Casey’s frazzled nappy hair is held back tightly. The elastic has seen better days. A few thick, kinky strands stick to her face and threaten her dark brown eyes. Sweat drips from her brow as she pinches a match between her dark fingers and wipes her forehead with her arm, careful not to drip on the empty matchbox she clutches. Vaguely, her lungs call from somewhere far away, begging for oxygen.
The match flares, and the sound of the strike is lost as a loud crash shakes the wall she leans against. It rattles her teeth, and flakes of plaster float down, dusting her shoulders. Her hand trembles, a strand of firecrackers clenched in it. The fuse sparks and then catches as she brings it to the fire.
Casey tosses the explosives into the next room.
She breathes, her chest filling with the stench of decomposing flesh. Nearby lays a rotting body, a lifeless lump, head smashed into the dust-laden area rug beneath it. Grimy, broken pictures of the family that once lived here smile down from the walls. They are frozen, forever grinning approval at all that may transgress under this roof.
Casey is pushed into motion by the roar of gunpowder disintegrating cardboard shells. She grips the door jam and peers into the adjacent room. Inside, a disheveled man roots through a hoarder’s paradise of broken furniture, searching for the source of the noise. This is Casey’s cue to flee.
Against the wall leans a worn and splintered baseball bat. Blood slowly thickens on the wood, clotting in cracks and crevices and tufts of hair cling to it, visible by the early morning light. They’re from the dead man. Casey curls her fingers around the bat and creeps toward the back of the room as quietly and quickly as she can.
Aged floorboards creak underfoot. Broken glass crackles. She timidly shifts her weight with every step, picking her way around a broken flat screen and a mouse-ridden couch. She skates a foot around a crushed frame on the floor, avoiding the crinkle of a moldering marriage certificate that has escaped.
An overturned desk lays cockeyed in the corner. When she finally reaches it, Casey thrusts her hand underneath and gropes for the small, clammy hand, which grips hers back. She yanks and Alex’s blond hair catches the light as he soars to his feet. Tears cut deep rivets through the grime and dirt on his pale, nine-year-old face.
The wall shakes again, raining more plaster.
Casey remembers seeing a back door in the house. It’s the only way out that doesn’t cross paths with the man they just escaped. They creep through the main hallway into the kitchen. She’s holding her breath again, an unconscious reflex.
The man in the other room continues to tear through piles of garbage and broken furniture. Once loved items clang and clatter, hitting walls and falling to the floor. The Tanners used to live here. It says so right out front on their still intact mailbox; bills sit inside, unpaid for over three years. Credit card applications and sales flyers now a rotting memento of times past. The man with the putrid face does not mourn them. No one does.
Casey’s stomach drops and her gaze ratchets to her foot. Next to two long-abandoned dog bowls her toe jabs through a thin excuse for a shoe and her foot presses a rubber newspaper: The Daily Growl.
The man in the other room peers sharply into the darkness. His eyes are swollen and bloodshot. One orb is so overinflated that it bulges from its peeling socket. Rips blanket the dulled cornea and try as it might, the eyelid is unable to close. Black, clotted blood forms dried rings around his neck. Flake by flake, it falls to his chest, as though his jowls are the world’s most profane croissant. His lips peel back in a snarl.
The sound of smashing glass rings through the air.
Back in the kitchen, Casey pushes her arm through the broken window of the door. The damned thing is jammed, of course. Alex stands beside her, thin-lipped and fidgety.
Casey pulls back her arm, glass nicking at her skin. It’s useless to try the knob from either side. The only way this door will open is if she forces it. She slams her foot into the wood just beside the knob and lock, driving her heel into the door. Her foot punches through wood, and for a moment, it sticks. Cheap piece of shit! It isn’t even solid. She looks over her shoulder just in time to see a shadow approach.
Like the mouth of a hyena, the man’s skeletal jaw gleams teeth from the darkness of the hallway. He launches himself at her.
There’s no time to think—Casey acts on instinct. She rips her bleeding foot from the piece-of-shit door and shoves Alex into a corner, raising her bat. It makes a sickening thud as it connects with the man’s skull. He goes down and, without even a momentary pause, springs for Alex, now at eye level. Alex tries to dart around him, but the man is quick, very quick. His hand snags Alex’s pant leg and drags the boy toward his gnashing teeth. Alex thrashes, kicking wildly.
Casey hits the man again, crashing her bat down on his head. Skin leaks down his face, alleviated from its tenuous grip and the blow knocks him sideways, but he doesn’t loosen his grip on Alex. Nothing slows him down. She swings again, with skull-crushing force, caving a dent and causing the man’s remaining hair to stand awkwardly askew. He turns his repugnant face toward her. A raspy attempt at a growl escapes his chewed lips.
Casey’s bat finds a home. Chunks of bone and tainted flesh splatter the lace curtains adorning the windows. She hits the man again, and again, and again. Finally, he stops moving, his skull obliterated, now twin to the body lying in the study.
Breath tears through Casey’s lungs, and she blinks away sweat. Alex is still on the floor staring with large blue eyes at the pummeled skull inches away from him. He’s seen worse, Casey thinks and offers him a hand up. “Are you okay?” He looks up at her but says nothing.
Casey grabs an old dishtowel that lays on the dusty countertop and wipes herself clean of dead skin and bone. Her adrenaline is fading and with it so is her strength. Her arms feel like strands of over-cooked spaghetti and her empty stomach spasms, cannibalizing itself. Alex’s watchful eyes bore a hole through her. He’s hungry too.
Barely able to remain steady on her feet, Casey investigates each cupboard in the kitchen.
She grips the countertop and takes a calming breath; she can’t waste energy on feeling sorry for herself. Defeated, she slides against a wall and sits on the floor. Alex copies her exactly.
“Sorry, Kiddo. Looks like another night of rock soup.”
Alex continues to stare at her. God, is that stare ever disquieting when he wants it to be. No wonder he doesn’t speak. There’s never any need—everything he has to say, he says with those eyes. She bets someone once gazed into them and imagined his entire life for him. Some mother or father somewhere, a lifetime ago.
There’s no way they imagined this.
Casey looks away from Alex and closes her eyes for a moment. Sometimes it’s just too hard to look at him. When she reopens them, she focuses on a pile of old, empty cans in a corner, near the dog bowls and that dumb rubber newspaper. Man Bites Dog reads the headline. Good one.
Casey pulls herself across the kitchen floor and digs through the pile. A big black spider shambles away as she sorts through rusted tin, revealing one unopened can lonely and forgotten at the bottom of the heap. Her eyes brighten and she snags it, dusting off the label. A smile springs to her face. DOG CHOW. She turns, beaming at Alex. Finally, a little luck!
Alex silently opens his knapsack, and Casey watches as he methodically searches its contents, ferreting out a can opener. He holds it out to Casey. At least he understands food. Casey crawls over the dead man lying on the kitchen floor to join the boy.
As she opens the dog chow her stomach rumbles, aching, but she hands Alex the can first. Without hesitation, he jams his fingers inside and pulls out a glob of mush, then stuffs the quivering, fat-laden mass in his mouth. No need to chew this delicacy—just open up and down the hatch. He digs in for seconds, and Casey finally takes some for herself.
She feels as though the tin is polished off before she can blink. Stabbing hunger pains demand more, but they have nothing, haven’t had anything in days. Casey hopes the kid is at least partially satiated. A loud, hollow growl from the pit of his stomach is her answer. The empty rumbling is oppressive in the silence. It would be nice if he could speak, or would speak, who the hell knows? His precious face looks up at her, belly protesting loudly, and she feels each growl on top of her own. It’s enough to kill anyone, no bat required.
Casey closes her eyes and leans her head against the bottom cupboard. She once thought the graveyard shift as a paramedic was a grind. The two-week overnight rotations in the city were brutal and especially dangerous. That seems like a vacation now.
A monumental hotel looms in the scorching sunlight over a baked and unmanicured lawn. Windows, barricaded with scrap metal, reflect the sun’s rays across the huge expanse of field between the looming building and the thick dark forest resting beyond the grounds.
Through the brambles and low hanging branches is a well-worn path that leads to a clearing. Once, adventurous hotel guests used it as a hiking trail, taking in the natural beauty of the wilderness around them.
The concierge, known by staff as Poppy, used to put apples near the mouth of the trail every winter for the deer. The animals would venture out evenings and early mornings, their bodies shaggy with thick fur, and guests would ooh and ah and snap pictures. Most would slip him a few dollars for being so helpful and friendly. This attention to detail put his kids through college.
Now Poppy is gone, and many would consider him one of the lucky ones. A heart attack killed him, just after the world fell apart. No emergency number to call, no doctors to save his life, no need to bear witness to the utter destruction of modern civilization. It was quick, unlike the death of so many others. Unlike those who still roam the earth in some kind of heinous limbo. Only one of Poppy’s girls remains in this world now, and it’s a blessing her father never lived to see it. Who knows if anything is left of the bright engineering student inside the shambling mess she is now.
Lot, the leader of the community that now lives within the hotel, bore witness to it all. She saw the downfall and the peoples’ desperate need for law and order. She quelled their fears and worries, sheltering them for the harsh reality of the New World. Now she stands before Aaron, the traitor, her hands clasped before her and a solemn expression on her weathered, yet appealing face.
She raises a hand to play with a blue spiral triangle that hangs from a necklace. She’s had it for many, many years, before all the horror. The chain lays gently against her throat, caressing her skin as she moves toward the older man before her. He’s on his knees.
Accompanying Lot is Marge, a buxom, muscular woman, and her counterpart, the bulging Arnold (or whatever his name actually is). They are both career military, craving the structure and regulation that Lot happily provides. Together they head the community’s security team. It’s up to them to protect the people sheltered within the hotel walls. They hold Aaron down.
In the background lurks Opie, a weaselly looking man. He says nothing as he watches from a slight distance.
Beads of sweat trickle down Aaron’s face as he struggles. “You support this? A society where political dissidents just disappear?”
Lot raises a well-groomed eyebrow in mock surprise. “Aaron, you’re far from a political dissident. You’re a coward, plotting the upheaval of our entire society.”
“Your society. Your—”
“Yes. My society. Because of my teachings we’ve survived The Plague. For three long years, we have struggled and persevered because of me. And you are a heretic.”
“Amen,” comes the sentiment from Aaron’s captors.
“Is this what you want? A society where anyone can disappear without a trace?” Aaron’s breathing quickens, whistling through his nose with force.
“Without a trace? I think not, Aaron. You’re to be an example. A strict warning to those who wish to sow discontent and spread lies, to those who threaten what I’ve worked so hard to build. You’ll serve as the poster child for those who would strike the hand that feeds them.”
“You’ve strayed from your own teachings, Lot! What you’re building here is an abomination! You’re more concerned with being Queen for a Day than—”
“Can you hear yourself? I’ve saved the life of each and every person under my roof. What have you done? Become a thug—a terrorist. Death will be my greatest gift to you.”
Aaron drops his head and his face softens. He closes his wet eyes, breaking, snapping like a twig. They always break, Lot thinks, when facing their inescapable mortality.
Her thoughts turn to brave men. False men on a Hollywood movie screen, facing down death with a jaw of steel—standing with bared chest thrust valiantly forward, ready to take the sword. In her mind the television screen flickers, a smile flashes across celebrity lips, beaming defiantly with the knowledge that he faces a good death, a meaningful death. But it’s just acting and life rarely follows that script.
A smile of triumph lights upon her lips and presses them together, concealing it just a little too late. Perhaps she let it slip purposefully, this is a war after all, and they must all go out groveling. There will be no martyrs made on her watch.
“I’ve been with you since the beginning, Lot.”
“And all good things must come to an end, my dear.”
“What about my wife?”
“What about her? You can’t honestly expect us to keep her here after all of this. After you’ve corrupted her mind against us, against me.”
“Please, don’t kill—”
“Don’t be so banal. She’ll be sent to live with the Castlefield colony.”
“Sent to live? Is that what you call it?”
Lot can feel the prickling of eyes on the back of her neck. Thick Marge and Arnold are honed in. “You’ve done this to yourself, Aaron, not I. I’m merely an instrument of justice, and mercy. Your wife could be out here next to you.”
Aaron sucks in his breath as though Lot punched him in the gut, “Monster.”
Her delighted eyes smile back at him and electric thrill fills her belly. Behind her, Thick Marge clears her throat. “We better hurry this up, Lot.” Arnold nods in agreement, his bulging neck muscles rippling under his skin.
They’re right, it’s time to wrap up this fine piece of theater, Lot thinks. The woods are teaming with disgusting, rotting corpses—The Risen. Out here, it doesn’t matter who you are. Murderer or newborn babe, everyone is a walking, five-course dinner.
Lot’s dancing grey eyes flick to Opie, cuing him to finish things. He scurries away and she locks her gaze back on her prisoner. “I don’t often attend executions, Aaron, but your actions have been so devious that I feel it necessary to speak to you, to hear your reasons why. I pray that you plan on going to your grave with a clear conscience.”
Aaron spits at Lot’s feet, a light spray settling back on his quivering lips. Terror leaks from his pores and Lot imagines she can feel it rushing over her like a river current. She breathes deeply, steadying her appearance for the outside world. Aaron’s voice trembles. “My conscience is clear, Lot. Is yours?”
Opie returns, shouldering an armload of heavy chains. He drops them near a tree in the center of the clearing. Lot doesn’t hide her smile from Aaron this time. It’s a smile that can melt the bark from trees. It’s a smile that can turn blood to ice pellets, which course through veins and explode the heart. It’s a smile no one else can see through. “Perfectly,” she says.
Lot can feel the words die in Aaron’s mouth as he bites his tongue. She knows he thinks of his wife. He begins to scream. It’s the desperate, broken scream of a man beaten. She nods at Thick Marge and Arnold and they drag Aaron kicking and screaming to the tree. Arnold smacks him across the mouth. “Quiet down, traitor.”
“You can’t do this! You can’t do this!”
Padlocks click around tight chains. Opie plants a wind-powered noisemaker in the ground nearby.
“Without your support, she has no control!”
Arnold grabs Aaron’s face. “Scream all you want. You’re only hastening the inevitable.”
Lot turns and strides away, quickly followed by Thick Marge and Arnold. Behind them, Opie starts the noisemaker and it begins to whine.
“Opie, stop this, please.”
Opie sheepishly casts a glance at Aaron, the doomed man has no clue who betrayed him. He holds Aaron’s eyes for a second, and then scurries after Lot and her henchmen, leaving Aaron to face his grisly death alone. “You’re just as guilty as she is!” shouts the dead man. “Even more so because you know this is wrong. You know it’s wrong, Opie! Those poor children!”
Opie shuts out the screams, as he has done many times before, and is gone from the clearing. Aaron shakes with fear as the noisemaker picks up pitch with the rising wind. It won’t be long now.
About M.F. Wahl
M.F. Wahl is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), book reviewer, and VIP author with Stitched Smile Publications. She’s also the Managing Editor for the newly revived SSP magazine.
“Disease”, Wahl’s first novel, is a number one Wattpad Featured book in horror, it will be released in 2017 through Stitched Smile. Several short stories of hers will appear in anthologies due out later this year though various publishers.