The massive box of a building stood nestled in a wasteland of dirty cars, rotting corpses, and great bundles trash blowing about in the wind. Sam and Grace surveyed it from the edge of a forest several hundred meters out, Sam scanning for danger through binoculars while Ruck whined from around his knee.
“The dog is hungry again,” Sam said tersely.
“I got him.”
Grace got the Shepherd’s attention. He looked away from the binoculars and watched his wife pull the little dog over to her, and then pull off her own pack.
“You’re not about to feed him our food are you,” Sam asked. It was his opinion that they ate first and the dog got scraps and leftovers about to go bad. Despite a lack of food Ruck continued to grow by the day, or so it seemed to Grace who made sure to point it out to him every morning.
“He’s family, ass hole,” Grace retorted. They’d been bickering all morning. The initial surge of energy and absolute patience with one another was waning after months of living in fear; hunger pains the rule rather than exception. He watched the pup sitting, twitching in exuberance as Grace dug a bag of jerky out of her pack.
“Really, the jerky?”
“Just shut up, Sam. Shut the fuck up. Whatever your problem is today, don’t take it out on the dog.”
“Whatever my problem is?” Sam motioned exasperatedly at the ruins of society surrounding them. “You mean this cluster fuck? You mean having to keep us and the damn dog fed.”
“That doesn’t mean take it out on me either, ass hole,” she said from where she crouched, hand feeding strips of dried meat to an enthusiastic puppy. “Now, why don’t you go back to making sure no one between us and supplies who wants to fight, fuck or eat us.”
Sam turned away rolling his eyes and brought the binoculars back up to his face. It looked like there had been rush on the store early on and it went badly for the desperate citizens clamoring for the trove of goods inside. Most of the corpses had bite wounds on their necks, faces and limbs; all of them had head wounds, some horrific. He imagined that a few infected got into the crowd and people panicked- heavily armed people given the number of bullet holes scattered across the building, cars and bodies.
His narrow field of view slid over the still chaos that was the aftermath of some horrible event and fell upon a blue minivan. The dusty windows were smeared with dry blood and the binoculars were powerful enough that he could see the horrible details, even through windows filthy with months of neglect. Bones and parched flesh still harnessed into a child’s booster seat. His stomach turned and he forced himself to look away.
Several of the numerous cars imprisoned the diseased cannibals; they sat listlessly in their tombs, waiting for someone like Sam to end their existences. “A few of them are trapped in the cars down there, but it looks relatively clear through the parking lot,” he said not looking away.
He could hear Ruck slobbering and gnawing on the tough meats and Grace replied sarcastically, “so lets avoid those cars then huh?”
Sam ignored the barb and asked, “you ready?”
“Once Ruckaroo is ready,” Grace said, “can’t have a hungry puppy now can we?” She was talking to the dog; her was voice high pitched and sing-song. “You’re going to grow up big and strong aren’t you?”
It was still early in the day, their Forester sat parked at their Campsite a mile down a nearby dirt road. They’d done their best to disguise it in the trees, as was their usual routine hunting for supplies. It’s only been, what, four months or so, Sam thought. Goddamn, it feels like a lifetime.
“Rather unpleasant isn’t it?” It came from the back of his mind, his constant companion weighing in regardless of whether Sam wanted the advice or not. The metaphorical devil on the shoulder was real for him now, problem was: no angel on the other.
“Why do you fight to live such a purposeless life? You are surviving simply to survive, not live. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and the net positive quality of your life is shrinking unnervingly quickly, wouldn’t you say?”
“Shut it,” Sam whispered to himself.
“What was that?”
He turned hastily at the sound of his wife’s voice. Ruck was nosing around in her hands while she pet him absent-mindedly.
“Nothing, sorry. Dog looks done, you ready to do this?”
She nodded and his pulse quickened. They needed food, water, ammunition, and gear, anything they could find. It was Sam’s hope that the ring of cars and bodies scared away most people, and even if anyone managed to slip in quietly, there would be plenty left to plunder. That’s the theory anyway. His backpack shifted again as Grace stuffed Ruck back into his pack. They would both be going in there and neither wanted to leave Ruck alone-the pup cried something awful if he even thought he was solitary.
He turned to her. “You ready?” The time for waiting in relative safety was over. She nodded gravely and stepped toward him putting her arms around him and putting her head on his shoulder. It was their “pre-mission” ritual-no matter how angry or hungry or sick they were, anytime they shifted from hiding to finding they hugged, kissed, and reassured each other with promises to be safe and not take chances. The most dangerous place in the wild is the watering hole; it was the same in their world. Sam hated the all-in-one supply runs, especially Wal Mart.
In the early days-the first several weeks in fact-, people looted things they wanted; they figured it was going to be like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many thought life would be unpleasant for a while, but the man would step in and set things right. In the mean time, chaos gave people the chance to steal things they coveted-just not enough to spend the money. There’d been at least two stores they’d raided chalk full of supplies and gear, but completely devoid of televisions sets and game counsels. Guns were always gone, though. The catch-22 of it all was that if it were safe in there, nothing of value would be left. Any place that still had useful provisions was usually a hive for the infected. They would be walking into a disappointment, or a fight.
Sam looped his hand in the leash, tightening his control of Ruck-who was prone to wander-, Grace pulled a dinged and stained machete out its sheath on her hip and they walked out of the tree line and into the hazy morning sunlight. Trash rustled, birds sang their good mornings, and the infected started to come alive around them-more than Sam counted from the trees. Most were trapped in cars, but several had been sitting against the cars or feeding on various dead things, hidden among the refuse and out of Sam’s line of sight.
A gaunt old man-surprisingly injury free- was half stumbling, half jogging toward them in shuffling steps. He wore bloodstained khaki pants, a leather belt and a polo-shirt. All soiled beyond redemption, but Sam recognized the exact same “old guy uniform” his grandfather wore. On closer inspection, Sam saw the Wal Mart Logo and a nametag proclaiming this monster’s name was Jeff, and a smiling yellow face emblazoned in yellow text: “How May I Serve You,” was smeared in brown stains.
Sam pulled the long-handled hatchet out of his belt and pulled Ruck in closer, watching with admiration as Grace split the old mans skull, opening it like a bloody peach in one hack. She grunted when the blade stuck. The creature stayed half on its feet until she managed to yank the heavy blade free, and the dead creature slumped to the ground. In the dirt to their right, another one was getting clumsily to her feet, bubbling and groaning. She looked at Sam and hissed at him through shattered teeth that stuck like white splinters out of rotten, mushy gums. He chopped her in the side of the head like a logger felling a tree; he felt the crunch of the skull give way, and the horrible, familiar, sponginess of the brain.
“This way,” Grace said, pointing through a break in the cars with her dripping machete. Sam looked and the passage seemed devoid of cannibals, so he nodded. She lead him and Ruck through the awkward corridor between broken and duty cars. Ruck yelped and Sam jumped when one of the infected slammed unexpectedly on the inside of the passenger door window of blue minivan. It was a child, a girl of 8, and much of the skin had been eaten off her face. She had her right eye and nose, but the rest was gone. Chewed away lips gave her the permanent grin of a skull, and Sam saw the white of bone through the ragged flesh around her left eye. The bloated eye itself remained, bugging out and rolling around between him, Grace and Ruck.
“Fuck me,” he whispered to himself. The girl shifted agitatedly, weaving back and forth, never changing the pattern. The eye snapped from him, to his wife, to his dog endlessly. Grace groaned behind him.
“Oh man,” she said quietly. “Lets go, nothing we can do.” She started walking away but he didn’t move. “Come one,” she urged gently. “We can’t hang out.”
The Voice crept into his head. “You don’t want to put her out of her misery, you just want to murder a child.”
He turned away from the shifting, twitching little girl and back to his wife. He had to tug on Ruckus’ leash to get his attention away from the creature in the car. A small crowd of infected was gathering and many of the creatures reached for them over the cars, tripping and clambering around and onto the vehicles awkwardly. Sam and Grace jogged through the rest of the parking lot.
“I though you said it was a few,” she said irritably.
Sam ran behind her, Ruck bounding happily at his side, and said, “Shit, I couldn’t see any of these fuckers.” Without breaking stride he hacked at a fat man lunging for him over a Honda civic. The hatchet didn’t hit the sweet spot; instead it slid through the bulge of fat that connected the man’s chin to his massive belly. It kept hissing at him even as putrid blubber slopped out of the ragged wound. Sam kept running.
They made it to the side door, an employee entrance. Grace tried the handle, and found it unlocked. You never knew if that was good news or bad news. They had stopped trying to figure out the “danger” formula for any given run, there were no constants.
They ducked into darkness. Grace pulled his flashlight out of it’s looped cords on his backpack-it was solar powered and he rigged there to charge while they walked- clicking the switch twice to turn it on and scanned the room. They stood in an employee lounge. Lockers, the exact ones that lined the halls of his high school, took up the far wall. The waited, looking at each other and around the small room, ears straining for the rhythmic pattern of movement. Ruck sniffed the base of the simple wooden bench that ran the length of the room in front of the lockers, then lifted his leg and peed.
After a moment Grace asked quietly, “what do you think?” She gripped the machete tightly and swung it absent-mindedly at her side. A few stray locks of her auburn hair had escaped from her ponytail and clung to her damp face.
“Lets get it over with,” he said and walked to the grey metal door on the opposite wall. Grace clicked the light off and they sat in the darkness, letting their eyes adjust to the gloom. When the room came into a fuzzy purple focus, he grasped Grace by the shoulder and gave it a little squeeze, lets go. Her saw the shadow of her arm coming up and felt her give his hand a squeeze.
She opened the door slowly, the door creaking echoed hollowly, blending into a million other tiny sounds in the shopping section of the giant box store. Birds chirped and fluttered, water dripped from a thousand places on the ceiling. The damp interior smelled of mold and rot. He tapped his fist-clenched around the handle of his axe- against the butt of the Berretta snug in the holster at his hip and they moved along the wall around the scattered remnants of the shopping center. Every drip of water, every sudden flap of wings made his heart jump and his fingers flex around the wooden handle.
They spent the first minutes in complete silence, moving around the perimeter of the store, peeking around the shelves separating the long isles of imported goods and trash. There were more than a few rotting bodies, one they came across had it’s chest cavity exposed to the world and emptied, leftover scraps of flesh lay in leathery strips in jellied pools of blood; a recent kill. Sam looked up at Grace and gestured toward the body, she nodded in comprehension and she adjusted her grip on the rough handle of her machete. Ruck padded along beside him, ears perked and the fur on his back was up. Sam was thankful to Ruck for his relative silence and hoped the dog wouldn’t change his mind about keeping his massive snout closed.
Grace led them through the electronics section; the shelves stripped bare save for a few extension cords and empty boxes. A display cases declaring “low low prices on your favorite digital tablets” was smashed open, the little shelves bare and sprinkled in broken glass. On the far side of a plundered shelf advertising HD televisions the sporting goods section waited. Sam hoped they would find propane for their camping stove, freeze-dried food, and maybe even some ammunition.
The smell of rotting meat was unmistakable and growing steadily the closer to their destination. The sloppy sound of someone, or something, eating grew in his ears now. Grace stopped and looked at him, her eyes widening and eyebrows going up. He went to hand her Ruck’s leash and she shook her head and made a face at him. She skipped silently ahead and peered cautiously around the edge. She snapped her face around, a look of disgust carved lines around her nose, eyes and mouth. He crept up next to her and tried to hand her the leash again. This time, she took it.
He slowly peered around the edge and couldn’t take his eyes away. A massive shelf had collapsed on two men. One of them was crushed from the shoulders up, the other from the waist down, their entrails mashed together to the point they were almost indistinguishable as individuals, the only difference was the reanimated one was black, the legs poking out from the twisted metal were white. The “survivor” shoved fistfuls of guts into his mouth, more of it falling back out than getting swallowed. Sam watched in dark fascination as the thing grabbed hold of a length of intestine and began consuming it steadily, and it quickly became apparent the intestines the creature was eating were his own.
Sam pulled his head back behind cover, looked at Grace and made a gagging face. She mirrored his looked of disgust then pulled her finger across her throat, kill it. Sam nodded and peered back around the corner. The man was pulling more handfuls of slop off the floor and shoving them into his mouth, around the wet dangle of intestines connecting his shredded gut to his gnashing teeth. When it looked down to find something else to gorge on, Sam stepped out, and silently ran up behind the thing raising his axe. It turned at the last second and Sam brought the heavy blade down between its eyes with a dull thunk.
He stepped back and let the body slump forward. It slammed chin first into the concrete floor and yellow teeth snapped through the rubbery cord with a sickening click. Sam turned back to Grace and Ruck motioned with his head, indicating they should continue checking for danger before shopping. She handed the leash back to him and he took it dutifully. Sam and Ruck followed her, pausing and peeping down isles before crossing to the next one, a relentless pattern in a dead sea of consumerism.
After several tense minutes, Grace broke her rhythm again and Sam’s adrenaline surged. When she turned around, however, she had an exuberant look on her face. She led him around the corner and he saw a glass case remarkably untouched and stuffed with boxes of ammunition and that was sitting across from a partially collapsed display of camping equipment; backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, prepackaged and freeze-dried food. Sam grinned at his wife and she made a spinning motion in the air with her finger finish checking the place out first yeah? He nodded, yeah.
Ammunition and food wouldn’t wait though, they both knew. The door on the ammo display was locked, so Sam turned around to the pile of camping gear and picked a sleeping bag out of a bin. It still smelled new when he yanked the puffy sack out of its container and zipped it open. He draped the bag over the glass door of the ammo case while Grace scanned for attackers. He gripped the lips of the glass door though the heavy material and pulled slowly. The grass crackled mutely through the down, and gave way. Sam guided the shards into the bag, muffling a majority of the tinkling crash of shattering glass.
They sat motionless, trying to hear over Ruck’s heavy panting. The interior of the store pressed in around them despite its massive size. The less room you had to run the more danger you were in when running into an infected. After counting ten of his slow breaths he turned back to the task of sorting quickly through the boxes. He grabbed several boxes of Remington 00 buckshot and made a psst sound through his lips. Grace turned and he tossed her the boxes. She caught them one at a time and held the last one up in thanks before dumping it in the drop pouch on her belt with the others. Sam dug out a box of 9mm Hornady hollow points. He pulled the two empty magazines from their pouch on his belt, and tore the box open and began filling them hurriedly. It took him eighty seconds to reload and replace the magazines.
He pulled his pack off and filled it with boxes of 9mm for his Beretta, .380 for Grace’s Ruger LCP they pulled from a corpse’s hand a few weeks prior and 20 gauge shells for the taped and tattered Remington dangling across her back. He grabbed the bag with one hand and began filling his pack the rest of the way with camping food. Glossy packages of noodles, chicken cutlet, beef stroganoff, peanut butter, crackers made his stomach growl has he stuffed them into the last remaining nooks and crannies of his pack which he then threw back on. The entire break took less than three minutes and they were back to searching. They would come back for the “luxuries” like new sleeping bags and propane later.
They made their way, continuing in the stop and check pattern, from isle to isle silently, Ruck padding gently behind them, sniffing interestedly at the ground every time they paused. They were ten or fifteen isles away from their waiting treasure trove when Sam heard another one of them. The steady gagging, chuttering sound was soft, but distinct. A bird twittered overhead, the sound of water dripping continued is monotonous thwip, thwip, thwip, and Sam heard the familiar gurgling.
He slid the corner of his eye around the edge, one millimeter at a time until he saw the source of the hacking sounds. It was an infected, sloppy obese and slowly, jerkily flailing around in a motorized scooter with a long-dead battery. It’s emaciated legs were half chewed away, and several pieces of flesh were missing from the woman’s arms, face and breasts. Orange blubber and meaty ribbons of tissue leaked from a dirty laceration through her mid section. Her Hawaiian patterned Mumu was torn and stained. Her flabby blue arms twisted in the air.
Next to her there was another infected, also in a chair. It was a young man, or had been, with some severe mental disability. The remnants of a kit-oxygen, a breathing tube running into a stoma on the neck- were draped across him and his chair. The second one was less dapper, it moved jerkily in rapid twitches, as if it could only control it’s shoulders and hips. It flopped like a dying snake on hot coals. The plastic in its neck whistled as it burbled sloppily though the hole in his neck. Bumper stickers for the Make a Wish Foundation adorned the motorized chair; it’s battery long dead.
Sam motioned to Grace there was two of them, and she nodded in understanding; they would take them down together. Grace let some of the leash out, Ruck trailed further back, tail tucked in fear at the twitching woman and her lethargic companion. Sam and Grace made it to almost within striking distance of the pair when a strange voice called out behind them, “oy, that’s my friends there. Don’t you touch Margret and Timtim.”
They turned and saw a man with long hair done up in greasy pigtails on either side of his head. He wore an odd assortment of clothes and scarves, even in the relative warmth of the building. He wore one cowboy boot and one woman’s flip flop adorned with a giant cloth flower, then duct taped to his foot. A long black jacket with a foe-fur neckline draped over military fatigues dyed purple.
“And you killed the Halvsey Twins, quite rude, quite rude.”
Sam slowly switched his axe to his left hand, freeing his shooting hand and said, “hello there.” He stepped toward Grace and away from the two creatures that had noticed their company and begun grasping at them with mangled fingers. He put himself between Grace and their surprise companion. His heart rate was jacked, his fingers felt as if shot through with electricity. They had learned to stop trusting their fellow man early on, especially ones who looked so exuberant to be alive and referred to the walking cannibals as friends.
“Hello yourself,” said the man. Dark red lips stood out from a pale and dirty face. “Who are you and why are you in our house.” Sam waited for his turn to reply but his guest interrupted himself. “They are your guests, invite them for dinner invite them for dinner.” He turned and looked at them, eyes wide and said, “He’s right, how rude of me, would you like to come for supper? My wife is a great cook and would love to have you.”
Grace looked nervously at Sam, who didn’t break eye contact with the insane person in front of him.
“How, my name,” he said, looking up into the darkness. “My name, what’s our name, no mine. I know yours. Not yours, of course, though” he said, looking back at Sam. “We have two names. I am Brent, and I am Sean.”
Sam fingers danced on the butt of his gun. Grace had replaced the machete in it’s scabbard and she rested her hand on her hip near where the grip of her sawn-down pump action hung.
Brent Sean’s timid beard stood out in long, wispy strands and he was neurotically twisting them into bundles. “Really,” he said, “there are more of us. I’m not even supposed to be on my own. Have some mental stuff after the war, scare people away.”
“More of you,” Grace asked, her voice firm, but comforting. “You have a camp or something?”
“Yes, yes,” Brent Sean said. “Me, my new wife, our friends that came for supper last night and stayed. Nice people, husbands, cops, very charming couple they were.”
He peered at with beseeching eyes, tugging on his pathetic beard. “You can point a gun at me if it’ll make you feel better,” he said. “I just don’t want to get in trouble for letting you get away without being fed and stuff. I’ve had guns pointed at me before, it’ll happened again, it’ll happened again.”
His holster unsnapped with a click and he held the gun at his side. “Ok then,” Sam said, “lead the way.”
“Oh good,” said Brent, his face lighting up in joy. “Follow me,” and he turned and marched away humming cheerily.
“What about them,” Grace asked and pointed her gun at the woman and the boy grasping at them like the hungry babies of nightmares.
“They’re not going anywhere I don’t think, lets go,” Sam said and turned after Brent.
They followed him through the store, both with their guns at the ready. Grace clicked the flashlight on and scanned the room with it as they followed the crazy man through the store. Sam fought the terrible feeling in his guts that this was the wrong move. It was such an obviously bad idea, but he still held out in hope they could find a group worth sticking with. Brent Sean kept a conversation with himself the entire trip to the back of the store to the manager’s office.
“Canned carrots, garlic, of course peas and potatoes,” he babbled. “We have peas? Yes we do. Are you sure? Yes! Maybe a nice red wine and a side of Uncle Bens…?”
Brent fumbled with keys at the door and said in a cheerful voice, “honey, fellas, I’m home with new friends for supper. I’m home too dear, I’m home too. Can’t forget about Sean now can we?”
Grace’s shotgun was in her arms now, and she looked nervously at Sam. He gave her a half wink and clicked the safety off. His finger tapped the trigger, beating out a silent rhythm. The door opened, and the glowing light of a fire rippled orange on the walls. Brent opened the door, looked over his shoulder and said “come on in, make yourselves at home.”
Brent Sean looked at them, eyes bugged and never focusing on the same spot for more than a millisecond. He seemed to sense their hesitation. “Brandy? You like brandy or vodka? Let me find a nice beverage. Offer them water. Oh yes, would you like water? Tell them it’s bottled. It’s bottled not tapped. Can’t trust the city water now can we?” He giggled a high-pitched giggle and stepped fully into the room.
Through the door, Sam saw Brent scratch his head and amble to a chest-o-drawers and rummage through muttering about someone drinking all his tea. Sam kept an eye on the muttering form and edged into the room, giving it a quick glance. Grace followed, sweeping the room with her gun. Brent still rummaged and muttered. There was no one else.
“Are we alone?”
The man looked back at Grace and answered, “of course not, my dear, everyone is in the back, in the back.” He pointed down the hall.
Sam led, Grace and Ruck followed. The glow of electric light drew them into another back office where Sam saw the coroner of a cot and the edge of a table. As he drew closer, the scene unfolded before him. The bed was occupied, a naked woman –she looked like she was young and pretty before being recently infected- lay strapped in by strong ropes tied tightly around packing foam about her wrists and ankles. She gnashed her jaws but a leather belt across her head kept her from trashing about. The two corners of the room were filled, one with a pile of fresh meat, the other with stacks of bloody bones and gristle. A human skull peered out from inside the heap and a slab of butchered flesh still had pale skin on it, the edge of a tattoo drawn across the top.
“Holy fuck,” Grace said. Sam turned violently, the gun coming up but Brent stood behind them, holding a revolver by his side.
“I see you’ve met my wife, Susie, and the gays we had for dinner, now put your guns down.”
Sam had never killed a man before, a fact didn’t slow his finger. The muscle memory of hundreds of hours spent on the range wiling away boredom with the Marines aligned the sites perfectly and kept his aim true and he slid the trigger back. The event that felt like it took a full minute to Sam occurred in a few tenths of a second. His pistol came up, Brent Sean had enough time for the look of surprise to register on his face before Sam put a hollow-point through his neck and Grace splattered his guts with her Remington. The impacts slammed Brent into the ground, the revolver clattering next to him.
Ruck howled pitifully and Grace racked her gun, the empty shell clattering hollowly on the concrete floor. Sam rushed to Brent’s arm and kicked the gun away, muzzle directed down at the face contorted in the shock of impending death.
“Fuck man,” Sam said to him. “Fuck, why’d you have to do that.” He got only a choked bubble of blood in reply.
Then the rising howl from deep in the store began building; the ragged hunting call of a pack of infected. Sam looked at Grace kneeling by Ruck, holding the squirming Ruck in her arms and petting his head comfortingly. Brent coughed from the floor and took a labored breath, “They’re coming,” he said and then died. His wife growled and writhed on the bed. Her hips were the only part not strapped to the bed so she pumped her rotting crotch in the air at them, trying so hard to escape her bonds the bones in her cold blue arms snapped and popped.
They could hear the clumsy footsteps of the audibly innumerable creatures. Sam picked the revolver up and dropped it into a cargo pocket, zipping it closed. “We need to go,” he said urgently. “They know we’re here, we’re just going to shoot our way out of here. Keep quiet until you have no choice though.” She nodded and wrapped her hand in Rucks leash. Sam looped the cord from his axe around his left hand, even if he lost his grip it was secure to him, and gripped his pistol in his right. Grace thumped a shell into her shotgun and looked at him with wide eyes.
Sam took a deep breath and opened the door. The area immediately outside the office was clear, the sound of approaching footsteps came from everywhere. The employees locker room they entered through lay on a path that lead them toward the loudest of the groans and hacking jabbering. “We’re taking the long way,” he said, adding, “we got this baby,” when she looked at him, the fear tattooed across her face. She nodded and followed him when he turned and took off jogging.
He led them down an isle of scented candles. Their sweet aroma hung like an afterthought in the smell of damp and rot. The light from his torch bobbed in front of them, and then illuminated three broken, hissing faces. They turned and ran back the way they came, past the manager’s office. He cut down an isle of toys and could hear them in the isle next to him. Boxes exploded off the shelves and a dozen arms in bloody rags and various states of ruin grasped at them. He hacked through one arm, a three-fingered hand with French tips that groped at him.
He reached the end of the isle, looking left and right for a clear path, there were more infected coming after them. Grace yelled “this way,” and ran through the maze of clothing display racks. All around them the creatures lunged and tripped, crashing and toppling over with the clothing racks. Her shotgun roared and she blew the head off one former employee missing her arms. The flock was gathering, their escape routs narrowing terrified heartbeat by terrified heartbeat. She led them up a new isle that turned out to be where Timtim and Margret waited. The noise had excited them and even Timtim thrashed wildly as Sam, Grace and Ruck dodged around them.
Timtim reached out and managed to get a hand around Sam’s pant leg, sending him tumbling to the ground. The air leapt from his lungs as he impacted the cold concrete floor and Sam rolled over to see Brent’s friend topple out of the dead chair. Sam fought for breath and tried to scramble to his feet. Timtim grasped for him with one withered hand, the rest of his body limply thrashed as it squirmed across the floor snake-like toward Sam. The creature reached out for him and then it’s head exploded, his ears rang and Grace racked another dead shell out of the tube. She pulled Sam to his feet and said, “get over it and fucking move.”
They left Margret flapping her giant flabby purple arms at them. Twenty paces later and they were horrified to see their path was blocked by more infected. There were dozens of men, women, children, all with the same soulless, enraged look on their faces; cops, firefighters, and homeless rednecks all stumbling after them on their never-ending quest for sustenance.
Sam looked around frantically and saw the double doors next to the meat section hanging slightly ajar. Nothing but blackness waited through those doors, but it looked like their only option. He grabbed Grace by the shoulder and pointing to the doors and yelling “through there.” She nodded and followed, pulling a yipping Ruck behind her. They dashed into the pitch black, the browning light sweeping over boxes, many melting through the bottom with food gone bad. A closed door, similar to the one they entered the store through flickered in the dying light. The noise of the infected crowd pushed them through it and onto a staircase leading up into deeper darkness. They tumbled through and Grace slammed the door behind them.
Metal stairs clanged under their feet and clicked under Rucks nails and Sam took the stairs two at a time. He reached the top of the stairs and the light flicked out for an instant, then back on, but it was growing dimmer by the second. He saw
“You got a flashlight,” he asked Grace.
“No, it broke two nights ago, remember?”
“Fuck,” he breathed and dug into his pants. The light went out and they plunged into complete darkness. He shook it and it flicked on briefly then back out again. Grace’s voice was tense with fear and ragged with fatigue, “we need another way out of here, fast.” The banging started on the door, sharp and sudden.
He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and the small flame illuminated them in a small bubble of golden light. Beads of sweat stung his eyes and the look in Grace’s face distressed him greatly. Sam took one slow step up, then another; the horrible screech of metal snapping shut had barley registered when his left ankle burst into fiery pain. The metal trap slammed down, he dropped the lighter in his surprise and shock, his yells of surprise and agony enraging the horde of rotting corpses just outside the door. Sam could hear Grace scrambling around at their feet looking for their last source of light. He knelt down, white-hot shards of torment sliced up his leg. The warm damp of blood oozed down into his boot and slicked his hands when he tried to inspect the device tactilely.
“Are you ok?” Grace’s urgent whisper came from beneath him.
His voice was heavy and chopped with pain, “bear trap, fucking hurts, I can’t figure it out.”
The cacophony on the door was deafening, a thousand hands beating out time the beleaguered trio didn’t have. The wall and floor around them hummed as the drumming reverberated under their feet. Ruck’s hot breath startled him and the dog cried and licked at his leg in the dark.
“Fuck off, dog,” Sam yelled, and pushed Ruck away. The pup tumbled down the stairs yelping.
“He licked my fucking leg,” Sam groaned in pain again, his fingers slipped and scrabbled over the mechanisms of the trap. He found triggers and levers, but nothing worked. He tried desperately to remember some reference, some movie or documentary where he saw how to unlock the fucking contraption.
“I can’t find the lighter,” Grace said, “I can’t find it. Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She hissed, her voice started to get high, her fear drove his heart rate through the roof. Ruck howled pitifully, the small shrill voice echoing sharply in the enclosed staircase.
The distinctive sound of a shotgun racking a shell into the tube made him instinctively look toward Grace, his hands still on the metal teeth bearing into his flesh. “Wasn’t me,” she whispered. Her voice sounded both hopeful and yet, it had climbed another octave higher. The dark pressed in on them.
Sam’s hand went to his holster and a voice screamed out of the darkness, terrible, booming and right above them, “DON’T.” Sam froze, his leg burned and the sound of flesh pounding on the hollow metal door thrummed in his head. Ruckus growled in the dark and the voice said again, softer this time. “We were wondering if you’d manage to stop by before leaving. We thought we would leave it up to chance after you killed Brent. He was the sane one; we let him make the rational decisions. Now I guess it’s up to me.”
Someone lit a torch, then another. The balls of fire revealing the silhouettes of five figures standing over them, Grace’s terrified face, and the metal bear trap digging into Sam’s leg.
“I think we would be more inclined to free you of your current predicament once you free yourselves of those burdensome guns and knives and axes of yours” The same voice, rough, calm and pretentious. It was the voice of someone with the power of life in death in his hands and wielded it like a plaything; a spoiled prince in an apocalyptic kingdom. “We could, of course, just shoot you, this is a castle state after all,” the voice paused, and the tall silhouette standing at the direct top of the stairs shifted, looking up in thought. “Well, it might not have been, but it is now. I think that’s reasonable given the circumstances. Now, your weapons, please.”
Sam’s eyes adjusted slowly to the dancing orange light and the figures started to come into a semblance of focus. It seemed his vision was too blurry with pain to make their faces out; they appeared blurry and distorted, no sharp lines. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, I’m taking my gun out now, my axe is on the floor, just, for the love of Christ get my leg out of this thing.”
“All in good time my new friend, all in good time.”
A few of the others chuckled. Their voices were deep, throats damaged by alcohol, smoke and other abuses. As a child, when Sam would read fantasy books and imagine cave trolls, these men had those voices imagined long ago. He pinched the butt of his gun with two fingers and held it out so everyone could see he had no intention of a gunfight.
“Now you,” the man growled, pausing, “woman. Put that ratty looking sawn-off on the floor nice and slow. Oh, hello doggy,” the man said, as if noticing Ruck for the first time and sounding genuinely pleased. “How are ya doing?” He looked back toward Sam and Grace, “I love dogs, so good of you to bring him.”
The Beretta and the Remington clattered to the floor and Sam looked back to see Grace kneeling and holding Ruck close to her chest. The sound of five pairs of boots descending down the metal staircase brought a sudden exhilaration of impending liberation from the agony in his leg. The feeling of being trapped with the infected banging on the door gave him a bigger fight against panic than the actual pain did. The combination, however, had him drawing on every self-calming and meditation technique he could remember to keep the dread away.
“Thank fucking god,” Sam said. “I hope you have a med kit.”
Then he saw his hosts up close for the first time. They wore masks, faces cut from human beings, long pieces of fabric weaved through the rubbery folds and tied into a knot on the back of their heads. Necklaces of human fingers, teeth, and ears hung from his necks. The smell of death emanating off them as bad as any group of infected.
“Greetings and salutations, I am Pän and you can address me as such,” said the man in front. The others fanned out behind him and crossed their arms. Their masks rippled and shifted as they breathed, making it look to Sam as if he were staring at them through water. Pän continued, and Sam had to hold back from screaming at him for taking his god damn time releasing Sam’s leg from the iron grip tearing into his flesh.
“What are you going to do with us?” Grace’s voice trembled. Her strength sapped by fear and famine.
The pulsing face turned toward her. Sam saw the glinting eyes under a thick layer of human hide flick to his wife and Ruck. “Well,” he said, voice muffled and wet under the flesh façade, “your dog is going to be my new BFF, you don’t have to worry about that. He’ll get treated better than any of these mutts behind me. You two, however,” he stopped and looked back at Sam. “We’ll have to think of something stimulating we can all do to keep ourselves entertained this evening.”
Sam didn’t break his gaze from the eyes flashing insanely. He would not let this man break him, despite surrendering. Pän put his hand out behind him without looking and snapped his fingers. One of his similarly decorated minions put a torch in the outstretched fingers and the torch was thrust out toward Sam and Grace. When he turned and looked, Sam saw Ruck pulling against Grace, who had her arms around the dog, his lips curled back over an irregular collection of adult and puppy teeth.
“Fierce little thing,” Pän said. “I like that, I’ll feed him my enemies.”
“We’re not leaving without him,” Grace said sternly from behind Sam. “Put a hand on him and lose it, I swear to fucking god.”
“Who said you were ever leaving?”
His companions’ chuckling barley registered over the sound of blood rushing through Sam’s ears. Their guns came up for the first time. Pän held a colossal Desert Eagle, the torches reflected in the chrome beautifully but looking down the barrel was like staring into a well. One of the men had a brand new AR-15 pointed at them from the waist, like cannon fodder for Arnold in an 80s action movie. One had a hunting shotgun, the third had a Glock, and all were pointed in Sam and Grace’s direction.
“Oh no,” Pän said, “no, no, no. That’s not going to do at all.” He turned and smashed Sam in the jaw sharply with the butt of the silver gun. He fell awkwardly, his leg still gripped between sharp, metal teeth. Sam wished he’d chewed himself free like a wolf. The last thing he saw before the world went black was hands reaching out for him and Grace. The last thing her heard before it went silent was Ruck yelping and snarling hysterically.
His head swam, darkness gave way to dim light slowly. Sam heard murky voices, his injured brain failing to translate so all her heard was the trumpeting teacher from Peanuts. Then he felt someone slapping him repeatedly on the face.
“We’re going to give you a choice: you, or her?”
His head spun, the world came slowly back into view. His leg burned, his hands felt unbearably numb. He opened his eyes, just little slits. Sam’s hands were bound with wire to looped metal posts screwed into the wooden table. A desk chair rolled underneath him. His feet were tied to the table as well. The same room as before but now Grace was gone. With no natural light, he had no idea how long he’d been out and Grace had been by herself.
“Her or me what,” Sam spit through bloody lips.
“Oh, who do you want to live? I thought I’d leave it up to you. On the other hand, we could just kill you both, use your bodies for a few days then eat you. Whatever, up to you.” Pän swayed when he talked and danced and skipped just a little when he walked: an enthusiastic, theatrical child.
“Fuck you and whatever bitch squirted you out into this world, you sick fuck,” Sam yelled, thrashing against the bonds cutting deep into his wrists. “Let me go and I won’t hate fuck you with your own gun before we leave.”
“You might want to just go ahead and be polite,” Pän said, deadpan and serious. “This is your one warning.”
“Suck my dick, faggot.” Sam spit in the man’s face.
Pän blinked as the gob of phlegm slid down the side of his face. He wiped it away and his jaw clenched, and he stopped sashaying. Pän’s teeth began grinding and his long legs ate up the distance between him and the table in seconds. Before Sam had time to react, Pän’s hand whipped out, a wickedly curved talon of a blade sliced through Sam’s left ear, the top half of which fell to the table with a nearly inaudible plop. Sam bellowed, and bucked harder. Blood sprinkled from the wound and dripped down his jaw.
“Now,” said the man with the bloody knife in hand, “pick, or I’ll pick for you.” Then he leaned in and whispered, “basically that means if you don’t make a choice: me and my friends rape your wife to death in front of you, and then rape you to death. You’d think it wasn’t possible-to rape someone to death- but trust me, it is.”
Sam hesitated then hung his head and said, “Kill me. Let her live.”
“Oh really,” Pän said. “You do realize I said ‘live,’ not ‘live and go do something meaningful in life.’ No, no, no mister, one of you is going to become one of us. By that I mean-of course- you’ll sleep in a dog crate at night and be everything from our maid to our fuck hole. Who knows? Maybe she’d start to like it more than our first time.”
Sam gritted his teeth so hard he expected them to shatter in his mouth. He breathed ragged though them; blood and spittle flew out from his mouth, spattering the table. The rage was building in him; he thought the rage would give him the strength to tear the table into pieces and berserk his way, naked, through the nightmarish lair, leaving a trail of their blood in his wake.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said quietly, straining against ropes knotted hard around his wrists and ankles, blood tickling his jawline.
“I doubt it,” said Pän. “I’ll give you a night to think about it. Who knows, maybe you’ll hear something in the breeze that encourages conclusionary thinking.” He paused, looking away in thought. “Conclusionary? Is the even a word? Forget it, you,” he turned back to Sam, gazing at him through holes in another man’s eyes, “will be our guests tonight. Your wife seems to have taken a liking to our… affections, and I don’t think she’ll be joining you. Dog ran off though, quick little bugger.” He spoke to the closed door, “Nick, take him down and put him with Tardy Pants,” then to Sam, “don’t worry though, we’ll find him.”
The door opened and another of his captors, a white man anonymous behind a black face tied in place with a scummy orange bandana, entered the room. He had a squat hulking frame and moved like a seasoned criminal walking into a new prison cafeteria.
“Scott here will take you down to meet the help. Mr. Tardy Pants is quite the conversationalist and should be able to give you some inclination of what a fruitful existence we hath bequeathed unto him.”
The small room smelled of waste, rot and fear. Heavy-duty metal dog cages smeared in dry feces lined the inside wall of what was once an industrial storage room. His hand were on fire. They had clipped him free from the table, blood ran razorblades up the insides of fingers along aching bone. They tied his hands again, with rope this time. Sam was thankful for the little things.
He both tried to listen for Grace, some indication she was still alive, some clue, and also isolate his love her away until he could get them out of there. It was a compartmentalization technique he’d taught himself as a child after his father died. When he or one of his siblings cried, their mom would start and not be able to stop. They learned to turn their emotions off until after their mom went to bed. They shared a room and they all pretended not to hear each other crying themselves to sleep.
He squinted into the dark when the guard shoved him roughly into the cages. The face looking into his eyes was passive, slack and hollow, lips flapping and undulating with each ragged breath. The torch illuminated Sam’s accommodations and he thought he was going to vomit. Off the floor, the man lay on the floor of his metal cage in the fetal position. Big, sad eyes looked up at Sam, the look of an empty soul waiting for death with the apprehension of a drug addict holding lighter to dirty spoon.
A man’s face, maybe 40, Sam couldn’t tell, but it became apparent that his cellmate had downs, severely too- even when Sam considered his limited knowledge on the subject. A pile of human waste piled in the cage underneath him. He was dirty, oily hair hung in clumps and gnarls about his head and face. The man’s soft eyes haunted Sam; he’d seen that look only in the middle of war zones or another genocidal gerrymandering. Dirty bandages dangled and stuck too infected wounds, great strips of flesh had been removed and crudely treated. The eyes said he knew his time was coming, Sam agreed.
Seeing his horror the guard laughed and said, “we wanted a snack, something fresh and organic. Now get the fuck in there.” He shoved Sam into a floor-level kennel. The floor was polished metal, but it had the crusty texture of the underside of a child’s pillow. The masked man hawked a lunger on the man in the cage, laughed and left them. Sam and his silent companion plunged into pitch back as the door closed.
He felt around his pen, forcing his brain to stop analyzing the different textures and smells around him. He made his was carefully along all the walls and joints; sensing nothing he turned his attention to the locking mechanism. His fingernail tore on a rough age and he cursed, fighting the urge to stick his finger in his mouth.
“What are you doing?”
Sam paused in the dark. The voice was weak, barely more than a whisper.
“It’s me, Stephen, I mean Tardy Pants,” his voice became urgent, “don’t tell Pän, he’ll hurt me. Stop messing with your cage, he will hit me, that’s what he did with the others.”
“Not anymore, they got ate. I’m the strongest, I lasted the longest, but I will be with my family in heaven soon.”
“Save a spot for me bud, my name’s Sam. How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know, there’s no day time,” he paused, moving his back gingerly grimacing and whimpering.
“Tardy-“ Sam started, but then stopped for a second. “Can I call you T-Pants instead? It’s still your name, but it’s a nickname.”
“Yeah, I like that.” The voice sounded comparatively chipper, “thank you Sam. I hope you get away.”
“When I figure a way out of here, man, I’ll bring you with me.” He went back to tinkering with his cage’s lock.
“Are you a Navy Seal,” the voice was hopeful, excited.
“I was a reporter, I met Navy Seals,” he ventured.
T-Pants’ voice came across like an enthusiastic kids first time on stage-overacted “Oh, that’s cool I guess.”
“My wife is out there too, she’s a bad ass,” Sam said. Then he sat down in frustration, still reminding himself not to stick his torn nail in his mouth. “She’ll come get us. She’s tough.”
Someone pounded on the door and someone shouted, “shut the fuck up or we’ll curb stomp you and hate fuck your mouth,” then to himself, “exasperating mother fuckers.”
They remained in scared silence. He drifted of for some unknown amount of time, but T-Pants didn’t answer Sam when he awoke the first time. Sam drifted back to his nightmares. When the glow of a torch burned through his eyelids and he opened them, he could see them dragging T-Pants’ limp body out of the dark room and into the warm orange glow of the torches. Someone smacked their lips. They returned for Sam.
They brought him back to the table where the wire restraints waited. Pän stood, one on a chair and this time wearing an Asian face. “So,” he asked, “share your meditated-upon conclusion about this whole affair and lets get on with what’s left of our collective lives.”
“It’s been four months,” Sam said pleadingly. “How can you already be like this already?”
“Do you know the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter,” Pän asked. When Sam only glared blankly he continued. “You see, there’s a walrus who tells a bunch of little sentient oysters to follow him to certain pleasantries and he eats them instead. You follow me so far?” Sam remained motionless. “Good, that’s basically it. Now some people say that the walrus can’t help it, it’s in his nature.”
“So this is just your nature,” Sam spat.
“One might be inclined to think such a thing but, no, my friend, no. You see, Mr. Lewis Carroll’s anthropomorphizing of the animals in this piece suggests it’s not their nature, it’s their choice to follow, trick and consume.”
“Why not make a different choice?” Sam tried to keep his voice firm, yet pleading.
Pän said nothing for a moment then said; “one tends to indulge the inner child with less culturally-induced guilt when there is no culture to judge.” Sam watched him take a few steps away, then turn and say, “The better question is why aren’t you like this yet? Don’t you see,” he waved his hand erratically around them, “the whole fuckin’ world has changed, and we’ve changed with it. But you,” he began poking Sam in the head, emphasizing each word with a stiff jab, “you’re still the same god damn person,” jab, jab, jab, “Don’t you see? You think differently than the rest of us, you’re the crazy one now my optimistic friend. You expected more of humanity? I expected less, guess we meet in the middle.”
The door behind him creaked open and he heard Grace’s gagged whimpers. “Besides,” Pän said in hushed tones, “we may have already been into this kind of thing before, now we just have the room to stretch our creative wings.” Pän laughed and Sam craned his head around and she stood there, held at the elbows by two more of their captors. Grace’s hair clung in damp clumps to her face; her eyes through the matted locks were wild. They had stripped her naked, her body was frail and starved, the evidence of her previous evening’s abuses written on her figure in bruises and smears of blood. She looked into his eyes and sobbed.
The burning pain in his ear ceased, pushed from his mind by the prevailing horror of his love in such a state. He couldn’t contain himself, the rage poured into his veins and he strained and pulled against his restraints. They laughed their hollow laugh through motionless lips, the glint of glee shimmering evilly from empty sockets. The Voice laughed at them in his ear, the whole room laughed at them and he could only rage and cry. Sam shivered through his white-hot rage at the thought of what it took for them to break her spirit.
“Calm down,” Pän said. When Sam refused, bucking against the strains so hard he felt his bones creaking in protest, Pän strode over to Grace, grabbed her around the neck with one rough hand and dragged her to the table in front of Sam. His fingers dug into her neck with ferocious force, her hands came up and fought weakly. Pän slammed Grace’s head to the table, pinning it there. Sam looked into her eyes for one second and whispered, “I love you.” She nodded and then winked. She did it with great fatigue, but Sam felt a little hope that she was still there, in the fight with him
The look of set determination on her face lasted for but a brief second. Pän gapped her by the hair and wrenched her head to the side. He mashed down on her face with all his weight with one hand, the other flicked, a sharp blade glinting in the torch light for an instant before Pän buried it deep into her eye. She didn’t scream, just a gasp of shock, but her body went rigid as if she’d been hit by lightning.
“STOP FUCKING WITH ME,” Pän shouted in Sam’s face.
“What the fuck,” Sam screamed back, his voice breaking into a sob. He pleaded, begged, threatened and Pän only looked at him, hand on the knife buried in Grace’s eye socket.
“When I give someone a task,” Pän said, calmly now, as if explaining to a child why it’s dangerous to insert sticky little fingers in electrical outlets, “I expect them to carry it out with a sense of urgency.”
He began sawing and that’s when Grace began screaming. Her legs thrashed and her two escorts rushed in to pin her down. Sam felt his bones on the verge of snapping in his arms, he wanted to sheer his flesh off, pull his bones through the restraints, let them snap, leaving sharp, ragged points that he could bury in their gullets. His bones didn’t give way, but when Pän flicked the curved knife Grace’s eye did, sliding up and out of the socket and onto the table with a moist plop. Grace began to choke.
The sound of a round being chambered clicked behind him, his own Beretta slammed down in front of him. The wet eye-iris blue as a chip of glacial ice- stared at him from the table next to his weapon. Grace slid of the table and fell to her knees next to his chair. Her hand delicately feeling the side of her face and mumbling bloody mumbles through cracked lips.
“Pick now while we have to save her if you so choose. Otherwise, you can let her bleed out or help her along the way with that cop killer in the pipe there,” Pän tapped Sam’s gun. “Pick it up.”
Sam felt a wrench slide between his skin and his wire bonds. They snipped and his hands went free. They screamed in agony as the blood rushed back in, filling capillaries and blood vessels deprived. Pän slid the gun toward him and Sam didn’t move save for massaging the feeling back into his hands.
“Well? We’re running out of time here,” Pän said, and his friends chuckled from around the room.
The one with the AR stood closest to Sam, within reach. A slamming behind his drew his attention, he looked back at the table at a and saw the curved blade quivering in the rough wood, his wife’s blood still spattered across it. The man with the shotgun stood at the top of the stairs holding the torch, it’s yellow light bathing them in a warm glow. There were two more somewhere in the store; Sam imagined they were on guard duty or patrol.
He saw Pän take a breath in to admonish him again, and Sam reached out slowly.
“Ahh, very good,” Pän said, letting his breath out. “Now make your choice.”
He racked the slide back a few millimeters and looked for the hint of brass. There was, but no magazine inside. One shot, too much to hope for that much stupidity. He clicked the safety off and cocked the hammer back.
“Made a decision yet?”
The mask undulated as the hissing words pushed their way through the flaps of dead skin. Sam turned and looked at Grace, who looked into his eyes and nodded. He lifted the gun, pointed it across the table at her head. The head he held when she was sick, smelled when they spooned at night, and kissed every morning before he left for work.
“Interesting choice,” Pän said. “Might I inquire as to why?”
“He knows I’d rather go down fighting than give into a cocksucker like you,” Grace spit at him, and then she started laughing a weak gurgling sound. “Fucking pencil dick mother fucker.”
“She’s gone bat shit cra-“ Pän’s sentence was cut short by the retort of Sam’s 9mm cracking in the enclosed space. The round jumped across the room and through the head of the torch barer via the cheek, and he tumbled backward down the stairs, the torch clattering down with him. Sam snaked his hand out and pulled the dagger out of the table, he turned and stabbed out, burying it in the neck of the man with the assault rife, twisting it and pulling it back out. The rifleman hit the floor, kicking and gagging, the same time the shotgunner impacted the bottom of the stairs rolling on top of the torch and casting them all in utter darkness.
Sam dropped to his butt and felt for the restraints on his feet. He heard Pän cursing and the swish of the leather jacket as he pulled the giant weapon out. The bonds were plain rope; no one thought he would be able to get down there to chew on them. He lashed out with the sharp blade, severing the rope and freeing his feet. He rolled over, ignoring the pain shooting through his body, and he scrambled in the darkness toward the sound of the man choking and bleeding to death. His hands slipped in blood, he traced them over the writhing man, he felt the writhing face and lashed out with his fist and the blade, landing savage blows on the dying man, who’s struggles weakened under the brief onslaught. Sam felt the knife punching through the hard skull, then through the eye, which burst with a wet slop.
An instant of blinding light and the ear-splitting retort of Pän’s giant handgun turned his world upside down for an instant. Sam’s hands felt cold metal, he followed the slick barrel down the plastic hand-grips and to the handle of the rifle. The Desert Eagle lit the world on fire again, he saw for an instant Grace midway through an endless fall to the ground. Another thunderclap and she was almost to the ground, one more and she was lying still on the cheap-carpeted floor.
Sam brought the rifle up, racking the bolt once, and clicked the safety off. Their blind gun battle was brief and savage; they both pulled the trigger wildly. The Eagle’s slide locked back when Sam had half a magazine to go. Pän even pulled the trigger twice before he realized his weapon had run dry and a .223 round was shattering his pelvis. He dropped to the ground and screamed.
“Grace?” Sam whispered harshly. He heard voices coming from down the stairs. The door opened and electric light flooded in from the open door.
“What the fuck!”
He heard the sound of rounds getting racked into chambers. Sam stood shakily on burning feet and an aching calf, hobbling as quietly as possible to the stairs, arriving before the other two reached the third stair. In the shock of seeing their prisoner bloody, naked and armed they reacted slowly. Sam worked his way left to right; two rounds chest of man on the left, two rounds to the chest of the man on the right, one round to the head of the man on the right, one round to the head of the man on the left. Then he emptied the magazine enthusiastically into the collapsing bodies.
The bolt locked back and he ran down the stairs and closed the door. He slung the empty rifle over his back and picked up the 12-guage and an electric lantern. He raced back up the stairs, saw Pän crawling across the ground to his pistol, and performed a running kick to the man’s jaw. Pän went out like a light; Sam tossed the giant weapons toward where his wife lay rushed to Grace’s side. Sam knew as soon as he rolled her over she was dying. She was deathly pale and choking on blood, the knife had punctured through her sinus and she was bleeding down the back of her throat. She drowned in her own blood. Sam’s experience with movies and television made him think that when people die they say something moving, stop breathing and drift away. Tears flow, but the entire experience is never exceedingly awful in the television wonderlands.
It took Grace ten minutes to die. The human body will go to great and horrible lengths to survive. Her body, starved of oxygen and pleading for air, wrenched her diaphragm so hard her ribs stood out even more sharply. She choked and cried and tried to speak, only to have the last sounds of death emanate forth. There was nothing beautiful about the way his wife died. She continued twitching in his arms as the last essence of life left her. He held her close and whispered the same three words over, and over, and over into her ear, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He saw recognition and understanding in her eyes just before the light in them flickered out, and Sam was left alone. Her face finally relaxed for the first time in months. No more pain, no more sorrow for her, only for Sam.
He felt a part of his soul die. Some divine light, the loving, kind, altruistic nature that can make human beings so fantastic, flickered out as he lay there naked with his dead wife. Sam knew she wouldn’t want to walk the Earth, no purpose but to hunt those she may once have loved, or at least recognized as a fellow human being. The loaded magazine and his pistol lay only a foot away from where he waited for his wife to die, knocked out of Pän’s hand during the fray. He cradled her limp body when he leaned over to pick them up awkwardly with one hand.
She started to stir in his lap and his hands began to shake. It took him three tries to get the magazine seated. It fell completely out of the gun and his hand, clattering on the floor on the second attempt. Grace’s eye rolled under the lid and he thumbed the catch and the slide shot forward, sucking a round into the pipe. Sam laid her on her side and he curled around her like a question mark. He scooped one arm under her pitifully light body and hugged her close. When she began to gasp and twitch he put the gun to her head and willed his finger to squeeze the trigger. The gunshot freed Grace and eviscerated Sam’s heart. He let out a cry of agony and rage he hardly recognized as his own voice and his light went out. For the first time in his life the rage consumed him completely.
It took Sam an hour to prepare. Pän was damasked, naked and his hands wired to a beam in the ceiling in the room they’d held Grace. Unable to stand with his devastated pelvis, he half kneeled, half lay on the ground whimpering, his arms held taught above him, the wire digging into purpling hands. Sam managed to stop the bleeding, but he had neither the skill nor the inclination to take any sort of action with the broken bones so he tied Pän up and left him to suffer while he attained the next piece of his retaliatory puzzle.
It was easier than Sam expected to ambush the lone infected ambling about outside the door at the bottom of the stairs. He opened the door, standing behind it, and let the three bodies act as bait. A woman missing an arm stumbled through, falling to her knees and biting into the tender check of one of the dead men. Sam closed the door and she looked toward the noise. She rose slowly, hissing at him through bloody and yellow teeth. He shot her in the knees and she tumbled. He dragged her warily by her one arm up the stairs and left her to crawl after him. Her progress was slow, he had a minute or two before she made it to him and Pän.
Sam slapped the handsome young face of the de-masked tormentor. Pän’s eye’s looked up at him, foggy with pain. Sam cut the wire holding his prisoner’s arms aloft and the man let out an anguished cry of relief and tumbled to the floor. The crawling woman hissed and Pän saw her for the first time, her nails digging into the carpet, her face contorting in empty wrath.
“Oh no, please no,” Pän said. Sam ignored him, striding around the chair instead and kneeling on Pän’s chest. He reached out with one had and held Pän down, mashing his face into the dirty carpet. The man whimpered then screamed when Sam buried the knife first in Pän’s left eye, then the right. Then he stood and stepped back.
“You should stop screaming,” Sam said levelly. “You might want to listen carefully. I’m not going to kill you, I’ll leave it to chance. Too bad you killed Grace, she was the rational one.”
The woman reached out and grasped Pän’s leg, dirty nails digging into the bare skin. Pän screamed and kicked out, his voice wet with snivels. He broke free and scrambled backward in a half-crab walk, breathing heavily, fresh blood smattering his chest, legs dragging limply.
“Oh, got away that time,” Sam said mockingly and stepped away. “Better stay on your toes, she’s coming back.”
He watched Pän scramble blindly around the room, his legs dragging uselessly behind him. After 5 minutes Sam-without warning- kicked Pän, snapping his left arm at the elbow. He screamed and collapsed, arm bent 45-degrees the wrong direction, sinew and white sharps popped from the wound like plants pushing through concrete.
“Yeah,” Sam drawled. “I figured we should level the playing field a little more. Better get going.”
Pän sobbed, reaching out pitifully from the ground with his one good arm and looked at Sam with melting eyes pleading, “please just kill me.”
Sam kicked him in the gut, then in one motion grabbed hold of Pän’s dick stretching the flaccid little lump of tissue out and carving it off with the curved dagger. He stood and tossed it at Pän’s face.
“When I say to do something, it’s best to do it and be polite,” he screamed.
The Voice chuckled approvingly in his mind, “good boy, nice to see you accepting reality finally.”
Pän bellowed again, and in the agony and shock of losing his manhood, he forgot he was in a fight for survival. The woman creature grabbed hold of his foot and he kicked out too late. Her teeth sank in and she hung on like a bulldog. Pän screamed and fought, Sam hacked the infected appendage off with a quick swipe of his hatchet. The woman-temporarily distracted by her meal- didn’t pay any attention to Sam when he kneeled down on the bleeding limb and held the torch to the stump, cauterizing the wound.
“Ding-ding,” said the Voice, “round one goes to zombie lady.”
“Ding-ding,” Sam echoed jubilantly, “round one goes to zombie lady.”
He felt absolute joy creeping terrifyingly into his soul when he hurt the man who took the last thing Sam bothered living for. He took his time, because he knew the end of Pän’s life was the end of his. His will to go on had been tested-even before the outbreak; afterwards the only thing that gave strength to his weary limbs was the chance he could give Grace a real life again. His purpose died when she did, and the atrocity before him was his final symphony.
By the end of it, Pän’s limbs were all reduced to nubs and charcoal black from cauterization. Sam left him hanging facedown from a beam in a chain hammock, just out of reach of the hungry infected. When he returned to the office and Grace’s body, his mind was numb.
He sat in the dark room, pulling her limp, slender body in his arms. Darkness that usually only lived in the deep recesses of his mind sat behind his eyes now, his chest felt hot with anger, self-pity, madness. It was quiet, just the sound of the breeze outside. Tears welled in his eyes. He had nothing. He was nothing. His existence was purposeless. Survival for the sake of survival was miserable.
His gun sat limply in his hand, resting on his knees. His pants heavily patched and stained. Stained with the blood from the infected, blood from men who had tried to kill him and killed his wife, blood from his wife, his own blood. The stains lived there like ink blot tests, never showing anything but death and dismay to Sam.
He racked the slide back a little bit, looking for the glint of copper and finding it. With surprising enthusiasm and speed he placed the barrel of the gun in his mouth. He could taste the lubricant, the slight, acrid smell of burning gunpowder lingered at the back of his nose. He tongued the opening, tasting the cold metal. He took a deep breath and began to apply pressure. He knew the pistol well, when he reached the breaking point he paused, and smiled, sweet relief, finally.
Then he heard the whine.
He looked over the gun and saw Ruck’s eyes glinting in the dark from through a vent grate partially hidden behind a pile of trash. Sam rose to his hands and knees, gently laying Grace down, and crawled over to the small hatch. It popped off easily; Sam had forgotten about the furry little creature now making his way timidly , toward him.