Sunday, December 7, 2014

IN THE FLESH: PARTS 21 AND 22

Genre: Horror (Zombies)
 

ROLL CALL


Carson Ryder: Former marine/Former police officer/Suffers from retrograde amnesia/ Searching for clues to his past
Damien Albright: Found and saved Carson/Was married once/Bad tempered/Doesn’t seem to care at all about family or traditional values
Kenny Sudrow: Youngest member of the group/Former spa porter/Happy to be doing something else/Lost his family to Biters
Eli Burton: Survivor found in Cherrywood Mall/Parents were rich and left him a large inheritance when they died
Valentina Jackson: Tough as nails/Has no fear/Knows how to use a gun/Claims to have crossed paths with Carson’s wife and daughter at one point in Tennessee
Tyler Reese: A young man who saved Kenny Sudrow’s life/Carries a submachine gun/A native Bostonian/He used to be a mechanic
Taryn Mills: One of the newest members of the group/Little is known about her at this time
Nikki Fox: A native Tennessean/Former registered nurse

 
IN THE FLESH
By Daniel Skye

 
PART TWENTY ONE
ARRIVAL

 
          Day Two Hundred and Thirty.
          It had been one long, arduous month. But they finally reached the border and crossed over from Tennessee into Arkansas.
          Paradise it was not.
          Not that Carson Ryder or the others expected any different. New York was a wasteland. Washington had fallen. Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee were in pieces. He didn’t expect Arkansas to be any better. What he expected was to find his wife and daughter.
          They drove through town after town, never once spotting another glimpse of human life. What they did spot were many cars and trucks that had been abandoned in the roads by panicked drivers who were looking for escape.
          It was a sight they had grown accustomed to seeing. It was the same in every state they passed through. Panic, chaos, disorder. These poor fools never stood a chance.
          Carson tried not to wonder how many of these fleeing motorists survived. The rate of survival had dropped significantly and Carson doubted if most of them had truly made it.
          Still, he knew they weren’t the only survivors. They had encountered more than their share along the way. Some proved to be worthy allies, others proved to be dangerous enemies.
          But with Carson leading the way, they had persevered and survived through it all. Well, most of them had. The group had lost their share of members…Arnold Vesti, Devin Morris, Trevor Virden, Chase Crawford, Chuckie Razzano, Janice Whitfield, Vern Sheldon, and Willard Pickman, just to name a few.
          But the loss that affected Carson the most was the loss of Vern. It had been nearly a month since the discovery of his body, and two weeks since the revelation that Diego Garcia had killed him.
          But Damien Albright took care of Garcia. He used Vern’s flamethrower to burn him alive on the interstate.
          It was a memory the group had tried to erase. But the sight of it, the smell of it, was not something you could easily erase. It was times like these that Carson wished his condition affected his short-term memory instead of his long-term memory.
          Some of the shops and stores they cruised past had been looted; the windows smashed out, the doors rammed in. The shelves barren with no trace of food or supplies.
          Other stores had caught fire during the chaos that had ensued in the initial weeks of this cataclysm. Nothing but the rubble and ash remained of those structures.
          Some owners tried to protect their businesses by boarding up the windows, barricading the doors. Some succeeded, others failed. So when dark started catching up with them, Carson looked for a place with the easiest access. Somewhere they could crash for the night and strategize, plot their next move.
          Danger lurked around every corner and they needed to remain vigilant. They couldn’t let their guard down.
          They found a hospital that was forty miles from the line between Tennessee and Arkansas. Some of the windows were busted out, some of the entrances sealed, and none of the ambulances or emergency vehicles remained.
          But when Carson pulled the RV around back, he saw that the doors in the rear were not boarded or sealed up. They were chained, but chained from the outside with a cheap padlock you’d buy at a Five & Dime store.
          Damien busted the padlock with a crowbar they had stashed in the RV and unraveled the chain from the door handles.
          He yanked the doors open and rusty hinges squeaked as they parted. Damien drew his .38 pistols from their respective holsters and entered first. Carson followed close behind with his Remington shotgun.
          Tyler and Kenny were in next, brandishing their individual weapons. Taryn, Valentina, and Nikki were in the middle for their protection. Eli was the last in and he pulled the doors shut.
          The flashlights came in handy as they navigated their way through each bare, vacant corridor. A few gurneys and waiting room chairs aside, the halls and lobby were barren.
          They split up and did a full sweep of every room on the first floor to be sure they were alone.
          The doors to the cafeteria were chained and padlocked. “You got that crowbar handy?” Carson asked.
          “Left it outside,” Damien told him.
          “I hate wasting bullets, but screw it,” Carson shrugged. “Kenny, would you do the honors?”
          “My pleasure,” Kenny said, raising his semi-automatic pistol and firing one shot that pierced the lock cylinder and left a smoking crater in the center. Carson knocked the busted lock off with his boot and undid the chain.
          He thrust the cafeteria doors open and moved in first with his Remington in hand. When he saw it was clear, he waved for everyone to follow. They spread through the cafeteria and Tyler found the cash register and pressed the NO SALE button. The drawer popped open and Tyler saw there was still eighty four dollars in tens, fives, and singles. He scooped the money out from the individual slots and pocketed it.
          “Really?” Kenny asked, rolling his eyes. “What good is money nowadays?”
          “Hey, you never know what we might need it for,” Tyler said.
          The kitchen resembled a crime scene, and Carson urged the girls not to go inside. Damien was the second to see the carnage that had unfolded in the kitchen. Now the chains and padlocks made sense.
          Whoever put them there had done it intentionally to lock several others inside the cafeteria.
          The food was long gone. The prisoners of the cafeteria had ripped through everything. They even wolfed down raw eggs and bags of flour. Not a single crumb or morsel remained.
          “So much for finding food here,” Damien sighed.
          “Who could be hungry after seeing something like this?” Carson wondered.
          The people must’ve starved to death once they ran out of food and supplies. Then they turned and came back like the others. Except they were trapped in this cafeteria; no food, no escape.
          So they had done something Carson and the others had never witnessed before. The Biters had resorted to self-cannibalism, devouring one another. The last Biter standing hadn’t planned on what he’d do when his food supply ran thin.
          And so, with no other source of attainable food, it had begun the process of eating itself. It started with its own fingers, gnawing them down until all that remained on both hands were ten little nubs of white bone.
         When Carson and the gang stumbled upon the blood stained kitchen, the last Biter was still alive. It had chewed off its own feet and gnawed its ankles down to the bone. And at some point, it had devoured its own tongue.
          With no survivors, Carson would never know how these people came to be here or why they were locked inside. Their deaths would remain a vague mystery. Were they good people or bad people? Who locked them inside? Was it a greedy survivor who took their weapons and supplies? Was it someone they had tried to harm or kill? They would never know the truth.
          Damien cocked the hammer back on one of his pistols but Carson put his hand out to urge him not to.
          “The sound may only attract more of them. We haven’t cleared every floor yet.”
          “Good point,” Damien said, holstering his pistols. He pulled the hunting knife from the sheath wrapped around his thigh and he rammed the blade through its forehead, killing it instantly.
          Though, Carson wondered how you could kill something that was already dead. In a way, Carson thought they weren’t even really killing these things. Just helping the Biters find eternal rest.
          They abandoned the cafeteria and moved onto the second floor. All was clear. So they pushed on forward to the third floor.
          All clear.
          The fourth floor…all clear.
          It was when they reached the tenth floor that the trouble began. Upon entry, the rank smell of death hit them, making Nikki, Taryn, and even Carson gag like a punch to the throat.
          The smell was so foul and pungent, they didn’t have to ponder what they were up against. The floor was crawling with Biters.
          “God only knows how long they’ve been here,” Kenny said, pinching his nose like a clothespin with two fingers. “They smell like oldies to me.”
          “All of them,” Carson told the group. “Use your guns. No sense in playing it quiet or trying to use knives to kill of these things. There are way too many of them.”
          Tyler stepped forward first and let the submachine gun rip. Bullets zoomed down the corridor and took out every Biter that was standing in their way. But the noise just drew more of them out from the various rooms of the tenth floor.
          Like the Biters in the cafeteria, these Biters bared numerous bite wounds and signs of self-mutilation.
          “Fire!” Carson shouted and the whole group commenced shooting.
          Bullets ripped and tore through the air, some striking and some missing their intended targets. Carson fired a shot, pumped the mechanism of his shotgun, and fired another. He repeated the process until he was out of shells, then he reloaded and started the cycle over again.
          Taryn and Valentina were carrying revolvers, so they could only fire six shots at a time before they had to reload. In an ordinary shootout, this inconvenience could lead to your downfall. But they were safely covered with the rest of the group beside them and had plenty of time to reload their weapons before they resumed firing.
          Damien unloaded both of his .38 pistols, popped the empty clips out, and loaded two fresh ones.
          When all was said and done, they had fired over one hundred shots and taken down over sixty Biters.
          Kenny had missed his share of shots, and Nikki wasn’t exactly a professional shooter. But even an experienced shooter like Carson had wasted a few shells in the fray.
          He counted the shells in his pocket and realized that including the shells he had in the RV, he only had twelve rounds left.
          “Got to make these rounds count,” Carson muttered as he reloaded his shotgun.
          “I say we don’t waste any more ammunition,” Damien said. “We’ve already cleared the first ten floors. I think we’ll be safe if we stay away from the others and keep the door to the stairwell barricaded from the outside. We can camp on the first floor and if any shit goes down, at least we’ll be near an exit.”
          “Agreed,” Carson said. “We’re running too low on ammo to go any further.”
          They headed for the staircase and descended the first flight. And that’s when Damien noticed someone was following them. A young man with a bad complexion and a NY Yankees cap.
          As soon as he heard them coming, he bolted down the stairs. “Get him!” Damien shouted and flew down the stairs. Without even knowing who or what Damien was talking about, Carson took off after him.
          The group rushed down after Carson and Damien and when they reached the first floor and stepped out from the stairwell, Damien had already captured the person in question.
          He had wrestled the young man down to the floor, and Damien was pinning him down by the shoulders with his knees. “Why were you following us?” Damien snarled.
          “I wasn’t!” the kid yelped in pain from the weight Damien was putting on his shoulders and chest. “I swear! I thought you guys were following me! Honest! I’ve…I’ve been hiding out in this place for a week, crawled in through one of the broken windows. All the doors were locked or barricaded or boarded up. How’d you get in?”
          “We have our ways,” Damien said. “Now start talking, kid. Who are you and what are you hiding from?”
          “The name’s Aaron Black. I was born in Manhattan, raised in Staten Island. I ended up here because my folks thought Washington would be safe. We were halfway there before we got overrun by the zombies. I lost my folks…was on my own for a while…then I met some survivors who accepted me into their group.”
          “I didn’t ask for your life story,” Damien said. “I just asked who you were and what you were hiding from.”
          “Well, I already told you who I am. What I’m hiding from is pretty obvious. I’m hiding from those freaks out there that want to eat my face off. But I’m also hiding from a particular group.”
          “What group?” Carson asked in place of Damien.
          “I don’t know who they are or where they come from,” the kid said, taking deep breaths from the pressure Damien was applying with his knees. “The leaders calls himself Poppy. He’s hideously disfigured. The dude makes Bill Maher look like a fashion model.”
          “Where are they now?”
          “I don’t know,” Aaron cried. “They attacked my group. I was the only one who managed to get away. I found this place, crawled in through a broken window, and I’ve been hiding out on the third floor since then. I saw you guys coming through one of the windows. I thought you might be with them.”
          “Well, we’re not,” Carson assured him. “We’re our own group. We’re not looking to hurt anyone who’s not looking to hurt us.”
          “So what do you think?” Damien asked. “Can we trust him?”
          “I say we kick his ass just for wearing a New York Yankees cap,” Tyler threw his two cents in.
          “Ah, you must be a Red Sox fan,” Aaron muttered. “Can you please get off me now? I’m having trouble breathing.”
          Damien lifted himself off of Aaron and Carson helped the young man to his feet. He breathed easy and regained his composure.
          Aaron’s thin arms, neck, and face were riddled in red sores and blisters that looked ready to burst.
          Aaron’s drug of choice happened to be crystal meth, a nasty little mix of drain cleaner, battery acid, brake fluid, and other harmful chemicals. These chemicals cannot be excreted through normal bodily functions. But everything you put into your body must find a way out.
          So the chemicals in your body escape through the pores of your skin, oozing and dripping out, scarring your body and causing the formation of sores, boils, and blisters. This grotesque process results in the irreversible skin damage that Aaron clearly displayed.
          And Damien was the first to pick up on it, though Kenny and Tyler were both familiar with the drug and had their suspicions about Aaron.
          “You’re a tweaker,” Damien said. “I can see it in your eyes. I can see it in the way your body twitches around when you try to remain still. I can see it in the damage that you’ve done to your skin. Now your personal business is none of mine, but I need to now for the sake of our group, how long have you been using?”
          “Five years,” Aaron confessed. “It started as fun, you know? My friends got me into it. Just something we’d do before we went out partying or dancing at a club. We only did it when we were desperate and we couldn’t score cocaine. But next thing I knew, I was hooked on that awful garbage.”
          “And you still are?” Damien asked.
          “Unfortunately,” Aaron muttered. “I thought I had broken the habit. Then I found somebody’s stash when I was raiding a house for supplies back in Missouri. I was with my group back then and I kept it a secret the whole time. Once I lost them, I figured there was no sense in holding back. Not with those flesh eaters outside and that band of disfigured freaks hunting me down.”
          “You’re safe now,” Carson assured him. “You’re with us. Nothing’s going to happen to you as long as you play it cool and you don’t try anything funny. Hurt us, we hurt you. If you’re cool, we can be cool too.”
          “Fair enough,” Aaron said, grinding his teeth. “So how about you give me a gun then? I’d feel safer if I had a weapon.”
          “No can do,” Carson said. “We’re running low on guns and ammo as it as. But we’ll talk again once you’ve earned your keep. Why don’t you start by helping the guys unload some supplies from the RV?”
          “RV?” Aaron said. “I hit the jackpot running into you guys.”
* * *
          Aaron helped them unload food, water, flashlights, luggage, and other supplies from the RV. He helped himself to a bottle of water, only after he asked Carson’s permission.
          “I can’t thank you enough,” Aaron said as Kenny and Tyler barricaded the door that they came through with anything that wasn’t bolted down. “I’ve been living on toilet water for weeks, maybe months.”
          “Well we have plenty of water to go around,” Carson assured him. But that wasn’t exactly true. They were running low on food, water, ammo, and many other useful supplies.
          Carson knew they’d have to make a run through one of the towns soon, see what they could find. But he wanted to hold off for as long as possible. The group had already been through enough as it was.
          Aaron was trying his best to blend in and lend a hand when needed, but the group knew what he was. Every time he’d wander off to be alone, they’d mutter under their breaths.
          And then Aaron would return, talking a mile a minute, and confirming their accusations towards him. Day or night, it didn’t matter. Aaron was high.
          But how long would the supply last? What would happen when he inevitably ran out and had to go cold turkey? The group had experienced this before with Devin Morris and things didn’t work out too well in his case.
          Carson hoped this wouldn’t be the same case with Aaron. At the time, the group had accused Regis Whitfield of murdering a detoxing Devin Morris in his sleep. Looking back on it, it could’ve been anyone.
          The killer could easily still be among them.
* * *
          Day Two Hundred and Thirty-Four.
          Aaron Black had done his best to work his way into the fold. The group still hadn’t quite accepted him as one of their own, but they were decent enough to share food, water, supplies, and give him the time of day.
          For how long Aaron Black stayed with the group depended entirely on him and his unpredictable behavior. One minute he was drowsy and falling asleep standing up, and the next minute he was all amped up and talking so fast that no one could keep up with him.
          This pattern concerned Carson Ryder, who had hopes that Aaron Black could conquer his demons and become a full-fledged member of the group.
          But the others wouldn’t accept him if they knew he was heading for a meltdown when his stash ran out.
          That morning, Aaron didn’t have much of an appetite, but his lips wouldn’t stop flapping, either.
          “So where are you dudes from?” Aaron asked Tyler, Kenny, and Eli. The guys were munching on nuts, berries, dried fruit, energy bars. Anything that they could scrounge up. Food was running low, but Kenny was confident they’d find something soon.
          “Long Island,” Kenny said.
          “Same,” Eli said.
          “New York boys, huh? I’m an NY boy myself. Born in Manhattan, raised on Staten Island. I visited Long Island once or twice. Loved the Hamptons. The beaches were awesome. Speaking of awesome, how awesome are Taryn’s tits? I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t talk about her like that. I hardly know her. But I just can’t help myself, you know? It’s been so long since I’ve been with a girl. I’d fuck a hole in the wall if I had a drill to make one deep enough.”
          “TMI,” Kenny mumbled.
          “So where are you from again?” Aaron asked Tyler.
          “Boston,” Tyler answered.
          “Oh, yeah, you’re the one who didn’t like my Yankees cap. Hey, I understand. We can’t all be winners.”
          “Watch it, buddy,” Tyler said.
          “Just joking around,” Aaron said. “Don’t take it personal. I actually kind of liked the Red Sox. Too bad we won’t be seeing a baseball game ever again. We should invent our own sport. Zombie Ball or something.”
          “Does he ever stop talking?” Tyler muttered to Kenny.
          “Hey, I recognize that tattoo,” Aaron said, admiring Eli’s shoulder ink. “It’s a gang tattoo, right? Am I right? Were you in a gang? Like the Crips and the Bloods?”
          “Hah, Eli in a gang,” Kenny chuckled just at the thought. Eli rolled his sleeve down, covering the tattoo.
          “It’s not a gang symbol,” Eli spoke up. “Not that I know of, at least. I picked it off the wall at some tattoo shop in Merrick. I just liked the design.”
          “Ah, gotcha,” Aaron said and resumed talking exclusively to Tyler and Kenny.
          Eli wandered off with an energy bar in hand and brushed shoulders with Nikki Fox, who was looking for Carson Ryder.
          She found him stretched out on one of the hospital beds in the west wing. “Catching up on your sleep?” Nikki asked.
          “Just resting my eyes,” Carson assured her.
          “Taryn and I were talking. Well, people are getting worried. We’re running low on food, water, and so many other supplies. We barely have enough ammo to survive another onslaught.”
          “I’ll talk to Damien soon,” Carson told her. “See what we can scrounge up in the surrounding area. If we don’t find much, we’ll move on. We’ve still got enough gasoline to get us to Washington and back if we needed to.”
          “Ok, thanks for reassuring me,” Nikki said. “I’ll talk to Taryn. She’s a sweet girl, but she’s so hard to calm down once she gets worked up.”
          “Tell me about it,” Carson said, his eyelids flickering. He yawned and that was Nikki’s cue to leave and let him rest.
          On her way back to her room, Nikki crossed paths with Valentina Jackson.
          “What were you doing in Carson’s room?” Valentina inquired.
          “Just expressing some concern over the lack of food and supplies. Carson said he’s got it taken care of though. So no problems.”
          “If you’re trying to horde in on my man, then we definitely have a problem,” Valentina assured her.
          “Your man? Carson is married and looking for his wife and daughter.”
          “Yeah and what makes you so sure he’s going to find them? Wake up. By now, they’re probably dead or halfway across the country. He’s never going to find them. And when he realizes it, he’s going to fall right into my arms.”
* * *
          Damien Albright had spent the night with Taryn Mills. The sex hadn’t meant anything to either of them. It was just a simple case of satisfying their natural desires. And Taryn had to admit, the sex wasn’t disappointing at all.
          Still, she feared getting emotionally attached to another man after the loss of George Verdi. So when the sex was over, there was no cuddling, no pillow talk.
          She just wanted to close her eyes and sleep. But when she woke up that morning, she felt the sudden urge to share with him. And Damien was not the guy who really cared for expressing his emotions.
          “I miss George every day,” she told him. “I honestly do. I realize now that Diego Garcia didn’t do everything he could to save him. He left George for dead in that hardware store. For all I know, he probably killed George himself. I guess I’ll never really know for sure.”
          “Don’t let it eat away at you,” Damien advised. “Just let it all go.”
          “How can you be so calm, so cool all the time? How do you keep it all bottled up inside?”
          “I don’t keep anything bottled up,” Damien explained. “I just don’t care.”
          “Don’t you have any family, any friends outside of this group?”
          “Nope.”
          “Well, don’t you miss those people that were once a part of your life?”
          “Nope,” Damien repeated. “You can’t miss what you never had. I never really knew my dad. And my mom gave me up for adoption when I was six months old. I bounced around from foster home to foster home, was on my own by age eighteen. I never knew my grandparents. I don’t know if I had any aunts, uncles, or cousins. And I don’t really care. Like I said, you can’t miss what you never had.”
          “That’s horrible,” Taryn proclaimed.
          “Not really,” Damien said. “I liked being on my own. I liked being independent. I used to drive a taxi, work construction, give guitar lessons, deliver pizzas, slice cold cuts, flip burgers, mop floors, move crates and stock shelves. I did what I had to do in order to survive. Just like I’m doing now.”
          “Did you say you gave guitar lessons?”
          “Yup.”
          “So you play guitar?”
          “If I had my guitar right now I’d play a tune just for you.”
          “Wow, that is so hot,” Taryn said, grinning.
          “Alright, don’t get all worked up on me,” Damien told her. “I’m not ready for round two just yet.”
* * *
          “We’ve got company!” Kenny shouted from the east wing. He watched two young children, their faces caked in layers of dirt and soot, their clothes tattered beyond restoration. “They’re kids!”
          “Did you say kids?” Tyler asked as he was the first to trace the source of Kenny’s voice. He entered the room and approached the window Kenny was peering out. There he saw the children in question.
          Taryn and Nikki were the next to come along and see what all the fuss was about. “Aw, they’re so precious,” Nikki said.
          “They’re caked in filth,” Tyler said.
          “They’re still adorable,” Nikki insisted.
          “If you say so,” Tyler muttered.
          “Do you think they’re alone?” Taryn asked as Damien Albright entered the room. Eli Burton followed behind him.
          “I doubt it,” Kenny said. “No way would two kids this age survive on their own this long. They must have parents or a guardian. Someone they’re traveling with.”
          The group crowded around the window to watch the children frolic and play without a care in the world.
          They skipped, hopped, played rock, paper, scissors. Their hair was so long it was hard to tell if they were girls or boys from the group’s vantage point.
          “They could be decoys,” Damien said. “Just a distraction to take our attention off of whatever’s coming.”
          “HELP!” Aaron Black’s cry echoed through every corridor of the east wing. “HELP ME!”
          Out came the pistols and Damien went running down the hall. He found Aaron in one of the rooms where the window had been smashed out. Standing over him was a young woman.
          She was naked as the day is long, to steal a clich√©. All that covered her thin body was a white loin cloth, nearly transparent. Blood dribbled down her chin as she chomped on a piece of raw meat. It was then that Damien noticed the chunk of flesh absent from Aaron’s forearm.
          Missy swallowed down the last bite with a single gulp and smiled, her teeth stained red, a piece of meaty flesh still clinging between them.
          She wasn’t a Biter. She was filthy, but she showed no signs of rot or disease. She was just…hungry, Damien supposed.
          “Step back,” Damien ordered her. At that point, the rest of the group had gathered at the threshold of the door. “Stay back, guys. I can handle this one.”
          One window shattered suddenly in the opposite room.
          Another window was smashed to pieces three doors down.
          The kids. They were hurling rocks at all the windows.
          “What is this?” Damien asked. “Who are you people?”
          “I’m Missy,” the young woman spoke. “I see you’ve already been introduced to Brother and Sister. Mommy and Poppy are waiting for you.”
          “Poppy? Who the hell is–” Damien’s words were cut off by the sudden pain brought on from the mace she sprayed into his eyes. Missy had been cradling the can of mace in one hand behind her back.
Damien dropped both pistols and tried rubbing the burning chemicals from his eyes. He thrashed on the floor, his throat swelled up, his eyes turned red. He could barely breathe.
          Kenny came charging in with his semiautomatic pistol, but got an eyeful of mace for his troubles. Soon, Kenny was writhing on the floor beside Damien and struggling to breathe.
          Valentina opened fire from the doorway, but by then it was too late. Missy had slipped out the window and was gone.
          “Where’s Eli?” Nikki asked.
          “Gone,” Tyler shrugged. “I think he took off after he heard Aaron’s screams.”
          “Just great,” Valentina sighed.
          They heard noises emanating throughout the east wing. “The kids,” Nikki said. “They must’ve snuck inside.”
          “Still think they’re adorable?” Tyler asked.
          “No time for jokes,” Valentina said. “Taryn, you and Nikki stay here and watch over them. Tyler, you come with me.”
          They ran through the halls, searching for the children that were surely loose in the building. Instead, they caught up with Mommy. Like Missy, she had donned a white, transparent loin cloth, but she was otherwise naked. Blood had been smeared over her breasts and had dried to a hard red crust.
          “Will you be joining us for dinner?” Mommy asked.
          “I don’t think so,” Valentina said, revolver in hand. Tyler had his submachine gun, but that didn’t matter. He dropped it when he collapsed to his knees, as a sharp white instrument was used to slice through his tendons.
          He turned around to see Brother, a young boy no older than eight or none, grasping what appeared to be a bone in his hand. Only the ends of the bone had been filed down to razor-sharp points, making it capable of hacking, slashing, penetrating.
Sister, an eight year old girl with dirty blond hair, picked up the submachine gun and pressed it to Valentina’s back. “I’d drop the gun if I was you,” Mommy advised Valentina.
She dropped the revolver to the floor and kicked it over to Mommy. She picked up and her children gathered at her sides. Sister was still holding Tyler’s gun and judging by the screams emanating from the nearest corridor, Mommy assumed the girls had just met Poppy.
          And her assumptions were accurate. Missy had returned with reinforcements. The girls tried to defend themselves, but with Kenny and Damien out of commission, Eli gone M.I.A., and Aaron in a state of shock, they had no choice but to surrender their weapons when Poppy crawled through the window with a hand cannon of his own.
          He was a very tall man, dark skinned and hideously disfigured. His face had been split down the middle and stitched back together with a dirty, old shoelace.
          In reality, Eli hadn’t abandoned the group. He just went to warn Carson of the danger that they were up against. But when they returned together, the others were gone and all that remained was a fresh trail of blood from where Tyler had been incapacitated.
          “Where did they…” Carson trailed off when he heard the footsteps. He turned and caught just a brief glimpse of Poppy’s mutilated face, and the steel pipe he was holding.
          He swung the pipe and it clubbed Carson on the side of the head, turning his lights out. Before Eli could even attempt to barter or reason with this man, the pipe struck him over the head, rendering Eli unconscious.
          “Sweet dreams,” Poppy whispered. His smile was pure malevolence. His wide, unblinking eyes told the tale of a man who felt no compassion, no sympathy for others. Carson, Eli, Damien, the others…they weren’t people to Poppy and his family.
          They were livestock.
 

PART TWENTY TWO
KURU

 
         Carson awoke in the basement, his wrists and ankles bound with wire. But he wasn’t alone. The whole group was bound alongside him, sans Tyler Reese and Aaron Black.
          “What happened?” Carson muttered. He was still groggy and his temples were throbbing. A small lump had formed on the side of his head, taking the shape of an egg.
          “We fell right into a trap,” Damien informed him.
          “Where are Tyler and Aaron?” Taryn asked.
          “Yeah, and why did you abandon us?” Kenny asked Eli.
          “I didn’t abandon you,” Eli said. “I ran back to warn Carson about what was going on. But that ugly bastard clubbed us both with a pipe.”
          “It’s true,” Carson told them. “I remember it now.”
          “What are we going to do?” Nikki asked. “That’s the important question. How are we going to escape?”
          “I’ll think of something,” Carson said after some hesitation.
          “Well, for our sake, think of it fast,” Valentina said.
          “Did you see the way they shake?” Damien asked the group. “I’ve seen this before with your old man and his buddies, Valentina. They’re infected.”
          “You mean they’re Biters?” Taryn asked.
          “No, they’re infected with something else,” Damien said.
          “Kuru,” Kenny said. The word rolled off his tongue and exited his mouth as a harsh whisper.
          “You remembered,” Damien said. “Yes, Kuru. It’s a nasty little disease. Comes from eating human flesh. Specifically human brain tissue. See, this is something you’ll never hear in one of those Hannibal Lecter movies. Brain tissue contains prions, little mutated protein cells that, when ingested, can infect a living person with Kuru. One of the main side effects is the constant shaking and involuntary hand tremors.”
          “So what are you saying?” Eli asked. “What’s the point of all this?”
          “People with Kuru don’t last very long. There’s no cure and it’s not something people contract every day. With this disease, you have about a year, tops. What I’m saying is, they have absolutely nothing to lose, and they’re probably aware of that fact.”
* * *
          “Please don’t eat me,” Aaron cried. “I have bad skin. I’m a meth head. I’m poor and ignorant, and I have bad hygiene. And there’s a bag of meth in it for you if you let me go. Eat Tyler instead. He’s healthy. He works out. He’s clean.”
          “For once in your life, would you shut the fuck up?” Tyler asked in rhetorical fashion.
          “You can’t eat me,” Aaron screamed. “I’m riddled with diseases. I have every STD known to man.”
          “And we have the shakes,” Missy explained. “Poppy says it will kill us soon. So we have to eat our fill while we can.”
          “Listen,” Tyler said. “I have money in my pocket. I also have a wicked awesome gun and a shitload of personal supplies. It’s yours if you just let me go and take the others. No harm, no foul.”
          “Money is no good to us,” Poppy said. “And you can’t even walk. Even if your tendons heal, you’ll never walk right again. No, that wouldn’t be right. The sensible thing to do with a wounded animal is to put it down. But why should that animal’s carcass go to waste if the whole tribe can benefit from its sacrifice?”
          “You’re insane!” Tyler screamed.
          “Now you’re getting it,” Poppy said as he brought the sharpened bone down and dragged it across Tyler’s throat, slitting it from ear to ear.
          Poppy had a gun, but guns weren’t his style. The hand cannon was strictly for backup. Poppy preferred the old slice-and-dice routine.
          “Don’t fret,” Poppy told Aaron. “You’re next.”
* * *
          The more Carson and the gang struggled to escape, the more the taut wire dug and cut into their exposed wrists and ankles. It seemed like a futile effort at the moment. Even the most hopeful members of the group like Kenny Sudrow appeared to abandon their faith and sink into a pit of despair.
          “Think of anything yet?” Damien asked Carson. But Carson was in no mood for wise cracks. What he needed right now was team effort.
          “I’m all out of solutions,” Carson said. “But if we work together, we can come up with something.”
          “Like what?” Eli asked.
          “I don’t know,” Carson said. “But there’s got to be some way out of this.”
          “What if I pretend I’m sick?” Nikki asked. “I pretend to faint or pass out and maybe they untie me to check me out. And that’s when I can ambush them.”
          “Ambush them with what?” Kenny asked. “They took our guns, our knives. God knows what they’re doing with Tyler and Aaron. The situation is hopeless.”
          “Carson, did they take your pocket knife?” Valentina asked. “The one you keep in your boot.”
          “No, I think it’s still with me,” Carson said.
          “Well, if you can dig it out of your boot, it might be our only shot at defending ourselves.”
          “I can’t reach it,” Carson told them. “The wire is loosening, though. Maybe I can slip one of my hands out and get to it.”
          Before Carson could do just that, the door swung open and Mommy entered the room in the basement where the group was being held. She had a shoebox she was carrying under one arm, even though the box appeared to be heavy.
          She lay the box in the center of the room, right on the floor, and flicked off the lid with her grimy black fingers that were now drenched in a layer of red. The girls couldn’t help but feel repulsed every time they saw the dried blood smeared across Mommy’s bosom. The sight was no picnic for the men, either.
          “I thought I’d keep you folks entertained,” Mommy said, sorting through her box of trinkets. “You are our guests of honor, after all.” The box was filled to the top with earrings, bracelets, wristwatches, IDs, passports, Polaroid pictures that Mommy took out and flipped through.
          “I took these myself,” she told the group.
          “You don’t say,” Damien muttered with a cool, dry wit.
          “This was the first family we killed out in Waco, Texas,” Mommy said, flashing the photos for the group to see. Nikki winced at the pictures, which captured every gory detail of the crimes that had been perpetrated. “And this was a young couple we bagged out in Deerfield. Deerfield, Plano, not San Antonio.”
          “Thanks for clarifying,” Damien said. It might’ve seemed sarcastic, but what he was actually doing was distracting Mommy and taking the attention off Carson, who almost had one of his wrists free.
          “And these unlucky buggers were a group we ran into out in Lake Mead. That was in Nevada. Good times.”
          “So what are these, like souvenirs to you people?” Taryn asked.
          “Anything can be a souvenir if you make it one,” Mommy said. “But I prefer the term mementos.”
          “Add this to your collection of mementos,” Carson said, and Mommy spun around to find that Carson had freed himself and was on his feet, pocket knife in hand. He plunged the three inch blade into her eye as deep as it could go.
          Then he yanked the blade free, and a jet of blood came spurting from the socket. Mommy collapsed to the floor, with no pulse that Carson could find. He cleaned the blade, smearing the blood onto his already dirtied jeans, then set about freeing the other members of the group, starting with Damien Albright.
          “Take the knife and guard the door,” Carson told him. “I’ll free the others.”
          As Carson did just that, Damien accepted the knife and moved over to the door, peeking out into the darkness. In the distance, sitting at the bottom of the stairs were Brother and Sister.
          They were eating something with their fingers. Something that looked bland and grey. Some type of food that Damien could not identify.
          And then it hit him like a kick in the teeth and he realized just what these sick kids were chowing down on…raw brains.
          “We might have a problem,” Damien whispered, just loud enough for Brother to overhear. He set his bowl of food down and picked up his weapon of choice. As he grasped the sharpened bone used to slice Tyler Reese’s tendons and eventually to slit his throat, he inched towards the door and Damien backed away just as Carson had freed the last of the group.
          Brother entered the room, saw Mommy lying dead on the floor, and uttered some loud, guttural sound that was anything but human. It sounded like a caveman’s first attempt at speech. He locked his eyes in on Damien.
          This is what it came down to: Damien with the knife, and Brother with his long, stringy blond hair and that sharpened bone in one hand.
          “What are you waiting for?” Eli shouted. “Kill the little bastard! It’s them or us! You know that!”
          “I know…”Damien started and then trailed off. “I just…I just can’t kill a kid.”
          “You’re weak,” Brother laughed. “Poppy says the weak don’t deserve to live.”
          “Is that what your Poppy teaches you, kid?” Damien said, shaking his head in disapproval.
          “Poppy teaches me to be strong. I’ll show you just how strong I am.”
          The boy came charging at Damien, razor-sharp bone in hand. He lunged at him, but Damien sidestepped the child and managed to avoid his attack.
          “Come on!” Eli cried. “Do it, Damien! Kill him! You’ve got no choice! He’ll kill you if you don’t kill him!”
          The boy spun around and looked to continue his assault, until Damien stuck the knife between two of his ribs, causing Brother to scream out and alert Sister, who ran off to warn the others.
          Damien wriggled the knife free and lowered Brother gently down to the floor, showing remorse for his actions. The boy attempted to apply pressure to the wound and slow the bleeding, but he was too weak to find the ability to do so.
          “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Brother asked. Damien refused to answer. He just wiped the blood from the knife and handed it back to Carson.
          “Let’s go find our weapons,” Damien said.
* * *
          Their guns were on the first floor, in the same room where the group found the dismembered bodies of Tyler Reese and Aaron Black. Black’s head had been sawed open at the top, the brains scooped clean out.
          What flesh remained on the torsos was turning blue and discolored from lack of oxygen and blood flow. The sight of it and the smell of the blood made half of the group retch as they entered.
          Absent from the pile of weapons were Tyler’s submachine gun and Kenny’s semi-automatic pistol. Carson grabbed his Remington shotgun and Damien grabbed hold of his .38 pistols. The rest of the group snatched up their respective guns, except for Kenny, who Carson instructed to stand in back of everyone and stay clear of any gunfire.
          They waited for a noise, any noise that would give away Poppy’s location. But the east wing remained as quiet as a mouse.
          “Maybe they’re lurking around in the west wing,” Carson said.
          They never even heard the footsteps. All Carson heard was the sound of the hammer cocking back on Kenny’s gun and then the bullets came flying. The group scattered and took cover in separate rooms. Damien grabbed Carson and dragged him into one of the empty rooms, saving him from a barrage of bullets.
          “How many times is that you’ve saved my life now?” Carson asked as the bullets from the submachine gun and Kenny’s semi-automatic continued to zoom down the hallway. They didn’t know if it was Poppy, Missy, Sister, or a combination of all three doing the shooting.
“Thank me later,” Damien told Carson.
          The girls recalled that Poppy had a gun of his own and it wasn’t among the inventory of weapons. Carson and Damien moved to the doorframe and fired several shots outside.
          But they didn’t hear any screams, meaning they had missed their intended targets.
          “They don’t seem to be conserving their ammunition,” Damien pointed out. “Maybe they’ll run out soon.”
          Bullets continued to fly fast and furious up and down the halls of the east wing. The girls tried getting a few shots in, but they missed every time. And it wasn’t worth the risk of sticking their hands past the doorframe and losing a finger, or fingers for that matter.
          “How many rounds does that submachine gun hold?” Carson asked.
          “Too many,” Damien told him.
          While Carson and Damien were trying to formulate a plan, Kenny was in the adjacent room, cowering behind Eli, who still had his .27 Beretta.
          “Even if I die,” Kenny said, “I’m not going to give these freaks the satisfaction of eating me. I’m gonna go out in style. I have a plan…”
          The girls were in the opposite room and Kenny mouthed his plan to them, gesturing with his hands as he explained along, and they seemed to get the gist of it.
          Valentina and Taryn each had their revolvers, loaded with six rounds apiece. And Nikki had the Smith & Wesson that Carson had once claimed.
          “All right, you ugly motherfuckers!” Kenny shouted. “I’m coming out! I give up, ok?! I surrender! Go ahead and eat me, you sorry pricks!”
          “Kenny, you don’t know what you’re saying!” Carson shouted from the adjacent room. “Just knock it off.”
          “Relax, Carson,” he said back. “I’ve got this one. All right, here I come! Get ready for me!”
          Kenny stepped past the threshold of the door and raised both hands to the air and started walking down in the hall, right in the direction of Poppy and his deranged offspring.
          “Now!” Kenny screamed as he dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes, just out of the line of fire. Taryn, Nikki, Valentina, and Eli sprang from their rooms and opened fire. They unloaded their guns in the direction of Poppy and his children, and put an end to this nightmare.
          The group gathered in the hall, Carson being the first to approach. Missy was long gone. Blood stained her transparent loin cloth and lying beside her was the still, motionless body of her Sister.
          Poppy was still clutching the submachine gun. Carson had to pry it from his cold, dead hands.
          He checked it. Empty.
          “Damn,” he muttered, tossing the gun aside. It was of no use to them now. Tyler was dead and there were no more bullets left.
          “Bunch of freaks,” Damien said, kicking Poppy’s ribs.
          “He’s dead,” Carson told Damien.
          “Still feels good to me,” Damien said.
          “Guys, let’s gather our supplies and ammunition, see how much we have left.”
* * *
          They moved to the second floor, where the group all felt a lot safer. They had Poppy’s hand cannon, loaded with five bullets.
          Carson had eight shells left for his Remington shotgun.
          The Smith & Wesson he gave to Nikki Fox still had thirty rounds left.
          Kenny had one more round of bullets for his semi-automatic, giving him fifteen in total.
          Eli was down to his clip for the .27 Beretta. He still had ten bullets to defend himself against a potential horde of the perilous undead.
          Damien had two rounds apiece left for his .38 pistols.
          Valentina and Taryn were down to their last six shots.
          They also had Vern’s .357 Magnum, with six shots left.
          They had found their knives and machetes, but those wouldn’t help if they encountered an entire horde. And they still had Vern Sheldon’s flamethrower, but that was for emergency purposes only and was too heavy to lug around on a regular basis.
          “If you have to use them, make it count,” Carson said in regards to the firearms. “Tomorrow, we move on from here.”
          Damien was silent for the rest of the evening. Not even the advances of Taryn Mills could comfort him. He kept to himself, and didn’t eat a thing. Though it can’t be said that the others were very hungry. Not after what they had witnessed. Not after what had transpired.
          “You want to talk?” Carson asked Damien late that night, after some of the others had turned in for bed.
          “I just keep thinking about that kid,” Damien said. “About stabbing him. I keep playing the incident over and over in my head. I can’t shake it.”
          “You did the right thing,” Carson said. “That kid was a vicious psychopath. He would’ve killed us all if he had the chance. Eli was right about that. No matter what you feel, you did the right thing. Remember that.”
          “I know,” Damien said. “And I know I come off as if I don’t care, but the truth is that this group is the only family I’ve ever had. I would kill for these people. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure we survive.”
          “So will I,” Carson assured him, leaving him alone to his thoughts.
* * *
          “That was a brave thing you did today,” Nikki told Kenny.
          “Thanks,” Kenny said, blushing. Kenny had been sober for days, maybe weeks. He couldn’t quite remember. The liquor had hit him pretty hard this evening because his tolerance was so low.
          But he was still quaffing down the booze when Nikki approached him. That night, it was vodka he was drinking in memory of his friend, Tyler Reese.
          “No, I’m serious,” she assured him. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that. I was too scared to even think of anything.”
          “At that point, I didn’t really care about life or death. I just said fuck it. Now if you’ll excuse me. I lost a good friend today and I’d like to be alone with my vodka.”

To Be Continued With Part Twenty Three: LITTLE ROCK

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