Into the Badlands
Brian J. Jarrett
Copyright © 2011, 2012 Brian J. Jarrett
Elegy Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved by the author. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the written consent of the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any names, people, locales, or events are purely a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any person (either living or dead), to any event, or to any locale is coincidental or used fictitiously.
2011.ITB.1.26 (Third Edition)
For Orson and Trent
The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.
– Carl Sagan
Zach Brady sifted through the paltry remains of what had once been a sporting goods store, diligently searching for anything that might still be of use. Rotting, empty boxes spilled from cabinets and shelves like the organs of a gutted animal. Despite the cold he could still smell the stink of mold and rot in the air, even through the mask covering his mouth and nose.
His father and his younger brother were two aisles down from him, both engaged in searches of a similar nature. Zach felt that searching this store was pointless, but his father said it was necessary if they wanted to survive the winter. He always listened to his father.
He spotted a cabinet two aisles over. The doors were closed; that could be a good sign. Sometimes it meant there was actually something useful hidden inside. His dad had taught him the difference between what was useful and what wasn’t. It turned out toys weren’t all that useful. Zach didn’t really agree, but he was only ten years old and Dad made the rules. His father did allow him a single toy, though; he chose a ’57 Chevy Hot Wheels car. It was even small enough to fit in his front pocket.
Zach walked to the cabinet, stepping lightly around the fallen debris littering the floor, being careful with each step to test his weight on the decaying floor. The snow made it difficult to see what was actually beneath his feet. It had been a long time since this place had seen a roof overhead. He’d fallen through a rotten floor once before and he didn’t want to do it again.
When he reached the cabinet and opened the doors he found only some ragged sheets of decomposing paper, some pens, and some paperclips. That was as good as empty. He couldn’t help but be disappointed. Their supplies were dwindling and they needed a find soon. He thought his dad was scared but was trying not to show it. It made Zach feel better when his father was brave. It made him feel he could be brave too.
Suddenly he noticed how quiet things had become. He couldn’t hear his father and brother anymore. Wind whistled through the broken windows. A crow cawed once in the distance. Then he heard a sound come from the end of the aisle behind him, a sound like someone walking. His stomach clenched and despite the cold air against his cheeks, his face flushed hot.
He rose and turned slowly. At the end of the aisle, no more than sixty feet in front of him, stood a gaunt, dark figure. Dead leaves and small twigs infested its long, matted hair. Its breath escaped in small plumes, visible in the cold, dusk air. The figure stood slightly hunched, watching him. Its head turned to the side, its mouth twitching and jerking. It was dressed in dirty, disintegrating rags that barely covered its body.
It stood, simply breathing and watching. Zach froze while the thing just continued to stare. He knew that calling out to his father could provoke it, but so could running away from it. If this carrier was paralyzed badly enough he could maybe outrun it, but he also knew there was no guarantee of that. Sometimes carriers were so delirious they just walked away, not often, but sometimes. He hoped this one would just walk away.
Zach’s eyes shifted left and right; he could find no obvious exit. Shelves, boxes, and other garbage boxed him in.
Suddenly, the figure stopped moving and stood very still.
Zach reached slowly for his gun and unsnapped the holster. In the eerie silence of the store it made a deafening clicking sound.
Zach backpedaled, surprised by the thing’s speed. It had appeared to be starving, even near death, but the prowess and agility it displayed was terrifying. Zach tripped over some trash on the floor, landing on his backside. Boxes fell around his head, blocking his view.
He reached down to his holster to retrieve the gun. It was gone! He desperately searched for the gun under the trash and snow covering the floor, but he couldn’t find it. Panic coursed through him like an electric shock. The thing continued to run, jumping over trash and boxes, closing the gap between them with alarming speed. Zach stood up and tried to run. In his haste he tripped and fell on a rotten tree branch that had fallen through the decaying roof.
Now on his hands and knees he quickly looked up, surveying his escape route. He still didn’t see one; all the shelves now looked like a labyrinth. The gun was still missing and he couldn’t think. He was frozen in place, utterly terrified. He realized with sickening certainty that he was going to die in the trash; torn limb from limb by the monster behind him. In a last-ditch effort he opened his mouth to call out for his father’s help.
Before he could make a sound he saw a tall figure dressed in camouflage, wearing goggles and a surgical mask over a long beard running toward him. The man gripped a baseball bat in his hands.
His father jumped over him, swinging the bat with incredible force. Zach watched as the bat connected just above the thing’s nose. Its head snapped backward from the impact as its bare, frostbitten feet flew out from under it. It landed on its back, motionless, dead before it hit the floor. Standing over the miserable figure, his father delivered one final blow to the thing’s head, splitting it into pieces.
Ed Brady turned to his oldest son, a few small dots of the carrier’s blood clinging to his goggles.
“Oh, Zach,” he said through the mask, shaking his head, his voice wavering.
Zach began to cry.
Ed held his son for only a moment, attempting to quell the tears. A moment was all the time they might have before more of the infected showed up. This attack had been too close. Zach knew better than to wander off, but the boy was so young; it was an understandable mistake. Dangerous, but understandable.
Ed’s youngest son Jeremy emerged from the shadows. He was a thoughtful and precocious eight year old, streetwise beyond his years. Jeremy instinctively scanned the aisles for movement before fixing his gaze upon his father and brother.
Ed looked down at Zach and Jeremy. “We have to go, guys. Where there’s one there’s bound to be more, you know.”
The boys nodded in agreement.
“There’s nothin’ here anyway,” Jeremy said.
Ed didn’t reply.
The trio quickly searched the trash, eventually locating Zach’s missing gun. Quickly but carefully they made their way out of the store. The arctic wind bit into them as they passed through the broken front doors of the decrepit building and into the winter night.
After scanning the parking lot for carriers Ed picked up some snow with a gloved hand, rubbed it on his goggles and wiped them clean. Next, he wiped his wax-laden surgical mask in the same fashion. Finally, he cleaned his gloves in the snow.
He knew what that could mean.
He inspected both of his children; they were apparently clean…this time. He wondered just how exposed he’d been back there. His concern was for the kids; if he was alone and had been exposed he could live and die by that. With the kids involved, however, it would mean leaving them without their protector. It would be their death sentence. He had to make sure his children would live to see a different world than the one in which they now suffered so greatly.
He turned to his oldest son. “Zach, go get the sled and bring it over here.”
Zach complied without hesitation. In their world, survival depended on following the rules.
Ed hitched the sled to his own waist using a frayed, nylon rope they’d picked up at a Home Depot right after they left the border town. The sled, procured from a Toys “R” Us when the snow began to fall, contained anything they couldn’t fit into their backpacks: extra food, blankets, plastic sheeting, rope, and more.
They ran through their pre-travel checklist: boots tied, backpacks zipped, masks and goggles on, what guns they had holstered and ready. Their map was their ever-present guide, tucked away in Ed’s front pocket. Their baseball bat and machete were close at hand as well. Those weapons usually saw more action than the guns anyway.
A scream sounded in the distance, deep in the surrounding wood. It was the sound of pain and insanity. Ed shuddered. He supposed he’d never get used to that sound.
As the snow continued to fall from the dark sky above them, Ed and his sons trudged on through the accumulating drifts. The sled he pulled moved smoothly across the powdery surface, producing a soft, consistent scraping sound. It was almost soothing in the heavy silence of the snowy night.
Wool socks covered their feet. They never ignored their feet; frostbite led to gangrene, and gangrene led to death. Once feet froze, death wasn’t far behind. It was a hard lesson of winter after the outbreak. Ski masks covered their faces now, their eyes protected by goggles, their bodies covered by multiple layers of scavenged winter-wear. They looked like homeless mountaineers engaged in a futile search for some mythical peak.
The snow fell heavily for several hours before finally letting up. Eventually, it stopped altogether, the clouds moving out not long after that. The nearly full moon shone brightly down from above them with cold indifference, effectively illuminating the area around them and allowing them to see surprisingly well. The strip mall they’d left was long behind them, but the memory of Zach’s encounter with the carrier was still fresh in all their minds.
According to the map, they were traveling along what had once been Interstate Highway 64, heading due west. In this part of the country, highway exits had initially served to offer travelers a respite from the rigors of the open road. They also unintentionally served to break up the long stretches of tree-lined roadway.
Despite the brightness of the moon, the surrounding forest remained the deepest of all blacks. Having left the strip mall far behind, Ed and his sons now walked a barren stretch of road bordered by a Stygian nightmare. The snow had accumulated significantly, making travel even more difficult. Summer travel was easier, but the favorable conditions also meant it was easier for the carriers as well.
By the light of the moon, they could see scores of corpses littering the highway. Most belonged to the infected and were at least partly devoured by wild animals, or possibly by other carriers. The bones and the cartilage, however, remained largely intact. Ed noticed some of the bodies were fresher than others, suggesting they’d died more recently.
That meant people were still being infected.
The infected were dying, but not quickly enough. Survivors killed many carriers shortly after the infection broke out, and the army’s first strike killed even more. In the end, however, there were so many infected they couldn’t possibly all be contained or killed.
That had been civilization’s downfall.
Some time after the outbreak the remaining infected began to develop rudimentary survival techniques. They would often hunt city and suburban streets in packs, eating whatever people and animals they could catch. The infected ate anything already dead as well, including infected bodies. While the living carriers wouldn’t hesitate to eat an already infected dead body, they tended not to attack other living infected humans. This peculiar behavior led to speculation by survivors that the virus had been a form of germ warfare, the behavior engineered.
With the cloud cover gone it was inevitable the temperatures would drop. Ed and the boys needed a camp and a fire. There were plenty of cars forever stranded on the highway; normally they just found one with windows intact and holed up in it. As cold as it was on this night, however, they desperately needed heat, so they staked out two cars parked nearly side by side to build their fire between.
After identifying their campsite, the three of them walked together to the edge of the forest to gather deadwood for the fire. They rarely separated; this task was no exception to that rule. After the incident back at the sporting goods store, Ed felt this was even more imperative. He still blamed himself for allowing Zach to go off alone for so long. They were lucky, indeed.
They made short work of the firewood retrieval, each carrying as much as they could back to their campsite. Five trips provided them enough wood to keep the fire going the entire night.
Back at their impromptu camp, Ed looked inside the two cars; they were both filled with the forgotten corpses of another time. Most of the infected had difficulty opening car doors; otherwise, they’d have eaten their fill of the car-bodies long ago. He had the boys close their eyes while he removed the corpses from the cars, dragging them a sufficient distance from the camp. It was gruesome work, and one more nightmarish image he didn’t want his children to have to endure. He could only imagine the circumstances that led these poor folks to die in their cars. He tried not to dwell on it; he couldn’t mourn for the lost world forever.
Once Ed got the fire going they all removed their gloves and held their hands toward the flames, rubbing their fingers together. The smell of smoke was strong and comforting. The cars they’d camped between served to block some of the biting wind, reflecting some of the fire’s heat back toward them. It wasn’t necessarily cozy, but it would suffice for the night.
Ed and the boys were in their third winter since the outbreak. Two of those winters were spent on the road. They had been in the border town for the first winter immediately after the outbreak, at least until the food ran out and things in the town broke down completely.
That had also been before Sarah died.
Ed promptly shook that thought from his head.
They sat on a folded blanket, placed on top of a sheet of plastic to keep the snow melt from soaking their clothing. Another simple truth in these cruel winters: get wet and death wasn’t far behind. They covered themselves with an unzipped sleeping bag, huddling closely together between the cars, Ed’s back supported by a rotten, flattened tire. Jeremy’s head rested on Ed’s shoulder while Zach sat, leaning against his father’s chest.
They sat this way for a very long time, not speaking. They’d had close calls before, but they were all still shaken by what had happened at the sporting goods store only hours before. They were lucky, Ed knew that, and he wondered how long they could carry on until their luck ran out. He wondered if the question wasn’t *if* the virus or the carriers would catch up to them, but *when*. He asked himself that question frequently, more often than made him comfortable.
After some time, Jeremy spoke. “Daddy, do you think Mommy is watching us right now?” It was a question he’d asked before.
Ed didn’t have an answer. He wanted to always tell the boys the truth; they deserved that much. Sometimes, particularly when the truth was harsh, it was a difficult thing to do. “I don’t know, buddy. I hope so.”
“Do you think she knows we’re okay?”
“If she’s watching us then yeah, I think she does.”
Jeremy paused for a moment, thinking. “Good.”
“I miss her,” Zach added.
“I do too. We all do,” Ed said.
“I think she’d be proud of us,” Zach said. “Really proud.”
Ed smiled. “Yeah, she would, wouldn’t she? She really would.” That time telling the truth was easy.
The fire crackled as it ruthlessly consumed the deadwood they’d gathered. Smoke blew haphazardly into the air as small embers traveled on updrafts, burning out after a few feet. Occasionally the burning wood cracked so loudly they looked to the woods for intruders. Thankfully there were none.
More silence followed. Ed and the boys watched the hypnotic dance of the flames upon the wood. He pulled them closer. Despite the cold and the wind they were reasonably warm.
“Tell us again about the city by the river,” Zach asked.
The city was what kept them all going. It was their religion now. It had also become a common bedtime story. They asked about it periodically and never tired of hearing the same thing repeatedly.
Ed cleared his throat. “I went there once, a few years before the infection broke. It was a nice city, built right on the river. Near the edge of the river was a giant steel arch, over six hundred feet tall.”
“Did you climb it?” Jeremy asked.
“No, doofus, you can’t climb the Arch,” Zach said.
Ed continued. “No buddy, I didn’t climb it. I didn’t even go in it. But, when I last saw it, the setting sun lit it up like a giant orange candle.”
Zach paused for a moment, thoughtful. “Do you think anybody lives in the city anymore? Do you think what you heard was true?”
Ed thought about his answer, though they always asked the same question. “I don’t know, maybe. I hope so. You know how the cities were overrun so fast. Everybody ran to the coasts to get away. There might not be anybody there, or it could be full of carriers.”
“But the message you heard,” Zach continued, “it said Saint Louis was a safe haven.”
Ed nodded in the darkness. “But that was a while ago, and the message was spotty; the reception was bad and there was lots of static. It’s hard to say for sure.”
“Well, I think it’s safe,” Jeremy said, proclaiming this sentiment with his usual high degree of confidence.
Ed chuckled. “I hope so. Either way, we have each other.”
Ed allowed the boys to drift off to sleep together. He planned to stay up for a few more hours before waking Zach for guard duty. He and the boys always slept in rotation; danger lurked everywhere and knew no bedtime. For now, he was content to sit with his two sons, to hold them close another day, and to fill their minds and their spirits with hope.
Ed had indeed happened upon a radio broadcast, that much was true, but it had only contained four words. *Saint Louis…(static)… safe haven.* While that *could* mean Saint Louis really was safe, it could also be just as likely that hidden under the static between those words the message might have really been Saint Louis is* not* a safe haven. That particular message might have been a dire warning to all those considering entry.
Or it all could be a lie; a fib orchestrated to lure the unwitting into a trap. The police, the armed forces, even the government eventually crumbled once the infection went into full pandemic. It came on too strong, too fast, and there was no plan in place to deal with a threat of that magnitude. It was truly unprecedented. It made the Spanish Flu look like a common cold season.
Now, without any law of the land in place, men had become more horrible than Ed had ever thought possible. Their evil was truly limitless. He’d seen some of the worst things imaginable since the outbreak; his children had seen more than their fair share as well.
The truth was there was no one left to save them. They were, in every sense of the phrase, completely on their own. Ed knew the reality was they couldn’t keep moving forever. Eventually, their luck would run out. They’d be captured and killed by thieves or they’d be torn to bits by the hordes of rabid carriers that freely roamed the land now. Or, perhaps worse, Ed would be exposed to the virus, leaving his two children to fend for themselves in a world with no hope, no rules, and no allies.
He wondered if he could do what was necessary then. The three bullets he kept in the magazine in his front pocket were a constant reminder of the choice he might be forced to make.
Sarah’s luck had run out. Try as he had, he hadn’t been able to save his wife. His harsh lesson had been how powerless to change anything he really was. That knowledge haunted him each time he looked at his children. Was he just biding time, staving off the inevitable? He could only hope they couldn’t see his increasing doubt.
Ed Brady sat on the surface of a deserted highway, surrounded by ghosts of the past, holding the fragile future in his arms.
The city by the river could mean salvation, or it could mean death.
Either way, it was their destiny.