!
Images flashed through my mind, the very first kill I had, the second and the last. More clouded into my mind, the deserters, Sarge, Rachel, Eric. On and on, image after image as every part of my being seemed to demand another life to add to those already taken.
“I’m here for you mate,” Gregg said. “You know that right? We all are.”
I clenched my hand into a fist, fingernails pressed into my palm. A distraction, a way of keeping myself from drawing my knife and taking the life of my friend. I ached to kill someone, anyone. My body trembled with the need and I turned my face from him.
He pushed himself to his feet and patted me gently on the shoulder, just the once, he knew I hated being touched. It was too much for me, as he rose my hand closed round the hilt of my knife, blood from where my fingernails had broken through the skin of my hand staining it crimson.
The urge to rise and strike, to sink my knife into his back, his neck or through his heart surged through me. I needed to do it, I wanted to do it. Then she was there, invading my mind and bringing order to the chaos. Lily, as I’d last seen her. Lily with the look of sorrow she’d wear when she heard what I’d done to my friend. Lily turning away from me.
I let go of my knife as Gregg walked away, back into the flickering light and cheer of the living room, leaving me alone in the darkness to contemplate what I had almost done.
No one had noticed. I jumped the last few feet ignoring the rungs on the ladder and dashed down the hallway towards the stairs. No one had seen it coming.
“Get everyone inside,” I yelled as I ran down the stairs taking them two at a time.
The people who heard looked at me in surprise for just a moment before leaping into action. They knew by now that when someone shouted, you got ready for an attack.
I pulled the claw headed hammer from my belt as I reached the doors. I could see people still milling around outside, several keeping the bonfire under control. I called out once again and more faces turned my way.
“What’s going on?” Cass called as she entered the main room of the roundhouse.
“Another raft,” I yelled back before stepping through the doorway.
“Get some weapons,” I yelled to the nearest people as they ran back to the house.
I made a run for the bonfire, the men and women there were still armed from earlier. They were also closest to where the raft bearing the undead would hit the island. I waved my hammer at them as I ran and saw faces turn to me with looks of alarm.
“What’s up?” asked Michelle. She had her club already to hand and was clearly ready to bash heads. She’d pulled off her parka due to being so close to the fire and she shivered in the cold wind. Her round face was framed by thick red curls and she wore a look of determination.
“Another raft headed to the north end of the island.”
“Seriously! Fuck,” Imran said. “How many?”
I shrugged, “No idea. Just saw the raft.”
“Gather up folks,” Michelle called. “If you ain’t got a weapon, head inside.”
She nodded at me as two of the gathered people set off at a jog to the round house, while another five met them coming the other way. They each bore the same rough clubs that were easy to make and highly effective.
They gathered around me and waited for instructions. Each of their faces showed determination as well as fear. I couldn’t have been any prouder of them than I was right then. My people, ready to fight to protect the community.
“We should wait to gather some more people,” I said.
“There’s enough of us here,” Michelle said. “We can’t let the bastards trample the fields with their filth.”
Around me the gathered men and women nodded or voiced their agreement. This was their home and they wanted to defend it. I smiled grimly, so be it.
“Stay together and watch out for one another,” I said. “We’ll go slow, towards the far north. It should take them some time to find their way off the raft but be careful.”
A dozen voices raised in assent and I nodded firmly. We’d defend our home against whoever was sending these rafts and then when I found out who was behind it, there’d be a reckoning.
I set a brisk pace while the men and women followed behind. They spread out in a line to cover as much area as they could. The spreading darkness would be a problem but we daren’t leave them wandering loose all through the night.
“Anyone have a torch?” someone called as we entered the trees and two beams of light flashed on in response. It seemed at least two people had the foresight to bring flashlights.
Beneath the tall oak trees the shadows were longer and I slowed my pace. Each tree was approached warily and rounded with weapon raised, ready to strike. From up ahead floated the moans of the undead and my jaw clenched as the tension rose.
Out of the darkness they came, the first ones stumbling into view. Arms outstretched, skin greying and covered in wounds. What clothing they wore was torn and stained and each of them moaned the louder as they saw us.
“Steady,” someone shouted.
“Stay calm,” called another.
“Watch yourself,” Michelle said just to my left and I saw movement from the corner of my eye as she pulled back on a man barely in his teens. Then they were on us and battle was joined.
I swung with all my strength and struck one of the zombies on the side of its head. Its knees buckled but it still flailed its arms trying to reach me. I struck again and with a horrendous sound, the skull shattered and it died a final death.
Cries of anger rose from my people as they set to the fight and someone screamed. I daren’t risk looking as I pushed away the foul grip of one of the undead and swung my hammer at it.