The world has changed.
It’s been 6 months since hell broke loose on earth – the dead are walking and they are hungry for living flesh. All those months ago I was merely Corporal Louis Henning, a low rank, no rank generic soldier. I’m still a soldier but I am now among many others spread across the country, probably the world, who has faced off against zombies (though I prefer to call them Shamblers), in a constant struggle of survival of the fittest or more accurately who has more bodies in their army to overwhelm the other side. Heh, strange to refer to them as having thought processes enough to be purposely assembling an army. They’re dead. They have no motivation or any such aspirations like world domination. Their only instinct seems to be to devour the flesh, muscle, brain and bone of fresh living bodies.
As for our army, the human army, we have no ranks anymore, no seniority. We are just soldiers trying to survive and protect our kind. This new world is all about surviving, not fighting one another but fighting a common enemy to restore some kind of order, some kind of life again that doesn’t have use hiding and living in substandard conditions. Living tucked deep in the forest is not as bad as the more urban areas. Most of the larger towns and cities I’ve journeyed to have become slums and things are in a constant state of decay. Even in the safe zones dirt and filth clings to everything and the stench of urban squalor is appalling; I’m always eager to return to the woods and to my people. Yes, my community of people.
We are a mishmash of 18 adults, 3 teenagers and 7 kids between the ages of 10 and 2. I picked them up along the way after I…left my army base camp as the first wave of the zombie infection exploded in the Pacific Northwest. There were more people with us as we fled but some were lost to the Shamblers while others were lost to their own fears and weaknesses. Our group finally settled north of the U.S./Canada border in rural British Columbia and took control of a small hamlet buried in the forest that was overrun by the infected. The villagers, about 50 people of all ages, were dead or undead, except an elderly couple hiding with their 2 grandchildren. After we gained control and cleansed the area of Shamblers, the couple disappeared in the middle of night leaving the children under our protection. A few of us found them 3 days later while on a forging mission; they were both dead from self-inflicted knife wounds. The old man had stabbed his wife in the heart then slit his wrists. Why the Shamblers didn’t devour their corpses, drawn by the stench of blood, I will never know.
That was about 4 months ago, our arrival in the village we now call Asylum (take your pick on the meaning) and we are still fighting off Shamblers. Sometimes we dispatch a dozen a day while at other times we go as much as 5 days without even seeing one. But they never stop coming. As the cities create stronger fortifications, the monsters are being pushed into the rural areas in search of unsullied flesh to feast on.
How did this happen to the world, what happened to me, insignificant Louis, weak and meek now a formidable warrior? Why am I writing this memoir of the past and the present? Like many others are doing I’m sure, this is to do just that, chronicle what has occurred and how the world is changing, how our civilization is changing and to keep humanity alive, keep my humanity. It would be easy to forget, to throw away things that make us human like writing and recording history but that’s what separates us from the animals and the Shamblers – our culture. I’m writing this for my sanity and I’m sharing it with my people for theirs as well.
Where do I start…in the forest.
March 13 – 6 months earlier
The base camp was in chaos as gunfire and screams reverberated through the forest. I had just watched a CO kill one of my comrades then disappear into a haze of gun smoke and dust. I ran from the camp only stopping to take what I could fit in a backpack, and then headed into the woods away from the bloodshed. I hid behind a tree stopping to look back at the camp and saw soldiers running chaotically, some firing weapons while others…they were savagely ripping apart any unlucky bastard who couldn’t outrun them. I don’t know how long I stood there gaping as the scene of horror unfolded. I was finally pulled from my stupor by the appearance of a man running in my direction. His face was covered in blood and all I could really see were wide and crazy eyes as he charged at me with outstretched arms. I couldn’t tell if he was infected, a Shambler, or just a scared and wounded soldier.
I panicked. So much crazy shit had happened over the last day that I didn’t know what to do or who to trust. I went with my gut reaction and pulled my sidearm, shooting him in the leg. I knew if he was infected only a headshot would stop him and if he wasn’t, the leg wound would cripple and fell the soldier. He kept coming. I had seconds to line up the next shot before he reached me. The first bullet hit his cheek and sprayed blood across the trunk of a tree to my left and slowed his progress but he didn’t stop. The next shot caught him on the bridge of the nose and finally stopped his advance just as his broken and bloody fingers reached me. Blood exploded from the shot and splashed my face, dripping down cheeks and chin; it was cold, not warm like I would have expected. I had a moment to process what happened then started to frantically wipe at my face with my jacket sleeve. I didn’t know if the virus could be transferred through superficial contact with infected blood but I wasn’t going to take that chance. I tossed the jacket off with disgust and looked back to the camp one final time. No one else appeared to be heading my way and I wasn’t going to wait around for them. I ran further into the forest alone again.
I spent that first night up a tree. I was never much of a climber and getting up was difficult; my arms were scratched to hell with my jacket gone and only a thin white army issued t-shirt on but I felt safer away from the possible threats that might approach in the night. Being up high might have been safer but I still didn’t relax perched on a branch and because of the constant noises emanating through the woods. It wasn’t the type of noise that one expects to hear in the forest at night. No animals rustled through the woods, no bugs buzzed my ears. There were human moans, some gunfire and screaming that sounded far away but closer than I liked.
At one point, heavy footfalls came running through the brush and the sound of heavy panting – surely someone trying to escape the Shamblers. The person ran right past the tree and I was grateful for the coverage of the leaves and branches. The running man’s footfalls were followed by the sound of dragging feet like someone lumbering or shambling, through the woods. The creature reached my tree and I dared a look, desperate to be as quiet as possible and not alert it to my position. The full moon cast fragments of light through the forest, just enough to get a shadowy view of the zombie. The creature wore army fatigues like my own and moved with quick, stunted steps in spite of the fact that it had a broken ankle; the foot was bent at an angle that would have crippled a human man and it walked on the actual ankle bone. As the Shambler approached with those quick dragging steps, I could hear the crunch of the broken bones grinding together and being further deformed. All I could do was look at the twisted appendage while it continued to follow the soldier. I could have shot the monster but I didn’t see the point in bringing unnecessary attention to myself and possibly drawing more creatures to the area.
I held my breath as the monster passed, the broken bone crunching and the frustrated moans of the zombie sounding terribly loud in the otherwise silent night. The sounds faded and I found myself alone again. I let out a deep breath of relief and tried futilely to relax but knew that sleep would not come. It must have been 20 minutes later when an anguished scream ripped through the forest. The zombie must have caught up with the soldier or there were more monsters lurking in the dark. I should have done something to help but I didn’t know how I could have saved him and kept myself from dying too. It wouldn’t be wrong to call me a coward, maybe that was the real reason I hadn’t done anything but I couldn’t see the point of putting myself in a vulnerable position when I didn’t know where I was or what was in the darkness.
By the time first light came I was delirious from lack of sleep, food and water and stiff from being in a tree all night. The forest remained quiet. There were still no sounds of wild life and the gunfire had ceased during the night. I slapped my face a couple of time to try to fully wake up, then stilled my shaking body trying to push away the cold that had penetrated my flesh. I listened, straining my ears as much as possible. Nothing. No moans of the dead and no screams of the dying. Getting up the tree had been a chore and I figured going down would be easier. It wasn’t. I started out fine but quickly lost my grip on one of the lower branches and fell back first to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. I was lucky that was the only damage I suffered however it did take a few minutes of lying on the ground to catch my breath.
Sunlight streamed through the leaves and for a moment I put the horror of the last 24 hours out of my mind. How could what happened yesterday been real? The day started out normally enough, just a routine morning at the barracks. I had expected more drills, more training and not much else. When I got on a truck and rolled out of camp, I didn’t think anything of it, even with alarms bells slowly beginning to chime after a strange encounter with my Colonel earlier that morning. Then I saw bodies being burnt in a field and found out that a terrifying infection had overcome a small town 100 miles from base, then…then being in that town and gunning down civilians. I stifled a cry and came back to the damp forest floor beneath my aching back.
I shook off the memories and images of the child I had killed and got to my feet. The pack I had filled with gear lay at the base of the tree; at least I had been smart enough to drop it before falling out of the tree. Looking around, I couldn’t figure out the location in relation to the base camp. Nothing looked familiar which wasn’t much of a surprise since we didn’t spend a lot of time in this part of the forest. I scoped out the footprints and drag marks from the soldier and the Shambler seeing that they come from the west. I decided to head north, not going back the way they had come and not heading in the direction they had gone. The gun on my hip felt heavy but reassuring as I headed deeper into the woods and hopefully further from the hell on earth that had become the base camp.
I continued north, carefully picking my way through the woods for about an hour or two without encountering another living, or dead, being. Once I heard distant gunfire behind me and knew the direction I chose to be the right one. It took another hour of walking and an increasing pain in my back from the fall to finally find something that gave me hope that the world wasn’t abandoned. A cabin stood 20 feet away, covered with thick foliage and parked beside it was a lone truck covered in mud. Hunters, more than likely, meaning I would need to be careful when approaching the front door. I removed my pistol from my hip and tucked it in the back of my pants in an attempt to appear non-threatening and pulled my T-shirt over the empty holster.
The rickety porch creaked under my feet as I tried to be quiet and listen for sounds of anything unusual. Again there was nothing, not in the woods and not coming from the cabin. I kept my right hand behind my back gripping the gun handle and knocked gently not wanting to disturb the silence. Nothing happened. I took a deep breath and knocked louder. The curtains beside the door moved and two bright blue eyes appeared then disappeared. I waited and finally heard a lock turn as the door opened just enough for me see one of those bright eyes and a chain keeping the door securely closed.
“What do you want?” A strong female voice was attached to those eyes.
“My name is Louis Henning ma’am. I got lost in the woods, turned around somehow.” I chose my words carefully not knowing if this woman had any idea about what had happened at the village or base. “Can you point me to a main road or the highway please?”
“Are you alone, do you have any weapons on you?”
“I’m alone and I have a handgun.” I took the pistol out and held it open palmed to show her I wasn’t a threat or going to harm her.
“Holster the gun.” She waited until I had put it back on my hip and then closed the door.
I kept my hands visible and away from the gun. The door opened and I found myself face to face with a middle-aged woman, not much shorter than myself and quite slight. A strand of curly red hair fell across her left brow nearly obscuring one of those brilliant blue eyes and cradled in her arms was a shotgun, the barrel pointed at my feet. I waited for her to say something or invite me in, not wanting to make any assumptions about her hospitality. She stepped forward bumping my legs with the weapon and scoped out the woods, making sure I was indeed alone, and then motioned me into the cabin keeping me in her sights the whole time. I carefully closed the door and was overcome by the dimness of the room as only a fraction of sunlight filtered through the drapes.
“May I have a seat ma’am?”
“Yes but put the gun on the coffee table and lay your pack in front of the chair.” She seemed to think about it for a minute. “And my name is Holly.”
I nodded and did as requested before sinking into an old, well-worn chair which, at that moment, was the most comfortable piece of furniture I had ever sat on. My feet screamed from being cinched into the combat boots but out of respect I didn’t take them off. Holly handed me a bottle of water and perched on the arm of the couch beside the chair, the shotgun resting on her lap in such a way that she could easily point it in my direction. She looked me over, a skinny pale skinned, dark-haired average looking guy in filthy fatigues and boots, and I could see mistrust and curiosity etched on her face.
“You came from that army base didn’t you, 30 miles down the road; the one that just appeared 3 months ago and no one acknowledges is there.” It wasn’t a question. “Did you desert, are you AWOL, am I harbouring a fugitive?” Anxiety peppered her voice and I could sense fear of something else underlining her words.
“It’s not that simple.” I didn’t know how to respond. “I didn’t desert, not really. Something has happened. Something terrible.”
“I heard gunshots coming from the forest and over by that base.” Holly hesitated then continued. “And last night I saw, from the back room, people running through the woods. It looked they were being chased by other people. I kept the cabin dark and the door locked after the gunshots started and didn’t try to call out to them or ask if they were ok. I don’t know why they didn’t come here for help.” There was a trace of guilt in her eyes from not doing anything. “What happened, please tell me.”
How could I tell her what happened, how to explain it when I didn’t really understand any of it. So I started out simply enough and told her that a virus had infected the village in the valley about 100 miles away and that the virus was brought back to the base camp resulting in an uncontrollable outbreak. I explained that the infected were insane; their brains were boiling with fever, making them raving mad and causing them to attack everyone. Holly sat silently trying to process what I was saying. I knew that it was a vague explanation but it was all I had without using the words zombie outbreak.
“What kind of virus is it? Are you infected?” She stood up and pointed the shotgun at my chest.
“No, I’m not infected.”
“Are you sure, how is it spread?” She didn’t let up on the shotgun.
“If I was infected I would be raving mad by now. The symptoms are visible anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours from what I’ve seen. The virus was in the water supply of the village and some of the soldiers drank from it. I didn’t.”
I didn’t have any real answers about how it was spread but I told her what I could surmise from what had happened over the last day and a bit. It could be ingested through contaminated water and it appeared to also be spread through saliva and possibly blood. I had seen it happen at the base camp. Before she asked, I stood up and turned around to show her I didn’t have any visible wounds other than the scratches from the tree trunk, the slivers of wood clearly showing where the scrapes came from.
“The camp was in chaos a few hours after we returned from the village where I first saw the infection.” I avoided telling Holly about murdering civilians. “I was asleep and suddenly there was noise coming from everywhere, gunshots and yelling. I went outside and there were people running, shooting and dying at the hands of one another. I saw a man tear out the throat of an officer then move on to another soldier. I looked at the fallen man, thinking I should do something to help him but he didn’t stay down for long. It must have been only been a few seconds, I don’t know but he slowly got up, looked around and then lunged at someone running by and took him down like a lion taking out a gazelle. It was horrifying.”
“It sounds like something out of a zombie movie.” She tried to make it a joke and I shattered that attempt when I nodded in agreement and kept a serious face.
Holly paled and giggled nervously, asking if I was serious. All I said was yes, the infected were just like zombies. She finally relaxed the gun and slumped on the couch taking in the unbelievable story but accepting this as a plausible explanation to what she had heard and seen. Maybe it’s a defect of our world today, being able to say fantastical things like flesh-eating zombies exist and take it for the truth. We sat in silence as I finished the water and I felt all the energy and adrenaline that had kept me going, drain away. Holly didn’t say anything further, letting me drift off.
I woke up sometime later to the sound of breaking glass and jumped out my chair, instinctively reaching for my sidearm that wasn’t there. Holly glanced at me and apologized like she was invading my space. I glanced at her feet and saw a broken coffee cup then noticed a half empty bottle of bourbon on the kitchen counter. She guiltily avoided my eyes and started to clean-up mess. I couldn’t blame her for the drinking. I was feeling pretty shaky and a drink may have relaxed some of those nerves, maybe help me to forget for a while. Holly sensed this and grabbed two glasses, filled them half way and joined me in the living room. The booze burned down my throat and warmed my stomach. It was cheap bourbon and tasted awful but worked to calm me. We had another drink and sat in a comfortable silence until a gunshot exploded from the rear of the cabin.
Holly grabbed the shotgun and rushed to lock the front door as I retrieved my weapon. Two more shots rang out before we heard footsteps on the porch and someone started banging on the door and pulling on the knob. A man yelled and begged to be let in. I went to the window and looked out the same way Holly had earlier. It wasn’t a soldier but a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle and a teenage boy slouching on the porch railing. The boy cradled his arm and there was blood splatter on his orange hunting vest. I couldn’t tell if he had been shot or been attacked by something. Holly pushed me aside and looked for herself. The banging became more frantic as we didn’t move to let them in.
“If anyone is in there step back. I’m going to blow the lock in 10 seconds.” The man screamed the warning and Holly moved quickly to open the door.
He pushed past her, dragging the boy after him and slammed the door shut, throwing the lock and the chain. He looked us over and then fixed his gaze squarely on me noticing the fatigues. We locked eyes for a moment before I turned to the boy who had crumpled onto the chair. His face was ashen and he seemed to be unable to keep his eyes open. I left the man staring at me and Holly pointing the gun at him, as I checked on the kid. I didn’t get too close and kept the pistol at the ready. I asked him to move his hand and when he did I saw his shirt had been torn and blood seeped from a missing chunk of flesh on his left bicep. He had been bitten and not by an animal. Holly gasped as she looked at him and even though she hadn’t actually seen one of the zombies or an attack, she knew as well as I did that the boy was infected. The man saw the look on our faces and raised his rifle.
“Get away from him!” He yelled swinging the rifle between Holly and me.
I did as asked, backing into the fireplace so that whole room and front door were in view. The man focused on me even as Holly continued to point the shotgun at him.
“Sir, can you tell us what happen?” I tried to keep my voice calm and my attention on him while watching the boy slowly drift away, not knowing how long we had until he would start to show signs of the infection.
“Some crazy asshole attacked us while we were hunting. He was dressed in fatigues, like you.” He emphasized the last bit with the tip of the rifle.
“It looks like your boy was bitten, were you bitten too?” I couldn’t see any signs that he was injured but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been.
“No, I’m fine but that prick kept following us even after I shot him in the leg.” The rifle swayed as shock caught up to him. “His face was all messed up, covered in dry blood and it looked like part of his nose was missing.” He stopped for a moment and looked at his son then leveled the rifle at me again. “What the fuck is going on?”
“I will tell you but first I need to know when this happened and if the soldier was still following you when you got here.” I spoke with confidence that I didn’t know I had.
“I don’t know about 10 minutes ago. I think he was still after us but the leg wound seemed to slow him down.”
As if in response to the answer, a banging sounded from the back of the cabin, the way I had come through the woods. The explanation would have to wait. I started to move and the man told me to stop.
“Sir I understand you’re confused but the more noise it makes, the more attention it’s going to gather and more of those things will come here. Your shots drew it directly to us.”
“What are you talking abo-”
The words cut-off as Holly hit him in the back of the head with the butt of the shotgun. I hoped she knew what she was doing and hadn’t done any permanent damage. I looked at the kid. He seemed to be semiconscious and was disturbingly pale as blood continued to seep from the wound. Holly looked at him then to me and told me to go, she would watch. I didn’t know if she would shoot him if he tried to attack her and I didn’t know what the father would do if his son died from a gunshot. The banging got louder and I could hear the Shambler moving along the wall. The creature would inevitably reach a window and smash right through. I left Holly and hoped she wouldn’t have to decide between killing the boy or being infected by him.
The cabin wasn’t very big and I followed a short hallway leading to the only bedroom at the back. I approached the window listening to the banging getting louder knowing that I would be face to face with it in moments. I opened the curtains and the window trying to get a sideways look at the Shambler. It was the one that the man said had attacked his son. The creature’s nose was indeed missing and his fatigues were covered in blood, the right leg soaked with it from a bullet wound. It didn’t take long for the monster to see me and start toward the window. I wanted to look into the woods and see if any other Shamblers were coming but I had to deal with the one in front of me. I took the shot and hit it in the centre of the forehead, putting it down immediately; the creature fell immobile like an electrical plug had been disconnected. The shot sounded like an exposition and I half expected to see more Shamblers come out of the woods to attack the cabin. I waited a couple of minutes and none appeared. I closed the window, drew the drapes then struggled with a mirrored dresser to put in front of the window. If someone wanted to get in, they would be able to do it but they would have to work at it. I took a deep, shaky breath and started to head back to Holly when another gun shot rang out, this time from the living room.
I froze at the bedroom doorway, the shot echoing in my ears. I didn’t know what I would find as I walked to the living room, my gun at the ready. The man was sprawled at Holly’s feet, blood pouring from a hole the shotgun had made in his chest. Holly’s face was a mass of shock and horror at what she had done and tears started to stream down her cheeks. She tried to say something but abruptly stopped as the boy began to moan and his body twitched unnaturally. I raised the pistol and waited. He turned his head to Holly and I said Hey to get his attention. His head snapped in my direction and I could see that he had turned into one of the Shamblers; his eyes were pure white and saliva dripped down his chin. Holly started crying, bringing the boys attention back to her. He stood and started moving quickly toward her. I didn’t hesitate and shot him in the head, his body falling on top of his father’s, their blood mingling on the floor. I kicked the boy aside and plugged two bullets into the brain of the man; just to be sure he wouldn’t rise too.
“Holly, what happened?”
“He, he came at me. I didn’t know if he was infected, I didn’t know what he was going to do. I just, just panicked.”
“It’s ok. We would all be dead or infected if you hadn’t shot.” I had to believe that was true. The man would not have shot his own son.
We just stood there, not knowing what to do. It was becoming clear that the cabin would not be a safe haven for long. We were in the middle of the forest between the base camp and the village where the initial outbreak had occurred. I told Holly the same thing but she didn’t seem to be listening so I decided to move into action. I pulled an afghan from the couch and covered the bodies of the dead man and boy briefly thinking it would be more respectful to bury them but there wasn’t time. I grabbed my pack and went to the fridge and started pulling out bottles of water.
“What are you doing Louis?” Holly asked in a dazed voice.
“We need to move. There might be more Shamblers coming this way.”
“This can’t be real. We need to call the police. I just killed a man. You just killed a boy, a boy!”
“Holly, this is very real. We need to leave. We can head to Castle Rock and contact the police there. We can’t stay here or we will die.”
She slowly moved away from the bodies and went to the bedroom. I didn’t have time to hold her hand through this trauma and continued to ransack the kitchen, picking up a couple of cloth grocery bags and stuffing food in them. I fully intended to leave with Holly’s vehicle and not Holly if it came to that. I wouldn’t resort to violence but I would not leave without the provisions or the truck. Holly came back into the kitchen, tossing a large hiking pack on the counter and told me to fill it up instead of the grocery bags, while she packed up some of her things. I was relieved that she wasn’t paralyzed by what had happened and that she had decided to come with me.
I didn’t want another confirmation and was feeling the need to have someone at my back. I had no intention of actually going to the police and didn’t plan on telling this to Holly. It would be too difficult, too messy to explain what had happened with the hunter and his son. Besides, I didn’t know how far the infection had spread and what the current climate was as far as knowledge of what had occurred at the base and the village. I was a soldier, a deserter now, and I had a better chance of being arrested for that than the murder of these two people. Murder. No, it wasn’t murder, it was self-defense.
Within 15 minutes we were packed and ready to go. I carefully opened the door and scouted the surrounding area. No one was in sight and the woods were silent. We quickly moved to the truck chucking our packs in the cab. Holly tossed me the keys and went back to the cabin to grab shotgun shells which I didn’t understand how she had forgotten. I slide into the driver’s seat and waited for her to come back before turning over the engine. As I anxiously waited for her, sirens started to whir from beyond the forest. Panic filled my heart and I got out looking toward the sound. Smoke billowed into the sky and the sirens were obviously fire trucks. Holly ran from the house cradling several boxes of shells.
“We need to move now. The woods are going to be crawling with god knows what.”
She didn’t ask questions and we both hopped back in the truck. I gave the area one more look, still no one in sight, and started the engine. I didn’t really know where we were going and just started heading down the dirt road away from the fresh set horrors that I had brought to this woman’s doorstep.
© 2013, Denise Pasutti