One more portion of the zombie novel.
THE LIVING END
100 millions zombies.
60 million dogs.
And all of them want to kill you.
copyright 2008 by James Robert Smith
Danger Man looked at himself in the mirror. He never shaved anymore. His hair was wild, if clean. His beard was a mess. Grimacing, he showed a mouthful of very white teeth. He grunted.
“You’re a monster,” he said to the only person who could hear.
Actually, he hadn’t started out as a monster, but even he had to admit that’s what he was. On the day The Thing went down, he was no better and no worse than anyone else. His job was decent—he was a bank clerk, and he made enough to live modestly and pay his bills on time. Occasionally he had a girlfriend, even if he had trouble with long-term relationships. In his 30 years of living, he’d never seriously considered marriage. Kids weren’t on his list. He visited his parents every couple of weeks or so, and if push came to shove, he’d have admitted that he loved them. At least a little.
Then, of course, The Thing. Goddamn, who could believe it? That’s why it had gotten out of hand, he figured. No one could believe it. How many people had the balls to start shooting other people in the head when they started acting weird, trying to bite? Trying to fucking bite! Danger Man hadn’t had any problems with that. At the time the shit started hitting the fan he owned six handguns, a shotgun, and four rifles. Even now, months after the breakdown, he still had two of those handguns and the shotgun, now sawed off and easy to handle. Plus, he was in possession of all of the other firearms that he’d found in the place where he lived now.
That had been a stroke of luck. Finding the place that now offered him shelter.
Recalling the day one of his co-workers had phoned him up, he smiled. “Danger Man!” It had been Rita Carlyle. Danger Man was his nickname. One of his pals in high school had given it to him because his real name, Danisman, sounded sort of like that. He’d liked it so much that he kept it and gave it out as a nickname. Rita had known of his guns, and while it had previously made her think of him as “creepy”, now it was okay, he figured, when the streets were full of zombies and the cops and soldiers were all too busy to help. That’s right. Call Danger Man.
That had been just before the big media breakdown. At that point, despite the mess, power stations were still operating, roads were still largely open, you could still get food at rescue stations, and some stores were even open. But, of course, all of the cops and soldiers were busting ass to shut down nuclear power stations and securing atomic weapons, and trying to keep volatile stocks of chemicals from going up and killing shit out of people. Things like that. And the news shows were obsessed with what they were calling “Payback”. People getting even, killing one another for the modest slights they’d each been suffering for decades.
“Please come and get me,” Rita had pleaded. “Please! There’s no one to help me! I’m locked up in my apartment! Please, come and get me. I’m begging you.”
Danger Man hadn’t hesitated. “Okay,” he’d told her. “You still live on Gervais?” He knew the place, because he’d been invited to a couple of parties there, even if she had shot him down twice. Now, he was willing to go over and rescue her, because she was one hot piece of ass, even if she was a stuck up bitch.
It hadn’t been much trouble. Not really. He’d had no close calls, had put an end to a dozen or so shambling dead, popped a punk who’d tried to claw his way into the car. Nothing serious. The only real chore had been shooting his way through four walking dead at Rita’s door. Those had been a bit of a problem in the close quarters of the hallway. But after that, it was okay. As he’d expected, she’d been a hot piece of ass, performing even as the world decayed around them, and he’d kept her around for almost a month before putting a twelve-gauge slug through her head the day he’d decided to hit the road.
What else could he have done? Things were very damned hairy in town, and he knew she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him, and he didn’t want to hear her pleading when she saw him packing up for the run out of town. So while she was sleeping off a drunk, he blew her head off. That was that. A waste, perhaps, but there was nothing else for it.
The next few weeks had been tough, though. Too many close calls to even count. His car had only lasted maybe sixty miles north of Columbia. Not even to Greenville. Some cocksucker had put a bullet through his left front tire. Then a slug had gone through the engine block. If not for the cover of some pines by the road, they’d have got him, too. The pines had kept him hidden long enough for Danger Man to gather up his backpack and those guns he still had on him, several hundred rounds of ammo.
He’d really wanted to kill the bastards who’d screwed his plans, but there wasn’t time, and he didn’t know how many of them he faced. So he’d hauled ass north, sticking to the cover of pine plantations and walking on ridgelines above creeks, staying away from the roads as much as possible. The roads were pretty much asking for trouble by then, unless you were in the back of an APC, several of which he’d seen zooming along now and again.
One thing he’d noticed right off, just as the radio stations and the fading TV signals had warned, was that the zombies tended to track downhill and to stay off the steeper slopes. Rivers and creeks and islands were a waste of time as far as shelter from them was concerned. And the open roads, of course, were highways for the walking dead. It was one thing if you were in a good vehicle, but on foot you’d buy the farm, sooner or later. Show yourself, and you were chow. His plan had been to head toward the Blue Wall, as it was called.
For days he had hiked along, sneaking to open places along hills and ridges so that he could get a look at the Blue Ridge escarpment. When his car had been hit, he was less than one hundred miles from high country. If he just kept pressing on, and was careful, he’d make it.
Nights were the worst. Every afternoon he had to make sure that he was out of sight and in a place that was both defensible and hidden and from which there was at least one escape route. It wasn’t easy on him, and his nerves had started to fray. It was right about then, he figured, that he’d lost whatever was left of normal. By then, no one he’d known or loved was left alive. He hadn’t bothered to even see if any of his other relatives were still living before he’d left. Two weeks without a word from them was enough for him to face that one head on.
Nope. It was just Danger Man against the world.
One month into it since the death of his car, and he was getting pretty desperate. He knew that he wasn’t getting enough to eat. He’d lucked out a couple of times and had found new clothes when his others were falling in tatters. It was strange how you never thought of the brush and branches tearing at fabric when you never had to deal with that. He’d left most of his original wardrobe hanging on thorns. The worst thing, though, was knowing that he was slowly starving to death. He’d cinched his belt as tight as he could get it—even punching new holes, but his pants kept shedding down around his thighs. The suspenders he’d rigged with nylon rope helped, but they made him look stupid. That bothered him—the fact that he looked stupid.
After almost getting caught by shambling dead while trying to scrounge food from a couple of abandoned houses, he realized that he either needed help (a consideration which really, truly bothered him), or he had to figure out how to make his way without looking for cans of food or bags of dried vegetables and such.
What he was going to have to do was learn how to be an effective hunter-gatherer. And he thought, perhaps, that he could do it; provided he didn’t starve to death during the learning curve. He really didn’t know that much about tracking game, although he’d gotten in two very lucky shots over the course of the month that had kept him in venison for a few days. He’d have made out better if not for the damned dogs.
And that was the kicker! Who’d have figured that? Dogs were almost as big a problem for him as the damned walking dead. He was constantly trying to avoid them, and had wasted too many rounds killing the more aggressive ones that he’d encountered. Luckily, the packs he ran into were scared of him once he plugged a few of their members. He’d likely have cooked them, too, if the carcasses hadn’t been set upon by the living dogs and torn apart before he could so much as think of eating a portion.
It was after three days of not so much as a morsel of food, his belly screaming for something to eat, that he’d gotten very, very lucky. It was the single luckiest break he’d had since he’d headed north out of Columbia, headed for the Blue Wall.
Two days after thinking that he’d best make his way around Greenville rather than through it, he’d stumbled upon the compound. The high country started just on the northwest side of Greenville, and Danger Man had been able to sneak through the forests on the northeast of the city, skirting the ridges above the Reedy River. From one clearing he’d gotten a look down into a part of the city and had seen droves of the undead meandering the ruined streets. Maybe they were, in a fashion, all headed downhill, toward the low country. But even if that were so, there were so many of them that it would take months, or years, for them to march past the cities and down to the ocean. And what then? How long would they last? Who was to say that they wouldn’t look at the Atlantic, not like what they saw, and turn around and head back the way they’d come?
Because of the sight of the sheer numbers of the walking dead, and the fact that he’d seen no sign of organized society for more than a month, he was feeling pretty depressed and desperate at that point. He was considering how to best take himself out if he had to. He surely did not want to starve to death and find himself marching mindlessly down to the sea, a part of that wandering mass of dead flesh. Anything was better than that.
In that moment of obsidian emotion, he saw the compound.
It sat on a wooded hill in a deeply forested section of parkland not terribly distant from the city limits of Greenville. There was a solid wooden wall surrounding perhaps two acres of cleared land. As soon as he saw it he realized that it must be a defended compound of some type, so he kept his head low and hunkered down close to the earth while he took it all in.
After almost an entire day of watching the place, hearing a handful of voices coming from time to time from within the wooden walls, he decided that his best option was to climb a good strong tree to see if he could get a look at what was on the other side of the huge fence. Under cover of a mild windstorm, Danger Man took the opportunity of the noise and the confusion of constant movement in the forest to scale a tall white oak that he was sure would give him a look inside.
In the center of it all, a house that was like a wooden silo, and sitting beside it a small metal windmill turning constantly in the breeze. Danger Man froze and stared at the sight for longer than he knew, for so long and with such intensity that minutes passed before he realized that he was not imagining the voices of a woman and children. He was hearing them, faintly, coming from inside the high wooden walls, and soon the folk inside made themselves visible.
The woman was tall, with very dark hair, and she wore a light blue dress that covered her legs, and a darker blue blouse that covered her arms. The children, a boy and a girl, were no older than eight to ten, and were wearing jeans and brown flannel shirts. As he watched, the woman engaged a pump that stood next to the windmill and very soon a great gout of clear water emerged from an exposed pipe, from which she and the children dipped at will to drink and to fill a pail that they carried back into the house, once the pump was disengaged once more. A pair of chickens walked forth to scratch at the ground around the pump then retreated to the cover of a coop that stood adjacent to what appeared to be a small barn. Straining, he was almost certain that he heard the short bleat of a goat.
Clutching the trunk of the oak, he used nearby limbs to hide his profile behind a cover of chalky green. His head pivoted one way and then another, trying to seek out any movement in the forest surrounding the compound. There had to be a man around. Those three had acted like not just a family, but as a family with a man around to protect it. He couldn’t say why—it was just the way they had walked and the way they had sounded. There was a man around, somewhere. He knew it.
Once back on solid ground, Danger Man stashed his pack deep in the mess of a fallen pine, using freshly snapped limbs of needles to drape across what remained of his food and shelter. He took his pair of handguns; one holstered securely beneath his left arm, and the other at his right hip. And his sawed-off shotgun was in its leather scabbard, tight against his back, the grip solid against his right shoulder blade.
He would find that man.
Going out from the compound to the south, he began to make a wide corkscrew around the hillock on which it was perched. He went very carefully and very quietly; scanning the land all around and searching for any movement at all that would indicate the presence of another human. An hour passed and he was north of the compound, on a saddle between it and another low ridge. Off to his left, Danger Man looked to see a movement and realized that it was a deer—a doe, and any other time he would have shot at it or at least tried to stalk it. But he was going to go for the whole package just now, and not just for a couple of day’s worth of venison.
Danger Man was creeping oh so slowly across some deadfall when he heard the slightest sound in the forest loam. Freezing immediately, he then let himself melt down and down until he was hidden completely from sight within the dried and dying twigs of a mass of red oaks knocked down by a recent storm. His eyes locked on the green forest in the direction from which he’d heard the sound. It was the sound of a pair of feet moving carefully through the dry leaves. But not carefully enough.
In a moment a man did come into sight. The man was dressed much as the kids he’d seen in the compound: jeans and brown flannel. He wore a canvas cap and carried a rifle—a 30.06, and he was pulling a dressed deer carcass behind him. There were a series of slow and careful steps, and then the fellow would stop and survey the forest, looking for movement. Then a few steps as he pulled the load.
Danger Man knew that, most likely, the man would soon call out to the woman and the children inside the fenced compound. He’s call out their names or his own name and inform them that he was home from the hunt. And they would open the gate to help him bring home the bacon. Danger Man very, very, very slowly turned his head and saw that he could see the top of the fence from where he was crouching. And he knew that soon the man would also be able to see that fence, and that he would probably choose that second to call out for help or for company or for plain old reassurance.
And so, in the end, that was what Danger Man waited for. The hunter marched right past Danger Man, pulling the dressed deer within twenty feet of where he was hidden. And as he began to pull the food up the hill, he finally stopped and, waiting for the wind to calm just a bit, called out.
“Lillian! It’s Bill! I’m home! With meat!”
Within a few moments Danger Man saw the top of the fence move as the gate was indeed opened. He was impressed at the construction of that fence, and supposed that it had all been built before The Thing. These folk must have either been one of that group of survivalists who’d always been waiting for some kind of Armageddon, or else had lucked across the place much as he had done.
In a couple of minutes the woman and the boy child had appeared at the top of the hill and the man waited until they came down to him. The woman, surprisingly, was unarmed. Not surprisingly, the boy was also without a weapon.
It was the easiest thing in the world for Danger Man to spring forth from where he was hiding and cut them all down with a quick burst of gunfire. It wasn’t much different from the way he’d killed his parents. He’d cut them down unexpectedly while visiting during the madness as society crumbled. It had been the kindest thing to do.
When these three were dead and lay on the forest loam, he waited for a few minutes to see if anyone he’d not seen would come out of the compound. He had to take the chance that no one would shut the gate and leave him out there without access to the inside of the place. But there was nothing for it but to wait.
After some time, there was a voice from inside. It was that of a little girl, and no one else. Danger Man made short work of her and after that, the place was his.