~~~

Exiled – Day 5

The mid-afternoon sun gave her a boost as the May sky opened up, dispersing sunshine through gaps in the new spring canopy overhead. The forest was alive with flourishing green, once again clothing the tall woodland sentinels with life.

At least something still thrives in a world consumed by so much death, she thought.

Gina pushed cautiously but efficiently through the brush, understanding that the springtime forest provided concealment, but the same was afforded the dead that continued to hunt for her by scent.

She stopped to catch her breath beside a large oak, placing the gun bag near her feet. Gina squatted down and ran a dirty finger over the layer of mud that cracked and started peeling away from her cheek. She’d done what she could to hide her scent by covering her bare arms and face with the earth, but the dead were relentless.

Gina whirled her head around toward the sound of branches snapping behind her. She couldn’t see them, but they were there, slowly shambling through the woods, oblivious to whatever slowed them down.

The farther south she traveled into these unknown woods, the more re-animated she discovered, now that spring was in full force and the beasts were no longer suppressed by winter. The dead in these woods had become the new ‘wild life’. Gina started to become accustomed to the sounds of their clumsy attempts at maneuvering through the forest; their occasional frustrated moans and growls as they stumbled upon each other, or just moved alone as their rotted flesh or deteriorated clothing snagged on some bush or got stuck in some dense section of smaller trees. For all the trouble they had initially caused her as she’d tried in vain to relocate her camp and recover her supplies, a part of her welcomed their presence, preferring to be hunted and forcing her into ‘battle mode’ as opposed to the long hours of silence in the dead winter woods of the wilderness preserve. Out here, in this new wilderness, she had to struggle with all she had to remain, leaving no time for guilt-ridden thoughts, slowly eating her away each night. This was what she understood. Survival didn’t have to second-guess every decision. You either reacted to the threat or died. Simple. It was dealing with the living all those long winter months beneath the ground that had forced her into a corner, like some animal kept in captivity for far too long. The longer she remained out here, the more Gina believed getting exiled was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. She wasn’t cut out to live among people anymore… and all their complicated ways.

But even out here, in survival mode, where adrenaline became her addiction, Gina understood her limitations. It had been two days since she’d eaten anything of substance. Gina had fed on plants and berries, but her body was starting to reject it. She had not slept for more than an hour at a time since the first attack by the camp fire and her mind was losing its sharpness as the dead continued to get closer and closer to her each time before she forced her exhausted limbs to move again. She was pushing her body to the limit and eventually the flesh machine would fail, and the death machines would win.

She had found no traces of the living in these vast woods—in truth, that was part of the appeal. But as her hunger increased, she’d hoped to find a cabin, campsite, or perhaps an abandoned camper with supplies—anything she could use without having to leave the forest. But there had been nothing, not even a trail. Understanding that she was running out of time, Gina was forced to turn west, where she knew from looking at her map before losing it with her supplies, that Interstate 90, which bordered these woods, was her only option before her tired body gave out. The Interstate had become the unofficial “Death Zone” between the once populated suburban areas, now infested areas to the northwest, and the remote smaller towns and farmlands on the southeast side

Since initially fleeing the Percy Power Plant so long ago, and escaping via the Grand River, Gina had only crossed back over to the northern side of the Interstate once. When Tony—she winced as if in pain every time that name invaded her thoughts—when Tony had insisted on taking a group back to his former captor’s house to rescue people who didn’t need rescue, that’s when they’d all gotten a good look at the carnage of blood and vehicles on that haunted highway. They’d crossed over an overpass and saw the horrific view of that graveyard, still infested by the dead that had remained all winter like some sick and tortured disease feeding off the bones of all who’d perished at the beginning. It had been a disturbing sight, but a brief one. Now, Gina would need to re-visit those ghosts if she wanted to stay alive. There were vehicles, which meant, supplies. And she seriously doubted anyone left alive would dare try to forage while the dead refused to forsake it.

I wonder how long the scent of slaughter remains in this world? Gina thought. Will the dead always make a home in places where the blood spilled the most? Perhaps they’re still drawn by all those screams echoing forever. A chill seized her as she pictured the Percy Power Plant still infested by the mutilated remains of the dead, feasting on the apparitions of the slain, ever since that horrific day.

Gina shut it all out as she suddenly cleared the woods. She was looking up from a large long ditch that ran parallel to the quiet, eerie interstate. She could see the top of the guardrail, but nothing else.

“In and out,” she said, needing to hear her own voice to break that intimidating silence. “Search the larger vehicles—S.U.V’s, that type of shit—get what you need, then turn the fuck back around.” The plan sounded simple enough, but still, she hesitated. It wasn’t potential dead-heads roaming the freeway like vultures that terrified the hell out of her. They’re all dead, Gina. They’ve been dead for a long, long time. Get over it… quickly… or go die in the fucking woods! With that, she took a breath to steady herself, then proceeded up out of the large ditch toward the guardrail.

Can the ghosts of the dead still haunt places like this? her frightened mind wondered. And if so, do these beasts feed on them… somehow? But then a more disturbing question struck, almost causing her to turn around… almost. Will they be able to see me… and know what I’ve done?

~~~

Gina stood still as stone in the center of the multi-lane highway, staring west. The concrete jungle of rusted and blood-stained vehicles stretched out before her like a permanently shut down assembly line in some slaughterhouse. There were bodies, or what resembled human remains, littered across the hoods of cars, beneath them, and all along the narrow spaces in between each vehicle. Most were surprisingly… fresh… still in various states of decomposition due to being frozen beneath the snow over the long winter but had now resumed baking beneath the May sun. Some had been stripped to bones like ten-cent, all-you-can-eat wings night at the local tavern. The rotting smell of flesh mixed with motor oil was almost too much to endure. Gina was suddenly not very hungry.

Gina raised her silenced handgun and forced herself to move. Broken or dust covered headlights stared unblinkingly back at her as she walked in between the rows of bumper-to-bumper carnage and scattered debris, watching around every corner of every vehicle for some straggler dead thing to jump up at her after she interrupted some sickening meal. Fortunately, the dead were currently not on lunch break in this area. Gina tried not to stare too long through the blood-stained windows, occasionally glimpsing into mobile tombs where entire families had perished in unspeakable ways. Several car doors were left hanging wide open—the last futile attempts to flee the freeway, or those trapped inside when the dead barged in. Gina avoided those vehicles, not desiring to rouse any vagrant dead-heads lurking within.

She spotted an overloaded mini-van packed with what looked like someone’s entire house. Even the top of the vehicle had everything but the kitchen sink hastily strapped down to the roof by bungie cords. Other vehicles were loaded down in similar fashion as the panicked sheep grabbed everything they could, possibly believing they would never see their homes again… but somehow saving their precious possessions.

How much time did they waste grabbing all that shit? Gina thought sadly. Did they really believe they would simply relocate, start their lives over, and carry on? Questions like this were pointless now. Everyone had been unprepared for The Change… including herself. They had all responded, whether out of irrational panic or complete self-denial. It was either try to flee… or die in their homes. Out of reverence for the deceased, Gina allowed them that. At least these poor souls tried to get away. That should count for something.

After twenty minutes of painstakingly foraging through several trunks—she refused to enter any vehicle, save to simply reach in and hit the trunk release buttons—Gina had found surprisingly little food, water, or emergency supplies. She shook her head in frustration every time she found another suitcase full of clothing, or trash bags packed with household memorabilia, or one more fucking stuffed animal or toy that little Suzie or Johnny, apocalypse or not, absolutely refused to leave behind.

She opened one trunk and nearly vomited as the rotting smell of some long dead family pet, rotting away in its travel cage, assaulted her immediately.

Gina walked over to the guardrail and leaned against it, needing a moment to process so many long-dead memories of loved ones from that obsolete life. She smiled bitterly at the abandoned vehicles, and thought, And here I was worried about fucking ghosts. I forgot all about the poison loaded in those trunks. Every fucking thing I see or touch rips out my heart again. We’ve lost so damn much.

Her thoughts were interrupted as a warm wind gusted across the freeway, coming down from the east, and rearranging scattered trash across the vehicle graveyard. And then she heard something in the wind… faint… but something.

Gina stood up from the guardrail and looked to the east. All she could see were more vehicles.

“What the hell is that?” she whispered. The sound was getting louder, carried by the wind, but still faint enough to avoid recognition.

She spotted a tall utility truck, three rows back. Gina rushed toward the truck, climbed up on the hood and then up to the roof of the vehicle. From there she could see over the tops of most cars in the immediate area. Gina looked to the east and froze.

“Fuck,” she hissed.

A large, tightly packed herd of dead-heads were moving straight toward her location, spilling through every gap between the cars like water running downstream around the rocks. Their collective moans became louder as the scent of so much death got them all riled up.

Lunchtime.

Gina estimated, by the frantic pace at which they were moving, that she had less than ten minutes before they reached her. Her stomach growled intensely—a reminder that she hadn’t found anything.

If I leave now, empty-handed…

She left the thought unfinished as Gina scrambled off the utility truck and ran toward the nearest car. It was a beat-up looking green Ford Trailblazer.

I need to find food… now! She moved to the driver-side door. It was locked. Sonofabitch! She no longer cared about avoiding the vehicle interior as she put her face up against the tinted Trailblazer windows and spotted a backpack in the rear seat…attached to a corpse.

The mangled body of a man was lying on its side, as if asleep. Half its face looked like something had ripped it clear off. She couldn’t tell if the man was dead… or something else.

There must be something worthwhile in the pack, she reasoned. Why wear it otherwise?

Aside from the man, the crowded backseat was filled with bloody blankets, pillows and assorted trash.

Gina could hear the dead coming.

No time!

She tried the passenger door. It too was locked.

Gina stood three feet back from the car, raised her gun, and fired into the rear window. She waited for the backpack man to move. He did not. Like the trunk with the dead animal, the backseat reeked of rot and filth. She could hear flies buzzing inside. He hasn’t been dead that long, Gina assessed.

She gagged involuntarily as the stench struck her nose, then she reached quickly through the shattered window and unlocked the door. She opened it and stared at the dead man. “Hey!” she hissed. “Hey… asshole!”

The man did not move.

Gina turned as the sounds of several dead-heads, cramming into each other and slamming into the front of vehicles, could be heard just a few rows to the east. Their moans were more distinct now, separate. They were close.

Gina shook her head and decided to grab the man by the feet and pull him out of the car. After, a quick bullet to the head would solve the mystery.

It took considerable effort to pull the man out of the vehicle. Gina was running on fumes. The man’s backpack got stuck on the seatbelt. Gina pulled as hard as she could, swearing at herself for wasting so much time. The backpack became unstuck and the body came out quickly and fell to the pavement. Gina, unprepared for the sudden release, fell on her ass in the attempt.

Shit! Shit! Shit! Gina dropped her gun in the fall. The corpse had fallen on top of it. She’d left her other guns in the bag, hidden at the edge of the woods. Now she wished she’d brought her damn shotgun!

She did have her hunting knife. Gina retrieved it, expecting the man to attack.

The man did not move.

The dead were getting closer. She had maybe a couple of minutes before she was spotted. All it would take is one, and then she’d be leading a herd into the woods.

Gina took her knife and stabbed it into the man’s ear. “Okay,” she said, out of breath. “Dead for sure now.” Upon closer inspection, Gina discovered that the man already had a bullet hole in his skull. “Okay, so he did himself in. Explains why he didn’t attack.” Her nerves were on edge as she tried to ignore the sounds of the closing heard.

She frantically started pulling the backpack straps off the corpse and then stopped. Wait! her mind screamed. Gina’s survival instincts were taking over. She looked at the man’s face again. Yes… something had bitten him and started gnawing on his face.

Alarms were screaming in her head now. The damn doors were locked! The windows… unbroken!

Gina turned toward the Trailblazer just as something jumped out from beneath the bloody blankets and hissed at her. It was a woman with a mess of curly brown hair, damp with blood. She was dressed in nothing but her filthy underwear, her decaying brown flesh, resembling the bark from a tree, was stretched tightly around her bones. The man may have died recently, but this thing had been dead since before the winter.

Gina had no time to consider anything else as the dead woman lunged toward her with dark blood-crusted fingernails attempting to scratch her eyes out. Gina caught the dead woman by the wrists as it fell on top of her. The thing snapped its bloody teeth toward Gina’s neck. Gina turned, knocking the frail thing off her, then grabbed her knife. The dead woman was surprisingly quick considering its deteriorated state. Just as Gina picked up her knife, it got up and came for her throat. Gina ducked under its sickly arms and jammed the long blade under the monster’s chin and twisted it.

The woman’s arms dropped. The creature fell silent. Gina retrieved her knife and let the thing fall to the ground.

She backed away, trying to draw breath. Gina was close to blacking out due to the extra exertion, adrenaline surge, and low energy.

The monsters were coming. She had seconds before they discovered her.

Move! MOVE YOUR ASS!

Gina stumbled toward the man and got the backpack free. She rolled the corpse over, retrieved her handgun, and then stood up and started dragging the pack toward the guardrail with one arm, while aiming her gun with the other toward the coming horde.

She could hear them… they were so close. Silhouettes started blocking out the sunlight pouring through the windows of several larger vehicles that still obstructing their view.

Gina reached the guardrail and tossed the backpack over the side. She had just enough time and strength to fall over the guardrail and roll down into the large ditch. She landed roughly on her back, staring up into the blue sky. She turned her head toward the top of the ditch, where she saw the shadowed forms of the dead, parading past the guardrail.

Gina refused to move. If she tried to make it into the woods, they would spot her… and it would be all over. She focused on breathing, conserving her strength, and just trying to stay conscious as the hungry moans of the dead filled her ears for the next thirty minutes.

She spotted the backpack just ten feet from where she lay.

I swear… if there’s nothing but dirty socks, a fucking Playboy magazine, and a damn CD player in there… I’m going to go back up there and put another bullet in that fucker’s head!

~~~

Next Episode 44-3

Previous Episode 44-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 44-2: The Nomad” Copyright © 2018 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.

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