10 years, 38 days after
When I close my eyes, I still see it. The blood. The wounds. The human body with its insides taken out. Guts all strewn through the branches of a bush.
Just the thought makes my throat tighten up as though to vomit. Makes my insides flex and squish and cinch up.
I can’t sleep with that horror show projected on the insides of my eyelids, of course. Not even close. I volunteered to do a double shift on watch. Let the others sleep, if they can. That’s the way I figure it. Jenkins was happy enough to oblige my request.
Makes no difference to me.
I’m sitting next to the fire now, scrawling in a notebook. The night hangs thick around me, cool and heavy with wet, and the crickets chirp endlessly all around. The other men sleep in the tents that form a crooked circle off to one side of the fire.
That’s the one thing I’ll say for Captain Peters. He made sure our platoon had a bunch of paper and functioning pens — fresh packs of blue BICs that look like they should be hanging in a display at Wal-Mart instead of out here in the woods. He said we’re going to see some shit out here, some awful shit, but that writing it down would help.
And some part of me believes what he said. Some part of me thinks that writing it down really will help, really will get it out for keeps. If I put it on the page, lay it all out just the way it happened, it won’t be a mess of abstract thoughts in my head anymore. It’ll be a story written in a notebook. Something that lives in the concrete world, entirely outside of my brain, outside of my memories.
So here I am. Reporting for writing duty. Private Jeremiah Chen. Sir, yes sir and all that shit.
Maybe it’ll work, this writing thing. Maybe not.
Either way, I should start from the beginning.
* * *
We patrolled at dawn. I don’t know what for. I never know what for. Dawn is better than night, I guess.
Wait. Let me clarify that.
The whole platoon headed out as though for combat. Doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think the lieutenant is all there. It’s a whole Don Quixote playing army type of deal. We all just go along with it.
Anyway, we trudged through the thick grass, field after field of it, dew moistening my shoes and socks until my ankles were soggy.
It was our fourth day camping in this location, and our fifth time walking this route. This was the longest we’d stayed in one area, so the terrain was beginning to look familiar. That conjured a new feeling. Usually everything seemed so alien, so threatening. By comparison this march was almost relaxing.
The first thing we came upon were the dead zombies. All the way dead, I should say. The corpses lay in the ditch on the side of the road, three of them kind of stacked there in a haphazard pile as though they’d been tossed. Someone had sliced them up pretty good, heads and limbs dangling by the thinnest threads of flesh, white bone glinting through the slashed places, pearly like teeth.
The stench of death was unreal. Like roadkill, I suppose, but hundreds of pounds of it. An earthy smell intermingled with the odor of rotten meat, like when dead leaves reach that point of breaking all the way down, reverting to rich black soil.
“Jenkins,” the platoon leader bellowed. “You wanna come have a look?”
Jenkins is older. He’s the one guy we all look up to, I guess. He’s smart. Or he wears glasses, at least. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.
A ripple formed in the pack of men as Jenkins picked his way toward the front. The disturbance worked its way on the diagonal from left to right. Bodies shifted. Shoulders turned. At last, he appeared.
He looked older than I remembered. Gray hair and whiskers marbled the once dark stuff on his cheeks and head, gone all the way white in places. And he looked tired as hell. The creases in his face gone hard and severe, like the lack of sleep folded his skin and pressed it pretty good.
He moved slowly despite all eyes being trained on him. Walked to where the bodies lay. Knelt.
The daylight glared rounded shapes in the lenses of his glasses as he’d made his way over, so I couldn’t see his eyes, couldn’t get a sense of his expression.
Now his back faced the crowd, and his head tilted toward the pile of gore before him. Apart from the hand stroking at his jaw, he didn’t move.
No one spoke for a long time. A religious hush fell over the lot of us, breaking up at last when the platoon leader cleared his throat.
“Do you think it’s them? Their work?”
Jenkins turned. Stood. His face was blank. Hard to read.
They didn’t speak what we all knew. Not explicitly. The bodies hadn’t been there when we’d patrolled this route some 14 hours earlier, near dusk. Finding one dead zombie might not mean much. But three? Carved up like this? Thrown together in a pile? It meant Crusaders had probably been through here, and they could still be near. That was the most logical explanation, anyhow.
A voice spoke up from the back of the pack. I think it was Smitty.
“Should we burn them?”
“No,” Jenkins said. “The smoke. Someone could see. That’s bad for business.”
“Bad for business?” Smitty said, the confidence leaking out of his voice with each syllable.
Jenkins stood as he answered him.
“I reckon Crusaders swarming this valley wouldn’t be conducive to our survival. And that’s one thing I have observed about death — it’s generally bad for business.”
No one spoke as Jenkins picked his way back through the crowd, the walls of humanity closing behind him, hiding him among the shoulders.
“We’ll send word up the chain,” the platoon leader said.
This was what he always said. Like it might do some good to send word to the higher-ups. Like any of this might mean anything at all.
* * *
Intestines. The gutworks. Tubes of flesh wrapped around the bare branches of a bush, strung all through them like Christmas lights.
That’s what we found at the little farmhouse not more than a mile from where the pile of zombies lay. And these weren’t from a zombie body. They were still fresh.
Flies swirled around them — the innards, I mean — filthy little insects up to their elbows in gore. Loving every minute of it.
Up close, the brown purple color of the flesh came clear. The guts looked more like something you’d find in the sea. Some awful creature that wraps itself around the coral. An ever-expanding parasite. Catching things in its tendrils and sucking the life out of ‘em.
We followed the trail of guts around the side of the barn, and there he was. A teenage boy from the looks of it. Maybe sixteen.
His scrawny frame was nailed to the gray planks of wood that made up the side of the barn. Railroad spikes driven into him, holding him upright, something strangely slack in his carriage.
The spikes entered him at each elbow, so his upper arms splayed out from the body. The forearms, legs, and neck were left limp, though. Dangling. Head all leaned forward. With that strange posture, he looked like a scarecrow. A floppy thing, almost comical.
Except his guts were all ripped out, gaping walls of red meat left in the middle of him. A vacancy.
And words popped into my head at the sight of this empty space: Body cavity. Abdomen.
Looking lower… Well, it took a second for me to make sense of what I was seeing when I looked lower.
His genitals had been removed. Cut out. A ragged wound left in their position. Slightly indented. A cupped place — all red and jagged — where his manhood had been.
No stump. No remnant. No sign that there’d even been anything there at all.
A couple of the men stutter-stepped back from the sight of him, turning on their heels and walking away, but most of us stayed. We didn’t say anything. We barely even breathed.
Whoever had done it had left a message, beyond the one written in his skin. The words were smeared up above him, scrawled in his blood in spiked, angry letters.
Book 2.6 will be available on Amazon July 27th