“Come here, girl. We won’t hurt you.”
The youth patted his thighs as he spoke, bent at the waist and smiling at the dog. A short distance behind his two friends held back, not wanting to spook the animal. All three of them were dirty and thin. They wore several layers of clothes, the tears and holes overlapping. It had been a long and harsh winter no matter how far south they travelled.
The dog didn’t look much better. Patches of fur were missing from its back and what was left was matted and filthy. It was a mixed breed and might once have been white or light brown. Its nose was long and despite the deprivation there was still light in its eyes. Until recently, maybe just a month or so, the animal had been someone’s companion. The way it lurked around their camp, clearly torn between fear and memories, was proof enough that it was a stray rather than one of the increasingly common packs of feral mongrels.
“Come on,” the youth coaxed again. “We’ve got treats,” he took a chocolate bar from his pocket, waggled it for the dog to see. Even at a distance, the animal knew what it was and its ears picked up. It took a half step forward. “That’s it,” the youth hunkered down, still proffering the chocolate. “Come here.”
It had been spring when the outbreak began, in some nowhere town in an African country most people had never heard of. The dog’s name had been Brandy then, she was a spayed bitch. Life had been suburbia, neat lawns and clean streets. Her family had been kind, the memory of that kindness forcing her closer and closer to the youth with the chocolate. She didn’t understand it, the urge wasn’t even really conscious. She just wanted to be with humans again, it was where she belonged.
The outbreak spread rapidly, the virus that brought the dead back to life airborne from the start. It swept across Africa in weeks, seeming to leap-frog from place to place as waves of refugees and the wind carried the virus to every corner. Europe tried to keep it at bay but it fell just as fast. When it jumped the Atlantic global communications broke down and no-one knew more than what they could see. For the survivors it became safest and wisest to assume that it was bad everywhere, that there were no havens to be found. The nut jobs and paranoid rich took to their fallout shelters and underground bunkers—they were probably safe but the ones left overground didn’t think about them much.
Like the good times, Brandy had no true memories of the bad times. There was a part of her that knew she had to be suspicious of strangers, that they posed a threat to her humans. She couldn’t remember the individual fights but she knew she had drawn blood protecting her humans. One of her front fangs was missing, knocked out by an intruder who had thought to steal what her humans had. The intruder had been one of a gang, driven back that night but only with the loss of Brandy’s owner—the man and father of the house. The rest of them, the mother, two teenage boys and twelve year old girl, fled before dawn, taking to the road in the SUV. Before they left, the mother drove a knife through her husband’s head, the bullet that killed him went through his heart. It wasn’t a guarantee but sometimes spiking a corpse’s head stopped them coming back.
“Come here, boy,” the youth said again, a slight edge creeping into his voice. It was freezing cold and starting to get dark. “We’ve got somewhere warm. Come on!”
In the last few days before the televisions went blank and the internet offline, there were reports of military strikes against the worst affected areas, entire countries carpet-bombed by scared neighbours. In the very last hours the reports switched instead to the rash of abandoned nuclear power stations going into meltdown. The ravenous dead were given a nuclear winter to stumble and lurch through, death and decay becoming almost the whole of existence.
“It’s getting late,” the girl behind the youth said. She was the youngest of the three, just turned sixteen. She sounded scared. “We should get back.”
“I’ve almost got her,” the youth replied, keeping his eyes on the dog and waving the chocolate bar. He carefully, reluctantly, opened it and tore a small chunk off. “Come on, come and get it.”
The girl was the little sister of someone he had gone to school with and they had been together since the start. A whole group of them, five or six entire families crammed onto a school bus, had left their home town when they saw the writing on the walls. The military had already quarantined the neighbouring towns and they went before the area could expand. Since then they’d been through rescue centres and refugee camps, a dozen seeming havens the virus found its way into. The school bus and everyone else on it were long gone now, only half of them to the infected. The other boy had joined them a few weeks back. He never spoke but he was good in a fight—he had saved them from a tight spot and chosen to stay. He looked about eighteen or nineteen years old.
The dog slunk forward a few paces, about half the distance between the fence and the youth. The temporary den she had made was behind the fence, just the hollow interior of an overgrown bush. It was warm in there. She scavenged what she could from the streets of the abandoned town, mostly the corpses of other animals, starved by the long winter. Once since she lost the last of her humans, the eldest boy, torn down by the infected, she had tried the flesh of a human—there were corpses everywhere, almost as many still as moving. It had made her sick. She still was, the fever the cause of her fur loss. Animals didn’t come back when they caught the virus, it only killed them.
“Hurry up,” the girl said. “It’s a mile back. We need to get moving.”
“I’ve almost got it. Be quiet or you’ll spook it. Come on, you’re safe with us.”
Life was getting easier. It was hard to believe, but it was. The three of them had found somewhere secure in the empty town. There was no one else living and only handfuls of infected, not enough for them to form a horde. Mindlessly following their food source most of the dead had left the bigger towns and cities. The great hordes that had sprung up in every urban centre had dispersed, leaving ghost towns in their wake. The trio would never have known if desperation hadn’t driven them inside the city limits in search of the last cans of tinned food.
The town was miles from anywhere, a stopping place in the middle of the plains. The mountains just a smudge on the horizon. It must have been abandoned early on, they found completely undisturbed shops, cars with gas in the tank but flat batteries. Exhausted after days of walking through the snow they had felt like they’d reached paradise. Setting up camp in the storeroom above a hardware store they found camping stoves with full tanks, a box of factory fresh sleeping bags. Even the sound of the infected outside, groaning as they shambled and slipped along the icy roads, had sounded distant and comforting that first night—a nightmare they didn’t need to worry about until tomorrow.
There were other benefits to living in the town as well, ones denied to them in the countryside by their limited skills.
“Come here, girl,” the youth said, slowly waggling the chunk of chocolate. He mimed eating it, smiling all the time, and held it out again. Brandy shuffled forward again, front legs lower than her back as she kept herself poised to run. Her tail wagged once. “It’s good.”
With no one to mitigate the worst damage, the prolonged winter had laid waste to the world, the parts of it the trio had seen at any rate. Last year’s crops had been left to rot in the fields and the livestock had starved to death. Spring had already arrived, they knew it because the days were getting noticeably longer. They weren’t getting any warmer, the sky stayed the same shade of slate grey. The countryside was almost barren, even the skilled hunters were going hungry. In the city, the trio had found an emergent ecosystem, one they slipped into somewhere near the top.
Versatile as ever, man’s constant companions had found a way to adapt to the new humanity. The rats in the sewers moved above ground, gnawing on the scattered bodies and anything else they found. The population was booming, enough so that the cats also survived. Alley cats and domestics fought their differences out and created a number of feral packs. Shifting packs of dogs roamed the streets, scavenging what they could. At the bottom of it all, the insects clambered and crawled over everything, providing something for the rats to eat.
“Come on, that’s a good girl.”
Brandy slunk forward another few feet, stretching her nose out to sniff at the chocolate. Carefully, delicately, the youth pushed it a little closer. He smiled when her tongue flicked out to lick it and then, the decision made, she took the last step and ate the piece. Like a good dog she sat on her haunches and raised a paw, asking for more. Drool gathered at the sides of her mouth and began to dribble down.
“Good girl,” the youth said, giving her the rest of the chocolate bar. “Good girl.”
He took the flick-knife from his pocket and, as Brandy was still chewing, shot the blade out, grabbed her head and drove it into the soft flesh below her chin. It sank up and in, into her brain—as quick a death as the youth could achieve. Blood spilled out over his hand, soaking the sleeve of his jacket. He’d severed an artery.
“Shit. Grab it,” he said. “They’re going to smell that quick.”
The next day they skinned the dog in an abandoned shop a half-mile from their camp. It was where they prepared all their kills, even now they had started to get the hang of it there was a lot of spillage and mess. The smell, rising in the frozen air, always attracted the infected so it was better to do it early in the day. The infected were more docile in daylight, no one knew why. By nightfall, when they began to stir, the smell had usually dissipated enough to attract none at all. It was almost a fortnight since they’d had to deal with one of them when they came here.
Once it was skinned they quickly dismembered the body, wrapping the parts in layers of tinfoil and cling film before bundling them up in t-shirts—everything raided from a nearby supermarket. Some of it they’d eat tonight, the rest they’d add to the supply wrapped in a tarpaulin and buried in the frozen dirt behind the hardware store. They had a good sized haul of cats and dogs, plus a raccoon and a dozen rats. Defrosting the meat was hard, it hadn’t been above zero in months, but it was better than wasting it, or leaving it lying around. The infected only ate human flesh, but they came for the smell of anything bleeding or rotten.
The afternoon that followed was one of the best they’d had in a long time, since before the crash that left the school bus in flames and fractured the last of their group—the youth dreamed of the screams as he fled every night. Despite the grey sky the light seemed crisper, cleaner. The cold didn’t lift but, huddled around the camping stove as the dog-meat stew cooked they all felt warmer. The meat, simmered in a stock of out of date gravy powder and enhanced by a tin of sweetcorn, was surprisingly succulent and tender. They knew the dog had been called Brandy, the girl had kept the heart-shaped name badge from her collar, but it didn’t change their enjoyment of the meal.
It began to rain as evening set in. The temperature plummeted and the rain turned first to sleet and then snow. They put up the boards they had made for the windows, the infected were attracted to light, even the low glow of the camp light they ran for a few hours each night, conserving their horde of batteries. Outside a blizzard had started to howl, they could hear it shaking the glass of the windows behind the boards. Every now and then, when there was a lull in the wind, they could hear the lonely moans of the infected. Weather like this would bring even the most light shy onto the streets. In the morning some of the weakest would be frozen where they fell, still alive but sealed to the ground. They were easy to kill, the frozen limbs and heads often snapping off. The rats ate the discarded parts, immune to the virus.
They kept the camp light on for longer that night, taking a few sips each from the bottle of bourbon they kept for celebrations. Not enough to get drunk, just enough to enjoy the way it felt that they were on a sleepover, or at camp. Swapping ghost stories that would mean nothing in the morning.
They didn’t have a working watch between them but it felt late when the girl said she was tired and lay down to sleep. She didn’t tell the boys that she was feeling a little sick. She often did on days they had a lot to eat. A moment after she lay down she heard them settle down as well. They had traps and bells on the stairs in case the infected broke in but they felt secure. The bars on the windows and doors downstairs were still secure, they’d even found the keys for all the locks. By mutual understanding the light was left on that night, an atavistic defence against the hell outside.
Her dreams were more troubled than usual that night. The usual parade of people she had lost, the reruns of the ways she had seen them torn apart, was more visceral, the smell of blood stronger. She woke several times, hunger pangs shooting through her guts. In the few moments before she fell asleep again, dragged back under by the exhaustion rising from her bones, she thought about the dog meat, how juicy it had been. She thought about how they hadn’t cooked the stew for long enough, leaving the larger chunks raw in the centre. They had been the best, in need of a little chewing.
It was morning and the youth was shaking her awake. He sounded panicked. His eyes were wide.
“What…?” she murmured, clinging to her thoughts through a raging headache. She didn’t want to wake up, she’d been where nothing mattered. “Sleepy…”
“He’s ill!” the youth shouted, dragging her upright. “Look at him! Do we kill him now?”
Their new companion was infected. It was clear in his bulging eyes. Bloodshot and the whites turning purple, they stared vacantly at the ceiling. Foam was pooling in his parted lips, falling down the sides of his face in little spurts. They didn’t know how he’d caught the virus, it had been days since they’d needed to take one out and he hadn’t been wounded. Something else must have killed him—some random aneurysm or something he ate. They were all carriers of the virus.
The girl tried to think, she knew the situation was serious, but it hurt too much. She was hungry and tired. All she wanted to do was eat enough that her hunger would stop keeping her awake. The youth was clutching her by the arms, no longer shaking but forcing her to look at their now twitching companion. She saw the soft flesh of his forearms, knew what was about to happen, but it was too late.
He tasted better than the dog and she fought with her silent friend when he woke and tried to join in.
Copyright © 2015 C. Law All rights reserved