~~~

Exiled – Day 8

Gina could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she sprinted through the forest. She ducked under a low branch, then jumped over a dead tree. Finally, she stopped behind the cover of a large oak to catch her breath. The moans and the erratic movements of the excited dead came at her from everywhere. She couldn’t help but smile as she sucked in air, feeling like some giddy child playing a horrific game of hide and seek. The truth was, Gina never felt more alive.

She ducked down and peered around the tree.

The dead were still following, as fast as their lethargic legs could carry them, stumbling through nature’s obstacle course and into each other. They were growing more and more manic since the fresh blood bag with the red hair had revealed itself a few hours ago.

Gina had spent most of the morning luring them together from several locations in the woods with a combination of sounds and visual stimuli, letting them get a good look at her when they slowed down and started to scatter.

She watched the lead zombies slow down again. Time to rile ‘em up, she thought. Gina lifted her hand axe, turned the flat end toward the tree, and knocked on the trunk five times.

The closest dead-heads, appearing to fall asleep while standing, heard the new sounds, turned toward Gina’s location and started to push through the brush.

Gina waited until enough of them were moving again, then sprinted across the forest less than ten feet in front of the lead zombies, causing them all to get agitated and charge toward her. Gina doubled back through the trees, dodging and weaving away from the frustrated corpses, stopping just long enough to knock on several more trees, and then resuming her dash through the forest.

When she was satisfied that enough of them were chasing her again, Gina led them toward the stream. She stopped at the bank and looked back. The dead were still charging toward her location. She estimated that there were at least thirty of them now, all united in one sole purpose to tear her apart.

Gina rechecked the sling on her shotgun, making sure it hung snug down her back and over her soiled coat, and then started crossing the stream until the water rose just below her knees. She could hear the dead getting close as she stepped out and on to the other side. She turned just as the first of the dead reached the opposite bank and stopped. They were swinging their bloody limbs toward her and hissing and snarling and pushing at each other, but none of them entered the water.

Gina smiled at them, waving her axe. “Well done!” she called over. “Now… just stay over there and try to keep up, you dumb fucking dead things… alright?”

More and more of the dead began to gather along the bank, spreading out and howling fiercely at their prey just on the other side of the stream.

Thank you, Stephen, Gina thought. He’d once told her that the dead didn’t like water. God only knew why. He’d said that when he’d been sick in Fairport Harbor with the dead pursuing him through the woods, he’d only survived because he’d managed to get across the Grand River… and the dead hadn’t pursued him into the water.

Stephen’s theory was panning out perfectly now as Gina walked along the stream, keeping an eye open for any dead stragglers on her side of the water, while the dead on the other side kept pace with her.

“This is too damn easy,” she said, jumping over a rock and continuing upstream. She looked across and counted the small herd. “Forty fuckers and counting!” she said. “You guys have more hungry friends than I thought.” She focused on the stream ahead. It was staring to get wider and straighter as they approached the edge of the woods. All she had to do now was lead them just beyond that edge, and then…

Gina suddenly stopped as a woman appeared between two large rocks, standing up on her side of the stream. The woman wore a green bandana around her head.

Gina ducked down. Shit! Almost ran right into her!

It was the grave-digging woman from earlier. The woman stared across the stream at the herd and let loose a horrific scream.

The dead responded by ignoring Gina and moved toward the woman.

Gina watched as the panicked woman back-stepped away from the stream and fell into the mud near the bank.

If she runs farther into the forest, back towards me, the dead will get turned around! Gina stood up and approached the terrified survivor. The woman got to her feet, turned, and saw Gina storming toward her. The woman yelled and then backed into the stream, slipping into the water. She was now trapped between Gina and the herd on the opposite bank.

“Calm down before you get too close to them!” Gina said.

The woman stopped, stared at Gina with the widest eyes, and then pointed. “They… they can fucking talk now? What the fuck?”

Gina gave the woman a puzzled glance, then stared at her dirty hand holding the axe. She thinks I’m one of them! Fuck me, I need a bath.

“Stay away from me!” the woman shouted, managing not to cross the stream and become the herd’s lunch. The woman reached the bank on Gina’s side, struggling to get up.

Gina was out of patience. She raised her arms toward the woman, attempting her best imitation at shambling forward with her legs, and hissed, “Me… hungry! Me want… BRAINS!”

The woman shrieked, somehow getting to her feet without falling, and ran like a lunatic upstream toward the edge of the woods.

The dead started after her from their side of the stream.

Gina shook her head and followed. “That was the worst fucking zombie imitation… ever! Did I really just say ‘Brains’?”

The crazed woman exited the woods just ahead of the dead. She stumbled across the stream toward her camp, yelling between breaths. “They’re… coming! They can… they can… speak! We’re so fucked!”

The rest of the survivors camped near the underpass stood up alarmed, nervously staring at each other. Two of them went to help the bandana woman out of the stream who was pointing back behind her like she was trying to stab the air with her finger. She was so out of breath she collapsed in the grass.

The dead exited the forest, following the stream directly toward the survivors’ camp.

Some were barking orders. Others started screaming. Most were running toward the underpass, trying to grab their gear as they fled.

Gina silently watched from the edge of the woods as the herd of forty dead invaded the camp. She was nervously biting one dirty thumbnail. This was dangerous. What was I thinking?

Fortunately, all the panicked survivors made it to the underpass, fleeing just ahead of the dead.

The dead continued to pursue them beneath the freeway until the camp was completely clear of both the living and the dead.

“It worked,” she whispered. “They all got away.”

Of course, she would never really know.

“Doesn’t matter. They’re gone.” For a moment, a chill seized her. Her own voice sounded hollow… void of compassion.

Gina walked down into the abandoned camp. She ignored the scattered bags and clothing and stopped in front of the wheel barrels full of food. Two had been tipped over in the panic, but all of it had been left behind.

Gina smiled liked the devil.

~~~

She stared up at the full moon through the tops of the pine trees. Gina silently wished the clouds would take it away, killing off the extra light that produced shadows everywhere like large long fingers covered in darkness, smeared across the forest. The night felt warm. There was no breeze. Everything was… still.

She looked back at the opened can of beef raviolis in her hand, her third can, held it up over her mouth, and tapped the bottom of the can until the cold, wet pasta filled her mouth. She absently tossed the empty can into the woods. Her belly full—an ancient sensation—Gina sluggishly leaned back, feeling the heat from her fire caress her cheeks.

She stared over at the tied-up zombie girl. The Ashley-thing stared weakly over a Gina, looking neither curious, nor threatening. It just looked dead. Now that the leg Gina had provided it was gone, the creature was starving again.

“You missed all the action earlier,” Gina told it. “I have to hand it to your friends, they did the job. Scared the hell out of those idiots. You should’ve seen them run… my God… it was hysterical.”

The creature did not laugh.

Gina shook her head at it. “You’re a real fucking buzz kill, you know that? We scored ‘big time’ today. I’ve got enough food hidden away out here for a couple of months now. No more freeway trips. No more leaving the woods… and no more meddlers hanging out in my forest. All in all, I’d say this was a fucking great day.”

The zombie had no response.

Gina frowned at it. “I’d offer you some food, but you’d just waste it. Sorry, no bloody human steaks are available. Just the one in front of you, and unfortunately, I’m still off the menu.”

It continued to stare at her.

“Stop staring at me like that. I didn’t hurt anyone. I just… scared them off. It was for their own good. It’s not my fault they left all their shit behind.”

The Ashley-zombie snorted.

“What was that? Oh… you’re going to judge me? A fucking dead flesh eater’s going to make me feel bad? Oh, that’s rich! I suppose you think I stole their food. That it? Well… fine! Maybe I did! Maybe they should’ve tried harder to keep their shit together, or… or… maybe next time they should make better preparations when they decide to camp all ‘la-de-da’ out in the middle of nowhere! Far as I’m concerned, I did them a fucking favor! Next time, they’ll be smarter… and if not… they’ll be dead!”

The zombie continued to stare silently.

“You know what? Fuck you! You’re just a stupid girl, Ashley. You’re so stupid… so stupid you got yourself killed! So, where the hell do you get off judging me? Huh? I’m still alive! You’re fucking dead and I’m still…”

Alone.

The creature lowered its head and remained still.

“That’s what I thought,” Gina finished weakly. She reached for her full food bag and then knocked it over in a fit of rage. “That was fucking pointless, dumbass,” she scolded herself, starting to pick up canned items that fell from the bag. She looked back over at Ashley.

There was no one there but a dead thing who didn’t care.

Gina turned away, still angry. “Fine,” she whispered.

The full moon caught her attention again.

Gina stared up at it, feeling exposed. “And what about you, God?” Gina whispered toward the celestial orb. “Are you going to judge me, too? Or have you given up on us a long time ago?”

The moon had no response.

~~~

Sometime later, between Gina’s restless sleep and the dawn, one of the shadowy fingers moved across the pine trees… slowly… ever so slowly… until it passed the embers of Gina’s failing fire and fell across the filthy woman’s exhausted face.

The finger hovered over that face—a face clearly expressing some nightmarish affair occurring just on the other side of two closed eyelids as Gina eyes shot back and forth, searching the macabre dreamscape for elusive meaning.

The finger moved closer… closer…

The weakened zombie girl bolted up, its deteriorated body tensing against its restraints. It ferociously howled into the night, causing the finger to flee. Even the moon above shuddered at the beast’s intense growls, ducking in and out of the clouds.

Gina’s eyes shot open. She knew immediately that something was wrong.

She reached over for her silenced handgun, sat up, and started firing in a wide arc into the night. Every shadow had become an enemy. Gina stopped only when her clip ran out. She continued to dry fire her handgun several more times before her rational mind reclaimed control.

Gina dropped the gun, reached over and picked up her axe, and started scanning her dark surroundings. She was breathing hard. She was sweating profusely.

Something was here! her mind insisted.

But there was nothing. The night was still.

She stared over at Ashley.

The dead thing did not move. It hung limp from the rope around its neck with two black bullet holes in the side of its grotesque head.

For a moment, Gina felt… well… she didn’t know what she felt. The dead thing was gone now. That meant she was officially alone.

Gina continued to scan the darkness while reloading her handgun.

You’re not alone, Gina… not yet. The thought felt foreign in her mind.

Whether a premonition or an indifferent promise… it felt like the truth.

~~~

Next Episode 44-5

Previous Episode 44-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 44-4: 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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