The last sounds she made. I can’t get them out of my head. I wasn’t close enough to make them out, and I still can’t piece together the words between Rachel’s screams. The sounds don’t make sense, and it’s keeping me awake.
I don’t know how we made it even this long. A decent night’s sleep hasn’t come my way in 15 months – not since the impact, or the hell & hysteria that followed.
Signal went out at 5:19pm on October 22nd, 2021. When the meteor hit. Somewhere in South America is the best rumor I’ve heard. I’d been working in the basement with my father and sister (Rachel was 23, four years older than I), when the ground started rumbling. It felt like an earthquake. My phone had stopped working, cutting out the stream to Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. Annoyed, I’d gone upstairs to check the signal, cursing the shitty Bluetooth connection.
A glance out the living room window stopped me cold. A dark wall was rising fast on the southern horizon, well into the sky above. I watched as it climbed at amazing speed, a canopy of thick, blackish grey cloud choked out the daylight. I opened the patio door to get a better look, and was hit with a searing burst of heat. I’d been in saunas before – this was well beyond anything like that, or an oven, or anything else you can goddamn imagine. Within a breath my throat felt like I’d been guzzling fire. My shirt immediately seemed to smolder, like it was ready to burst into flames. I pulled back, slammed the door and made my way around to the front, screaming for Rachel and my dad as I clawed the watch off my wrist. The metal was cooking my skin.
I got to the north end of the house in time to see it begin raining fire. Tiny spherules fell from the sky like hail, small as raindrops but red-hot, landing in the scattered snow with a little hiss and a tendril of steam. Lightly falling at first, they ignited everything, kicking off fires in trees, leaf piles on lawns, rooftops as far as the eye could see. Then the sprinkling became a downpour.
If you were outside, you were dead.
Within a minute, sirens were rising everywhere. Car alarms. Smoke alarms. Firetrucks. Ambulances. Screaming. Chaos.
My dad reached for the water jugs next to the fridge. He shoved two into Rachel’s arms, grabbed four himself, and led us back down to the basement as he called to me to pull the couch cushions down with us. Staying put was the only option. It was cool down in the basement, and we had far more food stored in a dug-out cellar than we’d be able to find elsewhere. We dug passageways though the left underside of the stairwell heading down, to store food more securely. Some nights we slept here, tucking blankets against a wall of mason jars, when the sounds of unknown others was too close. It was only the three of us, after cancer took our mother a year before the impact. She was the nucleus of our family. I’m just glad she wasn’t here to see any of this.
I wish we’d died down there together.
Nearly a year and a half later, damn near nothing has improved.
While the rest of the world had long since sunk into famine, killing each other over scraps and worse, my family – or what was left of it – was sitting down to full meals by candlelight in that cellar. My sister and I had the wild luck of an Eagle Scout father who prided himself on preparation. Ironically, he was no sucker for the armageddon hysteria peddled by TV preachers pushing end-times bug-out bags with little wooden Jesus statues affixed to the side. But he and our mother had shared a passion for the old ways of preservation, pressure-canning countless meats, vegetables, stocks and other foods as a hobby. That’s why I’m here at all, I suppose. Her love of gardening, a fixture my whole life, turned into an end-process passion for preservation. When she died, Rachel and I helped fill the impossible hole she left behind. That was the only way Dad could keep going. Sometimes people need a reason to keep going, no matter how small.
Beans and legumes are easy plant proteins, and canning them is simple. Peaches, pears, tomatoes and apples are preserved best due to their natural acids, he taught us, which helps in the long-term preservation process. But things get tricky when you’re canning meats and vegetables. The low acid content is a breeding ground for Botulinum toxin, one of the most poisonous biological substances on the planet. It can cause botulism, which fatally attacks the central nervous system. It may as well be nuclear radiation for all anyone’s concerned. So pressure cooking is critical.
I remember my father’s careful acid calculations, using vinegar, lemon juice and salt to balance out the pH. How he’d use the end of a spoon to slide around the perimeter of the jars to get any trapped air bubbles out, before placing the lid and tightening the ring on the jar. Then they’d go back in the steamer for about 40 minutes until ready for storage.
We spared what we could. Only to those in desperate need, those we knew we could trust. And even then, there’s no way of knowing if or when someone will sell you out for salvation of their own. The politics of secrecy in a survival situation are corrosive, at best. But we networked with neighboring families to share information, medicine for those who needed it, shelter from danger.
There aren’t any official sources for news or updates. It’s not like the movies. We’re not huddled around a radio, listening for a message from some rebel faction. Life is complete paranoia, not a shortwave radio broadcast survival mystery. Batteries are for flashlights. End of story.
The acceleration of illness hardens the heart when it’s all around you. Cataracts, organ failure, people simply lying in the road, the futility overcoming their existence in real time. And that was just in the immediate area; we had no way of knowing what was happening worldwide, or whether others were better off elsewhere.
Rumors of fishermen hidden away on far northern coasts ignited fantasies and daydreams, hope not fit for this hell reality. The lack of sunlight would have eliminated the photoplankton, the base for almost all aquatic food chains. In all likelihood, a collapse of marine life mirrors what we’ve been seeing in vegetation and wildlife on land. No photosynthesis means no growth, which means no food. Which means death. Large trees accumulate stores of sugar in their systems, and coupled with a slow metabolism they can survive without additional nourishment for years, if necessary. But that’s it.
The sun is a glare in the haze, at best. Nothing grows, and most have long since run through any survival stocks. A desperation rises that’s inconceivable to anyone who isn’t living it. The faintest trace of food ignites a hunt for survival. But we’d become so collectively helpless, people hardly had any idea what to do with raw materials. Rice and corn were obvious enough, and had gone quickly in farm raids. Whole-kernel grains and soybeans were the largest sustained food reserves, but very few knew how to process them into meal or anything which would provide proper nutrients. Boiled whole-kernel wheat only results in sore tongues, loose bowels and plummeting energy. It has to be simmered for hours, too many hours, for any real value.
The ignorance about basic sustenance was fatal. Our lifelong dependency on processed convenience set us back hundreds, even thousands of years in survival capability. I remember the big bulk stores, where goods seemed to go on forever, an unending sea of supplies. But true functional resources are most often perishable, fragile, prone to decay. Hoarding was done without foresight for sustainability, a joke to even consider. Indulgence and waste were rampant, and scarcity came quickly. Whatever pockets of abundance existed were surely in dwindling supply, and undoubtedly protected by blood.
The guilt of privileged abundance didn’t stave off self-pity, or the fatalistic air of post-armageddon existence. How long has it been since any of us have tasted fresh fruit? Since we saw a lit screen or sign? We used to be able to send video from one place to another through the air. It all seems like a ridiculous dream, only a year and a half on. The parts are around, rusting and scattered everywhere. Ghosted husks of useless plastic and metal, remnants of a misguided world caught in a tide of worthless distraction. An entire population sustained on pharmaceuticals to keep their truths at bay.
The decomposing humanity all around us promised a future of horror, nothing more. Without any chemical assistance, infections and illness ravaged the fragile and corroded most of the rest. Darwinism took on a terrifying velocity… but “survival of the fittest” never promises that the fittest won’t be rapacious, gap-toothed monsters who eat human meat.
Out here, resource wars unfolded in horrifically fast & brutal fashion, with endless waste in desperation. Gunshots rang all day and night for months on end, before the silence. Murderous sabotage and double-crossing were as common as starving men violently ending their families’ suffering, a mercy I’m sure, before turning the gun on themselves.
It was that or the unthinkable. Driven mad by famine, there’s only one other option. Cannibalism has skyrocketed as dry goods become more and more of a mythologized scarcity. Who could live with the memory of watching their children sink their teeth into the meat of dead people? Forget the stupid zombie shows everyone was into before the hit.
After endless days or even weeks of foodless delirium, reluctant mothers and fathers would portion and cook whatever body they were able to find (far too easy to find, these days), hopefully of a stranger – and hopefully not killed by their own hands. The smells they’ve grown accustomed to…
They would divide it among their kids. The desperately ravenous devouring that would unfold, taking place in untold transplant homes and makeshift shelters, is the stuff of pure nightmares. Children digging in, tearing darkened, malnourished meat from the bone – a primal, driving basic survival instinct to feed on life to sustain our own. A new Dark Age.
The scenes are revolting, things we didn’t dare even consider as grotesque worst-case fantasies in the age of casual excess. These were once people who lived within a framework of decency and humanity. Some of them still remember that feeling… I guess that’s why so many would choose to end it. But how many had the foresight (or concern) to consider what would come of their bodies? How many would find a way to spare themselves and their families that final indignity? There is little solace in knowing your death would mean nourishment to others – especially if those “others” are barely human anymore. Can’t cross cannibals off your donor card.
This says nothing of those who lack the basic wherewithal, materials or even patience to find a way to make fire. Those unfortunate many are faced with a choice which really isn’t a choice at all: eat the meat raw or starve. They didn’t last long, from either the bacterial contamination and resulting infections or the primal desperation of limited resource. These deaths were undignified at best – which has become the norm, these days.
Whatever the case, the ones who lasted this long on their own did so because they’d regressed to a primal state of ruthless survivalism. When a pig is let free from captivity out into the wild, within weeks it will grow hair, often tusks as well, and develop more aggressive tendencies. A return to its true nature.
Many of those who are left have banded together. The pack mentality reigns, a vicious hierarchy. As hell unfolded around us in the first few months, small bands of scavengers and thieves took root all around the countryside. These hillbilly derelicts were perfectly fine with taking lives to prolong their own. They hadn’t seen a shred of decency since the impact, and would either tear each other apart in small-scale battles, or join forces and unite resources. An infection feeding on itself.
These were people who, in a previous life, probably watched the same TV shows we did, got caught up in the same useless digital traps we did. We all belonged to a culture, splintered as it was, a spectrum of reality wrapped around us like a blanket of normalcy. So easily ruined.
Now those people carry whatever weapons are available: knives, spiked bats, chains, even sharpened branches. We don’t hear much gunfire anymore. Westfield was a luxury town in an economically comfortable region, very low on the weekend warrior factor. I’m sure there’s enough lead-induced bloodshed down South to compare to the Civil War, but that may as well be Mars to us. None of us will ever travel that far again.
The hunting pack came in late afternoon. I’d been out back in the woods we shared with the Dalles on the opposite end, adjacent to the Halletts’ property, when I saw them. Movement caught my eye as I gathered kindling from the frozen landscape, along the roadway lined with the iced skeletons of maple, across the waist-high field of weeds & frosted bramble. People. Lots of people. Not more than seventy feet out.
I saw danger in the figures before I could make out any details. They were walking with definite purpose.
I silently thanked my father for teaching me not only to listen to flight instinct, but to fight the suddenly crushing urge to run – which would’ve undoubtedly drawn their attention. I slowly, so slowly, descended to nature’s rigid chill among the leaves and fallen trees, every limb feeling like a thousand pounds, and watched in horror as the group came into clearer view. None seemed particularly afflicted by hunger (some even seemed well-fed, if eyes don’t deceive), and several had been huffers, back when gas and aerosols were at least plentiful enough to covet – I could see as much in their jittering, arachnid movements. Gasoline is a vapor memory, the majority of it either wasted or decomposed to a gummy, toxic sludge after the blackout. As a result, no vehicles have roared to life for many months. This ain’t Mad Max.
A baker’s dozen deep, all men. Even with a weapon I stood no chance.
I crawled inch by agonizing inch over the crunchy, frozen earth to a cluster of young firs in the brush, hoping hard enough to burst a blood vessel that Rachel or my father had seen the incoming danger from inside the house.
When Rachel came to the window, the casual look on her face told me she had no idea. After a few desperate seconds of small waving movements with my hand, her path of vision crossed where I was crouched. I saw a look of recognition, then confusion, which gave way to alarmed curiosity. A split second later, her head swiveled to the left, and her face contorted in fear – a momentary paralysis that seemed to stretch for days.
She disappeared from the window a second before they entered.
I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t scream. A handful had gone around the back and smashed the window she’d been standing in front of moments before. They went in full tilt, all of them. I didn’t see what happened once they made it inside, but I know my father. He would’ve had the sense not to raise objection as they cleaned out our supplies. I know that much. But he would’ve torn tigers apart to protect his daughter. He was just a man, though – an old, weakened man standing against creatures who no longer deserved the distinction of humanity.
I heard him yelling to get out. Then breaking glass. The sound of struggle had ceased within a half-dozen seconds of their entry. They had ended him. Rachel had no defense at all.
I could hear furniture being knocked around through the broken window. The flesh-greed negotiations among the men over my sister’s cries, rationalization for placement in turn. Then the grunting and the slapping sounds. The devastated, agonized screams. I couldn’t do anything – any movement at this point was certain death, no matter what I did.
She desperately needed my help, any intervention. Centuries passed. She didn’t scream my name, but she had to be thinking of me. I was the only one who could come to her aid, but she had to have known I’d have died before getting anywhere near her. I just want so badly to believe she was telling me to run from inside her head, not seeing the true coward inside me. Screaming as the minutes passed in Hell, telling me to get away, to remember her.
She did yell something, at the very end. Before she succumbed to what they’d done and continued to do to her. She said something. I can’t make it out, after thirty thousand repetitions burning inside my head. Something that sounded like “Dad was killed,” but it wasn’t that. The syllabic pacing was all wrong.
What the hell?
I had to get away from there. My mind cut the path directly: through the woods and out to the clearing where the electrical towers stood, lifeless giants against a dead sky. Then left down two hundred yards or so, through the Hallett’s property and into Maybury Park. My dad kept a little hunting shed stocked with enough goods for a few days, stored under a dummy floorboard. I was there, in my mind – I traced every step in my head, but my body wouldn’t move. I couldn’t catch my breath, hyperventilating in the below-freezing temperature, sure that someone would see my breath. I felt too weak to move, too overcome by the terror that had just unfolded. And when they dragged the bodies of my family outside to prepare them for what was to come next, I found the physical drive to get up & move – but lost the nerve and the timing. They were too close.
So I lied there, not twenty-five feet away, face mashed into nature’s frozen floor for cover, forced by my unshielded eardrums to endure the cutting and field-dressing of my family. The sharpening of the knives before the cut, the crude jokes over parts and portions. And then the real work began, blades entering flesh, bleeding out the fluids, clearing the undesirables. Vomit rose quickly and filled my mouth as I heard the intestines and internal organs of my loved ones hit the ground in wet, splattering thuds. To eject the vile, hot stew would mean some measure of noise, or at the very least movement, and neither could be risked. I swallowed it down. Slowly. Torturously.
I was nearly found by two who went to gather kindling, but they weren’t searching for me. They didn’t know I existed. In the dying light of the day, one of the men found my tracks not fifteen feet away, and even the stack of wood I’d gathered before they had arrived. An iota of greater intelligence, a mere moment of contemplation would’ve led them right to me. But the discovered woodpile made their job less difficult, and in that cold that’s all that mattered in the moment.
They cooked outside over a fire pit – bravado in the face of the darkness surrounding them, or a reluctance to make a home inside the domiciles of the once-civilized family they were now eating like a store-bought feast. Either way, the fire was perilously close to the house, enough so that they could rush in through the window if the dog packs appeared. Naturally, they didn’t have much wood, as that was the very reason I wasn’t with my family when they were slaughtered. But as much as it stopped my heart, that concerned me far less than what they were cooking and eating – the image of a man tearing meat from Rachel’s charred forearm will forever haunt me.
There was no promise of anything better out in that darkness.
I moved with surgical caution as I slowly backed further into the woods, into the black chill of night. Dogs be damned. My fingers and toes were numb beneath my gloves and boots, and any longer lying on the frozen ground would have me hitting hypothermia in no time. I had to stay away from the main roads, away from whoever else may be on the hunt. Being anywhere residential, particularly within any reasonable distance from what used to be the freeways, is to leave yourself open to starving, desperate pillagers.
And then there are the dogs. Dog packs have grown to inconceivable numbers, and know that hunting at night is their best bet. They’ve eliminated what little wildlife survived the die-off and the lack of vegetative growth. If the cold and the cannibal gangs didn’t get the rest of us, the dogs certainly had a strong chance. They were powerful in numbers.
We learned our lesson a month ago, when the four remaining family groups in Westfield put a plan together to outsmart and kill a nearby pack. Taking a stand would provide us with meat, real nourishment through at least some of the winter – the cold would preserve what we didn’t get through immediately, we thought. We’d find a way to keep the scent from carrying. We’d bury the meat in the frozen ground, in some kind of storage. We were convinced it was worth the risk, and that through superior planning and intelligence we could persevere.
That’s what we thought.
We had lured them into the northeast edge of downtown with the bones of our dead, leading a path through the entry of the old Walgreens. Inside we made a small fire and cooked something… I don’t know what it was, but the smell was unbelievably foul, inescapably human. We sealed off the exits to the stripped steel-and-concrete structure, and stocked the front interior with as much dry kindling as we could. The goal was to trap them inside near the bait, block the final exit as we backed out, and set a blaze in the entryway – suffocating and cooking those fuckers inside.
There were just so many of them. We had expected roughly forty; what arrived was damn near a hundred. To hell with “man’s best friend”. Those times are gone. The subservient were eaten long ago. One of them was never seen without at least a dozen others.
At first the cordoned stand-off seemed to work, despite the discouraging ratio of man to canine – some of us had torches, arranged big enough to leave a wide swath of flame when waved. Ten men in total, shoulder to shoulder, visibly trembling with eyes as wide as saucers, moving in to narrow and block the single opening of escape the dogs had. Some had knives, or sharpened long branches into spears (I had one), and some had gathered rocks to throw – stones as big as a man’s fist. All of us were as insulated with as many layers of clothing and padding as one could spare. Terry Hallett wore a football helmet he picked up somewhere, likely at the high school up the road. It was two sizes too big, and rattled around on his head. It looked stupid, but we needed all the protection we could get.
As the dogs closed in, we scrambled to the back of the store, drawing them in further. The shuttered storefront and angled aisles provided enough of a funnel to put them exactly where we wanted them.
Facing a wall of wild eyes, quivering gums and clenched, bared teeth, Byron Brooks – a middle-aged insurance fraud investigator in a former life – struck out, nearly ruining the plan. He moved beyond our wall of resistance and lunged forward with his branch-spear, piercing what appeared to be a Rottweiler mix in the left chest with a scream. The animal howled in impaled agony and surprise, and the collective pack recoiled with it like a school of fish moving away from an invading predator. Except this school had adapted to retaliate – immediately.
As Byron shifted his weight to pull the spear from the dying canine, a blur of fur and fangs was airborne in his direction. The only reaction was astonishment as they set upon him, three at his well-insulated body, one to the left of his throat. The dog that found a weak point – a medium-sized mutt – seemed suspended in the air for a split second, tethered only by its chomping jaws to Byron’s neck. Then it impacted and angled downward, jaws locked and coated in the warm lifeblood of the night’s first kill flowing over its muzzle. Using Byron’s body for leverage, it reapplied the bite, yanking backwards in a ripping/tugging shake while pushing against his chest and shoulder for resistance.
Byron dropped to a knee, frantically hitting at himself – but it was already a lost cause. I was one of two men who leaped forward with spears to stab at the dogs, but the chaos caused an ill-timed lunge and I drove my sharpened plank directly into his abdomen. He glared up at me immediately with a look of betrayed shock, the force of impact causing a convulsive grunt – my only solace in that memory being the split second glance he gave my father before the dogs redoubled their efforts and lunged again, ripping at his face and sending him into a gurgling, blood-drowning shock of nerves and thrashing muscle. He knew it was an accident. He had to have known.
We pulled back immediately, my father yelling “Everybody out! Now!” as we scrambled over the stacked kindling and rags in the doorway. Two had even dropped their torches and were running full-tilt away from the scene. We pulled back through the entryway and slid the large plywood board across the front of the door, as planned, trapping the canines with only a twenty inch gap above the six foot mark between the board and the top of the door frame. As the rest of us braced against the makeshift barricade, Rich Dalle tossed his torch – the largest of ours – over the wall and directly onto the ignition pile. I glanced over the edge just long enough to see it land, a swarm of darkened limbs moving among the shadows, a choir of growls and gnashing teeth.
At first, nothing. A full minute of breathless adrenaline panting behind the wall of growling and barking passed before there was any sign of change. But as a light began to flicker and grow from within the store’s gutted interior, the pressure on the blockade intensified rapidly. The canines were realizing that their only means of escape was now barricaded, and were scrambling to find footing amidst the stacked branches and boards to get through as the kindling began to catch. The barking and yelping grew to a chorus as nails began digging at the bottom and corners of the plywood blockade, while shadows began to dance on the ceiling from the growing flames.
The fire rose higher, and chaos was setting in among the dogs. They began turning on one another, vying for space and leverage against the rising heat and thinning air. Some had begun outright ramming the barricade, and the power of the men braced against it was barely enough to sustain the resistance. As the flames began to lick the top of the plywood and come into view, it seemed as if our plan would work. Howling, panting, clawing frantically, the dogs were aware that the tide had turned for them, and the crackling sounds of the rising fire meant nothing good for them.
And then, as if from some lunatic nightmare, one mid-size terrier – having used other dogs for leverage, apparently – launched itself over the barricade. It had caught fire, and hurtling itself over the wall with wild, desperate eyes and bared teeth, looked like some demonic projectile from Hell. It hit the ground in a crumpled mess of flames, fur and grime, scrambling to its feet as Luke Hallett, one of Terry’s boys, lunged forward and stomped on its spine with a combat boot. The dog’s squealing yelps indicated its back had been broken; Luke’s follow-up stomp to the skull ended those.
We were totally unprepared for what came next, however – in our moment of distraction, several more dogs were attempting the same leaping tactic as the one before. One after another, sometimes two and three at a time, the dogs began scrambling over their suffocating, bottom-clawing brothers & sisters to get beyond the plywood blockade. Each had to fight through fire to get to the doorway, which meant that whatever came over and through that hole above us was desperate for air, choking on smoke and very likely ablaze.
It felt like slow motion. Before the barricade failed, most of the dogs that escaped had scattered; some stayed to face their aggressors, banding together in smoldering, gnarled groups of three or four. And when the Cogill brothers turned their attention to handling the stragglers, only three of us were left against the plywood. They pushed through and around us, and in no time at all the wall was overtaken and we were scrambling away from a fiery canine stampede. It became immediately clear that we had no hope of regaining control of the situation, and retreated across the street to what used to be the walk-in freezer in the rear of the ice-cream shop.
All told, we’d lost three men to the dogs.
We waited until morning to venture out. By then, virtually nothing had remained of the men who’d been killed, or the dead canines. If they hadn’t been charred to oblivion, they were picked over for meat by who knows what. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe it was out of some biological instinct, but we retreated to our own homes and shelters, rather than band together and plot the next move. Defeat and despair were thick in the air.
That was the final sense of community I ever experienced. The collective failure of humanity against a lower animal was an unprecedented demoralization for every one of us.
That was then.
After they killed Rachel and my father, I was on my own. Delirious with despair and damn near frozen through, I endlessly fought the urge to go home. It wasn’t home anymore. I’d even committed to the terrible idea, after finding the Maybury hideout raided for goods. I got as far back as the Hallets’ before fear overcame desire, hearing people talking from the direction of our property. I stayed the night in their garage – I didn’t dare go in the house, in case someone came through. But there was no warmth to be found, and certainly no food. In the morning, I moved on.
Centuries passed. Every step was terrified, a constant scan in every direction. Exhausting. I’d stayed far from the roads, climbing through miles of dense brush, making loose natural shelter to rest where I could. Half my toes were frostbitten and I was badly dehydrated, nearly hysterical with sorrow and desperation. I couldn’t handle the exposure anymore. I staggered into the parking lot of an old 7-11, hoping to rest a while inside. At that point, I didn’t care if I was found. A toddler could’ve killed me with a stone.
It was Byron’s wife, Katherine Brooks, who found me. A lean, wiry British woman in her late fifties, she’d been battling some kind of debilitating ailment for what looked like years, but had a sharp, hawkish intelligence about her. She spotted me from a lookout point next to the old preschool, and called out to me by name – a frantic shock to my system after endless, wordless days.
I knew her fairly well. Katherine’s place in our diminished collective had been invaluable. She was the most strategic and maternal among all the women of the groups as we adapted to the world’s brutal new rules, caring for the many children while their parents would be gone on scavenger missions, sometimes days at a time. Sometimes they wouldn’t come back. The kids would have to be reallocated, which she would coordinate with cold, necessary calculations.
And here she was, entirely alone. No sign of her people, or anyone else for that matter. She looked deathly, too. Whatever illness she had, it was eating her alive from the inside. She’d seemed to have aged two decades in the month or two since I’d seen her, despite being buried under layers of clothing and a thick wool hat. She needed help. Help I couldn’t give her. She didn’t have long for this life.
After leading me through a rear entryway to the gutted convenience store and out of the stabbing icy wind, Katherine showed me where to get off my feet and onto a stack of plastic crates, covered in a rain tarp with a balled up duffel bag in the corner, presumably used for a pillow. It seemed she hadn’t been here long – the place didn’t give off the impression of common shelter. But I felt like I could sleep for years.
Shuffling with effort around what the back storage area of the store, she mixed a couple spoonfuls of instant mashed potato mix – a long-expired, grey powder that looked toxic – into a cup of melted snow and placed it in front of me. My stomach knotted and roared in anticipation. There’s no way she could’ve found this crucial sustenance in the shop – it’d been months since the last edible crumb was scraped from the floors of this place.
I scooped the cold, ruined carbohydrates into my mouth as I fought the fall into oblivion’s sweet embrace. Katherine told me of two gangs that had banded together and raided Westfield – nearly fifty deep in total, methodically going house to house, hunting for any sign of life or trade value. There was a military organization to their movements.
They found everyone. They killed everyone. They ate everyone.
Everyone but her.
“They got to the last house on Shadowlawn, down on the south end where the DeGiannas lived before the Halletts took it over,” She explained with a rasp in her voice I’d didn’t notice before. “And you knew right away that something was going on. They were excited, you could see it in the way they were crouching and circling the house. Like they’d been planning this for a while.”
“How did you see them?” I asked, confused. Why didn’t she warn the others?
She shrugged off my growing alarm. “I was in the attic, looking for something to keep warm with.”
This group had somehow known that the surviving members of the three remaining families in the area – the Dalles, Cogills and Halletts – were inside the house. My father had steered us clear of the others since the Woolworth’s nightmare with the dogs, for reasons I imagine had to do more with my actions that night than he let on. I have no doubt that’s the only reason we weren’t in the same attic when it happened. The biting bitch of irony.
It had been quick work, she said. In less than five minutes’ time they busted into the house through the barricaded patio. They ended the three men, two women and five children that remained of the families. They’d apparently heard one of her coughing fits, despite her best efforts to stifle it, and found her hiding in the attic. But somehow, some way, they had let her live.
They didn’t want her because she was visibly toxic, grossly afflicted by this point – soon for death. That was how she told it, anyway. Shit, they couldn’t even be bothered to kill her there on the spot, either uninterested in what little meat they’d find on her rotted frame or worried they’d catch the affliction themselves, even by dirtying their blades on her. Probably both. But they hadn’t fed her. She didn’t eat with them.
I have to believe that.
Whatever the case, she had become my problem, four days and counting. The 7-Eleven had no warmth to offer, nowhere to hide if another group passed by. So we set out to find better shelter and supplies, once I’d had a day to recover. She kept lookout while I rested. We’d trade off on watch, though the only sound we heard for days was the wind, angrily tearing through the stripped limbs of the trees in the eastern chill.
Our progress was wretchedly slow. Katherine’s right knee gave out not three blocks down the road – it wouldn’t support her decomposing frame any longer. She was grotesquely thin, barely a hundred pounds by my estimate, and hobbled. The need to find a solution was pressing.
This was a problem that was going to get us both killed. She couldn’t walk on her own – between crip-walking along and simply carrying her on my back, our progress was painfully slow.
I couldn’t bring myself to leave her. Especially after what she’d done for me. And what I’d done to her husband. She’d undoubtedly heard the news of the accident that killed Byron. I saw it in her eyes. But we never spoke of it. I wish I’d been able to find a way to apologize. I tried to find words that would fit the feeling. I failed.
Setting her down would be easy, and left out in the elements it wouldn’t take long for the cold to take her – or those fucking dogs, God forbid.
And she smelled. A ripe, bright rotting emanated from her, like a toxic radiation.
It was the smell of death.
We walked on.
Having someone to share the silence was a mercy on the mind, even with our unfortunate connection. An icy rain had begun, soaking us both through. She limped along when she could, and rode piggy-back when she couldn’t.
She told me about a place where people could go to be… handled. Down in Bryn Mawr, at an old medical center, she said. It’s where she wanted to go for the end, where the illness inside her would finish its run. There was a security to the process, as unpleasant as it was, an escape from the devouring mouths of the rapists and murderous monsters destroying our last semblance of civilized community.
But what was the process? What the hell kind of setup was it? Where was the mercy, before death or after? The questions ignited gruesome visions. Long ago I’d heard terrifying stories of chemical baths, of toxic solutions that would dissolve bodies – a better option than feeding the worst of us all with our bodies, I suppose. But who wants to go that way? Besides, nobody anywhere around here had access to the chemistry. If that’s what she was referring to, she wasn’t letting on. I would have to wait. And trust. I pressed, with increasing persistence as the topic returned in conversation, but that’s all she gave me. I had a feeling she was hoping more than she let on – hoping that this place was real, hoping it held the comfort she was looking for.
Down the main corridor to West Hills, off the little ramp just before the turn to northbound 519, is a long and winding road that runs through an old town of industry – a series of gutted factory buildings of a wide variety, most of them over five stories tall. We found ourselves along the westernmost street, entering the side of what used to be a hospital. Except inside, a fire had gutted the entirety of the first two floors, giving the area an apocalyptic, unwelcoming look. It seemed uninhabitable. This was the shelter we’d been looking for?
Furthermore, anyone with a speck of sense in their heads knows to steer clear of any hospital, pharmacy or medical center. Within the first few days of the blackout, all these places were obliterated, gutted by raids on pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and so on. The frenzy for resources was a life or death leverage game, which began with people bartering precious food or lifesaving medications – insulin, antibiotics and so on. Then negotiations became violence. Desperation ruins civility.
Katherine pointed a wobbly finger to a row of yellowed, warped pharmaceutical information boards in the corner, that each stood roughly five feet high. “Over there.”
“What’s over there?”
“That’s where we need to go. Behind those boards and through the utility door over on the left there’s a staircase. We need to go down.”
I set her down and checked. I was astounded to find a spiral staircase, carefully hidden and entirely unexpected for its location. Looking down, it descended into darkness.
Annoyance was rising on this mystery with a quickness. I’d been her crutch for miles on end, and now this?
It was as if she was reading my thoughts. ”I need you to take me down.”
“Where?” I asked. “What is this?”
“It’s a hideout.”
She only offered that. The lack of elaboration didn’t sit well with me. But the sound of voices not far off ended my stake in the conversation. I was in no mood to deal with more outsiders after all this fuckery.
And so down we went. Riding my back, Katherine’s bony, wet frame not more than a nuisance – though her smell was another issue entirely. We went down into the damp, cold blackness, down, down…. further down still, into some kind of underground network of halls and dead-end pathways that reeked of wet mildew. It offered no light whatsoever, a suffocating emptiness.
A rattling, loud buzzing sound – like a giant mechanical hornet – was growing inside my head (or beneath us? I couldn’t tell) as we descended in darkness. I couldn’t place it. Familiar, but still…
Within a few minutes I began to pick up on the silhouettes of my feet on the stairs as we went further down, and suddenly it hit me like an icicle stabbed through my spine: The sound. It was a generator.
They had gasoline.
“Where are we going? What is this?” I was nearly shouting. The noise – as well as the need for answers – grew stronger as we descended.
“Just keep going, we’re almost there,” Katherine croaked in my ear, clutching my back. There was something greedy in her voice that I didn’t like. Maybe it was just her stench. I have no idea how that smell could come from a living human. I was desperate to get it off of me.
We arrived at a metallic base platform after what felt like days. To our left was a wide industrial service elevator, long since rendered useless. Twenty feet across stood an equally wide rusted steel door, illuminated by two large halogen bulbs connected to extension cords that ran between a corroded hole in the top of the frame and into the unseen room behind the door. The sound of the generator was nearly deafening.
I set Katherine down despite her protests to continue, and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. She tried to rise to her feet. She failed, crumbling to the hostile steel floor.
“Pull it open,” she urged through clenched teeth, gesturing to the doorway.
Still panting from the infinite descent, I refused to go any further. I shrugged Katherine off me, and she slumped to the concrete. Standing over her, I was opening my mouth to demand a hundred answers – What the fuck is a generator doing down here? Gasoline? Lights? What was going on here? – when the door opened from the inside. Two burly middle-aged men entered en route to the stairs, at first registering shocked alarm. Then they saw Katherine, and some level of understanding registered. Somehow.
I barely had time to take it in. I was hit with a fist to the jaw only as I was just beginning to build a curiosity to my initial thought: these were two of the most well-fed and healthy-looking men I’d seen in months. As unconsciousness closed on my world like elevator doors, I registered one final observation: There was a great deal of warmth coming from the room that lie through the doorway.
I awoke to a dull, ten-thousand pound weight in my head. My eyes adjusted too slowly to a room flooded with light and full of scattered debris and devices of the expired world. Hospital beds. Medical equipment. Cooking utensils. Two portable stoves. A box oven. Four closed doors, two on the left, one across the way and one on the right. None resembled the door at the bottom of the staircase.
All of this was peripheral, however, to the room’s centerpiece: an industrial meat grinder, at least three feet wide, welded to a metal frame that was crudely bolted into the cement floor. It sat in the center of the room, dimly lit by the candle-light, the shadows dancing around it adding to its already terrifying presence. A stretch of thick yellow industrial tubing snaked from the machine’s interior out to a nearby barrel, while an electrical cord ran to an extension leading to the generator, undoubtedly, in another room off to the right. The machine’s use was immediately clear from the collection of indiscernible clumps and piles on the floor around it, particularly next to an enormous plastic industrial tub that served as the catchpoint, darkened and slick with blood and gristle. Next to it, some sort of swiveling spray guard. It was a rusty, uneven black.
God knows how many ends were met in the blades of this greedy machine, coagulated blood and tissue dried to a chunky, black mucosal sheen around its base and sides. White bone fragment stuck clear from the rest of the little gatherings of meat, gleaming white amidst the blackened brown-grey mass encasing it.
An impossibly high stack of clothing of all types, all worn and ratty, occupied the far left end of the room. And here I was, not ten feet away from the machine, my mind racing to piece together the facts before…
Then my olfactory sense kicked in, a switch flip. The smell of decay and cooked meat hung thick in the air, like a sickening grease vapor. My stomach growled as I dry heaved at the realization of what I was seeing, and then the disgust of my physiological reaction.
I looked back at the machine. Then to the makeshift kitchen area in the corner. Then back.
They had found a way to make cannibalism more… industrial. Loosely speaking. Then the containers came into view, the pans that cooked the meat which fed whoever was down here. The sludgy grease, the charred carbon deposits caked on the corners.
I had to get out.
I pulled myself to my feet, head still screaming, fighting the powerful urge to find a way to dismantle that horrible machine. I made my way to the leftmost door. The moment I pulled it open I retched again in reflex; the stench of feces and biological rot was overpowering. A dim orange light permeated the room, an ill-fitting bulb in a portable vanity mirror that hung from a hook in the corner ceiling.
Movement caught my eye.
Someone was in the room.
She was lying on a hospital bed, her soaked, rank clothes replaced by a tattered emerald ball gown. It had been hiked up around her hips – revealing her skeletal nude figure from the waist down, a catheter snaking out from a withered pubic mess between her legs, down to a sickly orange-brown plastic bag that hung haphazardly off the bed. Bands of white surgical tape wrapped around her left arm held an IV tube in place, leading to a clear bag hanging on the adjacent metal rack frame with a coathanger. This decrepit hag no longer wore her thick wool hat. With thinning, greased hair hanging in patches around her scab-riddled skull, she looked at me through dead eyes and grinned. Somehow this monster could find a cousin of demented satisfaction in her horrendously eroded state. It was almost nurturing.
What had awoken me earlier was the departure of the men. Something was urgent. As the fog slowly lifted between my ears, I began to remember hearing talk about a hunt.
Were we alone down here?
This living corpse spoke, her blackened tongue poking between rotted teeth as she asked me if I understood what this was. There were about a hundred in total who fed here, she said, all serving a different role. All contributing their part in exchange for safety from the elements, the dogs, the others, and most importantly, the hunger.
She is the one who led them here, who allowed them to be saved from the cold and the treachery outside. Maybe they weren’t the first. Maybe these people had taken the bunker from others just like them, a survival coup. There had been an incredible abundance of medicine and medical supplies, thanks to someone’s fast action in the early days after the blackout. Someone had the sense to store two generators and gasoline (and fuel stabilizer, one has to assume after all this time), far out of view and reach.
It only delayed the desperation, the inhumanity. And when it arrived, it came at full force. There was a far more gradual descent into madness for whoever found refuge here, slowly coming to terms with the hopelessness and futility of the future – rather than the desperate rush to oblivion on the surface. As the wildlife was killed off and facing the dogs or cannibalism became the only available protein options, this place took on a different purpose.
These people were given a hope that stood against the truth of the outside world. The world was suddenly full of horrors they didn’t have the organization or foresight to plan for, and at least this place provided shelter and security. Under penalty of death they would keep it secret. But how many knew? What about her husband, Byron?
The man I killed.
In some twisted mix of mercy and revenge, far as I could tell, she had led me down here. If she’d wanted me dead, she told me, then I would’ve already been ground and devoured. I could help, she told me. Earn my keep. She’d told them not to kill me.
Then it struck me, not as a slow accumulation of understanding but like a whip crack to the base of the skull; Katherine had led them to Westfield. She had given my family to these monsters. That’s why they didn’t kill her. That’s why she was the only survivor out of eleven men, women, children. Families.
A cold clarity washed over me. I focused on the sound of the generator. I focused on Rachel. My father. Their final moments, my father’s hopeless struggle to protect his family. This was my way of making sense.
I grabbed the edge of the bed and pulled. The wheels gave freely, rolling forward with my weight. Katherine’s eyes widened.
“What are y- Stop! Stop that!” She hissed, kicking at my hand with her one good leg. Her gnarled, yellow toenails gashed my forearm.
I pulled her to the center of the room, back towards the door I’d come through. I kicked a folding chair out of the way as her IV strained taut, tearing from her arm as its coathanger attachment pulled the metal shelf forward. It teetered, but didn’t fall. “Please!” she screamed, entirely at my mercy. “Please stop! Please!” I continued rolling her through the doorway.
Then she caught on. With a lurching urgency she rolled off the bed, landing awkwardly on her right shoulder and snapping her clavicle. She screamed like a dying dog and began to hyperventilate. She lost consciousness within seconds.
Feeling a hundred miles away, I effortlessly lifted this heap of decrepit betrayer back onto the rolling bed. I wheeled her into the room I’d awoken in, and ambled with slow deliberation to the grinding machine. I grabbed the side lever and lifted it upwards into the ON position. The seven long, rusted rows of blades immediately rattled to life, an uneven, clattering whir from undoubtedly constant misuse.
I lifted Katherine’s skeletal frame from the bed and got to work. She awoke the moment the blades touched the tips of her toes. Recoiling in squealing horror, she pulled her knees upwards, gripped my neck with her left arm and frantically tried to make use of her right to knock me back. All I had to do was lean forward – holding her like a newborn going into water, I pushed downward, and she entered the blades in a praying position of sorts, kneecaps first.
Her guttural shrieks, clawing at my face, felt baptismal. This woman caused the end of families I’d known my entire life, people I’d grown up with. My own family. This was righteous balance.
Pieces of loose skin, bone fragment and fatty tissue flung about the room, like putting raw chicken into a blender without a lid. Large shredded clumps of muscle & bone dropped into the porcelain tub, flecks of emerald green fabric poking through the soaked red mass.
I was delirious. Teeth bared and covered in the splatter of this wretch’s interior, I felt perfectly fine with the risk of catching the blades myself. Where was there to go from here? Why even think about it? Happiness and comfort was an extinct hope. There was only the memory of what came before.
I bore down harder, the greedy knives almost to the top of Katherine’s thighs now rocking her body in grotesquely jagged lurches. She’d lost consciousness again, this time for good. I resigned myself to the idea that maybe I could push myself headfirst into the grinder once I was finished with her, and be done with all this fucking madness. I was only beginning to grasp the lunacy of this concept when the blades choked to a halt, grinding forward valiantly in two more attempts before giving a lurching mechanical shudder and seizing, drowned in the blood-drenched gluttony of bone, muscle and cartilage.
Just as I spotted a blackened metal hunk amidst the bloodsoaked human gristle, I remembered something Katherine had told me in passing as we stumbled through the countryside; after a car accident in 2011 she’d had her hip replaced with a titanium and cobalt chromium combination, a powerfully strong metal that certainly wasn’t meant to be fed into an industrial grinder. In fact, it could righteously ruin a machine like that.
I was laughing at the poetically beautiful complexity of how it all connected when the men came through the door. Four of them had returned for some reason. I was standing over the broken grinder, covered in blood, howling with laughter when they came in and saw what was happening.
My eyes. They took my eyes out. Through some twisted sense of loyalty, they had honored Katherine’s instruction not to kill me, despite my having killed her and ruined their processor while I was at it. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. But either way, their dead savior’s demands didn’t mean they were going to leave me to my business, or that a heated debate didn’t ensue over what would come of me.
They’d beaten me severely. They forced me up the stairs, shoving and hitting me as we ascended the endless spirals. They led me out of the hospital and into the adjacent woods. After a few hundred yards of walking through the wooded darkness, they kicked me to the ground and pinned me down. Two on my legs, one on my arms. The fourth straddled my chest.
A blank expression on the face of the Boston-Irish brute as he leaned over me, gloved hand smothering half my face, holding it in place. Slowly, so slowly, the blade went into my left eyeball as I shrieked and thrashed beneath their vise grip. Jeers of “ungrateful motherfucker” and “murdering piece of shit” while the hot, wet stench of his breath coated my face. I remember hearing myself screaming as if it were somebody else, the twisting blade in my socket eliminating any linear thought.
I lost consciousness the moment the blade touched my right eye.
I awoke in blind darkness, my hands bound behind me around a tree twice as thick as my thigh. My entire face was a blaze of agony, an impossible contrasting chill digging into the center depths of my head, directly through what used to be my eyes.
And here I sit. With the sounds on the wind and the frozen ground beneath me. Distant, so distant, I can hear the sounds of barking and howling, growling and yelping – a choir of ravenous mouths. Dogs. A pack so deep, full of constant desperate hunger, it wouldn’t take them long to get through me. That’s the best comfort my mind can escape to in these final moments – I know my heart’s beating too fast for hypothermia to set in before they get here.
It was daffodils!
Rachel. The last thing she said. My sister’s final word, ascending out of the unthinkable hell tearing her apart, was a way to talk to me, connect with me in a way which nobody would know she was speaking to somebody.
They were our mother’s favorite flower. She loved them, said they reminded her of when she and our dad first got together. He’d always buy her daffodils.
They lit up her hospital room as cancer ate her alive the year before everything else went to hell. When we lost her, we’d put daffodils on her grave together every couple weeks, a ritual to honor what she loved. It was too much for our father to handle. He mourned privately.
Daffodils became a tradition, a way to turn grief into an act we could work through – and leave it with the daffodils we put on her headstone. The sorrow would always return, of course. And every couple weeks, when one of us would feel the need, the other always came for support. Shared grief.
We never said, “Let’s go to mom’s grave.” The finality of that was too much. So with a token variation on “Let’s get some daffodils,” we’d be off together, the two of us. Our father was more private – he kept his grief to himself. He couldn’t deal with her loss as part of our collective grieving. It was too personal. I couldn’t blame him.
Over time, daffodils became something more than paying respects to our Mom. It became something special between Rachel and I. A bond outside our younger years, a way to find instant common ground, even through sorrow. She would leave little daffodil drawings on notes she’d leave when heading out, signing birthday cards and so on.
She had enough wits, in her greatest agony, to not only think of my safety but to find a way to say goodbye while doing so.
I wish I could cry.
I can hear individual animals now.