Genre: Horror (Zombies)
Thursday, February 5, 2015
IN THE FLESH: PART THIRTY FIVE
Carson Ryder: Ex-police officer/Ex-marine/Lost his wife Caroline, and daughter Charlotte/The unofficial leader of the group/Dying for a cigarette/Has mixed feelings about Nikki Fox
Corey Smith: Doomsday prepper/He was expecting and preparing for the zombie apocalypse for years/Lives in a fortified compound with a tremendous arsenal of weapons
Taryn Mills: Survivor found outside the Starlight Hotel/Lost her boyfriend and her family to the Biters/Former exotic dancer/Not afraid to use a gun
Nikki Fox: Former registered nurse/Lost contact with her family during the first initial weeks of the outbreak/Was married once but hid that fact from the group/She is secretly in love with Carson Ryder
Reggie White: Born and raised in Arkansas/Has never left the state before/He has a criminal record, but he’s not a violent man and tends to avoid confrontation if he can
Scotty Loomis: Originally from Utah/Friends with Reggie/A perpetual fountain of random facts and useless information
Luke Chen: Runner/Competed in the Olympics/Knows how to use a gun but he prefers a katana
IN THE FLESH
By Daniel Skye
PART THIRTY FIVE
Carson Ryder and Damien Albright had moved on from the hospital and spent most of the night holed up in an abandoned Chinese restaurant.
“You want me to go in the kitchen and cook us up some spare ribs?” Damien had asked.
“Not hungry,” Ryder said.
“Might as well eat while we can. Who knows how long this craziness is going to last? Who knows how long the food will last.”
“Not hungry,” Ryder repeated, trying to tune out the screams that emanated from outside. Screams of average citizens being maimed and mutilated, torn to shreds by the Biters.
“What about a fortune cookie?” Damien asked. “Who doesn’t love a good fortune cookie?”
“I don’t need my fortune told by a cookie,” Ryder said. “I can look right out that window and see things aren’t getting any better.”
The windows shattered and the bodies came piling in. The first Biter was missing its right eye and had a gaping wound in its neck. The second Biter had the flesh ripped from its back, spinal cord fully on display. The thirds face was maimed beyond recognition. Ryder couldn’t even distinguish if it was a man or a woman.
Damien pulled his dual .38 pistols from their holsters and said, “You’re right about one thing. It’s not going to get better. It’s only going to get worse…”
* * *
Day Three Hundred and Fifteen.
An unarmed Carson Ryder marched through the surrounding woods, being led by Eli Carver at gunpoint. The war was virtually over. Mr. Jones had failed. Their savage, brainwashed followers who waged war on the compound had failed. Now all it came down to was Carson and Eli.
“Stop!” Eli shouted and Ryder froze in his tracks. “You said you were unarmed.”
“I am,” Ryder said. “I don’t have a gun or my machete.”
“The whole time I was with the group, you carried a knife in your boot for backup. Toss it.”
Ryder dropped to one knee, dug the knife out from his boot, and tossed it into the dry brush. Then they proceeded. Eli had the Colt .45 in one hand, and a shovel in the other. He didn’t trust Ryder with the shovel until they reached the site. He knew someone with Ryder’s instincts would inevitably try to use it as a weapon against him.
Twigs and fallen leaves crunched underfoot as they walked on, eventually reaching a fork in the trail. “Which way?” Eli asked.
“Left,” Ryder said, and they went left.
The site was a small field located a quarter mile from the compound. Ryder had carved an X into a dense oak tree to mark the spot. Eli tossed the shovel to the ground and said, “Start digging. And make it snappy. I don’t want to be out here all night. The sun’s about to set.”
Ryder picked up the shovel, started digging beside the tree. “It’s too bad your friend Corey had to blow my cover. I had a good thing going with your little group. It’s such a shame he had to spoil it.”
“You would’ve blown your cover eventually,” Ryder said. “One way or another. If Chase Crawford had you figured out, we would’ve caught on sooner or later.”
“I didn’t ask for your input. Just keep digging.”
Across the field, a stray Biter was ambling behind a row of Douglas fir trees. Ryder saw it out of the corner of his eye, but Eli didn’t seem to notice. He had his Colt .45 aimed steady at Ryder as he dug and he never took his eyes off him.
“I wish my sister, Ally, was here to see this,” Eli said. “To see your demise. She hated you as much as I did. But she was a pro at masking her contempt. Me, not so much. But I had you fooled for a while, didn’t I? And just to be perfectly clear, it won’t end with you. I’m going to burn that compound to the ground. I’m going to tear Reggie White and Scotty Loomis limb from bloody limb. But that’s nothing compared to what I plan to do to Nikki Fox.”
The Biter had wandered past the trees now and was staggering through the field, its snarls drowned out by Eli’s rant.
“Is that all?” Ryder asked, trying to keep him talking. He could still see the Biter–its flesh rotting from the bone–approaching out the corner of his eye.
“Oh, you want to hear what I have in store for her?” Eli asked, cackling. “Your dear, sweet Nikki? I have a whole evening of agonizing torture scheduled for her.”
Eli lifted the gun and fired, blowing the impending Biter’s head off from the neck without ever taking his eyes off of Ryder.
Ryder sighed and tossed the shovel aside once it scraped the top of the box. He pulled the box from the hole and presented it to Eli. It was a square metal tool box with an electronic lock. It required a four-digit code to unlock.
“What’s the code?” Eli barked, demanding to know.
“1-3-1-3,” Ryder said, taking a few light steps back. “You should know the date. It’s the day you and your accomplices unleashed this hell upon the world.”
“Clever,” Eli said, setting the Colt .45 aside and punching in the numbers. As the lid sprung open, Ryder sprinted from the site.
The blast from the IED tossed Ryder into the bushes, leaving him battered and bruised, but otherwise okay.
The same could not be said for Eli Carver, who was incinerated from the heat of the blast. The improvised explosive device was something Corey and Ryder rigged up on the fly. Ryder knew that if all else failed, he could lead Eli to the site and trick him into setting off the bomb.
The vials were still safe and sound, buried about five hundred five from where Eli was standing. Ryder had marked that spot with a C, not an X.
With Eli gone, he went back and retrieved the vials, digging them up with his bare hands, having lost all but the head of the shovel in the explosion. He hadn’t buried them deep. And with Eli out of the picture, there was no need to hide them. Not anymore.
Ryder returned to the compound in one piece and the group breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Eli?” Corey asked.
“He’s gone,” Ryder assured the group.
“Good riddance,” Nikki Fox said. Then added, “Thanks for saving my life.”
“Don’t mention it,” Ryder told her.
“So, what now?” Reggie White shrugged. “What comes next?”
“We get to work,” Corey said.
“That’s right,” Ryder said. “There’s a lot of rebuilding to do. And we’ll have to repair that gate pronto.”
“You heard the man,” Taryn Mills said. “Let’s get to work.”
* * *
The gate was a little dinged up, but imperfections aside, it would hold so long as they kept it chained shut for the time being.
The next morning, Corey, Scotty, Reggie, and Luke dug a massive trench just past the hills and Ryder helped them drag out the bodies.
It was on Jones’s headless corpse that he found the pack of Marlboros, and Ryder almost shed a tear of joy. “Thank you, Mr. Jones,” Ryder nodded, accepting the pack and lighting one cigarette with a matchbook from Jones’s pockets.
He took a big drag, exhaled, then took another. He stood there for a moment, staring past the trees, savoring his victory smoke.
It wasn’t long before Corey asked, “Can I bum one of those?” And Ryder couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “I guess I owe it to you.”
“You owe me more than a cigarette,” Corey laughed. “But it’s a start.”
Once the compound was virtually clear, Ryder and the men dug two separate graves beyond the trench. The final resting places of their comrades, Amy Greene and Dominic DeVito.
The group lowered their bodies gently into the ground and everyone took turns pouring one shovel of dirt into each grave.
Luke Chen was the first to speak. “What can I say about Dominic? He was a great guy. He wasn’t the smartest man.”
“No kidding,” Corey chuckled, remembering the better times with Dominic.
“But he always made us laugh and put a smile on our faces. And I’ll never forget him for it. And Amy–such a sweetheart. She’d do anything to help a friend in need. Both of them would have. And I know Dominic was afraid of guns but he seemed to take a shine to my katana. So, I want him to have it.” Luke undid the strap from his waist and detached the scabbard from his side, tossing the katana into the grave inside its scabbard.
“Are you sure about this?” Corey asked.
“I’m sure,” Luke nodded. “You’re right. It’s time for me to get more acquainted with guns. If yesterday taught me anything, it’s that our survival depends on it. I have no use for the katana anymore. It belongs with Dom.”
“That’s a remarkable gesture,” Nikki Fox commended him.
Corey Smith stepped forward next to say a few words. “I think Amy and I knew Dominic longer than anyone else. And I knew long before the rest of you came around. Yesterday, I lost two of my best friends. And I love them. And I’ll miss them. And I hope they both rest in peace. That’s all I have to say.”
Corey stepped aside and let Nikki Fox say a few words about her friendship with Amy and then Scotty and Reggie both spoke briefly.
Ryder went last. But he couldn’t find the words. He had buried so many friends, so many people he practically considered family. He’d given so many speeches over people’s graves that on this occasion, he was speechless. So he bid them both a fond farewell and said, “Rest easy.”
The rest of the group headed back to the compound and Ryder stayed behind with his Remington and the shovel to finish filling the graves.
That day, he wasn’t just mourning Amy Greene and Dominic DeVito. He was lamenting the deaths of Arnold Vesti, Trevor Virden, Devin Morris, Janice Whitfield, Chase Crawford, Vern Sheldon, Kenny Sudrow. All good men and women that had died tragic or senseless deaths.
Never again, Ryder vowed. Never again.
* * *
That day, Corey Smith pulled Taryn Mills aside to have a little chat with her. “I could’ve sworn when I was sent flying from that explosion, I heard you scream my name.”
“Yeah, so?” Taryn asked. “Maybe I did. So what?”
“It sounded so sincere. I didn’t know you cared so much.”
“I don’t,” Taryn said, but the twinkle in her eyes said different.
“You wouldn’t happen to be lying, would you?”
“Ok, maybe I was a little concerned about you.”
“Don’t push it, mister.”
“Will you be staying with us?”
“Of course,” Taryn said. “Where else would I go? Besides, I have everything I need here. What will do you do about the Quonset hut?”
“Rebuild if I can. Unfortunately I can’t replace the weapons we lost. But we still have guns and ammunition left over, so that’s a start. And there are plenty of other weapons out there. We’ll find them eventually.”
“At least the manor didn’t really sustain any damage. Is the master bedroom still intact?”
“It’s still there,” Corey said.
“You want to give me the grand tour?” Tarn asked and winked.
* * *
That night, Reggie White had a little surprise for the group. A sealed bottle of Wild Turkey he found in a bag abandoned by one of Jones and Eli’s followers. He uncapped the bottle and took the first swig.
“Damn good stuff,” he told them and passed the bottle to Scotty.
“Did you know Wild Turkey was also the name of a country song in 1982?” Scotty asked no one in particular. “Obviously the liquor came first, but the song was named after it. ZZ Top also has a song where they mention Wild Turkey.”
“Scotty,” Reggie said.
“Yeah?” Scotty asked.
“Give it a rest,” Reggie told him and they both laughed.
The group sat under the stars that night and drink more than half the bottle, traded stories about Amy and Dominic, shared stories from their past. They talked about family, friends, life, and the future, which rested firmly in their hands with the vials they had discovered.
It wasn’t enough to cure the world. But it was a start. They had a chance to make a difference, to give people a second chance. And that was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Before bed, Nikki approached Carson and asked if she could have a word in private. Standing on the side of the first outhouse, Nikki said what she’d been waiting to say for months. She told him how she really felt.
“I love you,” she said.
“Don’t say anything,” Nikki cut him off. “Not yet. I’ve loved you since the day we met. Since the day you guys took me in saved my life. I know I’m not your wife. I know I’m not Caroline. But I couldn’t go another second without you knowing how I really felt about you. I love you, Carson Ryder. And I always will.”
“Can I speak now?” Ryder asked.
“Yes, go right ahead,” Nikki said.
“I love you too,” he said, and their lips met and they embraced for the first time.
Day Three Hundred and Sixty-Five.
Saturday, September 13th, 2014.
It had been a year since the initial outbreak. A year since the SCT-3 pathogen was unleashed upon the world and changed life for the worst.
And yet, the group had managed to persevere. They couldn’t repair or rebuild the Quonset hut, but they had enough supplies to build a shed for storage. They didn’t have a lot to store at first until they raided an armory across state lines.
Reggie tagged along on their little expedition. It was the first time he’d ever left the state of Arkansas. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, but Reggie was happy to say he’d finally left home. And they returned with enough guns and ammunition to raid Fort Knox.
The vials also came in handy. They had gone out and snagged a group of Biters, the freshest ones they could find. Biters that showed little to no signs of advanced rot or deterioration.
The cure was administered via syringes found in Drake Sharpe’s kit of drugs he’d left behind. The effects were miraculous and almost instantaneous.
Their skin regained its pigment. Their pupils returned to normal. Hair and skin cells multiplied. Warm blood flowed through their veins. Their wounds healed with no scarring.
They were Biters no more. They were human again.
There was a young man they had cured, a teenager that remind Ryder a little bit of Kenny Sudrow. He’d taken an interest in guns and Ryder was teaching him to shoot.
All the recipients of the cure became invaluable members of the group. They helped fortify the compound, reinforce the fences, repair the gates. And they had begun construction on a fourth outhouse, as they were taking in more survivors every day.
On that day, Corey Smith and Taryn Mills were married. Unofficially of course, but it was good enough for the both of them. Luke performed the ceremony. Nikki Fox and the rest of the girls they had taken in played the role of Taryn’s bridesmaids, and Corey had asked Ryder to be his best man.
They exchanged rings that had belonged to his parents and Luke said, “You may kiss the bride.”
They shared a passionate kiss and Taryn broke the news to everyone. “I’m pregnant!”
The group celebrated. The men whistled and clapped and the women cheered and applauded, congratulating Taryn. “Way to go, Corey!” Scotty yelled out. “You the man!”
“Don’t get any ideas from this,” Ryder whispered to Nikki. She smiled and took his hand and he smiled back.
There’s more than one word for hope. Pray. Wish. Desire. Optimism.
And for the first time in a long time, that’s exactly how the group was feeling. Optimistic.
They had food. Shelter. Security. Everything they needed. And with a baby on the way, they had another reason to endure. This new life had given old life the hope it needed to survive.
In the end, Corey and Taryn lived happily–minus the zombies–ever after. She named the baby Stephen, after her father. He had Corey’s eyes and Taryn’s warming smile. Carson and Nikki tied the knot eventually. And life rolled on.