The End Chapter 2
For nearly a week, I was on the move, stopping only when I absolutely had to. My first few days on foot, I had stayed near the highway, figuring it the best way to keep my bearings and head in the right direction. Parts of the road were jammed with abandoned cars, good for scavenging, or so I thought, until I found myself nearly caught by infected while rifling through some poor soul's bloodied belongings. I only barely escaped into the woods, cursing myself as I ran, with the ghouls hot on my trail. I'd managed to climb a sturdy pine and waited them out as they milled around below, unable to locate my smell. After that, I did my best to steer clear of the road and only ventured close when it was a necessity. I followed my compass and the old well-worn map I'd stashed in my pack before leaving home. As I got further into mountain country, the nights grew rapidly colder. Now, a week in and gaining elevation, my cool-weather sleeping bag was no longer enough to keep my warm as I sat tied to the trunk of a tree dozing high above the ground, prompting me to keep moving at night to stay warm. As I began to lose sunlight on the eighth day, I knew this night would be particularly nasty. The clouds had turned an ominous steely grey, and a biting wind had kicked up, stinging my cheeks, carrying with it the unmistakable smell of impending snow.
The smell of burning wood caught my attention and I thought perhaps my senses might be playing tricks on me. I hadn't seen a house for days, only the highway, so full of death and desolation. My heart racing at the prospect of I looked up through the trees to see a plume of smoke rising above them. Once more against my brother's orders, I hastened toward it in hopes of finding another survivor like myself.
The cabin stood in a natural clearing, windows boarded up, a lean-to on one side covering a woodpile. On the other side there was a six foot wooden fence topped with barbed wire. The fence ran to the edge of the tress and then around the back of the cabin, the roof of a shed peeked out over it. I crouched in the trees, pondering the best way to approach. It didn't take long for me to realize that there was no "best way", there was just the only way, which unfortunately was both risky and stupid. Striding across the clearing, I gripped the 9mm handgun I'd taken from a highway patrolman I'd come across days ago. The poor fellow, seat belt still buckled securely, was no longer burdened by this world and had no more use of the weapon he'd turned on himself before succumbing to the nasty bite on his forearm. The beast who had likely delivered said bite still snarled behind the cage which held him in the backseat, eyes rolling in his head, teeth gnashing against the steel grate as I searched the front of the vehicle for ammo.
I shook the image from my mind as I reached the cabin and knocked softly on the front door.
No answer, but the faint shuffled of footsteps crossing the room could be heard.
I waited a moment longer, knocked again. "I'm not one of them, I'm not infected. Please.." I called through the closed door.
"Go away. I don't have room or enough supplies to take care of you and whoever else you got out there. Now git!"
"I'm not with anyone, and I don't want your supplies. I just need somewhere to sleep for the night. I won't bother you."
"Yer botherin' me now."
Something about that made me smile. I waited.
"You still out there?"
A series of locks and deadbolts clicked open on the other side, the sound of several wooden beams being slid away. The door opened a crack, and I was greeted by the barrel of a shotgun.
"Yes." I said, holding up my hands to show him.
"Not gonna give that up, are ye?"
"No sir, but I swear to you I'm no danger to you as long as you're no danger to me"
A sigh from inside.
"Well, then, you'd better get in here 'fore you draw attention."
The door opened just enough for me to slip inside and immediately locked and barred it behind me, all the while keeping one sharp hawk-like eye on me through the curls on gray hair which hung down to his matching bushy beard. When the heavy wood planks had been replaced across the door, the two of us stood in tense silence, regarding each other. He was a bear of a man, standing easily over 6 feet, the grizzled beard and unkempt hair only adding to his imposing presence. Lumberjack was the word that came to mind. He propped his shotgun against the wall, extending one large, calloused hand.
"Noah" He said gruffly.
I hesitated, but holstered my gun and grasped his hand, grateful for the civility of the simple gesture.
"Well, I haven't got another a bed for you, couch will have to do. And only for tonight." His tone was firm, indicating there was no room for argument here.
"I've been sleeping on the ground, sir. A couch will be a luxury."
"Well then you're welcome to it...just for tonight...and don't call me 'sir'."
With that, he went to the fireplace and tossed in a log from the woodbox. I removed my heavy pack, leaning it on the wall, and moved closer to the fireplace, thankful for the warmth.
"Hungry?" Noah inquired, not looking away from the flames.
As if answering for me, my stomach grumbled loudly. He turned to me, a smile tugging at the corners of his mustached mouth.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'."
He crossed the room to the small kitchen area and opened a cupboard full of canned food.
"Beef barley ok?"
My mouth watered, I'd eaten nothing but beef jerky and peanuts since I left Virginia.
"What'd I say about the sir nonsense!?" His tone was gruff but his eyes twinkled and I sensed a playfulness in his demeanor which reminded me of my grandfather.
"I'll work on it" I told him, daring to smile.
"Hmph" he grunted, opening the can of soup and handing it to me.
We ate in silence, and afterward sat staring at the fire a long time before he finally spoke.
"Well young lady, I believe I'll say goodnight. You can let the fire go out or keep it up, but keep it low."
"Understood, thank you."
My words feel insufficient as they leave my lips. 'Thank you' was not enough. I had encountered a group of infected that morning a few miles away. Had I made camp alone in the woods, there was a good chance they would have caught up with me. I notice Noah looking at me, his expression thoughtful.
"No thanks necessary." he said, crossing back to the kitchen where he pulled down a hideaway ladder and climbed up.
He reappears moments later with a blanket and pillow.
"Here ye' are. Goodnight." Without waiting for a response, he climbs back up the ladder and pulls it up behind him.
A familiar scent wakes me, though it takes me a moment to register what it is, when I do, I sit up immediately. Coffee. I see Noah in the kitchen and before I can say a word, he turns toward me, two mugs in hand. I must look as thrilled by the smell as I feel because he tells me "Don't get too excited, it's only instant."
"Even instant is a treat these days" I say, taking the mug he gives me.
"The sun will be up soon" he takes a swallow of coffee and begins to add sticks to the smoldering coals in the fireplace. The flames spring back to life at once.
"I'd advise you to go north of here once it's light enough to travel. You know those ghouls are more aggressive at night, right?"
"Ghouls" I repeated the word.
Oh nothing, I just like the word. It fits."
"That it does...well, enjoy that coffee, there's more in the thermos on the table there. I have a few things to do outside." He opened a side door which led into the fenced yard, a faint musty barnyard smell wafting in.
Noah proved to be truly benevolent, even if a bit difficult to get to know. When the sun was up, I prepared to leave and he came in from the yard carrying a large canvas military seabag.
"Got a few things for you to take with you, and give me that old backpack."
He transferred everything from my bag to the other and shoved it across the smooth hardwood floor.
"You should try not to travel at night. When you stop, do your best to be invisible. No fires. Stay hidden." He looked at me intensely, his eyes stressing the importance of his words and although it wasn't anything I didn't know already, I nodded that I understood and thanked him for the advise.
"You have somewhere you're going?"
"Well, ultimately, I'm heading North like you said. I'm going to Michigan, the upper peninsula. It's remote and there are a lot of uninhabited islands in the lakes."
"A bit far but a solid plan." he said, mulling it over. "Maybe once my son gets here we'll head that way. It wont be long before those things come this way."
Every morning since I left my little house in Virginia, I mark each day on a little pocket calendar I carried with me. There is just something in me that needs to know the day and month. Even though the calendar is no longer accurate as the new year has begun, I continue to do it. I place an 'X' over the day; July 15th. I have stocked my freezer back at the station with enough venison, fish and rabbits to last me through the winter. In the last few weeks, hunting has been good. Several successful snares in conjunction with long hours sat in the deer blind and at the end of the breakwall had yielded two large whitetail bucks, multiple rabbits and squirrels, one possum (I would surely save this until I absolutely had to eat it) and many pounds of fish. As I sit in the crows nest watching a resident flock of geese, I am glad none of them fell to my bow. Although they would certainly be delicious, I have grown fond of them and enjoy their company. Only a few infected have crossed my path since the last large group. Scattered and far between, I've been able to pick them off easy enough.
Now I spend most days scavenging the businesses I previously swept through to clear of the undead, checking my snares, fishing and cutting wood, piling it high in the garage attached to the station... anything to keep busy. In my old life, I'd thoroughly enjoyed solitude but now, after a year on my own, I am lonely. I cherish every brief encounter with the wolf pack, who frequent the clearing my deerblind overlooks. They tolerate my presence and though I spot them often lurking near my kills, they always stay at a distance until I have finished with the carcass. I find this behavior nothing short of generous as these woods really are THEIR woods.
The days are shorter now, and before long the sun will set before 5p.m. . I am not looking forward to the long hours alone in the station, although I am thankful for my sanctuary. It is thoroughly insulated and I have sealed the outer, unnecessary rooms, moving all daily essentials to the two main rooms where the woodstove stands in hopes that the restricted space will be easier to heat and thus use less firewood. Just outside the attached one-car garage where I store my wood and, once it gets cold enough, my food. At that point, I will shut off the generator until next spring. I hold onto hope that my brothers are making their way toward me, and perhaps Noah and his son as well. I know that type of hope can be a dangerous thing but still I continue my daily routine of scanning the horizon each morning and night for any sign of their approach. I have no idea where the military sent my brothers when everything began to fall apart but I have no doubt if anyone could survive, they could. I know little about Noah and nothing of his son but I know he gave me refuge, supplies and therefore a fighting change which were crucial in my making this far, and so I hold them in my thoughts as well. My daydreaming is interrupted by a low rumble; thunder. I turn my gaze to the sky and sure enough, dark clouds are rolling in from the lake. The geese hustle off the beach as the winds pick up. I retire to the first floor of the station and listen to the storm as it begins to howl and thrash.
The next morning I am out of the station before the sun is up. I follow the marked tail along where my traps are laid and am disappointed to find the first three empty. As I approach the next one, I know at once something is wrong.It is empty like the others, but it's been tripped and there are bloody bits of bone and fur everywhere. Something has been torn apart. The infected have been here, and the poor creature in my snare has been brutally devoured. I immediately take down the rest of my traps; I will not condemn another animal to die this way. The poor thing hadn't had a chance. At least death at my hands would've been quick and painless whereas the ghouls eat their prey while it screams.
I am hiking up a steep hill to tear down the final snare trap, when the irregular rustling of leaves alerts me to the presence of something ahead. As I creep through the brush, the trap comes into view and my stomach turns. A lone undead struggles against the snare which has drawn tight around it's ankle. I can see from a distance where it is steadily cutting deeper into the rotting flesh, a black, viscus ooze flowing slowly from the wound. It is attempting to gnaw at it without much success. I am glad to put an arrow through it's head and know where there is one there are always more, so I stand quietly and listen. I wonder how long this one's been stuck and consider they may have moved on without him in the night. But to where? I head back toward the station, feeling uneasy about the day's events thus far. Noise to my left jolts me to attention and I am surprised to see the big gray she-wolf crossing my path, shadowed closely by her mate and two subordinates. They look dishevelled and the female has a deep, bloody wound on her shoulder. The Alpha pair glare at me, a wild look in their eyes. They pull their lips back in a unified snarl, hackles raised. They have never displayed aggression toward me before and for a brief moment I am struck by the dread the the infection has finally gone trans-species. But no, they would have rushed me at once if that were the case and so instead of raising my bow I lower my eyes and back away slowly. The male takes a few steps toward me as I continue to move backward.
"Easy.." I say in a low, even tone. It's been so long since I heard my own voice, it almost startles me.
The male stops, his face still set in a warning snarl. His mate emits a whine and they move on suddenly toward the lakeshore. I take a moment to slow my heart rate. The pack had obviously been spooked by something to make them act such a way toward me. Judging by the female's wound and their generally bedraggled appearance, I wonder if they've been attacked by the infected. I feel an immediate need to get back to my station.
When I reach the treeline, I see in the few hours I have been in the woods, I have been completely cut off. A large group, fifty or more infected wander aimlessly between myself and safety. I curse myself as I realize I am not prepared for this, having left the station with only ten arrows and sixteen bullets, including what is already loaded in my sidearm. I crouch in the underbrush and consider the right approach. If done correctly, I could potentially handle them but with an alternate route available, there is no need to run such a risk, especially since they would undoubtedly see and rush me the moment I step out of the cover of the trees.
Staying low, I move back, doing everything I can not to make a sound. I circle back and head for the beach to go around them. I can hear the waves breaking on the shore and soon come to the sandy drop-off leading down to the water. One more look around for anything following me and I go over the edge, sliding down the gentle slope in the sand. I hit the beach running and can see clearly the imprint of the wolves' huge paws, though I don't see the pack anywhere. I wonder if what I had seen as aggression as simply their way of warning me to turn back. They had already known what lay ahead beyond the trees and tried to ward me off. I am about a quarter of a mile from the station and after a quick look around, run as fast as I can down the beach. When I reach the back door, I slip inside and lock the deadbolts, then place the heavy wooden beams I use as barricades against all the entrances. I drop my gear then take my binoculars and canteen up to the crow's nest. The group is moving slowly but steadily toward the station. Some of them branch off, investigating the cabins across the street. With little to hold their attention, however, the majority keep moving, combing the open areas, heading my way. I know as long as I stay silent, they will have no reason to attempt gaining entry to the station. I sip my water and watch them as they slowly surround my sanctuary.
The morning I left Noah's cabin, the air was cool and heavy with moisture. I relied heavily on my compass, unable to see much in the fog. The low visibility continued on into the afternoon and eventually, I stopped to eat lunch. I opened the bag Noah gave me and found a note on top.
Some jerky, powdered eggs, a few MRE's, some socks and few other things you might find handy.
I tore into an MRE and drink deeply from my canteen. The forest was silent around me, and after scarfing down the food, I load up my gear and start out again. I planned to hit the highway by nightfall and hoped to find a working vehicle. It took hours, but finally I made it. Using binoculars Noah had put in my bag, I look up and down the road. It appeared abandoned, empty cars here and there and several corpses strewn over the blacktop highway. When I saw no movement, I moved out slowly and began checking the vehicles one by one.
Four miles and a few hours later, I had tried every car and truck I'd seen and now one had a drop of gas in it. I was losing light fast and decided to stay the night locked safely in a suburban with blackout tinted windows about 1/2 a mile back. Once inside the truck, I ate a meager meal and laid across the back seat to rest my eyes a moment.
The moans woke me. It was pitch black but as I peeked cautiously from the nearest window, I could see well enough to know I was surrounded on all sides. Stranded in a sea of the infected. I laid flat and scarcely breathed, knowing any sound would draw them and, in these numbers, they would eventually force their way in. I hoped they would pass quickly but as the hours dragged by, they lingered. Daylight was streaming through the windshield before they moved on and even then I was afraid to move. It wasn't until I got on top of the truck and looked through my binoculars that I realized the magnitude of the group. There were hundreds, all moving together in one horrifying mass. I never saw the lone ghoul lagging behind the others as I climbed down to get my gear. He was on me before I hit the ground. 'How did I miss him?!" I scold myself silently as I struggle against the beast. I yanked my gun from it's holster and shoved the muzzle under his chin. The shot would undoubtedly draw more of them, so I scrambled back into the truck and stayed another night.
In the morning, I head out (after a long look around), deciding to keep near the road but behind the treeline. For several days, I went on this way, travelling by day, hiding by night in abandoned cars and sometimes up a tree. I didn't encounter any other infected for over a week, and because I had left the cities behind before things became truly horrendous, I had no clue it wasn't just the infected I needed to be on the lookout for.