The End: Chapter 3
August 12th. It's cold now, the summer sun is long gone, as well as the leaves on the trees and feathered friends; the geese. I continue to hunt and scavenge, adding little bits to my food reserves for the cold months ahead. I've gathered more than enough to keep myself alive during the long, unforgiving northern winter but continue to pack away stores of meat as I am able to bring it in. During the warmer months, I gathered potatoes, carrots and various other vegetables from the abandoned backyard gardens of the former residents. Lucky for me, many of them were, apparently, quite avid gardeners. Even with a comfortable supply of food, I plug away in hopes I will not be alone much longer; that perhaps my brothers or Noah will appear on the horizon one of these days. Besides the constant work of food-finding, I begin to clean out and fortify the hotel hear the station. In the event more survivors than the station can house find their way here, there will need to be a secure place for them to go. I have already boarded up all the ground floor windows as well as sealing all entrances except for one. I dispose of the bodies I find and infected I must dispatch by piling and burning them in the parking lot. The smell is terrible, but only lasts as long as the fire burns and is better then just piling them to rot. I don't bury them for fear of contaminating the ground which I will need for planting in the spring. I have seen no sign of the wolfpack since our last encounter, when they'd been so spooked by a herd of infected . It had taken over a week for the ghouls to clear out, during which time I was truly thankful I had everything I needed right here in the station. I was able to wait them out comfortably and once they reached the edge of town, I quietly resumed my daily activity.
I shove a hunk of wood into the stove. The two main rooms of the station warm quickly and retain the heat much better than I expected. It's been over a year now that I've been here alone, almost two since it all began. My little pocket calendar has long since lost it's accuracy, though I still use it to give myself a general idea of the month. I struggle daily not to lose hope that my brothers will arrive as planned and that there are other survivors like myself. The dreary Autumn weather and short days do nothing to lift my spirits but the constant work distracts me. In the long hours of darkness which begin now at 4p.m. I find myself sitting in the crows nest, a weather eye on the horizon for any sign of movement.
Today, like most others, there is nothing. The only road into town remains empty and desolate, littered with abandoned cars from people who either never made it out or died trying to get in. As I begin to think about heading downstairs to eat, the silent, still morning is shattered by a sound I have come to know all too well; gunfire. It is followed in rapid succession by nine more shots. I am momentarily frozen as I listen through the now open window for more. I scan the treeline, searching for any sign of where it came from. I can only guess from the echoing shots that is came from the forest to the right of the station where my deerblind stands. I scramble to get downstairs, thrown on my boots, holster my sidearm and shoulder my rifle, then head toward the shots via the beach trail. Four more shots ring out and I hasten to a run. Careful to stay off the main trails and out of sight, I enter the woods, my every nerve on edge. I strain to hear any sounds outside the normal rhythm of the woods and soon the sound of something I thought I'd never hear again reaches my ears; laughter.
I freeze in my tracks, and stand listening. Two, maybe three voices drift toward me, all male. I can't make out their words, though, and creep closer. A few yards past the clearing my blind overlooks, I find the source of the commotion. Three men stand, crowding around a rocky outcrop, their rifles trained on something. I hear a vicious snarl and one of the men laughs again, shifting on his feet enough for me to see past him. At their feet lay the wolfpack; all dead or dying. Behind the bodies, bristling with rage at the mouth of her den, is the Gray Queen. The men are laughing again now, jabbing at her with the barrels of their rifles. I am struck by the horror of what I am witnessing, but the shock is quickly replaced by a rage to match the alpha female.
"Finish her, Bill! we got a whole town over there to go through, might even find some sweet meat!" one of them says, looking far too eager.
I shudder at the term he uses, knowing exactly what it means. As "Bill" takes aim, I raise my own rifle. These "men", no better than the mindless infected, are no longer human, if they ever were. It's not until the first two are dead on the ground from clean headshots that the third one, who'd spoken of the possibility of "sweet meat", realizes what's happening. He whirls toward me, bewildered and searching for the shooter. I begin to rise from my kneeling position behind the trees, gun steady. I want him to see me before I kill him. Our eyes meet but before I can squeeze the trigger, the Gray Queen leaps over the bodies of her family, onto his back, sinking her fangs deep into his neck. They collapse together in a heap, his rifle firing. I feel the searing heat in my arm but it seems inconsequential as I see the man somehow manage to draw his knife. I shoot, hitting him directly in the wrist. He drops the knife and screams in pain as the she-wolf does her best to tear him apart. His screams only fuel the rage of the Queen and in seconds he is silenced as she clamps down on his throat, piercing his jugular vein. I find myself standing over him as his eyes glaze, blood pouring from what's left of the throat. The Gray finally back away, sensing the life gone from him, and emits a low growl. I turn my gaze to her to find it is now I who is locked in her stare and I realize I'm standing between her and the den. I speak softly to her, eyes down, as I back away.
"Easy, sweetheart. You know me...I'm your friend..."
With me out of her path, she rushes toward the den. I can see now as she streaks past me that her right side is pouring blood; she's been shot. She doesn't acknowledge the wound but goes slowly from one packmate to another, sniffing each on thoroughly, her tail low, whining softly. Finally, she comes to her mate, the huge steel-gray alpha male; her King. She sniffs him over, throws her head back and howls a long, mournful howl, then lies down next to him, resting her head on his lifeless body. I feel like an intruder on the scene now, and yet I step toward her. She doesn't even flick an ear at my approach and in a few short steps I can see inside the den.. I can see what I'd truly hoped I wouldn't, what the pack had given their lives to protect. Three cubs, probably no more than a couple of months old, lay dead behind their sire. I am suddenly overwhelmed at the sight and wish I could spare the bullets to shoot the men a few more times, just for good measure. I find myself kneeling amongst the bodies of the pack, sobbing. The female moves now from her mate to the cubs, inspecting each with care. She seems most interested in the largest of the three and begins nudging it, whining still. Her side is not soaked in blood, it drips off her thick fur and I can see her legs trembling. I go to her, not thinking of what she might do, just as she collapses next to her cubs. She raises her head but shows no sign of aggression. I touch her gingerly and she lays her head down, weak and exhausted, allowing me to stroke her fur and examine the wound. I know there is nothing I can do and the does not have long for this world, too much blood has been lost. She must have used her last ounce of strength to kill the beastly marauder. I notice the pain in my left arm and look down to see my own blood flowing and mingling with that of the wolves' on the ground. The shot that went off when the female attacked...I hadn't even realized I was hit until now. It's a clean wound, though, in and out and I rip my sleeve off the bind the wound. Looking back at the she-wolf dying before me, her breathing is labored and blood has begun to trickle from her mouth. I know she is suffering and expend the bullet to end it for her. I sit in silence, tears running freely down my cheeks, unable to look at the carnage around me.
Finally, I collect myself and begin to think logically. That shots will have caught the attention of any infected nearby, I must act fast and get back to the station. I begin stripping the dead marauders of anything useful and upon further inspection of the area, find three packs tossed under a nearby bush. They are stuffed with camping gear and ammo but I know I will never be able to tote all three, especially with a useless arm. I find some rope inside one and tie the packs together, dragging them seems feasible. I want to give the wolfpack an honorable burial but I know I have neither the time or strength at the moment. Any ghoul within a few miles will have heard the shots and will be headed this way. I pass by the gruesome scene as I drag the packs toward the station, give a silent prayer for the slain pack and a curse for the marauders. As I get on the move, a tiny, almost inaudible whimper, brings me back to the bodies of the pack. To my utter shock, it's one of the cubs, the largest one whom the female had paid extra attention to. It raises it's small, fuzzy head and I drop the packs, stunned. Instinctively, I go to the pup. Half of one of his little gray ears is gone, but the wound is not fatal. He must have been been either frozen in fear or stunned by the grazing shot, perhaps he was just in shock from seeing the death of his family and so had lain frozen in fear during the ordeal. I pick him up carefully, he struggles and yelps, does his best attempt at a snarl, but I hold him securely and zip him inside my coat. I begin to think of how I can transport both him and the packs at the same time with one arm but I know that I can't. I struggle to hide the packs as best as I can in the now empty den, pulling downed branches across the entrance and then make a break for the station at an awkward jog.
Once safely inside, I look the pup over for other injuries as he does his best to bite me. I find no other wounds and so set him down on the floor to attend to my throbbing arm which is now nearing unbearable. After cleaning and dressing it properly, I find a sling in the medic room and slip my arm into it. I take a vicodin and amoxicillin from the prescription stash, a combination of my findings along the way and what was already here. After bringing in my firewood for the night, I look around for the cub but see him nowhere and so leave several bowls of water in different places for him to find. I am exhausted from the day's events and my own loss of blood. A hot iron, heated atop the woodstove, finally stopped the bleeding, although also burning the hell out of me. As I wait for the cast iron skillet to heat, I peek under the bed and couch for the cub, at last finding him under the kitchen table, watching me intently. He shrinks back at my approach and I decide not to push him. I cut up one of the two venison steaks I've put out to thaw and put it in a shallow pan on the floor for him.
After eating my own meal and draining my canteen, I finally lie down on the worn, overstuffed couch and let the combination of exhaustion,blood loss and vicodin overtake me, sending me into a deep sleep....
I had been travelling alone and on foot almost nonstop for over a week. The weather had been agreeable, though the terrain had become too rough for me to trek offroad. Now, having taken to the highway, an obstacle stood in my path. An 18-wheeler sat, jackknifed, across the road. It wasn't the truck so much as the tent sitting atop it's trailer, beside which a man sat watching me through his rifle scope, that gave me pause. Suddenly, as if deciding I posed no threat, he dropped the gun waved me in, smiling warmly. I tucked away my binoculars and made my toward him. A few more people climbed out of the cab of the truck, though they neither waved nor smiled at my approach. The man climbed down and introduced himself and the others when I got close.
"I'm Jay, this here's my wife and sons, Joanna, Darren, and Tom."
"Hannah." I offer my name simply, eyeing Jay's silent family.
He extended his hand to shake, but a quick movement from his wife in my peripheral vision turned my attention to her, my gun already up and ready. As she brought down a blood-caked cleaver toward my neck, I shot her cleanly in the head. She crumpled to the ground and I turned my gun on the others.
"What are you people DOING?!"
"Food is scarce and hard to find." Jay answered, eyes darting from his wife's corpse to the barrel of my handgun. "We take what we can get, and we have come to especially like sweet meat."
"Sweet meat" I repeat, disgusted before he could even explain.
"YOU, darlin', YOU. Don't have much luck in huntin', the animals are all taking to hiding away, but plenty of destitute travellers on the road.." He smiles a snaggle toothed grin.
"You're...you're EATING people?!? -" Jay cut me off
"Don't knock it till you try it. Now, be a good girl and put that gun down. Might have some use for you besides eatin'."
He began to raise his own gun as his sons moved toward me. I didn't hesitate and shot him in the chest and head before making short work of his sons as well. I take a moment to catch my breath, but not too; just as I feared, the shots drew the infected. I couldn't see them yet, but could already hear their moans. I rushed to the trailer and yanked out the heavy, creaking door. I could see something moving at the far end as I climbed up apprehensively. Handgun raised, I shouted into the darkness.
"Say something or I shoot!"
Silence. Then the sound of a chain dragging across the floor. I felt the familiar fear, mingled with adenaline.
"Say something!" I demanding again, cocking the gun.
"I'm not infected!" the man's voice was hoarse, feeble, but I was careful as I approached, gun still on him.
When I'd moved closer and my eyes adjusted, I could see the horror that had unfolded within the walls of the trailer. Blood stained the floor and walls, various butchering tools lay scattered, and a man knelt on the floor, his hands and feet chained. He was bloodied, naked, and eyes me like a wild animal in a trap.
"You going to kill me?"
"No. You know where they keep the key for that?" I nodded toward the heavy padlock on his chains.
"That goddamn kick..." he coughed... "The father, on his belt."
Without a word, I dashed out to where the oldest man lay dead in the road, snatched the key from his belt loop and scrambled back into the trailer.
Once he was unchained, I helped him to his feet and we made our way to the open door. The infected were drawing nearer as I assisted him inclimbing down, neither of us acknowledging his nudity until he'd climbed down.
"You know what they did with your clothes?"
He nodded, pointing to one of the dead sons.
"That asshole's wearing them."
"No worries." I told him and fished a t shirt and pair of coma pants I;d taken from an abandoned military supply truck a few days earlier.
"might be a bit snug, but should do."
The groans and snarls grew louder.
"We need to get out of sight. Now." the stranger said, tugging on the pants and shirt.
"The truck cab, is it locked?"
He shrugged. "Worth a shot."
In a stroke of luck, it had been unlocked. We climbed inside, locked the doors and retreated into the upper sleeping quarters, out of sight just as the first few ghouls appeared in the road. I pulled my pack up after us, retrieved the medical supplies I'd gathered along the way.
"Where are you hurt?" I asked him, handing over my canteen.
He smiled, took the canteen, and extended his hand.
"I'm Gabriel. Thank you for saving my life."
I almost laughed at the matter-of-fact simplicity of his words.
"Right...sorry...I'm Hannah. I only did what any decent person would."
"Not many decent folks left, I'm afraid." He replied between gulps of water.
I took note of his various wounds as he drank.
"That gash on your head needs to be cleaned, I'm going to have to cut some of your hair."
He allowed me to clean his wounds, dress them and then I dug from my bag a plastic cylinder of baby wipes. An amused look crossed his grimy, bloody face.
"To clean up." I explained. "I'll go back down into the front cab...give you some privacy."
"Why? You've already seen everything." A teasing note in his voice
I hoped in the dim light he couldn't see my face reddened with embarrassment.
After he'd finished cleaning himself, I climbed back up to find under the dried blood and dirt was a handsome, youngish man, near my age certainly, his jet black hair complementing olive skin, and sharp, hawk-like brown eyes.
"Hungry?" I asked, pulling out two MRE's I'd been saving since leaving Noah's cabin.
"If THAT isn't the understatement of the year." he said, tearing into his eagerly.
We ate in silence, save for the sound of the herd of infected that had gathered outside the truck, bumping into it stupidly, moaning, no doubt feasting on the corpses I'd left outside.
"I think it's best if we stay here until they're gone." I told him when we'd finished eating. "I don't have the ammo to take on a group that big."
"Sounds good. I could use a night's sleep."
We moved to opposite ends of the sleeping quarters for the night, and just before I'd dozed off Gabriel's voice came softly across the space between us.
"Thank you, Hannah. I'd be dead if..."
I'd cut him off. "No need for thanks. Just rest."
With the dead still still stumbling around outside, we both fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. I woke the next morning before the sun came up, to find Gabriel already awake, peering out of the cab window.
"I think they've gone."
I nodded and began emptying my pack, spreading my supplies over the bunk.
"Will you be okay on your own?"
He turned to me, smiling good naturedly.
"I'm not quite as helpless as the situation you found me in would suggest."
"I didn't mean that...just... with your injuries and all..."
"I'm close to my destination, I should be able to get on alright."
"Just the sam, I want you to take these things with you." I told him, setting aside some antibiotics, water purification tablets, a lighter, half of the little food I had, an emergency blanket and two pair of thick socks. "It's not much, but should help you get where you're going. Did you have a weapon?"
He'd sat there, silent a moment, staring at the supplies I'd laid out between us.
"I can't thank you enough, but this is too much. You have somewhere you're trying to get as well, I can't take these things. You'll need them."
"Bullshit. You will take it. I'm in good health and I'll find more supplies. I'm not taking it back so you can either take it or leave it here."
He'd grinned at me. "Alright then."
We packed his supplies together into one of the many empty packs piled in the passenger seat of the truck.
"My god. How many people have they killed?" I wondered aloud.
"There were two others in there with me...a man and a little girl. They came and got them a few days ago. Had to put the father down first, he went crazy when they tried to take the girl..." he trailed off, going somewhere far away in his mind and I hadn't pressed him about the details, there was no need. I knew without hearing the horrible truth.
I wake from the reminiscent dream to a soft chewing noise. I lift my head from the couch to see the cub has finally come out from under the table and is tentatively chewing on the venison I've left for him. I make no attempt to approach but traumatized pup but go about my usual morning routine. Once the woodstove is going strong again, taking the cold edge out of the air in the station, I fix a breakfast of rabbit stew I'd prepared the week before and frozen in portions. The solid block of veggies,broth and rabbit meat melts in the skillet and fills the station with it's wonderful aroma. The cub had finished his meal and goes back to his hiding place under the table. I remove three portions of fish from the freezer and put one down on the floor near the kitchen table, thinking the pup might enjoy something solid and tasty to chew. I turn my attention to the pain in my arm and clean the wound again and apply a fresh bandage, then slip my arm back into the sling. Still, it throbs but I know I must use the pain meds sparingly and so leave them in the cabinet and go to check on my stew. I find it ready and I eat only half, saving the rest for lunch, and notice the cub creeping toward the fish I'd left him. He snatches it and dashes back under the table where he sits chewing the filet, never taking his eyes off me. I was too shocked and exhausted to consider how marvelous the cub's survival is until now. The marauders had slaughtered his entire pack, most likely just for fun, and yet here he is.
Once food became scarce, some people turned to cannibalism and many began eating it exclusively. This led to a poisoning of the mind which turned people into Marauders and the sane survivors left were no longer able to trust each other for fear they were as likely to be eaten by these cannibalistic gangs as the infected hoards. Once the remaining sane survivors realized it wasn't just the undead we had to fear,most would shoot anyone they saw and didn't know, infected or not. I'd known what the men who killed the wolves were before they'd used the unsettling term "sweet meat"; an awful nickname for human meat. I ran across a few of them in my time on the road and they always had the same look about them, skin sickly gray, a hunched sort of posture, and a distinct (and horrible) odor, all likely from the vast array of negative effects which comes from humans consuming human meat. I feel no remorse for their deaths, if they had made it to town they would have no doubt dispatched me in a most gruesome manner. My only regret is that they happened across the pack's den.
But he's alive I think to myself, tying my boots.
I have to go back to the den to collect the packs and rifles, though I am reluctant to leave the cub alone, I know the supplies in those bags and the guns are too important to wait and risk losing. I freshen his water and leave the station, locking it securely behind me.
I reach the den in good time without incident. There is no sign anyone else has been on the scene and after dragging the packs out of the den, I check that the rope is tied tightly and head home. This is the last time I will come to this side of the clearing.
As I make my way along the beach, the waves crash furiously, sending a fine spray into the cold air. The wind is picking up rapidly with ever step I take and I hasten as much as I can dragging the heavy packs with my one good arm. Just as I near the station, the downpour begins. The rain is freezing as it falls, stinging my skin, and I know winter has finally arrived. I spend two days in the station waiting out the storm, watching from the crows nest as everything becomes coated with a layer of ice. After the first day of the storm, the cub begins to eat in my presence instead of dragging his food under the kitchen table. By the evening of the second day, he is venturing closer and closer to me, his little nose sniffing the air around me, learning my scent, no more fear in his eyes, just curiosity.
The storm passes at last and, with little else to do, I venture out of the station with my bow in search of small game to bring home to the cub. Having no luck after a few hours, I head down to the beach, my footsteps crunching on the ice-covered ground. Ahead I see a lone goose, a strange sight this time of year as the flocks have all migrated. It holds it's wing at an odd angle and I can see it is broken. It's been left behind by it's flock, probably it's mate, and there's not a chance it will survive the winter. I take aim and fire an arrow, landing a clean hit through it's chest, and quickly finish it with my knife.
I find the cub curled up on the couch, sleeping soundly. He raises his head at my entrance but is more interested in the fresh kill in my hands. He follows me to the table where I clean the goose and set aside a large cut from the what must be nearly 30 pounds of meat the good yielded, wrap the rest and store it with the rest of my meat reserves. I prepare the cub's food first, a mix of fresh goose and venison from my freezer. e eats it ravenously, finished before I even have mine cooked. He watches me go about the cooking process, at a distance, then follows me to the couch as I settle in to eat.
we stare at each other, but the cub shows no sign of wanting to come closer. I know it will take a a great deal of time and patience for him to fully trust me, especially after the savagery he has witnessed from humans already.
"You need a name, little fella." I tell him softly.
At the sound of my voice, he darts back under the table where he sits growling softly. I can't help but chuckle at his best attempt of intimidation.
"Easy, killer." I tell him, tossing a piece of my meal toward the kitchen.
He drops the act long enough to snatch the morsel and returns to his position under the table.His resilience is impressive, but I hope in time he can overcome the trauma completely and learn to trust me. It would be so nice to finally have a friend.