Authors: Ryan Casey
the fallen bodies of the zombies and set them on fire a few hundred metres away from the bunker.
He didn’t like being out here on his own. The leafless branches of the trees scraped together and made noises like groans, voices. And there was the knowledge that zombies walked these woods. They had to do to reach the bunker in the first place.
But the undead had to be burned. If they didn’t burn them, there was a strong possibility their rotting bodies would harbour and pass on some nasty diseases.
And if not, it still made sense to burn the bodies because it was the only way of truly ensuring the undead stayed dead. It took neck damage to deal with them. But sometimes the neck damage was difficult. Sometimes they had to be burned away completely before truly stopping them, and even then their fingers or toes kept on twitching way after their skin and muscle had crumbled to ashes.
Hayden dropped the match on the pile of six bodies in the middle of the open area. It was far away enough from the trees that there wouldn’t be much risk of a forest fire. Or shit—maybe he was just making that up as he went along. There was a lot of that, now. In a world where everyone was adapting to new ways, there was a lot of improvisation. It was working okay for them so far, but Hayden didn’t want to curse their chances.
Hayden stepped back and watched as the flames pummelled out of the pile of bodies. He looked at the faces of the dead go up in smoke. If he closed his eyes, he could trick himself that the crackling and bursting of the skin were just logs on an open fire. That the smell of burning meat was nothing more than sausages and burgers at a barbecue.
But he could never fool himself for long.
He stepped further back from the bodies, all of which he’d spent the morning dragging down here away from the bunker himself. He thought about what Clarice had said to him. All that crap about him not being there for her when she really needed him. At first, he’d found it a bit unappreciative considering he’d just saved her life. But was she right? Was he only here for her now because of the guilt he felt for letting her and their parents down in the past?
No. Of course he wasn’t. Of course that wasn’t true.
But a part of it, just a small part of it, ignited a spark of recognition deep inside Hayden.
“Not still moping, are you?”
Hayden swung around. “Shit,” he said. “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that.”
Sarah smiled. She stretched some torn leather gloves over her hands and rubbed them as the fire of bodies raged in front of them. “I dunno. It’s pretty funny. And fun doesn’t come cheap these days.”
They stood next to one another in the warmth of the fire. Hayden felt wrong just stood here. Warming himself up in the decaying, burning corpses of innocent people—people who had been living normal lives just over a week ago. Men. Women. Children. Dads. Mums. Grandparents.
“Strange, isn’t it,” Sarah said.
She rubbed her hands. “It’s kind of like a twisted circle of life. From fully fleshed people to nothing but disease-ridden fuel to give the fortunate us a bit of temporary warmth. Have you spoken to Clarice?”
Sarah’s question threw Hayden off. He started to turn around.
“Wait,” Sarah said. “Just … just wait. We’re grown adults. We can have a civil discussion that doesn’t involve adolescent foot-stomping.”
Hayden felt like answering her back or mimicking her, but he didn’t want to prove her right from the off.
“She cares about you. Your sister. She’s very grateful you’re here for her. That you’re helping keep her safe.”
“With no thanks to you,” Hayden said.
“We went out to clear the bodies because that’s what Clarice wanted to do. I wasn’t sure, but she was eager to help out.”
“Then why didn’t you try and stop her?”
“Because it’s not my duty to stop her, Hayden. And it isn’t your duty to stop her either. She’s a twenty-year-old adult. A grown up, just like us. And she can make her own decisions. Sounds like she’s been forced into being tough for a while now, too.”
“Thanks for that. Just sprinkle a little more salt in the wound on a topic you have no idea about, will you?”
“I’m not trying to tell you how to look after your own sister. I’m not telling you how to go about your lives. But I am telling you that you have to loosen your grip. Because she just wants to help. She wants to contribute. She wants to be a part of what we’ve got going on here instead of some … some charity case.”
Hayden covered his mouth with his sleeve as the fumes of the burning bodies got stronger. Branches of trees whistled and danced in the wind, and every few seconds, Hayden swore he saw movement beyond them. “You saw how she was. She needed saving and bailing out right away. She’s … she’s not tough like you.”
“None of us are tough. I remember when we first picked you up. Vividly remember the stench of piss coming from you, the tears in your eyes. And we’re all the same. We’re all just scared little kids who’ve woken up in a horrible new world without a tit to suckle on. We’ve just got to figure out how to crawl as comfortably as we can before it all catches up with us.”
Hayden didn’t want to accept Sarah’s words, but he knew deep down they were right. Something else was niggling at him too. Something he couldn’t keep hidden for much longer. “Newbie found … found a transmission.”
“He found a what?”
“A radio signal. Some safe haven calling all people to wander on down there. Somewhere near Warrington, so not even that far away. He … was telling me about it just before you got attacked. But yeah. We might have somewhere.”
Hayden watched as Sarah’s eyebrows raised. He knew how keen she was on getting out of the confines of the bunker. He knew how eager she was to find somewhere new, somewhere safer and more adept to housing the four of them.
“What do you think about it?” she asked.
Hayden wasn’t sure whether to be honest or what being honest even meant anymore. “I … I dunno. I just don’t have a good feeling. I know that won’t surprise you. But I just think it seems too … too easy. Like, everything since the undead started walking has been a struggle. And a mythical safe haven that just so happens to be thirty miles from here? It just seems iffy to me. And I can’t help but keep on thinking of Frank. What the military did to him. And what the military did to the whole of Smileston and other cities, too.” He raised his hands, which shook through a combination of cold and hunger. “So yeah. Call me tin hat brigade or cynical or whatever. Can’t help but feel that way. Shall we head back?”
Sarah looked at him for a few moments. She didn’t say a word, as Hayden walked away from the smouldering fire, coughing as the ashes of the dead tickled his chest.
“I think you’re probably right, y’know,” she said.
Hayden frowned. “About what?”
“About this safe place in Warrington. I think you’re probably right to be cautious. I know I’ve made my position perfectly clear in the past but … maybe a bit of cautiousness isn’t such a bad thing after all.”
“Wow,” Hayden said. “Didn’t expect that from you. Now just to convince Clarice and Newbie to stay put at the five-star delight that is Hotel Bun-keur.”
Sarah snorted and shook her head. “You really aren’t funny.”
“Then why are you laughing?”
“The same reason people laugh at Alan Partridge. The key word being ‘at’ there.”
“I’ll take it,” Hayden said. “Just about.”
“Please just … just lay off your sister a bit. You can’t wrap her in cotton wool. The sooner you understand you aren’t solely responsible for her, the better.”
Hayden didn’t respond to Sarah. Because he disagreed—he
feel solely responsible for her. And maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was some pent up long-standing feelings of inadequacy.
Whatever it was, it was going to keep Clarice from danger.
Sarah and Hayden walked back up the frosty hill towards the bunker as the pile of bodies crackled and hissed in the flames.
They didn’t see
o Hayden’s disappointment
, he didn’t get to stay in the “safe confines” of the bunker long before he was out in the treacherous wild again.
He walked across the grassy hill with a fresh trap in hand. It was an idea of Newbie’s—an empty plastic bottle with a small bit of food inside. A little window was cut into the side of the bottle, which small animals could crawl in through but struggled to get out of.
In theory, anyway. The traps had only really been successful once, and even then they’d only managed to catch a mouse with barely enough meat on it to feed a small kid, let alone four fully grown adults.
Newbie walked beside him. They hadn’t said much since their little disagreement back in the comms room was interrupted by Clarice and Sarah. Their footsteps both crunched against the frozen ground. The sun was low but there was a gradual refreshing warmth to it, a welcome change to the ice cold they’d grown used to. The trees blew in the breeze, which kept on distracting Hayden.
But there was nothing beyond them. He was just being paranoid.
Nothing they couldn’t handle, or run away from at least.
“Had time to properly think about the transmission yet?” Newbie asked.
Hayden’s stomach sank. He knew Newbie was always going to break the ice eventually, he was just hoping it wouldn’t be when they were out checking the old traps and placing new ones. Newbie seemed calm and composed enough, but he was a former hired killer. He’d killed people before. Hayden didn’t want to push his temper over the edge.
Besides, he was twice Hayden’s size.
“I … I just think we should all sit down and discuss it,” Hayden said, remembering Sarah’s surprising reluctance on pursuing the source of the radio signal. “Discuss it properly, not just on a whim.”
“Have you told the others?”
Hayden didn’t like the way Newbie peered at him. He wanted to lie, and the old coward inside him probably would’ve lied. But he had to be honest. Truthful. Besides, what problem was it if he had told Sarah anyway? “Yes. I told Sarah when we were out burning the bodies. She said—”
“So you’ve had the chance to poison her against moving on.” He nodded. Half-smiled. “Nice one.”
Hayden felt his insides tighten up. “No. I just told her it as it was.”
“And what did she have to say?”
Hayden looked around at the trees. Again, he swore he saw movement way in the distance, but the movement was like the floaters you got in your vision sometimes. When you weren’t focusing, they were so ever-present. When you tried to focus, they slipped out of view.
“She … she said she thought it’d be better if we all discussed it too—”
“Bullshit. Try again. What did she say?”
Hayden stepped through a slushy section of the grass as the bare trees around them got thicker. “She … she’s not sure. But hear me out—she’s just worried about what happened to Frank. Worried it’s some kind of trap.”
Newbie brushed aside some branches scratching against his cheeks. “Hayden, when the hell will you see it? This is the trap. This is the trap that we’re in right now. Living this way. Barely fucking living at all. This is the trap. This is what the military want. Don’t you see that?”
Hayden was surprised by two things. One, to hear Newbie swear. He didn’t seem to swear much. Probably the least of them all.
But there was something else, too.
“Why the sudden change in tune?” Hayden asked.
Newbie lowered his head. He searched the leaf-covered ground for the trap they’d placed yesterday. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You—you were with me. With me on this bunker. On how it wasn’t such a bad place. How it’s secure at the very least. And now you’ve heard a few crackly words on a radio signal telling you to go to Warrington, you’re crazy about leaving. What is it? Why the sudden change?”
At a glance, it looked like Newbie was still searching the ground. But on closer inspection, Hayden could see that Newbie wasn’t really staring at anything in particular. He was shaking. Something wasn’t right.
“We’ve known each other over a week now. We’re living together until … well, until whenever the end of this infection is. You’ve told us things and we’ve all told you things. Why are you so desperate to leave all of a sudden? What’s … what’s in Warrington?”
Hayden saw something in Newbie’s eyes when he looked up at him. Tears.
Tears in Newbie’s eyes. Something that definitely didn’t come lightly.
He leaned back and rested his arms on his knees. He stared at the frosty grass in front of him. “Seven years ago, I … my ex-wife won custody of my kid. Amy, she was called. Only three when she went to live with her mum. And the courts, they … they accused me of being violent. Having a nasty temper. Spreading venom and saying I mouthed off about her mum. So … so Amy couldn’t come stay at my house anymore. She couldn’t visit her own damned dad’s house. I … I had to make do with contact centres or damned McDonalds trips. And I couldn’t hack it. It … it just wasn’t right.”
Hayden listened to the words pour out of Newbie’s mouth. He got the impression they weren’t words Newbie had uttered very often.
“So I gave up. I gave my own damned daughter up. Sent her birthday and Christmas money but I wonder whether her mum even gave her those. Martha could be poison when she wanted to be. But … but shit. She’ll be ten now. Nearly starting big school.”
Hayden crouched beside Newbie. The ground was cold on his already cold ass. “And she’s in Warrington?”
Newbie nodded just once. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “I just … I couldn’t stop thinking about her when the infection broke out. Couldn’t stop wondering and worrying and hoping and praying. And … and then I heard the signal. I heard the signal and it gave me hope, y’know?”
He looked at Hayden now, and Hayden understood the pain behind his eyes. He’d felt that pain himself when his mum had called him and begged for help. He’d heard she was alive, and after that point, he had no choice but to try and save her.
“I didn’t want to say because I don’t like weighing other people down in my own emotional baggage. But now you know. I have to go to Warrington. With or without you all.”
The final words hit Hayden hard. Because Newbie said them with defeat. And in truth, it was probably defeat that was well placed. There would be a reluctance to move on to Warrington on a whim. And yes, it was awful of Hayden because Newbie had followed him when he’d gone to Preston to save his family.
But things had changed. Circumstances had changed. Their understanding of the dangers of the outside world had changed.
“We’ll talk about it,” Hayden said. “All of us. As soon as we get back, we’ll talk about it.”
Hayden knew from the half-smile Newbie gave him that he understood what he was saying. The radio transmission wasn’t enough to go on. It was speculative at best. Suicide at worst.
“Hold up,” Hayden said. He stood up and walked over to where the trees thinned. He crouched down at the edge of the woods and lifted up the plastic bottle trap that they’d lain yesterday.
Inside, a grey squirrel was rustling around trying to escape.
Newbie smiled and walked over to Hayden. “What’d I tell you? These traps are foolproof.”
Hayden looked at the squirrel, looked at the fear in its beady black eyes, and he felt sympathy for it. Survival of the fittest had multiplied since the fall of society. “Just got to be careful not to let it go—”
“Wait. What’s that?”
Newbie’s voice diverted Hayden’s attention from the squirrel. He was squinting through the trees to the dip in the hill. Hayden looked too, and he swore he saw movement.
Only this time, the movement didn’t slip from his vision when he focused on it.
Newbie and Hayden walked slowly through the thinning trees to the edge of the hill. They didn’t say a word. They didn’t have to. The cold wind blew stronger against the trees. The smell of the burned bodies earlier drifted into their nostrils.
They stopped at the edge of the hill.
Stared down the hill.
Hayden couldn’t quite understand. He couldn’t quite comprehend.
But he dropped the trap to the floor and the squirrel scrambled free.
And none of them even tried to stop it fleeing.
Not with what was ahead of them.
At the bottom of the hill.
Heading their way.