eaters (book 2) the resistance

 

 

Eaters: The Resistance   

By Michelle DePaepe

Copyright 2015 Michelle DePaepe

Amazon Edition

 

 

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PART I

 

Chapter  1

 

Underneath a topaz sky, the desert sand reflected the brilliance of the Tucson sun like an infinite amount of diamond dust. Cheryl Malone watched the robin perched on the stone ledge of Fort San Manuel. It chirped at her, begging for any scraps she could spare. Before she could reach into the pocket on her cargo shorts to find some crumbs leftover from the biscuit she'd brought to her post for breakfast, the bird took flight. She saw it soar high above the prickly landscape as the ear-piercing wail of sirens screamed out from one of the baiting stations on the outskirts of the compound.

"Malone!" Private Kelly yelled from his post a few yards away, pointing at the gathering cloud on the northern horizon.

She grabbed the AK-47 leaning against the wall and jumped to her feet. With one hand on the stock and a finger curled around the trigger, she gripped the warm metal and scanned the perimeter of the compound. Her instinct was to start firing at the first hint of motion outside the safety of the fort, but she knew that the targets wouldn't be in range until they reached the tall chain link fence, topped with a snarl of razor wire. Cheryl remembered that a soldier had once told the new patrol recruits not to fire until they saw the proverbial
whites of their eyes
. That directive was met with a round of laughter, because if any of the oncoming infected still had eyes, they certainly weren't white anymore.

She was used to the horrific appearance of the Eaters or N.E.U.s—
Necrophagous Eating Units
—as the military affectionately called them—many so decomposed that they were little more than skeletons with wispy flaps of leathery skin dangling from their bones.  They came in hordes of tens, hundreds, and occasionally even more…and they were looking for food.
Any sort of human flesh would do.

They could only be stopped by a direct hit to the head; it had to be a bull's-eye to the brain pan to destroy the infected tissue inside their skull. If you weren't successful in inflicting that kind of trauma, like an automaton they just kept coming and coming until they reached their target and consumed it.

Figures began to emerge from the amorphous sand cloud. Cheryl sucked in her breath as her finger tightened on the trigger. This wasn't the usual onslaught of
stick figures
with gnashing teeth, desiccated by weeks of wandering under the desert sun. This crop included a menagerie of short and tall, fat and thin, and the young and the old in various states of decomposition.  They didn’t look like the normal band of corpses that had been wandering the desert in search of food as they baked in the hot sun. Many of these Eaters were
fresh
—if one could use such an amusing word to describe them. They had been infected more recently. It was bad news, because it could mean they had come from breeched shelters, pockets of civilian holdouts in Tucson, Phoenix, or the surrounding areas.

As their individual forms became more distinct, Cheryl knew that it was best not to look too closely at their faces. Though every one of them had once been someone's mother, brother, sister, friend; it was important to remember that they weren't human anymore. They were ragtag compilations of bone, sinew, and hair with no heart beating inside them.  No rational thought process—just walking eating machines.

Sergeant Cruz raised a hand from the watchtower. "Hold!"

Cheryl steadied her grip, resisting the urge to start shooting, but someone, probably one of the newest recruits to the combined military/civilian patrol unit, ignored the command and panicked.  Before the first wave of Eaters reached the fence line, there was the rat-a-tat-tat sound of gunfire.

Having almost six months of experience of defending the fort, she wasn't so trigger-happy. She knew it was stupid to waste ammunition by firing randomly into the air or sand. Her lip curled up as she aimed and remained patient, waiting to fire into the fast approaching group.

Private Kelly shouted again. "Cheryl…see that fat, bald dude in the sleeveless shirt?" He nudged his rifle to the right side of the horde.

Cheryl followed his gaze to the stumbling man in the torn, checkered top. He had a long beard, coated in a gory slime of red muck, and there was an inch-long silver barbell dangling from the torn skin above one eyebrow.

"He's mine."

Whatever gets his rocks off
, Cheryl thought. She took no pleasure in dispatching any of them. If she narrowed her eyes to blur the images, she could mow them down like bowling pins, making it an adrenaline-filled task, but not a sport.

A second before the sergeant yelled, "Fire!", Private Kelly changed his mind and aimed for the walking corpse of a young girl. Her wheat-colored pigtails looked like they'd been dipped in ink, but it was more likely that they'd been dragged in the blood of her last victim. Cheryl averted her gaze to the group as a whole, trying to shake away that disturbing visual.

When the group slammed into the chain link fence, clawing and snarling like rabid animals, she and the rest of the patrol on this side of the fort opened fire. Some targets were direct hits, heads jolting back from the impact of the bullets before they tumbled backwards. Others recoiled then recovered quickly, commencing their onward movement then crawling on top of the fallen bodies. One of them mounted the torso of another then climbed onto his shoulders. It wasn't a calculated, coordinated effort, because there was no rational thought process to their gymnastics other than
onward towards the food source
. Eventually, with the process repeated, pyramids formed, with those near the top able to reach the razor wire. Many were stopped at that point, because their flesh or remaining clothing snagged on the sharp blades, halting their advance. That made their heads easy targets for the marksmen on top of the fort roof, but, as usual, some managed to make it over the top of the fence, falling into the pit of rebar spikes where they were impaled.

Most of them.

"Kelly! Malone!" Sergeant Cruz yelled. "Moat!"

They turned their guns towards the pit.

Not all of the invaders had been skewered, because so many were falling at once. The lower ones landed on spikes while the others higher up bounced off of them and tumbled ten feet down into the concrete moat. Too dead to feel any pain even with snapped bones, they stumbled to their feet (or knees if those didn't work). Then, the rogues ran back and forth like tigers trapped in a cage. In the past, this system had worked like a carefully designed drill, because it was easy to pick them off one by one, but today there were so many Eaters in the moat, it was pandemonium.

"Oh my God…" Cheryl said under her breath, not sure where to aim.

Kelly didn't hesitate. He panicked and started spraying a shower of bullets in a wide swath.  It was a clear violation of their training rules.  Every bullet that hit the concrete blasted a hole in the moat, weakening its structure. The damage worried her. It wasn't inconceivable to her that someday the Eaters would start tunneling in the sand, making their way in from underground via the cracks in the barricade.

Many of them were pressing up against the wall now, reaching up with mottled, veiny hands and staring at her with their dead, filmy eyes. The sight of so many so close made her freeze for a moment. In this week's rotation, she was on the lower level of the building. It was usually just as safe as the rest of the positions higher up, but when the rebar failed to stop the onslaught, it was definitely a more hazardous spot. Not wanting to be reported for a
failure to defend
violation, she sucked in her breath and took aim at a man just below her. With his un-tucked, pinstripe shirt covered in blood stains, he looked like someone who had once been an accountant. Cheryl guessed that he had just stepped out for lunch one day at the beginning of the infection and had been attacked. Now, his upper palate and nasal cavity were missing, probably chewed off by another Eater during a squabble over a meal. No longer interested in crunching numbers, now all he wanted to do was strip off her flesh, crunch on her bones and suck the marrow out of them.

She fired and hit him between the eyes. He fell backwards, and she aimed for the next one, a young woman in a filthy dress who crawled on top of his body, trying to claw her way up the wall. After knocking her down, Cheryl aimed for the next…and the next…

She was still panting with her warm gun held tightly in her hands, watching the piles of bodies below for any sign of movement when Sergeant Cruz called the cease fire command. With sweat dripping down her flushed cheeks, it was a moment before she conceded that it was okay to lower her weapon. Two hours had passed since the invasion began. Her body was still tensed in full-adrenaline mode, but her arms felt like jelly as she put the gun down, noticing that she'd gone through an amazing number of rounds.

She gathered her water bottle and other supplies, and headed back inside. Another patrol member was waiting just inside the door. He was just a kid, a new recruit, probably seventeen or eighteen. From the look on his eager, pimpled face, she deduced that he was disappointed that he hadn't been allowed to join in the fight.

She elbowed past him, too drained to warn him about the carnage he was about to witness once he stepped through the door. However
cool
he might think his new job was, he was likely to lose his breakfast when he saw the quantity of corpses and the messy clean-up process. The sanitation crew would already be on their way. As far as she was concerned, there was only one job worse than being a "Sticker" in a baiting station, and that was being a "Remover". When an Eater made it over the fort wall and landed on the forest of rebar pikes, they often were impaled but not killed. If their head was still intact, they were a writhing, moaning, piece of rotting meat. Even when they appeared to be completely dead it was dangerous work for a Remover to get close enough to put them out of service without getting bit by another one nearby. Then came the messy work of removal. So many had come over the wall today, it would take until nightfall to finish the job. During the kid's afternoon shift, the decaying bodies would cook in desert sun in temperatures that could exceed a hundred degrees.  Removers wore Hazmat suits for their work to protect themselves from blood, bloating intestines falling out of bodies like messes of black snakes, and gaseous yellow and green fluids. The worst Cheryl had ever witnessed was an impaled body that had exploded—not from the corpse's putrification, but from the remains of a dead dog in its stomach.

Good luck kid. You won't be eating for a few days after today's shift.

Down the hall, she saw a line of Removers preparing to go out and do their disgusting job that wouldn't end until all the bodies were piled into trucks, taken out to the desert far away from the fort, and burned in huge, stinking piles. Cheryl doubted that world had witnessed such hellish bonfires since the Black Plague.

Private Kelly slid his work card in a vending machine and grabbed the Snickers bar that dropped out.  "You all right?" he asked, keeping step with her a second later.

"Just tired."

"Shit…
we all are
. That was a hell of an attack."

"Their numbers are increasing. Fresher corpses too."

"Makes you wonder where they're all coming from. Fallen shelters? Other states? "

She didn’t want to dwell on their origins at the moment. Some quiet meditation followed by a nap sounded like a better idea. "I don't know.  I'm just glad we survived this round."

Kelly took a bite of his candy bar and smiled. "You can't beat the perks of being on patrol, though. At least we aren't one of the starving slobs down in the squatters section. We pull our own weight."

"Yeah," she said, continuing to walk, but not sure where she was headed. "But it's not the extra rations that keep me going. I'd rather know what's going on out there than be one of the oblivious sheep inside the fort that don't have a clue."

"And that helps you sleep better?"

"No."

"I bet I could give you some sweet dreams."

She gave a sideways glance to the lanky soldier at least five years her junior whose bravado seemed to be enhanced by the cover of his black sunglasses. "Keep talking like that and Mark will kick your ass."
Or, she'd do it herself.
Since arriving at the fort, she'd killed hundreds of the walking dead. And before that, one freshly-turned potential rapist, the size of a Mac truck, in a skanky restroom stall. Private Kelly had no idea what she could do to a simple, cocky young man, even without a loaded weapon in her hands.

He gave her a smirk followed by a wink before detouring towards the cafeteria.

She sighed as she continued down the hall. A lot of guys had come on to her since she'd sought refuge in the fort six months ago. She didn't know if they were really attracted to her, if it was the amped up testosterone from living in a constant state of danger, or if it was just the survival instinct kicking in. Whatever the cause, dozens of women in the fort were pregnant. That meant there was an imminent baby boom in the next few months—which meant more mouths to feed.

Food had been plentiful when she first arrived, but now supplies were intermittent, and it didn't help that the winter growing season had been challenging. Cool crops like lettuce, broccoli, and spinach usually grew well in the fort's garden during the cooler months, but water supplies for irrigation had been unreliable. Some days, nothing flowed out of the pipes. Other days, it was a mucky reddish-brown water that couldn't be used for anything until it had been filtered and boiled. Even then, some people refused to drink it, because they were afraid it carried bacteria from the dead or the agent that caused the infection. "I'd rather sift my piss through a napkin and drink it," one man told her in the cafeteria when he looked at the recycled bottles of water tinged with the color of rust. From the looks of the ropey blue veins underneath his thin, translucent skin, she figured he probably better bring a glass with him every time he went to the bathroom, because he wasn't going to last long without getting more moisture.

She stopped in the hall in front of the silent, black screen mounted to the wall. Until recently, televisions throughout the complex had blared jaw-dropping scenes of heroic military rescues and news from shelters scattered around the country, but most of the screens were dark now, supposedly because they had been unplugged to conserve electricity. There were a few still running, but someone in the hierarchy had decided that no news was better than broadcasting more of the chaos and bleakness around the world, so they simply showed nature films—twittering birds, rabbits hopping through the brush, a lizard sunning itself on a rock.

Where to go now?
She had another patrol shift starting at ten p.m.—quite a few hours away.  She could go to the cafeteria and try to eat some lunch while there was food left. Or…she could visit her dad in the ICU. She decided on the latter, because after such an adrenaline-pumping attack and seeing the various states of all of those bodies, she really wasn't hungry.

"S'up, Cheryl?" the guard asked at the door.

"Just visiting my dad."

"He any better?"

"The same."

"Chin up, kid."

"You say that every day, Frank."

He shrugged. "Just doing my job as the happy greeter. You know like the old dudes who used to work at Walmart."

"Those old dudes didn't pack a loaded AR-15."

"Point taken," he said with a grin. Then, he tipped his cap to her and opened the door.

She made her way to her father's bed towards the back of the room. When she got to the curtain partition, she paused, looking in on the sleeping form with tubes coming out of his wrist and nose.  He looked like a wax dummy, some shrunken image of the boisterous man she used to know—the one that she'd traveled hundreds of miles from Colorado to find and save.

"Creepy."

A young nurse appeared from the other side of the curtain. "What?"

"I meant…
crepey
," Cheryl whispered to her.  "His skin is so thin and papery, like a mummy. I just don't get it. Why can't he gain any weight?"

After checking her father's pulse, the dark-haired girl with a pony tail and purple half-moons underneath her eyes pulled her aside.

"With some of them, it's nothing medical. It's more like PTSD. They just can't snap back after going through what they did."

"But, the IV…it should be helping his body with water and nutrients, right?"

"Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be helping much. He's so severely dehydrated; it's like he just can't absorb anything." Not having anything more encouraging to say, the nurse gave her a sympathetic smile and a quick squeeze on her shoulder then went to check on a patient in the next bed.

Oh, Daddy. Please get better.
He'd been in the ICU now for months and was still so frail, just leather and bones. She'd started sneaking some of her rations in for him, worried that he wasn’t getting a fair share, but even though there were some days when he was sitting upright and able to eat, it didn't seem to help. On one of those rare occasions that he was awake when she visited, his eyes stared at her, unblinking—a testament to the horrors he'd witnessed. He'd only spoken raspy fragments about how he'd survived hidden in his Tucson home, living on nothing but beetles and dust after seeing his neighbors torn to pieces and devoured by Eaters.

Cheryl jumped as her father gripped her hand with fingers that felt like crab claws.
He's still listening. Still here in some way.

She stayed, holding his hand for almost half an hour, talking to him and trying to say any positive thing she could think of without any mention of the attack that the fort had just undergone. Then, feeling pain in her back from hunching over, she said, "I've got to go, Dad. I've got duty." She squeezed his hand and pulled away, feeling the inevitable pang of guilt, the payment for her lie. His rapidly shifting eyeballs under his closed lids seemed to be dreaming of the unspeakable things had brought him to this state
. I know, Dad. Really. I know…

She almost wished that her father had succumbed to the disease and had been put down quickly. Wouldn't that have been preferable to such prolonged suffering?

After pausing at the foot of his bed, she said, "I'll be back soon."

She walked out of the ICU and stood for a moment in the hallway, wondering where Frank had gone. She took in a deep breath of air, then immediately regretted it because of the foulness in the air that had followed her out.

She jumped when a gunshot rang out behind her.

Another one had turned.

Her steps quickened as she hurried away.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Cheryl detoured through the market hall, because a little shopping always took her mind off of more serious things.  With any luck, she hoped to find something suitable for a birthday gift for Mark, her fiancé. Though, she didn't have her hopes up. Some days there were big hauls of loot from Tucson, and occasionally Phoenix, but most of the time, it was random sundries and mundane paraphernalia like clothing, linens, toiletries, books, and toys. She'd given up on finding a new pair of combat boots in Mark's size or a hunting knife like the one he brought back from Afghanistan and used to take camping. There were just two days left before his birthday, so she was running out of time to be picky. A few weeks ago, he'd have been thrilled to receive something as simple as a carton of cigarettes, but he'd quit after an Eater nearly caught him during a perimeter patrol. He said that if he couldn't outrun a dead piece of meat, it was time to give up the cancer sticks.
So,
m
aybe a Grisham novel or a couple bottles of Corona would have to do.

She passed by a new shop that sold baby clothes and formula, and another with kitschy décor to make rooms look less dormitory-like: paintings, faux window scenes, battery-operated candles, and all sorts of knick-knacks.  Then, she slowed at a sight of another new store that sold towels, blankets, and comforters. She and Mark were still using the gray flannel bed spread that had been in his room when she'd moved in—it was itchy and still had burn holes from previous smoking accidents. This place was worth a look because she knew there were nicer quilts to be had for a gift to herself if not to Mark who could probably care less about sprucing up their living quarters.

"Hi there."

Cheryl nodded
hello
to the clerk who had an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, wispy bangs covering one eye, and a narrow head that looked like it had been squeezed between two metal plates.

"Looking for something?" he said, glancing at her with slanted eyes like a wolf ogling prey.

"New comforter."

"Twin?"

"Full," she said, knowing that saying you slept in a full-sized bed meant that you were either high-ranking enough to deserve one or had a significant other that you bunked with. It was as good as flashing a not-good-enough-for-you sign or her engagement ring.

His gaze tore away from her and went straight to a stack of bedding on a folding table. "What about this?" he asked, holding up a peach blanket with a floral print.

She shook her head.
Too girly.

"This?"

She nixed that one too. It was masculine enough, but with its blue camouflage print, it looked like something for an eight year old's room.

"No thanks," she said, starting to walk away.

"Wait! I got more in this morning. Haven't unpacked yet."

She stopped, though she figured she was wasting her time.

The man stooped below the makeshift counter made out of particle board and cinder blocks and pulled out a black plastic trash bag. She shook her head as he showed her two more comforters then stepped back into the crowded hallway.

"There's one more," he called after her. "What about this?"

A glance back made her pause. The quilt was a patchwork of bright-colored fabrics and cream-colored burlap sacks that said,
Costa Rica Coffee Haus.
It was gaudy as hell, but it looked familiar. She'd seen it before in her Aunt Donna's house in Tucson. Her aunt had gone to Costa Rica on her honeymoon in 1999 and come back with hundreds of photos of palm trees, parrots, giant spiders, monkeys, and a fifty pound sack of java beans. That sack had become part of the memory quilt she'd made to commemorate the trip.  Cheryl saw her name on the deceased list shortly after arriving at the fort. She never found out exactly how she'd died.

"Where did you get that?" she asked, walking back into the shop.

He shrugged. "Where we get most of them.  Probably some abandoned old lady's house. The broad who quilted it must've bit it just like the rest of them losers who didn't bail out of town when the shit hit the fan."

It took major restraint for Cheryl to keep from punching him in the jaw and refrain from saying, "
That old lady was my aunt, you bastard
." Getting sent to the pokey and losing work credits just wasn't worth it.

"How much?"

"Eighty credits."

"Will you take sixty-five?"

"Seventy."

"Fine," she said, handing him her ration card and at least feeling better that she hadn't paid him full price for something that was worth less to anyone else but priceless to her.

After he completed the transaction and rolled up the quilt, she cradled it under arm and left without bothering to thank him. Clutching what felt like a piece of her aunt, Cheryl put mental blinders on through the rest of the market area and made a beeline for her quarters. She couldn't wait to tell Mark about her find.

When she opened the door to their shared room, she found it empty.

"Uggh…Mark…" she said out loud. "You're supposed to be here."

She laid the quilt down on the bed and looked around the room, hoping that he'd somehow shrunk his six-foot frame and was hiding somewhere, waiting to jump out and surprise her. It was truly a fantasy, given the dimensions of this
jail cell
mostly filled by the bed. The place was nothing like her old apartment in Golden, Colorado where she'd had a fireplace, a queen-sized bed, and a balcony with spectacular view of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. She'd done her best to make this place seem like some sort of home, though.  She'd put curtains on the brick wall to mimic the concept of having a window, hung up a drawing  of purple and yellow flowers that she'd purchased from a child in the fort, and even decorated for Christmas a few months ago by decorating a small cactus with red buttons and strands of silver tinsel.

It was a simple room, but it was functional. In addition to the bed, there was a laptop computer and other basic necessities. A wood dowel hanging from two large hooks held their clothes which consisted of little more than their work uniforms, a couple of t-shirts and jeans, and one dressier outfit for each of them. They did laundry infrequently, waiting for a turn at the sink in the communal bathroom then letting them drip dry.

She rubbed her eyes, looking at her reflection in the cracked hand mirror hanging on the wall. Then, she ran her fingers through her shoulder-length ash-blonde hair, wondering if her comb had really been stolen a couple of days ago or if she'd just misplaced it. Staring at her mussed-up hair, she considered if she should chop it all off again like she'd done before arriving here, because she'd found out the hard way that long hair was a hazard around the grubby fingers of hungry Eaters.

"Don't cut it again."

She whipped around and saw Mark just as he slipped his arms around her.

"How did you—" Of course he knew what she was thinking. He'd had some sort of strange sporadic mind meld with her ever since he'd been infected with the virus and had miraculously recovered. It was weird and downright uncomfortable sometimes to have his voice talking inside her head, but if it wasn't for his encouraging words in her ears all along her perilous route down here, she didn't know if she'd have had the strength to keep going.

He leaned his head on her shoulder. "Are you okay? That attack this morning—"

"You were working during the attack?" she asked, wondering why he had on his tan ACU. It was rare to see him in anything else but his tan army combat uniform, but today was supposed to be his day off from duty. "I figured you were here, sleeping through the whole thing."

"I was called up to help defend the south station shortly after you left."

Her voice squeaked up an octave. "You were at a baiting station?" Cheryl closed her eyes for a second, remembering her first mandatory visit to one after her stint in quarantine was up. Knowing that the scent of human flesh would lure the infected towards the fort, the builders had established baiting stations at every cardinal point. Loud rock music blared from speakers on the top corners of the building and corpses dangled from tall wooden crosses in the open center of the building. From a distance, the place looked like some grotesque Golgotha, buzzing with vultures and flies.

Lately, a lot of the Eaters had been bypassing the stations and heading straight for the fort instead. So, two weeks ago, those in charge tried substituting live goats and cows, hoping that live bait would be a more enticing lure. It helped for a few days, but word got out at the fort that the animals were suspended in cages in the hot sun, bleating and moaning in agony.  Protests were staged in the cafeteria, so the practice of using live bait was abandoned.

There was only one entry point to each station, and once inside, the Eaters were herded like cattle into narrow passageways where steel bolts shot out of the walls, puncturing their skulls. 'Stickers' were ready to dispatch any Eaters that managed to wander through with their diseased brains still intact. Thankfully, Mark had never worked as a Sticker, but guarding a baiting station was dangerous too. The stations were on the outskirts of the compound and not as well fortified as the fort. From rooftop positions, sharpshooters worked as guards, ready to thin the numbers if they entered the station in herds too thick to dispatch in an orderly fashion inside. There was always a chance that a baiting station could be overwhelmed and guards on top could be trapped with no way to get down and escape.

"The load was thick. They needed the help."

Cheryl un-wrapped his scarred hands from her waist and turned around to face him looking past the craggy scars on his face and up into his blue eyes. "Every time you do a shift at a station, I never know if you're coming back."

"I could say the same for you, at least today. I heard it got pretty hairy in the moat."

She flashed back to her last minutes of the battle. Bodies piled upon bodies, and the bloody, snarling faces and clawing fingers just inches away from her ledge—if they had breached it, she couldn't say for sure if she'd have been able to get back inside the building fast enough to prevent getting eaten alive. "Yeah, it did. I've never seen so many incoming at once. There were hundreds of them."

"I'm going to a meeting tomorrow about how to fortify the building better."

"What else can they do? They thought this place was impenetrable, but after today…"

"They're talking about building more baiting stations, adding bayonets to the rifles, making the moat deeper, or surrounding the entire fort with thicker rolls of razor wire to slow them down."

"Slow them down? That won't help much if the bullets run out. They're giving me less and less ammo each week. I was down to my last magazine today."

"You should go to a Combatives refresher. You haven't been to one in a couple of months."

"It definitely wouldn’t hurt."

New recruits to the patrol units were taught Combatives before they were allowed to move on to rifle training. She'd been through the program twice. In each class they had to master submission techniques such as chokeholds, preventing and escaping mounts, and most importantly—how to avoid getting bitten. That sort of muscle memory could be critical if a weapon failed. Like all patrol volunteers she'd received a rationed vaccine dose before training commenced, but it wasn't one hundred percent effective, and it was useless once an Eater latched on to you and started gnawing off parts of your body. Mark hadn't taken the vaccine back in Afghanistan when it was offered to him in the experimental stage, and after he'd contracted the virus, he'd gotten it too late to prevent the necrotizing effects on his skin. She still loved him though, pockmarks and all, and remembered daily how lucky she was that he was still alive.

"You know what I wish?"

"What?" she asked as he pulled her down to the bed.

"I wish you'd get off of patrol duty all together and find a job inside. You could teach or work in one of the shops…"

"Boring."

"Full time in the garden?"

She shook her head. "They don't need as much help in the gardens now, because they've had to scale back the crops due to the water shortage."

"What about working in the kitchen? You always were a good cook."

"Thanks. But actually…I'm thinking about keeping my current job and going on another
safari
."

"What? He said, running his fingers through her hair. "Why?"

"A safari pays a thousand work credits, and it beats sitting around between patrol shifts.

"Jeez…Cheryl. I don't want you to go into town. It's too dangerous."

"My decision."

"I think you've got a death wish."

"No." Her bottom lip quivered as she buried her face in her hands. "I really don't.  I just want—"

"Oh…here we go." A spark seemed to flare up in his eyes. "You're one woman. You can't change the state of the world. So, it's about time you stopped trying!"

"I know," she whined. "I just don't want to sit on my butt around here, waiting for the worst. When I go on a raid, it's helping. And let's just say it's fulfilling my female scavenging instinct, kind of like going to the grocery store…like in the old days." And if…in the process… she could do her part to clean up a part of the city and work towards her dream of living in a house, raising a family, living a normal life…

"What if they raid an occupied house again?"

Cheryl's teeth clenched, remembering the time some yahoos from her unit had burst into a boarded-up home, waving guns and demanding any food the terrified family had stashed away. They had a toddler-aged girl and a mangy dog, both starved so thin they seemed like paper cutouts. She'd returned with another unit two days later to find the family and give them some food, but they had disappeared. "That won't happen again. It's against policy. Those guys got banned from future safaris."

"I guess I can't stop you, but you know how I feel about it."

"And you know how I feel about you taking shifts in baiting stations."

"Touché," Mark said as he stretched out on the bed, his fee dangling off the bottom edge. "Come here." He grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him.

She pulled back, holding him off so she could remove her tactical vest. Then, feeling hot and sweaty, and a bit naughty, she unbuttoned her shirt too. He watched with an amused smile as she also removed her bra, straddled his legs, and let her breasts dangle over him.

"You're an evil temptress," he said, reaching up with both hands.

"I'd prefer irresistible temptress."

"That too."

She leaned down and gave him a soft, wet kiss on his salty neck. "Sure we have enough time?"

"Before what?"

"I thought there was supposed to be an evacuation drill this afternoon," she said, running her fingers through the tangle of hair his chest.

"It was cancelled, because of the attack."

Evacuation.
The word itself was ominous, because Cheryl couldn't imagine where so many people would go…or how they could get there—wherever
there
was. Life at Fort San Manuel was no Shangri-La, but being cocooned in this isolated community was a vacation compared to the horrors that awaited them in the outside world.

She tried to put her fears out of her mind and refocus her mind on Mark's stirring body underneath her. Still half-dressed, they began the passionate melding of their bodies, mingling their sweat, the soot of gunpowder, and the acrid scent of adrenaline that still oozed out of their pores from the day's earlier events. When it got too hot to bear being a scrap of fabric coming between them, she began to peel her cargo shorts off. Then, one glance down at the long scar running up her right thigh ruined her mood.

"Still bothers you, doesn't it?" Mark asked, leaning up on an elbow.

"It looks like hell."

"It might…if it was on someone else's leg." He sat up and fluttered a line of kisses down the thin reddish crevice, twelve inches long. "To me, that scar means you survived. Without reaching the top of that fence, you might not be here."

Cheryl closed her eyes, trying to focus on the sensation of Mark's warm lips working on other parts of her leg, but every time she saw the scar, it made her shudder as she remembered how she'd gotten it.

It had happened on her last day of bike patrol around the perimeter of the fort. On that afternoon, over three weeks ago, her unit was on their fourth circle of the fort underneath a blazing hot sun when she decided to take a drink out of her canteen. She dropped back and let the other two riders go on ahead, figuring that the day had been quiet so far and knowing she'd only be a second. As she took a swig, she spotted a scorpion on a rock just a few inches from her foot. Having endured an incredibly painful and incapacitating sting from one during her journey south to Tucson, she instantly yelped and jumped away. Her feet tangled up in the pedals of her bike and she tumbled over. When she tried to right herself, something clamped around her right ankle.

She looked down and saw a hand sticking out of the sand. It had thin, birdlike bones covered with papery, brown skin. Trying to yank her leg back, she slipped and fell again. As she pulled away and kicked at the hand still firmly clinging to her, a body began to emerge from the sand: first an arm, then a shoulder and an eyeless skull with wispy strands of long whitish hair, then an emaciated torso that only had one partial leg attached. It writhed towards her with the black cave of its mouth open wide.

She reached for her gun, but in the scramble to get a hold of it while keeping the monster's teeth away from her calf, she dropped it in the sand. Still kicking at the skull, she screamed and craned her neck just in time to see the double silhouette of Private Bernard and Don Milton disappearing over a dune. Like her, they had helmets on that covered their ears and muffled sound.

With a slam of her boot, she broke free long enough to gain a couple of feet's distance, but her gun wasn't within safe reach. After getting back on her feet, she grabbed the nightstick from her other holster and brought it down on the snarling skull. That only slowed the skeletal Eater for a moment. After two more hits, she decided that it was a useless task. The bleached skull seemed to have been crystallized in the desert sun into something as hard as rock.

She gave up on killing it and decided to outrun it. Doing quick zigzag steps, she made a move for her bike and was an inch away from the handle when another hand shot up out of the sand and grabbed for her boot. Leaping back a couple of feet to avoid it and the first Eater, she saw other disturbances under the sand between her and the bike.

How many?
She wondered as more areas of the sparkling sand began to bulge and shift. She figured the things hadn't buried themselves intentionally. They'd probably been snaking their way through the desert for weeks and had been covered by sand after last night's wind storm.

Five, six, seven…

No way to get back to the bike.

She ran for the fence, spidered up the chain link, using her fingers and the soles of her boots to propel herself up the small links, and screamed for help.

They were all onto her now. Another half dozen had joined their ranks, and some, barely more than boney torsos, began to hoist themselves up, link by link.

Where were the guards on this side of building? Why hadn't anyone seen what was going on and alerted Bernard and Milton to come back for her? Probably asleep or on a pee break…

She kept climbing higher and higher until she reached the razor wire on the top. There was no going through it, and even if she could make it through the sharp tangles, it was a long drop to the moat down below where she'd be shish kabob on one of the tall rebar spikes.  Alternately kicking at jaws and claw-like fingers, she moved horizontally just below the wire. She'd progressed just yards when she heard movement on the other side of her. Craning her head around, she saw three more skeletal figures advancing, cutting off her route. She was fifteen feet up, and her only choices were to drop down into the waiting mouths below or take her chances with the razor wire and the drop to the moat.

She went up.

Managing to part the wire with her elbows, her progress was halted when it snagged on her sleeve tearing it away. She screeched like a banshee as she kicked at the mummy head close to her dangling leg. Flakes of skin like dried clay flew through the air as she pummeled it, doing everything she could to keep its teeth from biting into her. In the scuffle, her knee veered up into the razor wire and her shorts caught on the wire. The pain barely registered as a sharp blade raked across her flesh, creating a red, oozing zipper line down her thigh.

It was Don and the soldier that saved her. They finally noticed she was no longer keeping pace with them and circled back, spraying bullets until the sand was blanketed with heaps of corpses.

That was her last day of perimeter bike patrol, and she had this lovely scar to commemorate it.

Don and Private Bernard brought silk flowers and chocolates to her infirmary bed the next day, exclaiming what shitheads they'd been for not noticing that she'd fallen back. She was glad that Mark hadn't been there when they arrived, or he'd probably have decked them. She blamed herself for the incident, though. She'd put herself at risk by not staying with the group.

The memory of that near-death experience receded as she felt Mark's mouth working his way up from the scar. Thankfully, their pleasure-making was not interrupted by the harsh sound of a siren, so they enjoyed their time together with abandon.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

A half hour later, the sheets were twisted into knots and covered in sweat. They laid side by side in silence, resting. There were a lot of things on Cheryl's mind that she wanted to talk about. Even though they shared a room, it seemed that their work schedules kept them from having much quality time together. When they did have time, he was in his dark zone, the withdrawn place that he slipped in and out of on almost daily basis. And when he wasn't brooding, he was immersed in his obsession…

"Mark..."

When he didn't open his eyes, she put a hand on his arm. He didn't stir.

There was no way he was asleep.

When were they going to talk about it?

She still wore her engagement ring. It took some investigative work and a little bribery, but she'd eventually gotten it back from the crooked guard who was in charge of incomer belongings during quarantine. It was dented and no amount of scrubbing seemed to be able to loosen the grime of dried blood in the groove that circled it, but it had been given to her with love and had come through hell with her, so its appearance was insignificant.

Even so, it was a daily reminder that it had been over a year since they'd gotten engaged, including a whole six months since they'd found each other again at the fort, and he hadn't mentioned anything about a wedding since before the epidemic started. She'd held her tongue, feeling selfish for caring about something that seemed so unimportant when the world was in tatters.

And yet…there were four weddings scheduled at the chapel this week. She'd seen the announcements on the chalk board outside the community hall on her way to her post this morning. Weren't rituals like that important to maintain some sense of normalcy, even during the worst of times? Important for some sense of hope that things could return to the way they were—if only on the surface for now?

She wasn't going to harp about it—no good could come of that. For a little while longer, she'd keep silent and hope that when he was ready, he'd bring it up. Maybe, he'd even surprise her with a dress and some ruse to get her to the chapel. It would be better that way, better than dragging him there by an ear.

After lying there for a few minutes, she got up and put on a t-shirt and a pair of clean shorts. Then, she left the room and went down the hall to the women's bathroom to freshen up.

When she came back, Mark was up and dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. He had one foot propped up on a folding metal chair while he adjusted an ankle holster. A Glock pistol was next to him on the freshly made bed. It hadn't been issued to him by the Army; he'd purchased it a few days ago from a gun smuggler in the fort who brought in all sorts of contraband.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Getting ready for dinner."

"You know you're not supposed to—"

"I don’t care," he said, fitting the gun in the holster. "I'm not going anywhere without some kind of a weapon. Remember the woman at dinner last week?"

Cheryl couldn't forget.
While sitting at a table in the cafeteria, she'd heard a crash behind her. When she turned around, she saw a twenty-something woman in a short jumper and sandals sprawled face down on the ground. A plastic tray, silverware, and soggy canned peas were scattered around her.

A voice rang out from the onlookers. "Get a guard!"

Before anyone came, a distraught bus boy rushed over and began cleaning up the mess around her.

"Get back!"

If the boy heard the man yelling at him, he gave no indication as he continued sweeping peas into his dust pan. With his back turned, he didn't see the fallen woman raise her head with vacant eyes and begin to stuff a trail of smashed peas into her mouth. By the time he seemed to notice that the crowd who had circled around him had fallen back, the woman reached him and grabbed ahold of his wrist. He screamed as she clamped down and tore off a piece of his flesh.

Chances were…that bus boy had been put down by now. Even though a guard had taken out the woman before she could do any more damage and someone had quickly grabbed some napkins to stop the flow of blood, the boy didn't qualify for a ration of the limited supply of vaccine.

Why had no one shot the woman before she attacked? Because guns had been banned from the cafeteria twelve days back after a shootout occurred over an argument about the last slice of peach pie. One man had stabbed the other in the hand with a fork. Then, guns were drawn and the rest…
well
…she didn't want to think about it now.

"You got a problem with my dinner attire?" Mark asked.

"No," Cheryl said, shaking her head. She threw her arms around his neck and laughed, saying "I think that bulging piece of metal over your sock goes nicely with your outfit."

"Okay then. Let's go…"

Minutes later, they found the dinner hall blissfully quiet as they stood in line. Disappointment set in after they submitted their ration cards to the cafeteria attendant and found that the only things being served were baked beans and some hard biscuits.

"That's it?" Mark asked as he slid his tray down the rail.

"We're low on everything this week," the young male server said, scooping up a ladle full of mushy, overcooked pinto beans, seasoned with green slices that looked like jalapenos but could be anything from mushrooms to unripe tomatoes. "They cancelled Monday's trip into town."

They sat down to eat at a long table, wedging in between a family with two preschool-aged kids and an older woman who seemed to be struggling to get her beans to her mouth with a shaky hand.

"Did you know that?" Cheryl whispered, leaning closer to him.

"That they cancelled this week's safari? No, I—"

She glared at him and shushed him with a finger to her lips. There was no need to worry anyone around them.

Mark lowered his voice. "No. That was somehow left out of the spot report."

"Really? What else do you think they aren't telling us?"

"
A lot
."

Cheryl didn't press him further. They couldn't talk in front of anyone else. If they did anything to alarm the inhabitants of the fort, they might risk disappearing like the guy with the shaggy gray hair who used to hop up on tables and rant that they all had implants in their brains that were set to activate and turn them into N.E.U.s at a preset time.

She laid her napkin across her lap then reached into the pocket of her shorts and took out a tiny crystal perfume bottle with a sprig of silk Baby's Breath inserted in the top. She set it in front of her plate next to her water glass.

Mark rolled his eyes. "That's really embarrassing, you know."

"I don't care," she said. "I always kept flowers on the table back home. It's one of the few things that makes me feel like I'm not living in a prison or some sort of institution."

Mark was already on his third bite of beans when she bowed her head and said
thank you
for the food. She wasn't praying to anyone in particular; she figured that she was just putting it out there to the universe. From time to time, she did ponder the concept of
God
, though. She'd run across many people that thought this apocalypse was somehow God's plan, but she didn't believe it. She didn't believe that any all-powerful entity would create something so beautiful as the earth and its inhabitants, only to let it all be systematically destroyed in such a painful, foul way. So, she decided to have gratitude for any ray of sunshine in each day that could be a symbol for the return to the way life had once been.
Bless this momentary crumb of sustenance, however bland and tasteless it may be.

After Cheryl took a couple of bites, a little boy sitting next to her who looked to be three or four, with big, watery eyes began to wail. His mouth was covered with crumbs from the biscuit, and he twisted his head away from his mother's attempts to force feed him with a spoon.

"This is all you get, baby. You better eat."

"Don't like it!"

Of course he didn't like the beans. They were spicy and had some unidentifiable herbs added to them that didn't seem to go together.

When the mother tried to push the spoon on him again, the child started to scream at the top of his lungs, causing everyone around to turn their heads in his direction.

Mark looked the other way and started shoveling food in his mouth.

Cheryl handed one of her biscuits to the mother. "Here…I've got extra."

"Thank you," the woman said. "God bless you." She handed the biscuit to the boy. He instantly went quiet as he bit down and began to suck like it was a pacifier, tears streaming down his ruddy cheeks.

She went back to her meal, but ate it slowly, trying to mentally stretch it into something more palatable. Mark finished his mess of beans and biscuits just a minute later. "See ya later…" he said, clearing his tray.

"Where are you going?"

"Back to the room. I could use a nap after such an action-packed day." He gave her a goofy salute before walking away.

Curious about his sudden departure, she headed towards their room after she was done eating. Sergeant Cruz stopped her in the hall on the way and told her that her second patrol shift later in the evening was cancelled, because they were still working on clean up from the day's earlier attack and just manning a smaller force in the meantime.

"Unless you want to help the Removers?"

"No way," she said. "I'd prefer a night off."

After some more talk about the attack, she told him she'd see him on her next shift and went on her way.

When she got back to the room, she found Mark lying on the bed, eyes shut, with earbuds in his ears and a slow grind of guitars leaking out from them, screeching like a howling cat.

"You awake?" she asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

He didn't reply, though she figured she'd clearly said it loud enough for him to hear over the music.

"My second shift was cancelled, so I was thinking about going to The Tavern. Maybe I could bat my eyelashes and pump some brass for more information about today's attack."

No response.

"They're also having a bikini contest."

If he was awake, she figured that would have elicited at least an eyebrow raise, if not a snickering comment.

"I'm entering in it."

"What?" Mark said, opening his eyes and pulling out an earbud.

"Just kidding." She started to unlace her boots so she could change into pants. "We could go to The Tavern or see the Friday night movie."

"What is it?"

"A comedy. I think it's "Liar, Liar" with Jim Carrey."

"Seen it."

"What about The Tavern then?"

"Nah."

"Something a little more groovy like The Dance Hall?"

"Not my favorite place. And, I don't have enough credits…"

"Really? With all the overtime you've put in, you should have an abundance."

"After I bought the Glock, I made a trade with Scott Paynes."

"For?"

"More Internet access time."

"
Of course
. Well…if you're going to be a slug tonight, I'm going to go out without you then. Gloria mentioned the other day that she was going to the movie, and I'd rather hang out with her then stay here and watch you go clickety-click all night and rant about conspiracy theories."

"Suit yourself," he said, closing his eyes again.

She sat there for a moment, staring at his clean-shaven, square chin, and his rising and falling chest, wondering what was going on underneath that scalp full of short, blond hair.

At the door, she paused. "Can I have the pistol?"

He sighed then reached down and unbuckled the holster, handing it over to her without a word.

"See ya, she said.

He grunted in response.

Once she exited the room, she stood outside and changed her mind. She really didn't want to sit in a dark room and watch some silly comedy. A visit to The Tavern sounded like a better idea. Even if they served little more than water and small dishes of stale peanuts these days, she'd feel less claustrophobic if she could get out and socialize a little.

Arriving at the bar, she was surprised that there wasn't a single tan uniform from the Patrol units. She wondered if they'd all gone to a meeting like the one Mark mentioned about reinforcing the fort. If that's where they were, she thought it was interesting that he hadn't been invited. He ranked high enough that he should have been included.

Oh well
, she thought. She might as well hang out anyway. The Tavern buzzed with good spirits around her. She soon found out that thanks to an abandoned semi-truck carrying a load from a domestic brewery that had been found abandoned on Highway 10, there was no shortage of beverages at the bar. She ordered an amber-colored porter, paid with her ration card and accepted an offer to play chess with a silver-haired man who had been a school bus driver before the apocalypse began. Like Mark, he had scars on his hands and face, but according to his unabashed confession that followed his introduction, it wasn't from contracting the infection.