“Louis. Louis. Wake up.”
Marla whispered in my ear and as wakefulness flooded my mind the memory of her lips brushing my cheek and the closeness of her warm flesh caused me to flush, making me thankful that I was facing the wall and not her. Opening my eyes I saw artificial light from the lantern and slates of sun creeping through the warped walls giving the room a hazy, dim glow. Marla handed me a bottle of water and told me, as quietly as she could, that there had been tapping on the side of the shack about a half hour earlier but nothing since then. I asked why she hadn’t woken me up and she merely patted her gun. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked her confidence but didn’t say anything to diminish her courage.
We couldn’t figure out what had tapped on the wall or what was in the surrounding woods without going outside. As I tried to decide how to get out carefully without knowing what might be waiting for us, I looked around and saw no blankets or clothes on the floor and our packs were closed and lined up against the wall ready to go. Hunter sat in the corner wrapped in a sweater that must have been Holly’s with a print of a wolf on a green background. Holly was not a large woman but Hunter swam in the sweater and it would have been a humourous image if not for the fact that he had nothing of his own other than what he had been wearing yesterday. The thought was depressing and maddening and it struck me again that they couldn’t come with me. Marla had to take her son home or get him somewhere safe until they get back to where they belonged.
Marla could see the doubt and handed me my gun, jacket and pack and said we should go, hard determination in her eyes stating she would not be pushed away. I took it and went to the door, pressing my ear to the rough wood not really expecting to hear anything but desperately trying to. Impatience got the better of me and I pulled away the board from under the door handle, cringing as the knob fell to the ground as I feared it would when I put the barrier there. The door drifted open letting in the bright morning sun and making my eyes water at the sudden change in light. Touching my arm to move me out-of-the-way, Marla went to get a look around as Hunter grabbed my hand to pull us outside. We stood watching the quiet morning looking at nothing except the still forest. Scanning the woods, squinting through the sun I didn’t see anything unusual until Marla walked to the right a couple of feet, stopped and quickly came back, her face pale. She grabbed Hunter’s hand and turned in the opposite direction, making sure that he didn’t look at where she had just been and very calmly said we should go a different way. She started to move Hunter away but kept her eyes on me and nodded at the spot where she had been; a silent command to look at what she had found.
I didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see what horrors had unfolded and been left in the open while we hid in the shack. I did it anyway, walking a few feet before stopping and gagging at seeing a pile of flesh, bone, hair and drying blood splashed over the ground and trees. I wanted to believe it was an animal but knew from the bones wrapped in torn clothing that this had been a living human last night. Moving my eyes over the gore, I saw a trail of blood smeared leaves and dirt leading into the woods. Marla’s shock was well warranted and I could feel myself becoming light-headed as I put the bloody pieces of flesh together and took them apart using my imagination and the scenes of death I had witnessed recently.
Shamblers had been here and besides the shock of the mutilation and death that had occurred, worry about where those zombies had gone took precedence. I tore my gaze from the carnage and saw Marla and Hunter far enough away that they couldn’t see the remains. It felt wrong to leave this unknown person exposed in such a terrible way and without thinking, I grabbed some branches to try to cover it only waking from what I was doing and the possible unwanted attention I may draw when a snapping branch echoed in the quiet morning. I dropped the branch and backed away from the body, trotting to catch up to Marla and Hunter as they slowly started to walk into the woods.
“Which way to the border?” I tried to keep my tone light but bewilderment edged my words.
“If we keep going straight the woods should start to thin out and I’ll have a better idea. Until then we will be in thick brush and it might be best to keep as quiet as possible.”
I welcomed the silence, still shaken from seeing the bloody remains and not sure how to interact with Marla following our moment last night. We walked into the trees and it wasn’t long before I understood what she meant about the thickening forest. There was no path to follow and the under brush gave me the creeps as I imagined critters and creatures burrowing into my boots. As we continued, I was again surprised by the way Hunter remained quiet and calm, in spite of everything. The boy didn’t seem bothered by the walking or the rough terrain but rather fascinated by the surroundings, taking in everything that was happening with such a complacent manner. I decided to ask him how he was doing, breaking the silence but it wasn’t Hunter that responded to the sound of my voice. The click of the hammer being drawn on a revolver and the quiet firm words Don’t Move were the last two things I wanted to hear.
“Don’t move.” The voice was deep and stern but underlined with anxiety. “Put your gear and weapons on the ground.”
“So which is it, don’t move or put our shit on the ground.” My flippant tone probably wasn’t smart given the current situation but I wasn’t going to roll over and give up our weapons and supplies.
The man stuttered, confused by his own commands before finally telling us to put our hands on our heads and turn around. I saw anger stamped on Marla’s face while Hunter, a small boy in the big sweater did as he was told. I felt her anger and the same feelings bubbled in me. This stranger had dared to threaten a child, this child. I turned slowly expecting to see a young man, like Scott, playing a game with rules he didn’t know. I was wrong. It was a soldier, his fatigues just as tattered and filthy as my own. He was older than me, probably late 40’s with streaks of grey flaring up his temples and the wrinkles around eyes could have been from age but it more likely came from the stress and exhaustion of the current circumstances. I didn’t recognize him from my squad but there was something familiar about the man.
“What division are you from? Is your base camp nearby?” Desperation seeped into the man’s voice as he tried to exude authority.
“They’re all dead. The base camp is destroyed.”
“Can you please stop pointing your gun at my son?”
“Sorry. I wasn’t sure if you were armed or all fu- messed up like some of the other people I’ve seen out here.”
“What other people, where?” I put my hands down and stepped forward, immediately regretting it as he pointed the gun at my forehead. “Relax, we’re all in the same boat here and the last thing any of us are thinking of doing is attacking a potential ally.”
The man hesitated then put his gun away as he looked at Hunter, a child with his arms in the air. Marla slowly lowered her hands, then touched her son’s arms letting him know it was ok, he wasn’t in any danger. I couldn’t say the same for this guy as she casually put her hands on her hips, her right one resting more toward the centre of her back where I knew she had a gun. Part of me wanted to tell Marla to relax, the part that wanted to trust a fellow soldier but the part of me that felt protective of Hunter won out and I kept my mouth shut and my hands visible in a gesture of no harm intended.
“What’s your name, are you alone?”
“John Simmons. I’m alone. Have been since last night.”
Simmons went on to explain that an outbreak had occurred at the camp that he was set-up at with a dozen other soldiers after completing a mission in the area. His comrades started attacking one another and he and two others were able to escape. As he spoke I realized why he seemed familiar. Before this all started, the day this all started Simmons was in that rain and mud drenched field hauling corpses, burning bodies and following orders like any good soldier would. I kept quiet as he went on about the outbreak and escaping into the woods before being separated from the other two survivors in the night. Simmons didn’t know where they were or what happened to them. I knew or at least it was my best guess that the pile of ruined flesh and bone by the shack had been one or both of his companions.
“None of what I’m saying seems to shock either of you.” Simmons finished his story and waited for an explanation.
“I saw it spread almost the same way through my squad. Marla and Hunter saw an attack too.” I thought about my camp and the attack the day before and finally realized what the gore and blood must have been like for them. “What happened, what’s happening, we’ve seen it. Hearing about it isn’t as shocking as remembering it. We’re moving forward, away from it.”
“Away? You’re running, deserting?”
“Deserting, from what? The shit has hit the fan. All the officers are dead or could probably care less where we are. Besides, you ran too?” He had hit a nerve I suppose causing me to lash out.
“You think the army is gone just because your camp fell? You don’t think they aren’t going to send back up, rally the troops and contain whatever is spreading?”
“I think our army is going to ‘cleanse’ before they will rescue. We’re screwed because we are in the heart of this disaster. The further away and sooner we get away from here the better. We aren’t going to be saved.”
I knew my stance would aggravate Simmons, I could tell he was a more loyal soldier than I had been. I truly believed that the army would take a scorched earth policy when it came to containment, certain there was too much risk of the virus slipping through, even in a quarantine.
“Look, we’ve been standing here for like 15 minutes talking about what has happened and not moving away from it.” Marla cut in, then took Hunter’s hand and turned to leave, not going back where we had come from and not turning the way Simmons had been.
Simmons reacted before I saw him move, pulling his gun again and pointing it at Marla and Hunter, telling them in a very low, firm voice not to move any further. I pulled my gun and there we were – Simmons locked on Marla and me locked on him. I watched Simmons eyes dart back and forth between Marla and me while she stood frozen with her back to us. If Simmons was going to threaten her and Hunter, she was going to force him to shoot her in the back as she held her son’s hand. Indecision crippled me yet again as I hesitated to shoot at Simmons, not wanting to risk him pulling the trigger and possibly hitting Hunter or Marla.
When the shot sounded I was certain it had been Simmons but I still couldn’t move as panic shuttered through me and I thought the blood spray I saw hit Hunter’s head and Marla’s back came from one of them. I was wrong. It was from Simmons but I hadn’t pulled the trigger. I gaped as his body fell forward and then dumbstruck to see Officer George Langley, gun in hand, emerging from the bushes.
© 2014, Denise Pasutti