Authors: M. Lauryl Lewis
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror
Boggs signaled to Gus that he was going to look.
When the men had boarded up the house weeks ago, they had fashioned a small corner to serve as a peep hole. Boggs stepped to the other side of the door, stood off to one side, and swiveled the small piece of wood aside so that he could look out.
“Holy shit,” he mumbled.
“They’re carrying something dead!”
“What do you mean?” asked Gus with concern in his voice.
“Dinner, I hope,” said Boggs. “I think it’s a skinned deer carcass. Or maybe a small elk.”
“Do you just see the two of them, like they said?”
Boggs held up two fingers in reply.
“Ok buddy, go ahead and open the door.
Grab their weapons. I’ll keep my gun on them.”
Boggs unlatched the two locks we had set in place and removed a crossbar.
The door opened inward.
“Step forward,” called out Gus.
“Just to the bottom of the steps.”
Boggs bent down and picked up the firearms.
“I trust we’ll get those back, friend?” asked the owner of the deep voice.
“I imagine so,” answered Gus.
“Step inside. Uh, leave the carcass on the porch?”
“Sure thing,” answered the younger man who had yet to speak.
Through the doorway, I could see the two men standing in the snow at the base of the porch steps. The bloody mess in the yard was almost gone, covered by fresh snowfall. The men wore ragged coats, which were splattered by snowflakes. Snow was falling heavily. They were large billowy flakes filled with moisture, falling heavily to the earth. The closer of the two men walked up the steps slowly, his arms beside him and held out showing he intended no harm. He was tall, dark-skinned, and looked like he had been living outdoors for some time. As he stepped through the threshold of our cabin, he extended a hand toward Gus, who took it hesitantly. As they pumped hands, the man cleared his throat.
“Bill, nice to meet you. I’m Gus. We can do more introductions once you’re both inside.”
Bill nodded in agreement. I heard a ‘thud’ from the front porch.
The second man had climbed the steps and dropped his burden on the porch. He crossed the threshold as his friend had done, and extended a hand to Boggs.
“Thanks for letting us in.
“Hey, nice meeting you. Boggs.”
“Interesting name,” said Nathan with a tight-lipped smile. He looked to be quite a bit younger than the other man and was fair with rosy cheeks. Both of them wore similar clothing, dingy and ragged. They both had beards of several weeks.
“Let’s get the door shut up tight,” said Gus.
“We’ve had some problems today.”
“We saw,” said Nathan.
“Some guys in a military truck scattered that crap around your place.”
“We were setting out to warn you,” added Bill.
“But you went inside and we figured you must have figured out something was going down.”
“So, was that you I spotted in the tree line north of here?” asked Gus.
I could tell by his body language that he wasn’t fully trusting of the two men. “Watching with binoculars?”
Yeah, sounds like us,” said Nathan. “We saw the dead come through here too. What they did to that poor old woman.” Nathan hung his head in what appeared to be genuine sadness.
“That’s Zoe,” said Gus.
“Susan beside her. And Emilie here.” He wrapped an arm possessively around Em.
“Pleasure to meet you ladies,” said Nathan with a nod.
“We brought the deer on the porch, hoping to share it. It’s been field dressed, but ideally we’d hang it to cure for two or three days.”
“Very kind of you,” said Gus.
“We’d be happy to trade shelter for some.”
“We haven’t seen any large game in weeks,” added Boggs.
“They’re scarce now,” said Bill. “This is the first we’ve seen in weeks. They seem to only be at higher elevations now. Like they’ve run as high as they can from the walking dead. I imagine they’ll be gone altogether soon enough,” he sighed.
“Sounds like we have a lot to talk about,” said Gus. “We can offer hot tea and some basics for now.
We have smoked fish, some pasta and canned foods. Hot water for showers if you want to clean up.”
Bill and Nathan both nodded.
“That’d be great,” said Nathan. “I’ll step out and string the deer up to cure if that’s ok.”
“I’d suggest the shed,” said Gus as he put his hands on his hips.
“Seems the Runners prefer live meals, but I’d rather not have it hanging out in the open just to be safe.”
“Sounds fair enough,” said Nathan.
“They seem attracted to blood too, so we bled the deer quite a ways back.”
“One of us can help you lift it up,” added Boggs.
“There’s rope in the shed. If you want to wait I’ll get warm clothes on and go out with you.”
“Can I help?” asked Susan.
I looked at her, not understanding. Her cheeks were pink. No one spoke.
“With the deer…” she clarified.
Nathan shrugged. “Fine by me,” he said.
“Sue?” asked Boggs, sounding as dumbfounded as I felt.
“You sure you can stomach it?”
I realized she had her eye on Nathan already. I couldn’t blame her. It’s not like options for companionship are varied in an apocalypse.
“Make sure you dress warm,” said Nathan.
“The temperature’s dropping. It’s really cold out there. Just meet me on the porch when you’re ready?”
“Ok,” she said with a hint of a smile.
“Nathan,” said Bill with obvious authority.
Nathan looked up at him. “Be careful out there.”
“You know I always am.”
Nathan smiled. I noticed one of his side front teeth was missing. It made me think briefly about how dental care is a thing of the past in this new world. Even with the gap in his teeth, his smile was genuine and kind.
“He should be ok,” I said quietly.
Bill looked at me, and then to Gus.
I realized he must think I was an oddball after saying such a thing.
The last thing I wanted to do was explain my telepathic curse to strangers.
“Boggs will keep them safe,” I added.
“Ok, let’s get going,” said Boggs, who had returned in warmer clothes, Susan in tow.
Susan, Boggs, and Nathan had spent almost an hour working on the deer. I wondered what could be taking so long. It was exhausting keeping my mental alarm up, worried about their safety. Bill took Gus up on his offer of a shower and Emilie set some fresh clothes out for him. It felt odd having strangers in the cabin, especially since we knew danger lurked nearby and we weren’t entirely sure these men were not responsible. My gut told me they were ok, and in need of our help in some way.
Boggs had come back inside first, leaving Susan and the new man alone.
I asked him if he thought that was smart, leaving her alone with him, somehow feeling protective of Susan. He assured me she was a big girl and just fine. Finally I heard Susan and Nathan join us back inside the cabin. I began working on a meager but hot meal in the kitchen to welcome the two strangers. I set water to boil for pasta that we had salvaged from a bed and breakfast that was closed for the season. I decided on macaroni. I also set a pot of water for tea. I could hear Susan in the background showing Nathan the basics of the cabin. She was showing him to the shower so he could clean up before dinner. As I was at the stove watching for the water to boil, I felt Boggs slip his arms around me. I smiled to myself. He brushed my hair to one side and nestled his nose against my neck lightly. I cringed at the coldness of his skin.
“You’re freezing!” I startled, my voice high-pitched with surprise.
“It’s gotten so cold out, Zo. I’m hoping spring comes along soon.”
“Hungry?” I asked.
“Very,” he moaned. “The venison’s going to be awesome once it’s ready.”
I can’t wait,” I said. “I just wish we had fresh veggies to go with it.”
“Someday we can plant a garden,” I heard Gus add from the back of the room.
“Bill, this is our kitchen. Zoe, whatcha makin’ Darlin’?”
“Pasta, tea, smoked fish, and I thought we’d splurge and have the last couple of cans of peaches for dessert.
To celebrate new friends,” I added. I turned away from the stove and smiled to myself. Nathan and Bill were both standing near Gus at the back of the kitchen. They had shined up nicely after their showers, but both still wore their beards. Nathan had also changed into clothes we had on hand.
“We have a few things in our packs we’d be happy to add to the meal,” said Bill with a wide grin.
His teeth were bright white, seemingly more so against the darkness of his skin. He was one of the darkest black men I think I’d ever seen. His skin was pretty, if you can call a man’s skin ‘pretty.’ “We dug up some potatoes and carrots from an old garden, and we have eggs.”
“Eggs?” Emilie squeaked with delight.
“Where’d you get eggs?”
“We gathered them from the lakeshore. I just wish we could have snatched the duck that laid them too.”
The tension that had been palpable upon the arrival of the strangers was beginning to dissipate.
“Uh, what if they have baby ducks in them?” I asked, horrified at the thought.
“You know, Zoe, balut is a delicacy in the Philippines,” added Gus.
“I tried it once when I was overseas.”
“What’s balut?” asked Susan hesitantly.
Gus chuckled quietly. “Uh… hard-boiled duckling. They cook the eggs once the duck fetus is eighteen days old. It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac.” He waggled his eyebrows at Em.
I tried to not gag at the thought.
“Yuck,” said Emilie, wrinkling her freckle-splattered nose.
“Let’s not ruin their appetite,” said Boggs.
Gus yawned and stretched. “Sorry,” he mumbled and followed with a sly smile.
“Why don’t you men sit and I’ll bring tea over,” I suggested.
“Dinner won’t be much longer.”
“Zoe, want some help?” asked Emilie.
“Sure, thanks Em. You can add some macaroni to the pot once it boils.”
“Do we have anything to add to it?” she asked.
“Stewed tomatoes. There’s a jar in the cabinet above the sink. My mom used to make it like that. Sounds kind of gross, but it’s not bad.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“I’ll grab what we have on hand,” said Nathan.
“Susan, do you mind helping me?”
Susan looked up, and beamed.
“Sure!” Her smile was a welcome sight.
Tea was steeping, mugs were set out, and the macaroni was almost finished cooking.
We had decided to wait until the next day to indulge in the eggs, and would save the potatoes and carrots for once the venison was cured and ready to cook. Emilie and I had taken strips of smoked trout out of the refrigerator and broken them into bite-sized pieces and arranged them on a small platter. The four men had settled in at the table and Susan occupied the fourth chair, between Nathan and Boggs. Emilie and I often tackled meal duties together, enjoying the activity and the time to talk to each other. We were glad to serve the small meal and then sit on the counter and eat in the background. It also gave us a chance to sit back and observe the newcomers. Before the world flipped upside down and kicked our butts, people might think us girls waiting on the men was old fashioned. We enjoyed it. And now there was no one to judge anyhow. Same went for the guys, being protective of us. It felt natural and we had all fallen into a groove. We considered each other very much as equals.
“So, mind telling us how you came across our cabin?” pressed Gus as the big discussion began.
Bill cleared his throat. “We’re in a similar situation about ten miles away. Holed up in an old country style house. There’s a handful of us. Six now, was ten.” His face grew solemn as he spoke. “The homeowners had obviously been attacked and overrun. There was blood everywhere and two mutilated bodies. Or what was left of them.”
I heard Nathan sigh at the memory.
“By the time we came across the house,” added Nathan, “the ten of us had hooked up. We lost four on a scouting trip. The rest of us were lucky to make it out of that one alive.”
“We lost four really good people.
One of them just a little child,” Bill said softly, almost as if the memory would bring bad luck to us.
“We also lost some really good people,” chimed in Susan.
“Three of them. Well, three adults and a newborn.” She hung her head. I noticed Nathan watching her. A couple of weeks ago I’d have thought Susan was putting on a show to impress someone, but her grief now seemed genuine.
I walked to the table with two mugs of steaming tea and set them down first for Susan and Bill. Emilie followed me, balancing three more for Nathan, Gus, and Boggs.
“How secure is the place you’re holed up in?” asked Gus.
Bill shrugged. “Not as secure as I’d like.
We’ve focused on the basement as a safe area in the event of a breech. Most of our time is spent down there. We have it boarded up the best we can. It’s cold though. We have a wood burning fireplace but only light it after dark to mask the smoke. Nathan and I are the ones with the most hunting skills so are out in search of food right now. We’ve been out hunting for almost a week.”
“A week?” asked Boggs.
“How have you kept alive?
“A little trick we’ve learned,” said Nathan with a wide grin. “The dead can’t climb trees.”
“But once they know you’re there they can surround you and wait. Then you have to use ammo carefully…just head shots. Kill ’em then run like hell before more come,” sighed Bill.
“You’ve seen the fast ones?” asked Gus.
“Yeah, they’re the worst,” answered Nathan.
I sipped at my hot tea while Emilie strained the macaroni into the sink and added the can of tomatoes.
“We suspect they can think,” I added. Everyone at the table looked at me, Bill and Nathan holding their mugs mid-sip.
“What do you mean?” asked Bill, grimly.
“We’ve seen them use humans as bait,” I answered, not bothering to try to sugar coat it. “They sit back and watch and wait. They eat on people they use until they are done with them, and then finish them off. That’s exactly what you saw outside this cabin with the old woman.”
Nathan’s already fair face paled even more.
“That makes sense,” he said, his tone angry. “We’ve noticed that in the hordes we’ve come across there’s often one or two of the fast ones, and the rest are slow and clumsy.”
Yeah, it’s usually just a couple of the fast ones. They use the rest to do the dirty work, so-to-speak,” added Emilie. “We’ve been calling them Roamers and Runners.”
“Good nicknames,” said Nathan.
“Sounds as if we might have good Intel to share with one another,” said Gus. “If you’re open to it.”
“Man, I don’t see how we can’t,” answered Bill.
“People have to help each other now, if we’re to survive at all. Especially seeing as there’s other humans out there sabotaging. Like luring those bastards here to your cabin.”
The thought sent a chill up my spine and my body shuddered slightly.
I had a feeling our lives were about to change yet again. “We should eat,” I said quietly as Emilie set the tomato macaroni down on the table.
“Ladies first,” said Bill.
Ah, another gentleman in our midst. I smiled weakly. “You all start,” I said quietly. “Emilie and I will finish bringing dinner over.”
“Thanks,” said Nathan gratefully.
“But we’ll wait for you ladies before starting.”
“Hush,” said Emilie.
“Eat it while it’s hot. It’s not much but at least it’s warm.” She flashed a wink at Gus.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bill with a grin.
“We surely thank you all for the shelter and meal.”
Boggs stretched in his chair.
“We’re glad to have you guys. Zoe, you sit and eat. I’ll help Em.”
I started to protest, but knew he was worried about my health, and the baby’s.
I sat without arguing. I wasn’t hungry, and watched as Gus scooped a serving of tomato macaroni onto my plate. “Thanks, Gus,” I said. I plucked a small piece of cold smoked trout from the platter using my fork. I suddenly felt very cold, and very tired. I had lost track of what time of day it was. The curtains upstairs were all drawn, and with all the windows boarded over it seemed perpetual night.
I stuffed a bite of the warm macaroni into my mouth.
It reminded me of my childhood, before my parents and sister had died. I longed for those days to return. The days when the dead were exactly that - dead.
“So, tell us about your companions?” asked Susan.
“You said there’re four others?”
Bill had just taken a bit of his dinner, and Nathan was nearly done chewing a bite.
He nodded his head, and then swallowed before speaking.
“Two men and two women.
Well, one of the girls is young. About eleven. A shy bookworm named Abbey. Her older sister is about your age,” Nathan said to Susan. “Kelsey.”
“Jack is a friend of mine from before all this mess came about,” added Bill, who had finished his bite of fish. “And the other guy is young,” he added.
“Thinks he’s a hot shot and tries to act it, but he’s good with a gun. His name’s Aldo. Not always the easiest guy to like but he’s honest and trustworthy.”
“This is good, Zoe,” interrupted Susan.
“Thanks,” I smiled at her, momentarily forgetting that once upon a time she had slept with Boggs.
“Does your group have any kind of plan?” asked Gus rather bluntly.
“We’re hoping to relocate as soon as the roads are passable,” answered Bill. “We’ve seen too many signs of hostiles around for comfort. Not just the living dead, but the likes of whoever baited your property.” He paused to take a bite of the macaroni.
“Do any of you have any idea what’s happened?” asked Boggs while Bill was chewing.
Nathan sighed deeply. “We’re probably about as knowledgeable as you all. We’ve all compared stories, and most of us woke up to this mess. News channels reported cases of sickness sporadically around the globe. No rhyme or reason. Then the power started to go out. The dead came, and kept coming. Most of us have lost a lot of loved ones.”
Nathan’s eyes took on a sorrowful look as he recalled Day One.
He hung his head, and shook it side to side slowly.
Bill took a drink of water to wash down a bite of fish, and then picked up on their story.
“Jack and I left the city together, figuring high-tailing it to the hills made the most sense. We came across Nathan next, when we stopped at a small country grocery store hoping to find some supplies.”
“I was working that day, and had just opened the doors for business,” explained Nathan.
“I had no idea anything was going on until these two guys came in packing guns. Scared the shit out of me, thinking they were there to rob the store.”
Bill ran a hand over the black beard that covered his chin.
I noted traces of gray speckling it on the outer edges. “He didn’t believe us, just told us to take whatever we wanted. So, we began packing stuff into our truck and begged young Nate here to come with us. We hoped we could save him. He refused, of course.”