Child of the Apocalypse, Chapter One
Staring out at the wreckage on what used to be 1604, a highway that encircled the city of San Antonio, Jamie heaved a sigh and pulled an arrow from her quiver. Most of these cars had succumbed to the rust that came with sitting idle for twenty-five years, glass broken out (or in) by looters and would-be starving dead. Any gas they once may have held would have evaporated by now, leaving that resource something she would be hard pressed to find.
“Heh,” she snorted at the thought of gasoline. “Gas is worth more than gold now.”
But, she mused, she might find some spare supplies, maybe a first-aid kit, or some prescription pills. They may be expired, but they usually still worked.
Lowering her goggles over her eyes, she hopped up onto the hood of an old Cadillac with four flat tires. Her compound bow in hand, she scanned the horizon for any signs of movement. She didn’t want to be surprised while looting by something like… that!
Thirty yards away was an older one, sagging gray skin hanging loosely from its bones. It only had one arm, the other having either fallen off or torn off during the Darkness. She had stringy, dirty hair and deep brown stains over her white sundress. Jamie tried not to think about what those stains were.
She snorted. “Just a rotten,” she said.
The dead that’d been around for a long time, or were in areas where the weather was bad, would rot to a degree. This made them weaker, slower, and far more prone to forming mobs. Like all ghouls, they were blind but had excellent hearing.
She nocked an arrow and sighted her target, aiming for the right temple of the ghoul, tracking its shuffling movements as it slowly weaved between cars, tilting its head from side to side.
The arrow flew almost faster than Jamie’s eyes could track, cracking into the side of the ghoul’s head with a spattering of rotten gray matter and black jelly that would have once been blood. The living dead wavered where it stood before collapsing onto the hood of a Honda, twitching. That was normal; even once you took out their brains, the ghouls were still animated. It wasn’t like the pre-Darkness comic books or movies. Once you were Infected, you eventually became one of them, got a real hankering for human flesh. You were smart like a wolf, cunning enough to hunt in packs and share meals. This one didn’t seem to have a group, as she hadn’t heard the clicking that accompanied roaming bands of the cannibalistic corpses.
Jamie hopped down from the Cadillac and slowly padded her way up towards the Honda, peeking in vehicles as she went. Most of them had broken, or worse, lowered windows which allowed Jamie access to anything she wanted. She stopped by an overturned motorcycle; a near-skeletal biker pinned beneath the rusting machinery. She bent low and looked at the body.
No movement, but that meant nothing.
Reaching into a car, she picked up the first item she came across, an old wallet. Tossing it underhanded, it landed on the biker’s face, rousing him into a thrashing fit. He was blind, like all the undead, and mute from the looks of his gnashing teeth. He didn’t seem to have many of those left, and his throat was mostly rotted out. One arm, encased in torn up leather jacket, reached out plaintively as it groped the air, fighting to get itself out from under the weight of its former ride, hoping to get a warm meal.
“Nope,” Jamie said. “Not gonna happen.”
Pulling a survival knife from her boot, Jamie walked up, moving behind the thrashing ghoul, until she was close enough to smell the sickly-sweet scent of its rot. She lunged forward, stabbing it in the back of the neck, just below the hairline. The body fell limp as she severed the spinal column, the head still clacking its teeth together to find meat.
Wiping her knife on the leather jacket, she checked its pockets, tossing aside the cash and credit cards instead of the Swiss Army Knife she found. She finished her search with the discovery of a Ziploc baggy of blue pills. Judging by what she knew, they were probably Codeine or some other powerful painkiller.
“That’s a win,” she whispered as she tucked the baggy into her jacket. Tucking a strand of black hair away from her face, Jamie adjusted her goggles and scratched idly at a jagged scar going across her right cheek. The coming weather change always made it itch every year since her reanimated brother gave it to her.
He’d been her first kill at the tender age of nine. Her father’s pistol, a heavy thing that she knew nothing about, had served as her method of dispatching her teenage brother. She wondered if he’d finally rotted to where he was dead and not just comatose on the carpet of their old apartment.
The Darkness had been a horrid two-week terror where the grid went down.
Everywhere. Nobody knew if it was because of hackers, or a computer virus… but it also killed the phone lines, internet, TV… hell, the only thing it didn’t kill were the ghouls that started rising around the same time. People didn’t know what to do without a government official telling them how to handle the situation, so they panicked.
Sure, sheriffs and cops tried rallying people, and the military made a token effort before holing up in the Northwest, building a temporary wall around the state of Washington. The survivors she met (that didn’t kill her) spoke of how they were headed North to try to get into the state, where they could finally relax. They treated the idea as holy, a new Mecca that attracted travelers like moths to a flame.
Jamie didn’t see the point. She’d set up in an old Barnes & Noble at a local high-end mall, with buckets hanging from the second-floor windows to collect the rain that would fall every few days. She had plenty of food from the game she’d hunt, ranging from squirrels to stray cats, all of which had grown far larger and many. The ghouls weren’t fast enough to grab squirrels, and the cats could outrun any undead easily.
But they couldn’t dodge Jamie’s arrows.
Between that and trading with the local “towns” that survivors had built, she found herself with supplies aplenty, never having to miss a meal or grow cold during the winter.
And so, Jamie thrived, living in the Apocalypse amidst the hungry dead; she knew them well enough to know how to avoid them often, and she knew how to take on a pack of them with nothing but her buck knife.
Sure, it was dangerous, but that was how she preferred her life these days. Her family was dead, and there was no sign that the world would recover from the wastelands that had struck it so hard during the Darkness. Jamie figured it was just easier to not get her hopes up looking for some military-state when she could last out here easier than most.
Walking up to the female ghoul which was still twitching from the massive trauma to its brain, Jamie grabbed onto the arrow shaft and gave it a tug, yanking it through the gooey mess that was the ghouls ruined skull. The creature let out a low gurgle as Jamie flipped her over, checking for pockets. When she saw a diamond ring on her finger, she reached down and grabbed the arm, holding it still so she could liberate the former wedding band from the zombie’s hand.
Just as she pulled the jewelry free, she heard the crunch of boots on cement and the staccato clicking of rotten vocal cords calling out. She may not be fluent in the dead’s language, but she knew that trill.
“Found food!” It practically screeched.
Moving fluidly, she spun while pulling her knife, coming face-to-face with a bull zombie and two smaller ones, kids that’d been bitten recently if their puffy flesh was any sign. The bull was once a man, easily three hundred pounds of muscle; he was missing a large section of the neck, with a bit of spine showing through the bloodless wound. Dressed in a flannel shirt that was stained and sticky, the misty eyes of the bull rolled like marbles as it shuffled around a truck to get a clear path to charge her from. It couldn’t see her, but it could hear her heartbeat, smell her breath… it knew exactly where she was, and, like any bull zombie, was looking to use its impressive size to down her as quickly as possible.
Jamie dropped her knife and pulled her bow, whipping out an arrow and lining up the shot as quickly as she could, firing into the behemoths mass. The arrow struck it in the neck, tearing away a good deal of rotted meat as it soared past him and off the highway. She nocked another arrow as the bull clicked, running at her.
Lowering her bow, she leapt to the left at the last moment, allowing the bull to slam into the Honda and the ghoul Jamie had dispatched a few moments ago. Falling together in a tangle of limbs, the bull thrashed and growled, pounding the crippled cadaver in untold rage. Jamie spun and let loose her nocked arrow, piercing the skull of one child, a young boy in a SpongeBob SquarePants shirt with a gnawed arm. The other tripped over his downed brother, falling to the ground with a series of annoyed clicks, where Jamie lunged and stomped on his neck, snapping the tender spot with an audible crack.
Turning back to the bull, she shuddered as it did the rising-bonelessly thing that all ghouls seemed to have perfected, settling itself into an aggressive stance as it began stomping towards Jamie, arms outstretched. The children were clicking out plaintive cries that they she was strong, or a good meal. This was stuff Jamie had heard before, countless times. What she hadn’t heard before was a series of clicks that were far hollower, coming from behind her.
Reaching back to grab an arrow, she cried out when she felt a bony hand clasp her arm, a low click coming from behind her from the broken-down truck. Spinning around despite the strong grip, she snapped the rotten wrist of an old woman who’d crawled to the window of her truck. Her matted gray hair and wrinkles hung heavy on her face, a low croaking groan rising from her throat.
Yanking back hard, Jamie snap kicked the bull in the chest, pushing it back a couple feet while she pulled a climbers pick from her hip, hooking it into the old woman’s eye once before prying, bursting the skull apart in a nasty brackish ooze that left her rotting frame still. Pulling her arm free, Jamie turned just in time to be slammed into the truck by the bull, her back screaming in agony as she crushed the remnants of the old woman’s skull hanging out of the truck with her scapula.
Pinning her left arm beneath the bull’s chin, Jamie kept him from biting her, though unable to stop the brutal pummeling she was receiving from his fists. One lucky strike left her feeling dazed, but she couldn’t afford to be soft now. Reaching up and into his neck wound, Jamie winced as a fist slammed into her shoulder.
As she dug her fingers into the rotten meat towards the yellowed vertebrae of the spine, she winced at the body blow she received from what had to have once been a world class boxer. Her arm almost giving way to the bull’s weight and strength, she smiled when she curled her fingers around the spinal column, crying out loud in glee as she yanked it hard. The bull’s body fell limp, toppling to the side as her elbow guided it, dropping it onto the remaining little boy, which had been crawling to get at her legs.
Breathing heavily, Jamie listened for any more sounds that could mean danger. The bull was still clicking softly while the pinned child ghoul was scrabbling at the pavement like a pinned roach. She took a quick moment to scoop up her survival knife, delivering debilitating blows by sliding the blade through each ghoul’s temple, slicing the brain carefully enough to render them harmless should she need to pass by here again.
Looking around, she frowned at the dozen arrows that must have tumbled from her quiver when she was dealing with her first kill.
“Need to stop by the hunting good’s store and pick up a new one,” Jamie heaved, unable to catch her breath. “Patched up this quiver more times than I can count.”
Righting herself, hands on her lower back, she heaved a sigh and stared off into the distance. The sun would be setting in a few hours, and it would take her, at least, an hour’s drive march to reach Three Colleges. While her nest in the abandoned bookstore was nice, she was looking forward to stopping by the one town dotting the former military city where she had friends and lovers.
Cleaning herself off as best she could, she raised the goggles off her eyes and looked at the sun, the heavy clouds blocking it partially. “Just another day in the apocalypse, eh?”