The day was warm and sunny, with a hint of clouds in the distance. There would be rain tonight.
The wind whisked up dust devils, little swirls of dirt dancing in the sunshine. Paper blew across the ground, some of it lodging for a short time against one of the many abandoned shopping carts scattered throughout the parking lot, flapping against the metal, before carrying on in its breezy journey. The wind carried some dirt and debris inside the grocery store, through the holes in its shattered front glass doors.
The wind also stirred the hair of a little girl, seated on a mechanical horse. Her hair did not move much, since it was as dirty and matted as the rest of her. The little girl wore a filthy and torn night dress, the cartoon patterns faded by so much exposure to the elements. A large patch on the front of her gown was covered by dried blood; it had been her own. The wind on her face was once a happy sensation for her, but she no longer cared. She rocked back and forth on the horse, oblivious to the world around her.
She had always loved horses. Her room was filled with horse toys and books. She loved pony rides whenever she could get one. Mommy and Daddy had told her that, because of Daddy’s new job, they would soon be moving to a much bigger house, with a large yard and room for ponies. They had visited the big house and barn, with the long white fences. Once they moved, they could go riding every day. Her family would be there in time for her next birthday, and the best part was that she would not have to change schools and lose her friends.
One morning, bad people had broken the windows and doors of their house. Daddy had tried to stop them, but they bit him, and made his blood go everywhere. Mommy tried to protect her, but the bad people bit her too. Mommy was crying, and begged her to run away. The bad people bit and scratched her, but the little girl was able to get out into the backyard. The bad people ignored her as they encircled Mommy.
Crying now herself, she did not know where to go or what to do. She never went anywhere without Mommy or Daddy. Some of the bad people were beginning to leave the house. The little girl saw the small door that led up under the house. She had been told to never, ever play there. Overcome by fear, she opened the door and crawled inside.
Under the house, it was dark, wet, and smelled funny. She closed the door behind her, and pushed some things in front of it. The little girl went on hands and knees as far back into the darkness as she could. The bites hurt, and she was bleeding so much. She leaned up against the wall, wiping tears away with her dirty arm. She felt really dizzy, like when she spun around several times.
Somewhere underneath her parent’s bedroom, the little girl threw up a large quantity of blood, and gave up her life.
Sometime later, she awoke to her new existence. She had a terrible hunger. Perhaps she had missed lunchtime. For a long time, she fumbled around in the darkness, before she found the objects blocking the door. The little girl pushed them out of the way, and emerged into the evening’s last light. She was so hungry; she must have missed dinner as well.
Entering the darkened house, she found it in a state of chaos. Things covered the floor, and Mommy and Daddy were nowhere to be seen. The refrigerator door was open, and all of the food had been pulled out. She kneeled down into a pool of spilled milk and began shoving food into her mouth, even vegetables. Nothing seemed to satisfy her. She crawled around, sampling everything, but none of it would do.
She got up and wandered randomly throughout the house, searching for food. Her hand brushed against a light switch, but it did not work. The little girl wanted to go outside to look for food, but Mommy and Daddy would never let her go out in the dark alone. She went into her room, and lay down on the bed. She no longer needed sleep, but memory told her she had to go to bed. The little girl lay on the bed all night, awake and wracked with hunger, until first light.
In the light of the new day, she could see better. Mommy and Daddy were still gone, and she was so hungry. She wandered out through the broken front door, and headed down the street to their local grocery store, where Mommy liked to shop. It was a long way, but she had time. No one bothered her. The bad people were everywhere, but all of them seemed to ignore her. She wondered where they had taken Mommy and Daddy.
At the grocery store, the front windows were broken, and more bad people wandered in and out. She walked in, the broken glass cutting her bare feet, and stopped by the row of shopping carts. Mommy always got the cart; she was too short. Besides, one of the bad people was trying to get one.
The little girl carried on, walking randomly throughout the store, until she arrived at the breakfast cereal aisle. She spotted a box of her favorite cereal on the shelf. The little girl could no longer read the words written on the box, but she recognized the picture on the front. She lifted down the box, ripped open the top, and stuffed cereal into her mouth. She ate several handfuls, but the hunger did not abate. She dropped the box and headed to the back of the store.
Several bad people were in the Meat Department, struggling over food. Although she was so hungry, she shied away from the bad people, after what happened at home. She walked along the mostly empty meat shelves. Her foot hit something, and she bent down to see what it was. A packet of uncooked chicken had been overlooked, accidentally kicked under the edge of the shelf. The little girl sat down on the floor, and ripped off the plastic. She began to eat the uncooked chicken. As she chewed, the hunger seemed to subside somewhat. Remembering the bad people, she shifted around on her bottom so that they could not see what she had. The chicken was heavenly, and she ate all but the bones. The little girl got up to look for more, but found only empty containers and discarded wrappings.
The little girl decided to look elsewhere for food. Once again she crossed the broken glass, and emerged outside. She was trying to decide where to go next, when she saw the mechanical horse on the right hand side of the storefront. Mommy and Daddy always let her ride the horse, because she was good while at the store and helped find things for them. She had definitely been good today, since she had found the chicken and not misbehaved around the bad people, so she walked over to the horse.
She ran her hand down the entire length of the horse, feeling the smooth surface from head to tail. The girl touched the black box on the pole that was attached to the platform the horse was on. Her fingers ran over the small slot. She remembered that you had to put little silver disks in the slot to make the horse go. Mommy and Daddy always did that after she had climbed up. Last year, she had finally grown big enough to get on the horse by herself. She put her left foot into the stirrup and swung into the saddle on the first try. The little girl took the reins in both hands.
Nothing happened. She turned in the saddle and looked at the black box. Mommy and Daddy were not here to put disks in the slot. The horse would not go without the disks. She turned back around and waited and waited but nothing happened. What would she do now?
In the past, whenever the horse stopped, the little girl continued to rock back and forth, to get a few more precious moments of riding before they had to go to the car. She turned back around and started to rock on the horse. It was the most wonderful thing. As she rocked, the hunger seemed to disappear from her mind. Just the little girl and her horse.
It started to get dark. She knew that she should have gone home already, but there was no one to tell her that it was time to leave. Besides, she no longer remembered where her home was. She rocked back and forth all night, and carried on into the next day.
On that day, there were lots more bad people around. They went in and out of the store all day. Most of the time, the bad people ignored the rocking girl. One woman stopped and watched her rock for a really long time, before wandering off down the street. It made her think of Mommy.
Later, a man came along, roaring and knocking over the shopping carts. The little girl did not like the look of this bad man, so she lowered her head and tried to appear not to notice him. She watched him from the corner of her eye. The man continued on, trying to push over the drink machines, but they were too large for him. He stopped near the little girl and stared at her. She lowered her head all the way to her chest. He came over and grabbed her shoulder forcing her to look him in the face. Half of his face was torn off. Squeezing her shoulder, he pushed his face right into hers, and roared again. If she was still able to cry, she would have. Mommy and Daddy would never have let someone be ugly to her. The really bad man stopped roaring and let go of her. He too wandered off, pushing over carts until he was out of sight. The little girl resumed her rocking.
Dark and light, rain and sun, the days passed on and on. The little girl continued to rock back and forth, letting the world pass her by. No more of the bad people ever bothered her again, only the occasional casual viewer.
One morning, she heard a distant rumbling sound, coming from the far side of town. It had been so long since she had heard anything but the wind that she almost stopped. The sound died away on the breeze. It was followed by something else, faint at first, but rising. Now she had to stop and strain her ears. As she stopped, the hunger began to creep back quietly into her mind. Right now she was more curious than hungry.
The sound came back again, louder this time, and somewhat distorted. She strained to remember what it was. Something from a very long time ago. It came much louder now, and she remembered. It was a voice. A human voice. Amplified somehow. Bad people were pouring out of the store and from the surrounding buildings, all responding to that siren song. New sounds appeared; loud bangs and crashes.
The little girl was fully stopped now, straining to hear the voice again. The hunger came rushing full force, and she involuntarily opened her mouth for the first time in so long. Food. That voice meant that there was food. And for the first time since her new life started, she knew exactly what kind of food she wanted. Human flesh.
In her mind, she pictured herself eating the warm, sticky flesh. Her hunger was becoming overwhelming. The bangs and crashes continued, with occasional repeats of the voice. The little girl could no longer resist her urges. She unwrapped the reins from her hand, and climbed down from the horse for the first time.
As she did so, the little girl looked once again at its charging face. It looked like it was smiling at her. Her own face broke into an involuntary smile. Besides Mommy and Daddy, the horse was the only thing left in her mind. That and the hunger. A huge explosion caused her to flinch and turn around. Most of the bad people were out of sight, but the bangs continued. The voice was still drawing her towards the food. She was wracked by indecision.
The little girl turned once more to the horse, patting its face and mane. She smiled again, as the big house with the barn and white fences jumped back into her mind. Memories of happy times returned. The little girl knew what she wanted, more than anything else. She wrapped the reins around her hand and reentered the saddle. As she began to rock, the hunger started to fade; no longer the unyielding need, but vanishing away in a dying whisper, never to return. She was free. The smiled stayed on her face.
The bangs and crashes continued for some time, and now columns of smoke rose into the sky. After some time, the bangs died out, replaced once again by the rumbling sounds. They seemed to get louder.
The little girl turned to watch as several large metal boxes on wheels entered the store parking lot. The first one carried on past her before stopping. Another backed up closer to the store. Figures started to emerge from the boxes.
On the roof of the first metal box, a pretty lady with long golden hair appeared beside a man. The lady reminded her of Mommy, even though she looked nothing like her. The little girl smiled. The lady removed a long stick from her back, and pointed it towards the girl. The little girl wondered if the golden lady had any of the little silver disks …
The shot struck the little girl high in the forehead, painting the wall behind her with blood, and brains, and hair. The force of the impact flung her off the horse, to drop beside the store wall. With her hand still twisted in the reins, she looked like a broken doll.
On the roof of Big Zeke, Andrew scanned the area for zombie activity. Winter ejected the spent shell from her rifle and did the same. Like all of them, she was wearing a mixture of civilian and military clothes. Winter had on a light tan jacket, hunting shirt and military cargo pants. On her sides were two pistols and a machete. She had created a leather back holster for her favorite rifle, to keep her hands free. A headset rounded out her outfit. Andrew was wearing his usual faded military uniform, with assault rifle and attached grenade launcher. His original uniform had worn out some time ago, replaced several times since, but habits die hard. He also wore two guns and a metal ax.
He hated looting operations, but they were a necessary evil. He was always so afraid that someone would get hurt or killed, but he never let the others know his fears. They had practiced and refined their tactics again and again in the mall and at the factory until they were as complete as possible. The year of practical exercise had born out his ideas.
Down below, six people rushed towards the store. In the front, Jimmy was wearing his cowboy hat. He pulled out two submachine guns from his leg holsters, twirled them around his fingers, flicked the safety switches, winked at Susan beside him, and headed towards the store front. Two replica Old West Colt .45s at his sides and a samurai sword on the back completed his ensemble.
Susan was frowning at Jimmy in seriousness. She was carrying a military automatic shotgun, with the usual pistols and machete. Her oversized Army helmet wobbled left and right, even with the chin strap pulled tight. It was too large for her, and Andrew had offered several times to replace it, but it was the first one that she had tried on during their initial looting of a National Guard armory, and she refused to part with it. The other four were similarly dressed and armed.
Early on, Andrew had come to the decision that everyone was to carry four weapons when on operations; a rifle/assault rifle/shotgun/machine-gun, two pistols, and one cutting weapon, like an ax or machete. That way, they would never be without a weapon or have limited ammo in the face of the enemy. Also, no one ever went anywhere alone away from the vehicles. Not even back home in the mall.
During looting operations, they first scanned their objective with binoculars and made plans on which buildings they would loot. Groceries, pharmacies, gun stores, and gas stations were the preferred targets. Funny enough, Andrew preferred to loot these places in what used to be considered bad neighborhoods; the bars on the windows usually meant that they were safe from zombies. Today was a suburban upscale store. They never approached residences, apartment buildings, offices, hospitals, or most government buildings. While these had a good chance for useful items, there was an even greater chance of meeting zombies. They burned them whenever possible to destroy any occupants.
Andrew never liked to think that they were “killing” the zombies. The disease or other zombies had already done that. He thought that they were destroying their walking corpses, freeing their souls if you like. He usually referred to them as “the Enemy”, and always made certain to respect this relentless foe.
Once they had chosen their targets, they would try to find an open place as far as possible from them in town, and set up their “killing zone”. One or more people would then use the megaphones to call the zombies, who would approach and be cut down by their weapons. Simple and yet effective. After all of the zombies in sight were destroyed, they would travel to the target and begin looting.
Not all of the zombies would come to answer the call, and therefore the need for maximum caution during looting. Last week, Andrew had been part of the team assigned to loot a grocery. Almost immediately, they had come running out, followed by over fifty zombies who had hidden in the store. Per their plans, the group formed a semi circle next to Big Zeke and all weapons were turned on the store front. After the zombies fell, a white phosphorous grenade through the doors burned the store to the ground.
Norma, their former truck driver and resident expert on everything diesel, and Sharon ran around to the back of the eighteen wheeler and opened the doors. Their job would be to load the supplies into the truck, so they climbed inside.
Andrew turned to watch as Little Zeke pulled into the store’s parking lot. The large vehicle backed around to face the way that it had come in, weapons at the ready. In the commander’s cupola was Alessia, the youngest member of their team. She was wearing a white tee shirt and a red baseball cap covered her braided brown hair, holding her headset in place. The sunlight reflected off of a golden cross that she always wore around her neck. It had been a Sweet Sixteen gift from her parents, only a few short months before that fateful Sunday. Her family traditionally celebrated the start of a new school year by having a picnic at a local park the day before classes started. Alessia had been the only one to escape from a group of ravenous zombies that had descended on the party. Every since that day, the young girl had exacted a crimson vengeance on the undead.
Alessia was loading a belt of ammunition into the .50 caliber machine gun. The young girl closed the top plate and pulled back on the charging handle. She took hold of the hand grips, her fingers poised over the V-shaped butterfly trigger, as she scanned the streets for activity. A large pink bubble emerged from her mouth, growing larger and larger before it popped. She licked the gum from her face, and started chewing again. Andrew smiled and turned back to the store.
The six people entered the store, and broke into three pairs. Each pair was composed of a “shooter” and an “overwatch”. The shooter would be in the lead, looking for any zombies still in the store. If the shooter spotted a zombie, they would call out loudly to the others and than open fire. If they fired all of their ammunition in their main weapon, they shouted this as well, and reloaded. The overwatch’s job was to cover the shooter, and only fired if absolutely necessary. This way, each pair always had someone ready with a weapon. In a store, the rules were simple: no going near dark corners, never reach where you cannot see clearly, no going into the back room, and never ever go near the meat department. “Zero mistakes, zero casualties” that was their motto. The pairs shouted out their locations to each other as they moved in parallel through the store.
Big Zeke and Little Zeke were on “vehicle overwatch”. Andrew never heard more than two shots together. He was very proud of his group. For the thousandth time, he wondered what the generals in the Pentagon would have thought of his little band of warriors. The official U.S. military policy had been that women could not fight, which was the reason why Winter had never signed up as well, despite her considerable skills. Women and homosexuals. The same thing that they used to say about Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews a long time ago if he remembered correctly. Every person in his group had destroyed more people than anyone else in human history, with more added each day. How about that, general? He smiled again.
Looting was effective, but it never netted them any fresh meat. Military rations only went so far, and hunting was difficult. Winter had been a hunter since before he had met her, and several others in the group were as well. They brought in game whenever they could. Andrew wondered how animals survived at all in this world of the dead, hiding from enemies who never slept. Somehow they managed. Even today, during the attack on this town, he had seen a cat run from one hiding place to another. Nature always seemed to adapt to whatever mankind threw at it.
Once a store was cleared, the “shooter” became the “looter”, and the “overwatch” continued to provide cover. Grabbing a shopping cart, the pairs headed down the aisles, stocking up on supplies. After so much time, most of the items were spoiled, but there were always some with a long shelf life. Early on, the stench inside stores had been overpowering, but time had reduced it; or else they had grown used to the smell.
To supplement their diet of game and stolen supplies, they collected fruit and vegetables whenever they could find them. Collecting fruit from the tops of trees was easy when you had a big armored truck. Annie, their nurse/doctor/dentist, insisted that they scatter the seeds so that more would grow someday. She was an environmentalist as well.
The teams ferried their carts out to the eighteen wheeler, and the looters handed their supplies up to Norma and Sharon. They would continue until the store ran out of usable supplies, or they ran out of room in the truck. The women jumped down and locked the doors, before returning to the truck’s cab.
The sky was really getting dark now, and Andrew could feel the water in the air. He wanted to put a few miles behind them before they camped. He ordered everyone back to their vehicles, and the convoy departed.
That night, the rain fell hard, drenching the earth below. Pools formed on the saturated ground. The wind had really picked up, whipping the raindrops until they almost came horizontally.
The rain fell on the little convoy. They were parked less than three miles outside of town. The crews had retired to the two heavy vehicles for the night and they hummed with the power generated by the on board electrical system. Light poured out from the open firing ports.
The rain fell on a woman. She had long greasy hair and wore a tattered housedress. This person should have been a favored meal for the zombies, being grotesquely overweight, but when the crisis started, she had locked herself away in her home. Panic and fear had induced a heart attack, and she had returned to life before other zombies had found her. She had still been in her home when today’s attack started, and had broken a window to get out. The woman had spotted the convoy leaving town, and had followed behind in the rain. The lights and sounds showed her where they had stopped.
Her hands ran over the outside of the metal box, trying to find some way in. The voices from inside were driving her mad with hunger. She hammered on the walls and roared in anger. A face appeared above her in one of the little windows. The face was replaced by an arm that stuck completely out of the hole. It was holding some metal object. The zombie reached up, but the arm was too far away. The woman was roaring again as the shot blow her head completely off.
Winter pulled in her wet arm, and replaced the weapon in her holster. “Just one, really fat zombie”, she said to the room. Within, the others were sitting down to eat dinner. Susan had cooked a hot meal on the vehicle’s built in kitchen unit. Andrew, Jimmy, Annie, and Michael completed the crew. The remainders were spending the night in Little Zeke.
Hot meals were a luxury, but Andrew thought they deserved one today. They had eliminated two small communities and the large town they had just exited. As a bonus, the supply and fuel trucks were full. Andrew sat on the floor next to Winter. There were no tables or chairs. The accommodations were crowded, what with six people and boxes of supplies and duffle bags full of clothes. The kitchen unit and fresher took up space on the left hand side of the vehicle, and the large turret housing filled more space, and divided the inside cabin into two parts. The vehicle had not been designed to be lived in for long periods of time, but they had adapted. Everyone slept in over-sized sleeping bags on the floor. The only privacy could be gained by going into the driver’s compartment in front of the turret or by sleeping on the roof. No one could keep any taboos in such tight quarters. Andrew found it homey.
After dinner, Jimmy was cleaning up the kitchen, while the others cleaned weapons and discussed their plans for tomorrow. On rainy days, they either stayed inside or traveled to their next target. With no way to predict the weather, Andrew decided that they would travel in the morning and see how things worked out.
Once the meeting was finished, Winter handed him an envelope. It was battered and smudged, and had his name on the outside.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Just open it” was the reply.
Andrew used his finger and slit open the envelope. Inside was a funny birthday card, one that you would give to a coworker. Everyone had written small paragraphs and signed it.
“I don’t understand.”
“Today is your birthday.”
His frown showed his lack of comprehension.
Winter spoke again. “Today is August 2nd, your birthday. Everyone decided some time ago to give you this card and celebrate. To thank you for giving us a chance to survive. I have been carrying it ever since we left the mall. We wanted to surprise you.”
The others started to sing Happy Birthday, and Jimmy brought over a tray of fruit with a single candle on it. Andrew felt silly as he blew it out. The others clapped and Winter kissed him. Michael handed him a headset on which the crew of Little Zeke each wished him a happy evening.
Andrew smiled. His wife was the “guardian of civilization” and always demanded that they celebrate major holidays and such. He should have seen this coming.
The rain fell into the eyes of the little girl. Her lifeless eyes were staring up at nothing, her mouth hanging open in final death. Somewhere else, she was riding the pretty horses in the yard with the big white fence. Mommy and Daddy were riding as well. Everyone was smiling and laughing. And they would be riding the pretty horses for ever and ever…
The rain fell on the mechanical horse, its body forever frozen in the stance of running. Its charging face waited patiently for another child to come.