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The End: Chapter 7
Thomas, Markus and Gabriel run past me into the campsite, guns raised, to clear the area. In the makeshift tarp-tent, Thomas finds the butchered remains of a man, except his head which has been removed and sits staring blankly on a nearby stump.
"Just travellers looking for a safe place, I bet..." Thomas says, shaking his head woefully.
Gabriel and Markus go off into the surrounding woods to secure the perimeter while Thomas covers the body of the woman with a blanket. In the tent, I find the belongings of the unfortunate travellers. I search the meager packs for any sign of where they may be come from. They could have been scouts from another group of survivors, and if they were, we need to find their origins and make contact. A shadow is cast over the tent's opening and I turn to see Gabriel.
"Not yet." I drag the packs out of the tent, away from the decapitated body, and dump them outside to sift through their contents.
Some canned food, a few bottles of water... I am moments away from giving up when a small white object catches my eye. I pick up the plainly wrapped candy, puzzling over it.
"What is it, Hannah?"
"Saltwater taffy." I tell him, unwrapping the chewy confection.
"Strange thing for them to be carrying." Gabe comments, moving closer." "Wait.. don't eat that!"
I chew the taffy slowly, savoring it's familiar taste.
"I loved this stuff when I was a kid." I say, reminiscing. "And my favorite was from the island."
"Yes." I look up at him, completely certain of what I am about to say next. "This taffy came from there. From Mackinac Island."
Gabriel looks skeptical. "How can you know that for sure?"
I am about to answer when Thomas joins us. "You'd better believe her, Gabe, she used to eat that stuff by the pound."
I can only grin and nod in agreement.
"So you think they were there?"
"I do. And if I'm right, there could be many more others."
Gabriel looks thoughtful as we gather the few useful items from their gear, taking down the tarps as well. We wrap the murdered travellers in them and bury them, leaving the marauders to be picked clean by scavengers. Standing over the fresh graves, we discuss the possibilities. Markus and Gabriel agree the chance of another group of survivors is worth the risk of travel, but Thomas is apprehensive.
"There are more marauders all the time, and do you know a lot of them aren't even cannibals? They just enjoy slaughter. Not to mention the infected...warmer weather, snow gone, they can move faster now..." He trails off as we all hear the sharp, distinct "snap" of a branch breaking.
We are relieved to see Tobias striding toward us. He looks as though he's been in a fight and his face is drawn and tense.
"What happened?" Thomas asks him.
Eyeing the fresh graves, Tobias answers "I suppose you've got a couple of travellers there." He says, pointing at the upturned earth. "And I bet they're not the only corpses around here." He looks around at us, finally taking his eyes from the graves.
"T; what happened?" Thomas demands.
"I wasn't having much luck hunting so I moved down along the lakeshore, came across a lone man, what's left of him, and a few yards off; three marauders heading toward town. How many here?"
"Five. You get yours?"
"'Coarse I did." Tobias spits on the ground in emphasis. "I wonder if you and Eli might come help me bury the guy they killed, though. Looked to be soldier."
Thomas looks puzzled at his sentimentality until Tobias steps forward and mumbles something to him only Thomas can hear. His jaw clenches and he nods stiffly.
Eli doesn't question him and follows Tobias back toward the beach as Thomas turns to us.
"We'll see you back at the station." He says, making it clear we are not accompanying them.
""There will be more." Gabriel says as we walk along the main road.
"I know." is my only answer
"There's a new war coming." Markus says darkly.
"What do you mean?" I question.
"Look around you, this place is perfect. special. And in a this world when you hold a place like this, it can be a death sentence. It's not just the dead hunting us now."
That night, I leave the men to sit in the crows nest with Solo. I watch the waves lap softly on the harbor shore, stroking Solo's half-ear. Moonlight shimmers off the blue-black water, the geese honk softly to one another, all is peaceful; still. One could almost forget we are surviving in a post-apocalyptic world of chaos and death. At some point, I drift off to sleep, lulled by the serenity of the night.
Over the next few days, we increase patrol distance and frequency and begin to keep someone in the crow's nest at all times armed with one of our two true sniper rifles. I begin to think that perhaps the marauders were on their own, were not scouts of a larger group at all, and if they were no one seems to have noticed they did not return. Nearly two weeks go by, and then one afternoon I am helping Connor get up the stairs to the crow's nest when Eli bursts through the door.
"Hannah!" he shouts, sounding nearly panicked.
Connor grasps the rail and hops up the next step.
"Better go see." He says, waving me off.
I nearly leap down the stairs.
"What is it?!"
"Ten marauders...near the edge of town...ran...they're pursuing." He pants, out of breath.
"Thomas, Gabe and Markus. Thomas sent us back to stay with the station in case there are more or they circle back."
"Gabriel went with them? Why?"
"Thomas asked him to." Eli says, shrugging.
"What? Why didn't he take Tobias?" I am already pulling on my boots, intent on following and catching up to them.
Eli stays my hands. " 'Nan, stop. Tomas and Gabe both said if you try to follow, I'm to restrain you by any means necessary."
One could easily mistake Eli's soft-spoken manner for that of a weak man, a pushover. But I know better and when I glare up at him daringly, I can see he means what he says. Should I attempt to follow the others, I will not find him so mild-mannered. As if on cue, Tobias comes in.
"Yes, lucky us. Babysitting detail." He grumbles, clearly sore over missing out on the action.
"Please, by all means, go with them!" I exclaim, insulted and losing my temper. "I don't need you here." I step toward him, ready to continue and thoroughly berate him when Eli gets between us.
"Easy, "Nan. We all know T loves to fight, can't blame him for being annoyed on missing out. Let it go."
I stand, fuming at Tobias over Eli's shoulder. He smiles sweetly; winks at me and before I know it I've ducked under Eli's arm and have Tobias against the wall, one forearm against his throat, the other hand going for my knife. Solo, following my lead, snarls and snaps at his feet.
It's Noah, having heard the commotion and come down from the crows nest, who pulls me away from him.
"Hannah, dear, come sit down."
I am shaking as he sits me down at the table. Eli, shocked by my display, speaks fervently to Tobias in the next room, out of my hearing range. Noah's calm, steady voice bring me back to myself.
"Hannah, look at me; focus."
I meet his gaze and feel the tension in my every muscle ease.
"I'm here, Noah. I'm good."
"No, you're not. Not yet. Because I'm not, either. You're not angry with Tobias. For all his faults, this is not one of them.
"My faults!?" Tobias pipes in from the background,
Noah turns to him, calm as ever.
"Son, 'due respect and all, but now's the time for you to shut it."
Tobias holds up his hands in mock surrender and backs out of the room.
"Whatever you say, old-timer."
Noah pulls up a chair and sits facing me.
"Girlie, you know as well as I that my son and your brother are a couple of headstrong fools. They both think they can protect what they love better than anyone else. You just got your brothers back and now one of them's off again on some wild goose chase. I understand, I do. They're also right. If those men brought a whole camp full of their kind here...we wouldn't make it through that, dear. Now buck up. You wouldn't let me sulk when I wanted to, so I can't allow you either." He takes hold of my hands.
"They'll come home." He says, smiling warmly.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully, wood is brought in, food is prepared. I stay mostly in the crows nest, anxious for any sign of movement in town. Hours after dinner, Noah comes up to relieve me.
"Get some rest."
Sleep evades me and I end up pacing the floor downstairs, Solo watching me from the couch. The next day carries on much the same, and then the next. And the next...
After two weeks, although no one says it, we are all undoubtedly thinking the same thing; that they weren't outfitted to be gone this long, they'd had no food and not nearly enough ammo. Although I hold on desperately to the bitter hope they will be back any day now, I cannot simply ignore the fact we all know; they may very well be dead. In this world, it is a fact one must accept every time any living being leaves their sight. That at any moment, that being, or yourself, could no longer exist.
I climb the steps to the crows nest to take over for Eli and find NOah already there, the two of them talking quietly. They fall silent when I am still two steps away from entering the room.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing, 'Nan." Eli gets up, stretching. "Not a thing. Noah's gonna talk watch, why don't you get some rest? I heard ya up last night."
I trudge down the staircase without a word. I've felt empty these last few weeks and haven't got it in me to argue. I wondered if this was to be my life now until my time is up. Just constantly finding and losing my loved ones in a constant cycle of elation and crushing despair. One could almost say I had been better off when it was just Solo and I. As I settle onto the sofa for the night with Solo curled up at my feet, I have no doubt. It had been easier in a way to be alone.
In the pitch black, I could hear the quiet sobbing, raspy breathing of those near death... and the smell of those already gone. The brief looks around
I've had when the doors open and they take someone out reveal the torture that has been wrought upon these others before I came here. I speak to no
one here, but there's no need; the corpses left to rot away amongst the living tell me all I need to know. I am going to die here. There is no sleeping here for me, only involuntary micro-naps when I can no longer hold my eyes open. I try to keep track of the days, but there is no way, they come a erratic times to throw us stale, often moldy bread and water, or to take one of us away. 'No.. not one of us.. one of THEM...I am not one of them... I am not like them.. weak and sniveling in the dark.' I scream inside my head, refusing to think of my fellow prisoners and myself in terms of "us". It's me and them, I tell myself furiously. I had seen them take two or three at a time, always gone for hours, always bloodied and broken and sobbing when returned. It was some time before they came for me...but eventually they did, and I had yet to give them the satisfaction of my tears, as I vowed to myself I never will. And how did I come to be here? Locked in this disgusting, dank cell? Foolish, blind trust... having faith in other human beings...being unaware of my surroundings.... it had all culminated into my current predicament. For the thousandth time I curse myself for my mistakes. I'd been on the move for three days straight, having barely escaped being captured by a trio of seemingly insane men intent on, for reasons unbeknownst to me, capturing and almost certainly killing me. Exhausted, hungry, dehydrated and nursing a nasty infected knife wound,courtesy of one of said men(who'd ended up getting an equally nasty eye gouge for his trouble), in my side. When I came to the small town somewhere in West Virginia, I immediately set to searching the abandoned buildings, careful to keep quiet so as not to draw the ghouls sure to be lurking somewhere closeby. My search had turned up nothing when I exited the third building and saw the woman in the street, beckoning to me silently. Instinctively I put my gun on her, even though it wasn't loaded and I'd run out of ammo days ago. She
raised her hands, shaking her head, and called to me as loudly as she dared.
"Come on! we have food, medicine!"
"Heard that before" I tell her, coming closer, gun still on her
"Please! it's not safe here!" she insisted, seemed genuine and harmless enough, especially when I noticed the child, a little girl, cowering behind
her. I followed her to an unmarked white cinderblock building. She knocked on the door in an odd pattern, doors opened and I was led inside. A group of
women stood clustered near the doorway, and several at once set to bringing me water, opening cans of food. As I glance around at the inside of the
place,taking in the strange posters on the wall "Just say NO to domestic violence" "Say no to drugs"... I began to put together what this place had
been before the end.One comes forward amidst the bustle; older, with a steely gaze.
"I'm Cedra" she reached out and rested her hand on my shoulder, fixing her
eyes on mine solemnly. "you're safe here."
" What is this place? A womens shelter?"
"It was then and is now, yes. Most of these women were already living here,
a few we've found, like you, in town."
"Well, Cedra, your hospitality is appreciated. I'm Nora"
"Welcome, Nora." she pauses as one of the women hands me my canteen, filled with water, and a cold can of condensed soup. Another behind her holds
bandages, antiseptic. Cedra waves off the woman with the soup and looks pointedly at the other, the one from the street, as if to say 'get to
it'. She turns back to me and continues.
"My daughter, Nancy, will clean your wound, we have antibiotics for the
infection. After that you are welcome to stay or go, although I very much
recommend you stay."
"Well, I have somewhere I'm heading, but I would appreciate a day or two to
rest before I push on."
"Very well." She smiles,both gracious and sad at once. "We will prepare you
a bed, Nancy will show you to it when you're ready."
The next time I saw Cedra was only a few short hours later, just before a bullet entered her head , directly after the shelter was stormed and raided and we were all drug out into the night. We were ordered to strip naked in the cold, only she refused, standing stiffly, proud, before our captors. They laughed, prodded at us like cattle, and when they came to her, sheltering the child who'd been on the street with Nancy, she refused. Another man, who'd been standing silently behind his cronies, stepped forward, shooed his goon aside, and reissued the order. Again she refused.He reached for the child and she snatched the girl away, spitting in his
face. He wiped the saliva away, grinning, raised his gun calmly, and without a word, put a round in her head. She crumpled to the ground, the little girl and the other women screaming. I stood slightly away from them, all the while contemplating how to escape. When the shooter snatched up the child and put the gun to her head, the women quieted, all except her mother who sobbed and begged for the child's release. Another smile, another shot, and the girl lay next to her grandmother. This sent all of them into a frenzy, screaming, crying...her mother collapsed on the
ground, sobbing.... a horrible display.
"Got no use for kids" He stated matter of factly, then noticed me.
Naked like all the rest, but set apart by my lack of reaction to his brutality.
"Now what's this" He strolled toward me, the other men, six or seven of them like drooling hounds on a scent, descending on the other women.
"Got a bit of a scrape, there, hunny. "He says, poking the laceration in my side. I wince as burning pain shoots through my side. "Bobby, didn't you say you cut that little cooz who gave y'all the slip a few days ago?"
Bobby' turned his attention from where he and the others are binding the women together by there hands.
"Well now, let me see that knife"
'Boss compares the knife to my wound, I keep my eyes straight ahead, refusing to look at either, waiting for any opportunity to run.
"I dare say this is her, boy."
As he gets closer, I recognize the face, now adorned with a makeshift eyepatch from where I'd dug my thumb into his eye to escape.
"Well,well.. hello darlin" he drawled " 'Like to see your handiwork?"
He lifted the patch,revealing the grotesque socket, the remains of his eye caked in blood. He touched it gingerly, a slow ooze of pus pushing out.
"We gon' have fu-un when we get you back to camp"
With that, "Boss" cracked me over the head with the butt of his pistol, sending me into dark oblivion. When I woke again, I was locked in the miserable cell, I guessed it to be the basement of a house. It couldve been days before I came to, none of the others seemed to know how long we'd been there, and that being the only thing I'd wanted to know, I didn't speak to any of them again after that. Although I couldn't see, I could feel the dried blood on my thighs, pain in my lower abdomen and hips, I knew what had been done. When I first came to realize, I vomited, then felt the rage of violation. I immediately began forming my revenge, what I would do when I got my hands on the one I was sure it had been, the one the 'Boss' called Bobby. Now, possibly weeks later, I had been ripped from the cell several times, a bag over my head always before leaving the room, then I would be taken to a different room, and then it would begin...sometimes for horus, always the 'Boss' first.I never spoke, never looked at them, just focused on being still.. and always plotting my revenge.
There were around twenty women locked in the room, some from the shelter, some caught on the road. besides the live prisoners, there were at
least four corpses when I first woke up, now there was ten. The bodies were left with us as a form of torture, or perhaps a warning of what would
happen to us all. They died from various things, dehydration, beatings, at least two took her own life. The others would pile to bodies in the farthest corner of the room to try to contain the stench, but there was nothing to be done.
I guessed it to have been a month when my opportunity finally came. The door opened and our daily bread and water thrown in. As the others scrambled for the bread, I drank of the somewhat dirty water and noticed the plastic bucket had been cracked, starting at the top and running in a diagonal to just below where the handle attached. I tugged at the jagged plastic and was finally able to break a piece off. Applied to flesh with the right amout of pressure, it was certainly sturdy enough to do damage. I slid it into the scant shorts they allowed us and pulled my dirty tshirt down over it. None of the others had noticed, which was good for me, as my escape plan only included myself. Cold? Perhaps. But this was a cold world.
When they came again later, I had positioned myself near the door, away from the others who cowared in the back of the cell, to ensure they would take me first today. They hauled me out, slipped the bag over my head, and, as I had counted on, did not bind my hands. Because I'd never offered them a struggle or any resistance, or even said anything, they'd been lulled into comfort, and truly believed I would be no trouble. Two other women were drug out, kicking and squealing. When they left me in the room I, as usual, made no attempt to take the bag off my head, just sat stoicly on the edge of the beat down dirty mattress. When the door opened, I knew at once by the smell that it was the 'Boss'.
"Oh YOU! I thought I was feelin' lucky this morning" I can here the repulsive smile on his face "Let me ask you somethin', why don't you take the bag off? Your not tied"
I clenched my teeth, to keep silent.
"Still with the silent treatment, huh? Well that's alright I 'spose. Never did like a bitch to talk too much."
I stifled the urge to run at him right then, screaming, and plunge the hard jagged plastic into his neck. 'Wait for the right moment', I told myself, taking a deep breath to calm the adrenaline coursing through me as he sat next to me. When I could feel his hot, rancid breath on my neck,I struck like a coiled snake, buried the broken plastic deep between his neck and shoulder over and over again. I ripped the bag from my head and jammed it into his open mouth, stifling his scream, staring into his eyes, wide with disbelief. Then I notice his gun, holstered to him, snatch it before he has time to react and put it to his head.
"Kneel" I ordered, my voice cracked and hoarse from disuse.
He fell to his knees, hands grasping wildly at his neck to staunch the steady flow of blood. I leaned close and whispered to him "I woke up feeling lucky too" and then dispatched him with his own weapon.
I knew the noise would draw others, and wasted no time. I went for the window, opened it and found myself on the second floor. Undeterred, I went out onto the roof, just as the door was flung open behind me. I looked behind me briefly to see one-eyed Bobby burst into the room. We looked at each other for half a second, and before he could raise his weapon, I centered myself over the dumpster below, filled mostly with decomposing corpses, and jumped. My half-starved already frail body took the impact hard, and I had to stifle both a yelp of pain and the urge to vomit from the stench and slimy feel of rotting flesh. I struggled to pull myself from the swampy tangle, but finally, urged by the shots raining down around me and the sound of footsteps coming fast, I managed to climb out and run. Barefoot, hardly clothed, I knew I wouldn't last long in the wilderness with no supplies, but the only thing I could allow myself to focus on right then was to just keep running, as fast and far as my broken body would carry me.
I could hear the shouts behind me and knew they would close the distance fast. If I could make the woods I might have a chance. Then I heard the dogs...hounds baying as they caught my scent and joined the hunt. I began to doubt my escape, and at once chastised myself... I would never make it on doubt.
When I reached the treeline and was still ahead of them, I began to sort out a plan to lose the dogs. If I could reach flowing water, a river perhaps, they might lose my scent. I recalled passing a river on my way into town, and look around for anything familiar to get my bearings. The large boulders I remembered to my left, now on my right. I veered toward them, knowing the river lay just a few yards beyond. The dogs had drawn dangerously close, the men close behind, closing the gap with incredible speed. And then I could heard the rushing water, I thought my heart would burst both from joy and the strain of the nearly two mile run in my poor condition. When my feet hit the slippery moss that grew near the banks, I took one final look over my shoulder, and plunged into the speeding current, shocked breathless by the cold water. I ducked beneath the surface as long as I could, came up long enough to see the men and dogs reach the bank and stop, confused, took a deep breath and went under again to stay from their sight, thankful to have the cover of night.
I managed to catch hold of a drifting log and let the current carry me downstream, away from the nightmare I'd been trapped in for weeks. I drifted all night and into the next morning, until I was certain I had gone a few miles. When I finally climbed onto the bank, soaked, exhausted, and ravenously hungry. The only thing I had going for me was that I certainly wasn't dehydrated. I crawled up the bank and under a cluster of white pines, shivering in the cool morning air. I had to get warm and dry, but would not risk a fire, and having lost all of my supplies would've had a hell of a time doing it anyway. I forced myself up off the ground, my body screaming in protesting aches and pains, and began digging through the pine needles carpeting the area, forming an indentation in the ground big enough for me to curl up in. I scraped thick moss from rocks and surrounding trees, then, too tired to do anything else, I crawled into my shallow hole, covered myself with moss and the few pine boughs I'd pulled from the lower limbs of surrounding trees and fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up again it was dark. I had no bearing on what time it was or how long I'd been sleeping, I knew only the pain in my body and ravenous hunger. I crawled out of my little nest and sat in the shelter of the pines, listening. Not a sound save for the rushing river, a few birds and crickets and, of course, my growling stomach. I longed for my car full of supplies...my trusty backpack... and felt a deep pang of regret. Had I followed Thomas' instructions exactly, I might possibly still have those things... and would never have endured the horror of the last few weeks. I stood slowly, shook off the "what ifs" and refocused on the fact that I must find food, clothing, weapons, and figure out just where I ended up before I can continue my journey north.
"Ok" I said to myself. "Food first."
I went down by the river and, with luck, was able to catch two frogs. I bashed them both on a rock and grimaced at what I was about to do. After choking them down raw, I gulped icey cold water from the river and fought the urge to vomit. That done, I walked in the dark along the river, looking up at the sky in an attempt to get my bearings. With the clouds blocking my view of the stars, I decided to just keep moving with the flow of the water, hoping it might lead me to a town where I might find some supplies. After an hour or so, the sun had begun to rise and I was finding my meal of frogs insufficient. I drank more water from the river and was contemplating going in search of wild berries when I saw through the trees a glint of sunlight reflecting off something. As fast as my dilapidated body would take me, I moved in that direction. Much to my surprise and good fortune, I found myself facing a road, littered with abandon cars. I rushed to the nearest car, seeing it packed full of boxes and luggage, and begin sifting through the contents. I struck paydirt in the first suitcase; clothes. I pulled on a pair of jeans, near perfect fit, and a tshirt, then sweatshirt and socks. Under the suitcase a backpack was tucked, containing a bag of trail mix and some beef jerk. I nearly cried at the site of it. On the floor of the passenger side front seat were a pair of tennis shoes, a size too big but still a godsend. After rummaging a bit more I find a pocket knife, only a four inch blade, but still better than nothing, and a BIC lighter which seemed more valuable than anything. I stuff a few more pairs of socks into the backpack and move on to the next vehicle, an SUV. The doors are locked, but with the help of a large rock on the side of the road, I gain access through a window. I opened the door and, after checking to make sure it really was empty, crawled inside. This truck, like the car, was packed full of luggage and bags. I found another backpack,military style, the kind they called a camel, with a drinking apparatus. I filled it from one of the many unopened jugs of drinking water, and kept digging. I could have screamed my joy when I pulled the 9mm handgun from its case. There were several boxes of ammo... even a shoulder holster. After a few moments loading the gun, packing my new pack full of all the non perishable food I could fit, and some more clothes I discovered in a duffel bag, I was prepared to head out. One last check under the seat, and the SUV revealed a few priceless parting gifts... a one person tent, sleeping bag, and a hatchet. I rolled the tent and sleeping bag , lashed them to the backpack, attached the hatchet to my belt, and, feeling somewhat on top of the world, stepped back out onto the road. I couldn't believe my luck, having stumbled onto all of this.... how had no one else recovered these items yet? There it was, the question I had failed to ask myself, the first thing I should have thought of... lumbering toward me and gaining speed. They must have been drawn by the noise of the breaking window.... there were so many, coming from all directions, seeming to appear from thin air...
I shouldered my pack, took the hatchet from it's sheath and looked for a break in the approaching mob. I spotted my chance, took a deep breath, and bolted for the small opening.