Catch up on the story here
My mom has been hugging me for the last 5 minutes. She hasn’t said anything since the sunrise siren except for a few heavy sighs into my hair. Every now and then her grip loosens around me and I think she’s about to pull back but instead she just pulls me in even tighter. And you know what? It’s exactly what I need right now. Her grip loosens once again and this time she finally breaks the embrace. Her eyes are all red, either from exhaustion or crying, and she clears her throat before finally speaking.
“Do me a favor and take care of the front door so your father can get in. I’ll bag the arm up for the CDC.” She stands up and begins to tidy up the shattered glass and guns that have been strewn around the floor. “Then try and grab some sleep if you can.”
“Thanks, mom.” I leave her alone with her thoughts and unbolt the front door. I thought with all the adrenaline left in my body that there was no chance I would sleep but as soon as I stepped over the threshold into my bedroom, my whole body collapses onto the bed and I fall asleep immediately.
I must have slept for a few hours because when I woke up I could hear my dad downstairs. After a quick shower and change of clothes, I head downstairs to the living room where my parents are sitting on the couch talking to two men in hazmat suits sitting in the armchairs across from them.
“No, I don’t know any of their names, but I did recognize them from around town.” My mom’s voice sounds tired but strong and I know some of that strength is coming from the fact that my dad’s arm is around her shoulders. “Oh! Maggie’s up. See, I told you she would be down shortly.”
The men in hazmat suits have to turn their whole body to be able to see me coming into the room so to make it easier on them, I walk over and sit down next to my dad. “Hey,” I say because… what else do you say to hazmat covered CDC agents in your living room?
“Please state your name for the record.” Left Suit stares intently at me, sitting forward in his chair.
“Oh, uh- Maggie. Maggie Kirkland.” I look around and realize there’s a tape recorder on the table between us. Next to it is a sealed red biohazard bag which must contain the arm.
“In your own words, please tell me what happened last night after sundown.” It was clear that Left Suit was in control of this interview. Right Suit sat back in his chair, almost seeming at ease in the bulky yellow suit.
After they had heard my side of things, they asked a few more questions about the identity of the people in the horde, which unfortunately I couldn’t help much with. Then they packed up the items on the table and left, having ‘all the information they needed to complete their investigation.’ Mom went up to finally get some rest while Dad and I set to taking down all the plywood and hurricane shutters. He wanted to have it all done by the time she woke up so the house would feel normal again.
We had just finished taking down the outside defenses and my dad could see it all over my face; I was antsy. I needed to be away from the house and doing… something, anything, other than this. A big exasperated smile stretches across his face, “Oh go on, Mags. I’ll finish up.”
In my room I surveyed the different art mediums I had around. Do I feel like painting? Grabbing an easel and acrylics or maybe my travel watercolor palette? I could go basic and just grab pencil and sketchbook and do some people watching. I decided on my camera bag, slinging it on my shoulder as I run downstairs, kiss my dad on the cheek, and head out to my car.
I didn’t have to drive far before I found my first photo opportunity. A large group of people are gathered outside a home a few streets away, kept back by the police barriers. I put on a telephoto lens, squeezed my way through the small crowd to get as close as possible, and snapped off a couple shots. Checking the tiny screen on the camera, I see several policemen milling about measuring things and taking photos of evidence. Another photo has a policewoman carrying evidence bags full of guns out of the house.
“You just missed the bodies,” a smokey voice that sounds almost giddy whispers into my ear.
“Bodies? Plural?” I turn and stare at the woman in disbelief.
A cheshire-cat like grin spreads across her face, her desire to gossip outweighing her desire to appear as a saddened mourner. “Yep. Four of them. Apparently them undead that was loose last night found a way inside. Killed that poor family. I heard the gunshots you know, I live right over there.” She pointed to a house down the street.
“Yeah,” I look back down at my camera and pretend to be adjusting the settings. “I heard it too.” I push away all thoughts of how that could have been me and my mom instead of this family and clear my throat. Before I’m able to speak again, I hear a clucking noise behind me. The gossiper and I both turn to the woman emitting the sound.
“Oh don’t you start with me, you old hag. I’m just telling her what’s what,” the gossiper snapped before turning away from both of us to watch the live-action crime drama that was still going on.
The ‘old hag’ turns her gaze to me and it feels as if she’s staring into my very soul. No one knows her name, but the whole town knows of her. She’s homeless and refuses assistance from anyone who tries to offer her food or a place to stay. Everyone just assumes she was wandering from town to town and had the misfortune to get caught in our town when the Wall went up.
“Sorry,” I mumble, although I’m not quite sure why, and push my way back through the crowd, leaving the old hag, the gossiper, and the rest of the gawkers to their grotesque scene.
Back in my car, I head towards the main road and out of my development. Normally, I would turn right and head towards the lake where I can always get some great photos, but today I wanted something different. I turn left and head towards the forest. Over the roofs of the rest of town, I can see the tops of the evergreens that make up the forest. Towering over them, from somewhere in the middle, are the smoke stacks of the paper mill that separates our town from Greenville, the only other town inside the Wall. I drive a ways into the forest following the paved roads until I hit the fork. Take the right street and it leads to the factory whereas the left eventually dumps you into a parking lot. I head left and park in the almost empty lot that is the beginning of several marked foot trails to follow through the forest.
I’ve lived here my whole life, which means I’ve taken these trails more times than I can count: nature trips with school science classes, midnight adventures with flashlights and friends, and romantic strolls with local boys. I choose one that I know has a few interesting landmarks I can photograph. I follow the trail for a half hour, snapping wildlife pics along the way, before I leave the well worn path for the humus of the forest floor. Leaving the path isn’t anything new either; a few years ago with a bunch of friends, we wandered this way and found an old abandoned stone house. That was where I was heading today.
An hour-long walk later and the stone house stands in front of me with it’s half missing roof and a portion of it’s back wall crumbled, somehow looking both impressive and sad at the same time. I walk around the outside of the building and take several awkward angled shots that end up looking amazing. I circle the building like a vulture, looking for anything that, with the right filter, would look great on my Instagram.
Having inspected and photographically catalogued the exterior, I head through the yawning black opening that used to be the front door. If there were any interior walls, they’re gone now and all that’s left is the shell of the house. A massive tree made it’s home in the back corner where the roof and wall collapsed, but has since died leaving a hollow trunk with a jagged top not too much taller than I am.
I wander around the room, snapping a few photos here and there, but mostly just running my hands along the stone. What kind of life did these people lead? Did they ever have to deal with hordes of the undead? Probably not. Standing at a former window opening, I breathe in deeply and try to imagine what the forest looked like back when this house was in it’s prime. My thoughts are interrupted when I see someone walking in the forest and headed my way. I gasp and duck out of view.
My dad will be so mad when he finds out I left my mace in my car, he’s always harping on me to carry it with me everywhere. Ever since the Wall went up, a small percentage of the people inside decided that the laws don’t matter anymore. There was looting and random violence everywhere in those first few months. It’s definitely slowed down over time as the CDC started to lock up the trouble makers, but you can never be too careful. Especially being alone in the middle of the woods with a strange man walking towards you.
I look around the room to see if there’s anything I could use as a weapon if this encounter isn’t a friendly one. There’s nothing except maybe my camera. It’s heavy enough and the bag’s strap is long. I could swing it and get a good hit or two in if I needed to. Maybe I’ll get lucky enough and he’ll just walk on by. I take a peek back out the window to watch him.
He’s closer. And something’s wrong. His gait is off. He’s shambling, walking awkwardly with a limp. From this distance, I can see his gray eyes. He lets out a long low groan that sets every hair on edge.
This can’t be. It just… can’t. It’s daylight. The new moon is over. He should be him again, not this.
He’s almost at the house now. I need to run, I can’t stay here. But they’re fast, so fast, when they need to be. I’ll never outrun him. I tear myself away from the window and look around. The dead tree. Maybe I can hide in there. I take a step and the leaves crunch under my feet. Another groan, louder this time. A twig snaps way too close outside.
Noise be damned, I need to hide. I take long strides and don’t breathe until I feel the smooth bark under my fingers. Slinking around the back, I try to keep the trunk between me and the front door. There’s a split in the wood I hadn’t noticed before. It takes some effort but I squeeze inside. For a few seconds, I actually feel safe. I may be ok. But through a crack in the trunk in front of me, I can see his shape in the doorway.
With slow, deliberate steps, he crosses the room.
His gray eye presses up to the crack in the trunk and he lets out one last low groan.
He’s found me.