The stench of decay never leaves. No matter where you go. Outside, inside. Everywhere. And it’s not the scent of food or leaves or anything like that decaying. It’s rotting flesh. Not animal. Human.
You get used to the smell after a while.
Sometimes groups are better. Sometimes traveling alone is better. Right now, I’m alone.
My last group got overrun. It was a miracle I got out of there. Or it was a curse. It seems every time I think I’ve found a stable group of people, they all die. I figure I should be staying on my own from now on, to save people if I am cursed.
I adjust my backpack. Should find a new one soon. This one is getting worn out, threadbare from carry the heavy weight of ammo, canned food, and extra shit. I have another set of clothes in there too, but those don’t weigh much. They’re as threadbare as the pack, and the pair of clothes I’m wearing now.
About three years ago, everything went to hell. People started getting sick and dying, and then coming back. Nobody knew what to do, and a lot of others got turned too. It was the start of the apocalypse. The undead everywhere, hardly any survivors.
The news lasted three days before something either happened to the news anchors or the TV stations were taken down. Radios lasted about two weeks. Electricity a month. A country that had lasted almost two hundred years…collapsed in thirty days. Probably more than half the population gone. I was seventeen when it all started. Most of my family is gone.
Something rustles in the trees ahead of me. My hand goes to the hatchet at my side. I haven’t run into a herd or loner in a few days. I couldn’t stay lucky for long.
I left my last encampment…two weeks ago? Too many people, too many politics. There hasn’t been another person since. I’m starting to feel crazy. Sometimes I catch myself muttering random shit out loud. I don’t want to, but I need to find another human. Or a rabid dog to talk to—it’d be better than talking to myself.
The rustling gets louder. A faint growl with it. The stench of dead flesh gets stronger. Not strong enough for it to be a large herd, but it could be a small pack. Hope I’m lucky with just coming across one or two. I can handle three, four max.
I get behind a tree and glance around it. Two walk toward me together. I can hear their feet dragging, soft growls, and…clanking? Metal on metal. I peek out again and see the chains around each of the zom’s necks. Their jaws are gone, arms too. The hell…?
A human noise—a cough or grunt—comes from behind them. I get back behind the tree. Someone’s using them to cover their smell. I’ve done it before, but it’s too risky. I can never find just one on its own normally, and it’s too hard trying to get one away from a herd. Hiding out and avoiding them just seems better.
The forest is dense enough that shadows are cast everywhere. Pockets of sunlight light up areas where the leaves are in thinner layers. I’m hiding in the shadow of a big maple, but I’m afraid of getting spotted. I grab a low branch and quickly climb up, and up again until I’m high enough I can’t be seen at first glance.
I’m up just in time, too. The zoms are passing under me. I hold my breath.
They stop. Growls get hungrier, and they pull on their chains. Their owner yanks them back a step with a powerful tug on the chain. I can’t see the person’s face from up here, and because they’ve got on some heavy, hooded cloak that covers their features. But I can hear them mutter at the zoms.
“Fuckers…there isn’t anything here.” It’s a deep voice. Like gravel. I tighten my hold on the hatchet. My palm’s slick. Don’t look up…Don’t look up.
They try to get the zoms moving. The creatures stay clustered around my tree, growls getting more intense. Don’t look up…
The cloaked-person catches on. Going rigid, they reach under the cloak. The hatchet’s not gonna be enough in a fight against a live-being.
A gun slides out and points up. I freeze. It’s almost pointed at me. I see a gloved-finger twitch on the trigger. Slowly, I raise my arm to throw my hatchet if I have to. Turns out, I don’t need to.
The branches shake and a furry creature bolts past. The squirrel scampers down the bark, halfway down the trunk when a shot goes off. It drops, a bullet right through the eye.
I watch with my heart racing as the person picks up the corpse and drops it in a sack. They rattle the chain again. “Move, or I’m finding new rotters.”
The group goes off, chains rattling and branches snapping under the zoms’ feet. I don’t think the person makes a single sound aside from the few words they spoke. I wait for the sound of them to fade before dropping out of the tree and heading in the opposite direction. I’m not messing with a sharpshooter today. Plus, with that shot, there’ll be a hoard drawn here within a window of ten minutes to an hour. Not wasting my life betting it’ll be an hour.
I try not to run. A fast walk makes less noise, and takes less energy. If I keep this pace, I might make it out of the forest by sunset. My map says there’s a town on the edge of it. I can camp out in one of the houses on the outer edge tonight.
Every noise makes me jump higher than before my encounter with the hooded stranger and their pet zombies. Relief floods through me when a house comes into view. Doesn’t look like any zoms are dragging their corpses around. It’s isolated, a view unobstructed by a lot of trees. No signs of humans living here for months. Perfect to camp in for the night.
I search the rooms first. I come up with a couple cans of peaches and three bottles of water on a high shelf in the kitchen. A roll of gauze and half a bottle of painkillers in the bathroom. An oversized sweatshirt and another shirt from one of the bedrooms. Not a bad haul from a place like this.
Before I eat one of the cans of fruit for ‘supper’, I barricade everything that isn’t already. The windows are boarded up on the bottom floor. All I have to do is move the couch and tables in front of the doors. I sit on the couch and eat. I leave half the peaches for tomorrow morning.
It’s pitch black by the time I curl up in the recliner facing the front door. No zoms around, but I can’t be too cautious. I have a gun laying right in my lap and my hatchet in hand. The comfort of the worn leather handle is enough to let me slip into a peaceful doze…
A hand clamps down on my mouth muffling my panicked scream. A blade presses sharply into my throat. My attacker leans over the back of the recliner. A rough voice hisses in my ear.
“Who sent you?”