The humid weather was kicking up a foul stench from the rotten forest floor. It was no longer that refreshing earthy scent that you would enjoy breathing in; instead it was the choking stink of decay as the fallen foliage on the floor had turned to soup in the recent heavy rainfall that now baked in the heat.
There was once a time when walking in the woods, if you heard a rustle in the bushes you would look with anticipation to see if a squirrel, rabbit or other friendly woodland fauna might appear. Now, the same circumstances yielded an entirely different reaction; shotgun up, cocked and ready. Of course, Luke realised the shotgun wouldn’t do much more than slow it down, but it was something. Luke held his breath as he waited, his palms were sweating and his itchy trigger finger was threatening to move far too soon.
The sounds of movement grew louder until a face poked through the leaves; it’s long blood-stained nose came first, its bottom jaw hanging far too loose to not be broken and its tongue dangled out. Gore and foam dribbled out of the mouth and dripped thick globules of crimson-brown onto the grass below. Its eyes were completely pale, a thick film appeared to be covering them and it held its head at a permanent strange angle as its whole body emerged.
With a loud bang, the shotgun exploded into life and sent pellets flying into the creature before it could lunge forwards. The power of the blast sent it skidding backwards and tufts of bloodied fur and flesh fell through the air while the scent of gunpowder and burnt meat filled Luke’s nostrils. Luke took a better look at it as he reloaded his shotgun; it was a large dog, its body was bloodied and torn with patches of skin and even bone showing through in places. A worn collar was still around its neck from when it had once been a family pet. Luke had noticed that they were seeing more and more dogs as they ventured out of the countryside and closer to settlements.
Like a discarded puppet suddenly being pulled up by its strings, the dog stood once again, rising to its four paws once more in a disturbingly unnatural fashion and struggled to find its balance. Luke took this moment of opportunity to raise his gun once again, but before he could fire a second round there was the sound of movement to the left of him. He turned in time to see a flash of metal as it sliced through the air.
The head of the dog fell from its body without its expression changing at all. The collar remained on the neck as the rest of the grisly canine dropped to the ground immediately. The head gurgled and groaned as it rolled, stopping near a clump of loam with its face still pointing in Luke’s direction. It attempted to snap its teeth together, but it was more of a strange flapping with its broken lower jaw.
“Awww… it was a puppy,” Beth said sympathetically as she shook the thick blood from the blade of her machete.
“That was not a puppy, that was a damn full grown dog,” Luke reprimanded her, his gruff voice had a hint of petulance to it. “Besides, would you really have not lopped its head off if you had noticed what it was before you swung your blade?”
“Of course not,” Beth responded with an eye roll and a cheeky smile. “I’m just saying, I bet it was a proper cutesy before… well before it became that miserable thing.”
Beth casually walked over to the fallen head, its eyes were rolling around crazily, the jaws were still flapping, and without a second thought Beth drove the machete blade straight through the top of its skull until it stopped moving entirely.
“Bad time for me to go for a pee break.”
“You came back when it counted, that’s all I care about.”
“True, true,” Beth said. “We best get moving before his friends come along.”
Luke grunted in agreement, shifted his backpack to make it slightly more comfortable, and then led the way with Beth falling into step behind him.
Another building loomed on the horizon. They were becoming more and more common now as they ventured closer to the city. Perhaps this one would yield more than the last. Luke looked to Beth and he didn’t even have to say anything, she nodded and gripped her machete even tighter. She was ready.
There was a small garden gate between two overgrown hedges that stood in the way of them and their exploration. Luke gently pushed it, but stopped immediately as the metal gate squealed loudly in protest of being used. They both paused, waiting to see if they could hear any movement coming their way. Luke looked to Beth, but she just shrugged. Gripping his shotgun with both hands, Luke kicked the gate wide open in one quick motion, causing a loud clang to echo around them. They both waited once again in case the noise had disrupted anything nearby, but after a couple of minutes of silence they decided to cautiously venture inside the grounds.
The garden was overgrown, no surprises there, with an old lawn mower being consumed by the greenery around it. Treading soft, careful steps, Luke and Beth moved closer towards the house and attempted to peer in through the windows. A layer of grime on the panes combined with the darkened interiors made it impossible to see inside. They moved to the front door and saw that the jamb had already been busted in; they weren’t the first to explore here. With a quick nod to one another, Luke inched the door open with the barrel of his shotgun and they peered inside.
Light filtered in through the open doorway, illuminating the dank hallway littered with papers and other debris. At the far end, a small table had been knocked over and a phone and other small bits and pieces lay next to it.
In practiced formation, they moved into the building with Beth pulling out a torch and gently clicked it on so the beam shot forwards in front of them. The wallpaper was peeling in places and mildew was clinging to the plaster and paper in sporadic patches. Family pictures hung on the wall at lopsided angles, crowned by lighter patches of where they had once hung properly.
The first door they came to led into a small kitchen, the cupboards were all open and at a first glance, appeared to be empty. Clearly they had already been rifled through, but it would still warrant a proper search once they had swept through the rest of the house and ensured that they were alone.
They crept through the dilapidated kitchen, past its sink piled high of dishes and over the rubbish strewn about the floor and made for the small staircase at the other end of the room. Luke looked to Beth, this was always one of the most nerve-wracking parts of searching houses and Luke would bet good money that these stairs were about to squeal in protest as they ascended them. He looked at Beth and gave her a knowing look before he tentatively put his foot on the first step. He stuck to the sides rather than middle, knowing that it was less likely to creak that way. Beth followed close behind, matching his footsteps as they went upstairs. As Luke suspected, the steps whined underfoot and each sound made them freeze in place and listen for any other sound of movement.
After finally reaching the top, Beth flashed the torch around the small landing and assessed how many rooms there were to search. She nudged Luke forwards and they looked over each room one by one, ensuring each was empty of any threat. They all seemed to have been previously plundered, but it wouldn’t be the first time that something useful had been missed. Hoping that the house wouldn’t be a total bust, the pair slowly descended the stairs and made their way back through the kitchen to search the rest of the ground floor.
Eventually there were just two rooms left. They stood in the doorway of the bathroom and after seeing the state of it, decided they didn’t need to step foot in there again. That led them onto the last door that, unlike the others in the house, had been firmly closed; usually not a good sign. Beth moved to the side of Luke and gripped the door handle in readiness. Luke raised his shotgun and then nodded at his partner to indicate that he was all set. Beth turned the handle and swung the door open, flooding the room with torchlight as Luke stood ready for action.
Nothing jumped out at them. There was no loud noise or sudden movement. But something was stirring in the shadows; there was a strange, quiet sound that neither of them could place. Both of them squeezed beside each other in the small door frame as Beth moved the torch across the room and Luke stood with his finger gently resting on his trigger. It was a typical front room, with furniture all pointing towards a large, out of date TV set. As the torch light landed on the corner armchair, a grim face stared back at them.
Emaciated to nothing more than skin stretched over bones, there was not enough left of the creature for it to even be able to manoeuvre itself out of its seated position. The practically skeletal remains of the woman shivered and shook as she tried to move, its toothless mouth opening and closing like that of a fish. Her head was practically bald with only a few wisps of hair remaining, her dirtied dress hung from her bony figure like drapes and in her lap were tufts of hair cradling her fallen dentures. Overall, she made for a sorry sight. Luke lowered his gun.
“Well this is depressing,” Beth muttered as she walked closer, causing the living skeleton to shudder with more vigour.
“Looks like she starved to death,” Luke said as he looked closer at the pitiful remains, shoving his shotgun into his backpack.
Beth shone her torch around some more, noting the nearby carer panic alarm and upended pill caddy on a side table. A basket of knitting was at the foot of the chair, with one ball of yarn that had escaped, leaving behind a tell-tale trail of thread.
“We can’t leave her like this,” Beth said sadly, looking to Luke expectantly.
Luke nodded and held his hand out.
Beth was by no means squeamish, but she happily handed over the machete to Luke.
“I’ll start scouting the place out,” she mumbled as she pulled out another torch and passed that to Luke too.
A handful of used batteries of various sizes, one dented, rusted tin of food that was missing its label and a small pack of pasta that was looking a bit too green to really be of use was their final haul. Whilst it was a bit disappointing, it was still better than some of their finds. Beth had managed to get into the can and they had feasted upon the juicy pineapple chunks inside as their main meal. Not a bad result for a mystery tin.
Luke had barricaded the front door from the inside, placing a glass vase atop the furniture to ensure that they heard any intruders attempting to break through. The pair was upstairs in the bedroom about to settle down for the night, looking forward to the rare luxury of being able to sleep on a real bed. One of their torches was currently propped up on the window sill to give them some light while they got ready. Luke was moving a heavy set of drawers in front of the door as an added measure of protection while Beth began to strip off her many layers of clothing.
Luke turned and his eyes fell on Beth’s pale skin, in particular they were drawn to the puckering of flesh on her upper arm. Instinctively, his hand reached for his neck where he could feel his own skin distortion of similar scarring. He dropped his gaze, Luke knew that Beth didn’t like attention on it and he didn’t blame her. They had both been cast out of their respective survivor groups because of their wounds. Beth had been fortunate enough to have only been on her own a few weeks before she had encountered Luke and they had banded together; safety in numbers, they say. Luke, on the other hand, had been by himself for a couple of months before his life had been brightened up by the chipper personality of the young girl. They had been together for nearly half a year now and despite keeping a close eye on one another, neither had shown any signs of sickness.
Beth crawled into the bed and pulled the covers over herself, letting out a squeal of joy as she wriggled in the soft comforts of the quilt. Luke couldn’t help but smile at the simple joy and began yanking off his boots and clothes. The mattress sank beneath him as he got into the bed and he couldn’t help but groan with pleasure himself. They were both overdue for a decent night’s sleep.
Being surrounded by concrete structures was even more daunting than being in the middle of a dense forest. Dark windows covered the buildings and Luke felt as though they were being watched as they quietly made their way through the abandoned street. Cars were abandoned in the road; some had even collided into store fronts and masonry and glass was strewn everywhere. Paper and other debris danced in the wind as it blew through the abandoned city and nearly each and every surface, be it building, vehicle or pavement, had graffiti all over. The anarchy symbol was a common theme, and sombre words such as ‘the end is nigh’.
Luke was nervous and despite her trying to put on a nonchalant front, he could tell that Beth was feeling uneasy too. Places like this were never safe, where it was both the living and the dead that could prove dangerous. But if they wanted to survive, they had to go into areas that had more potential for some decent loot. They were running low on just about everything and desperate times really did call for desperate measures. The problem was that rule applied to everyone and desperate people seemed to lose all morals and humanity. Those with heartbeats were often worse than those without.
The plan was to scope out as many places as they could, load up on supplies and then retreat back into the countryside. Supermarkets and the like would have been picked clean by now, but Luke’s plan was to go into other retail stores to raid their staff rooms. Considering some of their past discoveries in similar locations, Luke believed other people normally overlooked places like that and so he was hopeful they would be able to find something. Ultimately, Luke didn’t want to spend too long in the city. The pair stuck to the sides of the street, lurking near the store fronts so they weren’t so out in the open and vulnerable. Beth nudged Luke to get his attention and then motioned to a wall covered with large red lettering.
“The weirdest one so far,” she whispered with an eye roll.
He knew she was just trying to lift the tense atmosphere, so he humoured her and looked to where she was indicating. There on the wall were scrawled the words, ‘they came from above’. Luke scoffed.
“What like some messed up versions of angels?” Beth continued.
Luke forced himself to throw a smile her way, he did it because that was what she wanted, what she needed at that moment to help her stay calm.
“Let’s get off the streets and start looking,” he quietly suggested. There weren’t really any stores or buildings nearby that he felt warranted a look over, but the break from the street would do his friend some good.
The sound of voices made them freeze in place and stare wide-eyed at one another. It wasn’t worth taking the risk of finding out whether they were friend or foe. Not to mention, even the friendliest of people didn’t take kindly to the wounds they bore. Fear drove sane men to acts of madness. Luke could tell there was more than one of them and they were male, making him even less inclined to cross paths with them. He signalled for Beth to follow him and they moved in the opposite direction of the voices under the cover of the darkening sky.
Luke wanted to find somewhere they could hide before darkness fully fell as they couldn’t risk using torches and giving away their position to others. He had to look about them and make the quick decision to take cover in a building that was least likely to be targeted by any scavengers. A worse for wear sign pointing in the direction of the local library was his answer. Luke had never really been an avid reader anyway, but these days no one gave a damn about books. It was their best bet.Despite not being a popular destination, the library had been thoroughly ransacked with shelves tipped over and scorched marks where it looked like more than once a pile of books had been burned. It most likely had been vandalised in the early days when anarchy and riots had come thick and fast in the madness spiralling out of control.
Luke and Beth hastened inside and headed further into the building, going up a couple of floors to ensure as much distance from the others as possible. They reached a floor that seemed to be endless meeting rooms and offices and skidded to a halt as they heard the sound of voices up ahead. His heart thumping in his chest, Luke wondered whether he made a massive mistake in thinking this would be the best haven for them. He saw Beth shaking in his peripheral vision and knew he needed to act fast. Luke was just about to motion for Beth to retreat when another sound reached his ears. It was an electronic sound, like static, and it only lasted about a second before it gave way to voices once more. The voices were too inaudible to hear what they were saying clearly.
He reached out and patted Beth on the back, causing her to look at him fearfully, but he gave her a reassuring smile and began to walk forwards. Beth dithered for a moment before finally falling into step behind him. As they drew closer, it became evident that there was only one voice that was periodically punctuated with the sound of static.
“…no chance of survival for humanity…”
“…extra-terrestrial parasites that need a dead host to survive…” the voice was saying in an urgent tone, then more static.
Luke slowed to a creep and took out his shotgun just in case, but he was fairly certain he wouldn’t need it. Beth followed suit and pulled her machete from her hip and gripped it tightly.
“…they can’t survive in living hosts, our immune systems are too much for them…”More static screeched loudly in their ears as they neared a small office type room at the far end of the building.
“…they feed on the dead tissue of their host, so they need to constantly keep finding new corpses to survive…”
The door was ajar and a small red glow was pulsating in the darkness.
“…driven to attack and kill to fulfil their needs for more hosts…”
“…thrived on our planet with its abundance of life….”
Luke nudged the door open with the butt of his gun and the rapidly vanishing light of day was just enough to highlight the battery powered radio that was bleating out another burst of static. Its red power light was blinking erratically. Luke and Beth stood in the doorway, weapons still at the ready as they listened in awe at the message that the little black box was relaying.
“…So far nothing has proven successful in exterminating them… no chance of survival for humanity… ”
Luke took a step forward and frowned as he looked closer at a pile of discarded batteries beside the radio. Someone had been keeping the message playing, keeping the radio running. Luke turned to Beth with wide eyes at the realisation, and opened his mouth to speak, but before he could the loud static abruptly stopped, and the quieter looping message resumed. And in the sudden quiet of the room, Luke heardsomething else.
The sound of approaching footsteps.