(This is flash fiction in the truest sense of the word, meaning that it is inherently a rough draft.)
I wasn’t there when the virus hit. I wasn’t there for three whole days after all hell broke loose.
By the time I did make it back into town, they were all done for. Mom, Pop, Aunt Lizzy, Uncle Sheldon. Hell, it even got the old coonhound tethered out behind the barn. They were long gone before I got there, their skin already coming off them in sheets and the stink of them…well, it makes my stomach turn even thinking about it now.
That was the worst part of getting used to this new world. The smell of it. No matter where you went, the world was blanketed with the smell of death. It made the air so thick in some places that you could hardly breathe; it was all the corpses, you see, all that rotting flesh and all that disease. The trees died, the grass died. Everything pandemonium.
I took Uncle Sheldon’s motorcycle and made it out of town before the worst of it got started. About twenty four hours after I returned the bombs started dropping. I watched the place that I had once called home swallowed up in a fireball from the shoulder of Highway 14. I felt the heat of it on the back of my neck as I sped off towards the checkpoints and the darkness ahead.
They thought they had it quarantined, but of course they hadn’t.
Three weeks after my town was swallowed up, the rest of the country fell and it wasn’t long until everything we ever knew was gone. The whole world was eaten up by the dead in less than a month; hardly enough time to bat an eye. Hard to imagine all of life blinkered out that quickly. But that’s the way the zombies came and there was no turning back now.
I became a loner, a scavenger on the road.
I took the old Harley and fled again when I heard the first rumors. It was creeping into Georgia now. Atlanta was having its first cases. I didn’t need a news report to know what had to happen. Within 12 hours, I was out of Atlanta and back on the road again.
There’s been a few of us that have survived. Gone are towns and cities, nothing more than feeding grounds for the dead, but here and there you’ll find little pockets, little islands of humanity.
As I was traveling through Mississippi I found a group of survivors, The Cannons, they called themselves. They lived in a little commune circled all around by walls of tall concrete and barbed wire with improvised electricity coursing through. About twelve of them lived inside, a husband and a wife and a couple of other small families. They grew everything they needed inside in a sterile grow-house and they didn’t let others in. There wasn’t enough to go around they said, and they meant it. They peppered the back of my bike with gunshot as I fled their walls, driving back off into the night, hopeful I wouldn’t come across and of the Remainders and would find some shelter before dark.
Once, when I crossed over into Kansas, I found a mega-chain storehouse. It had been taken over by another group of survivors. A former motorcycle gang that had once run all the drugs and the guns in the area. They were a bit kinder, and took me into their substantial fortress and traded me some food for some bullets and a couple of rifles I had plundered from an abandoned police station.
This was the world we lived in now. Cities filled with the dead and compounds, violently guarded by small bands of desperate survivors. In between was nothing but emptiness. Empty streets. Empty towns. Empty woods. It seemed like everything died and even though we were still living, it was in a strange upside down world where everything was quiet and nothing seemed to move.
It was in one of those still, quiet places that I met her. Eloise.
She was a loner, like me, with a hand-me-down motorcycle and a chip on her shoulder. She carried a quiver of arrows on her back with an old-fashioned bow made of a strange dark wood that seemed to shimmer in the sun. It was somewhere near Albuquerque that I found her, raiding the remains of some tourist trap shop on the edge of an old ‘ghost town’. She was scrounging behind the main counter when I found her, stuffing her pack with old packs of chips that promised to be well past their prime.
“Hallo there,” I said, holding my hands up and approaching her.
She flew to her feet, abandoning the bag she held and before I knew it she had her bow drawn and pointed straight at me. Her skin was red from the sun and long black dreadlocks hung down her back. She wore a sleeveless leather vest in black, despite the heat, and worn through black jeans covered in holes. From a twist of her hair hung a single eagle feather.
“Get the fuck out of here,” she growled. She held the bow steady as she spoke.
I waved my hands and told her I didn’t want any trouble. When I took a step toward her she shot an arrow right past my left ear.
“I said I don’t want any trouble!”
“If I have to say it once more, I’ll put this right between your eyes,” she replied, tipping her head toward the next deadly arrow that I had no doubt was aimed right between my eyes.
“I just wanted you to know that I was here. I didn’t want to sneak up on you. If you’ve got something good I’d like to trade.”
“Fuck your trade,” she hissed. Her black eyes were narrowed so tightly now that they were just malicious slits in her skull. “This is my haul. I found it. You get out of here and leave me to it and I’ll let you live. Try and take it from me and I’ll kill you.”
It took no shortage of persuasion to get her to drop her bow at last. By the time she finally did, the sun was beginning to set and it was getting too dark for either one of us to be out on the roads.
We shared a cabin that night. It had belonged to the nearby mines once, and sat atop a hill looking down over the old ghost told. The windows were boarded and the door was thick with a good lock. If the dead came looking out here, it was the best chance they had.
The night was spent chatting, if at a first unwillingly. Eloise stayed to her corner, watching me. We did not dare to light a fire, but I pulled a bottle of whiskey from one of my sacks and passed it along the floor toward her, the cap tightly secured. Finally realizing I was no threat, she took it, and the night went on happily enough.
By the morning, we were the best of friends.
Eloise, it turns out, had a story not too dissimilar from mine — the truth was it was the same story that most of us had out here, in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. She had been a way when the virus has first struck, not far from the town I once called home. By the time she had tried to return it was too late and the military had already firebombed the town, killing everyone and destroying everything she had ever known. Eloise had not been forced to kill her family, like I had when they had rushed at me with that stink, the bloodlust in their eyes, but it had been traumatic enough to make her the violent steeled woman she was today.
When the worst of it came, she had taken to the roads like I had. Things were too dangerous in numbers. One alone had a better chance of survival out here in this new world of the dead. I agreed with her, telling her of my own decision to set out on my Uncle’s old motorcycle, but by the time the sun rose we knew we could no longer hold to that mantra.
We were meant to be together.
It was like she completed me, Eloise.
She was rough and tumble and strong, everything you needed in a companion of these times. For months she had been scavenging the area, and she knew it well. She knew all the old mines and the tourist traps, the hunting and trapping paths and the desert and mountains that surrounded them everywhere. Eloise knew where the dead circled most and knew what time of day was the best day to make runs into the claustrophobic city centers and she also knew where the other survivors tended to stay.
For a few brief months it was heaven. She was my companion and I was hers, as we ran from the undead and struggled to survive with little more than our packs and our motorcycles, that rumbled and throbbed beneath us as we made our way down stretch after stretch of lonely highway.
One day, as we sat on the roof of an abandoned Walmart, we heard a strange sound. It was a wailing noise, much like the sound of a child and it appeared to be coming from inside the store below.
“Do you hear that?” Eloise asked me. We sat right on the edge of the roof, our feet dangling in free air. The sun was hot and it beat down on us, making my shoulder throb through the black t-shirt.
“It’s animal. Probably another cat. We’ll have to be on the look out when we leave. It can’t get to us up here.”
“No, that’s a child.”
Eloise stood up and turned back toward the rooftop door. Her bow and arrows hung at her back and as I watched her walk away, I thought she looked like a strange ancient heroine. Some strange version of Robin Hood. It took her only a few strides to make it to the door and when she did she pulled it open with a loud creak. The wailing got louder.
It was definitely a child.
Overhead, a bird squawked and glided by. It cast a shadow over us both.
“It can’t be,” I said. We just through every corner of that store. There was nothing there. No one in the back, no one on the aisles. It’s our mind playing tricks on us, or an infected cat that made it inside. Close the door and let’s enjoy this just a little longer.”
It was true. The day was hot but nice and the smell of rot wasn’t as thick here, in the middle of this small town that boasted little more than an outdated Walmart a few gas stations and a burnt down city hall. As far as days went in the apocalypse, this was paradise.
Eloise would not have it.
“If there’s a child down there, we easily could have missed her. We have to go and check it out. What if she’s all alone?”
There was a strange tone in her voice and an even stranger look in her eye. I began to realize that I knew my new soul mate even less than I liked to imagine. I sighed. There was no option but to give in. I followed her through the door and back down the stairs into the deserted mega store.
It was two floors of stink and decay. There was nothing left here but waste, filth and the bones of a store that had once thrived on the pay-check-to-pay-check community that sprawled out around it. Shelves lay on their side, covered in dirt and dust and rot. As we walked, our feet left marks in the filth. The sound of the child grew louder.
I drew a large knife I kept at my waist. The only way to kill them was to get them right between the eyes, right in the brain, and then sever the head. If any of them were waiting for us here, and I’m sure they were — they loved noise and this kid was making noise — then I would be ready for them.
We made our way back onto the bottom floor of the store and through some metal and rubber doors that led to the rear storage rooms. Eloise led the way with a knife in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
Pallets, empty, were scattered everywhere and the moldy remains of half-destroyed cardboard boxes. It was so dark that we could barely see the hands in front of our faces, and the crying was so loud it made my eardrums twinge.
The child’s wails led us to an old freezer, empty with the door wide open. It was a child, there was no denying that, a little girl with matted blonde hair and big blue eyes. She screamed louder as Eloise’s light flashed in her face.
By the time I walked through the freezer door, my love was with the little girl. She was beside her, checking her for cuts, for wounds, for signs of infection. The hard woman that I had known evaporated and a soft woman took her place, a woman with a love in her eyes I knew she would never show me.
The girl’s cries quietened and Eloise looked up at me with imploring in her words.
“We have to take her with us. We cannot leave her here.”
I looked around us nervously.
“We can’t stay. Those cried will bring them. Cries like that, a child’s cries, that will bring them for sure.”
Eloise picked up her off cast bow and scooped the little girl up in her arms. She could have been no more than five or six years old, tiny she was, with dirty little hands and dirty, bare feet. There would be no argument. I took the flashlight and the lead and led us out of the dirty workspace. Already, we could hear the sounds of them outside.
“Hurry,” I shouted back. Our motorcycles were in sight now. I put the sacks on mine and she put the child on hers. My baggage sat to the rear and her frightened passenger to the front. The child screamed a new as a few of the big ones appeared at the edge of the old cracked parking lot, snaking their way towards us, their skin sloughing off in thick folds. Th stink of them was worse in the sun.
Our bikes roared to life and we put them in gear. We fled before the quicker ones could catch us, back to the safety of our hideaway in the hills. The quiet mine with the metal doors that made us feel safe and locked away when the night came, when we just needed a place to close our eyes and know they wouldn’t come creeping for us in the dark.
The child was quiet by then, but no less startled. Her blue eyes looked everywhere, big as dinner plates. I watched Eloise move with her, so easily so familiar. She washed the girl and wrapped her in oversized rags, clean ones, as I locked up the doors and spread out the treasures we had scavenged for the day.
Three cans of year old spam and a case of crumpled bottled waters lost under an upturned shelf.
We ate snake that night, a clean one I found curled up by the door that night while watching the sun go down. It’s skin crackled over the little fire that clogged and choked the air. It was better to suffocate than to leave ourselves at the mercy of the monsters outside.
The girl sat in her lap and looked around nervously. She would eat nothing. Eloise curled her up in her lap and wrapped her arms around her. She grabbed the girls hands and clapped them together while singing an old song from another time.
“We can’t keep a child. Not like this. Not in this world.”
To say her look was icy would have been an understatement.
“I will not abandon her.”
“They will kill her. They will eat her. They will make her one of them.”
It was the truth and we both knew it. Living in this world meant running and a child did not have the stamina to exist in the new reality of the undead.
“I will not abandon her.”
“Then we will die.”
We stayed there, in the mines for two more weeks. Our iron doors were hidden high up in the hills where the zombies did not like to go. They clung to the edges of the town and the parking lot of the Walmart where he had been before. Once they heard a noise, it changed their hunting grounds. Once they sensed life, they were not easy to let it go.
Eloise grew distant and I grew distant too. I did not want to stay on at the mines, but she was not ready to leave. The girl needed time, she told me, and she needed time too.
At first she tried to get me to bond with the girl, but I could not. I would not. What point was there in becoming attached to something that would inevitably leave me pain. That’s what this world of the dead was now, pain. She wanted a family, she wanted to replace something that she had lost, but I could not give it to her.
She would not leave and I would not leave her. She retreated with the girl…into herself, into the mine. They took to staying in a few of the rear chambers while I remained in the front always ready for disaster. She stayed in with the girl while I went out seeking sustenance. When she went out to fetch water, the girl was left alone, in their rooms in the back.
One day, Eloise did not emerge for water, the time of day I always looked forward to seeing her. By the time I had prepared our dinner she and the girl were still nowhere to be found.
By the next morning, I knew by the smell.
She locked herself in, Eloise, and chained herself to the wall. The child was in the corner, on the pallet, sleeping peacefully as if nothing was wrong. Her face was to the other wall.
“Oh, Eloise, Eloise,” I lamented through the small barred window set into the door. My voice wobbled and it was full of tears. I was seeing my family again, all of them with their rotten faces and their hungry, scrabbling fingers. She looked at me, but they weren’t her eyes, they were the creatures eyes. A hiss slithered out of black, blistered lips and the the smell of her breath was rancid enough to smell across the short distance that separated us.
The chains rattled on her wrists. I could see that her skin was beginning to crack and blister. A few more hours and the rot would begin to show. Next it would start coming off, folding off of her like some kind of rancid linen.
“Oh, Eloise, how could you do this to me?”
I should have known, of course, when she became so adamant about staying. I should have known when she started keeping to herself and becoming a woman I did not recognise.
After yanking at the door, I realised it was padlocked. Some wily arm in control of itself once had reached from within and secured it to the door. A rusted key was discarded on the dusty floor.
I opened the lock quickly enough and made my way inside the cell. I stared at the woman I had found, half sitting, half kneeling on the floor, her arms chained to the wall and her ankles chained underneath her. Parts of her were still there, traces of the woman she had been, but the snarling beast had taken over and she lunged at me as I looked at her with tears in my eyes.
The child was roused by the clamor and woke. She immediately began screaming and crying. She rubbed her eyes as if trying to wake herself up from a nightmare, but I suspected this was something she had seen before. The creature that was Eloise lunged again, but this time it looked past me toward the plump morsel of the crying girl.
I did not remember reaching for the bow, now did I remember lifting it or pulling the string taut, arrow notched. I still do not remember the thrum or my fingers or any of it, but I remember the arrow, sticking out just between her beautiful eyes —- now milky and blistered. Black bubbles pooled at the corner of her lips as she shuddered her last. I took the big knife from my hip and severed her head before tossing it to the side. Bites covered that backs of her legs, little ones, in places that I had not seen since the day we found the girl. The child screamed louder, so I turned around and took her in my arms. My hands left red stains on her.
“Shh, shh,” I told her. She felt strange in my arm and her fear made her hard as a little doll made out of wood in my arms.
Eloise had come to love this little girl in no time at all. This little girl had given her something, time I thought, and she would want me to keep her safe. I cooed the thing until she went quiet. She sucked on her thumb and looked at me unsurely.
“It will be okay,” I told her, taking her out of the room where my beloved’s corpse was already rotting on the ground. The smell was awful. So much more awful. “The monster is gone now. Everything will be okay.”
I did not stop walking until we made it to the front of our haven’s entrance. I placed the girl on the ground and then knelt before her. The knife was still clutched in my hand. She looked at me with all the innocence of a child and I thought how pretty her eyes looked in the choking fire light. She sucked on her thumb and sniffed back what was left of her tears while waiting for whatever came next. She looked the furthest thing from a monster and it made my heart melt a little.
Not long enough for me to stop the knife as I drove it into her skull, however.
The colour of her eyes changed, as the knife plunged deeper. From blue to purple, then blue then black they went, and when the blood came it was as rancid and as corrupt as that of any zombie I had killed before.
She was something knew, this girl. Something radically more dangerous than we had ever faced before. Part child, part monster, she was something that should never exist. I drove the knife in deeper and watched her without emotion as she screamed and collapsed on the ground. In the final throes of her death, her tiny arms lashed up at me and she clawed the air, reaching for my face and the flesh she no doubt longed to taste.
By nightfall I was on the road again, what few meagre possessions I owned strapped to the back of my bike.
It was a lonely road, this ride into the zombie apocalypse and it would have to stay that way. The world was changing and there was little hope of surviving it tethered to dreams.
Want more great stories like this? E.B.’s books are available on Amazon and you can follow along on Facebook and Twitter too!