The horrors of the past meet the brutality of the present.
With a practiced ease earned over years of exploring the wilds around the compound where he now lived, Meat moved silently through the trees, following a straight line with Einstein and Window fanning out to his flanks. He wasn’t sure what to expect. It could be a few of the raiding party hanging back, waiting for them to pass through before following them in the hopes of catching then in a cross fire. Or it could be another survivor out traveling the empty roads in search of kindred spirits.
Nearing a clearing he stopped and dropped to a kneeling position. Ahead of him a lone house stood surrounded by empty fields, a ramshackle old structure with paint peeling from its outer walls, exposing the weathered wood beneath. Several of the windows had been covered with boards and the roof of the front porch was sagging in the middle.
A small trickle of smoke rose from the lone chimney.
Motioning for the others to stay back and indicating to Billie-Bob that he should get ready, he quietly approached the house. Reaching the tree line he stopped when he spotted a barn with a corral along one side. Two people stood in the corral, side by side at the fence, the top part of their bodies rocking back and forth in tine with one another.
They were dressed like women but he couldn’t get a clear look at their faces to be sure as they were facing away from him. They each wore a dress, the hem covered in mud that was slowly drying. They were barefoot, their hands resting on the top rail of the fence as they watched the house with unwavering gazes.
Cautiously Meat moved along the side of the corral. The women remained unaware as he slowly approached, his eyes never leaving their backs, and the house beyond them, watching for any sign of movement at any of the windows.
He noticed that they both had stopped rocking back and forth, their backs becoming ramrod straight, yet their hands remained in place on the top rail of the corral. As he got closer one of the women turned with a growl deep in her throat. The flesh of her face was gray, her eyes white with cataracts, filthy teeth half hidden behind snarling lips.
They had been turned, Meat realized as he faded back from the corral, the other woman followed the first, staggering towards Meat, their hands outstretched as they sought the comfort his body would provide.
“Stop it, both of you.” A shout came from the porch of the dilapidated structure and Meat spotted a large man standing in the open doorway, a rifle resting in the crook of his elbow. The women turned back towards the sound of the man’s voice, staggering to the fence of the corral where they watched him with rapt attention. He stepped out of the shadows, a long salt and pepper beard resting against his chest.
“I see you out there,” the man said, “hiding in the bushes. Come out with your hands up.” He settled the butt of the rifle against his shoulder and took aim through the telescopic sight.
Meat stood up, his hands held comfortably at shoulder height, with his fingers spread wide. It would serve as a signal for Billie Bob to hold fire. Meat was confident he was even now sighting through the scope of his M24, a present from his surrogate parents, the man on the porch squarely in his sights. As long as Meat’s hands remained open, the man on the porch would live. The moment he closed either hand into a fist, Billie Bob would take his shot.
It was a signal they had worked before they started venturing beyond the fence at Bremo Bluff. In this old new world it was not only Zombies one needed to worry about. Other survivors, struggling to live themselves, were a greater risk, as the only law one had to fall back upon was whatever weapons they carried.
“Drop your gun,” the man on the porch said, the muzzle of his rifle unwavering as Meat gazed down its length.
“I can’t do that,” Meat said.
“What do you want?”
“I’m looking for someone, a group of kids.”
“A group of kids?” The muzzle wavered unsteadily.
“They kidnapped several children from the compound where I live, we want them back.”
“What place are you talking about? Where do you live?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Meat was about to close his hand into a fist, worried that the large man on the porch was getting tired and might accidentally squeeze off a shot. The man lowered his rifle and sat down heavily on the top step.
“I tried to stop them,” the man said.
“Who?” Meat said as he approached the man.
“Those kids you’re looking for, they’re not children, oh they’re small all right, and they look just like kids, but they’re not. They’re savages. That’s what threw Maggie off. One of them came out of the forest several days ago, he was pretending like he was hurt, Maggie went to help him, and the others, they just came out of the forest. She tried to run.” Several tears traced wet paths down his cheeks as he relived that moment in his mind. “She ran, but they were too fast. Shelly tried to help her but there were too many of them.”
“Who are Maggie and Shelly?”
The man looked at him, the sorrow of the world resting upon his slumped shoulders. “They were my wife and daughter,” he said as his gaze drifted to the two women in the corral, “I knew I needed to take care of them, do the right thing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, not to the woman I spent my life with, or the child I swore to protect.”
It all made sense now and Meat signaled for the others to come up. As they emerged from the forest the old man spotted them and suddenly became alarmed. “What do you want?”
“We’re not here to hurt you, I promise, we smelled the wood smoke and came to see what was going on.”
He reached for his rifle and Meat put his hand on the barrel.
“I don’t have anything you want.”
“We’re not after anything old man, we just want to find those kids, get our own kids back. Which way did they go?” He asked, trying to get the man’s mind off of his current line of thought.
“East,” the old man said as he warily watched the other three approach.
“We can help you,” Meat said, “if you need us to.”
“How? You’re nothing more than a child yourself?”
Meat shrugged, some people still held onto their old beliefs, unwilling to accept the reality in which they lived. Judging by the man’s age he had lived before the awakening so he still clung to the old viewpoint that children should not concern themselves with adult matters. “Your wife and daughter, they should have peace.”
The man’s eyes widened in shock as he leaned back in an attempt to escape Meat’s observation. “What do you know about anything? You’re just a damned kid.”
“I know they need to be put to rest. Everyone of us learned at a very young age that the only cure for what they have is a bullet to the brain.”
“That’s my wife and daughter you’re speaking about boy.” His hand strayed to his rifle and Meat rested his foot on the barrel, keeping it in place as the old man looked up at him with water-rimmed eyes.
“Window, you know what needs to be done,” Meat said, never taking his eyes off of the old man, “you should have done this sooner,” he said to the old man. “It’s not your wife and daughter anymore, you know that, why else would you be keeping them locked up in the corral?”
“Shut up, dammit.”
“Does she sleep with you at night? Do you tuck in your daughter with a kiss?”
“Shut the fuck up, you bastard. What do you know about anything?”
“I know I can’t leave them as they are. I know that somewhere deep down they’re begging to be released.”
The old man jumped when a shot shattered the stillness of the day. Several birds took to flight, startled from their roost, flapping away with angry cries as a second shot quickly followed the first. The sound of the shots faded into the distance like thunder. From the North Meat detected the faint sound of an engine growling in the distance, its tone rising and then falling before fading away to silence.
What was that? He wondered briefly before the man shoved him aside and raced down the steps, his boots throwing up little clouds of dust from the bare ground.
“Maggie, Shelly,” the old man said, his voice cracking with emotion. Einstein stood in his way but Meat motioned for him to let the old man go. Sitting down on the top step he waited as the old man’s cries came from the direction of the corral. The others came and joined him.
“Are we gonna bury them?” Window said.
“When he’s ready,” Meat answered as the afternoon slowly marched towards evening. If need be they’d spend the night here before continuing their journey. He knew Window was anxious to get going, not being one who liked to wait on anyone or anything, but Meat understood that it would be best to help the old man once he came to the realization that what they’d done was the best for his wife and daughter.
After waiting an hour they heard the unmistakable sound of a shovel biting into the earth. Led by Meat they crossed the small yard to help the old man lay his family to rest.
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