by T.A. Saunders ©2012 all rights reserved
Three shots rang out. I knew they would not be the last.
My companion is efficient with the pistol he carries. I don’t know what sort it is, but the barrel is long and it has a shiny chrome finish to it that gleams with each muzzle flash. The sound of shell casings clattering on the floor has become familiar to me over the last few days. In the life I led before all of this began, I was nothing more than a librarian and was content with that occupation. Books are quiet, but take us many places through the window of the mind. The first time I heard the sound of a shell casing falling from a pistol, I could do nothing but fret and cover my ears at the expectation of another thunderous roar of the weapon.
Now, days into the riots, I count the sounds of the shells, knowing that when I strain to hear the seventh chime of the falling brass, I must hand my companion a loaded magazine to replace the one he just emptied. His name is Nigel. I haven’t a clue what his last name is. He hasn’t asked me my name in the two days we’ve been traveling together. Nigel doesn’t ask many questions. He gives terse orders and puts his hand out for another magazine. Always another magazine.
We’re running out of bullets. I wonder what Nigel will say when I give him the bad news?
As we huddle behind a desk and watch them shuffle past, through opaque office window glass, I whisper my name. I tell him my name is Aubrey and I’m glad he happened by the library. I’m very sure I would be in much worse condition than I am now without his help. All things considered, I’m rather pleased to only have a torn skirt, a ruined sweater and a cut above my brow for all the trouble we’ve seen. Nigel makes a motion with his hand that I should be quiet. He does that a bit. Ironic, really being that I’m a librarian and it’s often my task to tell other people to be quiet. But I do and I hand him another magazine. I don’t bother telling him we only have enough bullets for two more. I’m sure I can tell him later when he doesn’t look ready to shoot more of them in the face.
I use the term them rather callously I realize. They were people once, but now nobody is really sure what they are anymore. We’ve taken to calling them shamblers, as insensitive as it sounds. It all started with a series of disappearances in upstate New York, at an old country house. The news said that the man who purchased the house brought his youngest daughter, the nanny, and his wife there to murder them before burning it down. But even as they showed the burning house on the television, you could see them flying out in a huge swarm, like locusts. It was phenomenal really.
A few months later, cities all over the east coast started having riots and wherever the riots occurred, there was a swarm of them over the burning carnage. We’ve started calling them death beetles for lack of something more clever. They’re small and slim, with a barbed protuberance that they use to burrow into the back of people’s necks, into the brain stem. When that happens, there’s honestly no saving them. More come to infest the body then and whatever humanity might have been left in them is destroyed. That’s when they become shambers. The shambers themselves aren’t extraordinarily dangerous; its the fact that they’re walking, violent transports for possibly thousands of those beetles. The shambers can hit you, pin you and even pick up weapons and use them against you.
I can still recall the first one I saw infested like that. His eyes had been eaten away and left to the bare sockets. I remember the horrible combination of revulsion and curiosity that forced me to stare and witness the subtle movement of the gleaming purplish black carapaces within. I likely would have fainted, had my companion not pulled me away. The only consolation is that if you shoot a shambler in the head, the death beetles within will also perish with their host. Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes one gets away. One is enough.
Nigel wants us to move now, so I do. I am compliant to his every tersely offered command because he strikes me as the sort that would leave me if I put up too much of a fuss about something. While I wouldn’t consider myself unable to take care of myself, these are times that there is safety in numbers. There are fewer and fewer of us each day and more and more of them. I cannot afford to allow my sensibilities to be victim to Nigel’s personality quirks; never mind that it gives him the approachability of a bristled porcupine. He shoots the gun and I load the magazines. It works well for now.
We took cover in this abandoned office building when we saw a swarm on the horizon. Usually, they don’t come out during the daylight hours. They seem mostly nocturnal; only coming active during the day if someone stumbles across a building they’ve turned into a hive. Some of the people they’ve taken are brought there to feed their larvae. We heard a story about one of those hives from another survivor that had been with us. His name was Greg. He died about a half hour ago when a group of shamblers tried to corner us in the parking garage below. We can’t go back for him.
Nigel motions for me to make for the glass doors. The swarm we saw earlier seems to have left. With this place crawling with shamblers, I’m not anxious to stay, or to discover if we’re standing on one of those hives. We still have daylight and so long as we have that, we have hope. As we creep along to the doors, we are greeted by bright sunlight that I’m all too thankful to see. I reach down for a purse that’s no longer there, for a pair of sunglasses that were in it. Nigel gives me that blank look of his as I release a sigh of resignation. I don’t care if this is the Apocalypse, I miss my sunglasses! He says something about wasting time and points to the street.
I take a moment to look around the street. It used to be that you watched for cars or watched for the approaching taxi. Now, I watch the skies for swarms and everywhere else for the shamblers that they use like weapons against us. The street is silent and the skies are clear, so we make our way to our vehicle of choice. It’s a hulking thing, with a Ram emblem on the hood. I think that means it’s a Dodge, but Nigel doesn’t seem to care about the make. He only cares about the fact it’s rather good at running over shamblers. I try not to watch when he does that; it’s enough that I see the putrid aftermath smeared over the truck’s striking white paint.
Nigel hands me his pistol to reload. I take the time to inform him, now that we’re in relative safety, that I have enough bullets for two more magazines, but no more than that. The muscles in his squarish, unshaven jawline tighten with the tension of unvoiced irritation as he starts the truck. As it rumbles to life, he informs me that we’re going to visit a nearby gun shop and hope for the best. It’s ten miles away and it’s around 3PM. It’s summer, so we’ll have plenty of daylight. Getting there won’t be the problem, so long as that’s the case. It’s being inside, where shadows hide the death beetles and protect them from the burn of the light. They know we need things. They know we will come for food, weapons, and medical supplies, so they sometimes leave groups of the shamblers there to capture those who brave such strongholds. I don’t venture to ask Nigel how he thinks the beetles became so damned intelligent, because I know he’ll only give me that blank stare of his that hints the few words used to ask such a question were too many. Nigel is a killing thing in this broken new world, not a talker.
I have my own ideas on the matter that I’m happy to keep to myself. It makes me miss Greg though, because he was a talkative sort and didn’t mind sharing his opinions on what these things really are. As we rumble down a one way street the wrong way, I stare out of the window and have the debate with myself. I look at the abandoned cars we pass and the ruined buildings that comprise what’s left of Ithaca, New York, and I imagine these death beetles have been here with us all along; evolving, as we have evolved, preying on nocturnal animals and developing their monstrous talents in the shadow of thousands of years of human dominance, industry, and arrogance. We gave them the perfect breeding ground with our ignorance. And like any creature of nature, they adapted to the surroundings. I find it ironic that we, the proud humans that constructed these cities and lauded our technological superiority over nature, now scavenge and scrape for our survival…much like insects do.
An abrupt jolt of the truck’s frame shakes me from my ruminations. The fresh coat of viscera that Nigel is trying to remove from the windshield with the wipers both nauseates me and reminds me that I can’t afford to allow my thoughts to drift too far. Nigel tells me it’s not much farther, as if that would be any comfort to me. I ask him if he might try actually driving around one of the poor people desecrated in this horrible manner, rather than simply plowing them over like he’s playing some gruesome video game. For the first time, through the veil of dark hair that often hangs in his face, I see him smile. I immediately wish I hadn’t, for the joy in the expression. His thin lips were stretched across his clean, white teeth in a way that looked all together feral. I am glad to be bug-free.
A sign ahead hangs crooked and sways in the wind, Sebastian’s Shotguns & More, and tells us we’ve arrived at our destination. It’s a quaint corner store that looks like it should be a barber shop, rather than a place to buy implements of murder. Nigel, silent as ever, hands me a tire iron. Though I take it, I give him an incredulous look and ask him if he expects me to change a flat for him. His retort came in the form of a dismissive grunt that makes me grip the tire iron a bit more firmly and debate striking him in the head with it, in hopes the concussion will fix his grating personality. When he’s silent, I wish he would speak. When he speaks, it serves to remind me to appreciate his silence. We both disembark from the truck without further words. I make my best effort to not notice the hand stuck in the wheel well, or the stench of sun-baked death on the once pearl white vehicle-turned-zombie-smasher.
Nigel approached the door to the gun shop with a purposeful stride that I found to be less than cautious or wise. However, I made no signal for him to stop nor made a fuss of any sort. There was no point, because the tall, broad-shouldered man before me was simply deaf to any suggestion that did not come from the core of his own mind, disturbed though it maybe. The chrome pistol was drawn and he checked the door. We found it unlocked with the handle smashed in such a way to indicate forced entry. This bode ill for many reasons, the least of which was the fact that the very weapons and ammunition we needed might not be there at all. Even more disturbing was the other notion that we might have come here to not only be denied what we sought, but to stumble across a horde of shamblers waiting in ambush.
The shop itself would have been impressive on the inside, I imagine, if it hadn’t been ransacked. I’ve never been inside a gun shop, so I was left to envision the large glass cases being filled with exotic firearms of every kind, and big, burly men ogling over them like I do over a nice pair of shoes. It never made any sense to me; you can’t wear a gun to a nice restaurant, or to a movie, or a wedding. Though, I suppose now in this broken new world, where bugs conquer mankind, it might be advisable to at least carry a gun in your purse when your psychotic guardian takes you out on the town.