Extinction: Pt. 4
Copyright @ Shakespir
The smell of gasoline makes my head spin. I lick my lips and choke down the urge to spew breakfast all over my boots. Jake stands beside me, grinning from ear to ear. It’s been a long time since we’ve come across this much fuel. A clear hose sifts the buttery colored stuff from the rusted tank it’s been housed in all this time.
Jake lifts a cigarette out of his shirt. “That mapping of yours is good, but your instincts are better.” He steps away from the hose and flicks a match. An orange flame singes the end of the cigarette and a plume of smoke funnels out of his mouth. “Want a drag?” He holds the simmering stick out to me.
I reach out and take the cig. “These things kill you.”
“What won’t?” Jake asks, laughing.
I plop it in between my lips, biting down slightly, and I take a deep drag, pulling the smoke into my lungs. The fumes burn my insides. I cough up everything but my bladder, that organ lets a stream of pee leak down my leg.
Jake smacks my shoulder. “Could be worse,” he says.
We fill barrels and buckets and pile them into the back of our solar truck, and then we head out, cutting through a clear path to the other truck.
We’ve mapped a good portion of the city with the supply runs the winter weather has allowed. If everything works out, we’ll get through the worst section of the city, where the walls are the hardest to maneuver, and eventually leave this place. There’s been talk of staying longer than I promised, but right now, I’m still looking forward to the last bunker. Something tells me the good times won’t last in this situation we’ve made for ourselves, that’s the doubt talking.
“What do you think about that last section of walls?” Jake asks, as we pass one of the many twenty foot structures.
“It’s the center of the maze it seems. Greg’s been trying to find a way around.”
“And no luck?”
“I could probably help out. He’s a quiet one, though.”
“He’s the only one who has ever been out this way. It hardened him.”
Jake nods. “He doesn’t remember a way around?”
“Can’t remember much.”
“Or he doesn’t want to say,” Jake says, laughing. I look away, toward the front where Greg is leaning on the dash, watching Ela drive. “I don’t mean to laugh. It’s just that we’ve all wanted to forget what happened. I continue to try erasing my memory of the end.” He sighs, biting on the end of his cig.
“We’ve all got secrets,” I say, taking the cigarette. “What’s yours?”
“I guess it’s come to that.” He clears his throat, scratches at his bald head. “The whole world was in disarray for years before it went to real shit. People I knew, most of them, they died from allergies and stupid illnesses that could no longer be cured.” I hand the cigarette back. He takes quick pulls on it and blows smoke at the window. “And some,” he sighs. “Quite a few took their own lives. Day after day, we’d find them dead. I worked with a guy that killed his whole family and took his own life while they were seated at dinner. There was a woman in my building who hung herself from her balcony. I bet her bones are still hanging there, a reminder of where we’ve been, and what we survived.” He leans into the window, staring out at the city, remembering things he’s tried to block out for many years. “Sometimes I don’t know how I’m still alive.”
I’m glad I can’t remember as much as Jake. Our circumstances have led to such different mindsets. Where I’ve struggled to overcome not having a past, Jake is trying to forget all of his. Greg, Max, Rita, they’re all the same way, struggling to ignore the nightmares that plague them at night. There are less screams than there used to be, but the fear hasn’t left the smart ones. They know we could end up back in the shit. Jake’s one of those people, he just masks his fears better, beneath a layer of healthy flesh and meat.
“Down south, it was easy,” he says. “We had a whole lot of loot, I mean everything.”
“His name was Tim,” Jake says. “They killed him.” Jake’s eyes grow cold. He shoves the cig into the window, putting it out. “But I guess they’ve killed everyone.”
We arrive at the other truck, fill it with the golden fuel, and get it going. Then we return to the enclosure with two vehicles. It’s been a good day.
At home we’re greeted to a big dinner around the fire and some alcohol that Greg’s pulled out of an old liquor store.
“You’ve had some real good runs,” I say, sitting down beside Greg. “I wish we’d found this loot before.” I remember the faces of those who ate Frank.
“We all do,” he says, slurping up a big bite of pasta. “The city has been good to us.”
“Having second thoughts about leaving?”
He lowers his fork. “I’ll never want to be in this city,” he says, looking over. His gaze is penetrating, uneasy. “I just want to find a way around that last mess of walls.”
“I know,” I say, taking his hand. “We’ll get through.”
He leans over, kisses my cheek. We’ve become close in the weeks since things calmed down, it’s something I’d sort of wanted, but in the back of my mind I know it isn’t safe to get this comfortable. I know I shouldn’t want anything more than someone to watch my back.
Greg stands, wipes sauce off his chin. “I’ll be on watch if you need me.”
“Are you going out again tomorrow?” I ask.
He nods, takes out a cig. “Can’t waste the resources out here,” he says, lighting the end of the tobacco.
Greg leaves the dinner and joins Ela, the one other person on watch.
The rest of dinner is filled with stories and drink. I fall asleep with a full belly and alcohol on my breath.
Clouds move out of the city, shifting south, and the sun appears in the sky for the first time in a week. Through the gray sky there appears to be the slightest hint of blue dotting the dullness. I inhale and blow into the air, letting my breath form into a cloud that disappears into the cold air. Flecks of ice cover the end of my gun sticking out of the blanket that’s wrapped around me, enclosing me in a cotton cocoon.
I look out at the city and imagine it to be the sprawling metropolis it once was, steal, glass, and concrete shapes that stand tall against the harsh winter, citizens coming and going, life progressing toward the unknown. This desolate place is just one of many crumbled and decaying, elements returning to the earth, an earth that wants none of it. It’s another day waking up in destruction, thoughts flooded with false hope and promises that can’t be fulfilled. My body aches not from the physical labor involved in surviving. It’s the mental fatigue that’s wearing on me.
Even now, as I look out at this city, a place I’ve opened my eyes to on many mornings now, I forget what I’m doing here, I forget what the goal was when we first set out all those months ago. Erwin must have felt all of this too. The constant wonder must have weighed heavily, exacerbating an illness that we could not fix.
I set my gun down and force myself to take the blanket off. It’s heavier than when I first put it on. I shake the ice from the cloth and quickly cover myself again. Bringing my gun up to my shoulder is painful. My joints are frozen stiff and I can’t feel the ends of my fingers. As the gun steadies I catch a glimpse of movement through the only part of the scope not covered in ice. I twist the gun around, wipe the scope and throw it back toward the city.
Among light poles, tangled wires, and an overturned car is the bent body of a woman. Her black hair is twisted around to one side and hangs down her shoulder. She wipes dirt from her hands and looks toward a building just a few feet to her left. It looks as if she’s speaking to someone, but I don’t see any other bodies. Then, she turns and stares straight up at the building, right at me. Big brown eyes blink up at me and a hand comes up, cupping her eyes, casting a shadow over her face.
My finger jerks, ready to hit the trigger.
The woman waves, a big, violent wave that has her whole body jiggling from side to side. It takes me a moment to react, but I raise a numb hand and stretch life into my fingers. I wave.
The woman brings her hands to her hips and stand there staring up at me. I stare back, fretting over whether or not I should call to her. Before I can make a decision, the woman grabs up the supplies she’s gathered and slips behind a building. I scan the streets for a while, but she doesn’t appear again.
A boot scrapes the roof down below. I’d forgotten Jake was out here too, sprawled out on the ground with his gun peeking through a carved out hole. He brings his head up over the side of the building and peers out, still looking for any sign of movement.
“What do you think?” he asks.
I sigh, knowing there’s no way this is the last time we’ll see this woman. By the looks of it, I’m sure there are more. “Well, we’re not the only ones here.”
“Yes, but what do you think?”
“Let’s find out. We’ll batten down the hatches and keep extra eyes out. I doubt we’ve seen the last of our neighbor.”
“I thought it was a damn animal,” he says, shaking away the dread.
Smoke billows out of the hatch as it’s lifted. Michael sticks his head through the hatch, yawning and fighting off sleep.
I lift the blanket and stretch. I say, “Wake everyone up, we’re going out.” Michael nods, sill half asleep, and drops down into the hatch.
Sirens blast my ears.
Jake and I both rush toward the edge of the building with guns up, kneeling behind thin sheets of metal. My body is jolted from its somber state; the cold has no effect at this point. Our breaths escape in rapid beats. The sirens drown out the voices inside the building.
Several miles into the city, a red light blinks, moving away from us, toward the center. The sirens fade as the light disappears behind rubble. I rub at my ears. “What the hell was that?”
“Never heard or seen anything like it.” Jake says.
There’s a whistle from down below. The other watchers stare up at us, puzzled and clawing at their ears. The only thing I can do is stare back at them. I have no answer for what just happened.
It’ll be me, Greg, Jake, and Rita for this one. I put Michael in charge.
“Come back,” Michael says, handing me my rifle. I hug him.
“We’ll see if they want to trade, that’s all. If it gets ugly—” I stop myself, knowing this isn’t what he wants to hear. I smile and wipe a smudge of dirt from his chin. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The truck rumbles through the routes we’ve established, cutting across the city in a zigzag motion, traversing the wreckage. We head into the walled section we’ve been unable to get around. There’s a section that we’ve never seen open before, a slit in the wall where a gate’s supposed to have been. I’ve been through this area several times and never noticed a section of wall that seemed to be an opening.
There are just a couple corners we must turn at to get to the center of the steel cage, the numerous walls we thought to be impenetrable. Red lights flash, spiraling around the square. What was once a park is now a barren patch of earth with walls all around except for the wide spot we came through.
I get up close to the windshield and search for the light. Up above the grounds, hanging from a wire that dangles across two poles, is a flashing bulb. It bounces up and down as a breeze comes in. This isn’t the light we saw. There’s another one, a mobile one, perhaps on a truck. And now, I’m regretting coming out here.
Then, beginning as a little blip in my ear, the siren returns, growing louder until my head is spinning. We cover our ears and focus our eyes on a fast moving truck that’s bumping along the road on the other side of the square.
“Stop,” I say to Greg. Our truck slows to a stop just outside the square.
The other vehicle stops and the dark-haired woman steps out. She stands awkwardly and unguarded with her hands planted on her hips and a goofy grin on her face. And she’s healthy looking. Big and plump with a clean face and slick black hair that looks like it’s never been dirty. But she’s not the only one. There’s another person, a man, clean shaven and plainly dressed, who is positioned atop the truck with his hands folded in front of him. He waves to us.
Jake adjusts his weight, shifting it off one foot and onto the other as he gets settled up in the gun. I peer up at him through the hole. “Do you have me?” I ask.
“I’ve got you,” he says.
My hand shakes as I reach for the door handle. Greg is right behind me as I step out of the truck. I glance at Rita through the window and nod. She plants herself in the driver’s seat.
It’s early afternoon and the sun is already setting. The goal is to get through this quickly before we run out of light.
The walk across is the square is the longest I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve done a great deal of walking in the last ten years.
“Howdy,” the man says. “The name’s Jefferson.”
He climbs down from the truck and greets us with hugs. I’m literally unable to move. My gun is stuck at my chest, pointed to the ground and my eyes are locked on Jefferson. He points to the truck. “Are they going to join us?” he asks.
“Not just yet,” I say, trying to assert my authority. I’m afraid it isn’t very convincing. Jefferson shrugs and looks to the woman. “We’ve been expecting you. I had only hoped it would come at a different time,” he says.
“What’s with all the sirens?” I ask.
“I’m afraid we had a break in on the east side of our territory,” he says. “Seems there was a guy out trying to steal some of our property.” Greg and I exchange glances. Jefferson smiles. “Are you familiar with this fellow?” he asks.
“No,” I say, straining my eyes so I don’t blink. Jefferson nods. “Were the sirens necessary,” I ask. “That was the first time we’ve heard any.”
“We’ve been away since the summer,” he says. “We’re glad to see others who aren’t so—” He sighs. “You know.”
Jefferson extends a hand and we shake. I look up at the setting sun. “It’s getting late. I think we’ll go on now. It’s good to see there are other survivors.”
Jefferson grins. “I’d like to meet again, perhaps tomorrow?” I glance at Greg. He’s suspicious, but not saying no. “It would be nice to have others working to clean up this city.”
“All right,” I say. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
I motion behind me. Rita starts the truck. Greg and I head back.
Once we’re inside, I feel the full weight of the situation. Everything in me is saying this is bad. These people are bad.
“They seem all right,” Rita says. “No one was eaten.”
“Something’s up,” I say.
Rita laughs. “You’re just nervous because we’ve come across a lot of drifters who aren’t worth anything. These people are doing well for themselves.”
“I don’t trust them.”
“Hey, you trust me, don’t you?” Jake asks, from his spot in the hatch.
I nod, smiling. “It wasn’t easy.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” Greg says.
“By the looks of it they didn’t experience the same events we did,” I say. I don’t express my concerns any further. The sun has set and only a little light is left. “Let’s get to a spot where we can stay for the night.”
“We’re not going back?” Rita asks.
“Not yet,” I say. “They want to establish relations.”
“But you don’t trust them?” she asks.
“I don’t, but we can’t let them think we’re enemies.”
Rita nods and turns her eyes to the road. Behind us, the square is illuminated with light and the couple is spread out, talking, going about their night without a care. Jefferson laughs and the woman spreads out her supplies.
It’s a long ride to a spot that feels safe enough to hole up. At every turn we encounter crudely constructed walls. I’m guessing Jefferson’s territory extends pretty far. I put Greg and Rita on watch and turn in for the night.
The air is humid in the truck. A bright sun shines down on us, sending in blinding light. The windows are fogged up except for circles Greg has wiped in the middle of each pane of glass. He is propped up in the driver’s seat eating. He tosses me a cookie.
“No one has come in or out,” he says.
I slide my jacket on.
Jake rises from his spot at the back of the truck. “We going out?”
I wipe sleep from my eyes and grab my gun. I cock it before going out and sling it over my shoulder as I step outside. My throat retracts making it difficult to swallow or breathe, and it’s itchy; I cough away the sudden asthmatic attack on my senses.
“Winters are tough here,” Jefferson says, coming up behind me. I twirl around, wiping my eyes. He laughs. “Allergies are a bitch.” He sticks his hand out to shake. “Come on, we’ve made breakfast.”
Jake and I follow Jefferson through a maze of fortified walls that run along one side of his compound. The walls on this side are littered with bullet holes, gouges, and rust, worn down by years of acid rain and harsh weather. The maze empties out into a circular area and a house that’s set into the ground.
We go through the low door into the little house. There’s a couple beds off to one side and a cooking area to the opposite side of that, and there is a second door through an opening straight across from where we stand. The woman is standing at a table that has already been set. She takes the lid off a pot that’s centered between the plates, and a puff of steam rises toward the ceiling and clears away, revealing a juicy mixture of meat and vegetables. It’s an odd breakfast, but I’ve had much worse. The smell is pungent and I feel my feet moving forward before I’ve made up my mind to eat.
We step down into the space and take our seats at the table. Jefferson and his wife sit on the ends, facing one another, their hands clasped together. “Thank you,” she says to him. Jake and I try not to stare, but I glimpse a laugh trying to escape his lips.
“How long have you been out here?” I ask.
Jefferson waves a hand. “Let me get you some stew first,” he says. He scoops out some of the stew with a ladle and makes sure everyone has equal parts before speaking. “We’ve been here since right after all the bombs stopped falling and there was no one left.”
“Has it always been the two of you?”
He shakes his head, sighing. “There were others, but they couldn’t handle it here, they went off on their own, returning every few months. Now it’s just me and my lady.” He winks at the woman.
I sip at the juice in my bowl. The warm liquid soothes my chest and allows me to breath easily again. I pick at a piece of meat, tasting a sliver of the thick morsel. “It’s good stuff, huh?” the woman asks. I nod. But truthfully, the meat is tough and chewy and lacking in salt. It’s not a pleasant meal. I do enjoy the vegetables and the juice, taking little bites of meat with them to combat the bland flavor. I can’t be picky, though, I’ve become spoiled to Mirta’s cooking.
“Where did you all come from?” Jefferson asks.
“Back west,” I say.
“I mean, here, my wife said you’ve got a place here?” he asks. I nod, glancing at Jake to make sure we’re on the same page. “Down by the docks, we stay there when we’re not on supply runs.” Jefferson’s face lights up.
“Yes, the docks. We don’t get down there very often. Used to be fish, but they all died off too.”
The woman sits up suddenly, smiling. “Are there others, like you?”
“No, it’s just the four of us,” I say, shoving a bite of food into my mouth to avoid further explanation. Jake shovels spoonful after spoonful of stew into his mouth, inhaling his food before I’ve eaten half of mine. I can tell he’s ready to leave.
“Well, four isn’t so bad, we’d be willing to take you in,” Jefferson says. I wince and set my spoon down and proceed to talk my way out of the offer.
“We’re drifters, we won’t be in the city for too much longer,” I say. “Further north is where we’ll end up settling.”
“But there’s plenty of comforts here,” he says, nudging my arm. “We don’t mind a few extra mouths to feed; we’re always taking in new people.”
“Thank you for the offer, but truthfully, we’re just moving through the city,” I say.
“It’s all right; we’re a bunch of pigs. You couldn’t keep us fed.”
“Then we’ll have to fatten you up,” he says, smiling. “I don’t mean to push. We just figured it would be nice for you all to have a good place to stay. Seems like you are all crammed into that building,” Jefferson says, wiping his eyes. “No worries. We’ll send you on your way with some food. It’ll be nice to have some neighbors.”
We leave with some sacks of rice and a pot of meat.
It’s been a few days since we discovered other people in the city. There were lengthy conversations about what to do about more new people. Our group has always had members coming and going, so we opt to give these people a chance. Yesterday, Jefferson’s wife brought us some wine and this morning, they invited us for dinner.
Jefferson runs a finger along the outline of a wall. “It blocks us in. We’ve got this whole area wired up with security features.”
I peer through my scope, eying the multitude of walls. “Any trouble with animals?”
“Not with the alarms.” He points to a spot beyond the homestead that’s just another mound in the dirt. “We’ve got a garden back there.”
“You can grow stuff in this dirt?”
“No, it’s all canned stuff, but we keep trying,” he says. “Maybe one day this little planet will get started again.”
“Where do you get the meat?”
Jefferson smiles. “It’s all canned stuff. There’s a big stockpile in our little hut.”
He leads me and Greg around the grounds. We stay away from the walls, preferring not to get lost in the maze for now.
“So, when are you all moving in?” Jefferson asks.
I laugh and glance at Greg who is just as flabbergasted.
Jefferson sighs. “I want us to fix this city. We could build a whole community, start over.”
“Is that you’re plan here?” Greg asks. He scowls. “You’ve got yourself walled off. It’s not as safe as it seems.”
Greg looks around. “You get attacked by something big, you’re stuck.”
“I think it’s an all right place,” I say, looking at the walls. “But we’re fine where we’re at. Like I said, we’ll be leaving soon.”
“Well, if you find yourself in trouble out there, just come on over.”
A big dinner is served with cakes made of flour and oil, spicy rice, and some canned beans. It’s better than the last one, but that’s because our cook, Mirta, is at the stove.
‘Gotta have some seasonings in there,’ she said, as she sat at the table.
After dinner we go out and sit beside a fire where Jefferson and his wife, Dina, tell us of their beginnings.
“Came out here, from where was it?” Jefferson asks himself, peering up at the night sky. “I’d say further north, Canada. It’s hard to remember, as I’m sure you know.”
I nod. “It’s better that way.”
“Spent my whole life out that way, came down here with Dina because the animals were so bad. You think these cities look bad, you should see it out that way. And there were less people.”
“I heard they fired bombed it all to hell,” I say, taking a swig of some black wine Dina made. It burns the throat all the way down.
“That was the whole western and central parts, not the east. They gave up and let the people go wild, killing and eating each other.”
“You’re lucky,” Jake says. “How’d you manage to get out?”
Jefferson grins. “Just as you said, luck,” he says, looking off. He doesn’t say any more about their journey out.
“You said there used to be more of you,” I say.
He nods. “A whole lot, but they left, got tired of the lifestyle I suppose.”
Jake and I share a look.
Greg speaks up. “I know the feeling,” he says. “I stayed in a part of the city that seemed all right for a long time, but it was just me and my thoughts. I thought I needed out.”
“You still do,” I say, reminding him of his constant reiteration of the need to leave this shithole.
Jefferson laughs. “It’s not so bad.”
During the drive back to the enclosure, Greg stands at the back window, watching the maze of walls disappear behind us. I sidle up beside him.
“I thought you wanted to stay by the way you talked,” I say, nudging his arm.
He shakes me off. “You shouldn’t let your guard down.” He looks at me, through me really. What I think might be a knife to the gut or a bullet between my eyes is nothing more than a blank stare from Greg. He turns away, allowing his words to work on me. A storm’s brewing in him, and I have no idea when it’ll make landfall.
I awaken to a piercing, blood curdling scream that begins in a dream and forms into reality. My head pounds and my eyesight is blurry as I sit up too fast. I go for my gun, but it’s gone. The scream continues. It’s a child. I move to the center of the pile of bodies, touching mouths, but everyone is huddled together, whimpering. I finally get a clear look in the dark and see men and women scrambling to bring down a big brute near the door. I hear the pound of boots on the roof and the grind of the metal doors on the other side of the room.
The big brute has something tucked under its arm, a wriggling, frantic child. It seems none of the adults can bring the man down, and I realize there’s more than one. There’s at least two, hovering around the big one, kicking off members of my group. I get to my feet and run for the weapon’s stash near the truck. I step on hands, faces, and stomachs as I cross the blanket of bodies. I reach the weapons, grab a gun and run after the animals as they slip outside.
The moon is big and full, shining plenty of light on everything. The kidnappers are at the enclosure wall, peeling back a piece of metal that they’ve cut open previously. The two smaller ones go through first. The big one hands the kid through. I fire off a single shot. It grazes the fence. I dive at the big brute, grabbing onto his leg and fight to get around him, to the child. One of the smaller ones runs off into the dark and the one with the child throws him to the big brute, clean over my head. I watch stringy hair and flailing arms wiz past me, out of my reach.
I feel a blinding pain shoot through my head as I turn to face the big brute, now cradling the child. The crack of a blunt object on my skull sends me to my knees. I reach out, grabbing for the child and latch onto his tiny wrist. He’s no longer screaming. His head bobs from side to side as the animal pulls us along. The big brute kicks at me, but I keep a firm grasp, feeling around for the child’s pulse. A little face looks up at me, tears streaming down his face.
The big brute stops. His face is hidden in the shadows. I only see his boot in my face at the last second.
“What was that?”
“Why didn’t they eat us all?”
“Something isn’t right about this.”
“It was that other group wasn’t it?”
I find all these questions running through my mind as I come to. The petrified faces of a few members of my group are all pointed down at me. I wipe sleep and dry blood from my eyes and sit up. My face burns and my head feels like it wants to split in half. I touch my face and feel raised skin around my right eye and cheek.
“You got hit pretty good,” Rita says. She hands me a mirror and I look upon my bruised face. It could be worse. I could have easily been killed. There’s still a smear of blood on my neck from where the blood ran down. I wipe it away and sink back into the sofa, rubbing at my temples.
“Was anyone else taken?” I ask, staggering to my feet.
Michael helps me stand. “Just the one child,” he says.
“Good, it could have been worse,” I say, muttering to myself.
The rest of my group is gathered around the door, looking out at the hole in the fence. I go out. There’s blood on the ground and a trail of footsteps leading toward a part of the city we have not ventured into.
“What’s the plan,” Michael asks behind me.
I kneel beside the footprints and look off into the city.
“That’s my son,” says a feeble voice. Janice comes crawling through the fence, patting her cheeks with a piece of cloth. “Don’t just leave him. There’s still time,” she cries. She was the boy’s adoptive mother, one of several actually, but she’d been too drunk most days to care for him, so it comes as a surprise to many that she’s distraught.
“It would cost us too much time,” Greg says.
Janice falls over in the dirt beside me. I try to comfort her with a hand placed on her shoulder, but she shakes me away. “Give me a gun and I’ll go,” she says. I shake my head. She cries harder.
“I say we go after him,” Jake says, climbing down from the roof. He comes through the hole, dressed in all his gear. He cocks a gun and holds it out to me. “If they wanted him dead they’d have done it. I say we go out there and get him.”
“And risk everything?” I ask.
“I don’t think it was animals, looks like Jefferson’s played us.”
I shake my head. I’m not entirely sure it was Jefferson. He seemed odd, but not the type to kill.
“Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try to find the child. I mean, you said we’d be dead if they wanted us dead,” Rita says. I glare at her. She’s always got to add fuel to an aggravating situation.
Jake sighs. “All I’m saying is it wouldn’t hurt to give it back to them once in a while.”
“You’ve encountered far fewer animals than any of us. Trust me, there’s no surprising them.”
“I don’t think it was the same kind of animals we’re used to.”
“And that’s an even better reason not to go,” Ela says, chiming in above Janice’s moaning. At least I’ve got one person on my side.
“We don’t know what we’re dealing with,” I say, staring at the blank faces all around.
“Maybe it’s time we start taking instead of letting those cannibals dictate everything,” Jake says, wiping his gun down.
I soon find myself arguing with half the group, led by Jake. And his conviction is winning more of the group over. Janice’s cries don’t help either. I bow to their demands, despite my better judgement.
“All right, we’ll go.” I say. I can barely hear the words as they leave my lips. I’ve got to have a plan in place just in case this goes backwards, which it will.
We assemble at the hole, Greg, Jake, and me. Rita gathers the rest of the group together to work on improving our enclosure in case of another attack.
Michael and I stand on our own, checking and rechecking my ammo stock. “I can’t believe all of them. We’ve gone back on all our ways.”
“What? You too?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “If it was me, you’d come after me, wouldn’t you?”
I groan. The kid’s got me, damn it. “I would,” I say, placing my pistol behind my back. “Take care of the group, go if you have to.”
I meet Greg and Jake at the hole in the fence.
I get nods from each man.
We set out on a cracked strip of asphalt, pushing against brisk winds. The sun is not its usual self, she’s holding back. Not since before the earth died did it get this cold. The air is thin and it burns the insides of my nose and throat. Instead of going straight to Jefferson’s compound, we follow the footsteps into new territory. We climb through an overturned bus and out into a dimly lit street. I feel the beat of my heart in my throat and it’s hard to focus. I haven’t felt this scared in a while, I’d actually gotten comfortable.
It’s midday before we come to the flattened part of the city, the exact spot where the biggest bomb was dropped. It’s a crater the size of a semi. The air around the hole is warm. We stay beside it for a while, thawing our feet and calming our nerves.
“How long are we staying out here?” Jake asks.
“Itching to get back already?” Greg asks, glaring at Jake.
I sigh. “Guys, there’s no reason for this. You’re letting your fear get to you.”
“I just don’t understand why the child was taken. There was so much more,” Jake says, scratching his neck.
The rest of the day is spent following fading footsteps back toward the main part of the city, back to where Jefferson’s compound sits. It’s a realization I was hoping to avoid.
With the sun’s light fading behind the buildings, we opt for finding shelter rather than worrying about tracks. We head back about a quarter mile and find an old flatbed truck. We squeeze into the front, our guns aimed through the windshield and side windows. As night creeps in we slouch in the seats and peer out over the dash, just our eyes and the tips of our guns would be visible from the other side.
We arrive at Jefferson’s enclosure at dawn. Sirens blare as we pass the security system. Greg disables the alarm and we huddle up in the shadow of a wall. A plume of black smoke billows out of the chimney shoot, winding its way up to clouds above. The sun gives off a faint glow, gifting us just enough sunlight to see. What was ice now trickles down the side of the home and collects in buckets positioned around the property. The walls rise up all around us, still shimmering with a sheet of ice.
Greg goes up to the top of the mound that surrounds the house. Jake and I ease up to the front door. I pound on the thick wood with my fist. We wait for an answer, fingers positioned over our triggers.
No one replies.
I pound harder. “Jefferson, we need to talk.” I look up at the trail of black smoke and sniff the air. There’s a familiar scent, like that of human flesh burning over an open flame. I turn back to Jake. “They’ve been cooking.”
He glances up at the smoke and down at the door. “Should we blast the door?”
Inside, metal scrapes metal and footsteps echo. I can feel the blood leaving my hands, the cold setting in. Jake stiffens, swallows hard. I glance up at Greg. He’s just as uneasy, staring at the black smoke swirling around his head. I motion for him to fall back.
“Blast?” Jake asks, steadying his gun.
I shake my head. “We shouldn’t be here,” I say, backing away. “Let’s get back to the enclosure.”
Greg, Jake, and I double back, going even slower than when we came in, protecting our backs, sides, and heads. I bring my gun around, peering through the scope at the tops of walls and plumes of smoke. As we exit the compound, a light shines in the Jefferson home and a dark figure passes the window. I stand for a second, staring at the flopping head of the child on the figure’s back. My body goes cold and I stumble back, hurrying away from the compound with Greg and Jake hot on my heels.
None of us turns back as we leave this area of the city.
Back at our home, we tell of the burning flesh and Jefferson’s closed off home. There’s that eerie silence that I used to know, it spreads through the warehouse, returning this once comfortable place back to the city. No one wants to remain here now. For the first time in weeks, watchers are posted on the building and the children are forced to sleep in the trucks. We don’t burn any fires or eat dinner. It’s too late to leave at this hour; night has come on too suddenly. Besides, where would we go? Our path through the city is straight through Jefferson’s compound, and he’d yet to give us a way through.
Tonight, we’ll sleep close together and hope that we survive the night.
We sleep in a row, near the door with our guns across our chests, pointed down to our feet. I lift my head slightly, peering into the dark. I see something move near the door, a shadow creeping around sleeping bodies. I glance at the others, everyone but Michael is fast asleep. He’s looking over at me, wide eyed, ready to use his gun. We both turn to the shadow slinking through the dark. It’s not one of us, no one moves in that manner. My heart drops to my stomach and I feel the urge to cry. I bring my gun up slowly, but I know I can’t pull the trigger. Somehow, we’ve avoided death from the animal lurking around us. Perhaps it’s not quite figured out that there are people here, that it has food all around it.
I see its head bob up and down as it brings something up to its mouth; it’s a piece of dog that Mirta missed while she was cooking. Before I can reach down for my knife, I see Jake rise from his spot on the floor. I sit up and follow him to the truck. The animal is oblivious to everything. The lack of food has made it useless. I rip my knife from my boot and Jake eases a machete out of the truck. We check the rest of the warehouse, staring into the dark and hoping that our eyes aren’t deceiving us. It looks to be just the one animal.
We see each other’s expressions in the dark and give each other signals. Jake eases around one side of the tank and I go around the other. As we reach the animal, the dog stirs and the animal’s attention is drawn to the sleeping group on the floor. The dog lifts its head and growls. The animal cries, a vicious cry that makes me sick to my stomach.
Jake lunges at the animal. The machete misses the animal and gets lodge in the truck. The animal cries as it lunges at Jake. I ease forward with my knife and bring it across the animal’s throat, silencing it. For a long time, everything is still. The drip of blood splashes the ground at my feet and the wriggling body of the animal is sprawled out across a stack of crates. It stares up at me, still blinking. There is darkness in its eyes, but also, a glimmer of something else. It reaches out, not out of hunger or anger. Its lips quiver as if it wants to speak, but it can’t quite form any words. Sorrow blankets the animal’s face, it becomes human again as it takes its last breath.
Jake flicks on a lantern and holds it up over the rest of the group, checking to make sure everyone is accounted for. We’ve come away unscathed. I wipe my knife on the side of my pants and return it to my boot. The dog sniffs around the carcass, licking at the blood. I shoo it away and cover the animal with a sheet.
Jake comes over, waving his machete, blood is flung off the blade and onto the wall. “This is the first one we’ve seen in a while,” he says, shaking his head, twisting the machete in his hand.
The rest of the group rises, clambering for their weapons. Greg inspects the body, sneering at the thing. “Is it just the one?”
“Sneaky bastard,” he says.
Satisfied with their own observations of the beast, most of the others returns to their spots on the floor.
“Looks like they might have taken the child after all,” Greg says, wiping cold sweats from his face. He shudders, wrapping a blanket around his body.
All hope of finding the child alive were futile at best, but I had really wanted to see that tiny smile again.
Unlike the rest of my group, I stay upright, listening. My entire body shakes as the piercing scream of more than a few animals’ cuts through the night. All at once, we’re all on our feet, coming together in a circle, our backs to one another, our guns pointed all around.
“Over there,” Jake whispers. We all bring our guns to the windows.
Through the dirty glass, the flared nostrils and open mouth of an animal blasts heated breaths at us. Slowly, more are revealed, gaunt, ugly faces staring through the windows, twenty in all. We’re outnumbered, as usual.
Those bastards come clawing through the windows, ignoring the shards of glass that slice their hands. We open fire, bringing down the first couple. The rest scatter and beat on the warehouse as they circle it again and again. I bring Michael close to me.
“I’ve got you,” I say.
He doesn’t speak.
After a moment of silence, animals come in on us from all sides, jumping through windows, climbing in from the roof, and crawling in through weak spots in the walls. We open fire and cut down the first wave of bodies. But there’s more than the twenty we originally counted. Just as one animal falls to its death, another two come in behind it, inching a little closer to our guns each time.
“We’ve got to go,” Mirta screams. She lowers her gun and turns back for the truck. And in a split second she’s gobbled up by animals, yanked from Greg’s grasp and pulled out into the dark night. The animals cry throughout the battle, calling in more of their own. They congregate in little groups outside, looking in on the carnage. In the dark they appear to be just like us, standing upright, conversing.
I manage to kill a couple animals, but most of my shots ring off metal and disappear into the night. My hands tingle, but they’re also numb enough that I can’t quite get a handle on my gun. I catch Michael, dragging him away from the fight.
“Get to the truck,” I say. He falls back to the truck, cutting down animals in his path. I am able to provide some cover fire, even if my shots are shaky. Jake, Rita, and Greg fall back as well, taking up positions on different sides of the truck.
Then something switches. The animals seem to slow. The gunfire dissipates. Greg yells and I see his gun fall as he’s gobbled up into dirty hands. I scream and rush out of the truck.
Jake stumbles toward me, eyes wide, and face bloodied, dribbling down his plump cheeks. He laughs a laugh that could peel paint. It makes the blood leave my face. He’s one of them. The shock is too much, it’s paralyzing. I can’t quite fathom what’s unfolding. I see the end of a machete, his weapon of choice. I feel my own knife, nothing more than a paring knife compared to the blade he’s wielding. He doesn’t come for me right away, he takes out as many of my people as he can, Pete, Janice, and the last of the children. My heart breaks for the little ones. Jake and his animals tear through the group, killing anyone who stands in their way. There is no mercy.
“Go!” I wave my hands at Michael who is sitting in the truck’s front seat. I bang on the truck and shoot at the onslaught of animals. Michael fires up the truck and drives it through the flimsy barrier, leaving us behind.
It’s just Rita, Greg, and me surrounded by a horde. I turn my gun up to my throat. I feel a sharp pain as I fall into black.
“You don’t look as surprised as I thought you would,” he says.
My body lurches forward before I’ve had time to consider a plan of action, I hit the ground, knees first. Pain radiates through my knee caps, through my legs. I feel the gravel grinding into my bones. “Shit,” I say, it’s the only word I manage to spit out. Greg and Rita are pushed onto the ground beside me, each one wincing at the sudden shock of pain in their knees. Jake pulls the trigger back on his gun. I feel a rush of tears stream down my face. There’s no fight left in me, no way to impede the flow. Jake laughs, a maniacal laugh that makes me shudder. I stop crying and turn my face up at him. “You’re dead.” Then there’s a boot in my face and I’m floating in a sea of red and black again.
I jerk my head up, opening my eyes to a concrete room. My hands are bound behind my back. I stare across the room at Greg who is unconscious. A trickle of blood drips from his chin, down from a cut at his temple. Rita sniffles in a corner as she works to free her hands. Confusion is replaced with rage. I fight my restraints, but the knot is a good one, Jake probably tied it himself. “It’s no use, I’ve tried for hours,” Rita says. I look up at her, at that wrinkled face fraught with dread.
“How long has it been?”
“Not more than a day.”
My heart dances around in my chest. Breathing is difficult when you can’t think straight. “That bastard. He had this going on all along,” I say. It’s a realization that I should have pieced together. It was too easy to get them to join. It was too easy for him to turn those dogs over. He was waiting for an opportunity, one I’m sure he’ll be delighted to share with us once he realizes we’re awake.
I sit up, giving my wrists a rest. I get a good look at the room. There’s only one escape, through a wooden door that sits above two steps. The walls around us are stacked concrete blocks and they don’t look to be wearing down. I smack my head into the wall, demeaning myself for being so blind. Erwin would have known better.
“Don’t go doing that to yourself. None of us thought Jake would do this. We all trusted him,” Rita says.
I look over at Greg. I laugh, shaking my head. “He mentioned something when they first joined our group.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
We continue to fight our bindings, clawing with loose fingers and pulling bloodied wrists apart, digging the rope into our flesh. It’s no use. We’re stuck, awaiting slaughter.
Greg finally rouses from his deep sleep. “How long have I been out?”
“Over a day,” Rita says.
“Where’s that traitor?” Greg asks, spitting blood.
“No one has been down here, yet.”
“I’m going to kill him,” I say.
“Not if I get to him first,” Rita says.
“Any ideas?” Greg asks.
“Not one,” I say.
He sighs, resting his head against the wall. “I thought the animals would get us, I never would have imagined this,” he says, laughing. Rita and I laugh too; it helps to alleviate the sick feeling of impending death.
A thump draws our attention to the door. It shakes, dragging across the floor as it’s pulled open. Jake stomps into the room, grinning. “I need a little info from you,” he says, pointing at me. He acts like he didn’t just filet all of my friends, my family.
“Go to hell.”
“Gladly, but not yet,” he says, taking a seat on the stairs. “Now, tell me something—”
“You’re feisty, that’s new.” He laughs. “Where is the rest of the group?”
“They left on their own. Something must have happened.”
Jake shakes his head. “You lie bad.”
I shrug. “Good luck finding them.”
Jake sucks his teeth. My stomach tightens. He sits up, picking at food in his teeth. “I thought we agreed on a backup place by the water.”
“The thing is I have trust issues. That’s what this place does to you.”
“Well, we’ll just have to hunt them down.”
“You’re an animal.”
Jake cracks his knuckles. “Everyone has eaten people at some point. Even you,” he says. I shake my head, refusing to hear his accusations. “Even Rita and I got so close she admitted to having a taste for people. I thought she might join up.”
“Shut the hell up,” Rita says.
“Everyone has considered it, but none of us actually committed to such a shitty thing,” I say. No amount of prodding is going to convince me to abandon all hope. Jake will need to try harder than this. “What happened to the kid you took?”
“Eaten days ago,” he says. “That kid was dead on that first night, cut him up and ate him in some soup.”
I spit at Jake. It’s the most childish thing to do, but it’s the only weapon I’ve got. He wipes his face.
“Why not just let things be? We were doing all right?” I ask.
“I was always in the business of trading people. The dogs were just some old animals we picked off another group. We ate them first, kept the dogs for insurance. Then you came along at the right time. Had to make sure we could get our hands on those weapons. But mostly, we were fattening you up. Do you know how long a fat person can last?” He sucks his teeth. My skin crawls just watching him sit there, gloating. “Damn. You sure got yourselves into a mess.”
“Why wait so long? You could have done it weeks ago.”
“You kept a tight leash on those weapons,” he says. “And, we were waiting on the rest of our people. My friends were out of the city, due to the damn winter.”
“What friends? You let Mirta die,” Greg says.
“The moron who killed her has been dealt with.”
“Go on and play house with your friends,” I say, turning my back to him. “We’ve heard enough.”
“You’ll give in. They always do,” he says. I can sense his slimy grin even with my back turned. “This city makes people think it’s a fine place to lay roots, it traps vulnerable groups like yours. With a better leader, these people might have made it out.”
The door slams shut. I press my back into the wall, seething with rage. Rita begins working at her bindings again, ruthlessly scraping away at her wrists.
“They’ll take us one at a time over several months,” Greg says.
“And you know this how?” I ask.
“I’ve seen it before. Lots of people died this way,” he says, putting his face to the floor. He turns his back to us, giving up. “We all have that thing that keeps us from remembering our lives before. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something was eating away at me, telling me to get the hell out of this place.”
“How long do we have?” I ask.
“One of us doesn’t have much longer,” he says. “I’d say you’re both safe for now. They usually go for the big kill first.”
It’s a long time before the door opens again, and when it does, Jake greets us with that dumb smile of his. All he does is look in at us, sizing us up. His eyes rest on Rita the longest. He gives a nod and the door is shut once more. “Damn it,” I say. Rita yanks and tears at the ropes. After much blood loss and scraping flesh, she releases a hand. A little more working and she manages to rip the rope free. “Untie Greg,” I say.
“No, there isn’t time. You two go,” he says.
“We aren’t leaving just yet. We don’t know what’s on the other side of that door,” I say. We need to figure out a plan before that door opens again.
It’s maddening not knowing what time of day it is. I try to count the hours that might have passed, but it’s of little use in here. Days might have passed, perhaps weeks. We have no way of knowing. Only the pain in my belly is an indicator that it’s been too long. All Jake’s gifted us is water, enough to keep us alive.
The door bursts open. Jake sticks his head in and smiles at Rita. “Are you ready, dear?” he asks.
“Are you?” Rita asks, spitting.
I glance at Greg. His gaze says he’s ready. As Jake descends the stairs I push back on my heels and prepare to launch myself upright. Rita sits, pretending to be bound, biding her time. Every step Jake makes is one step closer to his last. He stops within inches of Rita’s face and draws out a knife.
Rita, without wasting another second, smacks Jake in the face with her forehead, knocking him over. The knife clatters against concrete. Greg goes for the knife. I go for the door. Jake yells a moaning, wailing cry that I only recognize from the animals.
I look up and find the doorway blocked by what has to be the biggest animal I‘ve ever seen, the big brute. It looks the same as Jake, meaty. It smiles down at me, licking its lips.
“Back,” it says. And that is enough to send me falling backward, in a dream like state. I hit the floor ass first, cracking bones. “Get back,” it says again, kicking at my feet. I scurry away. Several more hover around the doorway, laughing and dancing around on toothpick legs.
The animal helps Jake to his feet then it yanks Rita up from the floor. I lock eyes with her. She’s cold, defiant. She gives me a nod, a look of goodbye. Then she’s gone, along with the animal.
“You’re next,” Jake says, staring down at me. I swallow hard, knowing his threat to be true. He leaves, but doesn’t close the door. An animal stands watch instead. It isn’t long before we’re aware of why the door won’t be closed.
Silence follows the disruption. Then, after blades are sharpened, the killing begins. We listen to the distinct sounds of saws cutting through bone and flesh being peeled away. Rita’s cries ring in our ears. She begs and pleads. Her screams only grow louder as the minutes pass. They refuse to just kill her, to put her out of her misery and take their meat.
Rita does die at some point, though it takes many hours. Once her cries have ended, a raucous applause is followed by the smell of cooked flesh. The door is closed and we’re left to sweat in the smell of Rita’s burned flesh.
“I counted nine in the doorway, plus the big one. And then there’s Jake and the Jefferson couple,” I say, resting my head.
Greg scoffs. “You really think we have a chance of leaving,” he says, not asking. I look over. He kicks the knife away, knocking it against my boot. “We’re done Erin.”
“There’s still a chance.
“No there isn’t. Stop believing all that shit Erwin told you.”
“He got us pretty far.”
“All he did make up some shit to keep you going. People have run that scheme for thousands of years. He didn’t come to save you.”
“It was bigger than that.”
Greg comes over, his finger pointed in my face. “Stop holding on to his false promise of a better tomorrow. This is all we have to show for it,” he says, waving his arms around to show the result of my leadership.
“We made choices together,” I say, shaking my head. “I was just a stand in.”
“No, we let you lead,” he says, flopping down on the ground.
“So you’re done?”
“We all are.”
I grab the knife and hold the handle between my palms, glaring at the bent blade. Flecks of blood dot the surface. I lean my head back and close my eyes, thinking on all the shit we’ve been through. I can’t go out like this. I can’t leave Michael and the others. I won’t even leave Greg. Mistakes have been made, I know it. I’ll blame myself for as long as my life extends, which might not be much longer. But I can’t just give up.
I think it’s been twelve days since we ate last. Just thinking about food makes me want to puke all over myself. It hurts so bad I can hardly move. Greg and I stay sprawled out on the floor, staring into space, hoping our last hours end quickly. Between us, meat continues to spoil. It looks to be a human rib cage, cut cleanly so it looks more appetizing. The smell I’m used to, but I gag every time I look at what was once one of us.
For the second time today, Jake visits. Animals stand in the door behind him, looking on with curiosity. Jake sits on the steps. “I thought you’d eat by now,” he says. “Need to fatten you up.”
“So cook us up now before all the meat is gone,” I say. My throat hurts. Greg and I have hardly spoken to one another and water has been scarce.
“Come on Erin, it doesn’t have to be tough,” he says, motioning to the animals behind him. Two ease past him and step into the room. They drift past me and go for the meat, they drag the spoiled flesh away and two more replace it with fresh pickings. This time it’s a leg or an arm, I can’t tell for sure. I try not to look at it.
“You know, I thought about letting you live,” Jake says, cutting a sliver of meat for himself. “I really like you, Erin, I do. You’re prime. But I know you’d put a knife in my back and burn this whole place down. You act like you won’t pick a fight, but I can see the hate, the anger, and most of all, the desire to live.” He sticks the meat in his mouth and chews it, slowly, making sure I see what I’m missing. “Greg wants it,” he says, pointing to Greg who is sitting up, staring at the meat.
Jake leaves us. Greg turns back to the wall he’s stared at every day since Rita died. One of us might die before we speak again.
I feel naked without my gun. Every morning that I wake up in this box feels worse than all those nights out in the open, waiting on animals. Because here, I know I’ll die. I know Jake will come in here any minute and drag me out. My screams will echo as my limbs are removed and my blood is allowed to flow freely out of sliced veins. But no one will save me, no one will stop my heart and end the pain, no one is waiting to free me. We’ve calculated about a month since leaving, at least that’s what we know from keeping track of Jake’s visits. I long to see Michael’s face and hear his laugh. I long to touch the trigger of a gun.
I feel around for the knife. It’s gone. I turn over and find myself face to face with Greg. His eyes are cold, motionless. The knife is pinned between his fingers. A breath leaves his mouth, dusting my face.
“There’s no point in letting them do it,” he says, bringing the knife down to his wrist. “We could just end it ourselves.” He laughs, as if he can’t quite believe he’s considering ending his own life.
“Greg.” He doesn’t look at me. The knife digs into his wrist as he prepares to slice. “Don’t do this, Greg.”
He sits back against the wall beside me. I sit up and watch him bring the blade across his wrist. It’s too dull; it only reddens the skin. He’s forced to press harder. The first layer of skin is compromised, blood flows. He presses harder.
Part of me wants him to do it, just so I can justify my own want to do it. I’ve thought about it more than once, too many times. I considered biting into my cyanide pill, ending it quickly. But that tiny bit of hope still lingers, it keeps me going, for now.
“Not like this” I say, with hardly any conviction.
“If I had the pill like you I’d have done it already,” he says.
I grab the knife and try to jerk it away. He pushes me away, pointing the knife down at me. I stare into his red eyes, into the rage. He drools onto me. Hunger has hold, delirium. It’s been torturing us both.
“Come on,” I say. “Not like this.”
Greg pounces on top of me. He grabs my throat, touching every part of my neck. The knife lingers in the air. He leans into me, bringing the knife closer. I don’t cry or scream as he works out whether or not to kill me. I know he won’t, just as I couldn’t do the same three nights ago. I held the knife above his pale face, ready to end his nightly whimpers.
“Greg, put it down.”
He brings his face down to mine and touches his lips to my cheek. The knife clatters to the floor. We stay, one on top of the other, holding each another for a long time. We could both go for more, but we’re too weak. It’d take too much out of us. Just having one another is enough.
We finally eat.
I’m almost certain the scraps they gave us were Rita’s remains. I don’t think about it for long, the food satisfies more than my hunger, it mitigates the pain. I let go of everything I’ve ever been taught, I forget Erwin’s laws. I eat the human flesh and live to see another day.
Water splashes my face. I open my eyes and look upon Jake’s ugly mug. The room is dark, I can’t see beyond his head. There is no sound as he drifts into the dark. I push myself up and crawl toward the door, but I’m stuck. I claw at the floor. The concrete scrunches up in front of me, and I can’t go anywhere. There’s a flashing red light above, but I cannot see the ceiling that it’s hanging from. A low hum rises inside my ears.
I wake to the sound of the alarm again. It’s a headache inducing sound. And each day it seems to go off more often. I’ve counted the intervals in between the sirens, but there’s no pattern.
Greg turns his head to look at me. “Day fifty.”
The alarm ceases its blaring. I stick a finger in each ear and swivel them around until the ringing stops. I sit back against the wall and feel cold steel against my back, the blade scratches at my skin, just as eager as I am to do some damage.
The door opens and the smell of charcoal seeps into the room. A plume of smoke travels across the doorway and Jake steps into the room followed by the big animal. It hasn’t said much since the first meeting. This animal is Jake’s muscle, and the first one we’ll need to bring down.
I straighten up, giving myself room to grab the knife and bring it across my body. Jake kneels in front of me. He grabs my hair, yanking it up in between his fat fingers, and drags me up from the floor.
“You sick monster.”
“Take me you coward,” Greg says,” kicking at Jake. He drops me onto my knees and turns to Greg.
Jake laughs. “Next time, Greg.”
“Just take me.”
“Shut up,” Jake says, as he pulls me away from Greg. Jake leaves us with the animal. The big brute comes into the room, glaring at me. Those big scary eyes are like looking at my own death. I glance at Greg. I give him a go ahead nod and I reach for the knife.
He kicks the big monster’s bony leg. The animal stumbles slightly and turns to face Greg, its hands shake with untamed rage. I get the knife in my hand, feeling its cold handle between my palm and fingers. It’s been a while since I used a blade on someone. I don’t think. I just do. The blade comes up from the floor before I do, slicing at the animal’s ankles. I stand up, watch the animal fall, and cut its throat before it can cry for others. It latches onto me even after it should be dead. It’s big hand wraps around my scrawny throat, fighting to take my life before it goes. Greg takes the knife and slices straight through the beast’s wrist.
The animals moan and whimper all through the complex, but there are no siren cries or animals charging us. Greg lunges forward, sticking the knife out at the few animals that do come. He catches one in the hip and it limps away. Most of the others follow suit. In all, only three or four actually see the end of the knife. They’re not as vicious as those out on the plains, they’re civilized in a way.
Once we’re out of the concrete hole, we follow the animals down a narrow corridor that is shrouded in bright lights. The smell of human waste is pungent. I cover my mouth and hope for the best. As we reach the end of the hall our eyes adjust and we’re able to see into the room. There are human remains hanging from fish hooks. There are just pieces of people, a torso here, a head there, an arm, or a leg. What strikes me is the one hanging nearest to the back exit. Down on the floor, wrapped in plastic is Jefferson’s upper half. His mouth is still open wide from when they cut him in half. They killed him and Dina, chopped them up that night the child was taken. I only hope Rita’s nowhere to be seen.
I find a knife left on the carving table. Now we’re both armed. We go through the back exit and hurry through empty room after empty room. The place has been cleared out. Those other animals must have been the only ones left here.
Jake stumbles through the hallway, carrying the machete. He whacks Greg across the back, slicing him up. Greg falls, blood sprays the floor. He’s hurt bad.
Jake swings the machete at me, cutting through only air. “You bastards!”
As the machete zips past my face, I lunge forward, stabbing the knife at him. He stumbles back, swinging the machete. The blade comes across my body, then back, and catches my arm. The clean edge digs into my wrist, slicing down into bone. I rip my arm back, ignore the blood, and stick my knife out, trying to catch whatever I can. Jake backs into the wall behind him, the machete juts out from him, pointed at my face. Blood trickles down my arm, dripping onto my boot.
I hear Greg’s panting breaths in my ear. I can’t bring myself to look at him, not yet. Jake lunges toward me; the machete swishes this way and that, inches away from my face. Wisps of hair get caught by the blade and are trimmed off.
Greg clobbers Jake, dragging him to the ground. I let him go to work on the bastard. Greg pounds that stupid face until Jake is breathing blood out of his nose. I pull Greg off Jake’s body. He’s still breathing, for now.
We leave before the animals decide they’re tough enough to take us down and stagger up the staircase, across bodies and leave the building, following the sunlight cutting through rooms. A tunnel opens up. There’s mesh wire above and steel plates jutting out of the ground to enclose the maze. The moans and screams of the animals follow us as we escape through the winding maze, trying to remember Jefferson’s tour through this gauntlet.
It finally empties us out into a desecrated plot of land, flat charcoal ruins lay in our path. We start out across the empty wasteland, setting our sights on the hilly gray mounds beyond the nothingness. I turn back and look out at the magnitude of Jefferson’s compound. It’s a long stretch of a place enclosed in steel walls and wires. Animals sway just beyond the walls, watching us escape. They’re holding back, probably hoping we’ll lead them to the others.
“We can’t go back just yet, we’ll need to draw them off,” I say.
“Got it,” Greg says. He’s bleeding bad, but his adrenaline is pumping. I help him along when he needs it, but his injuries don’t slow us down.
It’s a long time before we reach the mounds of melted steel. We arrive at a downtown area where the crumbled skyscrapers are waiting to topple over. There isn’t much more than crushed, hollow shells of former buildings. Everything was blasted, fires broke out inside and cleared out the interiors in one fell swoop. I’m willing to bet hundreds if not thousands went down in a matter of seconds, never knowing what hit them. We circle the buildings, searching for some place to hunker down in, but you can see clear across the land through the buildings. So, we keep moving, turning round corner after corner before we finally find shelter.
This is the first night I’ve felt truly alone since my first night on watch. We’ve got measly knives to wield off a small skirmish. Anything more and we’re animal food. We hear them cry all around us, sniffing us out in the dark. Rust powders my face as a creature climbs across the scorched door I’ve settled under. A few feet away, Greg is positioned under a car.
The animals crawl across me, one by one, following the leader through the dark. I watch as those hunched bodies move past my face, their twisting heads looking out into the dark as if they can see beyond the realm of what their human eyes will allow.
By morning the animals have turned over most of the area. They funnel out of the empty land, returning to their little cage. It’s midday before we climb out of our hiding spots, sore, but relieved. We begin the long trek back to the others. I lead Greg, pointing us to where the caravan was supposed to wait. It’s been over a month since we were taken, so there’s a good chance they’ve gone without us. I wouldn’t blame them if they did.
(The story continues in part 5)
I’m nearing the end of releasing this draft of Extinction in free parts. Over the next month, I’ll be completing two more edits, one for story clarity and one for copy edits. Thanks for all the downloads and support. On December 18, you’ll be able to buy the complete, edited/updated, novel. Right now, you can pre-order a copy. Don’t forget to favorite my page to get faster updates and more stories.
The Burning Woods
Extinction: The Complete Novel (Pre-orders available now)
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A band of travelers are constantly on the move, desperately seeking stockpiles of supplies. One member, Erin, is beginning to have her doubts about the location of these bunkers. But it's the threat of vicious animals that keep her on edge.