The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Twenty: It's My First Day
The undead approached her, rotted hands that had long ago lost any sensation reaching toward her throat.
The girl stood firm, a heart which had long ago lost any fear beating slowly, calmly.
A low, guttural moan escaped the creature's mouth, like that of a predatory beast, one starved for ages now seeing fresh meat before it.
Not a sound passed the girl's lips, lips that were drawn in a tight line, betraying no emotion.
The ghoul lunged for the child, who deftly slipped out of the way, spinning to the side. In her hands was a jump rope, weighted at one end with a chunk of masonry. She began swinging it, the rock sounding like a phantom as it spun on the rope.
The creature's face contorted in a vicious snarl, though whether this was from anger at a meal denied or merely primal hunger was anyone's guess. It lunged again, intent on sating the gnawing hole that consumed it, drove it ever forward even after its soul had long ago shuffled off the proverbial mortal coil.
Suddenly the zombie's sounds were cut off, replaced with that of a rotting melon being caved in, as the stone found a new home in the left hemisphere of it's brain. It flew sideways from the impact, landing on the ground a full ten feet from where it stood moments ago.
The girl walked over to the undead, now completely dead. With a grunt, she pulled the rock free, taking a moment to admire the new blood spatter decorating her toy. At this point one would expect a witty comment, or perhaps a glob of spittle to strike the creature. Instead, the girl began skipping away, humming an off-key children's song, or perhaps just the lyrics of her skittering lunacy.
The girl was dressed in an amalgam of clothing styles. Her combat boots sharply contrasted wit the tie-dye jeans and Hello Kitty sweatshirt, both thoroughly stained with blood. A small radio, the plastic casing cracked and the paint faded hung on her belt. A burst of static was all that sounded for a moment, then a voice cut through the interference.
"Aiko, where are you?" asked Steve Rankin. "I told you to come back in twenty minutes. We're getting ready to head out."
The child was one of the few survivors of what would later be referred to as the Martha's Vineyard Forced Population Reduction. She looked around to the undead that now veered in her direction.
"Just playing with the other kids," she said as she spun her makeshift weapon into another decayed skull, sending a spray of blood, bones and brains. "They're no fun."
There was a pause on the other end. In the weeks that passed since they fled Martha's Vineyard, Steve had taken it upon himself to act as a surrogate father to Aiko, although the girl seemed less than thrilled about the prospect. In fact, it was rare when her face betrayed any emotion at all.
Her parents had been among the victims at the island, and Aiko was given a front row-seat as they were torn to red rags. Since then she had become an emotional void; she never laughed, cried, got angry or expressed anything.
"Just come back, okay?" said Steve. "Never mind, I see you, just stay put."
A score of zombies approaching the girl suddenly turned as the sound of a diesel engine filled the air. The next thing to fill the air was a spray of blood and various used organs. The vehicle was an eighteen-wheeled tractor trailer, 'commandeered' by the group of humans that now wandered the bleak and withered landscape.
The interior of the trailer had been renovated, and now contained beds, food, medical supplies and a plethora of weapons, both long range and those made for the personal touch. It was now a veritable mobile home, though far more defendable than any RV, and minus the annoying kids and tourist chatkies.
The former police officer jumped out of the truck. Gone was his uniform. In its place he wore the bomb squad armor given to him by Matt Erickson shortly before his death. It had taken him a full week of staring at the bloody and dented suit before he would finally put it on. It was meant to travel to place he never wanted to visit again.
Steve looked around frantically, guns in both his hands. A zombie shambled over toward him, a look of longing on its face. Steve turned and fired, hitting the creature five times, never once coming anywhere close to the head. Aiko sighed, as if Steve were an infant trying to grasp the mechanics of nuclear fission, then swung her jump rope, caving in another skull.
She turned back to Steve, his apprehension and fear clear though his face was hidden behind a mask.
"You're not very good at this, you know," she said.
Steve jerked a thumb at the truck. "Just get inside," he said. "We've got to get moving."
Aiko looked around the landscape that had once held verdant fields and flowers. "Yeah, I guess we got lots more death to see."
Ron Bern sat behind the steering wheel, a spot normally occupied by Jon Kasada, another unfortunate victim of Martha's Vineyard. The group had come to the island searching for a safe haven, and had arrived to find a population of three hundred people who had made it into their new home. Everyone in the group was welcome to join them, and before long, they all shed their armor and weapons.
Everyone except Matt, that is, who steadfastly maintained that no place was completely safe.
Unfortunately, he was soon proven right.
Once more the survivors were on the run, now joined by Steve and Aiko. Ron looked out at the landscape as he drove through what was left of downtown Nashville, Tennessee. He had been here many times before, and remembered how friendly the people were, remembered the lively city. Now, the buildings and houses were as dead as the people that wandered through them. The lawns and trees were withered and brown, and not just from the oncoming fall.
"It's like whatever made the people sick made the land ill too," said Ron. "Like it's spread to everything."
"Huh?" said Michael, jarred awake my Ron's private monologue. "Are we there yet?"
"Wasn't aware we had a destination," Ron replied, as he scanned for a service station. Because of the speed at which the Grear Exhumation spread, many gas stations till held fuel, one of the few blessings the undead passed on to the survivors.
"Yeah, but are we there yet?" Michael said, as if Nowhere was a place they could go. "Why did you have to wake me up, anyway? I was having a great dream. Everyone was dead but me. I had all the money and movies and video games I ever wanted. I was chilling in the theater, watching MST3K all day. It was heaven."
Ron rolled his eyes. Only Michael could be happy being the only person left alive. "The way things are going, that dream of yours might just come true, at least partway."
"Yeah, our track record ain't looking so good," Michael replied. "We traded Matt, Jon and James for Officer Dead Weight and Little Miss Twilight. Not a fair deal."
Ron thought back to the impromptu funeral that was held. No bodies were buried. Even if they had been able to retrieve the bodies of their friends, there was too great a chance those corpses would have been able to get to the graveyard under their own power. Instead, small crosses of stray planks of wood were used to mark a lonely section of the highway. The ceremony was quick, and they took shifts saying goodbye to their friends, while others kept watch for and uninvited undead mourners.
On Jon's grave they left a steering wheel from a car abandoned by the side of the road. Jon had been their official driver, and this seemed a fitting symbol. James, a photographer in a former life, had his digital camera left at his site. The device still worked, miraculously, and he had been documenting their trip from day one.
Kaitlin Comeau had flipped through the images while the others prepared the site, seeing undead for the most part, but coming on a few that brought a smile to their face. Matt and the others hacking a group of zombies to pieces, the group holding up bags of food taken from a store, and the bonfire held the first night they arrived at Martha's Vineyard.
On Matt's grave, they left behind the skull of a zombie. When the others asked why, Michael explained it belonged to the first undead he had killed. The others expected a tale of a skilled and fearless warrior, but Michael only laughed as he related the story.
It was during their escape from Boston. Matt had wandered into a convenience store to get some food, and nearly ran right into the zombified clerk. Screaming in fear, Matt swung a rusted fire ax with his eyes closed, and after five or six swings, finally managed to take down the ghoul.
Back in the trailer, Steve ripped off the armored helmet and flung it against the wall. He felt confined and suppressed, and longed to finally take it off. He breathed heavily, the scene from just a few minutes ago playing in his mind as he forced his heart to stop pounding.
Killing zombies was nothing new to Steve, but those times he had whole parties of men behind him, all armed to the teeth and keeping an eye on one another. Now, he felt vulnerable and alone, and the pressure he constantly felt on his shoulders had nothing to do with the armor.
When Matt gave him his garb, he was doing more than making him part of the group. He had passed on the mantle of leadership, entrusting the safety of the group to him.
Steve remembered when he had tried to rush to Aiko's rescue. Matt had stopped him, told him he wasn't ready yet. He envisioned what would have happened; heroically leaping off the boat, fighting off the zombie hordes single-handed, saving not only Aiko, but everyone on the island, the Governor extolling his many virtues as the inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard lined up to throw flowers at his feet and reward him for his bravery and courage in the face of threats that would reduce even people like Matt to quivering wrecks.
But that was only a dream, a fantasy he conjured up to keep him from crying himself to sleep, a wonderful dream that chased the demons away, where he was a hero, and not the frightened child he knew he was.
What was missing, he thought to himself. What else did he need to be the kind of person Matt was, the kind of person who could so willingly throw himself into danger without hesitation or fear? What did he need to do to calm his nerves, and quiet the nightmares that plagued him each and every night?
He looked in a mirror, wondering what about made him worthy, and saw no answer in his haggard features and bloodshot eyes.
All he saw was the fear.