~~~

They exited the wilderness preserve and walked south for the remainder of the night. Tony set a deliberately slow pace along the familiar two-lane backroad between the Wasteland and Andover, which by day, was surrounded by old fields, forests and farms, and had always been zombie-free. But now, everything was swallowed up in darkness as the last cool evenings of a defiant winter still lingered, the indifferent wind biting at their exposed skin.

Tony knew they were all exhausted and suffering various injuries. No one, except the murderous archer, were in any shape to face new threats, so they stopped often to rest and wait for dawn, huddled up in a circle for warmth in the center of the cold roadway. They took turns watching the night in silence with concrete slabs replacing eyelids as they all struggled to stay alert. Some had asked to build a fire but Diane was quick to suggest that they not attract attention to themselves and keep moving as much as possible.

Alysa wisely kept her distance, understanding that the broken remains of this community were hurt and angry, and that it was her kind that had caused them so much pain. When they’d exited the wilderness preserve, she had quickly discarded the rest of her Shadow Dead armor, revealing a slender young dark-skinned woman, roughly Gina’s age, who was now wearing skin-tight black stretch pants and a light black fleece jacket.

Nine had cracked a joke to Diane. “All she needs is some whiskers, pointy ears, and a long black tail and she’d be ready for Halloween.”

Diane, who had slowly regained her strength before exiting the Wasteland, had found no humor in Nine’s remarks. After finding out what this bitch had done to Barney, she stared at Alysa constantly, stewing in silence, as she also wrestled with her grief.

The Shadow Dead archer would walk a perimeter around them each time they stopped to rest, holding her bow out at the ready. Sometimes, she blended into the night so efficiently, that the others lost sight of her, and then Alysa would reappear suddenly at another angle, like a shadow sliding across shadows. She had told Tony that she could see in the dark much better than the average human, volunteering to keep watch over them.

Tony had begrudgingly agreed, understanding that in their present state, if Alysa wanted them dead, she could easily manage it.

~~~

The first traces of dawn split open the eastern sky, spilling out brilliant pink and blue streaks against the fading night. The sun started to warm up the day and their weary limbs as they pushed south, waiting for the light to illuminate their surroundings. As the early morning approached, the countryside opened up around them. No one felt at ease as the unsettling silence of last night continued to travel with them, making everything around them feel hollow and less real. The world had clearly become more void of life in the half-year they’d been hiding beneath it.

They arrived in the town of Andover two hours later to discover more of Winter’s devastation. What was once their community’s temporary camp and the place where Tony and Gina had finally found each other, was now a town slowly being reclaimed by the elements. What they all noticed immediately after entering the small public square was the repulsive smell of sewage. More than half of the downtown area was under water. Since all public services had gone extinct, accumulated rainfall followed by the thawing ice and snow had backed up the entire sewer system causing it to fail and flood the streets. Weeds had already begun to spring up through roadway cracks and sidewalks. The walls of buildings were covered in green vines. The grass was several feet tall. Andover had essentially become a swamp. Nature wasn’t the only culprit. The doors of several buildings were left hanging open on broken hinges. Windows shattered. Trash tossed about the streets. The town had been assaulted by desperation, looted thoroughly, and then left for dead.

“This place is depressing,” Tony said. They had intended on stopping just long enough to gather some supplies. They ended up finding three cans of soup, four bottles of water, and a fire axe that Tony picked up, gratefully abandoning the black spear.

They approached the diner on their way south out of town. All the windows had been destroyed and the furniture within had been ripped out and thrown into the street as if someone had just gutted it and discarded the innards everywhere.

“That place looks like it has an apartment above it,” Nine remarked. “Might be worth a-”

“There’s nothing up there but death,” Tony quickly said. “Let’s move on and get to Orosco’s camp.” He remembered all too well that this was where Samantha, the police officer and their former leader, had been brutally murdered. The big man did not need to visit the crime scene again.

With the help of several harsh looks from the others, Nine slowly pieced it together. “Shit… sorry, Tony. That happened before my time.”

Tony nodded. “It’s okay. Just bad memories.”

“Where’s the dead?” Beverly asked. “You’d think we would have seen them by now?”

“Winter cares very little about the living or the dead,” Alysa offered. “I imagine she came this time in full force, knowing that nothing was standing in her way… and destroyed them equally.”

Nine laughed. “My… you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

Alysa smiled at the young man. “No… I just hate that cold bitter bitch. Once she gets inside of you, it seems like it takes forever to get your bones warm again.”

“That’s comical coming from a cold-blooded creature such as yourself,” Diane snapped, causing Nine to give her a wide-eyed look.

Alysa turned to the hunter. “My apologies. I should have remained quiet. It’s clear that I’m not yet welcome among you.”

“You got that right,” Diane said. “And fuck the ‘yet’ part. Not gonna happen.”

Alysa looked away and nodded with a submissive smile. She then put some distance between herself and the hunter, moving toward the head of the line near Tony.

“That was a bit rude,” Nine whispered. “I think she was just trying to break the ice… no pun intended.”

Diane gave him a hard look. “Attractive or not, you should stop worrying about that dead woman.”

“Who said anything about finding her attract-”

“Shut up, please.”

“Damn… you’re in a mood,” Nine said with a laugh. “And why do you call her a dead woman? Is that a Shadow Dead pun?”

Diane didn’t answer. Instead, she stabbed Alysa in the back with her eyes.

“Hey!” Matt was getting animated, pointing toward the debris in front of the diner. “Do you guys see that?” Something was moving from beneath a pile of discarded booths. A badly deteriorated hand punched out from beneath the ruble, causing Matt to step back. “Shit! Someone’s trapped under there!” He started toward the pile.

“Matt! Hold up!” Tony called out.

Wendy grabbed the young man’s shoulder, causing him to stop and turn. She sadly shook her head at him.

Matt turned back and covered his nose and mouth immediately as the stench of the dead thing assaulted him. Two disfigured limbs appeared as something barely recognizable as human crawled out from beneath the booths. The zombie’s dirty rotting skin was stretched so thin over the thing’s back that it tore as it struggled to free itself, revealing black bloody covered bones beneath a ripped soiled blouse, it’s original color unknown. From what remained of its long blond hair on a torn scalp, it used to be a woman.

“Fuck me,” Matt said, backing up further until he nearly knocked Beverly over. He turned toward the edge of the road and vomited.

The dead thing, hearing their voices, turned and looked right at Wendy. Its dark eyes had retreated into the sockets, but we’re clearly fixed on the young woman. Wendy covered her mouth. To her, its face looked like a dirty flesh-colored balloon wrapped around a skull. The thing opened its mouth to snap at the air in Wendy’s direction, but it’s jaw fell off instead. “Oh God, someone please… help her,” Wendy begged.

The others stared at her, stunned.

Alysa stood further back. She appeared more interested in how the others would handle the situation.

“She’s in pain,” Wendy continued. “Can’t we do something for her?”

Diane walked up next to Wendy and stared at the beast.

It started to crawl toward them now, eyes still locked in on Wendy, as it ripped itself in half, trying to get free of the debris and to the girl.

“Look at it,” Diane said. “It doesn’t even realize that it can’t bite into you without its jaw… but that doesn’t stop it from craving your flesh.”

Wendy noticed something dangling on the front of the creature’s soiled blouse. It was a name tag. From there, she could piece together the rest of the woman’s outfit. “I think she is a waitress. Probably from this very diner.”

“You mean ‘was’,” Diane corrected.

“I can just make out her name: Marge. Her name is Marge.”

Diane stared at Wendy in disbelief. She then turned to Tony.

Tony immediately turned away from the dead waitress, and thought, The dead come home. He caught Diane’s gaze and shrugged his shoulders at her. It was clear that Wendy, and probably a few of the others, had not seen many zombies, or had forgotten as much as possible since living sheltered for so long. Tony sighed, reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there. He turned toward Alysa. “Do you have a knife?”

Alysa shook her head. “No, and I’m not wasting an arrow… or the effort. It’s harmless. We should leave it be.”

He nodded and turned toward Mark, who was holding one of their two handguns.

Before he could ask for it, Mark put his hand on his holster and said, “I’ll do it.”

Tony gave him a questionable look. “Do you even know how to shoot that thing? I don’t recall ever seeing you, or your friends, in Gina’s firearm classes.”

“I’ll… I’ll get in close.”

Tony sized up the young man. “Make it quick. One to the head.”

Mark nodded.

“Just one shot,” Tony repeated. “We don’t need to wake the rest of these things, and we certainly can’t waste the ammo. Understand?”

“I understand.”

Tony turned and met Alysa’s disapproving gaze. He laughed and said, “Some of them are new to the whole killing thing. They need… experience.”

“Whatever you say,” Alysa said, turning away. “I’ll watch the road.”

“You do that.” Tony turned to watch Mark step beside Wendy and Diane.

“What are you going to do?” Wendy asked him.

“What’s it look like?” he added sourly, lifting the gun.

Wendy gave the weapon a disapproving look. “That could be someone’s mother,” she said. “Maybe someone’s looking for her.”

Diane laughed. “Then we’re doing someone a favor by putting this creature down. Would you want to find your mother looking like that?”

“Of course not, but… we don’t have the right to just… kill it.”

Diane raised her eyebrows. “Wow. You don’t have a fucking clue, do you? Of course we have the right! Where the hell have you been these last few months?”

“She’s a pacifist,” Mark said, earning him a scowl from Wendy.

“A what? A fucking what? You’ve got to be shitting me?”

“She doesn’t believe in violence… of any kind,” Mark said, staring at Wendy. “Go on, tell her.”

“Doesn’t matter what I am. All I know is that Marge… that’s her name, by the way… is a human being,” Wendy said. “A very sick human being… but still a human being. She has a life, and a family out there somewhere that loves her. We don’t just get to shoot it because she’s… different… now.”

“Careful, Diane,” Mark laughed. “She’ll pull the racist card out on you next.”

Diane stared at the waitress zombie. It continued to crawl, very slowly, toward them. Diane shook her head. “I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. Marge wants you dead, Wendy. Marge wants us all dead. Just look at the damn thing!”

Wendy did. “Doesn’t matter. She’s not well. We kill her now… and then someone finds a cure… then what are we? Murderers?”

Diane’s face grew cold. “Survivors.”

Mark took a step back. “It’s… it’s starting to get uncomfortably close. Should I… shoot it now?”

Diane held out her hand. “Give it to me.”

“But-”

“Now!”

Mark reluctantly handed over the weapon.

Diane took it, racked the slide back sending a round into the chamber, and then said to Wendy. “You do it.” She held out the gun.

Wendy took a step back. “No! I can’t… I won’t!”

“You will… and you’ll do it right fucking now!” Diane’s eyes left no room for debate.

Nine approached Tony, who was standing back, allowing Diane to handle the situation. He said, “You going to stop this any time soon?”

“Stop what?” Tony said.

Nine gave him a puzzled look. “That girl is clearly scared out of her head. She doesn’t want to shoot the damn zombie.”

“And that’s a problem,” Tony said. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re real short on fighters right now and those four kids missed the training window months ago.”

Nine was getting upset. “So… we just shit on each other’s beliefs if they’re contrary to killing the dead?”

Tony scowled at him. “Yes… that’s exactly what we do. I would rather have that pacifist girl hate my ass tomorrow for making her shoot that fucking zombie, if it means keeping her alive today!”

Nine didn’t know what to say. Finally, he shook his head. “You’ve changed, Tony. This shit sounds like something Gina would pull.” He walked off, leaving Tony fuming.

Alysa pretended not to hear the exchange. She focused on the zombie matter. The dead waitress had crawled within ten feet… and they were still arguing about who was going to shoot it.

Wendy refused to touch the weapon.

Diane refused to back down.

Five feet…

“I won’t do it!” Wendy shouted.

“You will, you self-righteous little brat!” Diane shouted back.

Two feet…

This is ridiculous. How did they ever survive this long? Alysa thought, quickly loading her bow, the black arrow aimed for the dead waitress’s temple. She then stopped and smiled, lowering her weapon.

The gunshot surprised both Wendy and Diane.

Beverly dropped the second gun as though it were a snake. She put her hands to her mouth, horrified by what she’d just done.

The mutilated former waitress lay silent on its side, bullet hole penetrating its caved in skull, one mangled arm fully extended, its grotesque fingers an inch from Wendy’s left foot, its dead eyes never wavering rom the call to feed… ever.

The tall girl started to cry. “Did I… did I… kill her?”

“No!” Diane said, losing all patience. She gave Wendy a disapproving glare, holstered the other gun, and then turned away. “They’re already fucking dead!” she yelled back over her shoulder.

Wendy looked at her tear-streaked friend and smiled gratefully.

The girl with the long legs smiled back. “I couldn’t let you… you know.”

“I know,” Wendy said, stepping toward her and getting up on her tippy toes. The other bent down to embrace the shorter woman. “Thank you,” Wendy said, letting her own tears fall.

Nine picked up the discarded gun and holstered it. “Well… it looks like Survival School 101 has officially begun,” he said sarcastically to no one. “Count me out… I hear the course really sucks.” He walked past Diane and said, “I love you… but between you and that big block head over there… I don’t know which of you sucks-the-big-one more right now.”

“What the hell does that even mean?” Diane said to his back.

Nine flicked her off in response.

“Really?” she laughed. “Grow the fuck up!”

They all turned to the sound of a trashcan falling over along the side of the diner.

Several bloated looking dead things with wet rags hanging loosely over their skeletal frames started toward them, the hunger driving them forward and bordering a frenzy.

“Time to go,” Tony said, motioning the others to follow. “The sooner we get to Orosco’s camp, the sooner we can regroup, get armed, and figure out how to go back and save our friends.” He started south with his axe, deliberately ignoring Alysa’s futile gaze.

The others followed behind, easily out-pacing the struggling dead, thankful to put the ruins of Andover behind them.

~~~

Next Episode 40-2

Previous Episode 39-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-1: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Comments
  1. Gylion says:

    Alysa is asking a good question. How did they Survive that long

    Liked by 1 person

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