Read The Scattered and the Dead (Book 1): A Post-Apocalyptic Series Online

Authors: Tim McBain,L.T. Vargus

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The Scattered and the Dead (Book 1): A Post-Apocalyptic Series (2 page)

BOOK: The Scattered and the Dead (Book 1): A Post-Apocalyptic Series
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And yet, he would die in his truck, not surrounded by his family but thinking of them. He could think of worse ways to go.

 

 

 

Baghead

 

Rural Oklahoma

9 years, 126 days after

 

Lightning lit the sky above the city. Thunderless. Silent. Flashes of white light that showed the toppled buildings, the crater pocked ground, the streets turned holes filled with rubble. Mangled steel girders splayed through shards of concrete like fingers poking up from the sand.

He’d been here before. Many times.

In his dreams, he walked among the wreckage of the dead cities, where the wind blew endlessly and no living soul stirred apart from his own. His feet trod upon the ash, upon the blackened remnants of civilization. His fingers gripped the serrated edges of asphalt to climb the heaps of them. He touched the decay, felt the pieces crumble in his hands. The snapped off buildings stood around him like he paced in a mouth full of broken teeth.

Every night he walked through memories, some real and some which never were. He walked through images of destruction, some recalled, some invented.

And he wondered what lit them. He knew that these bolts from the heavens lit the sky here, flashed their light upon the dead cities, where the buildings once stood, where the people once swarmed. But what lit these pictures in his head when he slept? What lit the pathways of our brains, burned inside of us all? He looked into the sky, into the stars, the same sky and the same stars mankind had looked into always, and he wondered. What spark, what flare, what stars or current or energy glowed inside of us to make us all go? And what for?

 

He woke, disoriented, flaps of canvas obscuring most of his vision. He sat up, hands scrabbling over his head to pull the slack out of the bag so the eye holes lined up correctly. It slid against his forehead with a slight tickle, and the canvas climbed out of his field of vision like a rising curtain unveiling a stage. There.

Sunlight glinted through the windshield onto the dashboard in front of him. The empty bottle rested between his feet. Of course. He was in the car he slept in, a rusted out Ford Focus with four flat tires. He didn’t think of it as home, but in some ways it was. For now, anyway. The bottle, he figured, had a hand in his confusion. He didn’t drink often.

He sat back, his chest holding inflated and rigid another moment before it sagged and let out a long slow breath.

He unzipped the zipper in the canvas bag that ran along his chin and felt his jaw. Beard hair shrouded the knobs and growths there, though he could feel the vague shapes of them as his fingers riffled through his beard. The hair was getting long. Bushy. He’d need to trim it soon. He didn’t like when it got so big that it puffed into the canvas and got caught in the zipper when he ate. He zipped it back up.

He let his neck go half limp, his chin drooping until it almost touched his chest, and his eyes crawled over the floor. Mud caked the carpet where he’d tracked it in a couple of nights ago when it rained. Flattened cigarette butts accompanied the mud, though those weren’t his. They predated his residence here.

He lifted his head, letting it lean back on the headrest, feeling the canvas scrunch and wrinkle around his neck. His mind remained fogged with sleep, but he knew he was supposed to do something today. He was meeting someone about something. Something important.

His eyes fell upon the card resting on the dash, tracing over the ominous design printed on it. He could appreciate the aesthetics of the thing even if it was meant to threaten his life.

That’s what he was supposed to remember. The Hand of Death.

 

 

 

Mitch

 

Bethel Park, Pennsylvania

43 days before

 

When Mitch got home from work, his wife called him out into the kitchen and told him that he would need to kill her.

“Finally,” he said, opening the fridge. “Thought you’d never ask.”

The fridge light flickered over leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A bunch of almost empty condiment bottles. Nothing looked good.

She didn’t laugh at his joke. She didn’t say anything. The only sound was the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hall.

He retracted his head from the fridge to find a grave expression on her face. She hadn’t been kidding. He blinked. Twice. Three times. He tried to say, “What the hell are you talking about?” but his chest got all tight. Constricted. He couldn’t make a sound.

“I’m sick,” she said.

She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t need to. He knew what she meant. Everybody knew about the shit going down in Florida. Mitch guessed it finally made its way here. They said over and over again on the news that it was being contained, that it would never reach the Northeast. But in their hearts, Mitch thought, everyone knew it would.

It would spread over the surface of the globe like the piss puddles creeping ever outward over the blacktop when he and his friends used to urinate behind the school as kids.

Nobody spoke for a long moment. The pair of compact fluorescent bulbs buzzed in the light fixture above them, trying and failing to keep the awkward silence at bay. And in the quiet this suddenly felt real, Mitch realized. Life itself felt real, all the way real, for the first time in a long while.

Moments like these hadn’t come around often for Mitch; moments that shook him out of the half awake state in which he plowed through much of his life; moments that made him open his eyes and see reality in a flash of searing light, all the painful truths illuminated all at once. He saw his life with brutal clarity in this instant: He dragged through days at work and spent the evenings motionless in front of the TV, his brain more or less hibernating. During the weekends he helped it stay asleep by chugging Coors Light while various football games flickered across the plasma screen in the living room. His wife and kids shuffled in and out of the room periodically to share these moments with him in some sense, but it was like none of them were all the way there. None of them were all the way engaged in life, all the way connected to each other. They were just kind of half there.

Or here, he supposed. This was not some theoretical “there” in his imagination. It was here – a concrete world where real live human beings breathed and laughed and dreamed, blood thrumming through their veins.

And got sick. They got sick, too. Sickness unto death sometimes.

And sometimes something worse than death.

Janice blinked, and the motion brought him back to the kitchen. It occurred to him that she’d been talking when the sound of the real world faded in with her mid-sentence.

“-maybe 8 to 12 hours,” she said. “Maybe less.”

The world got swimmy along the edges. His knees buckled below, but he caught himself.

He braved another look at her face. Her voice sounded detached. Cold. Distant. Like she was toughing her way through. She looked so soft, though. Her expression betrayed the sound of her.

There’d always been something hard in Janice, some toughness that Mitch never possessed. She was the hard-nosed one. When their older son, Kevin, got bullied in first grade and the school wouldn’t do anything about it, she went down to the office where her temper exploded like a hydrogen bomb. The principal went all bug-eyed. The bully got a one week suspension within minutes. It was the same woman sitting there in front of Mitch now, but the toughness had been plucked from her being.

He didn’t say anything. He kneeled down, opened the cabinet under the sink, pulled the half gallon bottle of Black Velvet free, removed the lid and pressed it to his lips. The whiskey burned all the way down in a way that made him feel a little alive even still.

The kitchen was small. Cramped. Janice often complained about the lack of counter space. With the tension in the room, it felt claustrophobic. For Mitch, at least.

He thought he’d buy her something nicer someday. One of those ridiculously huge kitchens that they cook in on Food Network. Granite counters that stretched out into the horizon. The stove top would be set in an island in the middle of the room with a big griddle built into it.

But no. None of that was real. This would be her final kitchen after all. Cramped and shitty.

He sat in the chair across from her, put the bottle on the table between them. He tried to piece together the bits of what she’d said, make some sense out of them. He felt like there was a big piece he had lost in the shock.

“What were you saying?” he said, his lips juicy and tingling from the booze. “I’m sorry. I can’t concentrate.”

She eyed the bottle a moment before answering. He thought she was about to take a slug, but she didn’t.

“I’m sick,” she said again.

As though to provide evidence on this point she sneezed and two strings of snot rocketed out of her nostrils and hung from her tilted head. It reminded Mitch of the ropes of saliva dangling from the corners of a basset hound’s mouth, except the shade and opacity of butternut squash soup. Her hand reached out for the box of kleenex, but she couldn’t quite reach. He pushed the box to her hand and took another big gulp of Black Velvet as she gathered the mucus.

“Good thing it’s not airborne,” she said, and a couple of snorts of laughter came out of her nose, sniffles accompanying them.

Only Janice could laugh in this moment. He wanted to be mad about it, but he couldn’t.

“If it’s not airborne, how did you get it?” he said.

She leaned forward and peeled the cuff of her jeans up toward the knee. It took Mitch a second to realize what he was seeing. An oval shaped crater of angry red pocked her ankle like a chunk had been torn from her leg, and rivulets of black snaked out from the wound in all directions. They looked like wisps of smoke trailing about her lower leg, the longest almost reaching her knee.

“What the fuck?” he said.

“I got bit,” she said, letting the leg of her pants fall back down.

“Bit?” he said. “Bit as in the past tense of bite?”

She hesitated a second, nodded.

“Yesterday afternoon. In the break room.”

“And you didn’t mention that? A human being broke your flesh with their teeth, ripped free a chunk of ankle meat, and you didn’t see that as noteworthy enough to bring up at dinner last night?”

“Quiet now,” she said. “The kids will hear.”

A little bit of that hardness crept back into her face as she scolded him. It made him feel the slightest touch better, like some part of him still believed she couldn’t actually die. She was too tough for that.

“What the hell happened?” he said, his voice hushed but somehow still intense.

She took a deep breath and the words came trickling from her lips.

“I told you about the rumors at work. About Carlos being sick.”

He nodded, his jaw clenching and unclenching involuntarily.

“I guess they were true after all,” she said. “He came in looking like warmed-over death. Looked sick as hell, all pale and sweaty, but he said he wasn’t bleeding or anything. Not like they described the people bleeding on TV. He said it was just the flu was all, and he didn’t have the sick days left to stay home. Couldn’t argue with that, though I planned to keep my distance.”

Her index finger traced along a divot in the tabletop while she talked.

“He went to his cubicle and got working, but not for long. He looked out of it, kept resting his head on the desk. Eventually he shuffled into the break room. Never came back out.”

Her fingernail now scratched at the flaw in the wood, a scrape-thump at a steady rhythm that seem to lay a slow drumbeat under her story.

“A good 15 or 20 minutes went by, so I went to check on him. When I stepped through the doorway, he was sprawled on the floor, face down, lips mashed into the carpet. Motionless. I mean full-on, not-breathing motionless. I froze for a moment in shock. It was so still. When I got a hold of myself, I took a step forward, and he lunged. He was gums deep in my ankle before I could react. He was like a wild animal. It wasn’t Carlos, you know? The look in his eyes. He was gone. It was someone else. Something else. Anyway, I guess I screamed and people came to help me. I don’t remember it very well, but I remember they got him trapped in the break room, and I took off. Never looked back.”

She looked far away.

“Wait. When was this?” Mitch said.

“Like I said, it was yesterday afternoon,” she said.

Mitch thought a second, reaching through the fog of shock to recall the night before.

“So we all sat around here last night eating meatloaf with you knowing this,” he said. “Jesus, Janice. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her shoulders twitched in a half-hearted shrug.

“I was scared,” she said. “You saw all of the stuff on TV. About Florida and all. I guess I thought maybe it’d go away. Like if I kept it quiet, it didn’t have to be real. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want you panicking. The boys panicking. And what difference would it have made? Can’t you see how it wouldn’t change anything? Knowing or not knowing? Nothing can change it.”

He sat quiet a moment, his mind feeling along the edges of this impossible idea: his wife sat here in front of him, breathing, talking, alive and normal like any other day. And this time tomorrow she wouldn’t be.

BOOK: The Scattered and the Dead (Book 1): A Post-Apocalyptic Series
2.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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