FREE Fiction Friday by: Rex Crossley (Pt 3)
Been following our serial presentation of Rex Crossley’s fiction? We hope so. But if you missed it, Part One can be found here, and Part Two, here. And now, we join Paul, Allen, and…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Enjoy!
Previously: Leaving his bunker for the first time one year after the zombie outbreak, Paul Layton discovered that the world had changed while he was away. Finding himself unexpectedly locked out of his shelter, Paul was forced to rejoin the world and sought out Warren, the only man with a good chance of being alive who might be able to help him re-enter his sanctuary. Arriving at Warren’s bunker, he discovered it wide open and empty.
Where Were You When the World Changed?
Part Three: You Could Have Gotten Us Killed Alan!
by: Rex Crossley
He had no idea how long he’d slept but every muscle in his body protested the cold, hard concrete floor he lay on. Paul felt around to get his bearings, his mind reeling in the pitch darkness. He couldn’t think…he was dizzy and nauseous. The darkness spun impossibly around him as he moved, forcing him to moan weakly.
He was going to throw up.
He found a corner and faced it; the last thing he wanted to do now was break his neck slipping on his own sick. His stomach convulsed and he started retching just as he placed one hand on each wall.
Not being able to see it happen didn’t make things any better. Despite his stomach being empty, a sickening patter followed each rough heave and his nose was instantly assaulted by the unmistakable pungent stench of vomit. He had never smelled anything so foul in his life.
He continued to heave, his back arching with the force of his convulsions, long after he had emptied what little fare his stomach clung to, cursing himself the whole time for not eating the day before. If he hadn’t been so stubborn with his meager rations, he might not have found himself in this situation.
He sat on his knees, shuddering, spitting the last strings of bile off of his lips and resting the sweaty side of his head on one of his outstretched arms. He felt cold and used up now that it was over, taking in deep breaths of the foul air to settle himself.
A retching noise came from somewhere else in the dark chamber, startling him, followed by the unmistakable sound of a full belly being emptied, its contents streaming forcefully onto the concrete.
Despite having checked every inch of the bunker before sealing himself up for the night, someone else was in there with him!
The darkness threatened to spin out of control again as Paul stood and pulled his knife free from his boot. His feet slid dangerously as he backed into the corner for safety and waited for his unseen companion to finish his business. When he did, Paul asked the only question he could think to.
“Who the Hell’s asking?” The voice was gruff, that of a life-long smoker. Definitely not Warren.
“My name’s Paul. I’m an acquaintance of Warren, the guy that built this bunker, and I’m looking for him to ask for his help.”
“You sick? You bit?”
“No, I…no. I didn’t eat yesterday and got lightheaded when I sat up. Who are you?”
“I’m the guy asking the questions, asshole. You sure you ain’t bit?”
“I haven’t even seen a zombie since I left my own bunker.”
“No, it’s the truth. I saw lots of corpses, but none of them were moving. Look, do you know Warren or not?”
“What kind of help you lookin’ for? Help ain’t exactly easy to come by nowadays.”
“Right. Look, if he isn’t around, I’ll move on. I’m not here to impose.”
“Hey. Listen, maybe I do know Warren, but I sure as Hell don’t know you. How did you know him, you know…before?”
Progress! Paul relaxed a little. “I worked at a hardware store where he bought most of the materials to build this place. He helped me design and build my own shelter as well.”
Paul waited patiently although he had no idea what he was waiting for. His interrogator didn’t make a sound. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Cover your eyes.”
Before Paul could comply, the chamber was flooded with light, intensifying his headache and blinding him. As his eyes tried to adjust, he heard multiple boots on the concrete floor and, finally, a familiar voice.
“Hey Paul. Long time.”
Paul realized he had his knife hand extended in a feeble attempt to ward off the light and dipped the blade apologetically before returning it to his boot.
“Warren. How? I mean…what’s going on here?”
“This bunker is only a front. People look in, see nothing to loot and move on. The real bunker is under this one.”
Paul shook his head. “We talked so much about this project in the store. I can’t believe you never told me before.”
“I didn’t know you very well, did I? By the time I got comfortable around you, the shit hit the fan for real.”
“That takes the cake for sure.” Paul’s sight adjusted well enough to see three blurry figures silhouetted in front of him. “Who’s with you?”
“Oh. My brothers. Lee’s the one you’ve been talking to who’s going to clean up this mess and Alan.”
“What? Why do I have to clean up? It’s his fault.” Paul could hear him gesturing in his direction in the way he spoke even though he couldn’t yet see him.
“Over half of it’s yours and he’s our guest. Just get the squeegee. Alan, let’s take our friend here up into fresher air to talk.”
Warren led the way up the short flight of metal stairs and Alan trailed behind Paul as Lee disappeared, grumbling, through the lighted doorway. The hatch’s locking mechanism disengaged and Warren swung it open, letting in the sweetest air Paul had ever tasted in his life. After breathing the disgusting stench below, he couldn’t get enough of it.
Once they were all outside, Warren pulled two weathered lawn chairs from his shed and handed one of them to Paul. He looked at the dark clouds overhead and nodded to Alan. “Hey. Go swipe out the buckets. Looks like it might actually rain soon.”
Paul’s vision adjusted enough for him to see Alan sling his rifle over his shoulder and walk to a series of iron rungs set into the back wall of Warren’s house. He watched him climb toward a series of a dozen multi-colored buckets hanging in a line on the roof, then he popped his chair open and sat beside Warren.
He rubbed his eyes one last time and began. “I appreciate you coming out to talk with me, I thought you were long gone.”
“Well, I’m glad you did. I have a problem…”
“The reason I came to you is because you may be the only person who can help.”
Warren crossed his arms and settled back in his chair. “”How’s that?”
“Well, you see…I got locked out of my bunker.” Warren shook his head slowly as he listened. “I decided to come out for a little recon and someone else got in behind me and locked the door. I couldn’t think of what to do until I remembered all of our talks. I figure that if there’s a way to get back in, you’d be the guy that knows it.”
Warren reached up and scratched his long salt and pepper beard as he contemplated Paul’s plight. His gaze drifted to where Alan stood clearing leaves and twigs out of the bucket line.
“You still have a working well?”
Paul nodded. “It was working fine when I left.”
“Maybe we can help each other out, then.” He watched Alan make his way back down the ladder and take up a position by the open access hatch, his rifle once again at the ready. “My well stopped producing a few months back. I don’t have the equipment I would need to excavate and divine the problem at the moment, so it would be worth my while to fetch as much water as we can haul from your place.”
“Then you can open my door…”
Warren leaned forward, hands on his knees, eyebrows raised. “Of course I can.”
Paul sighed, releasing the tension he’d been holding onto for the last twenty-four hours. “Deal. Anything!”
Warren extended a hand and they shook on it. “Good, We’ve been existing on the meager rain water and that’s been oily and foul-tasting.” He looked past Paul to Alan. “Hey! Go check on dipshit and have him help you bring up the empties when he’s done.”
Alan nodded and disappeared back into the bunker.
“Keep watch while they’re occupied. I need a minute.”
“Sure.” Paul drew one of his pistols and mostly watched Warren as he produced a hidden toolkit from a space under the shed and set about disassembling it. The same cache held four wheels and by the time Alan and Lee brought the water jugs up, Warren had converted his shed into a serviceable cart.
“Holy shit. Does mine do that?”
Warren smiled. “No.”
The water jugs fit perfectly within the cart’s bed and Paul marveled again at the degree of foresight and planning that was involved in the construction of Warren’s shelter. “What does your house do?”
“Nothing really but I have it so booby-trapped that even I’m afraid to go in there.” Lee and Alan shared a chuckle at this as Warren closed the bunker door. “Lead the way, Paul.”
Paul moved ahead of the cart as the others took turns pulling it and looking out for trouble. It was no surprise that the cart fit perfectly through the gate. Just as when he had arrived, the area was ominously quiet and still save for the leaves rustling in the breeze that steadily grew in strength. Warren was right about the rain, it wouldn’t be long before the clouds broke.
They moved as fast as the cart would allow but Paul knew that it slowed them down enough to turn a day’s walk into two. Despite the company, he did not relish the idea of spending a night outside the safety of fortified walls. In fact, the thought scared the living shit out of him. His mind raced for an alternative.
“Trouble?” Warren’s voice brought Paul back to the here and now. The cart was practically on his heels despite having to navigate a course through the corpses lying in the road.
“Sorry. Just thinking. We’re going to need a place to hole up for the night.”
“Outside? Fuck!” Lee shot Paul a withering glare. “I thought you said you got to us in less than a day!”
“It’s the cart…” Warren looked around, rubbing his beard thoughtfully again.
“Yes! It’s slowing us down because we have to navigate the bodies.” Paul gestured down at the corpses around them in the street.
“Does anyone else think it’s weird that the dead impede us but never really block our way?” Alan wove a hand in front of his face as he spoke, mimicking the path through the bodies ahead of them.
Paul nodded. “Yeah. And I noticed that they’re only in the street. Sidewalks and yards are mostly clear.”
“What? Everywhere? Why the Hell would anyone go to the trouble?” Lee shook his head, dismissing the idea.
“Camouflage.” They all looked at Warren. “If they were too much of a problem, someone would move them. They’re just manageable enough to be a bother but not an issue.”
“The kids.” Paul cut Lee off before he could finish. “The ones that are dressed up like zombies.”
“That’s my guess.” Warren nodded. “Far as I can tell, though, they aren’t much of a threat.”
“Yeah they go down easy enough.” Alan patted the rifle strap on his shoulder.
“What?! They’re just kids!” Bile rose in the back of Paul’s throat for the second time that day at the thought of Alan taking shots at children.
“Hey. Look, they dress and act like zombies. Sometimes you can’t tell and I, for one, don’t want to take a chance. You haven’t had to deal with zombies as I recall…”
“Let’s stay on task here before we lose all of our daylight. We definitely want to be inside some type of shelter when it gets dark.” Thunder rumbled overhead as if to accentuate Warren’s point and he looked up at the heavy clouds. “Somewhere with a sound roof.”
They all silently agreed and started walking. Paul kept finding a place to sleep foremost in his thoughts as he led them through the suburban scrawl. There were a lot of houses that looked okay until he really looked at them. He had never paid close attention to window placement until now. The windows were all low and large, built to allow in the maximum amount of sunshine and fresh air. Unfortunately that made them all unsafe without a lot of work setting up defenses; work requiring time and materials they didn’t have.
They crested a hill just as a fine mist began drizzling down around them.
“Damn! This sucks. Just pick a place, already.” Lee bunched his light jacket around him as tightly as he could in an attempt to keep dry. Warren and Alan stopped the cart and looked ahead. All that was in the immediate vicinity was a single-level school on the far side of a parking lot. They could see a field stretching off behind it to a tree-line that offered glimpses of fences and backyards.
“Well, the school has a lot of open ground surrounding it, so we’d see anyone, or anything, coming long before they got to us. Plus it has brick walls for defensibility. In light of the rain starting, I say we bunk here. Can’t be worse than any other place we’ve passed up. Any objections or concerns?” Warren looked at each of them.
Paul shrugged. “Works for me, I guess.”
“Anywhere works if it’s dry.” Lee started forward, not waiting for the cart to move.
Alan just nodded.
They passed the brick sign that once said “Highland Elementary School” though most of the letters had been removed so that it now read “High men ar c ool.” As they got closer to the building, they could see more of the field beyond.
It wasn’t empty.
“Ho-lee shit.” Alan dropped his side of the cart and motioned for Lee to take it up as he unslung his rifle.
“Are those…?” Paul let the question hang as he tried to make sense of the mass of large, moving brown bodies.
Warren finished for him. “Deer.”
It was almost incomprehensible. Paul had never seen so many in one place before and the full size of the herd was still hidden behind the school. And they were so fat! They had obviously adapted well to the apocalypse. Some of the bucks had what looked like pieces of cloth hanging from their antlers.
Alan took a knee and raised his rifle. “We’re eatin’ good tonight boys.”
“Wait!” Warren stretched a hand out toward his brother just as he fired his weapon.
A particularly fat doe crumpled to her knees and fell over as the rifle’s report echoed in their ears. Alan raised a fist in triumph. “Yes!”
Lee grunted his approval.
As one, the herd of deer raised their heads in alarm. But they didn’t run. Paul was weighing the value of fresh meat against the possibility of the gunshot attracting company when the deer turned, almost as if aligning themselves to evaluate the threat.
But that’s crazy…isn’t it?
Alan lowered the tip of his rifle but kept it pointed in the herd’s direction. He looked back at the others. “What are they doing?”
Warren shook his head. “I don’t know but I don’t like it.”
A large buck in the front shook his head and snorted, pawing at the ground. Others took it up and with a throaty roar, they took off toward the small group of men, antlers lowered for impact.
“Oh shit!” Lee broke first, running for the school, abandoning the cart. Paul and Warren were right behind him but Alan fired a single additional round, dropping one of the bucks, before joining them.
Their hooves thundered as they tore up the ground separating the two groups and the men barely made it to the building’s doors as the sound of their pursuit changed to clacking against pavement. Many of the animals began squealing, an angry desperate sound that Paul heard as much fear in as anything. He understood that these creatures had endured a lot just to survive in this new world.
“Shit!” The doors were locked and chained from the other side. Lee yanked on them repeatedly anyway as Paul quickly looked for another way in. He saw a small brick dumpster enclosure nearby that was over half the height of the rooftops.
“This way!” He ran the short distance to it without checking to see if anyone followed.
The fence in front was open enough for him to slip inside and climb on top of one of the two green trash containers concealed within. From there it was a short hop to the brick enclosure and a jump up to grab the roof of the building to haul himself up.
Once he gained his footing, he turned and gave Warren a hand up. Alan was right behind him on the ledge and Lee balanced on the edge of the dumpster, just as the first deer crashed into the fence.
The flimsy wood splintered under the impact and the bulk of the beast hit the dumpster, throwing it back and sideways against the bricks. Lee flew past Alan, barely managing to twist and grab the brick wall before clearing it. He caught the underside of his chin on the wall as well, tearing it open, but held on.
More of the creatures slammed in behind the first, obliterating what was left of the fence and severely buckling the two dumpsters. Blood flew as they tore into each other as well.
Alan helped his brother up and they both teetered precariously as the brick wall was repeatedly shaken by the onslaught of the maddened herd.
Paul grabbed Alan and hauled him up and Warren was right behind them to grab Lee. All four men took a minute to find their breath and watched as a final few deer slammed into the bloody mass created by their fallen brothers. The rest of the deer filed around the small enclosure as if it wasn’t even there, oblivious to what had preceded their arrival.
“Oh fuck! My rifle!” Alan saw what was left of his gun being trampled, smashed to bits by the weight of the herd.
Lee produced a bandanna from his back pocket and applied pressure to the gash on his chin. “Yeah, fuck your rifle!”
“What were you thinking? We were all out in the open and anything could have heard that shot! This isn’t home. We’re not safe here!” Warren squinted as the drizzle gave way to all out rain.
“C’mon! They were deer, man. How long has it been since any of us had fresh meat in our bellies, huh? I was hungry, I didn’t think anything of shooting one deer.”
“Yeah, that’s about right. You didn’t think!” Paul gestured angrily at the carnage below, then to the blood dripping from Lee’s chin.
The over-sized herd of deer milled about in the rain below them as Lee waived off Warren’s mute offer of assistance. It didn’t look as though the herd would be going anywhere anytime soon, so they were stuck on the roof, in the rain. Maybe even all night.
Paul shook his head, disgusted. “You could have gotten us killed Alan!”
Thanks to Rex Crossley!