Savage, the world may have changed but people haven't.
Series: Ravaged World, Book 3
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Fungus sprouted underfoot. It covered everything lately. With each lumbering step that the dead took they shed flesh, which melded with the earth and gave life to all manner of strange flora. Even in death things grew.
But the world had not died yet, not really: it had just changed – tilted in such a way that the lowly fungus was better sustained for life than the once mighty human race. Perhaps we were never cut out for ruling the earth in the first place. Maybe it was always intended for the mushrooms and the insects. They’re the only things thriving.
Garfield was one of the last humans left alive and, as he crested a muddy hill, his steel toecap boots sank into a muddy puddle left behind by a recent drizzle. Winter was still winter in England and the heavens still enjoyed a good downpour. One thing the dead could not change was the weather.
“There’s a garage over there,” Kirk informed Garfield, a fellow member of the foraging party. The younger man pointed his gloved hand off to the east, at an old petrol station with shattered windows.
Garfield nodded. “Checked it out last week with Lemon and Squirrel. Empty.”
Kirk grunted and stomped off to continue his search.
Garfield shook some of the wet mud from his boots and glanced around from the top of the hill. He thought about all that had been lost, as he gazed across the barren landscape, which had once hosted horn-blaring lines of gridlocked traffic and rushing ambulances. Nothing moved anymore, though: the cars on the highway were relics, rusted bumper to rusted bumper, long abandoned and forever unable to get where they were going. It was like a twisted oil painting of what life used to be like – all murky greys and decaying browns. Garfield missed all of the vibrant colours that no longer existed: the bright reds and greens of Christmas decorations or the gleaming yellow of a sleek sports car. Now there was only rusted metal and faded cloth.
The nearby petrol station held little use, the fuel in its pumps useful only for starting fires (and there were many simpler ways to do that). Food and drink were valuable, not oil and petroleum, and Garfield knew that the modest forecourt contained none of the former. Very few places did any more. We’re going to have to trek further. There’s nothing left around here anymore. We’ve picked it all clean.
The area around basecamp was relatively safe. It was a rural area and mostly deserted. There were, of course, packs of the dead wandering around from time to time – that was true anywhere – but their presence could be spotted early and avoided easily. Even now, half a mile away, Garfield could see a shambles of perhaps a half-dozen dead in the distance. The rotting men and women were bumping and clawing against a chest-high wooden fence meant to keep horses contained – now it contained them. Garfield knew their clumsiness would keep them there forever – eternally penned in by an obstacle that would have been easily surmountable had they still been alive.
The sprinters would have leapt that fence easily, Garfield thought.
Since the last of the sprinters (infected people, flooded with rage and the desire to kill) had died out and become slow, rotting zombies, it had been much easier to survive. Garfield and the group of foragers had now only to contend with a foe that was clumsy and stupid – still very dangerous, but predictable also. There had even been rare words spoken around camp lately of hope – fantasies that things might one day go back to normal. Garfield was not so childish to believe such notions. There was no coming back from what the world had become. It was irreversible. The best any of us can hope for is to survive. The time of feeding ducks in the park with ice cream in hand has slithered from our grasp forever. There are no more children’s parties, no more fireworks, no school holidays or trips to Disney. It’s gone. All of it.
A sharp yell from behind Garfield made him spin around on his toecaps. Immediately he yanked a long screwdriver from a pocket inside his black woollen overcoat and held it out ready – ready to pierce skull and brain. So used to fighting was Garfield that the slightest bump or thud could prompt him to uncoil like a spring. And now it’s time to uncoil once again.
At the bottom of the hill, one of the foragers had slipped in an oil puddle leaked from the chassis of an articulated lorry. Beneath the vehicle’s rusted axels crawled a rotting corpse. The dead man held a firm grip on the forager’s ankle and was clambering towards him through the oil slick.
Garfield reached the bottom of the hill in a flash; with a speed he’d never possessed in his previously sedentary life as mechanic. He leapt towards the struggling forager and wasted not a single second in driving his long screwdriver into the side of the dead man’s skull, piercing the temple with a loud crack!
Like the sound my old ma used to make taking apart a crab.
The corpse stopped its attack. The screwdriver stuck out of its head like a lever. The frightened forager lay frozen beneath the corpse, panting and moaning for help. Garfield kicked the dead body away and helped the forager to his feet. His name was Marty, a nineteen year old lad who had survived the early days of the infection by locking himself inside the pet shop in which he worked and living off the animal feed – then eventually the animals themselves. He often spoke with a smile on his face about how good chinchilla meat was compared to chipmunk. Despite the grizzly admission, Marty was a good lad, friendly and helpful.
“Thanks, Garfield,” Marty gushed. “I thought I was a goner.”
Garfield smiled. “You’re welcome.” Then he pulled a claw hammer from a hidden compartment up his sleeve and smashed it into the top of Marty’s skull. The other foragers backed away, staring at Garfield like he was a murderous lunatic. Perhaps he was. Is anybody sane anymore?
Garfield wiped the bloody hammer on his black woollen overcoat, adding to the darker patches already staining the fabric, and then replaced it up his sleeve. He shrugged his shoulders at the other foragers and pointed to Marty’s body. “I did him a kindness.”
The other foragers glanced down at Marty’s ankle and saw the wound there, clear as day: a bright red gash in the shape of a human mouth. The corpse beneath the lorry had doomed Marty the moment its mouldy teeth had broken skin. Garfield had done nothing but put an animal out of its misery.
The other foragers sighed, but they nodded also. Each understood the way of things. A bitten man was a dead man. Nobody wanted to become a zombie.
“Come on,” said Garfield. “Let’s get back to camp. We’re going to have to plan a new route for next time. There’s nothing left around here anymore.” Probably nothing left anywhere.
The men shuffled their feet, picked up their backpacks, and got moving. Garfield had just turned away when a banging inside the articulated lorry’s container alerted him. The foragers turned back around, various makeshift weapons instantly at the ready. They were well trained for battle.
Garfield pulled a small hand axe from his belt and joined them.
The banging continued, weak but obvious.
“It’s just one of them,” said Kirk. “We should just leave.”
Garfield knew it was stupid, but his mind kept turning to the half-dozen men and women forever trapped inside the horse paddock half a mile away. The thought of a creature, which had once been human, trapped inside a rusty container for all eternity, brought him a peculiar sadness. “Open the doors,” he grunted. “There might be supplies inside. If there’s a dead man, it means nobody has checked it out recently. We can’t afford to ignore what supplies we might find.”
The foragers sighed. As experienced as they all were with handling the dead, nobody ever took it for granted. They had just lost a man to a bite, and they knew it could happen again to any of them in an instant. A dead man’s jaws closed fast, and taking unnecessary risks made the possibility of being bitten far greater. Garfield stood firm in his decision, though.
Kirk crept around to the back of the container and took a firm grip on the release handle. The other foragers readied their weapons and waited.
Garfield stood in front of the container’s doors with his axe ready. “Soon as the doors are open,” he told them. “Keep back. If it’s anything we can’t handle, make back for camp immediately. If I’m still intact I’ll come with you.”
Kirk nodded, then shoved the steel lever down and pried open the locking bar. He yanked open the left-side door.
Garfield stared into the black rectangle of darkness. The banging inside the container had stopped, replaced by a delicate shuffling. He grabbed a hold of the right-side door, which was still closed, and began edging it open. Soon both doors were hanging wide and the black rectangle of darkness grew in size.
The shuffling continued.
Garfield glanced at the foragers. All of them stood ready, primed to attack, but so far there was nothing to alert them other than the shuffling noise. At least it sounds like there’s only one dead man inside. But it only takes one to end you.
Garfield placed a gloved hand onto the lip of the open container and heaved himself up onto one knee with one leg still hanging down, ready to carry him backwards at the first sign of danger. Once it was clear that nothing was going to lunge at him, Garfield gained some confidence and pulled himself fully up inside the container. Into the darkness I fade. May my light lead me through.
It was a quote Garfield often told himself. He’d first seen it almost a year ago, written in blood on pavement outside a mosque. Often he wondered who had written it and what had become of them – and whether or not the blood had been their own or someone else’s. I’ll never learn the answer.
As Garfield entered the shadows of the container, his eyes began to adjust and the blackness turned to grey. The container was almost bare, save for a few loading pallets stacked towards the back. The contents towered up towards the ceiling and blocked any view of what lay behind them. Something moved ahead of him, a brief shift of the dusty air. Garfield took a slow step forward. The thud of his heavy boots on steel echoed around him.
The shuffling resumed.
It knows I’m here.
Garfield took another step, his axe out in front of him ready to split open a skull. His eyes gazed up…down….up…down….
Can never tell where they’re going to come at you. Just as many chomp on your ankles as those that face you head on.
One more step was all it took for Garfield to spot the squirming body on the floor. His eyes had now fully adjusted to the dim light and he could see clearly. The discovery was pretty much what he’d expected. The dead man wriggled between two pallets stacked high with toilet paper rolls. A grubby brown blanket covered him and two steel crutches lay on the floor nearby. A blanket? Crutches? Guy must have been injured; came in here to die in peace.
Garfield raised his axe, ready to bring it down on the man’s exposed head. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but the zombie may have had a rusty crop of ginger hair matching the colour of Garfield’s own. That was a strange thing. Most of the dead had nothing left on their heads but dirty grey clumps laced with maggots. Being trapped in here must have kept him in better shape than being out in the open. Maybe he died recently.
Garfield placed his boot on the dead man’s chest and squeezed the shaft of his axe. “I never asked for this,” he whispered, “and I’m sure you didn’t either.”
Garfield swung his axe.
The zombie reached up a hand. “Please.”
“Shit!” Garfield managed to divert his swing at the last moment. The axe buried itself in a roll of toilet paper and ensnared itself in the plastic wrapping that secured the rolls to the pallet. “Jesus Christ! You’re alive.”
The man was weak, skinny, and in obvious pain, yet he was undoubtedly alive; though the stink of him was as bad as any dead man. Garfield could see sweat on his forehead and upper lip.
The man managed to shake his head. “No. No…”
Garfield snorted. “You’re not bitten? You sure about that, because you don’t look too perky.”
Garfield felt he was being lied to; and that made him angry. He flicked aside the man’s blanket with his steel toecap and was vindicated by the blood that caked his t-shirt. “Not bitten, huh? Looks to me like something took a good chunk out of you.”
Garfield raised an eyebrow. “Somebody shot you?”
Guns were outlawed in the United Kingdom and now that the world had ended they were even harder to come by. Garfield had not seen a firearm since the Army’s initial failed response to the infection. Their automatic rifles and machines guns had quickly run dry and the brief appearance of firearms had ended. Bullets did very little to stop the dead when you don’t know to go for the head. It was a lesson most of the world had learned too late.
Bullets can still put a nice dent in a living man, though.
The injured man moved a feeble hand to his t-shirt and pulled it up over his thin stomach. Sure enough, there was a perfectly round hole where something – quite possibly a bullet – had entered his torso at the side. It was hard to say for sure if the man had been shot, but at the very least it was clear that he had not been bitten.
He may as well have been, though.
“There are no doctors,” Garfield said. “Probably best that I put you out of your misery.”
“N-no. I can make it.”
“I don’t think you can.”
The injured man waved a hand. “I’ve been badly injured before. I can make it. I just…I just need some help.”
Garfield let out a long breath. The best thing to do was to end the man’s suffering right here. A dying man was nothing but a burden – to himself and anybody who tried to help him.
Garfield pulled his axe free of the pallet’s plastic lashings and lifted it onto his shoulder. The man looked up at him pleadingly, but his eyes were rheumy and weak. Death was closing in on him fast. Best to just end it now.
Garfield made a decision. He turned and walked away, exiting the container and re-grouping with the foragers outside.
“What did you find?” Kirk asked him.
“Couple pallets of toilet paper. Would make good kindling for our fires, as well as having more obvious uses. It’s a luxury, but it’s all we have. Get it out and load it up on the sledges.”
Kirk nodded. The toilet paper was better than nothing. They all enjoyed returning back to camp to the cheers and back-pats that accompanied a full sled, and hated the sullen faces that greeted them whenever they came back empty handed. The toilet paper would probably suffice in lieu of anything else.
“Was there a dead man inside?” Kirk asked. “The shuffling?”
Garfield cleared his throat. “Oh…yeah, there’s an injured man inside. If he’s still alive by the time we leave then I guess we should take him with us.”
“Was he bitten?”
Garfield shook his head. “No, but he may as well have been. The poor sod’s been shot. Slim hope he’ll even make it back to the pier with us.”
Kirk seemed surprised. “But…who has guns? Do you think there’s another group out here someplace?”
“I don’t know,” said Garfield, “but I would much rather avoid them if there is. They have guns and we don’t.”