The flowers looked hungry. The blossoms turned their stem-necks towards the family as they walked by. Filaments rippled and gnashed together like teeth as ovules vibrated with pangs of starvation.
A red grevillea reached toward Brie. Straining at its roots, tiny red petals, barbed at the end, reached out for flesh. Grandma brought down her machete chopping the head off the flower. It fell to the ground with a tiny squeal and rolled down an embankment into a swarming mass of tangled weeds.
Brie clutched her face in her hands and screamed.
“Don’t be such a sissy!” scolded Grandma as she was pushed along in her wheelchair by her son, Edward. Grandma cackled, her sizeable bosoms heaved up and down causing her necklace made of tiny bones to rattle.
“She’s fine, Ma.”
“Only if she’s gonna be a sissy. I’m raisin’ this one to make it in this world. She can’t be screamin’ at every goddamn bush, tree or flower that tries to eat her, Edward.”
“Giver her time, Ma. Brie will be fine, won’t you punkin?” Brie’s father ran his hand through her hair and smiled. Brie just stared into the angry swarm of crusty, brown weeds as they tore the red grevillea’s head into tiny pieces and devoured it.
“She’s only ten.”
“I’d like her to make ten more.”
Grandma crossed her arms and Edward wheeled her down the road as Brie followed close behind. The sun started to drop, rippling the horizon with waves of reds and pinks. The wind whipped through a group of maple trees up ahead causing their branches to sway and groan like tired old men. A small finch, with a crimson head, riding the current flew past one of the maples and a thin, brown limb whipped out like a frogs tongue, snatching the bird and stuffing it inside a hole in its trunk. A few of the finch’s red feathers floated aimlessly in the air above the treetop.
“It’s getting dark,” Edward said. “We need to hole up.”
Grandma pointed her machete toward a long, winding driveway that disappeared behind several large clusters of trees whose trunks were cracked and weeping sap in thin, hardened streaks. “Let’s follow the driveway and see what’s there. The Cookers won’t look for us there. They’d be too damn scared of those hungry lookin’ trees.”
Edward handed Brie his machete. His had the leather grip, Grandma’s had the rusted handle. “Take this. You might need to hack some branches off if they reach for us.” Brie shook her head ‘no’. Grandma let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Get on my back then, while I push Grandma up the driveway. She can handle any branches that get too grabby.”
“Damn straight I can”, Grandma said as she grabbed the other machete.
Brie climbed up on her father’s back and clung tightly to his neck. He took a deep breath then shouted, “Here we go!”
Edward ran as fast as he could. Brie closed her eyes tight and Grandma held a machete in each hand ready to strike, her eyes darting back and forth looking for danger. The trees that lined the driveway were old and hungry. When the aged branches tried to reach for them most just snapped off and fell to the ground. At the end of the driveway was a small trailer home. The wind howled as the sun slipped beneath the horizon.
“We don’t have much time, let’s hope we get in with no problem,” Edward said as he pried Brie’s fingers from around his neck and lowered her to the ground.
Edward turned the doorknob and it fell off and hit the ground with a clang. Off in the distance they could hear the growling and cat-like hissing of the Cookers. Edward took his machete from Grandma and stepped inside.
The small home was cold and dark. All the furniture was overturned; a green fabric couch was on its back, the matching loveseat upside-down and a round kitchen table stood on its end.
“Looks like a goddamn tornado hit this place,” chuckled Grandma.
“Anyone here?” Edward asked the darkness.
The only reply was the distant cries of the Cookers.
They all stepped inside and Edward wedged the couch and loveseat against the door. The two front windows were boarded up with plywood.
“We’ll wait here until morning,” Edward said as he took the green backpack that hung from the wheelchair and handed each of them a flashlight. “Remember, try to shine it in their face if they get in, that hurts them the most.”
The Cookers ruled at night. Beneath the tatters of a world left behind was translucent skin that covered a pulsating heart, which no longer remembered. A thin, mucousy layer of epidermis sat like jelly over the Cookers’ thin frames. A criss-cross highway of blood vessels could be seen churning black blood that fed their stringy, grey muscle. The tips of bone not covered by frayed connective tissue were dull and pale. A blooming web of thin, black nerve endings connected everything together.
The beta radiation bombs, or ‘Tritium Bloomers’ as they were called, had perverted the form of every human exposed to its blast, turning man inside out. The bombs also ramped up their metabolism so high it emitted high levels of heat that could boil people in their own juices; hence this version of man became known as Cookers. They had to constantly eat to fulfill their high-energy needs or risk being reduced to a smoldering pile of grey ash.
Mother nature found herself unexpectedly affected as well when the Bloomers fell. Plants turned into starving tangles of vine and blossomed with voracious appetites for flesh and other plants alike. Plants could still feed on sunlight; however, light of any kind burned the Cookers and could easily be harnessed as a weapon. The network of black, filament nerves beneath their lucid skin would ignite, like millions of tiny fuses causing protoplasm to sizzle and burst upon exposure.
Some Cookers tried to fashion body suits to protect them from light but the heat they gave off was too intense and would accumulate beneath the protective layers. They would eventually have to tear their clothes from their bodies screaming as steamed flesh hung loosely from their bodies.
Edward, Brie, and Grandma sat huddled in the living room of the trailer home clutching their flashlights.
Brie put her head on a couch cushion and lay on the floor. “Why can’t they just eat the plants? We get sick from the plants but they don’t.”
Edward rolled his flashlight between both hands. “They eat whatever they can. Whatever provides the most calories. Also, the plants fight back now.”
“Whatever tastes the best”, Grandma chimed in, “ and that’s us. Plus I think they’ve cooked their goddamn brains to mush in their skulls.” Grandma paused then grunted, “Brain stew.”
Outside they heard shrieking and the rustling of branches. There was a series of dry snaps then a loud squishing sound like someone dropped a watermelon from the roof.
Brie closed her eyes tight and tried to remember what is was like before the bombs went off. Her thoughts were a blank canvas, empty save for a splash of sky blue.
They could hear the breaking of branches outside. Grandma grabbed her machete, “They’re commin’.”
They heard the moaning and whispers of the approaching Cookers. Brie buried her head in a couch cushion and whimpered. Edward held his flashlight in one hand and blade in the other. Grandma just smiled and whispered, “I’ll be addin’ to my necklace before this night is through.”
The door shook as it was pressed upon but didn’t budge, then came banging on the boarded windows. Raspy voices garbled by singed vocal cords howled for food. The door shook more violently now and Edward pressed his weight against the furniture that kept the door closed.
The Cookers charged against the walls of the house and their heat began to filter into the room. The nails holding the boards on the windows began to squeak as they loosened. Edward struggled to keep the door shut as sweat dripped down his face, stinging his eyes and blurring his vision. Brie’s collar was soaked from the rising temperature and small droplets of sweat rolled down her back. The stagnant air pressed in on her and she struggled to breathe. Grandma scanned the room. Her eyes, dull with cataracts, moved back and forth with a calm urgency.
The whole room started to vibrate, heat rippled in waves, and the boards on the windows became loose, letting fresh darkness pour in. Clear fingers poked through, like searching worms, and started to pull at the plywood.
Grandma looked at the hole in the front door where the doorknob used to be and saw an eye peering in. It stared at her suspended in the darkness, a clear orb of jelly with a thick red optic nerve tethered to a floating green iris. “Gotcha,” she said and clicked on her flashlight.
The beam of light struck the eye and the monster let loose a horrible scream that shook the front door and rattled Edward’s teeth. Suddenly there was a chorus of shrieks and pounding fists. The boards over the windows splintered and cracked apart, and fists randomly broke through the walls all around them. Wood and flakes of paint rained down from the ceiling.
Edward left his position guarding the front door and began to hack off the arms that were reaching inside the windows. Grandma wielded her flashlight like a laser gun, punishing any Cooker flesh that came into view. They heard footsteps on the ceiling. Brie hyperventilated and passed out in the rising heat. His hands slick with sweat, Edward nearly lost his grip on his machete.
Grandma reached down and picked up Brie’s flashlight and fought with double-barreled fury. More dust and plaster fell from the ceiling; suspended by humidity they drifted like fat snowflakes.
The front door burst open revealing a swarm of Cookers. “What do you suggest, ma?”
“I suggest we keep kicking their ass, Eddie! Take my machete.”
Edward wielded both blades chopping off translucent body parts. An arm burst through the wall behind him and grabbed him around his neck. The grip was hot and wet and pulled him tight against the wall. He dropped both blades and tried to pry the limb from around his throat. Rancid heat rose up his nose and he quickly lost his breath. He was suffocating. His vision dimmed, the black around him growing impossibly darker, when two light beams shinned in his face and hit the arm that was choking him. The Cooker recoiled in pain and Edward fell to his knees gasping, a red burn mark around his neck.
Leaping over the heap of simmering bodies that lay piled in the front door was a Cooker holding a hammer. It wore the black scars of burning across his body in criss-crossing patterns and his face bore the grimace of war. Its lips were curled back to reveal obsidian teeth and the flesh from one check hung loosely in opaque sheets revealing bone that glinted like ice.
Edward could only watch in slow-motion horror as the monster approached Grandma, her back turned to the hammer aimed at her skull.
His neck throbbed and he tried to yell but no sound came out. Grandma read Edwards eyes and turned around as the hammer descended. It whistled past her ear and struck the arm or her wheelchair tearing off a piece of the cushion. She shined the flashlights over her shoulder at her attacker but the Cooker leapt over her and pounced on Edward who had recovered his blade.
Edward drove his machete into the monsters gut letting loose a gush of fetid steam. The Cooker growled and raised the hammer again but Grandma brought the beams from both flashlights to its head scorching its skull in a cloud of black ash. The scalding grey body fell over, the hammer still held tightly in its fist.
The attack was over.
Edward and his mother waited in the dark, catching their breath.
“Damn, ma. That was close.”
“That was one tough hombre. It was nuthin’ though, you should have seen when they got Grandpa.”
They placed Brie on the old, green couch. Grandma bit her lower lip. “She ain’t going to make it, son.”
“She’ll come around.”
They stayed awake until the sun came up. Bright rays poured through all the newly made holes in the house making a jagged series of intersecting sunbeams. Finally feeling safe they fell asleep. An hour or two later Brie woke up rubbing her head.
“Dad, wake up.”
Edward opened his eyes and smiled at the sight of his daughter. “You O.K.?”
Hearing voices, Grandma awakened. “We could have used your help last night.”
Brie looked around at the piles of severed arms and legs and heads. “I’m sorry.”
Edward stood up, his knees snapping. “I’m hungry, let’s start a fire.”
When burning irradiated wood the flames always started out as low green, then flickered to red, until it glowed a warm shade of yellow. The fire often sputtered as the thin rings of fat that were stored inside sizzled away. The surrounding trees moaned in protest and rustled their leaves in anger at the roasting of their comrade. Edward placed a small frying pan over the spitting yellow flame then dropped a handful of meat strips on it.
“What are we eating today, Dad?”
“I caught a rabbit after you passed out last night.”
Grandma chuckled as she threaded some small ring shaped bones onto her necklace.
“We’re not eating those things are we?”
“You know we can’t, Brie. We’d get sick.”
“I miss vegetables.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say that!”
Brie smiled and her stomach growled as the small strips of meat sizzled in its own fat. “I can’t wait to grow some veggies when we get out west.”
Once she finished adding to her necklace Grandma tied it around her neck, “It will be nice to eat something that doesn’t try to eat you back for once. Vegetables that aren’t nuked? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
After they finished the scraps of meat they made their way back to the road and continued moving west. Off to the side of the street was a pile of bones protruding from a thatch of rose bushes. The bones were still slick, their meat picked clean by the plants hungry thorns, a few strands of gristle still hanging from the leaves and flapping in the slight breeze. Brie turned her head in disgust and Grandma sighed once more in disappointment.
Further up the road they saw a Cooker chained on the hot tar road writhing in agony.
“Can we go around him?” Brie asked.
Edward scanned the road. Tall yellow weeds swayed back and forth on each side. Their spiny leaves rustled as thin, hollow stalks rumbled with hunger. “Stay with your Grandmother.”
Edward walked closer to the writhing figure. Its muscles were gray and emaciated and its clear skin, dry and cracked, looked like splintered glass. When Edward got closer he saw that the chains led to shackles around its legs and were connected to a huge, metal spike that was driven into the road. The Cooker turned its head toward Edward when he heard him approaching. Its eyes were cloudy distorting the floating optic nerves within. When it opened its mouth to speak black vapors escaped from between its cracked lips.
“It’s O.K.,” Edward shouted as he waved Brie and Grandma forward. As they approached Edward held his machete in both hands and pointed the tip towards the squirming Cooker. “Once you guys pass, I’ll put him out of his misery.
“Who did this?” Brie asked.
“I told you girl, their brains are mush,” Grandma said. “They’re probably punishing him for some reason.”
“Or, it was done by another one of us who’s out there somewhere. Doesn’t matter who did it, nothing deserves to be tortured like this.”
Grandma pointed a shaky finger at Edward, “You didn’t see what they did to your daddy. They ate him right before my eyes. I watched as their black teeth chewed his bones. At night when you both are sleeping and all is quiet I still hear him begging me for help. I still hear the splatter of him on the floor and the sucking clean of his old marrow.”
“They didn’t choose to be like this, ma. They can’t help it.”
“Let the girl do it then! Let Brie put it out of its misery.” Grandma jutted the rusted handle of her weapon in Brie’s direction. The shackled Cooker writhed in agony, scraping chunks of clear flesh off on the asphalt. It bled blue-black blood, which collected on the street in shimmering pools. The creature moaned and shrieked like a newborn calf, its words making no sense, pain taking its language and distorting it. They didn’t need to understand what the Cooker said to know what it desired. With every movement, every inhuman whimper, it begged to die.
Brie grabbed the handle and the weight of the weapon caused her arm to drop, striking the tip of the blade on the ground. The creature stretched out its neck across the ground and its eyes met Brie’s. She stared straight through its foggy eyes into its soul and saw merely a wretched inhuman, a wounded beast that knew nothing but suffering. More steam rose from its parted lips and dissipated in the heat of midmorning.
“Do it!” demanded Grandma.
Brie looked at her father and he was staring at the ground unable to meet her gaze. She dropped the machete, ran off to the side of the road and cried, her tears spilling into the withered bentgrass. A moment later she winced as she heard the thump and gush of the Cooker being decapitated behind her. A thin flow of blood snaked past her foot. The bentgrass turned away from her tears and reached frantically for the warm tributary.
“Girl’s got no hope,” Grandma spat.
Edward walked over to his weeping daughter and put both hands on her shoulders. “The world, even this one, needs all kinds, ma.”
Together all three walked further west until they found an abandoned eighteen-wheeler. Edward slid the back door up stirring up a thick layer of dust and feathers. Inside were three steel crates, which housed the yellow skeletons of long dead chickens.
Edward climbed inside, “I’ll get rid of these. We should crash here. It’s getting dark out.”
Brie climbed in and helped her father clear out the truck bay in silence. After getting Grandma and her wheelchair inside Edward pulled the steel door down. Saying little more than goodnight to each other they slept amid the settling dust and feathers as the moon bleed into the indigo night.
Brie woke to the crackle of meat sizzling in the skillet. Her father had opened the back of the truck and started a fire while she slept. He poked at long triangular slices of meat with a stick. The tender, pink morsels were turning to tough, brown strips.
“More rabbit, Dad?”
“More food,” Grandma said, sliding a few more bones onto her rattling necklace. Grandma’s skin was pale and her forehead dotted with beads of sweat. Edwards handed Brie a paper plate with four pieces of meat.
“Go see if Grandma wants some.”
Brie walked over to Grandma smiling despite the shame she felt in the old woman’s presence. “Here’s some food, Grandma.”
“I don’t want any of that, thank you. It looks old and tough and I’ve had my full.”
“What are you going to eat then?”
Grandma looked up at Brie and smiled as she tied her necklace around her neck. Her grin sent a shiver though Brie’s body. “I started dying the day the Lord saw fit for me to watch Grandpa get eaten alive. I’m finishing up here, ready to move on. You’re a kind girl, Brie, but I worry for you. I worry you ain’t gonna’ make it when I’m gone. Even when I’m dead I’ll know if the last branch of my family tree is chewed up and shit out! I think that would be more than my soul could take.”
Brie placed a stringy morsel of meat in her mouth and chewed, “Are you disappointed in me Grandma?”
“You need to adapt or you’ll be eaten.”
Tears rolled down Brie’s face.
“Look darlin’. Remember how you were god-awful at soccer?”
Brie nodded her head while wiping away some tears.
“Then what happened?”
“You told me to get my head in the game, to go after the ball and not just wait for it.”
“Then you shined. You scored in every game. So, that’s what I’m tellin’ you now, get your head on the game!”
Grandma placed her hand on Brie’s shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. Brie managed a small smile.
All three of them continued on the deserted highway weaving between the car and trucks that sat in various stages of erosion, baking in the sun.
“Do you really think we’ll be able to plant food in California?”
“We will be able to plant food and go fishing. The deepest parts of the ocean weren’t affected by the Bloomers, that’s what I heard anyway, and fresh, clean ocean water has been hitting the coastline, cleaning everything up.”
Grandma wiped sweat from her forehead with her shirt causing an ivory jingle around her neck. “You guys just need to stay alive long enough for Mother Nature to put things right.”
There was a rustle in the brush to their left. The bushes, brown and brittle, groaned as they snapped and splintered. A small brown, furry animal was rushing towards them. Once it cleared the brush it leapt through the air onto Grandma.
The creature was emaciated; its muscles lean and taught with scruffy auburn fur, wild and mangled, with gold circles around its eyes. It’s long, black claws dug into Grandma’s abdomen and chest and its teeth sunk into her collarbone, ripping her necklace and causing its pieces to clink and rattle on the pavement.
Grandma dug her thumbs into the creature’s eyes. It howled in pain and released its vice-like grip on her. It fell to the ground growling. Blood spurted out just below Grandma’s neck and started to pool in the fresh claw wounds. The animal let out a guttural moan as it grabbed hold of the tip of her boot and clamped down. Edward brought his machete down across the creature’s hindquarters, slicing off a large circular piece of its flesh, exposing a glistening hipbone.
Blind and wounded it yanked the boot from Grandma’s foot and headed off the road into a patch of flowering red weigelas; who smelling blood, finished the job Edward had started.
“I think that was a wolverine”, said Brie, her face white with shock.
Edward ran to his mother who sat pale and motionless in her wheelchair. Blood dripped off the seat onto the wheels and down the spokes, forming a puddle on the ground. He put his fingers to her neck and closed his eyes tight hoping to feel some sort of pulse. There was nothing. He grabbed her shoulder and shook her. “Ma! Can you hear me? Mom?”
Edward clenched his fists and was about to scream when he saw Brie crying. He held his emotions in check, swallowed hard and motioned for Brie to come to him. He hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, “We’ll be fine.”
“This isn’t soccer, Dad.”
Brie cried into his shoulder. Edward hugged her a little tighter then stood up. “We have to find a spot to bury her, Brie.”
They walked for a quarter mile, the wheelchair leaving two crimson streaks in its wake, until they found a clearing where they could put Grandma to rest. In a small patch of squirming brown grass they lifted Grandma from her chair. Brie’s hand became slick with blood and she lost her grip, causing Grandma’s body to twist and fall face first onto the ground. Grandma’s lower back was exposed and Brie covered her mouth and gasped. There was a series of triangular, sliver-like scars going across her back in neat rows. Brie noticed her Grandmother’s exposed foot and saw that all of the toes were missing, cut clean off. Small fragments of bone from Grandma’s necklace sat in the sticky red pool of coagulated mess on the wheelchair.
Brie’s stomach lurched and she dry heaved. She croaked and spat out a small yellow strand of mucous that hung from her lower lip. She glared at Edward, her eyes glowing with anger and disgust. “How could you?!” she demanded as she wiped the phlegm from her lip.
“It was her idea. Without it we would have starved to death”.
“I hate you! There was never any rabbits was there?”
“She loved you so much and she was so old and tired, ready to be with Grandpa. She would rather us have her than this world. She didn’t want to rot uselessly in the ground.”
“Why bury her then, Dad? Why not roast her on a spit?”
“Because it would be wrong.”
“What’s the difference?!”
“I don’t know, Brie there just is.”
Brie sat in silence as her father used his hands to dig a grave deep enough to bury his mother. After placing Grandma in her final resting place he noticed a network of roots had already started to envelop her in a cocoon, probing her wounds. He covered her body with dirt and stood up.
Edward grabbed the backpack from the wheelchair and placed it on his back. Then he took Grandma’s machete and slid it through his belt. He left the chair in the grass, which strained upwards, thirsty for the drops of blood that still dripped off the wheel spokes.
They walked in silence as the sun started to set. Edward looked at his daughter and was sadden to see her eyes showed sadness beyond that which a ten year old should know. “We need to find shelter. It’s getting dark.”
“I know, Dad.”
“It’s O.K. I get it, I think.”
Up ahead the sun was setting behind a small barn off the side of the road. Edward pointed his machete at the barn. “Let’s go there.”
The darkness started to creep in and they picked up their pace. As they came to the top of a small hill they looked down at the barn. There were already about ten Cookers there, banging on its door and trying to scale the wooden walls to get to the roof. Brie remembered their experience two nights ago and a shiver ran through her.
“Shit”, said Edward,
“There must be people in there, Dad.”
“I know. Look, you should stay here. I’ll go and try to help whoever is inside. The bastards won’t even know I’m there until I kill about four of them.”
Edward looked into his daughter’s eyes. The sadness had melted and in its place was a small spark.
Brie thought of her world, what is was and what it had become. She thought of hunger and food and sacrifice. She looked her father in the eyes and Edward saw the spark ignite and ripple into fire. Brie grinned and Edward saw, for an instant, his mother’s smile.
“I’m ready now, Dad. I’m ready to help.”
Edward pulled his Grandmother’s machete from his belt and pointed the handle toward her. She hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath then grabbed the rusted handle. wrapping both hands around it.
“Follow me”, said Edward, “and be careful.”
Together, under the cover of nightfall, they made their way toward the barn.
Screaming could be heard from inside as they approached barn. The front door had been shattered and the Cookers climbed over themselves to get in. Edward and Brie approached three of them from behind. Brie raised her weapon and brought it down across a Cooker’s back leaving a huge gash that spewed bile colored fluid. She hesitated which allowed the monster to turn to face her, its mouth stretched wide hissing black steam. She swung her machete like a baseball bat, aiming for the black maw that was closing in on her. The top half of the Cookers head slid off and its grey body slumped to the ground. She stared in disbelief at what she’d just done. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath. Her body tingled with adrenaline. Then she heard shouts from inside.
Running into the barn she saw her father pinned down by a Cooker that was chewing on his shoulder. His blood started to spread across the wooden floor and disappeared between the spaces between the floorboards. Brie charged and swung her blade into the exposed grey flank of the Cooker, which split open like an overripe plum spilling colorless loops and coils onto the ground.
Edward stood and grabbed his wound. Together they surveyed their surroundings. It was hard to tell how many Cookers were dead because they had been hacked into so many pieces but there were at least seven of their heads visible. Also among the carnage were two dead adult humans, a man and woman.
Sobbing broke the silence. Brie and Edward looked at each other and followed the crying to an armoire that had been barricaded with several crates. After clearing the boxes they opened the door to the armoire to find a young girl cradling an aluminum baseball bat.
Brie extended her hand and the girl recoiled, crying louder now.
“Honey,” Brie said pulling her up, “you’re going to have to toughen up to make it in this world.”