Authors: Amy Cross
It's been a couple of weeks now since Toad told me to come out here and get this job done, but I've been putting it off. He probably thinks I'm being squeamish, but the truth is that I've been hoping the job would kind of take care of itself. After all, it's been almost a month since either of us came to check on the creature in the pit, and I figure it must have rotted away by now.
Setting the can of gas down on the ground, I stare at the top of the pit and wait for some hint of movement from down below. Hearing nothing, I lean down and open the can before tilting it and dousing some rags. My heart is pounding and I can't help glancing around every few seconds, just in case there's anything else out here. It's been a long time since we saw any of the creatures, but I know that one could appear at any moment. Finally, figuring that I just need to get this done, I grab the can and head over to the edge of the pit. Along the way, I catch my foot on something, and I feel a sharp pain in my right ankle.
Taking a look, I see that I've cut myself on an old piece of barbed wire. It doesn't look too bad, so I figure I can clean it up later.
When I look down into the pit, I see that the creature's body is little more than a husk now. It's strange to think that just a few weeks ago, Patricia was planning to keep the damn thing alive so she could carry out experiments. Sometimes those days feel as if they happened a million years ago, to someone else in another life. Holding the can up, I start pouring gasoline down into the pit, making sure to cover the creature's body as much as possible. Maybe I'm getting hardened to this kind of thing, but now that I'm finally out here, there's definitely a part of me that's looking forward to watching the damn thing burn. After all, if these creatures had never appeared, a whole lot of people would still be alive.
I'd still have my parents, and my brother, and a future.
Once the gas can is empty, I set it aside and grab the rags. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out the old cigarette lighter I found in Patricia's room. It feels good to be finally getting this job done, and I'm starting to think that in some ways Toad was right. I tend to spend far too much of my time sitting around, waiting for things to happen, when really all that I need to do is get off my ass and start working. I know Toad thinks I'm too passive, but I'm determined to show him that I can step up to the plate. Sure, things might be looking pretty bleak right now, but I'm damn well not going to just sit down and wait to die. At least one member of the Marter family is going to make it out of this nightmare alive.
Hearing a creaking noise from the pit, I glance down, not really expecting to see anything. After a moment, however, I realize that the creature's head seems to have moved slightly. I stare, trying to stay calm while reminding myself that this is probably all just in my head. After a moment, however, there's more movement, as the creature very slowly turns to look at me, even though its shriveled eyes look as if there's no way they can see anything at all.
I stare back down at it, but to my surprise I realize that I'm not scared. I'm angry.
"Have you been conscious down there all this time?" I ask.
There's no reply. Judging from the state of the creature's emaciated face, I'm not sure it's even capable of talking anymore. Most of its skin has rotted away, exposing part of the skull, and the jawbone looks to be hanging loose from one side. Between its rows of stained teeth, however, I can see something moving, and finally I realize that the tongue is twitching. I guess the creature might be trying to say something after all.
"I was supposed to come and kill you a long time ago," I continue, feeling strangely bold and calm. "I figured I'd let you suffer, though. I hope it hurt as you were wasting away down here. I hope you felt every second of pain as your body broke down."
Slowly, the creature tilts its head a little, almost like a dog that doesn't understand a command.
"Can you even feel anything anymore?" I ask. "I knew someone who was going to carry out a load of experiments on you. She wanted to test you and poke you, and try to work out exactly what you are." I pause for a moment. "Part of me wishes she'd had the chance. She was very focused on her work, so I doubt she'd have spent much time worrying about your well-being. She'd probably have tortured you, just to get a better understanding of how you work. I'd have been horrified, but maybe I'd have come to enjoy it after a while. Still, she went kind of crazy in the end. She was trying to work out which one of us had been infected in the house, and she went overboard. She was probably a nice person before this madness started, though. That's the worst thing. You're making us become different people, just so we can survive."
The creature shifts its position a little, almost as if it's trying to get up. It clearly has no chance of moving very much, though, since most of its muscle mass is gone. I watch as it keeps trying, and finally its entire jawbone comes loose, dropping down onto its ribs before falling to the ground. The creature continues to stare at me, and now I can see its tongue rising up from the back of its throat, flicking in different directions as a faint gurgle emerges. The damn thing looks ridiculous.
"I'm not even scared of you," I continue, staring at the shriveled brown orbs that were once a pair of eyes. "Not now. You might look like some kind of zombie, but you're not, are you? You're a living, breathing thing, or at least you used to be. We thought you were going to overrun us and rip us to pieces, but we haven't seen any more of you for weeks. What happened? Did you all just wither away like this? I don't know what the hell you've been planning, but right now you don't look so scary. In fact, you look pretty goddamn weak. I could probably just leave you down there and you'd rot away by the weekend, or I could climb down and throttle you with my bare hands."
Pausing for a moment, I realize that it actually feels better to be saying these things. For the past few weeks, I've lived in constant fear of these creatures showing up again, but now I'm starting to think that the threat might be over. After all, if they've all started to rot away, there's a chance that nature might just have taken care of the problem. Then again, there's probably an element of wishful thinking about this scenario, and I try to focus on the fact that things can't be so easy.
"This is for my brother," I say finally, holding the rag up and lighting the gasoline-soaked bottom half. "It's also for the other people who've died since all of this began, but mainly it's for Henry, and for my parents, because I miss them and because I'm never going to get them back. I don't know how many other people have also died over the past few weeks, but I'm sure it's a lot, and it's all your fault."
The creature stares up at me. For a moment - just a moment - I almost feel sorry for it, but then I remember some of the things it said when we spoke last time, and I realize that even this quick death is too merciful.
"Go to hell," I add, before dropping the rag. The gasoline at the bottom of the pit immediately ignites, and I have to take a step back as the heat becomes unbearable. Staring into the flames, I try to imagine the creature's body being burned to ash, and I can't help but hope that there's still enough of its mind left to allow it to feel real pain. This is a whole new side to me, but I swear to God I want every damn one of those things to die in the most agonizing manner possible. I don't care if that makes me a bad person.
After a moment, I realize I can hear a noise in the distance. Turning and looking back at the house, I'm surprised by the fact that suddenly Rachel seems to be crying. More than crying, maybe; it's almost as if she's screaming.
"I can hear you!" the man shouts from the next room. "Don't think you can keep down and trick me! I know you're there! I saw your skinny ass ducking out the way! What's up? Did I get you?"
Squeezed into the corner behind the cash register, I try to work out how to get away from here as fast as possible. The problem is, I have no way of knowing if this madman has another shot ready to fire off, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have much trouble blowing a hole through the wall if he thought he had a chance of hitting me; there's also the fact that he could lean out through the hole at any moment, so I need to be careful. Wiping some blood from my cheek, I look up at the counter and try to work out of I could jump over and get to the door.
"It's been a while since one of your lot was here," the man continues, "but I blew the other bastards away and I'll finish you too!"
Pausing, I realize that he thinks I'm one of the creatures. I want to call out to him and tell him he's wrong, but I might just end up helping him get a better shot at me. All I can think about is that I have to get the hell out of here, but I'm terrified to make a move in case he catches sight of me and fires again.
"What's wrong?" he asks. "No more gloating? You lot normally have a hell of a lot to say, even when you're in a bad way. Aren't you gonna tell me all about how I'm gonna get picked off eventually? That's what you usually do, isn't it? I've lost track of the number of your lot I've taken down, and I'm still here! I was starting to think you'd given up on me. Frankly, I was feeling a little insulted."
"I'm not one of them!" I shout, although I immediately regret the outburst.
"Bullshit!" he shouts.
"I'm not!" Taking a deep breath, I figure that now I've started talking to him, I'd be crazy to stop. "I'm just passing through! I thought this place was deserted!"
"I'm onto you!" he replies. "I know what you're like! You're trying to trick me!"
"I'm not!" I shout back at him. "I swear, I'm just looking for food! I'll put it all back, I promise!"
"And how the hell am I supposed to believe you?" he asks. "For all I know, you're probably lying your goddamn rotten mouth off!"
"I've seen them," I reply. "The creatures, I've seen them, but not in the past few weeks. I've been driving, I'm trying to find other people, or..." I pause as I realize that I'm not really sure
I'm driving, except that I keep hoping I'll somehow stumble across something that helps all of this chaos make sense. "I'm like you," I continue, "or at least I think I am. How do I know
not one of them?"
"Do I sound like one of them?" he shouts.
"No," I reply. "Do I?"
"That ain't no proof!" he yells. "Maybe the damn things are just getting smarter!"
"No-one can prove anything!" I tell him. "We're in this together. I don't know how many of us are left, but everyone I've met so far has either been dead or they died right after. I don't know what the hell's going on, but I'm just trying to get somewhere safe. Please, you have to believe me. Do I really sound like one of those creatures?"
I wait for an answer, but he seems to have fallen silent.
"I'll get all the stuff I took," I continue, "and I'll put it back. I swear to God. You can come out and keep that damn thing aimed at me the whole time if it makes you feel better, but all I want is to get going."
I wait, but again he seems to have no intention of answering.
"So I'm going to get up now," I say finally, figuring that the guy could probably have shot me through the wall by now if that was his plan. Getting to my feet, I stare at the hole in the door, convinced that at any moment the guy is going to come out.
"My name's Thomas," I say after a moment. "Thomas Edgewater. My parents and my brother were both killed by this virus thing, whatever the hell it is, and as far as I know my sister's dead too. I'm just trying to get somewhere safe. I don't know where, but I figure I'm going to head toward Chicago and see if there's any sign of life. I don't know what the creatures are or where they came from, not really; all I know is that I haven't seen one for more than three weeks, but I'm not convinced they're gone just yet."
"Two weeks," he says suddenly.
"That's how long it's been since I saw one of 'em," he continues, sounding noticeably less abrasive. "Damn thing was nearly falling apart as it hobbled toward me. Hell, I waited 'til she was right close before I blew her head clear off her body. If you ask me, they're starting to rot and when that happens, they ain't no good at holding together." He pauses. "Okay, Thomas Edgewater, why don't you step into view? Let me get a good look at you and make sure you're not falling apart."
I take a deep breath, staring at the hole in the door.
"I know what you're probably thinking," he adds. "You're thinking you could vault the counter and I probably couldn't get a shot in. You're right. However, I've got a little window here and it gives me a very nice view of that truck of yours, so even though you'd make it to the door, I wouldn't give you much chance of getting away. So if you've really got nothing to hide, why don't you come and let me see you, huh?"
Figuring that this is my best bet, I make my way cautiously toward the door. I'm still worried that this is a trap, that even if this guy isn't one of the creatures, he might still be dangerous. Finally, however, I reach the door and look through, and to my surprise I find myself staring at an old man with a huge white beard, aiming his shotgun straight at me. Damn it, it's like Santa Claus versus the zombies.
"That's right," he mutters. "You just stand there and let me get a
look at you. Hold your hands up."
I raise my hands obediently, even though I'm trembling with fear. If I was in the old man's place, I think I'd probably shoot me.
"You don't look like one of 'em to me," he continues. "I swear to God, though... If you so much as look at me wrong, I'll blow your goddamn head off. And if you're thinking I've only got one shot left, you're wrong. I already reloaded and I'm a damn good shot. I don't usually need two goes, and I sure as hell never need three."
"Please," I reply, "I just want to get out of here. I'll put all the food back -"
"No," he says, interrupting me, "you won't be putting nothing back." He pauses. "You got enough gasoline to get to Chicago?"
"I think so, but -"
"The pumps here are dry," he continues, "otherwise I'd have taken off myself. I didn't really have much of a plan, but now fortune seems to have dropped you into my lap so I figure I might as well make use of you. Then again, I'm a fair man, so here's the deal. I don't know if Chicago's a good destination, but I figure it's better than sitting around here. That truck of yours looks pretty decent, so I'll sit out on the back and you can drive. When we get to Chicago, that's where we part ways. Deal?"
I stare at him, and somehow I get the feeling that I don't really have much choice.
"Sure," I reply, "but -"
"Don't think you can try anything, either," he adds. "I can blow your head off through the window in the back of that truck's cab, so you just concentrate on keeping us moving forward. The alternative is that I'll blow your head off right now and take the damn truck anyway. I could do that, you know. I'm being very kind here, letting you live."
"I... okay," I say finally.
"Wise choice," he replies. "The name's George, and that's really all you need to know about me. I'm not intending to become friendly with you, boy, even if you look like a decent type. We're just two people who happen to be going in the same direction, so we might as well help each other out. You're helping me by driving, and I'm helping you by giving you food and by not blowing your head off. One more time, do we have a deal?"
"We have a deal," I tell him.
"You'll be walking ahead of me," he adds. "Five paces at all times, and I'll have this gun aimed right at your goddamn back, you understand?"
I nod again, even though I'm desperately trying to think of a way to get away from this guy. It's clear that he's not quite right in the head, and after everything that happened a few weeks ago, I sure as hell don't want to end up being pushed around by yet another madman.
"So what are you waiting for?" he asks, taking a step toward me while keeping the gun aimed at my face. "Move!"