Rev packed light, knowing he had a long walk ahead. He loaded up with ammo and as much dried food as he wanted to carry. It left everyone else with some, enough if they hurried up and got to town. He would have taken every last bite if it had suited him, but he allowed himself to feel a little gracious for leaving some behind.
He had debated stealing the pitiful station wagon, but it was a death trap for one person. It was loud enough that it attracted attention, slow enough that it could be caught by any other vehicle on the road, and it forced him to stay on the main path. That just didn't work for what he had in mind.
Ever since his time in the warehouse, he knew he was changed. The pain had been so incredible that what little soul he had withered in that shitty little room. But he also felt that he had been spared for a reason. His belief in God was mostly convenience, the rest was pure manipulation. It was the one claim he could make that people couldn't argue. If he made a mistake, well we're all sinners and in need of God's saving grace. It made just about anyone more compliant and less likely to resist. But something, surely something had intervened on his behalf. One crazy bitch and hungry dead people couldn't take him out while he was tied down. Well then, if that was the case the million dollar question was what could possibly stop him? Nothing, that was what.
He turned the matter over in his mind, and came to a few more conclusions. One man's postapocalyptic landscape was another man's opportunity. Maybe there was something to be salvaged, after all. Everybody was going to die anyway, maybe the real goal should be making the most of every moment. And just how would a man of opportunity like himself spend those moments? He saw the future and it was good. He would be a leader of people, a man who inspired and brought out the best in this pitiful world. And if he did so much good, was there any shame in taking a little gratuity now and then? He didn't think so, and wouldn't have slowed down if he had.
But first, he needed to get out on his own. He now had no doubt that he would find what he needed out there, and some time alone was just what he needed to work it all out in his mind. Besides, these people were driving him fucking nuts, with their smiles and goody goody morals. They were just cattle waiting to be slaughtered, and there was no point in leading this herd. He needed better people.
Rev didn't believe in God, but he didn't need to believe. He just needed others to believe. Instead of traveling with a flock, he was going to hunt for a place and let the flock come to him. Build it and they will come, he thought to himself as he slipped into the dark.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Petey allowed Tom to usher him back into the house before he slipped out the back and hurried in the direction Melinda had gone. He ran full-speed for several minutes before finally catching sight of her patrolling the farm’s perimeters. He followed her at a safe distance, a dead branch in his left hand and his water pistol in his right hand. He kept a wary eye on her, darting behind a tree whenever she glanced around her.
“Take that, you dummies!” Petey whispered, careful to keep his voice down so he wouldn’t attract Melinda’s attention. He aimed his water pistol at a tree and shot it dead in its ‘heart’. “That’s what you get for hurting Bethany!” Petey blew the barrel of his water pistol and twirled it in the air before returning it to his pocket. He gripped the branch in both hands and hit the tree with it. “Die, die, die!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Petey saw that Melinda was fading in the distance. He sprinted after her so he wouldn’t lose her in the darkening night. Briefly, he wished he had a flashlight as he tripped over a root. He steadied himself and slowed his pace once Melinda was once again comfortably in his sight.
He stared at her in fascination. He hadn’t seen many Asian girls before, especially not one with tattoos and who swore when she was really frustrated and thought he wasn’t around. Plus, she had a really cool sword which she knew how to use. He had seen her slice the head off of one of those monsters, and he mimicked the movement with his branch. He pictured the blood squirting out of the neck, and he giggled at the image. Melinda paused and looked in his direction; he jumped behind a tree just in time, holding his breath as he did so. He slowly exhaled as Melinda turned forward and strode away. He gave her a few seconds before he trotted behind her once again.
“Things look good, Tom,” Melinda said into her cell phone, her eyes scanning the area in front of her. “I don’t see anything, and I’ve almost completed the circuit.” She paused for a few minutes before adding, “No. He needed to hear the truth.” She clicked off her phone and returned it to her pocket. She placed her hand lightly on the butt of her Glock as she continued to patrol.
Petey pulled his toy cell phone from his pocket and pretended to talk in it as he continued following Melinda. After a few minutes, he returned the phone to his pocket and pulled out his water pistol again. He pointed it at Melinda’s back before turning it to the side magnanimously. Today, he would not kill her.
“What the--?” Petey whipped his head to the right as he heard a shuffling noise. His heart leaped to his throat as three figures emerged from behind the trees. A man, a woman, and a boy roughly his age, they shuffled their way towards him, their mouths slack and their eyes empty. “Oh no!” Petey turned to run, but his knees were trembling so hard, he couldn’t move. “Come on, come on, come on,” Petey whispered to himself, urging his feet to run – they weren’t listening, however, and the monsters were getting closer. He stared at them, his eyes wide, then he finally managed to force himself to run. He made it a few steps before tripping over a tree root and falling flat on his face. He got to his knees and tried to stand up, but he had twisted his right ankle as he fell, and he cried out when he put weight on it.
Glancing behind him, he saw that the monsters were less than ten feet from him. He stood up, despite the pain jabbing at his bad ankle. He tried to run, but his ankle immediately gave way, and he crumpled back to the ground. He could hear the steady shuffling behind him as he started to cry.
“Help me! Someone help me! Melinda!” Petey yelled at the top of his lungs, tears streaming down his face. “Please, Melinda, help me! I don’t want to play patrol any more!” Petey got to his knees again and tried to stand up, but he couldn’t. He sobbed in fear as the shuffling behind him grew closer. “Mama, help me! Melinda, help me! Dad, help me! Tom, help me!” Petey screamed name after name as his panic turned into abject terror. “Someone please help me! I don’t want to die.” He could hear the shuffling less than three feet behind him, and Petey rocked back and forth on his knees as he cried. He prayed to God to help him, prayed with all his heart. He prayed that it would be over quick, that it wouldn’t hurt much. He prayed that he wouldn’t scream like Bethany had when she was hurt by those monsters.
He felt one of the monsters step on his hurt foot, and he screamed at the top of his lungs. He closed his eyes because he was too scared to watch what was going to happen to him. He waited for more pain, and then he heard a furious scream above him. He didn’t feel anything, so he cautiously opened his eyes. Melinda was standing above him, her sword sunk into the skull of the male monster. The female monster was prone on the ground a bullet hole in the back of her skull. The boy monster was writhing on the ground, blood streaming from his arm, but he wasn’t dead.
As Melinda finished off the male monster, the boy monster crawled his way over to Petey, who opened his mouth and howled. He couldn’t take his eyes off the boy monster, who grabbed him by the arm. Melinda pushed the male monster off the blade, turned, and swung her sword in a low arc, slicing through the skull of the boy monster. The boy monster convulsed, bruising Petey’s arm as he did, then relaxed his grip and fell motionless. Melinda sheathed her sword, holstered her Glock, and stared down at Petey with rage in her eyes. Petey whimpered, and the rage dissipated, leaving weariness in its place.
Melinda glanced at Petey’s swollen ankle, then knelt down so she could scoop him into her arms. Placing her mouth near Petey’s ear, she whispered, “If you ever do that again, I will beat the living shit out of you myself.” Cradling him to her chest, she stood up and made her way back to the farmhouse, careful not to jostle his hurt ankle as she walked.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
AT THE BEGINNING
Mayor Toulouse was not amused.
He barked into the phone. Steve noted the spittle flying from the mayor’s face and worried that his employer might have a stroke. The man’s face was certainly red enough and he’d already been complaining of a headache before this phone conversation. The fact that the mayor had made the call before dismissing Steve was evidence enough of his stress levels. Normally Toulouse would make his phone calls in private.
“What do you mean you can’t send any reserves in?!” The mayor shouted into the phone and Steve tried to avoid wincing. Toulouse had a good mad on and he was louder than a tourist screaming at seeing Bayou ‘gators for the first time. “I’ve got people rioting here! And those are the ones who aren’t attacking and biting everybody else! Damn it all, John! Do your fucking job already and send me men!”
Steve did wince this time. Mayor Toulouse was one of the few politicians he knew who normally didn’t resort to profanities. He watched a vein bulge on his boss’ forehead as the mayor slammed down the phone so hard it was a wonder it didn’t break in half on the marble surface of the desk.
He waited before delivering his other piece of bad news. It was just his luck that he had to not only deliver the message about the troops, but also about this new piece of information. Toulouse, for his part, leaned over his desk and stared at its surface. Steve saw that the mayor wasn’t focused on anything in particular and seemed to be trying to control his breath.
Several uncomfortable minutes later, during which Steve could feel sweat trickling down his back, Mayor Toulouse plopped ungracefully into his chair and leaned back, this time looking toward the ceiling. The politician took a few more deep breaths and his color changed back partway from a deep red to his normal ruddy complexion. Then, when he seemed to have some control of himself, he spoke to the ceiling.
“Sorry you had to hear that, Steve.” The mayor was normally quite the gentleman, so his apology was no surprise. “The military doesn’t have anybody to spare. The state’s already gotten as many reserves and active deployed as they can. It’s going to get worse.” The mayor looked down, then, directly into Steve’s face, with a furrowed brow. “You might want to stay here for a few days, son. Maybe the rioting and the … whatever it is … that’s causing dead people to walk around and attack the living will stop on its own.”
Steve couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. To his credit, Mayor Toulouse obviously didn’t believe what he was saying either. Still, it helped to have a sliver of hope during the crisis. “Thank you sir,” Steve said instead of pointing out the obvious. “I do appreciate the offer.” Steve didn’t want to go home, that was for sure.
Mayor Toulouse took another deep breath and a wary expression flitted across his face. “You said you had two pieces of news, son. I don’t suppose that the other news is better?”
Steve winced again. “It’s not as bad,” he said doubtfully. The mayor’s lip twitched downward slightly and he studied Steve’s face for a moment.
“All right. Out with it.”
“Well, the president of the local chapter of PETA set up a picket line out front.”
It was the mayor’s turn to wince. The animal rights organization’s local chapter could be described as outspoken if one was inclined to severe understatement. The president, in particular, had picketed the front steps of City Hall more times than anybody could count. In private, the secretaries at City Hall had a running bet going on when the man would just set up a tent on the steps and move in. “What on earth does he want this time? Is he still up in arms about alligators being used as a tourist attraction? Right NOW?” The local PETA chapter had been campaigning for years against using the local wildlife as tour focus. They seemed to think it was exploitation to pay for roads by letting tourists take pictures of the critters.
“Um, no.” Steve sat up a little straighter. He wanted to maintain some professionalism, after all. “He’s protesting the fact that we’re eliminating the … afflicted.” ‘Afflicted’ sounded better to him than ‘zombies.’
Mayor Toulouse fell back in his chair as if he’d been slapped. His mouth opened and closed a few times as he strove to put together a coherent sentence. Finally, he leaned forward and placed his arms on the edge of his desk. He threaded his fingers together and stared at Steve, and when he finally spoke, his voice sounded very nearly normal and rational. Steve did notice that the vein in his forehead was throbbing more strongly, however. “So, do we know why he’s protesting this?” he asked. Steve marveled at the steady, clear tone of his voice.
“He … well, he’s arguing that since the afflicted don’t seem to be able to think or reason any more and are operating on instinct, that … um, that they’re animals now. And he thinks that we should be capturing them and trying to help them.”
The mayor’s eyebrow raised and his lips twitched. “Does he now?” He stood up and opened a cabinet behind his desk, pulling out two brandy snifters and an expensive-looking bottle. While he did so, he continued. “Does he want shelters set up? Is he planning a fostering and re-homing program for them?”
Steve couldn’t see the mayor’s face, but he thought he detected a note of amusement in his employer’s voice. Either the mayor thought this was horribly funny, or this was the proverbial straw that had snapped the camel’s back and the mayor’s mind had fallen to pieces. Steve fervently hoped it was the former, although he didn’t get the joke. “Um … he hasn’t shared any plans.”
Toulouse turned back and placed the snifters on the desk before opening the bottle. He poured a generous amount of alcohol into each glass and offered Steve one. “I need a drink, son, and I imagine you do too.” The mayor was smiling, but his eyes seemed clear and steady. The corners of his eyes were crinkling like they did when the mayor found something funny. “So, if I understand correctly: PETA wants me to treat the afflicted more humanely. Instead of shooting them deader, he wants them captured and treated somehow.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve replied. He took the snifter from the mayor and sniffed it cautiously before taking a small sip. It smelled pretty good, but burned something awful going down. He coughed.
“Twenty year old single malt. It’s good stuff.” The mayor smiled fully, now, right at Steve. “All right. Tell that pain in the ass that if he draws up a plan and figures out the cost of treatment for these people who have no heartbeat or brain function, then I’ll be happy to figure out how to pay for it. I’ll even do him one better. I’ll give him full credit for the project and put it all over the news that he’s got this plan.”
Steve put the glass on the desk. He’d been wrong. The mayor had definitely lost his marbles. “You’re … you’re taking him seriously?”
Mayor Toulouse grinned. “Of course not, son. But that idiot is about to raise my approval rating by 20 points once his harebrained idea gets out.” He laughed, actually laughed, then, the sound sonorous and rich. “Let him have his day. Write me a press release, will you? Make sure that you put in the phrase, ‘I am giving this suggestion the attention it deserves.’ Dismissed.”
Steve understood then and grinned back at the mayor. He stood and bowed. “Yes, sir!” He shook his head as he walked out the door.
(Note: I am not trying to make any statements for or against PETA. In any group, there are people who serve as outliers in the bell curve of life, and this is one such case that I intended to represent.)
Friday, May 3, 2013
They hadn’t seen any shufflers for two weeks, Anita guessed, and she thought it was strange that the thought made her uneasy. The recent warm spell in the region must have helped some of the shufflers finish decomposing, which would normally have filled her with disgust but now brought her some comfort, and yet the change from what had become normal for her filled her with trepidation. No, not trepidation. Paranoia. She didn’t realize how frequently she looked over her shoulder until she noticed Jerry doing the same.
“What’s the matter?”
Jerry turned and looked at her, his expression inscrutable. “I was trying to figure out what you saw back there.”
Anita looked back and then caught herself looking again without a second thought. She turned to Jerry and shrugged as she felt the warmth of embarrassment flood her cheeks. “I ... well … It’s habit, I guess.” Jerry looked at her for a moment longer, then shrugged and nodded as he turned toward their camp. Anita followed quickly and despite her intentions, found herself looking back several more times even though the camp was only a few hundred yards away.
It wasn’t until they were settled in to sleep, tied carefully to sturdy tree branches some fifteen feet off the ground, that Jerry mentioned Anita’s tendency to look furtively around herself. He did so with his usual directness. “You’re not hearing voices or anything, are you? If you’re losing it, I need to know.”
Anita started at the question and nearly sat halfway up before the ropes she’d used to tie herself to her branch kept her held fast. “No!” She caught herself before she said more and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that question.” A quiet sigh sounded from below her from the branch where Jerry had taken residence for the night, and she took that as a sign that she could continue. “I … um …” She stopped, took a deep breath, and organized her thoughts. “It’s just … okay, I know this sounds crazy.” A quiet snort reached her ears. “We haven’t seen them in so long now. What if …” she swallowed, hard, and then forced herself to keep going. “What if there’s something worse than them out there and that’s why we’re not seeing them anymore?”
Jerry’s quick exhale was the first and only indication of his surprise at her thought. He took a few minutes to respond, and when he did, his voice carried a note of consideration. “It’s possible, I guess.” He didn’t say more for long enough that Anita wondered if he was finished, but just as she was giving up on an actual discussion he continued. “Maybe we should go check it out? It’d be good to know if things are settled and if there’s a bigger problem out there we should know about it.”
Anita nodded at the wisdom in his words until she realized that on this night, with a new moon, he wouldn’t be able to see her. “Okay. Let’s move camp tomorrow and see what we find.” Jerry murmured his assent and Anita stared upward into the darkness. Was it strange that moving around and possibly finding trouble made her feel better, or was the idea of knowledge-gathering wise enough that her relief made sense? She fell asleep wondering that very question.
The morning brought fresh doubts. Anita didn’t consider herself a coward, but the thought of actually finding something that was worse than shufflers filled her with an almost unbearable level of anxiety. She barely spoke at breakfast and dragged her feet when it came to breaking camp so that they could move on. The feeling of impending dread lay in her stomach like a cold, dead weight, and no amount of internal coaxing or pep talks would break it up. She didn’t want to be pessimistic, not when they had done so well so far, but she still felt like something horrible was about to happen. It got so bad that she finally sat down on a downed tree trunk and looked up at Jerry, who stopped and watched her with a curious look on his face.
“We shouldn’t go looking for trouble,” Anita said flatly. “I have this terrible feeling we’re going to find it.” She studied Jerry’s face, which became clouded with the same doubt she had been nursing all morning. He’d been having second thoughts too.
“Do you want to stay here?” He chewed his lip for a moment, the motion betraying the nervousness underneath what was an otherwise normal, placid expression. “I mean, we can, if you want. But …” It was his turn to search for words. Anita blinked at him before she could stop herself. Jerry struggled to say something, then shrugged. The expression of surrender did more to ease Anita’s nervousness than all the pep talks she’d given herself all morning and she straightened to full height.
“It’s all right.” Her voice sounded steady and Jerry looked up at her in surprise before his own expression cleared. “We’ve pulled up camp. Let’s at least go and see if we can salvage anything from some of the local farms.” It seemed a fair compromise to Anita; they had been able to sustain themselves on hunting and wild berry collection alone for the winter, but they needed to find more food than just meat or they would find themselves getting sick. They didn’t have to look for shufflers or worse this way; hopefully they would find an abandoned farm and see if there was anything growing in the fields from the previous season. Didn’t potatoes and onions overwinter or something? She didn’t know enough about farming to be certain, but that wouldn’t stop her stomach from growling at the thought of fried potatoes in butter. She stood and picked up her bow before gathering her hiking pack. “Let’s go and see what’s nearby at least.”Jerry nodded and offered her one of his rare but brief smiles and shouldered his own pack. On impulse, Anita reached out a hand and placed it on Jerry’s shoulder. He looked at her with a blink and she dropped her hand, but then another brief smile flitted across his face and reassured her that her action was not unwelcome. They set out, heading south, and didn’t speak another word to each other for the rest of the morning. The silence between them was comfortable and familiar to Anita and she found herself enjoying the spring weather as she walked.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Melinda inhaled deeply as she rubbed the vegetable oil over her sword’s blade. She frowned at the dried blood rusting her blade as she took inordinate pride in keeping her sword pristine. She remembered when she first held it in her hand – it had felt like an extension of her arm, and she knew that she had been born to wield this weapon. She had practiced her Sword Form daily with it, cleaning it religiously after each practice. Now, she was using it for the more mundane activity of keeping those creatures at bay by any means necessary.
She shivered and drew her sweatshirt closer around her. Even though it was late April, snow still covered the ground in a thin layer, and they hadn’t broken forty in weeks. She sheathed her sword and carefully set it on a towel so it wouldn’t get wet. She held her hands, one gloved and one ungloved, towards the fire, desperately trying to keep warm. The log she was sitting on felt cold, even though she was wearing thermals under her sweats.
She heard a rustling in the trees, and she grabbed the Glock holstered at her right hip. She flicked off the safety and pointed the Glock in the direction of the noise. She relaxed as a thin, young black man stepped out of the darkening shadows, his left arm tethered in a sling. He had his own Glock in his right hand, and his eyes were alert.
“Tom! You startled me. You’re lucky I didn’t shoot first and ask questions later.” Melinda thumbed the safety of her Glock back on and returned it to its holster.
“That would be some shit, considering I’m the one who taught you how to shoot in the first damb place.” Tom said in a deadpan voice before cracking a grin. Melinda marveled at how she had only met this man a couple months ago, and now he was invaluable to her. She had met him when she tried to return Petey to his parents, and Chief Majors had insisted she keep him and take Corinna, Petey’s mother as well.
“Take Tom with you. He was hurt in the line of duty, and I’d feel better with him watching over my wife and son.” Chief Majors had also given Melinda and Scott each a loaded Glock and three extra mags with 33 rounds with admonitions to Tom to teach them how to shoot. Then, he hand Melinda a map with a route to Pinewood in northern Minnesota clearly demarcated. “Corinna’s mother has a farm up there. Go.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he even gave her the keys to his Toyota Landcruiser so they would have two vehicles, which would be better for their mobility.
“Lucky for you, I’m not a very good shot,” Melinda retorted, shaking herself out of her reverie. She was at best a competent markswoman, and she vowed to practice more, but she hated wasting bullets. “I am pretty damn good with my sword, though, so you best steer clear of my blade.” She paused, the levity dropping from her voice. “How’s it look?”
“Mostly clear. Some muddied tracks due north.” Tom nodded in that direction with his chin. “Best keep an eye out the next time you patrol.” He sat down on the log besides Melinda and stretched out his ungloved hands towards the fire as well. They sat in companionably silence, watching Petey as he burst out of the farmhouse and trotted towards them, a big bowl in each hand. When he reached them, his face was red and he was out of breath, but he hadn’t spilled a drop from either bowl.
“Dinner. Nonny said to tell you she gave you each an extra helping of rabbit.” Petey handed a bowl and a spoon to Melinda before doing the same to Tom. Melinda restrained a sigh as she accepted her portion. They’d eaten snowshoe hare and frozen vegetables stew for the last two weeks, and Melinda was getting tired of it. She thought wistfully of the sticky rice, dumplings, and radish cakes her mom used to make every Sunday night, but pushed that memory to the back of her mind because it wasn’t helpful. She methodically shoveled the stew into her mouth, knowing she needed the calories to keep her energy up. She washed down every third bite with a swig of bottled water, barely pausing to swallow before continuing to eat. There was a time she enjoyed eating, but now, it was merely fuel.
“I want to do the rounds with you,” Petey said to Tom as the latter ate his rabbit stew with apparent gusto. “I want to get the monster that hurt Bethany.” Tom and Melinda exchanged glances over Petey’s head. Petey didn’t know the truth about Bethany, and they silently agreed they would keep it that way. Still, it was ridiculous to think a five-year old boy could patrol with them when they had a hard time dealing with the creatures themselves.
“You can’t, son,” Tom said firmly. “We need you to watch the womenfolk.”
“Scott can do that!” Petey said, sticking out his chin in defiance. “Besides, she’s a girl and she does the rounds.” He pointed at Melinda who was busily finishing the last of her stew. She scraped the bottom of the bowl, despite her growing dislike of rabbit stew. At this point, she would have eaten nearly anything placed before her.
“No. You’d be in the way,” Melinda said, handing the bowl back to Petey. He glared at her as he took it and opened his mouth to argue. “Petey, you’re a kid. A precocious kid, but a kid, nonetheless. You stay here.” With that, Melinda stood up, grabbed her sword and cellphone, and strode towards the trees. It was her turn to secure the perimeters, and she left it to Tom to handle the unpleasant task of keeping Petey in the house.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
The rest of the group of shufflers all turned, seemingly at once, and started walking toward the hunting blind. Anita and Jerry had their arrows nocked and Anita had to remind herself not to tense up, not to panic, as they drew closer to her and her friend. Even with the reminder, she could feel her shoulders tense in anticipation and she struggled to maintain an even breath. They were dragging their feet as they walked, disrupting the leaves on the forest floor, and the smell of mildewed and moldy foliage would have been soothing to her if it hadn’t been accompanied by the increasing stench of decay. Instead, she fought the urge to vomit as she strove to maintain a sense of calm.
She didn’t even dare to look at Jerry. If he was panicking, her tenuous hold on her emotions would break and all would be lost. So, she closed her eyes for a moment and imagined the look of grim determination he wore when they had needed to shoot shufflers before. The look spoke of weariness and resignation at the need to kill. Anita distractedly wondered if she wore the same look on her face when she needed to stop the shufflers. She certainly had felt that way once she had pushed through the revulsion of having to shoot creatures who looked human but who weren’t any more.
She’d had to pretend that she was in a movie the first few times. If she had faced reality back then, she was sure she would have gone insane and run screaming. Even now, after months of survival, she still had to bite back a whimper whenever she thought about having to shoot the shufflers. Even regular hunting had become distasteful to her, but she and Jerry needed to eat and she couldn’t depend on him to acquire all their food.
The same urge to whimper grew larger the closer the shufflers came. It became almost overwhelming, pushing its way through her stomach to her chest and trying to escape through her throat. She clamped her lips tight to avoid releasing any sound, but she wasn’t sure if she had been successful. The roaring in her ears had grown too loud for her to hear anything else.
... Or had it? Anita could feel her eyes widen as she heard a muttered curse behind the blind. The closest shufflers were close now, so close that she could see bits of flesh sagging and falling off their bodies. They did not change course; instead they passed the blind and staggered past Anita and Jerry, continuing in the same direction. Another curse sounded, this time louder, and suddenly the sound of running footsteps echoed as loudly as gunfire shots. Anita started, but just a little, and she must have been quiet enough because the shufflers paid her no notice. Instead, the swarm parted around the hunting blind and kept moving.
Anita felt a cold lump grow in her stomach when she realized there was nothing she could do. She risked a look at Jerry, who wore a look of distress on his face that matched the sensation in her stomach, and he shook his head. They couldn’t save whoever it was, not now. To try would mean certain death for the both of them. Anita nodded once, to show she understood, and then turned her head forward again and closed her eyes. There was nothing to see now that the swarm of shufflers had passed by the blind. She didn’t dare try to look behind herself and Jerry. She didn’t want to know.
Two minutes might have passed. Maybe it was five. Anita was too upset to count the time, which felt like an eternity as she strained her ears and tried to hear anything that she could. After an unknown amount of time, during which her shoulders and stomach and even her face ached fiercely, she heard gunshots in the distance.
One shot fired. Then a moment later, another sounded and then all was silent for a few seconds. It was a fair distance away; whoever was being chased must have been a good runner. Anita remained still, waiting, hoping, but all too soon a new sound reached her ears. A scream of terror and pain rent the air. Even from this distance, it echoed in her ears as if the victim was suffering right next to her. Anita clamped a hand over her mouth, just barely keeping her bow and arrow from falling as she did so. She needed to contain the whimper that wanted to escape her lips. She squeezed her eyes shut even more tightly, trying to push out the image of the unknown stranger’s demise. She’d seen the bite and claw marks on some of the shufflers and knew all too well what was happening.
A second, then a third scream reached her ears. These were more inhuman, more animalistic, although they must have been made by the same person. They were the same distance as the first and shufflers didn’t scream. Well, they didn’t scream as far as Anita knew. They never had that she’d seen. No more screams sliced through the air, but still Anita sat silently.
She heard Jerry get up slowly and leave the blind, but she didn’t even crack one eye open. She couldn’t move. Every nerve ending was on full alert, and if she moved at all, she was afraid she would kill both herself and Jerry. She wanted to scream, to shout and stomp and berate the Heavens for allowing everything to happen. She wanted to break down crying and wail about the unfairness of it all. Instead, she did nothing. She waited, tense and silent, and fought the urge to give in and probably kill herself in the process.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and her eyes flew open as she turned, striking out blindly. Thankfully she missed, because her accoster was none other than her friend. It took her a moment to recognize that Jerry was the one in the blind with her, but she did manage to force her thoughts out of her own head long enough to make out what he was whispering.
“They’re gone.” Jerry’s voice was flat, but his eyes were full of suppressed rage. He’d felt as impotent as Anita had, it seemed, and it had caused his adrenaline to flow. “They’re far enough away that we can move.” Gently, he helped her to her feet -- it took some time for the blood to flow back to her limbs and respond to her will -- and helped her exit the hunting blind. He pointed to the west. The shufflers had traveled north in their pursuit, and Anita knew from experience that Jerry would not want to travel south in case the shufflers had left any infected behind. “Let’s get a drink from the stream and maybe we can catch a fish. Then we can turn in early.”Anita nodded numbly and followed him on surprisingly sure feet. She was glad Jerry didn’t speak about what had just happened. She didn’t want to talk about it. Still, she couldn’t help but feel guilty that she felt like she was starving and the mention of fish for dinner made her stomach rumble.