Fungus grew underfoot. Fungus grew everywhere lately. With each step that the dead took they seemed to shed flesh. That flesh would meld with the earth and give life to an all manner of strange flora. Even in death things grew. But the world had not died, not really; it had just changed – tilted in such a way that the lowly fungus was now better sustained for life than the once mighty human race.
Garfield crested a muddy hill, his boots sinking into puddles from the recent storm. Winter was still winter in the UK, and the heavens still enjoyed a good downpour on a daily basis. One thing the dead could never change was the weather.
“There’s a garage over there,” said one of the foragers, pointing.
Garfield nodded. “Checked it last week. Empty.”
The forager sighed, then hurried off to continue his search.
Garfield sighed too as he gazed across the barren landscape that had once hosted scenes of gridlocked traffic. Nothing moved anymore; the many abandoned cars slept in long lines, but they would never get where they were going. It was like a still-life painting of what life had once been like. The nearby petrol station had 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 now, not oil and petroleum, and Garfield knew that the little 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 clean what remained and now we have no choice but to venture out.
But venturing out would be dangerous. The lands surrounding the camp were relatively safe. It was a rural location and mostly deserted. There was, of course, packs of the dead wandering around from time to time – that was true everywhere – but they could be seen early and avoided easily. Even now, half a mile away, Garfield could see a shamble of perhaps a half-dozen off in the distance. The dead men and women bumped and clawed against a chest-high wooden fence that had once kept horses contained but now contained them. Their clumsiness might keep them there forever – eternally penned-in by an obstacle that would have been easily surmountable had they been alive.
Since the last of the sprinters – infected people who had became flooded with rage and adrenaline – had died out and become the slower, shambling kind of zombies, things had been a lot safer. Garfield and his group of foragers now had only to contend with a foe that was clumsy and stupid – still dangerous, but predictable also. There had even been rare words spoken of hope lately; dreams that things might one day work themselves out. Garfield was not so childish as to hold on to such childish notions. There was no coming back from this.
A short, sharp yell from behind Garfield made him spin around. He immediately yanked a long screwdriver from a pocket inside his heavy overcoat and held it ready. So used to fighting, was he, that every time he heard a noise he unfolded like a spring.
At the bottom of the hill, one of the foragers had fallen down to the ground beside an articulated lorry. Beneath the vehicle’s rusted axels, a body crawled in the mud. The dead man had a firm grip on the forager’s ankle.
Garfield reached the bottom of the hill in a flash, with a speed he had never possessed in his sedentary life of before. He scrambled down towards his struggling colleague and wasted not a second in driving his long screwdriver into the side of the dead man’s skull and piercing the temple. He left the screwdriver there, jutting out like a lever. The forager lay beneath the corpse, panting and moaning in fear. Garfield kicked the dead body away and helped the man to his feet.
“Thanks, Garfield. I thought I was a goner.”
Then he pulled a claw hammer from a hidden compartment up his sleeve and smashed it into the top of the forager’s head, killing him instantly.
The other men in the foraging group 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 olive overcoat and replaced it up his sleeve. He shrugged his shoulders at the other foragers and pointed to the one who was dead. “Look. He took a good bite on his ankle. There was no hope for him. I did him a kindness. He never even knew he was infected.”
The other foragers glanced down at their dead colleague’s ankle and saw the wound there, clear as day: a bright red gash in the shape of a human mouth. The dead man beneath the truck had killed the forager the moment his rotted teeth had broken skin. Garfield had done nothing but put an animal out of its misery. The other men sighed, but they nodded also. They understood. It was the way of things now, and nobody wanted to become one of them. People tried not to dwell on the things that must be done.
“Come on, let’s get back to camp,” said Garfield. “We’re going to have to plan a new route. There’s nothing left here.”
Garfield had just turned away when a banging inside the articulated lorry’s container alerted him. Everybody turned to face the noise, their various make-shift weapons at the ready. Garfield pulled a small hand axe from his belt.
The banging continued, weak but obvious.
“It’s just one of them,” said one of the foragers. “We should just leave.”
Garfield knew it was stupid, but his mind kept turning to the half-dozen men and women trapped inside that horse paddock half a mile away, and how they might never escape. The thought of a creature – who had once been a human being – being trapped inside a rusty container for all eternity brought him great sadness.
“Open the doors,” he said. “There might be supplies in there. If there’s a dead man inside, it means nobody has checked it out yet. We can’t afford to ignore what might be inside.”
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.
One of the foragers 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.
“Soon as the doors are open, keep back. If it’s anything we can’t handle, make back to camp immediately. If I’m intact I’ll come with you.”
The man at the release handle nodded and then shoved down the steel lever and pried open the locking bar.
Then he opened the left door and stepped away.
Garfield crouched, axe at the ready, staring into the black rectangle that had opened up in the back of the container. The banging had stopped, replaced by a delicate shuffling.
Carefully, Garfield grabbed a hold of the right-side door and began to edge it open. Soon both doors were hanging wide and the black rectangle of darkness grew in size.
The shuffling continued.
Garfield glanced at the other foragers. They all stood ready, primed to attack. But so far there was nothing to alert them; just the shuffling noise.
At least it sounds like there’s only one of them in there. I can handle one.
Only takes one to end you.
Garfield placed a gloved hand onto the lip of the 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. When it was clear nothing was going to lunge at him, Garfield gained some confidence and pulled himself fully up inside the container.
As he entered the shadows, his eyes began to adjust; the blackness turned to grey. Something moved towards the back of the container, a brief shifting that disturbed the dusty air.
The container was nearly empty, but there were a few pallets stacked towards the back. Garfield took a slow step forwards. The thud of his boot echoed inside the steel box.
The shuffling started again, and seemed to increase.
It knows I’m here.
He 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 ya. Just as many chomp at your ankles then those which 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 man lay between two pallets stacked high with rolls of toilet paper. He was covered by a grubby brown blanket and two steel crutches lay beside him.
A blanket? Crutches.
Garfield raised his axe, ready to bring it down on the man’s exposed head. He couldn’t tell in the dim light, but he was sure he could make out a bright crop of ginger hair that matched the colour of his own. Most of the dead had nothing left on their heads but dirty grey clumps.
Being trapped in here must have kept him in better shape than being out in the open.
Garfield placed a boot on the dead man’s chest and squeezed the shaft of his axe tightly. “I never asked for this, and I’m sure you didn’t either.”
Garfield swung his axe.
The man on the ground reached up a hand. “Please.”
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! You’re alive.”
The man was weak and in obvious pain, yet he was undoubtedly alive. The stink coming off him was as bad as any dead man, but he was alive. Garfield could see the sweat on his forehead.
The man managed to shake his head. “No. No…”
“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 boot and was vindicated to find the man was caked in his own blood.
“Not bitten, huh? Looks to me like something took a good chunk out of you.”
Garfield raised an eyebrow. “Somebody shot you?”
Guns had always been 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 response to the crisis that brought dead men from their graves.
The injured man moved a feeble hand to his t-shirt and pulled it up over his stomach. Sure enough, there was a perfectly round black hole, where something – quite possibly a bullet – had entered his torso. It was hard to say for sure if the man had indeed been shot, but at the very least it was clear that he had not been bitten. He may as well 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 sigh. The best thing to do was to end the man here. A dying man was nothing but a burden.
Garfield pulled his axe free of the pallet’s plastic lashings and lifted it onto his shoulder. He turned and walked away, exiting the container and re-joining the foragers without.
“What did you find?” he was quickly asked.
“There’re a couple pallets of toilet paper inside. Would make good kindling for our fires and may have various other uses. Get it out and load it up on the sledges.”
The men smiled. It was better than nothing. They enjoyed returning back to camp to cheers and back pats, not the sullen faces that greeted them whenever they came back empty handed.
“Was there a dead man inside?” one of the foragers 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 camp with us.”
The forager looked worried. “But…who on earth has guns anymore?”
“I don’t know,” said Garfield, “but I would rather much avoid them.”