Second Dead

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Chapter 3: Horde

Dad sat on a milk crate, rubbed his eyes and said, “Susan, tell me what you saw.”

Susan and Mom spread out blankets on the floor. Before Susan answered, she sat down and pulled George next to her.

She stroked his black hair. “Dad, the herd’s huge. I’ve never seen anything like it. Thousands. Tens of thousands, I think.”

“What direction?”

“Right at us.” Her eyes widened with fright. “I saw them up on the golf course. They’re moving across the open spaces, the commons, even through the neighborhood along the greens. It’s packed. At least a mile wide. And-- and they’re headed right at us.”

I drew a straight line in my head. “They’re coming from the city. Must be hungry.”

“Dad, I saw something else. Two military vehicles. Humvee’s, I think. They drove all crazy like, weaving across the greens, speeding up, slowing down, and I swear I heard one honking its horn.”

“Were they chasing the herd?” Dad asked.

“No, that’s the thing. They taunted the moaners. Like a game, daring them to give chase.”

I tried to make sense of this. From the city, across us, and to? Where? The river.

“Someone’s playing Pied Piper.” Everyone turned toward me. “They’re headed straight for the river. Don’t you get it? If you follow it in a straight line, that’s where they’ll end up. At the bluffs. I guess they hope these things will walk off the cliffs and crash to pieces on the rocks below.”

“Like lemmings,” Chris whispered.

Mom sat Laura down next to her. She whispered soothing words in her ear while she tried to encourage Laura to relax and not cry. However, Laura wasn’t the one who cried.

Susan couldn’t hold back her tears. I gazed at her with pity.

“Susan, I know you’re scared, but--” Dad didn’t get the chance to finish.

“Da-- Dad,” Susan sobbed, “I panicked.”

Chris soothed her. “It’s okay. You warned us. We made it inside. We’re safe. That’s what counts.”

“That’s not it. When I came down, I-- I was so scared. I forgot to reverse the flag,” Susan whimpered.

Stunned silence. “They don’t know what’s coming,” she cried.

There were two other families holding out in our neighborhood, the Bulgers and the Spells. The Bulgers were a rough family. Although Kurt, Kevin, and Klara were about the same age as us, we knew the boys by sight only. Kurt and Kevin both served time in juvie and had a reputation for trouble. Klara was shy, subdued, and never seemed to leave her house except for school. According to Susan, school attendance was inconsistent.

Dad and Mr. Bulger had devised an early warning system. Each day at the same time, we watched our end of the subdivision while they did the same on theirs. Simple really, a red flag meant danger and yellow signaled all’s clear. Well, as clear as possible these days. No flag meant no one was on watch.

The Spells moved into the neighborhood just months before everything fell apart. Dad knew where they lived but at over a mile away, we never saw them.

Dad gazed at Susan. “It’s okay. The flag’s just one layer of our warning system. The Bulgers are survivors. If they’re vigilant, they’ll see it coming. After all, it’s a mile of open road and a clear view before the moaners reach their house.”

Dad’s voice faded as he raised his eyes to the ceiling. Depending on how fast the herd moved the moaners could be here in minutes.

Dad and Chris left the room and went upstairs. Knife in hand, I walked across the basement to hover at the bottom of the steps. Theo, who took his outdoors buddy responsibility way too seriously in my opinion, joined me.

Tense minutes turned into an hour. Outside, the sun began its descent below the horizon. The basement fell deeper into darkness. The last of the daylight faded when Dad and Chris crept back downstairs. Theo and I turned and walked into the safe room.

“We saw them on the hill before the light faded,” Chris whispered. “Just a few, but more and more followed. It’s just a matter of time now.”

“Hey Chris, what you have for lunch today?” Theo sniggered.

“Beans and gravy,” Chris answered, confused at first, but in short order realized why Theo asked.

“Me too. Gonna be a stinker in here,” he said with a mischievous grin.

I stretched out and put my head on Susan’s lap. She didn’t complain. I lay still and listened for sounds from the world outside. Not quite asleep, I wandered in the magical realm between sleep and wakefulness.

I woke to the faintest of moans. I sat up and listened. When there were a few moaners about, the sighs and moans were almost musical, like a pipe organ played by a wayward child. Each moaner rasped a particular rhythm, its pitch rose and fell while it worked its mouth and legs like some accursed accordion. I could tell how fast a moaner moved by the length of its moan: Out, in, out, in.

Moaners didn’t breathe in the true sense. No, the motion of their legs worked muscles and forced air in and out of their lungs to create a low, eerie moan as air passed through vocal cords the undead were powerless to control. Night closed in around us and the moans attained the level of a low, all pervasive howl.

On and on it went, sometimes louder, sometimes softer. Individual moans combined with others for brief moments to change the overall pitch, only to fall apart and submerge back into the unceasing drone.

This short, sudden change is what unnerved me the most. When it happened, my heart skipped a beat and pounded faster while my body responded with ever increasing distress. Hours crawled by as this horde from hell stumbled past.

I turned to lie on my side. Theo sat in his chair, alert and tense. Candlelight flickered in his dark eyes. The twitch from his left eye betrayed the fear he felt. He was the only one of us who had ever been out among a mass of moaners and the experience scarred him. This, his personal trauma, only became apparent at times like these.

Soon, so many moaners pressed against the walls that the house quivered under the weight of their pressed flesh. They walked past like an incoming tide parted by a rock in the sand. Siding tore loose as moaners clawed and pulled their wretched bodies along the house.

Midnight came and went and still the moaners passed. Mom lay next to me, her back pressed against mine. She had the twins with her under the blanket we shared. At last, I fell asleep.

Voices. Again with the fucking voices. I once more suffered the eerie, disembodied murmurs that haunted the darkest crevices of my subconscious. The voices emanated from a nebulous pool of dark seething blood. Shimmering in the brumous incorporeality of the fantasy realm of nightmarish visions my mind inflicted on my subconscious, the voices cried out for attention. Release, they demanded.

They demanded it of me.

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