FREE Fiction Friday by Rex Crossley (Pt 1)
We’ll be featuring a series by Rex Crossley in the coming weeks, so be sure to pop back here to read subsequent installments. This series is soon to be a novel-length feature–but you won’t have to wait.
Where Were You When the World Changed?
Part One: Welcome to the World, Paul
by Rex Crossley
Paul Layton stared up at the steel belted door that led either to his salvation or damnation. Three hundred and twelve days he had lived behind its promise of safety. During this time he had observed the strict daily routine he prepared before that awful day when the dead rose against the living. He had always known that this day would come; the day when he needed to open the door and face whatever lay beyond.
He still had food and water. He still had fuel for his generator. He still had plenty of lye and room for waste in his latrine. The problem was that his supplies were getting low. If he waited too long, hunger or desperation would make him stupid. He would take unnecessary risks or misread information that was vital to his survival and he had been too careful for too long to be reckless now. The outside world was a great big unknown and he wanted to face it on his terms.
So. The door.
It hadn’t changed at all since the day that he turned the wheel, locking the two heavy steel bars into place and sealing him away from the mayhem and death. It sat at the top of a flight of eight metal steps, and was angled upward like the door to a storm cellar, which, in a way, it was. For a whole different kind of storm.
He climbed the bottom three steps confidently, reaching up and resting his hand on the big metal wheel only for a second before seizing it and giving it a solid counterclockwise turn. The steel bars disengaged with a clunk.
He had feared that he would hesitate at this point but it was 9 a.m. and he was overwhelmed with a sudden urge to see the sun. The rail beside the stairs had a hooked iron pole snapped onto it that he used for pushing the doors open and pulling them shut. He employed it with practiced ease. As the door opened, dirt and bright sunlight spilled into the stairwell, accompanied by the sound of pebbles tinkling on the metal underfoot and overgrown weeds ripping free above him.
The bunker took a deep breath as the oxygen level stabilized and so did Paul. He had forgotten how earthy the air smelled when it wasn’t recycled artificially. For some reason he had expected it to smell foul outside but he was happy to be disappointed on that account. Other than leaves rustling in the breeze, all was quiet topside so he cautiously stepped up another stair to peek out.
The entrance to the bunker was disguised to look like a large moss-covered rock that sat beside his grill and tool shed. The covered grill lay on its side and the door to the shed was open and leaning, off of the top hinge. Beyond the shed, all he could make out was crazy-tall grass, weeds and the rear wall of his privacy fence.
As he climbed out into his back yard, he turned to look at his house finding only a blackened shell remaining where it had been. Apparently there had been a fire at some point. He had been looking forward to seeing his home again, expecting some amount of degradation and misuse but not this. More than a little disappointed, he replaced the iron pole, drew one of the three pistols he was wearing and climbed out of his refuge.
As he walked beside his house and through the char-wood stumps that remained of the back yard gate, he saw that most of the other houses on his block had also burned to the ground. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to which ones were hit or missed and the ones left standing looked dirty, weathered, abandoned. In a word, they looked dead.
His one tree still stood in the front yard and he leaned up against it, drinking in its familiarity, as he took in the condition of the street. There were a half dozen cars abandoned here and there, trash strewn about artfully by the wind and corpses. A lot of corpses. He could see easily twenty to thirty of them, they were literally everywhere. None of them were moving and few of them bore obvious signs displaying the manner of their de-animation. They were all decayed well beyond potential identification and in many cases the flesh literally hung off of their bones.
Had he made it? Had he outlasted the walking dead? It was possible that they had “starved” themselves out; lack of a human food supply and the ongoing process of decomposition could have done it. He could always hope, but he had to learn more.
Paul walked past his mailbox and crossed the street to the nearest automobile. It was a little once-yellow hybrid with its doors left wide open. There was a lot of trash on the ground around it and a pile of dirty blankets in the back seat. Someone had spent some time inside but was gone now.
He looked up from the car and caught something moving in the corner of his vision. He couldn’t put a finger on what it had been, but something had definitely moved over by his house, in the tall grass, low to the ground. He took a step in that direction and something hit him in the small of his back.
He turned, startled, but everything looked the same as it had before.
Whatever had hit him was small, most likely a rock and a rock would have had to have been thrown. But by whom?
There was movement again in the opposite direction and he was quick enough to catch it this time. One of the corpses a few houses away rolled across the ground. It only rolled a couple of feet, trying to avoid detection, but his senses were in overdrive after being spooked.
He walked briskly toward the small corpse, ignoring rocks that hit him twice more from behind in an effort to distract him. The “corpse” turned out to be a child, a cleverly disguised living one. Dead, unseeing eyes were skillfully painted on the child’s closed eyelids and its skin was an unhealthy shade of grey, mirroring the pallor of the dead bodies around them. Tattered layers of clothing cleverly hid the child’s gender, true size and lack of decay.
He nudged the youth with the toe of his boot.
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
There was no response. Paul looked around in time to see another “corpse” behind him let a rock fly and drop back to the ground.
“How many of you are there?”
He looked back down at his feet only to find that the little cuss he’d discovered was gone; redistributed somewhere among the dead. While he was looking at the spot where the child had been, a shadow crept across the ground as though a cloud were passing in front of the sun.
He looked up to see a huge black mass traveling silently across the sky. Birds, crows probably. Scavengers. The dark cloud was coming his way.
Almost as if on cue, three of the corpses on the ground and two that had been hiding in the tall grass jumped up and took off, scattering away from the street in various directions. They were all short, all children, probably not one of them older than eight or nine. All were dressed to resemble the dead bodies Paul was left alone with.
Not sure what to make of the oncoming flock of birds, Paul decided to delay his recon a day or two and jogged back toward his bunker. As he reached the back gate, he saw that the door he had left open was now closed. He sprinted frantically forward and got his hand on the edge of it just as he heard the familiar clunk of the bars engaging to seal it off, making it impossible to open from his side. He could feel that clunk in his gut and his heart sank. He hammered on the rock face uselessly with the butt of his revolver and yelled at it in frustration.
The flapping of hundreds of wings became discernable behind him and he turned to face the otherwise silent menace.
They were crows, alright. Big fat ones with red, leaking diseased eyes. Their black beaks were opening and closing but still they made no noise. He raised his battered pistol and unloaded a full clip of bullets into the swarm. Birds, blood and feathers fell all around him. They numbered in the thousands, flapping, biting and whirling all around him. The bites were weak, though, and he was hurt more by the occasional incidental claw scratch than anything else.
After a few minutes, they figured out that his wasn’t the type of prey they could easily dine on and , as one, they flew up and over the privacy fence and into the trees beyond. Shaken but mostly unharmed, Paul stood there watching their retreat.
The scratches on his face, neck and forearms stung a bit and he hoped that they hadn’t transferred anything to him from the corpses they usually dined on. He vividly pictured the well stocked first aid station only a few feet from where he was standing and gave the unyielding entrance to the bunker another savage pounding.
He turned his situation over in his mind for an answer until, finally, he decided that rather than standing there, he should track down some rug-rats for answers. This wasn’t the end, it was a beginning. He just had to treat it that way.
“Welcome to the world, Paul.”
More to come from author Rex Crossley!