“Can’t you recognize a zombie when you see one?”
Carter responded to Mason’s question by extending a middle finger, pointing up. His accompanying expression of companionable fuck you
slid away and turned to puzzlement.
“You okay, Mace?”
Surprised by the inquiry, Mason stammered out, “S-sure.” To cover his momentary shock, he used the fingers of his left hand to form the shape of a gun. He pointed, pretending to shoot off Carter’s raised middle digit. As Mason blew at the make-believe tip of his weapon, Carter glanced down at his still-erect finger, pulled a face, and made another rude sign, this time incorporating two digits, before getting promptly back on with the job.
Mason—Mace to many—gave himself a mental shake. They needed to remain vigilant. No one could afford to be sloppy.
He’d lied. He didn’t feel fine. Far from it. He’d experienced a moment akin to somebody crawling over his grave—or, if not his, then someone else’s. Damn, but his casual comment had echoed his words to Antonio just before a son-of-a-bitch-walking-dead-man had taken Antonio out of Mason’s life way back during the uprising. The recollection gave Mason a shiver.
“Can’t you recognize a zombie when you see one?
” What a last fucking thing to have said to the man he loved.
Combating tumultuous emotions, Mason shook off the melancholy and got his head back in the game. Someone’s survival—his own continued existence—might depend on him. He needed to concentrate on his surroundings. Carter, already in action, swung the scimitar Mason coveted. The other man removed the skull from one of the living dead even though there didn’t appear to be much undead
life remaining in the one he’d selected. Better safe than sorry, and Mason would have words with anyone who questioned the motto.
He’d come across a few who debated the act of elimination, calling the deed desecration. Mason couldn’t say he was surprised. Some disputed whether God in his wisdom had a plan for them all. Well (if one believed God existed), maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but if this—to make people into abominations—was an “arrangement,” Mason wanted to take no part, except to end it. He’d gladly “chat” with any deity who would do something so monstrous with intention.
Fortunately, many agreed—for every undead they stilled, they made the world safer, and they laid a creature that had once been a person to rest. Most perceived the act as a kindness to both the living and the dead. No one knew if any spark of humanity remained in these beings—some consciousness—but if he ever turned, Mason wanted a swift mercy. Whether he retained awareness or not, he hoped someone would be as kind—to finish him, fast. He couldn’t imagine a worse hell than existing trapped in a decaying body while knowing he killed. Maybe the “plan”—if such a thing existed—was for those left finally to learn the true meaning of compassion, but Mason wouldn’t hold his breath.
A lithe man they called Skit appeared at his side. If Skit hadn’t made a sound, Mason might have jumped and possibly taken Skit’s head. Fortunately Skit had learned to make his presence known—as many fresh recruits did, he’d suffered more than a few close encounters of “friendly fire” when new to the job.
“Plenty of fuel in the cars, maybe more inside.”
Mason nodded approval. At least even if the stores turned out to be empty, the excursion was worthwhile. They had the outbuildings to explore last. First task: secure the perimeter.
“Can you believe this place?” Skit didn’t stop to linger to hear Mason’s thoughts on the subject. He sked- or skit-addled before Mason thought of anything to say, not that Mason made any claims to be the most talkative of men. He understood the comment, though, and shared a look with Carter.
Dirt field. Large tent. A couple of long, narrow single-story buildings. Walls covered with washed-out posters. Bright paint, now faded, and cages. The place looked like the remnants of a circus. No. More similar to cast-off relics of a vaudeville act based on a carnival as seen in a black-and-white horror movie. The sort where people paid to enter a tent housing all sorts of abominations and pickled deformities. Even Mason asked WTF
? in his head.
“A drove’s been through here.”
Mason didn’t argue with Joe Talbot, who came up on the far side of Carter. The scuffed ground supported the theory. If the outbuildings were as clear as the main, that left them to deal with the few bodies outside, and those hardly seemed much of a threat. Mason had seen this kind of thing before when a drove overran a compound—so called because a sufficiently large group stampeded over the living with the same result panicked cattle would engender. Those not trampled fled or died and, if bitten in the melee, often turned. Any zombies crippled too badly in the scuffle to stand, or sometimes even to crawl, conveniently lolled around for a speedy dispatch. That seemed to be the case here. More than one of the undead lay crushed into the ground, unable to pull free. The condition of those remaining made clearing a site easier, at least.
Sharp and blunt instruments would do to silence this lot. Guns were difficult to come by, ammunition more so here in England where armaments had never been a major issue. They raided gun clubs and farms, anywhere that might use weapons whenever they found them, but often others had got there before them. Another reason they used such arsenal sparingly was that sound drew the polluted—a term some had coined and which seemed to fit. Mason didn’t care whether the hapless souls suffered from a disease or the wrath of God. Neither did it matter to him if the devil’s sense of humor was rife in the world—the dead walked. They were tainted. To call them polluted was as good an expression as any.
“Dead man crawling.” Carter pointed toward a cadaver that needed eliminating. Mason took care of it. “Dead woman rolling.” Carter put that one down himself.
“Dead man twitching.”
Sorely tempted to tell Carter to shut up, Mason bit down on his tongue. Carter’s routine grew irritating real fast, but Mason understood the need for such dark humor in this new world, especially when putting the already dead to rest. He shook his head, though.
Pressing down on a skull with the heel of his boot, Mason held the thrashing corpse in place with his weight and then swung his ax. This bloke’s neck had already suffered severe damage, and Mason had perfected his swing. One blow and the body was no longer twitching, let alone walking.
“Dead man… Shiiiiittt.
Mason sped over to Carter, who stood beside one of the cages—a trailer designed to hitch to a vehicle for towing. The large wheels and undercarriage lifted the base high off the ground. Mason moved closer. The floor height lay level with his waist. The bars had faded, flaking green paint. Straw and worse littered the base, punctuated with a couple of bowls, which may have once contained food and water. Where he might have expected to spot a starved and dying animal, he spied an emaciated man.
“I ain’t fucking going in there to silence him.”
“We silence them all,” Mason said.
Carter shot him a look. “He’s caged. He’s not gonna hurt anyone.”
“You have a point.” Still Mason dithered. He didn’t know whether zombies retained any awareness, but either way, to leave this one behind, trapped and…hungry seemed cruel.
He’s not your concern.
Inwardly Mason sighed. If this creature wasn’t his problem, then it wasn’t anyone’s, and that kind of thinking had been wrong with the world before everything went to hell. He was unable to save everyone. Couldn’t even save himself or make things right. Still, he had to hold together and do his job.
“Nope. Can’t leave him.”
“Well, good luck finding a key.” Carter tugged on a hefty padlock. “We can break this, but…” He didn’t need to say more. Such an act would cause a fair amount of noise. The commotion might be ample enough to draw any remaining zombies from adjacent fields.
“Maybe…” Mason glanced at the ax in his hand, hefted it, and extended the tool between the bars of the cage, trying to reach the downed body with sufficient force to sever the brain stem. “Something like a spear would do a better job.”
“Sorry. I’m all outta javelins.”
“Why d’you think they caged one of the polluted like this? Kept it?”
“Fucked if I know.” He’d never understood why humans did what they did. He certainly had no clue why many did the things they chose to do now, or why so few had learned anything from the world changing. He thought of several reasons and use for a caged polluted—one being a threat to keep other humans in check—but he didn’t want to give Carter nightmares. For all his rough exterior, Carter was still young.
Mason stared at Carter, surprised to hear a slight quiver in his voice.
“We’re all poor sods. Living and dead alike.” Futile point to make, and Mason had already talked enough for one morning. His tongue felt tired. He didn’t like to converse these days, but he kept forgetting, falling into old habits, acting as if every day was another normal event in his life, although he supposed severing the heads of walking corpses constituted a usual occurrence now.
The poor sod in the cage moaned. Carter gulped. “Maybe if we can entice him nearer the side, the tip of my sword should do the trick.”
Not a pleasant thought, but logical. Easiest way would be to sacrifice a few drops of blood. Not relishing that idea, and thoughts of infection prevailing, Mason decided to try calling. “Come on, boy. Come and get the fresh meat, boy.”
“Ewwwwww.” Carter pulled a face. The corpse twitched but seemed to have trouble rousing itself. “Blood would tempt him over here quicker.” Carter echoed Mason’s thinking.
“And you said my idea was ewww
-worthy. Sorry, but I’m not slicing skin to put down one zombie.”
“Not saying you should.” Carter’s tone suggested he also wasn’t volunteering anytime soon.
“Maybe we could give it—”
“Did you just…” Mason began, then realized Carter’s mouth had stopped moving and his gaze had gone wide as he stared into the enclosure. Mason turned his head that way now, looking into a gaunt face. Cracked lips parted, splitting with the effort. Circles around the eyes appeared so dark that for a second in the shadowy light, they looked like empty sockets.
…” The words didn’t come fully formed, but they hardly needed to. Mason knew when someone asked for water, please.
Fucking H! This was no corpse. The unfortunate man in the cage was alive.
* * *
“How’s he doing?”
“In the grand scheme of things, or—”
Miles Maguire smiled. “No one gets my humor.”
They didn’t, not even Mason, but he grinned anyway. As much as Mason tried to maintain distance, Miles was easy to like, and he found himself responding. Besides, it was a good idea to stay on good terms with the man who might one day save his life and spent a good deal of time patching him up. Miles was the resident doctor and substitute priest for those who wanted one—as Miles’s brother had been in the clergy, he was the closest connection to heaven they had.
“He’s not as bad as appearances would have you suppose. All the dirt and those ragged clothes were misleading. And he’s a tall, skinny thing, but lucky you found him when you did. He’s malnourished—been deliberately kept that way for some time, I believe, from the evidence and from what little he’s been able to tell me. Not up to talking much, naturally. Dehydration is the main problem, so I’ve put him on an IV. He’s resting comfortably. Not my doing. I’ve not sedated him. Damn near unconscious is the thing.” Miles made busy straightening items that didn’t seem to need tidying.
“He can’t recall precisely, but the drove must have charged through in the last three to five days. He was already weak, and… Well, after they left he was stuck there, no food and little water. We’ll feed him up, cautiously, so to avoid refeeding syndrome, but he wouldn’t have survived much longer if the appropriation team hadn’t happened along. He has all the classic symptoms of dehydration. Headache, decreased blood pressure, and his tongue’s a little swollen. He’s dizzy, had some cramps. The sunken eyes…” Miles pursed his lips. “Hardly surprising you took him for one of the dead. He’d fainted out there. Lucky he heard you and managed to speak, hmm? Else you’d have stilled him.”
Mason failed to work out whether Miles was forgiving him or accusing him. “Has he given you a name?”
“I have a name, thanks.”
Mason sighed at the ill-conceived humor before noticing the look of annoyance on the doc’s face. He blinked in surprise as Miles stared at him.
“What good is his name going to be to you? What’s your interest?”
Heat began to creep into Mason’s face. If he’d been a praying man, he’d have implored that his discomfort not show. He’d been waiting until enough time passed that he could visit without causing the patient distress and it wouldn’t look suspicious. His reasons were his own. “I have none. Just…I got him out of the cage.”
Miles nodded. “I heard. So? You saved his life and are now responsible for him?”
Mason didn’t think he’d go quite so far, but Miles gave him no chance to answer.
“Good. I hope you’re serious. Because for the next forty-eight hours, I want him watched round the clock. You can take a shift.”
Sharon Maria Bidwell