The End: Chapter 1
Growing up in Michigan, I'd always dreamed of living in Grand Marais; a tiny, beautiful little beach town right on Lake Superior. It was where my family vacationed every summer; my favorite place in the world. The smell of the air could bring peace to your very soul. My idea of life there consisted of leisurely mornings sipping coffee, fishing off the breakwall into Lake Superior, afternoons on the beach, snowmobiling in the winter. I never thought, for a moment, it would be like this. The natural beauty of the land remains; the lake still glistens deep sapphire blue, the air still fresh and sweet, but the life of the place is gone, quite literally. Summers here had buzzed with activity, the beach full, tourists everywhere. Now the town lies in ruins, and it's just me. I suppose I've achieved my dream, I'm certainly not a tourist here anymore...
As I sit on the end of the breakwall reminiscing movement in my line draws me back to the task at hand. I reel in and collect my prize; a large, gorgeous Lake Trout. Tossing it into my satchel, I decide to pack it in; there are other things to be done today. I break down my fishing pole and stash it with the fish, slipping the satchel over my head onto my shoulder and pick up my crossbow. Now, I know what you're thinking "crossbow, really?", but it is a quiet and efficient weapon if you know how to use it properly. In this new world, you acclimate yourself with as many weapons as you can get your hands on. I had been lucky enough to recover this one from a dilapidated old barn I'd taken shelter in one cold rainy night in West Virginia early on in my journey. It was awkward at first, seeing as I had little experience with bows, but with practice I came along and have become proficient.
I scan the shoreline using my binoculars for any movement save for the flocks of Canadian Geese who frequent the area. The lake shore ranger station which serves as my home is approximately a 1/4 mile from the end of the breakwall; more open space than I care to have to cover, but the fishing is best out here. I keep a careful eye on the shore as I go, walking briskly. When I reach the end of the wall, it's a short jump down onto the sand and I jog the rest of the way. In the safety of the station, I clean my fish and wrap the bulk of it in plastic wrap I'd procured from the old IGA in town, leaving out a single fillet for my lunch. Nothing better than fresh whitefish right from the lake I tuck the rest into the big meat freezer in the garage and pull out a plastic baggie of frozen blueberries I'd picked a few weeks ago. Just outside the garage in a small shed,the generator which runs my freezer sits alongside six 100 gallon barrels of gasoline left behind be the previous occupants. My plan is to run it only during the summer months. Once winter comes, the below freezing temperatures will be more than enough to keep my stockpile of food frozen. If I am to survive this winter, these summer months will be crucial. I must hunt and gather relentlessly to have enough food to afford me some relief from hunting in the blistering cold. In addition to that I must cut enough wood, and make sure the station is sealed properly against the unforgiving northern winter. The old wood stove no doubt kept as a decorative relic, has been cared for meticulously and is in perfect working order. It will, provided I can cut enough wood, be my source of heat through the long winter months. Besides the stove, the station is also equipped with a complete kitchen and living area, fully furnished for the coast guard who would've lived there. Down a narrow hallway off the kitchen, there is a well-stocked medical room, with two beds and a large closet full of supplies for all types of medical emergencies, even a defibrillator. Beyond the med room, there is a larger room in which stand six bunks and three tall wardrobes each containing various clothing; heavy rain gear, winter coats, thick socks, and thermal clothing. Also int he hallway is the staircase leading to the second floor, where the single bedroom, most likely the ranger's,sectioned off from the otherwise open floor plan It is furnished with a simple full-sized mattress on a metal frame, bedside table, lamp and wardrobe identical to the ones downstairs. The rest of the second is open, a desk and filing cabinets situated in front of a window overlooking the lake, a worn couch and coffee table facing an old television, and right in the center, a spiral staircase leading up to the crows nest from which I can survey most of the town with the help of my binoculars or rifle scope. It is an ideal sanctuary, worth the near month I spent upon my arrival clearing the area of the remaining infected and setting up various traps for any approaching the town limits from the outside. I entered and cleared each building, one by one, scavenging supplies as I went. It was nerve-racking work, with more than one close call.
After I finish my fish and some of the cornbread I'd made in my cast-iron skillet the night before, I take my blueberries up to the crow's nest to survey the town and relax a moment. The only thing to be seen today, however, is a large flock of Canadian geese, strutting and honking their way down the beach near the marina. I enjoy their familiar, nostalgic call, but I also know a few of those geese would be a fantastic contribution to my food stores. As of yet, I have not been able to bring myself to do it. Many times I have aimed and not fired, each time finding it odd I should have such reservations about shooting a goose, when I have put more bullets and arrows through human skulls in the last eight months than I can count. I smile to myself at the thought of it, watching the geese slipping smoothly into the glass-like calm waters of the marina. Thankfully, the infection didn't go trans-species, and my water-fowl neighbors have no worries of becoming cannibalistic shells of their former selves. Unfortunately, they still have just as likely a chance of being eaten alive should they fall into the hands of the ravenous flesh hungry ghouls who plague us all.
Twenty minutes or so later, I descend the spiral staircase and go down to the first floor where I don the military-issue boots and camos I'd been lucky enough to find while searching what was left of Camp Greyling. I strap my knife to my thigh, slide my 9 mm into its shoulder holster (only to be fired as a a last resort), and grab my crossbow. With the station locked securely I begin my trek out of town and into the dense forest. I have little to no chance of spotting any deer this time of day; but I can check my recently set snare traps for smaller game and do a little exploring with what daylight I have left. In the two months I've been here, I've had little time for exploring save for direct trips into town to clear the area and scavenge supplies. I have no idea how long the town has been abandon, there is the shambles of a make-shift military post and quarantine area at the far end of town; the only direct entrance or exit besides Lake Superior herself. From the look of the place, The military had been overrun, probably by one of the massive hordes which wander aimlessly, consume all in their path, and move on. There had been several infected wandering town or trapped in buildings when I arrived, but not enough to account for the entire population. Whatever survivors had been here had surely either been infected themselves or deserted the place when the army installation fell.
I came here with the hope that this place, so isolated, would be untouched by the infection, but deep down I think I always knew it would not be. Deserted, however, serves me just as well as untouched. As I go deeper into the woods, beyond the familiar area where I've set my traps (all empty), I begin marking my path with shreds of red cloth cut from an old t shirt After a couple of hours, I've filled my backpack with several edible plants and roots, along with a plastic bag full of plump raspberries and blueberries, all of which I can either dry or freeze to help sustain me through the winter. After resting a moment, listening to the natural sounds of the forest, I head back in the direction of the station, as it is in my best interest to be safely behind locked doors before dark. The thing about being alone for an extended period of time with no other sound but the rhythm of nature around you is that anything outside that rhythm is a shattering disturbance, no matter how subtle. So when I hear the brush rustling unnaturally, I know something is approaching me from behind, and already too close to load my bow. My hand goes to my gun automatically, but as I listen to the pattern of the movement, I can hear it isnt human. A mild, momentary relief. I turn slowly to find myself ten to fifteen feet from am enormous wolf. I'd always heard there was a small population in the U.P. but never have I seen one myself. They have long sicne learned that human populated areas are to be avoided. She's at least twice the size of any dog I've ever seen, clearly either part of a very successful pack or an amazing lone huntress. Her lively, golden eyes are almost hypnotizing, so much so that it takes me a few seconds to come to my senses. 'Shes looking right at me' I think, dropping my gaze. I lower my head and slowly back away, praying she understands that I pose no threat...and also not prey. Retreated a few paces, I look up to see her still standing, tail arced, cobalt nose twitching. The wind is coming from behind me, taking my scent directly to her... all I can do now is hope. If I run, I make myself prey for sure and she'd have me in moments. The seconds creep by painstakingly. She makes her choice and, to my great relief, walks in a wide arc around me, one ear cocked toward me. With a final backward glace, she trots casually on her way.
Back in the station that night, I recall the encounter as I clean the rabbit and two squirrels I had managed to shoot on my way back that afternoon. Replaying it in my head as I pack the meat away in my freezer, I have no doubt from the cool confidence with which she'd moved past me that she knew I was and would never be a threat, and had better game than myself to spend her energy on. Lying in bed after the day's work is done, I listen to the sounds of the night for any irregularity, straining my ears listening to every cricket, every owl and loon,until sleep takes me.
My dreams aren't really dreams anymore...always some awful flashback to the days before I arrived here. In the light of day, amidst all my work and constant vigilance my memories of "The End" are a mist, lurking in the furthest corners of my mind. Nighttime, sleep particularly, is a different story. My subconscious takes hold and nightmares roam free. Tonight is no different, and I am almost relieved to be jolted awake, in a cold sweat, by several loud thuds against the outer walls of the station. I am out of bed and across the room in seconds, silent in bare feet. Peering out of the peep hole of the front door, I see what I'd already known would be there...a group of them. I've heard them called many things; The Infected, Dead-Heads, ghouls...they are, in plain fact, people transformed by a disease into decaying shells of their former selves, mindless, vicious, rabid beasts. I watch them stumbling past, slack-faced and gray in the moonlight, nearly holding my breath, praying none of them decide to further investigate the station. It would draw the attention of others,and although the station is well fortified, I've seen those things push and claw their way into structures just as strong when there's enough of them. An unlucky raccoon pokes his head out of the dumpster across the street at the wrong moment, drawing the attention of one, then another. Then the whole group is scrambling after it, clamoring into the dumpster, and then the brief painful shrieks as it is torn asunder and devoured. I back away from the door and head upstairs into the crows nest for a better view and to get away from the sound. The rest of the night, I remain, watching them as they amble aimlessly around the building, then back slowly toward town.
Three days later, upon finding no food worthwhile, they've made their way to the far end of town. I follow them at a distance,waiting until they are nearly out of town and entering the woods and then begin picking them off one by one with my crossbow. In few minutes and they're in a heap near the main road. I climb down and retrieve my arrows, jog back to the station, and sterilize the arrows before scarfing down a very cliche can of baked beans. After losing three days of hunting I decide to go out tonight at dusk. I detest going out at night. Infected are more active, more alert, and due to them being generally filthy and decayed, they don't stick out visually. Unfortunately I don't have time to be afraid of the dark with Autumn closing in fast and the unforgiving northern winter close behind. In the fading light, I walk out to the end of the break wall to fish. Settling on the end, I cast my line. It's a long walk back to the safety of the station's walls, but anything that might approach can only do so from one direction down the long narrow wall. From this spot I hold the defensive advantage and if need be, I can always retreat to the Lake Superior herself and swim to shore. The infected don't swim; I have seen them wander senselessly into deeper water, but only to bob about some and then sink. Swimming, unlike running on land, seems to be beyond their range of movement.
Hours later, I am safely back in the station with my catch cleaned and packed in the freezer. I stretch out on the old worn couch in the sitting room where I often sleep, but sleep wont come. As I listen to the sounds of the night, a long, lonesome howl echos somewhere in the woods, answered by another,lower-pitched call, then another, and another. The gray Queen and her pack are on the hunt. I silently wish them luck and, to the music of their calls, finally sleep finds me.
*I am running through palpable darkness, the moans close behind me...panic seizing every inch of me...then falling, seemingly forever, the feeling this is the last breath I will draw....*
I wake up sweating, out of breath, as usual. Sunlight is pouring down the stairwell to the 2nd floor. I scramble out of bed, disoriented, frazzled. I never sleep past sunrise. A scan of the are from the crows nest reveals nothing. With the area clear for the moment, I fold soap and fresh clothes into a towel and jog to the lake to bathe. I slide off my shoes, enjoying the feel of the sand, warmed by the sun. I leave my towel and clothes as close to the water as I can without getting them wet and strip hastily. As much as I am tempted to spend a few moments just swimming and enjoying the water, the vulnerability of being nude, in the open and separated from my weapon is too much. I scrub my bodily vigorously,never taking my eyes off the beach. Being alone affords me no such luxury as having someone to keep watch for me. Rinsed, I get back to shore, dry and dress. As I gather my things to head back to the station, I cannot shake the feeling I am being watched. I look around, staining my eyes along the treeline. A tingle runs up my spine, the hair on my arms stands on end as my heart begins to race. I load an arrow, my eyes moving along the tall grass;clear, then the tree-lined ridge to my right. There, among the trees, is the big gray she-wolf. It's her piercing golden eyes I feel on me, and she's not alone. At her side is a darker steel gray companion, even larger than she. They are statuesque, almost regal; a king and queen surveying their domain. I can hardly tear my eyes from them, but the days work nags at me, calling me back. I spend the day woodcutting and gathering driftwood on the beach, and as the evening hours come, I gear up for a night hunt.
Heading for an old deer blind I'd discovered a few days before overlooking an open meadow, I jog east through town, entering the woods just before dusk. I climb the rickety ladder into the blind and sit in silence, alone with my thoughts as I wait. Hours later, just as I begin to contemplate packing it in, as if willed there by my own mind, a buck meanders into the clearing. With the wind in my favor, he is completely unaware of my presence and walks well within range of my bow.I fire a shot cleanly just behind the shoulder and he bolts, but he wont make it far with a very likely punctured lung. I am down the ladder and across the clearing after him as he crashes through the brush. He stops a few yards in, unable to continue his mad dash. When I reach him I can hear the gurgling in his breathing and dispatch him as quickly and quietly as I can with my hunting knife. I stand back a moment, and marvel at the size of him; one of the biggest I've seen, then set to set to cleaning the carcass.Piece by piece, I wrap the butchered meat in plastic from my satchel, knowing there is no way for me to carry it all at once. 'damn' Any infected in the immediate area will be drawn by the smell of the blood, if not by the noise the buck had made.No time to waste. I stuff the satchel as full as can and tote it up into the blind, dump it in the farthest corner and go back to butcher the rest. Another trip up the blind and back and finally I've gotten all I can, and I know I've already spent too much time here, especially at night. With my bag full and the rest of the meat up in the blind, I make haste for the station. I dump my bag in the freezer, fetch a much larger duffel from under one of the bunks and dart back out the door. I make my way in the dark across town and back to the blind. The rest of my haul remains untouched, and I pack it all, easily 90 lbs. and tote it down the ladder. I glance across the meadow as I turn to leave and see the flash of several pairs of yellow eyes in the dark. The pack have sniffed out the remains of the buck and are picking him clean. I feel compelled to make them some offering, and fish a hunk of venison out of the bag, unwrap it and step out into the meadow, all the while telling myself how asinine I am being. In an instant, seven sets of eyes are on me, unwavering. I toss the meat toward them and back away. Not much, but hopefully they'll get the gesture. Back in the station,ravenous from the long day, I devour a venison steak, a can of potatoes, and the last two pieces of stale cornbread from the batch I'd made three days ago. Full, exhausted, and feeling triumphant from the successful hunt, I am asleep only seconds after lying down on the couch.
Even with all the zombie movies, TV shows, comics... people just weren't ready or willing to accept it when entertainment became reality. The government reacted pretty pretty much as expected, first denial, then false hope of 'refugee camps', promises unfulfilled. The general public was no better in the face of their extinction. Instead of pulling together, helping each other, most people turned on one another like rabid animals.There was a small fraction of the population, however, who had felt the zombie craze as less of an entertainment fad and more of a warning, a survival guide. Personally, I'd always considered it a very real possibility. The cause, to my knowledge, is "unknown", all I know for sure is that someone, somewhere amongst the powers that be, knew before it started.
I'd been sitting home on a stormy Monday afternoon, playing hooky from work, my desk, the public, my coworkers and most of all, avoiding the nasty flu that had been terrorizing everyone around me for over a week. Curtains drawn, action movie marathon set, snacks prepared, I wrapped in a blanket and settled in for a quiet day to myself. As soon as I was settled, the mail truck pulled up to the curb. My usual short, squatty, mailman hopped out and trotted up to the door. I sighed and went to retrieve my mail before it got soaked in the leaky mailbox.Settling back into my blanket, I flipped through the envelopes. Bill,bill,junk,bill ...the handwritten address and Mexico postmark on the last envelope caught my attention immediately; the return address of a stranger, Carlotta Quintanilla, in a place I'd never heard of; San Ignacio, scrawled in unfamiliar handwriting. My address, though... my address was not written by the same hand, and I knew the writing at once. My brother, Thomas.
I know we haven't talked recently, I hope you are well. I have something very important to tell you and very little time to do it. I apologize I can tell you nothing specific, only that you are in very real danger. Everyone is. You must leave today. Now. Get out of Virginia, Go north, back home. Grand Marais. It's isolated and if you leave now you will have a head start and a very good chance of making it there. Bring only essentials with you, and camping gear. Fill some gas cans, bring water. Bring a weapon, not mace or a tazer, a real weapon. We will find you there. Do not trust strangers and stay away from cities. By the time this letter reaches you, it will be only a few days before everything goes to shit. I'm sorry I couldn't call, every base is on communication lock down, every word spoken listened to. I was lucky to get this to my secretary before she escaped to Mexico. Remember what I've told you and go as soon as you can. Warn no one, I'm sorry but it has to be this way. We'll see you soon.
I re-read the letter twice, three times, before it really sunk in. Thomas was warning me about something huge, so huge and so dangerous, he'd had to sneak out a letter. Every military base on lock down It could only mean something horrible, catastrophic was about to happen in our county and the military themselves had probably caused, or failed to act and prevent it. Finally, the survival instinct that our father had worked hard to instill in us all, kicked in and I began racing about my small house gathering the necessities. I knew Thomas would never exaggerate, something was going to happen, and now all the odd things happening in the last weeks began to make sense in my mind as I loaded my car. The sudden rumors in the news speculating of impending war with Russia, mysterious military "training drills" in Arkansas and what about the new strain of 'bird flu'... could that be it? I locked the house behind me, wondering if I'd ever see it again, got in the car and drove. Taking back roads instead of highways added a lot of time, I was just nearing the state line the next morning. I'd pulled into a tiny country diner in hopes of coffee. Thomas had warned me to stay away from others, but I didn't see the harm in stopping here just to grab some coffee. I had a collapsible nightstick my brother Samuel had given me as a birthday gift a few years ago and a seven inch hunting knife tucked in its sheath, both attached to my belt.
When I'd entered, the place was empty, strangely quiet for there being three cars in the small parking lot. A TV mounted on the wall behind the counter was on a news station, the reporter chattering away in front of a hospital where it appeared sheer chaos had erupted. Something about the flu, I'd been to curious about why no one was inside to pay attention.
"Hello?" I called out, going against everything I'd ever shouted at my television during a scary movie.
I walked across the dining room and looked in the bathroom; no one. A pot clattering to the ground in the kitchen startled me, nearly making me scream. I dashed out of the bathroom and back to the counter. Still, no one presented themselves. Unsettled, I drew my stick from it's holder and flicked my wrist, extending it. Something moved in front of the circular window of the swinging door leading to the kitchen. I stepped back from the counter as a man came through the door, mauled, drooling, blood leaking from his mouth through the hole chewed in his left cheek, eyes glassy. When he noticed me and began clamoring over the counter, I bolted to my car. Inside, doors locked, I watch in astonishment as the man darted out into the light. I'll never forget that moment. I sat there, just staring dumbfounded and more of them began stumbling out behind him, all horrific in their own way. One woman was missing an arm and the majority of her throat.
"Holy Shit" I said aloud.
It was the moment when movies and TV became reality for me, when I knew what Thomas was trying to warn me about. The dead were walking. I pulled back onto the dirt road, reset my navigation and drove, my mind reeling. At the next gas station, I filled up, using my debit card at the pump, and never even tried to go inside. I had six gas cans full in the trunk, but would fill up at the pump until I couldn't any more to try and conserve it. After the gas station, I began to get into the mountains and passed a weathered, barely legible road sign; "Welcome to West Virginia". The dirt roads were getting more and more difficult for my car as I got further into the mountains. I'd have to go against Thomas' warning again and get on a main road. It wasn't even an hour after I got on the highway that it was deadlocked. By the look of things, the cities were screwed already. I sat in the car for twenty minutes before I heard the first scream. Several followed in quick succession. I grabbed my hiking pack, already stuffed with everything I'd need should I have to abandon the car, and got out. Hysteria was unfolding up the road, and quickly sweeping toward me. I knew right then I would be on foot from here, didn't give a second thought to the car or what was left inside, and bolted into the woods, leaving the growing carnage behind me.