Slipping through the underbrush with nary a sound, Jaime paused when one of the rotten began shuffling by, flaking skin crumbling with every movement due to the overgrown mass of weeds growing through its grass protruding from its back and forearms. The former human, for it was no longer discernible whether it’d once been a male or woman, clicked inquisitively, rotating its partially collapsed head to roll its milky white eye in mimicry of human sight. The zombie clicked a few times, tilting towards Jaime enough to make her pause, her foot half perched above the grass, the soles of her boot barely touching the earth. Raiding her bow, she pulled an arrow and took careful aim.
And then lowered it just as fast.
Three ghouls, able bodied and faster, rounded from an abandoned AutoZone, one with an arrow sticking out of its chest. The fact that they all had fresh blood dribbling from their cover told Jaime they’d caught someone, or something, in their impromptu hunt.
Derek said this was one of the most infested zones in town, Jaime thought, their old group may have been poking around when I kicked over the proverbial anthill. That arrow looks sturdier than mine, so they must be using pre-Darkness made shafts.
The thought of getting a hold of supplies for her own run to Washington crossed her mind, and Jaime smiled with a wicked thought. If she could snag some spare arrows, maybe a new bow or crossbow, she would be set for a while. Her compound bow had seen three years of use after she’d restrung it. It wasn’t about to give way, but a spare would be welcome in case she needed something else. Or picked someone up for a while.
You never knew when you’d find a survivor like yourself that you wouldn’t mind killing some time with, Jaime thought, breathing out as the rotten turned and walked towards the clicking ghouls. The loyal lapdog seemed to be on the hunt, and the ghouls were calling it in, possibly to feed on their scraps.
Jaime stepped carefully and began to follow the rotten, taking a step for every shuffle it made. They rounded the auto parts store, the windows boarded up long ago, and ducked beneath a tree where the ghouls led, clicking for the rotten to follow. The ghouls moved in a sloped fashion, their backs crooked and bent with their arms scratching the ground, their necks bent and warped so their heads could tilt and rotate. Their eyes were either absent or grayish white, stretch skin half-eaten away by colonies of wood roaches and wasps nesting in their bodies. One ghoul had centipedes, long red and brown bodied crawling insects, roaming over its preserved hide. A hole in its right hand seemed to be a favored traffic spot as they would wriggle in and out of the hand every few seconds to crawl up the nude frame of the creature.
Stopping as the ghouls revealed what was hidden in the bushes, she frowned; a teenager, no older than fourteen, had been ambushed by the zombies. They’d torn into her, ripping her to pieces before devouring the more delectable pieces for themselves. Already there were four rotten, withered limbs missing fingers, pulling harder to digest bits out to eat, a group that the lapdog joined with a series of happy clicks.
Jaime’s heart leapt to her chest when the ghouls all clicked at once and turned to look at her, one tilting its head so that the right ear was pointed at her. She stood as still as the mountains, and then heard it. The scraping of something meaty on the broken pavement. Turning slowly, Jaime saw a bull, hulking creature with only one arm that had at one point been struck by fire if the left half of its body was any indication. It was dragging two people by an arm and a leg, blood seeping out from their bodies as they slid over chunky gravel and sharpened rocks. One was a man with a wader hate and a vest with long sleeves while the other was a child.
She was conscious though her facade seemed to be that of someone experiencing shock. She stared ahead, her eyes skyward, her bushy red hair and freckled face marred by dirt. She had to be ten or eleven. She was in an over-sized green sweater and torn jeans, and didn’t appear to be bitten, just battered.
What are they doing? Jaime thought, never having seen bulls actually capture someone. They always died in her presence, as they were trying to batter her, or someone with her, to death.
Or apparently into unconsciousness.
It clicked, a deep rumble coming from a throat dominated by the roots of a small plant that’d broken away from it when it rose. The ghouls jittered, anew noise that she’d never heard before, and jumped in place in excitement. They slouched over and, after probing the man with their broken fingers, which were now supported by thin vines, they pulled him away from the bull and each took a careful, long bite out of his arm. They passed him around as if he were a piece of fruit being shared amidst friends, and they chewed his flesh happily. The bull lifted knelt next to the groaning man and delivered the coup de grace, biting the older man in the throat with a slow but firm crunching noise. It stood back up, chewing as if lost in thought, and clicked between bites. Two of the ghouls lowered their arms onto the dying man and shook, seizing violently to shake loose some of their insect occupants onto the torso.
Jaime had to keep silent as the bugs began digging, the sound of layers of wet paper being torn, into the man to dig into him. The only ghoul not to contribute was the wasp ghoul, who only stood with a cocked head, wasps buzzing around his head as he stood by in silent vigil. Jaime could only stare in horror as the man died, coughing and sputter enough as spurts of blood sprayed out from his neck and leaked from the multiple bites on his arms. The four corpses stood silent as they observed the passing, and then clicked between each other.
Are… are they making small talk? Jaime thought, disturbed at the idea.
But they stood for three minutes, blood drying on their faces and lying in a puddle at their feet until the man gave a twitch. Jaime’s eyes widened, and she watched as the man slowly sat up, his body slack and loose as if he’d taken too many muscle relaxers. His head lolled to the side and his eyes opened, his eyes rolling about in a disjointed fashion, one looking up the other gazing at his foot. He patted his chest, before he pursed his lips and clicked, rapidly.
The others clicked slower, one ghoul placing a hand covered in twig-like fingers on his shoulder. The head rolled to the side, as if responding to the touch.
Jaime didn’t like that. Zombies were numb. She’s lucky they were blind upon their rebirth, unlike what she’d learned about when she was younger. The disease that animated them ate at their nerve endings, consuming them until there was nothing but the barest framework left. The only thing the disease favored over the nerves was protein, and it consumed the mass of the zombie in equal portions unless it consumed a regular meal. If they starved for too long, they became rotten.
But the fact that they were this sophisticated! This went beyond what Jaime ever thought possible, what she thought anyone knew! They’d bonded with insects and plants, and transferred bites instead of consuming in a frenzy to breed, in their own unique way.
Suddenly, Jaime looked over at the young girl. Her eyes met the emerald green of the young girl, and she winced as she saw the girl mouth the words “help me”.